‘Smart’ Homes, Dumb Users?

I meant to post a link to The House That Spied on Me, a Gizmodo story that looked a little deeper into just how much data a ‘connected’ household is leaking, when I restarted this site a few weeks ago:

Our 1970s apartment building did not offer enough electrical outlets for this 2018 smart home, so we had power strips and outlet expanders everywhere, to the point where I was worried I was going to spark a fire and burn our smart home down. (This actually might have been cathartic.)

I had to download 14 different apps to my phone to control everything, which meant creating an account for each one of those apps. (Yes, my coffeemaker has a log-in and a very long terms of service agreement.) After setting them up, I thought I’d be able to control all the devices by issuing voice commands to Alexa via the Echo—the smart speaker that we’ve been using for the last year as a glorified timer and music player — but this did not go as well as I had hoped.

I can’t help but wonder, given the sheer quantity of End User Licensing Agreements they must have been required to click through to install all that software, whether in the end what’s going to kill the concept of smart homes isome gigantic legal tangle where it turns out that we’ve all clicked-through-but-claimed-to-have-read-and-understood conflicting agreements that we’ll let every app/device phone home and upload whatever date they deem necessary.

It’ll be reported that User A failed to live up to their solemn contractual obligation 1 to allow Amazon (or Apple, or Google, or Facebook, or whoever) to slurp up X megabytes of data per day, and therefore User A was in breach of their obligations to the company. They would henceforth be liable to pay a fine of US$X per day until they stopped running the other 15 apps/devices that wanted to upload their respective megabytes of data per day.

If we’re lucky, ordinary end users will conclude that it’s safest to avoid the whole mess by not letting their home network become a home to a dozen or more smart devices. If we’re unlucky, this will be seen by whichever company is seen as market leader as the perfect moment to announce that if we convert to their devices and software they’ll guarantee to have them cooperate with one another so that they can all leak data about us in a much smoother, more coordinated manner that we’ll barely notice.

(Alternatively, this whole thing will look like a fabulous income stream to the other 15 companies if they can get their lawsuit in first before the poor end user goes bankrupt trying to keep up, and we’ll really be in trouble…)

Driving tools

Who would have imagined that increased use of automated navigational information could have a down side, with more widespread use of automated mapping serving to push individual drivers into a nominally less busy route that turns out to be anything but if everyone else is getting similar advice about how to avoid a traffic snarl-up ahead?

To be fair, the research on this is at an early stage, but it seems plausible that unless the different mapping and navigation systems start to work together drivers are going to lose the advantage they’ve had in the early days when most drivers relied upon their local knowledge to find shortcuts and only a few journeys were made with the benefit of real-time mapping and navigational systems.

Clever monkey

The very fact that the Guardian was able to put up an article devoted to the best Stephen Hawking quotes says a lot about his fame.

“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”

A very advanced monkey indeed.

PDF forever?

The Portable Document Format, or PDF, is everywhere. But it’s still a format that causes headaches for the average person. […] It’s not often, of course, that the PDF gets this level of notice. The PDFs origin story is a bit more boring than that of the MP3, which was built around the contours of Suzanne Vega’s unaccompanied voice on “Tom’s Diner,” and the ZIP file, which came to life in a brutal legal battle that was egged on by the whims of BBS users. But the PDF still has a story, and that story is that of a format that promises to be even more valuable in the decades to come. […]

Sadly, if the proposition that the PDF is secretly the world’s most important file format is false, that’s probably only because of the number of draft copies of those many, many memos and reports sitting on our hard disks (or in some variety of cloud storage, or on someone’s USB drive) in some variant of Word format. Which means that we’ll all be fine as long as we all keep on using some variant of Microsoft Word.

Somehow the headline Microsoft want to hold your organisation’s documents hostage would be closer to the truth.

[Via kottke.org]

Speaker-to-Animals speaks

Paul Ford is at it again in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, explaining Bitcoin (and why the notions that lie behind it are simultaneously batty and beguiling to those who may be susceptible to Engineer’s Disease) to civilians. 1

[After a basic explanation of what Bitcoin does…]

That all of this adds up to money is ridiculous, and we should probably mock it more than we do. Consider Bitcoin a grand middle finger. It’s a prank, almost a parody of the global financial system, that turned into a bubble. “You plutocrats of Davos may think you control the global money supply,” the pranksters seem to say. “But humans will make an economy out of anything. Even this!” To be frank, central banking never really ground my gears; it’s just another one of those vast enterprises that we cower beneath, like network TV or religion. But I can see how it would piss people off. Bits gonna coin.

As usual with Ford’s work aimed at a general audience, he does a good job of relating why this stuff is so important to those who care about it in terms that the rest of us can understand without getting bogged down in technical niceties.

If the geek nation had any sense, it’d just grant him the title of Speaker-To-Animals right now and get it over with. They could do worse.

British. Not entirely Great.

Mary Beard is right: the new set of 10p coins do look awfully ‘Theme Park Britain.’ I get the urge to keep the designs simple, but English Breakfast followed by Fish & Chips isn’t a very inspiring combination, and World Wide Web is utterly uninspired. 1

‘T’ clearly ought to stand for TARDIS. Granted, Gallifrey isn’t in the UK, but the Doctor is this generation’s combination of Gandalf and Merlin and he/she is a far more potent and positive symbol of Britain’s contribution to the world’s imagination over the last half-century or so than James bloody Bond! 2

Generally, it’s not a set of images that suggests a confident, forward-looking nation.

[Via Mary Beard]

Beneath the Shorteners!

Russell Davies thinks we’re missing out when our browsers hide URLs from us:

[For a while…] domain names and URLs became part of the fun of the web. While the more commercial parts of town got excited about the money changing hands for cars.com, the bohemian quarters were creating baroque constructions like del.icio.us or mucking about with ridiculously domains.

He’s right that our web browsers not ‘wasting’ screen space on displaying a URL in full is a bad thing, though I’m less taken than he is with the joy of broken-backed English language words and phrases being rejigged as domain names just because they ended in .us or .in or whatever. It seems to me that when faced with a shortened URL, the least your browser could do for you is present you with the unshortened version of the URL in a pop-up before you click on it. That way, you could both appreciate whatever degree of wit the site’s owner was trying to convey in constructing that URL , and in the interests of clarity.1

Still, I do like the slogan he suggests for the movement to have browsers devote some screen space do displaying domains again:

Beneath The Shorteners, The Web!

Damn straight!

[Via Russell Davies]

Yearning for Shoggoths

In the wake of Guillermo del Toro’s big night at the Oscars, here’s hoping someone will finally give him the money to show us his take on an Old One:

[From a New Yorker profile written when he was between films, having left the ill-fated effort to film The Hobbit and not yet turned his attention to Pacific Rim.]

Even though del Toro’s team had three months to experiment, the challenge was immense. The frozen city, for example, could emerge only after the artists had settled how the Old Ones moved, ate, and slept. “If you spend enough time strolling in the street—seeing a cathedral, seeing a door opening and closing in a building or a car—you understand the ergonomics of human beings,” he said. With a few key shots, del Toro needed to conjure, wordlessly, the lives of the aliens.

He could, you know. He really could.

Give him however much money he wants, send him off with Ron Perlman and Doug Jones and a bunch of creature designers to lead and see what comes back. Whether it’s a shoggoth or Baba Yaga or the ghost of Lobster Johnson or Hellboy in Hell, it’ll be worth seeing.

[Via Longform.org]

In search of warriors

Kim Frank went In Search of Warriors:

A story told by my grandfather sparked a fascination. Far to the east lies a land, wild and vast, inhabited by the legendary warriors who rescued my grandfather. Mongolia. For fifteen years, I’ve returned to this country, seeking to understand the raw beauty and tenacity that shapes those who call it home.

Widescreen landscapes, populated by souls far hardier than me.

[Via MetaFilter]