Bookmarked don’t get firewood from the fruit-bearing trees by Alex Hern (The World Is Yours*)

What are the practices which will leave the world better than it is now? What are the aspects of our environment that we wish to encourage, compared to those we want to avoid? How can we ensure that the things we like become the norm by the time our grandchildren arrive?

Don’t get firewood from the fruit-bearing trees. Strip the bark from the poisonous ones.

Alex Hern discusses Charles C. Mann’s book on Americas before Columbus. He reflects on the impact of smallpox, as well as the misunderstanding of how the Amazonians learnt to live with nature, rather than strip it back.

Mann suggests, the Europeans were wrong. They had quite literally failed to see the forest for the trees. The environment laden with fruit, vegetables and calories wasn’t something that happened to people: it was the result of people. The lush, dense rainforest, so alien to Europeans hacking through it with machetes, was not actually a tabula rasa, any more than the American northwest. It was, instead, the result of an independent invention of agriculture – and an agriculture quite unlike any other in the world.

Interesting to consider alongside Beau Miles’ work and his appeal to radical change.

Replied to this email is being tracked by Alex Hern (The World Is Yours*)

The commercial economy might rely on data, tracking and surveillance – though I still think it could do just fine without it – but the email newsletter boom shouldn’t.

I initially followed you via email as a subscriber, but in recent times I have unsubscribed and started following via RSS. I am intrigued how that information is gathered?
Bookmarked The flight from WhatsApp (

Not surprisingly, Signal has been staggering under the load of refugees from WhatsApp following Facebook’s ultimatum about sharing their data with other companies in its group. According to data from Sensor Tower Signal was downloaded 8.8m times worldwide in the week after the WhatsApp changes were first announced on January 4. Compare that with 246,000 downloads the week before and you get some idea of the step-change. I guess the tweet — “Use Signal” — from Elon Musk on January 7 probably also added a spike.

John Naughton talks about the flight from WhatsApp in response to news that data will soon be incorporated within the wider Facebook ecosystem. As Alex Hern reported:

If you’re comfortable with Facebook’s use of data (or that of its much closer subsidiary Instagram), it might be difficult to care about this. The company was recently forced by Apple to provide a privacy “nutritional label” on its iOS app, revealing how it works with user data. The labels disclosed more than 100 different pieces of data that may be collected, many of which are directly linked to user profiles, including health and fitness data, “sensitive info” and search histories. For the typical user, who has an account on both services, adding in the small amount of information WhatsApp has is a drop in a bucket by comparison.

But the change does start to eat away at the idea that you can be on WhatsApp without a Facebook footprint. The two apps’ very different histories and intended uses have led to a split in demographics among their users, and a small but significant proportion of WhatsApp users, drawn by the encryption, ad-free nature and no-frills interface, avoid Facebook itself while still using the chat app it owns.

In response, Facebook has paused this change. For Charles Arthur, this says a lot in that Facebook were able to act so swiftly.

The irony is so thick you could spread it on toast. Misinformation spread on WhatsApp has been blamed for deaths in India and election distortion in Brazil, but the company slow-walked complaints there. But when people start defecting, that’s a different matter: it acts like it’s on fire.

Liked Part human, part machine: is Apple turning us all into cyborgs? by Alex Hern (Guardian)

But whether we trust Apple might be beside the point, if we don’t yet know whether we can trust ourselves. It took eight years from the launch of the iPhone for screen time controls to follow. What will human interaction look like eight years after smartglasses become ubiquitous? Our cyborg present sneaked up on us as our phones became glued to our hands. Are we going to sleepwalk into our cyborg future in the same way?

Liked music blogs by Alex Hern (The World Is Yours*)

I’m happy that the, or at least a, exciting content platform of the day is unambiguously focused on writing rather than video, and happy to that Substack isn’t trying to build a social network. But I’d be lying if I said that the incredible success of a small number of already-established US media figures on the platform wasn’t a bit depressing. The world wasn’t crying out for a way for wealthy American journalists with large followings to earn a higher share of the expenditure of their readers but, at least in the short term, that seems to be the problem Substack is gearing up to solve.

Liked google by Alex Hern (The World Is Yours*)

The answer to why Waymo hasn’t expanded, and why Stadia took a year to get a basic feature promised before launch, is at heart the same response, I think: Google just doesn’t really care. These aren’t interesting engineering challenges, or passion projects for staff members involved. And so they’re forgotten down the back of the sofa, ready to join the Google graveyard when whichever employee is pushing them forward decides it’s time for an early retirement.

But those robot taxis are cool though

Bookmarked Facebook, QAnon and the world’s slackening grip on reality (

The coronavirus pandemic has left us living more and more of our lives online. But the place where we chat with friends, get our news and form our opinions is full of vile and dangerous conspiracy theories. Is the world’s biggest social network doing enough to combat them?

Alex Hern unpacks the ramifications of COVID and the move online. He explains how the current circumstances have forged new ground for what Buzzfeed describes as ‘collective delusion‘:

Bullying, sexual abuse, political polarisation and conspiracy theorists all existed before the social network, but all took on new contours as they moved online.

One of the common threads with ‘QAnonCasualties’ is that others seem to live a different reality. The challenge with all of this is moderation. A part of the problem is the role served by celebrities in amplifying stories.

Bookmarked crumple zones by Alex Hern ([object Object])

In 2018, Rafaela Vasquez was working as a “safety driver” for Uber in Arizona. Employed to sit in a “self-driving car”, and seize control if something went wrong, she was behind the wheel when the car, a modified Volvo, hit and killed a pedestrian. The details, as they always are, are messy. The car had been altered to disable Volvo’s own automatic braking function, so as to test Uber’s machine learning system. The pedestrian was crossing the road outside of a designated spot. Arizona had passed wildly permissive laws allowing testing of self-driving vehicles with minimal oversight, in an effort to tempt valuable engineering jobs from companies like Google and Uber. And Vasquez, at the time of the collision, was watching TV.

Alex Hern discusses self-driving cars and the difference between Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy:

Waymo now says that experience was crucial in guiding how it approached self-driving cars. Rather than aiming for so-called “level 4” autonomy, where the car can mostly drive itself but a human needs to take over in emergencies, the company decided to jump straight to “level 5” – where a human driver is never needed. Their experience was that human drivers simply weren’t capable of serving as a back-up to a nearly-but-not-entirely infallible robot.

The reality in the end is that although full automation is the goal, companies like Uber are still reliant on humans to step in when needed and this is easier said than done.

Liked The scariest thing about the latest Twitter hack? We don’t know how often it happens (

Insider threats will always be here. Only the most paranoid among us are prepared to jump through the hoops required to use an internet that doesn’t fundamentally require some level of trust to be placed in the gatekeepers of technology. But as today’s hack demonstrates, that trust can sometimes be misplaced.

Liked Johnson won’t say so, but the real decision about Huawei was made years ago | Alex Hern (the Guardian)

The true fear isn’t really technical at all: it’s economic. It starts from a perception – not altogether unfair – that the company grew so massive by leveraging state aid that would be illegal in Europe, selling equipment to markets in Asia and Africa that were paying for it with low-cost loans from the Chinese state, and receiving immense direct government support for research and development. Now, according to Franco Zaro of cybersecurity firm Valid: “Huawei has had a more global presence than Ericsson and Nokia combined.” It may be genuinely better and cheaper, in other words, but only because it didn’t play fair to get there.

Bookmarked Mystery of Rolling Stones tracks posted briefly on YouTube (the Guardian)

Vintage recordings may have been published in attempt to extend copyright protection

Alex Hern discusses the brief appearance of Rolling Stones tracks on YouTube as a means of extending copyright.

According to Variety magazine, which first reported the brief publication, the explanation could lie in the European Union’s copyright directive. Under EU law, sound recordings are covered by copyright for the first 50 calendar years after they were made – unless they have been “lawfully communicated to the public”, in which case the copyright term extends a further 20 years.

Liked Twitter’s canny political ad ban costs it little – and piles pressure on Facebook (the Guardian)

The Twitter co-founder and chief executive, Jack Dorsey, has turned a weakness into a strength, cutting off a minuscule revenue stream in order to heap pressure on his main competitor. In the hours since Twitter’s announcement, support has come from voices as diverse as the US-based campaign group Muslim Advocates, the Open Knowledge Foundation thinktank and the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

Listened The strange world of TikTok: viral videos and Chinese censorship – podcast from the Guardian

The Guardian’s Alex Hern tells Anushka Asthana about a series of leaked documents he has seen that showed the company’s moderation policies. They included guidance to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence and the banned religious group Falun Gong.

Anushka Asthana and Alex Hern discuss social video app TikTok. This includes unpacking the censorship associated with the algorithm central to the app. One of the challenges is that without the leaked documentation it is very difficult to know what has been blocked as videos are not actually removed, but instead they are not promoted by the timeline algorithm. This all comes back to timelessness of the app.
Bookmarked Revealed: catastrophic effects of working as a Facebook moderator (the Guardian)

Some of the moderators’ stories were similar to the problems experienced in other countries. Daniel said: “Once, I found a colleague of ours checking online, looking to purchase a Taser, because he started to feel scared about others. He confessed he was really concerned about walking through the streets at night, for example, or being surrounded by foreign people.

Alex Hern’s discussion of Facebook moderators in Berlin provides a different perspective to the world of moderation. When you hear the ridiculous number of users that platforms like Facebook have, I shudder to think the content that needs to be processed.
Bookmarked Video game streaming: is it worth it? (the Guardian)

With Microsoft, Google and several others vying to be the ‘Netflix of video games’, what advantages are on offer?

Alex Hern looks at the hype around online gaming and questions the challenges around latency that make it difficult.


In practice, the reality often hasn’t matched the promise. Streaming services that already exist – from Sony’s PlayStation Now service in 2014 to 2015’s Shadow – have never had more than mixed success. Various explanations involving cost and marketing budgets have been offered, but underlying them all is the reality that getting a streaming service to work is difficult.

Bookmarked The future will be dockless: could a city really run on 'floating transport'? by Alex Hern (the Guardian)

Citymapper now supports dockless transport options such as Ofo bikes in London and San Francisco’s Bird electric scooters, offering an insight into the future of transport in cities

Alex Hern discusses the rise of floating transport, something that I touched on recently with the demise of oBike in Melbourne. Hern captures a number of stories from around the world of hope for efficiency, but also issues associated with shared spaces.

Simply being profitable doesn’t necessarily mean floating transport is good for a city, and the growth of the sector has been a bumpy ride. A big problem is that pavement is a shared space, and a limited resource. The overcrowding problems San Francisco has seen with Bird scooters are mirrored in London by Ofo bikes – a model where users abandon their vehicles wherever they want inevitably results in pavements littered with out-of-service rides.

I am taken by Hern’s closing remarks concerning reliability over flexibility.

Ultimately, floating transport is going to have to learn another lesson that conventional transportation bodies have taken to heart: flexible may be fun, but cities run on reliable.

This leaves me thinking that sometimes what is required is community and sometimes that involves patience. What is the cost to the public/private transport industry when everyone relies on private personal transport models like Bird or Uber?

Bookmarked Doctor, I think I have GDPR fatigue: Chips with Everything podcast by Jordan Erica Webber;Danielle Stephens (the Guardian)

The General Data Protection Regulation is coming into force.

These tougher rules on data protection were approved by the EU Parliament in April 2016, but a lot of us didn’t hear about them back then. Perhaps you first heard GDPR mentioned in discussions about recent controversies to do with the questionable use of people’s data.

Or maybe it was when you started receiving a deluge emails.

But what is GDPR, and why should we care about it? And could these new regulations impact our health? What happens with our medical data now?

To help answer these questions, Jordan Erica Webber is joined by the Guardian’s technology reporter, Alex Hern, and Dr Rachel Birch of the Medical Protection Society.

This episode of the Chips with Everything podcast provides a useful starting point for all things GDPR, especially in regards to the health sector.
Liked How firms you have never interacted with can target your Facebook by Alex Hern (the Guardian)

Facebook provides me with the ability to opt out of advertising from those companies, just by clicking a cross in the corner. All I need to do is devote some time to clicking a small button 174 times in a row and I am free from those companies – at least until the next 174 decide to upload my information.

What I cannot do is anything with real power. I cannot tell Facebook that the vast majority of these companies cannot possibly have acquired my email address legitimately; I cannot opt out of them all at once, defenestrating advertisers in their masses with a single click; and I certainly cannot request that no company be able to target me simply by uploading an easily guessable address to the site.