This Week in the Mercury


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Wake Me When They Have a "Dislike" Button

Posted by Paul Constant on Tue, Dec 10, 2013 at 9:44 AM

Lucy Kinder at the Telegraph says:

Facebook is developing a 'sympathise' button as an alternative to the 'like' button.

If a user tags their status with a negative emotion, then his or her friends will be able to 'sympathise' with the post rather than press the 'like' button.

Of course, Facebook will never have a "dislike" button because Facebook is an advertising platform, and everything on Facebook has to be happy and like-able all the time. That's the problem with Facebook.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I've Got Drones in Different Area Codes

Posted by Paul Constant on Tue, Dec 3, 2013 at 9:44 AM

The real question: Who filled out the form?


Monday, December 2, 2013

Amazon Really Thinks It Can Deliver Packages by Drone?

Posted by Eli Sanders on Mon, Dec 2, 2013 at 9:44 AM

The company's calling the service Prime Air, and CEO Jeff Bezos says it could be a reality in four or five years. Bezos also suggested to 60 Minutes that the biggest obstacle to achieving drone delivery will be the government:

The hardest challenge in making this happen is going to be demonstrating, to the standards of the FAA, that this is a safe thing to do.

At present, it's illegal to use drones for commercial purposes in the United States. That's because, as I wrote in in The Magazine (free for 48 hours in honor of Prime Air), the government is not at all ready for a future filled with flying delivery robots.

I'm not sure current drone technology is ready for that future, either. Bezos sounds confident, but you'll notice Amazon's sample delivery drone doesn't fly through a bunch of urban canyons on the way to its happy customer—just over an empty field. You'll also notice that the happy customer stays inside while the drone lands.

This made me think of last year's International Aerial Robotics Competition, where I saw a number of wounds caused by drone blades. Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and current head of DIY Drones, described some potential delivery drones to me as "flying lawnmowers." Given all that, I think it's going to take considerably more than four or five years to convince regulators, customers, and even a lot of drone enthusiasts that this won't be a consequence of drone delivery:

A contestant at the 2012 International Aerial Robotics Competition, showing me wounds caused by drone blades.
  • E.S.
  • A contestant at the 2012 International Aerial Robotics Competition, showing me wounds caused by drone blades.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

It's Been a Bad Year for Television

Posted by Paul Constant on Tue, Nov 26, 2013 at 10:44 AM

Business Insider's Jim Edwards says that television is having a bad time of it:

Audience ratings have collapsed: Aside from a brief respite during the Olympics, there has been only negative ratings growth on broadcast and cable TV since September 2011, according to Citi Research.

Media stock analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson recently noted, "The pay-TV industry has reported its worst 12-month stretch ever." All the major TV providers lost a collective 113,000 subscribers in Q3 2013. That doesn't sound like a huge deal — but it includes internet subscribers, too.

Broadband internet was supposed to benefit from the end of cable TV, but it hasn't.

In all, about 5 million people ended their cable and broadband subs between the beginning of 2010 and the end of this year.

This is incredibly obvious, but whoever manages to fix television is going to make a fortune. The solution we have right now—an array of boxes, hooked up to an old-school television—is obviously better than paying an insane amount of money every month for an unchanging package of channels, most of which we don't even watch. But everyone's working on an elegant television that truly embraces the internet and makes it simple. It's been years since Steve Jobs bragged to his biographer that he "finally cracked" an interface that makes television a futuristic joy to use. Google TV flopped hard, although their Chromecast device looks like a second chance at a Roku-like box. Intel's supposed game-changing TV service looks to be a failure. But somebody's got to be able to change the way we watch television, because the audience for a cable replacement is there, and it's growing at a rapid rate. Once someone presents a truly simple, unified solution, those numbers will tip over into levels that will represent armageddon for the traditional cable industry.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Like It Or Not, the Internet Is Changing Our Language

Posted by Paul Constant on Tue, Nov 19, 2013 at 1:59 PM

1. "Selfie" is the word of the year, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED's earliest documented selfie was mentioned in an online forum in 2002.

2002 ABC Online (forum posting) 13 Sept.
“Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped ofer [sic] and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

2. This morning, Megan Garber at The Atlantic notes that linguists have acknowledged a new use for the word "because," which they are calling "the 'prepositional-because.' Or the 'because-noun.'" (Example: These people are protesting President Obama because racism.) It's a shorthand way of explaining the cause of something, often used for humorous effect. This is a common formulation on the internet—I've used it a few times myself—and, yes, it does feel faddish. But, then, fads help English feel alive.

3. But because I'm human, some internet constructions do drive me batty. "All the feels," for instance, drives me up a fucking wall. Why not explain the feelings you're feeling? When you talk about "feels," you're sacrificing clarity for the sake of a used-up internet joke. And I think "I CAN'T EVEN." teetered over into cliche territory a year or so ago. But the thing that drives me batty is when people say "This" as a way of saying "I endorse this message," sometimes magnified as "So much this." It's usually used on social media, where you can already signify your endorsement of the comment by favoriting, or retweeting, or liking, or upvoting. It adds absolutely nothing to a conversation except additional static. When these constructions boost the creativity and clarity of a statement, I appreciate them. When they can be used as a fill-in-the-blank response to a situation, I tend to hate them. But they're going to keep going, no matter what, because English.

Monday, October 28, 2013

I Hope They Name It "Skynet"

Posted by Paul Constant on Mon, Oct 28, 2013 at 9:59 AM

CNET's Daniel Terdiman broke the story that Google appears to be building a mysterious four-story-tall barge just off the coast of Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay:

Google did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But after going through lease agreements, tracking a contact tied to the project on LinkedIn, talking to locals on Treasure Island, and consulting with experts, it's all but certain that Google is the entity that is building the massive structure that's in plain sight, but behind tight security.

Could the structure be a sea-faring data center? One expert who was shown pictures of the structure thinks so, especially because being on a barge provides easy access to a source of cooling, as well as an inexpensive source of power — the sea. And even more tellingly, Google was granted a patent in 2009 for a floating data center, and putting data centers inside shipping containers is already a well-established practice.

Until Google talks openly about the floating structure, I think it's time for some wild supposition. Is Google secretly constructing a Googly Promised Land to survive the apocalypse, which the search company's complex algorithms predict will be arriving any day now? Are they building a structure in which to imprison Bing and store it safely away from humanity forever? Does it all, finally, come down to Godzilla?

Monday, September 30, 2013

How to Dance Your Job Away

Posted by Paul Constant on Mon, Sep 30, 2013 at 1:59 PM

So, this happened over the weekend:

Her name is Marina V. Shifrin and somebody should hire her. But nobody should feel sorry for her, because, as The Onion explained not so long ago, by leaving the aggregation/pageview business, she avoided a terrible fate.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

You Don't Need Facebook On Your Phone

Posted by Paul Constant on Wed, Sep 25, 2013 at 2:44 PM

The other day, I was trying to make room on my home screen for an app—One Bus Away needed better placement—and so I decided to move Facebook off the home screen. It was inadvertently the smartest thing I've done this month. It turns out, when Facebook isn't on the home screen, I never think of Facebook. When I don't think of Facebook, I'm not checking Facebook every time I get bored while standing in line or waiting for the bus. When I don't check Facebook, I'm not continually bombarded with photographs of food or misquotes of something Albert Einstein said. I'm not unconsciously trying to figure out what that vague, passive-aggressive status update means. I'm not occupying my mind with Facebook junk.

The thing is, moving Facebook off my home screen actually made me happier in a small way. I really enjoyed not thinking about Facebook every time I was looking for a momentary distraction. I'm not saying this as a Luddite. I still love Twitter; I find it useful and I enjoy the pure timeline of it. I'll check Facebook on my desktop on a sanely regular basis to check in on my good friends who are scattered across the country. But not seeing that goddamned blue square with the F in it every time I turned my phone on was a real pleasure. And then, this happened:


You guys, the moral of the story is that you should always listen to Anna Minard. I deleted my Facebook app yesterday, and I'm so much happier, knowing that Facebook isn't anywhere on my phone. I encourage you to give it a try. Give it a week. You can always download the app again if you find you miss it. It's free and easy to find. It'll still be there, I promise. You might even wind up feeling a little bit better without it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Shutting Down Comments for Science

Posted by Paul Constant on Tue, Sep 24, 2013 at 3:01 PM

In a post at Popular Science titled "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments," Suzanne LaBarre writes:

Comments can be bad for science. That's why, here at, we're shutting them off...That is not to suggest that we are the only website in the world that attracts vexing commenters. Far from it. Nor is it to suggest that all, or even close to all, of our commenters are shrill, boorish specimens of the lower internet phyla. We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters.

But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests.

There are no comments on the story.

In other news, YouTube is trying to make their comments less of a cesspool. Gizmodo explains how.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Text & Drive": Finally a Way to Text... and Drive!

Posted by Wm.™ Steven Humphrey on Thu, Sep 19, 2013 at 2:29 PM

Anti-texting and driving laws! UNNNNNGGGGHHHHHH!!! Amirite? I don't know who thought these laws were a good idea, because it's totally boning up my sweet texts and tweets while I'm trying to zipper merge. Thank god then for the new product that makes texting and driving so much easier: "Text & Drive"! For drivers! Who text! AND DRIVE!!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

And So It Begins

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Tue, Sep 10, 2013 at 2:59 PM

Cinema as we know it is dead, today's children don't even have the attention spans to pay attention to a goddamn cartoon, imagine the sort of behavior you're teaching these screeching little cretins, etc.

The Walt Disney Studios invites animation fans to experience a classic film like never before with a new interactive theatrical event for the whole family: “Second Screen Live: The Little Mermaid.”

Beginning September 20, this beloved musical adventure returns to select theaters for a special limited engagement, only this time viewers are encouraged to become a part of the story. This unique engagement marks the debut of Disney Second Screen Live, a new second-screen technology that allows audiences to engage with the film, each other and their fellow audience members.

By simply downloading the free “Second Screen Live: The Little Mermaid App” to an Apple iPad or iPad mini and bringing their Mermaid-loaded devices to participating theaters, fans and families can interact with the film, play games, find hidden treasure, sing along, and compete with the audience for the chance to win great prizes!

More info here, should you or your dull-eyed offspring care to participate in the irreparable and cataclysmic destruction of the formerly enjoyable moviegoing experience.

What Do You Think About the New iPhone Announcement?

Posted by Paul Constant on Tue, Sep 10, 2013 at 1:14 PM

Apple just had their big annual iPhone hootenanny. Announcements include a release date for iOS 7; a cheaper, plastic iPhone 5C in multiple colors; and the iPhone 5S, which comes with a better camera, a new fancy gold shade, and—some seem to think this is the biggest deal—a fingerprint scanner.

At the moment, Wall Street seems unimpressed. What do you think?

iOS 7: The Revenge of Jony Ive

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Tue, Sep 10, 2013 at 11:44 AM

Up until today, the aesthetic of Apple's operating systems—and, as a result, the aesthetic of everybody else's operating systems—were defined by skeuomorphism, a word I had no idea existed and still have no idea how to pronounce but totally know what it means. So do you. It's this:


Thanks Wikipedia! In other words, it's something new that's designed to look like something old, something familiar—and it's what operating systems have relied on to help idiots like you and me use our computers and phones. It was a visual and emotional language that made it so mouth-breathers like us didn't have to learn programming language, and Apple, in particular, used it a lot—from folders and trash cans and address books to iBooks' wooden bookshelves and Game Center's dorky card table. But with their new iOS, they're getting rid of it. All of it. BURNING IT. Because now Steve Jobs is dead, and Apple designer Jony Ive is finally free at last to get rid of all that goddamn stitching and torn paper and green felt, and this is THE FUTURE.

I read a bunch of blogs about iOS 7 this morning (wheeee!), but the only thing I enjoyed reading was Claire Evans' A Eulogy for Skeuomorphism. I would advise you to read it to, should you be someone who uses computers or phones.

Our world of scrolling tabs and nesting folders, despite its lack of bearing to the modern office, is a sticky cultural space: here in 2013, it feels like a set of semantic parameters embeded into the system explicitly to remind us, the users, of our own history. As we employ the desktop metaphors, ubiquitously and unthinkingly, we incant the past. We stopped using scrolls a century ago, but with every web-browse we preserve the idea. Each of the individual skeuomorphic bits now vanishing from the Apple OS—woodgrain shelves stacked with files posturing as leatherbound books, et al—might have been inconsequential, but collecitvely, in concert with the broader metaphors of desktop and mouse, they breathed familiarity into an otherwise flat space, a space built by people but which creeps, perpetually, away from us. (Via.)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Apple iPhone 5s Announcement Preview

Posted by Alex Falcone on Mon, Sep 9, 2013 at 9:59 AM

It's that time again! It's time for Apple to release the newest, most incrediblest, revolutionariest piece of technology ever shown by guys wearing jeans on stage. Don't worry, you don't need to watch to announcement because I've tracked all the most accurate analysis, speculation, rumor, leak, and made-up nonsense and I'm here to give you the full announcement preview!

Introducing the iPhone 5S
Apple will continue their trend of releasing the phone they wished they had last year and putting an "S" after the number to stand for "Sooner or later". The phone will look pretty much the same on the outside, but with a bunch of fixes to problems that they denied existing on the previous version.

iOS 7
The 5sssss (it's impossible to see it and not picture a snake making the announcement) will be the first phone to ship with the new iOS 7 announced back in June. Lube up your eyes because they're about to get reamed with color.

Black, white, and… gold all over?
Speaking of colors, one of the more interesting rumors is Apple's revolutionary idea to have a phone be a color other than black or white! We all know Apple invented the color white a couple years after the first iPhone came out, but now they're going to do it all over again by painting a phone gold! Don't worry, they'll leave a small hole at the base of the phone's spine so it doesn't suffocate.

Rumors have suggested either gold or champagne colored, but either way, it's something the Apple board is well experienced with. Other case designs the team experimented with: $100 bill green and something called "Suicide Net Brown." [Update: Apple's PR sent me a correction: The actual color was "Happy Fun Time Net For Well Paid Employees STOP CRYING Brown."]


Thumb print scanner?
Finally a way to keep your kid from charging $10k to your iTunes account while you're having Candy Crush babysit him. Note: This will not happen.

A revolutionary, miraculous, physically impossible, improved camera.
A tiny bit faster? Better flash? Don't worry, you'll still be able to undo all the improvements with a simple Instagram filter.

Surprise announcement!
There's always at least one surprise at these iCircleJerks. Last year they replace Google maps with Apple maps. My prediction: this time they're replacing YouTube with iTube. It'll look pretty nice and none of the videos are where you expect them to be.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Today in the Surveillance State: The Virtues of Police Cameras

Posted by BRENDAN KILEY on Thu, Aug 22, 2013 at 1:59 PM

Surveillance is inevitable—I don't write about it because I think there's any real chance of it going away, but because the smarter we are about how we let it get introduced into our lives (and the more we know about how it's being introduced without our participation, permission, or consent), the better off we'll be down the road. That's the hope, anyway.

So here's a nugget of hopefulness about the effects of surveillance cameras in Rialto, California:

In the first year after the cameras were introduced here in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.

And while Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg railed against the federal court, which ordered New York to arm some of its own police officers with cameras, the Rialto Police Department believes it stands as an example of how effective the cameras can be. Starting Sept. 1, all 66 uniformed officers here will be wearing a camera during every shift...

“When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” Chief Farrar said. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

Here's the question—should those camera images stream directly onto some publicly accessible platform? That'd be the real way to democratize surveillance and to change police behavior. If we can be watched by law enforcement at any given time, and without our knowledge, why shouldn't we have the option of watching back?

Corollary: All police firearms should be equipped with cameras that automatically begin filming as soon as the gun's safety is switched off. If a public servant is firing the public's bullets out of a public gun, the public has every right to see exactly where those bullets are being aimed.

The Gospel According to Facebook

Posted by Wm.™ Steven Humphrey on Thu, Aug 22, 2013 at 9:59 AM

I make no apologies for disliking church. I was forced to go for the first 15 years of my life, and I figure I've done my time. HOWEVER! I'm seriously reconsidering my stance after seeing this kickass gospel choir performing a hilariously level-headed song called, "Keep Your Business off Facebook." If preachers continue handing out good advice about not oversharing on social media sites? I might pop by some Sunday for a sermon or two.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

HuffPo Is Ending Anonymous Comments

Posted by Bethany Jean Clement on Wed, Aug 21, 2013 at 2:07 PM

Arianna says:

Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier, and I just came from London where there are rape and death threats... I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and not hiding behind anonymity. We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up Internet.

More at

Comment anonymously in comments!

The Internet Is Not Confidential

Posted by Paul Constant on Wed, Aug 21, 2013 at 9:44 AM

Ken White at Popehat writes:

For ten years Pamela Jones has run Groklaw, a site collecting, discussing, and explaining legal developments of interest to the open-source software community. Her efforts have, justifiably, won many awards.

She's done now...Pamela Jones is ending Groklaw because she can't trust her government. She's ending it because, in the post-9/11 era, there's no viable and reliable way to assure that our email won't be read by the state — because she can't confidently communicate privately with her readers and tipsters and subjects and friends and family.

You should read the whole Groklaw post on this, and really take the moral of the story to heart: The internet is not a safe way to transmit confidential communications. That is a real conclusion reached by real lawyers, and it's hard to imagine someone making an argument to the contrary.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Facebook Could Be Planning to Drop 15-Second Ads Into Your News Feed

Posted by Paul Constant on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 at 9:14 AM

Well! There goes Facebook. Bloomberg says:

Facebook Inc. (FB), seeking to break the long-held dominance of television over advertising budgets, plans to sell TV-style commercials on its site for as much as $2.5 million a day, two people familiar with the matter said.

The world’s largest social-networking site, which has 1.15 billion members, expects to start offering 15-second spots to advertisers later this year, according to the people, who asked not to be named because the plans aren’t public.

But don't worry! It'll be totally tasteful. According to the article, "Facebook members won’t see a spot more than three times in a given day."


Monday, July 29, 2013

Are Commenters Still Commenters When They're Writing Headlines?

Posted by Paul Constant on Mon, Jul 29, 2013 at 9:59 AM

Nieman Journalism Lab's Adrienne LaFrance says that Gawker CEO Nick Denton is adjusting the commenter/reporter relationship:

Tonight Gawker is rolling out a new kind of reblogging functionality to Kinja so that readers can top the articles they share with their own headlines and introductions. (It’ll first enable Gawker Media staffers to re-top stories; that power will roll out to all readers soon.) “Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers,” Denton told the Lab earlier this year. “And at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”...The idea is to give anyone the ability to reframe an existing article for any audience. Think of it like super-aggregating: You can share an entire article rather than just quoting excerpts or linking to the original, but you can also top it with your own headline, lede, and commentary. “For instance, say a story was written for gamers — they can translate it for a more general audience,” Denton said. “And, if that URL is shared, it is shared with the new headline and intro.”

This is an interesting idea that could take the idea of blogging—citizen journalism—to the obvious next level. I get the sense that Denton would like to completely obliterate the idea of authorship. Which would certainly make running Gawker a cheaper prospect. And I think it could be a correct assumption about the future of news and blogging; the internet's remix culture hasn't yet penetrated text the way it's gotten into images and video, but it's only a matter of time before block quotes and bylines start to break down and text becomes a crowdsourced proposition.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Another State Against Government Spying

Posted by Eli Sanders on Fri, Jul 19, 2013 at 9:44 AM

First there was Montana's law against government spying on cell phones. Now, New Jersey is moving in a similar direction:

Staking out new ground in the noisy debate about technology and privacy in law enforcement, the New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that the police will now have to get a search warrant before obtaining tracking information from cellphone providers.

How common is it for local police departments to track cell phones? Way more common than you might think.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

If You Think NSA Snooping Is Bad Now, Wait Until We Can Upload Our Brains to Computers

Posted by Eli Sanders on Thu, Jun 20, 2013 at 9:44 AM

A top futurist at Google says it's going to be possible by the year 2045:

In just over 30 years, humans will be able to upload their entire minds to computers and become digitally immortal - an event called singularity - according to a futurist from Google.

Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, also claims that the biological parts of our body will be replaced with mechanical parts and this could happen as early as 2100.

Kurzweil made the claims during his conference speech at the Global Futures 2045 International Congress in New York at the weekend.

The alleged upside to all this: you're online forever!

Friday, June 7, 2013

President Obama: "You Can't Have 100% Security, and Also Then Have 100% Privacy and 0 Inconvenience."

Posted by Paul Constant on Fri, Jun 7, 2013 at 1:29 PM

In a press conference this morning, President Obama addressed the NSA surveillance programs, saying "we're gonna have to make some choices as a society" to examine how we deal with privacy issues and terrorism. Here's the whole exchange:

Monday, June 3, 2013

Supreme Court Says DNA Testing of Arrestees Is "Reasonable"

Posted by Paul Constant on Mon, Jun 3, 2013 at 2:14 PM

Steve wrote about this in Good Morning News, but this story deserves your attention, so I'm going to highlight it in its own post:

A narrowly divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that police can collect DNA from people arrested but not yet convicted of serious crimes, a tool that more than half the states already use to help crack unsolved crimes..."DNA identification of arrestees is a reasonable search that can be considered part of a routine booking procedure," [Justice Anthony] Kennedy said. "Taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee's DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment."

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote an angry dissent for himself and three liberal justices, charging that the decision will lead to an increased use of DNA testing in violation of the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches.

This is certainly a power that the government will never manage to misuse, right? This Supreme Court is George W. Bush's most important legacy. For at least a decade to come, the law of the land will continue to be interpreted like it's 2003, when Americans were eager to give up any right as long as they could feel safe.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Introducing Yahoomblr?

Posted by Paul Constant on Fri, May 17, 2013 at 3:29 PM

On Monday, Yahoo is holding a press conference, according to TechCrunch. This comes after the company's recent buying spree, and it closely follows rumors that Yahoo is considering spending a billion dollars to buy Tumblr:

On Monday, it seems that we may get a better sense of what Yahoo plans to do with all these new acquisitions, as CNBC is reporting that Yahoo will be holding a “product-related” news event on Monday in New York City. Marissa Mayer will reportedly be speaking at the press conference, but that’s all we know about the contents of the event at this point.

I do get the sense that Tumblr could be a bigger deal than it already is—it's about one-third of a social network and two-thirds of a blogging platform, which seems like a good position to be in—but I'm not sure that Yahoo is the company to bring it to its full potential. But new CEO Marissa Mayer has accomplished what seemed like the impossible a couple years ago: She's got people talking about Yahoo again.

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