Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Thinker

Why are we surprised by the consequences of our Wild West tech economy?

Whoops. Well it looks like Facebook has some egg on its face, and its share price is off ten percent or so last time I looked. The problem? Facebook unwisely let Cambridge Analytica create a Facebook app. If you played their app, it gave them access not just to you, but all your friends Facebook accounts.

Cambridge Analytica claimed their app was for academic/research purposes, which is how they got the permission. As we now know they copied tons of data about you and your friends: about fifty million of us American, or about one in six of us. They mined the data to learn about our passions, biases and foibles. They thought they could persuade people to vote for Donald Trump or against Hillary Clinton from what they learned about you and your friends from the app. Although Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote by three million ballots, Trump won the Electoral College thanks to 50,000 or so votes in three key states.

We’ll probably never know if this alone swung the election. It probably didn’t hurt. But what really helped Trump were the many state laws mostly in red states that narrowed the voter pool to favor those who tended to be white. It’s curious that those laws, all perfectly legal, don’t earn our scorn while this breach of Facebook’s rules has everyone up in arms all of a sudden.

Anyhow, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is really sorry and has taken some steps that might prevent this in the future. Meanwhile, all this information about us is outside of Facebook somewhere, maybe still on Cambridge Analytica servers, maybe sold to other parties. This is data about us that we voluntarily and probably mindlessly gave away to Facebook is of course just a drop in the buckets of hacks and misappropriation of data that happens every day. It’s not going to get better. In fact, it’s going to get worse. Recently passed rules repealing net neutrality basically allow ISPs like Comcast to sell our use and search patterns on the Internet to any interested parties. This is not by accident; it’s by design. It’s part of Trump’s MAGA plan.

So Zuckerberg is sorry but I think what he’s most sorry about is the nine billion dollars of his personal wealth that got wiped out. It may stay wiped out until he can earn our trust again. The hashtag #deletefacebook is trending. The Washington Post is happy to show you how to get off Facebook. But really, what did you expect? This is one more foreseeable consequence of our wild, wild, “anything goes” Internet. It also demonstrates why you might want to rethink you love of Libertarianism. We aided and abetted this misuse because we like free stuff and Facebook is free, or sure appears free. And besides, you can spend hours a day playing their Farmville app … for free!

Implicit in this fiasco is the expectation from some that Facebook (a) was capable of ensuring that apps would not be misused and (b) cared about the problem. Facebook though is really an extended startup company. It succeeded by being fast and being agile, and that meant breaking the rules or in cases like these setting the expectation that there were no rules.

It’s hardly alone. Many of these successful startups and lots of the unsuccessful ones operate the same way. Gaining market share, traction, usage, page hits and metadata about people like you and me is their true capital. At some point though you become big enough where you can monetize this information. Facebook was something of a laggard in this area. Twitter is too, and just recently reported its first profitable quarter. Facebook though may be unique because it excels in micro-targeting. If you need to reach someone between 40 and 45 in towns of less than 50,000 people who prefer their toast dark brown and support LGBTQ rights, I’m betting they could find these people and you could throw an ad at them. That’s how much they know about us because we tell them somewhat indirectly in our many posts to our Facebook friends, likes and shares. Why wouldn’t Cambridge Analytica use this platform, particularly when they likely suspected the agile, entrepreneurial culture at Facebook would make this easy? Did they worry that Facebook would catch on to their scheme? Maybe. Did they care about the consequences if they did? Nah. Their mission would be accomplished long before Facebook got around to figuring it out, which they never did. You can’t be both agile and careful.

What do Facebook and these other companies care about? It’s not too hard to figure out: making gobs of money. With no government oversight and a Congress and administration that encourage tech companies to be entrepreneurial, all they saw were green lights. Maybe some executives worried a bit that this strategy would ultimately be counterproductive. Clearly there weren’t enough of them for it to matter and I doubt the size of their stock options depended on how careful they were to look out for the company’s long term interests.

The honest Facebook reaction should have been, “Why on earth should you care? We’re a profit-making company, like every other company on the planet. You knew this when you signed up. Besides, we give away our platform for free. We allow you to easily connect with extended friends you would otherwise probably quickly forget about.” Unless the heavy hand of government gives them a reason to care, they probably will just go through the motions. They are not motivated by your concerns or concerns about how governments like Russia use their platform against our election laws. They are motivated to minimize damage like this when it occurs so as to cut the company’s losses.

If you want to hit them where it hurts then #deletefacebook. I use Facebook but I don’t particularly like it. What we really need is the equivalent of the World Wide Web in a social network. The WWW was created to run on top of the structure of the Internet. It’s free and open source. If we must have social networks, we need an open source social network of peer-to-peer social media servers where you carefully control information about yourself and who it goes to. I’d like to think that’s in our future.

But this Facebook brouhaha and the many other “oops” like this in our tech economy shows the downsides of these proprietary platforms. Facebook should hope for regulation. That way maybe it will eventually survive. With these significant and predictable problems users may simply walk away when they realize the dubious virtues of platforms like Facebook really aren’t worth their largely hidden costs. Here’s hoping.

The Thinker

Project Muni

I have a new project of sorts: convince our city to construct a municipal network.

What’s a municipal network? “Munis” as they are sometimes called are publicly controlled Internet Service Providers. So rather than get Internet from Comcast or Time Warner, you might get it from your town or city instead, or more likely some legal entity chartered by your town or city.

Munis seem to be catching on. They tend to spring up in places that don’t have high-speed Internet, which means they are mostly more in rural areas. Some years back across the Connecticut River from us in Leverett, Massachusetts the citizens decided they were done with dialup. So they created LeverettNet. For $73.89 a month subscribers get a 1 gigabit per second true fiber Internet access to the home out in what is arguably the middle of nowhere. In my city across the river we already have high-speed Internet, and it’s called Comcast. For about $75/month you can get “up to” 60 megabits per second Internet to the home. (Comcast offers a good deal for the first year you would expect.) But there’s no true fiber to the home here; it’s stepped down to coaxial cable. Comcast doesn’t offer a 1-gigabit per second service like Leverett does, but you can buy 2 gigabits per second in some places of our city … for $299.99 a month. Ouch!

Like in most communities, Comcast is the only game in our community. There are plenty of communities mostly in the hill towns around here that are largely left to fend for themselves. Comcast doesn’t go there because it’s not profitable. There are fewer subscribers and the houses are further apart. The town of Leverett has only 1900 residents so they had to figure out how to do it themselves. In one sense though they were lucky. Amherst, Massachusetts is not too far away. They could get service there and extend it across the telephone polls to the town.

It’s too early to know if we will be successful in getting our city of 30,000 to build a muni. We haven’t formally petitioned the City Council yet. It seems kind of redundant since Comcast is available everywhere. But it’s the only game in town. Leverett across the river with a much more spread out population though has figured out it can deliver a service nearly seventeen times faster than Comcast’s for about the same price. That sounds … appealing!

So a group of us are organizing. Right now this involves mostly reaching out and research. On the face of it though there is a business case to be made for a city muni. Perhaps the best-known muni and one of the most controversial is one built for the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee against the strong wishes of Comcast. Its most popular service is the 100 megabits per second service, priced at $57.99 a month. This suggests that a muni should cost about a third less for similar service compared with Comcast.

It turns out that saving money is just one of the many reasons for communities to build munis. In our research we’ve uncovered a whole lot of other reasons. Here are just some:

  • Comcast is responsible to shareholders, so they have every incentive to bilk customers for all they can get. It’s not too hard since they are the sole provider. A public board though would oversee a muni. It would be not-for-profit and presumably accountable to its subscribers and our city government.
  • Comcast is “innovating” by doing away with Net Neutrality, although it claims it won’t slow down services for websites. But it certainly could, particularly if they think they could make a buck doing so. A muni would probably require Net Neutrality.
  • Comcast has no competition and thus no reason to lower prices but plenty of reasons to raise them. Verizon did introduce its FiOS service in a few neighborhoods but quickly learned it wasn’t profitable to do it citywide. They will make money in services that have fewer competitors, so they are concentrating on wireless access.
  • Comcast isn’t improving their network. Many of the telephone polls have their optical fiber on them, but not all of them and less so along stretches of road that are less populated. It’s all stepped down to coaxial cable at some point, but in places there is a lot of coaxial cable between your home and a fiber drop. There’s no reason for Comcast to improve their network because there’s no competition and doing so would lower profits anyhow.

I believe that high-speed Internet access is a requirement today. It is really a new utility, the same way power, gas and sewage are. To meet the needs of citizens in these communities, Internet service should be managed by some sort of governmental body. The private sector model is largely a failure. It has failed in the hill towns around here because the private sector won’t serve that market. It’s a failure also because you only have one choice in most markets.

It’s time. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created to bring electricity to Appalachia because the private sector wouldn’t. Massachusetts is making half-hearted efforts to subsidize high speed internet for the hill towns via a Wired West initiative, but it’s underfunded and mostly languishing.

One of the reasons Trump won the presidency in 2016 was because of the frustration of people in more rural communities. I’m sort of in this boat now. Here the economy has grown little if at all since the Great Recession. That’s is part of its charm to me. (I can actually see the stars at night again.) But it’s not too hard to see that a good part of the reason these communities are suffering is that they suffer from an unequal playing field. Cities with their natural higher densities are going to be profitable to serve so they will get robust high-speed Internet and maybe residents can choose from multiple providers.

In most cases these hill towns around here don’t have the money to create their own munis. Towns like Leverett found ways to do it through issuing bonds, and that’s probably how it will get built where I live if we can convince the City to sanction one. By having robust high-speed Internet out here in the more rural parts of the country at an affordable price, communities like mine can begin to seriously address the rural vs. urban divide, much the way the Tennessee Valley Authority brought Appalachia into the 20th century.

For the foreseeable future though not much in the way of resources will come from the federal government. So mostly we must roll our own, if we can figure out a way to do so. In the case of my small city I think it will encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to move here, where the cost of living is lower anyhow and where many natural beauties are literally just outside your door.

You can learn more about municipal networks at If like me you are frustrated by the lack or high cost of high-speed Internet maybe you should do what I am doing and rise up and demand it.

The Thinker

Vivaldi: a pretty cool browser

So I’ve been putting the Vivaldi browser through its paces for the last few days. Until Thursday I had never heard of Vivaldi, but my friend Roger mentioned it at a meeting so I figured it was worth checking out.

It was especially worth checking out because for whatever reason I have browser issues on my Mac. I bought my second Mac a few years ago and pimped it up with the most memory I could get. (Unfortunately I could not get a flash drive for it at the time.) I found Firefox to be too unstable, Safari to be too annoying and so I relied on Chrome instead for my daily web browsing.

Then Chrome seemed to bog down too. It was fine for a few days then slowly degraded. It seems to have the biggest problem with sites that are highly dynamic, i.e. doing lots of things in the background by frequently updating the page’s content. In short, it had issues with Facebook and Tweetdeck, both of which do a lot of this.

It got so unstable and frustrating that I moved Facebook and Tweetdeck access to Firefox, where for mysterious reasons it seemed to perform better. In any event I keep lots of applications open on my computer and I reasonably expect that they should all behave well and work quickly. But MacOS is hardly perfect. It may not crash as often as Windows, but it does crash from time to time, and certain applications close slowly if they close at all.

Like most people I spend most of my time online in my browser, so it has to work right and be nimble. Firefox recently finally got the feature that moved me to Chrome: each Firefox tab is now multi-threaded, at least since Firefox 54. Multi-threading should add overall stability by keeping each tab in an independent environment, but threading also adds additional overhead. I think that’s what’s happening with Chrome. All those threads, probably inefficiently managed, just add complexity and thus cause eventual instability.

So Vivaldi was worth a try. Vivaldi is being developed by some of the original Opera browser developers. Somewhere along the way Opera steered away from its original focus: making a browser that is truly focused on being usable and simple. So these developers started working on Vivaldi. One likely difference: they built Vivaldi on Chromium. Chromium is basically an open source web-kit, made available by Google. Google builds the rest of Chrome on top of this framework.

Judging from the swift response from Vivaldi, it’s these extra features added on top of Chromium that is bogging down Chrome. It’s kind of understandable. Chrome is an entryway to various Google services so it is optimized to present those services like GMail and Google Drive. The Chromium framework though appears to be pretty solid and sleek, which left the Vivaldi team with a good platform that allows it to take advantage of a lot of Chrome’s features. For example, pretty much any Chrome extension will work on Vivaldi, so you can install those crucial add-ons like Adblock and Adblock Plus on Vivaldi too.

Vivaldi though builds in a lot of features that are only available as extensions in Chrome. One I use a lot is making screenshots. It’s quite simple to make a screenshot in Vivaldi by clicking on a small camera icon on the status bar. By default it makes a screenshot of the entire page, but it’s easy to capture just portions of a page if you want. Or you can do it with keyboard commands. There are a lot of keyboard commands built into Vivaldi and I’ve only discovered a few of them.

One of Vivaldi’s most useful features is tab stacking. It’s one of these innovations that you wonder why no one though of it before. It allows a tab to contain a bunch of related pages under it. And the browser’s tab tiling feature allows you to display two or more of the web pages in the tab stack at once on the screen, or various unrelated tabs. Seeing multiple web pages at once on the same monitor is really neat. It’s another feature that you wonder why no one has thought about it before.

There is a lot of customization possible in Vivaldi: where you want to put the bookmarks bar, for example. It can be attached to any side. A side panel that takes you into features like bookmarks, downloads, notes and settings is easily turned on or off, and there is a visual clue at the left side of the status bar. Themes are easily customized and you can do things like set the degree of roundedness you want on a browser tab.

Other things I’ve discovered so far that I like:

  • I can use the backspace key again to go back a page
  • There is a rewind-to-start button to take you back to the first page opened in a browser tab. There is also one to take you to the last page opened in the browser tab.
  • The URL field shows you how much of the page is being loaded by visually putting a progress bar behind the URL. You can also see a count of the objects that were loaded at the same time.
  • You can easily add notes about a page by typing them manually in the side panel or making a snapshot of the part of the page that’s of interest and attaching it to the note. If doing research this is a great feature.
  • Web panels allow you to put a web page into the side panel. It’s a very scrunched version but it’s useful and again helps you look at multiple pages at once.
  • It has a wonderful history feature that let you easily see your browsing history across days, weeks, etc. as well get graphical reports.

The only features I haven’t found so far that I miss:

  • Automatic language detection and translation. This was a compelling reason to use Chrome, as it integrates with Google’s tremendously useful language translation service.
  • You have to go to Google’s Extensions page to install extensions. There is no shortcut but you can easily bookmark that page.

In short I find Chromium very impressive. I’m using it as my principle browser and seeing how it goes. So far the lights are virtually all green and the speed and usability is very impressive. I’m hoping its stability will be better than Chrome’s and it won’t bog down like Chrome.

The Thinker

Bitcoin reevaluated

In December 2013 I looked at Bitcoin and called it libertarian bit nonsense. Like most pundits, I’m not good at admitting I was wrong. But I was wrong about Bitcoin. In December 2013 a Bitcoin was worth about $716. As of today one Bitcoin is worth about $3250. (See this index chart.) So if bought a Bitcoin in December 2013 and traded it today for U.S. dollars, your return on investment would be 354%. That’s an annual return of 96%. You are not going to get that sort of return from an S&P 500 index fund.

The dates I picked were random so coins bought at other times might have lost money. In truth if you had bought a Bitcoin in December 2013 you would have to have waited until November 2016 to see a positive return on your investment. For the last year or so though Bitcoin appears to be picking up real traction, taking the new currency to surreal highs.

One reason I was wrong in 2013 is that back then I did not anticipate its major use. Back then it was used for shady transactions but existed on the fringes of this world. Bitcoin seems to have found its niche as a method for facilitating ransomware. Illicit hackers are using it to get money from you when they do things like hijack your computer and won’t let you access key parts of it until you pay them sufficient Bitcoins. (Even then it works only about half the time.) If they asked for dollars or yen then hiding their tracks would be much harder. Making you go out and buy Bitcoins and then sending it to them though makes anonymous electronic thievery much more possible and practical. While each transaction is recorded in the Bitcoin itself, there is no mechanism in the transaction to positively identify the buyer and seller. Thus it’s much harder to catch electronic thieves at work.

I doubt these thieves hang onto their Bitcoins. Bitcoins are still a hassle to trade. Bitcoin exchanges are few and their trustworthiness not to mention solvency are problematic. Thieves probably don’t see the Bitcoins they collect as investment since they are hard to spend on real world goods and services. Most likely they are quickly converted into a local currency where they are then used to buy goods and services.

As a libertarian currency, Bitcoin is having some success. It is theoretically money that can be stored and used independent of taxation, although legitimate sellers that accept Bitcoins probably have to charge taxes on Bitcoin transactions. The percent of sellers that accept Bitcoins though is still tiny, which provides evidence that their value comes from being able to transmit value relatively free from prying eyes. This is one aspect of cash that allows it to endure into the 21st century.

So while Bitcoins may appeal to the libertarians among us, its primary usage is probably to facilitate crime, thus its value and surging price. The harder it becomes to trade illicit money with conventional currencies, the more valuable Bitcoins become, since there are a finite number of Bitcoins out there. Most governments are getting quite good at monitoring transactions of conventional currency. Transactions that are too large result in inquiries that may slow down or stop the transfer of money. With Bitcoins this is currently not much of an issue. Governments are getting better at regulating these transactions. At one time China blocked Bitcoin transactions altogether. They are accepted on certain Chinese exchanges now, but China is proposing to make Bitcoin exchanges subject to money laundering laws and to collect information verifying the identity of buyers and sellers exchanging Bitcoins.

As I noted in 2013, the more a Bitcoin is traded, the larger its digital fingerprint becomes. Some of these coins are becoming so digitally huge that they are inefficient to verify it is a legitimate coin. This is frustrating to many in this community, which is causing other more practical digital currencies to emerge like Ethereum. Currencies like Ethereum try to address issues like the huge blockchains in many Bitcoins and to build in features like identifying buyers and sellers and a limited blockchain ledger. If they gain traction then this undercuts Bitcoin’s ability to keep these transactions confidential.

Whether Bitcoin or some other form of digital currency, all such currencies that rely on blockchain technology are inherently risky, for the same reason that I noted in 2013: they are potentially hackable because they are encrypted. So far to our knowledge no one has successfully hacked into a Bitcoin. If it happens though that a hacking algorithm or a quantum leap in computing power reveals an easy way to mine new Bitcoins then the coin should drop in value precipitously and become essentially worthless. However, if a coin can be “minted” by a provable and legitimate source, say a country’s equivalent of a Federal Reserve, then such digital currency should hold value. This could be done by such organizations holding a registrar of coins it has “minted” that are publicly electronically available.

If that happens though then the onus for having a Bitcoin also goes away, as its value is in its surreptitiousness. Electronic coins that only go through legitimate exchanges and follow policies for tracking and handling illicit uses become essentially legitimate currencies because they are issued and accepted by trusted institutions.

So there are likely to be many more digital coins in our future. Bitcoin’s future as an electronic currency though is likely coming to an end as it becomes computationally inefficient to record transactions with Bitcoins and as advancements in computers, like potential quantum computing potentially render obsolete our current methods of encrypting data, making the encryption keys faster to crack.

Bitcoin’s time has arrived but with its success it is also likely quickly passing into obsolescence. What comes next is unknown but any permanent way of electronically storing untraceable electronic value was probably always myth.

The Thinker

Don’t let your house get too smart

At the Home Depot today I was looking at light bulbs. LED lights are now as cheap as compact fluorescent lights were some years ago, which is great because they use minimal energy and last for decades. Most of them come with features. I bought a LED bulb for a lamp I was buying that changes color. Each time you turn it on the color changes subtly. There were many variations of dimmable LED lights; many variations on color changing LED lights and one bulb that for about $15 had a Wifi connection. It was that last one that gave me pause: an intelligent light bulb? Apparently yes and you can use it with various home security systems to program the times you want it on and off, and even control it with a smartphone app.

As a gadget guy and a retiree with plenty of time on his hands, I like the idea of turning my home into a smart house. I even like the idea of appliances like Amazon’s Alexa where you can say something like, “Alexa, what’s the temperature now?” and it will tell you. I tried this device when I was in Michigan last month visiting my aunt. She has Alexa but all she does with it is tell it to play music and to stop playing music. So 99% of the time it streams innocuous piano much. However, when I asked it, it told me the temperature outside easily enough.

I like the idea of being half a world away and having remote cameras show me that my cats are doing okay and something telling me that the furnace has died. Our furnace igniter did actually die while we were in Europe. Thankfully we had a house sitter who took charge of the situation, which of course happened inconveniently during a blizzard. She got it fixed. However, a smart house system could have let me know there was a problem and ping me with a text message or email.

I don’t seem to be in a hurry to get an Alexa or to make my home smarter. Frankly, the Alexa device scares me. Alexa and Google Home are apparently very good at listening surreptitiously. I suspect if my wife and I were arguing it would pick that up. Perhaps I would get targeted ads from for divorce lawyers afterward. For me, Alexa and similar appliances cross a line I don’t want crossed: letting a company or potentially anyone know more about me than I want to give out, which is already plenty. That’s why we bought a VPN. Given that I am rarely more than a dozen feet from a computing device, there is little impetus to make my life that much more convenient.

I am more concerned about hackers than I am worrying what Amazon or Google is learning about me when I install one of these smart devices. A thief could potentially remotely turn off a smart front porch light bulb. I notice that many doors now come with locks that can be unlocked remotely. This also concerns me. If I lose my key I might not be able to get into my house without a locksmith. But a house that can be unlocked electronically potentially allows anyone with the right skills and intent to let themselves in.

And that’s precisely what we are doing in principle by creating smart houses. We’re entrusting a wireless technology to be absolutely secure when it isn’t and likely won’t ever be secure. There are too many backdoors including the most vulnerable ones: our own smart devices, which keep the electronic keys to these devices. So to the extent I want my house to be smart, I mostly want it to inform me about events only.

So yes, please tell me if the furnace or AC isn’t working. Tell me if a window is not secured when it should be. It can phone the cops if it suspects a burglary has happened when I am not at home. I don’t want a device that silently listens to my yammer and keeps notes. I only want to be able to remotely control devices that add security, not take it away. I don’t want to be able to unlock my doors remotely, but I might want the ability to lock them remotely.

Internet security is something of an oxymoron. You can’t trust it completely. However you can trust hardware devices that can only be controlled manually. If all my smart appliances were wired to a central switchboard, I would trust that. For the same reason, I trust my circuit breaker box. I can fully understand it and since it’s a mechanical device it cannot be controlled remotely. Since data can be transferred over power lines, smart devices could use them for communications instead of Wifi networks. All would report over the power line to the smart device, perhaps in the basement that controlled the smart house. The device would have physical switches that you could turn on and off if you wanted to allow remote access to various smart devices. It would also need some hardware to ensure that data could not accidentally be sent to the power company.

We may get such a solution at some point. Right now though no one seems to be thinking this through adequately, which is why I will very selectively make my house smart, if I allow it at all.

The Thinker

What’s up doc? (or playing with my FlightAware app)

I remember when Google Maps first came out. It was pretty amazing for the time. You just dragged the screen with your mouse and content around it filled in! It seems pedestrian now but at the time it was mind blowing in its usefulness and simplicity.

Something like Google Maps for our air traffic has arrived. Yes, I’m aware there are lots of sites out there that track flights, and plenty of apps too. And most weren’t particularly interesting to me because they only gave basic information like “Is my flight on time?” and “If I can’t make my flight what else is available?”

What I wanted was to see all the flights that were going on in real time on a map. Where are they now? Where are they going? Where did they come from? Did they leave on time? Did they take off on time? How long is the flight? What is flying now at 40,000 feet above me right now? You might wonder, “Why do you want to know this stuff?” I really don’t know. Curiosity I guess. Thankfully the FlightAware app installed on my iPad scratches this itch perfectly on easy to use maps. (There is a FlightAware website, but the app is much more usable.)

FlightAware app

FlightAware app

This is a great way to kill time. It turns out though that the more time you spend just surfing this sort of Google Maps of the sky the more you learn about our aviation system. It’s neat and scary and more than a little awesome to see how congested our skies actually are. And doubtless there are flights that don’t appear on the app, although sometimes the app will surprise me. I live in Northampton, Massachusetts. We have a small little airport not big enough for even a Lear jet. But sometimes even a private pilot in a two-seat biplane just buzzing around the Holyoke range shows up.

Last night I was looking at Sydney, Australia. Amidst all the regular jet traffic, it was also tracking a helicopter flight, obvious from both the helicopter icon and its weird flight pattern.

Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?

Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?

To get this level of insight half a world away in near real time is fascinating. Doubtless there is a huge infrastructure of networked servers behind all this magic that FlightAware is tapping into. I just didn’t expect it to be global in scope. I can see Air China flights from Beijing to Moscow. I watch Aeroflot flights between cities in Russia I’ve never heard of. I see some crazy flight paths, like one from New York to Delhi that works goes way out of its way to avoid dangerous airspaces.

Curious to learn more I often press the icon associated with the flight. In a sidebar I see details of the flight and then a map comes up showing the flight path. Here is the flight path of a flight from JFK in New York to Warsaw, Poland that was close by last night:

JFK to Warsaw flight path

JFK to Warsaw flight path

Some of the things I have discovered on my FlightAware app include:

  • There is a huge amount of international air traffic, even here in the United States. Much of it goes over my head, although I am largely unaware of it. Naturally JFK and Newark send lots of planes out to Europe and Asia, but so do Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington and much of it flies over my head. The outbound flights unsurprisingly are mostly in the evening. Inbound flights tend to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. Essentially there is a huge air train of passenger and cargo flights arching out to the north-northeast in the evenings, mostly passing over Newfoundland but sometimes Labrador.
  • There are some amazingly long flights. I stumbled on one of the longest: Los Angeles to Jeddah with a total flight time of nearly seventeen hours. It’s pretty easy to guess the international flights. The icons on the screen show large airplanes and they tend to move north-northeast in the evenings.
  • At the same time it’s amazing how quickly jets actually move us. Mexico City is less than four hours flight time from most of the United States. You can fly between pretty much any two points of the continental United States in five hours or less.
  • At night you see a lot of cargo jets going to Memphis, where Fedex has a transfer point. A lot are also going to Covington, Kentucky too, which is basically Cincinnati. I believe it is a UPS hub. And many of these are long haul cargo flights from Europe and Asia.
  • The United States gets a lot of serious weather. It’s obvious comparing the USA to other countries with all the storms I see, mostly in the south and Midwest. Sometimes flights will go out of their way to avoid these storms. In Europe I rarely see weather like this.
  • Airspace can get pretty congested. It’s amazing that they can manage the chaos of all the planes descending and taking off, particularly around New York. Watching Atlanta’s airspace is fascinating because two runways get most of the traffic and jets tend to line up neatly behind one another to land in a sort of delicate ballet.

Some things I particularly like about the FlightAware app:

  • It’s easy to get details on flights by just clicking on them on the map
  • There are various map layers you can hide and expose as interested but the default works fine most of the time as you don’t need the detail
  • When you click on a flight, it’s easy to see how long the duration of the flight is and how much of the flight has happened
  • The size of the airplane icon is indicative of the size of the jet, making it easy to spot the larger airplanes in flight.
  • You can save searches of favorite flights, airports or cities and get to them easily
  • You can search for a flight and see exactly where it is and how long until it reaches its destination, along with delay information
  • It stores about a week of flight history. After my recent flight back from Europe I was able to find it in the history and trace our flight path over Labrador.
  • You can create flight notifications and save them your favorites

In general I find it just fascinating. The vast size and scope of our aviation system is rendered apparent in the app, along with its constantly fluid nature. No wonder I have a hard time putting it down!

The Thinker

Marching for reality

So the missus and me drove across the river to participate in the March for Science yesterday. No, not the Potomac River. We don’t live near Washington, D.C. anymore. The river in this case is the Connecticut River and the place was Kendrick Park in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. You know, where the spinster Emily Dickinson wrote all that love poetry to imaginary lovers.

We weren’t alone. Mostly we sat around with hands in our pockets as other marchers filed into the park. Some had signs. Some were in costume. One young kid was dressed as an astronaut. One man dressed as Ironman. There were some people in uniform. No, not cops. Actual scientists. We also had some medical professionals. Anyhow, they wore white lab coats. Slowly what looked like a couple of hundred people at best grew into a much more sizable crowd. It was hard to count the crowd as they streamed in impressively toward the start of the march at 10 a.m. My guess is that we were at least 600, with as many as a thousand.

The short march to the Amherst Town Commons meant forming a long queue on the sidewalk. It took a good half an hour for all the people in the park to actually start ambling down the sidewalk. So let’s say there were 800 of us marchers. Considering how few people live in the Pioneer Valley, at least north of the Holyoke Range, 800 is quite a crowd. Aside maybe from football games and graduation ceremonies at nearby UMass Amherst (where many are from out of town), it’s rare to see a crowd of this size around here. It’s kind of unnatural.

Amherst MA March for Science marchers

Amherst MA March for Science marchers

Which made this march of among the four hundred or so across six continents pretty impressive in the grand scheme of things, at least in terms of per capita representation. We hardly packed them in like they did on the national mall. We didn’t have Bill Nye the Science Guy as our speaker, just a local neurologist and a few others from the crowd who came forward before we marched. It was all very low-key and had a spontaneous feel to it, organized as a lot of these are in a few weeks using a Facebook group and depending a lot on word of mouth.

Our neurologist spokesman in the lab coat spoke about how ironic it was to have a march for science. No one ever recalled this being done before. That’s because until recently the idea of a march for science seemed absurd. It’s kind of like marching for sunny days. This was of course before our Electoral College unwisely put into office a president who doesn’t believe in climate change, and whose head of the EPA is working to turn it into the Environmental Degradation Administration.

Amherst MA March for Science marchers

Amherst MA March for Science marchers

So the march had a very surreal feel to it, as the virtues of science should be obvious to anyone with at least half a brain. For much of our country’s history, we were proud of our scientific achievements and our scientists. Like Albert Einstein, they showed up on our stamps. Those of us who remembered the space race remember how science was supercool back then. It also brought forth the information age, evidenced by the smartphones most of us carried, each with enough power and circuitry to best the computer that in 1997 beat chess champion Gary Kasparov. Science has also extended human life enormously, helped provide the means to feed our exponentially expanding population, cleaned much of our air, put a man on the moon and has at least one spacecraft actually traveling between stars. Who could possibly be against that?

It turns out plenty of people are against it, at least when it interferes with their agendas. For science whether it likes it or not tends to be a disruptor. It provides incredible advancements and insights but it does so sometimes by offending those who don’t like what it reports. Science discerns what is, but not always perfectly. As science gains better insights into reality, what we thought was reality sometimes gets revised. And that’s also why some people are offended. Science can find no God that matches the one we are told exists in our Bibles or Koran. If it could I’m sure scientists would be first to broadcast the news. Scientists aren’t saying there is no God, but that science doesn’t reveal one. A process that requires peer review and skepticism is of course perceived as a threat to those who depend on ignorance to retain power.

And thus the absurdity of a march for science. But we live in an age of alternative facts, an oxymoron so enormous it’s hard for the rational among us to put our brains around the notion. To say you believe in alternative facts essentially says that you suffer from profound cognitive dissonance. If I arise around 7 a.m. and look to the east I am likely to see the sun rise. In the world of alternative facts, it could be a sun setting, or not a sun at all. Perhaps it is the hand of God, or the hand of Manos.

So perhaps we were not marching for science, but marching for reality. As one of the more popular signs at yesterday’s rally said: “There is no Planet B”. And that pretty much says it all. We march not just for reality, but for our lives and those who come after us. To deny reality means to doom humans as a species on this planet. To deny that pumping more carbon dioxide, methane and greenhouse gases into the air and think it’s not causing the atmosphere to warm is really insane. Your local science teacher can prove it pretty simply in a test tube in the chemistry lab of your local high school. If you are going to dispute that then either you are denying reality or you are doing it to gain short-term advantage and profit for you and people like you. It doesn’t matter which it is, because it is evil.

I am convinced that we are nearing the end of this anti-science age. This cannot stand because to deny reality means death itself. If there is one phobia we all share it’s a fear of death. Which makes science deniers evil and if they actually believe what they preach likely clinically insane too. Marching for science is marching for reality. We all want to live. We will not allow those who lead us to kill us.

The Thinker

It’s time to use a virtual private network

As a tech guy, it’s rare for me to find technology and politics intersecting. Both are my passions. Last week though it did and at the suggestion of my wife (actually her friend) we subscribed to a virtual private network service.

Why? Well, if you live in the United States it’s hard to miss the news that Congress passed and on Monday Trump signed into law a bill that allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to sell your Internet usage data. The law prohibits the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from implementing a rule planned for later this year. That Obama FCC rule would have prohibited ISPs from selling your Internet access information without your explicit consent. With the new law, ISPs don’t need your consent. So in addition to paying companies like Comcast $100 a month for your Internet service they now have government sanction to do whatever they want with your Internet access information and without your consent too. You would think they would at least give you a kickback depending on the value of the information.

Being money grubbing, profit-making corporations of course ISPs will try to sell your information for as much as the market will allow. There are likely to be plenty of buyers because what they have to sell is likely plenty valuable. Think about your Internet life. Perhaps it is quite G-rated, as mine is most of the time. But even if you lead a G-rated life your browser history will still be tracked and analyzed, and sold to companies that will want to sell you stuff. Of course it’s much easier to sell you stuff when they already suspect you have an interest in what they are promoting, which is why it will likely generate a lot of profits for ISPs. In the sales business, this is called prospecting. It used to be done door-to-door and now it’s done electronically and you have no say in the matter because it’s like leaving your front door open for marketers to roam around in at any hour of the day to observe your behavior.

This practice isn’t news. You probably get targeted ads that follow you online, as I do. It’s probably not Comcast (yet) selling this information, although in the past they were not legally prohibited from selling it. (Most of these are site owners sharing information they collect about your access on their site, principally your IP address, to others.) The issue was murky so ISPs appeared to be refraining from doing it. That’s not the case now and really if you complain what are you going to do? Most of us don’t have the option of choosing another ISP. I sure don’t here in Massachusetts where Comcast holds the monopoly. My only choice is to give up the Internet altogether or access it from public libraries. Obviously this is not a viable solution today. Google and Facebook of course make lots of money selling targeted ads. However, you don’t have to use Google or Facebook, and they don’t charge you for the privilege. Using it is a choice.

With no constraints on what ISPs can do with information it collects about you while using its network, pretty much anything about your Internet usage is now available potentially to anyone with the money. ISPs could even give it away for free. Perhaps you don’t mind getting targeted ads so you think, okay, I’m in. If I have to have ads thrown at me online all day, maybe they can at least be relevant. But consider some of the other ways this information could be misused:

  • The government could pay ISPs to collect all this information and store a copy in its own servers. You could even make a case for it. If the NSA is looking for potential terrorists, knowing you keep going to an al Qaeda website sure would be good to know. Of course while they are in there they could also learn that you frequent or regularly contribute to the American Communist Party. If you want to create a police state, this is a pretty efficient way to get one started.
  • Political parties could use it not just to find new voters, but also to target voters they don’t want voting because they suspect you will vote against their interests. This is similar to what the Russian government is accused of doing in our last election through fake news sites and sophisticated web robots that promoted false stories that it believed we were likely to fall for. It’s quite likely that Hillary Clinton lost the election through the promotion of fake news stories about her email server or actions on Benghazi while Secretary of State.
  • It would make it much easier for the Russians to affect future elections. Now they have to hunt to find gullible people. Buying the information up front is so much easier and allows a broader scope. Russia need not be the only state actor. Any nation with the cash (like China) could play.
  • Your spouse can find out that you frequent or gay porn sites.
  • Your Googling of medical conditions might suggest to health insurers that you are a bad bet and they might deny you a policy or cancel an existing one.
  • You may have related confidential family information, maybe about your kid’s run in with the law, or a son’s ADHD, or a sister with Alzheimer’s Disease, stuff that is your business, but not some stranger’s business.
  • Political enemies could discover you and target you, perhaps with a brick through your window because you gave to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. (I am guilty of both.)

In short this should be very alarming. In more reasonable places, like most of Europe, laws prohibit this stuff. It doesn’t generate controversy because no one would consider an idea as radical as the bill Trump signed on Monday. Ah, but here in the USA we’re all about extreme capitalism. Those with the money make the rules and that appears to be Republicans since they moved this law, and very quickly too.

What can you do about it? I don’t intend to get into the many ways to safeguard your privacy on the web that have been around for years. In this case though you are being mined and recorded without your consent. Your Internet address is stored, geolocation information too along with a host of other information, like your web browser, the page you were viewing and the page that referred you to the page. It can all be logged and put into vast data warehouses and there is nothing you can do about it.

Okay, there is one thing: use a virtual private network (VPN). It’s hardly a perfect solution but it’s the next step. Unfortunately, a VPN service is rarely free, which means that if you value your privacy like everything else you will probably pay a cost, most likely in money, but perhaps just in your time. A VPN is a secure tunnel that your ISP cannot read, aside from knowing that you are connecting to a VPN site. Your web requests essentially are proxied through the VPN provider you choose.

(A side note: Congress is also considering legislation to do away with “net neutrality”. If passed, ISPs could use this is an excuse to block VPN sites or to charge them extra for the privilege, costs which would trickle down to you. This is just another reason that I think net neutrality is essential.)

We took the plunge last week and bought a year of VPN service from Private Internet Access. It’s a pretty good deal. ($40 a year for up to 5 simultaneous devices, if you pay for a year in advance.) I am not endorsing the company as we have just started using it. Of course you have no idea if the VPN service is reselling your information just like Comcast. You have to trust them. Private Internet Access’s terms of service suggest that if you are doing illegal things they can detect it and might report it. I’m quite confident that if they get a search warrant they can turn on logging easily enough. Of course they would not be in business long if they were engaged in these sorts of activities routinely. Private Internet Access, like most VPNs, says they don’t keep logs of your access. If true, it’s reasonably private.

So if you are shopping for a VPN, by all means shop around. This recent PC World article reviewed a bunch of VPNs so it’s a good place to get unbiased advice. (Private Internet Access is one of their Editor’s Choice winners.) Some, like one built into the Opera browser, are free. Most cost money. As you might expect the quality of the service you get depends principally on how much you are willing to pay. With Private Internet Access so far I have noticed:

  • I could not access Craigslist until I pointed it to use a connection point within the United States
  • I could not use it at the same time with another VPN. Since I teach at a local community college, I use its VPN from time to time. I could not use it until I first turned off the Private Internet Access VPN.
  • Content streaming is not noticeably slower but it is probably slower in general because there is an extra server between me and the content I want

Hopefully in time we’ll get a Congress and president again that will respect our privacy. Like with the Citizens United decision, Americans are overwhelmingly against this law, and that includes Republicans. So it’s likely Republicans will eventually pay a price for this heavy handedness. In the meantime if you value your privacy, you probably need to get a VPN.

The Thinker

Coming to you from the cloud

It’s not the least bit obvious to you but this blog is now coming to you from the cloud. My move to cloud computing is but my latest adventure in hosting. This blog has moved around so many times in its nearly fourteen years even I don’t remember all the places it’s been hosted at. For at least the last four years or so my sites have been hosted at Hostgator on its generally inexpensive shared hosting for about $15 a month (plus an annoying $4 a month for a dedicated IP).

Today though you are being served my fresh content from the cloud. Yes, I am using cloud computing at last, rather than a server in a server farm somewhere. Actually a server farm and a cloud-computing center look pretty much the same except the cloud-computing center is likely a lot bigger. Even I have no idea exactly where my words are coming from, but rest assured they are still sent from a machine on a rack deep in a hosting center somewhere.

All I really know is my blog comes from a domain, which is owned by MediaTemple. “Owned” probably does not apply here. I’m using MediaTemple’s Shared Grid, which is actually Amazon Web Services. I know this from calling their support and asking the question. While MediaTemple still has hosting centers, they have outsourced their shared hosting to AWS. MediaTemple is not alone. Oddly enough most major web hosts are outsourcing a lot of their hosting to someone who will do it faster, better and cheaper in the cloud. This is probably Amazon Web Services, but they are not alone either. Google and Microsoft are the two other major cloud providers and there are a host of smaller ones.

I’m in the cloud in part for cost but also because being in the cloud I get more value. MediaTemple’s Shared Grid service uses all solid state drives, which means there is none of the latency that exists from retrieving content off a disk drive, which requires moving disk platters around. So all things being even, response is faster on this hosting. Readers should also be “closer” to my blog: six routers in my case instead of sixteen to get through between server and browser. (Static content comes from a content delivery network I pay $9 a month for.) So now it’s like going through six stoplights to get to a destination instead of sixteen. A properly managed cloud-computing center also takes care of a lot of the hard stuff, mostly through advanced engineering. Outages are far less likely; patches are less likely to incur downtime. In general readers like you should expect faster response and fewer quirks and issues.

Where vendors like MediaTemple add value is by making using the cloud quite simple. If you were to buy an Amazon EC2 service, you would be expected to manage much of it yourself, including security and upgraded to the operating system. Amazon handles the backend stuff, but MediaTemple wrote a nice friendly wrapper with its control panel so I can use it without thinking too much. It is still technical to administer my sites at times but most stuff can be done elegantly inside its control panel.

Rehosting though is still a pain, which is why I’ve avoided the hassle and waited until my Hostgator contract was ready to expire. This is one of five domains I own. Moving each to the cloud is hardly a trivial process. It means moving masses of files around and in most cases exporting and importing a database, skills not easily acquired. I also have to edit a number of files to make the integration between programs and databases work. This all takes time, attention and a certain amount of geeky skills that I happen to have.

Since I can get this for a fair price (up to 100 domains for about $20 a month, with obvious overall resource quotas I am unlikely to exceed) my hope is this will be the last time I have to rehost. I’ve been plugging away at this for more than a day and my most challenging site still has to be moved. To move that I’ll also have to integrate a certificate first so that content can be sent securely.

In general though I am following the trends. At some point traditional hosting will be obsolete. It will all move to the cloud and probably hosted by Amazon, Google or Microsoft. You won’t know or care who’s doing the heavy lifting. Vendors like MediaTemple and HostGator will distinguish themselves by writing wrappers around cloud hosts for an optimal customer experience and by working with cloud providers so that the infrastructure can be highly tuned for their customers’ needs.

For you and me, reading my blog should be a faster, less quirky and a more reliable experience.

The Thinker

The meaning of Star Trek

The media is agog over today’s 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Yes, it was fifty years ago tonight that the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” first aired on NBC. Then a product of Desilu Studios this futuristic show of zipping across the cosmos on starships quickly became a cult classic, but not enough to spare it from being canceled after three seasons. In fact it had been canceled earlier, but was saved for a while from petitions from fans.

What Gene Roddenberry hath roth! Roddenberry had no particular aspirations for the series when he produced it. In fact, he was a pretty inept producer of the series. TV series fifty years ago are going to suck by modern standards, and many of these original episodes badly sucked. For the most part this was due to Roddenberry’s inattention, NBC’s unforgiving cost controls and using a lot of hack writers. Roddenberry was never that much into his creation, at least not its management. His contribution to his phenomenon was mainly inspirational.

Star Trek depicted a far future for humanity that was hopeful, although it was originally badly depicted on screen. Roddenberry also threw in a few characters that caught our imagination: Captain James T. Kirk as an American cowboy in outer space but mostly Mr. Spock. Spock was a wholly aspirational character: a glimpse of not how ideal aliens should be, but how humanity could be. All this was wrapped around 49 minute episodes with five commercial segments, cheesy costumes and generally poor acting.

And yet Star Trek took off, in spite of NBC and in spite of Roddenberry’s inattention. Its meme was hopeful and a few of its characters were interesting enough to get into. The original series was never really reprised again. The movies were binary: either good or bad, with only the even ones being any good. It took twenty plus years for Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG) to emerge and a year or two for its shakedown cruise before Trekkies got what they really wanted: real Star Trek without the warts and blemishes of the original series. It got a lot better when Roddenberry stepped back, mostly due to his health, and let professionals manage the franchise. With STTNG, better budgets and independent syndication, the franchise really took off spinning off other shows, most not so memorable.

In 2003 I proclaimed the death of Star Trek, but it’s reimagination in the 2009 movie proved me wrong. Star Trek now sails into its next half century with a planned CBS series reboot, Star Trek: Discovery, apparently only available to paid subscribers. Curiously it’s no longer NBC property: CBS has taken over the franchise, as it owned by National Amusements, which own ViaCom, which owns Paramount.

There is a mystery to its longevity, as there is with Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and certain other series that manage to become timeless. The original series was not really that good, and it’s third season truly sucked. The same is true with Doctor Who and many of the later Sherlock Holmes stories. Keeping a series feeling fresh is hard.

Star Trek managed it with STTNG by keeping Star Trek’s essence and ejecting its bad parts. The 2009 Star Trek reboot movie succeeded by putting the original series in its own time warp, essentially creating an alternative timeline. Star Trek: DS9 worked by abandoning most of Star Trek’s peaceful premise and going back to Gene Roddenberry’s premise of a western in space. Commander Sisko became the sheriff for his part of the Wild West and tried to keep the peace. It’s clear what didn’t work. Voyager really gave us nothing new except a woman captain; many of its episodes we had seen many times before in other iterations. The short-lived series Enterprise proved even less interesting: its chief character of interest was the captain’s cute dog.

So what is Star Trek’s essence? Why do we find ourselves addicted to it, even when it is often mediocre? For me, I see two prominent memes in the Star Trek experience.

First is that no matter how interesting life is for us humans in the 21st century with its ever-expanding technologies, we crave a quantum leap. Our human potential is boundless, even as our humanity frequently proves that we don’t deserve to trek the stars. Star Trek opened the door to new possibilities: the universe on a grand scale that we could easily zoom around in. There we would find wonders beyond our imagination as well as challenges too. These wonders are its lure, but what really interested us are the challenges it posits. Just like a hacker is never satisfied with his latest cyber break in, we look for ever more challenging puzzles to solve and ultimately master. The universe, at least as depicted in the relativity-free world of Star Trek, offers us this tableau of potential to exploit.

Second, at its core Star Trek is hopeful. It speaks to our potential as an enlightened species, not the depressing reality we’re mired in. We crave utopia, but what we crave more is an enlightened and well-ordered society where we get along well with each other and channel our collective and individual energies in ways that help, not harm, but also enrich us as human beings. In Star Trek we see this reality modeled in a hopeful way. It’s a powerful meme and it — not Star Trek’s warp drive — is what really powers this series and its many spinoffs. There’s a place for all of us in this posited reality. Even conservatives can play in this universe, as evidenced by the many fans out there emulating the Klingon culture.

As I noted before, one of the curious things about Star Trek is how much of it has already been realized in just fifty years. Both the universal translator and the communicator are 21st century realities, albeit in different and less powerful forms than Star Trek depicted. Perhaps because of its warp drive, Star Trek is inspiring engineers to see if a warp drive is feasible. Star Trek’s impulse drive looks like a real possibility, although it is not quite out of the lab. It may get us to the stars, much more slowly than with a warp drive, but enough to be practical. It will leverage the power of solar energy and microwaves, if this research bears fruit.

It turns out there is nothing like a model to stimulate human imagination. Star Trek provided a model, both on a technical and sociological level. Since its appeal is universal, it connects all cultures and provides a common foundation to ponder our place in the universe and how to actually sail these oceans of stars all while inspiring us to live up to our ideals. It’s taking us from imaging a new reality to inspiring us to implement it.

Yes, Star Trek is ultimately just a meme. But it’s a meme for good and a meme that calls us to our potential. It’s often great entertainment but it’s not a waste of our time. Ultimately, Gene Roddenberry’s experiment of a western in outer space may literally help take us to the stars and help mankind reach its most noble purpose. It’s a long shot, but it’s a meme with huge energy behind it. I hope it can sustain our passions for the next half-century.


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