1. Good Monday Morning

Facebook, Alphabet, and Twitter are all in the house. More specifically, two subcommittees of the U.S. House Commerce Committee and Energy Committee on Thursday. Expect plenty of discussion about the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6. Another topic: YouTube’s statement this month that Trump’s account will remain suspended until the risk of violence is lowered.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,349 words — about a 5 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

a) Amazon’s busy week included a deal to become the exclusive TV provider for Thursday Night Football, a first for digital services and the NFL. The company also learned that it had surpassed rival Walmart as the largest apparel retailer in the U.S. And Amazon announced that it would expand its health care services to non-employees. Telehealth services will be available across the U.S. and in person health services will be available in Baltimore, Washington D.C., and other markets.

The announcements came shortly after it was reported that the Biden administration plans to nominate Columbia professor Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission. Khan also worked  on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust probe of big technology companies. In 2017, as a Yale law student, she wrote a paper that experts called “groundbreaking,” arguing that Amazon was anticompetitive.b) Google blocked nearly 100 million fake COVID-19 ads during 2020, according to its annual Ad Safety Report. Dangerous ad subjects included miracle cures, N95 masks for sale during supply shortages, and fake vaccine doses. In all, more than three billion ads were blocked and another six billion were restricted.

c) Instagram will block direct messages from adults to teens who do not already follow them, reports The Hill. Instagram also says that it will message teenagers if an adult sends too many friendship requests to children.

3. COVID-19 Tech News

Great Trackers

Overview — Johns Hopkins
Community Mobility — Google
Vaccine Distribution — Washington Post
Vaccine Finder — CDC Project
Risk Calculator — Brown

New York Times tracker that allows you to customize a daily email with multiple cities and towns that you’re monitoring: Click here to configure.

Coronavirus & Tech News

Apple Maps now shows vaccination Locations – The Verge

Broadband’s $7 billion Band-Aid  – Axios

4. Search Engine News

Social media sites like Facebook get much of the blame for misinformation and disinformation spread online,, but technology researcher Chirag Shah says that search engines are just as blameworthy.

“Ad-driven search engines, like social media platforms, are designed to reward clicking on enticing links because it helps the search companies boost their business metrics,” he writes in The Conversation. Shah also draws attention to a recent study showing that the most popular diabetes-related videos on YouTube have inaccurate information. That’s a problem when algorithms continue to resurface the most popular videos.

As Dr. Safiya Noble points out in Algorithms of Oppression, when mass murderer Dylann Roof searched for white supremacy phrases on Google, the results were immediately presented as authoritative yet led to white supremacy sites. “There is no counterposition, nor is there a disclaimer or framework for contextualizing what we get [in search results],” she writes.

Proponents of social media will continue arguing that while society criticizes social media, Google and YouTube offer just as much inaccurate or dangerous information. Shah was an integral part of the team that created a search results test that showed users nearly identical results, but included one with less trustworthy content. After testing thousands of people in multiple countries, the researchers concluded people could not tell which group was more trustworthy.

You can try a version of the project test here.

 5. In The Spotlight — Browser Privacy

We have been writing about the class action suit Google faces regarding its Chrome browser privacy. Only three weeks ago, federal judge Lucy Koh expressed concern that their activity is still tracked when people use incognito mode. Incognito only means your activity is not stored on your computer. Your actions are still visible to the sites you visit, the provider of your internet connectivity, and often even the software you’re using at the time.

Judge Koh narrowed the scope of the lawsuit last week and dismissed claims of wiretaps and computer fraud laws. But browser privacy is not just a Google or Chrome issue.

A University of Chicago study, reported by ArsTechnica, claims that even clearing cookies and a broswer’s cache may not protect browser privacy because of favicons. These are the tiny icons found on tabs or lists of bookmarked websites. The files that store favicons are outside the cache and don’t get deleted. “Websites can abuse this arrangement by loading a series of favicons on visitors’ browsers that uniquely identify them over an extended period of time,” writes Ars.

Even your password manager may be tracking you. A German security researcher noted that LastPass has seven embedded trackers in its software while other services including 1Password (which we use) have none. It’s worth repeating that when you don’t pay, you’re usually the product.

Browser privacy concerns have prompted Ghostery to announce that they will launch a privacy-based browser. They’ll join Brave, a still relatively new free browser developed by Brian Bondy, the former Mozilla CEO and creator of JavaScript. Using Brave isn’t the final answer. There’s a learning curve, but it’s the browser I use most often — even for work. 

Once the technical hurdles are solved, Brave and Ghostery have a big commercial challenge in competing with Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Mozilla.

  6. Debunked — Gov’t employees don’t get special bonuses

Conspiracy theorists attacking the American Rescue Plan stimulus bill are posting on Facebook that federal employees would receive a payment of $21,000 instead of $1,400. And boom — just like that, it got shared thousands of times.

Here’s PolitiFact with the truth.

7. Following Up — Is GPT-3 Hype Reasonable?

Financial writer Alex Wilhelm wrote an entertaining article about software accessing GPT-3’s language model that turned out good headlines and copy for a blog post. I also gave it a try and sent the results to Editor Sue for her blessing.  

The output surprised both of us although luckily there were factual errors that helped us identify that the piece wasn’t publishable. But it looked as though a human had written the piece–just not one who knew the subject well.

Meanwhile, Open AI CEO Sam Altman published an economic analysis that suggests that the growth of machine learning and AI could create an annual payment of $13,500 to each American adult within ten years. Altman is smart, but his work assumes that everyone in our democratic capitalism society will share equally in the profits. 

8. Protip — Blur Your Video Background

I have a big green wall, a love seat, and some baseball souvenirs behind me on each video call. Now I can also have a blurred background.

Newsweek takes you step-by-step through blurring your background on Zoom, Google, and Microsoft Team calls.

9. Screening Room –  Justin Long Switches Sides

Remember Justin? He was the Mac to that stodgy old PC guy. Now he’s switched sides and finds Macs rather gray.

10. Science Fiction World —  Facebook’s Wrist Thing

Facebook’s announcement of its new hardware is getting misrepresented during multiple tellings. Wired has the best coverage of the devices users would strap to each wrist:

“It’s an electromyography device, which means it translates electrical motor nerve signals into digital commands. When it’s on your wrist, you can just flick your fingers in space to control virtual inputs, whether you’re wearing a VR headset or interacting with the real world. You can also “train” it to sense the intention of your fingers, so that actions happen even when your hands are totally still.”

Read the rest and see the images

11. Coffee Break — A Tunnel Under A Highway… in One Weekend

This 32 second video shows a time-lapse view of a tunnel being built under a highway in one weekend.

Have a look at some super-fast infrastructure stuff.

  12. Sign of the Times

1. Good Monday Morning

It’s March 15th. “Don’t spike the ball on the five yard line,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on yesterday’s Meet The Press. COVID-19 deaths are down 27% in the last week. Hospitalizations and positive test rates are also down.  But 2,500 Americans still died of COVID-19 on Friday and Saturday, and the death rate remains as high or higher than in  the pandemic’s first six months. Health officials are expressing concern that between 30% and 50% of U.S. men who identify as Republicans do not intend to be vaccinated. Please get vaccinated when you can.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,294 words — about a 5 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

a) “We really have a short window to get vulnerable servers patched, measured in hours, not days,” a senior White House official said Friday night in a press briefing regarding the tens of thousands of email servers recently attacked. That warning is being shared by computer security experts, who say they’ve observed theft of network passwords and ransomware being installed on sites. You can read a transcript of the White House briefing with the unidentified source.

b) In a hack of conservative social media network Gab that seems unrelated to the Solar Winds or the Microsoft hacks, hackers stole 70,000 messages from 15,000 users and published them privately for journalists and researchers.

c) Netflix is finally cracking down on users that share password information with others. The company is spending $19 billion on content this year. People using someone else’s password may receive a message that reads, “If you don’t live with the owner of this account, you need your own account to keep watching.

Remember that Silver Beacon-owned Movie Rewind was the first website to begin promoting upcoming streaming dates more than 10 years ago. You can get those manually curated streaming dates emailed free to you every Thursday afternoon. 

3. COVID-19 Tech News

Great Trackers

Overview — Johns Hopkins
Community Mobility — Google
Vaccine Distribution — Washington Post
Vaccine Finder — CDC Project
Risk Calculator — Brown

New York Times tracker that allows you to customize a daily email with multiple cities and towns that you’re monitoring: Click here to configure.

Coronavirus & Tech News

Facebook Vax Misinfo Communities Grew 48% — CTV

Temp Scanners Also Capturing, Storing Your Face — One Zero

4. Search Engine News

A website’s link structure indicates a particular page’s relative importance to other pages on the site. That might seem intuitive, but isn’t because these are not navigation links, but rather links from other pages. Many sites link to major services and products on their site only once or twice. Google’s John Mueller says that makes it easier for Google to determine which pages the website cares most about because apparently all of them isn’t an option.

Muller cautioned against creating pages that are essentially duplicative except for the URLs name such as [product or service] in [place name]. If you’re having trouble with this, please let us know, and we’d be happy to help. There are Google-approved techniques that can be used.

5. In The Spotlight — AI Language Models & Their Issues

AI language models have quickly become an issue that business leaders need to understand and plan for.

In 2018, the Open AI initiative that was originally funded by tech and PayPal veterans like Elon Musk and Reid Hoffman launched GPT, an AI language model. The software had been trained on copious amounts of words to help it understand and predict which word would follow. A year later, GPT-2 was released. This version, trained on 1.5 billion parameters, strayed off topic or misused words less often.

After GPT-3 was released a year later, we wrote about this 175 billion parameter program extensively, including a detailed article in August. We quoted technologist Kevin Lacker then, “Ten years ago, if I had this conversation, I would have assumed the entity on the other end was a human.”

Suddenly, automated language models were capable of creating recipes,programming software code, and correctly using analogies. The exponential growth of these models was causing concern in the tech community. The Open AI team would not give most people direct access to the software even for testing.

Open AI wasn’t the only one pursuing this field. Google was soon to reveal a model based on more than one trillion parameters. And like Open AI, Google was having difficulty dealing with sociological issues. Neither Dr. Timnit Gebru, the head of their AI Ethics team, nor her co-founder were invited to a forty person meeting at Google in September regarding this model. Both were fired by Google in the intervening months, another topic we’ve covered extensively.

Google claims its application can be used for a variety of reasons, including ranking internet properties. Microsoft has also entered the fray and is now GPT’s commercial gatekeeper so resources aren’t an issue, but ethical clarity is a project no company is ready for.

AI language models suffer greatly from bias because they rely on millions of documents already created by humans, amplifying human prejudices. There are already many instances of gender, race, and religion bias. The world does not need more of that right now. Critics also warn of easily disseminated disinformation. 

An experiment by EduRef featured human writers competing against GPT-3 using writing prompts assigned by college professors teaching four subjects. Human subjects did better in all four subjects, but GPT-3 got Bs and Cs in three subjects when professors didn’t know who wrote which paper.

6. Debunked — Facebook Exemption Cards

Remember those ridiculous mask exemption cards many people tried using last year? The new twist is a fake vaccination exemption card. The scammers are now even using Facebook ads.

One Zero has all the details.

7. Following Up — NFTs

Things only got stranger in the latest bubble surrounding non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that we covered last week. Billboard reports that singer Halsey is having a big sale of her artwork on Wednesday after 3LAU and Grimes both cashed in for millions.

Meanwhile you probably heard about a $69 million NFT item sold at Christie’s. Late last week, the auction house confirmed that the buyer runs an NFT fund, which seems more and more self-enriching every minute.

CNN has details.

8. Protip — Creating Tab Groups in Chrome

Having scads of browser tabs open at the same time can really slow down your computer, but since we all do it, there’s a nifty way to group those tabs together for different projects or just because.

Lifehacker has a tutorial with images.

9. Screening Room – Sting Sings for World Down Syndrome Day

I am here for this. I was here for it all four times I watched it.

Hey, make the world a little better. Our friends at SPARC have been helping adults with disabilities for more than a decade. We’ve been supporting them for more than ten years too, and we hope you’ll visit them today and give them some money. This pandemic really made things tough for them so even a little helps.

10. Science Fiction World — 3D Printing a House

The first homes made with 3D printers are for sale in Austin. Our world is magical.

ArchDaily has images–including construction pictures.

11. Coffee Break — Weighing the Penguins

I know that it’s Monday morning, but if it’s already been a tough week for you, take a 45 second break with this short clip of St. Louis Zoo handlers weighing the penguins.

12. Sign of the Times

 1. Good Monday Morning

It’s March 8th. On Wednesday, all retail establishments in Texas can join Mississippi in opening at full capacity and without people wearing facemasks. This is counter to CDC and public health best practices. At least 220 Texans have died every day from COVID-19 during the last two weeks.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,392 words — about a 5 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

a) “Skeptics derided the notion of Amazon Prime, the $75 add-on that provides free two day shipping and low cost 1 day shipping for a $75 annual membership fee.”I wrote that in 2010 for what was then the Spotlight blog. I offer it today as context for Walmart’s announcement that anyone in their delivery areas can pay a flat $10 fee once and get up to 65 items delivered within two hours. Walmart’s latest promotion may not work, but Amazon now makes billions each year in Amazon Prime subscription revenue. (TechCrunch)

b) Microsoft’s LinkedIn is developing a new service that will allow users to find and retain freelancers. That pits Microsoft firmly against Upwork and Fiverr and is a nice way to leverage LinkedIn’s networking motif. (The Information)

c) Recipeasly caused a furor, apologized, and killed the app it built. The back story: a common joke online addresses how food bloggers often write a lot of text (stories, further cooking information, etc.). That text is often met with a cry of “Just get to the recipe!” which is what some apps including Recipeasly do, stripping the content so that only the recipe is displayed. This time, the food writers fought back — and got people’s attention. This is how many of them make their living. Besides that, it was the height of selfishness to behave in a way that suggests, “Shut up and give me the free stuff I came here for.”

Recipeasly is gone. A plain, humble apology is all that remains of their website. But they weren’t the first or the biggest that offered this type of software. And in the spirit of caring about content creators, I’ll admit that I’ve publicly shared programs that leave only the recipes online. It’s not fair, and I won’t do it anymore. We need more examples of looking out for others online, not less.

3. COVID-19 Tech News

Great Trackers

Overview — Johns Hopkins
Community Mobility — Google
Vaccine Distribution — Washington Post
Vaccine Finder – CDC Project
Risk Calculator — Brown

New York Times tracker that allows you to customize a daily email with multiple cities and towns that you’re monitoring: Click here to configure.

Coronavirus & Tech News

Covid Vaccine Websites Violate Disability Laws, Create Inequity for the Blind – read at Kaiser Health News

Ghana Becomes First Country to Deliver Coronavirus Vaccines by Drone – read at Business Insider South Africa

4. Search Engine News

Google’s announcement that it will end the sale of advertising using individual tracking data is huge and important to understand in terms of how it deals with online privacy.

Inaccurate headlines dominated online conversation. “Google to no longer track the specific websites you visit,” proclaimed one very wrong headline. “Google says it won’t track you directly …” began another. 

What you need to know is that Google’s announcement last week only deals with advertising. And Google will indeed track your behavior online. Google is saying that they will begin to cluster like-minded consumers into cohorts, or groups, that advertisers can target. And only third party data is affected. Google collects scads of information about people from Gmail, Search, Maps, Android, YouTube, and similar products. None of that is ending.

Relying only on first party data is an important step, but the major Internet players are also the entities who collect that data. A shakeout on U.S. consumer privacy is coming in the next several years. Google is under investigation in the U.S. and other countries over antitrust and privacy issues.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice reportedly asked Google for search and advertising results in 2015 and 2020. Meanwhile, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a data privacy law, the second state to do so.

Google is smart to get ahead of these coming changes, but don’t fall for the hype about not being tracked online. That part isn’t going away anytime soon and certainly not in search.

 5. In The Spotlight — The NFT Craze Explained

NFT stands for non-fungible token. Since you won’t let me get away with only that, description, let’s break it down this way: the token is stored on blockchain like Bitcoin and represents some piece of digital intellectual property.

Here is an example: the NBA is selling a digital certificate for specific video highlights. The buyer doesn’t own the video. They own a certificate that CNBC smartly likened to a basketball trading card.

Don’t yawn. It’s not just the NBA, although there has been more than $200 million worth of transactions on pro basketball NFTs.  Musicians and other creators are getting involved. Pop artist Grimes sold NFT digital certificates worth $6 million representing her artwork in a single week.

The thing confusing most of us: the people are not buying the artwork. Their purchase may include a digital representation, but they’re buying a certificate, or like CNBC suggested, a trading card with a picture or song. In January, animator Justin Roilland sold 16 “crypto-art” sketches for $2.3 million. The buyers did not receive framed sketches. They got a long alphanumeric code that says they were the collector of the ephemeral work. 

But George, there is no there there. 

Indeed, that why they’re called non-fungible. They can’t be swapped for something of a like value because each certificate is unique and there is no market except supply and demand for a specific item.

You need to understand this form of market hysteria because it continues to explode. According to Forbes, musician 3LAU sold $11.7 million worth of certificates in one day. An artist named Beeple sold a $6.6 million piece last week, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sold an NFT of the first tweet on the system for $2.5 million.

When we meet here next Monday, I expect you’ll be thinking, “wow, I couldn’t get away from news about this crazy NFT stuff all week.” The good news is that the Dutch tulip bulb market craze of 1636 only lasted a few months before collapsing so maybe NFTs will only be a 2021 thing.

6. Debunked — Deepfakes

Deepfakes are videos that swap in a person’s face into a video. You’ve seen terrible examples of them for years and maybe some pretty good ones over the last couple of years. We’ve even linked to some in past Coffee Breaks.

After some Tom Cruise deepfake videos went viral last week, Lifehacker created a handy checklist for spotting deepfakes.  

7. Following Up — Four Flaws in Microsoft Exchange Server

In addition to the ongoing fallout from the Solar Winds hack, Microsoft announced last week that Chinese hackers have leveraged four flaws in Microsoft’s Exchange server to access emails. Microsoft issued emergency patches, but some organizations have not yet installed them. Up to 30,000 organizations were hacked via these holes.

Top security journalist Brian Krebs broke the story and has coverage here.

8. Protip — Share Text & Links Across Your Devices

You don’t have to email yourself links or text if you’re using a Windows computer and smartphone to share data. TNW demonstrates how to use a free small program called Share TXT that allows you to send links from your phone to a Windows computer and vice versa.

Yes, iPhones and Macs already do this. The rest of you need to click.

Screening Room – Five Drinks

Cocktail-in-a-can maker Five Drinks has a pretty funny appeal for any celebrity to buy their company since Ryan Reynolds (gin), Michael Jordan (tequila), and Post Malone (wine, yes, wine) are among the celebs with their own alcohol brands.

10. Science Fiction World — Garbage

Dublin already had some pretty cool trash cans that connected online to notify the company when they were full. Now the city is piloting 350 of those cans to house additional cellular infrastructure. And 20 of those also record how busy foot traffic is in the surrounding area.

The can does not wheel itself to the curb yet, but it’s still pretty cool.

11. Coffee Break — CDC & Zombies

The CDC has to tell Americans about horrible things like gun violence and COVID-19 deaths. They’ve also expanded their online resources to instruct people on how to keep safe during a zombie apocalypse.

Yes, really. Because preparedness is similar whether for zombies or other hazards.

Free resources here, including graphic novels and posters for educators.

12. Sign of the Times