Good Monday morning. It’s November 18th. Our Roaring Twenties start in 44 days. And somehow that means that 1980 will be forty years in the past. Wow.

Today’s Spotlight takes about 5 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? Here is a contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. Twitter’s political advertising ban takes effect Friday. New rules announced last Friday will allow advocacy organizations to advertise messages about issues like climate change or gun violence prevention, but no candidates or elections may be referenced. All political officials, candidates, PACs, and 501(c) (4) organizations are prohibited from advertising. The official rules

2. Microsoft will honor the California Consumer Privacy Act throughout the U.S., the company announced last week. The new law takes effect on January 1 and addresses organizations with $25 million in revenues or personal information records for 50,000 or more people.

3. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launched WT Social, an ad-free social media network. On Sunday night there were 170,000 users signed up and active on the site. There are already payment options ($12.99/month or $100/year) although they’re not required. And the company promises to never sell your data. Here is a picture of the no-frills profile page, and here’s a sign-up link.

2. Google, Amazon, Facebook Make Financial, Medical News

This busy November means that we should give you all the news fast.


  • Project Nightingale, a Google health data project with partner Ascension Health, gives the company access to the health records of 50 million Americans in 21 states. About 150 Google employees and 100 Ascension employees work on the project, and some are questioning whether the arrangement adheres to federal health privacy regulations.

    More: WSJ’s initial reporting, the NY Times’ follow-up, or the whistle-blower’s anonymous op-ed in The Guardian.
  • A 2017 project with the National Institute of Health nearly resulted in Google publishing X-ray images that included identifying information, reported a Washington Post expose this week. NIH and Google had worked on removing personal information, but NIH canceled the release two days before it was made public.
  • Google Cache is a new service that allows Google to offer personal financial services to its users. Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union are partnering with Google to offer checking accounts.


  • More than seven thousand Facebook emails and internal reports were leaked to NBC News, a House subcommittee, and several tech journals. Imagine that your organization had the same happen. Of course there will be things that your attorney, your accountant, or your boss would not be happy to see. This is the same leak reported earlier this year, but now the organizations have published all of the documents online. There are lots of details about insider issues and confirmation of Facebook’s knowledge that their data is their real source of power. Here’s the PDF link at NBC with all 3,800 pages.
  • Web designer Joshua Maddux revealed on Twitter that the camera on his iPhone opened when he was using the Facebook app in full screen mode and scrolling the feed a certain way. After tech journalists confirmed the finding and began calling for blood, Facebook announced that they had fixed the bug. I don’t know what else to share besides that. Bug fixed. Probably. Maybe. That’s what they said. Nothing to see here. Move along.
  • Facebook Pay has begun rolling out on Facebook and FB Messenger. The service joins the also creatively named Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, and Amazon Pay. It also provides a new answer for the question, “Who do you trust less than Google to process payments for you?” Here’s the more upbeat announcement from Facebook.


  • Branding first because it’s important: Amazon changed the name of PillPack to Amazon Pharmacy. The service delivers a consumer’s medicine packaged into individual envelopes stamped with the date and time they’re to be taken. Amazon spent more than $700 million buying PillPack.
  • The company’s Haven insurance which operates as a joint venture with JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway is expanding its coverage to 30,000 employees of those three companies. That will pair nicely with Health Navigator, a WebMD-like company Amazon bought last month. Business Insider has more info.
  • The other big recent Amazon acquisition was Whole Foods, which is now getting a baby sibling. There’s been speculation all year about this, but Amazon confirmed that an entirely new store with different branding will open in Los Angeles suburb Woodland Hills. CNET broke the news after spotting employment ads.
  • Nike wants nothing to do with all of these Amazon shenanigans. The company was late to sell directly on Amazon and announced this week that it would stop selling clothes and shoes directly on the site. Bloomberg broke that story.

3. Google Search Updates

Google meddles in search is how a 7,500 word Wall Street Journal article might be summarized. One would think that the word count was sufficient to be comprehensive, but there is a lot of context left out of the piece.

A great summary by Greg Sterling, a digital marketing expert I respect: “No one would argue that Google is a pure, shining force for good in the world. But neither do we agree that it’s the corrupt entity portrayed in a highly charged Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article that appeared Friday.

In other search news we learned about Google:

  • Merchant responses to reviews are being tested. At this stage, they’re similar to the automated suggestions for email. 
  • Companies and organizations influenced by local search are seeing the evidence of a significant algorithmic change in that field over the past several weeks. Canadian agency SterlingSky named the change “Bedlam” and there appear to be more reports following their initial story.
  • Google is also insisting that it does not consider user behavior when ranking websites, specifically that it does not consider the time that a user spends on a website’s page when ranking that website. Several Googlers insist that this is the case. Several people you know, one of whom may be writing this sentence, have data to the contrary.

4. Debugged: There is no $75 Costco Coupon

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what they say.

5. Also in the Spotlight: Open Text Generators

We’ve told you about machine learning programs writing unique content,most recently in August. That fancy schmancy code has another new public update, doubling its ability to write unique content that makes sense.

Although I certainly won’t rush to welcome our new computer overlords, it’s a remarkable system that I test with unpublished things that I’ve written.

Generate some content yourself and then copy and paste it into a search engine. It’s not there because it was just created. So, um, who owns it? That’s for the AI lawyers to argue about. 

You can play with the model here.

6. Great Data: Best Selling Music Artists

We’ve shown you how video charting can use animation to come alive and tell a story. The folks at Data is Beautiful enhanced that idea by taking RIAA music sales data and adding a picture of the artist to each label. Now lines show Drake or The Beatles moving up or down. The result is even smarter story telling. Here’s what it looks like.

7. Protip: Privatize Your Smart Assistant Recordings

Once you opt for a voice assistant, you’ve agreed to let the system monitor your environment, but you don’t have to let human employees and contractors have access. This comprehensive Wired article tells you how to opt out of human transcriptions of your voice commands.

A gift for you from the man who says, ‘Damn it, Alexa” too often.

8. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

Child’s Own is in the strange but sweet category. The company takes a drawing your child makes and creates a stuffed animal from the image.

It sure ain’t Build-A-Bear.

9. ICYMI – Top links from the past 30 days

How to stop Google from stealing all your data after you die – at TNW

Gingerdead Men for sale – and other weird cookie cutters

#TeamTrees – YouTubers collaborating on donations for 20 million trees to be planted.

10. Coffee Break:  AgeGuess

The creators bill this as a “citizen science project” about perceptions of human aging.  And it does that to some extent, but it’s fun to scroll through images and see how close your guess is to what other people guessed and your overall results.

Being a carny is not in my future.

Good Monday morning. It’s November 4th. Tomorrow is Election Day in the U.S. Please vote. Turnout in some cities can be as low as 6% for local elections and doesn’t get much more than the mid-teens no matter how the data is analyzed.

There will be no Spotlight next week as we take off for Veteran’s Day. Thank you to everyone who served and everyone who supported them.  Their service helped guarantee your right to vote so go do it.

Today’s Spotlight takes about 5 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? Here’s our contact form.

1. News To Know Now

1. Twitter banned political and social advocacy ads effective November 22. The final policy is due November 15. Social advocacy ads include any addressing of abortion, civil rights, climate change, guns, healthcare, immigration, national security, social security, taxes, and trade. That’s addressing them on either side, and the chances are excellent that something you adamantly support or oppose is included.

2.  Amazon began offering free grocery delivery within two hours for Prime members. The company missed earnings this quarter after spending more on logistics than Wall Street anticipated. Despite that, Amazon Prime annual subscription revenue exceeds ten billion dollars, and as always, don’t mind missing quarterly targets. Groceries and one day delivery of goods is only the beginning. Expect that Amazon will look to play a role in home delivery of all types.

3. Lebanon’s prime minister resigned this week after widespread protests. One of his government’s most unpopular proposals was the equivalent a 20 cent tax consumers would pay each day on messaging app WhatsApp, owned by Facebook. The free app offers free telephone-like connectivity and observers report that the government tax on a free commercial service enraged people in a tea-in-the-harbor manner.

2.  School Monitoring and Kids

Schools track kids from the time they enroll and into college. Many schools use systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars annually and claim to help prevent bullying, self-harm, suicides, and more. Opponents claim that the systems often violate privacy laws, are used for marketing purposes, and have methodologies that create false positives. 

Children, even as old as seventeen, who need to use a bathroom in some schools during class are required to enter a request into an online app at their desk, reports the Washington Post. That seems benign until you learn that the system tracks the time they are gone and alerts a school administrator to check on students exceeding a time limit. 

Many apps go beyond tracking students’ test scores and schoolwork. Class Dojo, aimed at K-8 classrooms, allows teachers to reward or dock students with points based on obedience, preparation, or behavioral issues. That seems like an automated version of checklists teachers have long used, but some parents worry that aggregating this level of micro-issues about their children truly represents the dreaded “permanent record”. 

The level of monitoring increases when students are assigned school email accounts or devices. Companies with names like Bark, Gaggle, School Sentinel, and Securly set up software monitoring tools that analyze website usage, email text, chats and messaging, and anything else associated with a school device or account.

The monitoring seems benign on the surface and every company tells of stopping at least hundreds of suicide attempts, bullying incidents, and other problems. Bark, which began offering schools free services after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, claims to have stopped sixteen other school shootings and “twenty thousand serious incidents.”

False positives related to keywords being triggered for school assignments are only one example of problems related to this level of monitoring.  Buzzfeed published a trove of documents related to Gaggle, including hundreds of pages of their training documents. Many of the documents flagged by Gaggle appear creative or expository. Items flagged for demonstrating a risk of suicide or self-harm often had titles like “poem portfolio,” “Possible Poems ???” “Narrative Essay,” and “Narrative/Common App College Entry Essay.”

Some parents are also concerned about the Gaggle safety dashboard that ranks students with the most infractions related to email, web surfing, or other flagged issues. You’re not alone if you think that this sounds like the social credit system being built by the Chinese government. The system neatly graphs, charts, and lists the aggregate scores of students within a school or district.

Buzzfeed published a trove of Gaggle’s documents.

High schoolers remain tracked by all of these systems, but then also contend with college admissions tracking.  You’re also correct if you guessed that SAT owner, College Board, is a big player in this predictive analytics field. Combining test scores, student interests (the infamous “send my info to my school choices”), and the school’s tracking of individual high school students creates a system similar to athletics recruiting.

College admission officers access student prospect lists that rank high schoolers on a one hundred point scale based in part on all of those things plus household income, ethnic background, and other information available from data brokers like the College Board. The Washington Post found dozens of colleges using these systems, but only three of the schools disclose the full extent of their tracking.

Their right to privacy as well as special privacy regulations covering children’s use of the Internet will undoubtedly form part of any new federal privacy legislation.

An exhaustive analysis of school monitoring systems isn’t possible in a newsletter, but we know that many parents will want additional information. That’s why we’re happy to send anyone who asks a list of more than one dozen sources used for this article as well as links to the hundreds of pages that BuzzFeed published. Simply reply to the email and tell us your email address.  You don’t even have to be a subscriber.

3.  Google Search Updates

Sue and I were recently talking about Twitter. “Anything interesting going on there?” I asked her.

“I’m watching [this person] and [others] rip Google on Twitter,” she replied with maybe a trace of enjoyment in her words.

That makes sense because Google and marketers have a predator and prey relationship that often bubbles over into ripping Google as it were.  To quote Rand Fishkin of SparkToro, “…a large majority of professional marketers disbelieve most of Google’s public statements.”  He bases that on a survey of nearly 1,600 of them, including me.

At issue is Google’s obvious quandary: they can’t disclose exactly how their search engine works because then it would be manipulated, which is their term.  That’s why I believe that Google deliberately obfuscates guidance, but I also remain focused on what behaviors they reward.

Page speed is one of those behaviors. Last week, Googlers Martin Splitt and John Mueller told a YouTube audience that page speed is theoretically calculated and then compared to the site’s actual speed based on user visits. But Martin made some waves when he said that speed was sorted into either “really good” or “really bad” or unsorted. 

I don’t believe that the smart Googlers were allowed to contemplate a data grouping called really good.  But when we work on your site, we’re going to tell you that the page speed must be great. And when you ask for the number, we’re going to grumble something about Google.

4. Debugged: Marijuana in 19th Century Drugstore

The image online featuring some old-timey looking folks in front of a dusty building labeled “Drug Store” with a marijuana leaf logo was made by a graphic artist in 2009.

Snopes has the details and a copy of the picture.

5. Also in the Spotlight

Google missed its earnings forecast. So did Amazon. Facebook blew past theirs because for all of the user complaints you see on Facebook about Facebook, the site added more users. Meanwhile, Google and Amazon continue to struggle by on their cash hoards of tens of billions of dollars.

More than half of 11-year-old children own a smartphone, says nonprofit we love Common Sense Media. There’s no word on whether they’re accessing their school email on those phones to trigger school monitoring, but I’ll go out on a limb and say you betcha.

6. Great Data: The Internet’s Birth Certificate

There’s plenty of great data still to be digitized. But before that was possible, the nice folks at UCLA and Stanford logged on paper when they first made a connection “host to host” and birthed the Internet.

Gizmodo has baby Internet’s birth certificate from October 29, 1969 (hmmm, a Scorpio).

7. Protip: The Enchanting .New Domain

I start every Google document I create by visiting the URL or They’re part of Google’s effort to save time and the are now other destinations including Stripe, Spotify and eBay. 

See where they’re going and if your org can get one.

8. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

Your uranium ore order may include any of or any number of “radioactive elements such as uranium, thorium and potassium and any of their decay products such as radium and radon.”

On the plus side, your uranium ore sample is only $39.95 at Amazon.

Click to see. The product Q&A is hilarious.

9. ICYMI – Top links from the past 30 days

Open Puppies – only gifs and gifs of puppies

The Beautiful Hidden Logic of Cities – fantastic map visuals

The Dark Web Offering Disinformation as a Service – on ZDNet

10. Coffee Break:  The Last McDonalds in Iceland

McDonalds closed its last restaurant in Iceland on October 31, 2009. Hjörtur Smárason bought a burger and fries and didn’t eat them. Instead he kept them in a bag for three years. Then he put them on display at Snotra House and attached a webcam to live stream them.

The packaging looks old, but there’s no decomposition or mold. 

Good Monday morning. It’s October 28th. Google reports earnings later today. Facebook and Apple report on Thursday. Expect lots of tech news this week.

Today’s Spotlight takes about 4 minutes to read. Want to chat about something you see here? You’re looking for the contact form then.

2. News To Know Now

1. Facebook has begun testing a news tab in its app. The news was announced by Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor and current Facebook exec. Former Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Kornblut is also part of the group. Facebook acknowledged that it will pay some publishers to participate.

2.  UnitedHealth Group has been ordered by New York state regulators to prove that an algorithm they produce is free from racial bias, reports the Wall Street Journal.  A study published in the journal Science claims that white patients were projected to need more care over sicker, non-white patients. At issue is the manner in which the racial bias came from the data since race was excluded from the algorithm.

3. Some of YouTube’s most popular hosts launched a joint effort to raise money to plant trees. The coordinated effort took over YouTube’s trending chart by late Friday. The Team Trees website showed on Sunday that funds had been raised to plant five million of the twenty million trees the organization has set as its goal.

3.  FTC Warning on Stalkerware

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning American consumers about “stalkerware”, its term for mobile spyware that monitors another person. Once installed by someone with physical access to your phone, those apps could be run without the person knowing anything was wrong.  The apps then share detailed information about activities like call history, text messages, photos, GPS locations, and browser history.

The FTC alleges that Retina-X developed MobileSpy, which was marketed to monitor employees and children. Another two apps, PhoneSheriff and TeenShield, were marketed to monitor mobile devices used by children. Retina-X sold more than 15,000 subscriptions to all three stalking apps before the company stopped selling them in 2018. All of the apps required that the installer weaken the phone’s security.

The company did not safeguard the data, and it was hacked twice, according to the agency, which cited child and employee privacy laws as well as potential use by domestic abusers.  

Stalkerware is part of a pattern of benign devices and software proving troublesome:

Apple’s iTunes, replaced for Apple computers but still used by millions of Windows users, had a bug that allowed hackers to install ransomware on computers in a new and hard-to-detect way, reports Threatpost

New Android malware called Joker infects phones with software that orders premium subscriptions, according to Bleeping Computer. The malware was hidden on 24 Google Play Store apps that were downloaded a half million times. Another type of malware called Cutlet Maker targets ATMs and causes them to “jackpot”–spitting out the machine’s cash.

Even The Vatican’s brand new “smart rosary” (and fitness tracker) had an undetected vulnerability that would allow a hacker to quickly access a user’s Google or Facebook account. Called a brute-force flaw, the vulnerability was detected by a diligent researcher who apparently contacted The Vatican a lot to find the developers.

What we think: You can’t guard against stalkerware being installed on your phone by someone with access to your phone unless you use strong passwords and protections on your phone. Practice safe computing with timely backups, updating all software, and using password managers.

4.  Google Search Updates

You may have heard that Google is using artificial intelligence to sort search results.  They aren’t, but there have been many fantastic headlines saying otherwise. Here is what is happening:

First, it’s not artificial intelligence like you’ll see in a movie. This is a software program that in some instances replaces reliance on a massive database of keyword matching and starts to interpret context. We all sometimes misuse a word or find ourselves picking the best way to express an idea. The new Google software does a better job interpreting natural language. 

The software is called BERT and will be invoked in approximately 10% of search queries. It will change a lot for those of us in the field. But like all of the thousands of changes that Google makes to its algorithms, this should improve the results over time and be transparent to most users.

5. Debugged: $39.95 to Hold Your Baby

Making the rounds again is a story about a hospital charging $39.95 for skin-to-skin contact with a newborn following a C-section delivery. It’s true, but the charge was for an additional nurse because the operating room nurse is otherwise occupied.

Truth or Fiction has details and context.

6. Also in the Spotlight

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon have launched a joint initiative to update U.S. text messaging systems from SMS to a new, feature-rich RCS that looks more like Facebook Messenger or chat apps. [The Verge]

97% of tweets from U.S. adults that mentioned national politics came from just 10% of users according to  a new study. Sorry, not sorry.  [Pew Research]

7. Great Data: Beautiful Hidden Logic of Cities

Erin Davis has color-coded map data from major cities and found… well, some interesting patterns underlying how each city was laid out.

See her work here.

8. Protip: Free Digital Wellbeing Apps

We share a lot about the digital wellbeing initiative because of its importance in helping us find balance between life and screens. This week Google launched six new free apps as part of the effort, including new ways to queue your phone’s notifications and counters showing you how often you check your phone.

Android Police run down the apps and has download links.

9. Bizarre Bazaar (strange stuff for sale online)

You can’t catch him, he’s the Gingerdead Man. Ready to combine Halloween and the cookie-heavy winter holidays? How about some gingerbread skeleton cookie cutters?

Genuine Fred has them in stock along with Snack-o-Lanterns.

10. Coffee Break:  Pupper Edition

B’gosh, you’re going to lose time on this website that features gifs of the most adorable puppers, doggos, and good bois and girls. There are no votes, comments, or any other distractions.  

You can, however, download your favorites.