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May 27, 2016

Luddite engineers

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"You geeks," a friend of mine said recently in some exasperation. "You just want everything to be perfect." She was referring to the long-held opposition to online/electronic voting on the part of folks such as the Open Rights Group, the Foundation for Information Policy Research, and security experts such as Matt Blaze and Rebecca Mercuri. ObDisclosure: I am on the advisory councils of both ORG and FIPR.

Online voting is the one area where, as Blaze told Quartz, the people closest to the technology are the ones advising against it; it's that rare case where engineers are being called Luddites. The same engineers who groove on the latest technology typically oppose the adoption of online voting because they have studied the matter with great attention, and are deeply aware of the vast security risks. Insisting on dismissing their conclusions because you believe that technologies such as open source software and the blockchain have fundamentally changed what you can build is to presume that the laws of mathematics apply no more to you than they do to governments wishing to put backdoors in crypto.

In the UK, online voting was pretty much taken off the table in about 2007, when, driven by the above research, the Open Rights Group studied the matter and concluded it was a Bad Idea. At the time, ORG was the only group in the UK interested in the problems with online voting; its 2007report was based on real-world trials. A couple of months ago, the two-year-old group Webroots Democracy, which campaigns for online voting, issued a report (PDF) making all these points and claiming that the security problems experts argue are unsurmountable have in fact can be and have been solved.

Areeq-Chowdhury.jpgWebroots' campaign is based on the very best of motives. Politics, as founder Areeq Chowdhury said passionately on Wednesday evening at the group's second birthday celebration, intimately affects every part of people's lives. We should be far more shocked than we are at the systemic failure represented by recent voting figures: turnout for London's recent Mayoral election was 45.3%, though somewhat higher - 66% - for the last general election..

Ruksana Khalim, representing the Royal London Society for Blind People, provided a further example of the limitations of the present system. At polling stations, Britain provides no accessibility aids for the visually impaired. Accordingly, she must depend on an accompanying relative to read the ballot and guide her to the right box: "so awkward, too frustrating, and too difficult". Voting matters enough to her to persevere, but many others give up. She has, she said, the right to vote - but no means to access that right.

Yes, these are outrageous problems that must urgently be solved. It does not, however, follow that online voting is that solution. To campaign for it and trot out problems you believe it will solve is to put the solution before the problem. This strategy should be familiar: see also Britain's late, unlamented ID card.

On Wednesday, Chowdhury dismissed evidence that online voting does not increase engagement as out of date (2013?). Since ORG's 2007 report, internet use has grown wildly, and all sorts of people now do things online that they didn't previously. Why should voting be any different?

As Jason Kitkat has commented the evidence to date suggests that online voting gives people who already vote an additional method for doing so but does not entice new voters. What matters is believing your vote makes a difference.

mulqueeny at wikimania.JPGIt is in fact just possible that it's different for today's emerging voters. As Emma Mulqueeny pointed out at Nominet's 2015 conference, in presenting the Speaker's report, the born-in-1997s have grown up differently. Theirs is the selfie-kitten-food internet (Mulqueeny's characterization), not Tim Berners-Lee's open web; their teen years have been filled with iPhones and social media with which to build communities and give themselves a voice. They want systemic political change: plain language, politicians going where people are, genuine engagement. It's entirely imaginable that a system requiring physical presence to wield pencil and paper is as profoundly alien as if in order to vote everyone had to dress as if for presentation at Queen Victoria's court.

Voting systems must be usable by and accessible to large, general populations of widely varying abilities and competencies. They must be trusted to produce the result the electorate intends, so integrity and security are crucial. Webroots claims that the latter has been solved. Yet the past failures of proprietary systems are not promising, as Dilbert illustrated recently. One of the technologies suggested in the report, Du-Vote, has already been called "not ready to be deployed" in a December 2015 security analysis (PDF) by INRIA researchers Steve Kremer and Peter Rønne. Sites like Coindesk have are uncertain whether the blockchain is an effective approach. Finally, open source software cannot by itself protect against DDoS attacks, and many other problems.

However, the serious concerns Webroots raises should not be ignored even though its solutions deserve questioning. If we don't - and I don't - believe online voting is the solution, we must propose and campaign for better alternatives.


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


May 20, 2016

Adventures in television, part 438

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"Have you ever met a masturbator?"

How would *you* respond? You're in a TV studio, being filmed by three silent cameramen in front of a green screen, a monitor displaying the title "You Decide" with a Christian cross in the middle, and behind a big grey desk-like affair with a mostly (fake?) bald guy, who earlier confessed, with dry-eyed, dry-nosed weeping-like behavior and an apology to his at-home wife, to being a former "chronic masturbator". Replying "Everyone I've ever met in my life, probably" seemed dull.

I said, "I've met *you*."

He indicated that I was unkind to bring up something so personally painful. Yes, readers, I apologized for the unkindness because I'm a schmoe.

Apparently making fun of us humorless skeptics is back in fashion (see also Nick Pullar and Tony Youens for more on the 2004 Shirley Ghostman experience. Twenty-four hours later, I am ashamed that I haven't yet managed to identify the perpetrators or the real agenda for certain. Possibly, as the Jonathan Levene who booked me for Wednesday's taping said, it really is getting people to discuss their different beliefs. Except that one of them is always a set-up whose goal is to make both the religion he's pretending to represent *and* the mark look stupid.

I hate dishonest comedy, even when I'm not the dupe.

The veteran sitcom writers Ken Levine and Earl Pomerantz frequently blog about writing comedy that derives from character, not just jokes. That approach is why sitcoms like Frasier (which Levine worked on) remain funny for decades. Even though they relied heavily on puncturing the Crane brothers' pretensions, the writers respected that the snobbish Frasier and Niles truly loved the things - opera, wine, antique door knockers - they were snobbish about. Frasier and Niles weren't just assholes who liked looking down on people, and that was crucial.

Televised practical jokes originated, I think, with Candid Camera, which I loved as a child in the 1960s ("I'd have thought it was earlier" my opponent remarked on Wednesday). Candid Camera had two winning qualities that Wednesday's encounter lacked: 1) the setups were often fantastically clever; and 2) they ended by sharing the joke with the mark (not always on-screen, but marks were given the chance to withdraw; my aunt was caught once). One unforgettable Candid Camera stunt featured a car that split in half; it remains awesome today.

256px-Marx_Brothers_1931.jpgSo do the Marx Brothers, whose license with their scripts famously led the great playwright and drama critic George S. Kaufman to react in surprise during a Broadway performance of The Cocoanuts, "I thought I heard one of the original lines". Although I loved all the brothers, I particularly admired Groucho's spontaneous verbal wit. People who are good at them claim that puns are the highest form of humor, but I disagree: you can store up puns to perform whenever they slot in, like memorized scripted jokes. Groucho's high-percentage word play, building on whatever anyone said to him, requires real improvisational genius.

Of course, all comedy relies on the straight man/stooge. In six of the Marx Brothers movies Groucho was paired with Margaret Dumont (above), who perfectly played the unamused high-class matron. It's often claimed she genuinely didn't get any of their humor, but that's absurd: no one survives as long or successfully in comedy as she did without a pretty clear idea of what they're about. She was *supposed* to play it straight, and she did, expertly.

Since Wednesday's production team's agenda remains unknown, I don't know if they think the "interview" succeeded. I noted my opponent's frequent male-female gambits: in checking the pronunciation before we started, he stressed GrossMAN. He went on to: repeatedly accuse me of being attracted to him (as IF); apologize to his wife, "Jean", for my "flirting", which he assured her was inappropriate and unwanted; claim he succeeded in giving up masturbation by ceasing to eat apples, the fruit of sin; and suggestively miming eating a banana to show how perfectly "it fits in a MAN's mouth". I can't say - lacking access to the footage - whether my face took any of those baits. I think I soon ignored anything to outrage a feminist, and insults don't bother me too much; even at 16 I just guffawed when a male acquaintance said of my shape, "Frankly, I've seen better-looking doors". What was hard was to stop arguing against my words being repeatedly twisted into things I didn't say. "What are we really doing here?" I asked the room 20 or 30 minutes in. Crickets. Occasionally, though, a cameraman smiled, and I began playing to that out of boredom. I've posted a fuller, raw account of the encounter for posterity.

Until they explain their actual agenda, I have emailed Levene to withdraw consent to using this footage. Even though the skeptical movement has its problems, I feel protective of the principles it represents and my part of it. Personally, I think my best moment was my response to his explanation that according to an unmemorably blandly named science institute in KANSAS the direct cause of the Flood was that male masturbation levels had reached 99% (cue: unsourced, colored-in world map). They've proved this, he explained, by carbon-dating the remains of semen found inside ancient clay pots in Jerusalem.

"Well," I said, "They probably didn't have socks."


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


May 13, 2016

Pay pal

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Is this the end of free, as Andrew Brown suggested? Forbes won't even show its front page to ad-blocked browsers. Wired owner Conde Nast posts giant screens dissing ad blockers. The Washington Post and the New York Times give you a countdown of the number of free articles you have left for the month and then demand you subscribe. Everyone, in short, wants to get paid, preferably before letting you read anything. The Guardian, with its polite little bottom banner suggesting you become a member, must be picking up a lot of (deadbeat) readers.

As I've noted before I do sympathize, just not enough to drop the ad-blockers that simultaneously shield against malware and the impossibility of reading past active animations.Mobile without ad-blockers is worse. Plus we've learned from years of internet use that there is always an alternative. The article on Russian state-run doping in athletics that the New York Times won't show me will be widely copied, summarized, expanded, and commented upon in the next few hours.

One problem is that we - or at least, I - don't read online the same way we do offline. With a print publication, I begin at the front cover and read straight through to the back cover, at least glancing at everything. Online reading is a butterfly experience. The separate click-and-wait for each article means you don't "read the paper". Natively, the web unbundles publications the way MP3s did albums. Every article is its own little island of "content" with its own little profit-and-loss calculation. Attempts to subvert this, such as full-publication Flash animations feel fake as well as frustrating.

That might not matter if current payment mechanisms weren't the journalism equivalent of cock-blocking. You want to read an article. Paying for it means loading another page, creating an account, filling out a form, paying - and then you're slopped back to the front page to log in and *then* search for the - what was it again? - article that piqued your interest. Sometimes, your only option is a permanent-until-you-cancel subscription to the whole paper, which requires thought and decision-making utterly disproportionate to your idle curiosity about what Jon Stewart said to Hillary Clinton. This is why Google is winning (for now).

Twenty-odd years ago, the solution was imminent: micropayments! Cryptographic precursors to bitcoin were going to enable tiny fees - a cent, a nickel - for reading articles. The technology was never simple enough for mainstream use - and still isn't. Donation experiments like tip jars using Paypal or Amazon and Flattr won't work for commercial publishers.

Alexander_Klöpping_(cropped).jpgA few weeks ago, the Meetup group Hacks/Hackers (half journalists, half techies) featured Dutch former journalist Alexander Klöpping explaining his effort to move things along in a more positive direction: the two-year-old, Blendle, which aims to pay publishers while giving readers a better experience.

Klöpping began with the desire to prove wrong the received belief that, "People won't pay for news" and a question: why was there nothing for journalism comparable to Netflix for movies or Spotify for music? What if there were? It took him a year to get all the Dutch publishers to sign up for his nascent platform. Blendle is now selling millions of articles every month to its 500,000 Dutch and German users and, with backing from the New York Times, launched in April in the US.

The scheme works like this. You have some money in an account that you top up periodically (say, $10 a time), and the service gives you a trial $2.50. You select from a display of article summaries, each of which has a modest price: 59 cents for Fear trumps hope, from the Economist, 29 cents for Going Dark, from the New York Review of Books. If the article disappoints, you request a refund. Klöpping is finding that people will pay for exclusive stories, quality journalism, analysis, deep background pieces, big interviews, and long-form stories - the things, in fact, traditionally give publications money and prestige.

Blendle is unquestionably designed with mobile phones and tablets in mind. On a desktop monitor, stories parade in a horizontal line, you scroll sideways to move from screenful to screenful of article text - not what we're used to, but workable. When you join - which has a 67,000-odd backlog, although freelances get favored treatment - the publications of interest you select determine the articles the system offers. The system's daily email suggesting articles is clunkier for me because I'm so habituated to clicking on an emailed link and reading the story a few seconds later. If your system is not logged in, clicking on a link brings up a screen that offers to email a temporary link that bypasses login. It's clever, but by the time I've fetched the email and loaded the article I could have found it on the publication's own website.

Still, Blendle seems a highly positive development. It offers publishers money they wouldn't get otherwise. It allows users to pay proportionately for what you want to read and seems to have no plans to mine your data. Those who pay - which Klöpping says is about 20% of signups - can bask in the golden glow of doing your bit to sustain quality jourrnalism. Which matters, because otherwise it will be Facebook Turks all the way down.


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


May 6, 2016

The Knowledge

googlemapscompared-obeirne.pngThis week in The Overspill (which I highly recommend), the veteran journalist Charles Arthur highlighted a piece by Justin O'Beirne that compares the 2010 and 2016 versions of Google's maps, and concludes they're both flawed, in opposite ways. In 2010, O'Beirne shows, Google optimized for place names over road density, leading to many "orphan cities" - that is, cities marked on the map but lacking a visible route of access. Today, Google optimizes for showing roads at the expense of place names and labels, so that until you zoom in closely all you see is a tangle of unidentified spaghetti. O'Beirne theorizes that Google is optimizing for mobile devices, but I suspect it's more specifically for satnavs (and self-driving cars), for which labeling and other details like one-way systems is less crucial. Most people just want to know their next move. On mobile phones, I suspect, maps are more often used as zoomed-in guides to show what's nearby.

Arthur also highlighted Nick Carr's follow-up piece, which concludes that we are shifting map-reading from man to machine and acquiring a universal map just when it's no longer needed. A better characterization is that we are beginning to build piles of data describing the physical world that someday could be output as a map for any purpose on any medium. This is only in its infancy. Today's online maps are functionally terribly limited: they calculate directions between two points, but can't optimize a route for multiple errands. My preferred map, OpenStreetMap, gives the helpful ability to select overlays such as cycle routes and transport links as needed. In an ideal someday world, that concept should expand to many other uses. Tourists exploring, for example, want something very different than someone who abruptly needs an alternative route to work.

I'd rather learn the geography, as I wrote a few years ago, but I recognize that I am not normal.

A couple of years ago, as part of convincing me to take up the death-match sport of cycling in central London, a friend insisted I should use Cyclestreets, which plots optimal cycle routes for a variety of ability levels. You can set up Cyclestreets on your mobile phone so that it issues satnav directions via an earpiece. But I didn't want that: routes do not stick in my brain when I follow other people's directions and a dictatorial voice in my ear is distracting. The number of stories of people blindly obeying their satnavs and driving into oceans, off bridges, and onto too-tiny mountain paths suggests this is an all-too-common problem. This may say something about the limits of human brains to cope with cognitive load. Trusting the system and studying the landscape to match its instructions seems to fully occupy the mental capacity that otherwise could note landmarks and form images and guide me independently through a second run.

osm-pembridges-five.pngOne of the first things I noticed when I began visiting London in the 1970s was that every single parked car had an A-Z map book in view. In this insanely complex city, streets change names every block or two - or loop back in on themselves without changing it at all. Cyclestreets' directions to travel the four miles from Euston Square to Notting Hill Gate include 37 different street names, some of which are near-identical variations of both themselves and other nearby roads. Casual sloppiness easily confuses Pembridge Villas, Road, Place, Square, and Gardens (two of these), which sound more different than they look when a car is honking behind you at an intersection. The amount of stopping, checking, and looking up the next few turns means every new trip like that takes at least double the estimated time. The payback is knowing the way the second time and beginning to turn London from a jumble of tube-linked neighborhoods into a navigable whole.

This is not, as some have suggested, trying to recreate The Knowledge, the famously comprehensive mental atlas of London street that black cab drivers must master to qualify for a license. The Knowledge, Jody Rosen wrote in 2014 for the New York Times magazine, includes more than 25,000 streets *and everything on them*, so that drivers know every location any picked-up passenger might name. Rosen's question was, does The Knowledge still matter in the time of GPS? By January 2016 the training school Rosen profiled had barely escaped closing, blaming Uber and high rents.

whitehart-path-noflood_zps3tjb19us.jpgThe Knowledge is a good start on that universal pile of data, but it must be painstakingly installed one brain at a time, with, interesting effects on the hippocampus. It's unsuitable for my purposes, since cab drivers rarely use bike paths or crossings. But I want, like them, to be able to adaptively change routes in response to traffic, construction, or flooding. Similarly, O'Beirne's snapshot of (I recognize it as) a AAA road map, though the best of its kind, is wrong for Google's needs. It's designed for maximum efficiency in planning and navigating car trips - and for transferring geographical understanding into human brains. The ultimate goal of paper maps was to enable you to do without them; the ultimate goal of Google maps and satnavs is to keep you dependent on them.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.