Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

November 24, 2017

Dodging the Apple Premium (still)

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 11:53 am

Because of what I have been provided by my employers over the last few years I’ve been working on a Macbook Pro. These are fine machines, but they have not converted me to being a convert to all things Apple. I have two machines with Ubuntu at home that I have no problem with using (one of them has a dual-boot where I have a copy of Windows which I use every six months or so to make sure that security updates are installed).

In any case, my current phone has been acting erratically over the past few weeks. Up until now I had been resisting getting a new phone because it wasn’t as if I really needed one…but when there is a jeopardy that your phone will decide to not boot up, one has to act.

So I was agonizing over the Samsung 8 or iPhone 8. I’ve had multiple Samsung’s before. And the Samsung 8 seemed fine. The flip side is that everyone in my office uses an iPhone 8, and I get crap for staying with Android. This is not a major issue…but I can’t lie, I’m curious about the iPhone.

In the end, I probably stayed with Android for one primary reason: people in the Apple ecosystem seem totally hostage to Apple. Upgrades are a total pain, and there are minor things I need to get fixed in regards to my Macbook Pro‘s OS which is going to require a “Genius.” The whole situation strikes me as farcical and not futuristic. I’d rather tinker with my Ubuntu distribution than wait in line at a crowded Mac store.

So pass for now….

October 7, 2017

Smartphones killed the fabulist

Filed under: Internet,Technology — Razib Khan @ 1:26 pm
EVIL!!!

In The Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr has a bizarre but unsurprising op-ed, How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds:
Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens
. By the title, you can immediately pick out tells that should induce skepticism. “Research suggests” is usually indicating that the author has a hypothesis, and they went and searched the literature for research that confirmed their hypothesis. Carr actually did better than much of modern journalism. He found peer-reviewed literature, instead of quote mining, or selective elisions. Journalism, you have a story to tell, and you’ll make someone else tell it!

And to his credit, Carr cites the publications transparently, with links. Unfortunately, you see that in some cases the sample sizes are very small, and the statistical significance is marginal. In other instances, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real causality. One can’t know if there is a confound with who decides to take phones to class and who does not. It may be that those students who are very focused simply don’t take their phones. Finally, a lot of the research cited in the piece looks like it was sliced and diced to me.

This is where a little history and cognitive neuroscience would go a long way. Traditionalists have inveighed against new information technologies for the whole history of the human race. No doubt when complex syntax emerged some spoiled-sport argued that it was being abused to gossip and waste time.

Most people know that some of the ancient Greeks worried that the spread of literacy was eroding the power of memory. Less well known is that the printing press helped usher in the final decline of the art of memory.

And literacy does rewire our brains. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene outlines just how certain regions of the brain focused on shape perception are co-opted to recognize letters effortlessly. This may not be without cost. Muhammed Ali was semi-literate, in part due to dyslexia, and a recent biographer has argued that he had better visual-spatial abilities in part because he didn’t waste his attention and focus on learning to read instinctively.

Nicholas Carr has now built a career in large part on skepticism of the internet and information technology. He knows exactly how to write viral stories which travel on the internet by criticizing the internet.

And it is certainly hard to deny the distracting effect of the internet. But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. One of the positives of the ubiquity of smartphones is that it has forced the retirement of so many bullshitters. Today people can make something up, and you can just “look it up.” Everyone is fact-checking everyone, and distracting from the fabulous bullshit stories and “facts” that a certain type of person has always specialized in.

Like free trade, it’s easy to see the downsides of the internet, and mine the social science literature to “prove” that you’re right. That’s one of the benefits of the internet, it lets you find scientific research which can confirm any assertion you make under heaven. Carr’s leveraging the literature to service his likely false arguments is one of the internet’s downsides.

September 20, 2017

Google still wants to be Apple (sort of)

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:47 pm

Google Is Buying HTC’s Smartphone Expertise for $1.1 Billion. This, after Google has already bought and sold Motorola. Remember when Microsoft bought part of Nokia?

The problem is that Apple and Samsung are starting to create a duopoly. And though most phones run Android, iPhones are much more profitable. There’s a reason many companies develop for iOS but not Android. A friend at Google years ago bemoaned how much more profitable iPhone owners were compared to those bought Android phones.

With all that being said the Apple launch and comments on this blog have convinced me I’m not going iPhone. I don’t know if I’ll go for an HTC, Motorola or Samsung. But for me a phone is functional, not an accessory. Perhaps that explains some of the psychological reasons that iPhone owners spend so much more money on apps….

September 13, 2017

America’s age of animated emojis

Filed under: iPhone,Technology — Razib Khan @ 10:09 pm

A few days ago I watched the unveiling of Apple’s new iPhone(s). Honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed…and I probably will stick with a Samsung. Of course, I know that the original iPhone was panned, and it created a whole sector and a lifestyle. We’re a bit jaded.

But this focus on lifestyle in the technology sector made me reflect on Peter Thiel’s techno-pessimism in the late 2000s, which prompted him to write Zero to One. I’m glad that the best and brightest are going to Silicon Valley in the 2010s, and not Wall Street as in the 2000s. They don’t do positive harm in my opinion, while they did in the 2000s by increasing risk and volatility. But Apple and Facebook seem to be about consumption rather than production. They don’t make us more efficient, effective, they don’t change our civilization in its bones.

There are worse places to be, but then I read that China is setting targets and goals in relation to moving from fossil fuels to electric cars. The Chinese make a lot of goals, and execution is often an issue. But they have aspirations. Do we?

Until then, animated emojis….

August 24, 2017

Android vs. iPhone

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 6:50 am

I’m thinking of updating the Samsung S8. But I’m getting some pressure at work to wait for an iPhone 8. In general I’m skeptical of the whole Apple ecosystem, but it isn’t as if good Android phones are cheap.

Any thoughts from readers who have switched back and forth?

July 29, 2017

The passing onto to better things…faster and faster

Filed under: iPhone,Technology — Razib Khan @ 2:15 am

As many of you know, Apple is doing away with the iPod Shuffle. One curious thing is that I’ve noticed several people buying these devices in the last week through my Amazon referrals. At $50 the price point isn’t high, but it does seem a bit much for an obsolete technology.

Which made me reflect on how quickly technologies become obsolete now. As the few people who read this blog and know me in real life are aware, between 2007 and 2014 I went everywhere with a Shuffle. I always had a backup Shuffle. This is not because I’m an audiophile. I’m not. I listened to podcasts.

Arguably the emergence of smartphones made the Shuffle redundant, but I found that the Shuffle was more portable than a smartphone. Ultimately what made me dump the Shuffle is that I went full d-bag and started doing the bluetooth thing. All of a sudden it didn’t matter where the phone was. I still have a Shuffle, but it’s in a drawer somewhere. Perhaps I have a backup too. I don’t recall.

I probably stuck with the Shuffle longer than most. As an old(er) person I’m reflecting now how fast “ubiquitous” technologies are getting obsolete. Faster and faster.

As a child of the 1980s VCRs were part and parcel of our technological furniture. By the early 2000s VCRs were in decline, with DVD rentals surpassing VHS in 2003. Cassettes were eclipsed by CDs in the early 1990s after a two decade reign, but CDs really didn’t master the space for more than ten years (at least in the USA). DVDs had a similarly short “moment.”

How much more can change though? Some of the transition occurred because smartphones, in particular the iPhone, swallowed up whole sectors (audio and photography). Other changes are due to the utilization of high speed internet for video. We got rid of our television in 2004, and for a while there I felt “out of the loop” on a lot of water cooler conversation. But now television has come to me, as binge watching on Netflix has become common.

What will change next?

April 4, 2017

Our conversations don’t matter so much

Filed under: Internet,Technology — Razib Khan @ 7:25 am

One of the things about being on the internet is your local social and communication network looms really large. Controversies or concerns in your part of the pool seem to take up all your energy and attention. But it’s a big world out there. I’ve been using the internet since 1994, and one of the aspects I’ve observed is how geographically insulated we are. Back then I remember being excited to have an e-mail exchange with a sysadmin in Oxford or a high school student in Quito (real examples). Today my conversations are much more narrowcast. Yet the internet is so much more diverse and there are billions instead of tens of millions conversing every day.

In my case I even have family which lives in a foreign country. Many of them are now my Facebook friends and we “like” each others photos, but that’s about it. There’s not much conversation. I suppose we are busy with life…but the internet perhaps foregrounds in some ways how little we have in common, because we can’t even be bothered to talk.

I’ve collected Google Analytics for the main Gene Expression domain since 2006. Below are the top ten nations in terms of accesses (the USA is 60% in 2007 and 50% in 2017, to give you a sense that the proportions haven’t changed much.

Top countries of origin for GNXP.com accesses by year
2017     2007
USA USA
UK Canada
Canada UK
Australia Australia
India Germany
Germany India
France Sweden
Sweden Finland
Japan Ireland
Netherlands France

There are many conversations out there happening in other languages and nations. I do wondre what they are.

November 20, 2012

The Kindle price

Filed under: Kindle,Technology — Razib Khan @ 7:11 pm

I’ve had a Kindle for a few years now. I read a lot on it. And yet I observed something recently: I’ve stopped going to the library much. This is a big deal for me…probably since the age of 7 I’ve clocked in at least one visit to the public library per week in my life. I never turn books in past due because of the frequency with which I patronize the public or university libraries which I’ve had access to in life. Until recently. Now on occasion books go overdue, because I don’t go very often.

In the short term the Kindle has been a boon. But I’m not sure if it’s good for us in the long term. I’d rather pay more for a device which allowed for easier usage of different formats, as well as looser distribution policies.

October 15, 2012

Twitter is not declining

Filed under: Technology,twitter — Razib Khan @ 11:09 pm

The Decline and Fall of Twitter?:

Even Twitter? Can Twitter be declining? Over at the Atlantic‘s Technology Channel I note that my own Twitter conversations are not quite as dynamic as they once were, and speculate about why that might be. I didn’t say this in the post, but I wonder whether it might have something to do with people who enjoy online conversations also enjoying new tools and toys: perhaps we get tired of Twitter not because it has a deficiency, but just because it’s been around a while. I’m not suggesting this in lieu of the explanations I offer there, but in addition to them.

I think this is an artifact of the fact that Alan Jacobs seems to have been a very early Twitter adopter. Here’s Google Trends for the USA for searches for Twitter:

Singularity Summit 2012: the lion doesn’t sleep tonight

Filed under: Singularity,Singularity Summit,Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:07 pm

Last weekend I was at the Singularity Summit for a few days. There were interesting speakers, but the reality is that quite often a talk given at a conference has been given elsewhere, and there isn’t going to be much “value-add” in the Q & A, which is often limited and constrained. No, the point of the conference is to meet interesting people, and there were some conference goers who didn’t go to any talks at all, but simply milled around the lobby, talking to whoever they chanced upon.

I spent a lot of the conference talking about genomics, and answering questions about genomics, if I thought could give a precise, accurate, and competent answer (e.g., I dodged any microbiome related questions because I don’t know much about that). Perhaps more curiously, in the course of talking about personal genomics issues relating to my daughter’s genotype came to the fore, and I would ask if my interlocutor had seen “the lion.” By the end of the conference a substantial proportion of the attendees had seen the lion.

This included a polite Estonian physicist. I spent about 20 minutes talking to him and ...

September 17, 2012

The end of Diaspora

Filed under: Diaspora,Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:15 pm

I didn’t even notice, Founders of Diaspora, Intended as the Anti-Facebook, Move On. Though I was skeptical about the prospects after one of the co-founders committed suicide. One of the reasons I took an interest is that I gave $50 to the project when it first made a media splash…but honestly I thought the chances of success were always pretty low. The chances of many worthwhile endeavors are low.

June 26, 2012

Technology that brought down civilization

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 9:58 pm

The IVF Panic: ‘All Hell Will Break Loose, Politically and Morally, All Over the World’:

For many, IVF smacked of a moral overstep — or at least of a potential one. In a 1974 article headlined “The Embryo Sweepstakes,” The New York Times considered the ethical implications of what it called “the brave new baby”: the child “conceived in a test tube and then planted in a womb.” (The scare phrase in that being not “test tube” so much as “a womb” and its menacingly indefinite article.) And no less a luminary than James Watson — yes, that James Watson – publicly decried the procedure, telling a Congressional committee in 1974 that a successful embryo transplant would lead to “all sorts of bad scenarios.”

Specifically, he predicted: “All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world.”

The past is not always prologue, but it’s very instructive to look at newspapers from a given time period and see what the public mood was. Fear is a natural human reaction to new technology. My general bias is that technology itself usually isn’t as disruptive as social innovation. That being said, when technology is genuinely revolutionary it can have a much bigger impact than ...

June 18, 2012

The Facebook search plateau

Filed under: Facebook,Technology — Razib Khan @ 6:48 pm

I check on this every 6 months or so. Here’s the search trend for Facebook:

Everyone basically knows about Facebook now. Contrast this with Twitter:


All that being said, Twitter has such a smaller footprint compared to Facebook that it seems obvious that it will “peak” far below Facebook in both mindshare and public utilization. I do find it interesting that Facebook peaked literally months about The Social Network.

April 28, 2012

Handicap breeds excellence?

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 12:13 am

There’s a wide-ranging story in LA Weekly on the decline of 35mm film. It covers a lot of angles, but this one issue jumped out at me:

No wonder, then, that directors like Christopher Nolan worry that if 35mm film dies, so will the gold standard of how movies are made. Film cameras require reloading every 10 minutes. They teach discipline. Digital cameras can shoot far longer, much to the dismay of actors like Robert Downey Jr. — who, rumor has it, protests by leaving bottles of urine on set.

“Because when you hear the camera whirring, you know that money is going through it,” Wright says. “There’s a respectfulness that comes when you’re burning up film.”

This particular variant of critique of new technologies is very old. It is famously well known that writing and printing both ushered in warnings that these were simply crutches, and might diminish mental acuity. But I’m 99% sure that when bow & arrow become common, some hunters warned that the skills and traditions associated with the atlatl would decay. The piece highlights some genuine advantages of analog over digital. I do not think making filming more difficult is an advantage, to state the obvious.

Handicap breeds excellence?

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 12:13 am

There’s a wide-ranging story in LA Weekly on the decline of 35mm film. It covers a lot of angles, but this one issue jumped out at me:

No wonder, then, that directors like Christopher Nolan worry that if 35mm film dies, so will the gold standard of how movies are made. Film cameras require reloading every 10 minutes. They teach discipline. Digital cameras can shoot far longer, much to the dismay of actors like Robert Downey Jr. — who, rumor has it, protests by leaving bottles of urine on set.

“Because when you hear the camera whirring, you know that money is going through it,” Wright says. “There’s a respectfulness that comes when you’re burning up film.”

This particular variant of critique of new technologies is very old. It is famously well known that writing and printing both ushered in warnings that these were simply crutches, and might diminish mental acuity. But I’m 99% sure that when bow & arrow become common, some hunters warned that the skills and traditions associated with the atlatl would decay. The piece highlights some genuine advantages of analog over digital. I do not think making filming more difficult is an advantage, to state the obvious.

April 22, 2012

The culture that is Microsoft

Filed under: Microsoft,Technology — Razib Khan @ 11:03 pm

Frustration, Disappointment And Apathy: My Years At Microsoft:

Large companies have overheads, a necessary evil, you say. Overheads need to be managed. And managed they are: Group Managers, Program managers, General managers, together with ‘Senior’ flavours of those and a whole new breed of directors, stakeholders, business owners, relationship leads coupled with their own countless derivatives.

All those meeting-goers are not making anything. Deciding upon and making something is hard. And if this onerous activity has to be done, then hire external consultants for it. It’s easier and less risky.

There is no creative tension, no vision these days. Left to Microsoft’s hands we’d still be toiling on overheating Vista desktops.

This company is becoming the McDonalds of computing. Cheap, mass products, available everywhere. No nutrients, no ideas, no culture. Windows 8 is a fine example. The new Metro interface displays nonstop, trivial updates from Facebook, Twitter, news sites and stock tickers. Streams of raw noise distract users from the moment they login.

The rise of sclerotic bureaucratic intermediaries isn’t just a problem with Microsoft. Remember when parasitic squid were generating 40 percent of the economy’s profits? It’s no better in academia:

April 19, 2012

The end of IE; the rise of Chrome

Filed under: Browsers,Technology — Razib Khan @ 5:24 am

A comment below prompted me to recheck the browser stats on the web. People are now starting to give Google crap for not having really hit the jackpot on anything since Gmail, especially after the flubs with Google Wave and Buzz, and the mixed reviews at best for Google+. But it looks like Chrome may actually reach a plural majority this year. Back in the day (i.e., 1990s) control of the majority browser share was actually a big deal. My earlier hunch that eventually Chrome will start eating into IE’s user base more than Firefox’s seems to be panning out.

He’s a similar chart from the w3schools website (because it’s a tech oriented site IE automatically suffers a penalty, but the overall trends are similar):

April 10, 2012

The way we were

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 12:43 am

I found out today that a private equity firm has purchased the majority of the Yellow Pages from AT&T. Which prompts me to ask: when was the last time you used the yellow pages? A pay phone? In a similar vein, Google And The Death Of Getting Lost. In 10 years (2001 to 2011) wireless penetration in the USA went from ~40 percent to ~100 percent.* This is the difference between arranging a rendezvous ahead of time in precise detail, and being confident that you can just end it with “I’ll call you.”

Image credit: Wikipedia

* This is actually calculated by comparing the number of phones to people. Since some people have multiple phones, and businesses purchase them for their employees, “real” penetration is somewhat less than this. I suspect that it is a larger underestimate for 2001, as a larger proportion of phones were probably business-related.

The way we were

Filed under: Technology — Razib Khan @ 12:43 am

I found out today that a private equity firm has purchased the majority of the Yellow Pages from AT&T. Which prompts me to ask: when was the last time you used the yellow pages? A pay phone? In a similar vein, Google And The Death Of Getting Lost. In 10 years (2001 to 2011) wireless penetration in the USA went from ~40 percent to ~100 percent.* This is the difference between arranging a rendezvous ahead of time in precise detail, and being confident that you can just end it with “I’ll call you.”

Image credit: Wikipedia

* This is actually calculated by comparing the number of phones to people. Since some people have multiple phones, and businesses purchase them for their employees, “real” penetration is somewhat less than this. I suspect that it is a larger underestimate for 2001, as a larger proportion of phones were probably business-related.

March 6, 2012

Google+ bombs

Filed under: Google,Technology — Razib Khan @ 7:57 am

Google+ Lags Far Behind Facebook, Twitter and MySpace in Latest Study:

Google+ became the fastest growing social network within months of its debut last June, but a recent study casts doubt on whether most of its users are spending much time on the site.

According to ComScore, users spent an average of just 3.3 minutes on Google+ in the month of January, a decline from its recent figures and a tiny sliver of Facebook’s total.

I accept the argument of friends that G+ and Facebook are fundamentally different, and that Google’s aim here is not to replicate Facebook. But I also think that this is well short of what Google was intending for G+ at this stage; otherwise they would surely have quashed the media bubble and hyperbole which crested last summer. G+ is obviously much better than Buzz. But that’s a low bar.

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