31 March 2023

The New York Times: “How to Fix the TikTok Problem”

The even deeper problem is that putting TikTok under state control, banning it or selling it to a U.S. company wouldn’t solve the threats that the app is said to pose. If China wants to obtain data about U.S. residents, it can still buy it from one of the many unregulated data brokers that sell granular information about all of us. If China wants to influence the American population with disinformation, it can spread lies across the Big Tech platforms just as easily as other nations can.

Not to mention that our national lack of focus on cybersecurity defenses means that it would be much more effective for China to just hack every home’s Wi-Fi router — most of which are manufactured in China and are notoriously insecure — and obtain far more sensitive data than it can get from knowing which videos we swipe on TikTok.

A better solution would be to pass laws that force all of our tech to serve us better. Rather than engage in what Evan Greer of the advocacy group Fight for the Future calls “xenophobic showboating”, let’s get serious about demanding true security, privacy and accountability from all of the tech in our lives.

Julia Angwin

The debate around a TikTok ban has been heating up again, and the dispute somehow sounds more disingenuous and misleading than before. TikTok certainly had its fair share of failures in privacy and data handling practices, but the hearings in the US Congress seem focused on grandstanding and fearmongering against China, not on highlighting concrete issues and putting forward impartial solutions.

29 March 2023

Energy Monitor: “EU ICE ban: Did Germany just kill the electric car?”

Germany wants the law changed to allow for the sale of ICE cars after 2035 if they run on hydrogen-derived e-fuels, which are produced by electrolysis with added carbon. Since, unlike Italy, Germany has enough voting power to kill the legislation simply by abstaining in the final vote, the European Commission has started drafting a compromise to allow this. French President Emmanuel Macron, who strongly supports the ICE ban, is meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at an EU summit in Brussels today. Macron may support the compromise in exchange for German support for nuclear power as a ‘green’ tool to fight climate change.

Most automakers actually supported the original legislation because they see a market opportunity in EVs, the campaigner points out. The vast majority of automakers don’t even want this, says Keynes. Ford, Audi, VW and Volvo have all come out 100% against this idea. Basically, Porsche is the only carmaker that has openly said they are investing in this [e-fuels]. This is really a solution for sports cars, because it is so expensive.

The benefit of e-fuels is that they are a ‘drop-in’ fuel that can be fed into any ICEs already on the road today, either blended or pure. A hard 2035 ban on ICEs could kill investment in e-fuels – potential markets in aviation and shipping do not on their own provide a sufficiently strong business case to get e-fuels off the ground, says the industry – and deprive drivers of a potential medium-term climate solution.

Dave Keating

I’ve been loosely following this debate on Twitter with a mix of bemusement and disbelief – the law received final approval from EU energy ministers on Tuesday. You would think the entire climate strategy of the EU rested on this single piece of legislation, which doesn’t even apply to heavy trucks and buses by the way. In reality, transitioning to electric cars reduces greenhouse gas emissions only insofar as the electricity consumed comes from carbon-neutral sources – a caveat that applies equally to vehicles powered by e-fuels. Otherwise we’re just shifting the source of the emissions from roads to powerplants – which may improve air quality in cities, but does nothing to address global warming.

24 March 2023

TechCrunch: “Amazon kills DPReview, the best camera review site on the web”

Of course cameras themselves have risen and fallen in favor as they have vied with smartphones for imaging dominance — and, in terms of popularity, lost. But while far fewer people are buying standalone digital cameras in 2023 than they were in 2013, or for that matter 2003, the enthusiast and professional market remains strong and the cameras themselves have gotten incredibly good. There’s never been a better time to buy a camera — and there has never been, nor do I imagine there will ever be, a better site to help you choose one than DPReview.

Somehow Amazon never really found a way to capitalize on this one-of-a-kind asset, and DPReview has carried on over the years more or less untouched, to the point where it seems possible its parent company forgot they owned them. It’s hard not to see the opportunities that present themselves when you own one of the world’s leading expert voices on a major category, but perhaps unsurprisingly, no one thought to invest in and integrate DPReview closely with Amazon’s other properties. It isn’t the first time the left hand and right hand have been incommunicado at that company.

The team was laid off in its entirety as part of the latest round of cuts at Amazon, which like other companies has been tightening its belt — or, perhaps also like other companies, using the excuse of macroeconomic headwinds to perform reductions that at any other time would seem needless.

Devin Coldewey

The upside of being a part of a huge conglomerate may be a peculiar form of independence. A small team such as DPReview is a mere rounding error on a balance sheet the size of Amazon, so I doubt any top manager ever bothered to limit their budgets or interfere with their processes. This granted them an economic freedom that they would never have achieved as a standalone company, having to turn a profit and positive cash flow while paying for expensive gadgets and their expert reviewers.

21 March 2023

The Wall Street Journal: “After Putin”

Mr. Putin’s fall will take place amid the military and economic disasters he created and, regardless of who claims the Kremlin, the free world will have considerable leverage over their survival. Even a nationalist junta, unless it wishes to follow quickly in Putin’s footsteps, will need to reach accords to get the lights back on. These agreements cannot be limited to rhetoric about free elections. They must include reparations to Ukraine and war crimes trials. They must outline plans for a new constitution, with a parliamentary system, and for the independence of Russian regions long exploited by Moscow’s imperial grasp.

Russia after Mr. Putin is as difficult to picture as he intended. Every dictator must appear irreplaceable, to be the lesser evil, the devil we know. But Mr. Putin’s end will come, as much a surprise to him as to anyone else. Let us learn from the past and be ready.

Garry Kasparov

Interesting collection of opinions on how Russia would look like after the end of Vladimir Putin’s control – interesting in the sense that many reflect the pervasive wishful thinking that has dominated the discussion around this conflict. How many times have we heard that the Russian army is on the brink of collapse, that Putin is terminally ill or on the verge of being deposed by his inner circle, that sanctions will run the Russian economy into the ground? While each of these outcomes remain possible, we shouldn’t overestimate their likelihood, or base our entire foreign policy on thin assumptions.

17 March 2023

Nikkei Asia: “Inside the Trilateral Commission: Power elites grapple with China’s rise”

The effort by the Asia Pacific Group to disclose the discussions is not necessarily aimed at demystifying it to critics, however. Instead, the press has been invited to highlight a rift that may be emerging between Asia and the other wings of the organization.

We feel that the U.S. policy toward Asia, especially toward China, has been narrow-minded and unyielding. We want the people in the U.S. to recognize the various Asian perspectives, said Masahisa Ikeda, an executive committee member of the Trilateral Commission. Ikeda has been named the next director of the Asia Pacific Group, and is scheduled to assume the position next spring.

If the Tokyo gathering demonstrated anything, it is that Asia’s elites are nervous that the world is heading in the wrong direction, fueled by the intensifying competition between the U.S. and China and the decoupling that awaits. And the problem, in the view of many of the participants, is America. Huntington’s injunction against an excess democracy is still embedded in the thinking of many of the Trilateral Commission’s members. But this time, it’s the U.S. penchant for exporting its ideology that is the main concern for many.

Ken Moriyasu, Mariko Kodaki, Shigesaburo Okumura

Fascinating article about a long-standing, but enigmatic group of prominent figures. It reads fairly like a conspiracy, one of those stories you hear about the ‘deep state’ pulling the strings of global politics from the shadows, but the message remains valid and concerning. As reported in several occasions, Asian countries are uncomfortable with US’ insistence that they should be taking sides in their newly-found drive to counter China’s influence in the region. And with good reason: China’s neighbors have much stronger economic ties to Beijing than to Washington, and the US doesn’t seem willing to offer any trade incentives of their own to compensate for the lost business with China.

12 March 2023

Time: “Why Rewrites to Roald Dahl’s Books are Stirring Controversy”

A British publisher has come under fire for rewriting new editions of Roald Dahl’s children’s books to remove language that today’s readers deem offensive when it comes to race, gender, weight, and mental health.

Puffin Books, a children’s imprint of Penguin Books, worked with the Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC), which is now exclusively owned by Netflix, to review the texts. RDSC hopes that rewriting books by one of the world’s most popular children’s authors, whose books have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide, would ensure that Dahl’s wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.

Among the critics of the rewrites are Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding after Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 issued a fatwa because of the alleged blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses. On Feb. 18, Rushie tweeted, Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.

Armani Syed

Rewriting an author’s work after his passing, with no input or approval on his part, is most certainly unacceptable for me – like covering up statues of Venus or Michelangelo’s David because their nudity offends some people’s modesty. From the news reports, the edits seem extensive and rather poorly done, in some cases changing the meaning of the original or erasing historical context. And who in their right mind would be offended by tractors being described as black!?

08 March 2023

The Wall Street Journal: “A Lab Leak in China Most Likely Origin of Covid Pandemic, Energy Department says”

The new report highlights how different parts of the intelligence community have arrived at disparate judgments about the pandemic’s origin. The Energy Department now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation in saying the virus likely spread via a mishap at a Chinese laboratory. Four other agencies, along with a national intelligence panel, still judge that it was likely the result of a natural transmission, and two are undecided.

The Energy Department’s conclusion is the result of new intelligence and is significant because the agency has considerable scientific expertise and oversees a network of U.S. national laboratories, some of which conduct advanced biological research.

The Energy Department made its judgment with “low confidence”, according to people who have read the classified report.

The FBI previously came to the conclusion that the pandemic was likely the result of a lab leak in 2021 with “moderate confidence” and still holds to this view.

U.S. officials declined to give details on the fresh intelligence and analysis that led the Energy Department to change its position. They added that while the Energy Department and the FBI each say an unintended lab leak is most likely, they arrived at those conclusions for different reasons.

Michael R. Gordon & Warren P. Strobel

This article sparked another round of fierce Twitter arguments over the possible origins of COVID, with many quick to point fingers at journalists and scientists for suppressing discussion of this issue. I remain astounded at the American fixation with talking things to death and inability to handle uncertainty, which is the real issue here. In truth, there is no new evidence to discuss; the intelligence agencies involved declined to share any details about how they arrived at these assessments – not to mention their ‘low confidence’ in these conclusions, which further invalidates the statements.

03 March 2023

The Atlantic: “Why Would Anyone Pay for Facebook?”

On Sunday, Facebook and Instagram announced Meta Verified, a subscription service that will give benefits to people who pay a fee and confirm their identity. The perks include algorithmic boosts to posts, human customer service, and added protection from impersonation. Meta’s paid verification follows Elon Musk’s controversial decision last year to include its famous blue check marks in its Twitter Blue subscription package. Not long after Twitter’s decision, Tumblr launched its own paid verification plan, which was initially meant as a joke mocking Musk’s ham-fisted business strategy but ended up increasing the company’s revenue. Netflix is also looking to squeeze extra money out of its viewers with its plan to end password sharing across different households.

Taken together, the vibe feels a bit like trying to use a familiar service and getting hit with a pop-up that says, “Thank you for using Web 2.0. Your free-trial period has ended!”

I am not a Meta power user, and I certainly won’t be paying for a blue check mark. Still, the Verified announcement depressed me. It felt at first like Meta had gone full Spirit Airlines, that paying for customer service is akin to ponying up for glasses of water or any carry-on larger than a purse.

Charlie Warzel

The analogy with the airline industry doesn’t quite land here. Ultimately, airlines provide a physical service and the business has slim margins that are constantly threatened by fuel prices and new regulations. Facebook on the other hand has enjoyed hefty profit margins on its digital ads business, and is only struggling recently because of Zuckerberg's enormous investments into the metaverse. Another key distinction is that air travel is essential for lots of people, either for business or leisure – or both, and cannot easily be substituted with other forms of travel; social networks however come and go depending on popular whims and cultural trends, and some of their core functions can be easily replaced.

02 March 2023

Financial Times: “Man beats machine at Go in human victory over AI”

Kellin Pelrine, an American player who is one level below the top amateur ranking, beat the machine by taking advantage of a previously unknown flaw that had been identified by another computer. But the head-to-head confrontation in which he won 14 of 15 games was undertaken without direct computer support.

The triumph, which has not previously been reported, highlighted a weakness in the best Go computer programs that is shared by most of today’s widely used AI systems, including the ChatGPT chatbot created by San Francisco-based OpenAI.

The tactics that put a human back on top on the Go board were suggested by a computer program that had probed the AI systems looking for weaknesses. The suggested plan was then ruthlessly delivered by Pelrine.

The discovery of a weakness in some of the most advanced Go-playing machines points to a fundamental flaw in the deep learning systems that underpin today’s most advanced AI, said Stuart Russell, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

The systems can “understand” only specific situations they have been exposed to in the past and are unable to generalise in a way that humans find easy, he added.

It shows once again we’ve been far too hasty to ascribe superhuman levels of intelligence to machines, Russell said.

Richard Waters

While this unexpected human victory wasn’t against AlphaGo, DeepMind’s neural network that made headlines in 2016, it serves to underline nonetheless that deep learning systems are far from infallible and deeply vulnerable when confronted with circumstances that were missing or underrepresented in the training data. One of the reasons it’s fine to deploy AI in low-stakes scenarios, such as videogames, but dangerous and unpredictable to let deep learning algorithms drive cars.