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Monday, July 15, 2013

Comparing Black Minister to ‘an Orangutan’ Was Not Racist, Italian Senator Insists

Roberto Calderoli, the vice president of Italy's senate and a leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, at a news conference in 2011.Andrew Medichini/Associated Press Roberto Calderoli, the vice president of Italy’s senate and a leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, at a news conference in 2011.

Faced with calls for his resignation, a senior Italian senator has insisted that it was “an aesthetic judgment, not meant to be racist,” when he said that Italy’s first black minister looks like an ape. Roberto Calderoli, a leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League, told supporters on Saturday that whenever he sees photographs of Cécile Kyenge, the Congolese-Italian minister for integration, “I can’t help but think of her resemblance to an orangutan.”

In interviews with Italian newspapers published on Monday, Mr. Calderoli, who serves as the vice president of Italy’s senate, cast himself as a misunderstood animal lover whose remarks were harmless. “There was nothing racist about it. I didn’t even mean to be offensive,” he told La Repubblica. “I’m always comparing people to animals.”

In an apparent effort to prove the point that he is an equal-opportunity offender, Mr. Calderoli told Corriere della Sera that he often thinks of a heron when he sees Prime Minister Enrico Letta, “the long legs, the paw in the swamp,” and compared the female justice minister to a dog. Asked if he regretted his choice of words in regard to Ms. Kyenge, whose vision of a multicultural Italian identity is at odds with his, Mr. Calderoli said he was only sorry that “out of a 45-minute speech to 1,500 people, everything is reduced to this question of the orangutan.”

Mr. Calderoli was forced to resign from Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet in 2006, after he ripped open his shirt on live television to display a cartoon insulting the Prophet Muhammad. As my colleague Ian Fisher reported at the time, that stunt prompted anger in Libya, where 11 people were killed when protesters stormed the Italian Consulate in Benghazi and the security forces opened fire.

In 2006, the Italian politician Roberto Calderoli ripped open his shirt on television to reveal a cartoon insulting the Muslim prophet.Rai Tg3/European Pressphoto Agency In 2006, the Italian politician Roberto Calderoli ripped open his shirt on television to reveal a cartoon insulting the Muslim prophet.

Later that same year, a blogger for La Repubblica recalled on Monday, the Northern League senator suggested that Italy had defeated France in the World Cup final because the French team was made up of “negroes, Muslims and communists.”

In a statement posted on Twitter, Italy’s prime minister urged Ms. Kyenge to continue with her work and called the remarks about her unacceptable.

Other members of Mr. Letta’s Democratic Party, including Khalid Chaouki, a Moroccan-Italian deputy, called on Mr. Calderoli to resign, rallying at the Pantheon on Monday and collecting more than 115,000 signatures with an online petition.

Asked if Mr. Calderoli should resign in an interview with Corriere della Sera translated into English, Ms. Kyenge replied: “I prefer not to say. But I will say that if he is unable to translate discontent into language that is respectful, however harsh it may be, then he should perhaps hand over to someone who can.”

She also confirmed that she has endured a large number of threats since taking up her post in April. “Every day, through every channel. Letters, emails, phone calls. The worst, including death threats, arrive online. There’s no law yet, and there should be. Instigation to racism is shading into instigation to violence. It’s the same for everyone. I’m thinking about attacks on the Jewish community. We’ve got to work on this.”

On Monday, the Italian edition of The Local reported, “nooses appeared on lamp posts with posters signed by far-right group Forza Nuova in the city of Pescara where the minister for integration was visiting for a conference on immigration and citizenship.”

A noose hung next to a placard reading Massimiliano Schiazza/European Pressphoto Agency A noose hung next to a placard reading “Immigration is the noose of the people,” before a debate on immigration in Pescara, Italy, on Monday.

Musk to Unveil Designs for ‘Hyperloop’ High-Speed Train

Is it a train? Is it a plane? No, it’s the “Hyperloop,” a hybrid new form of transportation that is the brainchild of Elon Musk, a serial entrepreneur who was a co-founder of PayPal and is chairman of Tesla Motors.

On Monday, Mr. Musk announced his plan to unveil designs for this new type of train, which he hopes to build and which, he says, can travel as a puck does on an air hockey table.

“Will publish Hyperloop alpha design by Aug. 12,”  Mr. Musk wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Critical feedback for improvements would be much appreciated.”

A trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles takes almost six hours in a car. By bus it’s an excruciating nine hours. Although a flight takes one hour and 15 minutes, when the drive to the airport and tarmac time are factored in, it’s a four-hour trip. Bloomberg Businessweek quoted Mr. Musk in September as saying that Mr. Musk that the Hyperloop would be able to take people to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 30 minutes. That’s a speed of almost 800 miles per hour.

Mr. Musk has described the Hyperloop as the “fifth mode of transportation” and says it is a hybrid between a train and a plane.

The proposed cost of the Hyperloop between Los Angeles and San Francisco is $6 billion. California is now working on plans to build a dramatically slower train system between the two cities that is expected to cost $60 billion.

While responding to people on Twitter, Mr. Musk said the design he planned to release in August would not be patented. ”I really hate patents unless critical to company survival,” Mr. Musk wrote. “Will publish Hyperloop as open source.”

“What you want is something that never crashes, that’s at least twice as fast as a plane, that’s solar-powered and that leaves right when you arrive, so there is no waiting for a specific departure time,” Mr. Musk told Bloomberg while describing his vision of the Hyperloop  last year.

Daily Report: Microsoft Revamps Its Corporate Structure

The company's eight product divisions, satirized by some as being in a state of perpetual war, will be turned into four new ones arranged around broader themes.

Today’s Scuttlebot: Memories of a Computer Shopper World, and Picture Language

The technology reporters and editors of The New York Times scour the Web for important and peculiar items. Thursday's selections include a look at making a new language out of pictures (it would be very complicated), and a look back at a world where print magazines displayed the wonders of new computer technology.

Uber, Maker of Summon-A-Car App, Adds Fare Splitting

Uber, the San Francisco start-up that gained something of a cult following by helping people summon a luxury sedan with a smartphone app, is trying something new for people who ride with friends. It said on Monday that it would add the ability to split fares between multiple passengers with a few button taps.

The fare-splitting feature will become available when iPhone and Android users download a software update. To split a fare, a user requests a ride and then taps an arrow next to the driver’s information. An option labeled “Split fare” will show up, and the user can select friends from his or her address book.

The friends then receive a text message from Uber with a link to tap on. Those who are registered with Uber will be directed to the app, and those who are not will be asked to downloaded the app, sign up for an account and enter their credit card information. The app will take care of the payment at the end of the trip.

The fare-splitting feature is not just a method for friends to encourage others to sign up for Uber; it is also a way for the start-up to defend itself against the onslaught of car-summoning apps being released for smartphones. Sidecar and Lyft, two apps that are becoming popular, summon cars driven by ordinary citizens in exchange for “suggested donations” that are cheaper than the luxury sedans that work with Uber. (Drivers for Lyft make them easily identifiable in San Francisco by mounting a hot pink mustache on their bumpers.)

To compete more aggressively on price, Uber recently started operating in yellow cabs in some cities, including San Francisco and New York. And it offers UberX, a feature that allows people to summon private car services that use hybrid cars or livery vehicles that are cheaper than luxury sedans. UberX also allows people to summon community drivers, similar to Lyft and Sidecar, in cities where it is allowed.

Now fare-splitting can also help lower costs for passengers, said Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber. “With UberX as cheap as it is, there are some trips, split over four people, which can be cheaper than the bus,” he said.

Why Web Reviewers Make Up Bad Things

It’s pretty clear exactly who writes fake positive reviews on the Web: friends or relatives of the author or the shop or restaurant owner, or sometimes the author or shop owner himself. The goal of fake positive reviews is to increase sales, and the reviewers are the ones who benefit, or want their friends to benefit.

But who writes fake negative reviews, denouncing stuff without any obvious reason? The usual assumption is that the perpetrators are competitors of some sort, hoping to get an edge on other novelists or chefs or innkeepers. But are there really so many nasty people in the world who need to get some slight advantage by tearing down the restaurant one block over? The question has been shrouded in mystery.

Until now. A fascinating new academic study sheds light on the fake negative review, finding not only that the source is totally unexpected but also that the problem is much bigger than a few malicious operators.

It turns out that competitors are not necessarily the ones giving one miserable star to products they did not buy or experiences they did not have. Customers do it â€" in fact, devoted customers.

This is hard to wrap your brain around, so first some background. The study was done by Eric Anderson of Northwestern University and Duncan Simester of the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, using data from an unnamed apparel company that markets through catalogs, a few stores and a Web site. The company does not use third-party sellers and few of its products turn up on eBay, so it provided a relatively controlled experiment.

Registered customers wrote over 325,000 reviews in the study period. But for 16,000 of those reviews, there is no evidence that the customer bought the item. These reviews are on balance much more negative. (Could the items have been gifts, which could explain a higher level of dissatisfaction? No, the reviewers explicitly said they bought the items. The researchers were also able to rule out other possibilities, such as the negative reviews’ being attributable to differences among items or among reviewers.)

The researchers cannot say directly what the comments look like that accompany these reviews, because then it would be possible to do a Web search and identify the company. But Mr. Simester said they are something like this:

- I should have read all of the negative reviews before ordering. Please bring back the old style.

- I ordered this item over your Web site. Why is it that good designs are always changed? Please go back to the original.

- I am on a “Made in the USA” campaign and so am returning this item. Please stop importing.

The cranky customers are acting, the study concludes, as “self-appointed brand managers.” To put it another way, they are venting. The review forum gives them a simple and direct means of doing so: I hated this product, so listen to me.

As Mr. Simester put it in an interview: “Your best friends are your worst critics.” The study mentions in passing that Harley-Davidson’s customers were upset when the company introduced a perfume. They took it personally. The same phenomenon seems to be operating here and, perhaps, all over the Web, distorting the review process in a way never imagined.

The apparel retailer was somewhat alarmed to discover this was going on, Mr. Simester said. One possible solution is to allow customers to write reviews only if they have purchased the product. Or give customers easier ways to let their feelings be known.

For the rest of us, the rule remains the same: read reviews if you have no other source of information, but never place your full trust in them. Mr. Simester, who says he has never written a review himself, follows this philosophy.

The other conclusion is that behavior online is too easily taken as a mirror of reality when it is nothing of the sort. What seems to be the voice of the masses is the voice of a self-appointed few, magnified and distorted.

“For every thousand customers, only about 15 write these reviews â€" and one of them is writing negative reviews of products he hasn’t bought,” Mr. Simester said. “How surprised should we be that one out of a thousand people do something we have trouble understanding?”

Wrangling Over ‘Do Not Track’

After nearly two years of negotiations over how to put in effect a standardized “Do Not Track” mechanism for online users, Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla, along with some consumer and privacy groups, have lined up against the online advertising industry.

The parties have been wrangling over how to provide a uniform option, called Do Not Track, that would allow individuals to opt out of having information about their online actions collected, retained and analyzed for purposes - like ads tailored to user behavior - not directly related to their activities.

Browsers including Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox already include such Do Not Track options for users. Until the ad industry, technology firms and advocacy groups come to an agreement, however, the don’t-track-me browser settings represent little more than symbolic consumer flags that companies are free to ignore. An international Web standards body called the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, is overseeing the working group that has been trying to reach a consensus on the mechanism.

But last week, a variety of participants rejected a last-minute proposal spearheaded by the Digital Advertising Alliance, or D.A.A., an industry self-regulatory body, that would have defined the Do Not Track option as prohibiting ad networks from retaining the URLs of the sites a user visited, but permitting the categorization or scoring of users based on their browsing activities.

“Mozilla doesn’t believe the D.A.A. proposal aligns with user expectations of a Do Not Track feature, and it is a step in the wrong direction for any privacy technology,” Sid Stamm, the lead privacy engineer at Mozilla, wrote in his response. People are choosing the Do Not Track browser setting, Mr. Stamm said, because “they want unauthorized data collection and tracking to stop. Making a weaker standard where collection continues as-is and compliant service providers only claim to use the data for fewer things would clearly be ignoring these widespread pleas.”

Yahoo and Nielsen, along with advertising and marketing industry groups, rejected a proposal put forward in June by Peter Swire with Matthias Schunter, the co-chairs of the W3C working group, as too stringent to be workable. Mr. Swire is a law professor at Ohio State University, and Mr. Schunter is chief technologist at the Intel Collaborative Research Institute for Secure Computing.

“The June draft doesn’t provide for a framework that will likely be adopted by much, if any, of the online ecosystem that relies on advertising to monetize their free services - which is the vast majority of online user engagement today,” Shane Wiley, the vice president of privacy and data governance at Yahoo, wrote in his objection. “The working group should appropriately leverage the option that has the greatest chance of mass, global adoption, which is the D.A.A. proposal.”

Working group participants say they expect the co-chairmen to issue a decision taking participants’ objections into account in the next few days. Mr. Swire did not return e-mails seeking comment.

Among the contentious issues the co-chairs are expected to weigh in on is the very definition of “Do Not Track.” That is whether users who activate the don’t-track-me features will only be able to opt out of receiving targeted advertising - an option offered already by the digital ad industry - or whether they will also be able to restrict some data-mining of their online activities.

In fact, some participants in the W3C negotiations have contended that data collection itself, not advertising based on user data harvesting, has the potential to harm consumers.

Witness this exchange last year between Mr. Wiley of Yahoo, who argued that data usage was the issue, not data collection, and David Singer, a multimedia and software standards expert at Apple, who disagreed.

“The issue,” Mr. Wiley wrote, “is that those records don’t represent your behavior unless someone uses them to try to determine your behavior”

Mr. Singer responded:

They may represent my behavior and then become available to someone who I never agreed could know anything about me. Isn’t that one of the essences of privacy - being able to choose who knows what about you? *Secrecy* is choosing things that *no-one* will know about me. Privacy is at least partly having some say over who knows what about you, isn’t it? Yes, the actual harm happens when you become aware through some negative impact of that unwanted information, but the privacy problem is with the information, not the later harm.

If the local drugstore keeps records of my nonprescription purchases, and later my insurance company discovers from them that I buy a lot of painkillers, and they later deny me health coverage because they suspect I have a condition, when did the privacy problem occur? It’s somewhere in the keeping of records and their being available to the insurance company, isn’t it? The denial of coverage (the thing I see) is (‘just’) a symptom.

In Fighting for His Company, Dell Aims to Reclaim Legacy as Founder

Michael S. Dell wants to take his company private and retool it without quarterly earnings pressure. After Dell Inc. missed the shift to mobile, he has his work cut out for him.

Daily Report: Stores Use Cameras and Cellphone Signals to Track Shoppers

Retailers are increasingly using technology to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behavior and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it, Stephanie Clifford and Quentin Hardy report in The New York Times.

All sorts of retailers â€" including national chains, like Family Dollar, Cabela’s and Mothercare, a British company, and specialty stores like Benetton and Warby Parker â€" are testing technologies that and using them to decide on matters like changing store layouts and offering customized coupons.

But while consumers seem to have no problem with cookies, profiles and other online tools that let e-commerce sites know who they are and how they shop, some bristle at the physical version, at a time when government surveillance â€" of telephone calls, Internet activity and Postal Service deliveries â€" is front and center because of the leaks by Edward J. Snowden.

“Way over the line,” one consumer posted to Facebook in response to a local news story about Nordstrom’s efforts at some of its stores. Nordstrom says the counts were made anonymous. Technology specialists, though, say the tracking is worrisome.

“The idea that you’re being stalked in a store is, I think, a bit creepy, as opposed to, it’s only a cookie â€" they don’t really know who I am,” said Robert Plant, a computer information systems professor at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, noting that consumers can rarely control or have access to this data.