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★ Siri, Privacy, and Trust

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Three weeks ago, writing for The Guardian, Alex Hern reported:

Apple contractors regularly hear confidential medical information, drug deals, and recordings of couples having sex, as part of their job providing quality control, or “grading”, the company’s Siri voice assistant, the Guardian has learned.

Although Apple does not explicitly disclose it in its consumer-facing privacy documentation, a small proportion of Siri recordings are passed on to contractors working for the company around the world. They are tasked with grading the responses on a variety of factors, including whether the activation of the voice assistant was deliberate or accidental, whether the query was something Siri could be expected to help with and whether Siri’s response was appropriate.

Apple says the data “is used to help Siri and dictation … understand you better and recognise what you say”.

But the company does not explicitly state that that work is undertaken by humans who listen to the pseudonymised recordings.

I pooh-poohed this story at first, mostly on the grounds that I thought we knew about this, and that the recordings were only saved from users who had consented to it. I was mistaken. This is a privacy fiasco, and a betrayal of Siri users’ trust.

A week later, Apple issued statements to TechCrunch and The Verge stating that it was suspending this “grading” program. From Matthew Panzarino’s report at TechCrunch:

Apple says it will review the process that it uses, called grading, to determine whether Siri is hearing queries correctly, or being invoked by mistake.

In addition, it will be issuing a software update in the future that will let Siri users choose whether they participate in the grading process or not.

My reading of this is that until last week, if you used Siri in any way, your recordings might be used in this “grading” process. If I graded Apple on the privacy and trust implications of this, I’d give them an F. I don’t think it’s debatable whether users of any voice assistant should have their recordings listened to or even reviewed (in text form) by human employees without their express consent. But especially users of Siri, given Apple’s prominent position as a privacy focused company. Apple literally advertises on the basis of its user-focused privacy policies — but apparently the billboards should have read “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone, except for some of your Siri recordings, which we listen to.”

From Sam Byford’s report for The Verge:

Apple did not comment on whether, in addition to pausing the program where contractors listen to Siri voice recordings, it would also stop actually saving those recordings on its servers. Currently the company says it keeps recordings for six months before removing identifying information from a copy that it could keep for two years or more.

Until the opt-in process is crystal clear, Apple should delete all existing recordings and confirm that it is no longer saving them. I don’t even know where to start with the fact that until this story broke, they were keeping copies with identifying information for six months. This defies everyone’s expectations of privacy for a voice assistant.

We should expect Apple to lead the industry on this front, but in fact, they’re far behind. Amazon has a FAQ written in plain language that explains how Alexa works, and how to view your voice recordings from Alexa-powered devices. You can review them in the Alexa app in Settings: Alexa Privacy (a pretty obvious location) or on the web. That settings page also has an option: “Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services and to Develop New Features”. I think Amazon should make clear that with this turned on, some of your recordings may be listened to by Amazon employees, but it’s not too hard to surmise that’s what’s going on.

Apple offers no such setting, and offers absolutely no way to know which, if any, of our Siri commands have been saved for review by employees. This is something we should have explicit, precise control over, but instead it’s a completely black box we have no control over or insight into whatsoever.

From a privacy perspective, there are two fundamental types of Siri interactions: purposeful and accidental. Purposeful interactions are when you press the side button or say “Hey Siri” with the intention of invoking Siri. Accidental interactions occur when your button is pressed too long accidentally, or when a device incorrectly hears “Hey Siri” even though you said no such thing. All recorded Siri interactions should be treated by Apple with extraordinary care, but accidental invocations, when identified, should be deleted immediately unless the user has expressly agreed to allow it — each and every time. Having Apple contractors listen to random conversations or audio is the nightmare scenario for an always-listening voice assistant.

Compare and contrast with iOS’s transcript feature for voicemail. At the bottom of each transcription, iOS asks whether the transcription was “useful” or “not useful”. Tap on either of those and you get a very explicit prompt:

Help Improve Transcriptions?

Would you like to submit this voicemail to Apple to improve transcription accuracy?

Recordings will only be used to improve the quality of speech recognition in Apple products.

Do not submit recordings if you believe the speaker would be uncomfortable with you submitting the content to Apple.

The two buttons at the bottom of the prompt: Cancel and Submit. You must address this same prompt every single time you flag a transcription as useful or not useful. Every time. That’s how you do it.

In addition to being correctly respectful of privacy, the voicemail transcription feature also puts the user in control. So when a voicemail is transcribed poorly, you can flag it and submit it to Apple. That would be a great feature for Siri — when an interaction goes poorly, and we know the interaction was innocuous in terms of revealing anything private, we should be able to flag it and submit it to Apple. I firmly believe that Siri has gotten far more useful and far more accurate in the last few years, but clearly it’s still very far from perfect. I’d be happy to help Apple by submitting failed interactions on a per-interaction basis. Apple needs to stop pretending Siri is perfect.

I’ll give the final word to Steve Jobs, speaking about privacy back in 2010 at Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg’s D8 conference:

“Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly. I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.”

I can’t say it any better than that.

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jtr
83 days ago
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✚ On the Necessity of Rest and Relaxation

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Greg McKeown, from his book, Essentialism:

If you believe being overly busy and overextended is evidence of productivity, then you probably believe that creating space to explore, think, and reflect should be kept to a minimum. Yet these very activities are the antidote to the nonessential busyness that infects so many of us. Rather than trivial diversions, they are critical to distinguishing what is actually a trivial diversion from what is truly essential.

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jtr
277 days ago
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Super Mario and the Meaning of Life

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It's turns out the true meaning of life is...beer.
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What Everybody Is Getting Wrong About FIRE

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Fig 1: Suze Orman’s opinion of our lifestyle, as captured in a crazy interview on Paula Pant’s Afford Anything podcast.

In case you hadn’t already noticed it in the news, it seems we are hitting a  turning point in how the rest of the world perceives this lifestyle that you and I have been enjoying.

First, we were ignored. Then, there were a few stories that just focused on the strange lives of  Mr. Money Mustache a few other freaky magicians, cataloging our feats of extreme frugality like “spending less than 100% of your money on a car” or “occasionally eating food from one’s own kitchen.”

But time went by, and our numbers kept growing. And we weren’t just thirtysomething white male tech workers anymore, we were women and men of all ages and professions in all different countries, absorbing blogs and podcasts from a thousand different sources.

Vicki Robin, author of Your Money Or Your Life came out of retirement to write a new edition of her foundational book on the subject of financial independence* and some prominent filmmakers have spent the past year making a documentary called Playing with FIRE about all of this too.

And suddenly, instead of just a blogger or a few millennials here and there, the media is starting to call it the Financial Independence Movement. And this is a big deal, because when it comes to cultural traditions, perception pretty much defines reality.

But when you look it up by Googling the FIRE Movement, you still get a pretty mixed bag of arguments.

The New York Times article looks very positive. But there’s another one in there called “Why I Hate the FIRE Movement”, another that complains our ideas are a “Massive fallacy of composition”, and any number of others saying that we have got one aspect or another wrong.

There’s a tricky paradox going on here: the more people you reach, the bigger the range of misconceptions that will come up, potentially cockblocking your movement before it really takes off.

So, with that in mind, let’s clean up the biggest bits of WRONG that are preventing the latest round of several million new arrivals from fully enjoying the fruits of their own labor.

Because as soon as you stop making excuses for why these ideas can’t possibly work for you, you can start actually doing them and seeing the benefits – today.

1: This is ALL WINNING and there are NO DOWNSIDES.

If you think there is even the slightest flaw with the ideas behind FIRE, you’re probably just not understanding it correctly. Because the whole reason for doing any of this is to lead the happiest, most satisfying life you can possibly lead.

Sure, there are a few tricks behind the curtain – I’m going to make you occasionally tackle some moderately difficult stuff instead of the lazy, easy things you are accustomed to doing. But this too is a win, because a lazy life is a sad, depressed, unsatisfying life. We are going to lift you up OUT of that bullshit. So from now, you can assume that any objections can be solved. Zero complaints allowed.

2: It Doesn’t Matter How Much Money you Make

Sure, many of the people most passionate about FIRE tend to be tech workers and doctors who happen to make a lot of money. When people with lower salaries notice this fact, they tune out and assume the ideas won’t work for them. When in fact, they work even better, the further down the income scale you go.

When I tell a Google employee earning $200,000 per year that she should not burn through too many $10.00-plus-tip glassses of wine at happy hour, she can rightfully respond that each one represents only about ten minutes of her after-tax pay. But what about the guy getting by on $20k? A ten-dollar expenditure is ten times more of a blow to his finances, and an even bigger portion of his monthly surplus income, if he has any surplus at all.

I’m not telling low-income people that they can retire in five years. I am telling them that they can make their lives better, RIGHT NOW, by spending less money on certain things that don’t improve any of our lives. Ten dollar drinks are one easy example, but there are dozens of other ones that I’m suggesting.

And dozens of ten-dollar bills start to add up to real money pretty quickly, which is something most people don’t realize. The vast majority of wealthy people are the ones who have figured out that a millionaire is made ten bucks at a time.

At the opposite end of the scale, earning more income will rarely solve your financial problems: most high-income people are still within just a few paychecks of insolvency, because it is possible to blow almost any paycheck, simply by adding or upgrading more cars, houses, and vacations.

A fundamental truth in society is that most people are pretty bad at math. At the core, these FIRE ideas are simply about taking some solid math, combining it with principles of human happiness, and then distilling it down into a list of simple tactics that will get you way ahead in all areas of life. The benefits go way beyond money.

3: FIRE Is Not Really About Early Retirement

Everybody uses the FIRE acronym because it is catchy and “Early Retirement” sounds desirable. But for most people who get there, Financial Independence does not mean the end of your working career.

Instead it means, “Complete freedom to be the best, most powerful, energetic, happiest and most generous version of You that you can possibly be.”

Does this mean you will quit commuting through traffic into a lame corporate office to sit in meetings about products you don’t really care about? Yes.

But does it mean you won’t work hard at things that are important to you, for the rest of your life? NO!

The people who lob this “retirement is bad” complaint against us are often the lucky ones – a professor who loves researching and teaching, or an established doctor who loves saving lives and happens to enjoy the work environment she has created for herself. But in real life, over half of people are in jobs they genuinely do not enjoy, and which they would immediately quit if they didn’t need the money.

Early retirement means quitting any job that you wouldn’t do for free – but then continuing right ahead with work in something that works for you, even when you don’t need the money.

If you’re lucky enough to find a job this good early on in your career, then congratulations, you can have the benefits of early retirement even before you have the huge nest egg. But don’t fool yourself  – having the financial independence side of things is very powerful as well.

And because of this tendency of early retirees to go on through life and keep earning more money – at least occasionally – the issue of running out of money is even more remote. Most of us end up with a higher net worth every single year, even decades after turning in the keys to the cubicle.

4: You Can Be Happy on ANY Level of Spending

As a society, we’ve been trained to assume that having a bigger budget is always better, and cutting back always means some sort of compromise. The Suze Orman interview above is just dripping with that assumption. The amazing news in this department, which will save you millions of dollars, is that this is complete bullshit!

Happiness is your goal in life, and it comes from meeting certain core Human needs. The thing is, that there are many ways to meet each of these needs – some of them free and some of them shockingly expensive.

For example, improving your physical health is one proven way to be happier. But you can accomplish this with a $2500 per month personal trainer or a $100 set of barbells from Craigslist. Same happiness, vastly different cost.

And as it turns out, there is a similar hack for every single one of life’s major expenses. You can meet all your needs at little or zero cost – it just takes a bit of skill. At this level, you would be able to save almost all of your income.

Or, you can substitute a bit more money and a bit less skill to meet those needs in an (only slightly) more efficient lifestyle, like the one I try to lead. This might allow you to save half or two thirds of your income.

Or, you can spray money in every direction randomly, trying to meet an unfiltered list of wants and needs, and end up with a random but very expensive life, while remaining almost broke throughout the entire thing. This is what most people do, and it leads to saving almost none of your income.

All three choices are possible to do with great happiness. But in a bit of a paradox, the last and most expensive choice is the most difficult one in which to find happiness, because you end up with so many distractions and so little free time.

5: It Doesn’t Depend on A Booming Stock Market

I started this blog soon after the crash of 2009. Now we’re in the boom of 2018. Another market crash of epic proportions is coming sometime, probably pretty soon.

Our uninformed opponents think that FIRE-style early retirees are extra vulnerable to this. But in reality, it’s just the opposite: we are on a safe island, far above the choppy seas of the everyday economy. Because here’s how it really works:

  • We have low and easily controlled expenses – remember, we got here precisely by being good at controlling our spending.
  • The stock market always fluctuates, and crashes are an expected and healthy part of the system. Then Human ingenuity continues its magic, we keep on striving and inventing great things, and the market goes back up. Stock market volatility is already built into the math we used to design this plan. Relax.
  • Even in the event of a permanent collapse (for example the end of the US or world economy), the FIRE practitioner would still come out ahead: instead of focusing your energy on leasing BMWs or dressing yourself up fancy, you have learned to live happily and work on your skills, health, and friendships. It’s a package that will make you wealthier in good times and bad.

6: Education, Health Care, or High Cost of Living areas are Comically Tiny Obstacles

FIRE is simply about making smart decisions with your spending so that you waste less money.  This means that you have way more money available to work with.

The potentially costly monsters mentioned above are simply things that cost money. So if you get better at managing your money, do you think these problems will loom larger, or smaller, in your life?

For example, my son will be reaching University age in just five more years. I haven’t bothered to set aside any money for this part of his education, because we already had way more than enough before he was born!

On top of that, financial independence gives us many more options to handle any unexpected expense, whether it’s education, health, or anything else. For example, as a team my son and we parents could easily:

  • shop around to find the most cost-effective way to get any given degree (start with community college for the first two years, compare different schools, etc.)
  • earn more merit scholarships to get through even an ivy league school for free.
  • earn more money to pay for any cost shortage
  • bypass university entirely and simply start a business
  • move to another state or even country in order to qualify for local tuition rates or more reasonable medical rates
  • use personal relationships to get cheaper or free education or medical care in exchange for helping teachers and doctors with something they need from us.

These are just a few ideas. The point is, every problem can be solved, and financial independence simply gives you more mental and money power to solve these problems.

7: The Only Thing To Fear, is Fear Itself

In the interview, Suze Orman goes on and on about what might go wrong, and how you need an incredible amount of money saved to protect you, just in case. But this thinking is completely backwards – money will not cure your fear, as megamillionaire Suze proves so clearly.

If you are afraid of what might happen in the future, you have a mental problem rather than a financial problem. So you should work on that first, by training your mind and body:

  • Start each day with at least a one mile brisk outdoor walk – before you even attempt to work.  This drastically improves your hormonal balance and reduces stress and fear.
  • Read books about managing stress and learn about meditation using something like Headspace or Camp Calm.
  • Completely avoid the daily news cycle, especially on TV or radio. If you insist on being a world events junkie, just read the Economist once per week. Focus on optimistic sources of information – like this blog!
  •  Seek out and hang out with more optimistic friends. Remove negative or gossipy friends from your daily life.

8: Place Your Bets Where The Odds Are In Your Favor

Because my brain has a math side I can’t turn off, I tend to see the world in terms of numbers rather than just emotions. And this is incredibly helpful, because by understanding probability, it helps me set up my life to ensure a much more joyful stream of those happy emotions.

For example: many people avoid cycling because they have heard from friends that it is very dangerous. But by doing so, they replace bike trips with sedentary car or bus trips, which clog their arteries and compound into fat gain and other medical issues which really are dangerous.

A lifetime of bicycling in average conditions might give you a 0.2% chance of untimely death due to accident – which can be slightly higher or lower than car driving depending on where you live. But a lifetime of drinking soda and skipping your cycling and barbell workouts gives you at least 50% higher chance of dying ten years earlier due to medical complications, while cycling reduces those health risks (and costs) considerably. So which activity is really the dangerous one?

With this in mind, which of these activities is more risky?

  • working ten extra years in a job you don’t love so you can have an extra million saved up in case you encounter heath problems later.
  • quitting that job right now and investing those ten years into living a healthier and less stressed life with more exercise, better relationships, and a more diverse range of skills. Focusing on you instead of your bank account.

We’ll skip the spreadsheets for now and just boil this into a list of habits that really do give you the best chance at a good life: more happiness, better health and less negative stress.

  • Physical health FIRST: your brain is a system of meat and tubes, just like the rest of your body. The whole system will only perform well if you place its wellbeing first, before anything else. Salads and barbells every day, no goddamned excuses.
  • Mental health NEXT: feed your mind with happy input and learn to practice mindfulness, educational reading, and meditation daily, which is simply a workout for the brain.
  • Daily hardship and Learning: if you are not sweating and learning and doing something difficult and solving problems, you are not living fully. Find a way to scale back the pampering and achieve more with your own body and mind.
  • Indulge, but only with Moderation and Self-Mockery: this country is rich enough that you can become wealthy even without perfect self-discipline – even on minimum wage. But the moment you think you deserve or need whatever indulgence you are currently treating yourself to, you have lost the game. Luxuries and treats are just short-term pleasurable distractions, like any other drugs. Indulge if you can afford them, but you’re not missing one ounce of happiness if you choose to go without at any given moment.

So that’s the FIRE movement.

It’s a system of living your best life in all ways rather than just the financial, based on our best understanding of human nature, with a bit of math and science behind it. Like science itself, it’s not a dogma or a religion, but more of a self-aware system that invites questions and experiments. It’s always open for modification or improvement, but like science itself, there’s nothing for a rational person to hate. Who hates learning?

The reason it has spread to millions of people is that it works. People try it, they like the results, and so they share it with their friends, and the cycle repeats. There’s no stopping an idea or a movement like that.

 

 

*and guess who had the honor of writing the foreword for the new edition?

Note that I use Amazon affiliate links to point to any Amazon products mentioned, which allows this blog to earn money – so many thanks if you use them.

 

 

 

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jtr
395 days ago
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Nooses, Rotting Teeth, and Neglect: Inspectors Find Dismal Conditions at For-Profit California Immigration Jail

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Nick Miroff, reporting for The Washington Post:

Homeland Security inspectors who made an unannounced visit to a private, for-profit immigration jail in California in May found major violations of federal detention standards, including cells with nooses dangling from air vents, detainees losing teeth from lack of dental care and one disabled inmate left alone in a wheelchair for nine days. […]

One dentist told inspectors that there was no time for cleanings or fillings, and that it was up to inmates to take care of their own oral hygiene despite a lack of supplies. “The dentist dismissed the necessity of fillings if patients commit to brushing and flossing,” the report said. “Floss is only available through detainee commissary accounts, but the dentist suggested detainees could use string from their socks to floss if they were dedicated to dental hygiene.”

DHS inspectors reviewed all requests for dental fillings since 2014 and found that although the jail’s two dentists identified cavities and placed detainees on a waiting list for fillings, no detainees received them. “One detainee we interviewed reported having multiple teeth fall out while waiting more than 2 years for cavities to be filled,” the report said.

ICE didn’t even exist until after 9/11. They were founded in response to terrorist attacks. Letting these people suffer in jail has nothing to do with fighting terrorism. These conditions would be deplorable anywhere in the world, but to have this going on in the United States of America is just astounding.

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jtr
407 days ago
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The iPhone Franchise

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I’m still catching up on coverage of Apple’s iPhone and Apple Watch event last month. Ben Thompson makes some excellent points:

The strategy is, dare I say, bordering on over-confidence. Apple is raising prices on its best product even as that product’s relative differentiation from the company’s next best model is the smallest it has ever been.

Here, though, I thought the keynote’s “Mission: Impossible”-themed opening really hit the mark: the reason why franchises rule Hollywood is their dependability. Sure, they cost a fortune to make and to market, but they are known quantities that sell all over the world — $735 million-to-date for the latest Tom Cruise thriller, to take a pertinent example.

That is the iPhone: it is a franchise, the closest thing to a hardware annuity stream tech has ever seen. Some people buy an iPhone every year; some are on a two-year cycle; others wait for screens to crack, batteries to die, or apps to slow. Nearly all, though, buy another iPhone, making the purpose of yesterday’s keynote less an exercise in selling a device and more a matter of informing self-selected segments which device they will ultimately buy, and for what price.

How long does this continue? Ten years? Longer?

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jtr
407 days ago
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