Uber vs DC Subway: Fancy Math but No Fires

October 23, 2017

I know I am supposed to focus on search and online content processing. But when I read “Metrorail vs Uber: Travel Time and Cost,” I decided to highlight this example of local government fancy math. The write up explains when it makes sense to take the DC subway usually referenced by those who live in Washington, DC as “the metro” and Uber.

The analysis uses graphs and logic to prove that the DC subway is the better bet for commuting. I noted this passage:

It is unclear how long Uber prices will remain this low. Several news outlets have reported that Uber subsidizes its rides with money from investors, meaning current fares might not reflect the full cost of a ride.

My take is that when prices go up, the DC subway is the better choice when moving around the throbbing heart of government.

But there are the fires, the breakdowns, and the complexity of the transfer bus system to delight the visitor from out of town and the long suffering Red Line riders trying to get from Shady Grove to Pentagon City.

Nifty illustration of what one can do with spare time and a somewhat superficial analysis. Now about those dead elevators or what I call the hassle factor? For added entertainment, watch a person from another country try to buy a ticket to ride the DC subway. Great fun!

Stephen E Arnold, October 23, 2017

Palantir Settlement Makes Good Business Sense

October 11, 2017

Palantir claims it is focusing on work, not admitting its guilt over a labor dispute in a recent settlement. This is creating a divide in the industry about what it exactly does mean. We first learned of the $1.66 million settlement in How To Zone’s story, “Palantir Settles Discrimination Complaint with U.S. Labor Agency.”

How did we get here? According to the story:

The Labor Department said in an administrative complaint last year that it conducted a review of Palantir’s hiring process beginning in 2010. The agency alleged that the company’s reliance on employee referrals resulted in bias against Asians. Contracts worth more than $370 million, including with the U.S. Defense Department, Treasury Department and other federal agencies, were in jeopardy if the Labor Department had found Palantir guilty of discrimination.

Serious accusations. But this settlement might not signal what you think it does. Palantir said in a statement:

We settled this matter, without any admission of liability, in order to focus on our work.

This might be the smartest action on their behalf. Consider what happened to SalesForce when they got wrapped up in a legal battle earlier this year. It not only slowed down their sales, but some experts feel the suit may have altered enterprise search for good.

Something tells us Palantir, with its rich government contracts, wants to simply put this behind them and not get caught in a legal web.

Patrick Roland, October 11, 2017

Veteran Web Researcher Speaks on Bias and Misinformation

October 10, 2017

The CTO of semantic search firm Ntent, Dr. Ricardo Baeza-Yates, has been studying the Web since its inception. In their post, “Fake News and the Power of Algorithms: Dr. Ricardo Baeza-Yates Weights In With Futurezone at the Vienna Gödel Lecture,” Ntent shares his take on biases online by reproducing an interview Baeza-Yates gave Futurezone at the Vienna Gödel Lecture 2017, where he was the featured speaker. When asked about the consequences of false information spread far and wide, the esteemed CTO cited two pivotal events from 2016, Brexit and the US presidential election.

These were manipulated by social media. I do not mean by hackers – which cannot be excluded – but by social biases. The politicians and the media are in the game together. For example, a non-Muslim attack may be less likely to make the front page or earn high viewing ratings. How can we minimize the amount of biased information that appears? It is a problem that affects us all.

One might try to make sure people get a more balanced presentation of information. Currently, it’s often the media and politicians that cry out loudest for truth. But could there be truth in this context at all? Truth should be the basis but there is usually more than one definition of truth. If 80 percent of people see yellow as blue, should we change the term? When it comes to media and politics the majority can create facts. Hence, humans are sometimes like lemmings. Universal values could be a possible common basis, but they are increasingly under pressure from politics, as Theresa May recently stated in her attempt to change the Magna Carta in the name of security. As history already tells us, politicians can be dangerous.

Indeed. The biases that concern Baeza-Yates go beyond those that spread fake news, though. He begins by describing presentation bias—the fact that one’s choices are limited to that which suppliers have, for their own reasons, made available. Online, “filter bubbles” compound this issue. Of course, Web search engines magnify any biases—their top results provide journalists with research fodder, the perceived relevance of which is compounded when that journalist’s work is published; results that appear later in the list get ignored, which pushes them yet further from common consideration.

Ntent is working on ways to bring folks with different viewpoints together on topics on which they do agree; Baeza-Yates admits the approach has its limitations, especially on the big issues. What we really need, he asserts, is journalism that is bias-neutral instead of polarized. How we get there from here, even Baeza-Yates can only speculate.

Cynthia Murrell, October 10, 2017

Another Captain Obvious or Fanciful Thinking: Silicon Valley and the US Government in Conflict?

September 13, 2017

I read “There’s Blood In The Water In Silicon Valley.” The main idea is that Sillycon Valley is too big for its Air birds. The US government, riding its white horse and wearing its shining armor, will ride to the rescue of the citizens, nay, the country.

The write up tells me in “real news” tones:

The new corporate leviathans that used to be seen as bright new avatars of American innovation are increasingly portrayed as sinister new centers of unaccountable power, a transformation likely to have major consequences for the industry and for American politics.

There you go. “Leviathans.” “Sinister.” “Unaccountable.” “Power.”

Objective, dispassionate, the real world exposed.

The bad guys are Amazon, Facebook, Google, and any other Sillycon Valley outfits doing what companies do.

From my vantage point in the high-tech center of the mid South, I am not sure I see these outfits as doing anything different from what other big outfits do; for example:

  • Big pharma and its pricing tactics
  • GM and its auto engineering methods
  • Too-big-to-fail banks doing their fancy dancing.

Need I go on.

The business set up in the US is not going to be changed quickly or significantly in my opinion. There are some reasons I hold this view, no matter what “real journalism” outfits asserts. Here are some of my factoids:

  1. The US government bureaucracy does not move quickly. Certain changes in bureaucratic behavior are slowed because of the revolving door between US government and industry, government workers interest in advancing their careers via lateral arabesques and the quest for grabbing the brass ring of the SES (senior executive service)
  2. Lobbyists and influencers have an old-fashioned tin-can-and-string communication method between those who pay the lobbyists and those who make the laws and, to some extent, influence how they are interpreted in US government entities
  3. Political considerations command the attention of those within and outside the US government. There are jobs at stake, and having Amazon shut down one of its nerve centers to move to more favorable climes is a bit of a concern in many circles.

And there are other factors ranging from those who own stock in the evil Sillycon Valley companies to the desire to get one’s kid a job at an outfit like Facebook or Google.

My thought is that outfits like Equifax may warrant more attention than the Sillycon Valley bros. But “real news” outfits set the agenda, right? Maybe. Sillycon Valley is one facet of the “business as usual” methods employed through many standard industrial code sectors.

Here’s a thought? Why not suggest that outfits like Equifax are regulated by a government agency. The Amazons, Facebooks, and Googles have lots of oversight compared to the controls placed on the US credit bureaus.

Why not ride on over to Equifax and sparkle in the sun?

Stephen E Arnold, September 13, 2017

China: Online Behavior, Censorship, and Innovation

September 12, 2017

My recollection of China is fuzzy. The place is big, so details are tiny fragments. That’s why I find reports like “China’s Ever-Tighter Web Controls Jolt Companies, Scientists.” The operative words are “control” and “jolt” in the headline.

I noted these “real” facts:

  • Consumer research firm GlobalWebIndex said a survey of Chinese Web surfers this year found 14 percent use a VPN daily.
  • 8.8 percent of people in the survey use VPNs to look at “restricted sites”
  • [China’s] government spokespeople refuse to acknowledge any site is blocked, though researchers say they can see attempts to reach sites such as Google stopped within servers operated by state-owned China Telecom Ltd., which controls China’s links to the global internet.
  • The agency in charge of the crackdown [is] the Cyberspace Administration of China

As I noted in my short article “Dark Web Explained” in the Recorded Future blog, censorship will squeeze some online behaviors to the Dark Web. Perhaps China will take even more aggressive action to make the use of Tor and i2p an opportunity for corrective instruction. Developers may find the tighter controls a reason to innovate.

In short, the cat-and-mouse games are about to get underway in earnest.

Stephen E Arnold, September 12, 2017

France, Germany, Italy, and Spain: Go Where the Money Is

September 11, 2017

If you are desperate and need money, what do you do? Do you rob senior citizens at money machines? Do you do some MBA fancy math and craft a Madoff? Do you get a job at KFC? Forget that last option.

The answer to the question is tax Amazon, Facebook, and Google if you are a bureaucrat laboring in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Local tax revenues don’t pull the wagon. Creating conditions for high value wealth creation is too much work. If I understand “France, Germany, Italy, Spain Seek Tax on Digital Giants’ Revenues,” do the bank robber’s play: Go where the money is.

The real news outfit Reuters states:

France, Germany, Italy and Spain want digital multinationals like Amazon and Google to be taxed in Europe based on their revenues, rather than only profits as now, their finance ministers said in a joint letter.

Group think is wonderfully reassuring, particularly when there is not mechanism to determine what should be taxed by a national authority. Just tax gross revenue is a nifty way to collect money using the “close enough for horse shoes” approach.

Worth monitoring because other countries will be and then deciding how to tap into the Amazon, Facebook, and Google money rivers.

Stephen E Arnold, September 11, 2017

How Search Moves Forward

September 8, 2017

Researchers at UT Austin are certainly into search engines, and are eager to build improved neural models. The piece “The Future of Search Engines” at Innovation Toronto examines two approaches, suggested by associate professor Matthew Lease, to create more effective information retrieval systems. The article begins by describing how search engines currently generate their results:

The outcome is the result of two powerful forces in the evolution of information retrieval: artificial intelligence — especially natural language processing — and crowdsourcing. Computer algorithms interpret the relationship between the words we type and the vast number of possible web pages based on the frequency of linguistic connections in the billions of texts on which the system has been trained. But that is not the only source of information. The semantic relationships get strengthened by professional annotators who hand-tune results — and the algorithms that generate them — for topics of importance, and by web searchers (us) who, in our clicks, tell the algorithms which connections are the best ones. Despite the incredible, world-changing success of this model, it has its flaws. Search engine results are often not as ‘smart’ as we’d like them to be, lacking a true understanding of language and human logic. Beyond that, they sometimes replicate and deepen the biases embedded in our searches, rather than bringing us new information or insight.

The first paper, Learning to Effectively Select Topics For Information Retrieval Test Collections (PDF), details a way to pluck and combine the best work of several annotators, professional and crowd-sourced alike, for each text. The Innovation Toronto article spends more time on the second paper,  Exploiting Domain Knowledge via Grouped Weight Sharing with Application to Text Categorization (PDF). The approach detailed here taps into existing resources like WordNet, a lexical database for the English language, and domain ontologies like the Unified Medical Language System. See the article for the team’s suggestions on using weight sharing to blend machine learning and human knowledge.

The researchers’ work was helped by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, three government organizations hoping for improvements in the quality of crowdsourced information. We’re reminded that, though web-search companies do perform their own research, it is necessarily focused on commercial applications and short-term solutions. The sort of public investment we see at work here can pave the way to more transformative, long-term developments, the article concludes.

Cynthia Murrell, September 8, 2017

PayPal and eBay Used to Smuggle Funds, According to FBI

September 4, 2017

Online is an exciting place. Now, eBay and PayPal appear to have unwittingly hosted the transfer of terrorist funding, we learn from an article at The Next Web titled, “FBI Says ISIS Smuggled Funds to US Using eBay and PayPal.” Citing reporting by The Wall Street Journal, writer Rachel Kaser reveals:

An FBI affidavit alleges that the Islamic State used everyone’s favorite digital auction house to transfer cash to one of its US-based agents. The agent was disguising himself as a printer salesman — he’d pretend to sell a printer, only to receive payment from IS via eBay and PayPal. Supposedly, it was all part of a network operated by the late Siful Sujan, who was at one point a director of ISIS’s computer operations. The FBI document claims he’s just one of a network of agents stretching from the UK to Bangladesh. It doesn’t say whether they all used eBay to fund their schemes. The suspect in this case apparently used the money he received from the printer sales to buy a laptop, a cellphone, and a VPN.

An eBay spokesperson emphasized their company’s “zero tolerance” for criminal activity on their platform. The company is cooperating with authorities, and the alleged transferor of terrorist funds is awaiting trial.

Cynthia Murrell, September 4, 2017



Attack Planes Soon to Be Equipped with Lasers

August 24, 2017

The US Air Force soon will be equipping its attack planes with laser weapons to fight UAVs that terrorist organizations may use for launching attacks.

According to an op-ed published by Defense One and titled The Future of the Air Force, the author says:

We are currently investing in the hardware to ensure space superiority; in the near future we will need to grow the number of space airmen and the accompanying infrastructure much like we did for the combat Air Force 40 years ago.

Wars in the future will be fought on multiple fronts, including space. As per the op-ed, the US Air Force needs to be equipped sufficiently to fight these battles without putting people on the front line.

The op-ed also says about the acquisition of an Israeli company that enables attack planes using lasers to fend off drones that are used for dropping bombs and other weapons. The acquisition does not come as a surprise as Pentagon had been researching use of lasers as tactical weapons since long. It seems the days of Star Wars are very near.

Vishal Ingole, August 24, 2017

Russia Argues with Encrypted Telegram

August 23, 2017

One reason that the Dark Web flourishes are that if offers people an anonymous, encrypted way to communicate.  Governments dislike encrypted services, especially when they are trying to keep an eye on their citizens.  The Register explains how Russia is unhappy with encrypted messenger service Telegram: “Encrypted Chat App Telegram Warned By Russian Regulator: ‘Comply Or Goodbye.”

One hot argument between governments and their citizens is how much leeway the former has to monitor the latter’s communication.   Russia is one country with a poor history of respecting its people’s privacy.  It currently is very angry with encrypted chat app Telegram.  Communications regulator Roskomnadzor Alexander Zharov stated that Telegram is violating Russian legislation because it is not providing any information about its parent company.

Telegram’s parent company only has to complete a questionnaire with information that will be published in the country’s register of service providers.  It is not an attack on encrypted communication.  If the questionnaire remains unanswered, then Telegram will be banned.

Telegram founder Pavel Durov told newswire Reuters a ban would mean Russian government officials will be entrusting their communications to messenger apps written in other countries.

In playing the nationalism card, Durov cited WhatsApp, Viber, Apple and Google as companies who might carry messages from Russian officials and their friends.

He is skeptical that the regulator is mostly cranky about corporate structure.

The communication bureau and Telegram should stop fighting over the petty red tape.  Playing the nationalist card is a good move on Telegram’s part, but why is it so hard to answer a standard questionnaire?  If Russia’s security and government officials lose their home brewed encryption app, would they turn to something not from Mother Russia?  This is yet another example of why people use the Dark Web over regular Web services.

Whitney Grace, August 23, 2017


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