Later On

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The undermining of the hyperlink

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Marketing and business is all about control in general and more specifically about controlling you, the consumer. Once you control the consumer, you’ve got it made, so naturally enough much money, research, and thought goes into controlling you (the consumer).

And some things you don’t notice if they change gradually. <Cue story of frog in slowly heated water: apocryphal but useful. It works only if the frog has been pithed—is brain dead—but an amazing proportion of consumers fall into that category.>

Hossein Derakhshan describes what happened to the hyperlink while he was away:

Seven months ago, I sat down at the small table in the kitchen of my 1960s apartment, nestled on the top floor of a building in a vibrant central neighbourhood of Tehran, and I did something I had done thousands of times previously. I opened my laptop and posted to my new blog. This, though, was the first time in six years. And it nearly broke my heart.

A few weeks earlier, I’d been abruptly pardoned and freed from Evin prison in northern Tehran. I had been expecting to spend most of my life in those cells: In November 2008, I’d been sentenced to nearly 20 years in jail, mostly for things I’d written on my blog.

But the moment, when it came, was unexpected. I smoked a cigarette in the kitchen with one of my fellow inmates, and came back to the room I shared with a dozen other men. We were sharing a cup of tea when the voice of the floor announcer — another prisoner — filled all the rooms and corridors. In his flat voice, he announced in Persian: “Dear fellow inmates, the bird of luck has once again sat on one fellow inmate’s shoulders. Mr. Hossein Derakhshan, as of this moment, you are free.”


That evening was the first time that I went out of those doors as a free man. Everything felt new: The chill autumn breeze, the traffic noise from a nearby bridge, the smell, the colors of the city I had lived in for most of my life.

Around me, I noticed a very different Tehran from the one I’d been used to. An influx of new, shamelessly luxurious condos had replaced the charming little houses I was familiar with. New roads, new highways, hordes of invasive SUVs. Large billboards with advertisements for Swiss-made watches and Korean flat screen TVs. Women in colorful scarves and manteaus, men with dyed hair and beards, and hundreds of charming cafes with hip western music and female staff. They were the kinds of changes that creep up on people; the kind you only really notice once normal life gets taken away from you.

Two weeks later, I began writing again. Some friends agreed to let me start a blog as part of their arts magazine. I called it Ketabkhan — it means book-reader in Persian.

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.

Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted.

People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me still came to read. Other blogs linked to mine to discuss what I was saying. I felt like a king.

The iPhone was a little over a year old by then, but smartphones were still mostly used to make phone calls and send short messages, handle emails, and surf the web. There were no real apps, certainly not how we think of them today. There was no Instagram, no SnapChat, no Viber, no WhatsApp.

Instead, there was the web, and on the web, there were blogs: the best place to find alternative thoughts, news and analysis. They were my life.


It had all started with 9/11. I was in Toronto, and my father had just arrived from Tehran for a visit. We were having breakfast when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I was puzzled and confused and, looking for insights and explanations, I came across blogs. Once I read a few, I thought: This is it, I should start one, and encourage all Iranians to start blogging as well. So, using Notepad on Windows, I started experimenting. Soon I ended up writing on hoder.com, using Blogger’s publishing platform before Google bought it.

Then, on November 5, 2001, I published a step-to-step guide on how to start a blog. That sparked something that was later called a blogging revolution: Soon, hundreds and thousands of Iranians made it one of the top 5 nations by the number of blogs, and I was proud to have a role in this unprecedented democratization of writing.

Those days, I used to keep a list of all blogs in Persian and, for a while, I was the first person any new blogger in Iran would contact, so they could get on the list. That’s why they called me “the blogfather” in my mid-twenties — it was a silly nickname, but at least it hinted at how much I cared.

Every morning, from my small apartment in downtown Toronto, I opened my computer and took care of the new blogs, helping them gain exposure and audience. It was a diverse crowd — from exiled authors and journalists, female diarists, and technology experts, to local journalists, politicians, clerics, and war veterans — and I always encouraged even more. I invited more religious, and pro-Islamic Republic men and women, people who lived inside Iran, to join and start writing.

The breadth of what was available those days amazed us all. It was partly why I promoted blogging so seriously. I’d left Iran in late 2000 to experience living in the West, and was scared that I was missing all the rapidly emerging trends at home. But reading Iranian blogs in Toronto was the closest experience I could have to sitting in a shared taxi in Tehran and listening to collective conversations between the talkative driver and random passengers.

There’s a story in the Quran that I thought about a lot during my first eight months in solitary confinement. In it, a group of persecuted Christians find refuge in a cave. They, and a dog they have with them, fall into a deep sleep. They wake up under the impression that they’ve taken a nap: In fact, it’s 300 years later. One version of the story tells of how one of them goes out to buy food — and I can only imagine how hungry they must’ve been after 300 years — and discovers that his money is obsolete now, a museum item. That’s when he realizes how long they have actually been absent.

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of thehypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web — a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.

Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.

Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 July 2015 at 10:24 am

A simulator for Big Pharma explores trends produced by incentives

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Edwin Evans-Thirlwell reports at Motherboard:

Big Pharma is a management simulation game that, to quote its UK-based creator Tim Wicksteed, explores “the strange ethical dilemmas that occur when you bring together the goal of curing the sick with the burden of running a profitable business.”

Unlike many an artwork with a social or political message, however, it isn’t an exercise in pointing fingers. Rather, Big Pharma shows how dangerously easy and routine it can become to disregard the human fallout of a decision while operating in an abstract world of market trends and logistical planning.

The game’s world isn’t just abstract—it’s downright cosy. Now available in beta to pre-ordering players, with a Steam release to follow, Big Pharma recalls the cartoon look and handling of the Bullfrog-developed classic Theme Hospital. Most of it takes place on your production floor, a cheery expanse of checkerboard floating in a clinical grey void, where you buy and click together chunky, pleasingly animated machines that turn raw materials into products such as pills and creams.

Each ingredient must be discovered by hiring explorers to scour the unseen world beyond your factory, then imported for a fee. All of them have a number of possible effects, good and bad. To unlock or cancel out these traits, you need to feed the ingredient through various devices that alter its concentration, or combine it with another substance, before ferrying the results to the export hopper. In theory, of course, you’ll want to ship the most effective cures you can while ironing out negative symptoms such as constipation. But in practice, this may not make sense economically.

Each component in a production line takes a small chunk out of your earnings each and every time it’s used, so the more elaborate the purification and enhancement process you set in motion, the smaller your net profit. A cheap ‘n’ dodgy migraine remedy that causes hypertension and diarrhea may prove more lucrative, overall, than an expensive miracle cure that obliges you to fill up your real estate with ionisers and condensors.

More sinisterly yet, Big Pharma also generates an evolving worldwide market simulation that takes into account the global distribution of diseases versus the distribution of income. Thus, in addition to letting the player cut corners with each drug, it allows you to callously ignore regions where the need for treatment is greatest but wallets are light.

“A cure for hair loss is a relatively small market but is highly valuable to the rich Westerners who demand it,” Wicksteed told me by email. “Whereas an antimalarial drug is in very high demand but can’t sustain such a high price, because most of the demand is coming from people living in poorer countries.”

There’s the projected infection rate of each disease to consider, too. “You can deliberately hold off producing your tuberculosis remedy until it infects half of Africa, in order to maximise your profits.”

Wicksteed became interested in such ethical breaches after reading Dr Ben Goldacre’s acclaimed 2012 book Bad Pharma, which examines how companies such as GlaxoSmithKline have distorted or buried data about the usefulness and drawbacks of their products. On balance, he feels that such failings are evidence of “systematic” problems rather than confined to a particular set of corporations.

“People are incentivised to make decisions for the good of the company or themselves to the detriment of patients,” Wicksteed commented. “This is very human. It’s something we’ve all encountered at work under the pressure to hit a deadline or get a certain result. The problem with this in the pharmaceutical industry is that it can lead to human suffering, or worse, death. It’s because of this that I try to avoid overtly demonising the industry in the game, and prefer to simply place the player in a position of power and ask ‘what would you do?’”

Not very encouragingly, Wicksteed has found that Big Pharma players “are very profit driven, and don’t give a second’s thought to sacrificing quality to make a few extra dollars per sale.” This may, however, reflect a lack of in-game accountability systems to counter the siren wail of your company’s bottom line—compromised or feeble remedies sell for less, but there’s no blowblack from injured members of the public, and no threat of a legal challenge. . .

Continue reading. Fascinating article, which supports my own view that for-profit hospitals should be illegal.

Here’s a promo video of the game. Turn off sound to avoid irritating and irrelevant music:

Written by LeisureGuy

14 July 2015 at 10:45 am

Scanner Pro 6 simplifies scanning documents with your iPhone

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Maybe this will stop people from cutting pages out of library books. The app is only $2.99.

More at the link above.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 July 2015 at 10:36 am

Posted in Software

Tim Wu: Google ‘Knowingly Degrades’ Search Results

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The pursuit of profit often leads to results antithetical to the public interest (cf. for-profit hospitals). Jordan Pearson points out in how Google distorts search results to increase profits in this article at Motherboard:

Google uses its role as the internet’s chief information gatekeeper to boost its own products and undercut competitors, according to a new study—and users are worse off because of it.

The study, funded by Yelp, found that Google routinely filters its search results to favour results from Google+. This is because Google’s universal search algorithm mixes “organic” results from around the web with a select few plucked from Google’s own services.

Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality” in 2003, and Harvard business professor Michael Luca conducted the study with members of Yelp’s Data Science Team. According to Wu and Luca, Google’s algorithm actually harms users by limiting the information they see to what resides in the Google ecosystem.

“By prominently displaying Google content in response to search queries, Google is able to leverage its dominance in search to gain customers for this content,” the study reads. “This yields serious concerns if the internal content is inferior to organic search results.”

Wu and Luca had 2,690 people first search Google normally, and then with an open source plug-in called Focus on the User, which automatically augments searches to fetch results from third party review sites instead of Google+. The results of the survey showed that users clicked through on search results 45 percent more often when using Focus on the User.

The researchers interpreted this finding as indicating that customers prefer when results come from outside of Google’s ecosystem, and demonstrates that Google is “intentionally degrading” the customer experience in order to undercut its competitors.

A Google representative declined to comment on the study. . .

Continue reading.

After reading this, I immediately installed the Focus on the User plug-in in my Chrome browser.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2015 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Business, Software

Google accused of “abusive conduct” in privacy app case

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Full disclosure: I use Disconnect on all my browsers on my laptop. And I’ve blogged about it.

Ryan Gallagher reports for The Intercept:

An award-winning company founded by former Google engineers is taking legal action against the search engine giant over claims it has engaged in a “pattern of abusive behavior” and is violating privacy rights on a “massive scale.”

Disconnect, a U.S. firm that designs privacy-enhancing technology, has filed a complaint with European antitrust regulators after its Android app was banned from the Google Play Store. The app was designed to protect smartphone users from invisible tracking and malware distributed through online advertisements.

The complaint was submitted earlier this month, but the full allegations were not made public at the time. The Intercept has obtained a copy of the 104-page complaint, which attacks Google over its claimed commitment to privacy and accuses the tech titan of trying to stop people from using the Disconnect app because it poses an “existential threat” to its revenue sources.

Google’s business, the complaint claims, “consists almost entirely of gathering data about the preferences, locations, and behavior of ordinary people and monetizing that data through the sale of targeted advertisements on the Internet.” Because of this, it alleges, Google is “using the full weight of its market power to deny users control over tracking, particularly mobile tracking.”

When you visit a website, usually unbeknown to you, other websites and services try to connect to your device in the background to collect data about your browsing habits. The Disconnect app allows users to view and block these invisible network connections, which the company says “permit intrusions into the personal privacy of users by facilitating tracking and the collection of personal information” and “expose users to risks associated with malware and other forms of cybercrime.” However, some of these same invisible connections are used to generate advertising revenue, an issue that appears to be at the root of Google’s decision to crack down on Disconnect.

Disconnect argues in its complaint:

[I]nvisible, unsolicited tracking is Google’s lifeblood. The company makes virtually all of its revenue from advertising. Tracking permits Google to target its ads and, hence, to charge advertisers far more for ad placement. Indeed, Google is under enormous pressure from the financial community to increase the “effectiveness” of its tracking, so that it can increase  revenues and profits. Giving a user the ability to control his own privacy information (and to protect himself from malware) by blocking invisible connections to problematic sites constitutes an existential threat to Google.

Google is dismissing Disconnect’s allegations as “baseless.” A company spokesman told The Intercept that Google Play policies “have long prohibited apps that interfere with other apps (such as by altering their functionality, or removing their way of making money). We apply this policy uniformly — and Android developers strongly support it. All apps must comply with these policies and there’s over 200 privacy apps available in Google Play that do.”

However, Disconnect claims that some apps that interfere with others have in fact been allowed in the Play Store — such as Ghostery’s Ad Control app — and it says Google turns a blind eye to them because they are “less effective” at blocking invisible tracking.

“We don’t think our app should be treated differently, the remedy we’re seeking is equal treatment,” Disconnect’s CEO Casey Oppenheim told The Intercept. “Google allows many Android apps in the Play Store that interfere with other apps.”

Google is putting its interest in ad revenues above protection of its users, Oppenheim alleged, undermining the public’s right to privacy and ability to protect itself from malware and identity theft.

“Google has built great technologies,” he said, “but it’s violating consumer privacy rights and creating dangerous security vulnerabilities on a massive scale.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2015 at 3:45 pm

Techie corner: Microsoft provides details about its controversial disk encryption

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Micah Lee reports at The Intercept:

Recently, I wrote a guide explaining how to encrypt your laptop’s hard drive and why you should do so. For the benefit of Windows users, I gave instructions for turning on BitLocker, Microsoft’s disk encryption technology.

This advice generated an immediate backlash in the comments section underneath the post, where readers correctly pointed out that BitLocker has been criticized by security experts for a number of real and potential shortcomings. For example, BitLocker’s source code is not available for inspection, which makes it particularly vulnerable to “backdoors,” security holes intentionally placed to provide access to the government or others. In addition, BitLocker’s host operating system, Microsoft Windows, provides an algorithm for generating random numbers, including encryption keys, that is known to have been backdoored by government spies, and which the company’s own engineers flagged as potentially compromised nearly eight years ago. BitLocker also lost a key component for hardening its encryption, known as the “Elephant diffuser,” in the latest major version of Windows. And Microsoft has reportedly worked hand-in-glove with the government to provide early access to bugs in Windows and to customer data in its Skype and Outlook.com products.

Even having known about these issues, I still believed BitLocker was the best of several bad options for Windows users; I’ll explain my reasoning on this later.

But in the meantime, something interesting has happened: Microsoft, after considerable prodding, provided me with answers to some longstanding questions about BitLocker’s security. The company told me which random number generator BitLocker uses to generate encryption keys, alleviating concerns about a government backdoor in that subsystem; it explained why it removed the Elephant diffuser, citing worries over performance and compatibility that will appease some, but certainly not all, concerned parties; and it said that the government-compromised algorithm it bundles with Windows to generate encryption keys is, by default, not used at all.

Significant questions remain about BitLocker, to be sure, and because the source code for it is not available, those questions will likely remain unanswered. As prominent cryptographer Bruce Schneier has written, “In the cryptography world, we consider open source necessary for good security; we have for decades.” Despite all of this, BitLocker still might be the best option for Windows users who want to encrypt their disks.

Today I’m going to dive deep into the concerns about BitLocker and into Microsoft’s new responses. I’m also going to explain why more open alternatives like TrueCrypt don’t resolve these concerns, and take a brief look at proprietary products like BestCrypt, which Schneier recommends.

This is going to be a fairly technical post. But it’s important to explore the current state of BitLocker because Windows remains the most popular operating system for personal computers and because interest in BitLocker has only grown in the wake of documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showing widespread U.S. government surveillance. At the same time, fears about BitLocker have also been stoked by the Snowden cache, which exposed a carefully orchestrated and apparently successful attemptby the National Security Agency to compromise international encryption-related standards, including one that’s part of Windows to this day.

Why people worry about BitLocker

If you can trust Microsoft, BitLocker has always been awesome. For example, Microsoft is well ahead of competitors like Apple in making BitLocker verify that an attacker hasn’t modified the software used to boot the computer. Without such protection, hackers can rewrite the boot-up code, impersonate the operating system, and trick people into unlocking the disk so malware can be installed, a technique known as an “evil maid” attack. Mac OS X and Linux’s disk encryption systems are entirely vulnerable to this attack, but Windows, when running BitLocker, is not.

Of course, a great many people, particularly in information security circles, do not trust Microsoft; these people worry that BitLocker’s advanced technology is meant to distract people from the company’s cozy relationship with the government, and that any data “secured” using BitLocker could be handed over to spy agencies or law enforcement.

Here are three more specific concerns those people have about BitLocker — concerns I have shared. With each, I’ve included Microsoft’s response. It should be noted that the company was not initially forthcoming with this information; a spokesperson responded to a set of questions based on these worries by saying the company had no comment. To Microsoft’s credit, the company later reversed this position. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 June 2015 at 11:03 am

Cool solar-clock app for iPhone and iPad

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Very nifty. I’d buy it ($4) in a heartbeat if I had an iPhone or an iPad.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 June 2015 at 10:23 am

Posted in Software

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