Friday 7 February, 2020

The Digital Dictators: How technology strengthens autocracies

Sobering reading for recovering Utopians (like me). From Foreign Affairs:

Led by China, today’s digital autocracies are using technology—the Internet, social media, AI—to supercharge long-standing authoritarian survival tactics. They are harnessing a new arsenal of digital tools to counteract what has become the most significant threat to the typical authoritarian regime today: the physical, human force of mass antigovernment protests. As a result, digital autocracies have grown far more durable than their pre-tech predecessors and their less technologically savvy peers. In contrast to what technology optimists envisioned at the dawn of the millennium, autocracies are benefiting from the Internet and other new technologies, not falling victim to them.

Long essay. Worth reading in full.


Why do people buy SUVs?

I’ve often wondered about this, and concluded that SUV owners are either arrogant or frightened, or both. An interesting piece in Vice suggests that I was on the right track. It draws on Keith Bradsher’s examination of “how the auto industry convinced millions of Americans to buy vehicles that were more dangerous (for themselves and other people on the road), got worse gas mileage, were worse for the environment, and got them to pay a premium for the privilege of doing so.“ It succeeded because the industry mounted “quite possibly the most sophisticated marketing operations on the planet.” The image of prospective SUV purchasers that emerged from the research was deeply unattractive — and, reassuringly, correlated with my own hunches. That portrait is largely the result of one consultant who worked for Chrysler, Ford, and GM during the SUV boom: Clotaire Rapaille.

Rapaille, a French emigree, believed the SUV appealed—at the time to mostly upper-middle class suburbanites—to a fundamental subconscious animalistic state, our “reptilian desire for survival,” as relayed by Bradsher. (“We don’t believe what people say,” the website for Rapaille’s consulting firm declares. Instead, they use “a unique blend of biology, cultural anthropology and psychology to discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave towards a product, service or concept”). Americans were afraid, Rapaille found through his exhaustive market research, and they were mostly afraid of crime even though crime was actually falling and at near-record lows. As Bradsher wrote, “People buy SUVs, he tells auto executives, because they are trying to look as menacing as possible to allay their fears of crime and other violence.” They, quite literally, bought SUVs to run over “gang members” with, Rapaille found.

And it turned out that the auto industry’s own studies agreed with this general portrait of SUV buyers. Bradsher described that portrait, comprised of marketing reports from the major automakers, as follows:

Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.

I knew it! It’s always nice to have one’s prejudices confirmed.


Remembering George Steiner

George died last Monday at the ripe old age of 90. I knew and liked him and have written an appreciation which is coming out in next Sunday’s Observer. Adam Gopnik has a nice tribute to him on the New Yorker site:

It was part of the genuine, and not merely patrician, seriousness of his view to see the war years as a fundamental rupture not just in history but in our faith in culture: educated people did those things to other educated people. It was not ignorant armies clashing by night that shivered George Steiner’s soul; it was intelligent Germans who listened to Schubert murdering educated Jews who had trusted in Goethe, and by the train load. This recognition of the limits of culture to change the world was the limiting condition on his love of literature, and it was what gave that love a darker and more tragic cast than any mere proselytizing for “great books” could supply.

May he rest in peace.


How public intellectuals can extend their shelf lives

Useful rules from Tyler Cowen, who knows a thing or two about this.


Why I won’t be upgrading to Catalina any time soon

From Jon Gruber:

Then I think about software. And that means thinking about MacOS 10.15 Catalina. And those thoughts are not good. Off the top of my head I’m hard pressed to think of anything in Catalina that’s an improvement over 10.14 Mojave, and I can think of a lot of things that are worse. I get it that security and convenience are at odds, and it’s a difficult job for Apple to find the balanced sweet spot between the two. But Catalina clearly bends too far in the direction of security. By design, it’s just too inconvenient, with apps generating system-level alerts prompting for permission for things as rudimentary as being able to see the files on my desktop — sometimes when those apps are in the background, and I know that at the moment the alert appears those apps are not trying to read files on my desktop. But why in the world is the desktop treated as some sort of sensitive location?

Back in 2007 Apple ran a “Get a Mac” commercial mocking Windows Vista for this exact same sort of overzealous permission nagging. That’s exactly what Catalina feels like.

I think I’ll sit this upgrade out and wait for the next one.


Sunday 2 February, 2020

The iPad: ten years on and still a work in progress

This morning’s Observer column

while the iPad I use today is significantly better and more functional than its 2010 predecessor, it’s still not a replacement for a laptop. Anything that involves multitasking – combining content from a variety of applications, for example – is clumsy and nonintuitive on the iPad, whereas it’s a breeze on a Mac. Given that user-interface design has traditionally been one of Apple’s great strengths, this clumsiness is strange and disappointing. Somewhere along the line, as veteran Apple-watcher John Gruber puts it, the designers made “profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined”. Steve Jobs’s tablet may have come a long way, but it’s still a work in progress.

Do read the entire piece


A Republic if they could keep it. Looks like they couldn’t

As the farcical Senate Impeachment ‘trial’ just concluded what kept running through my mind was the story of what Benjamin Franklin said as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787 on the final day of deliberation. A woman asked him “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin famously replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

By acquitting Trump, the Senate seems to have confirmed the failure of that attempt. Trump is now effectively a monarch, floating above the law. So, one wonders, what happens next? As a habitual offender, he will undoubtedly commit more crimes. As a sitting President, it seems that he cannot be indicted by the normal processes of law enforcement. For him, Congress is the only constitutional authority that can punish him. But this Congress spectacularly refused to do so. So unless the Republicans lose control of the Senate in November, Trump will be entirely free of legal restraints. And supposing he loses (unlikely prospect at present), would he actually stand down? And in that eventuality, who would physically remove him from the White House?

_________________________ 

Presidential power and the Net

Further to the above thoughts about the untrammelled misuse of Presidential power, Jessica Rosenworcel, who is an FCC Commissioner, gave a sobering keynote address to the FCC’s ‘State of the Net’ conference in Washington on January 28.

She began by describing what’s currently going on in Kashmir, where the Indian government has cut off Internet connection for the 7 million people who live in that disputed territory. In one vivid passage, she described how Kashmiris are coping with this blackout:

Every morning like clockwork hundreds of passengers cram into a train out of the valley for a 70-mile journey to the nearest town with a connection. They are packed so tightly that they can barely move. If all goes well, they will be back before nightfall. Kashmiris have dubbed the train the “Internet Express.” It carries people hoping to renew driver’s licenses, apply for passports, fill out admission forms, check e-mail, and register for school exams. This is how they keep up with modern life, thanks to the shutdown.

Then Commissioner Rosenworcel turns to her audience:

Now if you are thinking this does not concern you because all of this is happening a world away, I understand. After all, the shutdown in the Kashmir Valley followed from the state invoking the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, a law that dates to the British colonial era. Moreover, a few weeks ago Indian courts ruled that an indefinite internet shutdown is an abuse of power—although that decision alone does not restore all service. So you might think this is at some distance from what could happen in the United States. But you might want to think again.

Specifically, they might need to take a look at Section 706 of the Communications Act. The Section allows the President to shut down or take control of “any facility or station for wire communication” if he proclaims “that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States.” With respect to wireless communications, suspending service is permitted not only in a “war or threat of war” but merely if there is a presidential proclamation of a “state of public peril” or simply a “disaster or other national emergency.” There is no requirement in the law for the President to provide any advance notice to Congress.

“This language”, says Rosenworcel,

is undeniably broad. The power it describes is virtually unchecked. So maybe some context will help. The changes to this section of the law about wire communications were made within a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was passed at a time when Congress was laser focused on developing new ways to protect our safety and security.

Now of course Section 706 has not (yet) been applied to the Internet, and when the Act was amended after Pearl Harbor “wire communication” meant telephone calls or telegrams. But remember the bulk of US communications law dates back to 1934 and remains the framework for US communications infrastructure. And she points out that, in a 2010 report, the Senate concluded that Section 706 “gives the President the authority to take over wire communications in the United States and, if the President so chooses, shut a network down.”

So it remains true that if a sitting President wants to shut down the internet or selectively cut off a service, all it takes is an opinion from his Attorney General that Section 706 gives him the authority to do so.

That’s alarming. Because if you believe there are unspoken norms that would prevent us from using Section 706 this way, let me submit to you that past practice may no longer be the best guide for future behavior. Norms are being broken all the time in Washington and relying on them to cabin legal interpretation is not the best way to go.

Which rather puts the Impeachment case in a different light. Shutting down the US Internet would be unthinkable, wouldn’t it? Before nodding your head in vigorous agreement, ask yourself how many ‘unthinkable’ things have happened since Trump took office?


Saturday 25 January 2020

The ecosystem matters more than the device

I’ve been an Apple user ever since 1978. But for many years, I also used PCs, particularly during the period of Apple’s decline (the absence of Steve Jobs, I guess). I stopped using Windows entirely in 1999 and have since used only Apple stuff (and, occasionally, Linux boxes). People sometimes ask me why am I content continually to pay the Apple ‘premium’: after all, Lenovo, HP et al make pretty good stuff too. The answer is that over the years I’ve built an app ecosystem around my workflow, and any device I buy has to fit seamlessly into that.

Which is why I found “ The MacPro is more than what’s in the box” interesting. It’s written by the owner of a small video production and post-production company which for almost 20 years has been through several generations of Mac desktops (and even had a “painful period” with Windows kit). Like me, they are

entrenched in an Apple ecosystem. We have iPhones and iPads and AppleTVs and MacPros and MacBooks and Watches and peripherals and accessories and so on and so on. This harmony between all the devices adds to the overall efficiency and synergy in the office and in our personal lives. This alone is a huge cost savings to us. All the equipment works the same way with the same or similar interfaces and the same communication pipeline. We don’t spend extra time trying to figure out or adapt to new software ecosystems.

Yep. So the kit is more expensive, but when you factor in the ecosystem it’s probably worth paying the premium.


Quote of the Day

“Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers”

  • Seth Godin

Wednesday 22 January, 2020

What happens after the Senate acquits Trump?

I’ve just been listening to The Daily podcast about the Impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Am struck by the fact that there are a few similarities, but also some radical differences. The biggest differences are that (a) in the Clinton case there was cross-party consensus to avoid the hysterically partisan circus that had been staged in the House when drawing up the charges; and (b) that the two party leaders in the Senate worked together to get the job done. Clinton was acquitted because on neither count was there any prospect of a two-thirds majority. Then everything went back to normal: Clinton served to the end of his term, even though he was clearly guilty of perjury, but otherwise was regarded as a functional president.

With the Trump trial, there is zero consensus in the Senate, and the leader of the Republican majority seems to be liaising with the defendant on how the trial should be conducted. There is zero chance of conviction. And while Clinton was clearly a scumbag in certain respects, the crimes and misdemeanours of which he was accused did not involve conspiring with agents of a foreign country to act in his domestic political interests. He just couldn’t keep his trousers on.

So when Trump walks free from this charade, what next? The whole thing has been a blatant demonstration that the Constitution doesn’t protect the republic from a president who seeks to use the power of the office entirely for his own benefit. It will show that he can behave with Complete impunity. Maybe he could indeed shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still escape justice (as he once said). So what’s the difference now between the USA and a monarchy?


As Capability Brown Envisaged it

He designed this landscape.


The new MacBook Pro: thicker, heavier, better — and pricier

Starts at £2399 and goes to £5769 fully loaded. Useful review here. Can’t see any reason for upgrading from my trusty MacBook Pro.


Out of the mouths of babes and marketing directors…

In an interview with CNET following the launch of the 16in MacBook Pro, Apple’s Phil Schiller was questioned about the growing popularity of Google in schools. This line of questioning didn’t go down well – likely because Apple has long been losing ground to the Google machines – and Schiller Walked into the trap. As The Inquirer reports it:

“Kids who are really into learning and want to learn will have better success,” Schiller said. “It’s not hard to understand why kids aren’t engaged in a classroom without applying technology in a way that inspires them. You need to have these cutting-edge learning tools to help kids really achieve their best results.”

“Yet Chromebooks don’t do that. Chromebooks have gotten to the classroom because, frankly, they’re cheap testing tools for required testing. If all you want to do is test kids, well, maybe a cheap notebook will do that. But they’re not going to succeed.”

So — as The Inquirer puts it, “If you want your child to succeed in school, you’ll instead need to cough up hundreds of pounds for a keyboard-less iPad, which Schiller has brandished as the ‘ultimate tool for a child to learn on’.”

Needless to say, Schiller had rapidly to backtrack. But the damage was done, and the secret is out! Kids who have to use Chromebooks are born losers. Yuck.

How “Don’t Be Evil” panned out

My Observer review of Rana Foroohar’s new book about the tech giants and their implications for our world.

“Don’t be evil” was the mantra of the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the graduate students who, in the late 1990s, had invented a groundbreaking way of searching the web. At the time, one of the things the duo believed to be evil was advertising. There’s no reason to doubt their initial sincerity on this matter, but when the slogan was included in the prospectus for their company’s flotation in 2004 one began to wonder what they were smoking. Were they really naive enough to believe that one could run a public company on a policy of ethical purity?

The problem was that purity requires a business model to support it and in 2000 the venture capitalists who had invested in Google pointed out to the boys that they didn’t have one. So they invented a model that involved harvesting users’ data to enable targeted advertising. And in the four years between that capitulation to reality and the flotation, Google’s revenues increased by nearly 3,590%. That kind of money talks.
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Rana Foroohar has adopted the Google mantra as the title for her masterful critique of the tech giants that now dominate our world…

Read on

Apple’s China problem

From ReCode:

Plenty of US companies work in and with countries that require them to make moral compromises. Facebook, for instance, finds itself frequently pulling down videos and posts because they upset Turkey’s censors; Netflix took down an episode of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act in Saudi Arabia because it was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The standard argument these companies all make is that those countries are better off when they have access to their products.

This is Apple’s argument, too. “We believe our presence in China helps promote greater openness and facilitates the free flow of ideas and information,” Cook told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in a December 2017 letter. “We are convinced that Apple can best promote fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country’s law.”

Left unsaid in Cook’s letter is that Apple has to do business in China.

Unlike tech companies that haven’t broken into the country or only do minor business in it, Apple is now so deep in China that leaving it could be catastrophic. Even if the company was willing to forgo the $44 billion a year in sales it makes in China, it can’t leave the deep network of suppliers and assemblers that build hundreds of millions of iPhones every year.

Apple upgrade madness

I’ve learned from experience not to upgrade immediately whenever Apple releases a new version of iOS. As far as iOS 13 is concerned, this seems to have been wise. Here’s The Inquirer‘s summary of the state of play up to today:

iOS 13, which brought with is such niceties as Dark Mode and ‘Sign in with Apple’, was only released on 19 September, but has already seen two updates: 13.1 on 25 September, and 13.1.1 two days later. Now, it’s getting 13.1.2: very much the equivalent of a file named “final final FINAL version.doc” in the vague hope that nomenclature will make the madness end.

Why the iPhone upgrade cycle is lengthening

I’ve always lagged behind in the iPhone cycle. Until recently, I had an iPhone 6 — which I’d used for years. Because it was slowing up, I bought a used iPhone 7 Plus, largely because of its camera, and expect to run that for years. iPhones — like all smartphones — have reached the top part of the S curve, and we’re now at the point where improvements are incremental and relatively small.

So this advice from the NYT’s Brian X. Chen makes good sense:

Apple’s newest mobile operating system, iOS 13, will work only on iPhones from 2015 (the iPhone 6S) and later. So if you have an iPhone that is older than that, it is worth upgrading because once you can no longer update the operating system, some of your apps may stop working properly.

For those with younger iPhones, there are ways to get more mileage out of your current device. While the newest iPhones have superb battery life — several hours longer than the last generation — a fresh battery in your existing gadget costs only $50 to $70 and will greatly extend its life.

If you have the iPhone 6S from 2015 and the iPhone 7 from 2016, the iPhone 11s are speedier, with camera improvements and bigger displays. That makes an upgrade nice to have but not a must-have. But if you spent $1,000 on an iPhone X two years ago, then hold off. The iPhone 11s just aren’t enough of an innovation leap to warrant $700-plus on a new smartphone.

If you wait another year or two, you will most likely be rewarded with that jump forward. That might be an iPhone that works with fast 5G cellular networks, or a smartphone that can wirelessly charge an Apple Watch.

I don’t believe that stuff about charging the Watch, but otherwise this is spot on.

Zero-days and the iPhone

This morning’s Observer column:

Whenever there’s something that some people value, there will be a marketplace for it. A few years ago, I spent a fascinating hour with a detective exploring the online marketplaces that exist in the so-called “dark web” (shorthand for the parts of the web you can only get to with a Tor browser and some useful addresses). The marketplaces we were interested in were ones in which stolen credit card details and other confidential data are traded.

What struck me most was the apparent normality of it all. It’s basically eBay for crooks. There are sellers offering goods (ranges of stolen card details, Facebook, Gmail and other logins etc) and punters interested in purchasing same. Different categories of these stolen goods are more or less expensive. (The most expensive logins, as I remember it, were for PayPal). But the funniest thing of all was that some of the marketplaces operated a “reputation” system, just like eBay’s. Some vendors had 90%-plus ratings for reliability etc. Some purchasers likewise. Others were less highly regarded. So, one reflected, there really is honour among thieves.

But it’s not just credit cards and logins that are valuable in this underworld…

Read on