5 Intriguing Things: Monday, 1/13

Web privacy tips, vanilla pollination, robot law, big book data, and the children of a Moscow garbage dump.

A programming note:

Google sent my last newsletter into spam folders across the Internet and they stuck a scary note on top of the email saying, "Be careful with this message."

The open-rate on the email dropped from the norm of around 60 percent to 25 percent. Almost no one clicked on the links, either.

I have no idea why this happened, but none of the links I included were nefarious (obviously) and all of them went to high-quality sites.

We need a word for that moment when you encounter an algorithmic intelligence and just cannot understand it. Because we're going to be experiencing moments like this more and more often.

If you already have a phrase for this, please share it with me. I might suggest: "rolling snake eyes."


OK, on with the show.

1. If you'd like to take control of your privacy on the web, Julia Angwin, who spearheaded the Wall Street Journal's What They Know series, has some tips for you.

"Even worse, many of the tools that Web browsers offer to protect privacy are not effective. Tracking companies have refused to honor the 'Do Not Track' button. And Google Chrome’s 'Incognito' mode and Internet Explorer’s 'InPrivate Browsing' mode won’t protect you from being tracked. Those settings simply prevent other people who use your Web browser after you to see where you’ve been online.

And so, in order to prevent the most common types of tracking, I ended up loading up my Web browser – Mozilla’s Firefox – with a bunch of extra software. It sounds like a lot of work, but most of this software can be installed in a few minutes. Here’s what I used."

+ She's got a book out soon, Dragnet Nation.

2. The enslaved twelve-year-old who discovered how to pollinate vanilla plants

"Edmond Albius was born a slave in St. Suzanne, Reunion. His mother died while giving birth to him, and he was adopted (if that is the correct term) by the French colonist Féréol Bellier Beaumont. The colonists had imported vanilla orchids from Mexico to Réunion in the 1820s, hoping that the similar climate would allow them to produce vanilla. It turns out that none of the insects on Reunion would pollinate the flowers, leaving the vanilla plants sterile.

Beaumont owned a large number of vanilla vines, and despaired of ever having them all flower successfully. In 1841, while playing in his master’s garden, the little Albius invented a simple technique for pollinating vanilla orchids. He stuck a thin stick inside the flower and flicked it, finding it a clever way to transfer pollen by hand. In the process, he revolutionized the vanilla industry."

3. Robot law

"Attorneys in Littler’s Robotics practice group handle a broad spectrum of employment and labor issues, from workplace privacy to health and safety. Here’s how Littler can help:

  • Provide employment and labor law representation and compliance assistance to employers in the robotics industry and employers integrating robotics and AI systems into their workplaces in the U.S. and worldwide.
  • Through Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute™, provide model policies and expert testimony to legislatures, parliaments and regulatory agencies on employment and labor law compliance, challenges and practical recommendations on the adoption and implementation of workplace robotics.
  • Provide a customized review of your robotics products and software to assess whether their use conflicts with workplace laws, and suggest compliance solutions. 
  • Examine how your products or software could be used to help users attain workplace compliance.  For example, robotic exoskeletons or voice-activated software might be an appropriate reasonable accommodation for an individual with disabilities. "

4. Based on an analysis of 85,000 books, fantasy books are the longest, on average, at 122,000 words. Romance novels are the shortest at 76,000

"Another common reference you’ll hear is that the average novel is roughly 100,000 words long, which is sometimes even true.  In reality, book length is dependent on the genre you’re writing in.  100,000 words is about right for Literary Fiction, but is substantially off for Romance, and totally wrong for Humor."

5. A brutal, gorgeous film about the children who scavenge a dump outside Moscow

"An unflinching look at a group of youngsters living in a garbage dump on the outskirts of Moscow. Remarkably, despite the massive hardships they face, the children speak about life and love with a candor that is clear-eyed about their misfortune, but hopeful for their futures. With so little to sustain them, they hold fast to their dreams, imagining a life beyond the dismal confines of the wasteland where they live."

Today's 1957 English Usage Tip:

alarm, alarumAlarum is by origin merely a variant of alarm & the two nouns were formerly used without distinction in all senses. In poetry alarum may still bear any of the senses except that of fear or apprehension; but in ordinary US usage alarm is used in all senses. In Brit. use alarum is restricted to the senses of alarm signal, warning signal, or clock or other apparatus that gives theses. 

The alarum of the iPhone!

Thanks Clive T and Ryan C.

Your Cognitive Robotic Exoskeleton