Category Archives: News and Comment

As if we needed a (fatal) reminder.
Her blood is on you, Trump.

 

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We are already one week into the third decade of the millennium — and 45 years after the debut of the personal computer — yet there remain tons of easily-computer-doable things that people are unable to easily do only because corporate powers have decided we can’t.  What’s more frustrating is when we used to be able to do said things, before our ability to do them was taken away by so-called “upgrades” to our applications.

Take Facebook — please.  Facebook is infamous for its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t user-interface features, as well as its grudging level of user control.  Facebook changes its news feed algorithm at will, deciding whose posts you see while giving scant regard to your stated preferences.  In that vein, Facebook last year rolled out a new user interface, using the opportunity to hide the “Recent Posts” button, the only crumb of news feed control it still offers.  If a user wanted to see only the latest posts from her friends, she now had to scroll down a long menu, click a “See More” button, then do even more scrolling to finally reach the “Most Recent” button.  User friendly?  Ha!

But this month, for some reason, Facebook has moved the “Most Recent” button back to the top of the menu.*  None of these changes are accidental.  Behind the scenes, Facebook gauges eyeball-time and adjusts things accordingly, user-whiplash be damned.

However, Facebook is not the only perpetrator.  I have a Windows machine, and I often receive update notifications, for Windows, Firefox, Photoshop and all the various other programs I’ve installed on it.  These days, I am hesitant to install any “update” lest I lose access to features that I’ve become accustomed to.  Windows, for example, once had a neat little app called Windows Movie Maker.  Microsoft removed it from Windows several years ago and replaced it with an app with far fewer features.  (Luckily I saved the original app).  The Firefox browser once allowed a degree of interface customization unmatched by other browsers, but that changed for the worse a few years ago in Version 57.  It is only now that some of its lost features — like putting the tabs next to the content (duh!) — are available again, via plugins.  Adobe, on the other hand, has generally been pretty good in terms of making improvements to Photoshop without taking features away.  Its biggest upgrade fail was when it discontinued Configurator (a custom menu builder for Photoshop) in 2014, replacing it with…. nothing.

Every month or so, I get a notice from SyncBack — a free app that makes a daily backup copy of any new images and/or documents on my office computer — that a new version is available for download.  I always click “no thanks” due to my fear of the feature-death that I’ve seen in other apps.  Really, I would rather initiate all software upgrades myself, and then do only those that are security-related, unless the upgrade has some compelling, must-have improvement.

Unfortunately, in the case of web apps like Facebook and YouTube, users have no say in what version they use.  The other day, I went to YouTube to upload a video that I wanted to share with family.  Although I shot the video in landscape mode, somehow my phone had saved it in portrait mode.  I thought, no problem, I’ll just rotate the video in YouTube after I upload it.  But surprise!  The video editing tools that YouTube used to provide are now gone.  The only edits YouTube now offers are trims, title screens, sound tracks, blurs and subtitles — no rotation, no fades, no zooms, no stabilizing.  So, I had to go back to Windows Movie Maker (yes, the app that Microsoft killed) and do the necessary rotation and fades there.

It’s not like rotating an image or a video involves an enormous amount of computation.  Perhaps (and I don’t know this for a fact) YouTube would have to make royalty payments to some software company to offer editing tools for proprietary video formats.  But, given the billions of hours of video (yes, billions) that have been uploaded to YouTube, I doubt Google would ever have agreed to royalties in the first place.  Instead, my guess is that rotation and other video editing tools are absent from YouTube because such tools would make it easier for users to upload copyrighted media and then obscure digital watermarks.  Google does not want to get sued by big media companies for violations of copyright.

And while I’m no software engineer, I think it’s possible that the video tools now provided on YouTube are intentionally non-destructive, i.e., they generate real-time overlays but do not alter the underlying video — again to avoid complicity in any copyright infringement.  If this is true (and it’s not an unreasonable supposition) then the reason you can’t rotate your videos on YouTube is because of lawsuits, not technology.

Of course, it is all about money in the end.  Microsoft wants its software developers to work on money-making ventures like the cloud, not desktop movie editors.  Facebook wants its users to see ever more ads, so it continuously re-engineers its site to make that happen.  And Allegiant Airlines intentionally decides not to provide a customer-service phone number as one of its contact options (see image at right).  All to illustrate that it is not about what’s possible with tech, it’s only about the money.

Some readers may view this post as just another of those “where are my flying cars” rants. But this is different.  The flying cars are there, sitting in the garage — we can’t fly them because the doors have been locked in the name of corporate profit.  No, 21st-century tech does not want to be free.  Tech will be paid for, individually and collectively, by the highest bidders.  So be ready to say sayonara to some of your favorite features the next time you “update” your apps.  As often happens, your loss will be their gain.

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* It is more accurate to say that Facebook restored the Most Recent button to the top of the menu for me.  As I learned from Antisocial by Andrew Marantz, software companies now do what they call A/B testing, where some “customers” see one version of the product and others see an alternate version.  The version that better delivers the desired effect (more clicks on ads!) is the version that survives, the other is killed.
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As you all can tell (after living in North Carolina 15 years, I have come to not only accept but embrace you all and how well it fills its linguistic niche), I haven’t posted much lately, not that this is important to you all.  Rather, I’ve spent our tedious post-election days thus: waiting for the grown-ups to stop reading The Baby his favorite stories and put him to bed; avoiding the maskless; trying to keep my weight in check; putting the finishing touches on a recording; and reading a disheartening book.

Said book, published late last year, is Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz.  I learned of it via a late-night listen to the Making Sense podcast by author/philosopher  Sam HarrisAntisocial is a first-person dive into a subject that has bothered me for years: where did all the trolls come from?  And why does it feel like there are so many of them?*

Marantz’s account starts at the “DeploraBall” [sic] event held in Washington, D.C., on the eve of Trump’s 2017 inauguration.  The event serves to introduce the reader to the various alt-right characters who staged and/or attended the DeploraBall not so much to celebrate Trump’s victory but to take measure of their own strength and congratulate themselves.

Alt-right is probably the wrong, or at least off-target, word to characterize the subjects of Marantz’s book.  The self-styled leaders of this haphazard “movement” grappled with what to call themselves and how to distinguish themselves from Nazis — not because of some philosophical disagreement they have with Nazis but because Nazism is a “toxic brand.”  Me, I would call them social arsonists.  I thought about social anarchists, but that would imply that these abject self-promoters have something like a philosophy.  No, today’s trolls just enjoy making and/or watching society burn, winning attention points along the way.  At least that’s my take from reading Antisocial.

The recurrent theme of Antisocial is this: conflict is attention and attention is influence. This is why those who believe that influence signifies self-worth are led to create conflict.

Like most books, the first third of Antisocial conveys two-thirds of its message.  But it is an important message — if you read just the first third of the book and return it to the library, you will have insights you didn’t have before.  You might be inspired to quit Facebook and treat most meme-posts on social media sites as craven attempts to trigger you, by trolls who only care about elevating and monetizing themselves and take pride in doing so.

Antisocial is both sad and scary.  Sad because it shows how it isn’t “your father’s internet” anymore (let alone your father’s Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians) and how blind we’ve been to the rise of social arson.  And scary, because it reminds us that shared values are like mountains: great things, but once eroded require tectonic forces to rebuild.

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* Among the posts in which I railed about trolls: Whence Angry Perturbations, Every Tech Forum Ever, and Indifference to Truth.
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