On the quest for Fake-News

A few days before the election, an extraordinary story popped up in hundreds of thousands of people's Facebook feeds. This story was salacious. It was vivid, filled with intriguing details. There was a photo of a burning house, firemen rushing in. The headline read, "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide."

It was all fake. There was no FBI agent. There was no shooting. The site it was published on, The Denver Guardian, isn't a real news source. It was one of many fake stories that play into conspiracy theories about the Clintons and it worked. There is one part of the article that was real: the ads. Someone was making money off this phony news article and dozens of others like it. Someone was making profit off a fake story that suggested a presidential candidate was a killer. Today on the show, we take this single fake news story and follow the clues all the way back. We follow the digital breadcrumbs until we find ourselves on a suburban doorstep, face to face with the man behind a bogus news empire run. Then he tells us his secrets.

Source: Episode 739: Finding The Fake-News King : Planet Money : NPR

It's 25 minutes and worth your time.

The core challenge is there is a giant demand for "fake news". People so wanted to believe these terrible things about Clinton that they sought them out. Any debunking just fed the conspiracy arc further.

Finding North America’s lost medieval city

A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in Southern Illinois. This majestic urban architecture towered over the swampy Mississippi River floodplains, blotting out the region's tiny villages. Beginning in the late 900s, word about the city spread throughout the southeast. Thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals, lured by the promise of a new kind of civilization. Many decided to stay.

At the city's apex in 1100, the population exploded to as many as 30 thousand people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in what became the United States, bigger than London or Paris at the time. Its colorful wooden homes and monuments rose along the eastern side of the Mississippi, eventually spreading across the river to St. Louis. One particularly magnificent structure, known today as Monk’s Mound, marked the center of downtown. It towered 30 meters over an enormous central plaza and had three dramatic ascending levels, each covered in ceremonial buildings. Standing on the highest level, a person speaking loudly could be heard all the way across the Grand Plaza below. Flanking Monk’s Mound to the west was a circle of tall wooden poles, dubbed Woodhenge, that marked the solstices.

Source: Finding North America’s lost medieval city | Ars Technica

When we think about Native American culture in North America, we rarely think about cities, because by the time Europeans arrived there weren't any. But that wasn't always the case. This is a really amazing long read by someone who joined a dig this year on one of these great lost cities. A city that was built over multiple times, and reinvented.

Sit back, dive in, and let your imagination full grasp what it would have been like 1000 years ago in America.

Repurposing APIs

A really interesting thing happens if you have a reasonably long standing, stable, and documented API in the wild for a while. Other people start building their own implementations to serve different needs. My current favorite example of this is the emulated_hue code in Home Assistant.

Philips Hue has been one of the most consumer ux friendly IoT platforms out there. They have an extremely robust and documented API. And they provide cloud level access to some of the larger vendors, which has made integrations with other platforms pretty extensive. It was one of the first IoT platforms that voice assistants like Amazon's Alexa could talk to and control.

Which makes it an ideal platform to build your own copy of. Because, if Alexa can talk to it on the local network, you can tell Alexa that anything is a lightbulb, and get basic on / off / dimming controls of that. Which is exactly what was done in Home Assistant. Switches, lights, and even media players are exported as fake lightbulbs with names that voice assistants can address. And now, they can control parts of your house they weren't originally designed to support.

This was originally written by my friend Bruce, this is now part of the Home Assistant base, and being extended to Google Home as we speak. It goes to show was stability and documentation do for making an API become embedded way more places than you imagined.

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.

Various rambling thoughts from my personal corner of the internet