Archive for the 'Beyond belief' Category

Startup myths and obsessions

[link] Monday, February 3rd, 2014

The UK government’s worship of SMEs (they are the industrial equivalent of “hardworking families” in Cameron’s lexicon) is comical to behold. Likewise the devout belief of tech entrepreneurs (especially in the US) that the only thing they need from government is to get out of their way. So it’s nice to come upon a blog post by Professor Mariana Mazzucato which punctures some of these fantasies.

Innovation-led “smart” growth has occurred mainly in countries with a big group of medium to large companies, and a small group of SMEs that is spun out from some of those large companies or from universities. These firms have benefited immensely from government funded research. Indeed, in my book I show how many firms in Silicon Valley have benefitted directly from early-stage funding by government, as well as the ability to build their products on top of government funded technologies. Every technology that makes the iPhone smart was government-funded (internet, GPS, touch-screen display, SIRI). Apple spends relatively little on R&D compared with other IT firms precisely because it uses existing technology. It applies its remarkable design skills to these technologies, effectively surfing on a government-funded wave. Apple, Compaq and Intel also all enjoyed the benefits of early-stage public funds (SBIC in the case of Apple, SBIR in the case of Compaq and Intel). As for America’s biotech boom (and the startups it has spawned), it was fuelled not by a random rise of genius and tinkering but by two fundamental factors: the 1980 Bayh-Dole act that allowed publicly funded research to be patented (which led to an exponential rise of spinouts based on such patents), and the massive funding of the underlying knowledge base. Between 1936 and 2011 the publicly funded National Institutes of Health spent $792 billion (in 2011 dollars), with last year’s budget alone totalling $30.9 billion. Small innovative firms benefit immensely from interacting with such an ecosystem. Left alone they get preyed upon by an increasingly short-termist financial system.

Her book is excellent, btw.

The paranoia of the One Per Cent

[link] Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Wow! This Letter to the Editor appeared in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which helpfully points out in a footnote that the correspondent is one of the founders of Silicon Valley’s most successful Venture Capital firm. He’s the Perkins in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Regarding your editorial “Censors on Campus” (Jan. 18): Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Tom Perkins

San Francisco

LATER: This tweet from KPCB


Mass surveillance: an “insurance policy”

[link] Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

I was struck by this passage in an admirable blog post by Ray Corrigan.

The latest from the NSA is that they now seem to be admitting (in spite of previous claims that this mass surveillance stopped 54 major terror attacks it didn’t really stop any, but may possibly have provided secondary supportive evidence in relation to one) that the best argument they can come up with is mass data collection might be useful as an “insurance policy”. What?! An insurance policy?! The infrastructure of mass surveillance might be useful in the future, somehow, to someone?

The relevant passage in the NSA testimony reads:

While Inglis conceded in his NPR interview that at most one terrorist attack might have been foiled by NSA’s bulk collection of all American phone data – a case in San Diego that involved a money transfer from four men to al-Shabaab in Somalia – he described it as an “insurance policy” against future acts of terrorism.

“I’m not going to give that insurance policy up, because it’s a necessary component to cover a seam that I can’t otherwise cover,” Inglis said.

We need not just Orwell and Kafka to deal with the NSA story. We need Borges too.

[link] Sunday, January 5th, 2014

The New York Times had a splendid editorial the other day, arguing the case for clemency for Edward Snowden, among other things.

Among the NSA violations unearth by the controversy, the editorial pointed out that the Snowden leaks

“revealed that James Clapper Jr, the director of national intelligence, lied to Congress when testifying in March that the NSA was not collecting data on millions of Americans. (There has been no discussion of punishment for that lie.)”

According to the Guardian_, this prompted Robert Litt, the general counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to write to the _Times to deny the allegation. In his letter Litt refers to one of the key Senate advocates of NSA reform, Senator Ron Wyden, and continues:

“Senator Wyden asked about collection of information on Americans during a lengthy and wide-ranging hearing on an entirely different subject. While his staff provided the question the day before, Mr Clapper had not seen it. As a result, as Mr Clapper has explained, he was surprised by the question and focused his mind on the collection of the content of Americans’ communications. In that context, his answer was and is accurate.

“When we pointed out Mr Clapper’s mistake to him, he was surprised and distressed. I spoke with a staffer for Senator Wyden several days later and told him that although Mr Clapper recognized that his testimony was inaccurate, it could not be corrected publicly because the program involved was classified.”

Litt concluded: “This incident shows the difficulty of discussing classified information in an unclassified setting and the danger of inferring a person’s state of mind from extemporaneous answers given under pressure. Indeed, it would have been irrational for Mr. Clapper to lie at this hearing, since every member of the committee was already aware of the program.”

If you wanted a case study in why this kind of surveillance threatens democracy, then this is it.

Robot or not?

[link] Sunday, December 15th, 2013

This (from a link sent by Andrew Ingram, for which many thanks) is fascinating.

Recently, Time Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer received a phone call from an apparently bright and engaging woman asking him if he wanted a deal on his health insurance. But he soon got the feeling something wasn’t quite right.

After asking the telemarketer point blank if she was a real person or a computer-operated robot, she chuckled charmingly and insisted she was real. Looking to press the issue, Scherer asked her a series of questions, which she promptly failed. Such as, “What vegetable is found in tomato soup?” To which she responded by saying she didn’t understand the question. When asked what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained of a bad connection (ah, the oldest trick in the book).

Here’s the recording:

Exclusive! NSA and Homeland Security lack sense of humour

[link] Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Photograph from CBS.

This comes to us via the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have issued “cease and desist” letters to a novelty store owner who sells products that poke fun at the federal government.

Dan McCall, who lives in Minnesota and operates, sells T-shirts with the agency’s official seal that read: “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens,” Judicial Watch first reported.

Other parodies say, “Spying on you since 1952,” and “Peeping while you’re sleeping,” the report said.

Federal authorities claimed the parody images violate laws against the misuse, mutilation, alteration or impersonation of government seals, Judicial Watch reported.

I particularly admire the crack about the NSA being “the only part of the government that actually listens”.

Brian, who told me about the first link, also pointed me to a fuller account about the artist, Dan McCall who came up with the tee-shirt.

What McCall meant as pure parody, apparently wasn’t very funny to bureaucrats at the NSA.

While he calls it parody they call a violation of the spy agency’s intellectual property.

“Because when you’re pointing straight at an organization or making fun at it, turning it on itself, that is classic parody,” he said.

The agency ordered him to cease and desist and forced his T-shirts off the market.

Hmmm… I’d have thought that he’d have a good First Amendment and Fair Use case. But maybe m’learned friends think not.

So Facebook thinks that videos of beheadings are ok, but exposed nipples are not

[link] Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Facebook has just made an idiotic decision — that videos of beheadings can be shown on the site. Jonathan Freedland explains why Zuck & Co have got it spectacularly wrong.

Which brings us to the nub of the matter. Facebook and the other social media giants are reluctant to be thought of as akin to news organisations or even publishers. They want to be seen as something looser and vaguer, a mere arena for others. There are good reasons for that: social media are indeed different.

But there is a less noble motive behind that reluctance too. Publishers are responsible for the content they publish and Facebook and the others don’t want that level of responsibility: for one thing, maintaining standards requires people, which costs money.

But it’s getting harder and harder to maintain the pretence that Facebook doesn’t make editorial judgments, including ones that have serious consequences. It does – and it’s just made a very bad one.

Personally, I’m baffled by the decision. Facebook isn’t a public space: it’s like a shopping mall — i.e. a space controlled by its proprietor. Would any sane such proprietor allow public executions — or representations of same — in its space?

The National Security State

[link] Monday, August 19th, 2013

Astonishing, chilling piece by the Guardian’s Editor, Alan Rusbridger.

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

The man was unmoved. And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

Smart meters might not be so clever after all

[link] Sunday, August 18th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make credulous. In the case of technology, especially technology involving computers, that’s pretty easy to do. Quite why people are so overawed by computers when they are blase about, say, truly miraculous technologies such as high-speed trains, is a mystery that we will have to leave for another day. The only thing we need to remember is that when important people, for example government ministers, are confronted with what a sceptical friend of mine calls “computery” then they check in their brains at the door of the meeting room. From then on, credulity is their default setting.

In which state, they are easy meat for technological visionaries, evangelists and purveyors of snake oil. This would be touching if it weren’t serious. Exhibit A in this regard is the government’s plan for “smart meters”…

How to spot a terrorist (NSA version)

[link] Saturday, August 3rd, 2013


I’m not sure that this slide from the XKeyscore slide deck revealed by the Guardian has received the attention it deserves.

It says that one of the “anomalous” factors an NSA analyst might look for when deciding whether to drill down on someone is whether or not the person is using encryption (like PGP).

So… you can be a perfectly innocent, nay admirable, person like, say, Cory Doctorow, who encrypts his email simply to ensure that only he and the recipient can read it. But that fact alone might be sufficient to start an NSA check on all your communications.

This is one reason why the adjective “Orwellian” isn’t adequate for describing the mess we’re in. “Kafkaesque” is, if anything, even more apt.