Happy Data Privacy Day! Go check out PrivacyFix

It’s Data Privacy Day, and there may be a profusion of platitudes. But I think what we need on data privacy day are more tools to let people take control of their privacy. One way to do that is to check your privacy settings. Of course, the way settings are arranged changes over time, and checking your settings regularly is a drain.

Enter PrivacyFix.

PrivacyFix is a Firefox & Chrome plugin that you might want to check out. It looks at your Facebook and G+ settings, and helps you fix things. It also helps you send opt-out email to web site privacy addresses, which is awesome.

Not having a Facebook or G+ account, I can’t really test it. I do find the model of a plugin that works when you’re on their site (versus local UI) to be confusing. But maybe I’m not their target audience. Anyway, I did want to refer back to my Lessons from Facebook’s Stock Slide, in which I talked about intent versus identity.

Facebook tracks
Google tracks

I don’t know if PrivacyFix’s estimates of revenue are accurate. But unless they’re off by 2 orders of magnitude for each of Facebook (under-estimating) and Google (over-estimating), then wow.

Why the Star Wars Prequels Sucked

It is a truism that the Star Wars prequels sucked. (Elsewhere, I’ve commented that the franchise being sold to Disney means someone can finally tell the tragic story of Anakin Skywalker’s seduction by the dark side.)

But the issue of exactly why they sucked is complex and layered, and most of us prefer not to consider it too deeply. Fortunately, you no longer have to. You can simply get “Why the Star Wars Prequels Sucked, and Why It Matters,” a short “Polemic on Aesthetics, Ethics and Politics. With Lightsabers.”

Really, what else do you need to know?

An example? Ok, the diner scene, and how it compares to the cantina scene. The cantina exudes otherness and menace. The diner looks like it was filmed in 1950s and then had a few weird things ‘shopped in. The scene undercuts the world which Star Wars established. Or the casual tossing in that Anakin was a virgin birth, and how after tying to one of the most enduring stories in western culture, the subject is then never referred to again.

Or the utter lack of consequence of anything in the stories, since we already know how they’ll come out, and how, by focusing on characters whose fates we know, Lucas drains any dramatic tension of of the story. The list goes on and on, and if you want to know why you hated the prequels so much, this is a short and easy read, and highly worthwhile.

Oh, and you’ll learn how Lando Calrissian is Faust. So go buy it already.

One last thing. Delano Lopez? That’s a name I hadn’t heard in a very long time. But he and I went to school together.

Privacy and Health Care

In my post on gun control and schools, I asserted that “I worry that reducing privacy around mental health care is going to deter people who need health care from getting it.”

However, I didn’t offer up any evidence for that claim. So I’d like to follow up with some details from a report that talks about this in great detail, “The Case for Informed Consent” by Patient Privacy Rights.

So let me quote two related numbers from that report.

First, between 13 and 17% of Americans admit in surveys to hiding health information in the current system. That’s probably a lower-bound, as we can expect some of the privacy sensitive population will decline to be surveyed, and some fraction of those who are surveyed may hide their information hiding. (It’s information-hiding all the way down.)

Secondly, 1 in 8 Americans (12.5%) put their health at risk because of privacy concerns, including avoiding their regular doctor, asking their doctor to record a different diagnosis, or avoiding tests.

I’ll also note that these numbers relate to general health care, and the numbers may be higher for often-stigmatized mental health issues.

Thoughts on the Tragedies of December 14th

I started this post on December 14th, and couldn’t finish it. I’m going to leave the opening as I wrote it then: By now, everyone has heard of the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. My heart goes out to everyone touched by the events. But this isn’t the first school shooting on a December 14th. I went to a tiny school, Simon’s Rock, and on December 14, 1992, Wayne Lo murdered my friend Galen Gibson and Professor Ñacuñán Sáez. He also shot my friend Tom McElderry. I can still remember the phone call from my friend Chi, telling me that Tommy had been shot and was in the hospital. I remember being up all night, spreading what little information we had by phone, and wondering what the hell was going on. I remember that weeks later, I’d get emails from co-workers whose local papers in places like Japan finally carried the story. For years after, I took December 14th as a day off, because it was hard to handle life with that weighing on you.

It’s a sad reality that we now have enough school shootings that one of them was going to fall on an anniversary of another. (Statisticians call this the birthday problem.) It’s also a sad reality that we have enough of them that schools, police and emergency responders have plans for them.

What a fucking world.

Some people like to say things like “time heals all wounds,” but you know? Greg Gibson isn’t going to get his son back. Ñacuñán’s family isn’t going to get him back. And twenty or more families in Sandy Hook will never again be the same. I’m having trouble editing this more than a month later because of how the memories flood back.

All that to say that I have some understanding of these events, and I think I can talk about them differently than a random observer.

A lot of people are using this tragedy to say we need gun control. I understand where they’re coming from, and I disagree. We’ve had a lifetime of marijuana control, and it didn’t work. We suffered under crypto controls, and they didn’t work. Assholes who want a gun will likely to be able to get a gun whatever regime we put in place. There’s some truth to the claim that if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Maybe we’d gain some ability to catch these nuts early, but maybe not. Those who say that easy availability of guns drives murder rates must do better than simply cherry picking data. What makes the US worse than Switzerland or Israel?

Yesterday, the President outlined a set of proposals including expanded background checks, and signed executive actions including one to “encourage federal agencies and state governments to share more information.” And now I find it hard to speak, and hard to remain silent.

Infringing privacy would not have stopped the events at Sandy Hook, and I worry that reducing privacy around mental health care is going to deter people who need health care from getting it. That may mean that more people will end up hurt or dead. I’m confident that no one wants that, and we need to rationally consider the tradeoff.

I also see a lot of people who are worried about gun control being so strident that they’re undercutting their own case. I agree that gun control is a poor response, and I think the NRA are coming off like a bunch of idiots. I’m trying not to be strident, just add a voice to say that even from a position of grief, it’s possible to see that what’s proposed probably will not meet the goals.

I don’t know what we should do. I do think that taking the entire TSA budget and moving it to mental health care would be a fine start.

Another fine way to proceed would be to threat model and try to judge the efficacy of the mitigation techniques. (For those who don’t know me, I spent a few years designing threat modeling tools and techniques which you can read about here.) Perhaps that starts from data on how people who use guns to hurt themselves or others get them. There’s an easy trope of “buys a gun and shoots someone.” Is that because it’s common, or because the stories are highly “available” and spring to mind? I don’t know, and in that vein, more studies of gun ownership and gun violence are probably going to help. Whatever approach to threat modeling we take should also include the hundreds of millions of guns owned by hundreds of millions of people and not misused.

We can and should do better than bringing back ideas that didn’t pass muster in calmer times. We should be cautious about trading a little liberty for a little safety. And whatever we do, we should do so respectful of the victims.

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Negative temperatures?

Absolute zero is often thought to be the coldest temperature possible. But now researchers show they can achieve even lower temperatures for a strange realm of “negative temperatures.”

Oddly, another way to look at these negative temperatures is to consider them hotter than infinity, researchers added. (“Atoms Reach Record Temperature, Colder than Absolute Zero“, Charles Choi, LiveScience and

It seems to me that this is very strong evidence for the Simulation Argument, since apparently the simulation has some integer underflow problems. The researchers have proof of concept code.

The original, paywalled article is in Science, “Negative Absolute Temperature for Motional Degrees of Freedom“.