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May 10, 2019

Map of Polish Composers

Screen Shot 2019-05-09 at 2.24.44 PM

Fair warning: there goes the weekend.

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May 10, 2019 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Water Bottle Car Fire

Long story short: a water bottle left in sunlight inside a car could ignite the upholstery and start a fire.

Videre est credere.

Details here.

May 10, 2019 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Alexa has big ears

From the Washington Post:

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Would you let a stranger eavesdrop in your home and keep the recordings?

For most people, the answer is, "Are you crazy?"

Yet that's essentially what Amazon has been doing to millions of us with its assistant Alexa in microphone-equipped Echo speakers.

And it's hardly alone: Bugging our homes is Silicon Valley's next frontier.

Many smart-speaker owners don't realize it, but Amazon keeps a copy of everything Alexa records after it hears its name.

Apple's Siri, and until recently Google's Assistant, by default also keep recordings to help train their artificial intelligences.

So come with me on an unwelcome walk down memory lane.

I listened to four years of my Alexa archive and found thousands of fragments of my life: spaghetti-timer requests, joking houseguests, and random snippets of "Downton Abbey."

There were even sensitive conversations that somehow triggered Alexa's "wake word" to start recording, including my family discussing medication and a friend conducting a business deal.

For as much as we fret about snooping apps on our computers and phones, our homes are where the rubber really hits the road for privacy.

It's easy to rationalize away concerns by thinking a single smart speaker or appliance couldn't know enough to matter.

But across the increasingly connected home, there's a brazen data grab going on, and there are few regulations, watchdogs, or common-sense practices to keep it in check.

Let's not repeat the mistakes of Facebook in our smart homes.

Any personal data that's collected can and will be used against us.

An obvious place to begin: Alexa, stop recording us.

Below, the eight steps required to delete Amazon's recording from your Echo speaker in the Alexa app.

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The spy in your speaker

"Eavesdropping" is a sensitive word for Amazon, which has battled lots of consumer confusion about when, how. and even who is listening to us when we use an Alexa device.

But much of this problem is of its own making.

Alexa keeps a record of what it hears every time an Echo speaker activates.

It's supposed to record only with a "wake word" — "Alexa!" — but anyone with one of these devices knows they go rogue.

I counted dozens of times when mine recorded without a legitimate prompt. (Amazon says it has improved the accuracy of "Alexa" as a wake word by 50% over the past year.)

What can you do to stop Alexa from recording?

Amazon's answer is straight out of the Facebook playbook: "Customers have control," it says — but the product's design clearly isn't meeting our needs.

You can manually delete past recordings if you know exactly where to look and remember to keep going back.

You cannot stop Amazon from making these recordings, aside from muting the Echo's microphone (defeating its main purpose) or unplugging the darned thing.

Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.

Amazon says it keeps our recordings to improve products, not to sell them. (That’s also a Facebook line.)

But anytime personal data sticks around, it's at risk.

Remember the family that had Alexa accidentally send a recording of a conversation to a random contact?

We've also seen judges issue warrants for Alexa recordings.

Alexa's voice archive made headlines most recently when Bloomberg discovered Amazon employees listen to recordings to train its intelligence.

Amazon acknowledged that some of those employees also have access to location information for the devices that made the recordings.

Saving our voices is not just an Amazon phenomenon.

Apple, which is much more privacy-minded in other aspects of the smart home, also keeps copies of conversations with Siri.

Apple says voice data is assigned a "random identifier and is not linked to individuals" — but exactly how anonymous can a recording of your voice be?

I don't understand why Apple doesn't give us the ability to say not to store our recordings.

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The unexpected leader on this issue is Google.

It also used to record all conversations with its Assistant but last year quietly changed its defaults to not record what it hears after the prompt "Hey, Google."

But if you're among the people who previously set up Assistant, you probably need to readjust your settings (check here) to "pause" recordings.

 
Last week, the California State Assembly's privacy committee advanced an Anti-Eavesdropping Act that would require makers of smart speakers to get consent from customers before storing recordings.
 
The Illinois Senate recently passed a bill on the same issue. Neither is much of a stretch: Requiring permission to record someone in private is enshrined in many state laws.

"They are giving us false choices. We can have these devices and enjoy their functionality and how they enhance our lives without compromising our privacy," Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R), the bill's sponsor, told me. "Welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism."

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The spy in your thermostat

Inspired by what I found in my Alexa voice archive, I wondered: What other activities in my smart home are tech companies recording?

When I'm up for a midnight snack, Google knows.

My Nest thermostat, made by Google, reports back to its servers' data in 15-minute increments about not only the climate in my house but also whether there's anyone moving around (as determined by a presence sensor used to trigger the heat).

You can delete your account, but otherwise Nest saves it indefinitely.

Then there are lights, which can reveal what time you go to bed and do almost anything else.

My Philips Hue-connected lights track every time they're switched on and off — data the company keeps forever if you connect to its cloud service (which is required to operate them with Alexa or Assistant).

Every kind of appliance now is becoming a data-collection device.

My Chamberlain MyQ garage opener lets the company keep — again, indefinitely — a record of every time my door opens or closes.

My Sonos speakers, by default, track what albums, playlists, or stations I've listened to, and when I press play, pause, skip or pump up the volume.

At least they hold on to my sonic history for only six months.

And now the craziest part: After quizzing these companies about data practices, I learned that most are sharing what’s happening in my home with Amazon, too.

Our data is the price of entry for devices that want to integrate with Alexa.

Amazon's not only eavesdropping — it's tracking everything happening in your home.

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Amazon acknowledges it collects data about third-party devices even when you don't use Alexa to operate them.

It says Alexa needs to know the "state" of your devices "to enable a great smart home experience."

But keeping a record of this data is more useful to them than to us. (A feature called "hunches" lets you know when a connected device isn't in its usual state, such as a door that's not locked at bedtime, but I've never found it helpful.)

You can tell Amazon to delete everything it has learned about your home, but you can't look at it or stop Amazon from continuing to collect it.

Google Assistant also collects data about the state of connected devices.

But the company says it doesnt' store the history of these devices, even though there doesn't seem to be much stopping it.

Apple does the most admirable job operating home devices by collecting as little data as possible.

Its HomeKit software doesn't report to Apple any info about what's going on in your smart home.

Instead, compatible devices talk directly, via encryption, with your iPhone, where the data stays.

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Why is this happening?

Why do tech companies want to hold on to information from our homes?

Sometimes they do it just because there’s little stopping them — and they hope it might be useful in the future.

Ask the companies why, and the answer usually involves AI.

"Any data that is saved is used to improve Siri," Apple said.

"Alexa is always getting smarter, which is only possible by training her with voice recordings to better understand requests, provide more accurate responses, and personalize the customer experience," Beatrice Geoffrin, director of Alexa privacy, said in a statement.

The recordings also help Alexa learn different accents and understand queries about recurring events such as the Olympics, she said.

"Technically, it is not unreasonable what they are saying," Goodman said.

Today's natural language-processing systems need to rerun their algorithms over old data to learn.

Without the easy access to data, their progress might slow — unless the computer scientists make their systems more efficient.

But then he takes his scientist hat off.

"As a human, I agree with you. I don't have one of these speakers in my house," Goodman said.

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We want to benefit from AI that can set a timer or save energy when we don't need the lights on.

But that doesn't mean we're also opening our homes to tech companies as a lucrative source of data to train their algorithms, mine our lives, and maybe lose in the next big breach.

This data should belong to us.

What we lack is a way to understand the transformation that data and AI are bringing to our homes.

Think of "Downton Abbey": In those days, rich families could have human helpers who were using their intelligence to observe and learn their habits, and make their lives easier.

Breakfast was always served exactly at the specified time.

But the residents knew to be careful about what they let the staff see and hear.

Fast-forward to today.

We haven't come to terms that we're filling our homes with even nosier digital helpers.

Said Goodman: "We don't think of Alexa or the Nest quite that way, but we should."

May 10, 2019 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ivory Puzzle Balls

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From Atlas Obscura:

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In 1388, the Ming scholar Cao Zhao published Gegu yaolun, an instrumental guide to collecting and assessing Chinese antiques.

Among his writings on fine craft, including porcelain and bronze items, is a description of a peculiar object: guǐ gōng qiú (鬼工球), or "devil’s work ball."

That name might bring to mind something insidious, but Cao was referring to beautiful, hand-carved ivory orbs that nest inside each other, such that the inner ones are free-floating.

Each layer has holes evenly distributed across its thin surface, simultaneously concealing and revealing the artistry beneath.

So why the allusion to spirits?

"People said that something like this could not be carved by a human," says Jeffrey Moy, the executive director of Chicago's Heritage Museum of Asian Art. "When you look at them, they look perfect. Later on, they became known as 'concentric balls' or 'puzzle balls.'"

The Heritage owns two exquisite puzzle balls (top) from the 19th century, when the art form — a special style of carving from Guangzhou, or Canton — reached its peak.

Each has about 20 to 25 layers of ivory, all carefully chiseled from a single piece of the material.

In comparison, the early examples Cao Zhao describes have just three.

While puzzle balls are technically puzzles, solved by aligning the holes (using toothpicks is recommended).

The carvings alone are mind-boggling: At the Heritage, the outermost layer of one ball features a garden scene, complete with tiny human figures; the other is more textural, embellished with dragons weaving among undulating patterns.

According to Moy, dragons were common puzzle ball motifs because of their auspicious meaning in Chinese culture.

Similar examples can be found at Gettysburg College, which owns nine ivory balls.

The mythical beasts are often depicted with phoenixes, a pairing that has long represented the perfect coupling of yin and yang.

Inside these showstopping shells, inner layers tend to feature simpler but still highly intricate designs, often of geometric latticework.

Europeans, in particular, were captivated by puzzle balls and collected them as curiosities starting in the 18th century.

The spheres were among the ivory goods carved by Chinese artisans in Canton that became popular as export ware; others include fans, combs, and backscratchers.

"Foreigners visiting were always looking for something to buy," Moy says. "Puzzle balls were common works of art for them to purchase and were a way for artisans to try to show off skills."

The dark reality of this desire for ivory products, of course, is that it fueled the ivory trade, resulting in the deaths of countless African elephants.

In Germany, craftsmen even tried to replicate the techniques to create their own market.

"Lorenz Zick [of Nuremberg], in imitation of the Chinese, carved balls, enclosed one inside another; his son Stephan, continued the same style of work," wrote the 19th-century French art historian Charles Jules Labarte.

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[Above, hollow spheres by Lorenz Zick]

The work from Canton, however, was more intricate.

The region's method is detailed in an 1876 publication by the Scottish photographer John Thompson, who traveled extensively around China.

According to him, an artist first used a lathe to rotate a block of ivory, shaping it into a sphere.

They then drilled evenly distributed conical holes towards the ball's center.

Accessing the interior with an L-shaped tool, they would carve grooves to form concentric gaps, creating layers.

"Hole after hole is in like manner centered," Thompson wrote, "until all the grooves are cut, and meeting each other, the innermost ball falls into the center of the sphere. This inner ball is then moved about and carved with long tools passed through the holes, after which the bent chisel is again brought into play to cut out the next ball."

The "devil's work ball," though, still holds secrets to this day.

Researchers with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica, a Dutch computer science institute, have partnered to scan and 3D-image two of the museum's early-18th-century puzzle balls — one with nine spheres, and one with a dozen.

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[Above, one of the Rijksmuseum's puzzle balls]

"Through our research we are able to deduce the make process of the balls," says Ching-Ling Wang, the museum's curator of Chinese art, adding that the team will publish a report within the next year.

Among their questions: How many L-shaped tools are required? What are artisans able to see?

As the computer scientist Robert van Liere noted in an early presentation, "It is very dark deep down in the ball!"

The object's design has also inspired the British firm Steven Chilton Architects to propose a puzzle ball-inspired theater in Guangzhou.

The envisioned building consists of a dome of overlapping shells, each decorated with geometric patterns.

If realized, it would stand as a striking homage to the region's traditional art form that can never be produced legally again.

At the end of 2017, China finally banned all domestic ivory sales and ordered ivory production facilities to cease operations.

May 10, 2019 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Somewhere Global Hotspot

Sos

From the website:

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Hotspot_onwaders

Turn your phone into a satellite communication device.

QUIVER

With the Somewear hotspot and mobile app, you can enjoy the following digital essentials anywhere on earth:

  • Weather reporting

  • Interval location tracking

  • 2-way satellite text messaging

  • 24/7 SOS monitoring and support through GEOS Worldwide

  • Web app for friends and family to easily chat and view your location

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Soscap

$349.99.

May 10, 2019 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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