Web/Tech

It’s long been known that the Chinese government hires people to support the government with fabricated posts on social media. In China these people are known as the “50c party”, so called because the posters were rumored to be paid 50 cents (5 jiao or about $.08) to write the posts. The precise nature and extent of the 50c party has heretofore been unknown. But in an amazing new paper, Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Robert (KPR) uncover a lot of new information using statistical sleuthing and some unusual and controversial real world sleuthing.

KPR’s data-lever is an archive of leaked emails from the Propaganda Office of Zhanggong. The archive included many 50c posters who were sending links and screenshots of their posts to the central office as evidence of their good work. Using these posts, KPR are able to trace the posters though many social media accounts and discover who the posters are and what they are posting about. Both pieces of information reveal surprises.

First, the posters are government workers paid on salary not, as the 50c phrase suggests, piece-rate workers. Second, and more importantly, it has long been assumed that propaganda posts would support the government with praise or criticize critics of the government. Not so. In fact, propaganda posts actively steer away from controversial issues. Instead, the effort appears to be to distract (especially to distract the people from organizing collective action; thus distraction campaigns peak around times and places where collective action like marches and protests might become focal). KPR write:

Distraction is a clever and useful strategy in information control in that an argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument. Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up…

Debate is about appealing to an individual’s reason; debate is thus implicitly individualistic, respectful of rights and epistemically egalitarian. (As I argued earlier, respect for the truth is tied to individualism because any person may have truth and reason on their side.) Authoritarians don’t care about these things and so they lie and distract with impunity and without shame. In this case, the distraction is done subtly.

From the initial archive, KPR are able to create a statistical picture of 50c posters. In one of the most remarkable parts of the paper they use this picture to identify many other plausible 50c posters not in the original archive. Then KPR test their identification with a kind of academic catfish–essentially they trick the 50c posters into self-identifying. It’s at this point that KPR’s paper begins to read more like the description of a CIA op than a standard academic paper.

We began by creating a large number of pseudonymous social media accounts. This required many research assistants and volunteers, having a presence on the ground in China at many locations across the country, among many other logistically challenging complications. We conducted the survey via “direct messaging” on Sina Weibo, which enables private communication from one account to another. With IRB permission, we do not identify ourselves as researchers and instead pose, like our respondents, as ordinary citizens.

Using their own fake accounts, KPR directly message people they think are 50c posters with a message along the lines of:

I saw your comment, it’s really inspiring, I want to ask, do you have any public opinion guidance management, or online commenting experience?

The question is phrased in a positive way and it uses the official term “public opinion guidance” rather than the 50c term which has a negative connotation. Amazingly, 59% of the people KPR identify as 50c posters answer yes, essentially outing themselves.

KPRNow, one might wonder whether such a question has evidentiary value but KPR do a clever validation exercise. First, they ask the same question to people from the original leaked archive, people whom KPR know are actual 50c posters. Second, they ask the same question of people who are very unlikely to be 50c posters. The result is that 57% of the known 50c posters answer the question, yes. Almost exactly the same percentage (59%) as in the predicted 50c sample. At the same time, only 19% of the posters known not to be 50c answer yes (that doesn’t mean that 19% are 50c but rather that 19% is a measure of the noise created by asking the question in a subtle way). What’s important is that the large 40 point difference gives good statistical grounds for validating the predicted 50c sample.

Using this kind of analysis and careful, documented, extrapolation, KPR:

…find a massive government effort, where every year the 50c party writes approximately 448 million social media posts nationwide. About 52.7% of these posts appear on government sites. The remaining 212 million posts are inserted into the stream of approximately 80 billion total posts on commercial social media sites, all in real time. If these estimates are correct, a large proportion of government web site comments, and about one of every 178 social media posts on commercial sites, are fabricated by the government. The posts are not randomly distributed but, as we show in Figure 2, are highly focused and directed, all with specific intent and content.

As if this weren’t enough, an early version of KPR’s paper leaked and when the Chinese government responded, KPR became part of the story that they had meant to observe. The government’s response is now in turn used in this paper to verify some of KPR’s arguments. Very meta.

It took courage to write this paper. I do not think any of the authors will be traveling to China any time soon.

Washington Post: The cyberattack struck Los Angeles Valley College late last month, disrupting email, voice mail and computer systems at the public community college in Southern California. Then, school officials found a ransom note.

The missive advised the college that its electronic files had been encrypted and that the files could only be unlocked with a “private key.” The attackers would supply the key after receiving payment in the valuable digital currency known as bitcoin, which can be used anonymously without a centralized bank.

“You have just 7 days to send us the BitCoin after 7 days we will remove your private keys and it’s impossible to recover your files,” the attackers warned, according to a copy of the note obtained by The Washington Post.

Leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District decided to pay the ransom.

The college paid $28,000 and the files were restored.

ArsTechnica: According to the FBI, ransomware payouts in the United States jumped from $25 million in all of 2015 to over $209 million in just the first quarter of 2016.

Clearly, this is just the beginning.

It works like this. Your 15-minute voice recording is analysed digitally — tone of voice, choice of words, sentence structure — to determine personality traits such as openness to change, enthusiasm, empathy. In a fraction of a second, a software program sums up your character. Charts and diagrams reveal how friendly, status-driven or well organised you are — compared to the recruiter’s ideal profile.

“There is no person in the world who would be able to analyse so many aspects of personality, skills and speech in just 15 minutes,” says Mario Reis, co-founder of Precire Technologies in Aachen, Germany. Their speech analysis tools are used by human resources giant Randstad, transport firm Fraport and vehicle insurance service provider Control€xpert, Reis says.

How about attaching a file analysis to your Tinder profile, or refusing to contact those who do not?  Here is the BBC story, via Michelle Dawson.

Here is what I wrote in 2007, when Prospect magazine asked me to name the most underrated cultural development of the year:

The iPhone. The world really did change…We now have handheld personal computers and personal entertainment centres, yet they are no larger than a thin pack of cards. And no, I’m not a techie, a gadget freak or an Apple lover. The device itself is beautiful as well.

And here was my “overrated” answer:

Overrated: Hollywood movies. US ticket sales recovered this year, but to what end? This was a year for microculture, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The bigger visual productions of the year won’t much stand the test of time. On the bright side, television drama continues to rise in quality.

I am pleased to have bought an iPhone on the first day, I felt at the time it was like seeing the premiere of a Mozart opera.  Many people laughed at me for suggesting such an analogy, and they chided me for my infatuation with such a toy.  I recall Alex walking into my office, asking me what I thought, and I told him the product really did deliver what it promised and that it would change the world.

The funny thing is, I hardly use my iPhone anymore, much preferring the larger iPad.  I haven’t even bothered to order one of the larger iPhones, as for me it isn’t large enough and I marvel that others can use it as much as they do.  In other words, now that I have experience using the product my forecast, if I were to make one historically “blind,” but with that accumulated personal experience in pocket, would be far less accurate than what I said at the time.

A Candle That Gives Off The Scent Of Freshly Unboxed Apple Products

It is 100% soy wax, in case you are wondering.

The pointer is from Ted Gioia.

…as pricing systems become ever more autonomous, aspiring monopolists like Mr Topkins eventually will not even need to speak to their competitors to fix prices. Computers will do the colluding for them, either by using the same algorithm or learning from their interactions with other machines — all without leaving behind trails of incriminating emails or voicemails.

“Finding ways to prevent collusion between self-learning algorithms might be one of the biggest challenges that competition law enforcers have ever faced,” said a recent paper by the OECD, the Paris-based club of mostly rich nations.

These digital tools automatically calculate prices based on instantaneous assessments of supply and demand and a seller’s own instructions, such as specific profit or price targets.

…It [the OECD] added: “Particularly in the case of artificial intelligence, there is no legal basis to attribute liability to a computer engineer for having programmed a machine that eventually ‘self-learned’ to co-ordinate prices with other machines.”

That is from David J. Lynch at the FT.  Will this prove more or less stable than traditional, human-based collusion?  Here are comments from Henry.  Can the bots send buyers “we are breaking the collusion now” alerts?  Will monitoring third party bots perform that function?  Or will collusion reign supreme?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the last bit:

I don’t mean to say that technological stagnation is a good thing. But sometimes the biggest advances lead to more tragedy than comfort, especially in the short run, before we learn how to adjust to their challenges. To paraphrase Peter Thiel, they promised us flying cars, and what we got was a bunch of stoned characters, and more than 140 of them. Beware the end of the productivity slowdown.

Do read the whole thing.

Two employees at the East Lake County Library created a fictional patron called Chuck Finley — entering fake driver’s license and address details into the library system — and then used the account to check out 2,361 books over nine months in 2016, in order to trick the system into believing that the books they loved were being circulated to the library’s patrons, thus rescuing the books from automated purges of low-popularity titles.

Library branch supervisor George Dore was suspended for his role in the episode; he said that he was trying to game the algorithm because he knew that these books would come back into vogue and that his library would have to spend extra money re-purchasing them later. He said that other libraries were doing the same thing.

Data falsification will be one of the biggest stories of the next five years.  That is from BoingBoing, via Ted Gioia.

China WeChat fact of the day

by on January 6, 2017 at 3:00 am in Web/Tech | Permalink

WeChat’s ability to create a bustling payments economy echoes the general success of its parent company. In September, Tencent became China’s largest company by value, surpassing state-owned China Mobile, when it reported its third-quarter revenue: $6 billion, up 52% year over year. How much of that can be attributed to Wallet and WePay was not specified: WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, makes money largely from online gaming, advertising, and selling sticker packs. But Tencent—which began with the instant messaging app QQ and is now pursuing artificial intelligence and electric cars alongside investments in a range of companies, including China’s dominant ride-sharing operation, Didi Chuxing—did cite WePay as a major reason for its “other” businesses’ growth, which increased $726 million in the third quarter, or 348% over the same period last year. According to estimates by HSBC, based on current tech company valuations, WeChat could already be worth more than $80 billion, about half of Tencent’s market capitalization.

That is from Eveline Chao at Fast Company, and for the pointer I thank Dan Wang.  The article offers other points of interest.

This was decided earlier in the year:

All computers used officially by public servants in Singapore will be cut off from the Internet from May next year, in an unprecedented move to tighten security.

A memo is going out to all government agencies, ministries and statutory boards here about the Internet blockade a year from now, The Straits Times has learnt.

There are some 100,000 computers in use by the public service and all of them will be affected.

“The Singapore Government regularly reviews our IT measures to make our network more secure,” a spokesman for the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) said when contacted.

The move is aimed at plugging potential leaks from work e-mail and shared documents amid heightened security threats.

Trials started with some employees within the IDA – the lead agency for this exercise – as early as April. Web surfing can be done only on the employees’ personal tablets or mobile phones as these devices do not have access to government e-mail systems. Dedicated Internet terminals have been issued to those who need them for work.

The Straits Times understands that public servants will be allowed to forward work e-mails to their private accounts, if they need to.

Here is the article.  Here is Catherine Rampell on Trump and cybersecurity, she seems to be critical of what is possibly a Trump idea to have a White House without computers (without internet?).  That to me seems the only good procedural/bureaucratic idea I have heard from the incoming Trump administration.  Note that the government in Singapore is one of the smartest, forward-looking, and sophisticated in the world.  On this they are ahead of the curve (by the way I write more on the broader question here in my forthcoming The Complacent Class).

Peak San Francisco?

by on December 31, 2016 at 4:37 am in Food and Drink, Web/Tech | Permalink

San Francisco’s Quince made news this October when it was awarded a third Michelin star, but in a sign that even the most prestigious restaurants are struggling to maintain their cutting edge we learn today that its chefs have cooked up a bold new plan to grab the Instagram-ready eyes of customers: Dishes served on iPads. And to make matters even lamer, they didn’t even come up with the idea themselves.

Chef and local firebrand Richie Nakano tweeted out the news this afternoon, and a quick Yelp search confirms the existence of the questionably plated “a dog in search of gold” dish (we called the restaurant for further details, but they were closed).

Described as “white truffle croquettes on iPads playing videos of water dogs on the truffle-hunt” by whoever sent the photo to Nakano, the plating raises some obvious questions. Namely, does the San Francisco Department of Public Health have an acceptable washing method for iPads? And, this being San Francisco, how long until someone reprograms one of those things to display one-star Quince reviews on Yelp?

According to the Daily Mail, chefs serving up dishes on iPads has been a thing in the United Kingdom since at least 2015. In other words, Quince’s idea isn’t just bizarre — it’s a rip-off as well.

Here is the link, via Michael Rosenwald.

Microchips in every American?

by on December 30, 2016 at 12:31 am in Current Affairs, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

What better way to move toward that goal than to start with the category labeled as “disabled”:

Last Thursday, the House passed HR 4919, also known as Kevin and Avonte’s Law, which would allow the US attorney general to award grants to law enforcement for the creation and operation of “locative tracking technology programs.” Though the program’s mission is to find “individuals with forms of dementia or children with developmental disabilities who have wandered from safe environments,” it provides no restriction on the tracking program’s inclusion of other individuals. The bill would also require the attorney general to work with the secretary of health and human services and unnamed health organizations to establish the “best practices” for the use of tracking devices.

…“While this initiative may have noble intentions, ‘small and temporary’ programs in the name of safety and security often evolve into permanent and enlarged bureaucracies that infringe on the American people’s freedoms. That is exactly what we have here. A safety problem exists for people with Alzheimer’s, autism and other mental health issues, so the fix, we are told, is to have the Department of Justice, start a tracking program so we can use some device or method to track these individuals 24/7,” Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said in a floor speech opposing the bill.

…Though the bill specifically mentions those with Alzheimer’s and autism, how long before these tracking programs are extended to those with ADHD and bipolar disorder, among other officially recognized disorders.

Even the dislike of authority is considered a mental disorder known as “Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” which could also warrant microchipping in the future. If these programs expand unchecked, how long will it be before all Americans are told that mass microchipping is necessary so that law enforcement and the government can better “protect” them?

I do hope we know better than this!

Here is the full story, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

I was watching the excellent Rogue One when suddenly I thought “Wow, they sure found an actor who looks just like Peter Cushing.”  As the scene, progressed my thoughts changed to “Tyler, are you sure that Peter Cushing passed away?”  As I watching the credits, I saw a thanks to the “Estate of Peter Cushing, OBE,” and so I went back to wondering about the actor, but then why did they thank the estate?

The reality is this:

…the face of Peter Cushing, the imposing British actor who died in 1994, lends an especially memorable presence to “Rogue One” by helping to “reprise” his “Star Wars” character, Grand Moff Tarkin, the Imperial governor who practically rules by force of glare, intonation and cheekbone.

…Under director Gareth Edwards, “Rogue One” represents another marker in the decades-long quest for the best CGI-fashioned human replicas. The filmmakers auditioned actors to “play” Cushing’s Tarkin, settling on BBC soap actor Guy Henry. This Tarkin is thus free of the dreaded “dead eye” effect. Lo, though the effects wizards walk through the “uncanny valley,” Tarkin registers as quite alive — even if his facial proportions sometimes read as ever so slightly off from the Original Trilogy. We are nearing the reality of a fully fleshed-out, CGI-enhanced performance long after an actor has passed.

If “Rogue One” wins an Oscar for effects, Cushing should be in no small part why.

cushing

When will the slope start where amateur video becomes significantly less trustworthy as well?  Or even just “But Mom, I saw him do it on TV!”  While we’re at it, how about a symphony orchestra conducted by “Beethoven”?

Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find? Yes, say Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen, and Webb. A well known fact about US economic growth is that it has been relatively constant over a hundred years or more. Yet we also know that the number of researchers has increased greatly over the same time period. More researchers and the same growth rate suggest a declining productivity of ideas. Jones made this point in a much earlier paper that has long nagged at me. With just one country and rising world growth rates, however, I wondered if the US had somehow had offsetting factors. Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen and Webb, however, now return to the same issue with a more detailed investigation of specific industries and the picture isn’t pretty.

Moore’s law (increasing transistors per CPU) is often trotted out as the stock example of an amazing increase in productivity and it is when measured on the output side. But when you look at Moore’s law from the perspective of inputs what we see is a tremendous decline in idea productivity.

The striking fact, shown in Figure 4, is that research effort has risen by a factor of 25 since 1970. This massive increase occurs while the growth rate of chip density is more or less stable: the constant exponential growth implied by Moore’s Law has been achieved only by a staggering increase in the amount of resources devoted to pushing the frontier forward.

unmoored

In some ways Moore’s law is the least disturbing trend because massive increases in researchers has at least kept growth constant. In other areas, growth is slowing despite many more researchers.

Agricultural yields, for example, are increasing but the rate is constant or declining despite big increases in the number of researchers.

agyield

Since 1950 life expectancy at birth has been growing at a remarkably steady rate of about 1.8 years per decade but that growth has only been bought by ever increasing number of researchers. Here, for example, is cancer mortality as function of the number of publications or clinical trials. Each clinical trial used to be associated with ~8 lives saved per 100,000 people but today a new clinical trial is associated with only ~1 life saved per 100,000. lifeexpectancy

And how is this for a depressing summary sentence:

…the economy has to double its research efforts every 13 years just to maintain the same overall rate of economic growth.

In my TED talk and in Launching I pointed to increased market size and increased wealth in developing countries as two factors which increase the number of researchers and therefore increase the global flow of ideas. That remains true. Indeed, if Bloom et al. are correct then even more than before we can’t afford to waste minds. To maximize growth we need to draw on all the world’s brain power and that means we need a world of peace, trade and the free flow of ideas.

Nevertheless the Bloom et al findings cut optimism. The idea of the Singularity, for example, comes from projecting constant or increasing growth rates into the future but if it takes ever more researchers just to keep growth rates from falling then growth must slow as we run out of researchers. As China and India become wealthy the number of researchers will increase but better institutions can only push lower growth rates into the future temporarily. Most frighteningly, can we sustain a world of peace, trade and the free flow of ideas with lower growth rates?

Just because idea production has become more difficult in the past, however, doesn’t make it necessarily so forever. We could be in a slump. Breakthroughs in ideas for improving idea production could raise growth rates. Genetic engineering to increase IQ could radically increase growth. Artificial intelligence or brain emulations could greatly increase ideas and growth, especially as we can create AIs or EMs faster at far lower cost than we can create more natural intelligences. That sounds great but if computers and the Internet haven’t already had such an effect one wonders how long we will have to wait to break the slump.

I told you the paper was depressing.

Stumped for solutions to hundreds of industrial and technical problems, businesses and governments alike are turning the search for innovative ideas into prize-worthy puzzles that capitalize on the ingenuity of the crowd.

At a time when the pace of innovation seems to be slowing, prize sponsors hope that today’s hackers and makers can step into the breach and jump-start progress in a way that today’s research institutions—with their many constituencies and restraints—are struggling to do.

Improve smartphone voice recognition? There’s a $10,000 prize for that. Design a delivery drone? $50,000. Extend the human lifespan? Venture capitalist Dr. Joon Yun offers the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prizes. Diagnose antibiotic resistance? That’s worth $20 million. And if anyone can profitably repurpose the carbon emissions involved in global warming, there are prizes totaling $55 million in the offing.

“You name it, there is a prize for it,” said Karim Lakhani at the Harvard Business School’s Crowd Innovation Lab, who has helped run 650 innovation contests in the past six years.

In addition, crowdsourcing companies such as InnoCentive Inc., NineSigma, and Kaggle have posted hundreds of these lucrative research contests on behalf of corporate and government clients, offering cash prizes up to $1 million for practical problems in industrial chemistry, remote sensing, plant genetics and dozens of other technical disciplines. Among them, the three companies can draw on the expertise of two million freelance researchers who have registered for access to the prize challenges.

All told, more than 30,000 significant prizes are awarded every year worth $2 billion and growing, according to McKinsey & Co. The total value of purses from the 219 largest prizes has tripled in the past 10 years. Not only are there more prizes than ever, but nearly 80% of all the major new prizes announced since 1991 are designed to spur specific innovations.

Yet here is a cautionary note:

To be sure, there is little evidence that crowdsourcing competitions have significantly altered the innovation landscape yet. “Prizes are important, but they are not the ultimate incentive for innovation” said Luciano Kay, a research fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies incentive prizes. “They are not big enough to change how industry works in general.”

Here is the full Robert Lee Hotz WSJ article.  Here are previous MR posts on prizes.  Here is an MRU video on prizes.  Here is my 2007 talk at Google on prizes as a means of funding innovation.

For the pointer I thank Ray Lopez.