Spoken language seems to have a maximum bitrate. Weird yet true. CC-licensed photo by Andy Field on Flickr.
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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.
EU’s new digital czar: ‘most powerful regulator of big tech on the planet’ • The New York Times
As the European Union’s competition commissioner, she and her army of lawyers became heroes to many critics of Big Tech, even as they were loathed in some corporate offices and in the White House.
“She hates the United States,” President Trump said, “perhaps worse than any person I’ve ever met.”
On Tuesday, Ms. Vestager assumed more power than ever, expanding her portfolio to become the equivalent of the European Union’s digital czar.
It’s a job that analysts say will give her unmatched regulatory reach at a time when public anger is rising over issues like privacy, disinformation, data management and the enormous reach of the largest technology companies — like Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook — into the everyday lives of billions of people.
“Margrethe Vestager will be the most powerful regulator of Big Tech on the planet,” said Thomas Vinje, a veteran antitrust lawyer based in Brussels. “She will have more leverage than anyone else in the world.”
Ms. Vestager’s enhanced status reflects the European Union’s ambition to become the most activist tech regulator in the world, creating a far-reaching role for itself in the global economy. European officials see an opening to become the trusted global regulator, especially as their American counterparts have been criticized for doing too little.
As the digital giants branch out into new areas, including finance with Facebook’s proposed Libra cryptocurrency, regulators are finding it harder to keep up with the complex, highly sophisticated and opaque nature of the companies they’re meant to oversee, experts say.
Vestager has tried very, very hard, and has been the only person to really try to regulate the big tech companies. But even her powers to fine aren’t big enough.
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It’s time to forcibly reform big tech • WIRED UK
Carl Miller, of the thinktank Demos:
telling the tech giants to sort out the problems they’ve caused just makes them more powerful, with enormous latitude to both define the problem and work out solutions. We have asked them to become counter-radicalisation specialists. Social cohesion experts. Digital literacy trainers. Cybercrime police. Guardians of open journalism. In some cases, the arbiter of truth itself.
This simply isn’t what private companies are set up to do. They lack the accountability, democratic oversight, or public transparency to make morally hazardous distinctions like defining fake news. Especially when those distinctions can transform the global news diet.
We need to remind ourselves that technology companies are profit-maximising entities with fiduciary duties to their investors. They have earnings calls. They need to return dividends. They need to show capital appreciation. The solutions they propose are business decisions as much as moral ones. In a clash of incentives, they are always going to pick growth over safety, and engagement over decency. It’s not because they’re evil. They’re just not not evil. They’re companies like any other, trying to make money within the law – because that is actually what their legal responsibility is.
Reform through embarrassment is also incredibly iniquitous to the countries and communities that cannot embarrass the tech giants. Facebook has been active in fighting electoral interference in America, Germany, and the UK. But the story is very different if you’re in Georgia or Kosovo. Smaller markets, less widely spoken languages – or just people who aren’t journalists, politicians or celebrities – always lose out when the enforcement of basic standards and rules boils down to corporate reputation-management. The rich, visible and powerful tend to be protected in this arrangement while others lose out.
3D Ken Burns effect from a single image • Simon Niklaus
The Ken Burns effect allows animating still images with a virtual camera scan and zoom. Adding parallax, which results in the 3D Ken Burns effect, enables significantly more compelling results. Creating such effects manually is time-consuming and demands sophisticated editing skills. Existing automatic methods, however, require multiple input images from varying viewpoints.
In this paper, we introduce a framework that synthesizes the 3D Ken Burns effect from a single image, supporting both a fully automatic mode and an interactive mode with the user controlling the camera.
The promo video is really impressive.
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Human speech may have a universal transmission rate: 39 bits per second • AAAS
Italians are some of the fastest speakers on the planet, chattering at up to nine syllables per second. Many Germans, on the other hand, are slow enunciators, delivering five to six syllables in the same amount of time. Yet in any given minute, Italians and Germans convey roughly the same amount of information, according to a new study. Indeed, no matter how fast or slowly languages are spoken, they tend to transmit information at about the same rate: 39 bits per second, about twice the speed of Morse code.
“This is pretty solid stuff,” says Bart de Boer, an evolutionary linguist who studies speech production at the Free University of Brussels, but was not involved in the work. Language lovers have long suspected that information-heavy languages—those that pack more information about tense, gender, and speaker into smaller units, for example—move slowly to make up for their density of information, he says, whereas information-light languages such as Italian can gallop along at a much faster pace. But until now, no one had the data to prove it.
Scientists started with written texts from 17 languages, including English, Italian, Japanese, and Vietnamese. They calculated the information density of each language in bits—the same unit that describes how quickly your cellphone, laptop, or computer modem transmits information. They found that Japanese, which has only 643 syllables, had an information density of about 5 bits per syllable, whereas English, with its 6949 syllables, had a density of just over 7 bits per syllable. Vietnamese, with its complex system of six tones (each of which can further differentiate a syllable), topped the charts at 8 bits per syllable.
Now I’m wondering about a world where there’s a language which transmits information more quickly. And also about how quickly reading transmits information. Plus: what about folk who listen to podcasts at 2x speed?
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Period tracker apps: Maya and MIA Fem are sharing deeply personal data with Facebook • Buzzfeed News
UK-based advocacy group Privacy International, sharing its findings exclusively with BuzzFeed News, discovered period-tracking apps including MIA Fem and Maya sent women’s use of contraception, the timings of their monthly periods, symptoms like swelling and cramps, and more, directly to Facebook.
Women use such apps for a range of purposes, from tracking their period cycles to maximizing their chances of conceiving a child. On the Google Play store, Maya, owned by India-based Plackal Tech, has more than 5 million downloads. Period Tracker MIA Fem: Ovulation Calculator, owned by Cyprus-based Mobapp Development Limited, says it has more than 2 million users around the world. They are also available on the App Store.
The data sharing with Facebook happens via Facebook’s Software Development Kit (SDK), which helps app developers incorporate particular features and collect user data so Facebook can show them targeted ads, among other functions. When a user puts personal information into an app, that information may also be sent by the SDK to Facebook.
Asked about the report, Facebook told BuzzFeed News it had gotten in touch with the apps Privacy International identified to discuss possible violations of its terms of service, including sending prohibited types of sensitive information.
The U1 chip in the iPhone 11 is the beginning of an Ultra Wideband revolution • Six Colors
Apple likes talking about the awesome chips it designs for its iPhones, but it hates even hinting at products it hasn’t yet announced. The new U1 chip—introduced with the iPhone 11 but never mentioned on stage at Tuesday’s iPhone event—strikes at the heart of this conflict. Embedded in the U1 is new technology that may dramatically change how our various intelligent devices interact with each other, but Apple is only using it to make a small addition to AirDrop.
Of course, the story is more complicated. If you believe the reports that Apple is working on a tracking accessory that will let you locate just about any object with extreme precision, then the lack of a keynote mention starts to make sense. Apple will probably be ready to talk up Ultra Wideband (UWB), the wireless standard that powers the U1, the very moment that product is released. Until then, we’re left with a paragraph on Apple’s website:
The new Apple‑designed U1 chip uses Ultra Wideband technology for spatial awareness — allowing iPhone 11 Pro to understand its precise location relative to other nearby U1‑equipped Apple devices. It’s like adding another sense to iPhone, and it’s going to lead to amazing new capabilities.
Amazing new capabilities, eh? The Apple marketing copy has it right—UWB’s technological trick is allowing devices to pinpoint one another’s locations in the real world with great precision. From raw data alone, UWB devices can detect locations within 10cm (4in), but depending on implementation that accuracy can be lowered to as much as 5mm, according to Mickael Viot, VP of marketing at UWB chipmaker Decawave.
Terrific piece, and it really feels like Apple is going to announce something in October around this. UWB has been a technology waiting to happen for about a decade. Yet Apple is the first company to incorporate a UWB chip in a phone.
Also worth reading: a Quora answer about “what’s the U1 chip?” by Brian Roemelle, which quotes from Apple’s own page about the U1:
The new Apple‑designed U1 chip uses Ultra Wideband technology for spatial awareness — allowing iPhone 11 to precisely locate other U1‑equipped Apple devices. Think GPS at the scale of your living room. So if you want to share a file with someone using AirDrop, just point your iPhone at theirs and they’ll be first on the list.
Yeah, but that’ll turn into “your lost keys are here” [activates AR mode on phone screen with arrows towards it, and see-through views of obstacles.
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Apple, services and moats • Benedict Evans
[Besides the iPhone,] everything from the HomePod and Watch to Apple TV, the credit card or iMessage make it more likely that you’ll stay on iPhone, and this applies whether they’re hardware or software, whether they’re paid-for or free, and whether they’re high margin or low margin. This of course goes right back to the original iTunes Music Store, where it was very clear that Apple got far more financial value from all of the iPods bought to use the store than from its commission on sales on the store itself. This was why in 2007 Jeff Zucker (then CEO of NBC Universal) said that Apple should give TV companies a share of revenue from iPod Video sales. Today Apple makes a lot of money from some of these things (when you have a billion users, ancillary revenue adds up), but the defensive value is key.
There’s the defensive value, and the money, but I think another interesting lens for all of these things is to ask how ‘Appley’ they are. How much do they bring some unique Apple sensibility or unique Apple technical capability, around, say, chip design or hardware/software integration?
First, at one end of the spectrum, the Watch or the AirPods involve industry-leading semiconductor work, hardware-software integration, power optimisation, efficient manufacturing at massive scale and a sense of user experience that are all very specific to Apple and very hard for other more modular companies to match. All of Apple’s various capabilities are brought together at a single point (which is why it’s a functional organisation rather than a product organisation).
Second, there are things where there may not necessarily be any unique primary technology or especially difficult integration, but there is some unique Apple sensibility. Increasingly, I look at this as Apple extending from being a trusted party in your computing experience to being a trusted party in your online experience. The old Mac proposition was that you don’t have to worry if this hardware will work, or if you’re going to break your computer if you do something wrong. The Mac was friendly and safe, whereas the command line was a buzzsaw with no guards. Today the sphere for worry and danger has moved from hardware to news, or online privacy, or business models. That means we go from plug+play hardware or sandboxed apps to curated content…
In that sense the “moat” of associated products makes it hard for rivals to get at Apple’s customers. Every Apple ID-dependent service or product builds into that. It’s a strategy more than a decade in the making, which helps explain why it’s so resilient.
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MIT scientists just created the blackest black ever • BGR
For years, scientists have been experimenting with tiny carbon structures that, when arranged in the right way, can absorb an incredible amount of light. Now, researchers from MIT have developed a new material that captures an incredible 99.995% of all incoming light, making it the blackest black on the planet.
In a new paper published in ACS-Applied Materials and Interfaces, the MIT research team explains that while they appear to have created the blackest material ever, they weren’t even really trying to do so.
The team’s work was focused on growing carbon nanotubes on aluminum, which can prove difficult due to the way aluminum reacts when exposed to air. By using salt to break down a pesky layer of oxidation on the aluminum’s surface, the team achieved their goal, and it was then that they noticed how black the aluminum became when it was covered in the tiny nanotubes.
“I remember noticing how black it was before growing carbon nanotubes on it, and then after growth, it looked even darker,” Kehang Cui, co-author of the work, said in a statement. “So I thought I should measure the optical reflectance of the sample.”
Upon measuring the material’s ability to reflect light they realized they had stumbled onto something extraordinary, and it surpasses all other super black materials created in recent years. Vantablack, a coating that also uses carbon nanotubes attached to thin layers of material like aluminum, absorbs around 99.96% of incoming light.
Can we have it as a colour option for smartphones? That would be fun.
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Florida man missing since 1997 found at the bottom of a pond thanks to Google Maps • BGR
when a car was spotted in a residential pond using Google’s high-flying satellites in late August, it shed light on a mystery far more intense than finding the quickest route across town.
As the Sun Sentinel reports, a neighbor of a Florida resident named Barry Fay first alerted him to what appeared to be a vehicle sitting in a pond directly behind his home. When police investigated the sighting, they found the final resting place of a man who had been missing since 1997.
The unexpected discovery was made thanks to Google Maps, which still shows the 1994 Saturn SL sitting in a pond in an upscale community in Wellington, Florida.
When police dragged the car from below the surface they found the remains of 40-year-old William Earl Moldt who went missing one evening in 1997. It’s still unclear how Moldt’s vehicle ended up in the pond, but it’s worth noting that the area where it was found was still under development at the time he went missing, and it’s possible an off-road accident and drowning were to blame.
As the Sun Sentinel notes, finding vehicles in canals and other small bodies of water in Florida isn’t exactly a rare occurrence, and sometimes those vehicles have human remains still seated inside. Careening off the road and into a pond or canal can quickly turn deadly when the vehicle is swallowed up, but it’s unclear if that’s what happened in this particular case.
I’d quote directly from the Sun Sentinel, but apparently it’s still working out how to make its website available in Europe under GDPR. Meanwhile: Google Maps exposes our weirdness.
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Climate change: Phoenix, Arizona’s worst-case heat wave could harm thousands • Vox
Droughts, heat waves, and wildfires are growing more intense and dangerous from global warming and rising greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, we’re not reckoning with scientists’ predictions that worst-case weather scenarios will be more likely — and common — if we don’t change course. Only 41% of the American public believes climate change will affect them personally, a 2018 survey by Yale and George Mason University found.
Phoenix, Arizona, is susceptible to a heat wave that could peak at a staggering 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Southern California could face a wildfire that burns 1.5 million acres of land. Tampa, Florida, could see 26 feet of storm surge flooding from a hurricane, just below the record-breaking 28-foot storm surge of Hurricane Katrina.
In every case, these “Big Ones” could be huge disasters not just because of geography and proximity to threats, but also because of decisions to build homes and offices in certain places, ignoring nature. Many other communities in the same regions have similar vulnerabilities.
For too long, we’ve been complacent about climate change and the really scary possibilities of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6ºF) or more of average warming. Two degrees is the amount of warming we are likely to experience by midcentury, and it’s double the warming we’ve experienced to date. As David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, put it in a Vox interview, “being scared about what is possible in the future can be motivating.”
Californians have long been taught to fear and prepare for the next big earthquake — and the state now has stronger infrastructure and wide engagement in earthquake readiness and planning. If more communities around the country feared climate “Big Ones,” they and their leaders would be more engaged in both stopping fossil fuel use and readying for disaster.
The scenarios in Phoenix, Southern California, and Tampa we describe in this three-part series are hypothetical. But they’re based on models scientists use to project what’s possible today, or tomorrow.
Google just fixed one of Android’s biggest problems • BGR
Backing up data on a smartphone shouldn’t be a chore, regardless of operating systems, and you should perform regular backups to protect yourself against accidents. Just because a phone is lost, stolen, or destroyed, doesn’t mean your data has to be. Also, regular backups will make it a lot easier to switch to a new device.
The easiest way to do this is by using a cloud service of your choosing. Apple has given iPhone and iPad users the ability to back up their files, contacts, messages, and photos with the help of a full device backup in iCloud. Google, meanwhile, took its time to come up with an iCloud-like solution. But, going forward, Android users will be able to perform full device backups with the help of Google’s One cloud storage.
Announced in a blog post, the new Google One phone backup comes with each Google One account, with memberships starting at $1.99 per month for 100GB of storage.
Jeepers. Even Apple doesn’t charge for the first 5GB, and it introduced iCloud in 2011. Has Google honestly taken eight years to come up with something less good than Apple relating to cloud storage?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified
re. Google backup. It’s a bit more complicated. If you look at it not as a pretext to rag on Google, but as a functionality users need, users have been doing 3 things up to now:
1- at the basic level, wen you set up a new Android phone, it offers to restore everything (apps, data…) from your previous phone via your gDrive backup.
2- more advanced users: backup to SD, swap SD to new phone, restore. Quicker, plus you can then re-backup the SD to your NAS or whatnot and have an extra backup of your stuff (backups are *multiple*)
3- all major OEMs have a “clone my phone” app that does the same, but over wifi.
4- nerdy nerds can do fancy thing by logging into the phone’s underlying Linux via adb (not Apple Desktop Bus, but Android Debug Bridge)
I’m not sure what the new thing does I’d want, certainly not if it’s for-pay. Apparently media backup incl pics and movies, but I’ve got so much of those that I’d need a very expensive subscription to only gain “original quality” over my current “high quality” automatic Google Photo backup; and maybe the data for the few apps that don’t remain in their own folder (mostly games and podcasters that offer the option of storing their large datasets on the SD)
Again, things on Android work differently; score-keeping from a purely iBubble point of vue usually misses the mark.
Please don’t use the word “iBubble” or similar. It’s pejorative and unhelpful, and suggests that you think yourself superior to those who disagree with you. If you want to discuss why Android does something, or doesn’t do something, and why Apple does/doesn’t, use language which accepts that people tend to do things for sincere and comprehensible reasons.
Otherwise I’ll just put your comments into spam because if you can’t argue politely, you’re not welcome.
What word should I use to describe people who are 100% invested in the Apple ecosystem and PR, and have little-to-no awareness or knowledge of what’s going on elsewhere ?
“People who are [heavily/entirely] invested in the Apple ecosystem” is descriptive and isn’t pejorative. Work with that. Or even better, don’t think because other people have made different choices that they’re worse than you. Perhaps you’re the one who has made the wrong choices. Argue your case always being aware that in fact *you* could discover you’ve been wrong. That way, you’re not insulting people who have made better decisions than you.
Been thinking about it… You really don’t believe the iBubble is a thing ? There are a lot of low-tech people around me which is fine and expected, what’s repeatedly surprising is how only Apple users believe IT begins and ends with Apple: believe that Apple invented smartphones, invented AppStores, invented TouchID, invented Airplay, invented Siri… and are unaware of anything not taken up by Apple (multi cameras, wireless charging, NFC, DeX, pushbullet then MyPhone, widgets, Android VMs, tap-to-wake…).
What’s really a bother is when higher-tech people are the same. I remember reading from someone rather solid (like you, or Marco Arment…) that Apple invented tap-to-wake on LCD (and of course waiting until that moment to crown it a quasi-must-have). Many are unaware AirPlay is a proprietarized version of dlna (which probably makes sense, dlna is a bit too open and incompatibilities-prone – always solvable with elbow grease, but still). Etc.
Whether it’s pejorative is up for debate, there are some good reasons to be, and some knowledgeable people that are, 100% invested in the Apple ecosystem. I’ve got an (ex-)iBrother, I didn’t despise or mock him (I did tease ^^) at the highest of his Appleification. He did get good value out of it (1 iMac, 2 iPhones, 2 iPads, 1 Dell laptop he hated that broke at the first tumble), the iPads survived a few nights forgotten in the garden, and he was tax-refunding 50% of the costs anyway. He switched when he got a salaried job, found out he couldn’t upgrade anything in his Mac, and that the kids were as happy with a $150 Android klunker as with a $500 iPad/iPhone. (This was before $150 Androids got good, and iPads got cheap).
In the end, that word you don’t want used seems to me a) a good shorthand for people who get their tools and their info from only Apple b) the right amount of pejorative, not quite an insult, but certainly pointing out an issue. I’d rate the “iFan” I also used as a bit worse, because it conveys intent on top of the aforementioned.
Also, reciprocally, isn’t there a lot of pejorativity about non-Apple stuff ? I was amazed reading about iPadOS how most (actually, all ?) of the new features are already available in Android, yet there wasn’t a single acknowledgment of that anywhere. How is one supposed to signal when a viewpoint comes from never ever looking at non-Apple stuff ?
“That way, you’re not insulting people who have made better decisions than you”
“Don’t think because other people have made different choices that they’re worse than you.”
Seriously ? Those 2 sentences only a few words apart ?
re. Ultrawideband: the main issue is that Apple will probably do their proprietary+expensive+lock-in thing, essentially killing the market outside of the fully iBubbled. This would really benefit from open standards, same as the smart home. Hopefully the industry at large will come up with a standard. If it’s that hot, I can even imagine Amazon trying to use this as a springboard to get back into phones, they’ve got an ecosystem of own-brand and alexa’d things that could benefit from indoor geolocation.
As elsewhere: don’t use the word “iBubble” or similar. It’s pejorative and supercilious. If you have an argument to make, make it in a way that will persuade everyone. Or your comments will be reverted.
If Apple chooses to create a closed standard, there’s no law forbidding it. That’s part of how it gets consistency across its line, and creates a competitive advantage for itself. Apple has iMessage, Google doesn’t have a similar offering; creating lock-in creates (what businesses see as) virtuous circles. But the consumer also benefits from knowing that feature X will likely be supported in future.
There’s zero chance that Amazon will ever waste its money on phones again. It got badly burned and learned its lesson: its strength is in the home and in retail stores. Google has been working at indoor geolocation for some time, so maybe that will be its next open source project. Or maybe it will keep it closed for whatever reason, as it does for some of its products.
I’m not saying there are laws against proprietary stuff, I’m saying Apple is almost always choosing the proprietary, expensive, lock-in route. It serves them well as a company because they locked in most high-spenders early, but it doesn’t serve most users, and it hinders them building ecosystems (also hindering the propagation of innovation): There’s a lot more stuff based around Alexa and G.Assist than around Siri, around whatever Google and Amazon call their smart home ecosystem than around Apple’s… Apple’s is not very good at partnering, nor at covering at lot of markets. I think that’ll strongly come in play for UWB. Same as one of the issue with VR is competing ecosystems, fragmentation would hurt UWB.
This point is worth making because, again, most people by far aren’t Apple customers.
Have you considered that Apple isn’t that worried about the people who aren’t and never will be its customers? Its corporate mission tends to be “make high-end products people will love” not “create ecosystems for everyone”. You’re applying a category error, like asking a lion to dive for fish.
I’m not that sure about Amazon never getting back to phones.
Amazon failed badly with gimmicky, expensive phones. It seems to think it’s doing well enough with basic, rock bottom tablets. Maybe the lesson is not about phones vs tablets, but about gimmicky+expensive vs basic and cheap. Why try again ?
First, for the same reason as Amazon is into tablets. content spend. Phone users (especially the younger ones) are doing a lot of that content consumption right on their phones, so Amazon has a reason to want to make phones with the right defaults and a bit of lock-in, same as for tablets. I’d bet more content consumption is happening on phones than on tablets. Maybe not the exact same content (livestreams vs movies, podcasts vs series…), but Amazon don’t care about those distinctions.
Second, if apps or games subs arise, that’ll create a long and fat tail for phones, and Amazon is in a rather unique position to grab that revenue via their Fire Appstore.
Finally, Amazon seems to want to get Alexa into people’s hands, and there’s a large ecosystem battle for the smart home. That’s 2 strategic reasons for Amazon to want to own the phone.
If I were Amazon, I’d be looking for an opportunity to go at it again. Maybe not brute force on pure price because at the scale of the smartphone market, losses can pile up quickly; but waiting for an innovation that could create buzz and traction for an otherwise cheap+basic phone. Precisely because innovation is slowing down, Amazon’s scale and market power is becoming more valuable, and one single good idea can probably be leveraged into success.
I might be utterly wrong though. We’ll know within 5 years.
Indeed, and it’s fine.
But IT is much bigger than Apple. If something that makes lives better comes along, what’s interesting is when/how most will get it, and that’s not Apple users.
There are blogs/publications dedicated to Apple news, and that’s fine. what’s bothering is when non-Apple outlets behave similarly. What’s great about UWB is not that Apple is sowing seeds to “do it”, but that it might become widespread, ie outside of the Apple ecosystem. To the overwhelming majority, that’s what relevant.
re. Blackest black. That’s cute. I’m wondering how eco-friendly it is, and how companies such as BMW manage to square PRing about eco-friendly while wasting so many resources on making things look cool. Same as for a certain platinum credit card…
Apparently in cars they call it “flat black”. I can’t help hearing Knight Rider 2000’s theme music when I see one of those…
I happen to be in middle of podcast right now which talks about language bits/second idea.
What I found most interesting is David Poeppel (being interviewed) said most people can listen up to 2x speed on podcasts and still understand. And if trained (esp apparently if blind) can go up to 4x speed, even though to normal person 4x speed is gibberish.
They discuss whether the speed limit is imposed by physics of speaking articulating or not. Basically they said it’s complicated, but I took away that the speed limit is imposed mostly by how fast we can think, and then within any given language by how fast we can articulate sound.
In short, high speed reading and listening is reasonable if you work at it.