Later On

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Which Saves More Gasoline? Toyota Prius or Chevrolet Volt?

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 May 2017 at 2:55 pm

Reading “War and Peace”

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I did start rereading War and Peace, this edition—and on my Kindle, no less. I got my favorite translation (the Maude translation). It costs only $2.50 and includes linked footnotes and translations of the French used in conversation.

The problem I have is keeping track of the names. I have generally sort of faked it, having a firm grip on some names and a vague recall of the persons with other names, and I generally lose track of the relationships among the characters. I had a very nice little cheat-sheet showing the families and all, but I seem to have lost that.

So what I decided to do was highlight the sentence or two that introduces each character as I go, and also any brief descriptions of characters that occur by the way. And since characters are not only named when introduced, but provided with their family connections and social standing, I ended up highlighting and thus noticing those. And, as Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soirée proceeds, those family connections give life to the dialogue. You can view the highlights in a list by clicking the “menu” icon and then “Notes” which has a tab for the list of highlights.

I also end up noting things I would otherwise miss. For example, take this paragraph:

The vicomte was a nice-looking young man with soft features and polished manners, who evidently considered himself a celebrity but out of politeness modestly placed himself at the disposal of the circle in which he found himself. Anna Pavlovna was obviously serving him up as a treat to her guests. As a clever maître d’hôtel serves up as a specially choice delicacy a piece of meat that no one who had seen it in the kitchen would have cared to eat, so Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests, first the vicomte and then the abbe, as peculiarly choice morsels. The group about Mortemart immediately began discussing the murder of the Duc d’Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d’Enghien had perished by his own magnanimity, and that there were particular reasons for Buonaparte’s hatred of him.

The scene continues with Anna Pavlovna gathering guests, setting the stage (as it were), and moving things along, but I was struck by the image of the vicomte as a tasty morsel, enticing to all the guests—who, had they seen him backstage (in the kitchen, as it were), would not have cared for him at all.

What is the metaphorical kitchen in which the vicomte would be unattractive? I’m a bit at a loss, but I suppose that if you strip the vicomte of dress and decorations, you see not the celebrity—the cultural icon build of those cultural signifiers—but just a nice-looking young man with soft features, not someone so impressive as to be the pièce de résistance but rather just a plain young man.

But that’s only a guess. It is an odd image, difficult to untangle, and it’s clearly not a problem of translation but a problem of the image and what that part of—the unsavory view in the kitchen—might mean.

The takeaway: if you start War and Peace and have not read it before, make your own table of characters: names, to whom they’re related, what their character is like. Making the list provides a useful reference and—more important—pushes the information into your memory so when you see the name later you recall the details you recorded.

UPDATE: Well, the highlighting is useful, but it’s not enough. I’m reading now with my computer open to a Web document in which I am listing characters as I encounter them, along with brief description of them and their relationships. The advantage is that I can easily add to the document as I learn more about the characters.

For historical characters I am providing links. For example, the Dowager Empress to whom Anna Pavolova is maid of honor is Marya Feodorovna (Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg) who turns out to be an interesting character in her own right. When her husband Tsar Paul I was assassinated, she made a motion toward assuming the throne as Empress/Tsarina, but gave it up so her sons succeeded to the throne. (She had ten children, among them Tsar Alexander I, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, Grand Duchess Maria of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Queen Catherine of Wurttemberg and Queen Anna Pavlovna of the Netherlands. Still, she gained precedence over the Empresses, which was unusual.

UPDATE: I am adding the Kindle location number for the source of the statement or insight I record. Highlighting turns out to be too much work, but I am certain there are passages that I will hightlight.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2017 at 7:38 pm

The dystopian aspect of AI emerges in reality

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AI can be a force for good or not. Adam Liptak in the NY Times describes one problematic aspect—and if you think that’s bad, how about when an algorithm decides that it’s not worthwhile to treat your life-threatening illness?

When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. visited Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last month, he was asked a startling question, one with overtones of science fiction.

“Can you foresee a day,” asked Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the college in upstate New York, “when smart machines, driven with artificial intelligences, will assist with courtroom fact-finding or, more controversially even, judicial decision-making?”

The chief justice’s answer was more surprising than the question. “It’s a day that’s here,” he said, “and it’s putting a significant strain on how the judiciary goes about doing things.”

He may have been thinking about the case of a Wisconsin man, Eric L. Loomis, who was sentenced to six years in prison based in part on a private company’s proprietary software. Mr. Loomis says his right to due process was violated by a judge’s consideration of a report generated by the software’s secret algorithm, one Mr. Loomis was unable to inspect or challenge.

In March, in a signal that the justices were intrigued by Mr. Loomis’s case, they asked the federal government to file a friend-of-the-court brief offering its views on whether the court should hear his appeal.

The report in Mr. Loomis’s case was produced by a product called Compas, sold by Northpointe Inc. It included a series of bar charts that assessed the risk that Mr. Loomis would commit more crimes.

The Compas report, a prosecutor told the trial judge, showed “a high risk of violence, high risk of recidivism, high pretrial risk.” The judge agreed, telling Mr. Loomis that “you’re identified, through the Compas assessment, as an individual who is a high risk to the community.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Loomis. The report added valuable information, it said, and Mr. Loomis would have gotten the same sentence based solely on the usual factors, including his crime — fleeing the police in a car — and his criminal history.

At the same time, the court seemed uneasy with using a secret algorithm to send a man to prison. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the court, discussed, for instance, a report from ProPublica about Compas that concluded that black defendants in Broward County, Fla., “were far more likely than white defendants to be incorrectly judged to be at a higher rate of recidivism.”

Justice Bradley noted that Northpointe had disputed the analysis. Still, she wrote, “this study and others raise concerns regarding how a Compas assessment’s risk factors correlate with race.”

In the end, though, Justice Bradley allowed sentencing judges to use Compas. They must take account of the algorithm’s limitations and the secrecy surrounding it, she wrote, but said the software could be helpful “in providing the sentencing court with as much information as possible in order to arrive at an individualized sentence.” . . .

Continue reading.

See also this book.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 May 2017 at 1:53 pm

Posted in Law, Software, Technology

Kalanick really is cowardly scum: Uber’s Travis Kalanick has canceled his Code Conference interview

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Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg report at Recode.net:

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is not the first exec to deal with sexual harassment and sexism issues. And he’s not the first to be accused of stealing technology. He’s also not the first to anger customers through cloddish statements. And he’s not the first to face significant doubts about his ability to manage a fast-growing startup.

But he is the very first speaker in the 15 years we have been putting on our tech and media events to cancel his interview due to the many embarrassing issues at his company. In this case, because the report from former Attorney General Eric Holder on Uber’s culture and management problems has been delayed until the week of Code at the end of May.

“Due to the delay of the Holder review, Travis is unable to attend this year’s conference,” said an Uber spokesperson. We have been told that Kalanick needs to be with employees at Uber’s offices in Northern California and cannot manage to travel an hour by plane to Southern California to appear at the conference, as he had promised.

We booked Kalanick before the explosive publication of a blog post by former employee Susan Fowler on pernicious sexual harassment and sexism issues at the car-hailing company. But, even after that, Kalanick confirmed his appearance, allowing us to announce it.

Last week, Kalanick’s reps started to waver and then said he could not attend. In his place, they have offered — and we have accepted — director Arianna Huffington, who has been leading the investigation for the Uber board.

Since we also wanted to talk about the business, we asked for venture capitalist and Uber board member Bill Gurley to join her, as he has been deeply involved in Uber’s operations since its founding and has opined publicly about it until recently. He has thus far declined the Code invitation. Gurley also did not respond to a text and an email he was sent, which he has never done before.

Also a “no” so far per Uber were requests for key Kalanick colleague and SVP Emil Michael, board chairman Garrett Camp and board member David Bonderman. One possible person that Uber has said might be able to join Huffington is human resources head Liane Hornsey, but that is currently unconfirmed until closer to the event.

In other words, replacing Kalanick and manning up to address serious gender issues at Uber when the men could not bring themselves to, could be two women.

Yeah, classic Silicon Valley, and all you need to know to understand the problems at Uber.

But understand this, too: We are obviously surprised and disappointed, because this does not happen. In fact, we have had a lot of tech and media executives who have been under pressure appear at our Code and also All Things D events over the years and none has canceled due to those moments of crisis.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates came despite the Vista disaster; Apple’s Steve Jobs came despite the stolen iPhone prototype debacle; various Yahoo chiefs came despite heaps of bad publicity and takeover rumors; Steve Case came soon after the utter humiliation of AOL’s failed merger with Time Warner. Even Ralph de la Vega of AT&T came during controversial network failures. . .

Continue reading.

RELATED: Uber’s culture crisis

Written by LeisureGuy

1 May 2017 at 7:35 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

Netflix: The secret codes that unlock 1000s of hidden movies

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Anyone who has used Netflix know how lame their “browse” function is (and Amazon Prime is no better). James Titcomb in The Telegraph describes how to find some movies you might not otherwise see:

Netflix’s incredibly niche, personalised subgenres have long captivated movie nerds, from “Steamy Crime Movies from the 1970s” to “Period Pieces About Royalty Based on Real Life”.

The genres, based on a complicated algorithm that uses reams of data about users’ viewing habits to recommend exactly what a particular user is into, number in the tens of thousands.

When Netflix thinks you’ll like sentimental Spanish-language dramas or gritty tearjerkers, they’ll show up on your home screen, but aside from that, they’re not easy to find.

But a simple web address trick has emerged showing how you can find any one of these genres simply by switching a number in a URL.

If you’re logged into Netflix, enter http://www.netflix.com/browse/genre/XXXX  into your browser’s toolbar to bring up one of the thousands of genres in Netflix’s library.

“XXXX” is a series of digits – 1089 is “Mind-bending Movies”, for example; while 354 is “Movies Starring Matthew McConaughey” – currently a genre of one film.

Not all numbers will result in a subgenre, and given Netflix’s ever-changing algorithms, they might move around every now and then, while there may be regional differences meaning that some codes don’t work.

Codes for the main genres are available here. At the foot of the list is a link to a list of even more.

NetFlix streaming by alternate genres (main list)
. . .

Continue reading.

The list begins:

Written by LeisureGuy

1 May 2017 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Movies & TV, Technology

Is It Time to Break Up Google?

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Jonathan Taplin has an interesting column in the NY Times:

In just 10 years, the world’s five largest companies by market capitalization have all changed, save for one: Microsoft. Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Citigroup and Shell Oil are out and Apple, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon and Facebook have taken their place.

They’re all tech companies, and each dominates its corner of the industry: Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising, Facebook (and its subsidiaries Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) owns 77 percent of mobile social traffic and Amazon has a 74 percent share in the e-book market. In classic economic terms, all three are monopolies.

We have been transported back to the early 20th century, when arguments about “the curse of bigness” were advanced by President Woodrow Wilson’s counselor, Louis Brandeis, before Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court. Brandeis wanted to eliminate monopolies, because (in the words of his biographer Melvin Urofsky) “in a democratic society the existence of large centers of private power is dangerous to the continuing vitality of a free people.” We need look no further than the conduct of the largest banks in the 2008 financial crisis or the role that Facebook and Google play in the “fake news” business to know that Brandeis was right.

While Brandeis generally opposed regulation — which, he worried, inevitably led to the corruption of the regulator — and instead advocated breaking up “bigness,” he made an exception for “natural” monopolies, like telephone, water and power companies and railroads, where it made sense to have one or a few companies in control of an industry.

Continue reading the main story

Could it be that these companies — and Google in particular — have become natural monopolies by supplying an entire market’s demand for a service, at a price lower than what would be offered by two competing firms? And if so, is it time to regulate them like public utilities?

Consider a historical analogy: the early days of telecommunications.

In 1895 a photograph of the business district of a large city might have shown 20 phone wires attached to most buildings. Each wire was owned by a different phone company, and none of them worked with the others. Without network effects, the networks themselves were almost useless.

The solution was for a single company, American Telephone and Telegraph, to consolidate the industry by buying up all the small operators and creating a single network — a natural monopoly. The government permitted it, but then regulated this monopoly through the Federal Communications Commission.

AT&T (also known as the Bell System) had its rates regulated, and was required to spend a fixed percentage of its profits on research and development. In 1925 AT&T set up Bell Labs as a separate subsidiary with the mandate to develop the next generation of communications technology, but also to do basic research in physics and other sciences. Over the next 50 years, the basics of the digital age — the transistor, the microchip, the solar cell, the microwave, the laser, cellular telephony — all came out of Bell Labs, along with eight Nobel Prizes.

In a 1956 consent decree in which the Justice Department allowed AT&T to maintain its phone monopoly, the government extracted a huge concession: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 April 2017 at 6:28 pm

Bose headphones have been spying on customers, lawsuit claims

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Haley Tsukayama reports in the Washington Post:

Bose knows what you’re listening to.

At least that’s the claim of a proposed class-action lawsuit filed late Tuesday in Illinois that accuses the high-end audio equipment maker of spying on its users and selling information about their listening habits without permission.

The main plaintiff in the case is Kyle Zak, who bought a $350 pair of wireless Bose headphones last month. He registered the headphones, giving the company his name and email address, as well as the headphone serial number. And he download the Bose Connect app, which the company said would make the headphones more useful by adding functions such as the ability to customize the level of noise cancellation in the headphones.

But it turns out the app was also telling Bose a lot more about Zak than he bargained for.

According to the complaint, Bose collected information that was not covered by its privacy policy. This included the names of the audio files its customers were listening to:

Defendant programmed its Bose Connect app to continuously record the contents of the electronic communications that users send to their Bose Wireless Products from their smartphones, including the names of the music and audio tracks they select to play along with the corresponding artist and album information, together with the Bose Wireless Product’s serial numbers (collectively, “Media Information”).

Combined with the registration information, that gave Bose access to personally identifiable information that Zak and other never agreed to share, the complaint says. Listening data can be very personal, particularly if users are listening to podcasts or other audio files that could shade in information about their political preferences, health conditions or other interests, the complaint argues.

The filing also alleges that Bose wasn’t just collecting the information. It was also sharing it with a data mining company called Segment.io, according to research conducted by Edelson, the Chicago-based law firm representing Zak.

Bose did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit.

Wireless headphones are part of a growing category of connected devices, in which everyday products can hook up to the Internet and pass information from users to companies. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2017 at 7:05 pm

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