Learning by Proxy | Tracking Behaviour

Balancing business with Privacy is near impossible for the likes of Google, they are getting called out.

When I started writing the edition for this week, things were not as crazy as they have become. Less than a month ago, India was recording 12,300 cases a day. Last weekend it was 100,000 cases; today the under-reported figure is more than300,000 cases per day.

However poorly done, there was a finality to the lockdown last year. This just feels like we are waiting for a building to fall on us in suspended animation. While we sit in our cocoons waiting for this storm to blow over, people are falling ill all over this country. Gasping for breath and being cremated by the roadside.

The last time this country saw suffering and death on such a wide scale, it was 15th August 1947.

Cremations grounds in Delhi, April 2021

Just last month I was laughing at Jair Bolsanaro and his "leadership". Today we are making Brazil look good. No political party is absolved of their sins here. The country was locked down last year for political expediency (Shaheen Bagh) and today it is being kept open for political expediency (Bengal elections). Mamatha Banerjee is the CM of the state, send the state into lockdown? She won't. They all have blood on their hands.

Thoroughly disgusted, let us move ahead.

FLoP?

Last year, Apple announced that it was no longer going to allow browsers to store cookies - by default. Cookies are small text files that browsers store on your system so that site can track your behaviour. Have you clicked on an ad for a shoe and suddenly started seeing shoe ads everywhere - well that is because of cookies. It allows "retargeting" the users.

Not everything stored in a cookie is bad. Some of the data stored in cookies also include session data so that you do not have to repeatedly log in to the sites you visit. There are alternate ways to store session data and so Apple dropped the guillotine on Cookies.

You would think it would piss off Google but Google jumped onto the bandwagon and announced that they were also banning cookies. What gives?

Google is introducing a new technology called FLoC instead. FLoC stands for Federated Learning of Cohorts. The layman explanation is using machine learning, the browser will be able to assign you to various cohorts based on your behaviour.

Now, Google would like to claim that with the use of artificial intelligence, this anonymised data that they are collecting would help advertisers while protecting your privacy.

First of all Artificial Intelligence is not artificial at all, it has been seen to show the same human biases that the coder program into it and also it is far from intelligent. The only thing that AI allows a company to do is hide behind a supposedly opaque process that they purportedly have no power to control.

Google claims that this will improve user privacy since this “federated learning” happens on the user’s device and artificial intelligence-based learning involves sharing lesser user than what happens with third-party cookies. If something like this gets widely adopted by ad companies and services, it should “protect users” from tracking methods that are more intrusive than third-party cookies, like browser fingerprinting.

[...]

“The worst aspect of FLoC is that it materially harms user privacy, under the guise of being privacy-friendly. Others have already detailed many of the ways FLoC is privacy harming. We note here just three aspects of FLoC that are particularly harmful and concerning,” Brave CEO and co-founder Brendon Eich and senior privacy researcher Peter Snyder wrote in a blog post.

“Google’s approach to determining whether a FLoC cohort is sensitive requires (in most cases) Google to record and collect that sensitive cohort in the first place! A system that determines whether a cohort is “sensitive” by recording how many people are in that sensitive cohort doesn’t pass the laugh test,” Eich added.

Source: HT Tech

So for now, all browsers apart from Google Chrome have decided not to support FLoC and are vehemently opposed to it. Even search engines are unwilling to support this. Given that Google has near dominance on this front means that they don't need to worry about other search engines.

Chrome users watch out!

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Encouraging Crypto-currency

There is an interesting thing happening across the world. Stock markets are hitting lifetime highs. Every startup that put off listing for the last 5 years is going to the markets and raising capital. Just last week Coinbase listed on the market through a direct listing. Grab also got the company listed through SPAC. Let me explain what an IPO is first before diving in further.

An Initial Public Offering (IPO) is the process of offering the shares of the company to the public. Typically, the shares also get bought up by large institutional investors such as mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds, etc. In order to get these funds and the retail investors (individuals), the company has to undergo what is called a Roadshow. They hire an investment bank, that sets up meetings with analysts from various funds in various cities to convince them to invest in the company. At the same time, they buy a lot of hoardings and some even run Ads on TV to get retail investors excited.

The "Roadshow" part is a pain, it is expensive and there is a degree of uncertainty built into it. Startups, especially loss-making startups have started foregoing the Roadshow part and going directly to the listing part. In a direct listing, the company makes its shares available on a stock exchange, without issuing any new shares or raising any additional capital. Those in the company - investors, employees, founders, etc that own shares can start selling/trading them on the exchange and those interested in buying can purchase. In a frothy market, share prices rise quickly!

Another route that has been preferred a lot in recent years is called Special Purpose Acquisition Company or SPAC for short. In this case, a cash company is created with a lot of capital within it and listed on the stock exchange. Normally a renowned investor backs it and raises the money. Then this company goes ahead and acquires a startup that is looking to list. The startup, therefore, is now listed.

The Singapore-based startup is set to have a market value of about $39.6 billion after the combination with Altimeter Growth Corp., the special purpose acquisition company of Brad Gerstner’s Altimeter Capital Management, the firms said in a statement Tuesday. Grab is raising more than $4 billion from investors including BlackRock Inc., Fidelity International and T. Rowe Price Group Inc. as part of the biggest U.S. equity offering by a Southeast Asian company.

Source: LiveMint

Grab which is the Swiggy and Ola of South East Asia got valued at USD 40 Billion. This is a tad less than the valuation that Uber had got at the time of its listing. Uber owns a sizable stake of Grab worth about USD 5 Billion.

While this is a huge deal, the headlines were grabbed by another direct listing.

Shares in Coinbase, the first major cryptocurrency company to list its shares on a U.S. stock exchange, jumped in their market debut on Wednesday, showing that investors are hungry to get a piece of the hot market for digital currencies.

Coinbase began trading on Wednesday afternoon at $381 a share, a 52 percent increase over a $250 reference price set by Nasdaq on Tuesday. (A reference price is set by a stock exchange based on expectations for where the stock will open.)

Source: New York Times

The first cryptocurrency startup listing shot the roof! It is interesting that a company whose main business is to act as an exchange had to list on another exchange. Coinbase is a crypto exchange but also at the same time it is like a bank, a custodian who holds on to the crypto-currency on your behalf. The company ended the first day valued at USD 100 Billion. This sent Bitcoin shooting up to USD 64,000 dollars.

Now…

Bitcoin found life in 2009 because of the banking collapse and the erosion of trust that it entailed. Fed up with large institutions and their "too big to fail" attitude, Bitcoin was a form of protest.

Let us look at the economy and the markets today.

India is in the midst of the largest COVID spike ever. The economy is said to have contracted by 10% last year. You would be forgiven for thinking things could not be better.

Just 3 months ago America was clocking 300,000 cases a day. And they are not completely out of the woods. After a decline for the past 3 months, case counts are beginning to rise again. Sure, the stimulus cheques have ensured spending does not crater, but historic highs??

Britain opened last week after a 2.5-month lockdown and a self-goal in December (read Brexit) which resulted in USD 1.2 Trillion in banking assets leaving for mainland Europe, it is probably 10% off 2019 highs.

China was the first to recover from the virus, has posted a 10% growth in the last quarter and still trending lower.

Source: Yahoo

The markets seem to be completely divorced from the economy. The last time we had seen such a swelling of the markets and tech companies being listed every day it was 1999.

A correction will arrive sooner or later. If the rise is historic, so will the correction be historic.

This will move more people towards Crypto-currencies. Crypto is being set up to rise further!

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Plastic

Go to a quaint hill station in the Nilgiris. Wake up early morning and go out for a walk. You expect to be breathing the freshest air. No?

Not really.

Turns out it is raining micro-plastic everywhere in the world AND it is all coming from the oceans. We have been throwing all of our plastics into the oceans for the last century. It is now sending it all back to us. I read this depressing article on WIRED about how this is happening.

The cars that we drive around shed micro-fibres of rubber into the air as we drive. All the plastic we throw does not decompose but breaks down into micro-plastics. If you ate fish recently, rest assured you consumed a copious amount of micro-plastics.

When you come across someone who never ate poorly, never smoked, never drank and still got Cancer, forward the article above. You can’t eat and breathe plastics and get away with it.

I had feared worse when the Pandemic got started. Everything was suddenly needed to be packaged. Guess the packaging material of choice? The gloves you bought, rubber not very dissimilar from the ones that go onto your tire. And in the need for sanitisation, all regulations were thrown out the window.

All of the PPE made of varying types of plastics are now finding their way into the ecosystem.

The latex glove was a streaky, dirty, yellow-gray, the color of a plastic bag that somersaulted into a tree and got tangled in the branches. When citizen-scientists in the Netherlands spotted it in August 2020 while collecting trash along Leiden’s Oude Vest canal, they noticed something unsettling. The glove was torn, and wedged inside a gash beneath the thumb, they saw a tail. It was fringed and a bit rufous, and it belonged to a creature that had swum in and never found its way out.

That unfortunate fish—a European perch, Perca fluviatilis—is one of many animals that recently found themselves at the mercy of the wave of pandemic-related disposables. Humans have now been living alongside Covid-19 for more than a year—and that means other animals have too. For months, scientists have suspected that animals are affected by the disposable masks, plastic gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) that people lost or discarded in parks, waterways, and other public spaces. Now researchers have pulled together observations from several countries to see how creatures are grappling with our castoffs.

Source: Wired

The rapidity with which PPE production had to be scaled up meant that little thought was given to the materials being used as well as the disposal and recycling of these products. The world would have produced billions and billions of gloves, masks and other PPE material. The sad part is that this continues to be produced and there will be reckoning at some point in the future.

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Watch: The Year Earth Changed

I usually don't do this but I would highly recommend watching the documentary on Apple TV+. Most of you should be able to get a 7-day trial and watch it for free even if you do not have a subscription.

Narrated by David Attenborough, the 45-minute documentary looks at the ways in which the animal kingdom has been able to thrive thanks to the lockdown. From Whales being able to communicate better with their offsprings and Cheetahs being able to call their cubs more easily after a hunt. Why does this matter? Watch and you will know.

Also

Our ministers have taken an economics course on managing COVID

During a week that epitomised human incompetency at the highest echelons of the Indian government. The people at NASA managed to fly a helicopter on Mars

Delhiites being polite

There is always an opportunity

Timeless Wisdom


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What we think, we become ~ Buddha


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