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Saturday, June 08, 2019

Wild bees in Argentina building nests with plastic

A recent article in the National Geographic referred to a discovery that wild bees near Argentinian crop fields have been found to make nests out of plastic sheeting debris gathered from around the farms they haunt.

The plastic had been cut and overlapped to provide a foundation for further construction.

The article itself has a neutral tone, but there is the requisite "other perspective" that thinks it's really sad that our rampant use of plastics has led to them ending up in places that they don't belong.

I think that plastic debris is a real problem, but also recognize that while plastic creates unwanted debris in the oceans, waterways, and farm fields of the world, it's also an extremely resource-efficient way to solve many problems. Finding "environmentally-friendly" alternatives would likely require more resources, and would make life more expensive for everyone. I'm fine with that, but we have others to consider. The only solution is to do less - not to find replacements for plastic. Stop "doing things". Stop "looking for solutions" and instead avoid the problem to begin with. Incrementally, of course. Everything you do matters because there might be 7.53 billion of you out there.

The article speculates that bees incorporating plastics may build nests that are more durable and more resistant to mold and parasites, thereby improving the health of the species. The same thing we use it for.

And so it's great that bees are finding some use for this plastic. They are, in effect, reusing and sequestering it rather than landfilling or recycling it, thereby avoiding the energy inputs that recycling normally entails. The plastic that these bees have harvested will not be blowing into the ocean. We'd be celebrating this if humans did it.

One more reason to protect the bees. Or at least the wild ones in Argentina.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Apple News and where it fits in my life

As part of Apple's iOS 12.2 release, Apple News was finally made available on Apple phones and tablets in Canada. Before now, it had been available in other countries but not in Canada. This availability coincided with the North American availability of their Apple News+ service.

Apple News is a curated and aggregated news app. In the abstract, it's similar to Google News but it only lives on Apple devices in the form of an app and is not available on the web.

So, what is Apple News+? As far as I can tell, it's Apple News plus these things:
  • Full magazine content
  • Articles designated as premium articles within Apple News
  • Offline reading
Here's what I like about it:
  • Clear identification of news source (every single article has a logo indicating the source before you click through to it)
  • Mixing of magazine with news content. Magazines do a better job in some areas than newspapers.
Here's what I don't like:
  • Locked in to Apple devices. I have a Windows PC and notebook with no intention of changing, and I can't access Apple News at all from there.
  • Does not provide full access to news sources. For example, while you get premium Wall Street Journal articles in your feed you can't go back and read the whole WSJ.
  • Loss of artistic layout and flow of newspapers - there's no concept of what a newspaper has deemed "front page material", or relatively more important than other content. Apple takes over this role with a uniform utilitarian approach through the app.
  • Magazines have table of contents but they show the title only and are not helpful in understanding what an article is about.
  • Not very searchable, and the UI for finding sources is a bit confusing (though it makes some sense once you get used to it).
Good luck finding something you read and want to revisit, or if you want to search historical perspectives on a story. That's not what this is about - it's about the here-and-now, and it's why it's more of a supplement than a replacement.
It essentially turns newspapers into time-boxed content providers. But this is similar to how many people watch TV, where channels provide content and the TV service provider presents everything on a level playing field as channels organized in a common schedule.

Imagine if you had to watch TV by going to the schedule for each network and browsing the channels offered only by that network. That's the current state of news. It's not terrible that some companies want to try a new way of doing things.

From what I can tell, though articles display is usually quite clear of clutter, news sources are still free to interject in an article with suggestions of other articles of theirs that you may find interesting, and there does seem to be some formatting control at the source level. Artistic independence is diminished but not fully lost.

I'm trying it out in trial mode at the moment. The big question is: is it worth continuing at $12/mo? A number of times, I've told myself "no", but then I've thought about how much I like using the app. You can use the Apple News app without paying, but you can't read everything in that mode and you lose the magazine integration. It's not a straightforward answer.

I think this needs to be looked at in the context of how news is going to be consumed rather than how news was consumed in the past. I have a newspaper subscription. I have a couple of news magazine subscriptions. To try and stay balanced, the newspaper I subscribe to works against my natural political bias. However, I don't like to get all of my news from one source.

I'd like to have more newspaper subscriptions, but that does get very expensive. If I wanted to add another digital newspaper subscription, for example, it'd be $20/mo. Through newspaper partnerships, I could add additional content to my existing subscription starting at $5/mo.

This adds up and it's hard to justify unless you make your living from discussing news. I have limited time in the day to spend reading news. If I had more subscriptions, I'd read less content from each one but spread my reading across multiple papers meaning the value I obtain from each is lower.

I find news increasingly difficult to read digitally because of intrusive advertising that is getting increasingly aggressive - even on the online edition of the newspaper I pay to subscribe to.

My newspaper contains a lot of syndicated content. It is also now regularly making certain online content unavailable unless I pay more. It regularly "forgets" who I am and requires me to sign in, moreso than many other sites do.

I increasingly read my content digitally because of how portable it is, especially when I am interested in many sources.

I don't like the idea of having a separate source or app for every single news source I want to read - especially not for sources that I consider secondary preferences.

So how does Apple News help with this?
  • It provides access to a diverse set of high-quality sources and clearly identifies those sources so that I can assess how much I trust it.
  • It lets me monitor topics rather than sources (but lets me read more from specific sources if I want to) and gives different perspectives on that topic that I can dive deeper into if I want to.
  • It blends magazine content - magazines do better in some areas than newspapers.
  • It presents the content beautifully whether you are reading on a phone or tablet
  • It removes many or most distractions from advertising and clickbait (which also helps with battery life and data consumption).
It essentially gives me what I want in a modern, digital "newspaper" and provides a solution to all of the problems above. If I continue past the trial, I'll be sending money into the world of journalism that likely wouldn't have gone there before.

It's a great start. I hope it only gets better.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Christchurch mosque shooting, Twitter, and unhealthy dialogue from all sides

I occasionally but not often veer onto someone's Twitter page in the same way that someone may accidentally take a wrong turn down a backcountry lane.

What exactly is the value of the Twitter platform? Even without "fake news" it does not seem to support healthy dialogue in any way, shape, or form. It might be a great way for a musician to announce a new album, an author to announce a new book, or a comedian to hone their efficiency, but what else?

Nuance is impossible on Twitter without dribbling it out in drips to subvert the format. I have no idea what most people hope to achieve other than vanity. I would not be surprised if the polarization on that platform contributes to violence and that many people leave it feeling angry and distressed without having learned anything of value or changed their perspective about any issue other than about the state of human nature, negatively.

What reminded me of this is the recent shoot-up of a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. A terrible situation, no doubt - and there is no excusing it.

But the very next morning while listening to the radio, I heard a host and his guest saying that if you're one of those people who question the rate of immigration in your country then you are contributing to such shoot-ups because you "let it take root" ("it" being the seed that gestates as a concern about the state of their country and ends up as a bullet implanted in plural sternums).

I assume the seedling is fed with some kind of anti-depressant or other recommended mind-altering medication along the way as it often turns out to be, but that is beside the point.

I have also heard Donald Trump blamed in relation to the type of rhetoric that seems to energize much of his political base.

But there's a big piece of the root cause missing, and its absence suggests that we've learned nothing about the "why" of things like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

I should preface this by saying that I see immigration as necessary. We need to maintain the skills we need in this country, and we need to sustain what we have built. Diversity in immigration would be appreciated - we do not want to import the biases of another culture wholesale into our own - but we have to go where the skills that we need are found and where people are willing to leave their homes to come to our own.

But when people have legitimate concerns about the direction that their country is going - the very thing we hope to expose to air and discuss in a healthy democracy - it's not right to try and shut them down with polarized political rhetoric, zings, histrionics, or other things that attempt to make them look stupid, dumb, racist, homophobic, or some other form of safe-to-ignore lifeform.

Dismissing someone concerned about the rate of immigration and therefore the changing nature of the culture and country that they grew up with and have so much affection for is as much a contributor to this type of violence as anything else, but it's not treated that way.

We are told by different sides that people don't kill people - guns kill people. Or that guns don't kill people - people kill people. As usual, the answer is in the middle and both are contributing factors to gun violence; but if you fall on the "guns kill people" side then why also try to shut down the genuine concerns and feeling of people about a country that we all have an interest in building? Do you really value diversity like you say you do? It seems not.

People do not wake up in the morning wanting to shoot up a mosque after having a great night out the night before. More than almost anything else, I wonder about the genuine trajectory that led to this point, and I wonder how much attempts to silence, belittle, and minimize a point of view played a part in this. I wonder if we'll ever find out. I wonder if that finding would be politically useful enough for us to find out.

The very people who tell us that it takes a village to raise a child, that we live in a global village, and that no man is an island, should know this better than anyone else.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A small corner of the waste problem: elastic bands

I've accumulated this small collection of elastic bands over the past few years. Actually, the bird's eye photo doesn't quite do it justice because it's a pile that is 4-5 inches deep, 5-6 inches wide, and another 6-7 inches long.

Where do these elastic bands come from? The first and most significant source by far is supermarket vegetables -- holding the broccoli heads together, keeping the head of lettuce closed, or bundling an allotment of carrots. The second source is the newspaper -- on the days that it's dry enough to toss the paper onto my front step without protecting it from the elements, an elastic band is used to hold it together in flight. Other sources are insignificant.

I think it's a pretty impressive collection, seeing as you might not notice the size of the problem if you threw them away one at a time. Multiply by the 12 million-or-so households in Canada, and the 130 million-or-so households in the US and you have a massive problem at the landfill.

If I have made my own 120 cubic-inch pile of elastic bands then the cumulative pile of elastic bands from 142 million households would be 17 billion cubic inches in size. How might that be configured? A 6-foot tall pile measuring 236 million square inches -- in other words, a 6-foot-tall pile that was 5 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide. That's just a small dot on the map of the world, but still... it's worth thinking about. These are, after all, garbage and not purchased because someone actually had a use for them once the product they were holding together was used up.

I reuse them from this pile as needed but, ultimately, the pile will keep growing because these bands are durable and they come in far more frequently than they go out.

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Sunday, February 03, 2019

Spending half your waking hours look at screens

Survey: Americans Spend Nearly Half Their Waking Hours Looking At Screens


So what? The headline doesn't tell me why this is a problem.

Would one of these headlines be better?

  • Survey: Americans Spend Nearly Half Their Waking Hours Staring Into Space
  • Survey: Americans Spend Nearly Half Their Waking Hours Looking At Paper
  • Survey: Americans Spend Nearly Half Their Waking Hours Watching TV

As far as I can tell, staring at screens has to varying degrees replaced staring into space and looking at paper to harmonize with TV-watching and here we are.

When you read the article, you realize that the concern is over screen-related eye fatigue. Fair enough. That's a legitimate issue. But that's the only issue.

Of course, the article proffers no solutions and mostly sidetracks into unrelated statistics. With big data at our fingertips, statistics are easy, and all that AI can do for us is tell us what's related to what we already know.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Automated lies, network disruption, and Cogeco

After a bout of significant Internet disruption from Cogeco - upload and download speeds are highly-variable with upstream being intermittently non-existent and I don't expect them to know or really care what's wrong, even if I called - it's become apparent how non-resilient a lot of software is to inconsistent network performance.

It reminded me of how much our software lies to us about what is wrong. The software can't tell me that my ISP is performing poorly, so it says that the connection can't be made (it can - just slowly). Or it says that the Internet is down (it's not - it's just slow). Or it says that the web page is broken (it's not - it just can't be loaded fast enough).

Automation lies because it doesn't know any better. Even the best automation lies for this reason. It assumes that giving you some information is better than giving you truthful information. Exception handling is difficult and time-consuming; and most developers don't care that much about it, if they even considered it at all.

This has been apparent since the days of call centre call trees, if not sooner. It's not possible that every single time I call my financial institution, that the wait times are going to be a long time because call volumes are abnormally high. But that's what the system is programmed to say when wait times are high. You can't prove otherwise, it's just doing what it's told, and the person responsible has probably already been promoted and the problem is now beneath their pay grade.

Given our increasing daily interaction with software and other forms of automation, I can't help wondering if all of these miniature lies told to us throughout the day affect the standard of truth we expect elsewhere in our non-automated interactions.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The more things change...

Someone recently asked me a rather innocuous question: "so, is this going to be your 'forever house'?"

You'd think it would be a straightforward question to answer, but it's not. Fifteen years ago, it would have been a plausible "yes" when speaking about the house I've now decided to leave. Five years ago, even. So how could it ever be a plausible "yes" ever again? You simply don't know how events will unfold.

I mean... if I'd died five years ago, it would have been my "forever house" and nobody would have been able to prove me wrong.

So, no... it's probably not my "forever house". There's probably a retirement home that hasn't been built yet with that label on it.

The process of house-staging, decluttering, and then triaging what will and will not follow you to the next life forces you to assess what important to you now vs. what was important to you in the past. Sometimes it's like looking back at a different person, even if the core hasn't changed.

So here's my list, with a clear and apparent bias toward real estate. All of these things came up at some point in some strange way when assessing the above situation, even if they don't seem directly relevant.

What has always made sense to me
  • Owning a home
  • The clarity that you don't really "own a home" until the mortgage is paid off.
  • Supporting endeavours, products, and business dealings that allow people to earn a living wage, sometimes in lieu of charitable donations with an unclear destination.
  • Walking - leaving the car at home.
What I used to "get" but no longer do (mostly related to "growing up")
  • Artisanal food
  • Farmers' markets
  • Adbusters magazine
  • "Health food stores" that advocate many conflicting theories of health attached to the products they sell, as if there is no conflict
  • 100% efficiency. It's too costly (in multiple ways) to achieve.
  • Reel lawn mowers, regardless of the size of your lawn
  • The idea that multiple walks of life living in the same neighbourhood enrich the neighbourhood for everyone and motivate aspiration upward. This used to be true but I'm not convinced that it still is.
What never made sense to me
  • Self-declared "health stores" that only sell jars of dried powder
  • 4 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms
  • Snout houses
  • Dishwashers
  • Fridge water dispensers
  • Ceilings that are so tall that nobody can figure out how to change the lightbulb that is installed there.
  • Swimming pools and deep fryers. How are these related? For all of the hassles, cost, waste, and other shortcomings of privatizing these facilities, it's best to use public pools and buy your fried food outside.
  • Tattoos
  • Drugs of any kind
  • Drunkenness
  • While we're in this category: laughter that gets louder when a more important person is in the room, and the tendency or desire for a job promotion to motivate putting a sportcoat over almost any base layer at all.
To be determined
  • Water softeners
  • Houses without chimneys
  • Sardine-style neighbourhoods with no memorable trees