Quotulatiousness

October 24, 2014

QotD: Poverty in the West is not like poverty in the rest of the world

Filed under: Economics, Quotations, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

What is it, in terms of physical goods and services, that we wish to provide for the poor that they do not already have? Their lives often may not be very happy or stable, but the poor do have a great deal of stuff. Conservatives can be a little yahoo-ish on the subject, but do consider for a moment the inventory of the typical poor household in the United States: at least one car, often two or more, air conditioning, a couple of televisions with cable, DVD player, clothes washer and dryer, cellphones, etc. As Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield report: “The home of the typical poor family was not overcrowded and was in good repair. In fact, the typical poor American had more living space than the average European. The typical poor American family was also able to obtain medical care when needed. By its own report, the typical family was not hungry and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs. Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable-TV bill as well as to put food on the table.” They also point out that there’s a strong correlation between having boys in the home and having an Xbox or another gaming system.

In terms of physical goods, what is it that we want the poor to have that they do not? A third or fourth television?

Partly, what elites want is for the poor to have lives and manners more like their own: less Seven-Layer Burrito, more Whole Foods; less screaming at their kids in the Walmart parking lot and more giving them hideous and crippling fits of anxiety about getting into the right pre-kindergarten. Elites want for the poor to behave themselves, to stop being unruly and bumptious, to get over their distasteful enthusiasms, their bitter clinging to God and guns. Progressive elites in particular live in horror of the fact that poor people tend to suffer disproportionately from such health problems as obesity and diabetes, and that they do not take their social views from Chris Hayes — and these two phenomena are essentially the same thing in their minds. Consider how much commentary from the Left about the Tea Party has consisted of variations on: “Poor people are gross.”

A second Xbox is not going to change that very much.

Kevin D. Williamson, “Welcome to the Paradise of the Real: How to refute progressive fantasies — or, a red-pill economics”, National Review, 2014-04-24

October 13, 2014

Statistical sleight-of-hand on the dangers of texting while driving

Filed under: Health, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:15

Philip N. Cohen casts a skeptical eye at the frequently cited statistic on the dangers of texting, especially to teenage drivers. It’s another “epidemic” of bad statistics and panic-mongering headlines:

Recently, [author and journalist Matt] Richtel tweeted a link to this old news article that claims texting causes more fatal accidents for teenagers than alcohol. The article says some researcher estimates “more than 3,000 annual teen deaths from texting,” but there is no reference to a study or any source for the data used to make the estimate. As I previously noted, that’s not plausible.

In fact, 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, my math gets me 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents, regardless of the cause. I’m no Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book.

In fact, I suspect the 11-per-day meme comes from Mother Jones (or whoever someone there got it from) doing the math wrong on that Newsday number of 3,000 per year and calling it “nearly a dozen” (3,000 is 8.2 per day). And if you Google around looking for this 11-per-day statistic, you find sites like textinganddrivingsafety.com, which, like Richtel does in his website video, attributes the statistic to the “Institute for Highway Safety.” I think they mean the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the source I used for the 2,823 number above. (The fact that he gets the name wrong suggests he got the statistic second-hand.) IIHS has an extensive page of facts on distracted driving, which doesn’t have any fact like this (they actually express skepticism about inflated claims of cell phone effects).

[...]

I generally oppose scare-mongering manipulations of data that take advantage of common ignorance. The people selling mobile-phone panic don’t dwell on the fact that the roads are getting safer and safer, and just let you go on assuming they’re getting more and more dangerous. I reviewed all that here, showing the increase in mobile phone subscriptions relative to the decline in traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths.

That doesn’t mean texting and driving isn’t dangerous. I’m sure it is. Cell phone bans may be a good idea, although the evidence that they save lives is mixed. But the overall situation is surely more complicated than the TEXTING-WHILE-DRIVING EPIDEMIC suggests. The whole story doesn’t seem right — how can phones be so dangerous, and growing more and more pervasive, while accidents and injuries fall? At the very least, a powerful part of the explanation is being left out. (I wonder if phones displace other distractions, like eating and putting on make-up; or if some people drive more cautiously while they’re using their phones, to compensate for their distraction; or if distracted phone users were simply the worst drivers already.)

September 24, 2014

QotD: Privacy and cell phones

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

People who were charged with a crime in England used to be told by the police that they did not have to say anything, but that anything they did say might be taken down and used as evidence against them. I think we should all be given this warning whenever we use a mobile telephone.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Nowhere to Hide”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-02-23

August 15, 2014

QotD: Mobile phone companies

Filed under: Business, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

I recently cancelled a contract with a different provider after some gizmo broke. The company first told me the whole thing was my problem, then at the last moment offered me hundreds of pounds to stay. When your phone company starts using the playbook of an emotionally abusive spouse, this is not a market in good working order.

Tim Harford, “Casinos’ worrying knack for consumer manipulation: The spread of machine gambling offers a portent of other economic developments”, TimHarford.com, 2014-01-07

July 15, 2014

The sheer difficulty of obtaining a warrant

Filed under: Government, Law, Liberty, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:21

Tim Cushing wonders why we don’t seem to sympathize with the plight of poor, overworked law enforcement officials who find the crushing burden of getting a warrant for accessing your cell phone data to be too hard:

You’d think approved warrants must be like albino unicorns for all the arguing the government does to avoid having to run one by a judge. It continually acts as though there aren’t statistics out there that show obtaining a warrant is about as difficult as obeying the laws of thermodynamics. Wiretap warrants have been approved 99.969% of the time over the last decade. And that’s for something far more intrusive than cell site location data.

But still, the government continues to argue that location data, while possibly intrusive, is simply Just Another Business Record — records it is entitled to have thanks to the Third Party Doctrine. Any legal decision that suggests even the slightest expectation of privacy might have arisen over the past several years as the public’s relationship with cell phones has shifted from “luxury item/business tool” to “even grandma has a smartphone” is greeted with reams of paper from the government, all of it metaphorically pounding on the table and shouting “BUSINESS RECORDS!”

When that fails, it pushes for the lower bar of the Stored Communications Act [PDF] to be applied to its request, dropping it from “probable cause” to “specific and articulable facts.” The Stored Communications Act is the lowest bar, seeing as it allows government agencies and law enforcement to access electronic communications older than 180 days without a warrant. It’s interesting that the government would invoke this to defend the warrantless access to location metadata, seeing as the term “communications” is part of the law’s title. This would seem to imply what’s being sought is actual content — something that normally requires a higher bar to obtain.

Update: Ken White at Popehat says warrants are not particularly strong devices to protect your liberty and lists a few distressing cases where warrants have been issued recently.

We’re faced all the time with the ridiculous warrants judges will sign if they’re asked. Judges will sign a warrant to give a teenager an injection to induce an erection so that the police can photograph it to fight sexting. Judges will, based on flimsy evidence, sign a warrant allowing doctors to medicate and anally penetrate a man because he might have a small amount of drugs concealed in his rectum. Judges will sign a warrant to dig up a yard based on a tip from a psychic. Judges will kowtow to an oversensitive politician by signing a warrant to search the home of the author of a patently satirical Twitter account. Judges will give police a warrant to search your home based on a criminal libel statute if your satirical newspaper offended a delicate professor. And you’d better believe judges will oblige cops by giving them a search warrant when someone makes satirical cartoons about them.

I’m not saying that warrants are completely useless. Warrants create a written record of the government’s asserted basis for an action, limiting cops’ ability to make up post-hoc justifications. Occasionally some prosecutors turn down weak warrant applications. The mere process of seeking a warrant may regulate law enforcement behavior soomewhat.

Rather, I’m saying that requiring the government to get a warrant isn’t the victory you might hope. The numbers — and the experience of criminal justice practitioners — suggests that judges in the United States provide only marginal oversight over what is requested of them. Calling it a rubber stamp is unfair; sometimes actual rubber stamps run out of ink. The problem is deeper than court decisions that excuse the government from seeking warrants because of the War on Drugs or OMG 9/11 or the like. The problem is one of the culture of the criminal justice system and the judiciary, a culture steeped in the notion that “law and order” and “tough on crime” are principled legal positions rather than political ones. The problem is that even if we’d like to see the warrant requirement as interposing neutral judges between our rights and law enforcement, there’s no indication that the judges see it that way.

July 10, 2014

Throwing a bit of light on security in the “internet of things”

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:36

The “internet of things” is coming: more and more of your surroundings are going to be connected in a vastly expanded internet. A lot of attention needs to be paid to security in this new world, as Dan Goodin explains:

In the latest cautionary tale involving the so-called Internet of things, white-hat hackers have devised an attack against network-connected lightbulbs that exposes Wi-Fi passwords to anyone in proximity to one of the LED devices.

The attack works against LIFX smart lightbulbs, which can be turned on and off and adjusted using iOS- and Android-based devices. Ars Senior Reviews Editor Lee Hutchinson gave a good overview here of the Philips Hue lights, which are programmable, controllable LED-powered bulbs that compete with LIFX. The bulbs are part of a growing trend in which manufacturers add computing and networking capabilities to appliances so people can manipulate them remotely using smartphones, computers, and other network-connected devices. A 2012 Kickstarter campaign raised more than $1.3 million for LIFX, more than 13 times the original goal of $100,000.

According to a blog post published over the weekend, LIFX has updated the firmware used to control the bulbs after researchers discovered a weakness that allowed hackers within about 30 meters to obtain the passwords used to secure the connected Wi-Fi network. The credentials are passed from one networked bulb to another over a mesh network powered by 6LoWPAN, a wireless specification built on top of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. While the bulbs used the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to encrypt the passwords, the underlying pre-shared key never changed, making it easy for the attacker to decipher the payload.

March 29, 2014

Surveillance of Canadian telecommunications channels

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

The University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs looks at how the Canadian security establishment operates:

The issue of lawful access has repeatedly arisen on the Canadian federal agenda. Every time that the legislation has been introduced Canadians have opposed the notion of authorities gaining warrantless access to subscriber data, to the point where the most recent version of the lawful access legislation dropped this provision. It would seem, however, that the real motivation for dropping the provision may follow from the facts on the ground: Canadian authorities already routinely and massively collect subscriber data without significant pushback by Canada’s service providers. And whereas the prior iteration of the lawful access legislation (i.e. C–30) would have required authorities to report on their access to this data the current iteration of the legislation (i.e. C–13) lacks this accountability safeguard.

In March 2014, MP Charmaine Borg received responses from federal agencies (.pdf) concerning the agencies’ requests for subscriber-related information from telecommunications service providers (TSPs). Those responses demonstrate extensive and unaccountable federal government surveillance of Canadians. I begin this post by discussing the political significance of MP Borg’s questions and then proceed to granularly identify major findings from the federal agencies’ respective responses. After providing these empirical details and discussing their significance, I conclude by arguing that the ‘subscriber information loophole’ urgently needs to be closed and that federal agencies must be made accountable to their masters, the Canadian public.

[...]

The government’s responses to MP Borg’s questions were returned on March 24, 2014. In what follows I identify the major findings from these responses. I first discuss the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA). These agencies provided particularly valuable information in response to MP Borg’s questions. I then move to discuss some of the ‘minor findings’ related to the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA), Competition Bureau, Statistics Canada, and the Transportation Safety Board (TSB).

March 22, 2014

Variations on Bach

Filed under: Japan, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:11

Classic FM has a collection of 10 videos which use Bach’s music in varied ways, including this rather charming forest xylophone performance as an ad for a Japanese mobile phone:

Uploaded on 4 May 2011

Very nice music from a very long xylophone in the forest.
No CG or tape-cut. Four days spent.
This is for a newly launched cell phone of NTT Docomo, the largest mobile service provider in Japan. Shell of the new phone is wood and their idea is to use domestic woods that are produced after preservative maintenance of Japanese forest.
ドコモのサイトでステキな映像発見。

Music: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, by Bach
Cannes Lion Award Winner 2010

H/T to Samizdata for the link.

March 18, 2014

Selfies are “this year’s droopy pants, backwards baseball caps, or visible piercings, as a shorthand for all that is wrong with today’s youth”

Filed under: Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:21

Nick Gillespie loves the Millennials. No, he really does:

That discomfort you’re sensing all around you? It’s the American Establishment loading its Depends diapers over the prospect of a younger generation that is turning its back on political parties and other zombified artifacts of our glorious past.

On the heels of the Pew Research report titled “Millennials in Adulthood,” two leading New York Times columnists have penned anxious articles sweating it out over the “The Self(ie) Generation” and “The Age of Individualism.”

“Millennials (defined by Pew as Americans ages 18 to 33) are drifting away from traditional institutions — political, religious and cultural,” muses Charles M. Blow, who sees a “a generation in which institutions are subordinate to the individual… This is not only the generation of the self; it’s the generation of the selfie.” Oh noes! And it’s only gonna get worse: “In the future,” worries Ross Douthat, “there will be only one ‘ism’ — Individualism — and its rule will never end. As for religion, it shall decline; as for marriage, it shall be postponed; as for ideologies, they shall be rejected; as for patriotism, it shall be abandoned; as for strangers, they shall be distrusted. Only pot, selfies and Facebook will abide.”

Does it strike anyone else as odd that selfies — clearly less the product of rising narcissism and more the product of the same awesome technology that empowers citizens to capture cops beating the shit of innocent people — have emerged as this year’s droopy pants, backwards baseball caps, or visible piercings, as a shorthand for all that is wrong with today’s youth? Getting bent out of shape over selfies may just be the ultimate #firstworldproblem.

March 13, 2014

It’s amazing how much data can be derived from “mere” metadata

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:25

Two Stanford grad students conducted a research project to find out what kind of actual data can be derived from mobile phone metadata:

Two Stanford computer science students were able to acquire detailed information about people’s lives just from telephone metadata — the phone number of the caller and recipient, the particular serial number of the phones involved, the time and duration of calls and possibly the location of each person when the call occurred.

The researchers did not do any illegal snooping — they worked with the phone records of 546 volunteers, matching phone numbers against the public Yelp and Google Places directories to see who was being called.

From the phone numbers, it was possible to determine that 57 percent of the volunteers made at least one medical call. Forty percent made a call related to financial services.

The volunteers called 33,688 unique numbers; 6,107 of those numbers, or 18 percent, were isolated to a particular identity.

[...]

They crowdsourced the data using an Android application and conducted an analysis of individual calls made by the volunteers to sensitive numbers, connecting the patterns of calls to emphasize the detail available in telephone metadata, Mayer said.

“A pattern of calls will, of course, reveal more than individual call records,” he said. “In our analysis, we identified a number of patterns that were highly indicative of sensitive activities or traits.”

For example, one participant called several local neurology groups, a specialty pharmacy, a rare-condition management service, and a pharmaceutical hotline used for multiple sclerosis.

Another contacted a home improvement store, locksmiths, a hydroponics dealer and a head shop.

The researchers initially shared the same hypothesis as their computer science colleagues, Mayer said. They did not anticipate finding much evidence one way or the other.

“We were wrong. Phone metadata is unambiguously sensitive, even over a small sample and short time window. We were able to infer medical conditions, firearm ownership and more, using solely phone metadata,” he said.

January 15, 2014

President Obama’s speech shows his fear of “a backlash from national security agencies”

Filed under: Government, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:38

Is the national security “tail” wagging the national “dog”?

President Obama will issue new guidelines on Friday to curtail government surveillance, but will not embrace the most far-reaching proposals of his own advisers and will ask Congress to help decide some of the toughest issues, according to people briefed on his thinking.

Mr. Obama plans to increase limits on access to bulk telephone data, call for privacy safeguards for foreigners and propose the creation of a public advocate to represent privacy concerns at a secret intelligence court. But he will not endorse leaving bulk data in the custody of telecommunications firms, nor will he require court permission for all so-called national security letters seeking business records.

The emerging approach, described by current and former government officials who insisted on anonymity in advance of Mr. Obama’s widely anticipated speech, suggested a president trying to straddle a difficult line in hopes of placating foreign leaders and advocates of civil liberties without a backlash from national security agencies. The result seems to be a speech that leaves in place many current programs, but embraces the spirit of reform and keeps the door open to changes later.

Emphasis mine.

October 7, 2013

CSEC’s sudden media prominence … in Brazil

Filed under: Americas, Cancon, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:50

If you haven’t heard of CSEC before, you’re certainly not alone. The signals intelligence service known as Communications Security Establishment Canada has been eager not to be in the public eye, but allegations are being made that CSEC has been spying on the Brazilian government’s mining and energy ministry:

The impact for Canada of these revelations could be equally grave: they come at a time when Brazil has become a top destination for Canadian exports, when a stream of delegations from the oil and gas industries are making pilgrimages to Rio de Janeiro to try to get a piece of the booming offshore oil industry, and when the Canadian government is eager to burnish ties with Brasilia. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird visited Brazil in August, and spoke repeatedly about the country as a critical partner for Canadian business.

[...]

While CSEC’s role in conducting economic espionage has been alluded to before, how it does this job has not. The significance of the documents obtained by Globo in Brazil is that they speak to how “metadata” analysis by CSEC can be used to exploit a rival country’s computer systems.

The CSEC-labeled slides about the “Olympia” program describe the “Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy” as a “new target to develop” despite “limited access/target knowledge.”

The presentation goes on to map out how an individual’s smartphone — “target’s handset” — can be discerned by analysis, including by cross-referencing the smartphone’s Sim card with the network telephone number assigned to it and also to the handset’s unique number (IMEI).

The “top secret” presentation also refers to attacks on email servers.

“I have identified MX [email] servers which have been targeted to passive collection by the Intel analysts,” one slide says, without explaining who the speaker is.

September 19, 2013

After smartphones, genius machines?

Filed under: Business, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:41

In the Daily Beast, Robert Herritt reviews the latest book by Tyler Cowen, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.

Cowen’s main background assumption is that in the not-too-distant future various kinds of “genius machines” will be everywhere. In the workplace, business negotiations and client introductions “will be recorded, processed, and analyzed [and] … [e]ach party to the communications might receive a real-time report on when the other people are likely lying …” At the supermarket, “[y]our shopping cart will use GPS to track your moves through the store, including which aisles you visit most often.” As for our personal lives, “[a] woman might consult a pocket device in the ladies’ room during a date that tells her how much she really likes the guy. The machine could register her pulse, breathing, tone of voice … or whichever biological features prove to have predictive power.”

Even a few years ago, this forecast would have sounded silly, but that was before many of us trusted Match.com algorithms to suggest potential spouses and smartphones came with fingerprint scanners. Cowen’s not talking about flying cars (that futurist mainstay that always seems both just out of reach and comically unnecessary), but rather slightly more sophisticated versions of the technologies that many of us already use.

The bad news, he tells us, is that the rise of the machines will only worsen the wage polarization we are seeing today. Cowen predicts a situation where 10 percent to 15 percent of Americans are “extremely wealthy” with “fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives.” Most of the rest will see stagnant or falling wages but will benefit from plenty of “cheap fun and also cheap education.” For those wondering, this vanishing middle ground is where the book gets its catch-phrase title.

What will determine whether you end up a high earner or a low-wage left-behind will be, in large part, your answer to some variation on the following questions: “Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you?”

September 13, 2013

The fatal challenge facing Apple and Samsung – boredom

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:01

The Register‘s Andrew Orlowski speculates that we’ve hit PEAK SMARTPHONE:

Apple’s keynotes seem to command more mainstream front-page press attention than ever before — but each time, there’s less and less to report. Is the modern smartphone era limping to a close?

Apple’s announcements on Tuesday about the iPhone 5S and 5C were wearily predictable. Cupertino just doesn’t seem to be where the action is any more.

It is almost as if Apple and its arch-rival Samsung have exhausted themselves by suing each other around the world — and now look like two very knackered boxers agreeing to shuffle their way through the remaining rounds to the bell, rather than risk throwing big punches.

[...]

But the warning signs are there. Samsung reportedly held “crisis talks” this after sales of the Galaxy S4 failed to meet its expectations, Apple iPhone sales have declined for the past three quarters, and, well, “Peak Apple“.

Samsung piled on gimmicky and slightly creepy features like eyeball tracking, simply because it could. Apple’s user-facing innovation (the A7 64-bit chip is the real star of the show) entails building in a fingerprint scanner — a commodity laptop part for the past 10 years. Indeed, the only “radical” moves by Apple are adding colours to a slightly cheaper (but certainly not cheap) iPhone and rejecting NFC (or “Not F*cking Connecting”, as it’s known around here), which is a technology flop. Not so radical, then.

The stark truth is that smartphones, like computers, were only ever a means to an end — and once the services and apps markets matured, the smartphone itself became less … important. It didn’t really matter what access device you were carrying. The PC reached a point where the devices became beige boxes competing on price, and the smartphone era is drawing to the point where it doesn’t really matter what black rectangle you’re carrying — provided it accesses the services and apps you want. Fetishising the access devices is as strange as thanking LG or Panasonic for creating BBC2. No wonder both Samsung and Apple are looking at new higher-margin peripherals such as watches.

September 3, 2013

Microsoft buys Finland

Filed under: Business, Europe, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:16

Oh, sorry, I misread the headline … it should say “Microsoft buys Finland’s tech sector“:

Microsoft has agreed a deal to buy Nokia’s mobile phone business for 5.4bn euros ($7.2bn; £4.6bn).

Nokia will also license its patents and mapping services to Microsoft. Nokia shares jumped 45% on news of the deal.

The purchase is set to be completed in early 2014, when about 32,000 Nokia employees will transfer to Microsoft.

While Nokia has struggled against competition from Samsung and Apple, Microsoft has been criticised for being slow into the mobile market.

Describing the deal as a “big, bold step forward”, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer told the BBC that his company was in the process of transforming itself from one that “was known for software and PCs, to a company that focuses on devices and services”.

“We’ve done a lot of great work in the two-and-a-half years that we’ve been in partnership with Nokia, going literally from no phones to 7.4 million smart Windows phones in the last quarter that was reported,” he said.

But he admitted: “We have more work to do to expand the range of applications on our product.”

I guess we can now retire the “Microsoft is buying RIM Blackberry” rumours…

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