The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

More sad but true news about politicians

Shocking, I know, but politicians seem comically unaware of how technology works:

We’re now a dozen years past the infamous “series of tubes” speech. Yet our political leaders still don’t seem to have learned much about those “tubes” or the cyber-sewage that frequently flows through them.

Consider a recent, noncomprehensive history.

These days Trump lashes out at private companies that suspend nut jobs and neo-Nazis, decrying that “censorship is a very dangerous thing & absolutely impossible to police.” But in what feels like a million years of crazy ago, then-candidate Trump said he planned to hobble recruiting by the terrorist Islamic State by asking Bill Gates to “clos[e] that Internet up in some way.”

This was a baffling proposal, not only because Chinese-style, government-enforced Internet censorship would run afoul of the First Amendment. The other problem was that the Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist does not, uh, “control” the Internet.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some politicians out there who seem to know their way around the information superhighway. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who represents part of Silicon Valley but has called for stronger privacy rights, is among them. Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), as Senate Intelligence Committee chair and vice chair, respectively, have shown an inclination to ask tougher questions of tech companies on Russian interference.

But the problems infecting the tech sector go well beyond those limited areas, alas. And, generally speaking, our policymakers are ill prepared to protect the public from those who wish us harm — or even from companies willing to profit off that harm.

None of this is really new. Politicians typically know less than most people about the daily lives of the people they represent. What's different, at least as far as the governing party in the U.S. goes, is that they're proud of their ignorance. That is what we should be afraid of.

Policies are changing work, not technologies

Economic historian Louis Hyman describes how the choices people in government and business make actually lead technological change, for some pretty obvious reasons:

The history of labor shows that technology does not usually drive social change. On the contrary, social change is typically driven by decisions we make about how to organize our world. Only later does technology swoop in, accelerating and consolidating those changes.

This insight is crucial for anyone concerned about the insecurity and other shortcomings of the gig economy. For it reminds us that far from being an unavoidable consequence of technological progress, the nature of work always remains a matter of social choice. It is not a result of an algorithm; it is a collection of decisions by corporations and policymakers.

In the last 10 years, 94 percent of net new jobs have appeared outside of traditional employment. Already approximately one-third of workers, and half of young workers, participate in this alternative world of work, either as a primary or a supplementary source of income.

Internet technologies have certainly intensified this development (even though most freelancers remain offline). But services like Uber and online freelance markets like TaskRabbit were created to take advantage of an already independent work force; they are not creating it. Their technology is solving the business and consumer problems of an already insecure work world. Uber is a symptom, not a cause.

Policies, of course, can be changed.

Daily Parker bait, times 3

Of course I'm going to blog about these three articles.

First, former George W. Bush speechwriter and lifelong Republican Michael Gerson looks at the culture of celebrity that surrounds the President and says "our republic will never be the same:"

The founders generally believed that the survival and success of a republic required leaders and citizens with certain virtues: moderation, self-restraint and concern for the common good. They were convinced that respect for a moral order made ordered liberty possible.

The culture of celebrity is the complete negation of this approach to politics. It represents a kind of corrupt, decaying capitalism in which wealth is measured in exposure. It elevates appearance over accomplishment. Because rivalries and feuds are essential to the story line, it encourages theatrical bitterness. Instead of pursuing a policy vision, the first calling of the celebrity is to maintain a brand.

Is the skill set of the celebrity suited to the reality of governing? On the evidence, not really.

Second, Crain's business columnist Joe Cahill calls out Eddie Lampert's offer to buy Kenmore for $400m as a call to put Sears into hospice care:

There's plenty to worry about in the latest letter from Lampert's ESL Investments. First, Lampert is offering just $400 million for Kenmore, supposedly the company's crown jewel. When he first floated the idea of buying the household appliance brand in April, estimates pegged the likely selling price at $500 million or more. Maybe the lower bid is intended to elicit higher offers from potential third-party acquirers. Or it may signal that nobody else is interested and ESL is angling for a bargain.

Second, the offer is both nonbinding and contingent on ESL finding a third-party equity backer to finance the purchase. The letter says ESL is "confident" it can find such a backer. In other words, billionaire Lampert isn't willing to risk his own money buying Kenmore. This is consistent with his recent reluctance to raise his bet on Sears Holdings as a whole. As I've written before, he could easily take the company private—at the current market capitalization, the 46 percent he doesn't already own would cost less than $100 million—and capture the full upside of a turnaround. He's shown no interest in doing so.

And finally, on a happier note, the Chicago Tribune lists eight bars where people can go to read:

After living in the United Kingdom, freelance book publicist Jonathan Maunder turned to Chicago’s literary greats to connect to his adopted city. He remembered a night last year visiting Rainbo Club, the bar favored by “Chicago, City on the Make” author Nelson Algren.

“As I stepped out of the bar, a little drunk on both a couple of pints and Algren’s beautiful writing, I stood for a moment under the red neon of the Rainbo Club sign, which was reflected on the just rained on street, and felt a powerful connection to the place I was in and its history,” he said.

[He recommends] Kopi, A Traveler’s Cafe
5317 N. Clark St., 773-989-5674

A friendly, relaxed cafe/bar, which always has people and a good atmosphere (and sometimes accordion players) but never feels overly busy and hectic, in a way that might be distracting from reading.

Given that Kopi is a 20-minute walk from my house, I may just stop in this weekend.

I was a little bummed that the Duke of Perth didn't make the list, though.

Trollin' trollin' trollin', keep those Russkies trollin'

Researchers at Clemson University, working with 538.org, identified 3 million tweets from 2,800 Twitter handles belonging to Russian trolls:

“We identified five categories of IRA-associated Twitter handles, each with unique patterns of behaviors: Right Troll, Left Troll, News Feed, Hashtag Gamer, and Fearmonger. With the exception of the Fearmonger category, handles were consistent and did not switch between categories.”

The five types:

  • Right Troll: These Trump-supporting trolls voiced right-leaning, populist messages, but “rarely broadcast traditionally important Republican themes, such as taxes, abortion, and regulation, but often sent divisive messages about mainstream and moderate Republicans…They routinely denigrated the Democratic Party, e.g. @LeroyLovesUSA, January 20, 2017, “#ThanksObama We're FINALLY evicting Obama. Now Donald Trump will bring back jobs for the lazy ass Obamacare recipients,” the authors wrote.
  • Left Troll: These trolls mainly supported Bernie Sanders, derided mainstream Democrats, and focused heavily on racial identity, in addition to sexual and religious identity. The tweets were “clearly trying to divide the Democratic Party and lower voter turnout,” the authors told FiveThirtyEight.
  • News Feed: A bit more mysterious, news feed trolls mostly posed as local news aggregators who linked to legitimate news sources. Some, however, “tweeted about global issues, often with a pro-Russia perspective.”
  • Hashtag Gamer: Gamer trolls used hashtag games—a popular call/response form of tweeting—to drum up interaction from other users. Some tweets were benign, but many “were overtly political, e.g. @LoraGreeen, July 11, 2015, “#WasteAMillionIn3Words Donate to #Hillary.”
  • Fearmonger: These trolls, who were least prevalent in the dataset, spread completely fake news stories, for instance “that salmonella-contaminated turkeys were produced by Koch Foods, a U.S. poultry producer, near the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday.”

Will learning that Russian trolls' "mission was to divide Americans along political and sociocultural lines, and to sow discord within the two major political parties" help people call bullshit on trolling tweets and posts? Probably not. But a guy can dream.

How the McDonalds Monopoly game was rigged

Via Schneier, the head of security for the marketing firm running the game stole the million-dollar game pieces:

[FBI Special Agent Richard] Dent’s investigation had started in 2000, when a mysterious informant called the FBI and claimed that McDonald’s games had been rigged by an insider known as “Uncle Jerry.” The person revealed that “winners” paid Uncle Jerry for stolen game pieces in various ways. The $1 million winners, for example, passed the first $50,000 installment to Uncle Jerry in cash. Sometimes Uncle Jerry would demand cash up front, requiring winners to mortgage their homes to come up with the money. According to the informant, members of one close-knit family in Jacksonville had claimed three $1 million prizes and a Dodge Viper.

When Dent alerted McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, executives were deeply concerned. The company’s top lawyers pledged to help the FBI, and faxed Dent a list of past winners. They explained that their game pieces were produced by a Los Angeles company, Simon Marketing, and printed by Dittler Brothers in Oakwood, Georgia, a firm trusted with printing U.S. mail stamps and lotto scratch-offs. The person in charge of the game pieces was Simon’s director of security, Jerry Jacobson.

Dent thought he had found his man. But after installing a wiretap on Jacobson’s phone, he realized that his tip had led to a super-sized conspiracy. Jacobson was the head of a sprawling network of mobsters, psychics, strip-club owners, convicts, drug traffickers, and even a family of Mormons, who had falsely claimed more than $24 million in cash and prizes.

The longish read is worth the time.

You're not wrong, voice-command assistant UIs are horrible

The Nielsen-Norman Group has released recent research on user interactions with intelligent assistants like Alexa and Google Home. The results are not great:

Usability testing finds that both voice-only and screen-based intelligent assistants work well only for very limited, simple queries that have fairly simple, short answers. Users have difficulty with anything else.

Our user research found that current intelligent assistants fail on all 6 questions (5 technologies plus integration), resulting in an overall usability level that’s close to useless for even slightly complex interactions. For simple interactions, the devices do meet the bare minimum usability requirements. Even though it goes against the basic premise of human-centered design, users have to train themselves to understand when an intelligent assistant will be useful and when it’s better to avoid using it.

Our ideology has always been that computers should adapt to humans, not the other way around. The promise of AI is exactly one of high adaptability, but we didn’t see that that when observing actual use. In contrast, observing users struggle with the AI interfaces felt like a return to the dark ages of the 1970s: the need to memorize cryptic commands, oppressive modes, confusing content, inflexible interactions — basically an unpleasant user experience.

Are we being unreasonable? Isn’t it true that AI-based user interfaces have made huge progress in recent years? Yes, current AI products are better than many of the AI research systems of past decades. But the requirements for everyday use by average people are dramatically higher than the requirements for a graduate student demo. The demos we saw at academic conferences 20 years ago were impressive and held great promise for AI-based interactions. The current products are better, and yet don’t fulfill the promise.

We're not up to HAL or Her yet, in other words, but we're making progress.

The whole article is worth a read.

Too many things in my inbox

I probably won't have time to read all of these things over lunch:

Share that last one with your non-technical friends. It's pretty clever.

Three items, implicitly related

Item the first: Bruce Schneier discusses how Russian censors have tried to shut down Telegram, an encrypted communications app:

Russia has been trying to block Telegram since April, when a Moscow court banned it after the company refused to give Russian authorities access to user messages. Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, works on both iPhone and Android, and there are Windows and Mac desktop versions available. The app offers optional end-to-end encryption, meaning that all messages are encrypted on the sender's phone and decrypted on the receiver's phone; no part of the network can eavesdrop on the messages.

Since then, Telegram has been playing cat-and-mouse with the Russian telecom regulator Roskomnadzor by varying the IP address the app uses to communicate. Because Telegram isn't a fixed website, it doesn't need a fixed IP address. Telegram bought tens of thousands of IP addresses and has been quickly rotating through them, staying a step ahead of censors. Cleverly, this tactic is invisible to users. The app never sees the change, or the entire list of IP addresses, and the censor has no clear way to block them all.

A week after the court ban, Roskomnadzor countered with an unprecedented move of its own: blocking 19 million IP addresses, many on Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. The collateral damage was widespread: The action inadvertently broke many other web services that use those platforms, and Roskomnadzor scaled back after it became clear that its action had affected services critical for Russian business. Even so, the censor is still blocking millions of IP addresses.

Whatever its current frustrations, Russia might well win in the long term. By demonstrating its willingness to suffer the temporary collateral damage of blocking major cloud providers, it prompted cloud providers to block another and more effective anti-censorship tactic, or at least accelerated the process. In April, Google and Amazon banned—and technically blocked—the practice of “domain fronting,” a trick anti-censorship tools use to get around Internet censors by pretending to be other kinds of traffic. Developers would use popular websites as a proxy, routing traffic to their own servers through another website—in this case Google.com—to fool censors into believing the traffic was intended for Google.com. The anonymous web-browsing tool Tor has used domain fronting since 2014. Signal, since 2016. Eliminating the capability is a boon to censors worldwide.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., a Federal judge has cleared the path for AT&T to purchase Time Warner, which will create one of the largest companies the world has ever seen.

All of this is scary to a lot of people. Which is why charlatans are on the rise once again.

We live in interesting times.

Parker update

We just got back from the vet. The x-rays show that Parker's leg is almost completely healed, so he's finally cleared to go back to his play group. He has no idea about this right now but tomorrow morning he'll be very, very happy.

Now I'm about to run to my office, so I'm queuing up these articles to read later:

OK. Chugging some tea, and hitting the CTA. More later.