Archive for March 2018

Is the death of expertise tied to the Anglosphere?


Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Boris Johnson: usually a talented delivery, but with conflicting substance.

I spotted The Death of Expertise at Unity Books, but I wonder if the subject is as simple as the review of the book suggests.
   There’s a lot out there about anti-intellectualism, and we know it’s not an exclusively American phenomenon. Tom Nichols, the book’s author, writes, as quoted in The New York Times, ‘Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.’
   I venture to say that the “death of expertise” is an Anglophone phenomenon. Head into Wikipedia, for instance, and you’ll find proof that the masses are not a good way to ensure accuracy, at least not in the English version. Head into the German or Japanese editions and you find fewer errors, and begin to trust the pages more.
   Given that many of “the people” cannot discern what is “fake news” and what is not, or who is a bot and who is not, then it’s absolutely foolhardy to propose that they also be the ones who determine the trustworthiness of a news source, as Facebook is wont to do.
   I can’t comment as much on countries I have spent less time in, but certainly in the Anglosphere, I’ve seen people advance, with confidence and self-authority, completely wrong positions, ones not backed up by real knowledge. You only need to visit some software support forums to see online examples of this phenomenon.
   When I visit Sweden, for instance, there’s a real care from individuals not to advance wrongful positions, although I admit I am limited by my own circles and the brief time I have spent there.
   It’s not so much that we don’t value expertise, it’s that the bar for what constitutes an expert is set exceptionally low. We’re often too trusting of sources or authorities who don’t deserve our reverence. And I wonder if it comes with our language.
   I’ll go so far as to say that the standing of certain individuals I had in my own mind was shattered when we were all going for the mayoralty in my two campaigns in 2010 and 2013. There certainly was, among some of my opponents, no correlation between knowledge and the position they already held in society. It didn’t mean I disliked them. It just meant I wondered how they got as far as they did without getting found out.
   Fortunately, the victor, whether you agreed with her policies or not, possessed real intelligence. The fact she may have political views at odds with yours is nothing to do with intelligence, but her own observations and beliefs. I can respect that (which is why I follow people on social media whose political views I disagree with).
   In turn I’m sure many of them disliked what I stood for, even if they liked me personally. Certainly it is tempting to conclude that some quarters in the media, appealing to the same anti-intellectualism that some of my rivals represented, didn’t like a candidate asserting that we should increase our intellectual capital and pursue a knowledge economy. No hard feelings, mind. As an exercise, it served to confirm that, in my opinion, certain powers don’t have people’s best interests at heart, and there is a distinct lack of professionalism (and, for that matter, diversity) in some industries. In other words, a mismatch between what one says one does, and what one actually does. Language as doublespeak.
   So is it speaking English that makes us more careless? Maybe it is: as a lingua franca in some areas, merely speaking it might put a person up a few notches in others’ estimation. Sandeep Deva Misra, in his blog post in 2013, believes that’s the case, and that we shouldn’t prejudge Anglophones so favourably if the quality of their thought isn’t up to snuff.
   Maybe that’s what we need to do more of: look at the quality of thought, not the expression or make a judgement based on which language it’s come in. As English speakers, we enjoy a privilege. We can demand that others meet us on our terms and think poorly when someone speaks with an accent or confuses your and you’re. It gives us an immediate advantage because we have a command of the lingua franca of business and science. It gives us the impunity to write fictions in Wikipedia or make an argument sound appealing through sound bites, hoping to have made a quick getaway before we’re found out. Political debate has descended into style over substance for many, although this is nothing new. I was saying, although not blogging, things like this 20 years ago, and my students from 1999–2000 might remember my thoughts on Tony Blair’s 1997 campaign as being high on rhetoric and light on substance. Our willingness to accept things on face value without deeper analysis, lands us into trouble. We’re fooled by delivery and the authority that is attached with the English language.
   You’ll next see this in action in a high-profile way when Facebook comes forth with more comment about Cambridge Analytica. I can almost promise you now that it won’t hold water.

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Facebook and Cambridge Analytica: the signs were there for years, if one only looked


Facebook’s woes over Cambridge Analytica have only prompted one reaction from me: I told you so. While I never seized upon this example, bravely revealed to us by whistleblower Christopher Wylie and reported by Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison of The Guardian, Facebook has shown itself to be callous about private data, mining preferences even after users have opted out, as I have proved on more than one occasion on this blog. They don’t care what your preferences are, and for a long time changed them quietly when you weren’t looking.
   And it’s nothing new: in October 2010, Emily Steel wrote, in The Wall Street Journal, about a data firm called Rapleaf that harvested Facebook information to target political advertisements (hat tip here to Jack Martin Leith).
   Facebook knew of a data breach years ago and failed to report it as required under law. The firm never acts, as we have seen, when everyday people complain. It only acts when it faces potential bad press, such as finally ceasing, after nearly five years, its forced malware downloads after I tipped off Wired’s Louise Matsakis about them earlier this year. Soon after Louise’s article went live, the malware downloads ceased.
   Like all these problems, if the stick isn’t big enough, Facebook will just hope things go away, or complain, as it did today, that it’s the victim. Sorry, you’re not. You’ve been complicit more than once, and violating user privacy, as I have charged on this blog many times, is part of your business practice.
   In this environment, I am also not surprised that US$37,000 million has been wiped off Facebook’s value and CEO Mark Zuckerberg saw his net worth decline by US$5,000 million.
   Those who kept buying Facebook shares, I would argue, were unreasonably optimistic. The writing surely was on the wall in January at the very latest (though I would have said it was much earlier myself), when I wrote, ‘All these things should have been sending signals to the investor community a long time ago, and as we’ve discussed at Medinge Group for many years, companies would be more accurately valued if we examined their contribution to humanity, and measuring the ingredients of branding and relationships with people. Sooner or later, the truth will out, and finance will follow what brand already knew. Facebook’s record on this front, especially when you consider how we at Medinge value brands and a company’s promise-keeping, has been astonishingly poor. People do not trust Facebook, and in my book: no trust means poor brand equity.’
   This sounds like my going back to my very first Medinge meeting in 2002, when we concluded, at the end of the conference, three simple words: ‘Finance is broken.’ It’s not a useful measure of a company, certainly not the human relationships that exist within. But brand has been giving us this heads-up for a long time: if you can’t trust a company, then it follows that its brand equity is reduced. That means its overall value is reduced. And time after time, finance follows what brand already knew. Even those who tolerate dishonesty—and millions do—will find it easy to depart from a product or service along with the rest of the mob. There’s less and less for them to justify staying with it. The reasons get worn down one by one: I’m here because of my kids—till the kids depart; I’m here because of my friends—till the friends depart. If you don’t create transparency, you risk someone knocking back the wall.
   We always knew Facebook’s user numbers were bogus, considering how many bots there are on the system. It would be more when people wanted to buy advertising, and it would be less when US government panels charged with investigating Facebook were asking awkward questions. I would love to know how many people are really on there, and the truth probably lies between the two extremes. Facebook probably should revise its claimed numbers down by 50 per cent.
   It’s a very simplified analysis—of course brand equity is made up of far more than trust—and doubters will point to the fact Facebook’s stock had been rising through 2017.
   But, as I said, finance follows brand, and Facebook is fairly under assault from many quarters. It has ignored many problems for over a decade, its culture borne of arrogance, and you can only do this for so long before people wise up. In the Trump era, with the US ever more divided, there were political forces that even Facebook could not ignore. Zuckerberg won’t be poor, and Facebook, Inc. has plenty of assets, so they’re not going away. But Facebook, as we know it, isn’t the darling that it was a decade ago, and what we are seeing, and what I have been talking about for years, are just the tip of the iceberg.

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A quick read from Prof Stephen Hawking in Wired UK


The late Prof Stephen Hawking’s interview with Condé Nast’s Wired UK is excellent, and a quick read. For those following me on the duopoly of Facebook and Google, here’s what the professor had to say:

I worry about the control that big corporations have over information. The danger is we get into the situation that existed in the Soviet Union with their papers, Pravda, which means “truth” and Izvestia, which means “news”. The joke was, there was no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia. Corporations will always promote stories that reflect well on them and suppress those that don’t.

   That last bit definitely applies to a lot of the media today, especially those owned outside our country.
   The rest makes for a great read as Prof Hawking talks about AI, the anti-science movement, Donald Trump, and what humanity needs to do urgently in science. Here’s that link again.

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It can’t be that hard to rank media meritoriously, if only the big players had the will


US Department of Defense

Keen to be seen as the establishment, and that means working with the military–industrial complex, Google is making software to help the Pentagon analyse drone footage, and not everyone’s happy with this development.

The World Economic Forum’s ‘This is the future of the internet’ makes for interesting reading. It’s not so much about the future, but what has happened till now, with concerns about digital content (“fake news”), privacy and antitrust.
   Others have written a lot about search engines and social media keeping people in bubbles (or watch the video below, but especially from 5′14″), but the solution isn’t actually that complex. It’s probably time for search engines to return to delivering what people request, rather than anticipate their political views and feed them a hit of dopamine. They seem to have forgotten that they exist as tools, not websites that reinforce prejudices.
   Duck Duck Go has worked well for me because it has remained true to this; but others can do it, too.
   However, there needs to be one more thing. Instead of Facebook’s botched suggestion of having everyday people rate news sources, which I believe will actually result in more “bubbling”, why not rank websites based on their longevity and consistency of delivering decent journalism? Yes, I realize both Fox News and MSNBC will pass this test. As will the BBC. But this weeds out splogs, content mills, and websites that steal content through RSS. It actually takes out the “fake news” (and I mean this in the proper sense, not the way President Trump uses it). The websites set up by fly-by-nighters to make a quick buck, or Macedonian teenagers to fool American voters, just disappear down the search-engine indices. Facebook can analyse the same data to check whether a source is credible and rank them the same way.
   It could be done through an analysis of the age of the content, and whether the domain name had changed hands over the years. A website with a healthy archive going back many years would be ranked more highly; as would one where the domain had been owned by the same party for a long period.
   Google’s Pagerank used to look at incoming links, and maybe this can still be a factor, even if link-exchanging is no longer one of the basic tenets of the web.
   There’s so much good work being done by independent media all over the world, and they deserve to be promoted in a truly meritorious system, which the likes of Google used to deliver. Shame they do not today.
   We do know that its claim that analysing the content on the page to determine rank hasn’t worked, if some of the results that pop up are any indication. Instead, we see Google News permit the most ridiculous content-mill sites and treat them as legitimate sources; in 2005 such behaviour would be unthinkable by the big G. As to Facebook, they’ll boost whomever gives them money, so ethics don’t really score big there.
   Both these companies must realize they have a duty to do right by the public, but they should also know that it’s in their own interests to be honest to their users. If trust increases, so can usage. They might even ward off some of the antitrust forces looming on the horizon; fairness certainly will help Google’s future in Europe. But they seem to have forgotten they are providers of tools, perhaps reflecting their principals’ desires to be seen as tech celebrities or power-players.
   Google already has the technology to deliver a fairer web, but I sense it doesn’t have the desire to. I miss the days when Google, in particular, was an enfant terrible, there to shake things up. Now it exists to boost its own properties or rub shoulders with the military–industrial complex. Everyone’s keeping an eye on Alphabet’s share price. Forget the people or ‘Don’t be evil.’
   As I have said often on this blog, there lies a grand opportunity for others to fill the spaces that Google and Facebook have left. A new site can play a far more ethical game, maybe even combine what these two giants offer. If Altavista, once the world’s biggest website, and Myspace, once the king of social networks, can be toppled, then so can these two. Yet at their peak, neither appeared to be vulnerable. Who would have thought back in 1998 that Altavista would be toast? (The few that did, and you are out there, are visionaries.)
   So who is best poised out there to deliver such tools? It would seem now is the time to start, and as people realize that this way is better, be prepared to scale, scale, scale. Remember, Google once did the same thing to oust Altavista, by figuratively building a better mousetrap. Someone just needs to take that first step.

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Has Facebook stopped forcing its “malware scanner” on to users after being busted by Wired?


Since Louise Matsakis’s story on Facebook’s malware scanner came out in Wired, the number of hits to my pieces about my experience has dwindled.
   This can mean one of two things: (a) Wired’s getting the hits, which I don’t mind, considering they are the only tech media who had the cohones to talk about it; (b) Facebook, after being busted by the mainstream media, has stopped falsely accusing its users of having malware on their systems.
   Certainly on Twitter, although Twitter has broken its search function recently, far fewer Tweets with Facebook malware appear in a search.
   Of the two, (b) is more likely, because in previous circumstances, Facebook has only backed down after being embarrassed by the media, or after they receive a threat that could land them in an embarrassing situation.
   That includes the times it kicked off drag queens and kings, only to have them fight back with the media’s help; or leave porn and kiddie porn up, till they’re threatened with reports to the authorities.
   Otherwise, they ignore you—as they have done with users who have complained about the malware scanner for four years.
   It’s not unlike Google, who only stopped hacking Iphones in 2012 after The Wall Street Journal busted them for doing so, or only changed their cookie policies to be in line with their own claims after I busted them in 2011 to the Network Advertising Initiative for lying.
   These firms do have too much power because the law means nothing to them, but embarrassment in the court of public opinion does.
   After Louise’s article came out, Bloomberg did a story on it, as did one independent media outlet.
   So while a very small part of me isn’t thrilled that my hits on this blog have dropped, I’m actually far more pleased to know far fewer people are being lied to by Facebook about having malware on their systems. I’m also happy that tens of thousands, maybe even millions, aren’t wasting their time downloading and running a fake scanner which sends their private data to Facebook.
   It’s also interesting how quickly Facebook switched off their fake-warning system, within days of Louise’s article.
   It wasn’t as quick as Google switching off their Iphone privacy circumventing after the WSJ (same day) but the speed at which Facebook ceased telling people they have malware does suggest that those warnings were, as I said all along, fake. Louise asked the right questions and none of Facebook’s answers made sense.
   Facebook has plenty more misdeeds, and, in time, I am sure the tech media will get to them.
   It may find that despite its wealth, on a lot of things it actually needs to play by the very rules it claims to follow. And that means no more forced downloads of software that send your private data to them.

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Happy birthday: Autocade turns 10


Above: Autocade can be hard work—and sometimes you have to put up less exciting vehicles, like the 2001–7 Chrysler Town & Country, for it to be a useful resource.

March 8, 2018 marks 10 years of Autocade.
   I’ve told the story before on this blog and elsewhere, about how the site came to be—annoyed by the inaccuracies and fictions of Wikipedia (who said the masses would be smart enough to get rid of the mistakes?), I took a leaf out of the late Michael Sedgwick’s book and created a wiki that had brief summaries of each model, the same way Sedgwick had structured his guides. I received an emailed threat from a well known British publisher (I’m looking at you, Haymarket, and as predicted in my reply, your thoughts proved to be totally baseless) when we started, and 12½ million page views later, we’re on 3,628 models (I think we finished the first day on 12), with our page on the Ford Fiesta Mk VII leading the count (other than the home page).
   Autocade began as a wiki but with so many bots trying to sign up, I closed off those registrations. There have really been about six contributors to the site, all told: myself and Keith Adams for the entries, Peter Jobes and Nigel Dunn for the tech, and two members of the public who offered copy; one fed it in directly back in the day when we were still allowing wiki modifications. I thank everyone for their contributions.
   A few years ago, I began running into people online who used Autocade but didn’t know I was behind it; it was very pleasing to see that it had become helpful to others. It also pleased me tremendously to see it referenced in Wikipedia, not always 100 per cent correctly, but as Autocade is the more accurate site on cars, this is the right way round.
   When a New Zealand magazine reviewed us, the editor noted that there were omissions, including his own car, a Mitsubishi Galant. Back then we were probably on 1,000 models, maybe fewer. All the Galants are now up, but Autocade remains a work in progress. The pace of adding pages has declined as life gets busier—each one takes, on average, 20 minutes to research and write. You wouldn’t think so from the brevity, but I want it to be accurate. I’m not perfect, which is why the pages get changed and updated: the stats say we’re running on 3·1 edits per page.
   But it looks like we’re covering enough for Autocade to be a reasonably useful resource for the internet public, especially some of the more obscure side notes in motoring history. China has proved a challenge because of the need to translate a lot of texts, and don’t think that my ethnicity is a great help. The US, believe it or not, has been difficult, because of the need to calculate cubic capacities accurately in metric (I opted to get it right to the cubic centimetre, not litres). However, it is an exciting time to be charting the course of automotive history, and because there are still so many gaps from the past that need to be filled, I have the chance to compare old and new and see how things have moved on even in my four-and-a-half decades on Earth.
   Since Sedgwick had done guides up to 1970, and paper references have been excellent taking us through the modern motor car’s history, I arbitrarily decided that Autocade would focus on 1970 and on. There are some exceptions, especially when model lines go back before 1970 and it would be a disservice to omit the earlier marks. But I wanted it to coincide roughly with my lifetime, so I could at least provide some commentary about how the vehicle was perceived at the time of launch. And the ’70s were a fascinating time to be watching the motor industry: those nations that were confident through most of the 20th century with the largest players (the US and UK) found themselves struggling, wondering how the Japanese, making scooters and motorcycles just decades before, were beating them with better quality and reliability. That decade’s Japanese cars are fascinating to study, and in Japan itself there is plenty of nostalgia for them now; you can see their evolution into more internationally styled product, rather than pastiches of others’, come the 1980s and on. The rise of Korea, Spain, China, India, Turkey, México and other countries as car-exporting nations has also been fascinating to watch. When Autocade started, Australia still had a domestic mass-produced car industry, Chrysler was still owned by Americans, and GM still had a portfolio of brands that included Pontiac and Saturn.
   I even used to go to one of the image galleries and, as many cars are listed by year, let the mouse scroll down the page. You can see periods grouped by certain colours, a sign of how cars both follow and establish fashion. There are stylistic trends: the garishness of smog-era US cars and the more logical efficiency of European ones at the same time; smoother designs of the 1980s and 1990s; a creeping fussiness and a concentration on showing the brand’s identity in the 2000s and 2010s. As some of the most noticeable consumer goods on the planet, cars make up a big part of the marketing profession.
   The site is large enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing an academic look at industry using the data gathered there; and I always thought it could be a useful book as well, bearing in mind that the images would need to be replaced with much higher-resolution fare.
   For now, I’m going to keep on plodding as we commence Autocade’s second decade. The Salon de Genève has brought forth some exciting débutantes, but then I should get more of the Chrysler Town & Country vans up …

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Facebook overestimates and underestimates reach depending on the story it wants to tell


Funny, isn’t it? Last year, Facebook was busted for claiming that in some demographics, their ads could reach more people than there were people. When it comes to the US’s Russia probe, they claim their ads reached far, far fewer people: they initially claimed they reached 10 million, but Jonathan Albright, a researcher at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, found that they had in fact reached hundreds of millions.
   Facebook: fudging since 2004.

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It’s as though Statistics New Zealand set up this year’s census to fail


You have to wonder if the online census this year has been intentionally bad so that the powers that be can call it a flop and use it as an excuse to delay online voting, thereby disenfranchising younger voters.
   It’s the Sunday before the census and I await my access code: none was delivered, and I have three addresses at which this could be received (two entries to one dwelling, and a PO box). If it’s not at any of these, then that’s pretty poor. I have been giving them a chance on the expectation it would arrive, but now this is highly unlikely.
   And when you go to the website, they claim my browser’s incompatible. I disagree, since I’m within the parameters they state.

   This screen shot was taken after I filled out a request for the access code yesterday. Statistics NZ tells me the code will now take a week to arrive, four days after census night. Frankly, that’s not good enough.
   While I’ve seen some TV commercials for the census, I’ve seen no online advertising for it, and nothing in social media. My other half has seen no TVCs for it.
   Going up to the census people at the Newtown Fair today, I was handed a card with their telephone number and asked to call them tomorrow.
   You’d think they’d have people there at the weekend when we’re thinking about these things. Let’s hope I remember tomorrow.
   And I’m someone who cares about my civic duty here. What about all those who don’t? Are we going to see a record population drop?
   I’m not alone in this.

   They’ll be very busy, as Sarah Bickerton Tweeted earlier today (the replies are worth checking out):

and there are a lot of people among her circles, myself included, who don’t have the access code. Kat’s story is particularly interesting (edited for brevity):

   Online systems are robust and can be successful.
   It’s just that they need to be backed up by people with a will to make things succeed, not people who are so intent on making them fail.

PS.: Jonathan Mosen’s experience with this census as a blind person makes my issues seem insignificant. Fortunately, for him, Statistics New Zealand came to the party.—JY

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