Thursday, 26 December 2013

We Need A "Dumb Device" Movement

I'm habitually pessimistic about many things, and this year Snowden reinforced my habit. In the narrow sense of his obligations to the US government, he's a traitor, but to the human race as a whole he's a hero and a role model; he personally is inspiring, but what he revealed is depressing.

I think his most important lesson is that total surveillance is an explicit goal of the US and UK governments (and by extension other governments), and there's no real restraint in how that goal is being pursued, especially for those of us who aren't US citizens. Combine that with the cold truth that we are incapable of securing complex systems, and we're in a very bad situation. We have to start assuming that mass-market computing devices are compromised, or can be compromised at will.

When people talk about the "Internet of things", they're implying the situation is going to get much worse. Every device that is network-accessible and supports updateable software is a surveillance device ... if not all the time, then as soon as someone decides to turn it on. (Let's ignore for now devices that can be programmed to take hostile action against their users!) I am not in favor of the Internet of things in the present climate.

Unfortunately, factors of cost, convenience and cool will keep driving general-purpose, network-accessible computation into every nook and cranny of our world. It may help if a significant subset of customers (I hate the word "consumers", it's demeaning) prefer devices that don't have unnecessary computation jammed into them. I want to buy "dumb devices" --- meaning they are not unnecessarily smart, and don't talk about me behind my back. My refrigerator, clothes, and bicycle do not need network access or upgradeable software, and I don't want them. Of course, if my market segment's population is me, it's not economically viable. Therefore I need a mass movement.

One interesting product segment is cars. The computerization of cars is truly terrifying, and there is some great work detailing how modern cars can be subverted. I would pay a decent premium for a car that lacks any kind of over-the-air communications. A potential problem is that safety regulations require new cars to have sophisticated computers, and sooner or later a computationally secure car may become effectively illegal, if it isn't already.

I don't know what to do from here. Does this movement already exist? If not, I hope someone starts it, since I'm rather busy.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Blood Clot

I'm tagging this post with 'Mozilla' because many Mozilla people travel a lot.

In September, while in California for a week, I developed pain in my right calf. For a few days I thought it was a muscle niggle but after I got back to New Zealand it kept getting worse and my leg was swelling, so I went to my doctor, who diagnosed a blood clot. A scan confirmed that I had one but it was small and non-threatening. I went to a hospital, got a shot of the anticoagulant clexane to stop the clot growing, and then went home. The next day I was put on a schedule of regular rivaroxaban, an oral anticoagulant. Symptoms abated over the next few days and I haven't had a problem since. No side-effects either. I cut myself shaving at the Mozilla Summit and bled for hours, but that's more of an intended effect than a side effect :-).

I had heard of the dreaded DVT, but have never known anyone with it until now, and apparently the same is true for my friends. Fortunately I didn't have a full-blown DVT since the clot did not reach a "deep vein". Still, I can confirm these clots are real and some of the warnings about them are worth paying attention to :-).

I saw a specialist for a followup visit today. Apparently plane travel is not actually such a high risk so in my case it was probably just a contributing factor, along with other factors such as sitting around too much in my hotel room, possibly genetic factors, and probably some bad luck. (Being generally healthy is no sure protection; ironically, I got this clot when I'm fitter than ever before.) So when flying, getting up to walk around, wiggling your toes, and keeping fluid intake up are all worth doing. I used to do none of them :-).

My long term prognosis is completely fine as long as I take the above precautions, wear compressing socks on flights and take anticoagulant before flights. I will be given a blood test to screen for known genetic factors.

I did everything through the public health system and it worked very well. Like health systems everywhere, New Zealand's has its good and bad points, but overall I think it's good. At least it doesn't have the obvious flaws of the USA's system (the only other one I've used). In this case I had basically zero paperwork (signed a couple of forms that staff filled out), personal costs of about $20 (standard GP consultation), good care, reasonable wait times, and modern drugs. I was pleased to see sensible things being done to deliver care efficiently; for example, my treatment program was determined by a specialist nurse, who checked it out with a doctor over the phone. New Zealand has a central drug-buying agency, Pharmac, which is a great system for getting good deals from drug companies (which is why they keep trying to undermine it, via TPP most recently ... of course they managed to make the Pharmac approach illegal in the USA :-(.) Rivaroxaban is relatively new and not yet funded by Pharmac, but Bayer has been basically giving it away to try to encourage Pharmac to fund it.

Overall, blood clots can be nasty but I got off easy. Thanks God!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Why I Don't Worry About Global Warming (Much)

I don't worry about global warming or any other threat whose most important effects are several decades out. Technology is going to change everything by then: either we'll kill ourselves in more immediate ways, or at least destroy most of civilization (which would do a lot to reduce carbon emissions!) --- or we'll make a lot more technological progress, probably developing brain uploading, strong AI, or other game-changing capabilities we can't forsee yet. Probably the former.

People who worry about what will happen when the sun burns out in five billion years are the worst.

One Day The Luddites Will Be Right

Whenever a person proposes that technological advances might reduce human job opportunities in the long term, someone responds with the Luddite Argument: "the Luddites thought the Industrial Revolution would destroy their jobs, and they were wrong, so you're wrong too" [1]. Some go further and explain that the Luddites were wrong because technological productivity improvements are balanced by finding new uses for human labour. Wikipedia has a good summary. However, it seems obvious to me that at some point technological advance will --- or at least could --- be a net destroyer of jobs. All you have to do is imagine a world where robots can do everything a human can do, at lower cost than maintaining a human life. Clearly, there are no economically rational job opportunities for humans in that state [2], so at some point of technological advance short of that state, there's net job destruction.

The only question is whether and when we will reach that point. It seems inevitable we'll reach it unless something halts technological progress or some very strong flavor of Cartesian dualism holds. Economic arguments that human labour will still be worth something at that point are just wrong.

[1] Actually the Luddites were right; the Industrial Revolution did destroy their jobs, and drove them into misery. But they were wrong in that they did not forsee the net benefits to future generations.

[2] There could be sinecures to keep humans occupied, but they would not be economically motivated.

Friday, 6 December 2013

WebRTC And People-Oriented Communications

Tantek had an interesting blog post about making people rather than protocols the organizing principle of communication apps. I like his vision quite a lot. One neat extension of his post would be to introduce WebRTC. With WebRTC it would be relatively easy to have the "Robert O'Callahan" app check if I'm currently logged into the appropriate receiver app, at any WebRTC-capable endpoint, and if I am, establish a voice or voice+video session with me (with peer-to-peer transmission, naturally). If I'm not logged in, WebRTC lets you record a message for later delivery. This would be very cool.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Another Knee-Jerk Reaction To International Rankings

Predictably the OECD "Pisa" report ranking countries' education results has caused a stir in New Zealand. New Zealanders, or at least their news media, love international rankings of all kinds --- especially if they can be portrayed negatively for New Zealand. As often, the latest report, and the discussion around it, has some major problems.

For starters it's interesting to compare the initial NZ Herald story with the more nuanced reporting from the AP wire story. The Herald chose the completely fallacious headline Significant drops in NZ educational achievement --- fallacious because a drop in ranking does not necessarily mean a drop in actual achievement (and in this case, there is no evidence of a drop in achievement). (PPTA president Angela Roberts gets this right here.) The Herald story (and its followups) simply ignores the issues with the Pisa report which are touched on by the AP story, and better explained in Slate (mainly, it's invalid to compare city-states with entire countries, especially including Shanghai but no other part of China!).

Apart from that, some of the reactions to the report are ridiculous. There's this:

But Labour says any drop in the rankings should be sheeted home to an excessive focus by National on "testing" over the past five years. Although National Standards does not actually involve national testing, Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said, "It shows that the last five years' focus on test-taking has been a disaster and it has actually narrowed the focus of our system and it has actually decreased the level of achievement within the education system".
NZ's ranking drop is mainly due to Asian countries increasing theirs. Those countries' education systems are far more focused on testing than NZ's has ever been, which is probably why their ranking is increasing: if you focus on testing (and teach to the test), you do really well on tests, which is of course what studies like Pisa measure, since tests produce data and other educational activities don't. Chris Hipkins, if you really think Pisa is important you should advocate a big increase in national testing.

I actually think national standardized testing is important, but it's not the only important thing and the Asian education systems ranked highly in the Pisa report have massive problems despite producing good test results. My wife and many other people I know went through those systems and describe how they're focused on rote memorization and discourage any kind of learning other than school and after-school coaching on their core subjects. For example, I taught myself computer programming in my copious spare time after school, but for most children in Hong Kong that simply wouldn't have been possible. People talk about how in exams you "give it back to the teacher" --- cram for exams, do well, and then forget it as you prepare for the next one. I think it would be very interesting to re-test children three years after they left school to see what they've retained.

It's really important to avoid over-optimizing for the things we can measure at the cost of the things we can't as easily measure. It's also really important to not overreact to every international ranking report. We have to think critically about these things. I wish the media would.

Does John Banks Only Do Good?

I read this rather unusual statement by John Banks:

"I've spent a lifetime of doing good, a lifetime of trying to balance my family ledger, a lifetime of making a difference for people, and a lifetime of contributing to this country. I only do good. I don't do bad things."
Reporters like to take quotes out of context so maybe Mr Banks didn't really mean to say this, but for the sake of argument I'll assume it's accurate.

What strikes me about this statement is that in the past John Banks has portrayed himself as a Christian, and I don't think a Christian can make that statement or anything like it. A bedrock truth of Christianity is that we are all sinners, and bad ones. We've all done bad things and we all keep doing bad things. We generally don't realize it, because we're good at self-justification and our standards are lower than God's, but we are all desperately in need of forgiveness. This holds no matter where we are on our spiritual journey --- "forgive us our sins", as Jesus taught his disciples to pray.

So, for a self-professed Christian to say "I only do good, I don't do bad things" is an egregious error, no matter how it was meant. I hope that any Christian genuinely practicing their faith would try to steer away from saying anything like it under any circumstances, lest they give a false impressions of what Christians believe.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Last week my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by taking a few days off in the lakeside town of Wanaka in the South Island. The weather was unexpectedly delightful. As is our wont, we spent a lot of time walking during the day and refueling at night.

We arrived on Tuesday. In the evening we walked through the town to Iron Mountain and walked up it (it's small). On Wednesday we ascended Roy's Peak. That walk has a 1200 metre elevation change but the views are definitely worthwhile. On Thursday we drove out to Mt Aspiring National Park through Matukituki, to do the Rob Roy Glacier walk. This is a really beautiful walk, through pasture, into the bush, up the Rob Roy valley, emerging in an alpine meadow at the head of the valley with stunning views up the mountain-face to the Rob Roy glacier --- snow gleaming in the sunshine, and about a dozen meltwater waterfalls streaming down the face. On our last day we drove out to Haast Pass and then back to Queenstown.

The whole area is very beautiful. It's quite special to sit by the lake and watch people sailing, swimming and fishing, surrounded by ice-capped mountains. The Department of Conservation's Mt Aspiring activity centre is in Wanaka and well worth a visit. The number of day walks and multi-day tramps in the region is just staggering; there must be a couple of dozen different huts. No wonder the town is beseiged by tourists :-).