Recently I recommended that you check out Google Photos if you have not done so already. Like Gmail, it’s a way to store huge quantities of digital material and leave its management to someone else. (I promise, later we’ll get into the privacy tradeoffs involved.) And much more than Gmail, it offers big-data tools that can arrange and transform your information/photos in ways difficult or impossible to do by yourself.
For instance: I mentioned that Google Photos had, on its own, merged three smart-phone snapshots of a scene at Oxford into one panorama view. Several people wrote in to say: Let’s see the originals! So here goes.
First, in its full-frame entirety, a smartphone snapshot of one side of the entry quad at The Queen’s College, Oxford.
Then two almost-identical shots of the other side, both in full frame. First this:
The point is that without my doing anything more than saving all three shots to a Google drive, the system recognized them as overlapping parts of a whole and stitched them together into a high-rez, level-horizon, panorama version, looking like this (and at larger scale here):
Even when zooming in on the composite shot as far as possible, I still can’t find a pixellated boundary where the shots were brought together.
We all say in our blase way: Yeah yeah there’s increasing power of big-data systems. At least for me, seeing how it worked on my own information dramatized these effects. To be clear, this was with three quick, casual phone-shots taken over a few-second span. The result isn’t anything fancy, but it’s different from what I could have done myself.
And, as I say, we’ll get to the surveillance-state ramifications soon.
Actually, why not now. Here’s one reader response:
In the vein of the glass being neither half-full nor half-empty, but having a leak, that [big-data] magic means just as much that a computer can figure-out where you have been and when based on the photos you take, making it that much easier for a human being with access to that computer to know where you have gone and when.
The photo taker providing in essence CCTV of their movements. At least though unlike CCTV (and of course all that magical facial recognition) if the photo taker stops taking/posting the photos the intelligence stream stops.
In two earlier dispatches, here and here, I suggested that you give Google Photos a try if you hadn’t done so already. The most obvious payoff is providing an answer to the increasingly pressing question of how to handle increasing zillions of digital images. The less obvious advantage that has grown on me involves the big data/AI aspects of the system — the way it automatically groups photos of one scene into panorama views, or created animated GIFs, or creates albums with titles like “Iron Pigs Game in Allentown” by recognizing the landmarks and activities.
Yes, I know that on the other side of this same technology is the Panopticon Surveillance State. For now I’m talking about the applications that many users will find convenient — and, in particular, where they originated.
A reader who was a long-time official at Microsoft writes in to lament the fact that Google is now being either oohed and aahed at, or viewed with concern, for innovations that Microsoft had been chipping away at for years, especially with a product called Photosynth. I turn it over to the reader:
Once again I shake my head at the ways my ex-employer [Microsoft] would develop a great idea, and then not follow through, partly because of an inability to catch on with the cool crowd.
Photosynth could not just stitch many photos together, it could (given enough pictures) create a 3D model – about 10 years ago. It’s not as passive as Google Photos, as you have to point it at your picture collection, but it would have been relatively easy to make it munch on photos uploaded to OneDrive. The idea has basically just sat as a research project, with the last update 9 months ago, and now Google gets the credit for a great innovation. Apparently people are still using it (who knew?): go to photosynth.net for some recent 3D creations.
I’d never known of this project; I went to the site after getting his note; and he’s right! It looks very interesting. For instance, check this out. Back to the reader:
Apple didn’t invent the smartphone. The “Pocket PC” phone came years earlier. Nest? I remember touring the demonstration e-home when I joined Microsoft in the late 1990s. [JF note: when I was at Microsoft in 1999 I saw it too.]
Now, maybe the company didn’t pursue these projects because they weren’t part of the core mission, and maybe it was because Ballmer was focused on business and not “toys”. That would be fair rationale. But it is, at best, ironic that Microsoft gets the reputation of never innovating anything, and being a ruthless productizing and marketing machine, when almost the opposite is true….
Re your correspondent’s concern about big data and privacy: that cat has been out of the bag for a long time. The “cloud” being able to figure where you were and when dates to when the first geo-encoded picture was uploaded to flickr.
After further comparison of what Microsoft had done and Google is now doing, he wrote once more:
I guess it’s the [Microsoft Live] Photo Gallery feature that’s most like the Google feature. Photosynth is a world beyond both, and has more of the “wow” factor.
The photos [at the beginning and end of this post] come from the London Natural History Museum and the top of the Arc de Triomphe in 2012; I just had to select the pictures in Photo Gallery and click.
What Google seems to bring to the table is (a) identification of a group by place and time (which is trivial), (b) recognition of picture similarity (which is commonplace today) and (c) lots of computers available to make panoramas in the background and probably (d) recognition of a good result. And I guess they trim the result to a rectangle.
The fact you of all people hadn’t heard of Photosynth is exactly my point.
In the three previous installments you’ll find lower down in this Thread, I started with ‘Google’s powerful new Photos feature — and then heard from a Microsoft veteran about Microsoft’s earlier steps in this same field. Why, this reader asked, does Google (or Apple) end up with so much of the attention and coolness factor for developments that had been underway, longer, elsewhere in the techno-sphere? Readers weigh in with further hypotheses.
First, a reader in the tech business in California says the crucial concept is that of the “first widely noticed” innovation, rather than the first actual engineering or scientific breakthrough:
Variations on this theme have been playing out for years. People thinking VMware came-up with virtualization, when it was IBM (or someone else) back in the 1960s. People thinking that x86 servers were where fancy network interface card features (“stateless offloads”) were created when it was in the mini-computer vendors. Call it “first widely noticed” advantage I suppose.
A reader who has worked at Google, but not on the Photos feature, writes:
Your ex-Microsoft correspondent reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon I used to have on my office door but unfortunately got lost in a move. In the cartoon, a beaver and a rabbit stand in front of a huge concrete dam, and the beaver tells the rabbit something like "It was my idea, you know?"
Great products are not just a pile of good ideas, they are a combination that works well together in practice to meet real user needs. PhotoSynth was indeed a great technology, but it was never incorporated into a compelling product. And your correspondent conveniently ignores the biggest innovation in Google Photos, its unparalleled ability to find relevant photos from descriptions of their content.
I remember when Microsoft first introduced Photosynth and was quite excited about it. There was, however, one "small" problem: the Photosynth tools were (and still are, I believe) only available for Windows. Since I had a Mac, it was (and, again, still is) unavailable to me. What I can't use is, ultimately, of no interest to me. (I also use Linux quite a bit; again, of what use is Photosynth to me?)
Google's Photos (like their other Google products) are web and and cloud based. Take some pictures, upload to Photos (or have them automatically uploaded), and the "magic" is available on any browser on any operating system. It's not only interesting, but it's easily available and easy to take advantage of.
The difference is Microsoft wanted to sell you software that worked within (and that fed into) their foundational operating system. If you didn't support that foundational system, they weren't particularly interested in you. (Of course, there were exceptions to the above, Microsoft Office for the Mac being the obvious example).
On the other hand, Google doesn't want to sell you any software; they in fact give that away for free. They want your attention, which they can turn around and offer to companies which pay them to run ads while you are paying attention. So they work to make sure their software works on as many systems and browsers as possible (the more eyeballs to sell ads to, the better).
The two companies work (or at least worked in the past) with different philosophies. I think it's pretty clear which one is working better right now.
And a technology executive based in Hong Kong writes:
In 1995 Microsoft partnered with Tandem Computers to port Windows NT over to Tandem's high availability hardware platform. It was (for its day) extremely fast with enormous data search and transfer capacity with the very best networking connectivity available. The joint engineering team struggled mightily to find a data source big and complex enough to really show off the system. The solution was a searchable database of NASA satellite imagery covering all the continental U.S.
If it sounds like Google Maps version 0.0 ten years in advance of the real thing, then yes, it was exactly that. The images were black and white and of course there was nothing like StreetView, but it was an extraordinarily innovative and cool application of technology to solve a problem nobody knew existed. State of the art engineering that never left the lab.
Bonus irony - I saw the system demonstrated twenty years ago at Tandem Computers headquarters on the corner of North Tantau and Pruneridge in Cupertino. If that street address doesn't ring a bell, think "Spaceship Campus."
For completeness, here is an account by journalist David Arnott of his experience in having Google Photos upload his smartphone photos to the cloud when he didn’t think it was doing so. This aspect of the system has not been a problem for me, but if you have an Android phone (as I do) it’s worth understanding exactly how to control the upload settings. This guide, from Android Central, tells you how to do that, step by step.
The next two Notes installments, which I’ll space out over the holiday weekend, will both be thankfulness-themed. One will be about encouraging recent developments in the “sustainable capitalism” sphere. The other, about some nice news in places we’ve come to know in our American Futures travels. Then when the weekend is over, back to the South China Sea. Happy Thanksgiving.
The vice president needs to win over the voters who approve of Biden, but not of her performance.
“I think it’s okay if we shake hands,” Kamala Harris told me last week. The vice president came out from behind her West Wing desk to greet me, her eyes smiling above her face mask. The last time I was in this particular office, the occupant was Mike Pence. And had it not been for a few state election officials who withstood the pressure to ignore the results, Harris’s desk would still belong to him.
Donald Trump’s most extreme supporters hold out hope that the election results will somehow be overturned, and that Trump will resume office this month. Three days before Harris and I met, police officers testified before Congress about their hellish clash with Trump supporters who swarmed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the election on January 6. One Black officer, Harry Dunn, spoke about repeatedly being called the N-word by rioters. What will the White House do to stop the insurrectionists from trying again? I asked Harris.
The creative class was supposed to foster progressive values and economic growth. Instead we got resentment, alienation, and endless political dysfunction.
This article was published online on August 2, 2021.
The dispossessed set out early in the mornings. They were the outsiders, the scorned, the voiceless. But weekend after weekend—unbowed and undeterred—they rallied together. They didn’t have much going for them in their great battle against the privileged elite, but they did have one thing—their yachts.
During the summer and fall of 2020, a series of boat parades—Trumptillas—cruised American waters in support of Donald Trump. The participants gathered rowdily in great clusters. They festooned their boats with flags—American flags, but also message flags: Don’t Tread on Me, No More Bullshit, images of Trump as Rambo.
The women stood on the foredecks in their red, white, and blue bikinis, raising their Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys to salute the patriots in nearby boats. The men stood on the control decks projecting the sort of manly toughness you associate with steelworkers, even though these men were more likely to be real-estate agents. They represent a new social phenomenon: the populist regatta. They are doing pretty well but see themselves as the common people, the regular Joes, the overlooked. They didn’t go to fancy colleges, and they detest the mainstream media. “It’s so encouraging to see so many people just coming together in a spontaneous parade of patriotism,” Bobi Kreumberg, who attended a Trumptilla in Palm Beach, Florida, told a reporter from WPTV.
Police unions aren’t usually bashful about defending officers, but they’ve been conspicuously subdued in discussing the January 6 attacks.
On Tuesday, the National Fraternal Order of Police decided to “clear up confusion” about its position on the January 6 assault on the Capitol by enraged Donald Trump supporters. “Those who participated in the assaults, looting, and trespassing must be arrested and held to account,” it said in a statement. “We continue to offer our support, gratitude, and love to our brothers and sisters in law enforcement who successfully fought off the rioters, and we will be with them as they grieve and recover, however long that may take.”
The FOP does not often have to clarify its position on matters of public concern; the organization is usually rather strident in expressing its views. For example, in 2016, the FOP demanded that Walmart cease selling Black Lives Matter T-shirts. It denounced Nike for its ad campaign involving Colin Kaepernick, who was purged from the NFL for protesting police misconduct. If you go to the FOP’s Twitter feed, you can find a steady stream of clips from conservative outlets such as Newsmax and Fox News showing FOP representatives attacking policies like bail reform, slamming Democratic elected officials, and blaming Black-rights activists for the recent rise in homicides. These posts are interspersed with tributes to homicide victims, attacking “rogue prosecutors,” “activist judges,” and “progressive policies” for their deaths.
A pandemic puppy can increase your well-being—if you choose one for the right reasons.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Despite early-pandemic predictions of a deep, prolonged recession, much of the American and world economies are on fire. Housing in particular is booming; house prices increased more than 19 percent from May 2020 to May 2021. Used cars have surged in price by more than 21 percent over the past year, and air travel has roared back so strongly that the nation is facing a shortage of pilots. But all of that pales in comparison with the puppy bubble.
According to PuppySpot (a web-based dog broker), the price of purebred puppies rose by 36 percent in 2020. About 12.6 million U.S. households got a new pet last year, after the pandemic was declared in March, according to the American Pet Products Association. In addition to purchases and adoptions, dognappings have increased by “epidemic” proportions, according to British police: In London, for example, they were up 250 percent in 2020.
In the film, edgy shock value meets Hollywood sentimentality, resulting in a superhero movie unlike most others in the genre.
The Suicide Squad might seem like a typical superhero movie at first: Yet another group of powerful comic-book characters is thrown together to fight insurmountable odds on a mysterious, deadly mission. Audiences will recognize a few faces from the last (horrendous) Suicide Squad film, such as that of the chipper criminal Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie). But much of the fun comes from trying to puzzle out who the newcomers are, including a costumed hunk named T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion). When someone asks him what T.D.K. stands for, he replies, “It doesn’t stand for anything. It’s just my name. It stands for me.” “Your name is … letters?” “All names are letters,” another character shoots back.
Customers were this awful long before the pandemic.
In May, I stood in the rear galley of an airplane and watched as a line formed to berate the flight attendant next to me. We were at a gate at LaGuardia, our flight half an hour delayed, and the air inside the cabin was acrid with the aromas of anxiety sweat and bags of fast food procured at the gate. Impatient passengers squeezed past others hoisting carry-ons into overhead bins to jockey for position in the complaining queue, lodging grievances largely about things over which a flight attendant would have obviously little control: the airline’s decision to sell middle seats, the disruptive wait, the insolent tone of a different flight attendant.
I was tucked inside one of the tiny spaces usually reserved for the flight crew, because I had arrived at my assigned seat to find a man who had no intention of getting up. He gave nothing in the way of an explanation; instead, he stared up at me blankly, as though he had never before encountered the concept of assigned seating. The flight attendant had noticed our stalemate and offered to roust the man from my seat, but the situation felt too combustible to me, and 25C like too stupid a hill on which to die. The attendant said he’d find me another if I’d just wait in the back.
Persistent hype around mRNA vaccine technology is now distracting us from other ways to end the pandemic.
At the end of January, reports that yet another COVID-19 vaccine had succeeded in its clinical trials—this one offering about 70 percent protection—were front-page news in the United States, and occasioned push alerts on millions of phones. But when the Maryland-based biotech firm Novavax announced its latest stunning trial results last week, and an efficacy rate of more than 90 percent even against coronavirus variants, the response from the same media outlets was muted in comparison. The difference, of course, was the timing: With three vaccines already authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the nation is “awash in other shots” already, as the The New York Times put it.
Beyond limiting the coronavirus’s flow from hot spots to the rest of the country, allowing only vaccinated people on domestic flights will change minds, too.
When you go to the airport, you see two kinds of security rules. Some apply equally to everyone; no one can carry weapons through the TSA checkpoint. But other protocols divide passengers into categories according to how much of a threat the government thinks they pose. If you submit to heightened scrutiny in advance, TSA PreCheck lets you go through security without taking off your shoes; a no-fly list keeps certain people off the plane entirely. Not everyone poses an equal threat. Rifling through the bags of every business traveler and patting down every preschooler and octogenarian would waste the TSA’s time and needlessly burden many passengers.
The same principle applies to limiting the spread of the coronavirus. The number of COVID-19 cases keeps growing, even though remarkably safe, effective vaccines are widely available, at least to adults. Many public agencies are responding by reimposing masking rules on everyone. But at this stage of the pandemic, tougher universal restrictions are not the solution to continuing viral spread. While flying, vaccinated people should no longer carry the burden for unvaccinated people. The White House has rejected a nationwide vaccine mandate—a sweeping suggestion that the Biden administration could not easily enact if it wanted to—but a no-fly list for unvaccinated adults is an obvious step that the federal government should take. It will help limit the risk of transmission at destinations where unvaccinated people travel—and, by setting norms that restrict certain privileges to vaccinated people, will also help raise the stagnant vaccination rates that are keeping both the economy and society from fully recovering.
Why targets of deliberate deception often hesitate to admit they’ve been deceived
Something very strange has been happening in Missouri: A hospital in the state, Ozarks Healthcare, had to create a “private setting” for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video produced by the hospital, the physician Priscilla Frase says, “Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine.’” Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done.
Missouri is suffering one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the country. Some hospitals are rapidly running out of ICU beds. To Americans who rushed to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, some Missourians’ desire for secrecy is difficult to understand. It’s also difficult to square with the common narrative that vaccine refusal, at least in conservative areas of the country, is driven by a lack of respect or empathy from liberals along the coasts. “Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics—or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all,” lamented a recent article in the conservative National Review. Writers across the political spectrum have urged deference and sympathy toward holdouts’ concerns about vaccine side effects and the botched CDC messaging about masking and airborne transmission early in the pandemic. But these takes can’t explain why holdouts who receive respect, empathy, and information directly from reliable sources remain unmoved—or why some people are afraid to tell their loved ones about being vaccinated.
It feels like every company and organization I’ve ever transacted with sends me email every week. Some every day, even. Some multiple times a day. My mortgage broker emails on my birthday and holidays. So does my dentist. Certain retailers email much more often. The home-furnishings company Room & Board is one of them, hoping I’ll upgrade to a lounge-worthy sectional or entreating me to meet artisanal glassblowers from Minnesota. In the past week alone, the clothing retailer Bonobos messaged me nine times, hawking Riviera shorts, trending shirts, and even a chino they promise will “bring out your best self.”
It’s ridiculous. Technically, I asked for these emails. I wrote loans with my mortgage broker. I’ve bought furniture from Room & Board and pants from Bonobos. And, yes, I’m aware that I can unsubscribe or block them at any time. But why so many emails? How is it possible that customers would find this appealing?