Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘information technology’

All-you-can-eat

Ars Technica reports on testimony by Mediacom, a large US cable company, explaining why they should not be required to stop capping data usage:

People thus shouldn’t complain when Internet providers impose data caps and charge more when customers go over them, he wrote. “Even though virtually every other industry prices its products and services in the same way, some people think that ISPs should be the exception and run their businesses like an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

“Virtually every other industry”… Yes, it’s pretty hard to think of any industry that offers all-you-can-eat buffets. Who could possibly afford to offer all-you-can-eat? It’s a fantasy.

Thinking out loud

Trump is now predicting massive voter fraud, usually something you do after you’ve lost. There’s a theory that people tend to accuse others of what they are ashamed of planning or having done themselves. I don’t think he has any shame, or that he’s strategic enough to be planning anything so complicated himself. But his backers? How hard would it really be for a top-notch state hacking operation in, say, Russia, to crack the locally organised election computer systems?

None dare call it “evasion”

Just another example of how the business elites have normalised their criminal activities:

So when politicians, journalists and the public ask rude questions about how Google can pay its chief executive more in one year than it hands over to the British tax authorities, the company should have a simple answer. You make the rules, we obey them – if you don’t like it make some new rules, otherwise go away and leave us alone.

The article suggests that Google is suffering from a sick compulsion to hold itself to a higher standard than is just obeying the rules.

Except, they don’t actually obey the rules. What they do (as I’ve discussed at greater length) is to create structures to exploit the ambiguity in such legal terms as “residence” and “business activity” and “profits”, ambiguity that is in the rules because the lobbyists would otherwise squeal about unreasonable constraints and irrational behaviour being forced upon them by more specific regulations. The law doesn’t actually permit you to pretend your business is actually transpiring at the shell address in the Cayman Islands, but it’s sufficiently hard to prove otherwise, and the elite civil servants are sufficiently unmotivated.

In fact, despite the billions of dollars they spend on tax lawyers in lieu of taxes, they’re not even particularly conscientious about keeping their plausible deniability plausible. Former London Google employee Barney Jones gave evidence to HMRC:

He had watched Matt Brittin, his former boss at Google, give evidence to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee with interest but also mounting disquiet. Mr Brittin emphasised to the PAC one reason Google paid so little tax in the UK was that it did so little business here. The bulk of its work was generated through its Dublin headquarters – where corporation tax was lower than in London.

Mr Jones, a father of four and a devout Christian, knew that wasn’t true. He had worked in the London office from 2002 to 2006 and had his own view of the large turnover of work that was really going on in the UK. He took the facts to PAC chair Margaret Hodge and then on to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), which took his evidence but wasn’t exactly overjoyed by it.

“They seemed quite defensive and seemed to be more interested in justifying their position.”

For that matter, it’s not even entirely true that they don’t make the laws. Unless you think the US Treasury just decided in a purely independent and disinterested way that the European Commission doesn’t really understand its own tax rules.

Confidence game: Growth mindset for the secret police

Powers that give MI5, MI6 and GCHQ a “dizzying” range of electronic surveillance capabilities will be laid out in the investigatory powers bill next month, in a move that will bolster the confidence of the intelligence agencies but pave the way for a row with privacy campaigners.

According to one headline announcing this report in the Times, the security services will get the “legal right” to hack into people’s computers and other electronic devices. Under must circumstances, “legal right” might be seen as redundant, but not here. They already do these things, they have the power to do these things, but what they lack, apparently, is confidence in their abilities.

Cue the Growth Mindset (TM). I suppose it was only a matter of time before education fads started sloshing over into spying: After all, aren’t GCHQ and the others supposed to be “learning things”? What they need is confidence. The standard critiques apply:

Confidence and motivation are crucial, but confidence without competence is simply hot air.

Gender asymmetry…

… and the “pussification of America”. This term came up in an article in Slate about the decision by the American retailer Target to remove the gender attributions from its toys. Since I had children I’ve been amazed at the extent to which children’s clothes and toys have become gender-specific since I was a child in the 1970s. And it amazes me as well how closely identified the colours pink and blue have come to be with girls and boys, despite the fact that it’s an obviously artificial (and quite recent) tradition. (Jo B. Paoletti has written a book on the subject, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.) I have also long been intrigued by the way people seize upon even the most tenuous evidence that “science has proved” the validity of this or that gender stereotype.

Anyway, someone set up a honeytrap fake Target customer service Facebook account to collect the outrage that some people (men and women) were spewing over this issue. As chronicled in AdWeek, there are some biblical arguments, like

God made a difference between male and female as there should be. I would never give a boy a barbie doll. It’s not chauvinistic but the BIBLE says women are the weaker vessel I Peter 3:7 so many people are making their boys the weakest link and making their daughters manly.

(Interesting that “as there should be”. Not that she’s simply going to accept on faith that God got this one right. But she approves.) And many rants against PC

You guys should listen to the people who spend money in your stores, not the liberal, PC Complaint people that don’t have two cents to rub together.

I thought the PC Complaint people were wealthy elitists…

Anyway, I thought this comment was particularly telling:target-troll-12a

This is classic Simone de Beauvoir stuff. This is an American woman, outraged at a refusal to emphasise gender distinctions, because it will feminise America. Because America is a man, and if America can’t get a steady diet of trucks and toy soldiers when he’s a boy, he’ll be “pussified”. She’s not concerned that America will be toughened, or dickified, or whatever the corresponding word for “pussified” would be.

Honour among spies

I’m genuinely perplexed by pretensions of morality among representatives of espionage agencies. Today various news outlets are reporting that Russia and China have gained access to the Snowden files, and so found details of western agents and methods. Now, a certain skepticism is required: No details are offered, only that “sources” “believe” this to be so. Even if this information has reached Russia and China, the US government has shown itself to be so inept at network security lately that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that they gained access through a different route.

That doesn’t stop the grandiloquent sermonising. According to the Sunday Times,

One senior Home Office official accused Snowden of having “blood on his hands,” although Downing Street said there was “no evidence of anyone having been harmed”.

Imagine if it were discovered that Edward Snowden were actually Eduard Snowdinsky, a Russian sleeper agent whose parents had been smuggled into the US to raise an agent with US background. Now that he has successfully completed his mission and returned to the motherland, what could American officials (and their running-dog lackeys) say but “Good on you. Impressive operation.” After all, everyone does it, if they can. That’s what they say when they spy on our allies, who (they say) are only putting on a show of saying they feel the Americans betrayed their trust. Or when they spy on their own citizens, who they say are simply naive in not recognising the force majeure. They wouldn’t say he had “blood on his hands”, or any such nonsense smacking of bourgeois morality that they’ve all moved beyond when they saw the higher purpose of spying on the whole world. So, are they just putting on a show?

Perhaps more to the point, should I be more appalled by the actions of a Snowden, who revealed US secrets in an attempt to defend universal principles of democracy and human rights, and the US constitution in particular; or by the actions of the NSA, who were so busy breaking into video-game chats that they couldn’t be bothered to make appropriate efforts to defend the US against having the complete set of US government security clearances hacked? That’s information that definitely puts people at risk of harm.

Is it a coincidence that these stories are coming out at the same time?

The last unbreakable code?

I noticed a brief article in The Guardian with the captivating headline “Can Google be taught poetry?”.

By feeding poems to the robots, the researchers want to “teach the database the metaphors” that humans associate with pictures, “and see what happens,” explains Corey Pressman from Neologic Labs, who are behind the project, along with Webvisions and Arizona State University….

The hope is that, with a big enough dataset, “we’ll be delighted to see we can teach the robots metaphors, that computers can be more like us, rather than the other way around,” says Pressman. “I’d like them to meet us more halfway.”

That sounds utopian, magnificent, turning away from the harsh and narrow-minded informaticism to grand humane concerns. And yet, it reminded me of a recent article in the New Yorker “Why Jihadists Write Poetry”:

Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.

Whatever the motives of Neologic Labs — and I’m guessing they have a pitch to investors that doesn’t rely upon the self-actualisation of smartphones, nor on the profits to be turned from improving the quality of poetry — can we doubt that sooner or later this technology is going to be applied to improving the quality of government surveillance, escaping the literal to follow human prey down into the warrens of metaphor and allusion. It will start with terrorists, but that’s not where it will stop.

Imagine, just to begin with, China equipping its internet with a cybernetic real-time censor that can’t be fooled by symbolic language or references to obscure rock lyrics, which the software will be more familiar with than any fan. Protest movements will be extinguished before people are even aware that they were ever part of a movement.

A tricky judgement call for the advertising agency

So you’re the head of the Adobe account, seeking to convince customers that Photoshop is a professional level software tool accessible to the masses. It’s used for important work by experts! It makes news! So now, the question is, do you seek an endorsement based on this news report (from Der Spiegel)?

Russland macht noch immer Kiew für den Abschuss von Flug MH17 verantwortlich. Doch die Fotos, die ukrainische Luftabwehrsysteme in dem Absturzgebiet zeigen sollen, sind offenbar gefälscht. Laut Experten hat der Kreml mit Photoshop manipuliert.

[Russia still claims that Kiev is responsible for shooting down flight MH17. But the photos that supposedly show Ukrainian air defence systems in the area of the crash are blatantly fake. Experts say the Kremlin manipulated them with Photoshop.]

Just browsing

Among the first orders of business for the Conservatives, now that they have a majority, is to increase their ability to spy on the general public — for only the most noble of reasons bien sûr:

That law, labelled a snooper’s charter, would have required internet and mobile phone companies to keep records of customers’ browsing activity, social media use, emails, voice calls, online gaming and text messages for a year. 

It occurred to me that a reasonably effective defense against government snooping on your browsing history (and, indeed, Google snooping on your browsing history) might be to have a browser that is constantly active, and searches for random search terms whenever it is not being actively used.

Some ideas:

  1. The random browsing should not be completely arbitrary. It should include sufficient numbers of securityphilic keywords to make it difficult to search through.
  2. You don’t want the real searches to stand out as topically coherent. You’d want the choice of search terms to crawl through topic space.
  3. You might want to embed the real searches in the crawl. Suppose I type “David Cameron smashed restaurant” into my search window, when the browser, on its own initiative, has just searched for “spurious GCHQ bomb plots”. Instead of carrying out my search immediately, it interpolates thematically. Maybe a dozen searches like “spurious David Cameron bomb plots” and “spurious David cameron bomb restaurant”.

Social climber

What is it about rock climbing that makes it such a useful synecdoche for enjoying your life? In an article about an unusual case about a girl whose lawsuit against a sexually abusive teacher foundered when her claims of “loss of enjoyment of life” seemed to be contradicted by a happy Facebook page, I was struck by the comment

Melissa’s account was mostly locked to outsiders, but some pictures were visible: Melissa hanging out with her boyfriend, Melissa working at a veterinary hospital, Melissa rock climbing, Melissa out drinking with friends… Nor did it support her claim of “loss of enjoyment of life,” which one judge has defined as the loss of “watching one’s children grow, participating in recreational activities, and drinking in the many other pleasures that life has to offer.” Rock climbing is a recreational activity; drinking with friends is one of life’s pleasures, after all. Last month, the court ordered Melissa to hand over every photograph, video, status update, and wall message ever posted on her Facebook accounts so that the school district may search for more clues that Melissa is secretly thriving.

And that reminded me of an article many years ago in Harper’s about American casualty adjustors, whose job it is to put a price on someone’s life for purposes of wrongful death suits.

I ask them to evaluate my worth, and they tell me that outdoorsy people are worth more than people like me, who stay home and read. “People have no sympathy for somebody who sits alone on his couch, drinks beer, eats food, and is a load,” Ed says.

“That’s why nobody likes me,” says George. “It’s how sympathetic you are. People go, ‘He rock climbed,’ you know. `This guy enjoyed life. He was out there doing things.’ You cherish life more if you are interacting with it.”

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