Pluralistic: 23 May 2020

Today's links

Covid apps and false positives (permalink)

Covid apps don't do "contact tracing" – they do "exposure notification," a potentially useful (but unproven) adjunct to the labor-intensive, gold-standard "shoe leather" contact tracing.

But both contact tracing and exposure notification are almost wholly dependent on public trust and confidence in the process. The privacy angle is easy to see here: if you think your app will expose your drug habit, extramarital affair, or other secret, you won't use it.

But reliability is just as important as confidentiality. Both contact tracing and exposure notification are only part of the puzzle: the mantra is "trace, test, contain." If you find out that you're at risk of infection, you need to get tested and then to act on the test.

That's a real problem, and not just because the reliable testing is still being perfected, but also because of the intractable laws of probability and uncertainty.

A test that is "90% accurate" might still only give a reliable answer 33% of the time, depending on the prevalence of the thing you're testing for. Don't blame me, blame Thomas Bayes.

Alas, both false positives and false negatives are the quickest way to drain public confidence in a process. Think of those "certificate error" dialogs you get from your browser. 99.99% of the time, they just mean that someone forgot to renew their certificate.

0.01% of the time, it's because your session has been hijacked by spies or criminals, and they get away with it, because we've all be trained to ignore those warnings (see also, e.g., Amber Alerts).

Likewise, burglars have long known that they can get their targets to switch off their alarms by repeatedly triggering the alarms and then running away.

Writing in Wired, a trio of computer scientists – Elissa M Redmiles, Gabriel Kaptuck and Eszter Hargittai – recount a laundry list of technologies that struggled to gain credibility after a low-reliability launch, from the Roomba to Apple Maps.

They move onto survey data that shows that Americans' adoption of apps (and, likely, their willingness to cooperate with contact tracers) will depend on their perception of both false positives and false negatives – of reliability.

Their concern seems to be that app designers are focusing on privacy protection to the exclusion of reliability (though trading one doesn't get you the other, obvs), and thus even if the privacy element is perfected, adoption may still suffer because of low reliability.

Casio censors calculator modder's Github project (permalink)

Neutrino (an "Electrical Engineer and a programming hobbyist") pulled off a virtuoso hacking stunt, modding a Casio calculator with an OLED screen and internet access, even a chat app, all designed to be undetectable to a casual observer.

As Andrew Liszewski pointed out on Gizmodo, the mod would be a great cheating tool for the kinds of exams that allow calculators (but not phones, etc).

(though the mod is so intense that anyone who pulls it off should probably get an automatic A).

Perhaps that's why Casio's copyright enforcers, React, claimed that Neutrino had copied Casio's sourcecode, an act that allowed them to illegally censor the project's Github page using the DMCA's takedown mechanism.

This appears to be a case of illegal copyfraud.

As Neutrino told Torrentfreak: “The code was written completely from scratch and all the libraries included in my source file were open-source."

"Everything was clearly mentioned in the [now removed] readme file of my GitHub repository. They also allegedly accuse me by stating that ‘The entire repository is infringing’, but in reality whatever the original content they pointed out has nothing to do with my code.”

The DMCA provides for penalties against firms that make false copyright claims to effect improper takedowns. In practice, these penalties are rarely applied, which allows for this kind of fraud to take place with impunity.

However, the parties can't count on that. Back in 2018, after more than a decade of fighting, EFF forced Universal Music to pay out for its copyfraud in censoring a video of an adorable toddler dancing to a few seconds of a Prince song.

Penguin poop turns into laughing gas (permalink)

In "Combined effects of glacial retreat and penguin activity on soil greenhouse gas fluxes on South Georgia, sub-Antarctica," an international team of King Penguin researchers solve the mystery of why they get goofy and buzzed when "nosing in guano."

Turns out that when the nitrogen-rich penguin poop is digested by Antarctic soil bacteria, one of the waste products is nitrous oxide (AKA laughing gas).

"After nosing about in guano for several hours, one goes completely cuckoo," lead author Bo Elberling noted in a statement. "It is truly intense."

Here's a Sci Hub mirror of that paper:

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Pat York: dear friend, writer, Boing Boing guestblogger, RIP

#15yrsago Dutch mayor wants to ban hacker con

#10yrsago Mark Twain's autobiography to be finally published, 100 years after his death

#10yrsago Mechanical irising peephole mechanism

#5yrsago Amazon will finally start paying tax in the UK

#5yrsago Hedge funds buy swathes of foreclosed subprimes, force up rents, float rent-bonds

#1yrago The Oliver Twist workhouse is becoming a block of luxury flats with a "poor door"

#1yrago The Reality Bubble: how humanity's collective blindspots render us incapable of seeing danger until it's too late (and what to do about it)

#1yrago Study attributes mysterious rise in CFC emissions to eastern Chinese manufacturing

#1yrago Big Tech: "If the USA enforces antitrust laws against us, it means China will win!"

#1yrago Federal lawsuit calls college textbook/ebook packages a "scam"

#1yrago To chase out low-waged workers, Mountain View is banning overnight RV and van parking

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 543 words (18963 total).

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 03)

Upcoming appearances: Discussion with Nnedi Okorafor, Torcon, June 14

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden:

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

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