The DATA Says: Google’s “Dragonfly” Chinese Search Is Doomed

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Google’s highly controversial “Dragonfly” project, exploring the possibility of providing Chinese-government censored and controlled search to China, is back in the news — with continuing protests by concerned Google employees, including public letters and other actions.

I have previously explained my opposition to this project and my solidarity with these Googlers, in posts such as: “Google Admits It Has Chinese Censorship Search Plans – What This Means” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/08/17/google-admits-it-has-chinese-censorship-search-plans-what-this-means) and other related essays.

There are a multitude of reasons to be skeptical about this project, ranging from philosophical to emotional to economic. Basic issues relating to freedom of speech and individual rights come into play when dealing with an absolute dictatorship that sends people to “reeducation” camps where they are tortured merely for having the “wrong” religions, or where making an “inappropriate” comment on the tightly-controlled Chinese Internet can result in authorities dragging you away to secret prisons.

There is also ample evidence to suggest that if Google proceeds to provide such search services in China, they will be mercilessly attacked by politicians from both sides of the aisle, many of whom already are in the ranks of the Google Haters.

But for the moment, let’s attempt to set such horrors and the politics aside, and look at Dragonfly in the cold, hard logic of available data. Google famously considers itself to be a “data-driven” company. Does the available data suggest that Dragonfly would be practical for Google to implement and operate going forward?

The answer is clearly negative.

Philosopher George Santayana’s notable assertion that: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is basically another way of saying “If you ignore the data staring you in the face, don’t be surprised when you get screwed.”

And the data regarding the probability of getting burned, screwed, or otherwise bulldozed by China is plentiful.

Google of course has plenty of specific data in hand about this. They tried providing censored search to China around a decade ago. The result was (as many of us predicated at the time) ever-increasing demands for more censorship and more control from the Chinese government, and then a series of Chinese-based hack attacks against Google itself, causing Google to correctly pull the plug on that project.

Fast forward to today, and Google management seems to be asserting that somehow THIS time it will all be different and work out just fine. Is there any data to suggest that this view is accurate?

Again, the answer is clearly no. In fact, vast evidence suggests exactly the opposite.

The optimistic assertions of Dragonfly proponents might have a modicum of validity if there were any evidence that China has been moving in a positive direction relating to speech and other human rights (in either or both of the technological and non-technological realms) in the years since Google’s original attempt to provide censored Chinese search.

But the data regarding China’s behavior over this period clearly demonstrates China moving in precisely the contrary direction! 

China has used this time not to improve the human rights of its people, but to massively tighten its grip and to escalate its abuses in nightmarish ways. And especially to the point of this discussion, China’s ever more dictatorially monitored and controlled Internet has become a key tool in the government’s campaign of terror.

China has turned the democratic ideals of the Internet’s founders on their heads, and have morphed their own Internet into a bloody bludgeon to use against its own people, and even against Chinese persons living outside of China.

The reality of course is that China is an economic powerhouse — the West has already sold its economic soul to China to a major degree. There is no reversing that in the foreseeable future. Neither threats nor tariffs will make a real difference.

But we still do have some free choice when it comes to China.

And one specific choice — a righteous and honorable choice indeed — is to NOT get into bed with the Chinese dictators’ Internet control and censorship regime.  

Giving the Chinese government dictators any control over Google search results would be effectively tantamount to embracing their horrific abuses — PR releases to the contrary notwithstanding.

The data — the history — teaches us clearly that there is no “just dipping your toe into the water” when it comes to collaboration with unrepentant, dictatorial regimes in the process of extending and accelerating their abuses, as is the case with China. You will not be able to make China behave any “better” through your actions. But you will inevitably be ultimately dragged body and soul into their putrid deeps. 

The data is obvious. The data is devastating. 

Google should immediately end its dance with China over Chinese censored search. Dragonfly and any similar projects should be put out of their miseries for good and all.

–Lauren–

Save Google — but Let Facebook Die

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Do you know why Facebook is called Facebook? The name dates back to founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “FaceMash” project at Harvard, designed to display photos of students’ faces (without their explicit permissions) to be compared in terms of physical attractiveness. Essentially, a way he and his friends could avoid dating “ugly” people by his definition. Zuck even toyed with the idea of comparing those student photos with shots of farm animals. 

Immature. Exploitative. Verging on pre-echos of evils to come.

Fast forward to Facebook of today. As we’ve watched Zuckerberg’s baby expand over the years like a mutant virus from science fiction, we’ve had plenty of warnings that the at best amoral attitudes of Zuck and his hand-picked cronies have permeated the Facebook ecosystem. 

It’s long been a given that Facebook ruthlessly controls, limits, and manipulates the data that users are shown — to its own financial advantage. 

But long before we learned of Facebook’s deep embeds in right-wing politics, and the Russians’ own deep manipulative embeds in Facebook, there were other clues that Facebook’s ethical compass was virtually nonexistent.

Remember when it was discovered that Facebook was manipulating information shown to specific sets of users to see if their emotional states could be altered by such machinations without their knowledge? 

Over and over again, Facebook has been caught in misstatements, in subterfuge, in outright lies — including the recent revelations of their paying an outside PR hit firm to fabricate attack pieces on other firms to divert attention from Facebook’s own spreading problems, even to the extent of the firm reportedly spreading false antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Zuck and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg found an outgoing employee to fall on his sword to take official responsibility for this, and initially both Zuck and Sheryl publicly disclaimed any knowledge of that outside firm’s actions. But now Sheryl has apparently reversed herself, admitting that information about the firm did reach her desk. And do you really believe that control freaks like Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg weren’t being kept informed about this in some manner all along? C’mon!

Facebook of course is not the only large Internet firm with ethical challenges. Recently in “The Death of Google” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/08/the-death-of-google), and “After the Walkout, Google’s Moment of Truth” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/11/03/after-the-walkout-googles-moment-of-truth), I noted Google’s own ethical failings of late, and my suggestions for making Google a better Google. Importantly, those posts were not predicting Google’s demise, but rather were proposing means to help Google avoid drifting further from the admirable principles of its founding (“organizing and making available the world’s information” — in sharp contrast to Facebook’s seminal “avoid dating ugly people” design goal).  So both of those posts regarding Google were in the manner of Dickens’  “Ghost of Christmas Future” — a discussion of bad outcomes that might be, not that must be.  

Saving Google is a righteous and worthy goal.

Not so Facebook. Facebook’s business model is and has always been fundamentally rotten to its core, and the more that this core has been exposed to the public, the more foul the stench of rotten decay that Facebook emits.

“Saving” Facebook would mean helping to perpetuate the sordid, manipulative mess of Facebook today, that reaches back to its very beginnings — a creation that no longer deserves to exist.

In theory, Facebook could change its ways in positive directions, but not without abandoning virtually everything that has characterized Facebook since its earliest days. 

And there is no indication — zero, none, nil — that Zuckerberg has any intention of letting that happen to his self-made monster.

So in the final analysis — from an ethical standpoint at least — there is no point to trying to “save” Facebook — not from regulators, not from politicians, and certainly not from itself. 

The likely end of Facebook as we know it today will not come tomorrow, or next month, or even perhaps over a short span of years. 

But the die has been cast, and nothing short of a miracle will save Facebook in the long run. And whether or not you believe in miracles, Facebook doesn’t deserve one.

–Lauren–

My Thoughts on New Studies of Toxic Emissions from 3D Printers

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Some new studies are quantifying the levels of toxic emissions from conventional 3D printers using conventional plastic filaments of various types. The results are not particularly encouraging, but are not a big surprise. They are certainly important to note, and since I’ve discussed the usefulness of 3D printing many times in the past, I wanted to pass along some of my thoughts regarding these new reports. (Gizmodo’s summary is here: https://gizmodo.com/new-study-details-all-the-toxic-particles-spewed-out-by-3d-p-1830379464).

The big takeaways are pretty much in line with what we already knew (or at least suspected), but add some pretty large exclamation points.

PLA filament generally produces far fewer toxic emissions than most other filament compositions (especially ABS), and is what I would almost always recommend using in the vast majority of cases.

The finding that inexpensive filaments tend to have more emissions than “name brands” is interesting, probably related to levels of contaminants in the raw filament ingredients. However, in practice filament has become so fungible — with manufacturers putting different brand names on the same physical filament from the same factories — it’s often difficult to really know if you’re definitely buying the filament that you think you are. And of course, the most widely used filaments tend to be among the most inexpensive.

My own recommendation has always been to never run a 3D printer that doesn’t have its own enclosed build area air chamber (which the overwhelming vast majority don’t) in a room routinely occupied by people or animals — print runs can take many hours and emissions are continuing the entire time. Printing outside isn’t typically practical due to air currents and sudden temperature changes. A generally good location for common “open” printers is a garage, ideally with a ventilation fan.

The reported fact that filament color affects emissions is not unexpected — there has long been concern about the various additives that are used to create these colors. Black filament is probably the worst case, since it tends to have all sorts of leftover filament scraps and gunk thrown into the mix — the fact that black filament tends to regularly clog 3D printers is another warning sign.

Probably the safest choice overall when specific colors aren’t at issue, is to print with “natural color” (whitish, rather transparent) PLA filament, which tends to have minimum additives. It also is typically the easiest and most reliable to print with, probably for that same reason.

The finding that there is a “burst” of aerosol emissions when printing begins is particularly annoying, since it’s when printing is getting started that you tend to be most closely inspecting the process looking for early print failures.

So the bottom line is pretty much what you’d expect — breathing the stuff emanating from molten plastic isn’t great for you. Then again, even though it only heated the plastic sheets for a few minutes at a time (as opposed to the hours-long running times of modern 3D printers), I loved my old Mattel “VAC-U-FORM” when I was a kid — and who knows how toxic the plastics heated in that beauty really were (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCvgvWiZNe8). Egads, not only can you still get them on eBay, replacement parts and plastic refill packs are still being sold as well!

I guess that they got it right in the “The Graduate” after all: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dug-G9xVdVs

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–

After the Walkout, Google’s Moment of Truth

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UPDATE (November 22, 2018): Save Google — but Let Facebook Die

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Google has reached what could very well be an existential moment of truth in its corporate history.

The recent global walkout of Google employees and contractors included more than 20,000 participants by current counts, and the final numbers are almost certain to be even higher. This puts total participation at something north of 20% of the entire firm — a remarkable achievement by the organizers.

Almost a month ago, when I posted my concerns regarding the path that this great company has been taking, and the associated impacts on both their employees and users (“The Death of Google” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/08/the-death-of-google), the sexual assault and harassment issues that were the proximate trigger for the walkout were not yet known publicly — not even to most Googlers.

These newly reported management failures clearly fit tightly into the same pattern of longstanding issues that I’ve frequently noted, and various broad concerns related to Google’s accountability and transparency that have been cited as additional foundational reasons for the walkout.

Google today — almost exactly twenty years since its founding — is at a crossroads. The decisions that management makes now regarding the issues that drove the walkout and other issues of concern to Googlers, Google’s users, and the world at large, will greatly impact the future success of the firm, or even how long into the future Google will continue to exist in a recognizable form at all.

That so many of these issues have reached the public sphere at around the same time — sexual abuse and harassment, Googlers’ concerns about military contracts and a secret project aimed at providing Chinese-government censored search, and more — should not actually be a surprise.

For all of these matters are symptomatic of larger problematic ethical factors that have crept into Google’s structure, and without a foundational change of direction in this respect, new concerns will inevitably keep arising, and Google will keep lurching from crisis to crisis.

The walkout organizers will reportedly be meeting with Google CEO Sundar Pichai imminently, and I fully endorse the organizers’ publicly stated demands.

But management deeds are needed — not just words. After a demonstration of this nature, it’s all too easy for conciliatory statements to not be followed by concrete and sustained actions, and then for the original status quo to reassert itself over time.

This is also a most appropriate moment for Google to act on a range of systemic factors that have led to transparency, accountability, and other problems associated with Google management’s interactions with rank-and-file employees, and between Google as a whole and its users. 

Regarding the latter point, since I’ve many times over the years publicly outlined my thoughts regarding the need for Google employees dedicated to roles such as ombudsperson, user advocates, and ethics officer (call the latter “Guardian of Googleyness” if you prefer), I won’t detail these crucial positions again here now. But as the walkout strongly suggests, these all are more critically needed by Google than ever before, because they all connect back to the basic ethical issues at the core of many concerns regarding Google.

These are all interconnected and interrelated matters, and attempts to improve any of them in isolation from the others will ultimately be like sweeping dirt under the proverbial rug — such problems are pretty much guaranteed to eventually reemerge with even more serious negative consequences down the line.

Google is indeed a great company. No firm can be better than its employees, and Google’s employees — a significant number of whom I know personally — have through their walkout demonstrated to the world something that I already knew about them. 

Googlers care deeply about Google. They want it to be the best Google that it possibly can be, and that means meeting high ethical standards vertically, horizontally, and from A to Z.

Now it’s Google’s management’s turn. Can they demonstrate to their employees, to Google’s users, and to the global community, that loyalty towards Google has not been misplaced?

We shall see.

–Lauren–