The Emperor’s Faded Fonts

 

A fanciful history of web design might start with scribes in an ancient Near East civilization, all of them dutifully impressing their clay tablets deeply enough to make the characters easily legible. One day, either intentionally or because of laziness or weariness, one scribe made shallow impressions for his characters, and instead of his fellow scribes rebuking him, they hailed his genius. They were probably hipsters, who seek conformity in their nonconformity, and for whom a new look is all the more appealing if it befuddles the masses. “I can barely read it,” exclaimed one hipster scribe, “and that’s what makes it brilliant!” “It hurts my eyes,” said another who was slow to catch the new wave. After noting the disapproving looks from the other scribes, he added “I mean, it hurt my eyes until I got used to it. Now I see it’s absolutely great!”

 

Like the fashion world it parallels, typography must endlessly reinvent itself around a practical matter. People need to wear clothes, and when they read, they need to be able to decipher characters, whether they are impressed on clay tablets, printed on a page, or delineated by tiny dots on a backlit screen. The reasons for reinvention have much to do with evolving tastes and the need for turnover in sales, and sometimes little to do with practicality. The trend of low contrast typography in web design is a case in point. Some designers and technology companies decided about ten years ago it would be nice to have gray text on a white or gray background, and soon the nonconformists were jumping on the bandwagon and conforming. Readers seeking information from grayed out websites have been straining their eyes in frustration ever since.

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A theatrical presentation of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Photo by Danand.

There is a difference in strain on a reader’s eyes between the black on white of a printed page and the black on white of a backlit screen, with the latter being harder to take. Most books were never printed on absolutely pure white paper, and the black ink, when reflecting light, was never utterly black. Backlit screens can achieve greater contrast than print, but it’s best that they don’t because staring at very high contrast type can be a strain. The solution for screens is to lower the tone of the background, as can be seen by adjusting screen brightness or by using an application to reduce eye strain (the applications available on the market typically also change the color temperature).

A scene from The Invisible Man, a 1933 film based on a novel by H.G. Wells, directed by James Whale, with Claude Rains in the title role.

Computer users adjusting the brightness of their screens or using web applications for reducing eye strain took web designers out of the picture, however, and it appears they would have none of that. To support their design trend of using varying shades of gray text, they claimed they were enhancing legibility and reducing eye strain. There’s no evidence it does, and common sense and feedback from readers who don’t care about trends points to the opposite result. Low contrast web design is too low, and it ignores the real solution, which is not to tone down the font, but to tone down the background. Go ahead and use gray fonts on a gray background if it seems cool, silly as that is, but don’t reel off nonsensical mumbo jumbo to support that decision, and don’t expect all readers to drop to their knees and kiss the hem of those faded fonts.
β€” Techly

 

Voting Should Be Easy

 

Over 75 percent of the American people have smartphones, and since voter participation in elections hovers around 50 percent of eligible citizens, the idea has come around to increase voting by making it possible for people to use their smartphones for that purpose. This year, West Virginia is trying out smartphone voting on a limited basis. The biggest concern with this practice is ballot security from smartphone to tabulating facility, usually a government office such as in a county courthouse. The medium used for that transmission would, of course, be the internet.

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Pedestrians in the Rahova neighborhood of Bucharest, Romania, on October 27, 2014, days before the first round of the Romanian presidential election on November 2. Photo by J Stimp.

 

Now the internet is many wonderful things, but numbered among them is not airtight security for the general user. Some users haven’t the faintest idea about or concern for the security of their system, whether it be on a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet or a smartphone. It’s clear that the integrity of internet voting by smartphone or any other device would need to be maintained by a third party, since the users themselves are unreliable.

The voting system would have to be capable of freezing out “man-in-the-middle” hacks, which have historically been the greatest vulnerability of internet communications and the most commonly exploited by hackers. Think of it as the postal system, in which Party A mails a letter to Party B by entrusting it to Party C, in this case the United States Postal Service, with the understanding that in between point A and point B no one will intercept and read it, save perhaps a Postal Inspector who can show probable cause.

 

The internet has never been even as secure as the postal system. More often it has been like the party lines that used to exist on some phone systems around the country. Until the security problems can be fixed, smartphone voting is unlikely to see widespread use. The safest system for voters is still paper ballots filed either by mail or in person at a polling place. Voting should be easier, not more difficult, as all the voter suppression laws passed by Republican controlled state legislatures have made it, with the idea that low turnout favors their candidates.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in the US presidential election in Philadelphia 14200A
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in the U.S. presidential election in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 8, 2016. Note how some are looking down at their smartphones, a common sight in public places now. Photo by Voice of America News.

Relatively few people are motivated to spend a long time waiting to vote in a queue that may keep them outdoors in bad weather, though some do appear willing to endure similar conditions in order to purchase the latest iPhone. Smartphone voting is a great idea for increasing participation in elections, but sadly it is one that needs work before becoming wholly viable, if it ever does. Until then, voters can still bring along their smartphones to their polling places to keep themselves entertained while they wait.
β€” Techly

 

Straining to See

 

Many folks may remember that as children they were admonished by their elders not to sit too close to the television because they would strain their eyes. If a child was a reader, a parent or other elder would express concern that the reading light wasn’t bright enough. If a child read in bed after lights out, then a concerned elder would issue a warning of punishment for staying up too late, in addition to concern about eye strain. Of course, this scenario is dated because children today may be reading from a backlit screen instead of a paper book. New technology, same worries about eye strain.

Looking at computer and phone (Unsplash)
View from a street in Toronto, Canada, into a building where a woman looks at her laptop computer and smartphone. Photo by Tim Gouw.

Asthenopia is the medical term for eye strain, and in a chronic case the condition can be a concern worthy of a visit to a doctor. With the prevalence of computer, tablet, and smartphone use now, adults are as apt to have asthenopia as children who don’t heed their parents’ warnings. Few people admit to reading from their smartphone or tablet in bed after dark, but most probably do it, because for one thing it’s an easy way to read without disrupting a partner’s sleep, even if it may disrupt their own sleep habits. Looking for hours at a time into a relatively bright light from a foot or two away, or perhaps mere inches, is a sure path to eye strain.

Other than changing behavior, the solution starts with turning down the brightness on all those screens, including the television. Most devices now come with sensors that detect room brightness and adjust the device brightness accordingly. A darkened room will require less brightness from the device in order for the user to comfortably view the screen. Find that control and use it. Next, devices made specifically for reading at close range, such as smartphones and tablets, may have a “Reader” mode in the display settings. Find that and turn it on. Some internet browsers also come equipped with a “Reader” mode.

Finally, if those native adjustments are insufficient to tone down the blue part of the spectrum, which is the part most responsible for causing eye strain, then seek out a third party application for computers, smartphones, and tablets that will shift the color temperature from blue to red, with many degrees in between. Such applications have timers built in order to shift the color temperature gradually as day moves to night, and vice versa. They take some getting used to, but after a day or two the warmer color temperature will feel natural and less noticeable. Your eyes will sense the difference, though, since they will no longer be asthenopic, a word which is such a strain to pronounce it’s just as well you no longer have to deal with it.
β€” Techly

 

It Ain’t Library Science

 

Archaeologists recently uncovered the remains of a public library in Cologne, Germany, which they surmise was built in the second century of the common era by the Romans or the workers of the Roman client state in control of the region. The architecture follows the model of other large Roman libraries of the period, such as the one in Ephesus, on the western coast of modern Turkey. The reason for thinking it was a public library rather than a private one is the great size of the structure and its location in the public forum of the ancient city, where all buildings were public.

Bookplate of Edward Penfield
Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925). Bookplates are labels people paste into the frontispiece of their books to declare ownership. They were more popular a century ago than now, and as seen here some readers contrived custom bookplates.

 

A public library of two thousand years ago was not the same as a public library now, offering books on loan to members of the general public. Because books were hand copied into scrolls or codices, they were limited in number and expensive to produce. No one could walk in to a public library of two thousand years ago and expect to walk out with one or more books under their arm, to be returned after several weeks. People read the books in the library and the books never left the premises.

The meaning of “public” was also limited at that time to those who were literate and therefore had a reason to be there accessing the books. These would have been scholars of one sort or another, whether in the employ of government, academia, or a wealthy individual, and they would have been almost certainly all male. Lending libraries did not come about until the Renaissance, after the invention of the printing press made available large numbers of copies of books at lower cost.

 

Even then, the number and type of people who could borrow books was limited. Universities and colleges had their own libraries, with their collections available not to the general public but to students and faculty of the institution. That model persists to this day. Private societies lent out books to their members, who also contributed books. They were lending libraries, but in no sense were they public. It was not until civic groups and prominent citizens in Boston, Massachusetts, created the Boston Public Library in 1848 that the institution of the lending library as we know it came into being. The Boston Public Library was the first institution in the country that was open to all and was funded largely by taxpayers, with some assistance by private endowments and gifts of books.

BostonPublicLibrary BoylstonSt 1850s
An 1855 engraving showing the future building of the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street. The library moved into the building in 1858 and stayed there until 1895, when it moved into the grand building on Copley Square where it has remained to this day.

The model caught on, obviously, since today there are over 16,000 public libraries around the country. In the past 30 years or more, two great changes have affected those public libraries, and they are no longer what they were during their heyday in the twentieth century. The first change came from the effects of cutbacks in social programs starting with the Reagan administration. Homeless numbers increased as politicians undercut the social safety net and as mental hospitals could no longer afford to house indigent patients, setting them loose on the streets. Shelters that took in homeless people overnight often turned them out during the day, and the homeless gravitated toward public libraries for safe daytime shelter with access to bathrooms.

Boston Public Library Reading Room
Boston Public Library Reading Room in October 2013. Photo by Brian Johnson.

 

The second change came about with the rise of computers and the internet. Public libraries have gamely kept up with the technological changes despite cutbacks in taxpayer funding, and for the most part they have successfully integrated patrons’ interest in checking out electronic books as well as traditional paper books. Where conflict has arisen it is in affording access to library computers to patrons, some of whom had little interest in setting foot in their local public library until it installed computers with free internet.

With the influx of people who are not readers as much as internet users and are likely as not indifferent to norms of behavior in the library, and homeless people who sometimes abuse library facilities and even other patrons, librarians now have their hands full with duties that have nothing to do with their traditional training in library science. Patrons who are readers and have used their local library’s services in person for decades no longer feel comfortable there, and now often prefer checking out electronic books from the library’s website rather than visiting the library in person. Pity the unfortunate librarians then, who cannot escape the loud cell phone users, the raucous children who have been dumped by their parents in the young readers’ room as if it were a free day care center, and the homeless people who, often through no fault of their own, have been thrown on the good graces of the librarians, but who complicate the work day for those overburdened librarians by the criminal or mentally unstable acting out of some of their number.
β€” Vita

 

Joy in a Toy

 

With Christmas past by several days now, many children will be enraptured by a new toy or toys if they were lucky enough to receive them. The trend now is for giving more technologically sophisticated toys even to small children, but a simple toy such as a rubber duck can give a small child many hours of joy through encouraging the use of imagination, while some complicated toys do everything for the child, who quickly becomes bored through passivity.

 

For such a simple toy, the rubber duck has become enormously popular since its introduction in the form we recognize today in the mid-twentieth century. Some rubber ducks squeak when squeezed and others don’t, but all are hollow with a weight in the bottom, so that they always float upright. Of all toys in America, perhaps only the teddy bear is more popular than the rubber duck. A teddy bear does even less on its own than a rubber duck, however, since some won’t float, and it certainly doesn’t know which end is up when it does float.

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The world’s largest floating rubber duck, designed by the Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, is towed in Los Angeles harbor in August 2014 as part of the Tall Ships Festival. Photo by Eric Garcetti.

The technology employed in making rubber ducks is some of the simplest in manufacturing, involving rotational molds, heat, and some hand painting. The toys are not made of rubber anymore, since that has gotten too expensive. Manufacturers instead use a non-toxic vinyl which will be safe for toddlers, who inevitably will chew on the toy. The paints also are designed for child safety. Like many manufacturing plants in the past half century, the ones for making these simple toys had moved overseas, primarily to China, until one company returned part of its manufacturing to the United States. That company struggled at first to find a factory and skilled workers, evidence of how quickly disused facilities and worker skills melt away without investment.

For all the stories in the news about how Silicon Valley technological companies like Apple and Google are leading the way for the American economy, and how the less educated workers who don’t fill that mold will just have to make do with minimum wage jobs in the service economy, flipping burgers at McDonald’s or driving Ubers, there are millions of workers who are not cut out to be software engineers but who nonetheless could use better paying jobs to help their families not merely stay afloat, but get ahead in the world.

In this clip from an early episode of Sesame Street, Ernie the Muppet sings “Rubber Duckie”, the 1970 song that set off a resurgence in popularity for the toy.
These are people who may never invent the next big thing in computers or smartphones or driverless cars, but whose children possibly could if given a fair chance at a good education without sinking the family into poverty. In the last fifty years, while the rich in their opulent yachts have gotten ever richer, the working class has been cut adrift from the mainstream economy by the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs, and the middle class has been kept busy furiously kicking to keep from drowning. Not everything has to be complicated or technologically sophisticated to work well in the world. Sometimes all it takes to make people happy is a simple toy that knows enough to bob upright in the water and keep afloat with a plucky smile.
― Techly

 

The Proof Is in the Printing

 

When a computer printer works as it should, smoothly turning out page after page and photo after photo, it’s a wonderful thing that is easy to take for granted. But when that printer acts up and doesn’t feed pages or photos properly, or prints unevenly in streaks even though it has full ink cartridges, then a user’s patience can be stretched to the limit of frustration. Unlike the computer a printer is often connected to, a printer has a lot of moving parts, and that is typically the source of their malfunctions.

Since a home user likely has an inexpensive inkjet printer, replacement of the entire unit is usually preferable over any repair that will get time consuming and therefore expensive. The cost of such a printer is subsidized by purchase of proprietary ink cartridges at inflated prices, which is an economic model a bit like cell phone subsidizing through service contract, but not quite. In the case of a cell phone being available at a nominal initial cost while the complete cost is spread out over the term of a two year contract, the user of the phone is the one and only subsidizer. With printers, the artificially low cost of many of them is subsidized by all the users of the ink, and the heaviest ink users do the most to support the cost of printers for everyone.


If people had to pay the full cost of a printer, they might have a better understanding of the value of these remarkable machines. Like computers, printers that fit on a portion of a desktop now are doing the work that machines in earlier times did while taking up a full room. The inflation adjusted price has also gone down over time, and really the comparison of technological capability does not hold up beyond basic numbers in saying that a modern desktop printer or computer can do the same work as room size machine of fifty years ago. The new machines can do much, much more.

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Peter Small demonstrating the use of the Gutenberg press at the International Printing Museum in Carson, California, in 2009. Photo by Flickr user vlasta2.

What appears to make a printer a special object of loathing when it doesn’t work as it should is the usually mechanical nature of its breakdowns, something that people have a visceral understanding of, rather than the electronic or computing problems of a computer or its hand held cousin, the smartphone, which many people find inaccessibly difficult. When a printer’s paper feed mechanism breaks down and starts chewing up pages, leaving a crumpled mess stuck partway in the printer’s maw, it’s like a willful dog has chewed up our slippers. We can understand that, and it taps into an older, simpler part of our brains than the aloof error message we occasionally see on a computer screen.

In this scene from the 1999 dark comedy Office Space, written and directed by Mike Judge, a few workers take out their frustrations on the temperamental office printer, a stand-in for their frustrations with their workplace generally. Warning: foul language.

This time of year, Christmas, can be especially perilous for an inexpensive home inkjet printer to get glitchy. People are trying to print out photos for their Christmas cards, invitations for parties, and year end summations of their activities and personal growth to include in Christmas cards. In addition to the increased demand on their services in the lead up to Christmas, another danger to marginally useful printers is the frazzled, harried state of mind of their users during the year end holiday season.

No, a printing machine at Christmas that has started to show its age and groan with mysterious mechanical aches and pains is more likely to end up getting recycled by a user whose patience is at an end, rather than get repaired and restored to tip top condition. The latter outcome would be more likely if the printer was valued at its true price. Instead, the home user will replace it with a new printer promising two or three years of trouble free operation. The lesson there for the home user is that inexpensive inkjet printers are a reasonable investment for light use, but people who print a lot are better off with a more expensive machine that reflects its true value, is worth repairing, and relies on a fairer economic model than the highly subsidized market for ink.
― Techly

 

Hopheads

 

The craft beer industry has expanded since the 1980s from a handful of breweries to thousands, increasing consumer choices along the way and boosting local economies over the profits of huge corporations. In the 1970s, the brewery industry in the United States was diminishing to fewer choices for consumers as small, local breweries went out of business or were bought out by larger competitors, and their distinctive brands of beer disappeared.

The effect could be seen in national television advertising of the time, where only a few big brands could afford to compete. Even the beers on sale that did not appear to be sub-brands of the major players were not much different than them in flavor and makeup, only in price, usually being cheaper knock offs. To get a taste of something different and a little better in the late 1970s, American beer drinkers turned to European imports. The beer market had become like the wine market, where American brands were viewed as okay for everyday drinking, while the European product was considered superior in quality.


That started to change in the early 1980s with the startup of some local craft breweries that eventually gained national prominence, notably Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada in northern California. American beer drinkers once again had a choice among domestic varieties, even as the biggest national brands became more than that, expanding into multinational corporations. The return of local and regional breweries, and in a few cases breweries that reached a national market, added consumer options because the new breweries were not interested in competing with the multinational outfits in producing the same old watery lagers.

Narrenzunft Tettnang Hopfennarr Narrentreffen Meßkirch 2006
A figure decorated in representations of hops at a festival in Germany in 2006. Photo by Andreas Praefcke.

A funny thing happened, however, on the way to a new land of craft breweries specially tended by artisans who labored as much for their own enjoyment as that of their appreciative customers. For one thing, the big multinationals took note of the new phenomenon, also known as competition, and decided that unlike how they had bought up small competitors in the decades before the 1980s and subsumed the competitors’ operations within their own, they would now ride the craft brewery wave by retaining all the packaging, logos, and lingo of the smaller outfits when buying them out. Consumers would be none the wiser as they made their selection in the store, and when they got home and cracked open one of their favorite “craft” beers they still might not notice the difference, despite changes in brewing and bottling facility practices, particularly if the consumer’s taste buds were swayed more by psychological factors than by honest opinion.

The other thing that has skewed the craft beer movement is the tendency for snobs and macho men to take over and ruin the fun for some of us. The same culture that has made spicy food its domain seems to appeal to a minority of brewers and beer drinkers who always want to competitively up the ante on the hoppy bitterness of craft beers. That wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the unfortunate side effect that these people tend to be snobs with undue influence on some consumers. “It’s so bitterly hoppy that it’s undrinkable,” the brow-beaten craft beer supporter complains. “Drink it and enjoy it, or you’re a philistine,” exclaims the snobby beer person, a category that didn’t exist until twenty years ago.

Beer Wars, a 2009 documentary by Anat Baron that examines how the big breweries have co-opted the market share of many smaller breweries.

Such people have been around for ages, trying to belittle others who are susceptible to their nonsense, all so that they can then feel more exalted in their self-proclaimed expertise. They’re usually men, and they have haunted wine circles in this country long before beer became a drink of anyone other than the common people. You can find them in restaurants which specialize in spicy foods, such as Thai, Indian, or Mexican, always advocating for heat regardless of flavor, because that’s the manly thing, you sissy. In a somewhat different way, they are also familiars of the online gaming community, and of computers in general, and long before that, when know-it-all males were still accustomed to getting their knuckles dirty with grease, the world of automobiles and mechanical contrivances.

Never mind them. The great thing about the craft beer movement of the last thirty years is that there are brewers now producing beers for every taste. If you still can’t find what you like, then the staple lagers of the big multinationals will always be available. Drink those if that’s your thing. If you do like the beers of the craft breweries, though, and you like the idea of supporting smaller businesses, please do read the fine print around the back of that cardboard six-pack package to make sure your dollars are going where you intend, and not into the coffers of the big watery lager breweries, pretending to be what they’re not.
― Izzy

 

Old Before Their Time

 

The newest model of Apple’s iPhone is due out this month, and for people with deep pockets, or for those who absolutely have to have the latest and greatest from Apple, that’s good news. No doubt it will be an excellent product. But will it be worth the high price tag of $1,000 for a device that will be useful only two or three years before the user discards it? Apple’s smartphones have always been high priced, and they haven’t had any trouble selling them. Apparently enough people think iPhones are worth the high price to keep Apple churning out new models.

 

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“No Walking Smartphone” sign in Okinawa, Japan. Photo by Connie Ma.

And churn is what it’s all about for the phone manufacturers, who want consumers buying the newest model to replace models that are only one, two, or three years old. It’s not all planned obsolescence, a sneaky plot by the manufacturers, because some of the churn is driven by the pace of changing technology and by consumer’s desire to have the latest and greatest. There are things phone makers have done, however, to make an older model phone prematurely less useful, such as creating barriers to repair by independently operating technicians. So much of the hardware is proprietary and locked down in one way or another by the manufacturer, with parts and service available only from their own very expensive shops, that consumers usually come to the conclusion they might as well buy a new model.

The situation in the electronics industry regarding independent versus factory authorized repair shops is comparable to an automotive repair scene where nearly the only option available to the consumer is the auto dealership because independents have been nearly frozen out by the manufacturer’s practices. The difference is that, unlike with cars, which cost $10,000 or more, many consumers seem to feel that electronics, the prices for which are generally below $1,000, are items better replaced than repaired, considering how the manufacturers have rigged the economics. Smartphone manufacturers in particular have widened and exploited this chink in the market.

Laptop and desktop computers are also sophisticated electronic devices, yet consumers don’t generally feel the need to replace them every two years. They are also more easily repaired or modified by independent agents or by the consumer, by adding higher capacity Random Access Memory (RAM) modules, for instance. The software lasts longer, too, with some users still relying on ten or fifteen year old operating systems, though that can be a dubious proposition for some less technologically savvy users who don’t know how to keep their software’s security up to date. None of these attributes appear to apply to smartphones, even though the frugal consumer will note that higher end smartphones fall in the same price range as the average laptop or desktop computer.


Smartphones by their nature have a small form factor, and that can make it difficult for manufacturers to pack every consumer’s every desire into each new model, at least until technology progresses further. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that between a smartphone’s internal data storage and a fingernail sized card that a user can load into the device, the data storage capacity of smartphones is now in the hundreds of gigabytes, up from several dozen just a few years ago. The computing capacity of these handheld devices now surpasses that of the average laptop or desktop computers available to home users at the beginning of this century. There’s little question then that, dollar for dollar, smartphones are a good value when comparing their computing power and usefulness with laptops and desktops.

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Mobile Relationship, a 2012 cartoon by Manu Cornet.

What is in question is why a smartphone should give a consumer only two or three years of use before needing replacement. That’s an expensive proposition for people who are struggling to meet the mortgage payments on a modest house. Do those people need iPhones instead of other phones that cost two or three hundred dollars? Of course not, especially since some of the high price of Apple products is driven by fashion, not usefulness. Now that many of the telecommunication carriers have adopted up front or installment payments for their phones instead of rolling the price into a monthly plan on a two year contract, effectively hiding the price as far as the consumer was concerned, maybe the question of why that consumer can expect less than half the useful life from a smartphone than from their home computer will come up more often, and if the question is asked by enough buyers, especially if they withhold some of their dollars by skipping this year’s model, then maybe the phone manufacturers will amend some of their questionable practices.
― Techly

 

A Pitch Too High

 

In trying to specifically target their advertisements and therefore get a higher return per ad, companies like to know as much as possible about the consumer, and lately some of them have resorted to using ultrasonic beacons embedded in their ads. Say you are at your desktop computer reading a news story from the online version of your local newspaper, and nearby on your desk is your smartphone, which is on but currently idle, or so you would assume. Unknown to you, one of the ads on the webpage you are looking at emits an ultrasonic beacon lasting about 5 seconds through your computer’s speakers. Most likely also unknown to you (because like most people you probably don’t bother to read all the permissions you grant an application when you install it), one or more of the applications on your smartphone pick up that ultrasonic beacon through the phone’s microphone and, through various commercial agreements also done without your knowledge, relays the packet of information encapsulated in the beacon, along with information contributed from the smartphone application, back to the advertiser on the webpage as well as to anyone else who has an interest in information about you.

 

The more advertisers know about you, the better, as far as they are concerned. The problem here is how sneaky they are being about collecting information. It is even possible for advertisers to embed ultrasonic beacons in television advertisements, though so far there is no proof any of them have done that. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates deceptive advertising practices, nonetheless recently warned 12 smartphone application developers about deceptively implying they were not monitoring users’ television viewing habits when in fact they were capable of doing so. Researchers recently discovered that as many as 234 Android applications are capable of using beacon technology. Unfortunately, it appears the FTC is reluctant to force the developers to divulge this capability to Android smartphone users. There is even less information available from Apple application developers.

 

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The Statue of Liberty, also known as a beacon of freedom, on Liberty Island in New York Harbor; photo by William Warby.

 

This cross-device tracking, as it is known, is as invasive and sneaky as it gets, yet there seems to be little political will to either outlaw it or regulate it. A warning letter? That’s all? In the 1950s and 60s there was a public outcry about subliminal messages in print and television advertising. While the effectiveness of subliminal advertising has always been dubious, people were nevertheless upset they were being manipulated in such a sneaky, underhanded way. Because of the public outcry, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was moved to state it would revoke the license of any broadcaster who used subliminal messages in programming or advertising, and the FTC stated that it would prosecute advertisers under Sections 5 and 12 of the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, which governs deceptive practices.

 

Given the remarkable similarity of ultrasonic beacons in electronic devices to subliminal messaging, in practice if not in usage, it’s difficult to understand why the FCC and FTC have not come down harder on the commercial use of this technology. The practice is the same because both seek to take advantage of consumers without their knowledge, and certainly not with their explicit approval; the usage is different because subliminal advertisers cast a wide net to boost sales, while companies employing beacons gather information about users in order to more specifically target them, like fish in a barrel. Until federal regulators take stronger action against the use of ultrasonic beacons, people upset by the practice will apparently have to rely on the more acute hearing of their dogs to alert them.
― Techly
His Master's Voice
His Master’s Voice, an 1898 painting by English artist Francis Barraud (1856-1924) of his brother’s dog, Nipper. The Victor Talking Machine Company began using the painting in 1900, and in 1929 the painting became the symbol of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), aka RCA Victor.

 

The Eggs Have It

 

 

There are Easter eggs for baskets and Easter eggs for computers, and for fun both types are hidden, the former only for the spring holiday, and the latter at any time of year.
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Easter eggs in the Czech Republic; photo by Karakal.
Still Life with Robin's Nest by Fidelia Bridges
Still Life with Robin’s Nest, an 1863 oil painting by Fidelia Bridges (1834-1923).

 

Oddly enough, the computer type of Easter egg is a little closer to nature in that, like the Robin’s nest of eggs concealed among the branches of trees, it is more subtle than the often highly decorated traditional Easter egg.

 

Have fun with both, and have a Happy Easter!
― Techly

American Robin Eggs in Nest

American Robin eggs in nest; photo by Laslovarga.

 

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