The Pebble and the Avalanche

Moshe Thumbnail
Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Tue, 2011-Jun-07, 06:09

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The Irony: Twitter and Apple

Yesterday was precisely either the right day or the wrong day for Apple to announce that the next release of Apple's operating system for the iPhone will integrate Twitter.

As Apple announced their new Twitterized features, back in New York City Representative Anthony Weiner (D-New York) called a press conference to admit that he'd lied about his use of Twitter to send an embarrassing photograph of himself.

Apple may view Twitter integration as a win for their users, and that might even be the case for some of these users (and if Twitter proves reliable enough to provide service and remains profitable enough to continue as business). But I know that I don't want to accidentally send all my emails out in my Twitter feed; that I don't want all my photos uploaded for the world to see; that I don't care for anyone other then my spouse to know my location at all times. Apple's integration of Twitter should make everyone nervous — a single misplaced tap on the screen away from sharing corporate secrets, vacation plans, or your child's birthday party photos with the entire world.

I'd say that Weiner's timing was impeccable. Weiner inadvertently performed a public service with his demonstration of the pitfalls of improper use of Twitter. With Apple's integration of Twitter into every nook and cranny of the iPhone, expect to see an entire new level of inadvertent disclosures.

Tue, 2010-Dec-21, 12:58

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Net Neutrality: The FCC's Life Preserver

During Britain's war against Napoleon in the 1800's, with France poised to invade England, the British military established an important job. A watchman would stand, looking out across the English Channel, and if the French fleet were to approach his job was to ring an alarm bell.

This job was abolished in 1945.

Nothing is quite as resilient to time and changing circumstances as a government agency. No matter if the original mission vanishes: the agency will attempt to find a new mission. For example, now that all of rural American has electicity, did you ever wonder what happened to the Federal agency in charge of "promoting" rural electrification? Hint: it's now part of a larger organization proving equally redundant services.

Today's hearing by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may seem to be about "net neutrality," but the subtext is about the FCC itself. The FCC's predecessor organization came into existence almost a hundred years ago to reglate what was then thought to be a scarce resource, the radio spectrum; the FCC also regulates telecommunications.

Pity the poor FCC. Just maybe the idea of radio spectrum allocation made sense back then; regulating the AT&T telecommunications near-monopoly never did. And today, with — at my last count — over seven hundred long-distance companies in the US, the monopoly days are over and FCC control makes even less sense. As more telecommunications migrates to the Internet, we've got all the telecommunications we can possibly want and ten times more besides. The FCC, which regulates scarcity, is drowning in abundance with no reasonable mission.

Hence the lastest go-round with "net neutrality." By seizing control of Internet operations — by dictating how traffic will flow, what prices will be charged, who gets to use the Internet and how — the FCC will have a new, more powerful, and vastly longer-lived empire. Forget Google, Verizon, and the rest; they're pawns in the FCC's institutional chess game. Bureaucrats will expand their empires and, when retirement beckons, escape into the private sector to consult on how to live with the regulations they themselves promulgated.

As for the collaborators in this FCC power grab: If you can afford the paperwork and the lawyers, if you know how to play the regulatory game, then you can support "net neutrality" rules no matter what they are and game the system to hobble your competitors. The rest of us, who don't have the time or money to file endless forms with the FCC, who don't have the resources to fight back against bureaucratic interference, who won't be able to evade censorship: we're the ones who will suffer as abundance turns to scarcity and opportunity turns to dust.

Mon, 2010-Nov-29, 09:15

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The Fallacy of Profiling

I'd like to address a particularly silly notion about airport security: profiling. The idea is that security personnel should profile certain ethnic groups and select them for special scrutiny, and devote less time to other ethnic groups and religions.

The argument for profiling rests on several assumptions, and all of them are either flat-out wrong or are based on ideas that have not been fully thought out. These ideas include:

  • Israelis profile passengers to provide the world's best security.
  • Profiles will fix current Transportation Security Agency problems, such as three-year olds placed on special watch lists.
  • Profiles increase security by focusing on likely suspects.
  • Profiles are feasible, affordable, and accurate.
Let's tackle these one by one.

The Israelis do not profile passengers according to race or religion. The Israelis examine each and every passenger as he or she arrives at the airport and at multiple checkpoints, to look for behavior or history that requires further scrutiny. Security is not confined to "risky population groups," i.e., Moslems or people with dark skins; risk assessment extends to every passenger. In the most famous case, a pregnant Irish woman attempted to board an El Al flight; after questions indicated risk because of the woman's associates, the Israelis dismantled her luggage and found that, unknown to her, the unborn child's Arab father had concealed a bomb in the woman's luggage.

Ethnic and religious profiling will not solve the TSA's problems with passengers on the no-fly list or the watch list. Even during the darkest days of Nazi terror in Europe, you could walk into the local Gestapo outpost, argue with commander, and sometimes get a person released from a concentration camp. Here in the US, the TSA will place you on a watch list for reasons they won't disclose and apparently will never take you off. Tens of thousands of people undergoe special scrutiny because somewhere, someplace there's an alleged terrorist with a vaguely similar spelling or pronunciation. The TSA deliberately does nothing about absurd situations such as three-year olds on the watch list; no person at the agency is willing to take the risk to his own personal career of taking a person off the list in case that particular person really turns out to be a terrorist. This is an institutional problem that we can expect in any secretive agency, especially one that does not have to respect due process of law. Profiling will not fix that problem; profiling will likely make the TSA act even worse.

I should mention at this point that the TSA already does profile according to behavior; they just do it very badly. When my wife or daughter fly in the summer they are often selected for additional screening because (as religious Jews) they do not wear sleeveless shirts or shorts. This triggers the primitive "behavioral" screening procedures used by the TSA, regardless of the fact that hundreds of women pass through the airport in such clothing every day. Worse yet is the complete illogic of the the screening: why is long skirt a security risk in the summer but not in the winter? Being "different," particularly in a diverse society, is not the same as acting suspiciously.

Ethnic and religious profiles do not increase security — they degrade security. For the sake of discussion, let's accept the incorrect premise that only Moslems wish to destroy or interfere with US airplanes. Let's further assume that just like in other places around the world we will one day see female suicide bombers in the United States. The argument that "the TSA should not frisk nuns" means that female suicide bombers will dress up as nuns, nurses, business women, and the like. Security should focus on behavior and risk factors; if a nun triggers suspicions she should not be immune from a pat-down search.

Finally, religious and ethnic profiling won't work because we don't have information about religion and ethnicity. Unlike other countries, I don't have my religion stamped on my identity papers. Would any sane white or black citizen in the US confess to being a Moslem if that means hassling from "security" at every airport, train station, and drivers license facility? How will the government verify my religious affiliation? Will the government open a dossier on every person in the US and examine his religious background for suspicion of unreported Islamic sympathies? What about FBI investigations for the taint of "risky" ethnic background? Reliable ethnic and religion-based profiling requires a level of intrusive government scrutiny that would cost us vast amounts of money and above all our precious remaining shreds of privacy and dignity.

Or will the TSA personnel simply guess at religion, political beliefs, and ethnicity by looking at people's skin color?

If we do profile according to race and religion, we will introduce a profound change in US society: in public spaces and our every day life, the official policy of the US government will be to exercise its police powers differently for different people, based on ethnic and religious background. The most basic, fundamental principle of the US is that everyone — everyone — is equal before the law. And in this case as so many others, it's not only sound ideology, it's the policy that works best.

Mon, 2010-Nov-22, 12:17

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eReaders for the Android Phone

I've just spent a couple of days working in eBook readers for my Android phone. I've tried Moon Reader, Aldiko, FBReader, Wordaholic, WordPlayer, and perhaps one or two more I've already forgotten.

None of them, possibly with the exception of FBReader, seems to automatically import eBooks that are just placed directly onto the Android phone. They want you to fiddle around to import the books; some readers come from companies that quite explicity expect you to purchase books from their online stores.

I'm going to give FBReader another chance since it did manage to read my directory file automatically this time. Maybe I'll have better luck with it. Other readers were more polished, but I don't need the headache.

As for what all this means, the lowest common denominator in this foodfight is the format of the eBook itself, and the winning format is "epub." The web site that offer books for free download seem to be standardized. Other than that, I'm not certain what's happening other than a mad scramble for revenue.

I will say the the free, open-source, user-supported software "Calibre" to manage your eBook library works just as advertised. And when you push it to its limits, like I did, the developer will step in to support you. Give it a whirl.

Wed, 2010-Nov-17, 08:50

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What's Wrong at Starwood Hotels?

Last weekend I stayed at a hotel in the Starwood group; I'm a Starwood Prefered Guest, and until now they've been good about respecting my email preference — namely, none. In the three days since I left the hotel I've received two pieces of email from Starwood, neither of which contained interesting or for that matter accurate information (my reward balance is really zero?). If this continues I'll simply block the email address and move on.

Whenever sort of thing happens, when a sender acts against my explicit wishes and therefore their own best interests, I can't quite make out what the sender has in mind... Is it desperation in a search for new business? (That was my theory about Land's End, years ago.) Is it utterly clueless marketing departments? ( comes to mind.)

Or is it just clumsiness? One post-stay message — hope you had a good time, please let give us feedback, etc. — would be acceptable. Not that I read that first one, of course, since it was captured by my spam filters. The second email contains three separate sections from three different corporate entities and a warning that links provided by outside entities contained in the email might violate my privacy. Makes me wonder if Starwood runs the rest of their business the same way: "We hire room cleaning from outside entities, and they might rifle through your pockets and bags to find interesting stuff."

Let's see what happens next. If they're sufficiently entertaining in their cluelessness, I might actually read some of these emails for a while before I shut them down.

Thu, 2010-Oct-21, 08:15

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Presentation at ITExpo East

I partipated on this panel back in February. The book which we created after this panel can be downloaded for free.

Cloud Communications Summit: CEBP Fundamentals from Twilio on Vimeo.

Tue, 2010-Oct-12, 08:14

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SuperShuttle and Its Problems

First of all, a brief note: it's been quite a while since I've posted anything here. The reason for the hiatus: software. I need to migrate to a new system for blog entries and for my web site — the current system simply does not work correctly and I've had to disable comments — and as such I've spent my spare time trying to find a new system instead of blogging.

Which is clearly a mistake.

So, on today's topic, which is SuperShuttle. I suppose this the pot calling the kettle black, but everyone once in a while you run across a company that's in such evident disarray that you can only marvel and then swear to never use again.

What I can deduce from reading the web site and from listening to their inbound phone menus is that SuperShuttle is attempting (and failing) to consolidate separate operations across the nation into a single entity. Back-office chaos does affect customer experience.

When visiting Los Angeles I used the web site to reserve a ride. On the web site, when I entered the city name and "convention center" as my location I was offered a choice of convention centers — nationwide, not just for LA. And my convention center building (one of several in the downtown LA complex) was not on the list. Being clever, I decided that if I entered "conv" as the search term instead of "convention center" that perhaps I could pull up the building. This worked — my building was under "CONVENTION CTR- W HALL." Given the size of th building, about a city block on every direction, I would have liked to know the pickup point, but that information was not on the web site. This user-hostile site meant that (a) other people travelling on the shuttle told me that they gave up trying to reserve online and (b) I had to waste time to call the toll-free number to find out the pickup point.

So, after sending email and getting no response, I called SuperShuttle's number and was treated to the usual series of annoying announcements: the lie about "our menus have changed," the invitation to use the web site, and then (amazingly) a long spiel in Spanish. Then came a series of announcements that told me more about the internal (dis)organization of SuperShuttle, the first being "Press 8 if you're calling from Nashville." This told me immediately that the toll-free number was not location-aware, and that the rest of the system would likely have similar problems.

After speaking to human, who had no way to access the information and had to make a phone call to a dispatcher in my city, I got the answer to where I'd be picked up. Two other people waited with me, and we saw the shuttle go past and towards some other location. The driver could not find us, and one othe person who was waiting somewhere else. After some phone calls, instructions to the driver, and going out into the street and waving our hands, he finally picked us up. Each of us had gotten a different answer about where to wait (I have no idea what, if anything, the driver was told). In fact, when SuperShuttle did answer my email, they gave me a different location. By my count, four passengers got five different answers to the basic question of where to pick up the shuttle.

The driver had no familiarity with the convention center, seemed unsure about where the airport was (and managed to miss the freeway entrace by slavishly and senselessly following the directions of the GPS), and could not operate some functions of the overly complex and oddly designed computer system in his shuttle.

While it's all fine and good to disaggregate the call center and the web site from individual cities and bring them into a central location, you have to remember that the local knowlege is lost in the process. If I select Los Angeles as my location and ask for "Convention Center," don't show me convention centers in Alambama. Don't use the local shortcuts that dispatchers used ("Convention CTR"). And if you're going to "franchise" and hire "independent operators" to drive your blue shuttles, at least insist on some basic competence. Disaggregation is no time to lose basic operational knowledge.

It's one thing to have indigestion as you digest various operations; but improper cooking leads to food poisoning.

Thu, 2010-Jul-08, 05:08

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US Cyber Command

I personally find any product or service to be less believable when the prefix "cyber" is applied; as someone who works in high technology, to me the term smacks of decades-old terminology and attitudes, used by ignorant marketing executives who are ignorant of technology but desparately want to sound modern and up to date. The US "Cyber Command" falls into the category of distrusted services.

I've just seen this thoroughly unbelievable assertion in the Wall Street Journal:

Intelligence officials have met with utilities' CEOs and those discussions convinced them of the gravity of the threat against U.S. infrastructure, an industry specialist said, but the CEOs concluded they needed better threat information and guidance on what to do in the event of a major cyber attack.
Frankly, I find it very hard indeed to believe — given the Obama Administration's blundering, dithering, and outright obstructionism in the Gulf oil spill — that any CEO would look to this administration, or any other government agency, for instructions on how to respond to a security attack. That is, of course, unless the authorities require them to do so...

Wed, 2010-Jun-02, 10:02

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Now That's Funny

I read this blog about chemistry on a regular basis, because every once in a while it's great fun.

Today's article is about a company that offers a new miracle drug process. The blog's author is circumspect. As a physicist I personally find the web site hilariously funny, but I guess you have understand quantum electrodynamics to enjoy the incongruity.

Thu, 2010-May-27, 08:04

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Apple and Applications

I don't own an iPod, iPad, or iPhone because I object strongly to Apple's control over the devices. Apple simply won't let you put any application you like onto the device; they can even magically erase applications you've bought and paid for.

Of course this relates to disaggregation of ownership and authority. Google's Android phone — which allows anyone to not only create applications but even to manufacture the phone itself — poses a huge challenge to Apple. I've got an Android phone, and while I miss some of the applications that appear only on the iPhone, I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is and support the disaggregated, open platform.