systems

Snowden, NSA, etc.

January 20, 2014 internet, systems No comments

It’s been a while since Edward Snowden started revealing details about the global surveillance operations of the NSA. I’ve been meaning to write down a few thoughts for a long time, but didn’t quite find the time; however they still seem interesting enough now, so let’s go.

1. Insulting the whole world

It hardly makes sense to begin without stating that these actions are insulting, disrespectful and abusive to every human being (who uses a phone, or the Internet) on the planet.

How dare the American government think they are entitled to listen in on everyone’s phone conversations, read everyone’s emails and track all other online activities.

This also goes for everyone defending these actions. How dare you?!

The reporting from the American side often makes distinctions between surveillance of American citizens, and surveillance of those who are not such citizens. Sometimes it sounds as if American citizens are more worthy of some kind of better treatment. That is of course also insulting, disrespectful and abusive.

2. Spam

When I first heared of the extensive surveillance systems, I thought, well, if they really have this much equipment and so many resources, it would be nice if they could solve a real problem: namely email spam, blog post spam, and similar.

However, they do not occur to be working on that.

One concludes that this is not high on their priorities.

3. Bittorrent

Early on, one could read that the NSA stayed away from analyzing Bittorrent traffic. Which makes a lot of sense, since there is so much of it.

On the other hand, this leaves quite a gap to set up communication channels.

4. Pair programming

Within the first few weeks there were reports that the NSA switched to Pair-programming, pair administration, etc. Basically, don’t let anyone touch the systems without someone else watching. Take turns. Call it “Access Control Layer 1?”

The reports I read, didn’t point out how natural such a policy is. It is also not necessarily more expensive, some software companies use pair programming to avoid costly mistakes, programming bugs, etc.

So one wonders whether the original access  control did not have this additional layer in order to actually allow unauthorized access. After all, Mr. Snowden did not access the system for personal gain; how many others with access were not that noble? How much easier to avoid laws and cut corners without such a layer.

Also, has this policy been reverted in the mean time? It would be possible to do so without issuing a press release, of course.

5. An extra button

Also early on, it was reported that the data that passes through the NSA’s system is enormous. On the other hand, if you look at any particular person, the data traffic they generate will most of the time be quite managable.

So I am guessing that if anyone shows up in manual surveillance (an operator inspects certain communications), they will have a button within their user interface, “Track this individual closely”. Save all that traffic for later viewing. I would estimate that adding 100 people per day would be easy to manage in terms of traffic.

6. Germany

I follow German news of course. When it was first revealed that the NSA was listening in on phone calls of the German chancellor, I thought, well at least governments have the resources to set up communications based on One-time pad encryption. Also, Germany has local chip factories  to make sure the chip does what is desired by the owner, and not what the NSA desires.

(I find the response of European governments quite weak, I think it is underestimated how easy it is to argue with Americans)

7. Logging

In the wider context of privacy on the Internet (user profiling using cookies, etc), it had occurred to me a long time ago, that such policies should also cover web server logs. After all, such logs capture some information about individuals, sometimes not too much, but in the aggregate, I think it would be useful to look into stronger protection. Such protection, in one of my thoughts, would consist in having people, and organizations, be granted a “License to Log”. Such a license would be lost in the case of illegal activities, irresponsible behaviour, and so on.

These kinds of thoughts seem to be totally useless now.

8. Metadata

It hadn’t occurred to me that what they call “metadata” is useful, but now it does seem intuitive that it is very helpful. Basically every person is placed in a circle of their acquaintances, in circles of similarities according to many different categories.

This is similar to Facebook asking users to list their favourite books and music, etc. Facebook will also benefit from this as similar metadata of its users (Who to show which ads, as the most basic example).

9. Cost

One can only feel sorry for the average American. Basically these surveillance systems cost each tax payer a few hundred dollars a year. Without any benefit to them, it would seem.

10. Balance of powers

I often hear praise for the American democracy and how there is a balance of powers.

Cannot be spotted here. It’s rather obvious that there is no supervision of the NSA. Last week it was reported that a senator inquired whether they as senators are also covered by the systems. Asking the question itself was already revealing, needless to say the answer was disappointing.

One can make the case for secret courts in democracies, but I think it is obvious that these should be only used extremely sparingly. That is not the case here.

Ok, that’s all for now. You probably have your own thoughts about this. I’m sorry I couldn’t include links everwhere. Please share below, add corrections or other comments, if you could!

 

How to use the Web completely securely and keep your communications totally private (in the year 2013)

September 7, 2013 internet, systems No comments

 











































On copyright terms and heirs

March 26, 2013 economics, systems No comments

The way copyrights have been set up is that the rights that are granted are good for a number of years past the author’s death. Creative works are generally thought to be created by real people. It wouldn’t make sense in a  macabre way to have these rights terminate when the author dies, since they can be quite valuable.

On the other hand, another motivation for such a rule is also presented: this way artists can provide for their family and children after their death; the heirs inherit the copyrights and can enjoy some income from the license fees for some definite time after. Many careers, types of work, and businesses are like that: an “asset” is built up over time, which can be passed on independently of who started it, with much effort, presumably.

So a taxi driver might pass on their business when they cannot work anymore, or a plumber. For the taxi driver, the asset would be the business licenses and the car, for the plumber mostly the list of clients, possibly the store. It’s not completely fair, in a way, since a bus driver wouldn’t have much to pass on, or a teacher.

Nevertheless, you could agree that artists should have something similar, although it is still difficult to make it work, see this techdirt article, Rethinking Handing Copyright On To Heirs Beyond Death, for example.

Now, one of the annoying things in the world of copyrights is that governments keep extending the terms (US, Europe).

I find this interferes with the heir-motivation. Here’s my thinking:

When I buy let’s say a book or music CD, it comes with copyrights, and these rights are set to expire. At the time they expire, my heirs will have rights with regards to the book or music CD. Be it to publicly perform the work, to reproduce it, distribute it, or create derivative works. All those rights are taken away by these extensions!

Locations from IP addresses and the mobile future

March 24, 2013 internet, systems No comments

Let me start with mentioning that I’m writing this post on March 24, 2013. This kind of stuff is sure to change over time.

One of the things about the Internet is that it doesn’t have location built in. You don’t get to know where someone was when they wrote you an email, website operators don’t get to know where their visitors are when they visit the site. People don’t get to know where the craigslist servers are which put all those bytes together that make up a listing, and so on, and so on.

So people try to approximate. Because it is deemed to be useful information: country, region, city, latitude, longitude, ZIP code, time zone data and more. Even if it is not absolutely reliable, you can still derive some information, some picture. Different services are available, some free, some quite inexpensive, and some quite expensive. Most come in a form of a database file that you download, after paying for a license to use the data. Periodic updates to the database are made available. Web services are also available; this is where  an IP address is submitted, over the Internet itself, to the service provider, and they immediately respond with their location data for this address. You can read more about IP Address Location at wikipedia.

Of course, these services don’t work when people use so called proxies and VPN‘s. In fact, proxies are set up precisely for the purpose of fooling services which are ordinarily restricted by location (e.g. for accessing Netflix or Spotify from non-US locations) into handing over the goods. Such proxies are not particularly costly to use.

Now, when you look at determining location for mobile devices, these models become quite questionable. Surely the network is not aligned with city boundaries, and surely a mobile device’s Internet address does not change smoothly as you move about. Of course, you can move faster than a database update.

So I thought I’d try out different IP Address location services – with my mobile device, using the “Data Plan,” not our home’s router or Wifi. I was in Vancouver, British Columbia, most definitely, the whole time.

Results

Source Reported Location
http://www.ip2location.com/demo Calgary, Alberta
http://www.iplocation.net/ Calgary, Alberta
http://www.ipaddressguide.com/ip2location Calgary, Alberta
http://ipinfodb.com/index.php Calgary, Alberta
http://www.maxmind.com/en/geoip_demo Toronto, Ontario
http://www.infosniper.net/ Toronto, Ontario
http://www.ipligence.com/geolocation Vancouver
http://www.geobytes.com/IpLocator.htm?GetLocation Vancouver, BC
http://freegeoip.net/ Vancouver, BC
http://showip.net/ Vancouver, BC (this is said to be based on the free version of MaxMind, the paid version of which placed me in Toronto)
http://www.hostip.info/ “Location: … actually we haven’t a clue.”

So, you see, some got it right, and some did not. (I didn’t even bother to read or record the latitude/longitude that were given in some cases.)

Car Collisions at Hastings and Kamloops

January 12, 2012 economics, generic, systems No comments

I walk my daughters to school, once or twice a week (my partner takes them on the other days). It’s ten blocks. They wake up early, so it’s mostly a stroll, no rush; about ten blocks through the quiet side streets.

On the way back I take a different route, along the busy Hastings Street in East Vancouver.

Three times in the last few months, an accident happened at the intersection with Kamloops Street. Car crashes. The first one was while I was at the intersection, talking to a friend at the traffic light.

The third one was the most severe. It happened yesterday, January 11, 2012; this time I had a camera with me:

Hastings Street goes from left to right in this picture, and Kamloops from the top to bottom-left; top is South, right is East. The “other car” had already been moved out of the intersection. Here’s a Streetview link.

I don’t know if anyone was hurt. There was an ambulance, but no movement around it.

All three accidents happened when the 3-lane traffic along Hastings is stopped through a traffic light, so that pedestrians can cross, and cars can cross that are going along Kamloops Street. The cars coming from Kamloops/South collide with cars going East on Hastings. Either the Kamloops cars cross too early or too late, or the Hastings cars ignore/fail to notice the traffic light. I don’t really know.

Now with passing this intersection twice a week over ca. 12 weeks (school started in September), and coming across 3 accidents, it seemed to me the other 3 days of a week should generate the same number of accidents, so it would come to 3 (accidents) * 3 (other days) / 2 (“my” days) = 4.5 “other accidents”, for a total of 7.5 accidents in ca. 3 months. Statisticians will probably point out that this is not a good estimate. But let’s make it 7 accidents in 3 months, or 7 *4 = 28 accidents in a year.

Statistics / Mapped

That seemed like a lot to me. So I asked another friend if he knows where to get more definite statistics from the city. He pointed me to one of his contacts, who in turn remembered a recent map put together by Eric Promislow:

ICBC Car Collisions 2006-10: A Google Map Visualization

It displays accident counts by intersection for the City of Vancouver, for the years 2006 to 2010. He obtained the numbers from the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) – who get the reports from the police.

Nicely done, Eric.

So, for the intersection of Hastings Street and Kamloops Street, there were 117 collisions reported between 2006 and 2010. By year, the counts break down like this:

2006: 17
2007: 23
2008: 25
2009: 25
2010: 27

Interpretation

So, a more or less regular pattern. One collision roughly every two weeks, for the last 4 years. Predictable. Regular. If you take a look at Eric’s map, you’ll see there are quite a lot of intersections with even more collisions. (In fact, just one block west on Hastings Street, the intersection with Nanaimo Street has many more accidents: 300 for the period, but I never saw anything of those.)

It almost looks like the only ones to be surprised about any of those collisions would be the participants, bystanders and witnesses. When I mentioned the first two accidents to some friends from the area, they said, yes, there are crashes there “all the time.”

Now my calculation from above looks spot-on: I estimated 28 accidents for 2011, and there were 27 recorded for 2010. But all accidents that I counted occurred around 9 o’clock in the morning, since I was walking home from the school.

So I thought, if Eric had the data by time of day, I would be able to compare. But he didn’t. He wrote, “ICBC withholds finer-grained info, claims privacy issues.”

Questions

I have a few questions:

  1. Do the accidents at the intersection of Hastings and Kamloops Street occur mostly around 9 o’clock?
  2. Do the morning accidents at the intersection of Hastings and Kamloops Street occur mostly when a car crosses from the South along Kamloops, and the other car is going East on Hastings?
  3. Do  intersections with a similar number of collisions have anything in common? What kinds of commonalities?
  4. Does it make sense to blame the accidents only on the individuals involved?
  5. Does the City of Vancouver track this data and analyze for prevention?
  6. Does the City of Vancouver carry any responsibility?
  7. What aspects of an intersection can be improved?
  8. How many hours of additional driver training reduce the number of accidents by how much (regular training, one-time training)?
  9. How many km/h of speed limit reduction result in which reduction in the number of accidents?

About point 3: due to the large numbers of existing collision-prone intersections, and the predictability of collisions occuring, if indeed commonalities exist then one can try out different strategies to lower the numbers, and compare what works and what doesn’t, for example with A/B Testing. Better than doing nothing (my impression). Especially if you think across several cities. I’m not aware of this happening.

Another friend of mine pointed out that causing an accident is not (even) considered a crime. I think that would go a bit far, mainly because establishing who is at cause is quite difficult. But I think it’s worth noting: causing damage, and potentially traumatizing, if not physically hurting, innocent bystanders is actually legally sanctioned to that degree. The proven (proven by statistics such as these) risks are accepted or better, ignored by car drivers.

On the other hand, if 6. was legally accepted, and the City of Vancouver would have to pay for their share of responsibility in a lot of the accidents, I think it would not be able to afford keeping the streets open.

Also, thinking further about this I noticed that car insurance companies are compromised in the sense that for them, the more accidents, the better: more business, more revenue, more stability, more profits. As far as I know, in British Columbia, ICBC is not privately owned and controlled, so that should help working these problems out.

Oh, well

You know what? I just realized, there were two other accidents on the other side of the intersection in the last few days. But I came across these when picking up my daughters from school, on the way home, so shortly after 3 o’clock. This is getting a bit much. And 2011 looks even worse for this intersection, because my estimate should be based on higher observation counts.

But most of all, I prefer and recommend walkingcycling or taking the bus: that’s what I call civilized.

Update August 2013

One and a half years later. Things change. I witnessed no more accidents. Didn’t check the statistics though. Writing this post made a difference?

Of mice and traps

December 19, 2011 bc, economics, systems No comments

Two or three summers ago, we had problems with mice in our house. We have a live trap, sometimes it works. When there are not too many mice, it is quite all right.

I usually get the task to empty it, which is not much of a big deal. I take it to a sports field that is half a block away. After opening the trap, the mouse jumps out. The first two times, crows snatched up the mouse pretty quickly. So now I usually stay around for a while, and the mouse manages to disappear in the grass.

This time, while I was waiting, a man came by, walking his dog. He asked, so I explained, yes, it’s a mouse trap.

He became really angry. i was shocked, because to me it was all really harmless. He asked whether I knew that dogs use the field. He asked if he should call the police. I said yes, since he was pretty intimidating in his anger. Of course, he didn’t. I didn’t know what he was so angry about, I was just glad when he finally left.

Funny thing, and I did notice something odd during this confrontation, when I returned home with the trap, I thought to check it, and actually, yes, the mouse had returned to the trap.

I took it back right away (Mr. Angry wasn’t around anymore).

Later, thinking this over, the only explanation I came up with was that I never mentioned to him that it was a live trap; he may have thought it is a glue trap, or some kind of poison trap. I guess, in his mind, he would not like his dog to sniffle into one of those. So, at the time, using one of those was quite outside of my horizon. At the same time I think a live trap was completely outside of his horizon. Hence the dispute.

Exterminator

The live trap didn’t work well enough. After a few months we got an exterminator to help.

He was a nice man, and we had a friendly conversation about mice and this and that, so at the end I thought I’d ask him a question that I had been wondering about, especially with the saying in mind, “building a better mouse trap”: What would he think a mouse trap designed by Steve Jobs would look like?

He said, “Oh, the guy who does Microsoft?”

Well, no, that’s not who I meant. I think that would be quite a horrible trap. Spreading viruses comes to mind.

Nice

Quite a while later, I told an acquaintance about the exterminator and the Steve Jobs disconnect. She was super excited about the idea of a mouse trap designed by Steve Jobs himself. She said, it would be so nice and elegant, you would want to put one in every room of your home.

Accounting for a better world

December 30, 2010 economics, generic, systems No comments

In another weak moment I was pondering progress and whether in some sense people have become better, or the world has become better. It’s a huge topic of course, look it up through a Google search, “Is the world improving?” It will show you a lot of pessimism. On the other hand, Noam Chomsky, an unusually harsh critic (which is excellent since he knows and understands so much), said “Slowly, over time, the world is becoming more civilized, in general“.

My immediate prompt was seeing all this technology around me, an “iphone” here, SSD memory there, oodles of websites with free photos, people coming up with new stuff like bitcoin, quora, about.me, groklaw.net, some dubstep music. It adds up, and it made me think how fast everything is nowadays, and whether people were really slower in the past. There is no one around coming up with loads of, for example, impressive symphonies or novels anymore, as far as I know. There’s loads of average products that one hears about, like for example, Windows Vista. I think being prolific doesn’t quite mean the same anymore. So it’s not clear cut to me.

How to measure?

Now my pondering led me to think about how could one measure this, how could one find an objective answer, how to do a better job at resolving the question. A connection with my personal ongoing tasks of filing tax returns led to this: as you’re probably aware, accountants are updated about all kinds of goings-on in a business. Wouldn’t it be nice if one could look up the “books” of fifty years ago, 25 years ago, and find “the data”.

I run a small company, The Buckmaster Institute, Inc, and I can well see how accounting is useful, if only in providing one perspective. Every little piece counts, after all. I can understand the accountant’s approach, I have learned from conversations with some professionals. I know about software and how it is used for accounting. I have recommended against the naive use of spreadsheets (still need to write those stories up). I have personal insights into the amount of effort that goes into accounting.

Resource Allocation

Have you heard about economists talk about “resource allocation”? For example, free markets are declared to be good at “allocating resources efficiently” by to some of those economists. Then this improvement in resource allocation should show up in the “books”, no? In as much as a drop in the efficient allocation of resources would be a sign that the world is getting worse, we might find evidence for the world improving in the financial statements of the businesses of today. Compare the figures to the financial statements from decades ago and we would see whether the world is getting better, maybe only in some small area. But it would be a start.

Doesn’t work

I think you’ll agree it’s not going to work. They very likely didn’t record the right numbers and amounts.

Should we call it -1 points for the accountants? Or would you go so far as assessing a full  -10 points?

Or do you disagree? Please elaborate by posting a comment below; that would be exciting to learn about! If you think a mere comment would not do your insights justice, please contact me (@stephanwehner on twitter, and we’ll take it from there)

Related Questions

Other slightly related questions that I have not been able to resolve are:

  • What are the recent breakthroughs in the accounting world?
  • Who are the heroes of accounting (what Steven Hawking is to black holes)?
  • Who do young accountants look up to and draw their inspiration from?
  • What are the present “open problems” in accounting? Which obstacles are hindering the full bloom of the profession?
  • Whither accounting: Is there a roadmap? Or is it all just  happy-go-lucky?

Help!

Any hint or pointer would be greatly appreciated! Don’t think your insight might be insignificant. Please don’t think there is a limit on space or time, and we cannot handle all responses. Please help by leaving a comment now. Thanks so much.

Couple of thoughts about evolution and economics

August 19, 2010 economics, systems No comments

I saw a documentary about Charles Darwin a few months ago. I think it was part  of David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things.

Evolution and natural selection are of course endless topics with many different and interesting aspects. So I’m writing here about a few thoughts that occurred to me while watching the documentary. Please leave corrections or pointers to related articles in the comments, if I got something wrong or missed something!

So, I used to think this was a good way to think of natural selection: Let’s say your eating potato chips, then towards the end, the bag has only small chips − the big ones are more likely to be pulled out. I’m sure this corresponds with your personal experience. Pretty intuitive isn’t it?

Well, watching the documentary, I realized that it’s not that easy. The potato chips example is primitive in the way that the chips don’t change over the time. They don’t interact while you’re eating. This simplicity might make it a good example, but it really doesn’t capture enough of the phenomenon.

The curious thing to me about evolution and economics is that I got the picture that people learned about evolution and what marvelous creatures are produced by simply letting natural selection do its work. Just around that time (late 19th century) it became popular to think: Why not build society on this principle? Let the best survive, why bother with the inferior (apply to employees/products/politicians/strategies)

And in as much as the theories that evolved (it might be fair to say this thinking led to neoclassical  economics) may be behind a lot of amazing features and products of modern society, I think overall there is also a sense of profound failure.

So what I wanted to write about here, is that in fact, these economic theories did not actually copy over the findings of evolutionary studies.

You see, there is  this distinction that biologists make between sexual and asexual reproduction. What biologists are telling us is that sexual reproduction can produce better organisms, better in the sense that they are more likely to survive, or better in the sense that they fill the available “space” more completely, are bigger, stronger, and more complex overall. (In general, what makes natural selection so general is that what “better” means is very open, and cannot be preconceived)

(Usually you think of sexual reproduction as it involving a male and a female producing offspring. A simpler variation of asexual reproduction may be that it simply takes two, instead of just one organism, to reproduce.)

Sexual reproduction can be viewed as unfair on an individual level, but also as a bad idea on a species level. After all, its form is: if a pair of individuals have the same sex, then they cannot mate, they cannot have any offspring; no matter what, and there are no exceptions. Who cares how superior they are, and even if they are the two best individuals of the species: tough luck.

So here’s a question: what would be the analogous set up of sexual reproduction in economics?

Here is one way: you divide the economic population (people + organizations) into red and blue people.  Red people can only work for blue people, and vice versa. Red people can only buy from blue people, and vice versa. What on earth would that look like? I really don’t know. At first glance, you might call this a sophisticated variation of racism—horror. However, biologists are hinting this might be a better system. Overall, the population is going to have a stronger economy; individuals get to follow their rational preferences,  maximize their utilites, while companies maximize profits, and everyone just acts independently on the basis of full and relevant information.

However, since I already mentioned neoclassical economics, I think the form of sexual reproduction, with its strong “You cannot mate” can also be found in the big pain point of the corporate world: regulations. After all regulations put constraints on what corporations can do. You have probably often personally heared about complaints from the business world. (In fact do they complain about anything else, besides taxes?) However, what we see in natural selection is that even the most basic, and brutally unfair, rule such as we find in sexual reproduction can actually work out.

a sign-up-form lesson

September 7, 2009 systems No comments

I came across mail.yeah.net, from a Chinese Internet provider, and thought I’d try out their free email service, and see how that would work out.

The sign up form was full of Chinese characters, naturally, still I could type in my name, fill in the password, date of birth etc. But after about 10 fields or so, I got to this section:

Screenshot from sign up form

Screenshot from the yeah.net sign up form

Now I was kind of stuck. I went to Google / Translate and and pasted in the label, and clicked the “Translate” button:

Screen shot from Google Translate

Screen shot from Google Translate

Please type in the characters above! — a CAPTCHA field — of course! Now I was definitely stuck, and gave up! (I don’t know Chinese characters, nor do I know how to produce them with my keyboard)

I’ve been putting CAPTCHAs on some websites myself, to keep out spam and abuse; see

My friends tell me often that they don’t like it when they have to tackle those CAPTCHAs (this is why I thought of the CAPTCHA for the stephansmap sign up form: it is supposed to entertain, as far as my entertainment talents go in terms of computer graphics.) But it definitely stops the spammers.

So with yeah.net I got to see this all from a different perspective.

democratic alternative action now

May 5, 2009 systems No comments

Over here in British Columbia (“B.C.” – also known as “Bring Cash”), it’s election time. (I can’t vote for lack of citizenship, but that is another story.) This time, like last time, there is also a referendum on “Electoral Reform”, to switch to the Single Transferable Vote system (oh boy, they even have a video).

On the weekend I remembered a few ideas I had some years ago about alternatives to the ordinary democratic arrangement. I could recall two but I knew there were three; it took a visit to the Wise Hall to recover the third one: it was a friend’s favourite from when I passed it by her at the time.

None of these are likely to work as such; I think it’s nice to ponder though. Here they are, enjoy:

1. “Copy and Paste”

Instead of maintaining a parliament for your city, province or country, just copy the laws some other parliament comes up with and make them your own. They pass a new law, it becomes yours too. They remove one, its gone for you. Why would you think you can do better than they? Save the time and effort! Usually no one is happy with their parliament anyway.

2. “Everyone is a Minister”

Instead of maintaining a government, divide up all its functions among the constituents. There will be a long list of small areas and responsibilities. Assign each of these areas and responsibilities to one person only: no arguments, they have all the say in their area. If you see something that’s wrong there’s exactly one person to complain to.

Ordinarily, ministers are appointed because of who they know, instead of what they know. After ten years every one of the mini-ministers will be an expert in their field, and do a much better job.

3. “The Less Power, the More Votes”

Usually each person gets one vote. However, some people already have a lot of power over other people’s lives. For example, a store manager has eight hours a day to have things their way. CEO’s of big companies may have thousands of people follow their lead.

At election time, this is reversed. For each person, add up the number of hours times the number of people, for an election period, that they control those other people. If a person controls people that control other people, add the hours from the middle person to the one at the top. The more hours a person is assigned, the less their vote counts.