Start up: software to cut racism?, China’s CRISPR plan, inside Google Fiber, Excel’s biology flaw, and more

What if there isn’t life on alien planets? Would that be good or bad for our prospects? Picture by Ryan Somma on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Tax-exempt. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Can software make you less racist? • Coding Horror

Jef Atwood:


With Nextdoor, you’re more connected with your neighbors than ever before. But through that connection you may also find out some regressive things about your neighbors that you’d never have discovered in years of the traditional daily routine of polite waves, hellos from the driveway, and casual sidewalk conversations. [To wit: some are racist, whether through intent or accident.]

To their immense credit, rather than accepting this status quo, Nextdoor did what any self-respecting computer geek would do: they changed their software. Now, when you attempt to post about a crime or suspicious activity …

… you get smart, just in time nudges to think less about race, and more about behavior.

The results were striking:


Nextdoor claims this new multi-step system has, so far, reduced instances of racial profiling by 75%. It’s also decreased considerably the number of notes about crime and safety. During testing, the number of crime and safety issue reports abandoned before being published rose by 50%. “It’s a fairly significant dropoff,” said Tolia, “but we believe that, for Nextdoor, quality is more important than quantity.”


I’m a huge fan of designing software to help nudge people, at exactly the right time, to be their better selves. And this is a textbook example of doing it right.


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Global tablet shipments to up over 16% on quarter in 3Q16 • Digitimes Research

Jim Hsaio:


Global tablet shipments will bounce back 16.3% sequentially to reach nearly 47m units in the third quarter, but the volume will still be down over 10% compared to the same quarter a year ago, showing the market is still in no condition of recovering, according to Digitimes Research.

The sequential shipment growth is attributed to vendors’ inventory build-ups for the year-end holidays in Europe and North America and the fact that several emerging markets have seen improved economies, which has increased tablet demand, Digitimes Research said.

Despite the absence of new models for the second half of 2016, Apple will see its tablet shipment dip only slightly on year to 9.5 million units in the third quarter thanks to steady demand for 9.7iniPad Pro. However, shipments by white-box tablet makers are expected to increase significantly to 18.5m units in the third quarter on growing shipments to retail shops in the US and Europe and an easing in the supply of some key parts and components.


Apple plus the white-box (no-name Android) vendors will be over half of volume, which doesn’t leave much for the bigger players. Notable too: “Lenovo may temporarily outperform Amazon to take the third position in third-quarter rankings, but its tablet business unit has decided to shift its focus to Chromebooks and other Android devices.”

In other words: there’s no profit in branded Android tablets (unless you’re Samsung).
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Fourteen years after decriminalizing all drugs, here’s what Portugal looks like •

Zeeshan Aleem:


In 2001, the Portuguese government did something that the United States would find entirely alien. After many years of waging a fierce war on drugs, it decided to flip its strategy entirely: it decriminalized them all.

If someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine; otherwise, the person is sent off without any penalty. A vast majority of the time, there is no penalty.

Fourteen years after decriminalization, Portugal has not been run into the ground by a nation of drug addicts. In fact, by many measures, it’s doing far better than it was before.


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Subscribe and Save on Amazon? Don’t count on it • The New York Times

Brian Chen:


What do subscriptions to a newspaper, magazine or Netflix account have in common? Once you sign up, you expect to pay the same rate every month.

Yet that’s not the case at Amazon when you subscribe to its Subscribe & Save program, which automatically refills orders for household staples like instant coffee, napkins or trash bags.

Amazon’s subscription program, which was introduced in 2007, lets consumers register to have their favorite consumables delivered regularly — monthly, for example — in exchange for a discount of at least 5% off each order. Buried in the e-commerce company’s terms and conditions is that the Subscribe & Save discount is applied to the price of the item at the time that the order is placed. And on Amazon, prices change frequently — including sometimes rising.

I learned this the hard way while reviewing an email summary of my Amazon subscriptions. A pack of lint rollers that I had subscribed to for more than two years recently jumped to $18.04 a pack, up from $12.44 since the last delivery a few months ago, or almost a 50% increase.

A quick web search revealed other consumers were also surprised by price jumps for Subscribe & Save items. One Amazon customer said he signed up for a $10 box of chewing gum and was charged $100 for the same product a month later. In Amazon’s online forums, dozens of people posted about prices of Subscribe & Save items fluctuating, with some calling the program a “bait and switch” subscription scheme.


Often suspected, now confirmed. What about for one-off items when you’re logged in, logged out, or accessing by Tor? That varies too.
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This 100-year-old to-do list hack still works like a charm • Fast Company

James Clear:


Ivy Ledbetter Lee was a successful businessman in his own right and is widely remembered as a pioneer in the field of public relations. As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, “Show me a way to get more things done.”

“Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives,” Lee replied.

“How much will it cost me?” Schwab asked.

“Nothing,” Lee said. “Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.”

During his 15 minutes with each executive, Lee explained his simple method for achieving peak productivity:

• At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
• Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
• When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
• Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
• Repeat this process every working day.

The strategy sounded simple, but Schwab and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000 [worth about $400,000 in today’s money].


To which you sort of hope Lee would say “What sort of shortchanging bastard are you?” But it’s a good technique, reputedly.
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inside the battle over Google Fiber • The Information

Kevin McLaughlin, on the project which has been going since 2010 and wanted to have passed 40m homes and have 5m subscribers by 2015 – but has instead come to six cities and got about 200,000 broadband users and perhaps 53,000 TV subscribers:


Last month, Alphabet CEO Larry Page ordered Google Fiber’s chief, Craig Barratt, to halve the size of the Google Fiber team to 500 people, said the second person close to Alphabet. (The Google Fiber unit is now known as Access.)

Mr. Page has also told Mr. Barratt to reduce the current cost of bringing Google Fiber to customers’ homes to one-tenth the current level.

Keeping Google Fiber going using cheaper technology and with lower overhead reflects a tenuous compromise among a group of senior executives at Alphabet with mixed feelings about the project. On one side, Alphabet co-founders Mr. Page and Sergey Brin aren’t satisfied with the pace of Google Fiber’s rollout or the costs.

CFO Ruth Porat, though known as a cost-cutter, has played a mediator role. She has told Mr. Page that Google Fiber has a solid business model that can succeed, and needs to be given time to work, said the person close to Alphabet. “She is in the middle saying, ‘Hey, relax, this is a complicated business, let’s see what they can do with the budget they have,” the person said. Still, “the Fiber group is on a pretty tight leash and getting a lot of feedback that they should solve the problems with technology,” using wireless.


Demanding the cost is cut by 90% is a typical Page move – demand what seems impossible, see what happens.
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Microsoft Excel blamed for gene study errors • BBC News


The researchers claimed the problem is present in “approximately one-fifth of papers” that collated data in Excel documents.
The trio, writing for the Melbourne-based academic institute Baker IDI, scanned 3,597 published scientific papers to conduct their study.

They found 704 of those papers contained gene name errors created by Excel.

Ewan Birney, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, does not blame Excel and told the BBC: “What frustrates me is researchers are relying on Excel spreadsheets for clinical trials.”

The Excel gene renaming issue [where genes such as Septin 2, known as SEPT2, appear as the date September 2nd] has been known among the scientific community for more than a decade, Birney added.
He recommended that the program should only be considered for “lightweight scientific analysis”.


“Lightweight”. Ouch.
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Jig Saw : Daniel Eatock


This work was created for the Deptford Design Challenge, an annual project in which thirty artists/designers are invited to redesign discarded objects from the Deptford Thrift Market (London). Eatock selected a 2000-piece “JR” puzzle depicting a thatched English country cottage, photographed the loose puzzle pieces on a tabletop and used the resulting print as the image of a second puzzle. Gallery visitors are invited to assemble the loose pieces.


“What have you got me for Christmas?”

“It’s a 2000-piece puzzle..”
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Chinese scientists to pioneer first human CRISPR trial • Nature News & Comment

David Cyranoski:


Chinese scientists are on the verge of being first in the world to inject people with cells modified using the CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing technique.

A team led by Lu You, an oncologist at Sichuan University’s West China Hospital in Chengdu, plans to start testing such cells in people with lung cancer next month. The clinical trial received ethical approval from the hospital’s review board on 6 July.

“It’s an exciting step forward,” says Carl June, a clinical researcher in immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

There have been a number of human clinical trials using an alternative gene-editing technique, including one led by June, that have helped patients combat HIV. June is also a scientific adviser on a planned US trial that would also use CRISPR–Cas9-modified cells for the treatment of cancer.

Last month, an advisory panel of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved that project. But the trial also requires a green light from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and a university review board. The US researchers have said they could start their clinical trial by the end of this year.


Notable step. Could be huge; could be a flop; could be “great, but just for special cases” – which seems most likely.
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Why i hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing • Nick Bostrom

From 2008, but still relevant after the latest discovery of an Earth-like planet near another sun:


From these two facts [no observed alien civilisations; space is REALLY big] it follows that there exists a “Great Filter”. 1 The Great Filter can be thought of as a probability barrier. It consists of exist one of more highly improbable evolutionary transitions or steps whose occurrence is required in order for an Earth‐like planet to produce an intelligent civilization of a type that would be visible to us with our current observation technology. You start with billions and billions of potential germination points for life, and you end up with a sum total of zero extraterrestrial civilizations that we can observe. The Great Filter must therefore be powerful enough— which is to say, the critical steps must be improbable enough—that even with many billions rolls of the dice, one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals, at least none that we can detect in our neck of the woods.

Now, an important question for us is, just where might this Great Filter be located? There are two basic possibilities: It might be behind us, somewhere in our distant past. Or it might be ahead of us, somewhere in the millennia or decades to come. Let us ponder these possibilities in turn.


See if you can work out which of those two possibilities is preferable. Bostrom’s essay is unhurried and thorough, yet economical.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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