Are Democrats finally ready to unfriend Facebook and Silicon Valley?

Are Democrats finally ready to unfriend Facebook and Silicon Valley?
Not so long ago, Barack Obama was drinking in Mark Zuckerberg’s psychobabble about bringing the world together
By Thomas Frank
Apr 29 2018

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came to Washington a few weeks ago to absorb the wrath of a Congress angered by the way his company allowed the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica to harvest the personal data of millions of unsuspecting Facebook users.

A few members of Congress understood that the outrage was even greater: that Zuckerberg’s company basically exists in order to spy on us. That it tracks us as we wander online. That it controls the news users see. That it buys up competitors and operates as a near monopoly. That this panopticon corporation (whose services I myself use every day) has more power – political power, cultural power – than any private entity ought to have. As Zephyr Teachout put it, the company is “a danger to democracy”.

Understanding this, some in Congress were pretty tough on Zuckerberg. But watching him squirm under the Washington glare reminded me of a different conversation between the young billionaire and an elected official, one that took place in the summer of 2016, back when a sunnier conception of Facebook was mandatory among America’s enlightened class.

The setting was the state department’s annual “Global Entrepreneurship Summit”, the elected official was President Barack Obama, and the object seems to have been to deliver a thinly disguised advertisement for Facebook as a lovable facilitator of basic human relationships. 

Seated with a panel of entrepreneurs from around the world, the president lobbed his friend Zuckerberg an easy question about Facebook “creating this platform for entrepreneurship around the world”. In batting it out of the park, the Facebook CEO, clad in his humble costume of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, took pains to inform everyone that what animated him were high-minded ideals. “When I was getting started,” he burbled, “I cared deeply about giving everyone a voice, and giving people the tools to share everything that they cared about, and bringing a community together …”

No rude senator spoke up to interrupt this propaganda. Instead, Zuckerberg went on to describe his efforts to connect everyone to the internet as a sort of wager on human goodness itself.

“It’s this deep belief that you’re trying to make a change, you’re trying to connect people in the world, and I really do believe that if you do something good and if you help people out, then eventually some portion of that good will come back to you. And you may not know up front what it’s going to be, but that’s just been the guiding principle for me in the work that we’ve done …”

That’s how it works, all right. Gigantic corporate investments are acts of generosity, and when making them, kind-hearted CEOs routinely count on Karma to reward them. That’s the “guiding principle”.

Reader, here is what the president could be heard to say as Zuckerberg ended this self-serving homily: “Excellent.”

I bring all this up not to ding Obama participating in a corporate whitewash, but to remind liberals and Democrats that, until very recently, this was who we liberals were. We drank the Kool-Aid. We believed the hype. Facebook wasn’t a “danger to democracy”, we thought. Facebook was democracy.

Do you remember? The 2008 campaign, which elevated Obama to the White House, was described by the enlightened as “the Facebook election”. We had seen a community organizer, ably assisted by a Facebook co-founder, win the presidency by organizing communities – by organizing them online! The combination of idealistic togetherness and awesome futurific-ness was thought to be too much for those plodding, selfish Republicans.

Obama’s state department, led by Hillary Clinton, became the country’s main institutional proponent of the thesis that, wherever the internet went, there also went markets, and entrepreneurship, and liberation. Clinton called the state department’s new mission “internet freedom” (she introduced the idea in a speech given, ironically, at a museum of journalism); she intended to take what she called a “venture capital approach” to the problem of overcoming state censorship and battling the tyrants of the world.

I was exposed unforgettably to liberal techno-optimism at a Clinton Foundation event in March 2015, when I heard a speaker hail social media as the ally and liberator of the female population of the entire planet. Or think of the way Obama surrounded himself with transplanted Silicon Valley types in the last years of his administration; or of Clinton’s 2016 campaign, run by an algorithm; or of Clinton’s rumored intention to make Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s No2, her treasury secretary.


It’s impossible to prove your laptop hasn’t been hacked. I spent two years finding out.

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

It’s impossible to prove your laptop hasn’t been hacked. I spent two years finding out.
By Micah Lee
Apr 28 2018

DIGITAL SECURITY SPECIALISTS like me get some version of this question all the time: “I think my laptop may have been infected with malware. Can you check?”

We dread this sort of query because modern computer exploits are as complex, clever, and hard to reason about as modern computers — particularly if someone has the ability to physically access your device, as is routinely the case with laptops, especially when traveling. So while it’s definitely possible to detect certain types of tampering, it isn’t always trivial. And even in controlled environments, it’s impossible to give a laptop a clean bill of health with full confidence – it’s always possible that it was tampered with in a way you did not think to check.

The issue of tampering is particularly relevant for human rights workers, activists, journalists, and software developers, all of whom hold sensitive data sought by powerful potential attackers. People in these vocations are often keenly aware of the security of their laptops while traveling – after all, laptops store critical secrets like communication with sources, lists of contacts, password databases, and encryption keys used to vouch for source code you write, or to give you access to remote servers.

How safe is it to leave your laptop in your hotel room while you’re attending sessions at a conference? If you come back to find your laptop in a different position than where you thought you left it, can you still trust it? Did someone tamper with it, did a hotel housekeeper simply straighten up the items you left on your desk, or did you misremember where you left it?

These questions typically can’t be answered with total confidence because clever tampering can be so hard to detect. But I hoped I could get a sense of the risks with a carefully controlled experiment. For the last two years, I have carried a “honeypot” laptop with me every time I’ve traveled; this computer was intended to attract (and then detect) tampering. If any hackers, state-sponsored or otherwise, wanted to hack me by physically messing with my computer, I wanted to not only catch them in the act, but also gather technical evidence that I could use to learn how their attack worked and, hopefully, who the attacker was.

While traveling by air, I checked this laptop in my luggage to make it easily accessible to border agents, both domestic and foreign, to tamper with if they chose to. When staying in hotels, I left the laptop sitting on the desk in my room while I was away during the day, to make sure that any malicious housekeepers with permission to enter my room, or anyone else who broke into my room, was free to tamper with it if they chose to. I also put a bunch of hacker stickers all over it, hoping that this would make it a more enticing target.

Over the duration of this experiment, I traveled to Europe three times and domestically in the United States five times (including once to Puerto Rico). I found eight different notices from the Transportation Security Administration informing me that my baggage had been searched. I have no way of knowing how many times it had been searched by other authorities who weren’t kind enough to leave me a note.

I never caught anyone tampering with this laptop. But the absence of any evidence of tampering — and my obsessive thoughts about the various ways an attacker could have evaded by detection — serve to underline how fraught the process of computer forensics can be. If someone who makes their living securing computers thinks they could have missed a computer infection, what hope is there for the average computer user?

At the end of my experiment, I thought through all of the things that could have gone wrong. Perhaps someone did tamper with my honeypot laptop, and my methodology for detecting this wasn’t thorough enough to notice. Or maybe potential attackers noticed that the laptop I carried with me and used at the conferences I was attending was different than the one I left in my room, and decided against tampering with it in case it was a trap.

But the most likely reason I didn’t catch any attackers is that no one tried to tamper with my laptop. Hacking a target’s laptop by physically tampering with it while they’re traveling probably happens only rarely because it’s so expensive – it may require travel, physical surveillance, breaking and entering, and the risk of getting caught or breaking the laptop is high. Compare this to cheap forms of hacking like email phishing: You can target thousands of people at once from the comfort of your office, and the risk of getting caught is much lower.

Still, I believe actively checking devices for tampering is worthwhile. You’ll never catch an attacker in the act if you never look for evidence of their attacks. And just looking for evidence, even if you don’t find any, increases costs for attackers: If they want to be sure you won’t notice, they’re going to have to get more creative. I believe it’s useful to explain the technology and the methodology I came up with to detect tampering and share what I learned from the experience. Doing so gives a taste of just how many ways there are to tamper with a laptop.


“Crabs In A Bucket” As An Analogy For Modern Human Society

[Note:  This article is from 2015, but since I just heard the term used on a network TV show, I thought it was worth posting.  DLH]

“Crabs In A Bucket” As An Analogy For Modern Human Society
By John Vibes
Aug 19 2015

Sometimes it helps to use metaphors to describe the current situations that we are living under to help people see what is right in front of them. The violence and twisted mentality that consumes many cultures around the world is difficult for someone to notice when they have grown up around it, and know nothing else.

Recently I came across an extremely interesting concept that does a really good job at depicting the current mentality that many people have in their personal relationships as well as their business and political ventures.

That is the “crab mentality” which looks at the world as a zero sum game, where there is no such thing as a mutually beneficial exchange. Every situation has winners and losers with this world view, and everyone is out to make someone else a loser. In reality, there are solutions that people can come to without getting hostile with one another, that leads to an outcome where everyone involved is better off than they were before.

According to a Wikipedia entry:

Crab mentality is a phrase popular among Filipinos, and was first coined by writer Ninotchka Rosca, in reference to the phrase crabs in a bucket It describes a way of thinking best described by the phrase “if I can’t have it, neither can you.” The metaphor refers to a pot of crabs. Individually, the crabs could easily escape from the pot, but instead, they grab at each other in a useless “king of the hill” competition which prevents any from escaping and ensures their collective demise. The analogy in human behavior is that members of a group will attempt to “pull down” (negate or diminish the importance of) any member who achieves success beyond the others, out of envy, conspiracy or competitive feelings.

The concept figures prominently in Terry Pratchett‘s novel “Unseen Academicals.” A fish monger does not bother to keep a lid on the crab bucket because “any that tries to get out gets pulled back.” The protagonist comes to realize that his social status results not from external repression, but from his own low expectations of himself: “The worst of it is, the crab that mostly keeps you down is you.”

This term is broadly associated with short-sighted, non-constructive thinking rather than a unified, long-term, constructive mentality. It is also often used colloquially in reference to individuals or communities attempting to improve their socio-economic situations, but kept from doing so by others attempting to ride upon their coat-tails or those who simply resent their success.

The popularity of the phrase has made accusing opponents of crab mentality a common form of defense against criticism, whether the criticism is valid or not. In logic, this tactic is considered a common logical fallacy known as argumentum ad invidiam, or appeal to envy.

This mentality is probably relevant to almost anyone’s life, as we can see it all around us, especially in the social institutions that hold us hostage. Most people look at their everyday encounters as if they were all zero sum games, where they can only get ahead by knocking someone else down.


Five myths about artificial intelligence

Five myths about artificial intelligence
By Bill LaPlante and Katharyn White
Apr 27 2018

Artificial intelligence is the future. Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple are all making big bets on AI. (Amazon owner Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.) Congress has held hearings and even formed a bipartisan Artificial Intelligence Caucus. From health care to transportation to national security, AI has the potential to improve lives. But it comes with fears about economic disruption and a brewing “AI arms race .” Like any transformational change, it’s complicated. Perhaps the biggest AI myth is that we can be confident about its future effects. Here are five others.

Myth No. 1

You can differentiate between a machine and a human.

It is certainly true that conversations with AI chatbots are often unintentionally funny. And no one who interacts with Alexa or Siri or Cortana is going to say they pass the Turing Test. “Their responses, often cobbled together out of fragments of stored conversations, make sense at a local level but lack long-term coherence,” Brian Christian wrote in a 2012 Smithsonian Magazine article. Garbled sentences and ridiculous responses often make clear just how poorly machines mimic human capabilities — or even, sometimes, how they process information. “Machines don’t have understanding,” Garry Kasparov told TechCrunch last year. “They don’t recognize strategical patterns. Machines don’t have purpose.” 

But AI is already writing financial news, sports stories and weather reports, and readers aren’t noticing. From the Associated Press to The Washington Post, it’s becoming increasingly common. AI is also producing “deep fake” videos — from invented speeches by politicians to pornography featuring celebrities’ computer-generated faces — that many people think are real. These rapid advances present significant concerns, shaking the public’s confidence in what they see and hear. As a 2017 Harvard study warned, “The existence of widespread AI forgery capabilities will erode social trust, as previously reliable evidence becomes highly uncertain.” 

Myth No. 2

The U.S. is falling behind in the race for AI breakthroughs.

China’s national strategy to lead the world in artificial intelligence — which calls for “the training and gathering of high-end AI talent” — has elicited fear and loathing in the United States. “China’s prowess in the field will help fortify its position as the dominant economic power in the world,” Will Knight observed in MIT Technology review in 2017. Writing in the Hill, Tom Daschle and David Bier warned in January that “the U.S. government is behind the curve.” 

While there is clearly reason for concern about the United States’ standing, China’s strategic document admits that “there is still a gap between China’s overall level of development of AI relative to that of developed countries.” According to Jeffrey Ding , a University of Oxford researcher, “China trails the U.S. in every driver except for access to data.” The United States also has more AI experts, who publish more Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence papers on the topic, and far more commercial investments in the field. 

That said, given China’s dedication to pursuing AI, the United States will need to take a concerted societal approach if it wants to maintain its dominant position. Such efforts are already underway: In March, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon is attempting to work with Silicon Valley companies to push projects ahead.


9 essential lessons from psychology to understand the Trump era

[Note:  This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis.  DLH]

9 essential lessons from psychology to understand the Trump era
Motivated reasoning, bias, fake news, conspiracy theories, and more, explained.
By Brian Resnick
Apr 25 2018

In January 2017, when then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to claim that President Donald Trump’s inauguration was the most-watched in history, it felt like the beginning of a new, dark era of politics and public life. 

As it has matured, the Trump era of conservative politics is increasingly defined by its tribalism and fear and the fracturing of our sense of a shared reality.

And it’s pretty disorienting.

I’ve spent much of the past several years reporting on political psychology, asking the country’s foremost experts on human behavior some variation of, “What the hell is going on in the United States?” 

Thankfully, at a time when we really need answers, they often deliver. 

Here are the social science lessons I keep coming back to, to help me explain what’s happening in America in the Trump era. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful too. 

• Rooting for a team alters your perception of the world. 
• We can be immune to uncomfortable facts. 
• Leaders like Trump have special powers to sway public opinion.
• People don’t often make decisions based on the truth. 
• Political opponents are often really, really bad at arguing with one another.
• White people’s fear of being replaced is incredibly powerful.
• It’s shockingly easy to grow numb to mass suffering. 
• Fake news preys on our biases — and will be very hard to stamp out.
• Conspiracy theories may be rampant, but they’re a specific reaction to a dark, uncertain world. 

An uncomfortable theme you might notice here is that our leaders, the groups we were born into, and, increasingly, our echo-chambered media ecosystems can bring out the worst psychological biases that exist in all of us.

In other words, no one, be they Democrat or Republican, is inherently stupid. “At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we use the same psychological processes,” Dominique Brossard, a communications researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison, recently told me. 

Consider this a primer on what current events and politics can bring out in the human mind. And be warned: It’s not always pretty. 

A version of this piece originally published in March 2017. This has been updated to reflect current events, new studies, and other reporting I’ve done since then. 

1) Motivated reasoning: rooting for a team changes your perception of the world


‘Fearless’ Ida B. Wells honored by new lynching museum for fighting racial terrorism

[Note:  This item comes from friend Sukie Crandall.  DLH]

‘Fearless’ Ida B. Wells honored by new lynching museum for fighting racial terrorism
By DeNeen L. Brown
Apr 26 2018

After Ida B. Wells published a column on May 21, 1892,  denouncing “the old thread bare lie” that lynching was used to “protect white womanhood,” a white mob marched to her office in Memphis, destroyed her presses and left a warning they would kill Wells if she tried to publish her newspaper again.

Wells, who was on a business trip to the East Coast at the time, did not flinch upon hearing of the threat.

“I had been warned repeatedly by my own people that something would happen if I did not cease harping on the lynching of three months before,” Wells wrote in her memoir, “Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.” “I had expected that happening to come when I was at home. I had bought a pistol the first thing after [my friend] Tom Moss was lynched, because I expected some cowardly retaliation from the lynchers.”

Then one of the most fearless women in U.S. history, who stood less than five feet tall, wrote:

“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”

On Thursday, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., became the first in the country dedicated to more than 4,000 lynching victims. It also honors Wells, along with other black women who risked their lives in the fight against racial terror.

The memorial, which includes more than 800 steel monuments bearing the names of thousands of lynching victims, contains a reflection space dedicated to Wells, who with her incisive investigations, detailed reporting and meticulous data revealed lynchings’ barbarism.

“For more than 40 years, Ida B. Wells was one of the most fearless and one of the most respected women in the United States,” wrote historian John Hope Franklin in the foreword to her memoir. “Few defects in American society escaped her notice and her outrage. … She was perhaps the first person to recite the horrors of lynching in lurid detail.”

During her travels to England in the late 1890s, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, known by her maiden name Ida B. Wells, spoke to audiences about the horrors of lynching during an international crusade to shine light on the violence and racism of America.

“She became nearly as well-known in England as she was in the United States,” Franklin wrote, “for she was determined that the entire world should know her native land for what it really was.”

Wells was born enslaved in July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Miss., during the Civil War, five months before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Her mother, Elizabeth Wells, who had been sold from a plantation in Virginia to one farther south, taught her about maintaining dignity in the face of dehumanizing racial oppression. Her father, James Wells, was the son of a carpenter who was a slave owner. He was often described as a “race man,” advocating for the rights of newly freed black people and working with the Republican Party during Reconstruction.

Wells-Barnett, who was the oldest of eight children, grew up in Holly Springs and attended Rust College. After her parents died during a yellow fever epidemic in 1878, Wells returned home to take care of her siblings. She passed the teachers exam at the age of 16 and began teaching in a one-room school house in Holly Springs. A few years later, at the recommendation of her aunt, Wells moved to Memphis.

One day in May 1884, Wells-Barnett was riding a train in Memphis when a white conductor on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway ordered her to move to the segregated Jim Crow car, according to “Crusade for Justice.” Having bought a first-class ticket to ride in the ladies’ car, Wells refused.

The conductor grabbed Wells, trying to force her off the train.

“The moment he caught hold of my arm, I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggage man and another man to help him, and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”

She was thrown off the train, but she refused to bend to the injustice. She sued the railroad for forcing black people to ride in “separate but unequal coaches.” She won the case. In December 1884, a local court awarded her $500 in damages. Her lawsuit was celebrated across the country. But the railroad appealed, and three years later the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the lower-court ruling.


A lesson in wireless engineering from the Raspberry Pi

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Reed.  David’s comment:’This was a very nice article, not least because it disproves all that usual stuff from pseudo engineers claiming to be experts about needing antennas the size of 1/4 wavelength to use WiFi. But it also shows that good old EE skills are really useful for networking.:’  DLH]

A lesson in wireless engineering from the Raspberry Pi
Customers today expect smart products to be portable, compact, aesthetically-pleasing – and able to be connected anywhere and anytime. That is true for all products nowadays, but especially for consumer products where users expect a sleek look and feel without sacrificing any of the connectivity and performance they expect. Putting a check mark next to that entire wish list is challenging for product engineers, though, because of the inherent tension between a small, aesthetically-pleasing product and robust connectivity.
Apr 17 2018

It takes a very careful balance between an antenna’s size, design, and performance to meet customers’ needs while also matching their stylistic preferences for the products’ overall design. As a rule of thumb, the larger the antenna is, the better its wireless range will be – but with that better performance comes challenges about how to make it work for the product you are designing.  Finding the right balance is critical for every engineer, but navigating that tradeoff between antenna size and performance gets more challenging each year. The marketing specifications for new products dictate a design that is more compact than the last generation without sacrificing the wireless range. Unfortunately, making an antenna small and hidden are the two mortal enemies of antenna performance.

I am always curious whenever I look at a small antenna in popular consumer products because I want to know how well the antenna designer was able to get it to perform. Take the Raspberry Pi Zero W, for example, which has the same antenna as the newest version of Raspberry Pi announced in March. As an antenna enthusiast, I was drawn to the Zero W model of the Raspberry Pi because of its tiny and sleek antenna design used for WiFi and Bluetooth. How did the engineers behind the Raspberry Pi Zero W tackle antenna design, given its compact size, its low cost, and its mission of being usable by even novice computer science students?

The Zero W antenna is the trapezoidal shape located between the mini HDMI and micro USB sockets on the bottom edge of the board (Figure 1). As explained by Roger Thornton, Principal Hardware Engineer at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, “The Zero W antenna is a resonant cavity which is formed by etching away copper on each layer of the PCB structure.”

Given its small size and interesting shape of the Pi Zero W antenna, I had my doubts on how well the antenna actually worked. Luckily, as an antenna design engineer, I have access to an antenna chamber so I can measure it in the lab.

Antennas 101 – without the math

Antennas, like the one on the Zero W, are measured in a specialized test room called—not surprisingly—an antenna chamber. The room is specialized in a few key ways:

First, the antenna chamber is designed in a way that no wireless energy from the outside can get it, and no wireless energy from inside can get out. It essentially acts kind of like an electric bunker. In the wireless industry, we call this a Faraday cage. Second, the walls of the Faraday cage are lined with pyramidal shaped, RF absorbing foam. These foam pyramids are important because they prevent any wireless reflections from distorting the antenna measurements. Third, the antenna is positioned on a raised, foam pedestal that can rotate a full 360°. This allows us to measure a 3D radiation pattern.

When we press the ‘GO’ button on the antenna measurement in the chamber, you can expect back two measurement results that describe how well the antenna is working, which includes an analysis of antenna efficiency and the 3D radiation pattern.

Antenna efficiency answers the question, “How much wireless energy is actually radiated from the antenna?” The efficiency is described as a negative decibel (dB) value. The closer the antenna efficiency is to 0 dB, the better the antenna is. As a rule of thumb, an embedded antenna with an efficiency of -3dB or better is considered to be a great antenna.

The radiation pattern is a 3D visual that answers the question, “Where is the wireless energy going?” Is it going up, down, left, or right? This is a graphic that is compiled from hundreds of measurement points in the custom antenna chamber.

The first thing I measured in the chamber was the Zero W’s radiation pattern. Figure 3 illustrates the measured radiation patterns of the Pi Zero W’s antenna superimposed over the Raspberry Pi circuit board. On the radiation patterns, red indicates more energy in that direction (great wireless range) while blue means that little to no energy is radiated (limited wireless range).