Later On

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

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Velvet-glove dictatorships

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Interesting column in the NY Times by Sergei Guriev,a professor of economics at Sciences Po, Paris, and  Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles:

THE standard image of dictatorship is of a government sustained by violence. In 20th-century totalitarian systems, tyrants like Stalin, Hitler and Mao murdered millions in the name of outlandish ideologies. Strongmen like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire left trails of blood.

But in recent decades, a new brand of authoritarian government has evolved that is better adapted to an era of global media, economic interdependence and information technology. The “soft” dictators concentrate power, stifling opposition and eliminating checks and balances, while using hardly any violence.

These illiberal leaders — Alberto K. Fujimori of Peru, Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — threaten to reshape the world order in their image, replacing principles of freedom and law — albeit imperfectly upheld by Western powers — with cynicism and corruption. The West needs to understand how these regimes work and how to confront them.

Some bloody or ideological regimes remain — as in Syria and North Korea — but the balance has shifted. In 1982, 27 percent of nondemocracies engaged in mass killings. By 2012, only 6 percent did. In the same period, the share of nondemocracies with no elected legislature fell to 15 percent from 31 percent.

This sea change might have started with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who combined parliamentary institutions with strict social control, occasional political arrests and frequent lawsuits to cow the press — but also instituted business-friendly policies that helped fuel astronomical growth.

The new autocrats often get to power through reasonably fair elections. Mr. Chávez, for instance, won in 1998 in what international observers called one of the most transparent votes in Venezuela’s history.

Soaring approval ratings are a more cost-effective path to dominance than terror. Mr. Erdogan exploited his popularity to amend the Constitution by referendum and to pack Turkey’s Constitutional Court.

The new autocrats use propaganda, censorship and other information-based tricks to inflate their ratings and to convince citizens of their superiority over available alternatives. They peddle an amorphous anti-Western resentment: Mr. Orban mocked Europe’s political correctness and declining competitiveness while soliciting European Union development aid. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

25 May 2015 at 9:49 am

A look at why productivity languishes

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Paul Krugman has a very interesting column today. He looks at all the advances in technology and contrasts that with the lack of productivity in terms of the overall economy. For a while, the US made noticeable productivity gains from year to year (output per worker hour), but that has been stalled for quite a while despite all the technological advances. Worth reading. It begins:

Remember Douglas Adams’s 1979 novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”? It began with some technology snark, dismissing Earth as a planet whose life-forms “are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” But that was then, in the early stages of the information technology revolution.

Since then we’ve moved on to much more significant things, so much so that the big technology idea of 2015, so far, is a digital watch. But this one tells you to stand up if you’ve been sitting too long!

O.K., I’m snarking, too. But there is a real question here. Everyone knows that we live in an era of incredibly rapid technological change, which is changing everything. But what if what everyone knows is wrong? And I’m not being wildly contrarian here. A growing number of economists, looking at the data on productivity and incomes, are wondering if the technological revolution has been greatly overhyped — and some technologists share their concern.

We’ve been here before. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” was published during the era of the “productivity paradox,” a two-decade-long period during which technology seemed to be advancing rapidly — personal computing, cellphones, local area networks and the early stages of the Internet — yet economic growth was sluggish and incomes stagnant. Many hypotheses were advanced to explain that paradox, with the most popular probably being that inventing a technology and learning to use it effectively aren’t the same thing. Give it time, said economic historians, and computers will eventually deliver the goods (and services).

This optimism seemed vindicated when productivity growth finally took off circa 1995. Progress was back — and so was America, which seemed to be at the cutting edge of the revolution.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the techno-revolution. We did not, it turned out, get a sustained return to rapid economic progress. Instead, it was more of a one-time spurt, which sputtered out around a decade ago. Since then, we’ve been living in an era of iPhones and iPads and iDontKnows, but even if you adjust for the effects of financial crisis, growth and trends in income have reverted to the sluggishness that characterized the 1970s and 1980s.

In other words, at this point, the whole digital era, spanning more than four decades, is looking like a disappointment. New technologies have yielded great headlines, but modest economic results. Why?

One possibility is . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

25 May 2015 at 8:58 am

Computer diagnosis of PTSD and depression, by looking at your face and listening to your voice

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Very interesting article. Presumably at some point such diagnosis can be done via the internet using the webcam on your computer.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 May 2015 at 2:36 pm

Excellent model legislation for police body cameras

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Radley Balko points out some very good points in the model police body-camera legislation:

The ACLU has released what the organization recommends as model legislation for police body cameras.

It looks pretty thorough to me. It includes sensible guidelines about when police are to turn the cameras on (at the beginning of any interaction with someone who isn’t a police officer or informant) and off (at the request of anyone who isn’t suspected of a crime). It does not allow police to view camera footage before writing reports and lays out smart rules about storage, access, privacy and when a video should be made public.

Here’s one part that I’ve written about here on a few occasions, and that I think is particularly important:

  1. Should any law enforcement officer, employee or agent fail to adhere to the recording or retention requirements contained in this chapter, or intentionally interfere with a body camera’s ability to accurately capture video footage:
    1. Appropriate disciplinary action shall be taken against the individual officer, employee or agent;
    2. A rebuttable evidentiary presumption shall be adopted in favor of criminal defendants who reasonably assert that exculpatory evidence was destroyed or not captured; and
    3. A rebuttable evidentiary presumption shall be adopted on behalf of civil plaintiffs suing the government, a law enforcement agency and/or law enforcement officers for damages based on police misconduct who reasonably assert that evidence supporting their claim was destroyed or not captured.
  2. The disciplinary action requirement and rebuttable presumptions in subsection [a] may be overcome by contrary evidence or proof of exigent circumstances that made compliance impossible

In other words, if there should be video but isn’t, courts will assume that this was intentional, and proceed accordingly. Section (b) is necessary because there may be times when video was impossible for legitimate reasons. But I’d hope that couldn’t be interpreted to include excuses like a technical malfunction or a dead battery. That may sometimes happen, but allowing it as an exception risks allowing it to became the way around section (a).

Of course, this is model legislation by an advocacy group. But there are a lot of issues surrounding the use of body cameras, and to date I don’t believe anyone has tried to formulate a policy that addresses them all. This one takes a swing, and seems to me to strike the right balance between privacy (for the public), transparency (for the police) and accountability (for both police officers and the public).

Written by LeisureGuy

21 May 2015 at 11:58 am

Productive role for small drones in fight of private citizens against large corporations

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Emiko Jozuka reports at Motherboard:

For hobbyists and activists, drones can be used for everything from vandalism tosaving lives. For the Wapichana community living in a remote village in southern Guyana, they’re also potentially a powerful tool against the threats of mining and deforestation.

The Wapichana are an indigenous group who live in the southern Rupununi savannas of Guyana, bordering Brazil. There are an estimated 6,000 Wapichana living in an area of rainforest and savannah spanning roughly seven million acres. Facing threats such as illegal logging, mining, and cattle rustling, the Wapichana are hoping that they’ll be able to use drones to map and monitor land aerially.

“Sometimes when you walk in the gold mines it can be frightening if there are illegal miners there from Brazil,” Timothy Isaacs, a member of the Wapichana monitoring team, told me. “We can also risk our lives monitoring along the border because there are rustlers there with high-powered rifles, whereas we have no weapons to defend ourselves.”

The Wapichana claims to regain their ancestral lands have been outstanding since 1969. To date, most is still classified as government land, open to mining, logging and cattle ranching.

According to Isaacs, who spends time monitoring both the gold mines and lands bordering Brazil, deploying drones as aerial monitors can cut risks faced by those exploring the area. The drones can monitor remote areas from above, and provide images back to the monitoring team’s computer in real-time.

Collaborating with Washington-based non-profit Digital Democracy, the Wapichana monitoring team kickstarted their drone mapping and monitoring project back in October, building and flying their first UAV. Just last month, they completed the second phase of their project, which supported further flight tests. The project aims to not only bring drone tech to the Wapichana community, but also ensure that they can use and control the tech confidently themselves.

“We chose this area to experiment with using UAV technology because of the need to monitor and document deforestation activities in remote areas difficult to access by foot, but also because of the technical skills and dedication of the Wapichana monitoring team,” explained Digital Democracy’s program director, Gregor MacLennan, over email.With MacLennan heading up the workshops, the local Wapichana monitoring team learned how to build a fix-winged drone from scratch. The team then mounted a GoPro onto the drone, which shot around 500 images of the Shulinab village along a pre-programmed flight path. Using Pix4Dmapper automatic imaging software, the team were then able to recreate a 3D model of their village from the images. The aim, explained MacLennan in a blog post, is to “create high-resolution up-to-date imagery at a fraction of the cost of satellite imagery.”

The drone currently stays up in the air for about 30 to 45 minutes, and is capable of covering a distance of 50 miles before its battery life cuts out. Isaacs hopes that in the future, it will be able to stay in the air longer and cover greater distances.

The current drone project builds on past monitoring and mapping projects in the area. In 2013, Digital Democracy collaborated with the Wapichana on a project using smartphones and an open source application called Open Data Kit, which is like a digital data collection form that allows the Wapichana to document any abuses that take place on their land digitally. It lets them provide maps to the villages to help with land management discussions, and collect more data for when they take complaints to the police or the government.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 May 2015 at 11:57 am

Everyone in Tech Hates the Idea of Ruining Encryption

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Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports in Motherboard:

For months, government officials have railed against encryption technology that protects user data from being stolen by hackers but also makes it difficult for cops to access or intercept. On Tuesday, the tech industry is saying “enough.”

A letter signed by pretty much everyone in Silicon Valley, including Google, Apple, Yahoo, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as dozens of security and privacy experts and many civil liberties organizations, urges President Barack Obama to say no to any proposal that would force companies to weaken the security of their products so that law enforcement authorities can access customer data.

The plea comes after months of public debate over encryption, which was sparked when Apple announced that data on the new iPhone would be encrypted by default and that even the company wouldn’t be able to access to it. After that announcement, FBI Director James Comey has been urging companies to backtrack and give law enforcement a way in, because otherwise widespread encryption will “lead us all to a very dark place” where authorities can’t get key evidence when they need it.

Despite these complaints, the FBI and other government agencies have failed to put forward a concrete proposal that would give consumers strong encryption while also providing cops and feds a way in. Experts have accused the officials of asking for backdoors, which are intentional vulnerabilities designed to give access to otherwise secure systems, while officials have defended their requests saying they simply want legal “frontdoors.”

“Whether you call them ‘frontdoors’ or ‘backdoors,’ introducing intentional vulnerabilities into secure products for the government’s use will make those products less secure against other attackers,” the letter reads.

The letter goes on to argue that not only backdoors aren’t technically feasible, but they’re a bad idea because if the US gets them, then other government will feel legitimized to demand them too, which will “undermine human rights and information security around the globe.”

“The result will be an information environment riddled with vulnerabilities that could be exploited by even the most repressive or dangerous regimes,” the letter reads. “That’s not a future that the American people or the people of the world deserve.”

Another issue, the letter continues, is that it will hurt American companies operating abroad, as consumers and businesses will turn to other companies offering products that have stronger protections.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

The letter was sent by . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 May 2015 at 2:33 pm

How the internet can aid one’s understanding and knowledge

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You see on every hand institutions that previously exercised iron control over knowledge and information (e.g., the Catholic and Mormon churches) having to change their tune once information becomes freely available to anyone with access to the Internet. The Mormon church, for example, could no longer control the story of Jospeh Smith’s fraudulent “translation” of Egyptian hieroglyphics (which previously they could simply conceal or at the least deny), nor could they hide the Mountain Meadows massacre. They found themselves having to deal with things they would prefer to (a) ignore and (b) keep hidden from others. Indeed, the exposure of the pedophile subculture within the Catholic church was aided by the way the internet facilitates communication and gathering of knowledge.

In the New Yorker Zeynep Tufekci reports how, as a young girl in Turkey, she avidly sought knowledge, and how the internet aided that search:

When I was six, middle-aged men in crumpled suits regularly showed up at my Istanbul elementary school, pulled out a dog-eared address book, and asked for me by name. I took them straight to my grandmother, a teacher in the same building. She would reach for her purse at the sight of me—small for my age and dressed in a standard-issue dark-blue uniform, my hair held up by beaded elastics in a fountain-like spray above my head—dragging the slightly dishevelled travelling encyclopedia salesmen of Istanbul down the stone corridors.

I don’t remember learning to read—I’m told that I was about four—but, once I could, I read everything. I read regular newspapers, with their grim accounts of Turkey’s turbulent, violent politics. I read children’s books, of course, and collected every issue of the sole children’s magazine published in Turkish at the time, the amazing Milliyet Çocuk, which featured original art, stories, and comic prose. I read novels for adults, when I could find them. The textbooks we were assigned at school were bland and badly written, printed on cheap, flimsy paper that smudged my hands. I’d inhale them before the first week of classes was over, and then I’d stop paying attention to school for the rest of the year, which freed up time to read even more.

In 1980, a military coup plunged Turkey into darkness and silence. Booksellers came under government pressure, and books became a dangerous commodity. Soon, my family moved from Istanbul to a small town a few hours away. My new school was substandard, and neither my parents nor my teachers paid much attention to my education. I remained younger and much smaller than my classmates; to my delight, I could sit toward the back of the crowded classroom and continue to read, undisturbed.

The military dictatorship kept a tight noose around the flow of information; there was a single, lousy television channel, which came on late in the evening and broadcast mostly American soaps and dramas. I didn’t watch much. Instead, I alternated between pursuing a regular Turkish childhood—I played in the streets till it was dark and lounged around eating salted sunflower seeds with my friends, piling up formidable hills of discarded shells—and reading. I developed a strong taste for encyclopedias in particular. I had every encyclopedia published in Turkish, and read them like they were novels, turning to the first page and speeding through to the very end. I knew about the Seven Wonders of the World and why a person floated more easily in the Dead Sea. I knew about appendicitis surgery and about blimps. Often, I’d pick a volume depending on my mood. On a rainy day, I’d usually pull the “P”s, one of my favorites, and page through: Pakistan. Parabolas. Pompeii.

It was thus that I ran out of things to read.

So I reread. I reread all the children’s novels. I reread Milliyet Çocuk until I could recite every page by heart. I reread the encyclopedias, stacking them in order of last-read, though I sometimes cheated, and switched the volumes around to prioritize my favorites. At the street market, grocers would pack fruits and vegetables in paper bags made from old newspapers and magazines. I’d flatten them out and read them, too. I grew anxious about managing the limited supply of printed material, sometimes holding off a rereading as long as I could.

Another family move soon landed me abroad, in Belgium, where I learned English at an American middle school on a military base and had my first encounter with an actual library. The vast supply of books available in my new language relieved my angst about running out of reading material, but I still couldn’t find everything I wanted. I was desperate to read more science fiction, and to learn about nonlinear systems. There wasn’t much in the library on either.

After seventh grade, I got a job at the local supermarket—the cashiers barely glanced at my fake I.D., which proclaimed me fourteen and eligible to work, while I stood in front of them, a twelve-year-old who looked about ten. As I lifted the five-kilogram “saver”-size boxes of detergent to place in shopping carts, I acquired strong biceps and jars full of coins, which soon added up. I had begun to learn about computers in science magazines; with my tips, I purchased my own home computer, and taught myself how to program it. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 May 2015 at 10:43 am

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