The iCloud will fall on our heads!

Paul Raven @ 05-07-2011

[Editor’s note: I’m back from a long weekend away learning about literature. Poking around in the Futurismic dashboard as I get back up to speed, I noticed this piece had somehow been saved as a draft about three weeks back and not published, so I might as well roll it out of the door now, despite it being a bit late in making the point it was meant to make. If nothing else, it should irk the people waggling their fingers at me for switching browsers from the borked Kubuntu flavour of Firefox to Google Chrome. *cue Bill Hicks sucking-Satan’s-cock noise*]

Just so I can make it clear that I’m an equal-opportunities snarker rather than a Googlebooster, you know? Right; regular readers will know I’m not exactly an Apple fanperson, but I’m no happier seeing Luddite fearmongering dressed up as Concern Journalism attacking their stuff for stupid reasons than I am anyone else’s…

If you’ve ever worked in an office with wireless intranet, you’ll already be familiar with how this works as it’s practically identical, only on a global scale. But instead of your boss periodically lording over your desktop as you avoid work, countless invisible spiders will be crawling across your data while you sleep. And that’s where the iCloud becomes profoundly disturbing for anyone peering into the walled garden from a virus-infested byway.

Gah! Spiders! Everyone hates spiders, right? Especially at night-time! When it’s dark! (Also – virus-infested byway? Aren’t you supposed to be painting the outside of the walled garden as safer than the inside, here? Or are you just generally terrified of The Series Of Tubes?)

One may interpret this new, free service as manna from the tech gods. Or perhaps just as Apple keeping up-to-date now that cloud computing has captured the public imagination. But there’s something far more sinister at work.

By dismissing the importance of the personal computer and inviting its customers to let it hold on to their data “for free”, we are getting a sneak peak at how it intends to engineer what Tim Wu calls “the master switch”. Wu argues that as per previous cycles of communication consolidation, the internet will eventually be controlled by a small group of corporate monopolies. The “switch” is the ability to control competition, which comes from controlling the nature of the system.

OK, so Wu’s switch is a genuine matter for concern, I’ll grant you, and Apple are closer to having an integrated hardware+software environment for their client base than anyone else I can think of. This is a potentially interesting angle; where’s Haddow gooing to take it next?

We’ve known for a while now that Apple favours a closed system. Of course no one will be forced to join the cloud, just as no one is “forced” to watch television or use a phone. But if and when enough people do, it will become the status quo, and Apple might be able to exert pressure on any delinquent customers. The pressure will come from the offerings of media producers and application developers, who will find it much easier to make a profit once Apple’s copyright-friendly version of the internet is routed through a system that is never not connected to the North Carolina mothership.

Ugh. Nope, no one is “forced” (nice scare quotes, sir, nice scare quotes) to watch TV or use the phone… or brush their teeth, wear supportive footwear or waterproof coats, live in well-insulated houses. The downsides of all these technologies are balanced by end-user benefits, which may give us some sort of insight into why they caught on, y’know? To be clear, I’m really not keen on walled garden ecosystems, but that’s because they restrict consumer options; as such, to wring my hands over the existence of walled garden ecosystems would be an act of hypocrisy, because the consumer choice to limit one’s consumer choice in the name of convenience is still a consumer choice. By all means, attack the tangible downsides of walled gardens… but skip it with the nebulous Luddite straw men, why don’t you?

The ability to exert influence over the nature of the online experience is the missing piece to Apple’s blueprint for domination.

Blueprint for domination! Muah-hah-hah! *rubs hands together*

And it will all be expertly marketed, just as Apple has marketed its hardware – by providing a user experience that is more elegant and comfortable than that of its competitors. But once Apple has its market locked in, there will be unexpected consequences. As we’ve seen in the case of Amazon and WikiLeaks, the politics of cloud computing can become insolvent rather quickly.

Amazon yanked the Wikileaks data because of state pressure; and yes, I expect Apple would have done the same in the same position. So do we pillory corporations for doing as their governments tell them (while we obey in exactly the same sheep-like fashion), or do we pillory the government for leaning on the corporations to do their bidding in spheres where their control is otherwise limited? As people have already pointed out in previous threads, government policy often favours corporations more than it does citizens, and this sort of response is a corollary of that; sending one hired thug packing will cure the symptoms in the short term, but the disease reigns unchecked.

In the wake of the recent attacks on supposedly secure corporations that have been proven to be defenceless, the stakes for online security have been raised. And while Apple will be working to create what can only become the holy grail of hackerdom, the increased volatility of networks is a key factor as to why its vision of a uniform interface has become so appealing.

“The intertubes are full of danger! Apple are trying to ameliorate that danger! Foolish futility – the safer you make it, the more appealing cracking that nut will become!” If this is an argument against attempts to innovate new and more secure ways of using network technology, then its logical extension says we should just abandon network technology altogether, because no matter how hard we work to keep ahead of the hackers, they’ll always keep trying. The latter is very true (Everything Can And Will Be Hacked, as I reiterate here frequently), but if you can’t stand the bathwater you’d best avoid having the baby, hadn’t you?

Alternatively: “People have their houses burgled! LockmakerCo sells locks they claim will make your house less likely to be burgled! But this will only encourage lockpickers to raise their game! O NOES!” Technology is an arms race against entropy and exploits; always has been, always will be. Buy a good lock, and accept that a determined burglar will crack it if they really want to; this, I believe, is probably why insurance was invented. Life comes with risk; you can either suck it up and take responsibility for yourself and your choices, or you can outsource that burden of care to the government and then complain in surprised tones when they fail to protect you from your own stupidity and/or shortsightedness.

Mitigate your own risks. Use the cloud (Apple’s or anyone else’s) and a external hard drive for double security; don’t store data you wouldn’t want anyone else looking at in an unencrypted format on any machine that you can’t control. This is basic Green Cross Code shit, people. Don’t blame the sellers of convenience for exploiting your laziness; only you can empower them to screw up on your behalf.

In one of those wonderful moments of RSS serendipity, this little gem was right next to the lament dissected above.

New Things - Stuff No-One Told MeYarp.


Fear of a Google planet

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2011

“It’s the season of cyber-panic,” says The Guardian‘s John Harris, and then proceeds to add some more cyber-panic to the mix. After all, we’re well overdue for a reboot of the “Google is a dangerous monopoly” meme, aren’t we?

We seem to accept it as something as inarguable as the weather, but Google now has a terrifying dominance of the world’s internet use. In Europe, it controls around 90% of the online search market.

I’m not going to dispute the figures, but it’s not like there aren’t dozens of other search engines people could use. Even if you put forward ignorance of alternatives and userbase inertia as components of that dominance, I’m still failing to see how Google is the bad guy here.

As is Google’s apparent appetite for any technology business it can get its hands on: in the first 10 months of 2010 alone, it spent $1.6bn on new acquisitions. If you have ever raged against the stranglehold practised by Rupert Murdoch, bear one thing in mind: Google’s power now threatens to make him look like a village newsagent.

On the contrary; Google is more like a newsagent than Murdoch, because it’s primarily in the business of locating and supplying media and providing platforms for people to create their own; Murdoch is a top-down content creator and peddler of dubious ideological flim-flam. Or, to put it another way: Google owns pipelines, Murdoch sells sewage.

Google has a shot not at control of the means to access information, but the information itself. Potentially all information, which is something worth panicking about.

Google has no “shot at controlling all information” whatsoever. If it starts censoring or massaging its results – which would get spotted pretty quickly, thanks to legions of competitors looking for a handful of mud to sling – Josephine Average can simply use an alternative search engine, blogging platform, online video hosting service, whatever. Google is not a telco; it has no way of controlling what comes into your house via that bit of optical fibre unless you choose to use it as a gateway. Mister Harris’ concern should perhaps be directed toward the telcos themselves, whose resistance to net neutrality is far more suspect and manipulative than Google’s dominant market share in search.

In one of those turnabouts that defy satire, Microsoft is pursuing Google via the European commission, claiming that it unfairly promotes its own services via web searches.

Y’know what? When I look at the BT website, they don’t tell me about the offerings from other telcos. When I look at Microsoft’s website, I don’t see a message saying “or, of course, you could always get a Mac”. When I go to Burger King, there are no ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Microsoft’s lawsuit is petulant tit-for-tat obstructionism, nothing more.

In Texas, antitrust investigations by the attorney general’s office are ongoing, triggered by websites’ complaints about their lowly Google rankings.

Google makes it very clear how to make your site rank well, and what actions will count against you. Their algos aren’t perfect, of course… but they fix them regularly and are fairly transparent about how and why they do so. If you don’t like Google’s rules, don’t optimise for their search engine. Google doesn’t owe your business a living.

Yesterday, Bloomberg ran a story with the headline “Google Antitrust Probe by US Could Take Years”, and paraphrased a renowned technology lawyer: “The agency is likely to examine whether Google is using its position in internet search to subdue rivals in adjacent markets with threats and jacked-up advertising rates.” It would certainly be a start.

Sounds more like a fishing expedition than an effort to fix a clear and observable problem to me… one that will tie up the company’s resources and energies in proving its innocence. Given the source of said lawsuit – oh, look, Microsoft again! – it’s not exactly hard to assume that someone is more interested in throwing caltrops into Google’s path than working out ways of competing in the marketplace in which Google dominates. Shorter version: if you can’t beat ’em, use the legal system to slow ’em down while you try to get a jump on ’em.

In the meantime, some advice, not least for employees of the US government. Don’t feed the tiger. Think back to the frontier days of dial-up, when pluralism reigned. Have a look around for alternative email providers, search engines and video-sharing sites.

This is pretty much the only sensible paragraph in the whole damned piece: the US government is indeed extremely unwise to rely on outsourced services if secrecy is of great importance (though they’re not exactly great at internal security when they do keep things local, either), and – if you really do fear Google’s dominance – you should put your money where your mouth is and use someone else’s services.

Cue accusations of Google fanboyism in 5… 4… 3… Look, I don’t care for Google any more than I care for any other company that provides me with useful services, I fully understand that they’re a profit-orientated business and that “don’t be evil” is very open to intrpretation as a coprporate slogan, and I’m happy to rag on them when their stuff doesn’t work (which is why I’m an unstinting Blogger hater, f’rinstance). Show me evidence that Google are spiking the competition’s wheels, and I’ll gladly hear your case. But if all you can do is bitch about the fact that 90% of people think they deliver the best results and use them as a result, I’m going to file you under “probable axe to grind”, or possibly “journalist in search of nebulous bogey-man”.


Fukushima: the disaster that wasn’t

Paul Raven @ 06-05-2011

Via Charlie Stross, a piece at The Economist looking at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis two months on. Long story short: a very nasty accident, but not the disaster it could have been, which is pretty impressive considering it was caused multiple major natural disasters far in excess of even reasonable modern design specs happening in a ludicrously tight timeframe.

And here we see the downside of the 24-hour news cycle: by the time the facts are out and the dust has settled, the media vortex has moved on, leaving a dim memory in the public mind of “the Japanese nuke plant that went Chernobyl”. And because “that Japanese nuke plant didn’t actually go Chernobyl”isn’t newsworthy enough to bubble through the latest batch of panic and FUD and gory triumphalism, that’s how it’ll be remembered; good news doesn’t sell newspapers (or attract clickthrough). End result: the gradual rehabilitation of nuclear power has been set back more than two decades.

For the record: I don’t like nuclear power, and I remain to be convinced it has anywhere near the longevity suggested by its more boosterist advocates. Thorium reactors and other variants could address both the safety issues and the Peak Uranium problem, but neither offer the ready supply of weapons-grade materials that encouraged the initial rash of investment in nuclear power. But as an alternative to coal and oil, and a stop-gap on the way to truly renewable solutions, it’s a no-brainer. I wish I had the time and resources to do a money-trail on the strongest Fukushima FUD emitters, because I fully expect some familiar names would crop up.


FUDushima continued

Paul Raven @ 21-03-2011

I appear to have lost my original source for the tweet that pointed me to this piece at Talking Points Memo, so my apologies for the lack of attribution; I think it’s been doing the rounds, and – if there’s any justice on the intertubes – it should continue doing so (preferably at high volume), in the hope that it might counteract even a small part of the underinformed lipflapping about the Fukushima reactor. So: excerpts from a letter to TPM from a Japanese student who was in the country for the quake and its aftermath:

… the Japanese news coverage has been largely calm, rational, informed, and critical. Some of this is naturally to avoid creating panic, but it has been able to do that because as a whole it has answered many of the questions people have and thus gained a certain level of trust. As a media scholar, I can pick this coverage apart for its problems, and of course point to information that is still not getting out there, but on the whole it is functioning as journalism should.

It also just looks good because there is something so ugly beside it: the non-Japanese coverage. That, I am afraid, has been full of factual errors and other problems. This has not been just Fox News, but also CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and even the New York Times to differing degrees. They get the reactors mixed up or report information that is simply wrong (e.g., writing that the TEPCO workers had fully abandoned the effort to control the plant because of radiation levels when TEPCO had only withdrawn some non-essential personnel). They are perpetually late, continuing to report things the Japanese media had shown to be wrong or different the day before.

[…]

There are results to this irresponsible journalism. Many foreigners in Japan who do not have the language capabilities to access Japanese media or who are used to foreign media are in a state of panic, when around them Japanese are largely calm. People in California start searching for iodide pills on the internet and there are already people voicing worries about whether Japanese cars are now all going to be radioactive. But worst of all, the inordinate and sensationalist attention given to the reactors by American and other media has taken attention away from where it should be: on the likely nearly 20,000 people who died in the quake and tsunamis, on the nearly 400,000 homeless people, and on the immense suffering this has caused for Japan as a whole.

[…]

Japanese people and government officials will have to spend many years investigating all that went wrong in this accident. I feel it is likely that many at TEPCO and in the government will be found at fault for inadequate preparation, overly optimistic projections, willful ignorance, and just plain lying to the public. This will be an investigation in which the Japanese media will play an important part. But the non-Japanese media should also look at itself and see where it went wrong―so that it can better prepare for a similar accident which, unfortunately, is not altogether impossible in the United States as well.

I don’t think I need to add anything to that, really. But as a side-dish, here’s Tim Maly on the half-life of information in the 24-hour newschurn:

At this moment, the current status of the nuclear plants in Japan matters for about 200,000 people in the world. This is the number of people who can do anything about it. Most of those 200,000 people can only decide whether or not to flee further away. They need information at the 15-minute scale probably. A very tiny minority of the people need information at the moment to moment scale. This is the team of people tasked with bringing the reactors under control. For the rest of us, we need information at the daily scale or less. Because the ramifications of Japan reactor situation IF THEY MATTER AT ALL matter in regard to decisions made at the scale of decades and centuries.

It is completely insane that countries are announcing that they are scaling back or cancelling nuclear programs based on Japan’s troubles. If those programs were a good idea two weeks ago they are still a good idea now. And if they might have been converted from a good idea to a bad idea based on evidence coming out of Japan then smart decision makers need to wait until the information has the stability and solidity of data that will support a decade/century scale decision.

As a number of people have said to me over the last week or so, there surely needs to be new debate and research into nuclear safety.However, it needs to be done by experts in the field in question, with as much verifiable information as possible, as opposed to being done by uninformed television anchors with a five-minute Physics 101 briefing tucked in their suit pocket.

We have access to an utterly unprecedented volume and rate of information flow. Unless we learn to filter for the truth, we’ll drown in lies.

[ And yeah, I make mistakes from time to time; I’m making no claims to perfection here, and I learn a lot from sharp people in the comment threads, for which I’m grateful. It’s a collaborative effort, really… which is another thing we’d do well to remember as we look at problems overseas and worry about how they’ll effect us. ]


Moar liek FUDushima, AMIRITES?

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2011

I’ve assiduously avoided talking about the nuclear situation in Japan at the moment, partly because I know little more about nuclear reactors than the average layman-with-a-science-education, and partly because there’s more than enough opinion and information – informed or otherwise – floating around the intertubes already without me adding more. (Plus I’m finding the what-about-meeeeee flavour of much of the opinion pieces a bit galling; yeah, you might get some fallout drifting over your neighbourhood if things go badly, but hey – you still have a neighbourhood, so suck it up.)

However, I feel fairly safe talking about the reaction to the nuclear situation, because I’m just about old enough to remember the Chernobyl panic here in the UK and Europe. The Chernobyl disaster (coupled with the last gasps of Cold War existentialism and my unhealthy interest in science text books from the grown-up section of the local library) contributed to making me stridently anti-nuclear for most of my life. Over the last five years or so, however, I found myself making peace with nuclear power (though I’m still totally opposed to nuclear weapons); sure, it has its downsides, but when measured against the downsides of fossil fuels as our primary energy source, nuclear look like a pretty decent option… especially when considered as the central support pole of a renewable energy wigwam.

I suspect others have reached a similar rapprochement in recent times, but the Fukushima flap is about the worst sort of PR that nuclear power could get, and plenty of folk have seen the sun shining and set out for the fields with their hay-making equipment; at this crucial time in global energy policy development, the last thing we need are distortions of the truth. (There are enough of those floating around already, after all, and the nuclear FUD-flood has already started in comment threads worldwide; when you’ve got an ideology to peddle, everything looks like a sales-pitch factoid.) But as Brian Wang points out at Next Big Future, if you’re going to suggest banning nuclear power for killing people, you should suggest the same for fossil fuels first… and even solar has a higher fatality rate per terawatt-hour.

Yes, this is a tragedy for the people of Japan and for the world as a whole, but tragedies are opportunities to learn and develop. To turn our backs on the lessons we’re learning here would be a far greater tragedy, and the greatest disservice to the hard work and sacrifice going on in Japan right now. As I said the other day, seeing Fukushima as someone else’s problem that might just blow back on you is not just myopic, it’s symptomatic of the biggest barrier to progress we face. Nothing that happens on this planet is someone else’s problem. Japan’s tragedy is a human tragedy. Whether we like it or not, we all stand shoulder to shoulder; the sooner we face up to that, the sooner we can start fixing things properly.

I don’t know that one more person’s best wishes and hopes for a successful fix will make any difference, but the folk trying to forestall disaster at Fukushima have mine nonetheless – they’re pretty much the epitome of bravery in the modern age, so far as I’m concerned.. I hope they have yours, too.


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