Security v. Convenience

I’ve had my credit card credentials stolen a few times. Each time it has been a mostly minor convenience but still unsettling.

As a result, I am happy to see the new chipped credit cards and the chip-reading scanners to go with them. I don’t know how difficult this system is to crack, but I have noticed one minor annoyance: the card must stay in the machine for the entire transaction. I imagine this is so that the cryptographic challenge and response can be brokered all the way back to the credit card clearing agency and not just locally on the reader device. This should improve security, since we don’t have to worry about shoving our cards in compromised devices.

There is a catch, though. In the old world, you scanned your card and could put it back in your wallet while the (typically very slow) interaction with the credit card company continued on in parallel. Now, your wallet needs to remain out until the transaction is complete.

It bugs me. I guess, it’s just a very minor way in which the modern world is not as good as what we had before, and a reminder why though everyone likes security, nobody likes security.

Zero Net ${bad_thing}

James Bushnell has a nice little piece on why economists do not get super enthused about “zero net energy” or whatever we’re zeroing today.

I tend to agree with him, but as usual with my interactions with economists, I’m a bit more angled to think of policy in a political context.

Yes, mathematically and logically, if you want to manage carbon or whatever, it is always better (or strictly speaking, never worse) to optimize over a larger system than a smaller system. That is, it is better to have a zero-net-energy neighborhood than a neighborhood of zero-net-energy homes, and it is better to have a zero-net-energy country than a bunch of zero-net-energy states.

But one needs to account of human behavior.

  1. All politics is local. You can affect smaller things and you can see the effect of smaller things. This does not work for climate change, but … that’s what’s so hard about climate change.
  2. Bushnell points out that “zero promotes a fiction of self-sufficiency,” but I think he actually has it exactly backwards. People, Americans in particular, have a love affair with the fiction of self-sufficiency and that can be used to sell anything, including net-zero policies.

The end of the beginning of data privacy?

I don’t really understand exactly what is afoot in the EU regarding data privacy, or if it is the right thing. But I’m pretty sure I’m happy they’re taking a crack at it and hope the results work out well for end users.

I do believe that the Silicon Valley approach of “click to accept our terms, take it or leave it, and we can change the terms at any time,” deserves to die. Most human beings (some would say all) are not lawyers, and are not in a position to be weigh the infinite-term implications of their first tweet or FB post. Moreover, as most of us are not futurists (and even the best futurists are terrible at it) nobody can understand the ways their data may be used against them in future, as yet never imagined scenarios. Yes, rules will slow down SV innovation, particularly when the rules are in flux. It may well be worth it.

What worries me more is that rules will eventually benefit the largest companies like Google and Facebook, which can easily build whatever infrastructure is necessary to comply, whereas upstarts may have a hard time. There is ample evidence that regulation has a funny way of ultimately benefiting incumbents, even if they complain the most when it is first suggested.




I do not want this blog to be overtly political, but I’m already bending my rule. I have to post this.

I recommend everyone take a gander at this floor speech that Ted Cruz made last week.

Policy aims aside, this speech is from an unhinged person. An unhinged sitting US Senator, that is. My better half suggested that this is just rhetoric to fire up his constituents. But it is more, as it outlines the real strategy his caucus persues.

His caucus’s simple reality is they lack the votes to enact their agenda. So, democracy aside, he’ll just take the whole country hostage, for its long-term benefit, presumably.

I dunno. I find it stunning and extremely un-conservative.

For better or worse, the US has a two-party political system. It won’t work if a faction of one of the parties wants to play global thermonuclear war every time they don’t get their way.

Reading, writing, and refactoring?

I saw today that Ramm Emanuel thinks every high schooler in Chicago should learn to code. The folks on Slashdot think it’s a really bad idea.

I’m with Ramm. The point of teaching all young people to code is not to create an army of coders. In fact, I think the world would probably be better off with an Army of Darkness than a bunch of people with one high school class in programming writing software.

But that’s not the point. (Well, maybe it is Ramm’s point.) I would say that most people don’t use trigonometry much, nor do most people write term papers in their daily lives. But those things are worth being exposed to. They teach you how to think abstractly and how to organize ideas for consumption by someone else. Moreover, even if math is hard for you, you hopefully learned that it’s not mysterious or magical. Same goes for writing.

And so it should be with computers. People should feel that they understand them at some basic level, that they know what programming is, and is not. It will help them make better choices in life about computers and software. And those choices come fast and furious these days.

Worse than TV?

The New York Times ran an article last week on the cost of mobile ads. I’m surprised it did not raise more eyebrows.

In it, they counted all the data transferred when accessing articles from various websites, and categorized it by ad-related and content-related. What they found was that on average, more than half the bits go to ads; in some cases, way more than half.

But I think it’s worse, because, aside from download time, the article doesn’t go into the computational resources consumed by ads. To a first approximation, a static webpage should only use the CPU needed to render, and after that, nothing. But ad-infused webpage continue to use the CPU doing all manner of peek-a-boo’s, hey-there’s, delayed starts, etc.  This is taking your time and your battery life. If your phone has a non-replaceable battery, it’s also taking your phone life.

A few observations:

  • This is worse than television. On TV, content was 22 minutes of every 30. That makes 27% advertising by bandwidth. I recognize that there was advertising embedded in the content, as well.
  • This is worse than the article implies since so much web content is paginated, meaning you have to pay the ad penalty several times to see the content.
  • Ads effect wealthy users, who are more likely to have high-performance phones and high-bandwidth data plans, less than poorer users. Wealthy users will spend less time waiting for content and less time looking at pages to load. This also is different from TV.
  • A lot of editorial web content is of very low quality (again, subjectively, worse than TV because with TV you needed to attract some non-trivial audience and hold it) and even that is covered with ads. In fact, like radio, it seems like rather than having the prevalence of advertising correlate directly with the cost of production and delivery, it correlates somewhat negatively.
  • There is a game on between ad-blockers and advertisers that seems to have a Nash Equilibrium at a very bad place. That is, the ads are getting much more aggressive and taking more and more resources, and the countermeasures to avoid them are getting similarly aggressive, and there seems to be no clear bottom.

More than one person has explained to me that the ad-driven web is a fact of life, like gravity, and that we must all accept it. I’m not so sure. Better outcomes do seem possible. One might be micropayments, allowing people to access content on a per-click basis without the need for ad revenue. It was tried and failed. Maybe the situation was just not bad enough yet?

Another alternative would be for media to aggregate into subscription-based syndicates. Perhaps that will result in a two-tiered “free” and “paid” web that will match our stratified society.

The current trend is obviously for the web to implode leaving us with an app-based world, though I see no reason in the long term that even the best apps won’t eventually race to the bottom, as well.


Why must energy reporting always mislead?

There’s a new story on BNEF explaining how the cost of wind power is now less than any other resource in the UK and Germany. That alone is confusing, because, depending on your definition of cost, that was already the case. In fact, it’s always the case: on the margin, the cost of wind energy is $0. It’s the machine you’re paying for.

But the article is even more puzzling because it then goes on to explain that what is happening is that renewable energy generation is displacing the generation from fossil units, so that their capacity factor (that is, utilization) goes down. This makes their fixed costs a larger percentage of their total costs, and makes all-in €/MWh higher than wind’s all in €/MWh.

Okay, that makes sense as far as it goes, but there’s one complication: they still need the fossil units to make the system work. That is, as solar and wind generate more energy, you may use your coal machine less, but you can’t operate the electric power system without the coal machine. Cheap, massive, and ubiquitous storage, of course could change this, but for now, we’re not there.

So that begs the question, exactly what turning point have we reached? Building more solar and wind exacerbate this situation (I will not call it a problem) so I’m pretty unclear on what this piece is saying.

I occupy a very lonely position on renewables. I want them, I think they’re important, and I think we need much more. They can be part of solving our huge climate problem. But, unlike most boosters, I don’t think renewables are a free lunch — that is, they will be, all-in, cheaper than our current system).


When is it okay to age?

I was reading an article written by a venture capitalist the other day, in which he made it clear that any company developing software for a desktop computer was a dinosaur, and the future was absolutely, 100% mobile.

It caused neurons to fire in a region of my brain that I’ve been trying hard to suppress for the past few years. Call it to the medulla getoffmylawngotta.

I started thinking that smart phones are great when I’m, you know, on the move, but for 99% of my computing needs, I strongly prefer to sit in front of my computer with Gibibytes of memory, a huge SSD, many-cored many-issue out-of-order processor, 30″ monitor, and Apple keyboard. It’s just better.

Here’s another thing: CD’s. I liked CD’s. I bought a lot of them when I was young. I had tapes, too. CD’s were better than tapes. I never said, “oh, those CD’s aren’t as good as tapes,” but I do think it sometimes with file based music. Why? I’m smart enough to come up with solid reasons, like the fact that with a CD you really do control the music. You want to sell it or lend it to a friend? Done. Or that the CD has physical properties, which is sort of nice in and of itself. Are these arguments bogus?

Does it even matter if they’re bogus or not? They’re a sure sign that I’m starting to get old.

It all begs the question, must I continue to fight this impulse? Hiring managers in Silicon Valley hiring say hell effing yes, I must. But I’m getting tired of them, too, because I’ve seen their bullshit cult of newness for decades now, and it’s old too.

Better and new are not the same. And composing anything OVER 140 characters on a phone is pure punishment.