Transforming Rural China


Cellphones still the best rural access to the Web

❝ Xia Canjun was born in 1979, the youngest of seven siblings, in Cenmang, a village of a hundred or so households nestled at the foot of the Wuling Mountains, in the far west of Hunan Province. Xia’s mother was illiterate, and his father barely finished first grade…

❝ In 1990, in sixth grade, Xia saw a map of the world for the first time. Of course, Cenmang wasn’t on it. Neither was Xinhuang, the city that loomed so large in his imagination. “The world was this great beyond, and we were this dot that I couldn’t even find on a map,” he told me. The same year, the Xias bought their first TV, a black-and-white set so small that it could have fit inside the family wok. Market reforms were transforming China, but in Cenmang changes arrived slowly…

❝ Still, rather than becoming a manual laborer, like his parents and siblings, Xia was able to go to technical college, and afterward he got a job at a local company that produced powdered milk…When the powdered-milk company downsized, he decided that it was time to look farther afield. He moved to Shenzhen, a sprawling coastal city, and found a job as a courier, becoming one of China’s quarter of a billion migrant workers.

❝ Then, eighteen months in, an unexpected opportunity arose. Xia had been making deliveries for JD.com, the second-biggest e-commerce company in China, and he heard that the business was expanding into rural Hunan. A regional station manager would be needed in Xinhuang…

❝ Today, Xia oversees deliveries to more than two hundred villages around the Wuling Mountains, including his birthplace. But, in line with JD’s growth strategy, an equally important aspect of Xia’s job is to be a promoter for the company, getting the word out about its services. His income depends in part on the number of orders that come from his region. Across China, JD has made a policy of recruiting local representatives who can exploit the thick social ties of traditional communities to drum up business. Xia himself is not unaware of the irony: after venturing out to the great beyond, he discovered that the world was coming to Cenmang.

The tale proceeds. It is about economics. It is about human interests and access to education, knowledge. It is about building a new life in a new way. The sort of life-changing experience that becomes opportunity in a society experiencing qualitative growth and change.

Hamilton 68: Tracking Putin’s Propaganda Push in the United States [and more]

❝ In the Federalist Papers No. 68, Alexander Hamilton wrote of protecting America’s electoral process from foreign meddling.

❝ Today, we face foreign interference of a type Hamilton could scarcely have imagined, a world in which global powers use instantaneous media networks and a mix of overt and covert programming to reach into our homes and workplaces and shape our view of the world.

The Hamilton 68 dashboard, a project with the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, seeks to expose the effects of online influence networks and inform the public of themes and content being promoted to Americans by foreign powers.

Worthwhile addition to your bookmarks.

Brits’ new Surveillance Law will be a global model – for repression

Civil rights advocates are up in arms over a sweeping new digital surveillance law in the United Kingdom, and not just because they say it intrudes on the privacy of people in the U.K. Some worry that the law sets an example other democratic nations will be tempted to follow.

The legislation…is called the Investigatory Powers Act (or, by its critics, the “Snooper’s Charter”). It enshrines broad new authority for U.K. law enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct online surveillance, hack into devices deemed relevant to investigations, and make technology companies provide access to data about their users — even by forcing them to change the design of products. It also gives investigators the authority to use these powers in “bulk,” meaning they can access large data sets that may include information about people not relevant to investigations. They can even hack into devices owned by people who are not suspects in a crime.

…The most high-profile fight is over a new authority for the government to compel Internet service providers to retain “Internet connection records”—including websites visited or mobile apps used, the times they were accessed, and the duration of use — for up to 12 months for all their customers. Investigators won’t need a warrant from a judge to access this data. “There is no state in the Western democratic world that has anything similar,” says Eric King…former deputy director of Don’t Spy on Us, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations that advocates for surveillance reform…

Brazil and Australia have also recently instituted data retention laws. The U.S. has not, but the U.S. Department of Justice has advocated for mandatory data retention before, as have members of Congress. After the Snowden revelations, President Obama issued a policy directive limiting bulk data collection by the federal government itself. But Donald Trump could rescind that or work with Congress to require Internet service providers to retain data so investigators could access it later—a step that would be modeled on the U.K. legislation. “If the Trump administration wants to expand its surveillance powers, or seek sanction for more aggressive use of its existing powers, it could unfortunately point to the U.K.’s new law as precedent,” says Camilla Graham Wood, Privacy International’s legal officer.

RTFA for a peek at the brave new world brought to us in part by fools who vote for phonies like Donald Trump. That doesn’t exempt the chickenshit Establishment of Democrats and Republicans who roll over and stick all four feet into the air every time some surveillance pimp prattles about fear.

Jeb Bush is the ultimate opponent of Internet Freedom

Do you want to live in a country where Internet Service Providers can slow down and censor your internet traffic at will, where the NSA has vastly more power than it does today and where end-to-end encryption may be illegal? Then Jeb Bush is the Republican presidential contender for you: he has positioned himself as the anti-internet candidate in an election where internet rights have never mattered more.

A lot of the White House candidates have made worrying comments about the future of surveillance and the internet – from Chris Christie’s bizarre vow to track 10 million people like FedEx packages, to Hillary Clinton’s waffling on encryption backdoors – but Jeb Bush’s deliberate campaign to roll back internet rights is the perfect storm of awful.

Bush proudly stated on his campaign website this week that he would axe the FCC’s important net neutrality rules, a hard-fought, grassroots victory from earlier this year by internet rights activists almost a decade in the making. As the New York Times described it at the time, the net neutrality rules “are intended to ensure that no content is blocked and that the internet is not divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else…”

As Gizmodo’s Kate Knibbs put it, however, “Instead of viewing the FCC’s net neutrality rule as a safeguard for consumers, Bush is framing it a way to sandbag ISPs out of their rightful profit margins, with no upside for people using their services.” Jeb Bush is apparently happy to side with Comcast and Time Warner, two of the most hated conglomerates in America, rather than the tens of millions of people who just want watch Netflix every night without their internet slowing down or having to pay more.

But that’s just his latest vow to dismantle the hard-fought rights internet users have won over the past few years. Bush is also a mass warrantless surveillance fanatic. He not only continually defends the NSA on the campaign trail, but has called for the mammoth spy agency to be handed even more powers. He’s defended the massive phone metadata program that collected Americans’ phone records that is both wildly unpopular with voters and has already been modified by Congress – and to a large extent shuttered – with the passage of the USA Freedom Act. Bush even claimed the expansion of the NSA over the past six or seven years has been the “best part” of the Obama administration.

Perhaps worst of all, Jeb Bush has ignorantly criticized the welcome trend of tech companies like Apple implementing end-to-end encryption in their devices to protect its millions of users from criminals and government spying. Seemingly channeling his brother George W at an event in August, Jeb said, “If you create encryption, it makes it harder for the American government to do its job…”

I rarely expect the average American voter to vote on behalf of their own economic interest. Might be a bit of a stretch for a society working harder than ever at perpetuating ignorance and obedience.

I hope geeks interested in blogs fond of tech and science are brighter than that. I hope that vague number of Americans still believing in personal privacy will vote – even in another election featuring the untrustworthy vs the folks who try to be nice.

DARPA contest sends robots into mock-up nuclear reactor

On Friday and Saturday, the Darpa Robotics Challenge – the “Robolympics”, unofficially…completes its final competition, with 25 teams of engineers and scientists giving orders to huge machines trundling across a landscape designed to simulate the impassible environment that greeted aid workers after the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in Japan melted down multiple times in 2011.

Engineers tried to help, but no robots could navigate the hazardous terrain and disaster ensued, rendering a huge area around the plant uninhabitable after toxic steam exploded into the skies. The radioactive leftovers are still emitting a million watts of heat.

If a Darpa contestant is able to navigate the terrain successfully, and in a short amount of time (each team has an hour to run the course) it will become the richest robot in town: first prize is $2m, second prize is $1m, and third gets $500,000.

The public event is a cross between the Consumer Electronics Show and an episode of Mythbusters. Inside the Fairplex, the stands were filled on Friday with people cheering for their favorite androids. Outside was a big expo with kids running around playing with (or staring terrified at) all kinds of robots: some dancing, some playing music, some swimming in a giant tank where they can be piloted with a video game controller. One company, Ekso, makes robotic trousers that make it easier to carry a backpack.

The purpose of the main event, however, is deadly serious.

“The idea, inspired by Fukushima, is to come up with a simulation of a disaster that is like [that],” said Dr Gill Pratt, the avuncular, eloquent director of the Tactical Technology Office (TTO) program at Darpa that oversees the project.

Darpa is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the arm of the US Defense Department that is responsible in large part for the creation of the computer network, Arpanet, that became the internet.

“The teams will not have any human help for the robots themselves, and the key element, again, between the human controllers and the robot is a very degraded communication link,” Pratt explained.,,

“Particularly when you need to improvise, the environment you’re going into is a human environment, and a humanoid robot is designed to take on a human environment and we can adapt to it like humans,” Darwin Caldwell said.

“If you’ve got a quadruped robot, or a robot with wheels, it’s not really designed for that environment, so it might be able to adapt. But we know humans can go in there. We know humans can do that. That’s one thing we’re certain of.”

Some DARPA competitions don’t come close to succeeding in the first year of trials. Or more. But, unlike many extremely narrow experimental targets proposed for military trials, DARPA projects often have a broad framework and move sooner rather than later into civilian-focused experimentation, potentially global adoption.

Like autonomous automobiles or the Internet.

America in the Dark Ages — The cult of kiddie danger

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids. Her show “World’s Worst Mom” airs on Discovery/TLC international.

The Richland, WA, school district is phasing out swings on its playgrounds. As the district’s spokesman recently told KEPR TV: “It’s just really a safety issue. Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

Ah yes, those dangling doom machines. All they sow is death and despair.

But while this sounds like yet another example of how liability concerns are killing childhood (seen a see-saw anywhere in the last 20 years? A slide higher than your neck?), it’s deeper than that. Insurance underwriters are merely the high priests of what has become our new American religion: the Cult of Kiddie Danger. It is founded on the unshakable belief that our kids are in constant danger from everyone and everything.

The devout pray like this: “Oh Lord, show me the way my child is in deathly danger from __________, that I may cast it out.” And then they fill in the blank with anything we might have hitherto considered allowing our children to eat, watch, visit, touch, or do, e.g., “Sleep over at a friend’s,” “Microwave the macaroni in a plastic dish,” or even, “Play outside, unsupervised…”

What’s more, this is a state religion, so the teachings are enforced by the cops and courts. Those who step outside the orthodoxy face punishment swift and merciless…

We think we are enlightened in this quest to keep kids completely safe. Actually, we have entered a new Dark Ages, fearing evil all around us.

If we want the right to raise our kids rationally, even optimistically, it’s time to call the Cult of Kiddie Danger what it is: mass hysteria aided and abetted by the authorities. But as earlier holy books so succinctly instructed us, there is a better way to live.

“Fear not.”

Bravo!

Lenore Skenazy makes her case with the thoroughness of a pedant. With the heart of a warrior. Which, of course, she must be, every day.

We have added another brick to the wall of state religions. All are considered innocent until proven guilty – unless you are charged with possession of kiddy porn, accused of rape, admit to being an atheist…regardless of charge. More dangerous than someone who cuts those little labels off pillow cases that say “Do Not Remove”. Carrier of an evil more dangerous than the Interwebitubes.

This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine,The Weekly Wonk.

Dear Obama — Tell the NSA to get an honest job and quit playing God

Warning of an erosion of confidence in the products of the U.S. technology industry, John Chambers, the CEO of networking giant Cisco Systems, has asked President Obama to intervene to curtail the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency.

In a letter dated May 15 (obtained by Re/code and reprinted in full below), Chambers asked Obama to create “new standards of conduct” regarding how the NSA carries out its spying operations around the world. The letter was first reported by The Financial Times.

The letter follows new revelations, including photos, published in a book based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden alleging that the NSA intercepted equipment from Cisco and other manufacturers and loaded them with surveillance software. The photos, which have not been independently verified, appear to show NSA technicians working with Cisco equipment. Cisco is not said to have cooperated in the NSA’s efforts.

Addressing the allegations of NSA interference with the delivery of his company’s products, Chambers wrote: “We ship our products globally from inside as well as outside the United States, and if these allegations are true, these actions will undermine confidence in our industry and in the ability of technology companies to deliver products globally.”

We simply cannot operate this way; our customers trust us to be able to deliver to their doorsteps products that meet the highest standards of integrity and security,” Chambers wrote. “We understand the real and significant threats that exist in this world, but we must also respect the industry’s relationship of trust with our customers…”

Here’s a link [.pdf] to the complete Chambers letter to President Obama.

Obama rolls over and plays dead for the State Department party line that’s unchanged since Truman. He rolls over and plays dead for the NSA crowd that’s been in charge since Ronald Reagan. No surprise to folks who study American foreign policy and domestic spying policies – as practiced.

The standard dicho on US spies was the CIA is liberals, the FBI is conservatives and the NSA is Nazis. That hasn’t changed. The roles they play internally has. The ultimate rat bastard bigot, J.Edgar Hoover, ran the FBI as his own personal Red Squad for decades. The CIA played the same role abroad – recruiting people who might have ended up in the Peace Corps otherwise. The my-country-right-or-wrong nursery rhyme still worked.

The NSA has always hoped for a dictator – conservative or fascist never made much of a difference. Reagan gave them every hope of success and an endless budget – which continues today.

No part of this process gives a damn about unemployed Americans, businesses dwindling down into a rusty crapper, the potential for trade in a globalized economy, education, healthcare, equal rights – for Americans or anyone else on the planet. American politicians, American corporations should rule the world and maximize profit at every level. Period.

I wish John Chambers well. His company played a significant role in building the Internet as we know it – and made money along the way. But, the rest of the world now indicts Cisco the way the NSA’s favorite pimp, Mike Rogers, tried to indict Huawei from the floor of Congress. The world has evidence for their opinion – courtesy of Edward Snowden.

I don’t think Obama will change the core tasks and policies of the NSA in the least. He’s drunk the KoolAid of Imperial America and it’s stronger than anything you can smoke on the South Side of Chicago. The propaganda may change. The lies to us – may change. Not the destiny they consider their right. God bless the United States of Amerika.

The Internet is taking away America’s religion

Republicans still blame REM

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?

The reality is we have nothing to lose – and everything to gain.

Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet…

Downey’s data comes from the General Social Survey, a widely respected sociological survey carried out by the University of Chicago, that has regularly measure people’s attitudes and demographics since 1972.

In that time, the General Social Survey has asked people questions such as: “what is your religious preference?” and “in what religion were you raised?” It also collects data on each respondent’s age, level of education, socioeconomic group, and so on. And in the Internet era, it has asked how long each person spends online…

Downey’s approach is to determine how the drop in religious affiliation correlates with other elements of the survey such as religious upbringing, socioeconomic status, education, and so on.

He finds that the biggest influence on religious affiliation is religious upbringing—people who are brought up in a religion are more likely to be affiliated to that religion later.

However, the number of people with a religious upbringing has dropped since 1990. It’s easy to imagine how this inevitably leads to a fall in the number who are religious later in life. In fact, Downey’s analysis shows that this is an important factor…In fact, that data indicates that it only explains about 25 percent of the drop.

He goes on to show that college-level education also correlates with the drop. Once it again, it’s easy to imagine how contact with a wider group of people at college might contribute to a loss of religion…

That’s where the Internet comes in. In the 1980s, Internet use was essentially zero, but in 2010, 53 percent of the population spent two hours per week online and 25 percent surfed for more than 7 hours.

This increase closely matches the decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, Downey calculates that it can account for about 25 percent of the drop.

That’s a fascinating result. It implies that since 1990, the increase in Internet use has had as powerful an influence on religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing.

RTFA for all the variables inside variables Downey examines.

For me, the expansion in easy communications permits access to information, real information in addition to the usual crap, gossip and myth we’re accustomed to in every part of our lives. The classic question – are Americans stupid or ignorant seems to be coming down on the side of ignorant. With diminishing returns for those who profit from ignorance. As the ignorance of Americans also diminishes.

Audi traffic light system saves fuel, helps drivers hit green lights

One of life’s small but satisfying pleasures is hitting the sweet spot while driving across town and catching all the green lights. At the moment, having that happen is a matter of luck, but Audi is developing a system that will make never getting caught by a red light an everyday thing as a way of speeding up traffic while improving fuel efficiency and cutting emissions.

Driving through a string of green lights isn’t a question of gremlins or clean living, but of timing. Modern traffic signals operate on a system of preset timers. Sometimes these change depending on the time of day or, as is increasingly common, because the traffic system reacts to changes in the pattern of car movements. In other words, the trick to an uninterrupted journey is to figure out how the lights are timed at that moment and drive at the right speed, so you always hit the intersections when it’s green.

The Audi system works by taking the guesswork out of the equation. Using Audi connect and the Multi Media Interface (MMI) system, the car uses the internet to contact the area’s central traffic computer and asks it for the automated traffic light sequences. From these, the system calculates the best speed needed to hit as many green lights as possible. This speed, as well as red, green and amber icons, are displayed to the driver via the Driver Information System (DIS) located in the central instrument cluster. If the car is already at a red light, it provides a countdown until green and overrides the start/stop mechanism to bring the engine online five seconds before it’s time to go.

You save time, get to your destination sooner, don’t spend time wasting fuel slowing down and speeding up. All it requires is local legislation and a little cooperation from traffic engineers.

Audi demoed the system in Las Vegas. Now, all it takes is insightful politicians and staff. In the United States, it could be in place in a half-century or so.