The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Feminist thought on smart-phone use

Via Bruce Schneier, Irish writer Maria Farrell explains how a feminist perspective leads to some creepy realizations about smart phones:

Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:

  • They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact – ‘user engagement’ – that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.
  • They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It’s our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.
  • They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we’re meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.

Feminists are often the canary in the coalmine, warning us years in advance of coming threats. Feminist analysis of Gamergate first exposed the online radicalization of legions of angry young men for whom misogyny was a gateway drug to far-right politics. More practically, when the US military finally realised the enemy could use running app, Strava, to track the habits and route-maps of soldiers based in hostile environments, domestic violence activists collectively sighed. They’d been pointing out for years that the app is used by stalkers and aggrieved exes to track women. I’m not the first person to notice that in cyber-security, feminism is a secret super-power. Checking every app, data-set and shiny new use-case for how men will use it to endanger women and girls is a great way to expose novel flaws and vulnerabilities the designers almost certainly missed. So, while looking at our relationship with our phones through a feminist lens may be disconcerting, it’s incredibly useful, and in a deliciously counter-intuitive way.

I'll be mulling her thoughts over for a while.

Slow news day? Pah

It's the last weekday of summer. Chicago's weather today is perfect; the office is quiet ahead of the three-day weekend; and I'm cooking with gas on my current project.

None of that leaves a lot of time to read any of these:

Now, to find lunch.

Lunchtime reading

A diverse flock this afternoon:

Your coder will now resume coding his previously-coded code.

Who needs agents?

In their ongoing battle with large Hollywood agencies, the members of the Writers Guild of America fired all their agents. Subsequently, they went through the usual May cycle of getting new jobs with hardly any difficulty. And this week, the Guild released an online platform to connect writers with jobs.

In a note to the membership, the Guild explained the platform:

Today the WGA is launching our Staffing & Development Platform, which provides valuable new tools to help connect writers with job opportunities in features and TV development. Over 600 producers, PODs, and companies have already registered and set up their profiles. Now, they’re ready to hear from writers like you.

With this new Platform, writers will be able to contact producers, PODs, and companies directly to apply for Open Writing Assignments (OWAs) and to request general meetings. At present, Current members will be able to submit for up to 3 OWAs and 10 general meetings each month. On the first of each month, these counts will be reset to 3 and 10, respectively, whether the previous month’s submissions were used or not.

The dispute revolves around "packaging deals" in which agencies sell studios a "package" of talent for a show or film. The studios pay the agencies a package fee, which the writers never get. In other words, instead of representing the interests of writers, these package deals profit the agencies at the expense of writers, because the agencies have an incentive to reduce writers' fees and increase the package fees.

Agencies still think they're going to come out on top, because of hubris and greed. But the WGA has shown in the past three months, and continues to show with the new platform, that they don't need agents as much as agents need them. In fact, they never have. But as Upton Sinclair said, "it is difficult to get someone to understand a thing when his salary depends on him not understanding it."

The thing you're not supposed to look at

So, it turns out, the President of the United States is a racist bigot, who has calculated that the best way to win re-election is to smash all the norms we've had for a century and a half.

OK, noted. Now let's see what all that sound and confusion might be covering up? How about the dismantling of the administrative state and the removal of any meaningful checks on corporate power:

There are daily proof points that the former lobbyists in the administration are advancing Trump’s quest to eviscerate the administrative state. Just last night, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency quietly rejected a petition by environmental and public health groups to ban a widely used pesticide that has been linked to neurological damage in children, even though a federal court said last year there was “no justification” for such a decision.

“The Obama administration had proposed in 2015 to revoke all uses of chlorpyrifos after EPA scientists determined that existing evidence did not meet the agency’s threshold of a ‘reasonable certainty of no harm,’ given exposure levels in Americans’ food supply and drinking water,” Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report. “EPA staffers cited studies of families exposed to it in apartment buildings and agricultural communities that found lower birth weight and reduced IQ, among other effects. But before the ban was finalized, in March 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the agency’s own analysis, saying the agency would reassess the science underpinning that decision.”

Part of the battle to deconstruct the administrative state is a war of attrition. Two research agencies at the Agriculture Department are uprooting from D.C. to Kansas City this fall, for instance, but many staffers have decided to give up their jobs rather than move, prompting concerns of hollowed-out offices unable to adequately fund or inform agricultural science.

This is the flipside, the actual goal, of all the anti-American rallies and palling around with terrorists that the president has done in his administration. All of that is just to stay in power. It's what he has done with the power that will have the longest and most dangerous effects on the country.

Welcome home, Attila

The former owner of Chicago restaurant Embeya has returned to the city to face charges he misappropriated $300,000 of the restaurant's money:

Attila Gyulai hasn’t been seen in Chicago since traveling overseas in 2016 shortly after shuttering Embeya — then one of the city's most illustrious restaurants. At the time, Gyulai blamed family obligations and the demands of running a restaurant.

But his partners, Thai and Danielle Dang, filed a lawsuit alleging he had been looting the business. And more than a year and a half later, federal prosecutors charged Gyulai with wire fraud, alleging he had misappropriated at least $300,000 “by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises.”

Gyulai was arrested in late December in Valencia, Spain, where he’d traveled from Ecuador on a 10-day vacation. He waived extradition in March and was finally brought back to the U.S. to face the charges this month, court records show.

An upscale Vietnamese restaurant on the highly competitive Randolph Row, Embeya opened in 2012 to praise for polished cooking by chef Thai Dang and the artfully designed dining room.

Yet the charges alleged that Gyulai, who with his wife owned 56.5 percent of the restaurant and handled the finances, was engaged in fraud from as early as August 2011 to just after Embeya closed.

When the Dangs raised concerns about how the restaurant was being managed, Gyulai fired them and brought in a new chef.

The Dangs prevailed in two court cases against Gyulai, one for $90,000 in unpaid wages and another for breach-of-fiduciary duty among other claims, winning a $1.4 million default judgment in May 2017, according to a previous Tribune report. 

I guess $300,000 doesn't go as far as it used to. Maybe he's just done running? Or maybe he forgot Spain and the US cooperate on law enforcement?

How many lawsuits is Eddie Lampert party to?

Two made the news this week. First, Lampert has sued Sears (which he owns) for not conveying property that his investment firm bought from the doomed retailer:

Lampert's Transform is accusing the Sears estate, a bankrupt shell entity that is winding down under court supervision, of multiple wrongs including breaking the agreement by holding on to the chain's headquarters in Illinois. The estate is also intentionally delaying payments to vendors and trying to shift $166 million in accounts payable costs, according to the Transform complaint filed on Saturday.

The allegations mirror those made in court filings from Transform earlier this year. The Sears estate also sued Lampert, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and others last month, claiming they wrongly transferred $2 billion of company assets beyond the reach of creditors in the years leading up to the retailer’s bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, in another case, Lampert filed court documents in which he threatens not to pay $43m in severance payments he promised to make:

Lampert also denied that he is responsible for making some payments to creditors he says Sears Holdings is trying to force him to pay, according to the filing. Sears Holdings is the bankrupt remnants of the old Sears. It exists only to settle claims against it involving its few remaining assets.

Lampert had previously agreed to pay the severance to workers who lost their jobs before and during Sears' bankruptcy. Creditors objected to Sears paying severance to people laid off before the bankruptcy, so those workers never received an exit package.

Lampert's attorneys told the bankruptcy court that Lampert and his hedge fund ESL were the best owners to help workers who lost their jobs in various rounds of store closings.

But in the latest court documents, ESL said it wouldn't make the severance payments because Sears didn't give the hedge fund all of the assets it spelled out in ESL and Lampert's agreement to buy Sears. That included the amount of store inventory originally promised by Sears, as well as the company's headquarters in suburban Chicago.

Wow, he really wants to win Worst CEO of the Century, doesn't he? And remember, Lampert never cared about Sears as a going entity; he has always and only wanted the land Sears owns. What a schmuck.

What. The. Fuck?

Burger King has decided to embrace the suck:

Sir, this was a Burger King commercial. Part of a partnership with the nonprofit Mental Health America — as well as an unsubtle dig at the McDonald’s Happy Meal — the nearly two-minute “short film” promotes a limited-time, select-city product called “Real Meals,” which correspond to a customer’s “real” mood: Blue, Salty, Pissed, DGAF and YAAAS. In place of information about where to seek help if you’re experiencing feelings of depression, which would usually appear at the end of a public-service announcement, title cards explain: “No one is happy all the time. And that’s O.K.,” followed by an image of each of the Real Meals, jarring pops of color after the gloomy video. (No matter which mood you announce to the cashier taking your order, or to the touch screen that has replaced her, each box contains the same thing: a Whopper, fries and a drink.)

Insulting both the customer and the product might seem like a bad strategy for selling stuff. But it’s consonant with a broader shift in advertising, fueled by social media, whereby brands have felt compelled to veer dramatically off-script and imitate the most attention-seeking people online: Netflix recently ranted on Twitterabout the sexist connotations of the term “chick flicks”; inspired by a negative comparison, Vita Coco threatened to send one hater a jar of urine; Steak-umm has cultivated a bizarre, meme-fluent Twitter presence that breaks the fourth wall to discuss the difficulty of social media marketing and refers to the company’s core product as “frozen beef sheets.” All this antiadvertising has succeeded in doing is making our world feel yet more corporatized. Even our friends’ cheerful recommendations for miracle skin-care products or life-changing apps can sound as if there’s something in it for them. Everywhere is an Arby’s, sir.

“Life sucks — you might as well eat Burger King” is a reasonable attitude for an individual to espouse in this situation. ... [But] Burger King is not a person; life sucks at least in part because of Burger King.

I hope this trend stops soon. Of course, having studied marketing in a data-oriented school, I can tell you that no one really knows if marketing works. So Burger King and the other brands taking these bizarre turns in marketing will continue to do so because they won't have any data telling them not to.

I keep thinking of Robert Heinlein's novel Friday, in which Heinlein's own expy says this: "A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot."

In other news...Therexit!

Burger King's brand implosion aside, other, more important news came out in the last couple of days:

  • This morning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced she would step down on June 7th, having lost the confidence of the right-wing crazies holding her majority together. The likely outcome of this will be Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is actually less popular than May, forcing a general election through incompetence by the August bank holiday.
  • The heads of NOAA and NASA have raised the alarm that the proposed 24 GHz frequency band proposed for 5G wireless will mask the existing 23.8 GHz frequency of passive microwave energy which weather forecasting systems need to actually forecast weather.
  • Since February 2017, when he took his first of over a hundred golf trips as president, Donald Trump has cost us more than $100 million playing golf.
  • San Francisco's KPIX-TV Broadcast Operations Manager Eliot Curtis apparently gave himself an LSD trip while repairing a 1960s-era synthesizer.

Must be Friday.

Is it time to break up Facebook?

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes thinks so:

America was built on the idea that power should not be concentrated in any one person, because we are all fallible. That’s why the founders created a system of checks and balances. They didn’t need to foresee the rise of Facebook to understand the threat that gargantuan companies would pose to democracy. Jefferson and Madison were voracious readers of Adam Smith, who believed that monopolies prevent the competition that spurs innovation and leads to economic growth.

A century later, in response to the rise of the oil, railroad and banking trusts of the Gilded Age, the Ohio Republican John Sherman said on the floor of Congress: “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.” The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 outlawed monopolies. More legislation followed in the 20th century, creating legal and regulatory structures to promote competition and hold the biggest companies accountable. The Department of Justice broke up monopolies like Standard Oil and AT&T.

For many people today, it’s hard to imagine government doing much of anything right, let alone breaking up a company like Facebook. This isn’t by coincidence.

Starting in the 1970s, a small but dedicated group of economists, lawyers and policymakers sowed the seeds of our cynicism. Over the next 40 years, they financed a network of think tanks, journals, social clubs, academic centers and media outlets to teach an emerging generation that private interests should take precedence over public ones. Their gospel was simple: “Free” markets are dynamic and productive, while government is bureaucratic and ineffective. By the mid-1980s, they had largely managed to relegate energetic antitrust enforcement to the history books.

This shift, combined with business-friendly tax and regulatory policy, ushered in a period of mergers and acquisitions that created megacorporations. In the past 20 years, more than 75 percent of American industries, from airlines to pharmaceuticals, have experienced increased concentration, and the average size of public companies has tripled. The results are a decline in entrepreneurship, stalled productivity growth, and higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.

The same thing is happening in social media and digital communications. Because Facebook so dominates social networking, it faces no market-based accountability. This means that every time Facebook messes up, we repeat an exhausting pattern: first outrage, then disappointment and, finally, resignation.

Hughes makes excellent points. Just because the industries look different than those in the 1890s doesn't mean they haven't consolidated too much. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.