The brand new 2020 Aspiring Nerd blog has arrived!

A couple of years ago, I started The Aspiring Nerd as a newsletter (a format that suited me better). Instead of in-depth articles that would take ages to research and write, I started assembling weekly wrap-ups with my commentary and analysis. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up with the pace and I decided to stop. I recently felt like writing again, but without the pressure to publish on a regular schedule.

This blog is the natural evolution of The Aspiring Nerd. On my own terms and outside of the constraints of email and Medium. The plan is to post whenever I gather enough interesting content to write an article that’s worth publishing. Let’s see how it goes. In the meantime, here are some interesting things I’ve read recently.

Politics and business

‘A Systemwide Disaster’: How the Iowa Caucuses Melted Down

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have heard about the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses. Here is a wrap-up of what happened.

Unexplained “inconsistencies” in results, heated conference calls and firm denials of hacking left the contest in a strange state of almost suspended animation.

Visa acquires Plaid for $5.3B

Plaid (the fintech company doing the plumbing behind Venmo, Coinbase and Robinhood) just got offered double their last private valuation. Bold move by Visa that will definitely give them a solid advantage compared to the other early investors rivals Mastercard, Goldman Sachs, Citi and American Express.

Plaid has grown steadily with its list of customers since it launched in 2013. The company says it integrates with more than 11,000 banks and connects to more than 200 million consumer accounts. While it does not give specific numbers or a full list of companies, Plaid said its customer base doubled from 2017 to 2018 and has expanded to the U.K. and Canada.

Privacy, ethics and user protection

Off-Facebook Activity is a Welcome but Incomplete Move

Facebook announced the roll-out of their Off-Facebook Activity tool (what used to be “Clear History”) and the EFF has some thoughts about it.

(…) it’s an incomplete measure, not least because we know that most users are unlikely to dig into and change their settings. (…) On top of that, this tool doesn’t come close to covering all the ways Facebook collects and monetizes data about you. For starters, there’s no way to opt out of Custom Audiences, one of Facebook’s most powerful targeted advertising services. As long as the burden is on users to carefully manage multiple sets of labyrinthine privacy settings, the privacy-invasive norms of targeted advertising will remain.

EU mulls five-year ban on facial recognition tech in public areas

The European Union is considering banning facial recognition technology in public places for up to five years, to give it time to work out how to prevent abuses and protect Europeans’ privacy and data rights. Curious to see how this will impact law enforcement agencies.

During that ban, of between three to five years, “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed.”

Apple dropped plan for encrypting backups after FBI complained

According to this Reuters article, Apple dropped plans to let iPhone users fully encrypt backups of their devices to iCloud after the FBI complained. Surprising move from the one of the few companies that still seemed to believe in (some) user privacy.

The tech giant’s reversal, about two years ago, has not previously been reported. It shows how much Apple has been willing to help U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, despite taking a harder line in high-profile legal disputes with the government and casting itself as a defender of its customers’ information.

ICE and CBP Are Secretly Tracking Us Using Stingrays. We’re Suing.

The ACLU has been tracked by ICE and CBP and think that public has a right to know if and how often ICE and CBP are using Stingrays.

In October 2019, Univision reported that an ICE deportation officer used a Stingray — a surveillance device that secretly mimics a cell-phone tower — to track down an immigrant suspected of “unlawful reentry” into the country. Little is publicly known about the use of Stingrays in ICE and CBP immigration enforcement operations, but we know they’ve used the technology repeatedly.

Mozilla Wants Young People to Consider ‘Ethical Issues’ Before Taking Jobs in Tech

The Mozilla Foundation just released a guide called ‘With Great Tech Comes Great Responsibility’ to help students navigate ethical issues in the tech industry, in particular, during the recruitment process.

The guide advises students not to work for companies that build technology that harms vulnerable communities, and to educate themselves “on governance” inside companies before taking a job. It also discusses unions drives, walkouts, petitions, and other forms of worker organizing. (…) “Addressing ethical issues in tech can be overwhelming for students interested in working in tech. But change in the industry is not impossible. And it is increasingly necessary,” reads the opening of the 11-page handbook—citing military contracts, algorithmic bias, inhumane working conditions in warehouses, biased facial recognition software, and intrusive data mining as causes for concern.

Anatomy of a rental phishing scam

Very convincing Craigslist / AirBNB rental phishing scheme. Be careful out there!

Often people are told to watch out for poor grammar and formatting to protect against phishing. This will work in some cases, but not in cases like the one I’m about to show. Sophisticated scammers use good English and pattern-match with legitimacy.

Technology / AI / Blockchain

YouTuber uses neural networks to upscale 1896 short film to 4K 60 fps 🤯

Someone enhanced the famous Lumière Brothers’ 1896 short clip “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” into a 4K video. The result is stunning and promising!

The original is a modest 640 by 480 video at just 20 frames per second (…) Denis used a mix of neural networks from Gigapixel AI and a technique called depth-aware video frame interpolation to not only upscale the resolution of the video, but also increase its frame rate to something that looks a lot smoother to the human eye. (…) The Gigapixel AI used for the upscaling process (…) is being trained to “fill in” information in an image using patterns and structures from a large pool of source images that are downscaled so that results can be compared to the originals.

Microsoft is finally replacing Edge with its new Chromium browser

It’s been in the works for quite a while but it’s finally happening! Is this the end of the front-end nightmare that IE was?

Some might be displeased about the change due to opposition over Google’s business model. By developing on the open-source Chromium project, Microsoft is helping to improve Google’s browser, which it uses to collect data for advertising purposes.

Bits and pieces

This is a paradise for Apple geeks: The (Unofficial) Apple Archive. See how to Scale to 100k Users without too much pain. Google released Dataset Search to help users find datasets from multiple sources.