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Published: Sun, 17 Dec 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 17 Dec 2017 05:15:31 -0500


FCC Head Ajit Pai: Killing Net Neutrality Will Set the Internet Free

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 17:40:00 -0500

In an exclusive interview today just hours after announcing his plan to repeal "Net Neutrality" rules governing the actions of Internet-service providers (ISPs) and mobile carriers, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has an in-your-face prediction for his critics: "Over the coming years, we're going to see an explosion in the kinds of connectivity and the depth of that connectivity," he said this afternoon. "Ultimately that means that the human capital in the United States that's currently on the shelf—the people who don't have digital opportunity—will become participants in the digital economy." Pai stressed that regulating the Internet under a Title II framework originally created in the 1930s had led to less investment in infrastructure and a slower rate of innovation. "Since the dawn of the commercial internet, ISPs have been investing as much as they can in networks in order to upgrade their facilities and to compete with each other," he says. "Outside of a recession we've never seen that sort of investment go down year over year. But we did in 2015, after these regulations were adopted." In a Wall Street Journal column published today, Pai says Title II was responsible for a nearly 6 percent decline in broadband network investment as ISPs saw compliance costs rise and the regulatory atmosphere become uncertain. In his interview with Reason, Pai stressed that the real losers under Net Neutrality were people living in rural areas and low-income Americans who were stuck on the bad end of "the digital divide." Proponents of Net Neutrality maintain that rules that went into effect in 2015 are the only thing standing between rapacious businesses such as Comcast, Verizon (where Pai once worked), and Spectrum and an Internet choking on throttled traffic, expensive "fast lanes," and completely blocked sites that displease whatever corporate entity controls the last mile of fiber into your home or business. Pai says that is bunk and noted that today's proposed changes, which are expected to pass full FCC review in mid-December, return the Internet to the light-touch regulatory regime that governed it from the mid-1990s until 2015. "It's telling that the first investigations that the prior FCC initiated under these so-called Net Neutrality rules were involving free data offerings," says Pai, pointing toward actions initiated by his predecessor against "zero-rating" services such as T-Mobile's Binge program, which didn't count data used to stream Netflix, Spotify, and a host of other services against a customer's monthly data allowance. "To me it's just absurd to say that the government should stand in the way of consumers who want to get, and companies that want to provide, free data." The FCC is not completely evacuating its oversight role. ISPs, he says, will need to be completely transparent with customers about all practices related to prioritizing traffic, data caps, and more. Pai believes that market competition for customers will prove far more effective in developing better and cheaper services than regulators deciding what is best for the sector. "In wireless," he says, "there's very intense competition—you have four national carriers and any number of regional carriers competing to provide 4G LTE, and a number of different services. In those marketplaces where there's not as much competition as we'd like to see, to me at least, the solution isn't to preemptively regulate as if it were a monopoly, as if we're dealing with 'Ma Bell,' but to promote more competition." Pai says that one of the major mistakes of Net Neutrality is its pre-emptive nature. Rather than allowing different practices to develop and then having regulators intervene when problems or harms to customer arise, Net Neutrality is prescriptive and thus likely to serve the interests of existing companies in maintaining a status quo that's good for them. In terms of enforcement of anti-competitive practices, Pai says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is better equipped to deal with problems. "The FTC can take action even in [...]

The Whiskey Making Was Hard, But the Government Was Easy

Thu, 09 Nov 2017 09:57:00 -0500

George Washington's rebuilt distillery at Mount Vernon recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a team of master distillers from around the country producing a commemorative rye whiskey using the old-fashioned methods of Washington's time. When Mount Vernon farm manager James Anderson pitched the idea of opening a whiskey distillery to Washington in 1797, it was hardly a novel idea. Many early Americans distilled alcohol and whiskey surpassed rum as the young nation's spirit of choice after the Revolutionary War. Despite a somewhat saturated market, Washington quickly distinguished himself in the whiskey business—his distillery would become one of the largest in the country, producing 11,000 gallons during its peak years. Washington's success should not obscure the fact that making whiskey at the turn of the 18th century was hard. Everything about the whiskey-making process—from milling the grain, to stirring the mash, to firing the stills—was an order of magnitude more difficult than today's mechanized and streamlined process. What stood out about this process was the intense amount of manual labor it took to run Washington's distillery. Nearly a dozen members of the Mount Vernon Historic Trades team were on hand on anniversary day to re-enact firing the pot stills, loading the mash pits with grain, and monitoring the temperature of the fermenter. One historical re-enactor spent all day chopping firewood with an ax. Another demonstrated how mash barrels were made by hand in that era. After a long day of work, the distillers and re-enactors produced the equivalent of 40 liquid gallons of 50 percent alcohol rye whiskey. Even mid-sized whiskey distilleries today can produce more than 2,000 gallons a day or more than 1 million gallons a year. An expert cooper during Washington's time would have been able to produce a single barrel in a day. Brown-Forman cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky, currently pumps out 2,500 a day. Entrepreneur that he was, Washington would be awed by the technological advancements in distilling capitalism has created—advances that, ultimately, have resulted in the wonderfully consistent and smooth whiskeys we enjoy today. His awe would surely turn to disgust if someone tried to explain to Washington the modern-day nightmare that is the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Commission. For all of the hard work to produce liquor in his time, dealing with the government was easy. Washington was never forced to sell his alcohol exclusively through government-run liquor stores. Or send all the revenue from his sales at Mount Vernon to ABC headquarters, and receive a paltry 46 percent in return. Or pay the nation's third-highest liquor tax. Washington's customers would have been just as frustrated. ABC allows visitors at distilleries to sample no more than three ounces of spirits (served in half-ounce pours), even though they can drink as many IPAs as they want at the local brewery. Virginians often pay significantly more for a bottle of booze than consumers in neighboring states, with the state's high mark-ups and liquor taxes. Virginia's liquor laws are among the worst in the country, but almost every state in the Union has its share of outdated and backward booze laws. These laws survive largely from the post-Prohibition era, when states rushed to fill the federal void. States adopted something called the three-tier system, mandating the separation of producers, wholesalers and retailers of alcohol, something not required of the vast majority American industries. Within this artificial structure, producers of alcohol are forced to sign away their sales rights to third-party distributors, rather than being able to freely sell their spirits directly to consumers. The three-tiered system also produces a patchwork of irrational and competition-inhibiting laws at the retail level, like Indiana prohibiting gas stations and convenience stores from selling cold beer. To be fair, were he alive today, Washington might have supported some distilling regulations. After all, he signed t[...]

Brickbat: Behind the Times

Mon, 25 Sep 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) The United Kingdom's National Health Service uses 10 percent of all the world's remaining pagers. It uses 130,000 of the devices at an annual cost of 6.6 million pounds ($8.9 million).

Ohio Republicans Move to Ban Sexting Between Teens

Fri, 22 Sep 2017 11:28:00 -0400

Ohio state lawmakers have proposed a bill that would ban sexting between teenagers, potentially turning thousands of ordinary young Ohioans into sex offenders. Its sponsors are pitching this as a step against overcriminalization, since the state would no longer have to prosecute minors—or anyone ages 18 to 20—with possession of child porn when they consensually exchange explicit pics with their peers. There is some weight to their argument, topsy turvy as it is. Ohio authorities are already bringing charges against young people for sexting with one another, and the only applicable charge is child pornography. The same goes for 18- to 20-year-olds sexting with those slightly younger than them. The bill "is drafted to be sensitive to the age differences of a couple that may have met in high school, where a 17-year-old could conceivably be in a relationship with a 19-year-old," Gretchen Klaber, legislative aide to Rep. Brian Hill (R–97th District), tells me. Hill is co-sponsoring the bill (H.B. 355) with Rep. Jeffrey Rezabek (R–43rd District). It was inspired by a case in Hill's district in which a young man killed himself after being arrested for sexting. "The sponsors of the bill hope to give young people involved in situations like this a second chance with a diversion program, rather than having them permanently labeled as felons and sex offenders," Klaber says. While this might indeed be a step in the right direction, why criminalize sexting between a 17- and a 19-year-old at all? And why explicitly create a crime of sexting between minors of the same age? Legislators could instead amend state statute to exempt teens exchanging pics between themselves, and people a few years over 18 texting with those a few years younger, from laws that treat them as child-porn producers and consumers. Prosecutors could decline to bring these charges against sexting minors, and schools could decline to hand these cases over to cops. Instead, this bill would create the new misdemeanor crime of "possession of sexually explicit digital material," banning the creation, production, distribution, presentation, transmission, posting, exchange, dissemination, or possession "through a telecommunications device any sexually explicit digital material" by anyone under age 21. (An exception would be made for married couples in possession of pictures of a spouse.) The law defines sexually explicitly material as "any photograph or other visual depiction of a minor who is in any condition of nudity or is involved in any sexual activity." Those found guilty of sexting would be sentenced to eight hours of community service, or whatever (greater or lesser) sentence a court sees fit. In some cases, young people could avoid a criminal record by completing anti-sexting education. (The program would not apply to anyone previously convicted of sexting or of any other sex-related offense.) All courts would be required to devise and operate their own "sexting educational diversion program" and may allow people charged under the new sexting statute to do the program as an alternative to prosecution. These programs would focus on not just "legal consequences of and penalties for sharing sexually explicit digital materials" but also the effect of sexting "on relationships, the possible loss of educational and employment opportunities, and the possibility of being barred or removed from school programs and extracurricular activities," and "how the unique characteristics of cyberspace and the internet, including searchability, replicability, and an infinite audience, can produce long-term and unforeseen consequences for sharing sexually explicit digital materials." So sexting teenagers might not get labeled child pornographers, but they could still wind up with a criminal record or, at the very least, a lot of court dates and a bullshit DARE-style class on how sexting will ruin their lives. Worse yet, the legislation doesn't actually change the state's child pornography laws. [...]

Shove Your Manufactured 'Bodega' Vending Machine Outrage

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 12:50:00 -0400

Today's lesson in "branding in an era of instant outrage": If you are perceived as a "tech bro," tread very carefully. Yesterday, Fast Company introduced the world to a couple of former Google employees who are developing what appears to be a logical tech upgrade to the old vending machine. Here's how Fast Company's writer describes what it does: [It] sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you've picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the "store." If an average young American saw one of these during a trip to a Japan, they'd probably take a picture of it and post in Instagram and talk about how adorable it is. "They have vending machines for everything!" they might say. But the two guys behind the company decided to call their innovation "Bodega," after the small neighborhood stores in cities like New York and Los Angeles, and somehow all hell broke loose. Part of the problem was with the way Fast Company reported on Bodega: Two ex-Googlers want to make bodegas and mom-and-pop corner stores obsolete — Fast Company (@FastCompany) September 13, 2017 It's the story, not the company, that pushes the idea that this vending machine is a threat to mom-and-pop shops. The founders merely present their tool as a convenience for places like offices, gyms, and dorms. It's true that if such a machine is placed in an apartment building, it could occasionally save somebody a trip to the nearby store. But even if these little pantries are extremely responsive in adjusting to the residents' needs, there is absolutely no way they're going to replace a bodega in most communities. It's simply not possible. But few actually took the time question the assumption presented by Fast Company and instead decided to be angry on Twitter, accusing the Bodega bros of facilitating gentrification and cultural appropriation and trying to destroy small businesses. And that allowed other media sites—like Teen Vogue here—to piggyback with lazy "here are some angry tweets" journalism. So let's state what should have been immediately obvious to anybody who stopped and looked at this thing for a moment: These "Bodega" machines are more likely to show up in the offices of Teen Vogue than in a community where lower-income or working-class minorities walk to their corner stores. I should know. I live in one of those very communities here in Mid-City Los Angeles. I'm the minority in my own primarily Latino and African-American neighborhood. The bodega a couple blocks over is run by an Indian family (so please stifle the screams of "cultural appropriation"). This is a neighborhood of houses, small apartment buildings, and quadplexes, so there are very few places in my neighborhood where these machines would work the way the company's founders envision at all. And that holds true for huge swathes of the Los Angeles area. The Daily Beast's Spencer Ackerman claimed on Twitter that such machines might create "food deserts." Well, their deployment in my neighborhood would not lead to a food desert. It would lead to Bodega losing money. So this is not a story about gentrification or "evil tech bros" at all. Nevertheless, CEO and co-founder of Bodega Paul McDonald had to go on the internet to apologize for the fact that people were just reflexively outraged for no reason. No, McDonald says, they're not trying to put corner stores out of business: Corner stores have been fixtures of their neighborhoods for generations. They stock thousands of items, far more than we could ever fit on a few shelves. Their owners know what products to carry and in many cases who buys what. And they're run by people who in addition to selling everything from toilet paper to milk also[...]

Groups File Suit to Stop Warrantless Tech Searches at Borders

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 15:30:00 -0400

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are suing the federal government to stop warrantless searches of tech devices at border entry points. They're representing 10 United States citizens and one permanent resident. Each has faced demands by Department of Homeland Security officials to hand over or allow access to tech devices, such as phones or laptops, when returning to the country. The officials did not have warrants. None of these plaintiffs were accused of any illegal behavior. But officials nevertheless confiscated and/or attempted to access their devices. Some examples of what they dealt with, courtesy of EFF: Plaintiff Diane Maye, a college professor and former U.S. Air Force officer, was detained for two hours at Miami International Airport when coming home from a vacation in Europe in June. "I felt humiliated and violated. I worried that border officers would read my email messages and texts, and look at my photos," she said. "This was my life, and a border officer held it in the palm of his hand. I joined this lawsuit because I strongly believe the government shouldn't have the unfettered power to invade your privacy." Plaintiff Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was detained at the Houston airport on the way home from vacation in Chile. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officer demanded that he reveal the password for his phone. The officer returned the phone a half-hour later, saying that it had been searched using "algorithms." Another plaintiff was subjected to violence. Akram Shibly, an independent filmmaker who lives in upstate New York, was crossing the U.S.-Canada border after a social outing in the Toronto area in January when a CBP officer ordered him to hand over his phone. CBP had just searched his phone three days earlier when he was returning from a work trip in Toronto, so Shibly declined. Officers then physically restrained him, with one choking him and another holding his legs, and took his phone from his pocket. They kept the phone, which was already unlocked, for over an hour before giving it back. Though this lawsuit covers only 11 people, we know that Customs and Border Patrol agents are actually searching thousands of phones and tech devices each month, all without warrants. The lawsuit argues these searches violate the defendants' First and Fourth Amendment rights. It asks the court to enjoin border officials from confiscating or searching anybody's tech devices absent a warrant based on probable cause, and to make them expunge any information they've collected from the plaintiffs' devices. The lawsuit leans on the Supreme Court's decision in Riley v. California in 2014 for support. In that case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a warrant was needed to search a person's cellphone when that person is arrested. Historically, though, courts have given federal authorities much more leeway to engage in warrantless searches near the borders. Read the lawsuit, Alasaad v. Duke, here. Note that some members of Congress are trying to fix this problem legislatively by introducing a bill mandating that border officials get warrants before searching the tech devices of Americans crossing the border.[...]

When Tin Ceilings Were High-Tech

Sat, 09 Sep 2017 06:00:00 -0400

In the late 1970s, Barbara Schiller and her husband bought a decaying brownstone in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, then in its early stages of gentrification. The house was structurally sound, but the ceilings were a mess. Water damage had ruined the ones in the master bedroom and dining room, while the parlor's had an "ominous crack," and the plaster rosebuds trimming the edge "were dropping like hailstones." When their architect suggested using decorative metal panels instead of replastering, the couple balked at first. "Tin ceilings" would certainly be cheaper, but they sounded like a poor substitute for the real thing. Once he showed them the ones in his own restored Victorian home, however, they were convinced. The couple was so pleased with the eventual result that Schiller wrote an article about the experience for This Old House Journal. "Their intricate designs," she wrote, "give an authentic feeling of the old days that cannot be matched at the price by any other material." Now de rigueur in the type of hipster bar The New York Times calls "ersatz speakeasy," tin ceilings have always challenged the meaning of authenticity. In their heyday from the 1890s through the 1920s, they were at once modern and old-fashioned, genuine and fake. Calling them "tin" is as much a slur as a description, suggesting a cheap imitation (see: tinhorn, tin-pot, Tin Lizzie). The panels were in fact steel, a material whose cost had dropped dramatically in the late 19th century. The same technological innovations that supplied railroads, automobiles, and steel-framed skyscrapers gave rise to decorative metal ceilings. To create the patterns, sheets were pressed between a bottom die of hard iron and a top die of softer zinc. Once installed, the ceilings were painted to resemble plaster, stucco, or, occasionally, wood. (Letting the metal shine through is a latter-day style.) "Critics objected not only to sheet metal's imitation of other materials, but also to the very nature of its mass-produced, mechanical-looking qualities," observed the late design historian Pamela H. Simpson in her 1999 book Cheap, Quick, and Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials, 1870–1930. For instance, the Australian architect Hardy Wilson condemned their "mechanical" surface and declared that the ceilings "would not have been appreciated at any period earlier than the commercial-Victorian." But appreciated they were. People installed tin ceilings in schools and hospitals, churches and lodge halls, restaurants and hotels. The metal panels promised to resist fire, to improve hygiene, and to prevent collapsing plaster. They offered beauty at an affordable price—and the very qualities that drew criticism infused them with meaning. "Metal ceilings were not a 'hollow sham'; they were better than the material they replaced," wrote Simpson in a 1995 article. "To choose a ceiling of steel was to choose the best that modern industry and technology could supply. To choose a metal ceiling was also to participate in the spirit of the age of enterprise that had produced them." Hit first by the Great Depression and then by the wartime diversion of steel, tin ceilings fell out of style after World War II, when commercial buildings embraced high modernism. Decoration was out; truth to material was in. Tin ceilings were too fussy. Many buildings needed the practicality of easily removable acoustic panels. By the 1970s, the "commercial-Victorian" was history, and restoring old buildings was the latest thing. Nostalgia buffs embraced tin ceilings, especially for homes and restaurants. So did cutting-edge designers with a penchant for mashups and industrial materials. The ceilings, observed Suzanne Slesin in a 1976 New York article on the revival, "look sort of Renaissance-meets-the-industrial-revolution." Their impurity made them appealing, offering a balance of decoration and modernity, history and tech. To[...]

Save the Robots from the Humans!

Tue, 29 Aug 2017 08:30:00 -0400

Each month, there seems to be some new hysteria-inducing headline or movie about how artificial intelligence (AI) is going to steal our jobs, break our hearts, or just outright kill us all. This is not merely a Luddite problem. No less a technophile than Elon Musk routinely invokes fear and loathing of AI, comparing it to an evil demon that must be exorcised through the force of the state. With all of this anti-AI prejudice going around, it's up to libertarians and technologists to stand up to lawmakers and academics who want to clamp down on these technologies. People are usually afraid of new things. Whether it's the weaving loom or the smartphone boom, people have never ceased to find things to be worried about—and reasons to cajole the government into crushing new innovations. Anti-technology arguments have been handily addressed in the past. Economists like Joseph Schumpeter pointed out that the act of creation necessarily involves destruction—destruction of old, usually outmoded and inefficient, methods of living and production. But with this destruction comes new life: new opportunities, goods and services, and new ways of living that we simply cannot live without. Economically, the number and quality of new jobs wrought by a disruptive technology almost invariably exceed those that were so jealously guarded in the past. And culturally, society has weathered the rocking storms that so many had claimed would lead to social decay and apocalypse. But when it comes to AI, something seems different. The pace of technological change seems simply too fast. The idea of smart machines seems to be just too similar to us to inspire comfort, and the primal fears of personal replacement become all too immediate. These fears have unfortunately metastasized into what could become a full-blown technopanic on the academic and legal levels, as a new Mercatus Center study by Adam Thierer, Raymond Russell, and yours truly discusses. If we're not careful, the worst excesses of our paranoid imaginations could lead to regulations that shut us out from amazing developments in health, manufacturing, and transportation. First, it's important to be clear about exactly what is on the line here. Stories about killer robots and inhumane futures from science fiction are just that: the stuff of fiction. The reality of artificial intelligence technologies will be at the same time both more mundane and much more fantastical. They will be mundane because when most effective, they will blend so seamlessly into our environments as to be almost imperceptible. But they will be fantastic because they have the potential to save millions of lives, billions more dollars, and make our lives easier and more comfortable. Consider manufacturing. Many people fret over the risk that robotics and AI pose to many traditional jobs. But even the most alarming of the studies analyzing the impact of automation on jobs finds that the vast majority of workers will be just fine, and those who are affected may find better jobs that are enhanced by automation. Yet at the same time, AI improvements to manufacturing techniques could result in roughly $1.4 trillion in value by 2025 according to McKinsey and Company. That huge number represents very real savings for some of the least well off among us, and could very well spell the difference between continued poverty and chance to move up in life. Or think about health care. Doctors have already been employing AI-enhanced technologies to guide them in precision surgery, more effectively diagnose illnesses, and even assist in health tracking outcomes for patients over an extended period of time. These technologies may have literally saved lives, and over the course of the next decade they are anticipated to majorly reduce costs to the tune of hundreds of billions in our out-of-control health care industry. The very real risk that prev[...]

Move Over, Millennial 'Narcissists,' There's a New Generation for the Olds to Get Wrong

Tue, 22 Aug 2017 10:50:00 -0400

The trope that millennials ushered in a "narcissism epidemic" can be pinned squarely on one crackpot generational consultant, Jean M. Twenge, whose cherry-picked data and superficial analysis have somehow made it into just about every major media outlet over the past decade. Now Twenge is turning her techno-panic-fueled farce to the post-millennial cohort, Gen Z, in an Atlantic magazine cover story asking, "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" Short answer: no, and nothing in Twenge's shoddy research reasonably leads to this conclusion. For a longer answer, check out my recent Buzzfeed article. As I point out there, "almost all of the problems with Twenge's millennial bullshit are on display in her somber analysis of Gen Z," defined as folks currently between the ages of five and 23 years old. Perhaps aware that she needed a new shtick to stay at the top of the generational-guru game, Twenge is now claiming that, around 2012, data started showing that "many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear" (she does not say what data shows this). And Gen Z isn't just psychologically far-removed from millennials, she says—they spend their time in far different ways, too. All of this she blames on smartphones—and it's a superficially appealing idea. Elementary school kids now have their own iPhones. My best friend's 3-year-old can take a selfie. It's quite possible that growing up with smartphones and social media may produce distinct psychological and social effects. But it's way too early to call them yet. And Twenge's data doesn't back up her attempt to do so. Instead, she makes grave proclamations based purely on anecdotes, correlations—such as smartphone ownership rising alongside higher rates of teen depression—and selectively wielded data. For instance, she brings up a study suggesting more unhappiness among eighth graders who are heavy social media users, but doesn't mention that the same study found no effect for 12th graders. Twenge "reviews only those studies that support her idea and ignores studies that suggest that screen use is NOT associated with outcomes like depression and loneliness," objected psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh in Psychology Today. And "nowhere is Twenge's bias more obvious...than in some research that she actually does review but then casts aside as seemingly irrelevant to her thesis—namely, the vast counter-evidence to the 'destroyed generation' thesis contained in her headline." So far, the counterevidence shows that the youth of Gen Z—like millennials—have lower rates of suicide, unprotected sex, teen pregnancy, illicit drug use, cigarette smoking, car accidents, and alcohol consumption than their Gen X and Boomer predecessors. As Cavanagh comments: "This is what a destroyed generation looks like?" Read the whole thing here. For some still-relevant millennial myth-busting, see: Millennial Socialist Moment Mostly Media Hype White Working-Class Millennials Are Less Christian, More Republican Than Their Elders Millennial Libertarians Are Diverse 5 Myths About Millennials Generational Generalizations Gone Wrong [...]

Sex Dolls Are Getting Smarter. Don't Be Alarmed.

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 13:51:00 -0400

When it comes to lifelike sex dolls (which currently exist) and sexbots (which do not yet), people are prone to two contradictory and misguided beliefs: that only rapey perverts would use them, and that they pose a major threat to our social and sexual order. Matt McMullen, the man behind the most popular "love doll" on the market, isn't buying either. In a recent interview with Mel magazine, the CEO of Abyss Creations and creator of RealDoll, said his creations are not simply about sex and doubts they will ever capture a huge share of the sexual market. In my Reason sexbot feature a few years ago, I noted that not even the most starry-eyed roboticists, futurists, and philosophers expect sex with robots to become a majority pastime. If the technology gets good enough and the products cheap enough, they might play the same role sex toys and strip clubs do now, without their customers automatically being considered creepy perverts. But for a much smaller group, be they current love-doll keepers or future robot lovers, these silcone companions will be something more—and that's OK too. Far from turning men into monsters who start to see living women as objects, love dolls and sexbots can provide something vital (and healthy) to people whose anxiety, disability, or other issues have made romantic relationships difficult, I suggested. It seems McMullen agrees: Our customers can be shy or socially intimidated by real social situations. A lot of times the doll does something magical for them. It gives them a feeling of not being alone, not being a loner. It's that companionship, more than anything else, that appeals to people and gives them confidence to interact socially. [...] A lot of people develop hobbies they never had, like studying fashion to dress their doll differently, taking up photography to capture their doll on film or painting her on canvas, or even learning how to sculpt while using their doll as a model or a muse. She inspires creativity in people who never had it previously. Sex lasts 5 or 10 minutes, maybe half an hour on a good day. But what about the other 23.5 hours of the day? Abyss Creations is launching its first artificially intelligent add-ons to the love doll line. In April, it released the Harmony AI app, a sort of sexy and customizable version of Siri. The idea is to help work out any programming kinks before releasing the same "Realbotix" software as part of a robotic RealDoll head, Harmony AI, which customers can attach to any existing RealDoll. "Creating a full-body robot as a first step would be foolish," McMullen explained to Endgadget in April. "I don't think that you would necessarily have a realistic idea of how many people would even buy it, and why would they buy it? And what would it do? Would it walk? Would it be able to lift heavy things for you? When you start working your way down from the head, you're treading into some very expensive territory. So, before we step into that, we think doing the head first makes sense." Besides, the technology just isn't there yet. As Guile Lindroth, the engineer behind Harmony AI, told Endgadget, "even the most simple functions that a 2-year-old human can do still elude the most fantastically advanced robot." No matter how clunky, the AI technology additions have spurred accusations that McMullen is objectifying real women. "I've been making these dolls for 20 years and haven't heard a lot of people yelling and screaming that I'm objectifying women," he noted in Mel. "Then I make the dolls that talk, and now, they're upset. Which is funny because I'm stepping away from it being purely an object and giving it some personality." McMullen dismissed the idea that his creations are feminism's enemies. "People have asked me this question a lot over the years, 'You know, are you making these dolls to replace wom[...]

The Myth of Technological Unemployment

Tue, 11 Jul 2017 06:00:00 -0400

As a savvy reader, you already know that technological change is why the jobs in manufacturing are drifting away from Youngstown, Ohio. You know that most of the drift goes to other American cities, such as Houston or Chattanooga. You know that Appalachian jobs in coal mining are not coming back, because new techniques have permanently cheapened natural gas. You know that the Trump administration's scapegoat, foreign competition, bears little responsibility for any of this. And when foreign encroachment does happen, you know it's good, not bad, for most Americans. Still, many reasonable people fret. Isn't technological unemployment a real and serious problem? Non-economists of a quantitative bent fret about what we're going to do when all the jobs go away—when, say, autonomous vehicles replace America's 3.5 million truck drivers. Even some economists, brilliant ones, think we're in trouble. Robert Gordon of Northwestern suggests it in his recent book The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press). Tyler Cowen of George Mason University does too, in Average Is Over (Dutton). The great if misled John Maynard Keynes believed we would lose jobs from technology. So did the still greater David Ricardo. They were wrong. Otherwise sensible folk are, for some reason, terrified by robots. Yet the results of automation are good overall. Workers move from wretched assembly-line jobs to better ones standing in white coats monitoring the robots, at the higher wages made possible by the higher tech. Or, even better, they move to jobs outside the auto industry, earning pay that goes further because people can buy the radically cheaper stuff the robots now make. If their new jobs are not higher paying, it's probably because the auto union managed to extract monopoly profits from the company, and therefore from consumers. Robert Reich, a reliable source of sweetly leftish errors of facts and ethics, declares that "the decline in unionization [of private companies] directly correlates with the decline of the portion of income going to the middle class." But paying selected workers on the assembly line more than they can earn elsewhere, at the expense of other, sometimes poorer, workers' ability to buy cars, is hardly an ethical formula for raising up the working class. When a Ford plant installed robots, Walter Reuther, a long-ago president of the United Auto Workers union, is said to have asked a manager: "How are you going to get them to buy Fords?" But Reuther's argument is fallacious. Employees of car companies are a trivial share of the car-buying public. You can't create prosperity merely by having workers purchase from their own employers. Reich has accused the following things of driving down American wages: "Automation, followed by computers, software, robotics, computer-controlled machine tools and widespread digitization." But such innovations have actually raised real wages, correctly measured, because a human supplied with a better tool can produce more outputs. And the point of an economy is production for consumption, not protection of existing jobs. Consider the historical record: If the nightmare of technological unemployment were true, it would already have happened, repeatedly and massively. In 1800, four out of five Americans worked on farms. Now one in 50 do, but the advent of mechanical harvesting and hybrid corn did not disemploy the other 78 percent. In 1910, one out of 20 of the American workforce was on the railways. In the late 1940s, 350,000 manual telephone operators worked for AT&T alone. In the 1950s, elevator operators by the hundreds of thousands lost their jobs to passengers pushing buttons. Typists have vanished from offices. But if blacksmiths unemployed by cars or TV repairmen unemployed by printed circuits never [...]

Your Neighbor's Fancy Car Should Make You Feel Better About Income Inequality

Sun, 18 Jun 2017 06:00:00 -0400

Today while I was out running errands in my 5-year-old Honda Accord, I passed a Tesla. If I were a different kind of guy, seeing Elon Musk's latest creation whisk past me as I trundled along in my middleclassmobile might have inspired a sense of personal envy, or even some worry about the social implications of inequality in America. But I'm an economist. And let's face it: In practical terms, the difference between a $200,000 Tesla and my last car, a beat-up minivan worth $2,000 at trade-in, is not all that large. They're both safe forms of transportation that get you from point A to point B and, given legal limits and the reality of suburban traffic, most of the time they're driven at roughly the same speeds. In that sense, measures of income inequality overstate the differences within a developed country like the United States. The products available to the masses are, in many cases, nearly as good as those available only to the elite. Your garbageman's old Timex and your podiatrist's brand new Rolex serve almost precisely the same function. It wasn't always so. A century ago, a hungry rich person had access to significantly more food and more choices than a poor one. Yet even bluebloods would have been able to get their hands on less variety and quality than one now finds at an average Midwestern all-you-can-eat buffet. When Herbert Hoover promised "a chicken in every pot" in the election of 1928, it was the sort of pledge that no one expected a politician to actually keep. Today, each American consumes an average of 27 chickens a year, and obesity is a bigger problem than hunger. The chasm between the very rich and the median citizen yawns wider the further back you look. Three centuries ago, an aristocrat riding in a cushioned carriage would have looked down at a peasant trudging barefoot through the muck—a much more substantial difference than the Honda-Tesla gap today. So why the 21st century panic about the gap between the rich and poor? At first glance, the numbers do look damning. Median family income has grown by about 20 percent since the 1970s, while income for those in the top 5 percent of households has grown by 75 percent or more, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez looked at IRS data and concluded that the share of total pre-tax, pre-transfer income going to the top 1 percent has risen to levels not seen since the 1920s. That suggests an increase, not a decrease, in inequality. But appearances can be deceiving. As the Brookings economist Gary Burtless has pointed out, if you account for transfers such as government housing assistance and employer-provided health insurance, "Americans in the bottom one-fifth of the distribution saw their real net incomes climb by almost 50 percent" since the late 1970s, while "those in the middle fifth of the distribution saw their incomes grow 36 percent." It's worth remembering that anytime someone says the gap between rich and poor is increasing, what he usually means is that rich people are getting richer faster than poor people are getting richer—not that any group is becoming worse off overall. In their own perverse way, by throwing fistfuls of money at truly scarce resources, the social climbers, status seekers, and strivers are doing their part to rectify those income equality numbers that have everyone running scared. Meanwhile, the difference between the lived experiences of Americans at different income levels has actually been decreasing. Changes in the quality of goods consumed by almost everyone mean we're a whole lot more equal than the data superficially suggest. What's more, the same behavior that sparks personal envy and political angst—splashing out on fancy apartments, rare jewels, and[...]

Florida Man Jailed 180 Days for Not Giving Police His iPhone Password

Wed, 31 May 2017 16:00:00 -0400

(image) Yesterday a circuit court judge in Broward County, Florida, sent 41-year-old Christopher Wheeler to jail for 180 days because he wouldn't give police his iPhone password. Wheeler, who is charged with aggravated child abuse, insisted that he did give them his password. But the cops say the password he provided doesn't work, and that Wheeler therefore hasn't complied with their request. This, the judge decided, put him in contempt of court.

Meanwhile, another Florida circuit court judge—this one in Miami-Dade County—issued a rather different ruling in the case of a couple accused of extorting a social media celebrity over a sex tape. They would not be held in contempt of court for failing to share a phone's password, the judge decided, because there's no way to prove that they couldn't remember their password.

These are just the latest episodes in a broader debate about how Fifth Amendment rights apply to a relatively new technology. Do passwords count as "testimonial evidence," where protections against self-incrimination apply? Or is it more like a field sobriety test or a DNA swab?

Police in both cases were following a precedent set in Sarasota County last year, when the sheriff's department wanted to compel a man accused of video voyeurism to give them his iPhone passcode. A trial judge had ruled that this would violate the alleged voyeur's Fifth Amendment rights, declaring that the man could not be forced to surrender "the contents of his mind." But a state appeals court rejected that reasoning, citing the 1988 Supreme Court decision Doe vs. U.S. That case centered around whether the feds could force a suspect to sign consent forms permitting foreign banks to produce any account records that he may have. In Doe, the justices ruled that the government did have that power, since the forms did not require the defendant to confirm or deny the presence of the records. The Florida court decided that the iPhone case was analogous: The password to the phone and the contents of the phone were separate subjects.

The Sarasota case is now headed to the Florida Supreme Court. Wheeler is appealing his case too, and is expected to be allowed to post bond.

Drupal Developer Larry Garfield Ostracized Over Involvement in Sci-Fi Based Kink Community

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 09:15:00 -0400

Here's another good example of the limits of liberal "tolerance": in the name of equality and diversity, tech leaders have turned against a long-respected member of their community over his private and consensual sex practices. Sure, the scandal has revealed that Drupal developer and spokesman Larry Garfield has a penchant for BDSM broadly and also for a specific sub-genre of the kink centered on the fictional land of Gor, in which a subset of women serve as men's sex slaves. But more importantly, the situation has exposed strange taboos in the liberal-leaning Drupal community and how hypocritical their talk of tolerance can be. Taking the brunt of the hypocrisy criticism is Drupal trademark owner Dries Buytaert. Buytaert's main gig now is chief technology officer for Acquia, a company he co-founded in 2007. But he's better known as the the creator and original project lead for the open-source content management software Drupal, which has attracted a huge and devoted community since its 2001 launch. Drupal is "supported and maintained" by the nonprofit Drupal Association, which also organizes Drupal conferences. According to Executive Director Megan Sanicki, the association began looking into Garfield last October at the behest of another member of the Drupal community. That person had discovered Garfield's profiles on membership kink and dating websites and shared some screenshots with Drupal leadership. But a Drupal Community Working Group investigation into Garfield found that he had not violated anything in the Drupal community's Code of Conduct, which probably should have been the end of things. No one has offered any evidence that Garfield discriminated against women in his professional life—in fact, many women whom Garfield has worked or associated with have rushed to his defense—let alone committed any more severe offenses or violence against them. Garfield himself says he believes women are every bit as intelligent as men and that his desire for female submission extends only to his own personal romantic/sexual partnerships. "The [dominant/submissive, or] D/s and Gorean community in general places a heavy emphasis on explicit, active, informed consent and constant communication," he notes, adding that he personally has "never, ever advocated for treating women, as a class, with anything other than dignity and respect." But even if Garfield did hold sincerely sexist views in private, it hardly seems grounds for community expulsion in the absence of publcly articulated views or actions. The idea that women should be submissive to their husbands is a prominent feature of many religious faiths, and a value that plenty of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others still hold dear—typically with way less add-on feminism than you'll find in BDSM relationships. Would the Drupal Association feel as comfortable ousting a devout supporter of Islam or evangelical Christianity if it came out that their wives practiced voluntary submission? If—as Buytaert says—the association is commited to treating people equally regardless of "their heritage or culture, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, and more," they seem to doing a pretty terrible job. People's preferences toward certain types of sex or particular fantasies can be no less innate than a sexual orientation toward same- or opposite-sex partners (and no more reason for alarm). And it's hard to imagine a woman receiving the same treatment and derision if it came out that she once worked as a dominatrix or wrote 50 Shades of Grey fanfic. Meanwhile, Garfield was disinvited from the upcoming DrupalCon Baltimore, had his status as a conference track coordinator revoked, and (in a February phone call that both ag[...]

Adam Smith Needs a Paper Clip

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 06:00:00 -0400

Adam Smith famously used a pin factory to illustrate the advantages of specialization, choosing this "very trifling manufacture" because the different tasks were performed under one roof: "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them." By improving workers' skills and encouraging purpose-built machinery, the division of labor leads to miraculous productivity gains. Even a small and ill-equipped manufacturer, Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, could boost each worker's output from a handful of pins a day to nearly 5,000. In the early 19th century, that number jumped an order of magnitude with the introduction of American inventor John Howe's pin-making machine. It was "one of the marvels of the age, reported on in every major journal and encyclopedia of the time," writes historian of technology Steven Lubar. In 1839, the Howe factory had three machines making 24,000 pins a day—and the inventor was clamoring for pin tariffs to offset the nearly 25 percent tax that pin makers had to pay on imported brass wire, a reminder that punitive tariffs hurt domestic manufacturers as well as consumers. "Considering the great quantity and value of pins used in this country—and their importance as an article of general use, and convenience, if not of necessity," Howe wrote, "it would seem reasonable that encouragement should be given to an attempt to manufacture them; or at least that no obstacle arising out of the past legislation of our government, should be allowed to remain in the way of such an undertaking." So what happened to all those pins? Nowadays, we think of straight pins as sewing supplies. But they weren't always a specialty product. In Smith's time and for a century after, pins were a multipurpose fastening technology. Straight pins functioned as buttons, snaps, hooks and eyes, safety pins, zippers, and Velcro. They closed ladies' bodices, secured men's neckerchiefs, and held on babies' diapers. A prudent 19th century woman always kept a supply at hand, leading a Chicago Tribune writer to opine that the practice encouraged poor workmanship in women's clothes: "The greatest scorner of woman is the maker of the readymade, who would not dare to sew on masculine buttons with but a single thread, yet will be content to give the feminine hook and eye but a promise of fixedness, trusting to the pin to do the rest." Most significantly, pins fastened paper. Before Scotch tape or command-v, authors including Jane Austen used them to cut and paste manuscript revisions. The Bodleian Library in Oxford maintains an inventory of "dated and datable pins" removed from manuscripts going as far back as 1617. Pin sales grew along with record-keeping and bureaucracy—the unfairly derided systems necessary to operate an enterprise of any scale. "The expanded market for pins came from expanded uses in business and administrative record-keeping, as well as in clothing," says economic historian Beverly Lemire. Before paper clips or staples, pins gave businesses an inexpensive, unobtrusive way to keep pieces of paper together. Compared to ribbons or cords that required holes or sealing wax, they marked a major advance. "My guess would be th[...]