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.
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.
I didn't have a chance to read these yesterday:
Now I'm off to work. The heat wave of the last few days has finally broken!
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.
The Associated Press has obtained the latest edition of the Chicago Crime Commission's "Gang Book." It shows the turfs claimed by 59 gangs, including many small areas formed as groups split off from other groups after top leaders go to jail. The book also highlights how social media make gang disputes worse:
Gangs put a premium on retaliation for perceived disrespect. In the past, insults rarely spread beyond the block. Now, they’re broadcast via social media to thousands in an instant.
“If you’re disrespected on that level, you feel you have to act,” said [Rodney] Phillips, employed with Target Area, a nonprofit group that seeks to defuse gang conflicts.
Police say there was a gang connection to most of the 650 homicides in Chicago recorded in 2017 — more than in Los Angeles and New York City combined. Homicides so far in 2018 are down around 20 percent. Police partly credit better intelligence and the deployment of officers to neighborhoods on the anniversaries of gang killings.
So integral is social media to gang dynamics that when Englewood-area pastor Corey Brooks brokered a truce between factions of the Black Disciples and Gangster Disciples in 2016, he insisted they agree to refrain from posting taunts. The gang truce lasted longer than most — 18 months.
Some gangs provoke enemy gangs by streaming live video showing them walking through rival turf. Others face off using a split-screen function on Facebook Live and hurl abuse at each other.
I kind of want to see that map. And I kind of don't. Chicago Public Media has an online, interactive map that doesn't reflect the 2018 changes.
Alexis Madrigal, closer to an X-er than a Millennial, rhapsodizes on how the telephone ring, once imperative, now repulses:
Before ubiquitous caller ID or even *69 (which allowed you to call back the last person who’d called you), if you didn’t get to the phone in time, that was that. You’d have to wait until they called back. And what if the person calling had something really important to tell you or ask you? Missing a phone call was awful. Hurry!
Not picking up the phone would be like someone knocking at your door and you standing behind it not answering. It was, at the very least, rude, and quite possibly sneaky or creepy or something. Besides, as the phone rang, there were always so many questions, so many things to sort out. Who was it? What did they want? Was it for … me?
There are many reasons for the slow erosion of this commons. The most important aspect is structural: There are simply more communication options. Text messaging and its associated multimedia variations are rich and wonderful: words mixed with emoji, Bitmoji, reaction gifs, regular old photos, video, links. Texting is fun, lightly asynchronous, and possible to do with many people simultaneously.
But in the last couple years, there is a more specific reason for eyeing my phone’s ring warily. Perhaps 80 or even 90 percent of the calls coming into my phone are spam of one kind or another. Now, if I hear my phone buzzing from across the room, at first I’m excited if I think it’s a text, but when it keeps going, and I realize it’s a call, I won’t even bother to walk over. My phone only rings one or two times a day, which means that I can go a whole week without a single phone call coming in that I (or Apple’s software) can even identify, let alone want to pick up.
Meanwhile, robocalling continues to surge, with a record 3.4 billion of them sent in April—approximately 40% of all calls placed that month by some reckonings.
Welcome to the 21st century, where your 19th-century technologies do more harm than good.
Via Bruce Schneier, interesting research into how to use mouse movements to detect lying:
Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have long noted a big "tell" in human behavior: Crafting a lie takes more mental work than telling the truth. So one way to spot lies is to check someone's reaction time.
If they're telling a lie, they'll respond fractionally more slowly than if they're telling the truth. Similarly, if you're asked to elaborate on your lie, you have to think for a second to generate new, additional lies. "You're from Texas, eh? What city? What neighborhood in that city?" You can craft those lies on the fly, but it takes a bit more mental effort, resulting in micro hesitations.
In essence, the scientists wanted to see whether they could detect -- in the mouse movements -- the hesitation of someone concocting a lie.
Turns out ... they could. The truth-tellers moved the mouse quickly and precisely to the true answer. The folks who were lying jiggered around the screen for a bit, in a sort of hemming-and-hawing adaptation of Fitts' Law.
That's kind of cool. And kind of scary.
Chicago Public Media's Curious City blog examined the city's plan to replace 270,000 sodium vapor streetlights with LEDs in the next three years:
[C]ity officials are undertaking an ambitious four-year plan to use LEDs for about 80 percent of the city’s streetlights. They hope this plan will save the cash-strapped city $100 million over a decade and improve public safety. This summer, the city will charge forward with the next phase of the plan, which will ultimately replace 270,000 lights around the city by 2021.
But critics say this isn’t a bright idea — or maybe too bright of an idea? — and they point to a growing body of science showing links between some LED lights and health and environmental problems.
Here’s a rundown of those concerns, what experts say, and how the city responded.
1. Light pollution: Will I be able to see the stars in the sky?
What’s going on? Chicago has long been one of the most light polluted cities in the world, hampering citizens’ ability to see stars, according to some scientists. Over the past year, the city has been installing a type of LED light that it says will reduce overall light pollution. Those lights clock in at 3,000 Kelvin, which is the unit used to measure light temperature with higher numbers having more blue light. But critics say those lights give off too much blue light, which can worsen light pollution, and they want the city to use LED lights that are lowered to 2,200 Kelvin with a much more orange hue.
What do the experts say? Professor Martin Aube, a Canadian physicist and light pollution researcher, says the LED lights the city is installing now could actually slightly reduce light pollution compared to the older, non-LED lights they’re replacing. But he says using 2,200-Kelvin LED lights would reduce Chicago’s light pollution by “at least 50 percent” of current levels.
Also interesting is who asked the question and how far he got on his own.
Richard Florida demonstrates how Amazon's HQ2 competition was rigged:
A detailed analysis undertaken by Patrick Adler, my colleague at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, and Adam Singer, a graduate student at the university’s Rotman and Munk schools, took a look at how all 238 HQ2 applicant cities and the 20 finalists lined up on Amazon’s RFP criteria. While it can be difficult to measure whether a given city adheres to each criterion, their analysis shows that many of the finalist cities do not even fit the most obvious ones. What’s more, several of the rejected cities seem to fit Amazon’s criteria for its HQ2 city better than some of the finalists.
[I]t’s worth asking why these 20 cities were selected as finalists, even if others would appear to be better candidates according to Amazon’s own criteria. Our analysis suggests the finalists may have other things in common that are not listed on the company’s RFP.
For one, the finalists are more likely to be farther away from the company’s original home base in physical distance, reflecting the predominance of East Coast cities on the list. Last year, an Amazon executive was quoted as saying that Amazon would like to build HQ2 outside of the Pacific Northwest, to attract a more diverse set of employees.
Finalist cities are also likely to have a larger share of tech workers. And they are more likely to have non-stop flights to the company’s current home base in Seattle.
But one factor is even more interesting. Our analysis found that shortlisted cities had more U.S. senators with considerable seniority.
At the end of the day, none of this should surprise us. Like all corporate site selection, the HQ2 process is a rigged game, where the company knows the answer in advance and sets up a fictitious competition to wrest maximum incentives.
Besides the political advantages, there are many signs that Amazon’s HQ2 is heading to the greater Washington, D.C. region—the fact that its CEO has a multi-million dollar mansion there (currently undergoing a $12 million renovation, with large public rooms for social events) and already owns the Washington Post; the fact that three area jurisdictions made the shortlist; and the fact that the person running Amazon’s search previously ran an economic development agency in the region. Perhaps four other metros on the list are serious contenders—New York, Boston, Chicago, and Toronto—with Philadelphia, Denver, Atlanta, and Dallas having an outside chance.
Chicago, however, will be less likely to play the race-to-the-bottom game.
Amazon's bidding process for its second headquarters (HQ2) has given the company a bonanza of information about what 238 cities are willing to give up in order to get a piece of the action, and thus what levers Amazon can pull to get public money for its private gain. Not to mention, the applications gave the company millions of dollars worth of marketing data:
Amazon asked every city and state applying for its second headquarters for details about local resources, like available talent and transit options. Local officials were also prodded for tips on local education programs and tax incentives.
The answers — most of which have not been released publicly — essentially do Amazon’s homework for it, providing valuable information that the company otherwise would have needed to dig up on its own or obtain through one-on-one negotiations.
“This is not just about HQ2,” said Richard Florida, an authority on urban development and a professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s about a broader locational strategy. HQ2 is the carrot. That’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Meanwhile, CityLab has put together a guide to the "HQ2 Hunger Games" with detailed breakdowns of the 20 finalists. And they second the Times' assessment on Amazon's ulterior motives: "As CityLab has previously reported, the economic incentives being offered to lure Amazon’s 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in investment were historic in proportion even before the company announced the finalists."