Vista Didn’t Fail Because of Security

Bruce Schneier points in his blog to an article in The Telegraph in which Steve Ballmer blames the failure of Vista on security. Every security person around should clear their throat loudly. Security is not what made Vista unpalatable.

Many people liked Vista. My tech reporter friends not only adored it, but flat couldn’t understand why people didn’t adore it. I have a number of other friends who adored it. In assessing Vista, this is important to keep in mind. Despite its bad rep, many people liked it. So why did many people not like it?

First, there were the gamers. Before Vista came out, Microsoft did a lot of marketing Vista to gamers. There were kiosks at gaming conventions and other places touting Vista as a gaming platform.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Reliable tests at the time said that Vista ran games about 20% slower than XP. Compounding this was that among the drivers that were dodgy when it first came out were video drivers. Many gamers felt that they had been sold a pig in the poke, and there was merit to this claim. Hardcore gamers are people who will spend money on bleeding-edge kit, and it was precisely this bleeding-edge kit that didn’t work well at first. And whatever it was that made games run slower (even if it was security features), that’s not the point. Microsoft’s statements to the gamers was that their gaming experience would be better on Vista, and it was worse. Once the 4chan crowd starts making memes about suckage, you’re behind the eight-ball.

Second, there were the cheapies. Many machines were marked as Vista-capable that either weren’t, or could only run the basics of Vista and not the fancy new stuff. There is an aphorism that Intel giveth and Microsoft taketh away. The problem is that most of the PC makers will try to sell you the cheapest possible computer, and these cheapest possible computers just didn’t have enough oomph to do Aero and the cool features in Vista. Microsoft took more than Intel gave and the customers felt they’d been sold a pig the poke. There were even lawsuits over this, and it added to Vista’s bad rep.

Third, there were the people on laptops. For whatever reasons, when Vista first came out, it was slow on laptops. One of my co-workers bought a ThinkPad to run Vista on for testing alongside her existing XP laptop, and it was much slower than the XP laptop running side-by-side.

I will add another personal anecdote. My brother-in-law bought my sister a brand-new Vista laptop. It ran slower than his older XP laptop. It was so bad that he would turn the screen of his XP laptop away so that she wouldn’t see him running XP and mentally compare it to her new laptop.

On the other hand, to repeat, the people who had high-end machines but not bleeding-edge machines adored Vista. If you had lots of memory, a not-quite-bleeding-edge video card, and a fast processor, Vista was great from the getgo.

However, this was not the buying trend of most PC makers. Their trend was to push people to ever-cheaper machines. Sadly, at the time Vista came out as well, all but the most expensive laptops were dodgy for Vista in all its glory.

This is a matter of zigging when you should have zagged, for the most part. But there were two other trends that caught Microsoft by surprise.

The first trend was virtualization. Vista was virtualization-surly. One of its cool features that’s great if you’re on a high-end computer is that it did a lot of pre-caching and pre-loading. Most people with lots of memory on a computer just don’t use that memory, and Vista had ways to use it to make the experience snappier. If you’re on a VM, this is precisely what you don’t want. In an ironically saving grace, though, Vista had a virtualization-surly license, as well. Only the most expensive Vista package was licensed for VMs, which was just as well given that it was optimized for big tower computers in a way that it was pessimized for VMs.

The second trend was netbooks. Intel gave not in the form of faster CPUs, but lighter, smaller, cheaper, less power-hungry CPUs in the Atom. The Atom, however, didn’t have the oomph for Vista, and this meant it had to run XP, which further tarnished Vista’s rep.

All of this together — bad performance among gamers, bad performance on cheap computers and laptops, combined with the trends towards virtualization and netbooks were what gave Vista a bad rep. The people who bought a computer that was a high-end desktop but not a gaming machine loved Vista (and love it to this day). Unfortunately, this demographic is precisely the demographic that also tends to buy Macs. Vista’s problems were all from zigging when you should have zagged.

Some of Vista’s problems can be laid at the feet of “security” (which I intentionally put in scare quotes. UAC was rightly ridiculed for excessive dialogs, but is that a security failure or a UI failure? Yes, kernel improvements delayed getting drivers out (which is one of the things that made the gaming experience suboptimal) and some other bumps. But those were compounded by marketing that went opposite of reality. If the Vista marketing had said, “Hey, it’s going to be a bit slow, and there will be some rough edges. But you’ll really like how we’re sticking it to virus writers” then there may have been a different perception. It is also not fair to blame counter-factual marketing on security.

The bottom line is this. Vista was great for some people. It was bad for others. But the marketing said it was going to be great for everyone. Good marketing that took Vista’s plusses and minuses as facts could have made things better. It was bad timing that Vista came out when the prevailing trend of every-faster computers everywhere started to change. Facing that could have made the difference.

None of that has anything to do with security.

Today’s Privacy Loss – English Soldiers’ Details Published

Demonstrating that no one’s data is safe, the names, pay records, and other personal information of 90,000 English soldiers was placed on the Internet. These soldiers, who served with king Henry V at Agincourt now have their information listed at, exposing them to the chance of identity theft after nearly 500 years. They soldiers served from the years 1369-1453. There is no word as to whether they will get credit card protection yet.

Color on Chrome OS

New things resemble old things at first. Moreover, people interpret new things in terms of old things. Such it is with the new Google Chrome OS. Very little I’ve seen on it seems to understand it.

The main stream of commentary is comparisons to Windows and how this means that Google is in the OS business, and so on. This is also the stream that gets it the most wrong.

It’s just another Linux distribution, guys. It’s not like this is a new OS. It’s new packaging of existing software, with very little or even no new software. I have about ten smart friends who could do this in their sleep. Admittedly, a handful of those are actually working on the Chrome OS, so that somewhat weakens my comment. Nonetheless, you probably know someone who could do it, is doing it, or you’re one of the people who could do it.

Moreover, Chrome OS isn’t an OS in the way you think about it. Google isn’t going to provide any feature on Chrome OS that they aren’t going to provide on Windows, Mac OS, Ubuntu, Android, Windows Mobile, iPhone, Palm Pre, Blackberry, and so on.

Consider the differences between the business model of Microsoft and that of Google. Microsoft believes that it should be the only software company there is. Its actual historic mission statement says that its mission is to push its software everywhere. Its mission does not include “to the exclusion of everyone else,” it merely often acts that way. Google’s mission is to have you use its services that provide information.

To phrase this another way, Microsoft gets paid when you buy Windows or Office or an Xbox, etc. Their being paid does not require that you not run Mac OS, or Lotus, or PlayStation, but that helps. Google gets paid when you click on certain links. It doesn’t matter how you clicked on that link, all that matters is that you click. Google facilitates that clicking through its information business facilitated its software and services, but it’s those clicks that get them paid.

The key difference is this: Microsoft is helped by narrowing your choices, and Google is helped by broadening them. It doesn’t help Microsoft for you to do a mashup that includes their software as that means less Microsoft Everywhere, but it helps Google if you include a map in your mashup as there’s a chance a paid link will get clicked (no matter how small, the chance is zero if you don’t).

I don’t know whether it’s cause or effect but Microsoft really can’t stand to see someone else be successful. It’s a zero-ish sum company in product and outlook. Someone else’s success vaguely means that they’re doing something non-Microsoft. Google, in contrast, is helped by other people doing stuff, so long as they use Google’s services too.

If I shop for a new camera, for example, the odds are that Google will profit even if I buy it on eBay and pay for it with PayPal. Or if I buy it from B&H, Amazon, etc. So long as I am using Google to gather information, Google makes money.

Let me give another more pointed example. Suppose you want to get a new smartphone. Apple wins only if I get an iPhone. RIM wins when I get a BlackBerry. Palm wins if I get a Pre or a Treo. Nokia wins a little if I get any Symbian phone (most of which are Nokias, but a few aren’t). Microsoft wins if I get any Windows Mobile phone, of which there are many. But Google wins not only if I get an Android phone, but also if I get an iPhone (because the built-in Maps application uses Google), or if I install Google Maps on anything. One could even argue that it wins more if I get a non-Android phone and use their apps, because the margins are higher on the income.

This openness as a business model is why Microsoft created Bing. Partially it is because Microsoft can’t stand to see Google be successful, but also because Microsoft envies the way Google can win even when it loses, and who wouldn’t?

Interestingly, Bing is pretty good, too. One can complain, but one can always complain. Credible people give higher marks to Bing than Google, even. This puts Microsoft in the interesting position of being where Apple traditionally is with them. They’re going to learn that you can’t take customers from someone else just by being better.

But this is the whole reason for Chrome OS. Chrome OS isn’t going to make any money for Google. But it does let Google shoot at Microsoft where they live. When (not if, when) Chrome OS is an option on netbooks, it will cost Microsoft. Either directly, because someone picks Chrome OS over Windows, or indirectly because Microsoft is going to have to compete with free. The netbook manufacturers are going to be only too happy to use Chrome as a club against Microsoft to get better pricing on Windows. The winners on that are not going to be Google, it’s going to be the people who make and buy netbooks, especially the ones who get Windows. The existence of Chrome OS will save money for the people who buy Windows.

That’s gotta hurt, if you’re Microsoft.

This is the way to look at Chrome OS. It’s Google’s statement that if Microsoft treads into Google’s yard, Google will tread back, and will do so in a way that does not so much help Google, but hurts Microsoft. It is a counterattack against Microsoft’s core business model that is also a judo move; it uses the weight of Microsoft against it. As Microsoft moves to compete against Google’s services by making a cloud version of Office, Google moves to cut at the base. When (not if) there are customers who use Microsoft apps on Google’s OS, Microsoft is cut twice by the very forces that make Google win when you use a Google service on Windows.

(Also, if you’re Microsoft you could argue that Google has been stepping on their toes with Google Docs, GMail, etc.)

Someday someone’s going to give Ballmer an aneurysm, and it might be Chrome.

Kindle Brouhaha Isn’t About DRM

In case you haven’t heard about it, there is a brouhaha about Amazon un-selling copies of two Orwell books, 1984 and Animal Farm. There has been much hand-wringing, particularly since it’s deliciously amusing that that it’s Orwell.

The root cause of the issue is that the version of the Orwell novels available on the Kindle weren’t authorized editions. When contacted by the owners of Orwell’s copyrights, they deleted the books and refunded customers’ money.

All things considered, Amazon did something approximating a right thing in this matter. They didn’t have the right to sell the novels, and so they pulled the novels from the store and customers, and gave the customers a refund. About the only thing they could have done righter was to give something to the people who thought they had the books. The best thing to give them would have been authorized copies of the books, but store credit would be nice, too.

You can find a New York Times article on it, as well as a CNET article, as well as a Tech Dirt article that brings up the very good point that deleting the books was very likely against the Kindle terms of service, which is why Amazon likely should offer those people something.

Among all the handwringing, there are a number of stupid people — or perhaps people who should just know better — who somehow mutter dark things about how this serves people right for getting a device that has DRM in it. (As if they’ve never owned a DVD.)

Some of these people who should know better might think that I’m somehow in favor of DRM, so let me say that I am not. I am against DRM. I am also against nuclear war, swine flu, totalitarian governments, and bad service in restaurants. I’m also against one or two other things. None of them had anything to do with this little contretemps.

The issue is caused not by DRM, but by cloud computing. The problem is that Amazon has a cloud service in which Kindle customers can keep their e-books on Amazon’s shelf, and shuffle them around to any Kindle-enable device they have (like a Kindle proper, or an iPhone running the Kindle app). Customers can even delete a book from their Kindle and get it back from the cloud at a later date.

The event is that Amazon removed the book from the cloud, not that it had DRM in it. If you are concerned by this, you should be concerned by the cloud service. The cloud service enabled Amazon to respond to a legal challenge by removing customers’ data from the cloud. They didn’t need DRM to do it. In contrast, if iTunes store or the Sony e-book store had improperly sold a book, they wouldn’t be able to revoke it because they don’t have a cloud service as part of the store. (eMusic, incidentally, regularly adds and removes music from their store with the waxing and waning of desire to sell it.)

This is why we need to look at it for what it is, a failure in a business model and in the cloud service. Interestingly, the newly-formed Cloud Security Alliance predicts similar issues in which outside parties cause a cloud provider to shaft its customers. Not bad.

Their prescience is a bit limited because the proposed solution to this problem is to encrypt the cloud data with some fancy key management. That wouldn’t work here for the same reason that DRM isn’t an issue. If I know you have a resource, it doesn’t matter if magic fairies protect it, if I can delete it. It’s still good advice, it just wouldn’t have worked here.

What’s needed is some sort of legal protection for the customers, not technical protection. There are many potential warts here. If the owners of Orwell’s copyrights do not desire any ebooks of his works, it’s hard for Amazon to go buy legal copies for their customers (which would have been the most right thing to do). And it’s hard to argue that the seller shouldn’t do everything in their power to undo a sale they shouldn’t have made.

The correct way to deal with this is through some sort of contract arrangement to protect the customer. (The Cloud Security Alliance is prescient on this, as well.) That contract should be the Terms Of Service between the cloud provider and its customers. As TechDirt pointed out, this was likely a breach of Amazon’s TOS. They’re not supposed to delete books. They said they wouldn’t. Because of this, they owe something to their customers who were on the losing end of this breach of contract beyond the refund. I think ten bucks store credit is fine, myself.

They really need to do something, however, because without doing something, then someday someone will violate their TOS with Amazon and defend it with this breach of the TOS.

However, if you want to cluck your tongue, it should not be about buying goods with DRM, it should be about goods stored in the cloud. Everyone who offers cloud services ought to be clarifying now what they will do to protect their customers against lawsuits from outside parties. It can be crypto or contracts, it doesn’t matter, it just needs to work. This may be the first major cloud-based customer service failure, but it won’t be the last.

The Punch Line Goes at the End

The Black Hat conference in Las Vegas always has its share of drama. This year, it’s happened a month before the conference opens. The researcher Barnaby Jack had to cancel his talk. gives an account of this; his talk was to make an Automated Teller Machine spit out a “jackpot” of cash, in the style of a slot machine.

According to reports, the manufacturer of the ATM pressured Jack’s employer, Juniper, to pressure him to withdraw the talk.

I certainly roll my eyes at this. It doesn’t do a lot of good to pressure someone to withdraw their talk.

But even more so, if you’re giving a talk, it behooves you to save the showmanship for the stage. I mean, come on.

Last year, the big cancellation was the team of MIT students who broke the Boston MBTA Charlie Card system. There was a legal injunction put against them that spoilt their presentation. The fault, in my opinion went to them for naming their talk, “How To Get Free Subway Rides For Life.”

Imagine that you are a judge who is interrupted from an otherwise pleasant Saturday by panicky people who want an injunction against a talk with such a dramatic name, you’ll at least listen to them. You decide that sure, no harm to society will come from an injunction from Saturday ’til Monday, and you’d be right. No harm came to society, DefCon was merely a little less interesting.

Now imagine that you are the same judge and you’re asked for an injunction against the talk, “A Practical Cryptanalysis of the Mifare Chip as Implemented in the MBTA.” That one can wait until Monday, and the talk goes on.

In a similar gedanken experiment, imagine that you are the VP of Corporate Communications for the XYZ ATM Corp. You learn that in a few weeks, someone is going to do “ATM Jackpot” with one of your ATMs in some show in Vegas. Despite the fact that someone else in the company approved it, what do you? You pressure them to cancel. Duh. If you don’t, then you’re going to spend most of August reassuring people about your products, your boss is going to be really ticked at you (after all, isn’t it the job of Corporate Communications to control these things?), and it’s just going to be no fun. This is also why you’re paid the big bucks, to make embarrassments go away.

This is why if you are a researcher, you do not name your talk, “ATM Jackpot” you name it “Penetration Testing of Standalone Financial Services Systems.” It is only on stage that you fire up the flashing lights and clanging bells and make the ATM spit out C-notes for minutes on end. That would get you all the publicity for your talk that you want, and you actually get to give it.

Remember, do as I say, not as I do. If you have a flashy Black Hat talk, put the punch line at the end of the joke.

Publius Outed

The pseudonymous blogger, Publius, has been outed. Ed Whelan of the National Review outed him in what appears to be nothing more than a fit of pique at a third blogger, Ed Volokh, and Publius commented on Volokh’s criticism of Whelen, so Whelen lashed out at Publius. Or so it seems from the nosebleed bleachers I sit in.

I suppose Publius isn’t completely blameless, but the only thing I’d criticize him for is his taste in names. “John J” would have been cuter, and heck why not just use “Jim Madison”?

However, the particulars aren’t really important. What’s important is the issues of pseudonymity, and so on. So I will move on to those.

Let’s get something straight from the start: pseudonymity and anonymity are not the same thing. I feel like it shouldn’t need constant repeating, but hey, if law professors can’t get it right, how can we expect other people to get it right? A pseudonym is an identity. It is an identity that is earned, because you don’t get to use any of your previous reputation. You’re starting from zero, especially when blogging.

There are many reasons people use a pseudonym. Publius did it because he’s a reasonably young law professor and has heard that there can be tenure issues for controversial blogging.

Maybe. If what you write isn’t very good, there’s a low cost to it, personally. But if what you write is good, then ironically, being known to be a pseudonym is better than the pseudonym itself. Mark Twain, Voltaire, and are better known than their so-called real names. Think of all the great actors and musicians who are known far better by their stage names.

This is why outing a pseudonym is a two-edged sword. It will likely irk the person using a pseudonym, but it’s less likely to hurt them, especially if they’re reasonably good. John Blevins is probably not going to have tenure problems, especially now that Whelan outed him. Ironically, he’s probably better off for having been outed than not and part of that is who outed him.

Well-known personages who are irked by pseudonymous writers may think they’re being attacked by some anonymous little nobody who is hiding, but no, they’re being attacked by an identity that’s just not easily tied to some SSN. The power relationship is such that the better-known person is unlikely to look good. Whelan certainly hasn’t come out on top on this one. While pseudonymity is somewhat controversial, it cuts across political lines and some of the most thoughtful criticism of Whelan comes from his admirers. And in the future, everyone in the law biz who remembers Publius will think better of Blevins. We human beings do that; that’s why the old movie star’s dictum about publicity is, “spell my name right.”

In other cases, the pseudonym still wins. Dan Lyons wasn’t hurt by being outed as Fake Steve Jobs. Joe Klein wasn’t hurt by being shown to be Anonymous. Juan Non-Volokh was probably helped by being outed, too, and Prof. Brian Leiter, who outed him, probably suffered in his reputation.

This is perhaps, I think the most important point, as it’s simply practical. If a pseudonym ticks you off, you’re better off letting them stew in their own juices. The better known a pseudonym is, the better it is for the author to be known as the pseudonym.

There are exceptions to this, of course. If Publius were a politically conservative professor blogging out his inner liberal, there’d be a hypocrisy issue that would hurt him, but it doesn’t make it any more right. Thoughtful people who out hypocrites usually talk about the outing being necessary despite it being questionable.

Nonetheless, an important lesson to this is that as Feedie said, outing a nym is “a matter of basic decency” and “unworthy of someone with [his] impeccable professional credentials”.

Amusements with Alpha

I just saw a link to someone who had broken Wolfram Alpha. Their breaking question was, “when is 5 trillion days from now?” The broken result is:

AMPMLowerCase]} |
{DateString[{13689537044,5,13,16,57,18.5796},DayName],, ,DateString[{13689537044,5,13,16,57,18.5796},MonthName], ,DateString[{13689537044,5,13,16,57,18.5796},DayShort],, ,13689537044}

Which is certainly amusing. A quick check shows that even one trillion days gives a similar error.

A bit of the old binary searching will yield that (today’s — 3 June 2009) maximum question is, when is 784 billion 351 million 562 thousand 378 days from now?

That’s an odd number of days for the maximum to be, even while being even and finite. The source of the error can be found in that final displayable day: 31 December 2147483647.

That year happens to be the maximum signed 32-bit integer, which tells us the problem. The display code isn’t using bignums for years (or even long longs).

The inverse question is, “how many days until 31 december 2147483647?” but sadly, Alpha doesn’t know how to parse that. It does know how to parse “how many days until 31 december 9999” which is the furthest-out date it can answer. The year 10000 does not work.

I am amused at what this tells us about the guts of Alpha. In some display code, there’s a signed 32-bit integer limiting output. In some input code, there’s an assumption that years have four digits.

Twitter Bankruptcy and Twitterfail

If you’re not familiar with the term email bankruptcy, it’s admitting publicly that you can’t handle your email, and people should just send it to you again.

A few weeks ago, I had to declare twitter bankruptcy. It just became too, too much. I’ve been meaning to blog about it since, but things have just been too, too much. Shortly after I did, The Guardian published their hilarious April Fools article about shifting to an all-twitter format. I found it especially funny because they made several digs at Stephen Fry, the very person who drove me to twitter bankruptcy.

In Mr. Fry’s case, he’s literate, funny, worth listening to, and prolific. These traits in a twitter user are horrible as his content dominates the page over all the other tweets. The problem was twofold: I couldn’t keep up with Mr. Fry alone, and yet having removed him, a graph of the interestingness quotient of my twitter page resembled an economic report.

I discussed this with some other friends, one of whom is my favorite twitterer, because he has some magic scraper that puts his tweets into an RSS feed on his blog and I can read them at my leisure.

I opined that what I really need from twitter is streams separated into separate pages with metadata about how many unread tweets there are from each person I follow, and a way to look at them in a block. That way, I can look at Mr. Fry’s tweets, note that there’s a Mersenne prime number of them unread, and catch up.

In short, I want twitter to either an RSS feed or an email box. Either is fine.

One of my friends said that perhaps what Mr. Fry should do is put his tweets together into paragraphs, the paragraphs into essays, and then collect the essays in a book.

She also pointed out that twitter is perhaps the first Internet medium which does not level social hierarchies, but creates and reinforces them. The numbers of people following whom, who is attentively watching whose tweets and so on recreates a high-school-like social structure.

This brings us to #twitterfail, the current brou-ha-ha about a change in twitter rules in which direct messages only go to people who are following people who are following those who are following — someone.

The #twitterfail channel is a bunch of people retweeting that they think this is a bad idea. There is apparently no channel for retweeting if you think it’s a good idea.

Valleywag thinks it is a good idea in their article, “Finally, Twitter Learns When to Shut Up,” pointing out a Nielsen report that 60% of new twitter users drop out after signing up. This might be a way to cut down the noise level for people who are newbies, according to Valleywag.

Others see it as a way to further reinforce the status hierarchies. The brash and ever entertaining Prokovy Neva says:

What [various twitterati, none of whom is Stephen Fry] all have in common is an overwhelming desire to have lots of “friends” who follow them, but they want them to be loyal, positive, and not talk back, except to warble about how they’ve read their books or gush about how wonderful they are.

What they definitely, definitely DO NOT like is when people they aren’t following talk back to them using @. They hate it. It gets them into a frenzy.

I think they’re both right. I think that the sheer noise level of twitter combined with a wretched UI makes it unusable for people who have a long multitasking quantum. My twitter page goes back a mere seven hours, and Beaker has only said one thing (I hope he’s not sick). If I go to a long meeting or get on an airplane, I’ve lost context.

There are two behavioral feedback loops I see. Sometimes one twitters because one is twittering, which drives more twittering. The other is that one is not twittering because one is not twittering which drives not wanting to look at twitter.

Cutting down on the noise level would help people get into twittering, but not as much as Valleywag thinks. Twitter’s systems and subsystems are power-law driven (which is the same thing as saying they’re human status hierarchies). If you’re a newbie, noise isn’t really the problem, the problem is figuring out who you want to follow and wondering why you should bother tweeting into an empty room.

Prokovy Neva is right, too. The social circles that twitter creates are lopsided, and power-law in scale (which is why the whale is up so much). An even playing field for replies means that people who have lots of followers but follow few others not only don’t see messages from people they don’t know, but can have a nice civil public conversation with the few people they follow without having to know about the riff-raff. Right now, the downside of having lots of followers is that you can be on the receiving end of that power law. Over the long haul, that will lead to self-monitoring on the tweets, having tweets handled by assistants (which already goes on), or just giving up on it all.

I suspect that twitter will reverse this change (if they haven’t already) at least in part because there’s no channel of retweeting for people who like the change. Perhaps most of all, I think they realize that reinforcing the hierarchies to that degree would indeed make the twitter fad fade even faster than it would otherwise.

That seems to itself be inevitable, since it’s now been reported what should surprise no one — spammers are gleaning email addresses from tweets in real time as well as using twitter trending to drive uptake. That tweeting opens one up to spam will tend to put the brakes on it.

My Wolfram Alpha Demo

I got the opportunity a couple days ago to get a demo of Wolfram Alpha from Stephen Wolfram himself. It’s an impressive thing, and I can sympathize a bit with them on the overblown publicity. Wolfram said that they didn’t expect the press reaction, which I both empathize with and cast a raised eyebrow at.

There’s no difference, as you know, between an arbitrarily advanced technology and a rigged demo. And of course anyone whose spent a lot of time trying to create something grand is going to give you the good demo. It’s hard to know what the difference is between a rigged demo and a good one.

The major problem right now with Alpha is the overblown publicity. The last time I remember such gaga effusiveness it was over the Segway before we knew it was a scooter.

Alpha has had to suffer through not only its creator’s overblown assessments, but reviews from neophiles whose minds are so open that their occipital lobes face forward.

My short assessment is that it is the anti-Wikipedia and makes a huge splat on the fine line between clever and stupid, extending equally far in both directions. What they’ve done is create something very much like the computerized idiot savant. As much as that might sound like criticism, it isn’t. Alpha is very, very, very cool. Jaw-droppingly cool. And it is also incredibly cringe-worthily dumb. Let me give some examples.

Stephen gave us a lot of things that it can compute and the way it can infer answers. You can type “gdp france / germany” and it will give you plots of that. A query like “who was the president of brazil in 1930” will get you the right answer and a smear of the surrounding Presidents of Brazil as well.

It also has lovely deductions it makes. It geolocates your IP address and so if you ask it something involving “cups” it will infer from your location whether that should be American cups or English cups and give you a quick little link to change the preference on that. Very, very, clever.

It will also use your location to make other nice deductions. Stephen asked it a question about the population of Springfield, and since he is in Massachusetts, it inferred that Springfield, and there’s a little pop-up with a long list of other Springfields, as well. It’s very, very clever.

That list, however, got me the first glimpse of the stupid. I scanned the list of Springfields and realized something. Nowhere in that list appeared the Springfield of The Simpsons. Yeah, it’s fictional, and yeah that’s in many ways a relief, but dammit, it’s supposed to be a computational engine that can compute any fact that can be computed. While that Springfield is fictional, its population is a fact.

The group of us getting the demo got tired of Stephen’s enthusiastic typing in this query and that query. Many of them are very cool but boring. Comparing stock prices, market caps, changes in portfolio whatevers is something that a zillion financial web sites can do. We wanted more. We wanted our queries.

My query, which I didn’t ask because I thought it would be disruptive, is this: Which weighs more, a pound of gold or a pound of feathers? When I get to drive, that will be the first thing I ask.

The answer, in case you don’t know this famous question is a pound of feathers. Amusingly, Google gets it on the first link. Wolfram emphasizes that Alpha computes and is smart as opposed to Google just dumbly searching and collating.

I also didn’t really need to ask because one of the other people asked Alpha to plot swine flu in the the US, and it came up with — nil. It knows nothing about swine flu. Stephen helpfully suggested, “I can show you colon cancer instead” and did.

And there it is, the line between clever and stupid, and being on both sides of it. Alpha can’t tell you about swine flu because the data it works on is “curated,” meaning they have experts vet it. I approve. I’m a Wikipedia-sneerer, and I like an anti-mob system. However, having experts curate the data means that there’s nothing about the Springfield that pops to most people’s minds (because it’s pop culture) nor anything about swine flu. We asked Stephen about sources, and specifically about Wikipedia. He said that they use Wikipedia for some sorts of folk knowledge, like knowing that The Big Apple is a synonym for New York City but not for many things other than that.

Alpha is not a Google-killer. It is not ever going to compute anything that can be computed. It’s a humorless idiot savant that has an impressive database (presently some ten terabytes, according to the Wolfram folks), and its Mathematica-on-steroids engine gives a lot of wows.

On the other hand, as one of the people in my demo pointed out, there’s not anything beyond a spew of facts. Another of our queries was “17/hr” and Alpha told us what that is in terms of weekly, monthly, yearly salary. It did not tell us the sort of jobs that pay 17 per hour, which would be useful not only to people who need a job, but to socioeconomic researchers. It could tell us that, and very well might rather soon. But it doesn’t.

Alpha is an impressive tool that I can hardly wait to use (supposedly it goes on line perhaps this week). It’s something that will be a useful tool for many people and fills a much-needed niche. We need an anti-Wikipedia that has only curated facts. We need a computational engine that uses deductions and heuristics.

But we also need web resources that know about a fictional Springfield, and resources that can show you maps of the swine flu.

We also need tech reviewers who have critical faculties. Alpha is not a Google-killer. It’s also not likely as useful as Google. The gushing, open-brained reviews do us and Alpha a disservice by uncritically watching the rigged demo and refusing to ask about its limits. Alpha may straddle the line between clever and stupid, but the present reviewers all stand proudly on stupid.

Double-take Department, Madoff Division

The Daily Beast has a fascinating article that is a tell-all from a Madoff employee. I blinked as I read:

The employee learned the salaries of his colleagues when he secretly obtained a document listing them. “A senior computer programmer would make $350,000, where in most comparable firms they would be getting $200,000 to $250,000….”

Senior programmers getting a quarter-mil in “comparable firms”? Comparable in what way? Other multi-billion Ponzi schemes that stole from rich suckers and charities alike? Is this another thing to be angry at AIG for? (Cue rimshot.)

I know it’s a tell-all, but tell more, tell more. Another intriguing morsel can be found in:

The employee was part of a trading group, which was able to break a security code that he says led them to a site that was supposed to be seen only by the Madoff family. It showed the profits and losses of the legitimate businesses.

The group broke the code? The person broke the code? And do tell more. Perhaps the author, Lucinda Franks, has some more details for us. Or maybe she’s saving them for a second Pulitzer.

Twitter + Cats = Awesome

TwitkittehMy smart friend James Thomson of TLA Systems has created a new benchmark in iPhone applications, Twitkitteh. Not only is it the first Twitter client for cats, but it might also be the first iPhone app for cats, as well.

I’ve always accused my cats of playing the stereo when I’m not there, and it would be good to know what they’re listening to. It would also be good to have in V1.1 hairball alerts, bird-outside-the-window, or there are squirrels on the fence.

It’s one of the better 99¢ applications, and better dinner-table conversation than many others.

What Was Wrong With the Old FISA?

The Get FISA Right group is publicizing our need to re-think the laws. They have discussion going on on their site, as well as on The Daily Kos. I recommend catching up there, or reading Adam’s recent post here.

I have to ask what was wrong with the old FISA? It wasn’t a bad system, had a lot tradeoffs as well as emergency provisions. The government could, for example, get a warrant after the fact in an emergency.

But the old FISA was very Cold War. It was also very much adapted to the previous century’s technology in which wired technologies were static and protected and wireless or mobile technologies were highly regulated.

So let’s look at some of the things that are indeed worth changing.

  • I think it is important to note upfront that getting a warrant trumps all this discussion. We are talking about Fourth Amendment considerations, and that means what can be done without a warrant. But it also concerns a certain amount of how the government can operate when it has one, when they’re operating completely above board.
  • In the past, FISA was overly concerned with devices rather than persons. Changing it so that it affects persons is a good idea. If there is permission to spy on a person, then it should be to spy on the person. Making it the person and device is awfully restrictive, especially when it’s hard to know what counts. Rather than debate about what happens when DHCP gives you a new address, it’s better to just make things apply to persons. That probably makes the law adapt better to changing technology.

    I would not want end up having interesting new technologies like femtocells end up in some odd legal limbo because of some peculiarity of the technology. It’s better for us all to just agree that when it is okay to spy on a person, it’s that person.

  • In the past, FISA worried a lot about about where the pipes were. It also seems reasonable to have that abstracted away. This goes along with focusing on the persons. A phone call between non-US persons does not suddenly become a US thing just because some glass runs across the US.

    Now, this has consequences. I wouldn’t blame non-US telecom companies to proudly avoid the US as a result of that. It’s from the viewpoint of a civil libertarian who is trying to make sense out of the rules of spying that I think that.

    It is also the converse of thinking that when I am in another country, they’ll spy on me or not according to their rules, not mine.

  • The flip side of this is that US persons are protected everywhere. It seems fair that if we’re going to tune the law to make it easier to spy on non-US persons no matter where they are, the US persons should get full protection. This strikes me as being the way that things ought to be. My government shouldn’t spy on me (without a warrant) just because I’m traveling outside the country. This may be as things ought to be, but it used to be at least de facto that if you were outside the country, your calls would be monitored.
  • It is a point of our common law that non-US persons are subject to US law when they are in the US. If a foreigner is arrested in the US, they get a jury trial, for example. In this particular case, however, non-US persons in the US should have some extra measure of protection, the question is what.

I can go on, particularly about the new features of the new FISA. However, that strays away from this discussion. What didn’t work well in the old one.

Would Anne Fadiman buy a Kindle?

Anne Fadiman

If you like books, if you like to read, you need a copy of Anne Fadiman’s “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.” You especially need to read it if you care an iota about identity management, because the major themes in her essays are not only about books, but about identity. (In case you’re wondering, yes, she’s the daughter of Clifton and Annalee.)

The first major theme is about mixing books in a relationship. She opens Ex Libris with:

A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together. We had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, been married for five….

Sharing a bed and future was child’s play compared to sharing my copy of The Complete Poems of W. B. Yeats, from which I had once read “Under Ben Bulben” aloud while standing at Yeats’s grace in Drumcliff churchyard, or George’s copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, given to him in the ninth grade by his best friend, Rob Farnsworth, who inscribed it “Best Wishes from Gerry Cheevers….”

George is a lumper. I am a splitter. His books commingled democratically, united under the all-inclusive flag of Literature…. Mine were balkanized by nationality and subject matter….

If you are charmed, you must by this book. I’ve omitted some of the funniest lines. If you doubt me, check Amazon as these pages are included in their peek inside.

The other important theme in her book is the difference between people who think that books are objects and people who think that books are information. People who think that books are objects shudder at the thought of writing in them, dogearing page corners, etc. I’m sure you can guess where George and Anne lie.

I am especially amused by this because I, too, have had the problem of co-mingling libraries. I’ve been divorced, and dividing the library was a horror. The horror; nothing else was that hard. It was such a horror that I flipped from being someone who views books as objects to one who views them as information.

Books can be replaced. Really. I’ve done it. The archaeologists of future civilizations will not sigh in a lament because they’re missing the one issue of National Geographic or Cook’s Illustrated that you threw out. Truly. Trust me on that.

My last spouse, however, is someone who firmly believes that books are objects. I understand some of this. She collects antique children’s books. I have a first edition of The Hunting of the Snark (a possession that I can blame Ms. Fadiman’s father for, with Martin Gardner as an accessory before, during, and after the fact). Yet that admission also proves that I’m not that sort of person. My present condition of loving information rather than objects is some sort of Laingian adaptation, I suppose. I understand books just the way that Thomas Mendip understands names.

She lusts after a Kindle. Not Ms. Fadiman, my spouse. It’s something I find amusing, because I’m inclined to get her one because the savings in floor space alone amortizes its value out in the first month. In California, floor space is a valuable asset if you’re a bibliophile. She is someone who screams, “Nooooooooooo!” if I suggest that we get rid of a crap novel we agree is crap and yet she is willing to convert from paper you own to bits on loan. Even if our house is Alexandria, future generations would thank their ancestors for the culling if they only knew, of course, which they couldn’t. Nonetheless, she desires a Kindle.

Worse, a friend brought one into work today, and I’d like one, too. I’ve downloaded the Kindle app to my iPod. The problem that remains is the problem I complained about in Identity Manglement last fall. What account should we buy the books under?

An elegant part of the Kindle is that if you have more than one, they sync their books, and even the bookmarks. If you have the iPod app, that syncs, too. It’s brilliant.

I have friends who are already a multi-Kindle household. The system works well, but you can’t have two accounts pointing to one Kindle if you want to share books. There are ways, I am told, to work around this limitation, but I don’t want to work around it. I don’t want to soak the books in a digital solvent that removes the stickiness. I just want to be able to read a book she bought, as if it were a — you know, book.

When it came to music, I had the foresight to create an account that we collectively buy music with. Emusic and iTunes both under the one identity. The community property we own can distribute itself over our laptops and iPods.

But we’ve been buying books from Amazon for ages, each of us. There’s no real problem with taking that email address and giving it the Kindles, but I don’t want to. I want Amazon to understand that there are households where after a lot of thought, after years of agonizing, the books have been merged. They should do that for Kindles, too.

It’s easy enough to do. Please do it. I wonder what Anne Fadiman would do.

This Data Will Self-Destruct in 5 Seconds


CSO Online has a good article on data destruction, Why Information Must Be Destroyed.” It’s mostly about physical documents, not data, but I can still make a few quibbles.

The author, Ben Rothke, gives an example of a financial institution that did not live up to its regulatory requirements for properly disposing documents, and was punished. Well, duh, financials are a regulated industry, and let’s face it, if you don’t live up to your regulatory obligations, you’re asking for trouble. In financials, especially given the economic situation, not living up to regulatory requirements is apt to get one slapped around. The governments are embarrassed at their part in the financial mess, so they’re as likely to overreact as anything.

However, there are other regulated industries that have a requirement to keep data (e.g. pharmaceuticals), and a parallel article could be written: “Why Information Must Not Be Destroyed.” Many IT companies have data retention requirements, as well. There are even kerfuffles about keeping router logs and so on that allegedly would affect anyone with a wireless router, all in the name of stopping kiddie porn.

I’m not going to say anything more about the obvious stupidity of this, as Gentle Readers of this blog can likely come up with as long a list as I can. I’m instead going to tell a pair of stories about destructing physical documents.

I once worked for a computer security startup that had a delightfully playful culture. We had a contract with a company that shredded documents, and they had a number of large shredding bins throughout the building. I don’t know how we got the bright idea, but one day we decided that at our next all-hands meeting, one of the architects — let’s call him Jack — would hide in one of the bins. A shill would call out, “Hey, where’s Jack?” and then Jack would flip open the top of the bin and pop up like a Jack-in-the-box and say, “Here I am!”

This of course, meant that we had to get Jack into the box. The box had a three-digit combination lock, so that meant we just had to brute-force it surreptitiously. We co-consipirators set about to brute force the lock. We started at some convenient spot (666, as I remember) and started counting down. Jack’s whiteboard had a small spot where we put the current position, and anyone with a moment or three to spare tried a few numbers.

After about a week, we had gone through the whole keyspace and — nothing. The lock wasn’t open. That meant that someone hadn’t tugged hard enough on the lock as they went through. Not only had we wasted a week and had to do it again, but we were likely to miss the all-hands meeting and would have to wait for the next one. As we were grumbling about it, one of the administrative assistants came by the shredding bin. We got quiet. She asked why we were over there and that she’d noticed a people congregating around the bin of late.

We had the rule in the company that it was all right to do a hack, you just had to ‘fess up when asked about it. So we told her. She thought it was a hilarious idea, and said, “I think I can help.” She dropped some of her papers into the bin and said, “Oops, I dropped the wrong folder into the bin. I’ll go get Facilities.” We scattered.

The facilities manager came over, and rescued her folder. She ostentatiously tossed the right documents into the bin and thanked the facilities guy. After he left, we all assembled and asked her, “And? And?” She told us that she’d managed to shoulder-surf two digits from him. We cheered, clapped her on the back and then found the last digit. And indeed, you had to give the lock quite a tug to get it to open. This is the first lesson: don’t put graphite in a combo lock; stickiness is a security feature.

Our hack went off without a hitch. The all-hands meeting came, we asked, “Where’s Jack?” and out Jack popped from the box to stunned looks from everyone not in on the joke. Our CEO gave one of the long-suffering sighs he gave whenever we hacked something. (However, he was game on things — we taught him to pick locks. He knew it was his job to give long-suffering sighs whenever he wasn’t included in the hack.)

A few years later in a different company, one day our office manager uttered an uncharacteristically emphatic stream of epithets. I asked what the problem was and she’d dropped the wrong folder into the shredding bin. She didn’t have good contact information for the company that handles the bin, and it was the previous office manager who had set up the service, too. She started wending her way through the twisty maze of non-English-speaking people at the shredding company.

I wandered over to the bin. It was from the same company as before. You don’t suppose, do you? I mean you don’t suppose they’d have the same combination? I tried it. Nothing. I stared at it for a moment, and the pushed the middle wheel up one. The lock snapped open in my hand. Clearly, the sticky lock wasn’t an intentional security feature before. I managed to fish out the misplaced folder without falling in and brought it over to her.

She disengaged from the shredding company, who had not figured out which account it was yet, and asked, “How did you do that?” and then added sotto voce, “Or do I not want to know?” I told her the story of Jack in the Bin, as well as the combination that worked, and told her to write it down in her notebook of fun facts. I also opined that the other bins in the building probably differed by only the middle digit. Why? Human factors. The guys who come in to empty the bins can’t memorize lots of combinations, so probably only remember the two-digit outer number and brute-force the middle digit. (And, Gentle Reader, the outer pair was the same digit, too.)

A couple days later, she told me that she’d checked the other bins, and yes, they only differed by the middle digit and there were only two distinct codes in the building. I’m not this says anything about data destruction companies. Remember, they have to have a manageable business, and most locks merely keep honest people honest. The system that company was (is?) using is almost certainly better than the alternative — an easily pickable key lock.

Photo by Lady, That’s My Skull.