Link

Links for November 9-13, 2020

  • Last hundred days?. “The last hundred days of the Trump presidency—if that’s the period we’re in—thus gives rise to a number of distinct concerns about the excesses of an involuntarily lame-duck president of, shall we say, an unconventional disposition. These concerns often get blended together, but they are worth separating into four broad categories. The most alarming of the set, but probably the least likely, relate to the possibility of a contested election. A far more likely possibility involves the president’s delegitimization of an election that he cannot fruitfully contest. A third set of concerns involve self-dealing and other abuses of power during the transition. The final category involves simple mishandling of the transition itself.” // Here’s hoping that things don’t turn as badly under that last dregs of the Trump presidency as some fear. But I wouldn’t personally bet a lot on hope right now.
  • The trump presidency is ending. So is Maggie Haberman’s wild ride. // A great contemporaneous profile of Maggie Haberman, one of the best journalists who’s covered Trump to date.
  • Deep-freeze challenge makes pfizer’s shot a vaccine for the rich. “Even for rich countries that have pre-ordered doses, including Japan, the U.S. and the U.K., delivering Pfizer’s vaccine will involve considerable hurdles as long as trucks break down, electricity cuts out, essential workers get sick and ice melts.” // It’s going to be miserable to keep hearing about possible vaccines and then, after the initial euphoria of media, realize just how incredibly hard it is going to be to distribute them. Hopefully with a competent America returning to the world scene we’ll see the various superpowers of the world work together on this issue to coordinate probably the most significant logistics campaign in humanity’s history.
  • The brouhaha over google photos. “[Google] has decided that the photos uploaded to its system have trained its visual algorithms enough that it doesn’t have to eat the cost of “free storage.” // Om definitely has one of the best assessments for why Google is no longer offering unlimited (non-premium) photo storage. The company has done the training it needed to do, and now it’s time to monetize what it’s learned from the data which was entrusted to it.
  • ‘Are we getting invaded?’ U.S. Boats faced Russian aggression near Alaska. “As Russia has ramped up its presence in the region, U.S. officials have accelerated their own efforts. The Coast Guard has long complained that its lone pair of aging icebreakers are struggling to stay in service but may now have the opportunity to build six new ones. (Russia has dozens.) The United States is also discussing a northern deepwater port, perhaps around Nome. Currently, the nearest strategic port is 1,300 nautical miles away in Anchorage.” // It’s increasingly becoming evident that the Arctic, long a place where ice kept the different major powers from seriously competing for territory and resources, is going to heat up as a result of a warming climate. It’s truly worrying that Canada and the United States seem to be utterly lacking in preparation for what is coming.
Link

Brian Eno on Atomization and Underlining

Really appreciated this interview with Eno. Two select quotations that stuck with me:

Something that kind of disappoints me is that most of the new technology from the ’80s onwards has been about the atomization of society. It’s been about you being able to be more and more separate from everybody else. That’s why I don’t like the headphones thing. I don’t want to be separate in that way.

I can’t say that I agree with this assessment, but understand that technology is wrapped up in a very particular culture of neoliberal capitalism that can be harmful for communities writ large. His subsequent reflections more broadly about social media—that it can create the almost total self-enclosure of micro-communities—is definitely something that raises prominent concerns, though frankly I wish that there was more scholarship that dug into this as an issue as took place about 15 or so years ago. Obviously there is new scholarship but little of it seems methodologically satisfactory with focuses on quantitative rather than qualitative and quantitative approaches.

Quite a few of the films I’ve made music for, I never saw the picture before I finished all the music. And I like that, because I don’t want the music to map totally onto the film. I want the music to suggest — to increase the ambiguity, basically. To expand the film a bit. Not to underline it. Often, and especially with Hollywood soundtracks, the whole point of the soundtrack is to tell you, the dumb sod watching it, “Now you’re supposed to feel sad. Now it’s funny. Laugh! Go on!” And I just don’t want to be in that business of underlining things.

This seems like a pretty stellar way of thinking through what he wants his work to do, and not do. Though in a contemporary era I’m surprised that producers or directors are willing to leave the music so out of their control.

Link

Links for November 2-6, 2020

  • An (app-agnostic) iOS shortcut for link-blogging. // I’ve been trying this and, on the whole, I’m pretty happy with it so far. It took me a bit to realize that I had to copy text I wanted to automatically include in the text from the article the shortcut can paste, but beyond that has been working really well!
  • Woman ordered to stop smoking at home in ontario ruling. “If you smoke and you live in a condominium in Ontario, a little-noticed ruling may have stubbed out your ability to light up inside your own home. At the very least, it has given new legal heft to a condominium corporation’s ability to ban all smoking indoors if it so chooses … In what is seen as a first in Ontario, Justice Jana Steele ruled in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Oct. 15 against Ms. Linhart and ordered her to stop smoking in her own home.” // Not going to lie: as someone who lives in a shared building this is pretty exciting news, though also reveals just how much power condo rules have over how individuals can enjoy the space they rent or own.
  • To report on tech, journalists must also learn to report on china. “Two years ago, Sean McDonald, cofounder of Digital Public, and I described a global internet landscape fractured by what we called digitalpolitik, or the political, regulatory, military, and commercial strategies employed by governments to project influence in global markets. Now technology stories are just as much about policy, diplomacy, and power as they are about society, engineering, and business.” // This is definitely one of the most succinct, and well sourced, pieces I’ve come across recently that warns of how China needs to be covered by technology journalists. I would just hasten to affirm that similar warnings should apply to scholars and policy makers as well.
  • Chinese-style censorship is no fix for the covid-19 infodemic. “Rather than creating an efficient information curation model, regulator and company wars against ‘rumours’ and ‘harmful content’ have allowed misinformation and extreme content to thrive on the Chinese internet.”
  • The Huawei war. “Whatever happens to Huawei in the near future, China, Russia and other countries have received the message loud and clear: achieving technological sovereignty is imperative. China had grasped the importance of this even before Trump launched his attack, which only strengthened the sense of urgency. It would be ironic if the ultimate effect of the US’s war on Huawei was a much more technologically advanced and independent China, with a completely different supply chain that included no American companies.” // Definitely one of the better summations of where things are with Huawei as it stands today.
Link

Pop Goes the Toronto Housing Bubble

Toronto’s condo market is in more trouble than you think.

“For a while, Toronto’s booming condo market seemed unstoppable: the average price almost doubled in just 12 years. This appetite for condos meant that proper planning, both at the design and urban levels, was farther down on the priority list, leading to problems that still couldn’t stop this runaway market. It took the one-two punch of regulating the short-term rental market and the pandemic to finally slow it down. They say that the bigger the bubble, the bigger the bust — based on the concerns being expressed by real-estate agents and investors alike, I’d wager that we are due for a massive correction.

It’s about damn time.

Link

Apple and a Deep Dive into LIDAR

Timothy B. Lee has a good deep dive into how Apple has managed to get LIDAR into the newest version of the company’s phones and high-end iPads, and more broadly what the advances in the technology mean for integrating LIDAR into cars.

Lee notes that while it may take another 2-4 years, we can expect to see such sensors more prominently featured in motor vehicles so as to improve on existing driving assistance systems. Left unstated, however, is how more advanced LIDAR sensors will enable next-generation content experiences of the type that Apple (and other technology companies) have been promising are in the wings for the past few years.

Link

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.

Link

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.

Link

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.

Link

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.

Link

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.