Why NBC Olympics Coverage is Bad

Here’s a suggestion for NBC, though: How about celebrating this group of American gymnasts, perhaps the greatest ever, by explaining to Americans exactly what makes them so great? I’m not a lifelong gymnastics fan—true gymnerds refer to the rest of us as “Four-Year Fans”—but earlier this year I spent several months engrossed in the sport while writing about Biles. I now consider myself safely in the ninetieth percentile of gymnastics comprehension, meaning that I understand about ten per cent of what is going on. But every bit I’ve learned has made the sport wildly more interesting to watch. On Sunday, for instance, I watched the qualifying round with two Four-Year Fans and was able to pass along an insight that Biles’s coaches have pointed out many times, but that NBC didn’t. As good as Biles is on her world-beating Amanar—a vault in which she twists two and a half times while flipping through the air—she will never get a perfect score because of the tiniest flaw: she crosses her toes.

This is the kind of information we might expect to learn from NBC’s broadcasts. There’s no questioning the credentials of the network’s analysts: Tim Daggett won a team gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, and Nastia Liukin won the individual all-around in 2008. But their expertise is often muted by the strictures of a prime-time broadcast. “My producer always puts a note card in front of me, like, ‘Talk to Madeleine in Middle America, who doesn’t know gymnastics,’ ”

Source: Women’s Gymnastics Deserves Better TV Coverage - The New Yorker

This, all of this. The Olympics are a time when a bunch of unusual sports end up on the air. It is an opportunity to help us understand them and get excited about them. People get excited about things they understand, and can tell what a good / bad / great performance looks like.

I remember sitting in a hotel room in Sydney in 2000, because the Olympics actually started, watching a cricket match. I had no idea what I was watching. I turned to my friend Dylan and said "ok, we've been in Australia for a month, we're going to figure this out." And with a laptop up searching the internet while watching, we figuring out enough of the basics that we could see what a good or terrible performance looked like. And it was so much more interesting to watch.

Consulting about physics over Skype

My callers fall into two very different categories. Some of them cherish the opportunity to talk to a physicist because one-to-one conversation is simply more efficient than Google. They can shoot up to 20 questions a minute, everything from: ‘How do we know quarks exist?’ to ‘Can atoms contain tiny universes?’ They’re normally young or middle-aged men who want to understand all the nerdy stuff but have no time to lose. That’s the minority.

The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. Some add videos or applets. Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, cardboard or wires. The variety of their ideas is bewildering, but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested.

Source: What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists | Aeon Ideas

What happens when an out of work theoretical physicist starts a business where anyone can call him on skype and ask questions for $50 / 20 minutes? Some really fascinating stuff. Mostly about how people absorb, or mis absorb, popular science.

We often forget that abstractions and models, are just that. Like maps, you file off all the interesting details to get a big picture. But a map of the US tells you very little about the stream in your back yard. The wildlife along it. When it floods. What vegetation grows because of that. The story is always deeper, more complicated, and more interesting the closer you look.

Gamification of Open Science

Overall, it really does look like the badges help, not just with increasing sharing rates but with making sure that shared data is helpful to the research community. Of all the 2,478 articles used in the study, those without badges were very weak about sharing: “Just six of 37 articles from journals without badges and two of 10 articles from [Psychological Science] before badges that reported available data had accessible, correct, usable data,” write the authors. By contrast, of the articles with badges, “actual sharing was very similar to reported sharing.”

Source: Simple badge incentive could help eliminate bad science | Ars Technica

This is both amazing and inspiring. Just putting badges on papers if they have open data dramatically increases the papers including open data. It's not perfect, but it is clearly an incentive system that helps a lot.

Only in Japan: Manmade Meteor Shower

After previous missteps, Tokyo needs their hosting of the Olympics to not only go smoothly, but to wow visitors in order to regain some face. If Japan-based research company Star-ALE has their way, they'll be the ones to provide the opening ceremony show-stopper that will get things off to a fantastical start—by way of a manmade meteor shower lighting up the night sky.

Source: Fireworks of the Future? Startup Looks to Launch Manmade Meteor Shower for Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony - Core77

It's about $8M in pellets, which for Olympic style fireworks isn't crazy, plus launch costs. But the idea that a manmade meteor shower might actually be part of big events in the future is pretty crazy.

How you are being tracked online

Source: Online tracking: A 1-million-site measurement and analysis

A very solid paper on how you are being tracked online. I had known about Font fingerprinting before (as the list of fonts you have installed is actually pretty unique), but using audio filter fingerprinting, or web rtc to get a list of ip addresses you can reach, is pretty novel. And a bit scary.

Which is all another good reason to install Ad Blocking software today. uBlock is my current favorite.

A record player in a car, what could go wrong

What’s the connection between the Beatles’ George Harrison, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, and Chrysler cars? The Highway Hi-Fi: a vinyl record player that just happened to be the world’s first in-car music system. It appeared 60 years ago this spring, in 1956, and should have been a smash hit. It was innovatory, a major talking point, arrived as the car market was booming as never before, and it came with much press hype. It also had the backing of a leading motor manufacturer. What could possibly go wrong?

Source: Forgotten audio formats: The Highway Hi-Fi | Ars Technica

It's a fascinating story, made even more so because basically proprietary formats and copyright tangles killed it so quickly.

Apple vs. the FBI

I'm becoming increasingly frustrated about the reporting around Apple vs. the FBI, which is largely this narrative:

FBI: "You have to fly"

Apple: "Flying is something we've never done before, and doesn't really seem reasonable"

FBI: "No, we asked you to jump 70 times before, we can see that you can jump. So all you have to do is not land."

Apple: "Flying and jumping are fundamentally different things."

Politicians: "Isn't there a compromise, couldn't you just hover for a few minutes?"

The FBI wants a custom version of iOS developed and deployed onto this phone which removes the 10 pin retry limit,  removes the delay between pins, and allowa the pins to be sent over an electronic interface directly (not via the touch screen). This would allow the FBI to brute force password crack the phone (all Hollywood style). They have said that it's ok for this version of iOS to be linked to this specific device.

The problem: there doesn't exist any version of iOS out there that will do this. It doesn't exist for a reason, because iOS was designed and engineered with security in mind. Building a version of iOS such a thing existing anywhere exposes users, given the data breaches that exist that let things get out into the real world. How do you really bind it to a single device? How do you ensure that if extracted that couldn't be tweaked to work on other devices? These are pretty hard engineering and security challenges, especially considering all the side channels that exist. The 10 pin limit was that protection point before, and as can be seen, a reasonably secure one.

It's also frustrating that the reporting of the anti FBI side is just privacy, because it's not. What about the safety of diplomats abroad, or undercover law enforcement. Better security makes us all safer.

Disclaimer: I am in general not an Apple fan. I hate their stance on interoperability and standards (which is basically to never play well with others). However they are making a stand here that's critically important as technology becomes more and more of an extension of ourselves.

Home Assistant

People often ask me about my vision for Home Assistant. Before I can describe where I want to go with Home Assistant, I should first talk about how home automation would look in my ideal world. This will be the aim of this post. I’m not going to focus on protocols, networks or specific hubs. That’s all implementation details. Instead, this post will focus on what is most important: the interaction between the users and their home.

Source: Perfect Home Automation - Home Assistant

After my MHVLUG talk on IoT and Home Automation, I stumbled upon Home Assistant. It's an exciting project, and the maintainer has a great view of what home automation should look like.

I agree with all of this. The best user interface is no interface, things are just correct when you need them to be. The cloud should be very optional, and a cloud outage shouldn't cripple your home (like the recent Nest issue). Graceful fallback is important.

I've had fun contributing to the project so far, and look forward to making this the primary interface to my house over the next couple of months.

The Design Benefits of Sunken Conversation Pits - Core77

In addition to the tripping hazard, this one features a roaring fire waiting at the bottom, as well as a heavy piece of metal suspended directly overhead. I'm not saying there will definitely be an accident, but if there is, you will definitely post it on Vine.

Source: The Design Benefits of Sunken Conversation Pits - Core77

One of my favorite articles on design this year was this incredibly snarky look at conversation pits: a really bizarre fad in upscale homes from the 50s through the 70s.

Various rambling thoughts from my personal corner of the internet