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Making Sense of Wine Labels

Eric Asimov has a helpful piece that decodes wine labels from around the world. The takeaway for me? Unless you spend a bunch of time pre-studying how different parts of the world have passed laws around labelling it’s almost entirely unclear what, exactly, you’re reading on a label and what is meant by what’s on it. Combined with the strong variability in tasting notes and it seems like the way to find a ‘good’ bottle of wine principally comes down to finding a reviewer that you agree with and just buying the things that they recommend, and which are within your price range.

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VPN and Security Friction

Troy Hunt spent some time over the weekend writing on the relative insecurity of the Internet and how VPNs reduce threats without obviating those threats entirely. The kicker is:

To be clear, using a VPN doesn’t magically solve all these issues, it mitigates them. For example, if a site lacks sufficient HTTPS then there’s still the network segment between the VPN exit node and the site in question to contend with. It’s arguably the least risky segment of the network, but it’s still there. The effectiveness of black-holing DNS queries to known bad domains depends on the domain first being known to be bad. CyberSec is still going to do a much better job of that than your ISP, but it won’t be perfect. And privacy wise, a VPN doesn’t remove DNS or the ability to inspect SNI traffic, it simply removes that ability from your ISP and grants it to NordVPN instead. But then again, I’ve always said I’d much rather trust a reputable VPN to keep my traffic secure, private and not logged, especially one that’s been independently audited to that effect.

Something that security professionals are still not great at communicating—because we’re not asked to and because it’s harder for regular users to use the information—is that security is about adding friction that prevents adversaries from successfully exploiting whomever or whatever they’re targeting. Any such friction, however, can be overcome in the face of a sufficiently well-resourced attacker. But when you read most articles that talk about any given threat mitigation tool what is apparent is that the problems that are faced are systemic; while individuals can undertake some efforts to increase friction the crux of the problem is that individuals are operating in an almost inherently insecure environment.

Security is a community good and, as such, individuals can only do so much to protect themselves. But what’s more is that their individual efforts functionally represent a failing of the security community, and reveals the need for group efforts to reduce the threats faced by individuals everyday when they use the Internet or Internet-connected systems. Sure, some VPNs are a good thing to help individuals but, ideally, these are technologies to be discarded in some distant future after groups of actors successfully have worked to mitigate the threats that lurk all around us. Until then, though, adopting a trusted VPN can be a very good idea if you can afford the costs linked to them.

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WatchOS’s Basic Failure

Elizabeth Lopatto, in January 2018 for The Verge, writes:

The Move goal is adjustable — I can lower it at any time — but there’s no way to program the Watch to consistently honor my rest days. I just have to manually lower the goal for that day, and then raise it for the next one. Unfortunately, this requires too much of my attention. I have actual things to do that are more important than manually telling my fitness app to let me rest, so mostly I forget to do it until it’s too late. Even when I remember, I wind up with a different problem: I forget to reset the Watch to a higher Move goal the next day. I spent one week being psyched that I hit my goal only to discover that I had only hit the lowered goal.

It’s two years later, and several versions of WatchOS have come and gone, with another is forthcoming. And yet Apple hasn’t fixed this very common and very basic problem with their wearable line of products.

Apple has repeatedly stated that it recognizes that the Apple Watch is a super popular device for fitness tracking, and I can attest that it’s about the best wearable that’s currently on the market. But when the world’s richest company can’t even get the basics of their product right it raises questions about what it’s really focusing on, and why; pushing people to exercise each day, and forego rest days, is harmful to health and fitness alike. Sadly, it doesn’t look like the current Watch betas fix this problem, though maybe Apple will surprise people with some extra promise when they reveal their new devices in the coming days.

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Election Nightmare Scenarios

The New York Times has a selection of experts’ ‘nightmare scenarios’ for the forthcoming USA election. You can pick and choose which gives you colder sweats—I tend to worry about domestic disinformation, a Bush v. Gore situation, or uncounted votes—but, really, few of these nightmares strike to the heart of the worst of the worst.

American institutions have suffered significantly under Trump and, moreover, public polarization and the movement of parts of the USA electorate (and, to different extents, global electorates) into alternate reality bubbles mean that the supports which are meant to facilitate peaceful transitions of power such that the loser can believe in the outcomes of elections are badly wounded. Democracies don’t die in darkness, per se, but through neglect and an unwillingness of the electorate to engage because change tends to be hard, slow, and incremental. There are solutions to democratic decline, and focusing on the next electoral cycles matters, but we can’t focus on elections to the detriment of understanding how to rejuvenate democratic systems of governance more generally.

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The State of News

Tom Ley, over at Defector, wrote:

Everything’s fucked now. Newspapers have been destroyed by raiding private equity firms, alt-weeklies and blogs are financially unsustainable relics, and Google and Facebook have spent the last decade or so hollowing out the digital ad market. What survives among all this wreckage are websites and publications that are mostly bad. There’s plenty to read, the trouble is that so much of it is undergirded by a growing disregard (and in some cases even disdain) for the people doing the actual reading.

What readers are being served when a sports blog leverages its technological innovations in order to create a legion of untrained and unpaid writers? Who benefits when a media company cripples its own user experience and launches a campaign to drive away some of its best writers and editors? Whose interests are being served when a magazine masthead is gutted and replaced by a loose collection of amateurish contractors? Who ultimately wins when publications start acting less like purpose-driven institutions and more like profit drivers, primarily tasked with achieving exponential scale at any cost? What material good is produced when private equity goons go on cashing their checks while simultaneously slashing payroll throughout their newsrooms? Things have gotten so bad that even publications that get away with defining themselves as anti-establishment are in fact servile to authority in all forms, and exist for the sole purpose of turning their readers into a captive source of profit extraction.

The truth is that nobody who matters—the readers—ever asked for any of this shit. Every bad decision that has diminished media—every pivot to video, every injection of venture capital funds, every round of layoffs, every outright destruction of a publication—was only deemed necessary by the constraints of capitalism and dull minds. This is an industry being run by people who, having been betrayed by the promise of exponential scale and IPOs, now see cheapening and eventually destroying their own products as the only way to escape with whatever money there is left to grab.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most direct and forceful assessments of how the news media has become what it is, today. Rather than having reporters and editors working to produce high-quality products which are designed to serve the interests of their readers they are, increasingly, forced to capitulate to managerial actions that are designed to temporarily gin up sales numbers at the expense of the very readers who should be being served. It’s no wonder that the state of political discourse, and public discourse write large, has become so degraded when that degradation is actually chased after if it means a few more ads or advertorials can be placed for a short-term increase in numbers.

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Safe Streets and Systemic Racism

Sabat Ismail, writing at Spacing Toronto, interrogates who safe streets are meant to be safe for. North American calls for adopting Nordic models of urban cityscapes are often focused on redesigning streets for cycling whilst ignoring that Nordic safety models are borne out of broader conceptions of social equity. Given the broader (white) recognition of the violent threat that police can represent to Black Canadians, cycling organizations which are principally advocating for safe streets must carefully think through how to make them safe, and appreciate why calls for greater law enforcement to protect non-automobile users may run counter to an equitable sense of safety. To this point, Ismail writes:

I recognize the ways that the safety of marginalized communities and particularly Black and Indigenous people is disregarded at every turn and that, in turn, we are often provided policing and enforcement as the only option to keep us safe. The options for “safety” presented provide a false choice – because we do not have the power to determine safety or to be imagined within its folds.

Redesigning streets without considering how the design of urban environments are rife with broader sets of values runs the very real risk of further systematizing racism while espousing values of freedom and equality. The values undergirding the concept of safe streets must be assessed by a diverse set of residents to understand what might equitably provide safety for all people; doing anything less will likely re-embed existing systems of power in urban design and law, to the ongoing detriment and harm of non-white inhabitants of North American cities.

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The implausibility of intelligence explosion

The intelligence of the AIs we build today is hyper specialized in extremely narrow tasks — like playing Go, or classifying images into 10,000 known categories. The intelligence of an octopus is specialized in the problem of being an octopus. The intelligence of a human is specialized in the problem of being human.

What would happen if we were to put a freshly-created human brain in the body of an octopus, and let in live at the bottom of the ocean? Would it even learn to use its eight-legged body? Would it survive past a few days? We cannot perform this experiment, but we do know that cognitive development in humans and animals is driven by hardcoded, innate dynamics.

Chollet’s long-form consideration of the ‘intelligence explosion’ is exactly the long, deep dive assessments of artificial intelligence I wish we had more of. In particular, his appreciation for the relationship between ‘intelligence’ and ‘mind’ and ‘socio-situationality’ struck me as meaningful and helpful, insofar as it recognizes the philosophical dimensions of intelligence that is often disregarded, forgotten about, or simply not appreciated by those who talk generally about strong AI systems.

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MPs consider contempt charges for Canadian company linked to Cambridge Analytica after raucous committee meeting

Aggregate IQ executives came to answer questions before a Canadian parliamentary committee. Then they had the misfortune of dealing with a well-connected British Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham:

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, MPs pressed Silvester and Massingham on their company’s work during the Brexit referendum, for which they are currently under investigation in the UK over possible violations of campaign spending limits. Under questioning from Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Silvester and Massingham insisted they had fully cooperated with the UK information commissioner Elizabeth Denham. But as another committee member, Liberal MP Frank Baylis, took over the questioning, Erskine-Smith received a text message on his phone from Denham which contradicted the pair’s testimony.

Erskine-Smith handed his phone to Baylis, who read the text aloud.  “AIQ refused to answer her specific questions relating to data usage during the referendum campaign, to the point that the UK is considering taking further legal action to secure the information she needs,” Denham’s message said.

Silvester replied that he had been truthful in all his answers and said he would be keen to follow up with Denham if she had more questions.

It’s definitely a bold move to inform parliamentarians, operating in a friendly but foreign jurisdiction, that they’re being misled by one of their witnesses. So long as such communications don’t overstep boundaries — such as enabling a government official to engage in a public witchhunt of a given person or group — these sorts of communications seem essential when dealing with groups which have spread themselves across multiple jurisdictions and are demonstrably behaving untruthfully.