Why do people keep buying Amazon Ring?

I’ve got a good friend who has an Amazon doorbell and seems tickled pink by it. Normally, this would worry me, but he’s a sophisticated techie and I’m sure his security precautions are good.

But that’s definitely not true for most of the thousands of people who are buying the devices.

The New York Times has a helpful piece aimed at these neophytes. It opens with some cautionary notes, though:

The internet-connected doorbell gadget, which lets you watch live video of your front porch through a phone app or website, has gained a reputation as the webcam that spies on you and that has failed to protect your data. Yet people keep buying it in droves.

Ring, which is owned by Amazon and based in Santa Monica, Calif., has generated its share of headlines, including how the company fired four employees over the last four years for watching customers’ videos. Last month, security researchers also found that Ring’s apps contained hidden code, which had shared customer data with third-party marketers. And in December, hackers hijacked the Ring cameras of multiple families, using the devices’ speakers to verbally assault some of them.

Could Google users in UK lose EU data protection?

This Reuters report suggests that we could.

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Google is planning to move its British users’ accounts out of the control of European Union privacy regulators, placing them under U.S. jurisdiction instead, sources said.

The shift, prompted by Britain’s exit from the EU, will leave the sensitive personal information of tens of millions with less protection and within easier reach of British law enforcement.

The change was described to Reuters by three people familiar with its plans. Google intends to require its British users to acknowledge new terms of service including the new jurisdiction.

Ireland, where Google and other U.S. tech companies have their European headquarters, is staying in the EU, which has one of the world’s most aggressive data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation.

Google has decided to move its British users out of Irish jurisdiction because it is unclear whether Britain will follow GDPR or adopt other rules that could affect the handling of user data, the people said.

If British Google users have their data kept in Ireland, it would be more difficult for British authorities to recover it in criminal investigations.

The recent Cloud Act in the United States, however, is expected to make it easier for British authorities to obtain data from U.S. companies. Britain and the United States are also on track to negotiate a broader trade agreement.

Beyond that, the United States has among the weakest privacy protections of any major economy, with no broad law despite years of advocacy by consumer protection groups.

Google, needless to say, declined to comment.

If this turns out to be true, it will mark my departure from all the Google services that I currently use. Better start organising now, just in case…

Of you’re interested here’s a how-to link.

Tropical Breezes, Pristine Beaches and a Domain Name to Die For

Well, well. From the New York Times:

Anguilla is the landlord for internet addresses that end in “.ai” — a suddenly valuable slice of online real estate. Every time a .ai name is registered or renewed — by A.I. start-ups, or by speculators hoping to resell the names to those start-ups, big companies or investors — the island collects a $50-a-year fee, which goes mostly to the government treasury.

Those fees added up to $2.9 million in 2018, the most recent official government tally, or nearly as much as the combined salaries of the 127 primary-school teachers, assistants and administrators in the territory. The revenue rose sharply again last year. “It’s really snowballed,” said Vincent Cate, who manages the .ai registry in an office not far from the ocean.

Anguilla owes its good fortune to the large, yet obscure and often quirky, market for internet addresses. Start-ups are increasingly willing to take on unusual internet addresses, or domain names like .ai, to stand out.

Just tried to get bullshit.ai, but it’s already taken. Damn!

But ethics-theatre.ai is available. A snip at £81.99!

So, basically, we’re screwed

Really sobering article in the FT by Martin Wolf. Here’s the gist:

We live in a fossil-fuel civilisation. There have been two energy revolutions in human history: the agricultural revolution, which exploited far more incident sunlight; and the industrial revolution, which exploited fossilised sunlight. Now we must return to incident sunlight — solar energy and wind — along with nuclear power.

Discussions last week at the Oslo Energy Forum clarified things for me. My principal conclusion was that a transformation from our current energy system to a different one is the only option. Some suggest we should halt growth as well. But this would not only be impossible, it would also not be nearly enough.

Over the past three decades CO2 emissions per unit of global output have been falling at a little below 2 per cent a year. If this were to continue and world output were to stagnate, global emissions would fall by 40 per cent by 2050 — far too little. Relying on actual reductions in output, in order to cut emissions by, say, 95 per cent, by 2050, would require a fall in world output of roughly 90 per cent, bringing global output per head back to 1870 levels.

Since we’re not going deliberately to go back to 1870 (all those stovepipe hats), we have to stop burning fossil fuels, period — and make a transition to a non-carbon economy. Wolf thinks that, in principle, this might be possible. But,

A zero-carbon economy would require about four to five times as much electricity as our present one, all from non-carbon-emitting sources. In running such an economy, hydrogen (much of it produced by electrolysis) would play an essential role. Hydrogen consumption might jump 11-fold by 2050.

In many sectors, the costs of decarbonisation are (or soon will be) competitive. Yet in some, they will not be. There will need to be incentives and regulations to force the shift. In order to avoid merely moving production, in its most emissions-intensive forms, elsewhere, it will be essential to impose offsetting taxes on imports from jurisdictions that refuse to support the needed changes.

Note the last sentence and ask yourself what are the chances of this happening in the world as we know it?

Summing up: we could do it, but we won’t. I’ve argued for a long time that we need a theory of incompetent systems — i.e. systems that can’t fix themselves.

Monday 17 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

In this election there are two sides. One side believes in the rule of law, the other doesn’t. Everything else, to be settled later, once the rule-of-law is re-established.

  • Dave Winer

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My review of Andrew Marantz’s new book — Antisocial

On today’s Guardian. It’s a sobering read.

There has always been a dark undercurrent of white supremacism in some sectors of American culture. It was kept from public view for decades by the editorial gatekeepers of the old media ecosystem. But once the internet arrived, a sophisticated online culture of conspiracy theorists, racists and other malign discontents thrived in cyberspace. But it stayed below the radar until a fully paid-up conspiracy theorist won the Republican nomination. Trump’s candidacy and campaign had the effect of “mainstreaming” that which had previously been largely hidden from view. At which point, the innocent public began to see and experience what Marantz has closely observed, namely the remarkable capabilities of extremist “edgelords” to weaponise YouTube, Twitter and Facebook for destructive purposes.

One of the most depressing things about 2016 was the apparent inability of American journalism to deal with this pollution of the public sphere. In part, this was because they were crippled by their professional standards. It’s not always possible to be even-handed and honest. “The plain fact,” writes Marantz at one point, “was that the alt-right was a racist movement full of creeps and liars. If a newspaper’s house style didn’t allow its reporters to say so, then the house style was preventing its reporters from telling the truth.” Trump’s mastery of Twitter led the news agenda every day, faithfully followed by mainstream media, like beagles following a live trail. And his use of the “fake news” metaphor was masterly: a reminder of why, as Marantz points out, Lügenpresse – “lying press” – was also a favourite epithet of Joseph Goebbels.


Frank Ramsey

Frank Ramsey was a legend in Cambridge as one of the brightest young men of his time. He died tragically young (he was 26) in 1930, from an infection acquired from swimming in the river Cam. Now there’s a new biography of him by Cheryl Misak. Here’s part of her blurb about him:

The economist John Maynard Keynes identified Ramsey as a major talent when he was a mathematics student at Cambridge in the early 1920s. During his undergraduate days, Ramsey demolished Keynes’ theory of probability and C.H. Douglas’s social credit theory; made a valiant attempt at repairing Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica; and translated Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and wrote a critique of the latter alongside a critical notice of it that still stands as one of the most challenging commentaries of that difficult and influential book.

Keynes, in an impressive show of administrative skill and sleight of hand, made the 21-year-old Ramsey a fellow of King’s College at a time when only someone who had studied there could be a fellow. (Ramsey had done his degree at Trinity).

Ramsey validated Keynes’ judgment. In 1926 he was the first to figure out how to define probability subjectively and invented the expected utility that underpins much of contemporary economics.

I’d never heard of Ramsey until I came on Keynes’s essay on him in his wonderful collection, Essays in Biography, published in 1933. (One of my favourite books, btw.) Given that Keynes himself was ferociously bright, the fact that he had such a high opinion of Ramsey was what made me sit up. Here’s an extract that conveys that:

Seeing all of Frank Ramsey’s logical essays published together, we can perceive quite clearly the direction which is mind was taking. It is a remarkable example of how the young can take up the story at the point to which the previous generation had brought it a little out of breath, and then proceed forward without taking more than about a week thoroughly to digest everything which had been done up to date, and to understand with apparent ease stuff which to anyone even 10 years older seemed hopelessly difficult. One almost has to believe that Ramsay in his nursery year near Magdalene1 was unconsciously absorbing from 1903 to 1914 everything which anyone may have been saying or writing from Trinity.

(Among the people in Trinity College at the time were Bertrand Russell, A.N. Whitehead and Ludwig Wittgenstein.)


The hacking of Jeff Bezos’s phone

Interesting (but — according to other forensic experts — incomplete) technical report into his the Amazon boss’s smartphone was hacked, presumably by someone working for the Saudi Crown Prince.

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Where people have faith in their elections

The U.S. public’s confidence in elections is one of the worst of any wealthy democracy, according to a recently published Gallup poll. It found that a mere 40 percent of Americans have confidence in the honesty of their elections. As low as that figure is, distrust of elections is nothing new for the U.S. public.

The research found that a majority of Americans have had no confidence in the honesty of elections every year since 2012 with the share trusting the process at the ballot box sinking as low as 30 percent during the 2016 presidential campaign. Gallup stated that its 2019 data came at a time when eight U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election and identified attempts to engage in similar activities during the midterms in 2018.

This chart shows how the U.S. compares to other developed OECD nations with the highest confidence scores recorded across Northern Europe and Finland, Norway and Sweden best-ranked.

Source

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David Spiegelhalter: Should We Trust Algorithms?

As the philosopher Onora O’Neill has said (O’Neill, 2013), organizations should not try to be trusted; rather they should aim to demonstrate trustworthiness, which requires honesty, competence, and reliability. This simple but powerful idea has been very influential: the revised Code of Practice for official statistics in the United Kingdom puts Trustworthiness as its first “pillar” (UK Statistics Authority, 2018).

It seems reasonable that, when confronted by an algorithm, we should expect trustworthy claims both:

  • about the system — what the developers say it can do, and how it has been evaluated, and

  • by the system — what it says about a specific case.

Terrific article


  1. Ramsey’s father was Master of Magdalene. 

Sunday 16 February, 2020

Reports of social media’s influence on (UK) voters may be exaggerated

This morning’s Observer column:

While it would obviously be ridiculous to deny that social media played some role in these political upheavals [Brexit and Trump’s election], it would be foolish to assign it the critical role. Apart from anything else, putting social media centre stage ignores what had been happening to democratic electorates during decades of globalisation, neoliberal economic policy, rising inequality and austerity. But because the rise of Facebook et al was one of the biggest changes over the last two decades, the temptation to see them as the place to look for explanations seems to have been well-nigh irresistible.

Fortunately, it was resisted by researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford when they set out to understand where UK voters got their news during the 2019 general election. They tracked the online news consumption of 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices throughout the campaign and also surveyed a subset of 752 panellists before and after the vote. What the researchers were seeking to understand was the relative importance for voters of offline and online news and their attitudes to the media and politics more widely.

Their findings make intriguing reading, not least because they challenge some of the anecdotal conventional wisdom about the predominance of social media…

Read on


In the boxing business, only the promoter wins every fight

Same applies on social media.

Both of these sites are owned by the same jokester. Heads he wins, tails he wins. ‘Engagement’ is all.

“Are you glad to see Conway gone?” asked Liberal Society at the end of its post.

“Will you miss seeing Conway on TV?” asked Conservative 101.

The stories read like they were stamped out of the same content machine because they were. Using domain registration records and Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, BuzzFeed News determined that both sites are owned by American News LLC of Miami.

That company also operates another liberal site, Democratic Review, as well as American News, a conservative site that drew attention after the election when it posted a false article claiming that Denzel Washington endorsed Trump. It also operates GodToday.com, a site that publishes religious clickbait.

Source


What the composition of the Johnson Cabinet actually portends

Insightful analysis by James Butler in the LRB:

It’s the move to control and centralisation that is most significant, and gives us the clearest sign of what to expect from the government over the next five years: personalised authority, a tussle over economic intervention intended to reshape the nation, hostility to legal and journalistic accountability, and a host of convenient public enemies as villainous Brussels recedes from view. The new appointees, and the new priorities, inaugurate a new mode of British Conservatism – and any opposition that fails to grasp that, and its internal weaknesses, may find it takes longer than five years to defeat it.


Saturday 15 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

“If there are three kinds of people—those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who never knew what hit them — neoliberals belong to the first category and most progressives to the latter two. The left remained complacent until, suddenly, it was too late.”

  • Susan George, “How to Win the War of Ideas: Lessons of the Gramscian Right”. #

Correlation vs causation and the sudden departure of the World Bank’s Chief Economist

Well, well. This from the Economist:

When autocratic, oil-rich nations enjoy a windfall from higher crude prices, where does the money go? One place to look is Swiss bank accounts. Sure enough, an increase in oil prices is followed by a spike in deposits held by these countries in financial havens, according to a 2017 paper by Jorgen Juel Andersen of bi Norwegian Business School, Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen and their co-authors.

When Mr Johannesen presented this result at the World Bank in 2015, the audience included Bob Rijkers, a member of the bank’s research group. The two of them joined forces with Mr Andersen to investigate if something similar happened after another kind of windfall: infusions of aid from foreign donors. Their conclusion was dispiriting. World Bank payouts to 22 aid-dependent countries during 1990-2010 were followed by a jump in their deposits in foreign financial havens. The leaks averaged about 5% of the bank’s aid to these countries.

Rijkers reports to the Bank’s Chief Economist, Penny Goldberg. Normally these kinds of working papers are published. But this particular one hasn’t been — yet. And there are rumours that it has been held back because it is, well, embarrassing to find that 5% of the Bank’s aid might be going to the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt politicians. After all, correlation doesn’t mean causation. But now Ms Goldberg is leaving and going back to Yale. Correlation or causation?


Could the Coronavirus Help Make China More Free?

Intriguing paradoxes about China raised by Tyler Cowen in his Bloomberg column. On the one hand, being an authoritarian state means it can take decisive action — like quarantining 11m people. But what if public opinion as expressed on social media gets so torrential that it overpowers the capacity of the censors?


Northern Ireland’s future in a single chart

Source


Friday 14 February, 2020

Bloomberg is going after Trump on his home turf: Facebook

He spent more than $1 million a day on average during the past two weeks on Facebook, according to data compiled by NBC News. The thing is: with a net worth of $61B, he can easily afford to outspend Trump. At one level, this might be reassuring. At another, it’s deeply depressing: it means that only billionaires can play at democracy in the US now. We’re really in Larry Lessig’s Lesterland.


Are unsecured cafe wi-fi networks deliberately hostile to VPNs?

I’m in Bill’s cafe in Cambridge, which offers ‘free’ Wi-Fi — which of course I don’t trust. So I switch on my VPN to find that, mysteriously, it can’t connect to its server. And I’m wondering if this is just some kind of glitch, or a policy by the firm that provides the Wi-Fi. After all, they don’t want clients sending communications that are encrypted and therefore inscrutable for advertising and tracking purposes. In this stuff, only the paranoid survive.


Inside the mind of Dominic Cummings

Cummings is now the UK’s de facto project manager, but what does he actually believe? In a bid to find out, Stefan Collini read (almost) everything Cummings has written in the last decade. His report is fascinating, insightful and thought-provoking. I can say that because I too have been reading Cummings for years. When I say that to people in Cambridge, though, they start to back away — as if I had revealed that I was interested in UFOs. They view Cummings through a blinding haze of visceral dislike. So it’s nice to see a real heavyweight (Collini has written great stuff on CP Snow, the neoliberal ‘reform’ of UK universities and public intellectuals) taking Cummings seriously. Well worth reading in full.


I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London

Wonderful piece of investigative reporting by James Temperton in Wired. I don’t use Airbnb but I know lots of people — especially younger folk — who do. Wonder how many of them have bad experiences?


A taxonomy of privacy

Landmark 2006 article by Daniel Solove in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. I love the way it begins:

Privacy is a concept in disarray. Nobody can articulate what it means. As one commentator has observed, privacy suffers from “an embarrassment of meanings.”

Yep. And that’s still true — fourteen years later.

Tuesday 11 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

”I have the feeling that I’ve seen everything, but failed to notice the elephants”

  • Anton Chekhov

Another reason why people buy SUVs

Apropos my post the other day about why people buy SUVs, I received this interesting email from a reader:

The other reason people buy SUVs is because they have been involved in an accident.

My wife was hit by a pick up truck head on doing 55 mph in a 25 mph zone, which totaled the car, shattered her wrist, but thankfully didn’t damage the 8-week-old in the back. She’s been nervous in cars ever since now.

So it’s not that she doesn’t trust her driving skills, it’s that she doesn’t trust the other drivers on the road (which in DC is probably a fair assessment. The driving test is a joke, you can pass it easily, and that’s assuming the person who hits you has a license. In the 8 times we’ve been hit, 3 times the driver swapped seats with the passenger, and the other one was uninsured).

Touché.


Tech Has Drained the Reality Out of Our Real Lives

Lovely essay by Jenny Judge on how, for most people, the deficiencies of their analogue photographs inadvertently reinforced the vitality of real life, whereas modern digital cameras now create a superior virtual world we don’t feel good enough for.

But the inescapable shoddiness of our amateur photographs served an important purpose, beyond the obvious one of discouraging narcissism, and it was this: Through its very mediocrity, each image told us that the real world was better than the one it depicted. We were made aware of the richness, the vividness, the sheer reality of our actual lives simply in being shown that our virtual lives were wan and insubstantial. Each of our badly framed, overexposed pictures served as an incentive to seek out the real world. Similarly, the fragmentary bootleg was a reason to go to the video store or, better still, to the cinema; the disappointing tape-recording likewise sent us in search of the CD and the live show.

Perceptive stuff. Worth reading in full.