The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Feminist thought on smart-phone use

Via Bruce Schneier, Irish writer Maria Farrell explains how a feminist perspective leads to some creepy realizations about smart phones:

Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:

  • They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact – ‘user engagement’ – that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.
  • They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It’s our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.
  • They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we’re meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.

Feminists are often the canary in the coalmine, warning us years in advance of coming threats. Feminist analysis of Gamergate first exposed the online radicalization of legions of angry young men for whom misogyny was a gateway drug to far-right politics. More practically, when the US military finally realised the enemy could use running app, Strava, to track the habits and route-maps of soldiers based in hostile environments, domestic violence activists collectively sighed. They’d been pointing out for years that the app is used by stalkers and aggrieved exes to track women. I’m not the first person to notice that in cyber-security, feminism is a secret super-power. Checking every app, data-set and shiny new use-case for how men will use it to endanger women and girls is a great way to expose novel flaws and vulnerabilities the designers almost certainly missed. So, while looking at our relationship with our phones through a feminist lens may be disconcerting, it’s incredibly useful, and in a deliciously counter-intuitive way.

I'll be mulling her thoughts over for a while.

Ride-sharing platforms have no inherent right to exist

I mentioned earlier today Aaron Gordon's evisceration of Uber's and Lyft's business model. It's worth a deeper look:

The Uber and Lyft pretzel logic is as follows: Drivers are their customers and also independent contractors but cannot negotiate prices or any terms of their contract. Uber and Lyft are platforms, not transportation companies. Drivers unionizing would be price-fixing, but Uber and Lyft can price-fix all they want. Riders pay the driver for their transportation, not the platforms, even though the platforms are the ones that set the prices and collect the money and allocate it however they want, often such that the driver does not in fact receive much of the rider’s fare.

There is a version of Uber and Lyft that might be profitable even if drivers are employees, but it is a much humbler one. It is one that uses the genuine efficiencies of app-based taxi hailing—the very ones Uber and Lyft claim is their actual secret sauce other than widespread worker exploitation—to get a smaller number of drivers more customers for each of them. 

Exactly. If Yellow Cab in Chicago had created an app to find and direct taxis, it would be just as good as Uber or Lyft, but it would cost consumers more to use because taxi fares are regulated. That would be OK by me.

I can't wait to see the effects of California Assembly Bill 5 on the two companies.

Slow news day? Pah

It's the last weekday of summer. Chicago's weather today is perfect; the office is quiet ahead of the three-day weekend; and I'm cooking with gas on my current project.

None of that leaves a lot of time to read any of these:

Now, to find lunch.

To coin a phrase

Today's Daily Parker flash of inspiration will memorialize my update to an obsolete proverb.

Instead of "a stopped watch is right twice a day," substitute "a dead mobile gets no bad texts."

On second thought, they're not orthogonal. But in my defense, I was thinking of the president at the time.

Critics of the Web—30 years ago

Alexis Madrigal takes a look at criticisms of the World Wide Web from when it was new:

Thirty years ago this week, the British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web at CERN, the European scientific-research center. Suffice it to say, the idea took off. The web made it easy for everyday people to create and link together pages on what was then a small network. The programming language was simple, and publishing was as painless as uploading something to a server with a few tags in it.

Just a few years after the internet’s creation, a vociferous set of critics—most notably in Resisting the Virtual Life, a 1995 anthology published by City Lights Books—rose to challenge the ideas that underlay the technology, as previous groups had done with other, earlier technologies.

Maybe as a major technological movement begins to accelerate—but before its language, corporate power, and political economics begin to warp reality—a brief moment occurs when critics see the full and awful potential of whatever’s coming into the world. No, the new technology will not bring better living (at least not only that). There will be losers. Oppression will worm its way into even the most seemingly liberating spaces. The noncommercial will become hooked to a vast profit machine. People of color will be discriminated against in new ways. Women will have new labors on top of the old ones. The horror-show recombination of old systems and cultures with new technological surfaces and innards is visible, like the half-destroyed robot face of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2.

Then, if money and people really start to pour into the technology, the resistance will be swept away, left dusty and coughing as what gets called progress rushes on.

The whole piece is worth a read.

Lunchtime reading

I had these lined up to read at lunchtime:

Meanwhile, for only the second time in four weeks, we can see sun outside the office windows:

How sellers use Amazon's monopsony power against each other

Via Bruce Schneier, a report on how third-party Amazon sellers use Amazon's own policies to attack their rivals:

When you buy something on Amazon, the odds are, you aren’t buying it from Amazon at all. Plansky is one of 6 million sellers on Amazon Marketplace, the company’s third-party platform. They are largely hidden from customers, but behind any item for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, all competing for your click. This year, Marketplace sales were almost double those of Amazon retail itself, according to Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platform alone the largest e-commerce business in the world.

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly halfof the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”

An algorithm flags sellers based on a range of metrics — customer complaints, number of returns, certain keywords used in reviews, and other, more mysterious variables — and passes them to Performance workers based in India, Costa Rica, and other locations. These workers choose between several prewritten blurbs to send to sellers. They may see what the actual problem is or the key item missing from an appeal, but they can’t be more specific than the forms allow, according to Rachel Greer, who worked as a fraud investigator at Amazon before becoming a seller consultant. “It feels like it’s a bot, but it’s actually a human who is very frustrated about the fact that they have to work like that,” she says.

The Performance workers’ incentives favor rejection. They must process approximately one claim every four minutes, and reinstating someone who later gets suspended again counts against them.... When they fall behind...they’ll often “punt” by sending requests for more information....

Scary. And an example of why monopolies are bad. As Schenier says, "Amazon is basically its own government—with its own rules that its suppliers have no choice but to follow. And, of course, increasingly there is no option but to sell your stuff on Amazon."

Note that I say this while watching an old TV show on Amazon Prime, waiting for Amazon to deliver a replacement Fitbit band, and on and on.

A few old photos

Sometimes it's fun going through some stock shots and giving them another go with Lightroom.

Here's a digital photo from July 2004 that needed minimal tweaking:

This one needed lots of help, and unfortunately it probably needs another scan. I haven't checked the slide in a while; I hope the problems are with the scan (from 2009) and not with the slide (from 1984):

By the way, I took this photo here. Check out what that looks like today.

Finally, a slide that came out OK, though again it seems the scan leaves something to be desired. Middlebury, Vt., 28 July 1992:

Serious national-security risk

Worse than the president's unsecured iPhone are the obvious but undisclosed conflicts of interest in his family. Add the unelected, unconfirmed Jared Kushner on top and we've got serious problems:

Senior adviser Jared Kushner was the one who pushed a Saudi-centric policy. One can easily see why. In the crown prince Kushner no doubt saw a kindred spirit — a young sophisticate living in his family’s shadow who had great potential to transform the region. He (Kushner) and the actual crown prince, MBS, were a match made in heaven, although hardly an even match. Kushner seemed to ingest every foolish idea about the Middle East (“the conflict between Arabs and Israelis was essentially a real-estate problem, a deal to be worked out”) and, like his father-in-law, fell prey to the flattery of whomever he faced at the moment. MBS convinced Kushner that making the Saudis the Trump administration’s surrogate would work out for both.

The irony is that conservatives with varying degrees of justification accused the Obama team of not driving hard enough bargains on foreign policy. The Trump-Kushner team, however, has done one better (worse?) — giving our worst foes a pass on egregious human rights violations and allowing our allies to run wild. This comes from the president who is always accusing our allies of taking advantage of us. Well, now they are, and what does Trump intend to do about it?

Putting together a viable policy while simultaneously trying to avoid U.S. commitments to the region won’t be easy. His effort to peddle minimalist sanctions is unlikely to work — and judging from his willingness to dump the problem into Congress’s lap, the White House knows it. The Saudis will not escape unscathed if Congress has its way, and the young menace, the callow heir, who has arguably made the Middle East more unstable and less amenable to U.S. leadership, should go. And MBS should go as well.

Both families need to go in their entireties. Unfortunately we're stuck with ours for the next 818 days.

Mystery of the rapidly-warming house

I finished unpacking from my move yesterday, with only a few chores left (like finding a home for all the little things in my office that have taken over my desk). Shortly after finishing, I took out the trash, and started to wind down. Then I noticed my house getting warmer.

The previous owners had an Ecobee thermostat, which, because I'm on the Google ecosystem, I will replace with the Nest thermostat that should arrive today. I noticed that this Ecobee had a very strange reading: 63°F. And falling. And running the heater full-blast to try getting the temperature back up to normal.

Once it got to 60°F I shut off the heating system. Other thermometers in my house showed 20–21°C and steady. Plus, if it really had been that cold, I would be shivering or at least wearing a sweater.

When I woke up this morning, the Ecobee told me the house was 44°F—just a degree or two warmer than the temperature outside.

Then I realized what had happened.

As with the Nest thermostat, Ecobees can use multiple small sensors throughout the house for zone coverage. One of those Ecobee sensors was now in a trash bag in the dumpster by the alley, and broadcasting with sufficient power that the main thermostat thought the guest bedroom was freezing cold.

So the heating system is still off, which is fine because (a) Parker has two fur coats and doesn't mind and (b) I can see from other sensors that the house is still around 19°C, which is perfectly comfortable for both of us.

All of this is part of the unintended fun of home automation, and of moving.