NSA Snoops

June 27, 2013

This whole NSA melodrama is rather interesting. Once again a disgruntled government employee has leaked juicy top secret documents, and the fallout has divided politicians roughly along that quirky libertarian/authoritarian axis. Meanwhile, the public is freaking out because privacy online is an illusion, and Big Brother has been watching all along. George Orwell was right! We didn’t listen!

Along with several other people, I’m not exactly surprised by this revelation. What does the NSA even do if not this? How else does a company like Palantir make money? Are people actually surprised that planning crimes on Facebook is not a solid business plan?

Less obviously, why would anyone expect an ad-supported media company to stand up for privacy rights or whatever the libertarians want? People are acting like this is the cyberspace equivalent of strong-arming banks in order to search everyone’s safety deposit boxes. I’d suggest that it’s closer to reading people’s mail and rooting through their garbage. If someone invented a cheap stealth robot to do exactly that, do you really think the NSA wouldn’t be their top customer?

Signals intelligence is a sketchy business, whether or not you agree with the tactics. Most contractors who are not fleeing the country probably figured that out a long time ago.


March 16, 2013

Here’s a quote from H.L. Mencken that caught my attention:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

I guess I’ve always been a bit amused by hobgoblins, having seen quite a lot of them influence American pop culture firsthand. This isn’t to say that none of these scare stories have any basis in reality, or that I have always seen through the hype. However, it will be fun to maintain an official List of Hobgoblins that this millenial remembers. Here it is:

Nuclear Winter, Pollution, Japanese Manufacturing, Ozone Depletion, Saddam Hussein, Ecological Collapse, Skynet, Global Warming, Y2K, Terrorists, SARS, Russian Hackers, Nazi George Bush, Mexicans, Illuminati Bankers, Genetically Modified Food, Hyperinflation, Climate Change, Nazi Barack Obama, Ocean Acidification, Chinese Hackers, Nuclear Meltdowns, Bath Salts, Climate Disruption, Planet X, Budget Cuts…

The list approximates a chronology, and it will be updated.

The Touchscreen Paradigm

January 21, 2013

Programming is evolving faster than ever. In recent years, mobile platforms have broken the software market wide open, and most implications of this disruption are yet to be discovered. However, some effects are already obvious. Software has transcended the limitations of mouse/keyboard/gamepad input, since mobile devices integrate touchscreens with cameras, microphones, speakers, and wireless connections. I call this “the touchscreen paradigm” but it refers to all of those now-standard inputs and outputs.

This hardware generalizes to an unprecedented number of applications. A typing keyboard can be simulated by key images on the touchscreen, although that experience has decidedly inferior ergonomics. Mouse clicks are replaced by touchscreen taps, and while this system has no provision for “hover” interactions, other forms of mouse control are improved. Drawing is very awkward with a mouse, since the brain has to map the mousepad surface to the display in real-time. Touchscreens eliminate this problem, and in fact they are functionally similar to high-end drawing tablets with integrated screens that have been available for some time. Wacom, a manufacturer of these computer accessories, now sells a high-end stylus that integrates with mobile software.

Other applications go beyond anything that is possible with a mouse and keyboard. Multiple finger touches can be processed at once, making “Minority Report” interfaces easy to build in software. Microsoft put significant capital into a tabletop touchscreen computer called the Surface Table (re-branded as the PixelSense). However, similar interfaces can be added to mobile devices with software, such as this Photo Table application. Fortunately for independent developers, the barriers to entry in mobile software are very low because standard hardware already exists.

These examples barely begin to fill the space of possible touchscreen applications. My phone is already a feature-rich camera, an “FM” radio, a guitar tuner, an SSH client, and a flashlight. Those products have been manufactured before with dedicated hardware, but mobile software is also being used to invent completely new technology. Products which require a touchscreen, audio/video input/output, or an internet connection can be built entirely in software and sold as mobile applications.

As a software engineer, this is obviously a good thing. However, the sheer number of new applications that are possible on mobile platforms presents an intimidating problem: what to build next? Customers might be able to describe what they’d pay for, but they don’t always know what they’ll want to buy in the future. The first generation of application programmers probably experienced a similar feeling. It’s inspiring and terrifying at the same time.

Global Whining

November 28, 2012

The scientific method is the greatest invention of the modern age. For centuries, its practitioners have transformed civilization using rational systems revealed through careful observation. Theories which have succeeded not by virtue of their popularity but because they correctly predicted unknown phenomena are especially awe-inspiring. However, predictions without rational justification or those vague enough to be confirmed by any number of observations should not earn the same recognition. I’m a huge fan of Karl Popper regarding falsification, the idea that a scientific theory must predict some observable event which would prove it wrong. This principle eliminates uncertainty regarding how specific a valid theory must be. Unfortunately, it has been ignored by some academics who claim to be scientists so that people won’t laugh at their ideas. You might have already guessed that today I’m targeting the low-hanging fruit of global warming alarmism. Prepare to be offended.

I won’t waste your attention picking apart the various temperature series, criticizing the IPCC models, or citing evidence of misconduct, not because those arguments have already been made by more qualified individuals, but because they shouldn’t even be necessary. Fundamental problems with any apocalyptic hypothesis make the whole enterprise seem ridiculous. This is what Popper says about scientific theory:

1) It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory – if we look for confirmations.
2) Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected […] an event which would have refuted the theory.
3) Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
4) A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
5) Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.

The scenarios published by climate modelers don’t qualify as scientific predictions because there is no way to falsify them – updated temperature measurements will inevitably correlate with some projections better than others. And fitting curves to historical data isn’t a valid method for predicting the future. Will the IPCC declare the CO2-H2O-feedback warming model invalid and disband if the trend in the last decade of HadCRUT3 data continues for another decade or two? How about if the Arctic ice cap survives the Summer of 2014? I’m supposed to trust these academics and politicians with billions of public dollars, before their vague predictions can be tested, because the global warming apocalypse they describe sounds more expensive? This riotous laughter isn’t meant to be insulting, we all say stupid things now and then.

Doesn’t the arrival of ScaryStorm Sandy confirm our worst environmental fears? Not if we’re still talking about Karl Popper’s science. Enlightened by the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, academics were reluctant to blame mankind for “exceptional events” only two months ago. They probably didn’t expect a hurricane to go sub-tropical and converge with a cold front as it hit New York Bight on the full moon at high tide less than six weeks later, because that kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. Informed news readers might have been expecting some coy suggestion that global warming “influences” weather systems in the rush to capitalize on this disaster. But in a caricature of sensationalism, Bloomberg splashes “IT’S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID” across a bright orange magazine cover, and suddenly enormous storm surges threaten our infrastructure again while the seas are still rising slowly and inevitably, all because of those dirty fossil fuels.

I don’t mean to say that we should actually expect scientific integrity from a stockbrokers’ tabloid, but Mike Bloomberg has really sunk to a new low. He spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt a few years ago and seemed like an average business-friendly mayor, not a shameless propagandist. I guess the soda ban was a bad omen. It’s a bit discouraging to see another newspaper endorse the panic, but then the organizers of our climate crusade have been pushing their statist agenda on broadcasters for a long time.

On Sunday, the New York Times doubled down with this ridiculous melodramatic lament, written by one talented liberal artist. Where’s a prediction about the next exceptional event, folks? Is it going to be a tornado or earthquake, or does it matter? Are there actually any rules for preaching obnoxious hindsight to believers? Can anyone suggest an observation that would falsify the theory?

What will the temperature anomaly or the concentration of carbon dioxide measure in ten years? How about one solid date for the eradication of a low-lying coastal city? If you must predict the apocalypse, it is only somewhat scientific if you can rationally argue for a deadline. And the science is only settled when the world ends (or doesn’t end) on time.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Happy 2012.

Interestingly, and almost right on cue, the free police have descended on Dalton Caldwell for following through with something as original and outside-the-box as his audacious proposal, the supremely interesting app.net alpha community (and associated API). These doubters are mostly, I don’t know, anti-technology-business-experiments or something, and I’ve decided that they simply do not understand its significance yet.

If I may hazard a guess, what these late adopters aren’t grasping is the fact that right now, app.net is a lot more expensive than the sticker price seems to suggest. The cheaper options are still closer to $1000 on the cost side for I’d say the dominant majority of its users. Do you know why? Most of them seem like they’re busy hustling some kind of profit that they can live off of, and even participating in this network, to say nothing of developing for it, is an enormous time investment! We’re putting our money down to give Dalton food and motivation, because he’s convinced us that 50 bucks a year does not matter anymore for a network with as much potential as this. I’d pay twice as much every year just for the publishing functionality, regardless of how many users stick around, and especially if they maintain this superb commitment to the product. Think about what you are actually using your money for, people! This is starting to look ridiculous – I think it’s rather undeniable that Dalton has touched one heck of a nerve here!

There is only one way that the app.net community can ever shake off the rather myopic “elitist Twitter” label that naysayers seem to be gravitating towards, and start something that I think a lot of people around the world will want. That is to prove to them what a network of interested parties can do. To that effect, I’m working on a new Chrome extension called AppAnnotate that uses the app.net API to let people annotate any web page and share notes with friends. The way of the future!

Mohawks and Media

August 11, 2012

While I am delighted to see Curiosity in Gale Crater at last, I need to write about the real media story of the month. Bobak Ferdowsi, JPL’s mohawked mission controller, watched some data arrive from Mars. I won’t even provide a link because you should already know about him.

Why is this guy so freaking awesome, all of a sudden? I’m trying to list the different ways in which it was a whopping great win:

– Punk hair at work! Hell yeah!
– Science + Mohawks = Awesome with a capital A.
– The mohawk had stars and possibly stripes. Broadcast to the whole world!
– Awesome for Persian-Americans, especially if they have really Persian names.
– He can do anything with his hair, they’re driving Curiosity around from an office.
– Engineering is suddenly cool? There’s a conspiracy theory for you amateurs.

But the greatest win of all: It seems nobody did intend that mohawk to be anything other than a cute workplace prank during an international broadcast. The Internet just decided that this mohawk guy was worth talking about, so they talked about him. SpaceX couldn’t have bought the same kind of attention for their recent mission. We’re at an important point here – institutions with the ability to manufacture popularity are going extinct.

Even crazier, mohawk guy is now a legitimate sex symbol, though it doesn’t look like he was ever interested in being one. Sorry, Bobak. Society has always been a strange beast, and it does all sorts of weird, troubling shit like this. Now the Internet is systematically breaking down all the barriers that used to preclude this kind of impulsive, even dangerous behavior. This is fantastic news on the one hand, because it means that success will be harder to cheat and existing oligarchies will lose influence. On the other hand, it’s a bit like taking a toddler out of his crib and handing him a block of kitchen knives. So we should probably be a bit more careful about the things we say and do. Bobak was, and that turned out to be a very good idea.

For me, John Q. Anonymous, it might seem a bit Orwellian, or at least annoying. But there is a promising future in store when the global community spontaneously celebrates integrity and competence – they might even be sexy someday. I’ll drink to that.


July 29, 2012

In a desperate panic, Professor Emeritus Andrew Hacker confronts mandatory math education, sending this poison pill to the New York Times:

Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

Is this really the best intermural discourse that our elites can offer? Why does this person even believe in mandatory education? What kind of absolute hypocrisy is that? Mandatory history prevents us from being a truly moral society, but you don’t see me complaining about it to the editor, do you?

Andrew, I’ll tell you something about math. Math is wonderful, easy, and infinitely useful. I don’t believe you for a second when you say that someone “can’t” do it. We all do it every hour of every day, and if our understanding doesn’t extend to those symbols we copy down from the blackboard, that is perfectly normal! The symbols suck! They were invented by obsessive-compulsive introverts with pieces of paper – that’s what mathematicians were in those days! Today, computers make it all much easier (obsessive compulsion, introversion, …) and my practiced mathematical ability earns me a comfortable salary, just like people said it would. Every child should have a similar understanding before we can expect them to make rational decisions, even by your soggy social definition of “reason.”

If you’re not convinced, I guess that’s about all I can say right now, and you’re just going to have to believe me. In my personal experience, learning math only became easy when I started ignoring the various procedures and techniques that fill in for real understanding, and addressing each topic by thinking carefully and deeply about the problem domain. With arithmetic, I’m lucky because it happened a very long time ago. I could derive and integrate equations by the 11th grade, but I didn’t actually realize what integration was until about halfway through college, and of course that was an extracurricular event. I’ve forgotten many of the required algorithms (not necessarily their C equivalents), but because, for example, I haven’t forgotten what an integral is, I can recall and relearn any of those methods in seconds, given Internet.

Think about math more, learn your multiplication tables in case Google is unavailable, and if you’re still having a lot of difficulty go find a teacher who makes sense, not a confused and bitter old man like Andrew Hacker! I’ll help you out personally if I have time, but there will be hard work involved, so be warned.


July 22, 2012

This new iOS project is essentially an experiment in direct-selling digital goods, so I’m not especially hung up on all these gnarly new questions about ads and their value, on Google and Facebook but offline as well. Yet it would be very wrong to assume that I can disregard business stuff like ad-based marketing, because ideas like MixBall will always need the attention and support of customers or fans or patrons or investors, and now that I’m pondering unanswered questions about promotion and consumer behavior, here are some random weekend advertising ideas:

– Why is the sound always overcompressed in video commercials? I mute the stream and therefore this does not seem to have the effect that the producers are intending. The only explanation I can imagine is that a lot of people walk into the next room or have a chat during commercial breaks, and either the proportion of those people is greater than the proportion of people who get annoyed by obnoxious audio quirks, or those people spend more money on advertised goods.

– I guess the colors are usually all blown out too, does that annoy visual people? Should sponsors care about this stuff?

– Can advertising work? Of course. Does most advertising work? Very different question…

– I’m not that nervous about Facebook spying on and then advertising to me based on my personal life (maybe I should be), but aren’t they something like 50 years behind with this idea that canned social advertising can convince me to spend where a straight commercial would fail? Isn’t it already uncool to buy the same stuff as the other people that I know?

– Is anyone else annoyed when ads and media have that obvious sort of glossy, meatless focus-group quality to them? Rows of brilliant-white, picket-fence teeth sparkling from inside diverse and demographically-precise protagonists, an awkward and asinine cliche grafted here, an agreeable slice of the Generic American Songbook cued there, and I slip right right into “uncanny valley” mode. It bothers me more than the hypothetical NSA archive of my Facebook timeline, because it feels vaguely as if the culture I belong to is being imitated by an alien entity in camouflage. I stare at this grotesque parody of human interaction, and my animal brain recoils at the knowledge that it is about to be tempted with yet another inappropriate way to spend money. Needless to say, the experience does not put me in a buying mood. The worst offenders of this kind seem to be movie previews, and I can’t tell if the effect is actually more noticeable these days, or if I’m just more likely to perceive it after brief exposure to film school. How can advertisers prevent this problem, and again, would they even want to?

– I’m thinking mostly about video ads, even specifically the kind that pop up for a mandatory 30-second interruption. Does anything else work, online? Do unexpected things work with small and/or weird subsets of the population? I suppose market researchers have answered many of those questions already, and I could probably buy access to some of the answers.

– Does that information matter for every product? Is anything more effective than a personal recommendation? Does anything else even come close?


June 18, 2012

In the coming weeks I’m going to be spending a lot of time thinking about content, media, and entertainment, and trying to understand what current events might tell us about the future of that industry. I’m also experimenting with content of my own that includes audio, video and interactive components rather than just text, so now would be an appropriate time to type about the general idea.

The big reason I’m obsessed with content lately is because on average, its value seems to be falling as fast as the prices on production and distribution technology. I’m incredibly excited that the barrier to entry for an independent musician has never been lower than it is right now, for example, but this situation is causing other problems. Promotion is now far and away the largest investment that a typical media producer has to make, so quality suffers. And because fans now have essentially unlimited access to content, they are becoming jaded to the considerable effort that still goes into actually creating it, and are less willing to give their money to media producers as a result.

Let me make this clear: those who believe that content curators don’t actually need to own and care for their music, or books, or videos, or software (or that the Internet can conjure up all of these things and more, indefinitely, by virtue of its very existence) will eventually realize what happens when a social phenomenon is trusted to organize and archive ideas. Specifically, it still does not work very well.

The “Netflix problem” is a good example: I can access a massive library of motion media at any time, bought from established studios and streamed through the Internet to my TV, and yet almost every time I simply want to pick out a movie to watch, I can never find it on Netflix. If I always knew that I was going to be interested in “mind-bending foreign thrillers” or maybe “goofy critically-acclaimed comedies” then I would have much less of a problem finding appropriate content, but that is never what I am actually looking for. In general, when I take the time to watch a movie, I want to see ideas that are important, and useful, and novel, and skillfully presented. Basically, I want to see the “good” movies by my own definition of “good,” and Netflix doesn’t provide more than 10 mediocre recommendations in that category.

Of course it really couldn’t be any other way, because scientifically, the Internet is just a bunch of smartass humans who wired their computers together for efficiency! More people need to understand that idea. I see a lot of what I’d almost call disappointment, because Facebook wasn’t actually able to save the Middle East, or because the next Instagram will sell for a lot less than a billion dollars, or because Justin Bieber is still famous, and it doesn’t really sit right with me at all. In fact, it seems rather naive and entitled.

Although the ponzi schemers may say otherwise, there has never been any magical voodoo behind this Internet business. Even if there was, Newton and Maxwell never could have done Einstein’s work by crowdsourcing it. The Internet only matters because the people who built it and use it have done great things with it. It will never be great or profitable or world-changing for any other reason.

St. Jobs

June 10, 2012

I’m sure there will be glowing biographies about Steve Jobs and his many accomplishments in time, but that guy deserves every single bit of the massive praise that is heaped upon him. Some of the most interesting comments come from the journalist disciples who all but compare Jobs to Jesus at every opportunity, and from the corresponding messiah-doubters who say that Jobs was nothing more than a savvy businessman who understood timing, manufacturing and product placement. However, other contrarians are understandably uncomfortable with his role in the commercialization of independent software and his control over the iUniverse, like a charismatic sort of software dictator type figure. Many of these people have Apple on their “modern hypocrites list” and might tell you so if the conversation wanders in that direction.

Here’s maybe the one valid way I could compare Steve Jobs to Jesus: Jesus was all about ideas that could outlast and defeat humans, no matter how powerful they might seem at the time. Steve made computers and computer systems that will outlast their owners. I can’t possibly imagine a day when my iPad (2) is any less useful or amazing than it is today unless it smashes, no matter what the next ten versions look like. We are going to have to explain to our kids that this is a weird new thing! Computers used to be rickety, noisy boxes with all these wires and different parts sticking out everywhere, and they used to break all the time when a competent engineer wasn’t available to keep things working! All you early majority consumers of a certain influential desktop operating system know exactly what I am talking about…

Somewhat ridiculously, the very approach that allowed Steve and Apple to end this massive problem with casual computing was his uncompromising, even autocratic management of the platform. It feels like I might be stepping on the dreams of the free and open software communities a bit here, but I think I’m starting to understand the actual logic in favor of Apple’s paradoxical mecha-fascism, if only because I program sounds and other fast things. Not every computer has the luxury of being some genius freedom-fighter’s personal data management device. Many computers have to control cars, and medical machines, and all those other things that can’t break or otherwise present an end user with some unpredictable software issue that needs debugging. When my grandma is trying to call me on video chat, it has to be the same way. That was his reasoning, I think, and I have to agree that it makes a lot more sense than it used to.

One day, when we’re donating these old tablets to needy kids or whoever, we might remember Steve by understanding what he wanted to create: a world united by its magical and powerful technology – technology we can use to do formerly impossible things, without losing all of our time in the process.