Google’s plan to revolutionise cities is a takeover in all but name

Google’s plan to revolutionise cities is a takeover in all but name
Parent company Alphabet would provide services in response to data harvested
By Evgeny Morozov
Oct 21 2017

Last June Volume, a leading magazine on architecture and design, published an article on the GoogleUrbanism project. Conceived at a renowned design institute in Moscow, the project charts a plausible urban future based on cities acting as important sites for “data extractivism” – the conversion of data harvested from individuals into artificial intelligence technologies, allowing companies such as Alphabet, Google’s parent company, to act as providers of sophisticated and comprehensive services. The cities themselves, the project insisted, would get a share of revenue from the data.

Cities surely wouldn’t mind but what about Alphabet? The company does take cities seriously. Its executives have floated the idea of taking some struggling city – Detroit? – and reinventing it around Alphabet services, with no annoying regulations blocking this march of progress.

All of this might have looked counter-intuitive several decades ago, but today, when institutions such as the World Bank preach the virtues of privately run cities and bigwigs in Silicon Valley aspire to build sea-based micronations liberated from conventional bureaucracy, it does not seem so far-fetched.

Alphabet already operates many urban services: city maps, real-time traffic information, free wifi (in New York), self-driving cars. In 2015 it launched a dedicated city unit, Sidewalk Labs, run by Daniel Doctoroff, former deputy mayor of New York and a veteran of Wall Street.

Doctoroff’s background hints at what the actual Google Urbanism – as opposed to its theoretical formulations – portends: using Alphabet’s data prowess to build profitable alliances with other powerful forces behind contemporary cities, from property developers to institutional investors.

On this view, Google Urbanism is anything but revolutionary. Yes, it thrives on data and sensors, but they only play a secondary role in determining what gets built, why, and at what cost. One might as well call it Blackstone Urbanism – in homage to one of the largest financial players in the property market.

Since Toronto has recently chosen Alphabet to turn Quayside, a 12-acre undeveloped waterfront area, into a digital marvel, it wouldn’t take long to discover whether Google Urbanism will transcend or accommodate the predominantly financial forces shaping our cities.

Sidewalk Labs has committed $50m to the project – mostly for hosting a year-long consultation after which either party can exit. Its 220-page winning bid provides fascinating insights into its thinking and methodology. “High housing costs, commute times, social inequality, climate change and even cold weather keeping people indoors” – such is the battlefield Doctoroff described in a recent interview.

Alphabet’s weapons are impressive. Cheap, modular buildings to be assembled quickly; sensors monitoring air quality and building conditions; adaptive traffic lights prioritising pedestrians and cyclists; parking systems directing cars to available slots. Not to mention delivery robots, advanced energy grids, automated waste sorting, and, of course, ubiquitous self-driving cars.

Alphabet essentially wants to be the default platform for other municipal services. Cities, it says, have always been platforms; now they are simply going digital. “The world’s great cities are all hubs of growth and innovation because they leveraged platforms put in place by visionary leaders,” states the proposal. “Rome had aqueducts, London the Underground, Manhattan the street grid.”



John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup

John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup
By Masha Gessen
Oct 20 2017

Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination—all you have to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like, for it was in the logic of such a coup that Kelly advanced his four arguments.

Argument 1. Those who criticize the President don’t know what they’re talking about because they haven’t served in the military. To demonstrate how little lay people know, Kelly provided a long, detailed explanation of what happens when a soldier is killed in battle: the body is wrapped in whatever is handy, flown by helicopter, then packed in ice, then flown again, then repacked, then flown, then embalmed and dressed in uniform with medals, and then flown home. Kelly provided a similar amount of detail about how family members are notified of the death, when, and by whom. He even recommended a film that dramatized the process of transporting the body of a real-life marine, Private First Class Chance Phelps. This was a Trumpian moment, from the phrasing—“a very, very good movie”—to the message. Kelly stressed that Phelps “was killed under my command, right next to me”; in other words, Kelly’s real-life experience was recreated for television, and that, he seemed to think, bolstered his authority.

Fallen soldiers, Kelly said, join “the best one per cent this country produces.” Here, the chief of staff again reminded his audience of its ignorance: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best this country produces.”

The one-per-cent figure is puzzling. The number of people currently serving in the military, both on active duty and in the reserves, is not even one per cent of all Americans. The number of veterans in the population is far higher: more than seven per cent. But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans—specifically, fallen soldiers.

The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic. It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom. No Soviet general would have dared utter the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”

2. The President did the right thing because he did exactly what his general told him to do. Kelly went on a rambling explication of speaking to the President not once but twice about how to make the call to Myeshia Johnson. After Kelly’s son was killed while serving in Afghanistan, the chief of staff recalled, his own best friend had consoled him by saying that his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one per cent.” Trump apparently tried to replicate this message when he told Johnson that her husband, La David, had known what he was signing up for. The negative reaction to this comment, Kelly said, had “stunned” him.


A Big Test of Police Body Cameras Defies Expectations

A Big Test of Police Body Cameras Defies Expectations
By Amanda Ripley
Oct 20 2017

Usually, we behave better when we know we’re being watched. According to decades of research, the presence of other people, cameras or even just a picture of eyes seems to nudge us toward civility: We become more likely to give to charity, for example, and less likely to speed, steal or take more than our fair share of candy.

But what happens when the cameras are on the chests of police officers? The results of the largest, most rigorous study of police body cameras in the United States came out Friday morning, and they are surprising both police officers and researchers.

For seven months, just over a thousand Washington, D.C., police officers were randomly assigned cameras — and another thousand were not. Researchers tracked use-of-force incidents, civilian complaints, charging decisions and other outcomes to see if the cameras changed behavior. But on every metric, the effects were too small to be statistically significant. Officers with cameras used force and faced civilian complaints at about the same rates as officers without cameras.

“These results suggest we should recalibrate our expectations” of cameras’ ability to make a “large-scale behavioral change in policing, particularly in contexts similar to Washington, D.C.,” concluded the study, which was led by David Yokum at the Lab @ DC, a team of scientists embedded in D.C. government, and Anita Ravishankar at D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (M.P.D.).

After the public uprising in response to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., advocates and many police officials turned to cameras as a way to reduce violent encounters and build trust. By 2015, 95 percent of large police departments reported they were using body cameras or had committed to doing so in the near future, according to a national survey.

Until now, the most commonly cited study on police body cameras had suggested that cameras did indeed have a calming effect. That experiment took place in 2012 in Rialto, Calif., where officers were randomly assigned cameras based on their shifts. Over a year, shifts that included cameras experienced half as many use-of-force incidents (including the use of a police baton, Taser or gun) as those shifts without cameras. The number of complaints filed by civilians against officers also declined — a stunning 90 percent compared with the previous year.

The Rialto study had a big impact in policing. Axon (formerly known as Taser International) has sold more than 300,000 police cameras worldwide and cites the Rialto study on its website. A federal district judge also cited the study in 2013 when she ordered the New York City Police Department to conduct a yearlong pilot program using body cameras. (Results are due out this spring.)

But the Rialto experiment featured just 54 officers, compared with over 2,000 in Washington. Officers in Washington captured five times as many hours of video. The larger sample size and the long-term way the cameras were assigned added to the reliability of the D.C. results.

“This is the most important empirical study on the impact of police body-worn cameras to date,” said Harlan Yu from Upturn, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit consulting company that studies how technology affects social issues. It was not directly involved in the research. “The results call into question whether police departments should be adopting body-worn cameras, given their high cost.”

The federal government has given police departments more than $40 million to invest in body cameras, and state and local authorities have spent many millions more. The devices vary in price, but the biggest expense is the data-storage cost. In Washington, M.P.D. officers collect about a thousand hours of footage a day. About 40 percent of it is deleted within 90 days, while the rest is to be kept for months, years or decades, depending on the statute of limitations for the charges connected to the footage.


‘There’s no future for taxis’: New York yellow cab drivers drowning in debt

‘There’s no future for taxis’: New York yellow cab drivers drowning in debt
Ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft have saturated the market, and an exodus of drivers from cabs has made medallion values drop – leaving many owing money
By Cecilia Saixue Watt
Oct 20 2017

The premise is familiar: MD Islam left Bangladesh and came to the United States in search of a better life. He arrived in New York, became a taxi driver, and set about following the well-trodden path of the industrious American immigrant.

Then he began to work towards buying his own taxi medallion.

The medallion system regulates the yellow taxis serving New York City: since 1937, each vehicle has needed a medallion in order to legally operate. Few taxi drivers own theirs; most lease them, paying around $100 for one 12-hour shift.

The limited number of medallions issued by the city made each one highly valuable; individual medallion sale prices went from $50,000 in the late 1970s to over $1m by 2014.

For many taxi drivers, owning a medallion meant success. Homes would be purchased. Children would be sent to universities.

Islam managed to put a down payment on his medallion in 2010, and for a few years, it seemed like a good investment. Then, in 2015, with the widespread popularity of Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing apps, his fortunes changed.

Ride-hail cars saturated the market, and an exodus of drivers from yellow taxis made medallion values drop precipitously. 

“I’ll have to spend my whole life paying this loan,” said Islam, now 40 and in debt to the tune of $830,000.

“And after that, I won’t get anything. The medallion has no value. No one wants to buy it now.”

In the New York City of the public imagination, taxicabs dot the urban landscape. Taxi driving is an old, almost mythic profession in this city; the first yellow cabs appeared in the 1920s.

Today, there are more than 13,000 yellow medallion taxis in New York, split among about 40,000 drivers – some own their own medallions and cars, but most do not; many drivers work for a fleet, like the characters from Taxi, and pay to rent each car on a daily or weekly basis.

“I always liked driving cars,” said Dragan Lekic, 56. He emigrated to New York from what was then Yugoslavia, shortly before the beginning of the Yugoslav wars. 

“You start something, and then you get caught into it. But as you well know, America has been a dream for everybody. So I’m here.”

The job is not easy: the standard shift is 12 hours, and with the cost of leasing a car and filling the gas tank, a bad day means taking a loss. For every moment spent without a paying passenger, the driver loses money. Occasionally, passengers are abusive or violent; nationwide, taxi drivers are over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than anyone else.

But taxi driving provides the chance to make a living, however difficult or dangerous or meager – especially for working-class immigrants, who often have limited employment opportunities.

“I have problems with my English,” said Jinder Singh, 55. “I can only drive.”

Twenty years ago, Singh left the Punjab in northern India, where he had worked on a farm, and moved to New York. He followed his brother-in-law into the taxi business, and has been driving ever since.


The death of the startup: is big tech squeezing out the competition?

The death of the startup: is big tech squeezing out the competition?
Young firms struggle to compete as deep-pocketed companies like Facebook and Amazon clone products and consolidate their power
By Olivia Solon
Oct 20 2017

Facebook has been breathing down the neck of the group video-chat app Houseparty for over a year. The app, developed by the San Francisco startup Life On Air, has been a hit with teenagers – an audience Facebook is desperate to woo. 

After months of sniffing around its tiny competitor and even inviting the team to its headquarters last summer, Facebook launched its own group video chat tool within Messenger in December 2016. In February, it invited teens to its headquarters to quiz them, in return for $275 Amazon cards, on how and why they used video-chat apps. By July, Facebook was demonstrating a Houseparty clone, Bonfire, to employees and by early September the app launched in Denmark.

“They see we’re having traction,” Sima Sistani, co-founder of Houseparty, told the Wall Street Journal in August. “That’s why we’re pushing so hard.”

Pushing hard might not be enough when you’re going up against some of the world’s most powerful companies keen to cling to their empires. 

Startups drive job creation and innovation, but the number of new business launches is at a 30-year low and some economists, investors and entrepreneurs are pointing their fingers at big tech. 

For one thing, the deep pockets and resources of companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple – with a combined value of almost $2.5tn – make it increasingly difficult for startups to compete or attract investment.

“People are not getting funded because Amazon might one day compete with them,” said one founder, who wished to remain anonymous. “If it was startup versus startup, it would have been a fair fight, but startup versus Amazon and it’s game over.”

Even multibillion-dollar startups like Snap, Snapchat’s parent company, struggle to compete against these tech titans. 

Like Houseparty, Snap was nipping at the heels of Facebook. At first, Facebook played nicely, making an offer to buy Snapchat – a strategy that worked with Instagram and WhatsApp. When that failed, Facebook cloned all of Snapchat’s features, awkwardly at first but relentlessly and with the resources of a $510bn company, until Snap’s potential slice of the advertising market shriveled to a sliver. 

While there’s a clear correlation, it’s hard to say for sure whether concentration of money is the cause or effect of the startup decline. On one hand, the existence of fewer new startups makes it easier for incumbent firms to accumulate more power. However, as industries become more concentrated, it also raises the barriers to new entrepreneurship, choking off innovation elsewhere in the marketplace. 

“They are financing the next generation research at a scale that no one else can afford,” said Tomasz Tunguz, a venture capitalist, citing Google’s experimental projects Loon (balloon-powered internet), Fiber (high-speed internet) and Waymo(self-driving cars). “They are playing in big markets, making big bets. Historically, that’s been the domain of startups.”

As those companies get more powerful and staff salaries get higher, there’s even less of an incentive for workers to leave and set up on their own, which used to be a common pathway for entrepreneurs. If they do leave, the endgame is often to be acquired by their previous employer rather than grow large enough to compete with it.


Trump nominees show up for work without waiting for Senate approval

Trump nominees show up for work without waiting for Senate approval
Some lawyers and experts warn the administration may be bumping up against a 1998 law designed to prevent the president from doing an end-run around Congress.
Oct 20 2017

The Trump administration is pushing the limits of an obscure federal law that restricts nominees from serving in federal positions before they’re approved by the Senate.

A POLITICO review has identified four officials at three different agencies doing substantially similar work to the position for which they have been nominated – despite not yet getting a green-light from the Senate.

The hires reflect increasing impatience in federal agencies that key jobs remain unfilled nine months into the new administration. 

President Donald Trump has complained repeatedly that Democrats are moving too slowly to confirm his nominees, though he’s also said he intends to leave many jobs empty. Democrats counter that the onus is on Trump, who has not yet announced nominees for a slew of key positions across the government.

Either way, lawyers and other experts said the moves – including by the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget – to have unconfirmed nominees show up for work appears to skirt the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which prohibits most people who have been nominated to fill a vacant government position from performing that office’s duties in an acting capacity.

It’s unclear whether the officials in question are in direct violation of the law, but some experts said the administration appears to be defying its intent. 

“This seems like it goes further than most examples I have seen,” said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It seems like in some cases they’re taking people and potentially giving them roles that go beyond what they’re supposed to have.”

Ornstein said the examples identified by POLITICO violate the Vacancies Act “probably more in spirit than in letter.”

A White House official said the administration is following federal guidelines that let it name nominees to separate “advisory or consultative” roles as they await confirmation for a position. The administration is “confident that all of the president’s acting designations were made in accordance with the Vacancies Reform Act,” the official said.

POLITICO identified several other nominees who worked in federal agencies before they were approved by the Senate, including at the Energy Department and Health and Human Services Department. But reporters were unable to determine whether they were focused on issues within the purview of the position for which they are awaiting confirmation.

Passed by Congress in 1998, the Vacancies Act was written in response to an effort by then-President Bill Clinton to install an official at the Justice Department in an acting capacity even after he was rejected by the Senate. 

In recent weeks, Senate Democrats have raised red flags about two nominees who are advising Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt on the policy issues they will oversee if they are confirmed.

Susan Bodine was nominated in May to head EPA’s enforcement office. She has not yet been confirmed, but she is currently working at EPA as an adviser to Pruitt on enforcement matters. 

“Your appointment creates the appearance, and perhaps the effect, of circumventing the Senate’s constitutional advice and consent responsibility for the position to which you have been nominated,” Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote in a September letter to Bodine. 

Michael Dourson, who was nominated in July to head EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, is also currently working at EPA, though he has not yet been confirmed. He is an adviser to Pruitt on chemicals, according to the agency. Dourson has come under fire from Democrats and environmental activists for his close ties to the chemical industry.


How the FCC helped pave the way for Sinclair to take over American broadcasting

How the FCC helped pave the way for Sinclair to take over American broadcasting
By Kelsey Sutton
Oct 19 2017

Tribune Media’s shareholders on Thursday approved a takeover by Sinclair Broadcast Group, moving the conservative telecommunications company one step closer to a massive media consolidation deal that will likely go through under the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission. 

Sinclair, which owns more than 170 local television channels across the country, in May proposed to buy Tribune for $3.9 billion in a deal that would give it control over some of the biggest local television markets in the nation, including in New York and Chicago. 

“Today’s vote is an important milestone in the merger process and confirms that Tribune stockholders strongly support this transaction and the value it delivers,” Tribune Media CEO Peter Kern said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our work with Sinclair toward the closing of this deal.”

While regulatory and antitrust officials still need to approve the deal, it is far more likely to get the go-ahead under the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission. FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican Trump appointee, voted in April to change the way the commission counts the audiences of stations, making it easier for big broadcasting companies to grow even larger. 

Corporations were previously limited in how many media outlets they could own in certain markets. Additionally, companies are only allowed to serve 39% of the national TV viewership. But the new policy, which reversed a 2016 FCC ruling, only counts of some stations’ audience, making it easier for big corporations to buy more stations before maxing out. The FCC also suggested it might consider raising the 39% limit, allowing for even more expansion. 

Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler warned of the impending deal in a recent interview.

“The Trump FCC has, in one very short period, moved to change three basic rules that have been in place to protect the diversity of voices and avoid monopolization of the broadcast television market,” Wheeler said on PBS NewsHour. “We have a society in which the flow of information is crucial to a democracy. And when that free flow of information gets choked off by corporate consolidation, we ought to all worry.”

Sinclair’s bid to buy Tribune has already come under a great deal of scrutiny, not least because the Baltimore-based broadcaster requires its stations to run a certain amount of conservative-leaning news programming each day. That practice, as well as the company’s decision to hire Donald Trump’s former campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn, has attracted a considerable amount of media attention.