Later On

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

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Most Important Device in the Universe Is Powered by a 555 Timer

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I love the kind of technical shop talk exchanged among people familiar with some line of country remote from my knowledge. Such talk is studded with things I don’t know, though I can follow the trend of the conversation. It’s like a stream: I follow the overall flow, but there are occasional boulders sticking up out of the water.

It has some of the same appeal in certain kinds of science fiction, where the writer has begun in media res and uses casually words whose referents the reader is expected to figure out as the story progresses. This is a common technique (cf. William Gibson, Charlie Stross, et al.), and for me it works well, keeping me alert for clues that will explain the terms, which may refer to culture, dress, devices, or whatever.

A recent post at Hackaday.com is full of that, but also provides an entertaining look at prop construction and usage in science-fiction movies and TV — the short clip at the end is a must see, and the comments also are worth reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 September 2021 at 11:08 am

ShadowDragon: Inside the Social Media Surveillance Software That Can Watch Your Every Move

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Michael Kwet reports in the Intercept:

A MICHIGAN STATE POLICE CONTRACT, obtained by The Intercept, sheds new light on the growing use of little-known surveillance software that helps law enforcement agencies and corporations watch people’s social media and other website activity.

The software, put out by a Wyoming company called ShadowDragon, allows police to suck in data from social media and other internet sources, including Amazon, dating apps, and the dark web, so they can identify persons of interest and map out their networks during investigations. By providing powerful searches of more than 120 different online platforms and a decade’s worth of archives, the company claims to speed up profiling work from months to minutes. ShadowDragon even claims its software can automatically adjust its monitoring and help predict violence and unrest. Michigan police acquired the software through a contract with another obscure online policing company named Kaseware for an “MSP Enterprise Criminal Intelligence System.”

The inner workings of the product are generally not known to the public. The contract, and materials published by the companies online, allow a deeper explanation of how this surveillance works, provided below.

ShadowDragon has kept a low profile but has law enforcement customers well beyond Michigan. It was purchased twice by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in the last two years, documents show, and was reportedly acquired by the Massachusetts State Police and other police departments within the state.

Michigan officials appear to be keeping their contract and the identities of ShadowDragon and Microsoft from the public. The Michigan.gov website does not make the contract available; it instead offers an email address at which to request the document “due to the sensitive nature of this contract.” And the contract it eventually provides has been heavily redacted: The copy given to David Goldberg, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit had all mentions of ShadowDragon software and Microsoft Azure blacked out. What’s more, Goldberg had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the contract. When the state website did offer the contract, it was unredacted, and I downloaded it before it was withdrawn.

Last year, The Intercept published several articles detailing how a social media analytics firm called Dataminr relayed tweets about the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests to police. The same year, I detailed at The Intercept how Kaseware’s partner Microsoft helps police surveil and patrol communities through its own offerings and a network of partnerships.

This new revelation about the Michigan contract raises questions about what digital surveillance capabilities other police departments and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. might be quietly acquiring. And it comes at a time when previously known government social media surveillance is under fire from civil rights and liberties advocates like MediaJustice and the American Civil Liberties Union. It also raises the specter of further abuses in Michigan, where the FBI has been profiling Muslim communities and so-called Black Identity Extremists. In 2015, it was revealed that for years, the state police agency was using cell site simulators to spy on mobile phones without disclosing it to the public.

“Social media surveillance technologies, such as the software acquired by Michigan State Police, are often introduced under the false premise that they are public safety and accountability tools. In reality, they endanger Black and marginalized communities,” Arisha Hatch, vice president and chief of campaigns at civil rights nonprofit Color of Change, wrote in an email.

Michigan State Police spokesperson Shanon Banner said in an email that “the investigative tools available to us as part of this contract are only used in conjunction with criminal investigations, following all state and federal laws.” The founder of ShadowDragon, Daniel Clemens, wrote that the company provides only information that is publicly available and does not “build products with predictive capabilities.”

A Shadowy Industry

Kaseware and ShadowDragon are part of a shadowy industry of software firms that exploit what they call “open source intelligence,” or OSINT: the trails of information that people leave on the internet. Clients include intelligence agencies, government, police, corporations, and even schools.

Kaseware, which is partnered to ShadowDragon and Microsoft, provides a platform for activities that support OSINT and other elements of digital policing, like data storage, management, and analysis. Its capabilities range from storing evidence to predictive policing. By contrast, the two ShadowDragon products acquired by the Michigan State Police are more narrowly tailored for the surveillance of people using social media, apps, and websites on the internet. They run on the Kaseware platform.

To understand how Kaseware and ShadowDragon work together, let us consider each in turn, starting with ShadowDragon. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 September 2021 at 8:14 pm

A good way to compare an innovation to the status quo: Pretend they are reverse

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Seth Godwin describes a way to avoid common traps of lazy thinking when coming the advantages and drawbacks of something new with the status quo: Pretend the new thing is what we already have and that what is now the status quo is being proposed as an innovation.

This reminds me a useful tactic in project planning: assume that the project has failed, and list the most likely causes of failure.Assuming the failure opens one’s eyes to the risks.

Godwin writes:

The easy argument to make is that the thing we have now is better than the new thing that’s on offer.

All one has to do is take the thing we have now as a given (ignoring its real costs) and then challenge the defects and question the benefits of the new thing, while also maximizing the potential risk.

“A hand-written letter is more thoughtful, more likely to be a keepsake, and a more permanent record than a simple email.”

On the other hand, the technophile defending change simply has to list all the new features and ignore the benefits we’re used to.

“An email is far faster, cheaper and easier to track than a letter. It is more likely to be saved, and it can be sorted and searched. Not to mention copied and forwarded with no problem.”

What’s truly difficult is being a fair arbiter. I fall into this trap all the time. We begin to develop a point of view, usually around defending the status quo, but sometimes around overturning it, and then the arguments become more and more concrete. While we might pretend to be evenhanded, it’s very hard to do.

Sometimes, we end up simply arguing for or against a given status quo, instead of the issue that’s actually at hand.

And the danger is pretending you’re being fair, when you’re not. In this silly article from the Times, the author (and their editors) are wondering if oat milk and pea milk are a “scam.”

This is a classic case of defending the status quo. Here’s a simple way to tell if that’s what you’re doing: imagine for a second that milk was a new product, designed to take on existing beverages made from hemp, oats or nuts. Defending oat milk against the incursion of cow milk is pretty easy.

The author could point out the often horrific conditions used to create cow milk. “Wait, you’re going to do what to a cow?” [“Wait, you want us to drink mucus from a cow?” – LG] They could write about the biological difficulty many people have drinking it. Or they could focus on the significant environmental impact, not to mention how easily it spoils, etc.

Or imagine that solar power was everywhere, and someone invented kerosene, gasoline or whale oil. You get the idea…

There are endless arguments . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 September 2021 at 11:24 am

How Farming with Horses Makes Better Wine

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Sophia McDonald writes in SevenFifty Daily:

As a child growing up in Champagne, Christophe Baron would ride his bike down a dirt road to visit his grandparents and pass a lush green field where a woman regularly rode a large white horse. That animal made a big impression on a small boy, and he vowed that someday, he would live and work with animals, too.

Baron went on to found Cayuse Vineyards in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, followed by a project he calls Horsepower Vineyards, where much of the vineyard work is done with teams of Percheron and Belgian draft horses. After harvest, the horses pull the cultivators that cover the vines’ crowns with soil to keep them warm. In the spring, they power the plows that pull the soil back, aerate the ground, and cut down weeds.

Using horses at his biodynamic vineyard produces higher-quality wines, Baron believes, and he’s not the only one. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti recently reintroduced horses at its vineyards to help decrease soil compaction as well.

Beyond the practical reasons for driving horse teams through vineyards, there is also a desire among some to keep the craft and tradition of horse viticulture alive. “There’s something irreplaceable and really authentic about using horses,” says Horsepower’s equine and vineyard manager Joel Sokoloff. “We do it because it’s a choice to farm in a much more artisanal and ancestral way.”

Working with animals instead of machines means treading more gently on the earth and farming at a less frenetic, more traditional pace. “We live in a world where everything is the same, where everything goes fast,” Baron says. “It’s always more, more, more.”

But farming with horses is not just slower—it’s more time-consuming and expensive. “It makes no economic sense to farm with horses,” says Charline Drappier, the deputy director of Champagne Drappier, whose family started using Ardennais horses on its 71-acre organic vineyard to till, remove weeds, and aerate the soil about 15 years ago. “It’s a real investment, but it’s pure investment for very little productivity.”

Horses can also be a dangerous liability to owners who don’t understand how to work them. “Sometimes people see this very romantic picture of horses as gentle giants,” says Stephen Hagen, the owner of Antiquum Farm at the southern end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, who previously farmed his vineyards with horses for several years and has been working with them since he was a teenager. “The truth is there’s nothing more dangerous you can do—besides maybe bull riding—than hooking farming implements to the back of two 2,000-pound horses and farming with them. That’s especially true when you’re working horses in the physical constraints of a vineyard. There’s a high degree of caution and skill that’s necessary.”

What Horses Do that Machines Can’t

Cultivators drawn by four-legged critters rather than steel-and-rubber farm equipment make for a much more tactile, gentle experience for the ground and the vine, says Sokoloff. “You can feel through your hands and through the cultivator every stone you hit and every soil change.” If a tractor snags a vine, the driver will never feel it. Someone driving a team of horses is more likely to, and can stop before they tear the plant from the ground.

Even passing through the vineyard 14 times a year, horses put less . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

21 September 2021 at 11:05 am

Transparent wood material could be the window of tomorrow

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Interesting idea — and clearly a window of glass made from wood would be a better insulator than a (single-pane) glass window. Ashwini Sakharkar writes in Inceptive Mind:

While the smartphone industry is mastering flexible screens, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researcher Junyong Zhu in co-collaboration with colleagues from the University of Maryland and the University of Colorado, has developed a transparent wood material that can be used in a variety of industries. This material is seen as a potential replacement for the glass currently used in construction in nearly every way.

New transparent material looks like glass, but it is made entirely of wood. It is made from the wood of the Balsa tree: – a tree of the flowering plant family that grows very fast and can reach a height of 30 m. Its wood has been widely used in fields such as model assembly, packaging, insulation, and floating equipment. The wood of this species is treated at room temperature, oxidizing in a special bleaching bath that bleaches it of nearly all visibility. The wood is then penetrated with a synthetic polymer called polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), creating a product that is virtually transparent.

Wood becomes transparent, like glass, but it also has the properties of plastic – it bends upon impact and crumbles like wood instead of breaking into sharp pieces like glass. According to the developers, the new material is stronger than ordinary glass, safer, more economical, and more efficient in terms of thermal protection.

The researcher team also noted in their paper that heat easily transfers through the conventional glass, especially single pane, and amounts to higher energy bills when it escapes during cold weather and pours in when it’s warm. Glass production in construction also comes with a heavy carbon footprint. Replacing conventional glass with wood glass can significantly reduce energy consumption and CO2 emission. The process of making new materials is also more environmentally friendly.

At present, the researchers are focusing primarily on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 September 2021 at 10:43 am

When Wall Street came to coal country: how a big-money gamble scarred Appalachia

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Mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia

Evan Osnos reports in the Guardian:

Once or twice a generation, Americans rediscover Appalachia. Sometimes, they come to it through caricature – the cartoon strip Li’l Abner or the child beauty pageant star Honey Boo Boo or, more recently, Buckwild, a reality show about West Virginia teenagers, which MTV broadcast with subtitles. Occasionally, the encounter is more compassionate. In 1962, the social critic Michael Harrington published The Other America, which called attention to what he described as a “vicious circle of poverty” that “twists and deforms the spirit”.

Around the turn of this century, hedge funds in New York and its environs took a growing interest in coalmines. Coal never had huge appeal to Wall Street investors – mines were dirty, old-fashioned and bound up by union contracts that made them difficult to buy and sell. But in the late 1990s, the growing economies of Asia began to consume more and more energy, which investors predicted would drive up demand halfway around the world, in Appalachia. In 1997, the Hobet mine, a 25-year-old operation in rural West Virginia, was acquired for the first time by a public company, Arch Coal. It embarked on a major expansion, dynamiting mountaintops and dumping the debris into rivers and streams. As the Hobet mine grew, it consumed the ridges and communities around it. Seen from the air, the mine came to resemble a giant grey amoeba – 22 miles from end to end – eating its way across the mountains.

Up close, the effects were far more intimate. When Wall Street came to coal country, it triggered a cascade of repercussions that were largely invisible to the outside world but of existential importance to people nearby.

Down a hillside from the Hobet mine, the Caudill family had lived and hunted and farmed for a century. Their homeplace, as they called it, was 30 hectares (75 acres) of woods and water. The Caudills were hardly critics of mining; many were miners themselves. John Caudill was an explosives expert until one day, in the 30s, a blast went off early and left him blind. His mining days were over, but his land was abundant, and John and his wife went on to have 10 children. They grew potatoes, corn, lettuce, tomatoes, beets and beans; they hunted game in the forests and foraged for berries and ginseng. Behind the house, a hill was dense with hemlocks, ferns and peach trees.

One by one, the Caudill kids grew up and left for school and work. They settled into the surrounding towns, but stayed close enough to return to the homeplace on weekends. John’s grandson, Jerry Thompson, grew up a half-hour down a dirt road. “I could probably count on one hand the number of Sundays I missed,” he said. His grandmother’s menu never changed: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn and cake. “You’d just wander the property for hours. I would have a lot of cousins there, and we would ramble through the barns and climb up the mountains and wade in the creek and hunt for crawdads.”

Before long, the Hobet mine surrounded the land on three sides, and Arch Coal wanted to buy the Caudills out. Some were eager to sell. “We’re not wealthy people, and some of us are better off than others,” Thompson said. One cousin told him, “I’ve got two boys I got to put through college. I can’t pass this up because I’ll never see $50,000 again.” He thought, “He’s right; it was a good decision for him.”

In the end, nine family members agreed to sell, but six refused, and Jerry was one of them. Arch sued all of them, arguing that storing coalmine debris constituted, in legal terms, “the highest and best use of the property”. The case reached the West Virginia supreme court, where a justice asked, sceptically, “The highest and best use of the land is dumping?”

Phil Melick, a lawyer for the company, replied: “It has become that.” He added: “The use of land changes over time. The value of land changes over time.”

Surely, the justice said, the family’s value of the property was not simply economic? It was, Melick maintained. “It has to be measured economically,” he said, “or it can’t be measured at all.”


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To their surprise, the Caudills won their case, after a fashion. They could keep 10 hectares – but the victory was fleeting. Beneath their feet, the land was becoming unrecognisable. Chemicals produced by the mountaintop mine were redrawing the landscape in a bizarre tableau. In streams, the leaves and sticks developed a thick copper crust from the buildup of carbonate, and rocks turned an inky black from deposits of manganese. In the Mud River, which ran beside the Caudills’ property, a US Forest Service biologist collected fish larvae with two eyes on one side of the head. He traced the disfigurements to selenium, a byproduct of mining, and warned, in a report, of an ecosystem “on the brink of a major toxic event”. (In 2010, the journal Science published a study of 78 West Virginia streams near mountaintop-removal mines, which found that nearly all of them had elevated levels of selenium.)

This was more than just the usual tradeoff between profit and pollution, another turn in the cycle of industry and cleanup. Mountaintop removal was, fundamentally, a more destructive realm of technology. It had barely existed until the 90s, and it took some time before scientists could measure the effects on the land and the people. For ecologists, the southern Appalachians was a singular domain – one of the most productive, diverse temperate hardwood forests on the planet. For aeons, the hills had contained more species of salamander than anywhere else, and a lush canopy that attracts neotropical migratory birds across thousands of miles to hatch their next generation. But a mountaintop mine altered the land from top to bottom: after blasting off the peaks – which miners call the “overburden” – bulldozers pushed the debris down the hillsides, where it blanketed the streams and rivers. Rainwater filtered down through a strange human-made stew of metal, pyrite, sulphur, silica, salts and coal, exposed to the air for the first time. The rain mingled with the chemicals and percolated down the hills, funnelling into the brooks and streams and, finally, into the rivers on the valley floor, which sustained the people of southern West Virginia. 

Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University biologist, who spent years tracking the effects of the Hobet mine, told me: “The aquatic insects coming out of these streams are loaded with selenium, and then the spiders that are eating them become loaded with selenium, and it causes deformities in fish and birds.” The effects distorted the food chain. Normally, tiny insects hatched in the water would fly into the woods, sustaining toads, turtles and birds. But downstream, scientists discovered that some species had been replaced by flies usually found in wastewater treatment plants. By 2009, the damage was impossible to ignore. In a typical study, biologists tracking a migratory bird called the cerulean warbler found that its population had fallen by 82% in 40 years. The 2010 report in Science concluded that the impacts of mountaintop-removal mining on water, biodiversity and forest productivity were “pervasive and irreversible”. Mountaintop mines had buried more than 1,000 miles of streams across Appalachia, and, according to the EPA, altered 2,200 sq miles of land – an area bigger than Delaware.

Before long, scientists discovered impacts on the people, too. Each explosion at the top of a mountain released elements usually kept underground – lead, arsenic, selenium, manganese. The dust floated down on to the drinking water, the back-yard furniture, and through the open windows. Researchers led by Michael Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, published startling links between mountaintop mines and health problems of those in proximity to it, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects. Between 1979 and 2005, the 70 Appalachian counties that relied most on mining had recorded, on average, more than 2,000 excess deaths each year. Viewed one way, those deaths were the cost of progress, the price of prosperity that coal could bring. But Hendryx also debunked that argument: the deaths cost $41bn a year in expenses and lost income, which was $18bn more than coal had earned the counties in salaries, tax revenue and other economic benefits. Even in the pure economic terms that the companies used, Hendryx observed, mountaintop mining had been a terrible deal for the people who lived there.


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O
ne afternoon, I hiked up through the woods behind the Caudills’ house to see the changes in the land. By law, mines are required to “remediate” their terrain, returning it to an approximation of its former condition. But, far from the public eye, the standards can be comically lax. After climbing through the trees for a while, I emerged into a sun-drenched bowl of . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

18 September 2021 at 11:26 am

My new default search engine: Duck Duck Go

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I’ve mentioned that I’ve switched to Vivaldi as my default browser — it’s not only terrific, it’s free — and just recently I used Preferences to make Duck Duck Go my default search engine. I’ve been a Google guy for a long time, but in recent years the proportion of search results that are paid ads — and often ads that don’t turn out to have what I’m looking for — has increased to the point of frustration. Duck Duck Go just delivers the goods, with no ads. That’s a benefit, quite apart from DDG’s strong privacy policy (and in fact is a side-effect of that policy).

On smartphones DDG also acts as a privacy-oriented browser (blocking trackers), but Vivaldi does that already — and I use my MacBookk Air M1 for browsing, not my phone.

There is another privacy-first browser, Neeva, but that is not yet available here, and that, after 3 free months, is US$60 per year. DDG is free, which I find beneficial. I will make a contribution to DDG from time to time, but not US$60 per year — more like CAD 20 per year.

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2021 at 12:53 pm

Answer to U.S. labor shortage? ‘Hidden’ workforce

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Interesting point on how algorithmic sorting of job applications hides good potential hires. Christina Pazzaneses interviews in the Harvard Gazette Joseph B. Fuller about a new report that found that businesses could plug critical labor shortage by tapping into 27 million workers who are “hidden” from corporate hiring processes. The article begins:

Since business has picked up with the COVID vaccine rollout, record numbers of employers have struggled to find workers. In August, half of U.S. small business owners had jobs they wanted to fill, a historic high, according to a trade group survey; 91 percent said there were few or no qualified applicants. The reasons for this labor-employment mismatch are complex and not fully understood, economists say.

 A new report says there is a “hidden” workforce of 27 million people in the U.S. who would gladly, and capably, fill those jobs — if given the chance. But because of hiring practices, the applications of this diverse group usually go straight to the rejection pile.

Co-author Joseph B. Fuller ’79, M.B.A. ’81, co-chair of the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School, says corporate leaders could solve many of their labor problems if they gave these workers a closer look, and gain a real advantage over competitors unwilling to do so, and improve workplace diversity. Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

GAZETTE: What was the impetus for this report?

FULLER: The vast majority of academic research on labor markets is from the supply side. It doesn’t look at the employer as an animated object that makes decisions based on a rationale that may or may not be sound. Before I was a professor at HBS, I was in industry, and it always struck me that there were these anomalies. Communities with lots of people looking for work and employers bemoaning the lack of candidates, but employers essentially acting as if a [qualified] candidate is supposed to present her or himself [for] the job they have on offer for the terms they’re offering. And if that didn’t happen, there was something quote “wrong.” They weren’t very active in addressing it themselves. Why was that?

The second thing is, if you look at the government data, it’s not actionable. [It doesn’t delineate] “this is how many long-term unemployed there are; this is how many discouraged workers there are; this is how many underemployed workers there are.” Huge numbers of people, but very little nuance in explaining why. So, I wanted to understand what’s behind these numbers.

GAZETTE: Many screened out of the application process early are people with felony convictions and people without a college degree. Who else makes up this “hidden” workforce?

FULLER: Veterans tend to be hidden because their skills, and the way those skills are described, don’t match with the skill descriptions employers are seeking. If someone’s looking for a salesperson, they’re looking for sales experience. So, they’re looking for those kinds of keywords in your résumé description of yourself. If they’re not there, you don’t get considered.

People who’ve had gaps in their work history: Half the companies in the United States have a filter to exclude applicants who have not been employed in the last six months or if there’s a gap in their work history of more than six months.

The biggest category is called NEET: Not in Employment, Education or Training. That’s a person who doesn’t have a job, doesn’t have a degree, is not in school. [Automated screening systems don’t] know what to do with them.

A big part of this research effort is to take that number [of 27 million] and break it down into identifiable chunks and give both employers and policymakers some insight into what does it take to get this part of the population into the workforce.

GAZETTE: About 99 percent of Fortune 500 companies use artificial intelligence tracking systems to screen applicants and then winnow them down to a manageable number before starting the interview process. Those systems determine who makes the cut based on specific parameters or keywords. Why such an all or nothing approach? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 September 2021 at 10:28 am

eVTOL aircraft makes little noise

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Loz Blain reports in New Atlas on an interesting electric plane:

Lilium’s eVTOL is vastly different to anything else in the air taxi world, using 36 small ducted fans in place of larger open rotors. This has advantages and disadvantages, which we’ve discussed in detail before. Essentially, smaller fans make for vastly lower hover efficiency, but the company says they create less drag than large rotors in forward flight, improving efficiency over longer range flights.

Lilium also says they’ll make these aircraft much easier to scale up to 15 seats and beyond without losing the ability to land on standard helipads.

And it also says that with cutting-edge acoustic treatment they should have a significantly lower noise signature than large-rotor competitors, which will make them much more friendly to people living under the flight path or close to a vertiport.

Now, the company has released a pair of videos showing its 5th-generation tech demonstrator prototype – an older 5-seat model first flown in 2019 – in flight with the sound included, one of which handily gives a measure of distance as the aircraft approaches. It’s more a measure of the quality of the sound than the quantity; there’s no decibel readout, and really nothing to compare the volume against. Take a look: . .

Continue reading. There’s more, including more videos.

Written by Leisureguy

14 September 2021 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Airless tires: Getting closer

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Loz Blain reports in NewAtlas:

We’ve been reporting on Michelin’s airless tire technology for more than 16 years now. Indeed, the first time we wrote about the “Tweel” back in 2005, it quickly became the most popular story ever for what was then called gizmag.com.

The advantages are pretty clear: firstly, you can never be brought to a stop by a puncture or blowout – Michelin says about 200 million tires every year hit scrapyards early thanks to these. Secondly, you don’t have to look after your tire pressures; that doesn’t just save you time, it also eliminates all early wear caused by underinflation.

Their internal spokes are hugely tunable to meet desired performance characteristics. You can individually tune their stiffness under acceleration, braking, cornering and bump handling forces. The bump handling characteristics can even be tuned to eliminate the need for separate suspension in some types of vehicles.

You can poke holes right through the tread to let water escape, potentially creating much better resistance to aquaplaning. They take less raw material and less energy to make, making them better for the environment, and Michelin has estimated they’ll last up to three times as long as a regular ol’ hoop.

They have obviously not been easy to commercialize, though; 16 years and counting is a long and difficult birth for a product people are clearly interested in. The Tweel, which replaces the entire wheel assembly, has been available for some time for various off-road vehicles, but it’s still yet to make it to the road.

Michelin has teamed up with GM to design and start selling an airless tire for street use on passenger cars. Called Uptis, this product is a full-wheel solution requiring specialized rims. Michelin says it will withstand much greater impacts than a regular tire and wheel, and will have a “dramatically” longer lifespan, while adding no extra rolling resistance, not feeling any different to the driver and adding only around seven percent to the weight of the wheel – less than existing run-flat tires do.

GM will begin offering Uptis as an option on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 September 2021 at 10:35 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Google Translate doesn’t know Latin

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A newsletter from Antigone:

The biggest news this week was that the silicon-addled wonks over at Google Translate had finally improved the algorithmical, alchemical wizardry that powered their jaw-droppingly inaccurate ‘Latin translation’ tool. Time-pressed students, brow-mopping professors and tattoo-hungry footballers rushed over en masse to see whether Google had indeed managed to do the seemingly impossible – master the automated translation of Latin.

It’s not for us at Antigone to tell you what to make of the results. Instead, we paste below five random phrases that bubbled up in our minds, followed by the magic that Google Translate wrought upon them. Faced with results such as these, we’ll be surprised if you can keep both eyebrows unraised.

Phrase One: Our favourite dog has run off on a wild goose chase!
Google Translate: nostri ventus canem fugit in fera anser!
Google Translate Translated: Our wind flees the dog – a goose inside the beast!
A haunting image.

Phrase Two: Get your act together, we could be just fine.
Google Translate: adepto vestri actus simul essemus esse sicut bysso.
Google Translate Translated: Had someone acquired your role, we would be together to be just like with cotton.
Hear, hear.

Phrase Three: Are these the best tales I can spin? A boy waiting to begin – a man of no memoirs?
Google Translate: tales sunt optimae<.> nere possum[?] puerum exspectans incipere – quis non commentariis?
Google Translate Translated: Such women are the best. Can I weave while waiting to start on a boy? Who can’t with notebooks?
They make all the difference.

Phrase Four: I enjoy buffets – I wouldn’t say love buffets – but it’s a very reasonable way to eat out.
Google Translate: plaga fruor – colaphos non dicam amores – sed edendi ratio admodum est.
Google Translate Translated: I enjoy a blow – I wouldn’t call fisticuffs my ‘darling’ – but it’s very much a method of eating.
[Appraisal redacted.]

Phrase Five: Back to the drawing board, I reckon.
Google Translate: in tabula extractionem revolvo.
Google Translate Translated: I roll back the extraction on a tablet.
Fair play.

Written by Leisureguy

12 September 2021 at 1:09 pm

Why Silicon Valley’s Optimization Mindset Sets Us Up for Failure

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Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein wrote the book System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Rebootand TIME has a column adapted from Chapter 1 of the book.

About the authors:

Reich directs Stanford University’s Center for Ethics in Society and is associate director of its new Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. Sahami is a computer science professor at Stanford and helped redesign the undergraduate computer science curriculum. Weinstein launched President Obama’s Open Government Partnership and returned to Stanford in 2015 as a professor of political science, where he now leads Stanford Impact Labs.

The column begins:

n 2013 a Silicon Valley software engineer decided that food is an inconvenience—a pain point in a busy life. Buying food, preparing it, and cleaning up afterwards struck him as an inefficient way to feed himself. And so was born the idea of Soylent, Rob Rhinehart’s meal replacement powder, described on its website as an International Complete Nutrition Platform. Soylent is the logical result of an engineer’s approach to the “problem” of feeding oneself with food: there must be a more optimal solution.

It’s not hard to sense the trouble with this crushingly instrumental approach to nutrition.

Soylent may optimize meeting one’s daily nutritional needs with minimal cost and time investment. But for most people, food is not just a delivery mechanism for one’s nutritional requirements. It brings gustatory pleasure. It provides for social connection. It sustains and transmits cultural identity. A world in which Soylent spells the end of food also spells the degradation of these values.

Maybe you don’t care about Soylent; it’s just another product in the marketplace that no one is required to buy. If tech workers want to economize on time spent grocery shopping or a busy person faces the choice between grabbing an unhealthy meal at a fast-food joint or bringing along some Soylent, why should anyone complain? In fact, it’s a welcome alternative for some people.

But the story of Soylent is powerful because it reveals the optimization mindset of the technologist. And problems arise when this mindset begins to dominate—when the technologies begin to scale and become universal and unavoidable.

That mindset is inculcated early in the training of technologists. When developing an algorithm, computer science courses often define the goal as providing an optimal solution to a computationally-specified problem. And when you look at the world through this mindset, it’s not just computational inefficiencies that annoy. Eventually, it becomes a defining orientation to life as well. As one of our colleagues at Stanford tells students, everything in life is an optimization problem.

The desire to optimize can favor some values over others. And the choice of which values to favor, and which to sacrifice, are made by the optimizers who then impose those values on the rest of us when their creations reach great scale. For example, consider that Facebook’s decisions about how content gets moderated or who loses their accounts are the rules of expression for more than three billion people on the platform; Google’s choices about what web pages to index determine what information most users of the internet get in response to searches. The small and anomalous group of human beings at these companies create, tweak, and optimize technology based on their notions of how it ought to be better. Their vision and their values about technology are . . .

Continue reading.

The concluding paragraphs:

Several years ago, one of us received an invitation to a small dinner. Founders, venture capitalists, researchers at a secretive tech lab, and two professors assembled in the private dining room of a four-star hotel in Silicon Valley. The host—one of the most prominent names in technology—thanked everyone for coming and reminded us of the topic we’d been invited to discuss: “What if a new state were created to maximize science and tech progress powered by commercial models—what would that run like? Utopia? Dystopia?”

The conversation progressed, with enthusiasm around the table for the establishment of a small nation-state dedicated to optimizing the progress of science and technology. Rob raised his hand to speak. “I’m just wondering, would this state be a democracy? What’s the governance structure here?” The response was quick: “Democracy? No. To optimize for science, we need a beneficent technocrat in charge. Democracy is too slow, and it holds science back.”

Written by Leisureguy

11 September 2021 at 6:17 pm

Floating condo

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This is pretty slick for a certain demographic. Rachel Cormack writes in Robb Report:

A luxe, eco-friendly floating oasis could be coming to a city near you—if Anthénea has anything to say about it, that is. After unveiling a pioneering prototype back in 2019, the French outfit has announced it will roll out its first dome-shaped apartments early next year.

It’s been a long road for the fully autonomous pod known simply as Anthénea. Penned by French naval architect Jean-Michel Duacancelle, the original design was inspired by the villain’s lair from the 1977 James Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me. The UFO-like structure has taken more than five prototypes and over 15 years to complete, but now it’s finally ready to hit the seas.

The fine-tuned Anthénea has a diameter of 31 feet and offers space for either two adults or a family of four onboard. The upscale interior features a lounge, bar and kitchenette while the rooftop sports a bar-slash-solarium that can accommodate up to 12 guests.

Arguably, the Anthénea’s best feature is its ability to fuse seamlessly with the marine world. The company describes it as a “lotus flower” as it sits atop the seas and “has no impact on the underwater ecosystem.” The pod is fitted with solar panels and powered by 100 percent clean energy. It’s also equipped with an innovative anchoring system and sand screw which does minimal damage to the ocean floor.

Additional green tech comes in the form of a saltwater filtration system and a US Coast Guard-approved waste treatment system. The structure itself is also 100 percent recyclable, which means no waste even at the end of its lifecycle.

The Anthénea can . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 6:09 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

World’s biggest ‘direct air capture’ plant starts pulling in CO2

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Jan Wurzbacher, co-chief of Climeworks, left, with his counterpart Christoph Gebald. Wurzbacher said commercial demand had been so high that the Orca plant was nearly sold out of credits for its entire 12-year lifespan

Leslie Hook reports in Financial Times:

The start-up behind the world’s biggest direct carbon capture plant said it would build a much larger facility in the next few years that would permanently remove millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As Zurich-based Climeworks opened its Orca “direct air capture” project in Iceland on Wednesday, co-chief executive Jan Wurzbacher told the Financial Times it had started design work on a facility 10 times larger that would be completed in the next few years. Orca will collect about 4,000 tonnes of CO2 a year and store it underground — a tiny fraction of the 33bn tonnes of the gas forecast by the IEA to be emitted worldwide this year, but a demonstration of the technology’s viability. “This is the first time we are extracting CO2 from the air commercially and combining it with underground storage,” Wurzbacher said. The Orca plant sells the most expensive carbon offset in the world, costing as much as €1,000 a tonne of CO2 removed and counting Microsoft founder Bill Gates among its customers.

Wurzbacher said commercial demand had been so high that the plant was nearly sold out of credits for its entire 12-year lifespan, prompting the accelerated development of the much larger plant using the same technology. Orca’s other customers . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — and this report is encouraging news.

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 10:23 am

China prepares to test thorium-fuelled nuclear reactor

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Smriti Mallapaty has an interesting article in Nature:

Scientists are excited about an experimental nuclear reactor using thorium as fuel, which is about to begin tests in China. Although this radioactive element has been trialled in reactors before, experts say that China is the first to have a shot at commercializing the technology.

The reactor is unusual in that it has molten salts circulating inside it instead of water. It has the potential to produce nuclear energy that is relatively safe and cheap, while also generating a much smaller amount of very long-lived radioactive waste than conventional reactors.

Construction of the experimental thorium reactor in Wuwei, on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, was due to be completed by the end of August — with trial runs scheduled for this month, according to the government of Gansu province.

Thorium is a weakly radioactive, silvery metal found naturally in rocks, and currently has little industrial use. It is a waste product of the growing rare-earth mining industry in China, and is therefore an attractive alternative to imported uranium, say researchers.

Powerful potential

“Thorium is much more plentiful than uranium and so it would be a very useful technology to have in 50 or 100 years’ time,” when uranium reserves start to run low, says Lyndon Edwards, a nuclear engineer at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in Sydney. But the technology will take many decades to realize, so we need to start now, he adds.

China launched its molten-salt reactor programme in 2011, investing some 3 billion yuan (US$500 million), according to Ritsuo Yoshioka, former president of the International Thorium Molten-Salt Forum in Oiso, Japan, who has worked closely with Chinese researchers.

Operated by the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP), the Wuwei reactor is designed to produce just 2 megawatts of thermal energy, which is only enough to power up to 1,000 homes. But if the experiments are a success, China hopes to build a 373-megawatt reactor by 2030, which could power hundreds of thousands of homes.

These reactors are among the “perfect technologies” for helping China to achieve its goal of zero carbon emissions by around 2050, says energy modeller Jiang Kejun at the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing.

The naturally occurring isotope thorium-232 cannot undergo fission, but when irradiated in a reactor, it absorbs neutrons to form uranium-233, which is a fissile material that generates heat.

Thorium has been tested as a fuel in other types of nuclear reactor in countries including the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom, and is part of a nuclear programme in India. But it has so far not proved cost effective because it is more expensive to extract than uranium and, unlike some naturally occurring isotopes of uranium, needs to be converted into a fissile material.

Some researchers support thorium as a fuel because they say its waste products have less chance of being weaponized than do those of uranium, but others have argued that risks still exist.

Blast from the past

When China switches on its experimental reactor, it will be the first molten-salt reactor operating since 1969, when US researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee shut theirs down. And it will be the first molten-salt reactor to be fuelled by thorium. Researchers who have collaborated with SINAP say the Chinese design copies that of Oak Ridge, but improves on it by calling on decades of innovation in manufacturing, materials and instrumentation.

Researchers in China directly involved with the reactor . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

One good use of nuclear power is the production of hydrogen (used in cars that use fuel cells). Producing hydrogen through electrolysis is energy-intensive, so power plants using fossil fuels are a bad idea. That leaves electricity from sustainable sources (hydroelectricity, solar, wind, tides) and nuclear power plants. Thus having an efficient and relatively clean nuclear power technology would be a great boon. 

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 9:55 am

Eco-Fashion’s Animal Rights Delusion

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Alden Wicker has an interesting article in Craftsmanship magazine:

1. The Silkworm vs. the Orangutan
2. Vegan Fast Fashion
3. If Not Leather, then What?
4. Dyed-in-the-Wool Environmentalists
5. Are Indigenous People Politically Incorrect?
6. Peta’s Explanation

For most women like me, when a fine silk blouse catches our eye in a clothing store, we don’t think much about the worms that made the silk. If you do, here’s the story you will typically find: A few days after silkworms disappear inside their cocoons, right about the time they finish spinning, the little pods are collected and submerged in boiling water. To make a pound of raw silk, up to 5,000 worms must die.

To People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the nation’s leading animal-rights group, that’s a pretty destructive process for the cause of glamour. This is why PETA encourages consumers to buy “cruelty-free” silk alternatives like polyester and viscose (popularly known as rayon). Consumers have hardly needed PETA’s prodding. In a single decade, consumption of rayon doubled, rising to 5.2 million tons in 2015; meanwhile, the silk industry had declined to 202,000 metric tonnes by 2015, constituting less than 0.2 percent of the global textile market. Another victory for animal rights and the fight for more socially conscious consumerism, right?

Maybe—or maybe not. As with so many eco-conscious consumer choices, the issues involved in silk production are both elusive and multilayered. If we’re going to call ourselves conscious consumers, therefore, we have to calculate all aspects of the production process, and its consequences.

In the case of silk, let’s first look at the other way to make silk, which doesn’t kill the worms. For this kind of silk, called Peace or Ahimsa Silk, the pupa is allowed to grow into a moth, tear a hole in the cocoon, and crawl out into the light. But there’s a catch. Because that hole cuts what used to be a continuous strand of thread, the process yields a fabric with a nubbier, less shimmering texture, much like raw silk. It’s beautiful in its own way, but also double the cost. That can drive the retail price of a wedding dress, for example, up by more than $1,000.

To a bride who is committed to having a wedding dress that allowed moths to be “free and happy,” that price may feel worthwhile—as long as she can afford it. But she might want to look again at the Peace worm’s glorious beginnings. It turns out that if silkworms are allowed to emerge as moths, they live short and very difficult lives. Having been domesticated for thousands of years, bombyx mori are unable to fly, and cannot even eat. The males spend their one glorious day of moth-dom crawling across the ground to find and couple with a nearby female before dying. The females lay eggs over the next few days and then die as well. In any case, PETA opposes the use of Peace Silk simply because there is no certification process to ensure the worms weren’t mistreated.

Now, let’s look back at those worms that were put to death in boiling water.

Traditional southern Chinese silks are handmade in a closed-loop ecosystem, in which the silkworms that spin the superfine threads eat the leaves of mulberry trees planted by ponds, the fish in the ponds eat the worm poop, and in turn fertilize the mulberry trees. In Asia, which produces the lion’s share of silk, the boiled pupae are fried up and eaten as a low-carbon protein source—not a bad byproduct for a rapidly growing country badly in need of food. And certain types of silk (Jia¯o-chou and Xiang-yun-sha—see photos) are still dyed using nontoxic vegetable and mud dyes.

Stella McCartney offered a potential solution to the silkworm conundrum when she  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

A sidebar to the above text notes:

To make rayon—a supposedly animal-friendly fabric—you have to harvest a large number of trees or bamboo, shred and dissolve the wood in a soup of carbon disulfide, dry the resulting glop, then spin it into semi-synthetic fibers. Workers exposed to the fumes from this process can suffer insanity, nerve damage, and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Factories in China, Indonesia, and India expel its effluent straight into waterways, rendering formerly vibrant ecosystems completely dead.

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 9:43 am

Sustainable infrastructure: Tokyo canal

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A drawing of one of the nine docks and towpaths, willow trees, storehouses, bales of rice (each weighing 60kg) etc. From the book 京都千二百年〈下〉世界の歴史都市へ by 西川 幸治 and 高橋 徹. Illustrations by 穂積 和夫

WratOfGnon writes in its newsletter:

Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan, spring 1608. A merchant by the name of Suminokura Ryōi is given the contract to supply building materials for the renovation of Hōkō-ji, a temple in central Kyoto designed to rival the famous temples of nearby Nara. The Suminokura family had made a name for themselves in finance, medicine and overseas trade, with offices as far away as distant Annan (the Japanese name of the country today called Vietnam).

Suminokura1 soon realized that transporting goods into Kyoto was a difficult and expensive business. The Kamo river which runs through Kyoto was too irregular for transports, so goods arriving by boat mostly had to be unloaded at Fushimi, a town about ten kilometers south of Kyoto, repacked to ponies and transported on roads through the southern neighborhoods of Kyoto before spreading out to their final destinations. The daily comings and goings of men and animals, more or less non-stop, wasn’t popular with the locals either. There was an opportunity here. In 1610, the Suminokura family got permission from the government, and using their own money they contracted teams of workers to dig out a canal parallel to the river, connecting the port of Fushimi with central Kyoto, to be lined with stone from local quarries. It was built for a continuous water depth of a mere thirty centimeters [11.8 inches – LG], about twice the minimum needed for the boats they wanted to use.

At this time, land transport was not very efficient. At walking speed, it was expected that a man could carry 60kg, a pony could carry 120kg and a small simple cart pulled by either man or pony, could take 180kg [397 lbs – LG]. The new canal meant that the same muscle power (either pony or man or both) could pull a boat carrying a maximum load of 2700kg [3 tons – LG] at walking speed. This represents an increase in weight efficiency of about twenty-two point five times over that of a pony. And since no feed was needed it meant that no valuable agricultural land had to be set aside (the “ecological footprint” of the canal was far smaller than a pony based system).

The canal flowed in all weathers all hours of the day and night with no more noise than the soft trampling of the boat operator on the towpaths next to the canal.

When the 9.7km long and 7 meters wide2 [6 miles by 23 feet – LG] canal was completed in 1614—construction took about three years—it changed the face of the city. Spared of the noise and traffic, and with a larger volume of goods coming in both faster and cheaper, the population density increased. Wholesale merchants and artisans could conveniently concentrate their businesses to spots along the canal, building warehouses together so that in time entire neighborhoods would be named “Lumber Town” or “Wood Town” or “Barn Town” and so on (names that still survive to this day even though the merchants are long gone). Building materials could be brought into the city in large quantities: a couple of boats could take all the material you needed to put up a house or a shop.

The boats used on the canal were simple flat bottomed craft called “takasebune”, in construction they used an absolute minimum of wood, and could carry two point seven tons of goods at water depths of just under fifteen centimeters [6 inches – LG]. At typically thirteen meters long and two meters wide [43 feet by 6.6 feet – LG], they weren’t pretty: imagine a rectangular floating box with a sort of raised beak, but they were durable, strong and inexpensive to build by even apprentice carpenters. In 1710 the canal would use 188 of these boats, all of which would use one of nine dedicated quays to moor, unload cargo and turn around for the return journey, each quay holding a maximum of three boats at the same time. There were about 700 people employed on the canal.

Locals benefited from the less busy return trip as well. It was a cheap and efficient method to reach Osaka (the commercial center of Japan where far larger ocean going vessels traded). It even became a famous spot for sightseeing: the willows, the cherry blossom trees, the beautiful gardens along the canal, the stately mansions and interesting tall white and black warehouses attracted both rich and poor. A lively entertainment district also sprung up to cater to both refined merchants and the rougher canal workers. At night the boats were famously used to transport criminals condemned to exile, downstream to Osaka. A police-guard, a crewman, the condemned man, and as a final act of mercy, a relative or friend of the condemned: the last the condemned would see of the world they had to leave behind.3  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and it’s worth considering..

Later in the article:

For over three hundred years the canal was in daily use and benefited the people of Kyoto, until transport on the canal was finally banned in 1920. During its three centuries it needed virtually no maintenance, it relied on no engines or fuel, no mining, no metals, no chemicals. There was no pollution, the boats could be hand built by any carpenter from most any kind of wood. The canal never broke down or got stuck. It did not cause any emissions or erosion, it saved millions of man hours otherwise spent on maintaining roads and road surfaces. There were no accidents: at walking speed and thirty centimeter depth it was safe enough to have children playing in the middle of it with boats coming and going. It could transport anything right into the heart of the city without noise or smell or toxic fumes and the operating costs were negligible. It helped cool the city down during hot summers. It was even a popular sightseeing spot. People would mention it in poetry. It brought with it neither pests nor weeds.4

It was a perfect piece of infrastructure without unforeseen problems or accumulating debt—paid in full from day one—or waste. Completely human scaled and operating on nothing but gravity or human muscle power.

Photograph of the canal in use, ca. 1900.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2021 at 6:56 pm

System Error: An interesting discussion about tradeoffs in technology and society

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You can watch this discussion (which appeared in Browser) or read it below.

Uri: Hello. I’m delighted to be here today with three Stanford professors – philosopher Rob Reich, political scientist Jeremy Weinstein and computer scientist Mehran Sahami – who are authors of the new book System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot. Thank you all so much for being here today.

We’re going to play a very simple game we call The Last Word, where we ask you to answer difficult questions in a very specific number of words. Rob, we’ll start with you. Could you please tell us what this book is all about in exactly ten words?

Rob: [smiles] Alright: [counts on fingers] Reenergizing democratic institutions through the sensible regulation of Big Tech.

Uri: That was fantastic

Jeremy: Wow

Uri: Obviously the relationship between Big Tech and the democratic process, and our values as a society, is a very prominent topic on everyone’s minds these days, though often with more sound than light. I was wondering if you can tell us about the three perspectives you’re bringing to it, and what you hope to achieve with the book.

Jeremy: So let me start by building on Rob’s ten-word answer: in this moment, many people around the United States and around the world, feel that the effects of technology are washing over them. That it’s a wave that you have no agency in shaping or influencing. And our view is that we need to pivot that discussion and recognise that there’s profound agency that people have – as technologists who design technology, as users of technology, as citizens in a democratic society – and that ultimately the effects of technology are something that we can impact, impact by ensuring that our values are reflected in technology as it’s designed, and impact by shaping the way that government mitigates the harms of technology that is all around us.

Mehran: I think part of the message of the book as well is thinking not only in the big picture but also understanding what are the details of the technology and how they’re impacting people’s lives. So things like automated decision-making that are now using AI techniques to make consequential decisions in people’s lives; what happens with the future of work as AI scales; issues around privacy, as information about us is being gathered online and aggregated; and ultimately something many people are familiar with, the misinformation and disinformation that flows through social networks. So being able to disaggregate those technologies and understand the forces that are at play creates a greater urgency about why we need to do something about them.

Rob: The spirit of the book is after four years of teaching a class together at Stanford – in the belly of the beast of Silicon Valley, as it were – we wanted to try to expand the conversation in trying to reach really talented undergraduates using a technological lens, policy lens, and a philosophy lens to broaden the conversation.

And as Jeremy described, the book has answers of a certain kind to the dilemmas or problems of Big Tech, but they’re not a policy blueprint – “if only Congress would take our answers, things would miraculously get much better” – rather, it’s a way of shaping a new conversation and a new framework for thinking about the trade-offs that are encoded in the various products that Silicon Valley and Big Tech has brought to the world, and ensuring that the decisions that get made in the corporate boardrooms and product development lifecycles of the big tech companies are not the ones that are imposed upon the rest of us, because we haven’t exercised our own agency in trying to shape a technological future worth having.

Uri: I have to say that the book was very uncomfortable for me, as a young person who went through a similar university and had that feeling that these questions of values didn’t come up as much, and that we did all feel a little powerless, like we were a part of a bigger system that shaped us and which was out of our control. Which I think a lot of people feel, and I think that’s something really great about the way you’ve approached this and made us aware of how we’ve been shaped so far, but also an empowering story about what we can do, which I really appreciated.

Rob: Let me just add to that, if I can Uri – I’m a long time Browser reader, subscriber, I have some sense of maybe of the community of people who are likely to be listening. And there’s a sense in which of course it’s important that technological and scientific progress have delivered extraordinary benefits to societies and to individuals. And the question is not about, as it were, a values conversation that the philosopher or the policy maker shows up and says, stop, we need to slow it all down and make sure that we have a broader conversation that effectively brings a halt to technological progress.

To the contrary, the idea is that the interesting aspects of an ethics conversation and a policy conversation are really not about right and wrong, or true and false choices about technology or science, but rather about better and worse social outcomes. The ways in which so many of the technological advances of the past hundred or 200 years, when they are brought to market typically by private companies, and then the market consolidates, they exercise an extraordinary effect on society. And it’s the task of all of us to harness the enormous benefits and then to try to mitigate some of the harms. And that’s a task that goes far beyond the decision-making of people in companies alone.

This is why at the end of the day, I think ethics is an energising way of thinking about technology, not “the moral police have shown up to the technologists and told them when to stop.”

Uri: Absolutely. And well, on that note, Jeremy you are, I believe a philosopher who has spent time in government. I don’t know if that’s a rare beast.

Jeremy: Not a philosopher. I’m a political scientist who spent time in government, which is also a relatively rare beast.

Uri: So I was wondering if you could tell us in exactly five words, what you think are the main challenges in the ways that social values get stymied, or challenged, or fail to be implemented through the process of government?

Jeremy: [thinks]: building consensus around shared goals.

Uri: You are all so good at this, I’m absolutely gobsmacked.

Jeremy: Now can I add two sentences beyond that?

Uri: Please do, please do.

Jeremy: So in the book we write about democracy as a technology. Democracy is the technology that our society and many other societies have chosen to help us navigate really difficult value trade-offs, that as a collective of human beings living together where we can’t have everything we want, not everyone can get the outcomes they want, we have to make some choices.

And you can think about lots of different ways of making those choices. You could think about those choices being made by a single individual, like a king or the Pope, which was one way that societies used to organise themselves. You could think about leaving those decisions to companies, and that’s been a bit of the mode that we’ve been in with Big Tech. And this book is an argument about the role of our democratic institutions in making those choices. And the reason it’s hard to make those choices, and why I chose the words that I did, is that people want different things and they want them very enthusiastically, and they’re very unhappy when they don’t get the things that they want.

So this process of deliberation, and negotiation, and contestation, that’s what politics is all about. And right now we’re at a moment of a tremendous lack of faith in our democratic institutions and an inability to bridge the partisan divides in the United States. But it doesn’t mean that there’s some alternative way to accomplish that underlying task, that is the task of our democracy.

Rob: There’s a mistake that I think I perceive that technologists make sometimes  – and we discussed this in the book some – the important part for any reader to understand if they’re trying to figure out what’s going on in Big Tech: you don’t need to . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

8 September 2021 at 2:56 pm

From climate crisis to Brexit, alarmists have been proved right. It’s time to start listening

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Arwa Mahdawi writes in the Guardian:

After a week of apocalyptic weather and dystopian laws, the internet has been ringing out with unusual amounts of praise for “alarmists”. “The alarmists were right, about pretty much everything,” tweeted NBC News reporter Ben Collins on 2 September, after the US supreme court voted not to interfere with Texas’s extreme abortion laws. “Since the so-called alarmists have been right about everything, can we concede that they weren’t, in fact, being alarmists?” tweeted Mary Trump (who has amassed more than 1 million Twitter followers by being rude about her uncle Donald Trump) on the same day.

But alas, it looks as if some people would rather revise history than concede they were wrong. Only hours after Texas’s new abortion policy became law, CNN media reporter Brian Stelter deleted a tweet from 2018 in which he had mocked the activist Amy Siskind for saying that the US under Trump was just “a few steps from The Handmaid’s Tale”. Not only was this comparison way off, Stelter opined, “this kind of fear-mongering” doesn’t help anyone.

Siskind is far from the only activist to have had valid concerns dismissed as “hysterical” by a Reasonable and Objective White Man (and the occasional Sensible Woman in Power). Reproductive rights activists in the US have been warning about the end of nationwide legal abortion for decades; during the Trump years, when the supreme court was ruthlessly pushed to the right, these warnings reached fever pitch. But the powers that be didn’t bother listening until it was too late. You can’t just blame the Texas abortion laws on rightwing scheming; they’re also a result of “moderate” complacency.

Alarmists haven’t just been vindicated when it comes to the erosion of reproductive rights. Warnings that Brexit would be disastrous, for example, were dismissed by many conservatives as “Project Fear”. Now that we’re seeing empty supermarket shelves, and there are constant threats of food shortages, it’s hard to argue that those fears were unwarranted. Brexit is obviously not the only reason for shortages – the entire world is grappling with pandemic-induced supply chain issues – but it certainly exacerbated them.

And then, of course, there’s the environment. It feels as if . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 September 2021 at 2:03 pm

If AT&T Had Managed the Phone Business like Google

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A Bell telephone from the 1920s

Ted Gioia writes at The Honest Broker:

A hundred years ago, 15 million telephones were in use in the United States—but that number would more than double by the end of the decade. Almost the entire network fell under the control of a single corporation, the American Telegraph and Telephone Company (or AT&T), which was somehow allowed to maintain its monopoly until the Department of Justice forced a breakup of the business in the 1980s.

But for most of its history, AT&T had almost total control of telecommunications in the US. As far back as 1907, the president of the company had made his strategy clear when he announced the motto of “one policy, one system, universal service.” The company’s dominance was so extreme, that even the phones in people’s homes were owned by AT&T, and merely leased or lent to users. On some phones you could even see the words molded into the equipment: “BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY—NOT FOR SALE.”

The folks at AT&T thought they were smart. But Silicon Valley folks would laugh at their naïve approach. Today’s tech titans would manage a monopoly of that scale very differently.

So just imagine a time traveling venture capitalist going back one hundred years to present a “Google” type strategy to AT&T’s senior management. Let’s call this visitor from the future “Mister Google.”

Setting: A boardroom in a 1920s style of corporate opulence—with wood paneling, leather chairs, and an imposing mahogany table taking up most of the length of the room. Around it are seated a dozen senior managers in the business attire of that era. At a podium at the head of the table stands Mr. Google, wearing the casual attire of the 21st century. Facing him at the far end of the table is Harry Bates Thayer, who served as President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in the early 1920s, dressed impeccably in a finely tailored suit.

MR. GOOGLE: I appreciate your willingness to meet with me, but you’ll be well rewarded for your time. I come with wisdom from the future. And that wisdom is pretty simple: You folks have been doing everything all wrong.

[Hems and haws from the audience.]

Only 30% of the public uses your telephones. We need to get that up to 80% penetration within the next 12 months.

[Sounds of laughter from the room, until AT&T’s vice president of marketing pipes up.]

VP MARKETING: That’s hardly a credible plan, Mister Google. By the way, are you related to Barney Google? [More laughter at this.] How do you propose we get tens of millions of people to install phones in their homes during the course of a single year?

MR. GOOGLE: It’s easy, you’re going to give away the phone for free.

[The laughter has now turned to gasps of shock and amazement.]

CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER: Free? Did I hear you say free?

MR. GOOGLE: You heard correctly. You have to give the phones away for free

CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER: There’s some catch or trick, no? We give away the phones, but we charge more for the monthly fee? Or we raise rates on long distance calls? Or. . . .

MR. GOOGLE: No, no, no. You don’t understand. Everything is free—the phone, the connection to the network, all the calls. . . .

[Total pandemonium breaks out in the boardroom—some are laughing, others are jeering, a few actually shouting out rancorous words of abuse. It takes a couple minutes before President Thayer can quiet things down. He then speaks for the first time.]

PRESIDENT: My dear Mister Google, this is quite absurd. You asked to speak to our management team with some vague promise of wisdom from the future, like a character in an H.G. Wells story—and you’re now wasting our time with a plan to turn AT&T into a charity, offering free communications as a philanthropic endeavor. Frankly I was expecting more from you. I believe this meeting has come to an end. I’ll ask you to leave promptly and never. . . .

MR GOOGLE: No, no, no—you damned fools. You will make more money with my plan. A whole boatload of money. You idiots are managing your platform all wrong.

VP ENGINEERING: What’s a platform?

MR GOOGLE: [Ignoring the question] We’re going to charge a lot of money—more than you’ve ever charged before. Only it won’t be the users who pay.

CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER: If the users don’t pay, whose going to pay for them?

MR GOOGLE: A lot of folks will be happy to pay. Let’s start with the advertisers.

CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER: Advertisers? Do you even understand how a phone works, Mister Google? There’s no advertising on a phone call.

MR GOOGLE: Not now, but there will be once we’ve established the new rules of the game. I’m thinking of a YouTube strategy—with maybe ten or twenty seconds of commercials before the phone conversation starts. Perhaps more ads later if the users keep on jabbering.

PRESIDENT: This is just getting stranger and stranger. I’m not sure what a ‘you too’ strategy is, but it sounds more like voodoo to me. You can’t insert ads in a phone call.

MR. GOOGLE: Oh yes you can—if you’re letting people make phone calls for free. They have no choice in the matter, do they? But that’s only the start. We will match the advertising to what customers are discussing on their calls. So if mom is complaining about her back pains, we pitch a healing ointment or some other medicinal product. If dad is calling about his car breaking down, we tell him about the latest Ford Model T.

VP ENGINEERING: But that’s impossible. How do we even know what people are talking about on their phone calls?

MR. GOOGLE: That’s a great question, and it makes clear how little you have done to exploit your platform. You need to monitor every call, and compile a file of information on every customer.

PRESIDENT: [Clearly alarmed] Monitor every call? Are you joking? That’s invading people’s privacy? That’s spying? That’s surveillance?

MR GOOGLE: Not in the least. It’s called . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 September 2021 at 12:52 pm

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