The Conversation

Technology: Discussion of technology events and developments.

Internet users once again turned into lab rats without their knowledge

Aug 1, 2014 9:13 AM PT

At the beginning of July, a big story broke about Facebook conducting behavioral experiments on some of its users without their knowledge, specifically by altering the display order of news feed items to see if looking at lots of good news would make people feel more cheerful, and vice versa.  A relatively small subset of 700,000 users was affected, for a fairly brief period of time, and the manipulation was subtle - they were tinkering with how news items were displayed, not hiding them outright - but a great deal of anger boiled over at Facebook for turning users into lab rats.  Facebook's clunky P.R. handling of the incident didn't help matters any.

Something similar just happened with OKCupid, a dating web site, which has admitted to deliberately altering information presented to its users so it could learn from their responses.  Some have argued OKCupid's manipulation was far worse than what Facebook did, especially during the third experiment described at TechCruch:

In one experiment, OKCupid removed all the photos from its website as it was rolling out a blind dating app to see how it impacted use. In the second, OKCupid ran a test to see how much a user’s picture affects viewer’s perception of their personalities. In the third, OKCupid told users that they had a 90 percent compatibility rate with users who they actually shared a 30 percent rate with.

By removing photos from its website, OKCupid learned information it could apply to its blind dating app. In its second test, it found that users saw personality and looks to be the same thing, and now instead of rating people on both personality and looks, users simply give one overall rating. Its third test seems to be the most controversial, but essentially it confirmed that OKCupid’s dating algorithm actually works — users don’t just work out because OKCupid suggests it.

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The very expensive death of the Chevy Volt

Jul 25, 2014 2:18 PM PT

I've been a student of the Chevy Volt electric-car debacle since the first time I took a stab at figuring out the actual per-unit cost of each car, with the subsidies figured in.  The thing launched with a sticker price of $41,000, but direct state and federal subsidies - i.e. taxpaying chumps forced at gunpoint to pay for part of your shiny new electric car - could take it down to $33,500 or less.  But if you figured in all the subsidies those taxpayer chumps were forced to give manufacturers, they really cost at least $81,000 apiece.  You paid $33k or so, while people who will never drive a Volt, and maybe never buy a Chevy, covered the rest.

Later Voltologists suggested I was being far too generous to this boondoggle, because the subsidies indirectly drawn into production of the vehicle and its battery were far larger than the direct nuts-and-bolts subsidies I was counting.  It has been suggested the real unit cost was closer to $200,000 per car.

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Kindle Unlimited: All-you-can-read for ten bucks a month

Jul 18, 2014 7:44 AM PT has enough muscle to drop game-changing bombs on the publishing industry, and the new Kindle Unlimited service reported by Engadget might just be one of them:

After teasing us with a possible launch, Amazon has confirmed Kindle Unlimited, its all-you-can-read e-book subscription service. For $9.99 per month, Kindle Unlimited offers 600,000 books and "thousands" of audiobooks across a range of devices. As expected, many of the major publishers aren't fully represented, but there are number of popular titles listed, including Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Hunger Games, as well as a whole catalog of Kindle exclusives. Like Prime, Amazon initially offers a free 30-day trial to draw you in, but it's also throwing in a three month subscription to Audible and access to 2,000 audiobooks via its Whispersync service (which lets you seamlessly switch between reading and listening whenever the mood takes you).

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The silence of the void

Jul 15, 2014 9:36 AM PT

I've been fascinated by the search for extraterrestial life since I was a little kid, so I wasted no time clicking on the Drudge Report's headline about NASA saying that the discover of intelligent life on other worlds was less than 20 years away.  Alas, it turns out to be just a CBS News report about NASA holding a press conference to tout its plans to search for E.T.s, and playing the numbers game to confidently assert that success must be right around the corner:

“Just imagine the moment, when we find potential signatures of life. Imagine the moment when the world wakes up and the human race realizes that its long loneliness in time and space may be over — the possibility we’re no longer alone in the universe,” said Matt Mountain, director and Webb telescope scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.

“What we didn’t know five years ago is that perhaps 10 to 20 per cent of stars around us have Earth-size planets in the habitable zone,” added Mountain. “It’s within our grasp to pull off a discovery that will change the world forever.”

Describing their own estimates as “conservative,” the NASA planet hunters calculate that 100 million worlds within the Milky Way galaxy are able to sustain complex alien life forms. The estimate accounts for the 17 billion Earth-sized worlds scientists believe to be orbiting the galaxy’s 100 billion stars.

The NASA panel says that ground-based and space-based technology – including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Kepler Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope – will be able to determine the presence of liquid water, an essential sign of potential alien life.

“I think in the next 20 years we will find out we are not alone in the universe,” said NASA astronomer Kevin Hand, who suggested that alien life may exist on Jupiter’s Europa moon.

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Is the Facebook bubble about to pop?

Jul 11, 2014 2:03 PM PT

Facebook is a fascinating success story (good enough to make a movie about!) but that story might be entering its final chapter, as Robin Harris of ZDNet cites search-engine data that suggests interest in Facebook has already peaked, and is now declining.  It's not dissimilar to the fate that awaited Friendster, Myspace, and other social media platforms - it's just a larger popularity wave than any to come before it, cresting and breaking more slowly and majestically.

Basically, the research model described by Harris uses Google Trends data to predict the downfall of social media platforms, on the theory that people stop talking about (and searching for) a website before they lose interest in using it.  Good news for their interest level just keeps trending up and up.  But Facebook is either at its peak or already on the downward slope of user interest, under this model.

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Breaking: the CIA does not know where Tupac is

Jul 7, 2014 6:23 PM PT

One of the strangest little corners of the Internet is the CIA's official Twitter feed, which went live a month ago with a hilarious message: "We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first Tweet."

What ensued was a bizarre month of cheeky little joke Tweets and public-relations stuff, which would not seem out of place for a coffee shop or small retail chain, but seems really weird coming from the CIA.  They don't Tweet very often - only 71 messages logged on their one-month "Twitterversary" - but when they do it's things like: "Remember the reports of unusual activity in the skies in the 50s?  That was us."  This capped off a week-long celebration of the U2 spy plane, which probably enraged UFO conspiracy buffs.

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Google Enters Lucrative Domain Name Market

Jun 27, 2014 2:50 AM PT

Google announced yesterday that it will enter the domain name marketplace. With the release of over 1400 new top level domains, like .vote, .guru and .coffee, Google will be a competitor with companies also in the domain registration business that they formerly partnered with.

Domain-name registration has increased steadily over the years. According to the website nTLD Stats, 1.3 million new names have been registered already this year. Verisign, a domain research group, reported an increase of 7% from the end of 2012 to end of 2013.

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Obama's fake followers strongly approve of his performance

Jun 17, 2014 9:19 AM PT

I've long been a student of a phenomenon I call "manufactured credibility," in which the Internet makes it easy to fake popularity and approval for everything from books and consumer products to politicians.  One of my early writings on the subject was inspired by the saga of a guy who made good money running a business that supplied planted reviews to sites like  You paid a fee to his fairly large and sophisticated operation, and his people would flood the big consumer websites with highly convincing, authentic-sounding positive reviews for your book.

What intrigues me about manufactured credibility is how easy it is.  I'm not talking about informal penny-ante stuff, like your friends jumping on YouTube to write enthusiastic recommendations for your latest video.  I mean industrial-scale efforts to manipulate opinion by using the Internet as a tool to artificially inflate popularity.  There's not much cost involved, and it's very difficult to see through the illusion.  And it's an interesting comment on mass psychology that people are powerfully swayed by the sense that a large number of "regular folks" approve of something.  At the very least, they find illusory popularity intriguing, and want to know what all the fuss is about.

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Shots Fired in Net Neutrality Battle Between Netflix and Verizon

Jun 6, 2014 9:19 AM PT

An interesting tidbit of news, courtesy of CNBC:

Verizon sent Netflix a letter demanding the streaming service cease and desist false claims and unfair business practices on Thursday.

The letter comes after an article on Quartz reported Netflix displayed "error messages" that blame the Netflix user's Verizon internet service provider for connection problems.

"There is no basis for Netflix to assert that issues with respect to playback of any particular video session are attributable solely to the Verizon network," reads the letter.

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