Wednesday, December 09, 2020

attention deficit misorder

 In The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu, we heard about the cycle of technology and content and advertising that takes each new medium, and drives a race to the bottom in terms of increasing levels of commercials, and decreasing revenue, leading to worse and worse actual content, and eventually, a rapid fall off the cliff edge in terms of actual audience, who then move to the next tech - the book contains a plethora of historical examples from 19th century newspapers, through radio, on via television (see also four arguments for the elimination of television plus for the impact on actual journalism, see Flat Earth News), and finally, today, several generations of social media (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagam,

So a new factor in this is not just the very poor quality of advertising / infotainment, which is incented to lie about products, but now we have the new players heavily involved in daily spread of misinformation:- governments. Governments (especially populist ones) are one of the main sources of peacetime lies. We expected the Ministry of Information to spread propaganda during wartime, but now we have arrant nonsense distributed directly from the desks of Trump and Johnson, casting doubt on election results, undermining democratic choice during referenda, and destroying confidence in public health measures during a pandemic.

What is to be done? We need platforms that deliver a reliability metric about sources, not just fact check their individual utterances. This would move the prominence of repeat-offenders, lower and lower in every readers' feed - taking away the effectiveness of polarized clickbait.

Time for the EU to regulate?

Identity and Currency - Trust and Implementation

 A discussion recently about national digital identity systems revealed that some stakeholders feel they need to own the implementation and the deployed operational system, as well as the legal authority for the root of foundational identity.

We can discuss separately, the idea of self-sovereign identity, and the use of the social net (parents, friends&family, colleagues, situation etc) to build a fully peer-to-pee digital id system, without any need for central government agency - indeed, you can imagine having this, as well as a more "traditional" system, with birth certificates, passports, national insurance numbers, biometric data etc etc

but for  now, for the latter case: who should build and run the digital id infrastructure?

well, the analogy I want to draw is with currency. The national bank (e.g. Bank of England) underwrites the value of the national currency (coin of the realm, sterling). They also participate in various mechanisms to maintain the relative value of different national currencies (i.e. exchange rate mechanisms or the Gold Standard, etc).

But who mints cons/notes? Could be anyone really. Who makes the machines that do that minting? Whoever wins the contract. Why should digital id infrastructure be any different? For example, british passports contain digital information about the holder and are issued by Her Majesty's passport office, but are physically made by  Gemalto, owned by French firm Thales. In the past, anyone could issue banknotes (up til early 20th century!), but now the physical currency in the UK iis a monopoly, but of course there is a wide range of digital ways to store and transmit value as well, run by credit and debit card companies, and fully virtual currencies are legal in some countries.

So it seems that even a national, government approved or mandated or supported identity system could be outsourced. Indeed, many components of functional id based on some notional national id already are implemented and run (e.g. DVLA for driving licenses) by 3rd parties.

This also argues for why one needs to consider at least some level of federation for digital id systems to allow for moving provider, inter-operating, and even comprehending how  extreme federation such as self-sovereign systems can co-exist with more traditional centralised registeries and the vouchsafing of who you are.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

identity is not property - so how can you "steal" it?

 another poor metaphor (as with security theater, which isn't even poor stand-up), identity theft.

as with music piracy (aka p2p file sharing), you copy, you don't  take. but in this case, the metaphor of theft is even less apt, as identity has some deep roots (e.g. biometric attributes) and some more shallow (notarised documents like birth cerrtificates, passports) and some social contextual attributes (people vouch for you)

mistaken idenity (the mcguffin of many a fine play, film, book, but perhaps not song) is apt

but identity theft just isn't.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Computational Thinking Considered Harmful.

 I was a big fan of Jeanette Wing's initiative on computational thinking - it came at a time when we were developing the computing at schools initiative and the Raspberry Pi and so on, and fitted in well with our optimism about how anyone could pretty much get to grips with the core ideas of reasoning in the style computer science has developed (not just logic/algorithmic, but also systems and many other sub-disciplines).

I'm now worried that what has happened is to enable people with the capacity to adopt the technology, much as with  nuclear and biological weapons (or going back further, gunpowder, TNT, or even just any projectile weapon, crossbow, longbow, slingshot etc) and now we have asymmetric warfare, but it is really asymmetric warfare by the few against society. Now we have people hacking on democracy, on trust in science, on social cohesion. 

I'm not talking about the PRC or the Kremlin.  I am talking about the unpleasant, sociopathic power-hungry in our midst. People that were put in their box by long fights to improve everyone's lot over since the enlightenment or even since the renaissance  (or whatever equivalent there was in your non European part of  the world).

People who have adopted the ways of thinking about problems in manners that let them scale-out,, rapidly. Crucially, for  which  we  as yet  have no effective defence (computationally thought out  or otherwise).

I think we need a Pugwash or Asilomar, or even a Butlerian Jihad against computational thinking without appropriate checks and balances.

Now this  is a very tricky proposition as it is quite different  from proposing ethical controls of dangerous technologies. It is about modes of thought. This hasn't been something people outside of ancient Mesopotamia or modern totalitarian states a la 1984  have considered. How to modulate computational  thinking so that it is inherently a moral  framework would be, for me, the thing we need urgently to do. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

when people say Security Theater, just what do they think they mean?

Security Theater is a  terrible metaphor.

In theater, you suspend disbelief, sure, but that's so you believe  the characters are real, and  that the  characters are subject to true motives and actions are  in reaction too circumstances in  the universe of the play.

So when Macbeth falls for his personal initerpretation of the 3 witches predictions, this is true. and when Burnham Wood is come to Dunsinane, the attack/deception works.

Even the  twist at the end of a whodunnit like the venerable Mousetrap, or the   clever Sleuth (or indeed Whodunnit) catch you by surprise. 

If security  operatives employed techniques like this, they  would essentially be carrying out a mix of

a) real security

b) social engineering on the adversary.

No,  what people really mean is like the well-meaning uncle who says he'll entertain a room full of 9 year  old kids full of sugary drinks with a very  bad conjuring show that  they immediately see through. Not tragic or comic, not even really bathetic or pathetic. Just bad.

People go to the theater to be taken out of themselves. What people call security theater is stressful because it is transparently useless and incredibly boring at the same time. 

When you go parachute jumping or scuba diving and check your equipment, it is quite interesting. That's because theatrics only happen if you don't.

Friday, November 13, 2020


back in the day(*) the UCL internet gang (Indra) built a IP over the international X.25 packet switched system, that operated by tunneling IP packets over virtual circuits (VCs) that the various  telcos operated.

to indicate that the VC was carrying IP rather than (say) remote  terminal traffic from the quaintly named PAD (Packet Assembler&Disassembler), they used a fiield in the VC setup, that could carry Call User  Data (arbitrary stuff up to 128 bytes as far as I recall) and this could even have a copy of the IP address and other useful metadata...

so this is the grrandparent of SMS which uses call user data in the old GSM call setup packet to carry text messages.

so SMS begat Whatsapp and Twitter and who knows what more universes of discourse.

So these "features" are a great deal more powerful than mere options.but also less dangerous than fully programmable protocols (like, say, SIP).

They are like "lifting" in programming languages. And as such should be celebrated.

I'm going to call protocols with such an apparently lowly, but actually grand affordance, hyperextensible, as they allow shortcuts to entire new worlds.

* bob braden, peter kirstein et al, probably around 1980.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

On BS Jobs and Non-work-conserving employment - or how the internet might help with the future of work

 Just reading the Graeber book based on this essay On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, and thinknig about how lockdown revealed how much work was a) unecesssary  b) structured in ways to make it even more unpleasant (e.g. communiting) -

A tell for this is that there's a  workflow, and there are strict office hours - leading to strict commuting time requirements-   this non-work-conserving approach to how "labour" fits in  to "society" is completely inhuman - people work at different paces, and the same person at different rates on different days.  Most tasks that really require a human (leaving aside care work / parenting) are not predictable, so even if we know when they should start, we can't schedule a next task as we don't know when they will end - if  we did, we should  automate them.

The internet doesn't work like that, and that's why it is cheap and efficient, but also forgiving and fllexible.

Society probably once worked like that (I am sure a farmer and a blacksmith interacted in ways that would cope with elasticity). 

We must get rid of time  sheets and the notion of human "resources". You know the saying "Rich people trade their  money  for more time. Poor people trade  their time for money"? Well, that assumes  time, like money, is fungible,  which is obviously BS. Time is running  out.  Time expires. We  are living on borrowed time. Only two of those last things happen with money.  Maybe  we  could design cryptocurrencies that allowed  tracked of the subjective value of our time? Not now, please my Emoticoin is too high for you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Really useful networking efforts, and their opposites.

My  favourite group currently working on internet stuff around the ietf is 
GAIA which is delivering lots of useful information about shared initiatives to provide meaningful and relevant internet access and services (see especially work on affordable community networks, and reducing misinformation, e.g. on covid in the minutes&slides linked above).

In contrast, the race for 5G, and now even 6G is driven, it seems to me, almost entirely by greed and a nlatant disregard for anything remotely sustainable or fairly offered (as per, William Gibson's "the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed").

For example, we were looking at various mobile apps for covid-19 that might help mitigate the pandemic, and concluded that very few would be in the least bit viable in the developing world.  The GAIA folks are heading a long way to helping with that. Quite frankly, the 6G folks are going the opposite direction.

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misery me, there is a floccipaucinihilipilification (*) of chronsynclastic infundibuli in these parts and I must therefore refer you to frank zappa instead, and go home