Unexpected item in the fast lane area

I’m very cynical about driverless cars. To an extent I think they’re a solution to the wrong question: now that humans are largely a city-dwelling species (and one facing devastating climate change), the smart thing to do would be to make public transport better and more efficient. For example, I live in Glasgow: our buses pollute, and our subway system is tiny and shuts down completely every Sunday evening at 6pm.

Expanding the Subway, as in this proposal, would transform public transport in my city and make thousands, maybe millions, of car journeys unnecessary. Unfortunately doing so would also cost £5 billion, at a time when some of our city’s treasures are under threat because of maintenance costs. I’m not optimistic.

There are other ways to improve cities. Electric bikes take up considerably less room than cars do and require considerably fewer resources to make and to power: because they don’t have to hurl one and a half tons of metal around, they use a fraction of the energy electric cars do. You don’t need enormous parking spaces, or wide streets, or any of the other things we need to cater for enormous vehicles that typically contain just one person.

But underground trains and bikes aren’t sexy, and driverless cars are.

My concern isn’t just the environmental impact. It’s the tech. We can’t get wireless printers to work. We think the tech industry can make driverless cars safe?

This Twitter thread by Michael T Spooky (everybody on Twitter changes their name for October; I’m currently Carrie, Like In The Film Carrie) articulates it very well by comparing self-driving cars to the self-checkouts you find in shops.

I agree with him on this bit:

…making an automated system that’s 95% as good as a human is relatively easy and one that’s 100% as good as a human is very hard. I think it’s becoming clear that autonomous vehicles are going to turn out like this

Self-checkouts aren’t fully automated. They’re semi-automated. The tech isn’t good enough to ensure that, say, eight people can checkout simultaneously without any of the tills going in a strop. I used one yesterday that in best Trump style refused to accept the existence of biscuits.

So what happens instead is you get things mostly automated, with a human overseer. That’s fine for checkouts. It’s not so good for cars.

A driverless system that needs human supervision isn’t driverless.

Tech is invaluable in cars. From ABS to airbags, traction control to parking sensors, it makes cars safer. But I think it’s best suited to driver assistance, not driver replacement. Driverless vehicles work fine on rails – the aforementioned Subway is getting driverless trains in 2020 – or in the air (fans of driverless cars like to talk about the success of autopilot, which is of course a great technology. However, show me the autopilot that can handle Glasgow’s West End during the school run). But on the roads the challenge is almost infinitely complex and the stakes are incredibly high.

As Mr Spooky concludes:

…when you hear the “World of Tomorrow” tales about driverless cabs whisking us on couches everywhere at 120mph, please also realize that the UNKNOWN ITEM IN BAGGING AREA dystopia is a just-as-likely path.

Calling time on my Apple Watch

I’ve had all three generations of Apple Watch, but it’s time to call time on it. It is an incredibly clever device and it felt very futuristic when it first came out. But it does absolutely nothing to make my life better.

That’s not to say it can’t be useful. It can. But it’s not useful for me. The longer I have it the more things I turn off, and the more annoying I find things that didn’t used to bug me quite so much. For example, the lack of an always-on display has become intensely irritating, especially when the display doesn’t always come on when I want it to. Of all the things I want a watch to do, showing me the time straightaway is the most important thing for me. And it still doesn’t do that properly.

Siri voice control still doesn’t work reliably, and dictation is still incredibly patchy. I don’t run or swim so its fitness tracking is irrelevant. I don’t need a remote control when I’m listening to music on my iPhone. The Hue complication doesn’t do what I want it to do. I keep notifications turned off because I don’t want to be interrupted when I’m doing something else, which is most of the time. I don’t use the weather app complications any more because more often than not, they don’t update. I don’t use Apple Pay on it because paying with your wrist is stupid and it means having to tap in a PIN code every time you want to unlock the watch. It wakes me up when I’m trying to have a nap. When I travel it means Yet Another Bloody Charger, and when I go to gigs it’s Another Bloody Thing To Put Into Airplane Mode.

Also, it’s ugly. I’ve experimented with endless colours and strap colours and fabrics, but it’s still a small computer screen rather than a piece of jewellery.

I like to point out that often, technology answers a question people aren’t asking. That’s definitely the case for me and the Apple Watch. For me, it doesn’t answer the only question I have about it, which is: why am I persisting with a device I don’t particularly like any more?

Time for a Timex instead. All it does is tells the time. That’s all I want a watch to do.

 

Locked out

I’ve been locked out of my Twitter account for a terrible, terrible crime.

No, not being a big old Nazi. Messing with the year of birth in my profile page. This, apparently, is a really bad thing and I can’t currently read anything on Twitter or see other people’s messages to me.

It’s been brilliant.

Being unable to access Twitter has made it clear that my relationship with social media is completely out of whack. I’m following too many people and indulging too many more, and the result is a firehose of fury with precious little of the funny cat pictures and dad jokes I signed up for. It’s become a massive time thief and a drain on my mental health.

I’m not quite ready to bin Twitter altogether, although I’m close, but assuming Twitter decides to let me back in again I’m going to massively reduce the number of people I follow – not because they’re bad people, because I don’t follow bad people, but because I’ve let myself fall into a situation where there are just too many people talking at once. I can’t hear myself think above the din.

It’s a start

Facebook has taken down much of Alex “Infowars” Jones’ content, as have Apple and Spotify.

(Update, 7/8/18: Apple was the first to move. The others were clearly waiting for somebody else to lead.)

Reuters:

The company [Facebook] said it removed the pages “for glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies.”

Apple:

Apple does not tolerate hate speech

This stuff is all in the terms and conditions. For example, for Apple’s podcasts there is an outright ban on:

  • Content that could be construed as racist, misogynist, or homophobic
  • Content depicting graphic sex, violence, gore, illegal drugs, or hate themes

Although its enforcement has been patchy, this is Facebook’s policy:

We do not allow hate speech on Facebook… We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics – race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity and serious disability or disease.

I have some sympathy for these firms, because enforcement is a big job. Facebook again:

Over the last two months, on average, we deleted around 66,000 posts reported as hate speech per week — that’s around 288,000 posts a month globally.

That’s a lot of hate. But the point is, it’s against the rules whether it’s uploaded to Apple, posted on Facebook, streaming on Spotify or tweeted on Twitter. Apple alone is now a $1 trillion company; Facebook $522 billion; Twitter $32 billion; and Twitter $24 billion. If they’re short of moderators, they can afford to hire more.

Facebook doesn’t want to be evil, but it is

This, by Nikhil Sonnad, is a superb analysis of what’s wrong with Facebook and why it’s sending the world to hell in a handcart. Much of it applies equally to Twitter.

Sonnad begins with the story of Antonio Perkins, who was shot dead as he filmed a Facebook video.

Although his death is tragic, the video does not violate the company’s abstruse community standards, as it does not “glorify violence” or “celebrate the suffering or humiliation of others.” And leaving it up means more people will connect to Perkins, and to Facebook, so the video stays. It does have a million views, after all.

The problem is that Facebook doesn’t see people as people. We’re just data.

…the imperative to “connect people” lacks the one ingredient essential for being a good citizen: Treating individual human beings as sacrosanct. To Facebook, the world is not made up of individuals, but of connections between them. The billions of Facebook accounts belong not to “people” but to “users,” collections of data points connected to other collections of data points on a vast Social Network, to be targeted and monetized by computer programs.

There are certain things you do not in good conscience do to humans. To data, you can do whatever you like.

By this reading, Mark Zuckerberg is a modern-day Victor Frankenstein. He’s created a monster and has no idea how to control it, if controlling it is even possible any more.

John Naughton makes the same point in The Guardian.

 This all became evident last week in a revealing interview the Facebook boss gave to the tech journalist Kara Swisher. The conversation covered a lot of ground but included a few key exchanges that spoke volumes about Zuckerberg’s inability to grasp the scale of the problems that his creature now poses for society.

…I can see only three explanations for it. One is that Zuckerberg is a sociopath, who wants to have as much content – objectionable or banal – available to maximise user engagement (and therefore revenues), regardless of the societal consequences. A second is that Facebook is now so large that he sees himself as a kind of governor with quasi-constitutional responsibilities for protecting free speech. This is delusional: Facebook is a company, not a democracy. Or third – and most probably – he is scared witless of being accused of being “biased” in the polarised hysteria that now grips American (and indeed British) politics.

Sonnad again:

Facebook’s value system has diverged from that of the rest of society—the result of its myopic focus on connecting everyone however possible, consequences be damned.

With that in mind, the thread running through Facebook’s numerous public-relations disasters starts to become clear. Its continued dismissal of activists from Sri Lanka and Myanmar imploring it to do something about incitements of violence. Its refusing to remove material that calls the Sandy Hook massacre a “hoax” and threatens the parents of murdered children. Its misleading language on privacy and data-collection practices.

Facebook seems to be blind to the possibility that it could be used for ill.

That blindness is already having terrible consequences. For example, the violence in Myanmar that  Sonnad refers to is attempted genocide. The UN human rights chief there, Markuzi Darusman, told reporters that social media had “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media.” There are many individual tragedies too, such as people driven to suicide by howling online mobs. And of course social media has been fundamental in the rise of the far right and associated violence.

We’re going to look back on this social media age with horror.

Sympathy for the Devil

This New York Times story about the parents of Noah Pozner, who was murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre, is horrific.

In the five years since Noah Pozner was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., death threats and online harassment have forced his parents, Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner, to relocate seven times. They now live in a high-security community hundreds of miles from where their 6-year-old is buried.

“I would love to go see my son’s grave and I don’t get to do that, but we made the right decision,” Ms. De La Rosa said in a recent interview. Each time they have moved, online fabulists stalking the family have published their whereabouts.

Inevitably, Donald Trump believes that the man responsible for this horror, the snake-oil salesman and human stain Alex Jones, is “amazing“. His channels do big numbers for YouTube and Facebook.

Jones and other demons hide behind the right to free speech, which is enshrined in US law. In our social media age US law is global: the likes of Facebook and Twitter are US companies who take a US approach to the content they publish.

Whether by accident or design, that means they’ve become platforms for some of the worst people on the planet. I think it’s by design, because Facebook and Twitter do make editorial choices. Facebook won’t let you upload a photo of a woman breastfeeding. Twitter won’t let you use the name Elon Musk in your Twitter handle.

That’s beyond the pale. Holocaust denial, targeted attacking of women and minorities, inciting racial hatred, rape and death threats… that’s all fine, it seems. On Twitter, right-wing armies relentlessly attack people without consequence; the people they assault are the ones who often end up banned.

The supposed right to online free speech is starting to resemble the US right to bear arms: something that’s been perverted and used to cause untold misery. What scares me is that we’ve only scratched the surface of its malign power.

Block party

One of the reasons I haven’t binned Twitter is the existence of block lists. These enable you to automate the blocking of various bad people; they can’t see your messages (there’s a way around that, but few bother with it) and more importantly you don’t see theirs.

The numbers can be quite terrifying. One of the block lists I use, a list of anti-trans trolls, has thousands of people on it. I’m sure a few of them are falsely listed but for me that’s a small price to pay for relative freedom from online abuse.

One of the most high-profile block lists I’ve seen recently is Repeal Shield, which attempted to filter out the nastiest abuse aimed at Yes supporters in the Irish abortion referendum. Aidan O’Brien discusses the list and the interesting, if unsurprising, patterns that emerged.

Repeal Shield ended up blocking 16,000 people with very few false positives. Many of the troll accounts had clearly been set up purely to harass pro-repeal women; others had been around longer and also shared far right and/or anti-semitic content.

You’ll be shocked – shocked! – to discover that nearly three-quarters of the accounts were American. Some of them were quite clear about that; others claimed to be from Ireland but used US time stamps or only posted when everybody in Ireland had gone to bed.

I’ve written before about the malign influence of US social media users on other countries’ politics; the numbers demonstrate how big a problem it is.

It also demonstrates how big a problem abuse is on Twitter. Of all the accounts blocked by Repeal Shield, just 2.42% of them have since been suspended by Twitter’s abuse team.

This is important for various reasons. There’s the fact that Twitter is clearly doing next to nothing to curb the abuse that’s a fact of online life for women, members of minority groups and anybody the far right doesn’t like. And there’s the fact that social media is being used to sway elections.

Twitter’s response to the growing problem – it’s not just here; right now there are concerns over political bots in Malaysia, where over 17,000 bots tweeted over 44,000 pro-government messages in a single week  – is typically useless. It has just announced new rules on political advertising.

The company will require advertisers running political campaign ads for federal elections to identify themselves and certify they are located in the U.S… Twitter said it won’t let foreign nationals target political ads to U.S. residents.

That’s the advertising around tweets, not the tweets themselves. And that means it won’t change a damn thing.

The problem with Twitter has never been the display ads, the electronic equivalents of billboards. It’s the tweets and retweets, the fake news and the vicious abuse.

Social media has been weaponised.

The end is neigh. Get on your bike

Not as sci-fi as transport pods, but ebikes are affordable and available now.

According to former General Motors VP Bob Lutz, as far as personal transport is concerned the car is about to go the way of the horse.

A minority of individuals may elect to have personalized modules sitting at home so they can leave their vacation stuff and the kids’ soccer gear in them. They’ll still want that convenience.

The vehicles, however, will no longer be driven by humans because in 15 to 20 years — at the latest — human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.

Lutz reckons that the big names of the future won’t be car makers. They’ll be Uber, or Lyft, or whatever other high-tech, tax-dodging, anti-regulation “disruptor” gets the market. He’s probably right.

You know things are changing when Ford – Ford! – exits the mass market car business.

The company responsible for launching the modern carmaking era with Henry Ford’s assembly line will pivot away from being a full-line automaker, shrinking its passenger-car lineup and shifting only to low-volume, high-margin models.

The idea of autonomous transport modules whooshing around the place is undoubtedly appealing, but in the UK we live in a country that hasn’t got the hang of trains yet, and we’ve been running them commercially since 1812.

So you’ll understand why I’m just a little bit cynical.

I’m still not too sure about autonomous vehicles. I think they’re coming, but not as quickly as many people predict: in the shorter term electric bicycles are having a bigger impact because the technology is simpler, the benefits much more dramatic and the cost of entry much, much lower.

They’re less likely to kill you, too.

As industry observer Horace Dediu pointed out on Twitter:

For distances up to 9 km the eBike is the fastest mode of transport in urban areas. Half of Germany’s 30 million commuters travel less than 10km to work.

As the Treehugger blog notes:

In most European cities, e-bikes are faster than cars. You do not have to work as hard or get as sweaty so they work in hot environments, and you can bundle up for the ride in colder cities. New bikes are being designed that are safer and easier for older riders

I live in Glasgow, and I don’t cycle. It’s only partly because I’m lazy. It’s mainly because the roads near me are busy, the drivers are all mental and there aren’t any bike lanes. Bike lanes and e-bikes could transform cities like mine, probably more than any gleaming white hyperconnected travel pods. And for considerably less money too.

Autonomous vehicles, especially car-like ones, are still enormously resource-intensive and inefficient modes of transport. That’s not going to change in the foreseeable future.

Treehugger again:

Perhaps instead of being so obsessed with making the world safe for autonomous cars, we should be concentrating on making them safe for bikes and e-bikes; they are going to carry a lot more people a lot sooner.

Infowar! Huh! What is it good for?

Profits!

This is disturbing, to say the least. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal rumbles on, here’s Adam Ramsay’s view of “what happens when you privatise military propaganda”:

If you privatise war, don’t be surprised if military firms start using the tools of war on ‘their own’ side. When Eisenhower warned of the Military Industrial Complex, he was thinking about physical weapons. But, just as unregulated semi-automatics invented for soldiers end up going off in American schools, it shouldn’t be any kind of surprise that the weapons of information war are going off in Anglo-American votes.

I’ll take the quiet life

I’m doing something I should probably do more often: unfollowing a lot of people on social media. It’s not that they’re bad people. Quite the opposite. It’s that unfortunately good people often share bad things.

I block or filter out a lot of people on Twitter and other networks: nazis, bigots, people who point at planes, men’s rights activists, accounts sharing overly graphic images of cruelty, and arseholes of various kinds. And the reason I block them is because they post things I don’t want to see or read.

Unfortunately, many of the people I follow take screenshots of those things and post them online, thereby making me look at the very worst examples of the things I don’t want to see.

They’re doing it for good reasons, such as battling bigotry or cruelty. But they’re doing it in a way that forces me to see things I don’t want to see: the way social media works is that when they post it, it’s injected straight into my timeline whether I want it or not.

In effect, it overrides my choice. I’ve said “I don’t want to see this”, and the social network says “I’m going to show it to you anyway, again and again.”

It’s not that I want to live my life in a bubble, free from any bad news. It’s that there’s a limit to how much time you can spend staring into the abyss every day when you’ve got stuff to do. If you’re not careful on social media, the abyss follows you around all day demanding you stare into it again and again and again.