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The Quick Fox

March 15, 2013

Timed just so that I would miss including it in my last post is the latest overblown reaction to attempts at preserving privacy on the net.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) freaked out when Mozilla decided to implement “Do Not Track” and block third party cookies (which are often the carriers of viruses and other malware), and said it would be the death of “American small business” because it relies online advertising.

“Thousands of small businesses that make up the diversity of content and services online will be forced to close their doors,” said Randall Rothenberg, IAB’s president. “This move will not put the interest of users first. Nor does it promote transparency or ‘move the web forward’ as Mozilla claims in its announcement.”

Maybe the simpler answer is that websites and content providers just need to find a better way to generate revenue than requiring, as a condition of ever using their site, the ability to follow you off their own webpages and onto the rest of the net to collect your personal information. They seem to be upset that they’ve left Firefox to guard the hen-house because they didn’t want any guards at all.

In-N-Out Merger

March 14, 2013

Does it feel like things are finally starting to turn a corner when it comes to online data privacy? It seems like a lot more people are starting to care about privacy, at least as an issue, if not as a personal ethic. Sure, some people are starting to use Facebook’s privacy settings, but because those things change all the damn time, it’s hard to tell whether that will make much of a lasting difference.

Percent of social networking users who have taken these steps to protect their privacy (Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project)

Privacy settings: Teens Vs. Adults (Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project)

I’m also not convinced that people are seeing the writing on the wall when it comes to online privacy or the retention of their own civil liberties. People have never seemed to care that data is used to sell them stuff they “already want,” or that current and prospective health insurers are getting all sorts of data on what you Google. Nor do they care that their reading list–something the Founders would have considered sacrosanct–has been accessible by government since the PATRIOT ACT.

Want to buy a list of people who read romance novels? Epsilon can sell you that, as well as a list of people who donate to international aid charities. …

A subsidiary of credit reporting company Equifax even collects detailed salary and paystub information for roughly 38 percent of employed Americans. …

Datalogix … which collects information from store loyalty cards, says it has information on more than $1 trillion in consumer spending “across 1400+ leading brands.” It doesn’t say which ones. …

Data companies can capture information about your “interests” in certain health conditions based on what you buy — or what you search for online. Datalogix has lists of people classified as “allergy sufferers” and “dieters.” Acxiom sells data on whether an individual has an “online search propensity” for a certain “ailment or prescription.”

People don’t seem to care about whether their information is up for grabs because they don’t understand how easily comprehended and quantified they are. Everyone thinks he or she is immune from easy prediction, but with the rise of big data, prediction is getting scarily smart. For example, analyzing Facebook “likes” is enough to predict a lot about your personality that you probably wouldn’t tell a stranger, let alone some amoral marketing firm trying to figure out ways to extract money from you.

The researchers used a pool of 58,000 volunteers in the United States. Based on “Likes” alone, they were able to predict whether a user was African-American or white 95% of the time, male or female 93% of the time.

They were able to gauge sexual orientation 88% of the time for men and 75% of the time for women. They were also able to predict political leaning (Republican versus Democrat) 85% of the time. On a more personal level, the researchers were able to predict whether your parents divorced when you were a kid 60% of the time.

The study also could make reasonably accurate guesses about whether you were a drug user, drinker, or smoker, as well as a host of other attributes, including emotional stability, satisfaction with life, and extraversion.

And in many cases, it’s not even a question of prediction; it’s simply data analysis because people live enough of their lives on the web for there to be sufficient data to determine all of those characteristics.

On a small side note, this attitude has had serious implications. Except for Rand Paul and a few others who have been written off as right-wing loonies (and not without some justification), no one really seems to be talking about the near-omnipotence of government vis-a-viz individual civil liberties and freedom from state monitoring, as long as lip service is paid to the correct constitutional priority. Didn’t liberals care about civil liberties at some point? Wouldn’t they be crowing about the horrendous abuse of executive power if Bush was still in office, authorizing drone strikes or signing off on memos that allow for unilateral targeting and assassination of anyone it designates an enemy combatant? People have been placated in this permanent surveillance state by having Obama institutionalize the violations that began under Bush. In that way, greater damage has been done to civil liberties in the failure to restore them than the initial infringement could ever do.

Government’s hunger for data also fuels its passive allowance of private companies to do its collection and data mining for it. Sure, government is constrained by the Fourth Amendment, but Facebook, Google, Apple, and the like aren’t. And they do respond to subpoenas.

Other than certain kinds of protected data — including medical records and data used for credit reports — consumers have no legal right to control or even monitor how information about them is bought and sold. As the FTC notes, “There are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes.”

In terms of online privacy, though, I think it’s that people are starting to get possessive about their data, and it’s because it’s becoming increasingly easy to care about privacy as it is to not care about it. Of course, the additional effort means that most people will stay in-by-default than opted-out. But there are ways to start to default to an opt-out. For example, there are user-side solutions like “Do Not Track“:

The customer demand for stronger data controls led to the introduction of the “do not track” feature. “Do not track” is a setting that can be now found on all the major browsers: Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari. When turned on, it asks sites not to track that person’s online activities. A Microsoft survey found that 75% of people were concerned about online tracking and thought the setting should be turned on by default.

And then, there are the more forcible opt-out solutions, that can opt-out your data from being further used and abused. Sure, it’s more effort, but those who care enough can take the steps to opt-out. That scheme stands in stark contrast to the state of civil liberties, where an opt-out gives rise to automatic suspicion.

The Long Goodbye

February 20, 2013

Papa, besides being the wonderful person you are,

You were my first hero. And you were also my first friend. How could you not be? Outside of my parents, you spent more time with me the first year of my life than any other person.

Early on, you delighted in teaching me a great many things: how to make a “constipated face,” how to burp on command, what a “barking spider” is, how to ride a horse, how to drive a car, when to flip a “hickory burger,” and you even tried to teach me how to sell dresses (although the last part never really stuck for me).

You taught me to restlessly pursue your goals, literally, even (or especially) if that means getting up at 4:30 in the morning to do so. You taught me my work ethic, my moral ethic, and my life ethic.

And even though you’re gone now, I know that you will live on in our memories as a friend, a grandfather, and a hero.

As a friend, I’ll always remember your amazing sense of humor. One of my favorite jokes was when you would quip that you had more hair than you needed; you had closets full. I don’t know why, but that one has special meaning to me.I’ll remember the conspiratorial jokes we’d share at dinners after a long day of work at the Water Wheel Cafe, the sly comments with a quick wink on the side that would let me in on the joke.

As a grandfather, I’ll always remember how you would play “midnight poker” with us grandkids, so long as we were playing at midnight, Eastern Standard Time. You were a kid at heart, and always had us grandchildren share in your fun, whether it was when you sat at the kids’ table, or when you taught us to read your horoscopes and fortune cookies by reciting “besides being the wonderful person you are,” before reading the rest of it.

You loved your family, a good joke, taking a nap in a movie theater, and a song, as long as you could belt it at the top of your lungs.

And when it came to your heroism, you idolized and emulated the silver screen cowboys: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Ronald Reagan. You strove to live like they did, and achieved that lifestyle on your own terms. But unlike those silver screen heroes, your heroism was never faked, always genuine, and a pure product of the choices of your spirit, not some contrived circumstances.

Papa, besides being the wonderful person you are, your heroism will never die. Your memory will always stick with us, and your friendship and generosity of spirit will live on through our memory of you and your vision of the world that you helped shape. I know that you were proud to have lived larger than life, as a hero not only in the mind of a grandson who will always miss you, but never forget you.

Out of Thin Air

February 5, 2013

Given the near-constant international economic angst over energy security, you would think that the discovery of trillions of dollars of oil in Australia could be the most significant geopolitical development in the recent past. For a frame of reference, the estimated 133,000,000,000-233,000,000,000 barrels of oil that was discovered = 7,000-12,000 days of America’s aggregate oil consumption = 20 years worth of American oil consumption = approximately 4 years of global oil consumption.

That’s a pretty big deal, considering the implications that has on the predictions of some doomsayers who predicted the world would not be able to find a replacement for oil before it ran out in our lifetimes. And its an even bigger deal when you consider the find’s effects on the ability of OPEC to control prices when another non-member state like Australia becomes a major net exporter and can break up the oligopolistic control over pricing that has kept consumers simultaneously addicted to oil and resistant to change for so long.

Interestingly enough, the Australian find comes at the heels of similarly major discoveries and innovations in the exploitation of shale oil in the United States. These discoveries and new techniques may lead to the United States surpassing Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading producer of petroleum, which has other obvious geopolitical implications for a slightly less oil-hungry United States. And let’s not forget the non-outsourceable jobs that will be created to harness and process those reserves. Now there’s a big gain.

However, if these oil discoveries are like every other such discovery, it is likely that most of the positive externalities of additional oil reserves are likely to be mostly internalized by private entities that will be exploit those reserves for their own profit. By contrast, there is another giant, natural resource with incredible potential may soon be tapped: the wireless spectrum.

The FCC has recently proposed that portions of the electromagnetic spectrum be reserved for large free public use, that consumers could eventually use to make calls or access the Internet. Unlike those seemingly trollish networks labelled “Free Public Wi-Fi,”

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas.

The new WiFi networks would also have much farther reach, allowing for a driverless car to communicate with another vehicle a mile away or a patient’s heart monitor to connect to a hospital on the other side of town.

(Note, most of that should have used the word “could” rather than “would”). You might ask why the FCC hasn’t already done this, and the reason is that it was assumed that people wouldn’t be able to figure out how to use free spectrum without the FCC telling people which frequencies they may use. Until now, the FCC has accepted the economists’ logic that, in the face of the tragedy of the commons that is electromagnetic spectrum, the public is best served by slicing up the spectrum and selling it to various stewards who can make sure it gets commercially exploited by someone with an interest in efficient levels of use.

However, when it comes to a resource like the electromagnetic spectrum (and the transmission of information, in particular), traditional arguments don’t fare so well. Device makers have been figuring out how to use even extremely limited spectrum without interfering with the usage of others since the advent of WiFi itself, which was invented on–and continues to operate on–the sliver of electromagnetic spectrum the FCC left open for garage door openers. And now, the truth of technology has finally caught up to logic and the historic justification for regulation of the electromagnetic spectrum: the FCC is finally treating the spectrum like the public resource it is, and we may see that it gets used for the public’s maximal benefit.

The result of legitimately free (as in freedom, if not as in beer) access to the spectrum would be an explosion of communication, innovation, culture, socio-economic fairness, and yes, even commerce. Though the proposal doesn’t necessarily mean that free (as in beer) internet access will be provided, it seems likely if companies like Apple, Google, Cisco or Microsoft can build in technology on their devices that can figure out ways to connect to an Internet backbone. Think about how much money could go directly back into the pockets of how many people who pay telecommunications providers, and how much innovation and freedom would be promoted by allowing companies to try new things in the most free environment possible.

If it wasn’t already obvious enough that this move would have serious benefits to consumers, just look at who’s opposing it: the $178 billion wireless industry. These are the same guys making 97 percent profit margins on their “almost comically profitable” internet services because there are only a few major players in the market and prices can be fixed relatively easily. Remind you of any other industry that seems to get a lot of its crazy profits from exorbitant and seemingly unavoidable charges to consumers?

The ISPs also oppose basically any new innovation or change in the marketplace on the grounds that they “have to capitalize on what [they]’ve invested.” Which is to say, the official policy is that the telecommunications companies plan no more innovation until they’re forced to innovate further as a result of competition. And until the FCC’s latest proposal, it seems like Google was the only company with the size to give the ISPs a reason to even consider improving their infrastructure in a way that would pass the benefits along to the consumer. And even a company as large as Google is only rolling out Fiber in Kansas City as a way of testing the water.

So, for the rest of us, we’ll have to put some public trust in the FCC, and hope that the difference between spectrum and oil is that the spillover benefits will flow to the public.

If You Liked It, Then You Should Have Put A Pin In It

January 9, 2013

I just got engaged. And even though I’m not interested in starting any hardcore planning, I do have thoughts/ideas/curiosities/fantasies about what might take place some time down the road. So I figured that I might as well do what all newly engaged people seem to do to fritter away pent up ante-nuptial energies, and I joined Pinterest.

Pinterest calls itself a “virtual pinboard,” which lets users organize images, recipes and other things they find on the Web. Despite the fact that it was formed by three dudes, Pinterest seems (from my anecdotal experiences using it) to be populated almost exclusively by women (If you’re a fan of actual numbers, it has been reported that 83% of its users are female). I guess that comports with the ration of women to men who are actively involved in planning a wedding, but I have no doubt that there are economists far more capable than myself studying the question.

Another explanation may be that, at bottom, Pinterest seems to be about nesting (an activity associated with females as well). The central activity of Pinterest involves taking shiny things from one corner of the web or another pinner’s nest and adding it to one’s own. Once in the nest, the beautiful idea or product represents a call to action or inspiration, there to sit and stare you in the face, almost like the pinups an adolescent cuts out and pastes to their walls. The act of pinning is not so much active and involved as it is aspirational and reflective. Like the brightly colored, glossy magazines at the grocery store checkout, Pinterest allows users to bathe themselves in a fantasy that the images set before them represent the user’s actual life. It’s sort of like The Secret brought to social networking (a Pinterest board is nothing if not a vision board, after all).

Of course, providing the space for virtual nesting isn’t frivolous, despite what some scoffing dudes may tell you. Even if it was a frivolous waste of time, if investor valuations are any metric (and isn’t it really the only metric we have of such a thing?), it’s worth at least $1.5 billion of classic internet frivolity. Apparently, and this was a big surprise to me, Pinterest’s revenue model is about as pleasant as its design-centered aesthetic, considering the more common practices of the Internet economy. Even though Pinterest makes you give away all rights to your soul in its Terms of Use, Pinterest’s monetization strategy seems pretty tame for the moment. Like the rest of the web, Pinterest could collect and sell all of the personal information it wanted to about its users and sell them to the highest bidder. But apparently, the only thing Pinterest is doing with user content is modifying the links that users post to include Pinterest’s affiliate codes so that Pinterest gets a cut of whatever gets sold after a user clicks through to a purchase. Which is to say that Pinterst isn’t overreaching at all: it’s merely claiming its fee for delivering users to their purchase by way of its platform. Wonderful!

However, despite all that is legitimately laudable about Pinterest, I do have a few gripes based on my limited experience. Because people don’t have to actually consume/buy/use whatever products they pin, you end up seeing a lot of impractical or half-baked (literally) ideas and inexpert or unartful labelling and categorization by amateurs. For example, adding a random fruit juice to champagne DOES NOT CONSTITUTE A COCKTAIL, ladies of Pinterest. Nor is anything with caramel in it a martini of any kind, no matter what glass you put it in. And if the word “decadence” is in the name of the drink, you’re probably doing it wrong. One thing Pinterest can definitely show you is the depths of the varieties of flavored vodka: “iced cake” and “kissed caramel” vodka are actual things apparently used by people in drinks.

Of course, you can chalk up anything distasteful to the tastes of the users themselves. The fact that you see a lot of stuff you’d disagree with on an aesthetic level just shows that Pinterest is much like other social networks in terms of displaying a profile of each user. What may set Pinterest apart is that the user gets to re-examine their own pinboard, a composite of their tastes, interests, and habits. Users may even perform some analytics on themselves (and hopefully their drinking habits) in order to figure out what it is each user actually wants in their nest. Luckily for me, I already found my lady.


Post Hocalypse Now!

December 20, 2012

Mayans. Who’d have thought they’d come back to haunt us? Oh wait, they’re not.

It’s simultaneously one of the oldest and also the most recent prediction of apocalypse. But what’s really telling about the 12/21/12 thing, is how we have squirmy reactions we don’t admit to and overt, winking news coverage on a date. I suppose it’s no surprise that people are willing to latch onto any prediction of end-times, given that it is inherent in human nature to want our lives to be imbued with more importance. And our survival instincts kick in at subconscious levels, even prior to our conscious mind has the time to react and quell those fears.

But, even if you buy into the hype, apparently the Mayan-predicted apocalypse is a misinterpretation. What a twist! In May, another (even older) Mayan calendar was found that shows the current baktun cycle is not the last one, and that the cycles continue for another 7,000 years or so beyond December 21, 2012. As it turns out, like all calendars, you can keep making new ones. The fact that the Mayans didn’t figure out what calendars would look like past tomorrow doesn’t mean that days wouldn’t continue to happen past that point.

But if your adrenaline is still high, and you really feel like preparing yourself for the end of the world, check out this list of handy dandy tips.

Also, this already happened in New Zealand, in case you’re still worried:

New Zealand Reports: the world has not ended

Bearing Arms and Bearing Harms

December 18, 2012

It’s been a bit of a lame-duck session around here, hasn’t it? Reacting has its limits, and I find myself increasingly disinterested in attempting to explain things to people who will never change their minds. Of course, I don’t think anyone reading this blog is unwilling to be persuaded, but I don’t think I’m alone in having had some argument fatigue after the national survey of just how crazy/apathetic/stubborn/shielded/devout some people are. But then you see things like elementary school shootings, you really see how crazy some people are, and all you want to do is fight with people who disagree with you.

I’m not going to recapitulate any of the heartbreaking stories because they are, and that’s not my job. Nor am I going to reprint the name of the killer. The mainstream media seems to have those bases pretty well covered without my two cents.

However, I will say that I am supportive of the “have-the-public-policy-debate now”/”If-not-now-when” approach, largely because national public conversations and debates rarely happen on any particular issue. Usually, national issues are debated by the smallest and narrowest interests with the most incentives to lobby vociferously, and it’s often a question of which interest has the most at stake, and are therefore willing to pony up the bucks to “convince” the congress (and sometimes, even their constituents, if that approach behooves them). Of course, that is just democracy at work. One cannot simply complain that the NRA spends too much money on lobbyists or political donations; it’s the threat of mobilizing their frothing-at-the-mouth member base that gives the NRA power in Washington. But all that makes the prospect of having a national conversation–one that involves a broader spectrum of people who are potentially affected by an issue, and not just those with the strongest biases–more likely to produce a socially desirable (or at least desired) result.

The downside of a public debate, of course, is the fact that unsophisticated voters generally commit a range of pervasive errors that are only multiplied when sabers are rattled. After all, the debate can only center on whether or not to change the law, not whether or not to change reality, although both sides will believe that they are doing the latter. And as a result, both sides will feel cheated when the world doesn’t return the results they believe should follow a victory.

In the words of the great Megan McArdle, this is where the conflicted zeitgeist is at:

Since we can’t understand it, we can’t change it. And since we can’t change it, our best hope is to box it in. Gun control opponents are angry that liberals immediately started talking about gun control, but this seems like a natural instinct to me. It’s not the best way to get good policy, mind you; hard cases make bad laws, and rules passed in the wake of tragedies tend to be over-specific, and under-careful about unintended consequences. But it’s not somehow indelicate to want to talk about this now; if thirty children had been killed in a landslide, I hope that we’d be talking about whether there might be some way to keep that from happening in the future.

So, if you are engaged in a debate about public policy (though that may apply to precious few of you outside the beltway), keep a few duly skeptical principles in mind, but don’t let them stop you from doing something:

  • The Newtown shooting was perpetrated with weapons that were purchased legally.
  • A similar shooting could have been perpetrated by someone who obtained some lower-grade weapons legally, although the scale might be slightly smaller depending on the determination of the perpetrator.
  • The Newtown shooter had been flagged as someone who might have some mental problems, and he had access to mental health care resources.
  • Machine guns have been illegal in the United States since 1934, and since the 1980s, it has been illegal to manufacture and sell any automatic weapon.
  • It is illegal for the mentally ill to buy or have guns, and that’s what background checks are aimed at preventing.
  • Guns do not create homicidal intent.
  • Guns do make people with homicidal intent more lethal.
  • Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people (including 19 children) with fertilizer, racing fuel, and trucks, and no guns.
  • No policy will be implemented perfectly.
  • Not even the most stringent governmental controls or bans will eliminate cheaters.
  • Black markets increase both the costs and the rewards for those willing to cheat.
  • The premise that more guns equal more safety does not apply to those who are irrational actors.
  • Everyone plays video games, not just killers. The same correlation argument about culture consumption could be used to implicate the Beatles.
  • Not even universal health care will eliminate mental illness.
  • Children can always be raised poorly.
  • Systems will always allow failure at the margins.
  • Complicated phenomena have more than one input.
  • American culture cannot be changed by fiat.
  • American culture is not the same culture as any of the other exemplar countries that might be brought into the discussion.
  • Neither America nor any other country should be referred to in unitary terms, as though one caricature of its population could be used to refer to the entirety of the country.
  • No legislation will operate in a vacuum.
  • Unintended consequences are just that.

College Liberal

The big pitfall is that inserting these valid points into a serious conversation about “what to do” is likely to make one appear callous, as though they are merely ironic deflections of earnest positions rather than a serious and engaged response to whatever proposal is advanced. For the record, I personally prefer some kind of gun control, but just think our expectations should be duly tempered. One core assumption of the structure of our deliberative democracy is that the process is supposed to temper extremism and unpalatable utopianism into something more consensus-driven, functional and pragmatic.

After all, are we really going to delude ourselves into believing that we can convince enough people to come to a consensus about a new gun control law? (I mean, if the NRA goes and does something totally emo like deleting their Facebook page and giving Twitter the silent treatment, do we really think they’ll come to the table like civic-minded Americans?) Whether our democracy is even capable of a deliberative and delicate policy discussion in this age remains to be seen. But maybe the fear of victimized children is the key rationale to ramming through policy, as it has been when it comes to regulation of speech and the Internet generally.

So these questions remain: will the passionate, factious temper that works up enough of a lather to generate any new legislation allow for dispassionate assessment of the actual possibilities? Or are we going to end up just shooting from the hip?