I’m Alright; You’re 50/50

“Reuters/Ipsos, which tracked confidence in major institutions every couple of months after the 2016 presidential election, found in late January that 52 percent of Americans had a ‘great deal’ or ‘some’ confidence in the new president’s executive branch. That dropped to 51 percent in the May survey and to 48 percent in the latest poll. Trump took office in January.”

—Chris Kahn, “The press, branded the ‘enemy’ by Trump, increasingly trusted by the public: Reuters/Ipsos poll.” Reuters. October 3, 2017.

I find myself wondering: 

  1. Are the populations of an online poll conducted over three periods comparable?
  2. Do polls of this sort represent “Americans”?
  3. If you compare two polls, each with an “credibility interval” of two percent, and the data point is a four percent difference, is this meaningful?

And the answer is “No,” on all counts. It’s junk like this that confirms the biases of one echo chamber and crying of “fake news” by another. 

Personally, I cannot help wonder why confidence in U.S. public institutions are as high as half the polled population has some confidence in our major institutions. I’d be more interested to learn why. Congress is dysfunctional. The Presidency and the federal government as a whole has too much power. The court system is filled with ideologues that seem more interested in theories of law and supporting elites than justice. 

The only thing one should be confident of is the whole edifice will limp along until, one day, it collapses in a heap.

Scuttlebutt – An Off-Grid Social Network

“It’s a decentralized system for sending messages to a specific community, rather than the global internet. It works by word of mouth. Instead of posting to an online service like Facebook or Twitter, Scuttlebutt applications hold onto their data locally. When a user runs into a friend, the system automatically synchronizes its stored updates with them via local-network transfer—or even by USB stick. Then the friend does likewise, and word spreads, slowly and deliberately.

For the contemporary internet user, it sounds like a bizarre proposition. Why make communication slower, inefficient, and reliant on random interactions between other people? But Tarr and others building SSB applications think it might solve many of the problems of today’s internet, giving people better and more granular control of their lives online and off.”

—Ian Bogart, “The Nomad Who’s Exploding the Internet Into Pieces.” The Atlantic. May 22, 2017.

Originally came across Scuttlebutt in this article in The Atlantic a few months ago. It’s relatively easy to set-up.

  1. Get an invite code to a pub.
  2. Download a release of Patchwork, a Scuttlebutt client, for your operating system and install.
  3. Follow the prompts to connect to the pub.

It strikes me as reminiscent of the old BBS systems. But, much would look familiar to the people that came of age using Facebook. There are public forums, public user journals and private messaging. The reason it’s more like a BBS is that it is built around the idea of asynchronous updating rather than real time.

The problem—like with alternative, decentralized social networks everywhere—is the existing user base does not include people you already know. Then, for most people, it’s a question of why not just use Facebook? 

There are good answers to that question, e.g., it’s not a platform that makes money doing surveillance on its users in order to make money selling ads to them, it’s an augmentation to occasional social interaction rather than a surrogate for it, the built in delay cuts out some of the addictive attraction of social media, etc. Still, these are rarely persuasive arguments that convince people to change from Facebook, Twitter, and so forth to a much less polished social media platform.

Regardless, Scuttlebutt is an interesting alternative—one I’ll be watching in the coming years.

 

John Cleese on Monty Python and Political Correctness

What are you working on now?

I have a show I’m working on at the moment called Why There Is No Hope.

Sounds funny. 

It is funny. Some people immediately see the title as funny and other people go what?! There is no hope that we’ll ever live in a rational, kind, intelligent society. To start, most of us are run by our unconscious and, unfortunately, most of us have no interest in getting in touch with our unconscious. So if the majority of people are run by something they don’t know anything about, how can we have a rational society?

…Put aside intellectually smart, the trouble is that most people aren’t even emotionally smart. They can’t deal with reality. If they’re not doing well, they’ll blame someone else. That’s why I have no hope of our ever having a proper, well-organized, fair, intelligent, kind society. We have to let go of that idea. It is possible that in some small area you can improve things temporarily…But there’s no way to sustain it because people have no control over their egos and don’t understand — or don’t care — how their egos are distorting their thinking. Things always fall back into chaos. Which is why there is no hope.

There’s absolutely nothing that gives you any hope about the future of human society?

Nothing.

Nothing?

Nothing.

So why get up in the morning?

Just because you can’t create a sensible world doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the world you’re in. I think Bertrand Russell once said that the secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible. Once you realize that things are pretty hopeless, then you just have a laugh and you don’t waste time on things that you can’t change — and I don’t think you can change society. I’ve spent a lot of time in group therapy watching highly intelligent, well-intentioned people try to change and they couldn’t. If even they can’t change…”

—David Marchese. “In Conversation: John Cleese.” Vulture. September 12, 2017

Remember Cleese offering another bit of wisdom in another interview that has stuck with me, roughly paraphrased: You have a choice in life. You can try to control other people or you can control your own emotions. The second is easier.

A Text-Only World

“Security-conscious users must demand that their email providers offer a plain-text option. Unfortunately, such options are few and far between, but they are a key to stemming the webmail insecurity epidemic.

Mail providers that refuse to do so should be avoided, just like back alleys that are bad places to conduct business. Those online back alleys may look eye-pleasing, with ads, images and animations, but they are not safe.”

—Sergey Bratus and Anna Shubina. “The Only Safe Email is Text-Only Email.” The Conversation. September 10, 2017.

Taking the position that “the only safe email is text-only email” is problematic for two main reasons:

  1. Security is a process, and nothing is “safe”.
  2. Security has to be balanced against other requirements, such as functionality.

To see the problem in this position, let’s logically extend it to a more radical position. Why stop with email? Why not also advocate for the use of text-only web browsers?

I exclusively use text-only email and use text-only browsers on occasion. I think they are great. They are faster. They cut down on advertising, tracking and other nonsense. For users with visual impairment, they are an obvious choice and work better with text-to-speech software.

But, they do this by getting rid of features like javascript, which many sites use to provide some of their functionality. Of course, it is possible to create versions of websites (or email) that work without requiring javascript, like Google has done with Gmail, but it does not always make sense to do, e.g., YouTube, and often, it is not in the business interests of the companies involved to do it, such as Facebook, websites of financial institutions, etc.

Which brings us to the key point, security comes at a cost. If you choose a text-only email client/provider or browser, then many of the emails you read or the websites you visit will not work as the author intended. This can protect you from the occasional phishing website or email containing a virus from a criminal organization. But, it’s no guarantee. Further, for every email or website this protects against, there will be thousands of legitimate emails and websites that will not work as intended.

The reality is, by selecting text-only email, you’ll start to see many emails with text with the following: “If you have trouble viewing this email, read the online version: [link]”, and it will become second nature to copy and paste that link into a modern browser to see the “correct” version of the email. Changing to text-only email does provide a little more incentive to think about the link, but for most people, it will introduce a lot more inconvenience, and the change will have little impact on their security.

 

You’ll Never Be as Radical as This 18th-Century Quaker Dwarf

“Disparaged and abandoned by his fellow Quakers, Lay eventually helped win the debate over slavery. He wanted to provoke, to unsettle, even to confound — to make people think and act. His greatest power, indeed his genius, lay in his gift as an agitator. In every meeting he attended, public or private, he drew a line over the issue of slavery. He asked everyone he met, Which side are you on?”

—Remixer, Marcus. “You’ll Never Be as Radical as This 18th-Century Quaker Dwarf.” The New York Times. August 12, 2017.

Which side are you on is probably a good question we all should be asking of ourselves (and others).

Giving Up Social Media & The Feudal Internet

Quitting social media is an ongoing theme of this blog with posts discussing various aspects: 

  1. Arguing against particular social media services, e.g., Be Seeing You, Facebook.
  2. Describing new technologies major Internet companies employ for surveillance, e.g., Facebook & Facial Recognition.
  3. Describing how third parties use these platforms in the service of both advertising product and manipulating public opinion, e.g., Information Operations & Facebook.

    There are some people who believe that the solution is a matter of individuals understanding the problem, transforming the design of social platforms, and changing the business incentives. In other words, the solution is either government regulation or a major company of the feudal internet — Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft — redefining the landscape to put user’s interests first.

    I think a better solution is to redecentralize the Internet. But, these efforts will need support in their early stages, and they will take time to mature. In the meantime, the best solution is to avoid the feudal Internet as much as possible and seek out other, decentralized options that can serve your needs. 

    But, decentralized options come with costs. Users pay for the service themselves rather than advertisers paying the cost in exchange for targeted advertising based on information about users.

    What options are there? Here are some suggestions to get you started. 

      So, people with minimum space requirements can substitute these alternatives for the feudal internet services for less than $100 / year. For $200 / year, most people can get enough space for their needs. Further, alternative services often have additional functionality “free” feudal services do not provide. 

      By making the choice to get away from feudal internet services, we are investing in an economic and software development environment that puts the user back in control because the user is the client, not the product. It may be that government intervention can fix some of the problems of social media and reign in the power of the feudal internet companies in the public interest. A company like Apple might do the right thing for the people using their services. But, the best option is for more people to seek out alternatives, which will give those options the opportunity to develop into viable competitors to the major Internet players.

      Masculinity and ‘The Man’

      “I got gas in the tank / I got money in the bank / I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man.

      I got skin in the game / I don’t feel no pain / I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man.”

      —The Killers, “The Man.”

      Catchy single. While there is a sense of poking fun at defining masculinity in terms of strength, power, fame, money, or even a slight association of divinity, i.e, “[r]ight hand to God”, these ideas are often central to “male culture” in the United States (and elsewhere). Feminism, despite its many faults, does offer men the possibility of transcending the limitations imposed by popular notions of masculinity, which is no small thing.