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.

Lunch links

A few good reads today:

Haven't decided what to eat for lunch yet...

Not a slow news day

Let's see, where to begin?

Finally, RawStory has a collection of responses to the President's Sharpie-altered weather map. (This is not, however, the first time the Administration has tried to make one of its Dear Leader's errors be true.) Enjoy.

The myth of "consumer" security systems

Bruce Schneier takes apart Attorney General Bill Barr's proposal to weaken civilian computer security:

The Department of Justice wants access to encrypted consumer devices but promises not to infiltrate business products or affect critical infrastructure. Yet that's not possible, because there is no longer any difference between those categories of devices. Consumer devices are critical infrastructure. They affect national security. And it would be foolish to weaken them, even at the request of law enforcement.

The thing is, that distinction between military and consumer products largely doesn't exist. All of those "consumer products" Barr wants access to are used by government officials -- heads of state, legislators, judges, military commanders and everyone else -- worldwide. They're used by election officials, police at all levels, nuclear power plant operators, CEOs and human rights activists. They're critical to national security as well as personal security.

Barr can't weaken consumer systems without also weakening commercial, government, and military systems. There's one world, one network, and one answer. As a matter of policy, the nation has to decide which takes precedence: offense or defense. If security is deliberately weakened, it will be weakened for everybody. And if security is strengthened, it is strengthened for everybody. It's time to accept the fact that these systems are too critical to society to weaken. Everyone will be more secure with stronger encryption, even if it means the bad guys get to use that encryption as well.

Schneier doesn't say it explicitly, but this is one more example of how Barr and other Republicans of his generation haven't caught up to the rest of the world.

Three unrelated articles

First, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott takes a second look at the 1999 film Election:

The movie has been persistently and egregiously misunderstood, and I count myself among the many admirers who got it wrong. Because somehow I didn’t remember — or didn’t see— what has been right there onscreen the whole time.

Which is that Mr. M is a monster — a distillation of human moral squalor with few equals in modern American cinema — and that Tracy Flick is the heroine who bravely, if imperfectly, resists his efforts to destroy her. She’s not Moby-Dick to his Ahab so much as Jean Valjean to his Inspector Javert.

Second, with Lake Michigan at record-high water levels for the second month in a row, several of Chicago's beaches have disappeared:

This year, the buoyant water has swallowed at least two Chicago beaches entirely and periodically closed others. It has swiped fishermen from piers, swimmers from beaches and submerged jetties, creating hazards for boaters. It has flooded heavily trafficked parts of lakefront bicycle and pedestrian pathways, leaving some stretches underwater and others crumbling.

But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this summer is that these perils have occurred while the lake has remained mostly calm.

“Fall is the time of the year when wave conditions are historically the most severe on the Great Lakes,” said David Bucaro, outreach manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District. “We’re at a calmer period right now. There’s been some summer storms. But that October, November time period is when we really experience historically the most powerful coastal storms. That’s the conditions that we’re monitoring and are most concerned with.”

Should be fun this fall.

Next, writing for the LA Times, Rebecca Wexler points out that data-privacy laws giving law enforcement the power to snoop on electronic devices is deeply unfair to defendants for an unexpected reason:

Social media messages, photo metadata, Amazon Echo recordings, smart water meter data, and Fitbit readings have all been used in criminal cases. The new laws would limit how defendants can access this key evidence, making it difficult or impossible for defendants to show they acted in self-defense, or a witness is lying, or someone else is guilty of the crime.

The California Consumer Privacy Act, which was approved in 2018, allows law enforcement officers to obtain data from technology companies and prohibit those companies from immediately notifying the person they are investigating. Such delayed notice may be necessary to investigate someone who is dangerous or likely to destroy evidence or flee. But the law does not give defense investigators the same right to delay notification to witnesses or others — who might well pose a threat to the defendant — when they subpoena data from tech companies as part of the defense’s case.

I will now rejoin a long-running data analysis project, already in progress.

Lunchtime reading

Yep, one of these posts.

Back to coding...

A Harlequin hacker romance?

Via Bruce Schneier, this is literally* a thing:

The book opens with Massimo working in his combination laboratory and server farm; we know it's ironclad because of the required thumbprint and biometrics scan, but we also know it's classy because it's in an old wine cellar beneath his family villa outside Milan. Plus, he has three screens, so you know he's a serious cybersecurity hacker man.

Nat is a 20-something who lives a poverty-driven boho life. Massimo—who is Mr. Cyber—is, in her eyes, a "sleek, lean, sex-on-legs stud" who looks nothing like the stereotypical tech billionaire. And the chemistry between them ignites as he drags her back to his server room and tells her to do some... penetration testing.

She demurs.

Six chapters in. I am convinced that this book was written by a Harlequin Markov bot.

I may not add this to my book list just now. But at least I know it's out there...

*Yah, sorry. That's "literally" twice.

Specializing vs Generalizing

The US Navy's latest ship class, the triple-hulled Littoral Combat vessels, have small crews chosen for their adaptability. This has given the Navy insight into how people learn:

The ship’s most futuristic aspect, though, is its crew. The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of “hybrid sailors” who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.

Minimal manning—and with it, the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists—isn’t a particularly nautical concept. Indeed, it will sound familiar to anyone in an organization who’s been asked to “do more with less”—which, these days, seems to be just about everyone. Ten years from now, the Deloitte consultant Erica Volini projects, 70 to 90 percent of workers will be in so-called hybrid jobs or superjobs—that is, positions combining tasks once performed by people in two or more traditional roles. Visit SkyWest Airlines’ careers site, and you’ll see that the company is looking for “cross utilized agents” capable of ticketing, marshaling and servicing aircraft, and handling luggage. At the online shoe company Zappos, which famously did away with job titles a few years back, employees are encouraged to take on multiple roles by joining “circles” that tackle different responsibilities. If you ask Laszlo Bock, Google’s former culture chief and now the head of the HR start-up Humu, what he looks for in a new hire, he’ll tell you “mental agility.” “What companies are looking for,” says Mary Jo King, the president of the National Résumé Writers’ Association, “is someone who can be all, do all, and pivot on a dime to solve any problem.”

The Navy knew early on that not just anyone could handle this kind of multitasking. By the early 2000s, the Office of Naval Research was commissioning studies on how to select and prepare a crew for the new ships. One of the academics brought in was Zachary Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University. Instead of trying to understand how well naval candidates might master fixed skills, Hambrick began to examine how they performed in what are known as fluid-task environments. “We wanted to identify characteristics of people who could flexibly shift,” he told me. To that end, in 2010 he administered a test to sailors at Naval Station Great Lakes—and when I traveled to Michigan State to find out more about his work, he invited me to give it a try.

It turns out, experience and openness to new experience have good and bad points. Distractability correlates positively with noticing important new information and negatively with showing up to work on time, for example. Spending 10,000 hours hitting a baseball makes sense if you want to make it in the MLB. Spending 10,000 hours studying sorting algorithms does not (at least to a professional software developer).

A timeless hoax by a government agency

NPR and other outlets reported earlier this week that the far-north Norwegian island of Sommaroy planned to abolish timekeeping:

If the 350 residents of Sommaroy get their way, the clocks will stop ticking and the alarms will cease their noise. A campaign to do away with timekeeping on the island has gained momentum as Norway's parliament considers the island's petition.

Kjell Ove Hveding spearheaded the No Time campaign and presented his petition to a member of parliament on June 13. During the endless summer days, islanders meet up at all hours and the conventions of time are meaningless, Hveding says.

Only, a subsequent press release admitted the whole thing was a marketing campaign:

NRK.no revealed today that the initiative to make Sommarøy a time-free zone was in fact a carefully planned marketing campaign, hatched by the government-owned Innovation Norway.

The story has been covered in more than 1650 articles in 1479 different media, including CNN, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent, Time, El País, La Repubblica, Vanity Fair and Der Spiegel, potentially reaching 1.2 billion people. The value of the coverage is estimated to 11.4 million USD - a pretty good return on investment for Innovation Norway, which spent less than 60,000 USD on the campaign.

Paul Koning, one of the moderators of the IANA Time Zone group--the group that maintains the Time Zone Database used in millions of computers, phones, and applications worldwide, including The Daily Parker--was not pleased:

That's very disturbing. It's problematic enough that not all governments give timely notice about time zone rule changes.

But if in addition we have to deal with government agencies supplying deliberately false information, the TZ work becomes that much more difficult.

Difficult indeed. The group has to deal with dictators changing time zones with almost no notice, political groups attacking the spellings of time zone identifiers, and all sorts of hassles. For a government agency to do this on purpose is not cool.

Significant website update

Today I released a new version of the Inner Drive Technology brochure/demo site. The release includes:

Now that I've got that out of the way, I'm going to start working on the next full version of the site, using (probably) a commercially-available design. The Inner Drive website last got refreshed visually sometime in 2011, or possibly earlier, so it's due.

The last update was 497 days ago, on 9 February 2018. Updating the IDEA took most of the intervening months. (That, and everything else in my life.)