March 30, 2014

In which Tim Worstall admits that Karl Marx was right

Filed under: Business, Economics, Law — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:37

Well, right in this particular analysis, anyway:

Which is where we can bring Karl Marx into the discussion. Wrong as he was on many points he was at times a perceptive analyst. And he noted that what determined the wages of the workers wasn’t some calculation of a “fair wage”, nor some true value of their production (although he had much to say on both points), but in a market economy the wages that were paid were a reflection of what other people were willing to pay for access to that labour.

If, for example, there were a large number of unemployed (that “reserve army of the unemployed”) then a capitalist didn’t have to raise the wages of his workers however far productivity grew. If anyone tried to capture a bit more of the value being created, say through a strike or other activity, then the capitalist could simply fire them and bring in some of those unemployed. No profits needed to be shared with the workers. However, when we get to a situation of full employment then the dynamic changes. It’s not possible to simply hire and fire to keep wages low. For the other capitalists are competing for access to that labour that makes those profits. The higher profits go the higher all capitalists will be willing to bid up wages to continue making some profit at all.

The obverse of this is if the employers collude in order to artificially suppress the wages of the workers which is why that case involving Apple, Google and so on is going to trial. That’s monopoly capitalism that is and we really don’t like it at all.

But in this case with Yahoo trying to challenge Google’s YouTube, it will be the workers who benefit. For the two companies are vying with each other for access to the content being made and thus the profits that can be made. Of whatever revenue can be made a larger portion will go to the producers of the content and a smaller one to the owners of the platforms. Which is excellent, this is exactly what we want to happen.

January 8, 2014

“Silicon Valley was … collateral damage in the war on terror”

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Media, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:40

In Wired, Steven Levy explains how the NSA nearly killed the internet:

On June 6, 2013, Washington Post reporters called the communications depart­ments of Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other Internet companies. The day before, a report in the British newspaper The Guardian had shocked Americans with evidence that the telecommunications giant Verizon had voluntarily handed a database of every call made on its network to the National Security Agency. The piece was by reporter Glenn Greenwald, and the information came from Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old IT consultant who had left the US with hundreds of thousands of documents detailing the NSA’s secret procedures.

Greenwald was the first but not the only journalist that Snowden reached out to. The Post’s Barton Gellman had also connected with him. Now, collaborating with documentary filmmaker and Snowden confidante Laura Poitras, he was going to extend the story to Silicon Valley. Gellman wanted to be the first to expose a top-secret NSA program called Prism. Snowden’s files indicated that some of the biggest companies on the web had granted the NSA and FBI direct access to their servers, giving the agencies the ability to grab a person’s audio, video, photos, emails, and documents. The government urged Gellman not to identify the firms involved, but Gellman thought it was important. “Naming those companies is what would make it real to Americans,” he says. Now a team of Post reporters was reaching out to those companies for comment.

It would be the start of a chain reaction that threatened the foundations of the industry. The subject would dominate headlines for months and become the prime topic of conversation in tech circles. For years, the tech companies’ key policy issue had been negotiating the delicate balance between maintaining customers’ privacy and providing them benefits based on their personal data. It was new and contro­versial territory, sometimes eclipsing the substance of current law, but over time the companies had achieved a rough equilibrium that allowed them to push forward. The instant those phone calls from reporters came in, that balance was destabilized, as the tech world found itself ensnared in a fight far bigger than the ones involving oversharing on Facebook or ads on Gmail. Over the coming months, they would find themselves at war with their own government, in a fight for the very future of the Internet.

November 25, 2013

When your product is “users” your product improvement is “more surveillance”

Filed under: Business, Liberty, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:36

Bruce Schneier on the rising tide of non-governmental surveillance:

Google recently announced that it would start including individual users’ names and photos in some ads. This means that if you rate some product positively, your friends may see ads for that product with your name and photo attached — without your knowledge or consent. Meanwhile, Facebook is eliminating a feature that allowed people to retain some portions of their anonymity on its website.

These changes come on the heels of Google’s move to explore replacing tracking cookies with something that users have even less control over. Microsoft is doing something similar by developing its own tracking technology.

More generally, lots of companies are evading the “Do Not Track” rules, meant to give users a say in whether companies track them. Turns out the whole “Do Not Track” legislation has been a sham.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that big technology companies are tracking us on the Internet even more aggressively than before.

If these features don’t sound particularly beneficial to you, it’s because you’re not the customer of any of these companies. You’re the product, and you’re being improved for their actual customers: their advertisers.

November 20, 2013

An app like this may justify the existence of Google Glass

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:38

I have a terrible memory for people’s names (and no, it’s not just early senility … I’ve always had trouble remembering names). For example, I’ve been a member of the same badminton club for nearly 15 years and there are still folks there whose names just don’t register: not just new members, but people I’ve played with or against on dozens of occasions. I know them … I just can’t remember their names in a timely fashion. David Friedman suggests that Google Glass might be the solution I need:

I first encountered the solution to my problem in Double Star, a very good novel by Robert Heinlein. It will be made possible, in a higher tech version, by Google glass. The solution is the Farley File, named after FDR’s campaign manager.

A politician such as Roosevelt meets lots of people over the course of his career. For each of them the meeting is an event to be remembered and retold. It is much less memorable to the politician, who cannot possibly remember the details of ten thousand meetings. He can, however, create the illusion of doing so by maintaining a card file with information on everyone he has ever met: The name of the man’s wife, how many children he has, his dog, the joke he told, all the things the politician would have remembered if the meeting had been equally important to him. It is the job of one of the politician’s assistants to make sure that, any time anyone comes to see him, he gets thirty seconds to look over the card.

My version will use more advanced technology, courtesy of Google glass or one of its future competitors. When I subvocalize the key word “Farley,” the software identifies the person I am looking at, shows me his name (that alone would be worth the price) and, next to it, whatever facts about him I have in my personal database. A second trigger, if invoked, runs a quick search of the web for additional information.

Evernote has an application intended to do some of this (Evernote Hello), but it still requires the immersion-breaking act of accessing your smartphone to look up your contact information. Something similar in a Google Glass or equivalent environment might be the perfect solution.

September 28, 2013

Google is “fighting stupid with stupid”

Filed under: Business, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:54

In Maclean’s, Jesse Brown looks at the rather dangerous interpretation of how email works in a recent court decision:

Newsflash: Google scans your email! Whether you have a Gmail account or just send email to people who do, Gmail’s bots automatically read your messages, mostly for the purpose of creating targeted advertising. And if you were reading this in 2005, that might seem shocking.

Today, I think most Internet users understand how free webmail works and are okay with it. But a U.S. federal judge has ruled otherwise. Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh ruled that Google’s terms of service and privacy policies do not explicitly spell out that Google will “intercept” users’ email (here’s the ruling).

The word “intercept” is crucial here, because it may put Google in the crosshairs of State and Federal anti-wiretapping laws. After Judge Koh’s ruling, a class-action lawsuit against Google can proceed, whose plaintiffs seek remedies for themselves and for class groups including “all U.S. citizen non-Gmail users who have sent a message to a Gmail user and received a reply…”. Like they say in Vegas, go big or go home.


An algorithm that scans my messages for keywords like “vacation” in order to offer me cheap flights is not by any stretch of the imagination a wiretap.

But Google has taken a different tack in their defence. If, they’ve argued, what Gmail does qualifies as interception, than so does all email, since automated processing is needed just to send the stuff, whether or not advertising algorithms or anti-spam filters are in use. This logic can be extended, I suppose, to all data that passes through the Internet.

You might call it fighting stupid with stupid, but I think it’s a bold bluff: rule us illegal, Google warns the court, and be prepared to deem the Internet itself a wiretap violation.

September 8, 2013

Sometimes the worst possible thing for you is to dominate your market

Filed under: Business — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:53

Charles Hugh Smith on the dangers of being too big in your own market:

Microsoft is a case study in dominance leading to incompetence and catastrophe. Within the moat of near-monopoly/dominance, competence dwindles to the ability to keep doing what worked spectacularly well in the past, and keeping bureaucratic infighting and divisional rivalries down to a dull background erosion of initiative and talent.

Doing more of what succeeded spectacularly in the past works until it doesn’t, at which point doggedly pressing on with the old formula of success leads to catastrophic failures.

Nokia and Blackberry are recent case studies, but the rise of Google Chrome and smart-phone/tablet computing is beginning to threaten Microsoft’s core business of being the utility monopoly in the PC space.

Dominance means leaders and employees alike lose the ability to experience risk. The customer will take what is delivered, regardless, for the simple reason that alternatives are either unavailable or cumbersome.


Dominance in any space breeds complacency and enables the luxuries of political squabbling, sclerosis and loss of focus. Competence becomes incompetence, and the infrastructure that fosters creativity and flexibility — that is, a keen appreciation of risk and spontaneity — is slowly dismantled.

That applies not just to corporations but to governments, nations and empires.

H/T to Zero Hedge for the link.

September 1, 2013

India moves government email away from US-based email services

Filed under: Government, India, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:13

Vinay Mandalia discusses the quite rational response of the Indian government to the recent discovery that the US intelligence services have had full access to all email communications hosted on US email services:

The Government of India is planning to ban the use of US based email services like Gmail for official communications and is soon going to send out a formal notification to its half a million officials across the country asking them to use official email addresses and services provided by National Informatics Centre.

The move is intended to increase the security of confidential government data and information after it was revealed earlier that NSA may be involved in widespread spying and surveillance activities across the globe.

In a statement to reporters here J. Satyanarayana, secretary in the department of electronics and information technology, said that data of Indian citizens using US based email services like Gmail is residing on servers which are located outside India and for now the government is concerned about the large amount of official and critical data that may be resident on those servers.

Expect a lot of other US “allies” to suddenly discover that their internal communications have been an open book to their “friends” for the last 10-20 years and decide to take similar measures.

H/T to Techdirt for the link.

August 14, 2013

The “Indie Web” is the very definition of a fringe project

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:55

Wired‘s Klint Finley wants you to meet the indie hackers who want to jailbreak the internet (among other things):

One guy is wearing his Google Glass. Another showed up in an HTML5 t-shirt. And then there’s the dude who looks like the Mad Hatter, decked out in a top hat with an enormous white flower tucked into the brim.

At first, they look like any other gaggle of tech geeks. But then you notice that one of them is Ward Cunningham, the man who invented the wiki, the tech that underpins Wikipedia. And there’s Kevin Marks, the former vice president of web services at British Telecom. Oh, and don’t miss Brad Fitzpatrick, creator of the seminal blogging site LiveJournal and, more recently, a coder who works in the engine room of Google’s online empire.

Packed into a small conference room, this rag-tag band of software developers has an outsized digital pedigree, and they have a mission to match. They hope to jailbreak the internet.

They call it the Indie Web movement, an effort to create a web that’s not so dependent on tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and, yes, Google — a web that belongs not to one individual or one company, but to everyone. “I don’t trust myself,” says Fitzpatrick. “And I don’t trust companies.” The movement grew out of an egalitarian online project launched by Fitzpatrick, before he made the move to Google. And over the past few years, it has roped in about 100 other coders from around the world.

August 4, 2013

Bruce Schneier talks about security and trust

Filed under: Business, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:07

Published on 19 Jun 2013

Human society runs on trust. We all trust millions of people, organizations, and systems every day — and we do it so easily that we barely notice. But in any system of trust, there is an alternative, parasitic, strategy that involves abusing that trust. Making sure those defectors don’t destroy the cooperative systems they’re abusing is an age-old problem, one that we’ve solved through morals and ethics, laws, and all sort of security technologies. Understanding how these all work — and fail — is essential to understanding the problems we face in today’s increasingly technological and interconnected world.

Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist and author. Described by The Economist as a “security guru,” he is best known as a refreshingly candid and lucid security critic and commentator. When people want to know how security really works, they turn to Schneier.

H/T to AVC for the link.

July 25, 2013

First world blogging problems

Filed under: Administrivia, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:48

I use a few tools to come up with items to post on the blog. The two most useful are Twitter and RSS. I’d been using Google Reader for my RSS needs until it was shut down at the beginning of July, so I switched to The Old Reader and it has been working quite well as a direct Google Reader replacement. Earlier this week, TOR had a server meltdown and multiple failures of drives while attempting to recover. As of this morning, they’re still trying to get back online and (hopefully) recover all the data. Fortunately, I’ve also been testing Newsvibe for RSS, and it’s still working well … but has a different set of feeds than TOR.

My other main tool, Twitter, seems to be having some issues today … or it might just be that my old Twitter client is finally giving up the ghost. I’ve been using the desktop TweetDeck client for years, but I really disliked the “new” version of the tool introduced when TweetDeck was taken over by Twitter itself. Over the last several months, the old client (version 0.38.2) has been slowly losing bits of functionality — for example, sometime in the last week, I lost the ability to send a direct message from Tweetdeck, and earlier this year it became impossible to use the “old” retweet method and more recently to retweet at all.

Today, when I started up the client, it was unable to retrieve any data from earlier this morning. This might be a general issue with the Twitter API or it might be yet another bit of creeping feature-fail. It’s picking up new Twitter posts, but one of the more useful features was that it would also collect tweets from my several lists that had been posted overnight. This morning, only the main feed column in Tweetdeck is being populated, the rest (Mentions, Direct Messages, various list and search columns) are empty.

Old Tweetdeck

I may need to shop around for a new Twitter client. Either way, it puts a crimp in my usual blogging habits.

June 29, 2013

Finding replacements for Google Reader

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:39

If you use Google Reader, you’ve got until Monday to find a replacement tool or give up on your RSS feeds. Lifehacker wants to help:

The first thing you’ll want to do is back up your data as an OPML file through Google Takeout. You won’t be able to access it ever again once the service shuts down, so this officially qualifies as crunch time. Luckily, it’s really simple, and we’ve shown you how to do it in three easy steps. Once you’re done, I’d also make sure you have several secure backups saved at home and on the cloud, just to be sure.

As soon as your data is safe and sound, it’s time to go shopping for a new RSS home. Feedly is the most popular alternative at the moment, but there are tons of other options if it doesn’t check all of your boxes. In case you missed it, we’ve rounded up some of the best to help make the transition a little easier. All of these services will import that all-important OPML file, but some can pull your Reader data directly off of Google’s servers while it’s still available, including starred and read items in many cases, so it’s probably worth it to set up a new account over the weekend. In fact, if you haven’t settled on one alternative yet, you might want to sign up for several to hedge your bets and preserve this valuable metadata.

I’ve been using Google Reader to stay on top of news for my weekly Guild Wars 2 community round-ups at GuildMag, so finding a replacement was necessary. I settled on The Old Reader for my GW2 feeds and I’m experimenting with Newsvibe for other feeds.

I’ve been very pleased with The Old Reader, which has been a great replacement and the transition was nearly seamless. I’m still not completely sold on Newsvibe, as it has a couple of issues that reduce its usefulness to me: the session times out very quickly (less than an hour) and it can’t handle certain RSS feeds and refuses to indicate why (it just fails to add the new subscription silently).

June 20, 2013

The UK debate over online porn

Filed under: Britain, Law, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:04

Willard Foxton says that the real problem is that the two “sides” of the argument are not even talking the same language:

Claire Perry, the Prime Minister’s “special adviser on preventing the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood”, has three demands which she claims will save the world from the horrors of porn. First, that internet service providers and other internet companies block child pornography at its source; second, that any sort of simulated rape pornography is banned; and third, that pornography is banned from public WiFi.

On the face of it, these all seem like reasonable demands. I mean, if you oppose them, you must be some kind of filth peddler or mad porn obsessive, right? Or you might just be a person who understands how the internet works, and therein lies the problem. Let’s tackle Perry’s demands one by one and explain, patiently, why she is wrong.

Firstly, her request that internet service providers block images of child abuse “at their source”. It sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? Indeed, it’s so reasonable that they already do, and indeed have been doing since 2007. It’s done through a system called Cleanfeed, which is a rare example of a British state-funded IT project that works like a charm. They way it works is, any time a website is reported as illegal to the police, it’s added to a list. Any sites on that list are inaccessible from British ISPs. It’s a very secure system, and very hard to work around – it works so well that we’ve exported it to Canada and Australia.

Perry also wants Google to “do more” to block child porn. As I’ve said before on these pages, Google (and other large search providers), already have enormous departments devoted to blocking it, with thousands of employees checking YouTube for offensive images. On top of that, very little of the material that so offends Perry is available though a simple Google search; most of the illegal stuff is hidden in Internet Relay Chat file servers or on the dark web, accessible only via anonymising browsers like Tor.

Update: At Techdirt, Tim Cushing addresses the common claim by grandstanding politicians that child pornography is easy to “stumble upon”:

How hard would it be to access child porn if you weren’t looking for it specifically? The Ministry of Truth puts your odds at 1 in 2.6 million searches. (MoT points out the odds will fluctuate depending on search terms used, but for the most part, it’s not the sort of thing someone unwittingly stumbles upon.)

All those demanding Google do more to block child porn fail to realize there’s not much more it can do. The UK already has an underlying blocking system filtering out illegal images at the ISP level, and Google itself runs its own blocker as well.

The above calculations should put the child porn “epidemic” in perspective. As far as the web that Google actively “controls,” it’s doing about as much as it can to keep child porn and internet users separated. There are millions of pages Google can’t or doesn’t index and those actively looking for this material will still be able to find it. Google (and most other “internet companies”) can’t really do more than they’re already doing already. But every time a child pornography-related, high profile crime hits the courtroom (either in the UK or the US), the politicians instantly begin pointing fingers at ISPs and search engines, claiming they’re not doing “enough” to clean up the internet, something that explicitly isn’t in their job description. And yet, they do more in an attempt to satiate the ignorant hunger of opportunistic legislators.

If Google is “the face of the internet” as so many finger pointers claim, than the “internet” it “patrols” is well over 99% free of illegal images, according to a respected watchdog group. But accepting that fact means appearing unwilling to “do something,” an unacceptable option for most politicians.

May 20, 2013

Yahoo’s Tumblr purchase

Filed under: Business, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:15

Yahoo is spending $1.1 billion to acquire Tumblr:

Despite the breadth and diversity of life online, there are relatively few opportunities to make the kind of acquisitions that make the industry stop and take stock. Yahoo’s $1.1bn deal to buy Tumblr is one of those moments: a bold acquisition that says chief executive Marissa Meyer means business.

Comparisons to Yahoo’s 1999 $3.6bn acquisition of Geocities are too simplistic. In internet years, 1999 is more like two centuries ago and Yahoo is in a completely different place, led by a woman with all the zeal of a convert. Repeatedly passed over for promotion during her previous (another internet lifetime) 13 years at Google, she has an opportunity to do something impressive with Yahoo, which seemed in terminal decline. One venture capital executive told me that during the tenure of Carol Bartz, Mayer’s predecessor once removed, the investors were expecting Yahoo to ditch all but essential staff, focus on core revenue-building products and then rinse the company hard for maximum profit until it ran into the ground.

[. . .]

Yahoo was easy to write off in the tech community because it lacks the cool factor and developer kudos of Facebook and Google. But Yahoo’s power has always been in its more mainstream (though ageing) user base and its powerful display advertising business. Herein lies the key to its Tumblr acquisition. Though the fit with this hipster lite-blogging, photo-heavy platform could seem a little awkward, it makes sense in the context of Yahoo’s ad strategy.

Tumblr founder David Karp has always said its advertising model is based on Twitter’s “the tweet is the ad” principle. That is, that being embedded in a customised, personal flow of information, being relevant to an influential and proactive community is the most valuable and meaningful way of presenting display advertising right now. That makes Tumblr, integrated with Yahoo’s enormous expertise in display advertising, a diverse and demographically important platform for Yahoo that is mobile-heavy and social-focused.

May 15, 2013

Google UK marks the 150th birthday of Frank Hornby

Filed under: Britain, Business, History, Railways — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:09

If you go to https://www.google.co.uk/ today, you’ll see the Google doodle has a distinct toy train motif:

Google UK doodle for Frank Hornby

At The Independent, Matilda Battersby tells the story:

The search engine Google is celebrating the 150th birthday of visionary toy maker Frank Hornby, whose model railways, Meccano sets and Dinky toys are still being played with by children today.

Born in Liverpool on 15 May 1863, Hornby was behind three of the most popular toy lines of the 20th century despite having no formal engineering training.

[. . .]

Meccano’s turnover for the 1910 financial year was £12,000. His son Roland joined the business, and when the operation began exporting to Europe, he opened Meccano France Ltd in Paris. Two offices in Germany soon followed.

Having dabbled in politics in later life, Hornby died of a heart condition and diabetes in Maghull, near Liverpool, on 21 September 1936. Two years previously he had set up Dinky Toys to manufacture miniature model cars and trucks.

In 1938 his son Roland launched the Hornby Dublo model railway system — a posthumous honour to his father.

Enthusiasts around the world still collect Hornby train sets, Dinky Toys and Meccano models. The modern business also make Scalextric cars and Airfix kits.

H/T to Roger Henry for the link.

May 9, 2013

The NSA’s guide to hacking Google searches

Filed under: Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:34

Wired‘s Kim Zetter on how the NSA recommends its own analysts get the best intelligence use out of Google and other online tools:

There’s so much data available on the internet that even government cyberspies need a little help now and then to sift through it all. So to assist them, the National Security Agency produced a book to help its spies uncover intelligence hiding on the web.

The 643-page tome, called Untangling the Web: A Guide to Internet Research (.pdf), was just released by the NSA following a FOIA request filed in April by MuckRock, a site that charges fees to process public records for activists and others.

The book was published by the Center for Digital Content of the National Security Agency, and is filled with advice for using search engines, the Internet Archive and other online tools. But the most interesting is the chapter titled “Google Hacking.”

[. . .]

Stealing intelligence on the internet that others don’t want you to have might not be illegal, but it does come with other risks, the authors note: “It is critical that you handle all Microsoft file types on the internet with extreme care. Never open a Microsoft file type on the internet. Instead, use one of the techniques described here,” they write in a footnote. The word “here” is hyperlinked, but since the document is a PDF the link is inaccessible. No word about the dangers that Adobe PDFs pose. But the version of the manual the NSA released was last updated in 2007, so let’s hope later versions cover it.

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