Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for November 4th, 2015

Technological advances in an authoritarian culture

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Sort of jaw-dropping, but makes sense, given the mindset. Jiayang Fan writes in the New Yorker:

For a time in my first-grade classroom at Xingqiao Elementary School, in Chongqing, in the late nineteen-eighties, there was an initiative called “the Stars of Xingqiao.” One of the school’s co-principals had come up with the idea to instill in our seven-year-old hearts the ambition to be “better students, citizens, and stars.” So on a large white chart pasted to the back of the classroom wall, the teacher had printed our names in rows and, in each column along the top, an attribute such as punctuality, classroom manner, and orderliness, the successful embodiment of which earned a red star. Whoever got the most red stars at the end of the week would be publicly pronounced the brightest star of Xingqiao; the student with the fewest stars was punished with Friday-afternoon janitorial duties.

The exercise had unravelled slowly—and then spectacularly—by the time we got midway through the semester. The students hotly debated who actually deserved stars and who most emphatically did not. Because the home room with the most aggregate stars would receive a special treat at the end of the semester—not to mention a bonus for the teacher—it seemed to some of us that certain teachers exercised mass star inflation. Worse, parents began arriving in droves, interrogating the unquantifiability of certain categories and perceived inequities in the award system. (Although my own star record seemed unjustly lacklustre, I prided myself on not asking my mother to lobby on my behalf.) Stars were peeled from one row and moved to another so often and so inexplicably that, in time, the red paint and glue began smearing together, leaving behind imprints on the poster board that resembled the bloody trails of an injured and ill-bandaged finger.

I was reminded of that grade-school experiment when, in recent weeks, I’ve read about China’s plans for a social-credit system, or S.C.S., that aims to compile a comprehensive national database out of citizens’ fiscal, government, and possibly personal information. First publicized, last year, in a planning document published by the State Council, S.C.S. was billed as “an important component part of the Socialist market-economy system,” underwriting a “harmonious Socialist society.” Its intended goals are “establishing the idea of a sincerity culture, and carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues,” and its primary objectives are to raise “the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society” as well as “the over-all competitiveness of the country,” and “stimulating the development of society and the progress of civilization.” Or, as it seemed to me, Stars of China, writ large.

In certain respects, a national credit system of some kind is long overdue in China. Unlike citizens of many developed countries, Chinese consumers have never had credit scores. According to the Ministry of Commerce, the annual financial loss caused by a lack of credit information is upwards of ninety-seven billion dollars. More troublingly, some have long suspected that the absence has contributed to the nation’s deficit of trust between individuals, prompting fraud and profiteering. (In a national poll conducted in 2013, less than half of Chinese citizens said that “most people can be trusted,” and only about thirty per cent said that they trust strangers.)

But what does it mean to develop a score chart that incorporates the social, moral, and financial history of an entire population? The Chinese government has already gestured toward such an effort; currently, it maintains a Web site that allows any citizen to check what serve as proxies for other people’s credit ratings, including court judgments and other interactions with the state. The site uses data from thirty-seven central government departments and is run with help from Baidu, China’s main search engine, which is privately owned but submits to the rules of the state.

Similarly, S.C.S. will likely elicit help from major private enterprises to manage various segments of its operation. Prior to its rollout, now planned for 2020, the government will observe how eight private companies come up with their own “social credit” scores under state-approved pilot projects. This watch-and-see approach has distinct advantages. Currently, two of the best-known pilot projects are Sesame Credit, which is run by Alipay, the financial arm of the commerce behemoth Alibaba, and China Rapid Finance, a part of the social-media giant Tencent.

Alibaba, the world’s biggest online shopping platform, creates an incentive for customers to use its own payment service (also part of Alipay) by raising the Sesame scores of those who do. The company makes no secret of its interest in accessing the payment history of its four hundred million users, to make judgments about their creditworthiness and character. “Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility,” Li Yingyun, Sesame’s technology director, told Caixin, a Chinese magazine. In some ways, Tencent’s credit system goes further, tapping into users’ social networks and mining data about their contacts, for example, in order to determine their social-credit score.

The information-harvesting tactics of Alibaba and Tencent play to their advantages and exploit the companies’ unique points of access to their users. For the Chinese government, this is exactly the sort of competitive strategizing that might ultimately prove instructive to the construction of its own omniscient system. Indeed, part of what has kept the Party in command over the decades is its pairing of authoritarian imperative with adaptability—a willingness to evolve its mechanisms of control with the technology of the times. To maintain the regime’s political power, the state has already leveraged the market and, for example, erected the Great Firewall. Engineering the lives of its citizens by way of a comprehensive database seems almost like the logical next step.

According to the planning document, S.C.S. will be used “to encourage keeping trust and punish breaking trust.” Doctors, teachers, construction firms, scientists, sports figures, N.G.O.s, members of the judicial system, and government administrators will face special scrutiny. It is conceivable that the data generated through smartphones, apps, and online transactions will be marshalled in the service of this overarching and uncomfortably broad aim. More unsettlingly, the algorithm used to calculate the score of an individual or organization might be withheld by the government from the individual herself. (Already, Alibaba has refused to divulge how it calculates its credit scores, citing a “complex algorithm.”)

The opacity of its infrastructure is disquieting. What safeguards will be put in place to prevent the database from being rigged? Will the very corruption that the social-credit system is meant to counter infect the system itself? Who will oversee the overseers of the operation? How will privacy, long under siege in contemporary China, be protected? And will punishment for political discontent be delivered through dismal credit scores? If S.C.S. becomes a mechanism of financial and social integration, it is hard to imagine how it could avoid becoming an instrument of mass surveillance. . .

Continue reading.

I imagine NSA puts a high priority on hacking into this database. If nothing else, it would be a poke in the eye to the Chinese who hacked into all the many US systems, private, state, and federal—probably municipal, if they wanted.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 November 2015 at 4:15 pm

Desk Set (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) now on Netflix

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It’s an interesting movie, reflecting the first wave of anxiety about the introduction of computers. One great scene is clearly ad libbed: Tracy staggering in upon Hepburn and—who? Dina Merrill? At any rate, Tracy enters, playing slapstick-like Irish drunk complete with funny hat, and Hepburn totally cracks up, spontaneously and completely. Unfortunately the scene was cut a little short because the female co-star looked directly into the camera, and they had to clip the scene short, just before she made eye-contact with the viewer (as it were).

I think the same thing happened in Pretty Woman, when Richard Gere snaps shut the lid as Julia Roberts reaches for the lovely necklace. She spontaneously laughed, and (alas) she, too, looked into the camera so the scene had to be cut short.

Whether to include a flawed scene for the sake of a perfect moment must be a tough decision: you have a perfectly shot, perfectly lighted, perfectly focused take of a totally spontaneous and natural laugh. But of course “acting” is exactly the act of making the laugh sound spontaneous and natural.

Still, the scenes are clipped at the point where an actor’s eyes are moving to look into the camera. I think they probably were natural. And Tracy was pretty clearly just goofing around—possibly at that stage of drunkenness where it see extremely clever to pretend to be drunk. But in her laugh, you can hear that Hepburn truly did love him.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 November 2015 at 2:35 pm

Posted in Daily life

Mexico’s Supreme Court Opens Door to Legalizing Marijuana Use

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That is an impressive step forward. Elisabeth Malkin and Azam Ahmed report in the NY Times:

The Mexican Supreme Court opened the door to legalizing marijuana on Wednesday, delivering a pointed challenge to the nation’s strict substance abuse laws and adding its weight to the growing debate in Latin America over the costs and consequences of the war against drugs.

The vote by the court’s criminal chamber declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use. The ruling is a first step — applying only to a single cannabis club that brought the suit — and does not strike down Mexico’s current drug laws. But it lays the groundwork for a wave of legal actions that could ultimately legalize marijuana.

The decision reflects a changing dynamic in Mexico, where for decades the American-backed war on drugs has produced much upheaval but few lasting victories. Today, the flow of drugs to the United States continues, along with the political corruption it fuels in Mexico. The country, dispirited by the ceaseless fight with traffickers, remains engulfed in violence. .  .

Continue reading.

Interesting way of putting it, but probably reflects the actual views of many: “the American-backed war on drugs.” And it is indeed an American show. The US pushed/demanded support from other governments, the US funds a lot of it (most of it?), supplies weaponry, let the DEA simply take people’s cash (civil asset forfeiture: taking a person’s life savings just because you can—the person has no connection with drugs, just traveling by train to start a new life), and so on. The US drives the whole thing, and people are starting to notice. The “US-backed” war on drugs has done enormous collateral damage in other countries, like Mexico. They pay the price of our war on drugs. Small wonder they’re getting fed up.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 November 2015 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Drug laws, Government

EPA Used Monsanto’s Research to Give Roundup a Pass

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Astounding. This takes self-investigation and self-policing to a new level, and raises serious questions about the EPA’s ability to do its mission—and indeed about EPA’s understanding of its mission. Sharon Lerner reports in The Intercept:

The Environmental Protection Agency concluded in June that there was “no convincing evidence” that glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. and the world, is an endocrine disruptor.

On the face of it, this was great news, given that some 300 million pounds of the chemical were used on U.S. crops in 2012, the most recent year measured, and endocrine disruption has been linked to a range of serious health effects, including cancer, infertility, and diabetes. Monsanto, which sells glyphosate under the name Roundup, certainly felt good about it. “I was happy to see that the safety profile of one of our products was upheld by an independent regulatory agency,” wrote Steve Levine on Monsanto’s blog.

But the EPA’s exoneration — which means that the agency will not require additional tests of the chemical’s effects on the hormonal system — is undercut by the fact that the decision was based almost entirely on pesticide industry studies. Only five independently funded studies were considered in the review of whether glyphosate interferes with the endocrine system. Twenty-seven out of 32 studies that looked at glyphosate’s effect on hormones and were cited in the June review — most of which are not publicly available and were obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request — were either conducted or funded by industry. Most of the studies were sponsored by Monsanto or an industry group called the Joint Glyphosate Task Force. One study was by Syngenta, which sells its own glyphosate-containing herbicide, Touchdown.

Findings of Harm Were Dismissed

Who pays for studies matters, according to The Intercept’s review of the evidence used in the EPA’s decision. Of the small minority of independently funded studies that the agency considered in determining whether the chemical poses a danger to the endocrine system, three of five found that it did. One, for instance, found that exposure to glyphosate-Roundup “may induce significant adverse effects on the reproductive system of male Wistar rats at puberty and during adulthood.” Another concluded that “low and environmentally relevant concentrations of glyphosate possessed estrogenic activity.” And a review of the literature turns up many more peer-reviewed studies finding glyphosate can interfere with hormones, affecting such things as hormonal activity in human liver cells, functioning of rat sperm, and the sex ratio of exposed tadpoles.

Yet, of the 27 industry studies, none concluded that glyphosate caused harm. Only one admitted that the pesticide might have had a role in causing the health problems observed in lab animals exposed to it. Some rats that consumed it were more likely to have to have soft stools, reduced body weight, and smaller litters. But because that evidence didn’t meet a test of statistical significance, the authors of the Monsanto study deemed it “equivocal.”

Indeed, many of the industry-funded studies contained data that suggested that exposure to glyphosate had serious effects, including a decrease in the number of viable fetuses and fetal body weight in rats; inflammation of hormone-producing cells in the pancreas of rats; and increases in the number of pancreatic cancers in rats. Each is an endocrine-related outcome. Yet in each case, sometimes even after animals died, the scientists found reasons to discount the findings — or to simply dismiss them.

When rats exposed to glyphosate had a decreased number of pregnancies that implanted, for instance, the authors of a 1980 Monsanto-sponsored study explained that “since ovulation and implantation occurred prior to treatment, the decreases … were not considered to be treatment related.” Although they noted that the decrease in implantations and viable fetuses was “statistically significant,” the authors nonetheless concluded that the decrease in implantations was a random occurrence.

While recent research has shown that very low doses of endocrine disruptors can not only have health effects but effects that are more dramatic than those caused by higher doses, some of the studies dismiss clear examples of harm because they occur in animals given relatively low doses of the substance. A study prepared by Monsanto in 1990, for instance, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 November 2015 at 12:11 pm

UK Government Works on Restricting Encryption, Urges Staff to Use It

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Obviously the UK government thinks encryption is important, but doesn’t want citizens able to use it. It’s just for government use. Joseph Cox reports at Motherboard:

Today, the UK government will announce details of the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, a piece of legislation that will propose sweeping surveillance powers for law enforcement. These are expected to include the retention of citizens’ internet browsing history, and restrictions on encryption.

The Telegraph reports the legislation will ban companies such as Apple from offering customers robust end-to-end encryption which results in communications not being accessible to law enforcement even when they have a warrant. Other reports suggest the idea of a ban will be walked back.

Meanwhile, a document published by a department of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s version of the National Security Agency (NSA), shows the government clearly recognises the benefit of strong encryption for its own purposes, even for everyday communications. Security researcher and developer of the Signal encrypted messaging app Frederic Jacobs pointed out the document on Twitter.

The National Technical Authority for Information Assurance (CESG), which acts as the information security arm of GCHQ and provides information security advice to the UK government, this month published “Secure Voice at OFFICIAL,” a document which “provides an overview of secure voice technology for protecting OFFICIAL and OFFICIAL SENSITIVE communications.”

“OFFICIAL” is the lowest security classification of government material, and refers to “the majority of information that is created or processed by the public sector,” according to a government paper from April 2014. “This includes routine business operations and services, some of which could have damaging consequences if lost, stolen or published in the media, but are not subject to a heightened threat profile,” it explains. One example given is “personal information that is required to be protected under the Data Protection Act (1998) or other legislation (e.g. health records),” and another is “the day to day business of government, service delivery and public finances.”

So hardly top secret stuff, but rather the sort of details that even ordinary citizens could put into voice calls every day. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 November 2015 at 11:48 am

Posted in Government, NSA, Technology

David Shulman reports on the situation in Israel

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It’s a grim report about a violent land and fanatical governments. It begins:

These days Jerusalem is a sad and scary place. The city center has largely emptied out. Whether you are Jewish Israeli or Palestinian, there is a sense of lurking danger, random, episodic, entirely unpredictable. Although the number of stabbing incidents has decreased over the last few days, in the street you still sometimes look over your shoulder. People, even in extreme situations, manage to create a veneer of normalcy, easily torn away by the next explosion. But the police report a 2,000 percent increase in the public’s demand for handguns, and the government is easing the process of obtaining one. Once people have guns, they tend to use them.

Fear, also hate, makes for a light finger on the trigger, especially in an atmosphere of rabid nationalism that is deliberately fanned by government spokesmen and the prime minister himself. Army intelligence predicts the current violence will get worse; already, Hamas is said to have directed its forces on the West Bank to carry out suicide bombings. And why should things not get worse? As many of us have been saying for years, this situation is the natural and inevitable result of the Netanyahu world.

When it began some four weeks ago, much of the violence was initially focused on . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 November 2015 at 11:45 am

Posted in Mideast Conflict

Single-edge razors

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SE razors, like the GEM and Schick Injector, are well-beloved by some, though I find I do prefer the double-edge design: half as much rinsing required.

Still, the SE crowd are worth a look, and Mantic59 has a good article on them in Shaprologist:

Double edge (one blade with two shaving edges) razors (and blades) get most of the buzz in traditional shaving circles, but there are some single edge (one blade with one shaving edge) razors and blades, both vintage and modern, that deserve some love too.  Here is a survey of some single edge technology.

Common Vintage Single Edge Razors

King Gillette may get the press, but his designs came about 50 years after the first “safety razor” patents.  Early “safety razors” appeared in the mid-1800’s.  These very early razors were all single edge and morphed into various brands such as the Star, Gem, Valet, etc., and later designs like the magazine or Injector style razors built on that foundation.   Of these vintage designs the two that are most commonly found today are the GEM razor and the Injector razor. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 November 2015 at 10:46 am

Posted in Shaving

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