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A cryptographic solution to securely aggregate allegations could make it easier to come forward

Nobody wants to be the first person to do or say a risky thing. One recent example of this is the revelations that a number of powerful figures, like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and Bill Cosby, had a long pattern of sexual harassment and even assault, and many people were aware of it, but nobody came forward until much later.

People finally come forward when one brave person goes public, and then another, and finally people see they are not alone. They might be believed, and action might be done.

Eleven years ago, I proposed a system to test radical ideas, primarily aimed at voting in bodies like congress. The idea was to create a voting system where people could cast encrypted votes, with the voter’s identity unrevealed. Once a majority of yes votes were cast, however, the fragments of the decoding key would assemble and the votes and the voter identities could be decoded.

This would allow, for example, a vote on issues where a majority of the members support something but few are willing to admit it. Once the total hit the majority, it would become a passed bill, with no fear in voting.

I still would like to see that happen, but I wonder if the approach could have more application. The cryptographic approach is doable when you have a fixed group of members voting who can even meet physically. It’s much harder when you want to collect “votes” from the whole world.

You can easily build the system, though, if you have a well trusted agency. It must be extremely trusted, and even protected from court orders telling it to hand over its data. Let’s discuss the logistics below, but first give a description of how it would work.

Say somebody wants to make an allegation, such as “I was raped by Bill Cosby” or “The Mayor insisted I pay a bribe” or “This bank cheated me.” They would enter that allegation as some form of sworn legal statement, but additional details and their identity would be encrypted. Along with the allegation would be instructions, “Reveal my allegation once more than N people make the same allegation (at threshold N or less.)”

In effect, it would make saying “#metoo” have power, and even legal force. It also tries to balance the following important principles, which are very difficult to balance otherwise:

  1. Those wronged by the powerful must be able to get justice
  2. People are presumed innocent
  3. The accused have a right to confront the evidence against them and their accusers

How well this work would depend on various forms of how public the information is:

  • A cryptographic system would require less (or no) trusting individual entities or governments, but would make public the number of allegations entered. It would be incorruptible if designed well.
  • An agency system which publishes allegation counts and actual allegations when the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps allegation counts private until the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps everything private, and when the threshold is reached discloses the allegation only to authorities (police, boards of directors).

There are trade-offs as can be shown above. If allegations are public, that can tell other victims they are not alone. However, it can also be a tool in gaming the system.

The allegation must be binding, in that there will be consequences for making a false allegation once the allegations are disclosed, especially if the number of existing allegations is public. We do not want to create a power to make false anonymous allegations. If it were public that “3 people allege rape by person X” that would still create a lot of public shame and questions for X, which is fine if the allegations are true, but terrible if they are not. If X is not a rapist, for example, and the threshold is high, it will never be reached, and those making the allegations would know that. Our system of justice is based important principles of presumption of innocence, and a right to confront your accusers and the evidence against you.  read more »

Could states affect gerrymandering outside their state with conspiracy rules?

In puzzling over solutions to gerrymandering, I remain stymied by the following problems:

  • The people in power don’t want to undo the gerrymandering that is putting them in power.
  • The courts want to stop gerrymandering but they only overturn rules, they try not to write new ones.
  • States could act, especially a few in concert, but what they do might be overturned by the courts

Arguments were heard this week in a lawsuit attempting to get the supreme court to stop gerrymandering. Courts have been ready to declare that a district is gerrymandered, but are reluctant to force states to adopt some rule on how they draw their districts. The concern is that there is no one best and most fair way to draw districts. You can tell when a district is unfair, but it’s up to states to write the rules and the courts to rule on their constitutionality. The plaintiffs have a hope that the courts might rule that any districting is a disenfranchisement, and force states to allocate representatives based on a proportional system from a statewide popular vote.

I have wondered if states can find, on their own, the power to fix this. Many states have already written anti-gerrymandering rules for their own districts, but can they make those have extra-territorial effect.

One way is with an interstate compact. I outline a plan for this here. It has the problem that the counter-gerrymandering might be found illegal by the court. Remember the court is ready to say, “That’s not a valid district shape” without saying a formula for what a valid district shape is. They just know it when they see it.

Here’s another idea — possibly unconstitutional as well, but it may be improved with refinement.  read more »

Robocar-only highways are not quite so nice an idea as expected

Recently Madrona Ventures, in partnership with Craig Mundie (former Microsoft CTO) released a white paper proposing an autonomous vehicle corridor between Seattle and Vancouver on I-5 and BC Highway 99. While there are some useful ideas in it, the basic concept contains some misconceptions about both traffic management, infrastructure planning, and robocars.

Carpool lanes are hard

The proposal starts with a call for allowing robocars in the carpool lanes, and then moving to having a robocar only lane. Eventually it moves to more lanes being robocar only, and finally the whole highway. Generally I have (mostly) avoided too much talk of the all-robocar road because there are so many barriers to this that it remains very far in the future. This proposal wants to make it happen sooner, which is not necessarily bad, but it sure is difficult.

Carpool lanes are poorly understood, even by some transportation planners. For optimum traffic flow, you want to keep every lane at near capacity, but not over it. If you have a carpool lane at half-capacity, you have a serious waste of resources, because the vast majority (around 90%) of the carpools are “natural carpools” that would exist regardless of the lane perk. They are things like couples or parents with children. A half-empty carpool lane makes traffic worse for everybody but the carpoolers, for whom the trip does improve.

That’s why carpool lanes will often let in electric cars, and why “high occupancy toll” lanes let in solo drivers willing to pay a price. In particular with the HOT lane, you can set the price so you get just enough cars in the carpool lane to make it efficient, but no more.

(It is not, of course, this simple, as sometimes carpool lanes jam up because people are scared of driving next to slow moving regular lanes, and merging is problematic. Putting a barrier in helps sometimes but can also hurt. An all-robocar lane would avoid these problems, and that is a big plus.)

Letting robocars into the carpool lane can be a good idea, if you have room. If you have to push electric cars out, that may not be the best public goal, but it is a decision a highway authority could make. (If the robocars are electric, which many will be, it’s OK.)

The transition, however, from “robocars allowed” to “robocars only” for the lane is very difficult. Because you do indeed have a decent number of carpools (even if only 10% are induced) you have to kick them out at some point to grow robocar capacity. You can’t have a switch day without causing more traffic congestion for some time after it. If you are willing to build a whole new lane (as is normal for carpool creation) you can do it, but only by wasting a lot of the new lane at first.

Robocar packing

Many are attracted to the idea that robocars can follow more closely behind another vehicle if they have faster reaction times. They also have the dream that the cars will be talking to one another, so they can form platoons that follow even more closely.) The inter car communication (V2V) creates too much computer security risk to be likely, though some still dream of a magic solution which will make it safe to have 1500kg robots exchanging complex messages with every car they randomly encounter on the road. Slightly closer following is still possible without it.  read more »

GM accepts all liability in robocars, and other news

General Motors announced this week that they would “take full responsibility” if a crash takes place during an autonomous driving trip. This follows a pledge to do the same made some time ago by Daimler, Google and Volvo and possibly others.

What’s interesting is that they don’t add the caveat “if the system is at fault.” Of course, if the system is not at fault, they can get payment from the other driver, and so it’s still OK to tell the passenger or owner that GM takes responsibility.

GM is moving on a rapid timetable with the technology they bought with Cruise not too long ago. In fact, rumours of a sooner than expected release actually shot their stock up a bit this week.

Even to this day I still see article which ask the question, “who is liable in an accident?” and then don’t answer it as though the answer is unknown or hard to figure out. It never was. There was never any doubt that the creators of these vehicles would take responsibility for any accidents they cause. Even if they tried not to, the liability would fall to them in the court system. People have been slow to say it because lawyers always advise clients, “never say in advance that you will take liability for something!” Generally good advice, but pointless here, and the message of responsibility makes customers feel better. Would you get into a taxi if you knew you would be liable if the driver crashed?

Senate bill

In other news this week, a Senate panel passed its own version of the House bill deregulating robocars. Notable was the exclusion of trucks, at the request of the Teamsters. I have predicted since this all began that the Teamsters would eventually bring their influence to bear on automated trucking. They will slow things down, but it’s a battle they won’t win. Truck accidents kill 4,000 people every year, and truck driving is a grueling boring profession whose annual turnover sometimes exceeds 100%. At that rate, if they introduced all-automated truck fleets today, it would be a very long time before somebody who actually wanted a trucking job lost it to the automation. Indeed, even in the mostly automated world there will still be routes and tasked best served by humans, and they will be served by those humans who want it.

Actually, this new-world trucking will be a much nicer job. It will be safer, and nobody will drive the long-haul cross-country routes that grind you with boredom, take you away from your home and family for a week or more while you eat bad food and sleep in cheap motels or the back of your rig.

Uber

Speaking of trucking, while I have not been commenting much on the Waymo/Uber lawsuit because of my inside knowledge, and the personalities don’t bear too much on the future of the technology, it certainly has been getting fast and furious.

You can read the due diligence report Uber had prepared before buying Otto, and a Wired article which starts with a silly headline but has some real information as well.

Other items

Luminar, the young 1.5 micron LIDAR startup, has announced that Toyota will use their LIDARs.

Lyft has added Ford, along with Google to its partner list. Since Lyft did a $500M investment deal with GM, it’s clear they don’t want to stick with just one player, even for that sum. Google may have larger sums — it does seem clear that the once happy partnership of Uber and Google is over.

Baidu announced a 10 billion Yuan investment fund for self-driving startups.

Rumours suggest Waymo may expand their Phoenix pilot to a real self-driving taxi service for the public sooner than expected.

My 4-camera 4K eclipse video and about traffic from the Eclipse

The Eclipse of 2017 caused dire traffic warnings, even from myself. Since a total eclipse is the most amazing thing you will see, and one was coming to a rich country where almost everybody owns a car, and hundreds of millions live within a day’s drive — I wondered how we would not have horrendous traffic. (You can see my main Eclipse report and gallery here or see all my Eclipse articles.)

Also look out below for a new 4K video I made from having 4 different video cameras running around the eclipse. I have started you 3 minutes in for the short-attention-span world, but you might also enjoy the 3 minutes leading up as the excitement builds. Even on an HD display, be sure to click through to Youtube to watch it full screen.

As described, the 4 cameras are two 4K cell phones facing forward and back, plus an HD video from a 1200mm superzoom camera and snippets of 4K video and stills from the main telescope and Sony A7rII.

The big places for predicted bad traffic were central Oregon, because it was the place with the best weather that was closest to everybody from Seattle to Los Angeles, and areas of South Carolina which were closest for the whole eastern seaboard. At a popular Eclipse site, they had a detailed analysis of potential traffic but in many cases, it was quite wrong.

The central Oregon spine around the tiny town of Madras did get really bad traffic, as in reports of 4 to 6 hours to get out. That was not unexpected, since the area does not have very many roads, and is close to Washington and relatively close to California. At the same time, a lot of traffic diverted to the Salem area, which got a nice clear sky forecast. It has an interstate and many other roads. Planning ahead, Madras was the best choice because the weather is much more unpredictable west of the Cascades. But once the forecast became clear, many people from Seattle, Portland and California should have shifted to the more populated areas with the larger roads.

I decided, since it was only 2 hours more driving to Weiser (on the Oregon/Idaho border) but much less traffic, to go to the Snake River valley. It was the right choice — there was almost no traffic leaving Weiser. In fact, Weiser did not get overwhelmed with people as had been expected, disappointing the businesses. Many thought that a large fraction of Boise would have tried to get up to that area, but they didn’t. We actually wandered a bit and ended up over the river in a school field in Annex, Oregon.

There was no problem finding space, even for free.

This is a pattern we’ve seen many times now — dire predictions of terrible traffic, then almost nothing. It turns out the predictions work too well. The famous Carmageddon#History) in Los Angeles never materialized — even with a major link cut, traffic was lighter than normal.

This is, in turn a tragedy. It seems a lot of people did not go see the eclipse because they were scared of bad traffic. What a great shame.

4K Video

At my sight I had 4 cameras recording video. I set up two cell phones, both able to do 4K, looking at our group from in front and behind. The one behind I put in portrait mode, almost capturing the sun, to show that view, while the one in front showed us looking at the eclipse and also the shadow approaching on the hills.  read more »

Why aren't homes sold in second price auctions?

Newspapers reported a house sold in my town this week for almost $800,000 over asking, which is to say the buyers bid $2.5M for a house listed at $1.69M. Now the prices are already crazy but this takes the cake. The buyers had lost a few auctions before by not overbidding enough, and wanted to make sure they got this house, even though it is not that remarkable a place.

It was an auction, of course, but a simple sealed bid, highest price auction. Such auctions are “strategic” — you want to bid the lowest amount that will still win. In this case the sellers did very well because the buyer probably bid more than they wanted to, unsure of what was needed to win.

Game theorists generally believe that second price auctions (the Vickrey Auction) are actually the best choice for both buyers and sellers. That when done properly, they bring in the best revenue for the seller but also make the buyer feel comfortable they bid the right number. Second price auctions are the most common in the world, since that’s what eBay uses — namely the winner bidder pays the amount of the second highest bid (in eBay’s case, plus a small increment.) Google also uses them to price adwords.

To understand why they can be best for sellers, effectively the choice comes down to taking the #2 bid from a set of higher bids, or the #1 bid from a set of lower bids. The former option tends to be a good choice, and also minimizes buyer remorse at the same time.

So my question is, given that they are the best method, why don’t these homes get sold in second price auctions?

The most likely reason is that the public, in spite of eBay, does not understand 2nd price auctions very well. In face, even on eBay, you see people who bid in advance or get annoyed at “snipers” who bid at the last minute. eBay combines what is actually a 2nd price auction with the appearance of a “going, going, gone” auction, and that confuses people.

For a 2nd price auction to work, the bidders must truly understand how to use it, which is to bid their “true heart.” That is to say, to bid the maximum price they would really want to pay. The price at which, they are satisfied if they get it for that price, and they are satisfied if they don’t get it at that price because they truly believe any more was too much. You must pick the price where you are (barely) happy if you win, and barely happy if you lose. It takes some practice to learn how to pick that price.

In practice of course, 2nd price auction bidders know they will almost always pay less than they bid, and thus be truly happy. That is what allows them to submit their truly highest bid. The fact that they submit their truly highest bid is what gives the seller the best outcome. You sacrifice the random swings of buyers who overbid for a reliable shot at the best market price.

Unfortunately, home buyers and sellers are usually amateurs. They do this once every decade, if that. They otherwise never spend or get this much money. They are likely to make mistakes or be irrational in their bidding.

To make it work, real estate agents would need to be trained in how to coach their clients. It’s not that hard. You ask for their number, and when they say, “1 million” you say, “So if it sells for $1,050,000 you will be pleased that you didn’t have to pay that much and will buy something else?” You need an increment that is large enough to make a difference. You can’t just say, “You’re happy if you lose with $1,000,001” because nobody would agree with that.

One reason 2nd price auctions confuse and anger unskilled bidders is that if you were the 2nd price, the winner gets the house for your price. You imagine, “If only I had bid a little more.” Worse, on eBay, the winner gets the item for your bid plus $1, making many people believe, “Crap, if I had only bid a dollar more, of course I would have bid that.”

In reality the winning bidder bid much more, so if you had bid $1 more, their price would also go up $1. You didn’t lose by a dollar, you probably lost by a lot, though that is generally not revealed to anybody but the auctioneer.

As noted, a 2nd price auction has (almost) no strategy. You do not alter your bid based on your opinion on what others will bid. Even if the bidders collude or publish their bids, it doesn’t change the result — the person willing to pay the most gets it, and pays what the person willing to pay the 2nd most offered. In a 1st price auction, there can be strategy and collusion. You do well when you guess correctly what others will bid, and if you can find a motive, collusion can do very well for the bidders. (Usually that requires the bidders participate in multiple auctions and collude to cheat a group of sellers.) The one strategy in 2nd price auctions is that you should not publish your bid because it might make somebody realize they’re actually willing to bid more, namely more than you. It’s better for you if people underbid their true heart. When auctions repeat it can help people learn more about the market and, while it shouldn’t, this adjusts their estimate of their true heart.

Differences among buyers

One problem in real estate auctions is that not all buyers are the same. Some have conditions on their offers. Some the seller just likes better than others. It is not unknown for sellers to take a 2nd highest bid if they liked the bidder more, or it came without conditions.

To deal with this, the auctioneer could allow the seller to pick the winner in a couple of ways:

  1. The seller might specify, “put a penalty of $10,000 on buyer A.” This would be subtracted from their bid in deciding the winner and the winning price. So if A bids $1,050K and B bids $1M and C bids $900K, B wins and pays $950,000 — it is treated as though A bid $950K.
  2. The seller could set a reserve price which is treated like a bid. Bids above the reserve price would be revealed to the seller, and the seller could pick any one of the bidders they like, not necessarily the highest. But the seller must pick a winning bidder, unless nobody qualifies, and that party pays the next highest bid from a qualifying buyer, or the reserve price if that is higher. The forced sale is needed because the seller has now learned the secret bids of the high bidders, which is unfair in another auction.

To make video-meetings work, force people to stay engaged

Our videoconferencing tools have been getting better, but meetings with remote video participants still don’t work very well. One problem is poor use of the technology (such as a lack of headsets) which I outlined in my guide to room based video meetings. These can be worked on and the tech keeps improving.

The other big area for improvement is the discipline of the people in the meeting. The big challenge in typical meetings is that some of the participants are 2nd class. This is obvious when you have a meeting room with multiple local people and some remote users. It can also happen when people have differing levels of technology. In an ideal meeting, everybody in the meeting is on the same footing as far as their presence and ability to communicate.

We break this rule often. It is quite common to have remote attendees turn off sending video, or mute their audio, for example, making them be more like a TV audience than members of the meeting. It makes sense because it saves bandwidth, and people don’t like being watched. We also tolerate having some people present just on the phone, while others are there in person and others are on low and high quality video systems.

If you hope for a good meeting, you also want to express that the main value of the conferencing system is to let people attend without travel. It is not there to let them attend without the same effort and engagement they would put into a meeting they did travel to. The things I describe may seem minor, and they may veto features of great convenience, but those features are actually bugs and disrupt meetings more than people realize.

Here are some principles to get around this:

No meeting room

In an ideal video meeting, everybody is on their own personal video station. There is no meeting room. This means that even if several of the attendees are in the same building, they don’t go to a room, they stay at their desks and join the meeting just like any other remote.

This is obviously hard to do if the majority of participants are in the building, but it can be worth it. It also means you don’t need room-based videoconferencing systems, which are expensive and don’t work well. But if only 2 or 3 of the participants are in the same place, definitely consider having no meeting room. The big benefit is that when everybody has their own microphone, everybody hears everybody really well.

Today you can’t have people in the same room using their own computer because they hear the other people both via their headset and through the air. Perhaps some day a smart videoconferencing system will understand that some people are in the same room (you can tell because some sounds do get into the microphones) and adjust. It would allow those who still want a physical meeting room to get the great audio and video that comes from everybody using a computer. Those in the room together would still be 1st class participants, but remotes would not be that badly off.

Headsets at all times

We have gotten seduced by how well some voip systems handle speakerphone mode in one on one conversations. Don’t be fooled. They don’t do group meetings well at all. They seem like they do, but quickly you realize that now everybody hears all the random noises from the location of a speakerphone user. They do things like step away from their desks to eat, chat or take a phone call, and everybody hears it. Keyboards and mice clickety-clack. Sirens go by. It’s easy to ignore this in a one on one call, but it disrupts a meeting.  read more »

Getting rid of winner-takes-all in the electoral college could backfire badly

A new organization named Equal Votes is pushing to make a supreme court case to undo the electoral college. They hope to use a precedent set in the famous “Bush v. Gore” 2000 election case, which strengthened the application of the equal protection clause to election law. They want to show that the “Winner takes all” approach that 48 states use to hand out electoral college votes is a violation of the idea of one person one vote. States would then not be able to use it.

It’s an interesting idea, but I have grave concerns that it might backfire, and badly. Worst case, it could guarantee a Republican President into the indefinite future. Hopefully not, but that’s a bad result, even if you’re Republican leaning.

My friend Larry Lessig is supporting this, and I don’t doubt the theory that it might win. The idea is that since a state could assign its electors in proportion to how its citizens voted, it is depriving them of their rights by not doing so. If you are in a safe state and not in the dominant party, your vote is useless and effectively counts for nothing.

It is far from certain that this logic can win. Winner takes all is of course the norm in democracies. The country only gets one President even though almost half the country didn’t want him. States only get one governor. In California, where state legislators are elected by districts and some Republicans get seats, the reality is that the Democrats get complete power, not partial power. And in the current congress, it takes defections or filibusters to stop complete rule by the Republicans (even though, due to gerrymandering, they got fewer votes than the Democrats in the house.)

Voting by gerrymandered district

And this is where we get the first big risk. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, don’t do winner takes all. They follow what seems a very sensible plan at first. A state’s electoral college delegation is equal to the number of congressional representatives they have: House members plus two. These states select two electors based on statewide vote, and then select the other electors based on the vote in each district. Just like members of congress, the electors represent their “districts.”

There is a risk that if the court held that winner-takes-all is invalid, they might not rule that the established district based system is invalid. Equal Votes will ask for that, but they might not get it. If they don’t get it, then some states, in particular the gerrymandered states, may decide to follow the Maine system. And being gerrymandered like this, they are likely to return a slate of electors that is not too different from their congressional delegation — a heavily skewed delegation. Even if many other states use a different system (like the proportional allocation Equal Votes wants) the result would be a college very much like congress. And that’s a GOP college.

Why? Because of operation Redmap. This insidious, I would say evil, cheat on the electoral rules was done by Karl Rove and the RNC in 2010. They poured millions into a carefully selected number of unsafe Democrat statehouse seats around the country, enough to swing those statehouses to the GOP. Then they used that power to redraw the districts in those states in a gerrymandered way to favour the GOP. Not just in the congressional elections, but in future statehouse elections, cementing the power indefinitely. It will need a major anti-GOP swing, or supreme court ruling, to fix it.  read more »

China could be poised to dominate car manufacturing thanks to robocars

The robocar revolution has the potential to assist China in dominating vehicle manufacturing. That’s the bad news — unless you are a Chinese manufacturer. The better news is that manufacturing is only part of the car industry, and it’s getting smaller.

  • China has the largest car manufacturing industry, and is strong in electric cars
  • Brand of the manufacturer is almost irrelevant in taxi service
  • Reliability of the taxi is much less relevant
  • US tech companies need manufacturing partners
  • The money in ground transport is in service, not cars

Today, Chinese brands are not sold in any numbers in the USA, or almost anywhere outside of China, but China is already the largest car manufacturing country in the world. Chinese brands have no cachet (even in China, it seems) and western and Korean/Japanese brands are strong. How might that change?

Car brand is very important for people buying a car to own. In fact, the nameplate is the top source of value in a modern car sale. The difference is that we will be moving from people buying cars to own towards people buying rides.

When you order “Uber Select” (Uber’s nicer-car offering) you don’t care if what shows up is a Lexus, BMW or Mercedes. You don’t even car if its a Hyundai Genesis, their brand-new attempt at making a luxury marquee. You are only going to ride in it for 15 minutes. It has to be comfortable, smooth and look nice, but rarely does the logo on the outside matter.

It’s the Uber brand that matters (though not as much, as most people would find no difference between an UberSelect and a Lyft Premiere as far as the vehicles are concerned. And you might not even care if it’s a Great Wall Wey (a Chinese luxury car you’ve never heard of) that picks you up if it looks nice and gives a reliable ride.

Of course, today the top makers like Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Audi, Acura, Infiniti and others are known not just for luxury, but for quality. They make well engineered, reliable cars in a way the Chinese are not quite ready to do.

But do they have to? If your expensive BMW breaks down, you have to get it towed, arrange its repair and get a rental car. You’re pretty angry at BMW when it does, and you paid a lot for that car to avoid that experience, and usually you do. If a car in a robotaxi fleet breaks down, you’re very unlikely to even know it happened. Very rarely, a car like that might break down when you are riding in it. It would pull to the side of the road and have already summoned a replacement car. Within 2-3 minutes a new vehicle will pull up and take you on your way while the company sends a tow truck to deal with the broken car.

Of course, if it broke down while on its way to you, might might not even know it. But even the breakdown while driving will be barely worth mentioning to friends, it just didn’t inconvenience you very much at all.

While the BMW will surely break down less than the Great Wall (at least for now) it also costs a great deal more. That might be worth it to avoid that owner’s breakdown scenario, but it’s not for a fleet breakdown. For a fleet manager, it’s just a question of whether vehicle downtime cost is more or less than the extra cost of more robust engineering, with a small factor for customer inconvenience.

The Shanghai motor show is a trip — huge and full of brands westerners have never heard of
To top things off, I predict robocars will have fewer breakdowns. They will always been monitoring themselves, and will come loaded with sensors. They will always get proper maintenance, taking themselves to maintenance depots when it is needed. They will test all systems like brakes, steering, tires, engines and more every day or every hour when running vacant. They will never let anything get too hot or vibrate too much. Both the BMW and the cheap car will do that.  read more »

What every AirBNB needs

I wrote earlier about tips for hotels and AirBNBs naming things like desk space, amenities, good illumination and more, but let me add some things I would like to see in every unit (and listing) for AirBNB hosts, not all of which apply to hotels.

Universal power strips

So many places don’t have enough plugs for the modern electronics-laden technomad. So get some power strips. In particular, get the ones that have universal sockets which take US, Euro, UK and Aus/China plugs. Yes, I bring adapters but it’s always nice to have some extra plugs. Put one of these power strips by the bed (especially if the plugs by the bed are occupied by lamps and other things.) Put one by the desk space — you do have desk space, right?

Select your main photo well

What is the most important feature of your unit? Most of the time it’s the view or the location, though also high on the list are its internal quality (fancy and new vs. older and plain,) the living space or the kitchen. But while everybody wants a place with a nice kitchen, living room and bed, few are shopping primarily on that.

Pick the most important feature and make it your main photo. Possibly combine two photos for that main photo. However, if you choose to show the view, make it a realistic photo or include one after. If you show the location by showing a nearby sight, put text in the photo saying “Near to this” or similar.

When I shop for properties, that main photo should grab me. If I’m looking for a view, that’s probably what you want to show me. On the other hand, while location is important to me, AirBNB is already showing me that. Having a picture of the famous local landmark is pointless, unless you can see it out your window.

Realistic photos

It is important that your photos be realistic. Many are tempted to photograph things to make them look bigger than they are, or to hide something. Don’t do it. People will be disappointed and leave you bad reviews, which is worse than an unflattering photo. Yes, your “competitors” are using misleading photos but in the end they will pay for that.

This is particularly true when photographing the view. Don’t take a small view only visible if you lean out on the terrace and crop it to make it seem like the view from the property. If your view is only from the terrace, use a wide angle to make it clear you’re standing on that. If the view is inside, take some photos inside of the window, showing what you will see walking around the room that has the view. Photos of rooms should not be super wide angle (that makes the room look bigger than it is) but photos of the view often should be.

If you include photos of nearby things, like the town’s main tourist site to show that you are near it, mark these photos as “Not from the home, 200m away” or similar.

You should show your “view” even if you have no view. People should know if the unit looks out on a courtyard or back street, and what it looks like. You may be surprised — even a quiet back street may be exotic to the tourist.

When shooting inside including the windows and view, use a camera with an “HDR” mode (most phones do this now) or get some HDR software so your photo can show the inside and outside at the same time. And seriously, no crappy, blurry photos. I know you’re not a professional photographer but today’s devices make it easy to get a good shot if you hold reasonably still. You’re trying to make serious money — borrow a friend or their camera if you have to.

Throw in photos of the amenities I describe below, if you have them, to let people know they are there.

If you rent your place for longer-term tenants, consider a photo of a floor plan, if you have one, or sketch one if you can. When renting for more than a week, this is very handy.

Talk about the flights of stairs

Many AirBNB users are older and don’t want a unit where they have to walk up 4 flights of stairs, or even 1 in the case of those with a mobility problem. AirBNB lets you say “elevator in building.” which is good, but it should really be “Elevator in Building OR unit is on ground floor” — and I think that people should actually check that box for ground floor units until AirBNB fixes that. Of course be clear in the listing on that, or on how many floors the guest will need to climb, and whether there will be assist for luggage.  read more »

Computational photography will turn the photo world upside-down

The camera industry is about to come crashing down thanks to the rise of computational photography.

Many have predicted this for some time, and even wondered why it hasn’t happened. While many people take most of their photos with their cell phones, at this point, if you want to do serious photography, in spite of what it says on giant Apple billboards, you carry a dedicated camera, and the more you want from that camera, the bigger the lens on the front of it is.

That’s because of some basic physics. No matter how big your sensor is, the bigger the lens, the more light that will come in for each pixel. That means less noise, more ability to get enough light in dark situations, faster shutter speeds for moving subjects and more.

For serious photographers, it also means making artistic use of what some might consider a defect of larger lenses — only a narrow range of distances is in focus. “Shallow depth of field” lets photographers isolate and highlight their subjects, and give depth and dimensionality to photos that need it.

So why is it all about to change?

Traditional photography has always been about capturing a single frame. A frozen moment in time. The more light you gather, the better you can do that. But that’s not the way the eye works. Our eyes are constantly scanning a dynamic scene in real time, assembling our image of the world in our brains. We combine information captured at different times to get more out of a scene than our eyes as cameras can extract in a single “frame” (if they had frames.)

Computational photography adds smart digital algorithms not just to single frames, but to quickly shot sequences of them, or frames from multiple different lenses. It uses those to learn more about the image than any one frame or lens could pull out.  read more »

New NHTSA Robocar regulations are a major, but positive, reversal

NHTSA released their latest draft robocar regulations just a week after the U.S. House passed a new regulatory regime and the senate started working on its own. The proposed regulations preempt state regulation of vehicle design, and allow companies to apply for high volume exemptions from the standards that exist for human-driven cars.

It’s clear that the new approach will be quite different from the Obama-era one, much more hands-off. There are not a lot of things to like about the Trump administration but this could be one of them. The prior regulations reached 116 pages with much detail, though they were mostly listed as “voluntary.” I wrote a long critique of the regulations in a 4 part series which can be found in my NHTSA tag. They seem to have paid attention to that commentary and the similar commentary of others.

At 26 pages, the new report is much more modest, and actually says very little. Indeed, I could sum it up as follows:

  • Do the stuff you’re already doing
  • Pay attention to where and when your car can drive and document that
  • Document your processes internally and for the public
  • Go to the existing standards bodies (SAE, ISO etc.) for guidance
  • Create a standard data format for your incident logs
  • Don’t forget all the work on crash avoidance, survival and post-crash safety in modern cars that we worked very hard on
  • Plans for how states and the feds will work together on regulating this

Goals vs. Approaches

The document does a better job at understanding the difference between goals — public goods that it is the government’s role to promote — and approaches to those goals, which should be entirely the province of industry.

The new document is much more explicit that the 12 “safety design elements” are voluntary. I continue to believe that there is a risk they may not be truly voluntary, as there will be great pressure to conform with them, and possible increased liability for those who don’t, but the new document tries to avoid that, and its requests are much milder.

The document understands the important realization that developers in this space will be creating new paths to safety and establishing new and different concepts of best practices. Existing standards have value, but they can at best encode conventional wisdom. Robocars will not be created using conventional wisdom. The new document takes the approach of more likely recommending that the existing standards be considered, which is a reasonable plan.

A lightweight regulatory philosophy

My own analysis is guided by a lightweight regulatory approach which has been the norm until now. The government’s role is to determine important public goals and interests, and to use regulations and enforcement when, and only when, it becomes clear that industry can’t be trusted to meet these goals on its own.

In particular, the government should very rarely regulate how something should be done, and focus instead on what needs to happen as the end result, and why. In the past, all automotive safety technologies were developed by vendors and deployed, sometimes for decades, before they were regulated. When they were regulated, it was more along the lines of “All cars should now have anti-lock brakes.” Only with the more mature technologies have the regulations had to go into detail on how to build them.

Worthwhile public goals include safety, of course, and the promotion of innovation. We want to encourage both competition and cooperation in the right places. We want to protect consumer rights and privacy. (The prior regulations proposed a mandatory sharing of incident data which is watered down greatly in these new regulations.)  read more »

NTSB Tesla Crash report (New NHTSA regs to come)

The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has released a preliminary report on the fatal Tesla crash with the full report expected later this week. The report is much less favourable to autopilots than their earlier evaluation.

(This is a giant news day for Robocars. Today NHTSA also released their new draft robocar regulations which appear to be much simpler than the earlier 116 page document that I was very critical of last year. It’s a busy day, so I will be posting a more detailed evaluation of the new regulations — and the proposed new robocar laws from the House — later in the week.)

The earlier NTSB report indicated that though the autopilot had its flaws, overall the system was working. This is to say that though drivers were misusing the autopilot, the combined system including drivers not misusing the autopilot combined with those who did, was overall safer than drivers with no autopilot. The new report makes it clear that this does not excuse the autopilot being so easy to abuse. (By abuse, I mean ignore the warnings and treat it like a robocar, letting it drive you without you actively monitoring the road, ready to take control.)

While the report mostly faults the truck driver for turning at the wrong time, it blames Tesla for not doing a good enough job to assure that the driver is not abusing the autopilot. Tesla makes you touch the wheel every so often, but NTSB notes that it is possible to touch the wheel without actually looking at the road. NTSB also is concerned that the autopilot can operate in this fashion even on roads it was not designed for. They note that Tesla has improved some of these things since the accident.

This means that “touch the wheel” systems will probably not be considered acceptable in future, and there will have to be some means of assuring the driver is really paying attention. Some vendors have decided to put in cameras that watch the driver or in particular the driver’s eyes to check for attention. After the Tesla accident, I proposed a system which tested driver attention from time to time and punished them if they were not paying attention which could do the job without adding new hardware.

It also seems that autopilot cars will need to have maps of what roads they work on and which they don’t, and limit features based on the type of road you’re on.

Planning for hurricanes and other disasters with robocars

How will robocars fare in a disaster, like Harvey in Houston, Irma, or the tsunamis in Japan or Indonesia, or a big Earthquake, or a fire, or 9/11, or a war?

These are very complex questions, and certainly most teams developing cars have not spent a lot of time on solutions to them at present. Indeed, I expect that these will not be solved issues until after the first significant pilot projects are deployed, because as long as robocars are a small fraction of the car population, they will not have that much effect on how things go. Some people who have given up car ownership for robocars — not that many in the early days — will possibly find themselves hunting for transportation the way other people who don’t own cars do today.

It’s a different story when, perhaps a decade from now, we get significant numbers of people who don’t own cars and rely on robocar transportation. That means people who don’t have any cars, not the larger number of people who have dropped from 2 cars to 1 thanks to robocar services.

I addressed a few of these questions before regarding Tsunamis and Earthquakes.

A few key questions should be addressed:

  1. How will the car fleets deal with massively increased demand during evacuations and flight during an emergency?
  2. How will the cars deal with shutdown and overload of the mobile data networks, if it happens?
  3. How will cars deal with things like floods, storms, earthquakes and more which block roads or make travel unsafe on certain roads?

Most of these issues revolve around fleets. Privately owned robocars will tend to have steering wheels and be usable as regular cars, and so only improve the situation. If they encounter unsafe roads, they will ask their passengers for guidance, or full driving. (However, in a few decades, their passengers may no longer be very capable at driving but the car will handle the hard parts and leave them just to provide video-game style directions.)

Increased demand

An immediately positive thing is the potential ability for private robocars to, once they have taken their owners to safety, drive back into the evacuation zone as temporary fleet cars, and fetch other people, starting with those selected by the car’s owner, but also members of the public needing assistance. This should dramatically increase the ability of the car fleet to get people moved.

Nonetheless, it is often noted that in a robocar taxi world, there don’t need to be nearly as many cars in a city as we have today. With ideal efficiency, there would be exactly enough seats to handle the annual peak, but few more. We might drop to just 1/4 of the cars, and we might also have many of them be only 1 or 2 seater cars. There will be far fewer SUVs, pickup trucks, minivans and other large cars, because we don’t really need nearly as many as we have today.  read more »

Talk Thursday in Silicon Valley: Everything you know on Robocars is wrong

For those in Silicon Valley, I will be giving a talk at the monthly autonomous vehicle enthusiast meetup. Some time ago I did my general talk, but this one will get into the meat on some of the big myths and issues. With luck we’ll get some good debate going.

You can register on the Meetup site It takes a nominal charge to stop people from grabbing a slot if they don’t really plan to come. The event will probably sell out, but fear not, there are usually no-shows anyway so get on the waitlist if you want to come.

Private Big Brothers are arriving

For many decades I’ve had an ongoing debate with my friend David Brin over the ideas in his book The Transparent Society where he ponders what happens when cameras and surveillance technology become so cheap it’s impossible to stop them from being everywhere.

While I and my colleagues at the EFF have worked to reduce government and corporate surveillance of our lives, at the back of my mind I have had a fear of what happens when groups of private citizens create surveillance systems. While we can debate whether the government can put up cameras on every corner, we can’t stop private homeowners from having cameras on their own land which video the street in front of their house, which is a public space.

I noticed the launch last month of a company called Flock which wants to provide automatic licence plate readers to neighbourhoods. They will track every car going in and out of a neighbourhood. They will know (and forget about) the cars of residents, and will also know about the cars of regular visitors to the neighbourhood. If you’ve paid them their fee, and you get a break-in, you can get a list of all unusual cars that were in the area during the crime, and you can hand it to the police.

Certainly that seems legal, and it’s not hard to see that neighbours would like it. They keep their privacy (presuming the promise of not recording known resident cars is kept) and only “outsiders” are tracked. I can even see wanting this info myself after a theft I had last year from my car. While it might not solve crimes, it would certainly add to the evidence to convict a suspect.

Instead, the question around this is, what if everybody does it, and things like it? We’re not far from adding face recognition to these camera systems, so video is kept of all unknown people. The result is a world where you’re a bit more secure at your own house, but you’re under massive surveillance everywhere else. It is better that the data are provided only when a crime is reported, rather than having the police operate the system, but there are many countries where this technology will be run by police and spies. And it’s hard to say it will be impossible for the police to get access to the data even when no homeowner wants it. But in reality, police will always be able to convince a homeowner to want it.

We then get a surveillance tragedy of the commons. What seems good for every group that does it sneaks Orwell’s world in through the back door.

Vigilant Solutions

I should not mention Flock without pointing out that there is a much more developed threat in licence plate recognition from companies such as Vigilant Solutions. They have put up a large network of cameras and sell the data to police. I write about Flock not because it’s as big a threat to privacy as Vigilant is today, but because the alternate business model of selling to private individuals makes things so different. On the one hand, it’s better that it’s not going directly to the police. On the other hand, it creates the tragedy of the commons I described — it makes sense for any one neighbourhood to deploy something like this, but creates Big Brother if we all do. It’s harder to figure legal challenges to this, while the legal challenges for Vigilant are more obvious, though not necessarily easy.

Photo gallery from 2017 total solar eclipse

I was just outside Weiser Idaho, a small town on the Snake river, for the 2017 Eclipse, which was an excellent, if short, spectacle which reawakened U.S. interests in total eclipses. They are, as I wrote earlier, the most spectacular natural phenomenon you can see on the Earth, but due to their random pattern it’s been a long time since one has covered so much of the world’s richest country.

For me, it was my sixth total eclipse, but the first I could drive to. I began this journey in Mexico in 1991, with the super-eclipse of that year, which also was the last to visit the United States (it was visible on the big island of Hawai`i.) Since then I have flown around the world to the Curacao area, to the Black Sea, to the Marshall Islands (more photos) and French Polynesia to see other total eclipses. And I will continue to do so starting with 2 years from now in Argentina.

See the gallery

I recommend before you read that you enjoy my Gallery of 2017 Eclipse Photos in HD resolution. When going through them I recommend you click the “i” button so you can read the descriptions; they do not show in the slide show.

HDR from main camera

Why it’s impossible (today) to photograph

I did not photograph my first eclipse (nor should anybody) but every photographer, seeing such a spectacle, hopes to capture it. We can’t, because in addition to being the most spectacular natural event, it’s also the one with the greatest dynamic range. In one small field you have brilliant jets of fire coming off the sun, its hot inner atmosphere, its giant glowing outer atmosphere and a dimly lit dark sky in which you can see stars. And then there is the unlit side of the moon which appears to be the blackest thing you have ever seen. While you can capture all these light values with a big bracket, no display device can come close to showing that 24 stop range. Only the human eye and visual system can perceive it.

Some day though, they will make reasonable display devices that can do this, but even then it will be tough. For the eclipse covers just a few degrees of sky, but in reality it’s a full 360 experience, with eerie light in all directions and the temporary light of twilight in every direction. Still, we try.

In the future, when there is a retinal resolution VR headset with 24 bits of HDR light level ability, we might be able to show people an eclipse without going to one. Though you should still go.

Moment of 3rd contact

That’s why these photographs are so different. Every exposure reveals a different aspect of the eclipse. Short exposures show the prominences and the “chromosphere” — the inner atmosphere of the sun visible only at the start and end of the eclipse. Longer exposures reveal more of the giant corona. The fingers of the outer corona involve 2 or 4 second exposures! The most interesting parts happen at 2nd and 3rd contact (the start and end) and also have many aspects. About 1/60th of a second shows the amazing diamond ring by letting the tiny sliver of sun blow out the sensor to make the diamond, as it does to the eye.

Time to rename the partial eclipse

One thing that saddens and frustrates me is that all of this is only visible in a band less than 100 miles wide where the eclipse is total. Outside that, for thousands of miles, one can see (with eye protection) a “partial eclipse.” They both get called an eclipse but the difference is night and day. Yet I think the naming makes people not understand the difference. They think a “90% partial eclipse” is perhaps 90% as interesting as a total eclipse. Nothing could be more wrong. There are really three different things:

  1. The total eclipse, the most amazing thing you will ever see.
  2. The >98% partial eclipse (and annular eclipse) which are definitely an interesting event, but still just a tiny shadow of what a total eclipse is.
  3. The ordinary partial eclipse, which is a fun and educational curiosity.

I constantly meet people who think they saw “the eclipse” when to me and all others who have seen one, only the total eclipse is the eclipse. While the 98% partial is interesting, nobody should ever see that, because if you are that close to the band of totality, you would be nuts not to make the effort to go that extra distance. In a total eclipse, you see all that the partial has to offer, and even a few partial effects not seen except at 99.9%

A wider angle HDR with deep corona

As such, I propose we rename the partial eclipse, calling it something like a “grazing transit of the moon.” An eclipse technically is a transit of the moon over the sun, but my main goal is to use a different term for the partial and total so that people don’t get confused. To tell people in the partial zone “you saw a transit, hope it was interesting” while telling people in the total zone, “You saw a solar eclipse, wasn’t that the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?”

Automating the photography

This was the first eclipse I have ever driven to, and because of that, I went a bit overboard, able to bring all sorts of gear. I had to stop myself and scale back, but I still brought 2 telescopes, 4 cameras, one long lens, 5 tripods and more.  read more »

Whoops, UA you could sure do a lot better with long delays and cancels

Last night, as they were towing our plane from the gate in Miami there was a very unusual bump — turns out they put the tow bar on wrong and damaged the landing gear. It became clear in time that we would not fly that night (FA timeout loomed.) I’ve seen this a lot, so I was on the phone immediately to book another flight, but I would still need a hotel voucher for the night, as would most other folks on the flight, even if they took the same flight the next day after the repair.

They sent everybody back to the check-in counters to get processed, and they only had a few staff since all other flights had left. As such there was a long line, and the first 3 people in it took 10 minutes each to process because they were trying to change flights as well as get vouchers. Overall, it’s a terrible experience, and it’s been this way for a very long time — a decade ago I saw multi-hour waits for people to get vouchers after weather in Dulles.

There is so much they could have done better, and since this happens all the time, and has for decades, I am not sure why they don’t. Here are some things they could do.

Everything should be doable over the phone or online

I rebooked my flight on the phone. So should everybody. There are a thousand phone agents. Non-status passengers were getting long hold times, so perhaps they should have a special priority code for passengers who have had a major problem like an overnight delay or cancel.

More to the point, the agents should be regularly announcing to people in line, “If you need to rebook, please call this number or use our app.” Several times passengers came up to the counter to say, “would you please announce to the line what’s going on?”

These vouchers are just a piece of paper with a one-time-use credit card number and other relevant info on them. They should be electronic. Everybody should be able to just get their voucher on their phone. Failing that, they should be able to use the check-in kiosks to print a voucher. Go to the kiosk, scan your boarding pass, get your vouchers. How hard can that be? (Update: Apparently Delta does this giving UA no excuse.) Only go to the agents for special requests. Failing that, if you really need to talk to a phone agent to get your voucher confirmed, let them enable you to print it at the kiosk.

Ideally, the customer should not need to do anything. You should get a notification by app or text saying, “Sorry your flight is delayed overnight. Here are your vouchers.” The people who don’t have the app downloaded will have it pretty quickly rather than wait in line.

Electronic vouchers

Sure, some vendors might not be ready for electronic vouchers. But if airlines said, “Take electronic vouchers or don’t get all this business” I think they would change pretty quickly. As long as a few vendors take them, you can tell passengers, “Here is your electronic voucher, good at these vendors. If you wish a different vendor, go to a UA kiosk or counter to exchange for a paper voucher.” I don’t think most passengers would bother.

If you can’t do it online, do it in bulk

The terminals at the gate should simply have spewed out the vouchers in a big stack and the gate agents (not the counter agents) should have handed them out quickly to people by calling names or forming lines based on last name. Then they could deal with the special requests. Doing it at the gate is important because all the people there are passengers — out at check-in you need to re-verify that. At the gate, if need be, they can flash their boarding pass — there are scanners for that of course — and get their vouchers.

Use Lyft or Uber for transport and handle other airports

I rebooked out of Fort Lauderdale. It’s only a 30 minute drive at night. They were quite unprepared for that and took a long time to issue me vouchers for there. This can be improved, or I can be a special case if need be.

They gave me a voucher for supershuttle to get to Fort Lauderdale. I was surprised to see that Supershuttle’s fare for a shared ride was $39, while Lyft was $36 for a private ride. I wanted sleep so I took the Lyft at my own expense, but it would save them money if they allowed Lyft and Uber to be providers for ground transport.

Make it all frictionless

It was the airport that broke the gear, but the airline had to deal with it. One measures the quality of a company by how it handles failures even more than how it works when all is right. Here’s what I think would have been the best result.

  1. As soon as a delay was likely, the computer should have reserved an alternate flight for me, and sent me a message to select my preferred alternates. These seats would be protected against other people in the same boat, though I might lose them to paying external customers. (As a 1K in first class, I expect to be treated better here.)
  2. As soon as the delay or cancel is confirmed, my phone should have beeped to let me confirm whether I want to take the continuation or the alternate flight.
  3. Next the phone app should have generated the vouchers and put them in the phone. Or better still, the information should have been transmitted to the hotel and my booking made and already checked in (if I’m an out of towner.) Instructions on how to get to the hotel and its shuttle schedule should come with that.
  4. While I am in transit, I should be able to browse my food options on meal vouchers, and order online if the restaurant offers that.

Discouraging voucher use

The only reason I can imagine the airline keeps it so painful is they wish to discourage voucher use. For example, if flying from your home city, they surely want you to go stay at home. If they make the process really painful, people who would find it convenient to stay at the airport (due to long trips, traffic, parking or early flights) might give up and go home, saving the airline money.

The airlines could make automatic issuance of vouchers happen only for people who don’t live in the airport town. That leaves the people who were visiting friends or family and have a place to stay for free. The airlines will prefer you use that. One solution would be to offer visitors some flyer miles or flight credit if they are willing to handle their own expenses. Flight credit is cheap for airlines, as many people never get around to redeeming it.

How do other airlines do?

Does United just suck at this? Are there airlines which do what I propose, or otherwise handle this a lot better?

E-mail is more secure than we think, we should use it

E-mail is facing a decline. This is something I lament, and I plan to write more about that general problem, but today I want to point out something that is true, but usually not recognized. Namely that E-mail today is often secure in transit, and we can make better use of that and improve it.

The right way to secure any messaging service is end-to-end. That means that only the endpoints — ie. your mail client — have the keys and encrypt or decrypt the message. It’s impossible, if the crypto works, for anybody along the path, including the operators of the mail servers as well as the pipes, to decode anything but the target address of your message.

We could have built an end-to-end secure E-mail system. I even proposed just how to do it over a decade ago and I still think we should do what I proposed and more. But we didn’t.

Along the way, though, we have mostly secured the individual links an E-mail follows. Most mail servers use encrypted SMTP over TLS when exchanging mail. The major web-mail programs like Gmail use encrypted HTTPS web sessions for reading it. The IMAP and POP servers generally support encrypted connections with clients. My own server supports only IMAPS and never IMAP or POP, and there are others like that.

What this means is that if I send a message to you on Gmail, while my SMTP proxy and Google can read that message, nobody tapping the wire can. Governments and possibly attackers can get into those servers and read that E-mail, but it’s not an easy thing to do. This is not perfect, but it’s actually pretty useful, and could be more useful.  read more »

Don't feed the radical right trolls by counter-protesting them

We’re all shocked at the idea of a growing neo-Nazi movement, at the horrible attack in Virginia and the lack of condemnation by the President. It’s making us forget that the neo-Nazi radical right are trolls with many parallels to online trolls. And the only thing to do is not to feed the trolls, and definitely don’t attack the civil rights that they make use of.

A protest march has 3 main functions:

  1. Get publicity for the cause
  2. Show those of similar mind that they are not alone and foster community
  3. Show the outside world that you have numbers

The first is the primary purpose. They don’t get very far shouting slogans at the people walking their dogs past their march. There are far better ways to get your message out today. The march works because people talk about it, write about it in the press, or even better, if they counter-protest it, vastly multiplying the publicity. Counter-protests are what any small radical group wants, not a quiet and peaceful rally. To do this they will be as outrageous as they can, to goad their opponents. The protest group wants to show they have numbers, but to show it they need publicity. In this case, they don’t have very large numbers.

A perfect example is the Phelps Westboro Baptist “Church.” They protest at funerals with offensive signs saying “God hates fags” and similar. They are not protesting the funerals. They do it only in the hope that people will get riled up and bring them tons of publicity, and it works. (Some even speculate that their goal is to get people to get so upset they assault them, and then they file court actions profitably!)

We have a strong urge not to leave something as pernicious as neo-nazis ignored. We feel we must show “this is not us.” And we want to show our numbers are large while theirs are small. But we know our numbers are large. But the attention given to them grows their numbers. Nobody joins a neo-nazi group imagining the “movement” is not reviled. They join because it is reviled by their ideological opponents. We must resist that urge. We must ignore them, and treat them as the irrelevant last adherents of a philosophy long left in the dustbin of history, which is what they are.

Radical groups have been around forever, and were not always trolls. But today’s online world gives them an alternative and better place to communicate, to promote their ideas, and to find strength in numbers, if they have numbers. As such the “march” is far less important for those things, and much more of its purpose is trolling.

There are those who feel that the approach of not feeding trolls is too simplistic or outdated and that there are other techniques that can work online. In the physical world, which is not a private playground like most online spaces, censorship is not permitted and only non-physical methods can be applied. This has frustated some people…

One alternative

I don’t pretend there can’t be ways to respond to trolls, as long as you’re sure you are not giving them the reaction they goaded you for. One town in Bavaria took pledges so that the more Nazis and the more they marched more money was donated to an anti-Nazi charity. In the USA, rather than a physical counter protest, giving money to Southern Poverty Law Center or others for every neo who shows up could be highly effective.

If you are skilled at it — really this is not for amateurs — mocking them can also work. They want people to be angry, not laughing, and especially not laughing at them. As noted, the comedy must be very good. Mean spirited comedy can get a laugh but is also a reaction of fear or anger.

Don’t attack civil rights

Nazis get people upset, naturally. My grandmother was a Jew out of Vitebsk, where the Einsatzgruppen B set up a base and murdered every Jew in the city, including all her relatives that did not emmigrate as her family fortunately did. I have reason to understand the horror of Nazi thinking. So I get really pissed when people start attacking the civil rights which belong to all, including neo-nazis, forcing me to defend them. I defend the rights, not the assholes, but often to others, and sometimes even to us, it can seem like we have to defend the scum.

If you think you want to call for a reduction in free speech for these scum, think again. It’s what they want. They would like nothing better than to have their marches banned, their web sites shut down. It’s publicity and makes them victims. And yes, they will laugh at those of us who will defend those rights.

Make no mistake. When our rights come under attack, there will be people defending them. It’s just a given, and even if you don’t agree with doing that, it’s the choice of the rights defenders, not your choice. It’s going to happen. Your only choice is whether to force those defenders into action. If you attack the free speech of scum, you are playing into their hands. It also won’t work, and is a bad idea, as I outlined in my article recently on Free Speech Theory.

If there’s a legal case over free speech or other rights of these folks, the ones who attacked those rights are the ones to blame. So don’t say it’s OK to censor or ban them. Don’t say it’s OK to punch them (if they have not been violent.) You might believe it, and in this post I am not arguing with you about that. I’m telling you what your choice will set in motion, and it’s not what you want.

Hard as it may be, as long as they are a small radical fringe, the best course is to ignore them. You won’t fix them by focusing the world on them. If they get to be big enough to be a real threat, you can pay some attention, but don’t help them get there.

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