Laptop pioneer John Ellenby dies

Ellenby himself was influential beyond that one computer. Before Grid, he also worked at Xerox’s groundbreaking Palo Alto Research Center. He took the Alto, the template for what would become Apple’s Lisa and Mac desktops, and developed a sequel (the Alto II) that was much more commercially viable. He also founded an early tablet company, Agilis, and helped get the ball rolling on both augmented reality and navigation through another firm, GeoVector.

You could argue that some of Ellenby’s creations were premature. Laptops didn’t really hit the mainstream until roughly a decade later through systems like Apple’s PowerBook and IBM’s ThinkPad, and it would be well over two decades before his other companies’ fields really swung into high gear. With that said, there’s no denying that he was forward thinking and had a knack for translating ambitious ideas to devices you could buy. He’ll be missed.

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Social media’s echo chamber fuels migrant backlash in Sweden, Finland

This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series “Life, Disrupted,” about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis — if at all.

Maria Booth and I sit at a table at Mälarpaviljongen, a gay-friendly bar and cafe in Stockholm. It’s a sunny, breezy day on the Baltic waterway that surrounds the city. The cafe’s floating patio bobs gently in Riddarfjärden Bay.

We’re talking about Facebook.

She’s worried about a change taking place in her country that she saw first on the world’s biggest social network: People she knew were posting comments against immigrants, calling them criminals and drains on society.

“It has become perfectly legitimate to say we should close our borders,” says Booth, her voice tinged with disbelief.

To my American ears, the sentiment seems commonplace — especially in this election year. To Booth, it’s unprecedented.

For more than 70 years, Sweden has been a haven for people escaping war and persecution. In 1943, it gave asylum to 7,200 Danish Jews — virtually Denmark’s entire Jewish population — after they were smuggled in by fishermen crossing the narrow Kattegatt strait. Sweden later became a beacon for people fleeing the Soviet bloc, the revolution in Iran and war crimes in Bosnia.

Swedes proudly call their country a “humanitarian superpower.”

In Stockholm last September, people take part in a demonstration to show solidarity with migrants who are seeking asylum in Europe after having fled their home countries.

In Stockholm last September, people take part in a demonstration to show solidarity with migrants seeking asylum in Europe.

Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

That singular culture began to chip a few years ago as migrants came here in increasing numbers, drawn by Sweden’s welcoming reputation, generous welfare benefits and laws allowing permanent residency. Now Sweden’s humanitarian identity is at risk of shattering — in part because the social media echo chamber broadcasts a growing hostility toward immigrants.

I visited Sweden and Finland for two weeks in June to see how these two tech-savvy countries are reacting to the largest surge of refugees and migrants either has experienced in years. I found that the tech industry has taken on a large role in helping refugees find work and start new businesses in both countries. And I learned that Facebook and Twitter are emboldening people to express opinions they never felt they could before. The effective use of social media has also helped anti-immigrant political parties attract people under 25 to their cause.

Call it the ideology feed.

Saying the unsayable

In effect, social media gives Swedes license to break away from a culture of self-censorship called åsiktskorridor, or “opinion corridor,” that defines what is and isn’t OK to say.

The logo of the Soldiers of Odin in Finland, from the group's Facebook page, which has 46,331 likes.

The logo on the Facebook page for the Soldiers of Odin. The page has 46,331 followers.

Screenshot by CNET

Until very recently, anyone who talked about immigration would get “the evil eye,” says Booth.

“Swedes are extremely conformist, and a good discussion in Sweden is one where everyone agrees.”

It’s why posts and tweets that veer from the country’s humanitarian identity are so shocking.

That’s especially true if they’re overtly racist, like the tweets from Soldiers of Odin, an aggressively anti-immigrant group that started in Finland and has now spread to Sweden. Consider a comment posted earlier this week on the group’s Facebook page. Converted from Finnish to English by Google Translate, it reads: “Satan spics goddammit. My ax has a new tourist destination.” The page has more than 46,000 followers.

Tobias Andersson isn’t anywhere near as odious. As head of Young Swedes, the youth organization of the conservative political party Sweden Democrats, he tends toward more-measured remarks. A tweet in both Swedish and English earlier this month showed a character from “South Park” commenting on a radical Muslim randomly stabbing a woman to death: “It’s the religion of peace…” it starts.

A new generation

Finns and Swedes share a love of coffee, saunas and celebrating the midnight twilight of summer. But they’re not exactly the same. Cultural stereotypes about Finns paint them as more taciturn, more focused on work and with a darker sense of humor than their neighbors to the west. Finns whip themselves with birch branches in the sauna; Swedes do not.

More important to this discussion, Finland had received relatively few migrants. Two years ago, 3,651 refugees applied for asylum. Last year’s 32,000 requests was a jolt to the system.

Samuli Virtanen, state secretary to the Finnish minister of foreign affairs.

Samuli Virtanen, state secretary to the Finnish minister of foreign affairs.

Laura Hautala/CNET

That much is obvious when I meet with State Secretary Samuli Virtanen, a member of the True Finns party and an advisor to the Finnish minister of foreign affairs. After quizzing me on my Finnish last name (I’m an American with Finnish ancestry) and offering me coffee, he tells me why Finns are questioning whether to take in tens of thousands of refugees.

Finland has an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent and an economy that’s barely grown since 2008. The country’s beloved social services, like 500 days of unemployment insurance, cheap health care — and a state-supplied gift of baby clothes, bedding and baby care products to all expectant parents — are under threat.

“When we are tightening the belt, why are we at the same time welcoming migrants?” Virtanen says citizens ask.

One noteworthy point: True Finns is the same political party whose 2011 manifesto said, “Young women should study less and spend more time giving birth to pure Finnish children.”

Despite that earlier rhetoric, the True Finns party used social media to gain a strong following with voters under 25, says Niko Pyrhönen, a researcher at the University of Helsinki Center for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism.

“Once they started to have success in social media, they became one of the most successful parties among young people,” Pyrhönen tells me during a conversation in his narrow, book-crammed office. Only the polar opposite Green Party has more young-adult supporters. Both parties are social media savvy, Pyrhönen says.

“The True Finns gave [young people] an arena to debate politically online,” Pyrhönen says, “and to generate a kind of collective identity of being ‘for Finland.'”

Fear of backlash


Mustafa Abdulameer, 22, received asylum in early June. He knows Finns might be afraid of him because he’s from Iraq.

Laura Hautala/CNET

Refugees are well aware of the growing backlash. “After Cologne, people got very aggressive,” says Mustafa Abdulameer, who reached Finland from Iraq after traveling across eight European borders by foot, train and bus. He’s referring to the infamous sexual assaults during last New Year’s Eve when, authorities now think, about 2,000 men attacked 1,200 women in Cologne and other German cities. It’s unclear how many of the men were foreign nationals.

Abdulameer, 22, is fasting for Ramadan and can eat, drink and smoke only during the three hours of twilight near the summer solstice in Helsinki. He tells me to drink the Rooibos tea he just bought me. It’s still three more hours before he can break his fast.

Tall and lanky, Abdulameer wants to become a business and marketing consultant for fellow refugees’ companies. He was granted asylum in early June. “People hear I’m from Iraq,” he says, “and they’re afraid I’m a thief or I will do a crime.”

He gets by in the new world he’s entered, and most people are kind to him — but he knows he has to set a good example and show that Iraqis can be trusted.

Echo chambers

The conversations happening on Facebook and Twitter have echoed in the parliaments of both countries. This month, the Finnish Justice Ministry announced new rules limiting the rights of asylum seekers to appeal denials. Finland expects to deport more than 22,000 refugees.

Maria Booth at her computer. A Ph.D. student in management and organization, Booth has been dismayed to see her friends and acquaintances say negative things online about asylum seekers.

Maria Booth, a Ph.D. student in Stockholm, was shocked when people she knew on Facebook started posting negative comments about Sweden’s asylum seekers.

Sofie Sagfossen

Sweden tightened its previously generous asylum law this past June. Now asylum seekers under 25 can be granted permanent residence only if they’ve finished high school and can work for a living. Permission to bring in relatives will be granted only if the applicants prove they can support their relatives.

People have told Tino Sanandaji his Facebook postings influenced public debate. An economist and researcher for the Institute for Economic and Business History Research in Stockholm, he’s also a Kurdish immigrant from Iran.

He posts regularly in Swedish about the impact of immigrants on Sweden’s economy. “My sort of shtick is I’m critical about what I perceive to be biased facts on the issues in Sweden,” he tells me in a phone conversation.

“Right now foreign immigration is the single most important issue in the country. On one side people are giving exaggerated negative facts — like immigrants are murderers and rapists. On the other, the government is giving extremely positive spin,” he says. “I criticize the idea that taking in refugees is good for the economy. It’s not good for the economy. We should instead increase aid to the UN.”

To Swedes like Booth — who personally knows Sanandaji — these are almost fighting words.

Incensed by anti-immigrant posts she’s read online, Booth volunteered with the Swedish Red Cross last fall. She stood in the Stockholm Central Station as trains rolled in from southern Sweden packed with asylum seekers, and as the refugees entered the station, she answered their questions and pointed them to resources.

“It was me taking a stand,” she says.

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Motorola’s latest wireless earbuds don’t live up to expectations

The package includes two wireless earbuds and a charging case, which you’ll unfortunately need to keep close at hand most of the time. The Hubble Connect companion app for iOS and Android gives you a place to customize the settings, but the buds will need to be inside the case in order for the app to connect with them. Without the app, you can still control playback, select EQ presets and connect to Google Now or Siri through simple button presses. If you misplace the buds, the app will help locate the last place they were synced, which is helpful, if only a bit.

The orange and black design with matching charging case is attractive, but unlike in the press photos, the bulky buds don’t sit flush and tend to hang a bit awkwardly out of your ear. I suppose someone out there with larger ears than mine could pull these off a bit better, but for me, it’s tough. Sure, the battery and audio drivers add to their size, but the similar Bragi Dash manages a far sleeker design, with more features inside, no less. That’s not to say the VerveOnes+ ever felt like they were going to fall out of my ears, they sit in pretty well, but do feel as big as they look. As a bonus, at least, IP57 waterproofing means they can withstand sweaty workouts and even the occasional dunk in a sink.

There’s definitely a tradeoff of style for functionality, then, but even that doesn’t seem totally worth it. The headphones have deal-breaker levels of audio dropouts between the left and right earbuds (and sometimes the pocketed source-device), which makes listening a bumpy ride. A recent firmware update helped keep the signal solid while I was sitting at my desk, but go outside amongst the Bluetooth-emitting populace and it’s dropout city.

As for audio quality — dropouts aside — they sound pretty good. Motorola, which actually licensed this product from Binatone, hasn’t revealed the frequency range, but they have 6.8mm dynamic drivers providing what’s described as “deep, rich HD sound.” That’s not much to go on unless you’ve given them a listen yourself, but the bass is indeed deep and full, with solid mid-range tones and generally crips highs, especially with high-resolution audio files. These earbuds also support Bluetooth aptX, so if you have a phone or player that supports the format, you can expect “CD-quality” wireless listening.

To tweak the output, you get six pre-set EQ profiles to choose from: Bass, Brilliant, Balance, Rhythm, Live and Moto Sound. I’ve found Balance and Moto Sound to be the best for normal listening. To get a preview of the settings, just press the earbud button on either side for six seconds while music is playing. It’ll cycle through the options. Press once to lock in your EQ when you find one you like.

Other system options include Ear Detect — an IR sensor switches the buds on once inserted into your ear and vice versa. There’s also Voice Answer for taking calls using the onboard dual mics, and Pass-Through, which lets in a tinny version of the outside world. While this definitely helps, it’s not a safe enough (or often legal) solution for cycling and wind noise also becomes a major problem with Pass-Through enabled. All these settings are supposedly accessible through a six-second button press (without music playing), but so far I’ve only heard a prompt for toggling either music or video mode (something not indicated in the manual). Still, these are generally options that you’ll set once, which you can accomplish easily through the app, while the earbuds are stowed in the case.

One of my favorite features is actually using Google Now (since I’m on Android) for verbal inquiries or turn-by-turn directions when walking or biking around. You can trigger access with a long (but not six-second long) press of the left earbud button until you hear the Google “listening” tone as it accesses your phone. Saying “walking (or biking) navigation directions to a [specified location]” usually took me right into spoken prompts indicating where to go. I usually prefer not to plug up both ears with headphones when I’m out and about, so I’ve taken to using just one. Incidentally, that also solves the annoying audio-dropout issue.

Having a single earbud that can serve up music from your phone and provide one-click access to Google Now for searches, random info and especially directions is actually pretty great. Unfortunately, if you have Ear Detect on and happen to drop them into your pocket for five minutes or more, the buds will go to sleep and only the charging case will be able to wake them up. The workaround is to turn off Ear Detect, leaving the earbud on continuously. Your freedom will only last as long as it takes for each 72 mAh battery to run down, which is listed as about three and a half hours per earbud while in use.

The 600 mAh charging case also provides an additional charge, giving you enough juice for a total of more than 12 hours of playback time once you re-up. The 115-hour standby claim also seems valid. I’ve left them in my bag (in the charging case) for four or five days and they usually still had a healthy charge.

When I first tried these headphones, they seemed like an obvious skip. If I had paid good money and the earbuds cut out as much as they had, I’d be clamoring for a refund. I had high hopes that the recent firmware update would improve their ability to stay connected, but that only helped while indoors with few people around. It’s not just the Motorola VerveOnes+, though, that have difficulty with earpiece-to-earpiece and source device connectivity. Erato’s Apollo 7 buds and the Bragi Dash suffer some of the same problems, but the Dash at least has onboard memory, so you can listen to tunes without bringing a phone (and without suffering any dropouts). And again, they also offer a sleeker fit, which is important in a product with this form factor.

I look at these headphones as examples of fledgling technology: still at the mercy of what’s technically possible. If you can afford to experiment, you may get some enjoyment out of these earbuds, but for $250 most will be disappointed. Truly wireless still seems like a great idea, but the connectivity — a key factor here — is still not where it needs to be.

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When tech firms judge on skills alone, women land more job interviews

Can blind job screenings make for more-just hiring practices?

Can blind job screenings make for more-just hiring practices?

Getty Images

You can’t judge a book by its cover.

It’s an old cliche, but it’s one that even the most cutting-edge tech firms might want to revisit — at least if they mean what they say about diversifying their workforces.

On Thursday, Speak With a Geek, a technology industry recruiter founded in 1999, revealed the eye-opening results of its experiment with blind job auditions.

In blind auditions, candidates’ identifying details are stripped away and employers judge on qualifications alone — gender, race or even where applicants went to school aren’t part of the hiring calculus.

On two different occasions, Speak With a Geek presented the same 5,000 candidates to the same group of employers. The first time around, details like names, experience and background were provided. Five percent selected for interviews were women.

You can guess what happened next, right? When identifying details were suppressed, that figure jumped to 54 percent.

Diversity in the tech industry has become a major issue, and tech firms from Apple to Facebook to Intel have been releasing annual reports to show how they’re doing. The numbers, though, are often lackluster, with little improvement from year to year. For example, Apple’s latest diversity report earlier in the month showed the company is 32 percent female, which is 1 percentage point higher than last year. Many companies are trying to pinpoint the cause, yet there are myriad ways women and minority job candidates can get derailed or overlooked.

Speak With a Geek seems to have zeroed in on one.

Removing traces of gender or race may prevent employers from basing interview decisions on a conscious or unconscious bias, Speak With a Geek said. The former would be an outright belief that women, for instance, aren’t as good at coding as men are. The latter would be more subtle and might mean a company picks the man because he better fits that employer’s unexamined idea of who a coder is.

Blind auditions aren’t new. In the ’70s, The New York Times notes, symphonies started having musicians audition behind partitions, and researchers at Harvard and Princeton found (PDF) that when blind auditions were used, the odds of a woman being hired by an orchestra jumped from 25 percent to 46 percent.

Over the years, there have been various studies, both formal and informal, dealing with the question of whether job applicants with foreign or ethnic-sounding names are more often passed up for jobs. The results often say yes.

Some companies are offering ways to conduct blind auditions. GapJumpers, for example, helps eliminate biographical information from the hiring process. Employers first get to know candidates by way of scores from a specially designed skills test. Blendoor, in beta, is a mobile app that hides candidates’ names and photos.

Tech companies should be interested in diversifying, said Annie Ryan, Speak With a Geek’s director of diversity and inclusion. Research has shown that diverse teams lead to diverse thinking and better problem solving.

“If you’re coming up with a new technology,” Ryan said, “you want to make sure it’s most applicable to the widest amount of users, so that anybody in the world can pick up your technology and have it be relevant to their lives. The best way to do that is to bring in different perspectives to the creation process.”

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The Jagdwagen is Porsche’s first real utility vehicle

Need a new phone?

Enter to win* a OnePlus 3 phone with Dash Charge technology, a June winner of our Editor’s’ Choice award.

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Privacy groups call foul on WhatsApp sharing data with Facebook

Specifically, the privacy group says it’s planning to file a complaint against the companies for violating statues of the Federal Trade Commission act that warns against “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” Here, EPIC is accusing WhatsApp of lying to users when it promised its 2014 sale to Facebook wouldn’t effect it’s privacy policy — which pledged never to share or sell “personally identifiable information” like the phone number, name and profile data shared under the new policy.

WhatsApp says it needs to share limited data with Facebook to test out new features designed to help users “communicate with business,” such as receiving fraud notifications from a bank or flight delays from airline companies. WhatsApp also maintains that all messages will still be completely encrypted, and unreadable by both Facebook and WhatsApp staff.

HILVERSUM, NETHERLANDS - FEBRUARY 2014, 2014: WhatsApp Messenger is a proprietary, cross-platform instant messaging subscription service for smartphones with Internet access founded in 2009.; Shutterstock ID 177177047; PO: aol; Job: production; Client: drone

Users also have up to 30 days to opt-out of the sharing portion of the new terms-of-service, but according to EPIC, that doesn’t protect the companies from the FTC’s consent order. The order apparently requires the company to obtain an opt-in consent before asking them to agree to the new terms. WhatsApp does technically offer an opt-in option, but it’s not clear how to access it: one must click “read” to view the terms-of-service agreement before the opt-in checkbox appears.

It may sound like privacy groups are splitting hairs, but how user data is handled can have unforeseen legal consequences. It’s not just special interest groups who are concerned — The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner is also investigating the WhatsApp policy change to ensure it complies with the Data Protection Act. It’s a complicated little mess, but Facebook, at least, is confident it’s on the right side of the law. “WhatsApp complies with applicable laws,” a spokesperson said in a Motherboard interview. “As always, we consider our obligations when designing updates like this.”

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