The Daily Parker

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Critics of the Web—30 years ago

Alexis Madrigal takes a look at criticisms of the World Wide Web from when it was new:

Thirty years ago this week, the British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web at CERN, the European scientific-research center. Suffice it to say, the idea took off. The web made it easy for everyday people to create and link together pages on what was then a small network. The programming language was simple, and publishing was as painless as uploading something to a server with a few tags in it.

Just a few years after the internet’s creation, a vociferous set of critics—most notably in Resisting the Virtual Life, a 1995 anthology published by City Lights Books—rose to challenge the ideas that underlay the technology, as previous groups had done with other, earlier technologies.

Maybe as a major technological movement begins to accelerate—but before its language, corporate power, and political economics begin to warp reality—a brief moment occurs when critics see the full and awful potential of whatever’s coming into the world. No, the new technology will not bring better living (at least not only that). There will be losers. Oppression will worm its way into even the most seemingly liberating spaces. The noncommercial will become hooked to a vast profit machine. People of color will be discriminated against in new ways. Women will have new labors on top of the old ones. The horror-show recombination of old systems and cultures with new technological surfaces and innards is visible, like the half-destroyed robot face of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2.

Then, if money and people really start to pour into the technology, the resistance will be swept away, left dusty and coughing as what gets called progress rushes on.

The whole piece is worth a read.

Two on data security

First, Bruce Schneier takes a look at Facebook's privacy shift:

There is ample reason to question Zuckerberg's pronouncement: The company has made -- and broken -- many privacy promises over the years. And if you read his 3,000-word post carefully, Zuckerberg says nothing about changing Facebook's surveillance capitalism business model. All the post discusses is making private chats more central to the company, which seems to be a play for increased market dominance and to counter the Chinese company WeChat.

We don't expect Facebook to abandon its advertising business model, relent in its push for monopolistic dominance, or fundamentally alter its social networking platforms. But the company can give users important privacy protections and controls without abandoning surveillance capitalism. While some of these changes will reduce profits in the short term, we hope Facebook's leadership realizes that they are in the best long-term interest of the company.

Facebook talks about community and bringing people together. These are admirable goals, and there's plenty of value (and profit) in having a sustainable platform for connecting people. But as long as the most important measure of success is short-term profit, doing things that help strengthen communities will fall by the wayside. Surveillance, which allows individually targeted advertising, will be prioritized over user privacy. Outrage, which drives engagement, will be prioritized over feelings of belonging. And corporate secrecy, which allows Facebook to evade both regulators and its users, will be prioritized over societal oversight. If Facebook now truly believes that these latter options are critical to its long-term success as a company, we welcome the changes that are forthcoming.

And Cory Doctorow describes a critical flaw in Switzerland's e-voting system:

[E]-voting is a terrible idea and the general consensus among security experts who don't work for e-voting vendors is that it shouldn't be attempted, but if you put out an RFP for magic beans, someone will always show up to sell you magic beans, whether or not magic beans exist.

The belief that companies can be trusted with this power [to fix security defects while preventing people from disclosing them] defies all logic, but it persists. Someone found Swiss Post's embrace of the idea too odious to bear, and they leaked the source code that Swiss Post had shared under its nondisclosure terms, and then an international team of some of the world's top security experts (including some of our favorites, like Matthew Green) set about analyzing that code, and (as every security expert who doesn't work for an e-voting company has predicted since the beginning of time), they found an incredibly powerful bug that would allow a single untrusted party at Swiss Post to undetectably alter the election results.

You might be thinking, "Well, what is the big deal? If you don't trust the people administering an election, you can't trust the election's outcome, right?" Not really: we design election systems so that multiple, uncoordinated people all act as checks and balances on each other. To suborn a well-run election takes massive coordination at many polling- and counting-places, as well as independent scrutineers from different political parties, as well as outside observers, etc.

And even other insecure e-voting systems like the ones in the USA are not this bad: they decentralized, and would-be vote-riggers would have to compromise many systems, all around the nation, in each poll that they wanted to alter. But Swiss Post's defect allows a single party to alter all the polling data, and subvert all the audit systems. As Matthew Green told Motherboard: "I don’t think this was deliberate. However, if I set out to design a backdoor that allowed someone to compromise the election, it would look exactly like this."

Switzerland is going ahead with the election anyway, because that's what people do when they're called out on stupidity.

Once is accident, twice is conspiracy...

The House of Commons voted 391-242 this evening to reject PM Theresa May's slightly-revised Brexit deal, further throwing the country's prospects after March 29th into chaos:

Because of this defeat, tomorrow Commons will vote on whether to leave the EU without a deal, and if that vote fails, there will be a vote Thursday on whether to extend Article 50. If that vote fails...holy mother forking shirtballs, the UK is forked.

The world panics about an airplane

Two Boeing 737 Max 8 airplanes have crashed shortly after takeoff in the last few months, killing hundreds of passengers and crew. As a result, the European Union, the UK, China, and other countries have grounded the model pending investigations. Notably, the FAA has not. In the US, only American and Southwest are flying the new plane.

This is, simply put, panic. But no one wants to be the guy who will get blamed if another one goes down, even though that is highly improbable.

The Lion Air crash in Indonesia back in October seems related to a software change in the 737 Max 8 that the pilots didn't know about. That accident is still under investigation. Obviously so is Monday's crash in Ethiopia, with the flight data and voice recorders only retrieved yesterday.

While the Washington Post runs a story about how similar the crashes appear, and the President spouting off about how planes are too complex to fly these days, I turn to fellow pilot James Fallows for a dose of reason:

In the Lion Air crash, the pilots apparently kept trying to pull the plane’s nose back up. The MCAS system kept pushing it down. The automated system eventually won. The question that’s not yet answered about that crash is why the pilots didn’t turn off or disable this system. Such fail-safe override controls are built into every automated flight system I’ve ever heard about. As Patrick Smith discusses in his post, it’s possible that the pilots didn’t understand how the new MCAS system worked, or what it would be trying to do. It’s possible that they didn’t know where the overrides were. It’s possible that … well, anything might have occurred.

Is this what happened in the Ethiopian Airlines case as well? Was the AOA-sensing system that triggers the MCAS flawed or broken? Were the automatic controls trying to push the plane down, down, down, while the pilots fought to keep it up? Did the pilots try to override or disable the system? (For instance, by lowering the plane’s flaps, which happens on every landing and is designed to automatically disable the MCAS system.) Were they caught by surprise and unaware of what that system was doing? Were they fully aware, but still unable to alter the fatal path down?

Or was something else, something entirely unrelated, responsible for this crash? Something that had nothing to do with this model of airplane, or these new automated systems? At the moment, I believe no one knows. That is what Boeing, the Ethiopian authorities, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the world’s airlines are trying to figure out. There are enough differences between the two crashes—for instance, in the fluctuations in speed and altitude before impact—that the causes could turn out to be wholly unconnected.

Fallows links to "Ask the Pilot" Patrick Smith, with this also reasonable thought:

For pilots, dealing with the unwanted nose-down command would be, or should be, straightforward. The MCAS commands, faulty or not, can be overridden quickly through a pair of disconnect switches. Why the Lion Air pilots failed to do this, if in fact they did, is unclear, but unaware of the system’s defect in the first place, we can envision a scenario in which they became overwhelmed, unable to figure out in time what the plane was doing and how to correct it.

“Though it appears there’s a design flaw that Boeing will need to fix as soon as possible,” I wrote in November,“passengers can take comfort in knowing that every MAX pilot is now acutely aware of this potential problem, and is prepared deal with it.”

The Ethiopian accident, though, makes us wonder. With the Lion Air crash fresh on any 737 MAX pilot’s mind, you’d expect the crew to have recognized the malfunction right away and reacted accordingly. Did a disconnect somehow not work? Were they so inundated by a cascade of alarms, warnings, and erratic aircraft behavior that they failed to recognize what was happening? Or was the problem something else completely?

We won't know for a long time, in any event no sooner than the FDR and CVR data gets analyzed.

Semi-annual time-change angst

I'm not going to link to any of the articles published in the last few days about how no one likes changing the clocks to and from Daylight Saving Time. Suffice to say, the debate hinges on two simple questions: how early do you want the sun to set, and how late do you want it to rise, in winter?

For a concrete example, if you live in Chicago, do you want the sun to rise at 7:19 or 8:19 on January 3rd (the latest of the year)? And if the sun rises at 8:19 that morning, is that an acceptable price to pay for the sun setting at 5:20 (instead of 4:20) on December 8th (the earliest of the year)?

A switch to year-long DST would mean that the sun would rise over Lake Michigan after 7am from October 12th until March 17th—five months of morning gloom, offset by the sun never setting before 5pm.

On the western edge of US time zones, the results would be truly weird. Just across Lake Michigan from Chicago is Benton Harbor, Mich. Year-long DST would make the earliest sunset there occur at 6:14pm. But the latest sunrise would be at 9:14am, with the sun rising after 9am from December 7th through January 31st, and the sun rising after 8am from October 17th through March 14th. After 7am? August 22nd through April 19th. Yes, permanent DST would relegate places like Western Michigan, Western Nebraska, and Idaho to nine months of gloomy mornings.

Ultimately I think this is why the permanent-DST proposals will go nowhere in the US. The parts of the US most sensitive to late sunrises (farming areas) will be the ones most affected.

And hey, won't Spain be fun when permanent DST comes to Europe in two years. The sleepy town of Pontevedra, Spain, on the west coast of that country and at about the same latitude as Chicago, will enjoy sunrises at 10:04am in January should Spain go permanently to UTC+2. (But hey, the sun will never set there before 7pm, so maybe that's a good trade-off?)

Of course, this is all about psychology. The sun rises and sets on its own; only our need to agree on time causes these odd artifacts. Maybe in western Spain they'll simply start work at noon? (Or, more likely, switch to UTC+1 year-round.)

Trips to Europe will need EU registration starting in 2021

When I first heard this morning that visa-free travel to Europe would end for US citizens in 2021, I was dismayed. I remember how time-consuming it was to get a visa before the visa-waiver program started in the late 1980s. And I figured that the US would retaliate, requiring visas from Europeans, which would essentially destroy tourism between the two regions.

The reality isn't really anything like that. In fact, it merely brings the EU in line with what the US has required of visa-free travelers for years.

Starting in 2021, Americans will simply need to register with the EU equivalent of our Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA:

Currently, US citizens can travel to Europe for up to 90 days without any sort of travel authorization. ETIAS will change that.

Visa-free travelers, including US citizens, will need to request ETIAS authorization before visiting the Schengen Area. They can complete an application and pay a service fee of 7 euros (about $8) online. The authorization is valid for three years.

"Completing the online application should not take more than 10 minutes with automatic approval being given in over 95% of cases," the European Commission said in a statement.

The United States won't be the only country affected by the changes. From 2021, citizens from 60 countries will be required to apply for the ETIAS before entering the Schengen Area. Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Israel and Mauritius are among those countries.

So this should not affect taking a last-minute trip on the Eurostar, or crossing from Northern Ireland into the Republic. And it's fair; we've required ESTA registration from all overseas visitors for many years. I'm annoyed particularly at NPR for getting the details totally wrong in their newscast this morning.

Is my party drifting into Corbynism?

Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has made comments throughout her career that sound pretty clearly anti-Semitic. Three of my favorite columnists find this, and the party's response, alarming.

First, Bret Stephens, a Democrat:

Like many self-described progressives, Omar does not like Israel. That’s a shame, not least because Israel is the only country in its region that embraces the sorts of values the Democratic Party claims to champion. When was the last time there was a gay-pride parade in Ramallah, a women’s rights march in Gaza, or an opposition press in Tehran? In what Middle Eastern country other than Israel can an attorney general indict a popular and powerful prime minister on corruption charges?

For those who don’t get it, claims that Israel “hypnotizes” the world, or that it uses money to bend others to its will, or that its American supporters “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” repackage falsehoods commonly used against Jews for centuries. People can debate the case for Israel on the merits, but those who support the state should not have to face allegations that their sympathies have been purchased, or their brains hijacked, or their loyalties divided.

As the criticism of Omar mounts, it becomes that much easier for her to seem like the victim of a smear campaign, rather than the instigator of a smear. The secret of anti-Semitism has always rested, in part, on creating the perception that the anti-Semite is, in fact, the victim of the Jews and their allies. Just which powers-that-be are orchestrating thatcampaign? Why are they afraid of open debate? And what about all the bigotry on their side?

Second, Michele Goldberg, who is not a Democrat but is Jewish:

I think Omar deserves criticism. Criticism, however, is not the right word for what she’s faced. As one of the first two Muslim women in Congress — and the first to wear a hijab — Omar has been subject to a terrifying campaign of racist vilification, including a poster in the rotunda of the West Virginia Capitol linking her to 9/11. She is treated as a dangerous foreign interloper in American politics and the embodiment of anti-Semitism, even though her Republican colleagues routinely demonstrate far worse anti-Jewish bigotry.

House Democratic leaders have been widely panned for their handling of the Omar affair, but its contradictions put them in a near-impossible bind. To ignore her words would be to tolerate mild anti-Semitism, an unsavory proposition at any time, but especially now, when many Jews feel newly vulnerable in a country that’s long been a haven. To publicly rebuke her would mean joining in the over-the-top demonization of a black Muslim woman facing death threats. Ultimately, Democrats on Thursday settled on a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination, and “bigotry against minorities,” a blandly inoffensive document that didn’t seem to satisfy anyone.

Every Democrat present backed the resolution, but 23 Republicans voted against it. It was a reminder that while Democrats sometimes fail to live up to the ideals of multiethnic democracy, Republicans don’t seem to recognize those ideas at all. Omar needs to do better, but right now there’s still only one political party in America that is a safe place for hate.

Finally, Andrew Sullivan, who is neither a Democrat nor Jewish:

It should be possible to criticize Washington’s relationship with Israel without deploying crude and freighted language like this. But it got me wondering: Is it possible to write honestly about the Israel lobby’s power in D.C. without using any anti-Semitic “tropes” at all?

The basic facts are not really in dispute. A very powerful lobby deploys the money and passions of its members to ensure that a foreign country gets very, very special treatment from the U.S. Many of its supporters are Evangelical Protestants who want to accelerate the Second Coming. Others spring from an older and very American form of Christian Zionism. Many others are also American Jews with a commitment to Israel that has its roots both in the Torah and in a vow never to allow a second Holocaust.

The first bill introduced into the Senate in this Congress was one that made it illegal for any American to boycott goods from the West Bank, without suffering real economic consequences from their own government. It’s a federal bill designed to buttress several state bans on Americans’ right to boycott Israeli goods. Now here’s a clear case of conflict between the free speech rights of Americans and Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank. And the Senate voted for Israel’s occupation over the rights of its own citizens by a margin of 77– 23. One recalls what a former AIPAC head, Steve Rosen, said to Jeffrey Goldberg over lunch in 2005: “‘You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.” He was too modest.

I think this grotesque distortion of U.S. foreign policy deserves a much wider debate, but is constrained by cheap accusations of anti-Semitism. To give an example, if a critic of Israel were to use the exact same words as Steve Rosen, and argue that AIPAC is so powerful it could snap its fingers and have 70 senators’ signatures on a bill within 24 hours, he’d likely be deemed a bigot. And that is part of the Israel lobby’s power: its capacity to punish anyone for opposing it. It seems to me that it is simply a fact that the Israel lobby uses money, passion, and persuasion to warp this country’s foreign policy in favor of another country — out of all proportion to what Israel can do for the U.S. That comes perilously close to anti-Semitic tropes, but it’s also the truth. AIPAC, like the NRA, is a uniquely American phenomenon, and again like the NRA, full of an intense fanaticism that sometimes beggars belief. In many ways, this passionate intensity is understandable. History matters. But it’s not a rational way for a great power to conduct foreign policy. The one-way street has also corrupted Israel, wrecked its moral standing, and enabled the country to keep ratcheting toward the far right in self-destructive ways.

We're still nowhere close to the rampant anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party, but Sullivan is right that we need to discuss this further. 

More winning by the administration! Well, the Putin administration, anyway

Paul Krugman points out how President Trump's alternating bluster and surrender over trade has left us "less trusted, less respected, and weaker than we were before:"

On U.S. unreliability, consider the way the current administration has treated Canada, probably the friendliest neighbor and firmest ally any nation has ever had. Despite generations of good relations and a free-trade agreement, Trump imposed large tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel, invoking national security as a justification. This was obviously specious — in fact, Trump himself basically conceded this point, justifying the tariffs instead as retaliation for Canadian dairy policy (which was also specious).

The lesson for the world is that America can’t be trusted. Why bother making deals with a country that’s willing to slap sanctions on the best of allies, and clearly lie about the reasons, whenever it feels like it?

Meanwhile, the sudden retreat in the confrontation with China shows that we talk loud but carry a small stick. It would be one thing if the U.S. had changed course on the merits. But backing down so easily, after all the posturing, tells the world that the way to deal with America is not to bargain in good faith, but simply to threaten the president’s political base, and maybe offer some payoffs, political and otherwise. (I’m still wondering about those floors China’s largest bank rents at Trump Tower.)

Meanwhile, Michelle Goldberg looks forward to the multiple congressional inquiries launched this week as "Trump's TV Trial."

As America and the West get weaker, Russia gets stronger. So much winning. Just not ours.

Labour backs new Brexit referendum

In an unexpected twist, Jeremy Corbyn announced at a Labour party conference today that he supports a "people's vote" on the Brexit deal the UK Government worked out with the EU, and that hardly anyone in the UK agrees with:

In a statement, the party said it would “put forward or support an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit”.

Corbyn will tell MPs the party “cannot and will not accept” May running down the clock towards no deal. He will say EU officials and leaders in Brussels and Madrid found Labour’s alternative Brexit plan “serious and credible” and it could win support across the House of Commons.

“One way or another, we will do everything in our power to prevent no deal and oppose a damaging Tory Brexit based on Theresa May’s overwhelmingly rejected deal,” he said.

“That’s why, in line with our conference policy, we are committed to also putting forward or supporting an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country.”

Other news sources suggest that Corbyn's volte face came about after the resignations of 9 MPs from Labour last week.

The next Commons vote on Brexit will take place March 12th, according to sources in Parliament, giving the Government only two weeks to react to another rejection before crashing out of Europe. With both Corbyn and May playing chicken with the British public, I can only wonder when the next election will happen.

Labour's Love Lost

Seven Labour MPs quit the party today, accusing the party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of anti-Semitism and mishandling Brexit:

At a morning news conference, Parliament member Luciana Berger said she had become “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of the Labour Party, which she said was “institutionally anti-Semitic.” Berger, who is Jewish, added she was leaving behind a culture of “bullying, bigotry and intimidation.”

Chris Leslie, another breakaway lawmaker, said the party had been “hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left” and that Labour’s “betrayal on Europe was visible for all to see.” While many Labour party members support a second referendum on whether to leave the European Union, Corbyn has been cold to the idea of a do-over.

Leslie said, however, that “our differences go far deeper than Brexit” — revealing the depth of antipathy to the 69-year-old Corbyn, whose self-described “radical” agenda for Britain energized new and young voters in the last election, but has alienated the center of the party.

“The last three years have confirmed how irresponsible it would be to allow this leader of the opposition to take the office of prime minister of the United Kingdom. Many people still in the Labour Party will privately admit this to be true,” Leslie said.

The Guardian, generally a Labour-supporting newspaper, has more:

In the short term the group has one central task – to convince 29 more disgruntled MPs from any party colour to join their group. That would give them official third party status – overtaking the SNP and access not just to more short money but also a prized guaranteed slot for the group’s leader at every PMQs, replacing the SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford.

The group will meet later this week to decide how to structure their group – which could involve a process for selecting a leader. Much of the future will depend how many more MPs join them.

At the moment, all members of the new grouping are supporters of a second referendum. Yet sources suggested this would not necessarily be a prerequisite forever. Members of the group would hardly admit it in public, but there may come a point in the next few months when it becomes apparent that that campaign has failed and the group’s aims for the next phase of Brexit become more flexible.

This really is an interesting period for the West. Fifty years from now it will be a lot clearer whether the 2010s represented the beginning of a realignment in Western politics, or just a scream of frustration from people who feel left out. Right now, though, it feels a little chaotic, and it's a gift to those, like the Russian and Chinese governments, who have always wanted to discredit our political philosophy.