Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Interesting Links: Sep 23, 2015

September 23, 2015 2 comments

Here are links to a few interesting news articles I came across recently. They are about the underlying issues that allow parasitic douchebags like Martin Shkreli to increase the price of 60-year old drugs by 5000%. Also read the comment sections for linked articles.

Link 1: Shkreli, Turing, and PhRMA

PhRMA still needs to make the case for why Turing is not just some bad little company that went a little too far. As it stands, people will look at them, look at the rest of the drug industry, and then decide that the difference is one of degree, not of kind. That, though, is why I think that PhRMA (and individual companies) have been so quiet during this fiasco. They don’t like the questions that would come up. Think about it – you come out and say that a fifty-fold price increase is completely out of line, and the follow-up question is (naturally) what sorts of price increases you think are in line. And nobody wants to talk about that. You come out and say that a company that buys into an old drug that it had not the slightest part in developing shouldn’t suddenly inherit the ability to ram its price through the roof, and the follow-up question is which drugs in your own portfolio were acquired from someone else, and how you’re pricing them. Finally, you come out and say that Turing’s rationale (R&D spending) is ridiculous, and the follow-up is how much you’re spending on your own R&D and how your prices relate to that.

By wrapping ourselves in statements of purpose and noble intentions, we in the R&D-driven part of the drug industry are doing ourselves a disservice. It leaves us unable to distinguish ourselves from obnoxious parasites, outfits like Turing that can, with a straight face, recite the same rationales. We’re going to have to be more forthcoming about how much money we spend, where it goes, and display our expensive failures to make the point that a lot of money has to come in, because a lot of money is also going out. If only one out of every ten cars that Ford developed – assembly lines and all – ever made it to the showrooms, cars would be more expensive. If only one out of every ten movies – after shooting, production, and editing – ever made it to theaters, ticket prices would go up. We get one of out of every ten drugs in the clinic to market, and we’ve got to pay for it somehow. We’re in the position of Adam Smith’s butcher, brewer, and baker: people don’t expect us to provide useful drugs sheerly out of the goodness of our hearts, good though some of them may be. But they shouldn’t be expecting us to skin them alive just because we might be able to get away with it, either.

Link 2: Should Martin Shkreli be allowed to play the Good Samaritan defense?

In a moment of candor no doubt brought on by some personal animosity, Martin Shkreli let down his guard on Sunday and told me exactly why he hiked the price of a 62-year-old drug by more than 5000%. “It’s a great business decision that also benefits all of our stakeholders,” Shkreli told me on Twitter. “I don’t expect the likes of you to process that.” He then called me a moron, and later bragged about flipping off the media. So there you have it. The unvarnished truth. It was a business decision. It was about money. And screw you.

It’s time for the industry to come up with a better reason for why we get up in the morning, and a more credible approach for dealing with controversies. Real innovation costs a lot of money and deserves to be well compensated. That model has created an industry which is seeing tens of billions of dollars being pumped into new product development. It has provided the world with a painless cure for hep C and huge advances in oncology in just the last few years. And much, much more. It’s OK to do good work for money. You also don’t have to play the Good Samaritan defense in the wake of a blunder. And it shouldn’t be allowed for execs like Shkreli, who is using the country’s no-holds-barred policy on drug prices to generate some fast cash. If you make a mistake, don’t play the same weak card. Not unless you want to find Martin Shkreli standing right beside you, shoulder to shoulder. That’s the kind of public relations disaster that this industry can no longer afford.

Link 3: Turing Pharma price hike debacle tars entire pharma industry’s reputation

Unfortunately for pharma and its already bottom-of-the-industry-polls reputation, the damage was already done. If Shkreli is, as the Daily Beast called him, “pharma’s biggest a**hole,” the problem is still bigger than one greedy and egocentric profiteer. The ongoing collateral tarnish of pricing issues on the entire industry’s reputation is one it can’t afford if it expects to maintain trusting relationships with physicians and consumers. “The problem is that Martin Shkreli is not the drug industry, but it would be easy for someone on the outside to mistake him for the drug industry. Particularly if you’re not overly fond of the drug industry to start with, as many people aren’t,” said Derek Lowe, a medicinal chemist and author of the blog In the Pipeline, in an interview. Frank David, founder and managing partner at Pharmagellan, blogging on Forbes, agreed. “The risk to all pharma companies is that this could become a story not about a single biotech, but about the industry as a whole and its insensitive, unethical pricing practices,” he said.

And that was about it–executives from the rest of the industry stayed publicly mum. TheStreet’s reporter Adam Feuerstein noted he couldn’t get any pharma CEOs to comment on the record. Execs commented privately to FierceBiotech as well, but didn’t take their arguments public. “The problem is that silence gives consent. People will say ‘well, they’re not saying anything against him, so they must be with him,'” Lowe said. “Staying silent looks like you’re OK with it.” And as David wrote, “We’ve seen this movie before – and we’re about to see it again, this time in drug pricing. Although Turing’s hefty hike may fail the red-faced test, no bright line divides it from what has become standard industry practice: annual double-digit percentage price increases on marketed drugs, year after year. Yes, 15% is less than 5,000% – but they both lie on a spectrum, and if pharma’s dismal approval rating continues to lie just below that of insurance companies, it’s hard to imagine much public sympathy materializing when companies try to explain the difference.

What do you think? Comments?

On Donald Trump’s Campaign for the Republican Nomination: 3

September 13, 2015 3 comments

In the previous two posts of this series, I talked about why the current success of Trump’s campaign for the republican nomination is an almost inevitable consequence of voters seeing that professional politicians are not especially qualified for their jobs. It is also quite obvious to most voters that professional politicians are pretty incompetent at doing their jobs. It is therefore not surprising that most voters see professional politicians as marginally clever professional liars whose actions principally benefit the very wealthy minority who in turn pay to have them elected and also create cushy post-politics positions and sinecures for them.

In other words, the median person in developed countries now see professional politicians as little more than the marginally attractive mistress of rich older men who will say and do everything to keep the money flowing in their direction. It is therefore no surprise that so many have a far higher opinion of independent politicians like Trump than establishment loyalists such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

But this, by itself, does not explain why Trump can get away with saying almost anything about anybody. Many presstitutes, pundits and politicians cannot seem to figure out why insulting a supposed war hero turned politician like John McCain, a pretty white blond talking head (and body) like Megyn Kelly and pretty much anybody else who antagonizes him has no effect whatsoever on his rapidly rising public popularity. How can a politician who does not play by the rules of fake niceness and propriety so thoroughly trounce those who spent a lifetime studying and practicing those rules?

Presstitutes have put forth a variety of clever-sounding explanations to explain Trump’s ability to remain unscathed by whatever public outrage is generated by his criticism of his opponents- political or otherwise. Some attribute it to his extensive experience in reality TV. Others attribute it to his business acumen. Still others attribute it to his intuitive understanding of human psychology. But is that really the case? Can any of these theories really explain the continuous increase in public support for his candidacy?

Why doesn’t his ever-increasing support base care about the continuous stream of negative articles about him, his speeches or his tweets? Why has the progress of his campaign been so unusually gaffe-proof?

I have an explanation for this phenomena that is both rational and somewhat depressing for the perpetually positive types. It is based on a realistic look at the dynamics of contemporary human society, especially the version prevalent in USA and similar countries. A little over two years ago, I had written a post about how the dominance of an anodyne style of communication has played a major role in destroying societal trust. In that post I had said the following:

The nature of corporate communication has now become disturbingly similar to the fake biochemical signals used by metastasizing cancerous cells and viruses to use, abuse and subvert the host. But there is another dimension to this issue which makes it far more problematic in human societies. People, unlike cells, emulate and imitate strategies which are seen as successful for the individual, even if doing so destroys the social system that keeps things going. Consequently the ‘corporatese’ lies and selective truths that permeate large institutions and organisations seep into smaller versions of them and ultimately into general society. Soon almost everyone is communicating to each other with the same attitudes, mindsets and expectations as impersonal sociopathic corporations.

Another way of reading that paragraph is that we live in a society where anyone who appears to be unusually friendly, excessively polite and willing to help for “free” in the beginning is often (almost always correctly) seen as a crook, scam artist or inveterate liar or worse who is using his relative position or some aspect of the legal system to rob, scam, abuse or kill his or her unsuspecting victims. It goes without saying that societies with such high level of systemic mistrust are very brittle, unstable and well.. unlikely to last for any significant length of time (more than a few decades)- but that is a topic for another post.

Coming back to the topic at hand, it is common knowledge that the public persona of professional politicians are basically identical to those projected by corporations. Both try to portray themselves as being moral and upright persons with high ethical standards- basically an antithesis of their real selves. Both spend an unusual amount of time, effort and money in appearing professional, knowledgeable, competent, caring, altruistic and otherwise deserving of unquestioning obedience. Of course, even a cursory look at the world around you exposes these pretensions for what they really are.. clever-sounding lies to perpetuate continued exploitation.

But what does any of this have to do with Trump’s campaign being so successful and gaffe proof?

Well.. a lot. A society where almost every single conman, fraud and parasite is projecting a carefully put together persona tends to see people who don’t have such personas as being especially honest, authentic and trustworthy. This is doubly so if that person is willing to talk about issues and subjects that the “put together”-types deflect or avoid altogether. In other words, the societies in countries such as the USA are so screwed up that Trump is correctly seen as being less dishonest that somebody like Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton. It certainly helps that he was already rich enough to never have entered politics to make a living. Now contrast that to almost every single politician who is completely dependent on continued presence in the political arena for making a living. Even extremely rich and famous politicians such as Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney owe almost all of their considerable wealth to being in, or around, the political arena.

The nature of contemporary society is such that an overtly arrogant, reasonably intelligent and independently rich guy trolling the easily offended will be (correctly) seen as being far more honest and competent than people with carefully manufactured and manicured personas whose livelihood is intimately connected to continued presence in the political arena.

Will write more about this topic in upcoming posts.

What do you think? Comments?

Interesting Links: Sep 10, 2015

September 10, 2015 3 comments

Here are links to a few interesting news articles I came across recently. They are about attempts by Microsoft to download (and potentially install) Windows 10 on people’s computers without their informed consent. I cannot escape the feeling that this whole Windows 10 business is deeply connected to some three-letter agency and subsequent exposure of this linkage will permanently damage the business prospects of Microsoft and likely other USA-based software (and potentially hardware) corporations.

Link 1: Microsoft Is Downloading Windows 10 Without Asking

Microsoft, having learned nothing from Apple and the U2 album, have started downloading Windows 10 as part of Patch Tuesday for Windows 7 and 8 users. For people on a 32GB flash drive tablet, that’s a big chunk of space taken up with something that they didn’t ask for. Microsoft admits to doing this, but users are not happy.

Related Link: Windows 10 Worst Feature Now Installing On Windows 7 And Windows 8

The three updates in question – KB3075249, KB3080149 and KB3068708 (which replaces KB3022345) – all add “customer experience and diagnostic telemetry” to Windows 7 and Windows 8. This is shorthand for monitoring how you use Windows and sending that data back to Microsoft HQ for evaluation. Worse still software specialist site gHacks, which first discovered the tracking, notes these updates will ignore any previous user preferences: “These four updates ignore existing user preferences stored in Windows 7 and Windows 8 (including any edits made to the Hosts file) and immediately starts exchanging user data with and”

Link 2: Microsoft is downloading Windows 10 to PCs, even if you don’t “reserve” a copy

You might be in the process of acquiring Windows 10—whether you want the free upgrade or not. Microsoft has confirmed that it is “helping upgradable devices get ready for Windows 10 by downloading the files they need” in the event that owners decide to migrate to the new OS, even if they have heretofore passed up on “reserving” their free upgrade from Windows 7 or 8. The issue seems to revolve around the Microsoft update KB3035583, and as such it appears to only afflict individuals who have chosen to receive automatic updates. As far as we can tell, if you have automatic updates turned off, Windows 10 won’t be pre-loaded onto your PC.

According to The Inquirer, the situation was first reported by an anonymous reader who claimed to have discovered a hidden directory called $Windows.~BT on his computer, despite not opting in for a free upgrade to Windows 10. The directory weighed in at “3.5GB to 6GB,” according to the reader. “I thought Microsoft [said] this ‘upgrade’ was optional. If so, why is it being pushed out to so many computers where it wasn’t reserved, and why does it try to install over and over again?” he told the outlet.

Link 3: Microsoft thinks you’ll love Windows 10 so much, it downloads it for you — without asking

According to the Inquirer, a user who had never “reserved” a copy of Windows 10 in the first place found a large 6GB download sitting in the $Windows.~BT hidden directory, and a series of failed “Upgrade to Windows 10″ tasks in Windows Update’s history. In several cases, the new OS has been downloaded over metered connections, forcing people over their bandwidth caps in the process. When the Inquirer reached out to Microsoft, the company said the following: “For individuals who have chosen to receive automatic updates through Windows Update, we help upgradable devices get ready for Windows 10 by downloading the files they’ll need if they decide to upgrade. “When the upgrade is ready, the customer will be prompted to install Windows 10 on the device.”

Link 4: Microsoft Secretly Downloading Windows 10 on All PCs?

Have you updated to Windows 10, or are you still rocking Windows 7 or Windows 8/8.1? If you’re in the latter group, chances are that you already have Windows 10 stashed away on your hard drive whether you want to upgrade or not. Why? Because Microsoft wants to make the upgrade process quick and easy… if you want to upgrade, that is. “I know of two instances where people on metered connections went over their data cap for August because of this unwanted download. My own internet (slow DSL) was crawling for a week or so until I discovered this problem. In fact, that’s what led me to it. Not only does it download, it tries to install every time the computer is booted,” states an unnamed reader of The Inquirer.

What do you think? Comments?

On Donald Trump’s Campaign for the Republican Nomination: 2

September 6, 2015 3 comments

In my previous post on this topic, I had suggested that the success of Trump’s campaign so far is a symptom of a far deeper issue- namely the ongoing falling apart of the modern nation-state. Basically, the irrational and hierarchical nature of modern nation states requires the general populace to delude themselves about the actual level of competence of those who occupy its commanding heights. In other words, the modern nation state starts falling apart once people can no longer fool themselves about the actual level of competence of those in positions of power- be they “professionals” such as doctors, scientists and or pretty much any other type of credentialed “experts”.

Belief in the competence of “professional” politician-types, which seems to infest all levels of governance in modern nation states, has taken an unusually large hit within the last two decades. Some of you might say that politicians (amateur or professional) were, historically, never widely seen as honest or trustworthy- and that is true. However politicians in modern nation states, especially those that were reasonably functional, were often seen as reasonably competent and capable of making fairly rational (if often self-serving) decisions. Now, whether this apparent competence in politicians of previous generations was real or not is controversial.

There are those who point out to past politicians who were instrumental in pushing positive socio-economic changes and then there are others who see it as some combination of a rapidly growing economy and selective memory about the past. In any case, my point about the popular perception that politicians from previous eras were more competent than their present day counterparts still holds. But what does any of this have to do with the Trump campaign- beyond the obvious fact that many voters do not hold his lack of “experience” in politics against him?

Well.. as it turns out, a lot.

The largely negative reaction by main stream media, especially its talking-/writing- heads, to his campaign cannot be explained unless you start understanding the real source of their dismay. This is especially true for the figuring out why the traditionally LIEbral media outlets are more critical of his campaign than their CONservative equivalents. How do you explain the endless stream of media hit pieces about that guy by supposedly LIEbral outlets such as NYT, WP, Bloomberg or their internet equivalents such as Salon, Slate, Dailykos etc?

It just does not make sense, at least if you believe that the people behind those media pieces want a democrat candidate to win in the 2016 presidential election. The Trump campaign has, till now, done far more damage to the presidential aspirations of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker.. and pretty much every other declared and undeclared republican candidate than it has to the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or anyone running for the democrat candidacy. The LIEbral media outlets should, if anything, be cheering him on as he gleefully destroys the public personas of an entire generation of politicians created by the post-1980s republican political machine.

And yet, oddly enough, the strongest and most persistent criticism of his campaign comes from LIEbral presstitutes, “experts” and talking heads. So, what is going on?

There are those who believe that the LIEbral media’s strong distaste for a Trump candidacy (or presidency) has to do avoiding embarrassment on the international stage or in their daily conversations. But, is that really the case? Here is some historical perspective.. More than half of all american soldiers who died (or were severely injured) in the failed attempt at colonizing Vietnam did so after Richard Milhous Nixon became the 37th president in January 1969. However he is most remembered and despised for his role in the Watergate scandal. Similarly the main stream media still portrays the Reagan presidency in a largely positive manner though it was the starting point for many of our current problems- from growing income inequality, the “War on Drugs”, exorbitant spending on futuristic weapon systems with poor real life performance to persistent large-scale dabbling in Middle-Eastern politics.

The mainstream media is also largely silent on the role of Bill Clinton’s presidency on levels of mass incarceration, militarization of the police and financial deregulation. They are now similarly accepting of the 2000 presidential election, the invasion of Iraq, the “War on Terror”, decisions that lead to the housing bubble and financial crash of 2008. Today the mass media image of George W Bush has been normalized to that of a slightly eccentric grand-father who lives in the country, rather than as the stupid and incompetent asshole whose decisions (and indecisions) resulted in the unnecessary deaths of tens to hundreds of thousands of people. I could go about the current guy occupying that office, but you get my point. The mainstream media has been remarkably quiet about the horrendous incompetence of professional politicians who were elected to the presidential office.

So why would a Trump presidency be any worse for the USA than those of Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43 or Obama? And what makes somebody like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker any more qualified to be the official republican candidates or get elected to office?

The answer to that question is as follows: there is no reason to suggest that a Trump presidency would be any more disastrous to the USA than any of his predecessors, or competitors for the party nomination. The other side of this answer is that lifelong “professional” politicians such as Hillary Clinton and her type on the democrat side are rather similar to their republican counterparts such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker. Consequently, a candidate who can defeat Bush, Rubio or Walker in the race for republican candidacy can do the same in the presidential race against a “professional” politician such as Hillary Clinton. As many of you know, her high unfavorability ratings make it hard for her to win against someone who is seen as a likable “outsider”.. you know like Obama in 2008.

The LIEbral media’s strong distaste for a Trump candidacy or presidency is, therefore, largely about trying to ensure a win for their “professional” politician patrons such as Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. Those who write or make those media hit pieces have a lot to lose if their old patronage networks stop working like they used to. Presstitutes, “experts” and other assorted talking heads are primarily interested in maintaining the stability of their own income stream- preferably with the minimum of effort. They are not interested in the effects of their actions on the welfare on the general populace, who are seen as all gullible outsiders ripe for manipulation. Unfortunately for them, the combination of factors which made that a viable lifestyle in the past has largely and irreversibly dissipated.

Will write more about this topic in upcoming posts.

What do you think? Comments?

Interesting Links: Aug 20, 2015

August 20, 2015 5 comments

Here are links to a few interesting news articles I came across recently. They are about preliminary revelations from analyzing the first two data dumps from the Ashley Madison site hack.

Link 1: Ashley Madison subscribers include hundreds of government workers

The latest face-palm-worthy revelation from the Ashley Maddison hack comes courtesy of the Associated Press, which is reporting that hundreds of government employees—some with sensitive jobs in the White House, Congress, and law enforcement agencies—used Internet connections in their federal offices to pay membership fees for and use the dating website for cheating. The news organization pored over a massive trove of data the hackers made available earlier this week. By tracing the IP addresses of people who visited the site over more than five years, AP reporters determined the visitors included two assistant U.S. attorneys; an information technology administrator in the Executive Office of the President; a division chief, an investigator, and a trial attorney in the Justice Department; a government hacker at the Homeland Security Department; and another DHS employee who indicated he worked on an US counterterrorism response team.

Many federal customers appeared to use non-government email addresses with handles such as “sexlessmarriage,” ”soontobesingle” or “latinlovers.” Some Justice Department employees appeared to use pre-paid credit cards to help preserve their anonymity but connected to the service from their office computers. “I was doing some things I shouldn’t have been doing,” a Justice Department investigator told the AP. Asked about the threat of blackmail, the investigator said if prompted he would reveal his actions to his family and employer to prevent it. “I’ve worked too hard all my life to be a victim of blackmail. That wouldn’t happen,” he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was deeply embarrassed and not authorized by the government to speak to reporters using his name. The AP’s analysis also found hundreds of transactions associated with Department of Defense networks, either at the Pentagon or from armed services connections elsewhere.

Link 2: Who Are The Lawyers, Law Profs, And Judges That Were Revealed In The Ashley Madison Hack?

Without further ado, here is a list of users who appear to be prestigious legal professionals:

At least 10 clerks and/or judges of federal district courts;
At least one federal appellate judge;
At least 10 Department of Justice employees;
At least three V10 partners, including one Cravath partner;
At least 10 Biglaw associates, including multiple attorneys at Baker & McKenzie; and
At least one law professor at an elite T14 law school.

Link 3: Family Values Activist Josh Duggar Had a Paid Ashley Madison Account

But data released online in the wake of the hack on Ashley Madison’s servers certainly seems to show otherwise. Someone using a credit card belonging to a Joshua J. Duggar, with a billing address that matches the home in Fayetteville, Arkansas owned by his grandmother Mary—a home that was consistently shown on their now-cancelled TV show, and in which Anna Duggar gave birth to her first child—paid a total of $986.76 for two different monthly Ashley Madison subscriptions from February of 2013 until May of 2015.

In July 2014*, he seems to have started a second account that was linked to his home in Oxon Hill, Maryland, where he spent his time lobbying against causes like same-sex marriage. The birthday listed in the data for Duggar’s first account is February 3, 1988, one month off Duggar’s actual birthday of March 3, 1988. The birthday listed for the second account is March 2, 1988. The two accounts overlap by a period of a few months. When he launched the second account, Duggar paid an initial fee of $250 that appears to have gone toward the purchase of an “affair guarantee”:Customers who buy 1,000 credits for $250 receive a money-back “affair guarantee,” if they don’t have an affair within three months. The second account, which was registered in July of 2014, was paid on a monthly basis until May of 2015. We’ve reached out to TLC, the Family Research Council, and a spokesman for the Duggar family for comment and will update if we hear back.

Link 4: Josh Duggar’s Apology: “I Have Been the Biggest Hypocrite Ever” [Updated]

The Duggar family just released a statement from Josh on their personal website in which Josh not only confirms the fact that he has been “unfaithful” to his wife, but he also confesses to having developed a “secret addiction” to pornography over the past several years. We already had evidence that Josh had at least been seeking out some sort of extramarital affair, but this is the first time we’ve head any mention of Josh’s porn habit.

Update 2:57 p.m.: Looks like Josh Duggar may have been a little hasty in his apology. The general idea is still there, but the letter itself has gone through several revisions since going up less than two hours ago. The first instance, as mentioned above, removed a reference to Satan, while the second revision removed any mention of pornography altogether. It’s hard to imagine that the letter wasn’t vetted by anyone before the Duggars put it up on their website—but given the few typos in the original, it’s certainly possible. Either way, Josh of all people should know by now that the internet never forgets. You can see all the changes made to the apology thus far below.

What do you think? Comments?

Interesting Links: Aug 18, 2015

August 18, 2015 4 comments

Here are links to a few interesting news articles I came across recently. They are about the supposedly “unexpected”, yet highly predictable, effects of “big data” -derived algorithms on the ability of societies to exploit and abuse its members.

In case you are wondering, my recent series of link-posts are a buildup to a few upcoming inter-connected series on issues such as mechanisms behind the ongoing and inevitable demise of modern nation-states.

Link 1: Digital Star Chamber

In a recent podcast series called Instaserfs, a former Uber driver named Mansour gave a chilling description of the new, computer-mediated workplace. First, the company tried to persuade him to take a predatory loan to buy a new car. Apparently a number cruncher deemed him at high risk of defaulting. Second, Uber would never respond in person to him – it just sent text messages and emails. This style of supervision was a series of take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums – a digital boss coded in advance. Then the company suddenly took a larger cut of revenues from him and other drivers. And finally, what seemed most outrageous to Mansour: his job could be terminated without notice if a few passengers gave him one-star reviews, since that could drag his average below 4.7. According to him, Uber has no real appeal recourse or other due process in play for a rating system that can instantly put a driver out of work – it simply crunches the numbers.

For wines or films, the stakes are not terribly high. But when algorithms start affecting critical opportunities for employment, career advancement, health, credit and education, they deserve more scrutiny. US hospitals are using big data-driven systems to determine which patients are high-risk – and data far outside traditional health records is informing those determinations. IBM now uses algorithmic assessment tools to sort employees worldwide on criteria of cost-effectiveness, but spares top managers the same invasive surveillance and ranking. In government, too, algorithmic assessments of dangerousness can lead to longer sentences for convicts, or no-fly lists for travellers. Credit-scoring drives billions of dollars in lending, but the scorers’ methods remain opaque. The average borrower could lose tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime, thanks to wrong or unfairly processed data.

Link 2: US No-Fly List Uses ‘Predictive Judgement’ Instead of Hard Evidence

The Guardian reports that in a little-noticed filing before an Oregon federal judge, the US Justice Department and the FBI conceded that stopping U.S. and other citizens from traveling on airplanes is a matter of “predictive assessments about potential threats.” “By it’s very nature, identifying individuals who ‘may be a threat to civil aviation or national security’ is a predictive judgment intended to prevent future acts of terrorism in an uncertain context,” Justice Department officials Benjamin C Mizer and Anthony J Coppolino told the court. It is believed to be the government’s most direct acknowledgment to date that people are not allowed to fly because of what the government believes they might do and not what they have already done. The ACLU has asked Judge Anna Brown to conduct her own review of the error rate in the government’s predictions modeling – a process the ACLU likens to the “pre-crime” of Philip K Dick’s science fiction. “It has been nearly five years since plaintiffs on the no-fly list filed this case seeking a fair process by which to clear their names and regain a right that most other Americans take for granted,” say ACLU lawyers.

The Obama administration is seeking to block the release of further information about how the predictions are made, as damaging to national security. “If the Government were required to provide full notice of its reasons for placing an individual on the No Fly List and to turn over all evidence (both incriminating and exculpatory) supporting the No Fly determination, the No Fly redress process would place highly sensitive national security information directly in the hands of terrorist organizations and other adversaries,” says the assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, Michael Steinbach.

Link 3: Data-Crunching Could Kill Your Downtime At Work

How many of you are reading this at work? One of the unspoken perks of many white-collar jobs is that you can waste time while still appearing productive. Workplaces are aware that this goes on, and they police it to some extent by blocking Facebook or simply looking over your shoulder — but there’s only so much they can do. The new generation of workplace analytics software is starting to change that. “Employers of all types — old-line manufacturers, nonprofits, universities, digital start-ups and retailers — are using an increasingly wide range of tools to monitor workers’ efforts, help them focus, cheer them on and just make sure they show up on time.” This inevitably leads to the question: does cracking the whip more often actually increase productivity? To hear the makers of this software tell it, the value is almost limitless, and it will never be misused to micromanage your job. But the article lacks any independent support for that idea, and I’m sure many of you could provide examples where time-keeping software has only been a hindrance.

What do you think? Comments?

Interesting Links: Aug 13, 2015

August 13, 2015 5 comments

Here are links to a few interesting news articles I came across recently. They are about the the behavior of supposedly image conscious and “rational” large corporations.

Link 1: Lenovo used Windows anti-theft feature to install persistent crapware

Windows 8 and Windows 10 contain a surprising feature that many users will find unwelcome: PC OEMs can embed a Windows executable in their system firmware. Windows 8 and 10 will then extract this executable during boot time and run it automatically. In this way, the OEM can inject software onto a Windows machine even if the operating system was cleanly installed. The good news is that most OEMs fortunately do not seem to take advantage of this feature. The bad news is that “most” is not “all.” Between October 2014 and April of this year, Lenovo used this feature to preinstall software onto certain Lenovo desktop and laptop systems, calling the feature the “Lenovo Service Engine.”Lenovo’s own description of what the software did differs depending on whether the affected system is a desktop or a laptop. On desktops, the company claims that the software only sends some basic information (the system model, region, date, and a system ID) to a Lenovo server. This doesn’t include any personally identifying information, but the system ID should be unique to each device. Lenovo says that this is a one-time operation and that the information gets sent only on a machine’s first connection to the Internet.

For laptops, however, the software does rather more. LSE on laptops installs the OneKey Optimizer (OKO) software that Lenovo bundles on many of its machines. OneKey Optimizer arguably falls into the “crapware” category. While OKO does do some somewhat useful system maintenance—it can update drivers, for example—it also offers to perform performance “optimizations” and cleaning “system junk files,” which both seem to be of dubious value. Making this rather worse is that LSE and/or OKO appear to be insecure. Security issues, including buffer overflows and insecure network connections, were reported to Lenovo and Microsoft by researcher Roel Schouwenberg in April. In response, Lenovo has stopped including LSE on new systems (the company says that systems built since June should be clean). It has provided firmware updates for affected laptops and issued instructions on how to disable the option on desktops and clean up the LSE files.

Link 2: Even when told not to, Windows 10 just can’t stop talking to Microsoft

Windows 10 uses the Internet a lot to support many of its features. The operating system also sports numerous knobs to twiddle that are supposed to disable most of these features and the potentially privacy-compromising connections that go with them. Unfortunately for privacy advocates, these controls don’t appear to be sufficient to completely prevent the operating system from going online and communicating with Microsoft’s servers. For example, even with Cortana and searching the Web from the Start menu disabled, opening Start and typing will send a request to to request a file called threshold.appcache which appears to contain some Cortana information, even though Cortana is disabled. The request for this file appears to contain a random machine ID that persists across reboots.

Other traffic looks a little more troublesome. Windows 10 will periodically send data to a Microsoft server named This server seems to be used for OneDrive and some other Microsoft services. Windows 10 seems to transmit information to the server even when OneDrive is disabled and logins are using a local account that isn’t connected to a Microsoft Account. The exact nature of the information being sent isn’t clear—it appears to be referencing telemetry settings—and again, it’s not clear why any data is being sent at all. We disabled telemetry on our test machine using group policies. And finally, some traffic seems quite impenetrable. We configured our test virtual machine to use an HTTP and HTTPS proxy (both as a user-level proxy and a system-wide proxy) so that we could more easily monitor its traffic, but Windows 10 seems to make requests to a content delivery network that bypass the proxy. We’ve asked Microsoft if there is any way to disable this additional communication or information about what its purpose is. We were told “As part of delivering Windows 10 as a service, updates may be delivered to provide ongoing new features to Bing search, such as new visual layouts, styles and search code.

Link 3: Banned’ Article About Faulty Immobilizer Chip Published After Two Years

In 2012, three computer security researchers Roel Verdult, Flavio D. Garcia and Baris Ege discovered weaknesses in the Megamos chip, which is widely used in immobilizers for various brands of cars. Based on the official responsible disclosure guidelines, the scientists informed the chip manufacturer months before the intended publication, and they wrote a scientific article that was accepted for publication at Usenix Security 2013. However, the publication never took place because in June 2013 the High Court of London, acting at the request of Volkswagen, pronounced a provisional ban and ruled that the article had to be withdrawn. Two years ago, the lead author of a controversial research paper about flaws in luxury car lock systems was not allowed to give any details in his presentation at Usenix Security 2013. Now, in August 2015, the controversial article Dismantling Megamos Crypto: Wirelessly Lockpicking a Vehicle Immobilizer that was ‘banned’ in 2013 is being published after all.

What do you think? Comments?


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