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Monthly Archives: May 2015

Last Night is a short, moody, cyberpunk adventure game in the spirit of Flashback & Blade Runner. It’s pretty fun!

Ricochet is a peer-to-peer instant messaging system that utilizes the Tor network in order to anonymize your communications. Your login is your hidden service address, and contacts connect to you (not an intermediate server) through Tor. The rendezvous system makes it extremely hard for anyone to learn your identity from your address. I downloaded it and checked out the interface and it looks clean, well designed, and easy to use. An other great tool from our local cypherpunks.

Ok maybe this technically isn’t fun but it was kind of funny. The Finnish record industry lobby is trying to discourage piracy via a series of so bad its good videos. I guess some cultural minister thinks that this music is great. It’s certainly no Don’t Copy That Floppy!

…or its sequel!

The UK snuck language into the Computer Misuse Act that would essentially exempt GCHQ, police, and other intelligence officers (the US by proxy) from legal consequences for hacking into computers and mobile phones. Despite requests from Privacy International the UK government quietly passed the changes as secondary legislation in an other bill. Privacy International notes that the change “grants UK law enforcement new leeway to potentially conduct cyber attacks within the UK.” Certainly there is a degree of CYA going on here on the part of the UK.

A few years ago in an effort to reduce my digital foot print I closed all my Gmail and other mail accounts. I started using a friends email domain for my email until I got my own domain. I’ve yet to invest the time and money to host my own email server, something I’d like to do at some point, but getting off Yahoo and Gmail was a good first step towards controlling my own privacy. In retrospect, I think any one with a passing interest in digital privacy would have to say, “Well played, Google. Well played.” When they introduced GMail in 2005 Google offered what then seemed like a hugeantic amount of storage (1 gig). While the other guys were cracking down on size limits and cluttering up the inbox with fancy themes and ads Google was offering more storage and a stripped down, minimal interface. The choice was clear to me and virtually everyone I knew. We dropped Hotmail like a hot potato and went for Gmail. It even became a point of fashion to have one. Anyone still using Hotmail was looked at with amused disgust. In any case 2005 was a world away from the growing awareness about digital privacy and what exactly corporations do with all our data. Now, Gmail just seems like a honey pot designed to draw us in with massive storage sizes and minimal ads in exchange for Google being able to comb through our email to sell whatever booty they find within it. As Benjamin Mako Hill writes in his blog on his website it doesn’t matter whether or not you yourself use Gmail because most of your friends do. The result of this ubiquity is that no matter how hard you try to avoid it Google still has a lot of your email correspondence. Hill notes that about at third of the email in his inbox is from Gmail users!

Hill writes, “Despite the fact that I spend hundreds of dollars a year and hours of work to host my own email server, Google has about half of my personal email! Last year, Google delivered 57% of the emails in my inbox that I replied to. They have delivered more than a third of all the email I’ve replied to every year since 2006 and more than half since 2010. On the upside, there is some indication that the proportion is going down. So far this year, only 51% of the emails I’ve replied to arrived from Google.”

I imagine my numbers are similar given how many of my contacts use Gmail. The TL;DR of this is that Google realized, much like other social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, that the more ubiquitous the service the larger your dragnet. Even privacy savvy folks like myself can’t avoid being caught unless we stop using this service which is ultimately impractical. What interests me most about this is how email is still thought as somehow different or less worthy of privacy than postal mail. What if postal mail was still a dominant form of communication and Google operated a competing mail service but was storing copies of all our letters? Even to me that idea seems far more chilling and yet it is the same thing.

Despite the slings, arrows, and horror stories about AirBnB drug orgies and looming threats of unrestrained hyper-capitalism many of us have chosen to help make ends meet by bravely wading into the shark infested waters of the sharing economy. My friends, I myself and one of them. Earlier this winter, like many American, I found myself strapped for cash and in need of some extra money at the end of the month. Having just bought a new (to me) car I figured an easy way to do that would be driving for Uber. My motivations weren’t entirely fiscal, however. Being a bit of a digital sociologist and having studied the ways new technology disrupts the old I wanted to get a view of the sharing economy from the trenches themselves. I started driving for Uber in March of this year. The sign up process wasn’t what I’d call simple but Uber’s UI made it feel very streamlined. I had to verify my license, registration, car insurance, and pass a background check (which I’ll get into in an other post). Once done, I e-signed my contract with Uber and was able to hit the streets. I live in Portland, Maine where Uber is a relatively new thing. When I started, I had some expectations of how the service would be used and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Here’s the break down.

This was probably the only area where the service met my expectations. Peak hours here in Portland, Maine are Fridays and Saturdays between 8pm and 3am. In larger, less sleepy cities where demand is higher I imagine you can work 24/y with the evening and weekend hours being peak hours though I also imagine there are different classes of people using the service or different types of use. I’m sure you can pick up some fares during the day and if I didn’t already have a full-time gig I would do so, but my limited experiments with trolling for fares during the day met with no results (though admittedly I only went online a couple of times and I wasn’t downtown). I happen to have Fridays and Saturdays off so I usually hit the streets right about the time everyone finishes dinner and starts looking for a ride elsewhere.

According to a friend, who owns a B&B in the West End and has been driving for Uber part-time since they first expanded here, demand has increasingly grown particularly from people from away (as we refer to out of staters here) from cities where Uber is more established. As word spreads demand from locals increases as well. In my (somewhat limited) experience, I largely ferry white, college-age or just post-college millennials, and a smattering of younger and/or tech savvy Gen Xers who are either going to the bars or an even or are coming home from the bars or an even (depending on the hour). I’d estimate my age range is 21 to 35.

When I started I expected to shuttle people from the the outlying Portland metropolitan area to the airport but so far I’ve done zero airport runs. Requests for trips come largely from the from Portland’s peninsula with a focus on downtown and the West End. Early in the evening fares want to go downtown or to the Old Port. I hadn’t given much thought about the age range but in retrospect I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone. The where, however, did surprise me a little. Not that I begrudge the fares by any means but in my day, if I may indulge my inner old man for a second, we just walked. I grew up in the Portland area and when I lived here in my youth most of my friends were around my customer’s age and we mostly walked. Maybe if something was way on the East End we wouldn’t but we always walked from the my friend’s State Street apartment to the Old Port or to Baxter Blvd. or wherever we were going to hang out or do. I always thought that one of the greatest aspects of Portland, Maine was your ability to walk or bike anywhere (weather permitting). If you were/are lucky enough to live and work on the peninsula then you rarely needed a care unless you were getting out of town or going off the peninsula. No so today. The majority of my fares are within the $5-$7 range which means these are people who are moving around downtown not going to and from the outlying areas of Portland or its suburbs (as I had suspected it would be).

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Part of what interests me about Uber is the fact that I get to witness disruptive technology first hand. As an undergrad, this was something I read about constantly from writers like Tim Wu or John Zittrain. The epic struggles of the communications companies in the twentieth century filled my reading lists. Services like Uber and Lyft are disrupting the way transportation is handled. This kind of clash between technology, culture, and the market are always messy and more than a little confusing, and Uber isn’t making thing any less contentious.

It seems to me here’s a lot of crying wolf going on. Sure, taxis are complaining that Uber is poaching or operating illegally but that’s just a smokescreen they are using to figure out a way to suppress the start up. Uber, on the other hand, rightly argues that the taxi cab system is antiquated, but all the while, ignores how some of its business antics or its service model may impact the U.S. job market. Needless to say, the public good isn’t the driver behind either side, but I’m not so quick as to label either side of the issue as evil. Clearly, given Uber’s growth since its inception in 2012, it is providing a useful service to both customers and drivers, but its unclear what the impact of Uber’s introduction into the market has had on it, particularly its UberX service- the low-priced option under which I’m currently employed (Uber offers several services from taxi to SUVs to luxury cars). So in future posts I’ll be exploring the ups and downs of driving, the impact it has personally, locally and nationally, and examine the ways in which Uber’s impact has been a positive or negative on the various aspects of culture that it touches. In the mean time ride on, speed racer.