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A Made-For-TV Compression Algorithm

HBO’s Silicon Valley, a television series heading into its second season, tells the story of Richard, a young whiz kid plunged into the wild world of Silicon Valley startups. He forms a company, Pied Piper, and pitches his technology to venture capitalists and at a startup competition even as he and his cohorts struggle to improve their product, scribbling on whiteboards during long meetings. The technology is practically a character of its own in the show.

So the creators of Silicon Valley needed to “cast” the right technology. Early on, they settled on a piece of software—a universal compression algorithm. They were looking for what venture capitalists call “deep tech,” some kind of core technology that could be part of many different kinds of products or affect multiple industries. (The original working title of the show was “Deep Tech.”) They also needed a technology whose usefulness could be easily understood by a lay audience—and compression is a simple concept to comprehend, though not always easy to execute.

The creators had already hired a tech advisor with Silicon Valley startup experience, Jonathan Dotan. But Dotan isn’t an expert in compression, and the show’s creators wanted everything technical about the show to seem as real as possible. And so Dotan turned to Google to find an expert on compression and landed on information about a class taught by Stanford professor Tsachy Weissman.

Photo: Tekla Perry
Stanford Professor Tsachy Weissman

Dotan sent Weissman an email, asking to chat with him about an upcoming TV series. Though Weissman often doesn't get around to looking at unsolicited emails, he opened that one, and was immediately intrigued. He quickly tossed out a number of ideas involving genomic data compression algorithms, lossy compression, and denoising, but kept coming back to a sort of Holy Grail in the compression world—a form of lossless compression far more powerful and efficient than anything that exists today, that could work on any type of data, and could be searchable, that is, could be decompressed in small chunks.

The busy Weissman brought in Vinith Misra, a student working on his Ph.D., to flesh out the details of the fictional algorithm.

“We had to come up with an approach that isn’t possible today, but it isn’t immediately obvious that it isn’t possible,” says Misra. “That is, something that an expert would have to think about for a while before realizing that there is something wrong with it.” It would pass, he said, a Powerpoint test, that is, in a Powerpoint presentation you could convince even technically knowledgeable people that it might be theoretically possible; it’s just when you sit down to build it that you run into insurmountable problems.

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Mime Troupe Plays For Peace In San Francisco’s Tech Wars

They wear hoodies, spill out of crowded bars on weekends, and are whisked to work on luxury buses with tinted windows. They are driving up rents all over town. They are the techies, the new immigrants to San Francisco that long-term residents love to hate, going so far as to stage protests against the buses and toss the occasional egg at them.

And they are the subject of this year’s production of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a far-left-leaning group of playwrights and actors that has been performing political theater for more than 50 years. They travel to parks in San Francisco and beyond throughout the summer and into the autumn.

I’ve followed the Mime Troupe for decades; its shows are always entertaining and thought provoking, and typically take on issues surrounding the national government or the global economy. So the local focus of this year’s show, "Ripple Effect," came as a surprise.

Michael Gene Sullivan, lead writer of and a performer in this year’s show, says "Ripple Effect" indeed came out of a plan to tackle a national issue—the idea that many of the workers in today’s economy don’t realize that they are working class, and that “the middle class is an invention to get the workers of the world to fight among themselves” (a line used in the show). He quickly came to realize that this issue is the heart of San Francisco’s current conflicts.

“We in San Francisco are making the tech workers who are moving to the city feel isolated and separated. That’s a problem. These are hard working people. Yes, they are paid a lot of money, but we are in a tech bubble—in six months, a year, companies might suddenly downsize,” Sullivan says.

“We want them to see themselves as part of our class, the working class," he says.  "We want to show the people who today define the city—the leftist activists, the immigrants, and the software engineers—that they have more in common with each other than they do with the bosses.”

"Ripple Effect" features three women—long-time radical Deborah, immigrant and salon-owner Sunny, and tech newbie Jeanine—who are literally in the same boat, taking a tour of the San Francisco Bay. Jeanine just moved to California from a small town to work for giant Silicon-Valley-company Octopus Tech; she won the job in an app design contest.  Her app, "SUSI", the Support Utility for Special Individuals, lets anybody check up on anybody else; Sunny uses it to make sure she knows everything her daughter is doing and thinks it’s brilliant; she can read her daughter’s emails and turn on the smartphone’s camera to observe her daughter without her daughter’s knowledge. Deborah sees SUSI as a tool of the “cryptofascistic surveillance-ocracy”, yet another extension of the “electronic chains holding you in a CIA prison of the mind”. For Jeanine, SUSI is a gift of love: she developed it to help her mom take care of her Grandma Susi, who was getting lost and bankrupting herself by excessive online shopping.

"Ripple Effect" also involves Octopus Tech’s effort to build condos (and evict Sunny), a few lessons in the history of the radical left, a skewering of the current trend to open office space, Octopus’s agreement to sell SUSI to the government (repurposed as the Secret Utility for Surveillance and Intelligence) and Jeanine’s repeated assertion that she’s just a software engineer, she’s not political. In the end, techie Jeanine saves the day—using a backdoor in her software to create an alarm that alerts you if someone has installed SUSI on your phone without your knowledge.

“With an app,” she says, “you can do anything.” And, Jeanine comes to understand, “There is no such thing as not political.”

As a long-time member of the Mime Troupe, writer Sullivan’s familiarity with radical history and working-class immigrants wasn’t surprising. Perhaps more unexpected was his sympathetic portrayal of idealistic software engineer Jeanine; but, it turns out, Sullivan is no stranger to the tech world.

“My father,” he told me, “worked in Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s; he was one of the first people who worked for Amdahl Corp. (as a senior engineer). After he retired, he taught computers to homeless people.”

In everyday life, Sullivan has found himself coming to the defense of the hoodie-wearing hordes. “People complain that when they see techies in the Mission District they are hanging out in the bars, drinking in the street. I tell them that these guys are working 80 hours a week. When you see them on the Google bus, they are working. If you see them in a bar, they earned that. When you’re in you’re 20s, and you grind at work, and what you used to do for fun has turned into a job, [in your free time] you get drunk and scream.”

When the show opened in San Francisco, Sullivan says, a fair number of tech workers showed up. “People came because they were excited that we were writing a play about a tech character that is likable, not crazy, not trying to be evil," he explains. "She’s not thinking about the money, she’s saving her grandma; she sees a need, and she fills it. That’s like most apps: there’s a small need, the app fills the need, and it makes people’s lives easier. The thing to understand, though, is that these things can be manipulated.”

Besides tech workers, Sullivan says he has talked to people in the audience who admit to egging a Google bus. “They didn’t feel that we are being too kind to the tech worker in this show," he says. "It’s not that they hated the people on the bus, they hate the idea that the city is giving the buses a pass, letting them park in bus stops for $1 when these are the richest companies in the world.”

Sullivan hopes that the play will help members of all three communities—the leftist activists, the immigrant community, and the software engineers—understand each other better. And that the techies will realize that they can’t live in a bubble, that it’s time, both metaphorically and literally, to look out the windows of the bus.

See a schedule of upcoming performances of "Ripple Effect" here. Admission is free but donations are requested.

Drawing The Line Between “Peer-to-Peer” And “Jerk” Technology

Google has long had a maxim: Don’t Be Evil. (We can, of course, argue about how well it has kept to this principle.)

New peer-to-peer startups need to keep in mind another guiding rule: Don’t Be A Jerk.

Peer-to-peer commerce, with high-tech companies building apps and managing transactions between individuals, is disrupting long-stable businesses like apartment rentals, car and taxi services, and food delivery. Many peer-to-peer companies fall into a legal grey area, and local governments around the country are scrambling to figure out just how to regulate them.

But while Airbnb (apartments), Uber (car service), DoorDash (food delivery), and their brethren may be pushing the boundaries of what makes an acceptable commercial enterprise, they didn’t leap right over those boundaries.

In contrast, Monkey Parking and likely its competitors—ParkModo, Haystack Parking, and Sweetchdid. And they've landed themselves right in the center of what is beginning to be called “JerkTech,” or #JerkTech, a term coined by Josh Constine at TechCrunch. Reservation Hop, a startup that created a peer-to-peer market for restaurant reservations, is in that spot too. After much pushback and a legal slap for Monkey Parking, both startups last week said that they will “pivot” —a Silicon Valley term that usually means scrambling to figure out how to survive as a company.

Monkey Parking creates an online marketplace for people to buy and sell parking spaces. Nothing wrong with that, right? Park Circa has been experimenting with peer-to-peer rentals of driveways and didn’t cross over into the Jerk Economy. But Monkey Parking users aren’t leasing out their own driveways—they are selling public parking spaces in city lots or streets. To do so, a user parks in a public parking space in a busy area, and then uses the Monkey Parking app to auction off the parking space for US $5 to $20 to someone who is looking for a place to park. The winner of the auction pays the owner of the car sitting in the spot, who pulls out, allowing the auction winner to pull in. The auction winner still has to feed the meter. This reduces the availability of parking, encouraging people to hang out and wait for someone to buy their parking spot, or for the area to get busier and rates to go up. It could even draw parkers into busy areas just to capture parking real estate for later sale.

Last month, San Francisco reminded Monkey Parking that what they are doing is illegal, according to a law already on the books banning the private sale or rental of public parking spaces. The city sent the company a cease and desist letter, giving it until 11 July to comply. Monkey Parking initially argued that it is just selling information about availability, not the space itself, but last week it stopped operating as it tries to “achieve [its] mission within the intent and letter of the law and in full cooperation with the local authorities.” Good luck with that.

The Jerk Economy doesn’t limit itself to the parking business. Reservation Hop allows people to resell restaurant reservations. It’s classified as a jerk company because its users are trying to sell something that doesn’t belong to them. And it did not make restaurants run more efficiently, by, say, maximizing the number of diners a restaurant can serve in a given evening by better managing the flow of reservations. Instead, it is potentially reducing that number: if one of the reservations it makes fails to sell, it ends up as a no-show, and few restaurants have recourse against no shows. The app is also encouraging speculators to stockpile multiple tables at popular restaurants for busy time periods. Reservation Hop last week announced that it is changing its approach by only allowing restaurants to sell their own reservations, taking the reservation scalper out of the loop. It likely didn’t take that approach in the first place, because, there is a huge established competitor that will be able to crush it, OpenTable, the online restaurant reservations service.

The pivoting of Monkey Parking and Reservation Hop is likely not the end of JerkTech, rather the beginning of an unfortunate wave. But hopefully the pushback will inspire a few entrepreneurs to think about whether their companies are peer-to-peer companies or JerkTech companies. It may not always be obvious; one person’s great new car service is a taxi driver’s nightmare. But they might start by asking themselves:

  1. Will people who use my service be selling something that belongs to them or to someone else? (Don’t rent your neighbor’s house.)
  2. Am I going to make the market I intend to disrupt work more smoothly or less? (Don’t screw something up just so you can scrape some money off the top.)
  3. When I walk away after my elevator speech, will people be thinking, “I wonder why nobody thought of that before?” or, “What a jerk!”

 

Taking Bitcoin for Payment in California is Now Legal

A couple of weeks ago California officially killed a law prohibiting the use of any currency that’s not the “lawful money of the United States,” like community currencies, frequent customer points, or bitcoin. The law had been ignored for so long few people knew it even existed. Certainly the first wave of Silicon Valley area restaurant owners who started taking this virtual currency for real food didn't, including San Francisco’s Ramen Underground, Sake Zone, and Buyer’s Best Friend; Sunnyvale’s Ocean Blue Sushi Club, San Rafael’s Nova Rosti, Palo Alto’s Coupa Café, and multiple locations of Curry Up Now.

I visited Coupa Café and Curry Up Now this week to see how the whole Bitcoin restaurant thing is working.

It’s not surprising that Coupa Café, a Venezuelan-themed café in downtown Palo Alto, was an early early adopter of bitcoin. The bustling restaurant is a high-tech hub, where entrepreneurs and venture capitalists huddle around the tightly packed tables talking product rollouts or business strategy, or solo diners peck away at laptops, taking advantage of the high-speed Wi-Fi. Coupa Café's known for testing out all sorts of new technologies, sometimes just as a favor to a café regular, sometimes for a tiny piece of equity.

Co-founder Jean-Paul Coupal says he started thinking about taking Bitcoin payments way back in 2012, when he’d found himself reading a lot about the currency. The trick was making bitcoin easy for customers and staff to handle; that involved programming the registers to display prices in bitcoins as well as dollars, putting a smartphone near the register with an app that tracks bitcoin deposits, and displaying a QR code. A customer uses the QR code to connect to a payment website, transfers in the appropriate amount of bitcoins, and the cashier can see the transfer go through on the app before closing the sale.

One thing not yet automated—putting in the exchange rate that allows the system to convert dollar prices to bitcoin. Coupal says that number is entered manually once a day. He’ll be adding Bitcoin capabilities to another Coupa location in the Stanford business school within the next few months.

Coupal has added a feature to his Bitcoin transactions system that’s not exactly necessary, but it’s fun. He gets an alert on his phone every time a customer pays with bitcoins. So far, the alerts aren’t driving him crazy; only a few customers a day use the currency. Coupal reports that it’s going smoothly, but a friend of mine who recently found herself behind a customer paying with bitcoin at Coupa says there was a bit of confusion as the customer went back and forth between registers trying to get the QR code to work.

Unlike many restaurants that take Bitcoin, the bitcoins that go into Coupa’s system are not quickly converted into dollars. Coupal believes in Bitcoin, and hasn’t cashed out any of the Bitcoin payments received to date.

Coupa does little promotion of its Bitcoin option; a small sign on the front counter and tiny Bitcoin price on the register display is the extent of it. Curry Up, a couple of blocks away from Coupa, is taking an even lower key approach to Bitcoin—they don’t have any signage about the currency in the restaurant at all. (Although they do have a sign stating that they do NOT accept American Express). Instead, the restaurant relies on word of mouth, reports Zachary Howard, a Curry Up supervisor. Curry Up typically only processes one or two Bitcoin transactions each week. The restaurant has only been taking the currency since April; maybe now that Bitcoin is legal the restaurant will put up a sign.

Elon Musk’s $1 Million Birthday Gift to Nikola Tesla Fans

In May, the web site TheOatmeal.com published a cartoon reviewing the Tesla Model S. In the second half of the review, the cartoonist, Matthew Inman, pointed out that while Tesla Motors was perfectly free to use inventor Nikola Tesla’s name without any family connection, it might be nice to show the company’s respect for Tesla the man by donating to an effort to build a Tesla museum in Shoreham, N.Y., at the site of Nikola Tesla’s laboratory. At the time, Tesla CEO Elon Musk had already contributed $2500 to the successful Indiegogo campaign to buy the property. Inman asked for more—$8 million more—to build a museum on the property. Musk quickly tweeted, “I would be happy to help.”

Photo: Photo Researchers/Getty Images
The man, the mustache.

Yesterday, on the 158th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth, Inman reported that Musk followed up that tweet with a phone call, and filled in the details of what he’d provide—namely, $1 million and a Tesla charging station on site. That won’t completely fund the museum-building effort, but it certainly will give it a big jump start. And I’m sure it’s a lot more than Inman expected when he issued the challenge.

It was a very happy birthday for Tesla fans.

Photographing Fearless Genius at NeXT, Apple, and Others

In 1985 experienced war photographer Doug Menuez decided to embed himself in a different kind of revolution—the tech revolution in Silicon Valley. He convinced Steve Jobs, recently ousted from Apple and launching NeXT computer, to give him unrestricted access to, well, everything. And once he earned Jobs’ trust, other Silicon Valley doors opened to him, doors at some 70 companies during the next 15 years.

In 2000, with the dot-com boom turned to bust—marking, Menuez felt, the end of an era—he decided it was time to leave the Valley, having taken some 250,000 photos, recorded lots of video interviews, and seen more of the inside workings of technology development than just about anyone in the world. Then just a few years ago, with Stanford University interested in his collection, he started digitizing the images, creating a book, Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley 1985-2000, and a traveling photography exhibition.

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Uber, Lyft, Airbnb—How Did We Live Without Them?

On the Fourth of July, I hosted a barbecue for my 22-year-old son, who is a touring performer, and two dozen of his friends and fellow cast members. Most of them are currently staying in San Francisco apartments, rented through Airbnb. A few took the train to our home in Palo Alto, one used ZipCar, but the largest group relied on Lyft drivers, a low-cost option when splitting the cost of a ride, and far more flexible and efficient than the train. My teen daughter excused herself early in the evening to go to another party, but waved away my question about how she’d be getting home with “Oh, I’ll just Uber.”

Recent coupon blitzes certainly helped with this popularity. Both Lyft and Uber offer hefty discounts to new riders, and the companies are new enough that in a group of people you can still find someone who hasn't yet used the discount.

Uber is five years old. Lyft, two years old. And Airbnb is six. They are already starting to feel as irreplaceable in Silicon Valley as our smartphones. And while certainly Silicon Valley is full of early adopters, it doesn’t seem alone in its dependence on these new peer-to-peer services. “I hate it when cities don’t have Uber,” several of my holiday guests commented. And I’m spotting Facebook friends turned Lyft drivers or Uber aficionados all over the country.

A quick tutorial for someone in a region yet-to-be-colonized by these companies: Uber is a car service called through a cell phone app; regular Uber drivers are professional limo drivers with luxury sedans and SUVs; UberX drivers are unlikely to have professional experience and drive whatever car they happen own. Lyft is essentially like UberX  (though they got there first), and has added Lyft Plus to compete with Uber's regular offering. Airbnb is an online service matching would-be renters and rentees for short-term rentals of rooms, apartments, and homes.

I confess that despite living in Silicon Valley I tend to be a late-ish adopter. So I haven’t Uber’ed or Lyft’ed yet—but I’m planning to use one for my next trip to the airport (the San Francisco airport blocks Uber and Lyft pickups; I’m pretty annoyed by that, given that the airport officials authorize an astronomical taxi markup for points south). And do find myself contemplating what it would take to turn a room or two in the house into an Airbnb rental—I know neighbors have already done so.

Not everyone is in love with these startups. They are doing battle in San Francisco over those airport rules,  Ann Arbor, Michigan, is trying to shut them down, and they are still illegal in Virginia, though they are now legal in London in spite of protests.  In New York, taxi drivers are incensed about Uber’s price cut this week. Airbnb was just fined in Barcelona for breaking local laws. The struggle to figure out how and how much to regulate them is just beginning.

And inevitably bad things will happen in the course of a ride or a home stay. Uber drivers have accidents. (As do cab drivers.) Occasional Airbnb guests will do harmful things (But so do hotel guests). Occasional Airbnb hosts will turn out to be creeps or worse (poor reviews will quickly drive them off the service.)

But it seems there’s a lot good about these peer-to-peer economy companies. The frequent Uber and Lyft users I know are regularly offered bottled water or candy, like not having to deal with payment (it’s managed through the app), and say they’ve had a lot more anxiety with high-speed reckless cab drivers than they have had in the Uber or Lyft worlds.  And the reports I hear about Airbnb experiences have also been uniformly good.

Car rides and places to sleep won’t, of course, be the end of the peer-to-peer economy. Airbnb is experimenting with peer-to-peer restaurants, hosted in homes. That’s going to freak out restaurant health inspectors for sure, and cause more regulatory angst as cities try to figure out the difference between a dinner party and a restaurant. (I’m hoping this business catches on—it’s no different, really, than the fundraising dinners frequently hosted by families of children attending our local elementary school, and I had some amazing meals at those events.) Instacart is taking on grocery shopping. Park at My House is matching cars with empty driveways. (I am quite deliberately leaving off this list the faux peer-to-peer services TechCrunch has called jerktech, that is, companies that encourage people to make money off of sharing things that don’t belong to them.) It’s all making it more and more likely that a world without peer-to-peer commerce is going to be impossible for the next generation to imagine.

Researchers Turn to Classic Videogames

I loved the first wave of videogames—Centipede, Missile Command, PacMan, and Q*bert. Today’s first-person shooters, not so much. So maybe that’s why I can’t help noticing that researchers have been dipping back into the classic past of videogames for inspiration and more.

In the most recent repurposing of a classic videogame performed at Stanford University, researchers slightly tweaked Space Invaders in order to help students perform better in a college-level statistics course. The researchers in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education adjusted Space Invaders' waves of alien attackers to reflect different statistical distributions—a normal bell curve, for example, or a skewed distribution with a long tail on one side or another. After playing a round, the game presents a choice of curves, and asks the player to pick the one that best reflected the game play.

A group of students took a short test on probabilities, then played the game for less than half an hour. Some were then asked to read a short text explaining probability distributions. Half of the members of a control group who did not play the game also read the explanation. The researchers found that the students who played the game before reading the text improved their scores 15 percent more over their pretest scores than those who had simply read the text. (However, playing the game and not doing any reading didn't help much.) The researchers concluded that the brief game experience served as "preparation for future learning." These are enough results that I'd certainly give my teen a free pass to play a little Space Invaders when he's taking statistics.

Image: Stanford University
A video game used to teach students statistics.

Meanwhile, over at Stanford’s bioengineering department, scientists are using paramecia to play Pacman, Pong, and other games by steering them with electric fields. Long term, they believe the ability to play biological games could impact healthcare and medical research.

Stanford is not alone in looking to classic games for use in scientific research. Oxford University has used Tetris in PTSD research and McGill University researchers are using it to treat lazy eye. Washington State is training robots to teach each other how to play PacMan. Super Mario pops up in brain research. And in an effort to encourage videogames in research, the University of Wisconsin-Stout has set up a lab stocked with early game systems open to all students for research—and recreation. I can only hope that Stanford will follow suit, I’d be happy to play a few rounds of Centipede in the name of science.

Facebook’s Secret Experiment: The Era of Manipulation Has Begun

Last week, the news began spreading that Facebook, in the name of research, had manipulated users news feeds for a week back in 2012, skewing the distribution of posts to determine the impact on the users' moods. Over the weekend, the rumble turned into an outcry, with privacy activist Lauren Weinstein tweeting "I wonder if Facebook killed anyone with their emotion manipulation stunt."

The revelation came as a result of the publication, earlier this month, of a 2012 study by researchers at Facebook, Cornell University, and the University of California, San Francisco. The study demonstrated that seeing a lot of positive news on Facebook is likely to lead you to produce more positive posts yourself. The reverse is also true: Seeing lots of negative news pushes people to post more negative material. That example of an emotional contagion was fairly interesting: It countered earlier theories that seeing all your friends having fun on Facebook might make someone’s own life seem bleak by comparison. I would much prefer to see happiness as a contagious.

It turned out that the study was conducted by newsfeed manipulation, not just monitoring positive and negative posts.

Without explicit consent (barring a user agreement that says Facebook can pretty much do anything to your page that it wants), and certainly without the knowledge of its users, Facebook turned 700,000 users into research subjects, skewing their news feeds to be more positive, by removing negative posts, more negative, by removing positive posts, or neutral, by removing random posts. Or, in the shorthand of headlines, “Facebook made users depressed.”

I knew that Facebook has been manipulating my news feed in sometimes annoying ways, causing me to miss interesting news from people I care about and instead giving cat videos—actually any video—precedence. As a word-person that particularly irritates me. Still, though it may be annoying, I wouldn’t call it evil. This, however, goes beyond annoying.

One of the authors of the study has apologized, on his Facebook page, of course. And it is responsible of Facebook to try to understand the impact of the service the company provides. However, the days of experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent are supposed to be over.

Facebook will likely be more careful about informed consent when conducting psychological research in the future. At least for a while. The temptation to conduct other psychological studies has got to be huge. Do people get over broken hearts better when pictures of former flames are suppressed? Does seeing graduation photos motivate students to do better in school? It’s easy to come up with questions to ask.

And what about the companies that are responsible for the other data-gathering and information-providing technologies that I have let into my life? I wear a Fitbit, I do find it motivates me to walk a little more and sit a little less. Fitbit could certainly benefit from user studies that prove it to be motivating, and could easily manipulate my setting of 10,000 steps a day to let me think I’ve walked more or less than I’ve actually walked. If Fitbit congratulated me for reaching my daily goal before dinner, would I skip an evening walk? Maybe. Fitbit would probably like to know. But I would not like to find out later I’d been manipulated.

And what about the Nest thermostat? I’m sure there’s valuable research to be done around energy conservation here: would users really notice if their thermostat setting was turned up or down a degree, as long as the number on the dial read a comfortable 70 degrees? Would the research work as well if Nest told me it might be happening? I would certainly want to know if I’ve been manipulated. Or perhaps this research has already been done and has just not been published.

One thing for sure: going forward, when I’m thinking about bringing a new Internet-of-Things gizmo into my house or onto my body, I won’t only be thinking about how it might breach my privacy, I’ll be thinking about how it could manipulate me.

Fixing San Francisco's Tech Bus Problem

The level of hostility long-time San Francisco residents direct to the influx of tech buses—the luxurious, free, Wi-Fi equipped monster machines that shuttle workers from all over San Francisco to their jobs in Silicon Valley—seems to be climbing. And, to make matters worse, one of the proposed solutions may lead to another problem, and more complaints from residents.

If you're not familiar with the tech bus debate, here's a primer: As one of the many perks offered to their employees, Silicon Valley companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook provide free bus service to workers who live in and around San Francisco. In the beginning, there were just a few buses. But as more tech workers decided to live in San Francisco and its surroundings (because of the nightlife and other benefits of living in a big city), the buses multiplied, and the complaints began. Residents claim that the buses make traffic worse, block city streets and bike lanes, and otherwise disturb quiet neighborhoods with their sheer size.

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View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
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Tekla Perry
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