Archive for the 'Technology' Category


Dear Google …

Generally speaking, I actually quite like the new layouts you’ve been rolling out.  I do have one problem with it though, and yes, it’s the whitespace.  It’s not the quantity of whitespace that I have issues with, mind you.  It’s the placement.  Putting whitespace around something draws my attention to it.  Putting whitespace within that something makes me go cross-eyed.

Let me put it this way:  In gmail, please give us a “super compact” option!


In which I defend ‘Girls Around Me’ and Public-By-Default in general

For those people that don’t know:  A few days ago John Browlee discovered and wrote about an iPhone/iPad app called ‘Girls Around Me‘.  The app does a mash-up of publicly accessible data from Facebook and foursquare, together with Google Maps, to show you girls that had checked in to locations near where you are and some information about them.  John was not amused:

[T]he girls (and men!) shown in Girls Around Me all had the power to opt out of this information being visible to strangers, but whether out of ignorance, apathy or laziness, they had all neglected to do so. This was all public information.  […]

“It’s not, really, that we’re all horrified by what this app does, is it?” I asked, finishing my drink. “It’s that we’re all horrified by how exposed these girls are, and how exposed services like Facebook and Foursquare let them be without their knowledge.” […]

This is an app you should download to teach the people you care about that privacy issues are real, that social networks like Facebook and Foursquare expose you and the ones you love, and that if you do not know exactly how much you are sharing, you are as easily preyed upon as if you were naked.

Picking up on John’s piece, Charlie Stross took the ball and ran with it, extrapolating out into the truly horrific:

It’s easy to imagine how we could make something worse than “Girls Around Me”—something much worse. Facebook encourages us to disclose a wide range of information about ourselves, including our religion and a photograph. Religion is obvious: “Yids Among Us” would obviously be one of the go-to tools of choice for Neo-Nazis. As for skin colour, ethnicity identification from face images is out there already. Want to go queer bashing? There’s an algorithm out there for guessing sexual orientation based on the network graph of the target’s facebook friends. It’s probably possible to apply this sort of data mining exercise to determine whether a woman has had an abortion or is pro-choice.

In the worst case, it’s possible to envisage geolocation and data aggregation apps being designed to facilitate the identification and elimination of some ethnic or class enemy, not only by making it easy for users to track them down, but by making it easy for users to identify each other and form ad-hoc lynch mobs. (Hence my reference to the Rwandan Genocide earlier. Think it couldn’t happen? Look at Iran and imagine an app written for the Basij to make it easy to identify dissidents and form ad-hoc goon squads to proactively hunt them down. Or any other organization in the post-networked world that has a social role corresponding to the Red Guards.)

Not surprisingly, people freaked out.  Foursquare pulled the app’s access rights to their data, Apple pulled the app from the iTunes store altogether and — no doubt to the great relief of people like John and Charlie — a lot of people started talking about internet privacy in an era of social networking (e.g. a BBC News article).

Both John and Charlie emphasise that their concern is not with the app itself, per se, but with the approach to privacy (public by default) built-in to social networking websites’ very business plans that allowed the app to exist in the first place.

I want to defend that approach to privacy.

Let me repeat the first bit of that John Brownlee quote:

[T]he girls (and men!) shown in Girls Around Me all had the power to opt out of this information being visible to strangers, but whether out of ignorance, apathy or laziness, they had all neglected to do so.

Here is Marie Connelly, one of the girls that John apparently had around him, in response to the whole kerfuffle:

I have a problem [with this], because I’m not ignorant, apathetic, or lazy.

I’ve made a choice to participate publicly in the internet. I try to be careful about what I make accessible and what I share with everyone, and for the most part, I think I’ve found a balance that works pretty well for me. […]

The whole tenor of this, however, has been that if you are in this app, if you have been posting information publicly, especially if you’re a woman, you’re doing something wrong. […]

Checking in at your office, or a coffee shop, or The Independent (which is a great bar, by the way), whether publicly or not, doesn’t mean you’re “asking” to get stalked, or mugged, or anything else. People generally don’t ask for bad things to happen to them, and by and large, I don’t really believe anyone deserves to have something bad happen to them.

Kashmire Hill captured the same point in her excellently titled post, “The Reaction To ‘Girls Around Me’ Was Far More Disturbing Than The ‘Creepy’ App Itself“:

  • All men are creepy stalkers looking for new digital aids to help them catch and rape women.
  • All women are damsels-in-distress who have no idea how much danger they are exposing themselves to with every Foursquare check-in.
  • “You’re too public with your digital data, ladies,” may be the new “your skirt was too short and you had it coming.”

Those are my takeaways from the past week’s furor over “Girls Around Me.” […]

Many of us have become comfortable putting ourselves out there publicly in the hopes of making connections with friends and with strangers, whether through Facebook, Twitter, or OKCupid. It’s only natural that this digital openness will transfer over to the ‘real world,’ and that we will start proactively projecting our digital selves to facilitate in-person interactions. (For example, KLM is now allowing passengers to link their digital identities to their seats on the plane so that people can choose seatmates accordingly.) […]

In rejecting and banishing the app, we’re  choosing to ignore the publicity choices these women have made … in the name of keeping them safe … If you extend this kind of thinking ‘offline,’ we would be calling on all women to wear burkas so potential rapists and stalkers don’t spot them on the streets and follow them home.

I’m sorry, my friends, but I think apps like ‘Girls Around Me’ are the future … We don’t fear making connections with strangers; we crave it. […]

Yes, think about your privacy settings. They’re important. But critics, also remember that some of us have thought about our privacy settings, chosen accordingly, and don’t mind showing up on geo-mapping apps. We’re not all damsels-in-distress going pale at the thought of being seen in public places and digital spaces.

I couldn’t possibly agree more.

I’m happy to require by law that all websites that gather personal information give plain-English explanations of how your information might be used under each setting.  I’m also happy to be very, very angry at Facebook for changing their policy in such a way as to change your settings from “keep this private” to “make this public” after you made an explicit choice (although, to be fair, social networks are still a new industry and should consequently be granted at least some leeway for their frequent adjustments).

But there’s a much bigger topic here.  Whether or not public exposure has negative consequences is a social norm, based on co-ordination effects.  It’s socially acceptable in America for girls to wear bikinis at the beach, for girls in France to go topless at the beach and for people to use mixed-sex saunas and public showers throughout Germany and the Scandinavian countries.  It’s not as though they have massive rates of rape or sexual abuse.

The reason I see no problem with apps like ‘Girls Around Me’ is because I believe they represent the emergence of a new social norm that supports and encourages the public sharing of information about yourself, perhaps even a step towards David Brin’s Transparent Society.  Disagree with me?  Well, I would argue that of those people that (a) are doing it; (b) don’t realise they’re doing it; and (c) would actually care if they were to discover they’re doing it, the vast majority are over the age of 30.  In other words, this is a generational development.

Here’s an excellent example of that generational change.  Earlier this year the NY Times wrote about teenagers’ new habit of sharing their passwords with their (boy|girl)friends:

Young couples have long signaled their devotion to each other by various means — the gift of a letterman jacket, or an exchange of class rings or ID bracelets. Best friends share locker combinations.

The digital era has given rise to a more intimate custom. It has become fashionable for young people to express their affection for each other by sharing their passwords to e-mail, Facebook and other accounts. Boyfriends and girlfriends sometimes even create identical passwords, and let each other read their private e-mails and texts. […]

In a 2011 telephone survey, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 30 percent of teenagers who were regularly online had shared a password with a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend. The survey, of 770 teenagers aged 12 to 17, found that girls were almost twice as likely as boys to share. And in more than two dozen interviews, parents, students and counselors said that the practice had become widespread.

Knowing their audience, though, they couldn’t help being a little worried about it (and, of course, nothing sells newspapers like sex):

Rosalind Wiseman, who studies how teenagers use technology and is author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” a book for parents about helping girls survive adolescence, said the sharing of passwords, and the pressure to do so, was somewhat similar to sex.

Sharing passwords, she noted, feels forbidden because it is generally discouraged by adults and involves vulnerability. And there is pressure in many teenage relationships to share passwords, just as there is to have sex. […]

Ms. Cole’s mother, Patti, 48, a child psychologist, said she believed her daughter would be more judicious now about sharing a password. But, more broadly, she thinks young people are sometimes drawn to such behavior as they might be toward sex, in part because parents and others warn them against doing so.

“What worries me is we haven’t done a very good job at stopping kids from having sex,” she said. “So I’m not real confident about how much we can change this behavior.”

Speaking of sex and intergenerational concerns, this whole affair reminds me enormously of a post I wrote back in 2008 about the increasing public acceptability of sex for it’s own sake:

These developments are not without their concerns. Sara Montague – a presenter on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme – is clearly concerned, noting that much of the movement seems grounded in the hope of empowerment and self-confidence, but worrying that this serves indirectly to promote eating disorders among girls and the acceptance of rape among boys.

The main problem that Montague faces is that for most people, embracing public sexuality is non-harmful – not every girl gets an eating disorder and not every boy contemplates forcing himself on a girl – and is undertaken by choice. Montague is, in essence, faced with Douglas Adams’ cow that wants to be eaten. […]

By all means work to increase support for those burdened excessively by concerns of body image. By all means increase support to rape victims and ease the ability of the state to bring those guilty to justice. But that doesn’t mean we should fight to stop it altogether if people choose it freely and feel that it helps them, or even if they just enjoy it.

Anyway, that brings me back to ‘Girls Around Me’.  It — and other apps like it — really are designed to be fun, to let Kashmir and people like her make connections with strangers.  Yes, of course Facebook and Foursquare can be used by creepy stalkers and Rwanda 2.0 ethnic cleansers.  So what?  I have a 20cm Global Cook knife beside me right now.  I could use it to cut chunks out of hipsters, but that doesn’t make it flawed by design.  My credit card can be used to fund the KKK, but it’s also useful for other stuff, too.  There’s nothing wrong (and there should be nothing illegal) with having information.  It’s only when somebody acts on information in a manner harmful to others that we should care.  ‘Girls Around Me’ was about sharing information; how people act on that information is up to them.

Let me finish with this incredibly relevant and, as ever, excellent comic from xkcd:


Wanted: CTRL-TAB in my browser to work as ALT-TAB does in windows

Hey, Google, Microsoft and multitudinous Firefox geeks!

At the moment, both Chrome and Firefox have the same functionality on this:

  • CTRL-TAB cycles through your tabs in the order that you’ve got them physically arranged
  • CTRL-PGUP/PGDN also does this, although obviously CTRL-PGUP goes in the opposite direction

In Internet Explorer, CTRL-TAB works the same as in Chrome and Firefox, but they don’t have the CTRL-PGUP/PGDN functionality.

I don’t know how Safari or Opera work.

I want CTRL-TAB to work in my browser like ALT-TAB does in Windows and APPLESYMBOL-TAB does on a Mac:  The order in which it cycles through them should be the order in which I last viewed them, not the order in which I opened them.  If possible, like the operating system versions, it should also show small images of each tab as I cycle through them.

That is all.


Bitcoin

Update 11 September 2014: My views on digital currencies, including Bitcoin, have evolved somewhat since this post. Interested readers might care to read two new Bank of England articles on the topic. I was a co-author on both.

Original post is below …

Discussion of it is everywhere at the moment.

The Economist has a recent — and excellent — write-up on the idea.  My opinion, informed in no small part by Tyler Cowen’s views (herehere and here) is this:

  • Technically, it’s magnificent.  It overcomes some technical difficulties that used to be thought insurmountable.
  • As a medium of exchange, it’s an improvement over previous currencies (through the anonymity) for at least some transactions
  • As a store of value (i.e. as a store of wealth), it offers nothing [see below]
  • There are already many, many well-established assets that represent excellent stores of value, whatever your opinion on inflation and other artefacts of government policy
  • Therefore people will, at best, store their wealth in other assets and change them into bitcoins purely for the purpose of conducting transactions
  • As a result, the fundamental value of a bitcoin rests only in the superiority of its transactional system; for all other purposes, its value is zero
  • For 99.999% of all transactions by all people everywhere, the transaction anonymity is in no way superior to handing over physical cash or doing a recorded electronic transfer
  • Therefore, as a first approximation, bitcoin has a fundamental value of zero to almost everybody and of only slightly more than zero to some people

This thing is only ever going to be interesting or useful to drug dealers and crypto-fetishists.  Of those, I believe that drug dealers will ultimately lose interest because of a lack of liquidity in getting their “money” out of bitcoins and into hard cash.  That only leaves one group …

A note on money as a store-of-value:  When an asset pays out nothing as a flow profit (e.g. cash, gold, bitcoin), then that asset’s value as a store-of-value [1][2] is ultimately based on a) the surety that it’ll still exist in the future and b) your ability to convert it in the future to stuff you want to consume.  Requirement a) means that bread is a terrible store of value — it’ll all rot in a week.  Requirement b) means that a good store of value must be expected to have strong liquidity in the future.  In other words, there must be expected future demand for the stuff.  If you think your government’s policies are going to create inflation, putting your wealth in, say, iron ore, will be an excellent store of value because the economy at large will (pretty much) always generate demand for the stuff.

That makes gold an interesting case.  Since there isn’t really that much real economic demand for gold, using it as a store of value in period T must be based on a belief that people in period T+1 will believe that it will be a good store of value then.  But since we already know that it has very little intrinsic value to the economy, that implies that the T+1 people will have to believe that people in period T+2 will consider it a store of value, too.  The whole thing becomes an infinite recursion, with the value of gold as a store-of-value being based on a collective belief that it will continue to be a good store-of-value forever.

Bitcoin faces the same problem as gold.  For it to be a decent store-of-value, it will require that everybody believe that it will continue to be a decent store-of-value, and that everybody believe that everybody else believes it, and so on.  The world already has gold for that purpose (and gold has at least some real-economy demand to keep the expectation chain anchored).  I’m not at all sure that we can sustain two such assets.

[1] All currencies are assets.  They’re just don’t pay a return.  Then again, neither does gold.

[2] Yes, yes.  Saying that it’s “value as a store-of-value” is cumbersome.  It’s a definitional confusion analogous to free (as in beer) versus free (as in speech).


Killing the worlds’ poor through good intentions

This sort of stuff makes me very, very angry.

Kerry Howley, writing at Reason, does an interview with Robert Paarlberg:

In May 2002, in the midst of a severe food shortage in sub-Saharan Africa, the government of Zimbabwe turned away 10,000 tons of corn from the World Food Program (WFP). The WFP then diverted the food to other countries, including Zambia, where 2.5 million people were in need. The Zambian government locked away the corn, banned its distribution, and stopped another shipment on its way to the country. “Simply because my people are hungry,” President Levy Mwanawasa later said, “is no justification to give them poison.”

The corn came from farms in the United States, where most corn produced—and consumed—comes from seeds that have been engineered to resist some pests, and thus qualifies as genetically modified. Throughout the 90s, genetically modified foods were seen as holding promise for the farmers of Africa, so long as multinationals would invest in developing superior African crops rather than extend the technology only to the rich. When Zambia and Zimbabwe turned away food aid, simmering controversy over the crops themselves brimmed over and seeped into almost every African state. Cast as toxic to humans, destructive to the environment, and part of a corporate plot to immiserate the poor, cutting edge farming technology is most feared where it is most needed. As Robert Paarlberg notes in his new book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press), in 2004 the Sudanese government “took time out from its genocidal suppression of a rebellion in Darfur to issue a memorandum requiring that all food aid brought into the country should be certified as free of any GM ingredients.”

Starved for Science includes forwards by both Jimmy Carter and Norman Borlaug, the architect of Asia’s Green Revolution and the man credited with saving more human lives than anyone else in history. Paarlberg, a Professor of Political Science at Wellesley and a specialist in agricultural policy, wants the West to help small African farmers obtain promising technologies just as it helped Asia discover biological breakthroughs in the 60s and 70s. Instead, he says, a coalition of European governments and African elites are promoting a Western vision of rustic, low-productivity labor.

Do read the entire thing. Megan McArdle offers her comment here:

My understanding at the time was that this was even worse than ignorance: Africans keep out relief grain because they know that farmers will hold some of it for seed. They were afraid that if GM entered the food chain, they would that never, ever be able to export any plant products to Europe because of their stringent regulations (these have, I believe, been somewhat relaxed). So even if the president of Zambia knew GM was harmless, he couldn’t risk permanently impairing his country’s economic future.

In fact, let me quote some more from Howley’s interview with Paarlsberg:

reason: Can you give us a sense of what an average African farmer in, say, Zambia, is currently working with?

Paarlberg: It would be a woman and her children primarily, and they would plant not a hybrid maize, but a traditional openly pollinated variety, and they would time the preparation of the soil and planting as best they could for when they thought the rains would come. But the rains might not come in time, or they might be too heavy and wash the seeds out of the ground. It’s a risky endeavor. They can’t afford fertilizer, and it’s too risky to use fertilizer because in a drought the maize would shrivel up and the fertilizer would be wasted. They don’t have any irrigation. As a consequence, even in a good year their yields per hectare will be only about one third as high as in Asian countries, 1/10 as high as in the United States.

reason: Just as it used to be in Asia.

Paarlberg: Everywhere!

reason: No African government other than South Africa’s has made it legal to plant GMOs. You call this “out of character” for the same governments.

Paarlberg: They have not yet enacted the law, set up the biosafety committee, and granted approval, which is the laborious process that [the United Nations Environmental Program] and the European governments have coached them into adopting.

It’s interesting. In no other area are governments in Africa particularly concerned about hypothetical environmental risks. They know better than to invoke the precautionary principle when it comes to unsafe food in open air markets. They know that they need to first get rid of actual food shortages and raise income; then and only then can they afford to impose the same extremely high standards of food safety on open air markets that are imposed on supermarkets in Europe. Yet curiously when it comes to GMOs they adopt the highly precautionary European standard, which makes it impossible to put these products on the market at all. I take that as evidence that this is not an authentic African response, it’s a response imported from Europe.

reason: So the romanticization of bucolic farm landscapes unmarred by scientific advance has an American and European pedigree.

Paarlberg: It’s not what we do at home—only two percent of agricultural products in the US are organically grown. And many of those that are organically grown are grown on industrial scale organic farms in California that don’t bear any resemblance to small bucolic farms. But it’s the image we promote in our new cultural narrative. It’s something that affects the way we give foreign assistance.

reason: Many of the anti-agricultural science gurus you mention in your book have a spiritual dimension. Can you talk a bit about Sylvester Graham?

Paarlberg: Sylvester Graham, the father of the modern graham cracker, was opposed to the modern flour milling industry. He didn’t like the industrialization of bread production, and he wanted women to go back to grinding flour. He was a religious man, a minister, and he had all of the narrow minded prejudices we might associate with a New England clergyman from the 19th century. He thought that women should stay in the home, he believed people should be vegetarians because that would keep their sexual appetite back. We sometimes forget what goes along with the food purist zealotry. It’s often zealotry about more than just a certain kind of food to eat.

In Zambia today there are expatriate Jesuits from the United States who have come to believe genetic engineering is against God’s teaching, though this is not a belief that is embraced by the Vatican. They believe that all living things, including plants, have a right not to have their genetic makeup modified. Of course we have been modifying the genetic makeup of plants ever since we domesticated them 10,000 years ago, but these particular fathers are focused only on genetic engineering.

reason: Isn’t it paternalistic to blame Europeans for the decisions of African governments? Is this something African elites are at least as complicit in?

Paarlberg: It’s a codependency. The African elites depend upon Europe for financial assistance, they depend upon European export markets, they depend on NGOs for technical assistance, it’s just easier for them to follow the European lead than to go against that lead. And to some extent the European governments depend upon having dependents in Africa that will, despite the difficult experience of colonization, continue to imitate and validate and honor European culture and taste.

reason: What exactly have European NGOs done to discourage productivity in farming? You quote Doug Parr, a chemist at Greenpeace, arguing that the de facto organic status of farms in Africa is an opportunity to lock in organic farming, since African farmers have yet to advance beyond that.

Paarlberg: Some of it is well intentioned. The organic farming movement believes this is an appropriate corrective to the chemical intensive farming that they see in Europe. In Europe, where prosperous consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, it sometimes makes sense to use a more costly production process. So they think, “Well it’s the wave of the future here in Europe, so it should be the future in Africa as well.”

So they tell Africans who don’t use enough fertilizer that instead of using more they should go to zero and certify themselves as organic. That’s probably the most damaging influence — discouraging Africans from using enough fertilizer to restore the nutrients they mine out of their soil. They classify African farmers as either certified organic, or de facto organic. Indeed, many are de facto organic. And their goal is not to increase the productivity of the organic farmers, but to certify them as organic.

I just find that to be lacking in moral clarity.