Saturday, 29 July 2017

Celebrating 11 years of reviewing

My yearly summary of reviews, where I name (and not shame) my favorite film / book / music / TV and video games is now up over at my reviews blog. Have a look at it here!
I did wonder whether I should also nominate my favourite podcast of the year, but eventually decided not to do so. I find that podcasts' viable lifetimes tends to be far too short for a yearly nomination. That is to say, it is hard to maintain brilliance over a long period of time; not everyone is like me, capable of achieving it for 11 years of reviews and still keep it going :-)

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Spy Who Came Back with the Dirt

Pretty much all the news places I visit were reporting this past week how the company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot is planning to embark on a new mapping adventure (see here for one example). The plan is to have its robot armada, that has already invaded our houses, send the internal map of their owners residences back "home". As in, its makers "home", where they will be selling the internal map of your house away.
[Adequate disclosure: yours truly has had a Roomba getting entangled with cables for several years now; however, mine is a dumb model. All it does is clean, generate noise, and get stuck.]
The question is, should I, should you, should we, allow this private information - the internal layout of our residences - to be given away? Bear in mind, once it's gone, it's gone; you will no longer have control over it.
If you've been reading this blog you would pretty much know by now that I am on the very conservative side of things here. I would not want my private information taken out of control, period. But am I being exceptionally stupid in this particular case, even by my own rigid standards?
Let's examine the arguments.

Favouring the side of letting the data go is the undeniable assumption that we are not exactly talking Top Secret material here. I'm pretty sure my home's building plans are on the public record somewhere, and even if they aren't then they will be once the house is put on sale and the real estate agency publishes the floor plan for the world to see. Because that's how you buy and sell real estate in this world.
The key factor here appears to be not the floor plan itself but rather the way the resident has chosen to personally furnish the place. The Roomba would be able to tell where you put your sofa, how big your sofa is, where you put your TV, where you put your speakers, etc. Picking that information apart may offer some potentially life enhancing use cases: you could be offered acoustics advice on how to improve the sound quality of your stereo, to pick on one example. To be honest, I don't really know what could be done with this data to enhance our lives with, but I will admit there may well be positive outcomes. It's just that I don't know; we don't know, and I doubt Roomba's makers know. All they know is that they can make a buck.
Then there is the negative. As Bruce Schneier alerts us, there could be implications to this data given away when something goes wrong. Say, if you want to make an insurance claim and the info your innocent Roomba had collected is, all of a sudden, used against you. Again, we simply don't know what this data will end up being used for, but we do know that once you give it away you cannot claim it back.
I will therefore go one paranoid step further and issue a generic privacy advice on allowing one's personal data to be given away. It is simply this: we already know that companies such as Google and Facebook collect all the data they can about you. Similarly, we know that third party trackers, companies such as Acxiom, do so "covertly" behind the scenes, and they are perfectly willing to sell your data to the highest bidder; that's how they make their money. With this data fed to big data processing algorithms, who knows whether tomorrow morning they will find a correlation between someone placing their TV at the corner of the room and that someone willing to spend $10 above average on shoes, hence the "need" for companies such as Amazon to charge them extra on shoes?
Make no mistake about it. It might not be willingness to pay extra for shoes, but with all that data, these companies will find something on you that could be exploited. That is the reason they exist in the first place, and they seem to be making a decent living! Last I heard, Google and Facebook are earning more money than I do.

To this still theoretical risk I will add a much more down to earth, clear and present danger type of a practical risk. By letting the Roomba in your house connect to the Internet, you may be exposing yourself to a major security risk. How? Think of all the vulnerabilities out there with Windows (WannaCry?) and other operating systems that are always on the run to patch up the latest problem. Do you think your Roomba is immune to those problems? And when was the last time you've patched your Roomba up?
Again, this is no theoretical threat. This month alone we have learnt that the Android system as well as Apple's iOS (10.3.3) have been patched up in order to fix a Broadcom wifi chip vulnerability that allowed your phone to be pwned by merely having wifi switched on! [Also bear in mind only a tiny minority of Android users actually have access to this patch. This is one of the core reasons I am firmly on the iOS side of the smartphone equation.]
My point here is not whether you want to let Roomba's maker have access to your floor plan, but whether you want to let your Roomba have access to the internet in the first place. I argue you shouldn't; nor, for that matter, should you let your run of the mill "smart TV" connect to the internet, because these are clearly a weak security link. If you do want to enjoy smart TV features, do so through well supported and patched up devices such as an Apple TV or a PlayStation 4.

Bottom line is, letting Roomba file a report on your floor plan is but one of many tiny steps each of us is taking, knowingly or unknowingly, towards the loss of control over our privacy. I am suggesting here that before we lose such control we need to make proper cost/benefit analysis. At this stage, at least, the benefits for us are theoretical at best while the risks, some lesser and some worse, are very much there.
I therefore recommend a conservative approach to one's privacy.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Drive Me to the Moon

I will start this post by asking you to spend an hour of your time watching this video featuring a guy you probably never heard of as he explains why the self driving electric car is just around the corner. And that all other forms of cars are d-o-o-m-e-d.
Thank me later!
[I will, however, credit @decryption for pointing me at this video through The Sizzle: a daily email of Australian flavoured tech news that I highly recommend.]

Welcome back!
I agree, I think the guy's a way bit too optimistic (?) in his appraisal of the situation. If only because of the way he uses the case of Australian solar panels to drive his point, in contrast to my personal familiarity with the energy market in Australia. Or the fact that Germany has learnt alternative energy sources still offer no good options when it comes to heating.
No doubt your brain is now busy digesting the potential implications of these self driving electric cars the guy was talking about. These are vast: it's not just that there is no point in owning a car anymore when one can call up one at a moment's whim. Nor is it just the fact that the absence of ape driven cars (a term I first heard from Sam Harris) will see hundreds of thousands of us humans staying alive each year instead of die or find ourselves maimed through traffic accidents.
There are implications on work, for a start. Some 20%-25% of us work in driving or other vehicle/transport related jobs that would become moot once the self driving electric car prevails. From car mechanics whose skills will no longer be required to motels that will no longer find clientele once truck drivers get the chop, society will be hit by one big hammer during the next decade.
Potential social collapses aside, I found myself fantasising about another aspect. I was thinking where I would like to find myself in this near future transport fantasy, and it occurred to me what I would like the most is a self driving electric caravan.
Think about it. You climb up to your caravan as it picks you up from work on a Friday arvo in Melbourne and order it to take you to Sydney. You spend your night in the caravan, playing video games and such, stopping for dinner somewhere along the way. Then you go to bed. In your own bed.
You wake up to a nice Sydney morning, parked right next to a top cafe, but you find yourself craving warmer weather still. No fuss; the caravan will gladly take you all the way up to Byron Bay while you do not need to care less about all the traffic going in and out of Sydney.
And so on and so on. Seriously, the only caveat I see in this dream of mine is to do with the fact that modern day caravans still haven't sorted out the toilets problem: you still need to connect to external water in order to have a proper shower, and worse, you still need to manually empty your toilet if you use the one built in to your caravan (gross!). It sounds silly, I know, but it appears humanity shall have self driving electric caravans long before this plumbing problem is solved.
Allow me to therefore ignore toilet issues and point out that, under the assumption no [other] significant unforeseen hurdle lies in this dream of mine, the invention of the self driving electric car could have significant implications on the entire housing market and our very basic understanding of this thing we commonly refer to as "home".

Friday, 30 June 2017

Jennifer Scheurle Interview

I recently got to interview Jennifer Scheurle for Digitally Downloaded. You can read the interview here.
Jennifer is a video game designer and educator. Originally from Germany, now living and working in Melbourne, she is very active on Twitter as @Gaohmee. I met her and chatted with her at PAX, and when Digitally Downloaded asked for developer interviews, she was my first choice.
To give credit where credit is due, the interview questions were written by Matt Sainsbury (Digitally Downloaded’s editor); I was merely the messenger boy. That said, most of the credit should to Jennifer for her wonderful answers.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Vote Facebook

As a long term advocate for online privacy who openly calls on people to avoid/ban the likes of Google and Facebook, I get told many things. A lot of them involve tinfoil, but the majority are replies along the lines of “you know what, I don’t really care” or “I’m just an ordinary person, what good is my data to them”. Which, of course, are answers brimming with ignorance.
Let’s take the stated goal of all the tracking done on our internet habits. Someone put it rather eloquently: the purpose of all the advertising related online tracking is to ensure that, as a whole, we spend 0.3% more of our money on shoes.
All is fair in love and war and internet advertising. We do know that, in order to get us to spend 0.3% on shoes, Facebook will use our weaknesses against us (and boast about it in front of its would be customers, which are not you & I; it’s the advertisers). And believe it or not, even the ordinary person who claims to have nothing special about them has psychological buttons that can be pressed. For a company like Facebook, with access to the personal data of a billion and a half people, including information such as how long they look at different parts of the screen and what they started typing but then regretted, the ability to identify these buttons is undeniably there. All they have to do, really, is to use their AI engines to find correlations between people using that huge pool of data at their disposal.
If you are happy to have a company like Facebook press your psychological buttons in order to make you spend money on things you don’t want or need, then, by all means, do continue using Facebook. While at it, do press on using Google, Gmail and Android phones. They are good for you.

What would you say if it turns out there is more to the cost of using Facebook and Google than the cost of 0.3% more shoes you don't need? How would you react if it turns out the likes of Facebook are responsible for the very shape of our world today, the world we live in, and not in a positive way?
According to a speculation I bumped at in The Guardian, it looks likely the Trump crew utilised advanced Facebook profiling to win the state of Pennsylvania. Their alleged approach was pure genius: they did not try to turn Democrats into Republicans; all they tried to do was ensure enough black voters, who traditionally vote for the Democrats, did not show up to vote in the first place. We do not know how much of this was actually put into use, but we do know that victory in Pennsylvania by an incredibly small margin was key to Trump’s victory despite him receiving much fewer overall votes than Clinton.
Think about it for a moment. Even if Facebook was not used by Trump to win Pennsylvania, the very fact Facebook’s facilities - the same ones that are regularly used to make you buy 0.3% more shoes - could be used to change the votes by 0.3% just as well is undeniable. Even if Facebook did not actually do it, you have to admit that Facebook has the ability to do it.
So let me ask you this, as you continue using Facebook to share cat photos: Do you really think Facebook is the right authority to have the power to determine the shape of the society we live in?

26/06/2017: I think it is important to add that part of what makes Facebook & Co's contributions to the field of advertising so combustible is the lack of publicity around it. We just don't know what it is, exactly, that Facebook is doing, and therefore we cannot confidentially say just how far it had affected the USA elections. That is entirely because the likes of Facebook and Google keep their secrets, probably because they realised years ago that if the world knew how far they go then that shroud of ignorance protecting them would disappear. Everyone, not just yours truly, would call for action to be taken against them.

02/08/2017: The Guardian published an article talking about researchers finding that Facebook's "dark ads" (the term for ads that pass under the radar and which utilise Facebook's profiling of its users) can swing political opinions.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Spare a thought for second grade citizens

I apologise for being late to the party (my excuse: having no spare time), but I do want to raise an issue concerning Australia's recently announced tightening of work and residency visas. And that issue is: what are all the people who have used Australia's now old visa policies to get into the country and become Australian citizens meant to think when the new people wishing to take advantage of the exact same thing are now branded unwanted at best and properly harmful otherwise?
It's not like I intend to take the arguments raised by Peter Dutton seriously; the guy has gone on record long enough for all of us to know he's a bigot. Alas, the guy is also odds on favourite to become a future Australia Prime Minister. So, when he says that migrants need to take active part in the school community (I don't), their footy club (I don't; I also don't like footy) and their place of worship (I'm an atheist), what are the implications on those of us that are here and do not all or any of the above?
For that matter, what does this imply on pure white Anglo Australians that don't do the above? I'm sure that in a country of more than 20 million there will be quite a lot of those around. Are they safe because Dutton approves of their external looks and their Aussie accent, or is it off to the concentration camp just the same?
Call me a bloody foreigner, but it is clear Dutton's version of what passes for "Aussie values" is his and no one else's. The fact Turnbull plays this game with him is outright scary.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Digitally Downloaded

Digitally Downloaded has published my first writing contribution the other day. You can find “my” news item here; another review will be coming up shortly (I will link to it here eventually), and - goddess willing - more will follow.
I won’t deny it, it is nice and flattering to have someone else post my stuff. It is even nicer to have someone else edit the stuff I write, because I find it is the editing that actually steals more of my time than the writing itself. But, to clarify, this isn’t a post on the greatness of yours truly who got someone to publish his stuff; I have been publishing here for more than a decade and I am perfectly fine with that. I also don’t know how long Digitally Downloaded would want to keep me, given they have professional writers writing for them as well as people who seem to actually have time to do so. But as long as they want me and as long as I’m enjoying it, I will continue.
What I did want to discuss in this post is the question of why Digitally Downloaded in the first place. I find the answer to this question interesting because it is all to do with growing up and maturity.

Yours truly did not conceal his love to ABC’s Good Game TV show. Over the years, that program’s weekly hour (once you add the adult Good Game to the child friendly Spawn Point) have solidified the role of gaming in this family. Spawn Point has also been a program in whose background my son grew up since he was a baby. However, over the years I got more and more exposed to games; we all did, mostly through the fact we all now carry a gaming console in our back pocket. As I got more exposed to games, I begun questioning Good Game more and more, till finally I started feeling that while the program is interesting and all, I often significantly disagree with the reviewers. I felt Good Game tends to be too shallow for yours truly. And I definitely grew tired of their affection to repeated sequels such as Uncharted 4.
I needed more, and with the help of Twitter I seem to have found it in Digitally Downloaded. A website dedicated to serious analysis and breakdown of games is right up my street, given my own love of the exact same in everything and my strong opinionated nature. Digitally Downloaded does not shy from stating unorthodox opinions, opinions which I often disagree with. Yet, contrary to contemporary habits, it goes to great lengths to explain where it is coming from. Which, in my opinion, is all that matters; I can then decide if I agree or not and why, and this process enables me to figure out if I would like a game or not much more than the average YouTube grade argument of “guys, this is cool, you’ll like it #conformism”. In an age where we are drowned by shallowness, Digitally Downloaded provides much needed depth.
The timing of my encounter with Digitally Downloaded also worked with my falling in love. The unashamedly Japanese focused Digitally Downloaded happened to bump into me just as I was realising it the Nintendo side of things has been providing for the bulk of my gaming needs lately while, in parallel, I grew more and more dismayed with the proliferation of sequels shot at us from the Western side of gaming (a matter I have already discussed here). Couple this with the common language this eccentric bloody foreigner has found with members of Digitally Downloaded through Twitter, and you can see personal attachment form.
Digitally Downloaded goes further by examining games at the philosophical level. Which, I believe, is exactly the way games should be examined. Because, when one comes to think about it, games are first and foremost a method for us to practice reality. When we are children, games are probably the safest and most effective way for us to practice getting to know the world. Educators will tell you that the better schools teach their children through play. Now being the mature person in the room, I may not need to practice life through gaming anymore (at least not until I need to learn how to walk with a stick), but rather allocate gaming the role of examining alternative realities, views and experiences. The most basic example of what I am talking about here is the fact that in my favourite games, Mass Effect and Fire Emblem, I like to play female characters; because games provide me with the best, albeit extremely basic, way of seeing what the world is like through female eyes. I can go further here, though: Fire Emblem Fates Conquest, the game that’s sucking my time the most at the moment, revolves around questions of how much bad we should do in order to do good. These ethical questions are the stuff Socrates was referring to when he allegedly said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Socrates, I will remind you, did not enjoy the privilege of being able to engage in the examination of life through video games. However, I do. And so do you.
The majority of us still think of gaming, and particularly video gaming, as a form of escapism. Yes, a lot of it is; probably the majority of it is. However, this will not be the first time ever I disagree with the majority while accusing it of intellectual laziness. In the mean time, I do warmly recommend you pay attention to Digitally Downloaded. Whether they publish what I write or not is completely irrelevant; as long as they continue to approach games the way they do, they will offer a fascinating window at so much more than gaming itself. With gaming being humanity’s cutting edge form of art, Digitally Downloaded is offering a cutting edge examination of life.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

War on Labour

Making the news lately is our beloved government's latest case of taking care of its people, the removal of penalty rates. That is, business owners in retail and coffee shops all over Australia will no longer have to pay an extra to the employees that do their bidding during the weekend.
In case you are wondering what the sense of cancelling penalty rates is, the answer is obvious: our government is truly caring for its people. The only problem is, “its people” are the people with the money, not the people doing the labour; our government could not care less about the latter. They, the people with the money, stand at no risk of ever having to work a weekend their entire lives. Why should they care about those lowly pests that have to run around them and satisfy their consumption needs for the sake of being able to bring food to their table?

My argument is that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to this attack on labour. It was a decade or so ago that our government stopped differentiating between part time work and full time work when it comes to official unemployment statistics. The latest episode in penalty rates is just one of numerous steps taken by the ruling class to subdue the lower classes through the casualisation of work.
Penalty rates are just a little part of the greater war on the working class. The  biggest part is actually the disappearance of permanent positions and the change towards short term contracts, where the employer can get rid of employees whenever it feels like. At first it was presented as an advantage to the employee: the pay was higher, the flexibility was an attraction. Nowadays, however, when the bulk of employees are short term contractors, that is no longer the case. The pay advantage is long gone, but the benefits we used to take for granted - annual leave, sick leave - are gone.
Those of us lucky enough to stumble upon a permanent position stand to find that what used to be regarded as a position of a certain grade is now recruited as a position of lower grade. Why? Because they can. Because when each advertised vacancy attracts hundreds of eager (desperate?) applicants, the employer can dictate the terms. You might be able to land a permanent position, but it won’t land you as much money as it used to.

What we are seeing here, overall, is a pivotal transition in the economy. Whereas we used to live in an economy where labour was the primary source of wealth, that role is now leaning more and more towards capital.
Think about it: the people our society looks up to, the folks we consider to have “sorted” themselves out, are not people that work for a living. Instead, they are the people that managed to wiggle themselves out of working so that they have some arrangement or another that generates money for them "automatically".
Think of the Apple app economy, only in people: Apple has established the App Store, but Apple does not write the apps. People labour to write the apps and sell them, which is when Apple comes in to reap its 30% surcharge. Now, cut and paste Apple with your average investment property owner, and you get the point.

The real question is where are we heading for from here. And I think the answer is, sadly, blood, sweat and many tears.
Automation will mean that many if not most of us will lose their job within a decade or two. The income from labour pool will vastly diminish while the number of people seeking to make an income from labour will rise. [By the way, if you look at the Philippines, you will see what happens when this scenario takes place a the country level; however, what I am talking about here is a global level.] Eventually, the kettle will pop and the pressure will be released through a wave of violence that will eventuate in a solution along the lines of a universal pay allowance. As in, everybody will get paid regardless of whether they have a job or not.
There really is no reason for us not to be there already. We are more affluent than humans ever were, yet we choose to spend our lives locked inside an office and wasting the best time of our lives doing the whim of the ruling class. Until, that is, that ruling class no longer needs us.
In the mean time, the same ruling class is gearing up for the struggle to come, for those waves of blood, sweat and tears. Have a look at the Land of the Free™ and check out its police forces: these have been militarised from head to toe, using the War on Terror™ as an excuse. Yet, it has also been made very clear that this new military force is there mostly to enforce the class divide on the lower classes (e.g., Black Lives Matter).
The same army will “defend you” the day you decide that push came to shove. The day you realise you can no longer supply your basic needs through work. Maybe, on that day, you will lament the slow erosion of worker rights we all did little to stop.