A Round of Memorable Op-Eds This Week

While I've been around the clock a number of times with some of the most astute and compelling pieces of journalism across publishers this week, I wanted to shine a light on a few notable opinion editorials for the weekend. These aren't overly long, and they're stitched together thematically around the challenges of U.S. leadership and its commitment to democratic policy in the world today.

The Atlantic

While drenched in superlatives, Yoni Appelbaum's piece titled Is the American Idea Over?, one of the headliners in the latest Atlantic issue, covers a range of survey points and perspective on the U.S.'s role in the world today, and how its population is reckoning with it.

It is no surprise that younger Americans have lost faith in a system that no longer seems to deliver on its promise—and yet, the degree of their disillusionment is stunning. Nearly three-quarters of Americans born before the Second World War assign the highest value—10 out of 10—to living in a democracy; less than a third of those born since 1980 do the same. A quarter of the latter group say it’s unimportant to choose leaders in free elections; just shy of a third think civil rights are needed to protect people’s liberties. Americans are not alone; much of western Europe is similarly disillusioned.

But most notable (and agreeable) is the reality that true democracy is fragile, an ever-escalating balancing act of security, freedom, opportunity, and tolerance of differences:

The greatest danger facing American democracy is complacence. The democratic experiment is fragile, and its continued survival improbable. Salvaging it will require enlarging opportunity, restoring rights, and pursuing equality, and thereby renewing faith in the system that delivers them. This, really, is the American idea: that prosperity and justice do not exist in tension, but flow from each other. Achieving that ideal will require fighting as if the fate of democracy itself rests upon the struggle—because it does.

The Economist

America’s global influence has dwindled under Donald Trump

On trade, [Donald Trump] remains wedded to a zero-sum view of the world, in which exporters “win” and importers “lose”. (Are the buyers of Ivanka Trump-branded clothes and handbags, which are made in Asia, losers?) Mr Trump has made clear that he favours bilateral deals over multilateral ones, because that way a big country like America can bully small ones into making concessions. The trouble with this approach is twofold. First, it is deeply unappealing to small countries, which by the way also have protectionist lobbies to overcome. Second, it would reproduce the insanely complicated mishmash of rules that the multilateral trade system was created to simplify and trim. The Trump team probably will not make a big push to disrupt global trade until tax reform has passed through Congress. But when and if that happens, all bets are off—NAFTA is still in grave peril.

The New York Times

If you haven't first read anything about the Paradise Papers, it's essential reading for the weekend. In a follow-up op-ed, Gabriel Zucman noodles on how we can enact policy to stop corporations and the wealthy from avoiding taxes in havens around the world:

The United States loses, according to my estimates, close to $70 billion a year in tax revenue due to the shifting of corporate profits to tax havens. That’s close to 20 percent of the corporate tax revenue that is collected each year. This is legal.

Meanwhile, an estimated $8.7 trillion, 11.5 percent of the entire world’s G.D.P., is held offshore by ultrawealthy households in a handful of tax shelters, and most of it isn’t being reported to the relevant tax authorities. This is… not so legal.

These figures represent a huge loss of resources that, if collected, could be used to cut taxes on the rest of us, or spent on social programs to help people in our societies.

Trove Returns with the Swift Wallet

Iterating on a Good Thing

The team behind what I've called (and remain firm on) the best slim wallet available have taken to Kickstarter to rev up funds for the next phase of its wallet, which they call Trove Swift.

trove-swift-defiant-sloth

The fundamentals of the original wallet remain intact:

  • It's virtually the same physical size as its predecessor
  • It retains the same two layers of bonded, full grain Italian vegetable-tanned leather
  • The same (from what I can tell) tight, high-quality elastic
  • Same composition of three separated slots for cards, cash, Instax photos, business cards, and so forth
  • A reversible design that permits versatile options for storing different kinds of slim materials

What’s New

What's different, however, is one of the available slots access to stored cards. As the creators state on their Kickstarter page:

Our backers and customers over the last three years have given a lot of feedback on the TROVE Wallet, they love the versatility of having 3 separate compartments, the quality of materials and workmanship and the compact and minimalist aesthetics. The TROVE Swift retains all of the qualities our customers love about the original wallet and adds a quick access pull-tab. We know everyone has that one card that they use everyday more than others, and we wanted to improve the speed and accessibility by adding the Swift pull-tab.

Trove Swift with Pull Tab on the way out

Trove Swift with Pull Tab on the way out

To confirm, the single, obvious differentiation between this version of the Trove wallet is the pull-tab. I was actually surprised by this when they graciously sent me a review unit. So let's get this out of the way: this is an impressive pull-tab. They summarize having tested several different materials for the ribbon and the pull-tab itself, finally landing on a union of polyester ribbon and coated metal tab. The ribbon feels like a micro-sized version of a belt buckle of the smoothest variety, and the feeling it provides when you glide it out of its resting place is a tactile pleasure. At 0.3mm thick, it's indecipherable as part of the wallet's in-pocket feel, and the tab itself only juts out slightly once a card or set of cards are placed in the one slot it functions in.

The Trove Swift Wallet

The Trove Swift Wallet

As a functional pull-tab, it far out-performs and out-feels the pull-tabs in Bellroy wallets, and a week in, feels entirely up to the task of long-term viability.

But is a pull-tab what the Trove needed?

Honestly, it brings nominal value to the wallet's design and functionality. It's not unwanted or unwarranted -- the feature is squarely about improving accessibility of a favorite set of cards. But of the two core slots with easiest accessibility of cards, neither caused any problems pulling the cards out in the original version of Trove (those front-facing cards in a stack prodded out just enough to easily grab with a finger). The more difficult-to-access single-slot (I'll call it the slot on the "bottom"), is actually where I think a pull-tab would have been more useful. This slot is typically where I dump my RFID office access card and another one or two rarely used items. But because of the tightness of the wallet, that tends to be where it's a little more difficult to stick a finger in and extract a card.

Trove Swift next to the original Trove (Hackett edition)

Trove Swift next to the original Trove (Hackett edition)

Where the pull tab does benefit the user is when you need to extract cash. While I usually don't carry any currency, if I do, I always fold it three or four ways to fit into one of the two easier "top" slots, and jam it into the crevice. With the cash resting against a card in the pull-tab slot, the feature works great -- the cash pulls out swimmingly.

Other Miscellany to Note:

  • This version of the Trove seems to be, at least initially, limited to a set of monochromatic colors (all of good taste). Perhaps a "build your own" option will be coming later on.
  • It's only available on Kickstarter, but as of this writing, they've exceeded their goal and aim to ship by the end of the year.
    • Based on this review unit, though, it's in perfect working condition, and I have to imagine it's just a matter of scaling up production and materials to ship to customer demand, but I wouldn't worry about there being any quality assurance issues whatsoever.

In Summary

Overall, the Trove Swift is an excellent iteration on what I continue to deem the best slim/minimal wallet you can buy. Whether you care for the pull-tab or not, Trove still is the right choice.

trove-swift-pull-tab-2

The Two Faces of Apple

The evolution and success of Apple products in the future will likely hinge on how deep their commitment to privacy is, and whether they’ll have the ability to meet features and levels of personalization their competition is slinging. As such, two recent articles from The Wall Street Journal highlight both these challenges.

First up is Robert McMillan’s piece on Apple’s expansion of “cutting edge” privacy methodologies. We first heard about this shift at last year’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual development get-together Apple hosts on the west coast. Essentially, Apple is investing serious resources into, and anchoring product integrity around what the industry calls differential privacy.

Two years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered shoppers could be identified by linking social-media accounts to anonymous credit-card records and bits of secondary information, such as the location or timing of purchases.

”I don’t think people are aware of how easy it is getting to de-anonymize data,” said Ishaan Nerurkar, whose startup LeapYear Technologies Inc. sells software for leveraging machine learning while using differential privacy to keep user data anonymous.

Differentially private algorithms blur the data being analyzed by adding a measurable amount of statistical noise. This could be done, for example, by swapping out one question (have you ever committed a violent crime?) with a question that has a statistically known response rate (were you born in February?). Someone trying to find links in the data would never be sure which question a particular person was asked. That lets researchers analyze sensitive data such as medical records without being able to tie the data back to specific people.

Whether the expansion of this methodology will be successful, or prove a hindrance for Apple, is yet to be seen. The establishment media is casting it as a do-or-die juncture in Apple’s commitment to artificial intelligence and machine-learning initiatives. And while other companies are starting to pursue differential privacy, it is a hindrance to core products many of them have, so it’s really only being applied to photo applications and not advertising platforms, for instance.

But no matter how much Apple invests in ways to further its hardware and software services while ringing the privacy bell, it still is beholden to governments. And so: enter China.

Apple has been pressing hard into China over the last several years. As of 2017, it is Apple’s third largest market behind the US and Europe, but has started to slide due (likely) to the increasing competition in the country. According to The Wall Street Journal (again!), Apple has recently buckled under governmental pressure, and will be complying with China to store all cloud data for Chinese customers with a government-owned company.

Apple said it made the latest change to comply with China’s new rules on data storage and cloud-services operation that went into effect June 1 as part of sweeping new regulations aimed at improving cybersecurity. It also said the new data center would improve speed and reliability for customers in China.

The Silicon Valley company has been one of the technology industry’s strongest advocates for fending off government incursions into user data. In a statement, Apple said it has “strong data privacy and security protections in place and no backdoors will be created into any of our systems.”

The latest move comes as Apple has been facing increasing regulatory headwinds in China. Last year, for example, its online book and movie services was shut down by authorities, who didn’t give specific reasons for the closing.

These kinds of things are bound to happen. Apple has also had to recently navigate opening retail stores in India, as the government there had restricted companies with “cutting edge technology” to perform sales without first sourcing some percentage of components locally. This Indian law has apparently pushed sales in that country further back still.

As we see Apple continue to press forward on its hardware, software, and integration fronts, the challenge of maintaining privacy will be tested. They are one of the few, if only, major technology companies left with such goals — time will tell if they can pull it off, or if customer interest cares at all.

Update: Aug 13, 2017.

Thoughtful piece by economist Tyler Cowen on this ordeal over at Bloomberg: Don't Be Too Hard on Apple for Bending to China.

Apple is still doing plenty to help Chinese citizens counter their censors. It sells chat and messenging apps in China that allow for encryption. Apple iPhones and iPads, bought in the U.S., bypass Chinese censorship altogether when they use the 4G network (not Wi-Fi); presumably some Chinese citizens have bought these products and use them. Perhaps most important, VPN apps are still available in China through other means, or overseas, and Chinese citizens can download them and combine them with Apple products to help bypass censorship. Apple has hardly backed away from its mission of tying the world together.

The Listening Machines

By now you’ve heard the beckoning of tech companies to buy a device for your home, whereby you can calmly (or loudly) speak “hey Alexa-hey Google-hey Siri” into the air and a machine, listening for the right queue, will help you do something or provide something in return. It’s the far-fetched sci-fi dream of yore — controlling your appliances throughout the home, and asking an esoteric artificial intelligence machine to do your bidding. It’s the invisible interface. But is it the final frontier for computing? And what must we sacrifice and compromise to get there?

What Exactly is Going on in the Home?

A few years ago, both Google and Apple introduced home automation frameworks in an attempt to bind several disparate Internet of Things products from third-party manufacturers. Google’s Android@Home—nowait-Brillo-holdon-Android Things and Apple’s HomeKit play important roles in centralizing control for the myriad of hardware and products that are now, for reasons of convenience (?), Internet-connected (lights, switches, locks, cameras, fans, windows, etc.). These centralized controls are found in things like the Apple Home app on your iOS device or Apple TV, since you’d probably rather use just one app that dozens of individuals apps to control your dozens of Internet-connected products.

But what makes all this even easier? An invisible interface you simply talk to, that is always on, and always at the ready. And so here is where the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and upcoming Apple HomePod enter stage left. With the innocent looks of a speaker, these are beamforming, microphone-arrayed devices that can parse out human voice through the noise of running music in the background and can respond to a variety of inputs from the user. Sure, they’re limited to what they can do, but all of them will allow for pretty consistent behavior, namely:

  • Manipulation of music, playlists, etc.
    • Mostly done natively through each company’s maintained music platform (like Amazon Music), though other music platforms can be streamed as well
  • Answering basic questions, setting timers, and so forth
  • Controlling Internet-connected devices and accessories

Conveniency and ubiquity continue to be the name of the game here. Why place an always-on listening device in your home? Because it’s more convenient to say “hey Alexa, play xx album” out loud without thinking about anything but the words than opening your phone, opening the music app, conducting a search with the software keyboard, and then hitting play. If these voice assistants can become as intricately sophisticated as we need them to be, they certainly could be the future operating systems.

Is There a Danger of Overreach?

So should we be cautious about all this new tech? Probably.

First off, having nearly everything in your home connected to the Internet could be considered dangerous in its own right. Mr. Robot has a damning episode on home automation going haywire due to malevolent hackers. It could happen. Smart home accessories have already broken down, leaving owners confused as to how to turn on a light switch.

Security is paramount. And its importance is not just integral to keeping all connected devices safe from being manipulated from the outside, but also keeping privacy intact for owners of listening devices. These devices have been raising concerns about in-home privacy more than the cameras on your laptop and phones have of late. As Alex Swoyer writes in the Washington Times:

Consumers generally are believed to have consented to a company being able to collect information based on the product’s use guidelines. But whether consumers are truly aware of what that means, and whether companies are able to share the information they collect with the government raise more questions.

These devices must listen for a key phrase in order to initiate on the user’s command, so it’s no secret that the microphone is “on” at all times. Unless you’re using a setting that requires a button press to initiate, like Siri on your iPhone. The concern of privacy and potential overreach by these devices came to the forefront of an investigation in Arkansas, late in 2015. According to NPR, we know from court documents that police confiscated an Amazon Echo at the scene of an apparent murder post-football party to potentially seek out additional information that the device may have recorded at the time of the crime. Additionally, it was stated that "investigators are also using information from a smart water meter, alleging that an increase in water use in the middle of the night suggests a possible cleanup around the crime scene”.

I’m not telling you to refrain from purchasing these kinds of products. They are, after all, extremely convenient and powerful (even in their infancy right now), and offer a pretty concrete vision of where tech companies are going in the near-future. But I am suggesting to you to think carefully about which ones you buy, and the potential unintended consequences of having one in your home.

Apple Takes the High Road

So what is the most valuable company on the planet doing? Late to the game, some may say. But at their recent Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple did announce a product launching in December called HomePod. It’s their version of the voice assistant-powered intelligent speaker, and being an Apple product, the company has a very clear idea of what its marketing message is for it.

Unlike Amazon Echo and Google Home, both of which emphasize the artificial intelligence behind the tech to drive a number of services, Apple is heavily leaning into tackling the home audio market for its HomePod (think Bose and Sonos as competitors, not Amazon or Google). They’ve called it “the new sound of home”, and it’s no mistake that they’ve put music and superior sound quality as the banner features. Ben Lovejoy has an astute write-up on the differences between Apple’s strategy here, claiming that Siri does still lag behind competitive voice assistant systems, but has a very focused direction compared to data-gathering giants like Google.

Given the comprehensive nature of the Apple ecosystem, Apple could choose to go down the same route as Google. It could use all of the data it has about me, tie Siri queries to my Apple ID and deliver the same level of intelligence and proactive suggestions as Google Home. If it did so, nobody would be saying that Siri lags significantly behind Google’s artificial intelligence.

But Apple makes a deliberate choice not to do so. When I ask Siri a question, my iPhone doesn’t attach my Apple ID to my query so that Siri’s servers can make contextual sense of it. All that is sent is a random identifier that cannot be linked to my identity in any way. The random identifier is used to help Siri learn my voice: it doesn’t know who I am, but it knows that my query came from (say) person 7582066701, and it can check back over six months to match my query against my voice file to better understand what I actually said.

Will the concessions in favor of privacy compromise Apple’s growth with Siri and its connected devices, or will the trade-off be a good middleground? I obviously am in the camp favoring data privacy, and am willing to lag behind the use-cases of competitor devices to instead wait for Apple’s cautious take on this new medium. But keep in mind that all these devices are in very early stages of their feature roadmaps, and most people don’t even know what these voice assistant-powered speakers can and cannot do. Mostly that’s because the enabled service features are still be rolled out for third-parties to use, and while Apple limits the usages to just a handful of actions, most features from Google and Amazon are used by developers but not used by the products’ users.

Recode reports”when developers for Alexa and its competitor, Google Assistant, do get someone to enable a voice app, there’s only a 3 percent chance, on average, that the person will be an active user by week 2”. It’s no surprise, then to read this:

The statistics underscore the difficulty Amazon and Google are having in getting Echo and Home owners to discover and use new voice apps on their platforms. Instead, many consumers are sticking to off-the-shelf actions like streaming music, reading audiobooks and controlling lights in their homes.

Too many choices are oftentimes too much to handle. Until these devices are ubiquitous and their broad services are well known enough to all consumers, most voice applications will probably go unused, just like applications on your phone or computer go unused either from being undiscoverable by the user, or the lack in need of its employment.

Where We Go From Here

Whether you want to call this tech transition full of overreach or not, the tale of listening “smart” speakers reinforces a few things that come with the territory of most topics I discuss on this site.

One is that we need to think through the kind of future we want. Current and future generations will probably become more accustomed to the invasiveness of these kinds of systems in our homes, and won’t think much about the privacy consequences. To them (and to many in general), it’s about convenience.

Secondly, we need to ensure that we continue to build next generation Internet-connected devices and accessories with a strong security foundation. Many security specialists, including Bruce Schneier, have advocated for a rebuilding of certain Internet protocols and security features to bake into the future of the Internet. How do we get there? Through policy and innovation. At least we hope.

Thirdly, we need to be mindful of the kinds of products we use, what the manufacturer is providing as a service, and at what cost to you. You should know by now that Google makes money off your data (they’re an advertising company); Amazon makes money off your purchases (they’re primarily a retailer); Apple makes money off your hardware purchases (they’re primarily a hardware design company). None of this may matter to you, but in the case of compromised data, hardware, and privacy risks, it’s clear that one company is probably a safer bet than the others.

Finally, someone needs to redesign the way Terms of Services are written. No consumer reads this shit thoroughly, and most of us don’t even know what we’re signing up for or handing over to various companies and third-parties. It’s an epidemic, and we need some sound policies enacted to clear up the mess for everyday people. You know, for us. We aren’t all lawyers, and we don’t have hours to read through and verify we’re good with these conditions. Leave that to Norwegian slow TV.