The Amusing Antics of Big Tech Monopoly-Type Companies

May 13, 2021

If I use my imagination, I can hear the comments in the TV room of a fraternity house near the Chambana campus of the University of Illinois. “Dudes, we can make the losers at Sigma Nu look really stupid.” Then the snort, snort, snort of perceived victory over lesser beings.

I thought about this hypothetical bro-moment when I read two stories this morning.

The first is “Microsoft Edge Blocks Firefox Installer, Says It’ll Hurt Your PC.” Firefox has had its share of challenges. There’s the money thing, the management thing, and the number of users thing. Microsoft, the all-time leader in security, has determined that Firefox is allegedly a danger. The write up reports:

“Firefox Installer.exe was blocked because it could harm your device,” the warning read, with users only able to click through to see more details rather than continue the download. Techdows says that all versions of the Firefox Installer, including release, beta, dev, and nightly, appear to be affected, with multiple Reddit threads detailing download issues. Some users were able to download and install Firefox using Edge after disabling Microsoft Defender SmartScreen, a program.

That seems like a predictable response from those who have witnessed commentary in the hypothetical frat house.

The second is “Google: We Put YouTube TV in the Main YouTube App. What Now, Roku?” The idea is that Roku, the hardworking salary man of online video, is going to be reminded that the Google is the top dog. The write up states:

Google announced in a blog post that it was just going to run an end-around on Roku and stick the YouTube TV app in the YouTube app.

No one fools around with Mother Google.

What do these frat mentality actions by two large companies tell us? Perhaps these are routine business practices in the regulation and consequence free datasphere of 2021? Could these actions indicate that fraternity type thinking remains a core part of the technology world in the US? Or is there a darker implication; for instance, these actions are perceived as just what has to be done to ensure that big outfits get larger?

From my point of view, I find the frat-style a reminder that what characterizes those in extended adolescence appears to be the warp and woof of high technology: Competitive products are harmful or too stupid to cope with Googley reality.

Stephen E Arnold, May 13, 2021

Amazon: An AWS Network Which Seems Super Juicy

May 13, 2021

At the National Cyber Crime Conference, I ran through the basics of Amazon’s data acquisition method. Over the last four years, I have given six, maybe eight, talks at venues with hundreds of law enforcement and intelligence professionals. I can reveal that many of those at my talks were enthusiastic about Amazon’s data efforts. How excited would those living in a look-alike apartment complex or an emerging slumurbia be? Probably not too keen, but I am speculating. Most people do not pay much attention to the world’s online bookstore other than marvel at speedy delivery.

I would suggest that a curious few, maybe you, gentle reader, take a look at “Welcome to Amazon Sidewalk.” This is a typical Amazon “Hey, gang, here’s what we are doing” description. Here’s an example:

Amazon Sidewalk is a shared network that helps devices like Amazon Echo devices, Ring Security Cams, outdoor lights, motion sensors, and Tile trackers work better at home and beyond the front door. When enabled, Sidewalk can unlock unique benefits for your device, support other Sidewalk devices in your community, and even locate pets or lost items.

And how does this work?

Amazon Sidewalk creates a low-bandwidth network with the help of Sidewalk Bridge devices including select Echo and Ring devices. These Bridge devices share a small portion of your internet bandwidth which is pooled together to provide these services to you and your neighbors. And when more neighbors participate, the network becomes even stronger.

Think of the benefits; for example:

  • Chill or what Amazon calls “peace of mind”
  • Don’t lose that connection
  • Protect your privacy
  • You are in control.

I am not going to comment on each of these benefits. I would ask, “Are there any downsides to a commercial mesh operated by a firm with a data collection mechanism of considerable robustness?”

I would invite you to examine this diagram and think about what Amazon knows about individuals:


Interesting, particularly in the context of some of Amazon’s initiatives in the public sector. But that next day delivery is what it is all about, right?

Stephen E Arnold, May 13, 2021

More Search Explaining: Will It Help an Employee Locate an Errant PowerPoint?

May 13, 2021

Semantics, Ambiguity, and the role of Probability in NLU” is a search-and-retrieval explainer. After half a century of search explaining, one would think that the technology required to enter a keyword and get a list of documents in which the key word appears would be nailed down. Wrong.

“Search” in 2021 embraces many sub disciplines. These range from explicit index terms like the date of a document to more elusive tags like “sentiment” and “aboutness.” Boolean has been kicked to the curb. Users want to talk to search, at least to Alexa and smartphones. Users want smart software to deliver results without the user having to enter a query. When I worked at Booz, Allen & Hamilton, one of my colleagues (I think his name was Harvey Poppel, the smart person who coined the phrase “paperless office”) suggested that someday a smart system would know when a manager walked into his or her office. The smart software would display what the person needed to know for that day. The idea, I think, was that whist drinking herbal tea, the smart person would read the smart outputs and be more smart when meeting with a client. That was in the late 1970s, and where are we? On Zooms and looking at smartphones. Search is an exercise in frustration, and I think that is why venture firms continue to pour money into ideas, methods, concepts, and demos which have been recycled many times.

I once reproduced a chunk of Autonomy’s marketing collateral in a slide in one of my presentations. I asked those in the audience to guess at what company wrote the text snippet. There were many suggestions, but none was Autonomy. I doubt that today’s search experts are familiar with the lingo of search vendors like Endeca, Verity, InQuire, et all. That’s too bad because the prose used to describe those systems could be recycled with little or no editing for today’s search system prospects.

The write up in question is serious. The author penned the report late last year, but Medium emailed me a link to it a day ago along with a “begging for dollars” plea. Ah, modern online blogs. Works of art indeed.

The article covers these topics as part of the “search” explainer:

  • Ambiguity
  • Understanding
  • Probability

Ambiguity is interesting. One example is a search for the word “terminal.” Does the person submitting the query want information about a computer terminal, a bus terminal, or some other type of terminal; for instance the post terminal on the transformer to my model train set circa 1951? Smart software struggles with this type of ambiguity. I want to point out that a subject matter expert can assign a “field code” to the term and eliminate the ambiguity, but SMEs are expensive and they lose their index precision capability as the work day progresses.

The deal with the “terminal” example, the modern system has to understand [a] what the user wants and [b] what the content objects are about. Yep, aboutness. Today’s smart software does an okay job with technical text because jargon like Octanitrocubane allows relatively on point identification of a document relevant to a chemist in Columbus, Ohio. Toss in a chemical structure diagram, and the precision of the aboutness ticks up a notch. However, if you search for a word replete with social justice meaning, smart software often has a difficult time figuring out the aboutness. One example is a reference to Skokie, Illinois. Is that a radical right wing code word or a town loved for Potawatomi linguistic heritage?

Probability is a bit more specific — usually. The idea in search is that numbers can illuminate some of the dark corners of text’s meaning. Examples are plentiful. Curious about Miley Cyrus on SNL and then at the after party? The search engine will display the most probable content based on whatever data is sluiced through the query matcher and stored in a cache. If others looked at specific articles, then, by golly, a query about Miley is likely or highly probable to be just what the searcher wanted. The difference between ambiguity, understanding, and probability is — in my opinion — part of the problem search vendors faces. No one can explain why, after 50 years of SMART, and Personal Library Software, STAIRS, et al, finding on point information remains frustrating, expensive, and ineffective.

The write up states:

ambiguity was not invented to create uncertainty — it was invented as a genius compression technique for effective communication. And it works like magic, because on the receiving end of the message, there is a genius decoding and decompression technique/algorithm to uncover all that was not said to get at the intended thought behind the message. Now we know very well how we compress our thoughts into a message using a genius encoding scheme, let us now concentrate on finding that genius decoding scheme — a task that we all call now ‘natural language understanding’.

Sounds great. Now try this test. You have a recollection of viewing a PowerPoint a couple of weeks ago at an offsite. You know who the speaker was and you want the slide with the number of instant messages sent per day on WhatsApp? How do you find that data?

[a] Run a query on your Fabasoft, SearchUnify, or Yext system?

[b] Run a query on Google in the hopes that the GOOG will point you to Statista, a company you believe will have the data?

[c] Send an email to the speaker?

[d] All of the above.

I would just send the speaker a text message and hope for an answer. If today’s search systems were smart, wouldn’t the single PowerPoint slide be in my email anyway? Sure, someday.

Stephen E Arnold, May 13, 2021

Googley Logic: Can Money Buy Success, Innovation, and Insecurity?

May 12, 2021

Two items caught my attention this morning. No, I am not talking about warfighting, a horse trainer’s about face on the use of controlled substances in the horsey world, or melting the Eredivisie trophy into 42,000 champion stars. (Almost everyone is special in the Ajax fan world!)

Nope. Nope. Nope.

The first item is the Wall Street Journal’s story “Google Plans to Double AI Ethics Research Staff.” The story will demand payment for Mr. Murdoch’s gem of journalism. The main idea for the story is that Google will pump more cash into “the team tasked with evaluating code and product to avert discrimination…” How will this management tactic work out? I cannot predict the future. My hunch is that when it comes to figuring out averting discrimination, the “team” may find itself in some interesting chalk board meetings with the coach. If have fiddled with models to make the numbers flow, you may not appreciate how those subjective decisions can cascade through smart systems. Toss in the knock on effects of unmonitored feedback loops, and you get some darned thrilling moments in smart software outputs. Is it possible that by spending money be demonstrates the decider thought process used by a high school science club to determine what toppings are put on a vegetarian pizza?

The second item is “YouTube Announces a $100 Million Fund to Reward Top YouTube Shorts Creators over 2021-2022.” I don’t think the 2021-2022 refers to the age of the YouTube stars who qualify. The main point of this write up is to illustate that the Google is serious about short form video. Like other me-too innovators, the GOOG is using money to signal its innovative excellence. YouTube appears to have been blissfully ignorant of TikTok’s become a hot property — what? — four or five years ago. Now the Google is prepared to spend big to develop its new, revolutionary service. TikTok, the cash splash says, you are toast. Maybe Alphabet will issue a TikTok video to the song “I’m Gonna Get You” once the rights issues are worked out. Here’s a verse from the tune:

When you’re driftin’ off to sleep
Close your eyes and think of me
Make it easy on yourself
Don’t dream about nobody else

Is this a nightmare or a lullaby?

Let’s step back.

These two management actions raise some questions for me; for example:

Can money buy trust for Google’s management with regards to ethical AI?

Can money buy innovation in short form video and other new media formats?

Can Alphabet Google YouTube management respond in effective ways to the legal challenges about how it does business, the Amazon surge in product search, and the surprising proliferation of ads in Google search results, maps, and other “free” services?

I have zero insight into the workings of the Google. The firm’s management decisions are fascinating to observe: So big, yet so darned high school science club and certainly “diverse.”

Stephen E Arnold, May 12, 2021

An App Twist: Online Interaction and Dark Patterns May Pose a Threat to Users

May 12, 2021

I don’t know if this write up is spot on, but it does raise some interesting questions. Navigate to “Snapchat Can Be Sued over Its Speed Filter, Which Is Blamed in Death of 3.” The main point is that a popular app provides “points”. One reward is linked to moving rapidly. Examples include bike riding and walking one’s dog. The story points out:

The parents of two of the victims say the filter, which tells users how fast they are moving in real-time, encouraged users to drive recklessly in order to receive achievement points. Now, it appears the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agrees that a lawsuit should be permitted. In a ruling on Tuesday, the court argued that Snapchat was not shielded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects social media companies from being held liable for the content posted by its users. The lawsuit was originally filed in 2019 and had been shot down just last year. But Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw agreed with the families this week who argued that the lawsuit was aimed at the app itself and not its content.

Was the issue judgment? No, according to the article:

Snapchat has been accused of “negligent design” for implementing the speed filter into its app.

The write up includes this statement from the court:

Their negligent design lawsuit treats Snap as a products manufacturer, accusing it of negligently designing a product (Snapchat) with a defect (the interplay between Snapchat’s reward system and the Speed Filter),” Wardlaw [the legal eagle hearing the case] wrote.

Here are the questions which crossed my mind:

  • Will “design” emerge as a factor in other litigation related to apps’ use?
  • Is the “reward” idea a Dark Pattern which is coded so that those using the apps are manipulated into certain behaviors?
  • How do innovators respond to “design” centric issues?
  • Are the parents responsible for their progenies’ judgment? Schools?

On the surface, it seems that app design can lead to tragic consequences.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of rewards echoes in the Beyond Search office.

Stephen E Arnold, May 12, 2021

Facebook Tracking: Why Secrets Are Important to Some Digital Players

May 12, 2021

I read a headline which I assume was crafted to shock; to wit: “Analytics Suggest 96% of of Users Leave App Tracking Disabled in iOS 14.5.” The headline did not surprise me, nor did the fact that four out of 100 in the sample said, “Sure, follow, listen, and watch me 24×7.” The write up states:

According to the latest data from analytics firm Flurry, just 4% of ?iPhone? users in the U.S. have actively chosen to opt into app tracking after updating their device to iOS 14.5. The data is based on a sampling of 2.5 million daily mobile active users.

The article points out:

Facebook, a vociferous opponent of ATT [app tracking tech], has already started attempting to convince users that they must enable tracking in iOS 14.5 if they want to help keep Facebook and Instagram “free of charge.” That sentiment would seem to go against the social network’s earlier claim that ATT will have a “manageable” impact on its business and could even benefit Facebook in the long term.

Several observations:

  • Secrets work. Making certain behaviors “known” undermines a number of capabilities; for example, revenue, trust, and data collection
  • iPhone users appear to be interested in keeping some of their mobile centric behaviors within their span of control. (What about iPhone users in China and Russia? Alas, the write up did not include those data.)
  • Processing items of data across time and within the monitored datasphere may make it difficult for some entities to perform in the manner they did prior to the introduction of ATT.

Net net: Flowing information erodes certain beliefs, social constructs, and processes. Once weakened by bits, these beliefs, constructs, and processes may not be reconstructable. The Apple ATT may have unforeseen consequences.

Stephen E Arnold, May 12, 2021

Believe It or Not: The First AI to Surpass Humans

May 12, 2021

Say what you will about other aspects of Google, you have to hand it to the company’s research arm. Developers at Google Brain, DeepMind, and the University of Toronto have developed the reinforcement-learning AI DreamerV2. According to Analytics India Magazine, “Now DeepMind’s New AI Agent Outperforms Humans” as measured by the Atari benchmark. The tech evolved from last year’s Dreamer agent created by the same team. It uses a world model, an approach that is more adept at forming generalizations than traditional trial-and-error machine learning processes. World models have not been as accurate as many other algorithms, however. Until now. Reporter Ambika Choudhury writes:

“Dreamer learns a world model from the past experience and efficiently learns far-sighted behaviors in its latent space by backpropagating value estimates back through imagined trajectories. DreamerV2 is the successor of the Dreamer agent. … This new agent works by learning a world model and uses it to train actor-critic behaviors purely from predicted trajectories. It is built upon the Recurrent State-Space Model (RSSM) — a latent dynamics model with both deterministic and stochastic components — allowing to predict a variety of possible futures as needed for robust planning, while remembering information over many time steps. The RSSM uses a Gated Recurrent Unit (GRU) to compute the deterministic recurrent states. DreamerV2 introduced two new techniques to RSSM. According to the researchers, these two techniques lead to a substantially more accurate world model for learning successful policies: [a] The first technique is to represent each image with multiple categorical variables instead of the Gaussian variables used by world models; [b] *The second new technique is KL balancing. This technique lets the predictions move faster toward the representations than vice versa.”

See the write-up for a chart of DreamerV2’s performance compared to previous world models. And all this on a single GPU. Curious readers can check out the team’s paper here. We believe.

Cynthia Murrell, May 12, 2021

Evidence of the Unreasonable Effectiveness of Malware

May 11, 2021

I read “The Fortnite Trial Is Exposing Details About the Biggest iPhone Hack on Record.” I am less interested in the dust up between two giant commercial enterprises than the attempt Apple has made and seems to be making to cope with malware. The write up states:

Apple released emails that show that 128 million users, of which 18 million were in the U.S., downloaded apps containing malware known as XCodeGhost from the App Store.

The data are stale, dating from 2015. Perhaps more current information will emerge. Maybe there will be a chart or two, showing Apple’s progress in fighting malware. There were 4,000 malware delivering or malware infused apps. I don’t know. Details are scarce.

The write up points out:

Apple has always had a good reputation in terms of security. But the company has been reluctant to speak publicly and candidly about specific security incidents. So these emails, which were only released because of discovery in the Epic v. Apple Fortnite trial, are an interesting peek behind the curtain that show a fuller extent of the damage from this hack as well as specifics about how the company handled the hack’s fallout in real time.

Another item of interest was:

Apple also disclosed the apps that included the malicious code, some incredibly popular such as WeChat and the Chinese version of Angry Birds 2.

Some thoughts which crossed my mind.

  1. There is zero doubt in my mind that these disclosed items of data will encourage and strengthen bad actors’ confidence in the use of malware. It works.
  2. Apple appears to be trying to deal with malware, but these allegedly accurate factoids indicate that it has not been as successful as some individuals believed. Apple tried and failed, which provides a signal that a well funded, well intentioned outfit can be exploited.
  3. Malware is the Achilles’ heel for computer users. Apple’s billions cannot prevent clever bad actors from gaining access to devices.
  4. Data like these bolster comments about American online users loss of trust in their ISPs. (See, for example, “Study Shows Two-Thirds of Americans Don’t Trust Their Internet Service Providers.”

Net net: Malware is unreasonably effective in compromising security. Does this mean that cyber security systems are failing? I would offer this observation, “Sure looks like it in the first degree burns left behind by SolarWinds, Microsoft Exchange Server, et al.”

Stephen E Arnold, May 11, 2021

Drone Allegedly Compromises a Tesla

May 11, 2021

I read “Tesla Car Hacked Remotely from Drone via Zero click Exploit.” I am not certain about the reproducibility of this alleged hack. Nevertheless, it encapsulates the interesting security threats in today’s zippy zip environment. The write up states:

The attack, dubbed TBONE, involves exploitation of two vulnerabilities affecting ConnMan, an internet connection manager for embedded devices. An attacker can exploit these flaws to take full control of the infotainment system of a Tesla without any user interaction.

Here’s the method:

“Adding a privilege escalation exploit such as CVE-2021-3347 to TBONE would allow us [the researchers] to load new Wi-Fi firmware in the Tesla car, turning it into an access point which could be used to exploit other Tesla cars that come into the victim car’s proximity.

What about drone based attacks on a mobile phone?

Stephen E Arnold, May 11, 2021

Disinforming the FCC: Who Pays the Price of Misinformation?

May 11, 2021

Yep, Friday. Who needs to be reminded that “18 million of the over 22 million public comments that the FCC received both for and against net neutrality were fake.” I sure did not. “Net Neutrality: US Broadband Industry Accused in ‘Fake’ Comments on Rules” reports what may or may not be “trusted” and “accurate” information via the House of Mirrors channel:

The New York investigation showed that broadband industry players spent $4.2 million … to generate and submit more than 8.5 million fake comments to the FCC “to create the appearance of widespread grassroots opposition to existing net neutrality rules.”

The article answers the question “Who pays the price of misinformation?” by naming:

  • Fluent
  • Opt-Intelligence
  • React2Media

Who paid?

The campaign was run through a nonprofit organization funded by the broadband industry called Broadband for America made up of senior broadband company and trade group officials, it said. Documents cited in the investigation said the public comments would give the FCC’s Republican chairman at the time, Ajit Pai, “volume and intellectual cover” for the repeal.

These are paragons of virtue I assume. The questions I have are:

  1. What entity or entities “look out” for the consumer?
  2. What universities trained these individuals responsible for the alleged actions?
  3. Was a US Federal agency aware of the “campaign”?

Interesting but possibly part of a larger pattern of information manipulation.

Stephen E Arnold, May 11, 2021

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