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Reading List, May 2017

  1. Sam Machkovech, Facebook helped advertisers target teens who feel ‘worthless’, in Ars Technica, 30 April 2017. [Online]: https://arstechnica.com/business/2017/05/facebook-helped-advertisers-target-teens-who-feel-worthless/

    No surprises here, a quick discriminative filter could show who was depressed vs not, perhaps using something as simple as Naïve Bayes would probably work.

    Then I read that Facebook sells this data to advertisers instead of getting depressed teens some help. Eff you Facebook!

    Just last month, I wrote ‘STOP USING FACEBOOK SERVICES’. That advice still holds.

  2. Matt Inman, You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you, in The Oatmeal, 2 May 2017. [Online]: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe

    An interesting read about the backfire effect.

  3. Mike Masnick, Don’t get fooled: The plan is to kill net neutrality while pretending that it’s being saved, in Techdirt, 3 May 2017. [Online]: https://www.techdirt.com/blog/netneutrality/articles/20170502/17212137292/dont-get-fooled-plan-is-to-kill-net-neutrality-while-pretending-being-protected.shtml

    This article lays bare the plan by the self-serving ‘lawmakers’ in Congress and the broadband providers. The plan outlined here consists of three steps:

    1. Force outrage by arbitrarily pretending to change rules around net neutrality. This will be struck down by courts, but will cause public outrage and enable congressmen to make money off broadband companies.

    2. Congressmen pretend to write a law that would tick many of the boxes, such as no zero rated traffic and the like that are from yesterday’s net neutrality debate. These bills will actually be written by broadband companies and will outlaw things that the broadband companies have already circumvented. In other words, the law, if passed, won’t accomplish anything.

    3. Leverage the controversy to push for a congressional rescue.

  4. The Onion, Nation’s back alleys working to expand available services in anticipation of Trumpcare bill becoming law, in The Onion, 4 May 2017. [Online]: http://www.theonion.com/article/nations-back-alleys-working-expand-available-servi-55928

    Net neutrality is not the only thing Republicans want to gut. They also probably want to make it impossible for people to live, which is why they want no restrictions on guns, and all sorts of restrictions on people getting healthcare. In times like these, satire can strike a chord, which is why this article makes it to my list.

  5. Dan Goodin, More Android phones than ever are covertly listening for inaudible sounds in ads, in Ars Technica, 5 May 2017. [Online]: https://arstechnica.com/security/2017/05/theres-a-spike-in-android-apps-that-covertly-listen-for-inaudible-sounds-in-ads/

    If there’s any doubt that 2017 is the new 1984, read this article. As if not content with using accelerometer, GPS, gyroscope, magnetometer data, along with an always-logged-in account system that exists on mobile phones, advertisers and app developers are now finding ways of tracking people using covertly hidden sounds beyond the human auditory spectrum in TV advertisements and using microphones on mobile phones to detect these hidden audio to further infiltrate user privacy.

    This is a scary thing, because the only fool-proof solution is to stop using smartphones altogether, and I’m not sure that I’ll be comfortable with that tradeoff. While there are solutions that mitigate these issues somewhat, for example, fine-grained app permissions on Android Marshmallow and higher, we must always be careful to only give apps enough permissions that they need, no more. At the same time, an app like Blackberry DTEK can show if apps access sensitive parts of your phone, such as your camera, microphone, or GPS. Detect an app accessing something when it is not active? It goes right into the trash.

  6. Dong Huk Park, Lisa Anne Hendricks, Zeynep Akata, Bernt Schiele, Trevor Darrell, Marcus Rohrbach, Attentive explanations: Justifying decisions and pointing to the evidence, in ArXiv, 14 December 2016. [Online]: https://arxiv.org/abs/1612.04757

    As much as we rely on deep neural networks for everything, we don’t really understand how they work in that we do not have a mathematical model or guarantee on their performance. Essentially, we just throw in a lot of labelled data at these networks and pray to the neurotic gods that the network learns the correct data, and does not label gorillas.

    This work attempts to provide some justifications that would explain how the neural network reached a decision. However, this works only for images, and does not give an insight into what the learned parameters represent, so that’s still a relatively open question. I still need to analyse this properly so that I can tell how this work differs from this other ArXiv paper by Google that uses neural networks to create image captions.

  7. Maria Wirth, Are Christian and Muslim nations OK and Hindu nations not?, in Maria Wirth’s Blog, 21 April 2017. [Online]: https://mariawirthblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/21/are-christian-and-muslim-nations-ok-and-hindu-nations-not/

    I have often shared articles about the Indian media’s bias against the BJP and what I think are their really dangerous tendencies to rake up communal hatred where none should exist. I came across this article through Shashi Tharoor’s twitter feed. Otherwise, I would have probably skipped right past this article.

    This article is written as a devil’s advocate. I don’t think for a moment that Maria Wirth is actually advocating for a Hindu Rashtra. As a devil’s advocate, Wirth makes a very interesting argument – the media, both Indian and international, is willing to vilify the concept of a Hindu Rashtra while at the same time, holding the duplicitous position of implicitly accepting the existence of Christian and Muslim states.

    Wirth lays out the differences between being a ‘Hindu’ compared against other organised religions. She correctly points out that the term ‘Hindu’ itself means a person living in the geographic expanse that is mostly India. She lists out the better qualities of our Dharma, things that I learnt only too late in my life because all I heard as a child were negative things about religion. Correctly, she says that there is nothing wrong about children learning these aspects of Dharma.

    However, this is where I stop agreeing with her. Beyond this point, her article reads like propaganda, which will simply not do. Dharma based on open debate and introspection does not have to be defended by dogma. In fact, by believing in the infallibility of the teachings of Dharma so far, we would be doing a disservice to the very idea, the very essence of what makes Dharma different from religion. It is one thing to study the Vedas for their philosophy or to gain a historical perspective, it is quite another to stretch the Vedas to be scientific texts to be taken literally after thousands of years of new discoveries. It is one thing to be proud of our Dharma and our heritage, it is another to be arrogant and believe that the attack by the media is a giant conspiracy because they are afraid of what we could achieve if we only embraced our identity. It is one thing to claim that children should learn aspects of Dharma, another to claim that they be taught this at schools. (While we are on the subject, why does the media not raise any objections to Christian missionary schools where students pray every day to ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’? I know, I was educated for most of my school life at a school affiliated with a Church.) Such thoughts are better suited to a dogmatic religion, not to one which is founded on debate, by acknowledging the position of your peers and by proposing your own position and letting people think for themselves which they believe.

    I have only recently (for less than half my life) learnt enough about my Dharma to accept my heritage instead of hiding behind the ‘atheist’ branding, realising that I could be both, a Hindu who follows the path of Dharma and an atheist. I still have a lot to learn and my thoughts on this subject will probably change.

  8. Eric Umansky, How we’re learning to do journalism differently in the age of Trump, in ProPublica, 8 May 2017. [Online]: https://www.propublica.org/article/how-were-learning-to-do-journalism-differently-in-the-age-of-trump

    It is no secret that journalism is facing a monumental challenge in the form of an administration that denies objective reality. In such times, a few good men are trying to figure out a new strategy for journalists that would work in the face of misinformation, in the face of propaganda, all while retaining their credibility while they are being vilified by the administration.

    In this article, ProPublica shares how they’ve changed, worrying less about working on different stories than other publications and focussing more on collaborations with these same publications. About doing journalism in the open so that readers can verify facts for themselves, and maybe even contribute insights that a small team of reporters could not possibly uncover in the fast paced fact-checking world. Finally, being okay with the uncertainty of where a particular story may lead.

    In my opinion, these are just good practices of any investigative field, with or without Trump. In fact, the same principles would apply even if we were to consider academic research. Collaborate with other researchers, verify their results, put your own data out in the open, and don’t be afraid of publishing negative results.

  9. Peter Eckersley and Erika Portnoy, Intel’s Management Engine is a security hazard, and users need a way to disable it, in Electronic Frontier Foundation, 8 May 2017. [Online]: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/05/intels-management-engine-security-hazard-and-users-need-way-disable-it

    Since 2008, all Intel processors have a super secret and off-limits component called the Management Engine (ME), which is always on and has ‘root’ access to every computer component. The ME can totally override what a user wants to do, including powering on a computer upon receiving a packet over ethernet.

    The problem with the ME is that it provides security through obscurity. No one outside of Intel knows the code running on this tiny computer, but it will take only one hacker to breach this secrecy and publish their findings before all computers running these processors are broken. Already, some vulnerabilities have been discovered in one module of the ME, the Active Management (AMT). In any case, all computer software may have bugs and vulnerabilities, so I don’t feel comfortable knowing that my laptop may be a ticking time bomb until the next vulnerability has been found.

    This article does list a set of suggestions for Intel to fix this mess, but I can guarantee that Intel will do exactly none of them.

  10. Russ Cox, Zip files all the way down, in research!rsc, 18 March 2010. [Online]: https://research.swtch.com/zip

    This is an interesting read on how to write self-reproducing programs, and takes this concept a step further by producing zipped files that contain themselves. The ultimate in recursion, or just send this file to a ‘friend’ and have fun watching them trying to unzip the file.

  11. Brad Smith, The need for urgent collective action to keep people safe online: Lessons from last week’s cyberattack, in Microsoft On the Issues, 14 May 2017. [Online]: https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2017/05/14/need-urgent-collective-action-keep-people-safe-online-lessons-last-weeks-cyberattack/

    Microsoft finally buckles after the latest WannaCrypt attack and calls out the NSA and the US government for stockpiling vulnerabilities that eventually make it to the public domain where they are weaponised.

    Finally, this attack provides yet another example of why the stockpiling of vulnerabilities by governments is such a problem. This is an emerging pattern in 2017. We have seen vulnerabilities stored by the CIA show up on WikiLeaks, and now this vulnerability stolen from the NSA has affected customers around the world. Repeatedly, exploits in the hands of governments have leaked into the public domain and caused widespread damage. An equivalent scenario with conventional weapons would be the U.S. military having some of its Tomahawk missiles stolen. And this most recent attack represents a completely unintended but disconcerting link between the two most serious forms of cybersecurity threats in the world today nation-state action and organized criminal action.

    I disagree somewhat with this analogy. Tomahawk missiles stolen still have a finite number. It is as if the criminals have stolen the replicator recipes for the Tomahawk missiles that allows them to create new Tomahawks for zero cost to replenish the ones they used up. Essentially, there is no physical world counterpart to code yet. Code can be replicated for zero cost, whereas it always takes resources to make something in the physical world. This is another reason why it gets so hard for laypeople to understand code and the implications associated with it.

  12. Catalin Cimpanu, Keylogger found in audio driver of HP laptops, in Bleeping Computer, 11 May 2017. [Online]: https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/keylogger-found-in-audio-driver-of-hp-laptops/

    This is a weird story. Apparently, HP laptops ship with a default driver that starts a program upon startup to log all keystrokes to a file. Ostensibly, this is to detect the user pressing volume buttons, if so, this is a terribly shitty scheme. The system logs all keystrokes to C:\Users\Public\MicTray.log which could be read by any other application, so if you have an HP laptop, all your passwords may already be compromised.

  13. Richard Brody, The earthquake that will destroy the Pacific Northwest, in The New Yorker, 20 July 2015. [Online]: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one

    The Pacific Northwest, including the states of Oregon and Washington sit on top of a subduction zone, i.e. a zone where an oceanic plate is being pushed under a continental plate. In this subduction zone, however, the continental plate is being compressed and pushed inland and upwards like a spring, and it is only a matter of time before it gives way and causes what would be the most devastating earthquake in modern times. The resulting tsunami and other disasters will only compound the problem, as most of the region is not prepared to handle such a disaster, given that it was unknown until the late nineteen-eighties.

    This article is a fascinating read, as it shows us the cost of our arrogance and ignorance, that our lives are insignificantly tiny compared to the life of our planet, and is an important warning to reconsider how we handle scenarios that could result many lifetimes from now from decisions made today.

    Thanks to KK Yu for recommending this article.

  14. Wired Staff, The Pope’s memo on climate change is a mind-blower, in Wired, 18 June 2015. [Online]: https://www.wired.com/2015/06/popes-memo-climate-change-mind-blower/

    The “best” bits out of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

  15. Anonymous Academic, Academics are being hoodwinked into writing books that nobody can buy, in The Guardian, 4 September 2015. [Online]: https://theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/sep/04/academics-are-being-hoodwinked-into-writing-books-nobody-can-buy

    There is an issue with science right now, and no, it is not that some scientists disagree on whether climate change is real. This has to to with the fact that academics now have to chase publications, either papers or books in order to show a successful career and get grants to do more research. This article lays out one such problem. Academics are being asked to write books because it appears good on their CV. These books are never circulated, except to around 300 or so libraries, where they are almost never read, only in expensive hardback format. The only person making a profit here is the publishing house, to the tune of $1–2 million a year from each editor, who may be assigned around 75 such books. I get sick just thinking of the time wasted writing a book that no one will ever read when it could have been spent doing something better, like reading articles on The Guardian.

  16. Sara Lautman, The world is running out of sand, in The New Yorker, 29 May 2017. [Online]: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/the-world-is-running-out-of-sand

    An interesting read about something we take for granted. This article is a super-geeky explanation of what sand is, and why it is so hard to get good quality sand.

  17. Karl Bode, Congress busted using cable lobbyist talking points in attacks on net neutrality, in Techdirt, 26 May 2017. [Online]: https://www.techdirt.com/blog/netneutrality/articles/20170524/06502737444/congress-busted-using-cable-lobbyist-talking-points-attacks-net-neutrality.shtml

    I always felt that the USA has legalised corruption by calling it “lobbying”. This article simply serves to further the point. Lobbyists from the cable companies that are responsible for the atrociously shitty internet that we all “enjoy” have written a set of talking points that the tech-illiterate congressmen simply repeat like ex-parrots. What’s also mindblowing is the doublethink that allowing cable companies to exploit consumers is somehow good for consumers.

    Anyway, this article describes how the metadata in the PDF of talking points circulated to all GOP congressmen clearly shows that the memo was written by a lobbyist.

  18. Megan Rose, Kafka in Vegas, in ProPublica, 26 May 2017. [Online]: https://www.propublica.org/article/alford-pleas-fred-steese-conviction-without-admitting-guilt

    This is yet another article on the corruption within the US government. This article covers the story of a person who was wrongly convicted for a murder based on behaviour that may be considered as prosecutorial misconduct as prosecutors hid evidence from the defence attorneys that may have exonerated this innocent man. Twenty years later, after many appeals, the person was finally found innocent. Yet the messed up criminal justice system in the USA would still keep this person behind bars until he pled “guilty” for a crime for which the court had already declared that he was innocent!

    This is the problem with a system that puts in too much power in prosecutors, and the problem with a jury based system in general. You’re a person who has been called for jury duty against your will. Would you really pay attention to the trial and poke holes in the government’s arguments, or would you just believe the government? Would you sentence a person to death just because the government told you that he was a “bad dude”?

    Oh, and the prosecutor with a history of shady practices who initially put this innocent man in prison for two life terms? He is now a judge, no consequences. In fact, his “tough-on-crime” rhetoric may have been instrumental in his “success”.

  19. Corey Alexander, I’m 17 and I deleted all my social media. Here’s what happened, in Medium, 29 April 2017. [Online]: https://medium.com/@coreyalex/what-ive-learnt-as-a-17-year-old-who-deleted-all-social-media-d282274d4edd

    I’m almost off Facebook, but this teenager has done what I have been unable to do. Get completely off social media. This is an interesting article, so do spend some time reading it.

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