In Search of a Good Villian

Looks like I am in good company with my take on how the media treats Hillary more harshly than Trump. This past Labor Day weekend, Paul Krugman wrote an excellent piece, aptly comparing this year’s media coverage to that of 2000’s election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In it, Krugman observes:

Yet throughout [the 2000] campaign most media coverage gave the impression that Mr. Bush was a bluff, straightforward guy, while portraying Al Gore — whose policy proposals added up, and whose critiques of the Bush plan were completely accurate — as slippery and dishonest.

Sound familiar?

Krugman astutely highlights and dismantles the absurd suggestion that Hillary is somehow the more crooked candidate, but like Matthew Yglesias, he seems to suggest that individual journalists can’t resist publishing an interesting hypothesis, even when said hypothesis is unsupported by the facts.

So I would urge journalists to ask whether they are reporting facts or simply engaging in innuendo…

Like I wrote in my earlier piece, I suspect publication bias is only a small part of the problem. While journalists are certainly writing pieces that simply engage in innuendo, why are those pieces deemed “fit to print” without the facts? My argument is that it’s not just the writers, but also the editors, the publications and the entire news industry that is in the business of promoting narratives rather than facts.

I’m not alone. Shortly after Krugman’s piece was published, Craig Mazin countered with a series of tweets pointing out this election’s overarching narrative bias.

The problem journalists face is one of narrative dependence. They need narrative to tell news stories. Not facts, mind you. Stories.

Mazin goes on to describe what I think is a compelling theory that Hillary makes a better storybook villain than the obviously crooked Trump.

The Boring Villain doesn’t require you to uncover anything, or make a shocking discovery.

Whatever you choose to believe – that journalists can’t help but write salaciously or that a larger narrative bias at play, you should be aware that the media is not covering these candidates fairly, and also (as Krugman puts it):

…focus on the facts. America and the world can’t afford another election tipped by innuendo.

The Company Who Cried Product

Nick Heer over at Pixel Envy made a similar observation to mine about Google’s penchant for treating concepts the same as products.

There’s a press-related angle to all of this, too, that I find particularly fascinating. Google’s PR strategy frequently seems to involve inviting journalists to preview their research experiments. But instead of framing them as pie-in-the-sky ideas, some journalists cover them like working, fully-functional products that you will soon be able to buy.

My theory is Google wants their concepts to be covered as real products, because there is really no downside for them if/when they fail to deliver, unlike most other established companies. Can you imagine how the press might react if Toyota, GM, or even Tesla gave a ship date for some new car, only to completely can it months later?

Google reasonably benefits from a history of whimsy, but at what point will the press stop treating their flights of fancy with the same gravitas as real products?

Goodbye Ara

The Verge’s take on Reuters’ report:

Although Project Ara has always seemed a dubious commercial prospect, the news is surprising if only because Google made a renewed effort to push the modular concept at its I/O conference earlier this year, promising a developer version for fall and a consumer release for 2017.

I/O to me is as much an autoshow as it is a developer conference. Ara is like a concept car. Sure they’re both kind of neat, but I’m much more interested in products I can actually buy.1

  1. It’s not that I think Google should stop featuring concepts, rather I wonder if they should separate them out more clearly from what is foreseeably being released. Focus Google I/O solely on what’s coming. As for the neat concepts still in the hopper… how about a Google Fair? ↩︎

Google First

According to Nick Statt at the Verge, Google is moving on from the Nexus brand in favor of Google branding:

Google is dropping the Nexus branding with its two upcoming, HTC-made smartphones. Instead, the company is expected to market the devices under a different name and to lean heavily on the Google brand in the process.

Not only that, but Google’s next phone may not even ship with stock Android.

The report states Google will load the devices with a special version of Android Nougat, as opposed to the standard “vanilla” version of the operating system that’s shipped on past and current Nexus devices. We don’t know for sure what these changes or additions will be. But Google CEO Sundar Pichai said as much back in June, when he mentioned the company would be more “opinionated” about Nexus design. “You’ll see us hopefully add more features on top of Android on Nexus phones,” he said at the Recode Code Conference.

I had always assumed the purpose of the Nexus line was primarily to provide OEMs with a reference design for the ideal Android experience, but what I found instead while looking for confirmation was this 2010 post on Google’s blog announcing the Nexus S (emphasis mine):

As part of the Nexus brand, Nexus S delivers what we call a “pure Google” experience: unlocked, unfiltered access to the best Google mobile services and the latest and greatest Android releases and updates.

While Nexus owners have long benefited from the latest and purest Android experience, it’s clear to me now that Nexus was always more about Google than it ever was about Android (or open source). I’ve already written about Google’s habit of replacing open source Android capabilities with closed source counterparts from Play. Now it looks like they are taking the next step and adding even more proprietary functionality with their own proprietary version of Android1.

Because the Truth is Less Striking

When I asked if the U.S. media had a political bias, a friend of mine suggested that the media’s bias for narrative is bigger than anything to do with politics. Nearly a decade later, I find this observation holds true and is particularly noticeable during this year’s election between the former Senator and Secretary of State, and the ruthless business man.

Take the last decade as an example. After the largest terrorist attack committed on US soil, the former spent her time in the senate largely working to help those devastated, then as Secretary of State, she helped oversee the assassination of its mastermind while maintaining a delicate relationship with the strategic ally he was found in. Meanwhile the latter became a reality TV personality and likely committed fraud.

By any measure of ethics or qualification, the former blows the latter away, and yet the US media has largely underplayed this clear contrast to instead emphasize and exaggerate whatever similarity they can find. They elevate a crook to a contender and consternate over whether or not the only one actually qualified is a crook.

Take this excellent piece by Matthew Yglesias, criticizing an AP exposé that suggests the qualified candidate used her position and influence as US Secretary to fund her family’s charity. Matt doesn’t challenge that there was a conflict of interest, rather the AP’s suggestion that it resulted in unethical behavior.

For example, the AP story leads with:

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

To which Matt points out:

To generate the 154 figure, the AP excluded from the denominator all employees of any government, whether US or foreign. Then when designing social media collateral, it just left out that part, because the truth is less striking and shareable.

Matt goes further, deconstructing the AP’s specific examples as banal coincidences, ultimately adding:

The AP put a lot of work into this project. And it couldn’t come up with anything that looks worse than helping a Nobel Prize winner, raising money to finance AIDS education, and doing an introduction for the chair of the Kennedy Center. It’s kind of surprising.

So why did the highly regarded AP go to such length to muddy this election’s most qualified candidate as unethical even after their exhaustive investigation found nothing to back that claim? Matt suggests it’s publication bias – that the exciting hypothesis of an unethical frontrunner got attention while the boring lack of evidence didn’t. While there might be an element of that, I think the AP and other news organizations are more deliberately promoting an ongoing narrative they can continue to derive headlines from throughout the election.

“Well regarded and highly qualified candidate still beating the snot out of crooked TV personality” does not make for interesting ongoing coverage, so instead we’re getting “qualified candidate struggles with allegations while known crook tells it like it is.”

Voice Recognition Beats Humans at Typing

From Aarti Shahani at NPR:

Researchers set up a competition, pitting a Baidu program called Deep Speech 2 against 32 humans, ages 19 to 32. The humans took turns saying and then typing short phrases into an iPhone — like “buckle up for safety” and “wear a crown with many jewels” and “this person is a disaster.” They found the voice recognition software was three times faster…

…”People probably play with Siri and find oh, it didn’t give them the right answer. So they don’t think to use speech as a way to do their text messaging or their email or what not,” [Stanford computer scientist James Landay] says. “Using speech for those things is now working really well.”

This reflects my own experience where I often find myself in situations where using Siri’s speech-to-text is the best way to quickly reply to a message, and while Siri’s still hit or miss with personal assistance tasks, the misses are almost never because he/she failed to capture what I said.

The Death of Car Ownership?

Commenting on a post on Daring Fireball where John Gruber asserted that design will matter even with self driving cars, Brian Fagioli on Twitter argued that:

self driving cars will lead to death of car ownership. Outward appearance won’t matter. Just comfort and amenities.

John responded with the following update to his original post.

If you disagree — if you think the outward appearance of a self-driving car doesn’t matter, only the comfort and amenities of the interior — I think you’re being shortsighted. If all self-driving cars are ungainly-looking, they’ll still sell. Uber is already buying ungainly-looking self-driving cars. But what happens when a company starts selling good-looking self-driving cars? Cars are status symbols — even cars you don’t own. What else explains the existence of black town cars? A lot of people used to argue that the exterior design of personal computers didn’t matter, either — only the functionality. No one argues that anymore.

Looking at airlines and hotels, I can’t see people investing the same amount of status into cars they don’t actually own. Sure first class is way better than coach and people enjoy the status of being in first class, but I don’t think anyone is tying their ego to a slightly wider pleathor seat. Also black town cars are only nice compared to Taxis, which is a pretty low bar.

That said, I will challenge Brian’s other assumption – that car ownership will die. Sure it might decline, but so long as there are suburbs, there will be rush hour commuters. I don’t see rush hour easily being taken over by autonomous Uber-like services for two reasons:

  1. It will be difficult to justify a enough cars necessary to support the just 1-3 hours relevant to commuters.
  2. Uber and their ilk want to get rid of the human element so who’s going to clean these cars, and who or what decides when cars should be cleaned? Folks may be willing to risk the occasional gross experience to get home safely or go to the airport, but I doubt they would be willing to take that risk twice daily.

My prediction is commuters will buy or lease cars even after they become autonomous, and just like now the cars they buy will continue to be not just a status symbol, but also an intimate reflection of their personality and taste.

And who knows, if autonomous cars makes commuting suck less, even more people might move out to the burbs and we could see an increase of car ownership.

Tell Me if You Heard This One Before

From Mark Gurman, at Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. has hit roadblocks in making major changes that would connect its Watch to cellular networks and make it less dependent on the iPhone, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The company still plans to announce new watch models this fall boasting improvements to health tracking.

I suspect Gurman is spot on with his prediction that the next Apple Watch won’t have cellular, but did this tone that inspired such words as “roadblock” and “delay” also come from his sources? I’m doubtful given Apple’s long1 history2 of prioritizing battery life over cellular capabilities. My bet is the decision to not include cellular capabilities in this year’s model happened long before this latest batch of rumors.

  1. What Engadget had to say about the orignal iPhone in 2007: “The fact is, there’s only a very short list of properly groundbreaking technologies in the iPhone (multi-touch input), and a very long list of things users are already upset about not having in a $600 cellphone (3G, GPS, A2DP, MMS, physical keyboard, etc.).” ↩︎

  2. What The Verge had to say about the iPhone 4s in 2011: “The lack of LTE, a larger display, or a new design may put off some buyers…” ↩︎

You Get What You Charge For

From Nick Heer at PixelEnvy:

Ads used to be beautiful because they had to be beautiful — if you’re a business paying thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for a full colour back-page ad, you’re going to want to make it the most memorable and compelling visual it can be.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who runs his own business significantly raised his rates. I asked him if it led to more demanding clients. He told me no, because the most demanding clients were often the ones who valued price over the work. Because the work was secondary, these clients were much more likely to not think things through, then come back with more demands, at which point they’d further waste everyones time trying to keep the price low. His higher prices not only increased his income, but they also freed him to take on more professional clients who valued professional work.

Funny how business economics works.

A Deal With the Devil

After yesterday’s post questioning Google’s commitment to open source Android, I found this piece Ars Technica published by J.M. Porup about yet another startup focusing on making Android more secure:

Copperhead OS, a two-man team based in Toronto, ships a hardened version of Android that aims to integrate Grsecurity and PaX into their distribution. Their OS also includes numerous security enhancements

I’ve been wondering – as Google keeps moving their support to proprietary alternatives while others in the open source community develop potentially competing solutions as part of the Open Android Source Project, at what point does the OS that ships with Google Play cease being “Android”? My assumption was that an OS that ran mostly on Google’s proprietary code couldn’t legitimately be called “Android”. Then I read this (emphasis mine):

Google’s power over OEMs—such as Samsung or Motorola, who manufacture and sell Android handsets—consists solely of the Android license and access to the Google Play Store.

Sure enough, I had forgotten that Google owns the Android name just as much as they own Google Play. From the AOSP Brand Guidelines:

The “Android” name, the Android logo, the “Google Play” brand, and other trademarks are property of Google Inc. and not part of the assets available through the Android Open Source Project.

“Sure you can use this for non-Google products, but good luck communicating an otherwise nameless project. Oh, and if your little not-Android-thing encroaches on our business in any way, we’ll walk and do our own proprietary thing, and that proprietary thing will still be called ‘Android’.”

Android isn’t a choice. It’s an ultimatum.

Lastly, I want to point out this bit of sentiment from the Ars piece, which Porup credits to Chris Soghoian of the ACLU:

Google did a deal with the devil for market share, says Soghoian, who has described the current parlous state of Android security as a human rights issue. By giving Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and wireless carriers control over the end-user experience, Google allowed handset manufacturers to find ways to differentiate their products, and wireless carriers to disable features they thought would threaten their business model.

Did Google do the deal with the devil or is it the other way around?