Google fails to not be evil

Google devil

“Google” by William Blake

Now we know why Google has scrubbed almost all mention of “Don’t be evil” from its code of conduct:

Google bosses have forced employees to delete a confidential memo circulating inside the company that revealed explosive details about a plan to launch a censored search engine in China, The Intercept has learned.

The memo, authored by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the project, disclosed that the search system, codenamed Dragonfly, would require users to log in to perform searches, track their location — and share the resulting history with a Chinese partner who would have “unilateral access” to the data. […]

The memo identifies at least 215 employees who appear to have been tasked with working full-time on Dragonfly, a number it says is “larger than many Google projects.” It says that source code associated with the project dates back to May 2017, and “many infrastructure parts predate” that. Moreover, screenshots of the app “show a project in a pretty advanced state,” the memo declares.

Most of the details about the project “have been secret from the start,” the memo says, adding that “after the existence of Dragonfly leaked, engineers working on the project were also quick to hide all of their code.”

It’s pretty simple, if you want to operate in China you have to play by the CPC’s rules. There is no way for Google to do that while successfully upholding the values it pretends to care about. Hence the secrecy.

The Internet of Dumbass Things (IoDT)

Big Brother Alexa is watching you

Writing in Forbes (a few years ago), Theo Priestley threw cold water on the “Internet of Things” craze:

This time last year Gartner said that by 2022 a typical family home, in a mature affluent market, could contain several hundred smart objects by 2022. Several hundred. […]

But if we examine the market as it is today apathy is rife because the current trend by OEM companies is to “stick a chip in it” in order to connect it to the internet, without any real value to the consumer. In fact, the only ones getting excited by the Internet of Things are the vendors.

Take Samsung’s offerings at the recent IFA exhibition. Samsung now have a new SmartThings hub to connect the many devices in your home. There were examples like;

  • The smart oven that waited for you to be on your way home before starting to heat your dinner.
  • The home that switched on lights as you approached.
  • Samsung also added a touch of personality to their SmartThings platform; you can start the morning by texting the app “good morning”, and your house will bid you farewell as you leave.

The immediate response to these was – Why ? (especially the last one!)

What software and hardware vendors fail to answer is why is their connected device necessary for a consumer to own and what value does it ultimately bring ? Consider the ‘smart oven’ above. It won’t actually prepare the food for you the night before. You have to do that. So the convenience is…. ?

I know of a family that has a cutting-edge Samsung microwave/oven combo that cannot even display the clock for more than 60 minutes at a time. Apparently, this is because the screen is actually a tablet computer that needs to sleep. In their disgust, the family has not even bothered to set the clock to the correct time. Also, as far as they can tell, the Wi-Fi connectivity is completely useless and adds no value to their cooking experience. In effect, then, their lavishly priced “smart” appliance is arguably rather stupid.

I thought of this when reading of Amazon’s latest efforts to create an omni-connected happy digital republic:

Amazon is using a surprise hardware event in Seattle today to introduce a bunch of new devices with its Alexa voice assistant built in.

Why it matters: Amazon is in a race with Google (and to a lesser degree Microsoft and Apple) to make its assistant as ubiquitous as possible.

So far, the company has announced, per CNBC:

  • Amazon Basic Microwave, which will cost $59.99.
  • Echo Wall Clock, at $30, to set timers and such.

[Etc…]

  • New Alexa capabilities. She’ll be able to tell when you’re whispering — and she’ll whisper back. She’ll also act on “hunches,” so if you tell her “good night,” she might turn off your lights and check if your doors are locked.

Creepy! More to the point, how does this invasive consumer technology actually benefit humanity? Are we really better off being able to whisper to our devices, or to control our kitchen lights from 100 miles away?

Entropy

The total entropy of an isolated system, such as the universe, can never decrease over time. This has some unfortunate consequences. For example, cleaning my room will decrease the level of disorder locally, but only by producing large amounts of waste heat that will increase the overall level of entropy (unavailable thermodynamic energy) in the universe.

Therefore, I have decided to help keep entropy at bay by sitting around today and doing nothing at all.

By my calculations, I have prolonged the life of the universe by approximately one googolth of a second.

You’re welcome.

*

PS: I thought this was my own idea, but here’s a good article exploring it in more depth.

Q

No, I don’t mean this guy:

I mean the “QAnon” phenomenon, the open-source investigation into alleged Deep State crimes which is either a deranged conspiracy cult, or a mass awakening to the truth (depending on whether you ask the media or QAnon’s followers, respectively). In a brilliant article, tech entrepreneur Jordan Greenhall analyzes Q in the context of the sweeping cognitive and cultural changes brought about by the internet:

But if I pull up to 40,000 feet, I can start to make sense of what kind of thing this is and what it means in the context of the larger changes discussed above: Q is the most recent and most important example of a widely distributed self-organizing collective intelligence.

We’ve actually seen many precursors. Cicada 3301 is a famous example. Even the I Love Bees ARG for Halo 2. Perhaps Bitcoin is the most important precursor to Q.

These “self-organizing collective intelligences” (SOCI), are a new kind of socio-cultural phenomenon that is beginning to emerge in the niche created by the Internet. They involve attractive generator functions dropped into the hive mind that gather attention, use that attention to build more capacity and then grow into something progressively real and self-sustaining.

The Q SOCI is, for the most part, about sensemaking. It is combing through the billions of threads of “what might be real” and “what might be true” that have been gathered into the Internet and it is slowly trying to weave them into a consistent, coherent and congruent fabric. In the transition from Wonderland, sensemaking is so obviously needed that millions of people are viscerally attracted to the SOCI. The shared desire to wake up from Wonderland and have some firm notion of what is real and true is proving a powerful attractor.

“Wonderland” is Greenhall’s term for the world created by television over the past few generations: “A land of affect, artifice, viscerality, and aphasia. Where it is much more important to ‘look presidential’ than to be presidential.” Wonderland is a product of “broadcast analog” media, most notably TV. The Q phenomenon stems from the transition to a “decentralized digital” medium (the internet), which creates a radically different cognitive landscape: “We are witnessing the birth of an entirely new kind of sensemaking.”

The emergence of this new collective intelligence is of course frightening to the mainstream media, whose traditional role as information gatekeepers and manufacturers of consent is gravely threatened by it, which may help explain the massive blizzard of negative media coverage that greeted QAnon in early August. (By the way, Greenhall’s article does not concern itself with assessing the factual merits or political implications of Q, so if that’s the kind of “take” you’re looking for, go elsewhere.)

For me, Greenhall’s analysis sheds new light on the truly terrible effects of television, which created multiple generations of Americans with diminished cognitive capacity and a tenuous grasp of reality. I think history will look unkindly on the Era of TV. This is not to dismiss the many fine TV shows that exist, but overall, as our primary medium of news and entertainment, the boob tube has been an absolute disaster for the human mind.

That era is manifestly coming to an end, giving way to the internet era, which has spawned Q — and it does seem that Q is, for better or worse, an early application of a radically new type of collective thinking. That’s why attacking Q as a baseless conspiracy theory feels a bit like arguing against a swarm of bees. It’s a category error. Q is the vanguard of the online hive mind. It cannot be stopped, any more than the mass printing of books could be stopped in Renaissance Europe. Things will only get crazier from here on out, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Training

Every age has its rituals. In the Age of Google, we have the Ritual of the reCAPTCHA, a compulsory visual test that requires a carbon-based organism to prove its sentience to a computer by selecting squares that seem to contain grainy images of a specified object. The organism must do this correctly in order to demonstrate to the computer’s satisfaction that it (the organism) possesses the mental faculties of invariant recognition, segmentation, and parsing, in which attributes humans tend to excel over computers. If the organism passes the test, it is permitted to continue with its intended task on the website.

That problem is that many human beings who are more or less sentient find the average reCAPTCHA to be hard and frustrating, owing to the intentionally crappy quality of the images, poor visibility of the objects, as well as certain definitional problems that the average internet user is ill-equipped to deal with. For example, should the user, tasked with identifying “street signs,” click on a square that contains part of a sign post? Then there are questions of process. Does the user click Verify immediately after clicking all the relevant squares, or wait for new images to materialize in the squares that have been clicked? None of this is clear, none of it is explained. The user twists in a fog of doubt and confusion, and frequently fails the test.

Google reCAPTCHA evil

Choose wisely (Source)

The reCAPTCHA is the reductio ad absurdum of modern life, a grudging surrender of countless man-hours of labor (over 100 million reCAPTCHAs are displayed every day) to feed the ravenous maw of an emerging artificial superintelligence. Because, of course, by completing these image recognition tasks, the human user is training Google’s vast machine learning datasets. TechRadar thanks you for your service in helping develop self-driving cars.

But while we are training Google’s neural networks, the machines are simultaneously training us — teaching us to be more compliant, more deferential to the machines, and more conversant in machine logic… in short, remaking humanity in their own image. The future is a slouched hominid clicking on a fuzzy image of a taco shop — forever.

“These people are complete narcissists”

Google leadership seminar

Google leadership seminar (source)

I enjoyed this rant against Big Tech, which besides being funny, also contains the kernel of a very interesting idea for how to address the growing crisis around data privacy and ownership:

Bannon also added this gem about Tesla:

I do not have a dog in this fight, but Musk seems increasingly unhinged to me, and the little stunt he pulled with his abandoned buyout plan was undeniably shady. But… are you not entertained?

Hubble strikes again

Hubble GOODS-South

Part of the Hubble panorama

Hubble delivers another spectacular glimpse of the cosmos with a new composite photo:

These new mosaic images provide a panoramic view of around 15,000 galaxies, in the center of the fields observed by The Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS). About 12,000 of these galaxies are in the star-formation stage, with some of the most distant spots (the reddest ones) dating back 11 billion years.

The images were born out of a program called the Hubble Deep Ultraviolet (HDUV) Legacy Survey, and covers 14 times more sky than a similar image released back in 2014.

And you can’t miss the absolutely incredible images of local galaxies released a few months ago:

Hubble Messier 66

Hubble image of Messier 66

Survival of the laziest

Science says that laziness, or as I prefer to call it, economy of effort, could be a fantastic survival strategy:

A new large-data study of fossil and extant bivalves and gastropods in the Atlantic Ocean suggests laziness might be a fruitful strategy for survival of individuals, species and even communities of species. The results have just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B by a research team based at the University of Kansas.

Looking at a period of roughly 5 million years from the mid-Pliocene to the present, the researchers analyzed 299 species’ metabolic rates—or, the amount of energy the organisms need to live their daily lives—and found higher metabolic rates were a reliable predictor of extinction likelihood.

“We wondered, ‘Could you look at the probability of extinction of a species based on energy uptake by an organism?'” said Luke Strotz, postdoctoral researcher at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum and lead author of the paper. “We found a difference for mollusk species that have gone extinct over the past 5 million years and ones that are still around today. Those that have gone extinct tend to have higher metabolic rates than those that are still living. Those that have lower energy maintenance requirements seem more likely to survive than those organisms with higher metabolic rates.”

I’m not sure whether this is related, but many of us have had the experience of working with high-energy, high-stress people who scurry around in a whirlwind of activity and give every indication of being extremely busy, and yet are strangely unproductive (and sometimes actively destructive) within the organization. Do they have elevated metabolic rates and if so, are they less “fit” to survive?

“Maybe in the long term the best evolutionary strategy for animals is to be lassitudinous and sluggish—the lower the metabolic rate, the more likely the species you belong to will survive,” Lieberman said. “Instead of ‘survival of the fittest,’ maybe a better metaphor for the history of life is ‘survival of the laziest’ or at least ‘survival of the sluggish.'”

The most successful leaders often have a laconic, hands-off management style, and it’s astounding what a truly great leader can accomplish by just hiring the right people, saying a few words and then heading out for a round of golf. The less perceptive might see this approach as leisurely or even “lazy,” but it’s actually just extremely efficient.

I close with an anecdote from historian Paul Johnson about a 1946 encounter with Winston Churchill:

He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, “Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” and he said without hesitating: “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” And he then got into his limo.

Daily links: Movies, Mars, and ancient nematodes

Steel Rain movie

Steel Rain

A large underground lake of liquid water is discovered on Mars.

Two Russian nematodes are brought back to life after being frozen for nearly 42,000 years, making them the oldest living animals currently on earth.

European astronomers track a star travelling through the gravitational field of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and it exhibits gravitational redshift, confirming Einstein’s predictions.

Massive, brutal vivisection of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, via a series of YouTube videos deconstructing the film’s appalling writing. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. The franchise will never recover from this.

Review of the South Korean spy thriller Steel Rain. I watched this on a flight from Seoul to New York. It’s good.

David Goldman challenges American complacency about China’s rise.

Russia liquidates more than 84% of its US Treasury holdings in the two months through May 31, leaving experts puzzled.

Tech superpower? Moi?

China seems to be realizing that not all publicity is good publicity, at least when it comes to technological advances:

China is fooling only itself if it thinks it will soon overtake the United States as a world leader in science and technology, according to the boss of a state-owned publication dedicated to the subject.

With the world’s two largest economies embroiled in an escalating trade dispute, the comments made by Liu Yadong, editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily, which comes under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology, were unexpected.

“The large gap in science and technology between China and developed countries in the West, including the US, should be common knowledge, and not a problem.” Liu said.

“But it became problematic when the people who hype [China’s achievements] … fooled the leadership, the public and even themselves.”

On the one hand, it’s definitely true that China has sometimes oversold its achievements:

One example of the “hype” to which Liu was referring is an article by Xinhua that was widely circulated last autumn hailing China’s “four new great inventions”, namely high-speed rail, electronic payments, bike sharing and online shopping – even though none of them actually originated in the country.

See also here.

On the other hand, I don’t find it altogether persuasive that China is lagging far behind the US. In fact, China has already surpassed the US in at least one crucial area, as David Goldman noted more than a year ago:

For the first time, China has demonstrated that it is far ahead of the United States in a critical new technology, namely quantum communications. A Chinese satellite succeeded in transmitting so-called entangled photons to earth stations. […]

China has the world’s fast supercomputers built entirely out of Chinese components. It has the world’s largest radio telescope. It has thousands of surface-to-ship missiles that can hail down on American aircraft carriers from the stratosphere, and it has ultra-quiet diesel electric submarines that can lurk on battery power for weeks. It has satellite killer missiles. China might spend barely over $1,000 to equip foot soldiers, about 1/100th of what America spends, but it has invested massively in high-tech defense.

Does the US have the overall edge in science/tech? Yes. Could that change sooner than most people think? I believe so.

Deng Xiaoping was fond of saying that the country should hide its strength and bide its time. It appears China is starting to worry that its much-vaunted progress is attracting the wrong kind of attention from the US, and is toggling back to “hide” mode.