Invest in innovation, not exploitation

The Thinker by Rodin

America is a supposedly country that rewards innovation. The trouble is, a lot of this innovation is really exploitation. I looked into this briefly a few posts back when I looked at Lyft and Uber’s “innovation”. The only really innovative part about these ride services is their app. They’re both cheaper and generally faster than taking a taxi. So much for the innovation part. The rest of it is pure exploitation, mostly of its drivers who get cash up front that doesn’t begin to pay a living wage, particularly if you consider the wear and tear on their cars.

These days much of what passes for innovation in our economy is finding newer and cleverer ways to exploit people, who are generally among the most vulnerable among us. Granted, this may be as American as apple pie. We bought Manhattan from the Indians for the price of some trinkets. These days, the exploitation is less overt. But even if you don’t use Lyft or Uber, you don’t have to look far to see examples.

At the macro level, large companies that pollute exploit us all. Their cost of business is discounted by using our air and rivers as a sewer, and we pay the price. Tens of thousands of Americans die from air pollution every year, and the Trump administration is doing its best to make sure more of us will die. Generally though it’s the poor and vulnerable that get exploited. This is our innovation economy at work.

Perhaps you saw John Oliver’s recent show on mobile home investing. This is exactly the sort of “innovation” that I wish we could outlaw. By definition, if you live in a mobile home you don’t make a whole lot of money. You might own your mobile home but in most cases these homes are not truly mobile. And if you wanted to pack up your mobile home and move it elsewhere, you probably can’t afford to do so. In most cases your mobile home sits on a lot that you rent. There are plenty of investor groups buying these properties and regularly jacking up rents, knowing they have a captive audience. Some say this is a great way to earn “passive income”. What you are really doing of course is exploiting the least among us. In many cases these people are skipping medications or food to pay these rent increases. Some abandon their property, which is repossessed and resold to the next exploited victim.

I’m not prone to anger but these sorts of schemes make me positively irate. They should be outlawed. There are all sorts of ways we pick the pockets of the poor among us: pay day loans with incredibly usurious interest rates, lotteries that take their money but rarely pay off, casinos with a similar idea, higher prices for substandard food because supermarkets won’t serve their communities and of course the traditional: substandard public schools that are grossly underfunded because wealthier school districts won’t share their wealth. If that’s not enough, we shame them for taking food stamps or trying to compete for the vanishingly small market of affordable housing.

Most of us though don’t distinguish between companies that make money via exploitation versus innovation. That’s because it requires research, thinking and our capitalist system sees nothing wrong with exploitation. Look at some of the recent IPOs. How many of these are really driving innovation? Lyft went IPO, but Uber was first to this market. Lyft’s app is not noticeably better than Uber’s. Both depend on exploiting drivers and frequently change their payment terms to drivers to increase their revenues at drivers’ expense. Both are working hard on autonomous car technology. They can’t wait to boot their drivers altogether because they’ve run the numbers and maintaining a fleet of autonomous cars is way cheaper than even exploiting their drivers.

Some companies are both exploitative and innovative. How should I feel about owning Amazon stock, which I probably do somewhere in a mutual fund or ETF in my portfolio? Most of Amazon’s model has been exploitative: they’ve undercut competitors by sustaining losses funded by investors until competitors are out of business. I can see the problem locally with so many vacant storefronts. These customers are using Amazon instead.

Amazon was shamed enough by Bernie Sanders so that they raised their wages to $15/hour, which is good, but it’s barely a floor for a survivable wage. Meanwhile, they are finding other ways to “innovate”, most recently by creating their own air fleet that innovates by screwing their pilots. But other parts of Amazon are truly innovative. Amazon Web Services was a completely new idea that Amazon figured out and which fundamentally changed computing, dramatically lowering computing costs, increasing uptime for connected systems and spurring all sorts of innovation in information technology. Its web services are now the most profitable part of Amazon’s business. It’s proven extremely profitable for Google and Microsoft too, who have pockets deep enough to compete in this market.

Ideally I would not own any stock in companies that are exploitative. But like most of you I suspect, I don’t own any stock directly. Instead, I own mutual funds, ETFs and bonds. Mutual funds and EFTs are collections of ownership in lots of stocks. I could own a commercial bond for a specific company, but even here most of these are amalgamations of lots of bonds funds. There’s no easy way to invest in pure innovation, and hard to avoid investing in exploitative companies.

It’s not entirely impossible, however. You can invest in “green” funds and there are some socially active funds that avoid investments in arguably “evil” countries, which include Israel, which is effectively an apartheid state. Kiplinger has some suggestions for this kind of investing. But it’s not easy and in some cases impossible.

For example, if your company does not allow you to invest your 401K in funds like these, you have no options and may pay a penalty for doing investing outside of your 401K, particularly if your employer makes matching contributions to your 401K.

Which is why in the end what you can do is limited, unless we had a progressive Congress that changed investment laws. At a minimum they could require companies offering 401Ks to provide options for employees who want to invest in funds that are innovative but not exploitative.

I am overdue for a talk about this with my financial adviser. Frankly, I wasn’t thinking much about this until my recent trip on Lyft. Much of our portfolio has moved with retirement from 401Ks to IRAs. These could be shifted toward funds that reward innovation and socially progressive. Fortunately, I have a call with him tomorrow.

The gig economy model is exploitative and unsustainable

The Thinker by Rodin

I took my first Lyft ride the other day. I am pleased to say that the technology worked great! I picked up my luggage at baggage claim at Bradley International near Hartford, opened my Lyft app and within two minutes a driver was flagging me down and I was on my way home. I arrived home forty-five minutes later and just $55 poorer, but compared with taking a taxi I doubtlessly saved a bundle. In addition, my driver turned out to work part time for United Technologies configuring cloud services on Microsoft Azure for their customers. So we had lots to chat about and the drive went quickly. He fills his free hours driving people mostly to and from the airport and seemed happy to be a Lyft driver.

Until recently my daughter depended on Lyft and Uber to get around. She gave up her car a few years ago, convinced she didn’t need one in Washington’s far suburbs. If she needed to go somewhere, she’d either walk or use one of these services. Nonetheless, she snapped up the free car I offered her: my old 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid (now replaced by a Toyota Prius Prime). That was my reason for flying: I drove the car to Virginia to give it to her and took a United Airlines flight back. While normally my wife would pick me up at the airport, she recently had a knee replacement and couldn’t do it. So I experimented with Lyft, which I heard was the less evil of the two services. More to the point, it didn’t look like taking a taxi at Bradley was an option anymore. I didn’t see any I could flag down in Arrivals.

So it was a great experience until I thought about the model of Lyft and Uber in general. A lot of their drivers have too and have figured out that they are being exploited. Lyft and Uber are hardly alone using this model. In our new gig economy, the trick seems to be to create companies that find unique ways to exploit workers by making them not realize they are being exploited. In the case of Lyft and Uber, the first thing to do it not to label them employees. They are “independent contractors” who set their own hours and get paid fixed rates. One advantage to being a Lyft or Uber driver compared with being a Supershuttle driver is that they don’t have to rent a van from the company and probably aren’t working sixteen hours a day to keep paying Supershuttle’s franchise and leasing fees.

But they are getting ripped off. In the case of Lyft, they recently reduced payments to their “independent contractors”, which did not make them happy but did probably help lessen Lyft’s losses. Lyft went IPO last week but it’s bleeding money. Nonetheless, they aren’t too worried. Amazon used this strategy very profitably until their competition was either destroyed or bought out. Lyft is hoping for the same sort of success at this game. Its new shareholders don’t seem convinced yet as you can buy Lyft shares well below the $72/share price set at their launch.

These new companies exploit shamelessly and fight dirty. Customers tend to look the other way, basically because they don’t understand what’s going on. If you can save 30% or more with a Lyft ride compared to taking a taxi, you see a good deal plus in many cases they are faster and more convenient than a taxi. It’s clear to me though that these savings come principally from these “independent contractors”.

Taxi drivers are often independent contractors too. They usually aren’t employees. But they are regulated. Taxi commissions typically oversee these services and set rates that allow taxi drivers to earn a decent wage. In some cases they own their taxi, in some cases the taxi company owns them. But it’s a model that’s been working quite well because cities and towns have decided to make it work for both drivers and passengers.

Uber and Lyft decided to be disruptive, which was to just ignore these taxi commissions and brand their services as something other than what it is: a taxi service. The big difference is that their cars aren’t painted with the taxi company’s colors. You hop into one of these cars and hope that your driver won’t drive sexually assault you.

Doing background investigations on “independent contractors” of course raises costs. Hopefully both Lyft and Uber are at least doing cursory background investigations before offering contracts to these “independent contractors”. It’s more convenient to ignore these issues until it becomes too big a problem, and then hope to manage them.

But the real ones being exploited are not customers, but drivers. Basically they become drivers to get some quick cash to pay a few bills. What’s harder to see is the costs on their vehicles and how it eventually affects their bottom line. A car that was driven 10,000 miles a year that is now driven 30,000 miles a year will wear out more quickly and require more frequent maintenance. Neither Lyft nor Uber will pay for these expenses. You are supposed to figure that out as part of your business model, along with other things like withholding money for taxes and social security and Medicare, including the employer’s share. All these expenses plus the quick depreciation and higher maintenance costs on your car means that for most drivers, your effective wage per hour is below the minimum wage and you get all the hassles and costs of maintaining your car and paying taxes too.

These companies are prominent examples of this trend but they are hardly alone. Employers basically don’t want to employ: it’s costly, limits their ability to move quickly to market conditions and requires a lot of hassle. Amazon reluctantly raised wages for its warehouse workers to $15/hour, but it still hires lots of “independent contractors” who work for much less. Even my driver’s erstwhile day employer, United Technologies, is trying him out at part time wages and substandard benefits. He works from home and has to wait two more months before he is allowed to actually come into the office.

I don’t think this gig economy is sustainable. It endures until these “independent contractors” say enough and demand a fairer deal, which is hard to do if you have no union hall. Hopefully they will get a decent deal, but that will raises costs overall and make their whole business model less profitable.

But maybe it won’t matter. Like Amazon they hope that they will have gotten rid of the competition by then by hanging on as long as possible. This success though depends on cutting competition off at the kneecaps and exploiting people as long as possible. In the case of Lyft and Uber, so far it’s been decimating taxi companies. If ultimately it doesn’t work, they go out of business, leaving of course their “independent contractors” hanging.

In the case of Uber and Lyft, it’s clear this will happen eventually anyhow. The plan is to introduce fleets of automated cars as soon as the technology matures. And these “independent contractors” will be left holding the bag with cars with high mileage, lots of costs and no job.

Quantum computers will kill cryptocurrencies, but that’s just the start of it

The Thinker by Rodin

About five years ago I took my first gander at the BitCoin phenomenon. In that post I wrote:

In short, to trust a Bitcoin you must buy into its assumption that it can’t be hacked. Since the dawn of the computer age, hackers have demonstrated their ability to hack anything. They love the challenge. It’s reasonable to believe that Bitcoin is going to be hacked one of these days.

Five years later, BitCoin and similar cryptocurrencies are still safe, but they may not be much longer. This is because quantum computers, which are still-in-the-laboratory are going to fundamentally reinvent computing.

When I wrote this post on BitCoin, I was thinking some hacker would just figure out a very clever way to hack these coins that wasn’t so computationally prohibitive. Right now you can throw supercomputers for years at the problem and they won’t succeed.

Quantum computers though are leveraging actual quantum physics, and that looks like a game changer. If you follow my blog, you’ll realize I’ve been fascinated by quantum physics and its implications, most recently this post. Quantum physics is the study of the ultra tiny; it’s a realm so tiny it cannot be seen at all, but only inferred. The foundation of quantum physics seems ridiculous: it postulates that two things can be in two different states at the same time.

Quantum computers take advantage of this seemingly impossible fact of nature. By allowing a bit of storage in a quantum computer (an atom) to take on not just two values (0 or 1) but an extra value (both 0 and 1 at the same time), putting a quantum computer to a task that would challenge even a supercomputer becomes doable. As a practical matter, this puts the security of the Internet and most of our electronic trust-based systems in jeopardy. It looks like someone with the right quantum computer will be able to decode anything electronically encrypted without breaking much of a sweat!

One thing this will impact is digital currencies like BitCoin. Right now to “mine” a new BitCoin requires rooms full of servers. As most BitCoins have already been “mined”, creating new BitCoins gets prohibitively more expensive. With the right quantum computer though, creating new BitCoins won’t be a problem, even if there aren’t that many more that can be created.

But any digital currency that depends on this blockchain technology could be minted quite easily on a quantum computer. Effectively this means that the “preciousness” of digital currencies is going to go away. Quantum computers will be able to “mine” new digital currencies in whatever quantities will be desired. These currencies then move from being on something similar to a gold standard (a finite number of Bitcoins, for example) to a fiat currency.

But with fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar, some entity controls the creation of dollars (the Federal Reserve). With digital currencies, anyone with a correctly programmed quantum computer can create as many units as desired and the currency permits. In short, digital currencies will reach a point where they cannot be trusted and quantum computers should kill them.

Much scarier though is how easily these computers will crack passwords and encryption keys. Consider that electronic commerce is carried out over the Internet using pairs of public and private keys. The private key is retained by vendors like Amazon, and the public key is handed out, but you need both to make the transaction secure. If you can figure out the private key though you can certainly purport to be some entity that you are not, and once you have someone’s credit card or bank account number grabbing their money won’t take much effort. Of course, if you can easily figure out someone’s password with a quantum computer, not much remains private anymore, at least not in electronic form.

As bad as this is, it has much worse implications. Suppose North Korea or China get a leg up on us on quantum computers. Imagine the havoc they could create. Right now, China is leading on quantum computing. It’s not clear if the United States even has a strategy in this area. We have to hope the NSA is studying the problem and perhaps surreptitiously developing quantum computers too. Quantum computers will break the model of electronic trust that we take for granted. We will need something else that can’t be broken with quantum computers but which can still be done electronically. I can’t think of what can viably replace it. But moving whatever solution we come up with, we have to retrofit every system to use it instead.

The United States would be well advised to become the leaders in quantum computing, and quickly. Unfortunately, our tone-deaf Trump Administration is much more concerned about people seeking asylum on our border or getting rid of Obamacare than tackling a super-huge national security threat like quantum computing. Let’s hope that when the grownups are back in charge again, there is still time to gain the upper hand.

To get your head around this, watch this 3:44 video:

Test-driving the Bolt, the Prius Prime and the Camry Hybrid

The Thinker by Rodin

Introduction

It’s rare for me to buy a car. The last time I bought one was in 2004. My 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid is still moving me around, just not as nicely as it used to. Moving to Massachusetts has challenged it. Here the roads are bumpy and this time of year the potholes are plentiful and dangerous. I recently took it in to replace its rear struts, but driving around is still a bumpy and noisy experience. While I could probably drive it another ten years, it’s past its prime. It’s time for new car.

Back in 2004, hybrids were a new technology. Today they are old news. As I noted, electric cars are where it’s at these days, or at least where the hype is. Not all of us though can afford a Tesla Model S.

Our friend Mary came to visit us in her Tesla Model S recently, a car so large that it barely fit into our garage and only because its mirrors could retract fully inside the car. The Model S is currently something of a gold standard for electric cars. But even with the many Tesla superchargers between you and your destination, it’s hardly convenient. At best, a pit stop takes 45 minutes or so for an 80% charge. This time of the year when temperatures are cold, all electric cars lose range. Her trip that might have taken 8-9 hours in a car with a gasoline engine extended to 11-12 hours in her Tesla, which included two recharging stops.

While I like the idea of an electric car, it remains an iffy proposition as a touring car. Still, I wanted to get an idea if I even wanted one, which is why I ended up at our local Chevy dealership to test drive the Chevrolet Bolt Premium.

Chevy Bolt test drive

Back in 2004, I noted that driving the Prius seemed so futuristic. The technology certainly has changed since then, since the Prius’s dashboard now seems sort of sedate. The Chevy Bolt has an electronic dashboard behind the wheel and a separate monitor between seats for most of the other stuff. Screens change dynamically with the press of a button. These days even ordinary cars have this stuff, but to me it’s all new. I like simple displays for minimal distractions.

With the Bolt’s theoretical range of about 240 miles fully charged, during our cold weather test drive the predicted range was about a third less than that. This makes the Bolt impractical as a touring car. It can’t use Tesla’s superchargers. In the best situation you will have to wait about an hour for an 80% charge. This assumes there is no line at the charging station and a warm battery. But if you are looking for a commuting car, it’s a good choice, since most of the time you will charge it at home. But so are arguably electric cars with less range like the now-discontinued Volt.

Driving the Bolt otherwise surprised me. You expect it to be quiet and it was. Electric motors make little noise compared to pistons pounding inside an engine. It can achieve 60mph in less than seven seconds, so it’s Bolt name is particularly apt. Its high stance made it easy for me to get in and out. It feels more like a mini-SUV than a hatchback. The seats go way back and the steering wheel telescopes. It feels narrow but it’s no narrower than my Honda Civic. It doesn’t absorb bumps particularly well and perhaps due to its high stance it feels a bit hard to control at times. And the seats are not very ergonomic.

But at about a third of the price of a Model S, the Bolt feels something close to a bargain. Of course, it doesn’t pollute, unless you charge it from non-green sources. We have solar panels and get our remainder from wind power, so that’s not an issue. It would go a huge way toward making us carbon neutral. And arguably because it is all-electric, it is less complex. I could expect to save 50% or more on maintenance costs, and the cost per mile to drive an electric car will almost certainly save us 50% or more off the cost of gasoline. While there are other electric cars out there, at the moment it’s really the only practical electric car out there for the masses.

Toyota Prius Prime test drive

We also test-drove the Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid that can drive about fifty miles on electricity, but only if you don’t go too fast. It averages 50mpg in hybrid mode. It was reasonably easy to get in and out of but it helped to elevate the seat, which can only be done manually. The Prius Prime felt extremely solid with great steering control, and reasonably quiet too. Like the Bolt, it doubles as a hatchback. However its rear window with the line in the middle takes some getting used to and is arguably annoying.

Toyota Camry Hybrid test drive

We used to own a Toyota Camry. Today’s hybrid version averages 47mpg and packs a lot more technology into a fairly compact space. Driving it was quiet and comfortable. It too can drive some miles at lower speeds in pure electric mode, but its battery uses electricity that comes from the engine or regenerative braking. It’s not a hatchback, which is something of a drawback but does have a huge trunk and second row seats that fold back that allow you to transport some larger objects. The Camry remains an affordable car with a premium feel to it. You feel comfortable and kind of pampered, which contrasts with the practical Prius Prime. Its displays though feel a bit too packed with information and there are many little switches that can be hard to finger. Its monitor in the center is a bit small but functional. It’s got all the lumbar support you could want with motors to easily elevate or change the position of the seats. It is quite quiet and handles bumpy roads quite nicely.

Decisions, decisions…

There are other factors nudging us. There are sizable federal and some state tax credits available. The full $7500 federal tax credit for the Bolt expires at the end of the month. With that and a $1500 Massachusetts rebate, we can effectively get a Chevy Bolt Premium with all the convenience packages and the fast charging option for $26,565. It does mean that for long distance driving beyond 200 miles or so we’ll be driving my wife’s Subaru with its annoying manual stick. If we were to buy it, we’d also want to invest in a 240-volt car charger, probably with dual outlets on the assumption my wife would eventually have an electric car too.

All this amounts to a good dilemma, but still a dilemma. Dilemmas indicate who you really are. Am I the eco-green person I think I am? I that case I should buy the Bolt. Am I the practical guy that wants great efficiency in a car but still want to tour in it? Then I should get the Prius Prime. Do I want pretty good mileage car but a bit of pampering? Then I should get the Toyota Camry Hybrid, or some others in this market like the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, a large car which a remarkable 42mpg and one of the highest scores I’ve seen in Consumer Reports magazine: 98 out of 100 points.

I do need to either decide soon or risk some federal tax credits expiring.

DuckDuckGo is a better search engine

The Thinker by Rodin

Google pretty much owns the search engine market, but why? Perhaps it was because they were the first to do it well. In the old days of search engines when we were forced to use sites like Lycos and AltaVista, finding useful stuff on the web was excruciating, requiring you to go through many pages of results (and usually wait … these were back in the connect-by-modem days). Google figured out how to turn relevance into an algorithm. Basically, the more sites that link to a page, the more relevant it is.

There’s more to a search engine than that, of course, but that was the big innovation. And not surprisingly, once that was figured out other search engines figured out how to do this too. For most search engine queries, you will get a set of similar results.

But with Google search, you get more, but in this case more maybe less. Specifically, what you get is what Facebook figured out, probably after seeing what Google was doing. Google will watch your behavior closely and give you more of what it thinks you like. To do that of course, it had to learn a whole lot more about you. And most of us are happy to comply, since most of us are logged into Google accounts. Even if we are not, given that we leave cookies in our browsers, not to mention IP addresses, so Google can usually figure out it’s you. With every search engine query and use of its services it learns more about you. Google probably knows you better than your spouse does.

The downside is that, like Facebook, you end up in a filter bubble. Google knows if you swing left and so your queries are unlikely to show links that swing right, at least not on the first page. In short, Google and other search engines undercut its own quest to provide relevant search results by providing you links to stuff you are more likely to click on. They are relevant as long as you want results that reflect your biases.

It’s a profitable strategy for Google. It just watches you behind the scenes. Its powerful algorithms give you more and more reasons to invest time with Google and its many services. I plead guilty because like almost everyone I have a Google account. I use GMail extensively. I long ago stopped using an email client. I do all my email using GMail’s web interface. I do turn off the marketing (thanks, Google!) and, gosh, with all that space and it’s amazing search interface I can find pretty much anything in my email in a few seconds spanning more than a decade of use. Since I have lots of clients, it’s quite a value to do things like easily figure out what their issue was six month ago. I’m willing to pay to use GMail, if I have to.

But I don’t have to use Google search. Since discovering DuckDuckGo, I rarely use it for search anymore. That’s because DuckDuckGo is kind of retro in a way: it provides more relevant results by getting you out of search personalization. I’m getting more relevant results with it. Moreover, DuckDuckGo doesn’t track your usage. It doesn’t know who you are. It doesn’t follow you around with ads. It just gives you highly relevant search results with incredible speed. I can hardly press the enter key before I get a page of results.

My result is now a lot of highly relevant content I wasn’t seeing before, mainly because it wasn’t on the first page of results. Google was figuring I didn’t want to see this other stuff, but I do. Actually, it was feeding me links that matched my biases, hoping I would stick around. With DuckDuckGo though, searching is becoming more useful again. Moreover, I am learning stuff by reading sites I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m becoming more informed, getting actual news and perspective. Real news after all tells you objective truth, not selective truth. I’m moving out of my own filter bubble and into a wider world. I am gleaning actual insight. It’s neat and kind of humbling. But it shouldn’t be. Rather, the question should be why did Google and other search engines put us in this bubble in the first place? Of course: they were chasing mammon, putting their best interests ahead of yours

To use DuckDuckGo regularly, you have to change your default search engine. It’s not hard to do; it’s just something we don’t think about because for most of us we can’t imagine there is something out there better than Google. You’ve been sold a bill of goods that isn’t quite true.

Try it for a week and tell me I’m wrong. I’ve been using it for a few months now. I can’t see ever going back.

For more reasons of the virtues of this search engines and some of Google’s slightly evil side, watch this video:

Sailing the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

The good and predominantly Mormon citizens of Utah (or more specifically, its politicians) are doing their best to tear up the state, replacing bucolic vistas of cacti, mesa and desert flora with strip mines, particularly near national monuments like Bears Ears. This is an obscenity, but Utah is hardly alone among red states. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration seems determined to kill nature and thus kill all of us by opening up federal lands to private interests and putting more pollutants into the air … part of its “culture of life”, I suppose.

So perhaps it’s not surprising then that we are seeking out what nature is left, the more natural, the better. Specifically we are sailing among the Galapagos Islands, which are a few hundred miles west of Ecuador on the equator.  Around the time I was born, Ecuador decided to turn these islands into a giant ecological preserve and national park. They were betting that leaving it unadulterated was smarter than populating and exploiting it. Maybe before it’s gone, the citizens of Utah will also realize to leave well enough alone too.

Isabela Island, the Galapagos
Isabela Island, the Galapagos

Utah has one advantage the Galapagos do not: it’s easier and cheaper for tourists to get to. You have to really really want to visit the Galapagos Islands to go there.  Ecuador deliberately makes visting these islands hard. There are no international flights here, so you must connect through Ecuador’s international airports. You also need a tourist pass, which costs $100 per person and there are often other fees as well. Cruise ships don’t come here; Ecuador won’t allow them. So to see the islands you have to find a licensed tour operator. There aren’t many, which makes it a pricey vacation.

If you want what amounts to a cruise like we do, you end up on a large yacht, in our case the Coral I (which sails with a sister ship, the Coral II). Don’t call the Coral I a cruise ship. It’s less than 130 feet long, and handles just 38 passengers plus a dozen crew. There are no slot machines on board, and no fancy waiters with white linen napkins hanging from their arms either. Instead you get buffet meals and you had better be on time. Breakfast is usually served at 0715, lunch at 1230 and dinner at 1830, generally in the dining room toward the bow of the ship. Ship time amounts to -5 GMT, instead of -6 GMT used in the islands, which allow them to extend daylight into more tourist-friendly hours. There is no evening entertainment except a briefing by one of the naturalists on the next day’s activities. There is a tour or two during the day on one of the islands, and one or more opportunities for snorkeling either over open water or on a beach.

While the crew of the Coral I do their best to give you a good experience, it’s not Royal Caribbean. Cabins are small compared with cruise ships. Keep your expectations modest. It’s what’s outside that you are paying for. I went snorkeling twice in deep water, swam by two famous Galapagos sea turtles and under a pelican’s feet. Once I got on the dinghy just in time to see a shark circling nearby. Fortunately, they don’t bite humans.

Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos
Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos

These islands of course are known for the many uniquely adapted species. The naturalist Charles Darwin posited his famous Theory of Evolution by making careful observations of differences in similar species on different islands. Darwin is a rock star here. He has a volcano and lake named after him and a research institute that we’ll visit later in our tour. Herman Melville, a real life whaler as well as writer found inspiration for Moby Dick here, where whales were plentiful. For a time in the 19th century near Darwin Lake the cliffs ran red with whale blood from all the whale slaughtering. For what looks like a pretty dry, volcanic and arid area, the wildlife is quite abundant. On a hike we had a hard time not stepping on all the iguanas around us. Only here in the Galapagos can they swim and sneeze salt. They have adapted.

I expected these islands to be smallish and kind of squat, but they are not. They have mountains here, if you consider mountains to be a five hundred meters high or so. There are also plentiful sheer cliffs, usually inhabited by creatures in close proximity to each other. I didn’t expect to see a whole lot of green but there is more than I thought, particularly at higher elevations. I did not realize that these islands all have volcanos, and most are have active volcanos. New land is being created every day around here. You don’t see volcano cones, but you do sometimes see fissures on the sides of mountains with steam venting out of them, making them look like clouds. You also see what looks like frozen black rivers falling off cliffs and into the sea: igneous rock that was once lava. There isn’t much in the way of beaches, but those that exist are mostly black sand from all the volcanic activity. It’s not hard to find areas strewn with lava boulders and fissures.

As islands go, the Galapagos Islands are rather new. Volcanic eruptions have joined some of them together over the millennia. Eventually, they will probably become one larger landmass. Unlike Hawaii where land is being created eastward, here they are being created westward. Some of the older eastern islands are slowly disappearing into the sea. It’s a world that is evolving with astonishing speed, in both geological and biological terms.

In mankind’s quest to ruin the planet, we are also destroying species and decimating the population of those species that remain. In my short sixty-something years I have already seen the change: the outside is a quieter place. I am rarely swarmed by insects or have a hard time hearing over the birds chirping anymore. Here in the Galapagos Islands though nature is still abundant, thanks to its isolation and Ecuador’s insistence that it will stay that way.

Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos
Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos

The Galapagos are remote in the best sense of the word and largely unspoiled. The equatorial sun shines intensely all year here. The nights have zero light pollution, making it an excellent place to see stars if clouds disappear. I am unfamiliar with southern constellations. Here you can see both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross, but not necessarily at the same time.

The wildlife is largely inured to us human visitors. Most have no natural predators, which means they get to live in something of an animal Eden. The many sea lions spend most of their time basking on rocks or diving into shallow pools fed by incoming tides. The sea lions are often playful. We were watched curiously by a young sea lion as we got off our dinghy to walk a path over a boulder strewn beach. You will find blue-footed boobies sitting on a crag of rock next to some vertically hanging crabs, that are adjacent to iguana, penguins (some actually slighlty north of the equator) and sea lions.

Next, four days of day tours from a nice hotel before we fly home. It’s been nice to disconnect from politics for five days. Well, not entirely. I’ve been reading Michele Obama’s biography Becoming and am surprised to find that it’s very well written and quite a page turner. It’s worthy of a future blog post.

 

Upping authentication with a U2F device

The Thinker by Rodin

As the saying goes, you are not paranoid if they really are out to get you. When it comes to online security, it’s fair to say we are justifiably paranoid. Which is why when I learned about a much better way to authenticate myself on the web, it didn’t take much arm-twisting to buy my first U2F device.

U2F what? What is it and why would you want one? The “2F” part stands for “two-factor”. When you login to many sites on the web, you have the option for two-factor authentication. This usually means that in addition to providing something you know (typically a username and password) you also provide some other different type of credential. This ups the likelihood that you are really you.

For example, when I login to my Google account on a new device, because my account is set up for two-factor authentication login, I have it send my cell phone a text message. The code I receive in the SMS message is then used to complete my login to Google.

That sounds pretty secure, but it’s not nearly secure enough. That’s because it’s still vulnerable. If someone knows your username and password, they probably also know who you are. And if they know who you are they can probably get your mobile number, if they don’t have it already from being your “friend”. And if they know your mobile number, it’s possible to trick your carrier to send the SMS to a different device. Moreover, there’s no security in SMS messages. They are sent as plain text over the cellular network. Suddenly, two-factor authentication seems a lot more like one-factor authentication.

This was a problem even at Google. To solve it they bought their employees a whole bunch of U2F (Universal Two-Factor) devices manufactured by a company called Yubico. These devices stopped phishing attacks dead, effectively making accessing Google much more secure for its 85,000 trusted employees.

My Feitan U2F device with NFC support
My Feitan U2F device with NFC support

Hey, I want some of that! And now you can too!

How does this work? First you need to know that U2F is a standard. Any manufacturer can make a U2F device, but arguably Yubico was first to market in a significant way. Second, it’s a hardware device, basically a chip embedded inside a piece of plastic, usually connected to a USB-A interface. The chip lets it create keys, similar to keys to securely access websites. It creates two keys, a private key that cannot be externally read and which exists only on the device, and a public key that works only with the site that you connect to. However, it only creates the public key after you login (usually with a username and password) and it verifies the site is authentic. Once the site has the public key, it can be used only with your device.

Is there a downside? Not in the technology itself, although some of the older models are slower than the newer ones at generating keys. Its main drawback currently is that not enough websites have integrated it. The big ones like Google and Facebook support it. One other drawback: not all browsers support it, at least natively. Chrome, Firefox and Opera do. Most of the rest can support it via a plugin.

Still, the list of sites that do support it is growing. Both Windows and Mac support U2F during login. When enabled, you must plug in the device, essentially authenticating your computer with the operating system. Other sites that can use it include: Dropbox, Twitter, Salesforce, GitHub, LastPass and Dell. Of these the one that tickles my fancy is LastPass. Like lots of people I used it as my password manager. Unfortunately, it’s a feature of LastPass Premium only, but if you spring for it, it makes it much more secure plus it removes the hassle of having to constantly type in your often not terribly secure master password. Unfortunately, most banks don’t support U2F yet. You would think that they would want to be on the leading edge of this technology.

These devices can effectively store an unlimited set of keys. In addition, you don’t always have to attach it to a single profile. If you have multiple profiles, the same device can securely support them, or even an anonymous association with a website.

In my case, I keep a lot of customer information in Google’s cloud, accessible only to me through my Google account. So I have plenty of reason to up my security practices.

One issue is whether you want to use these devices with mobile devices. It can be done, but most mobile devices don’t have a USB-A port. However, pretty much all of them support the NFC (Near Field Communication) standard, used for systems like Apple Pay. In this case, you just place the device next to your mobile phone when you login. So it might behoove you to buy a U2F device that comes with NFC support too.

That’s what I ended up buying, not a Yubico device with this feature (which costs about $50), but a Feitian ePass NFC FIDO U2F Security Key, which is equivalent but costs $30 less. It’s simple to use in both cases and I can easily store it on my key ring.

The device does not solve all security issues on the web, but it easily and elegantly solves the authentication issue. Even if you lose your key, you still have protection. Because it is used with two-factor authentication, someone would still have to know your username and password. Meanwhile, you could buy a new device and create a new public key for use with the website.

Some content management systems can work with it. WordPress is used by about 40% of websites, so if you have a WordPress site you can install the Contact plugin to allow U2F authentication.

I’m looking forward to less hassle and more security from my U2F device, and my clients should be too.

Linux Mint may be the Windows killer

The Thinker by Rodin

I haven’t used the Windows operating system as my principle operating system for ten years. For a decade I have been using an iMac with its MacOS operating system and paying a premium for the privilege. I didn’t mind though. I just couldn’t stand Windows anymore. And since MacOS was basically written on top of UNIX, I could leverage my UNIX skills completely.

Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)
Linux Mint (Cinnamon edition)

My loathing of Windows though was not enough to keep me from buying a Windows laptop. I don’t use it much and given this I didn’t want to pay the premium for a Mac laptop. I formally left the Windows world about the time I retired in 2014, where using Windows 7 was required. My laptop came with Windows 10. The more I used Windows 10, the more I realized I liked it less than Windows 7. It’s so flashy and so terribly annoying. Amongst its many faults is that it will frequently update itself during booting it up, sometimes taking ten minutes or more before I could actually use it. There’s that and it feels so bloated with all the flashy controls, not to mention all the junk software that came installed.

I’ve made it a goal to move off the Mac when I retire my iMac. The only alternative though seemed to be Windows. I couldn’t see myself going back to that. But maybe there was finally a distribution (“distro”) of Linux for the desktop that was finally mature enough to replace both Windows and MacOS?

This led me to a little project to partition my laptop’s drive so I could at least boot up to another operating system rather than wait for Windows 10 to be usable. In case you haven’t heard, Linux is an operating system. Haven’t heard of it? If you have an Android-based smartphone, you are already using it. Google’s Android operating system is actually a wrapper around a minimized version of Linux. So if you’ve been thinking that Windows was the most popular operating system, you are wrong. It’s really Linux, hidden inside your Android smartphone.

When Google created Android, it realized it was a completely different platform so the old constraints like “can I run Microsoft Office on it?” didn’t apply. They could build it properly and since Linux was already used on devices of all sorts (not to mention servers, where it predominates) they wrote a wrapper around free and open-source Linux and called it Android.

So if you are looking at trends, you are realizing that Linux is taking over. It’s only lagging behind on the desktop. One reason Linux is lagging on the desktop is that there are so many variants (distros) of Linux. I picked one pretty much at random to place on a partition on my laptop: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is nice but it doesn’t behave like Windows. It also doesn’t behave like MacOS. If you are going to move to a Linux desktop, it should at least work similarly to what you are already using.

It didn’t take me more than a week for me to say goodbye to Ubuntu. A friend recommended the Linux Mint distro saying it was written to be Windows-like. So I installed it and took it for a spin.

One thing I noticed right away: Linux Mint booted up fast: really fast, at least compared with Windows 10. Windows 10 gave the illusion that you could use it right away but in fact it sort of hung after you logged in while all sorts of background programs tediously loaded. Mint though was quickly loaded and usable. And it had a Start-like button in the bottom left corner and task bar on the bottom just like Windows. Clicking on the button brought up a Windows-like navigation pane. Nice!

But what was under the hood? Firefox came preinstalled, but also LibreOffice, an open source Office-like set of programs. I quickly learned that only the fussiest people would complain about these programs compared with Microsoft Office because probably less than 2% of us need the most advanced features of Office. LibreOffice is perfectly fine and you have to look hard to figure out what is different.

Pretty much everything I needed was already installed, but there was a Software Manager off the “Start” button that made quick work of installing lots of other useful software. What wasn’t in the Software Manager was often available from various websites. If you download a Debian package (.deb files) from a website, Firefox will recognize it and it is quickly installed. Since there is usually a Debian package for programs written for Linux, this means that few programs Linux programs that are not available for Mint.

While Mint comes with Firefox, if you love Chrome you can download that too. Only it’s not quite Chrome, but Chromium, basically the open-source version of Chrome. Google adds their own proprietary layers on top of Chromium to do things like make it friendlier with its services like GMail and call it Chrome. Since I do IT consulting, I didn’t have problems finding very familiar software I use every day. Filezilla is available for Mint. Since I couldn’t find a Debian package, I had to hunt for a RPM (RedHat Package Manager) package for XAMPP, a program that lets me install a local development environment for the web. This required some “hands on” work from the command prompt to install it, but it was the exception.

Strangely, I hooked my wife, a Windows bigot who spurned my iMac. Her needs are modest: mostly Firefox, Thunderbird for email, VLC for playing videos and Steam for playing games. It turned out there was a Steam engine for Linux that was preinstalled on Mint, as well as Firefox, Thunderbird and VLC. She put it on a rebuilt laptop, throwing away Windows 10 entirely and replacing it with Linux Mint. Tomorrow she is off to Las Vegas to visit friends, and doubtless she will show off her laptop with its Windows-friendly Linux Mint OS on it. She loves it and is amazed by how quickly it boots and is usable.

If you have to run Windows, you can run it virtually inside of Mint using WINE (a Windows emulator) which is also preinstalled. As for replacing my iMac, I don’t think there’s a way to run MacOS virtually inside of Linux. But there are Linux distros that try to emulate the Mac’s user interface. These include Elementary OS, Deepin Linux, Backslash Linux, Gmac Linux and Trenta OS. Of these, Gmac Linux looks the most Mac-like.

About the only software I can’t easily replace is Quicken. I could run it as a service online; I’d just prefer not to trust all my financial data online. Obviously there is some software like Photoshop that is not available for Linux distros, but may be some day. There are some programs that offer 90% of its functionality and are free. Chances are there is an open-source version that’s close enough to those you use everyday on Windows that you won’t mind trading a few differences for the cost (free!)

Playing with Linux Mint though has me thinking that it may kill off Windows. It behaves very similarly, is faster, more nimble, much more stable and doesn’t feel lethargic and bloated like Windows. Yet it’s also so familiar while feeling easier to use. Microsoft may be seeing the beginning of the end of Windows. To compete it may opt to turn Windows into a Linux distro, much like Android became a very unique distro of Linux for handheld devices. Or by being introduced to it through people like my wife, Windows users may discover Linux Mint and make the switch too.

There is no Planet B

The Thinker by Rodin

When I have time to fill in my retirement, I can easily spend it among the endless documentaries on YouTube. I have spent a lot of my free time watching videos on space-time. Space-time is the matrix in which we live and it’s very much a real thing. There is no way to separate space from time. It (not they) literally comprises the fabric of the universe, fabric that can be warped by gravitational forces. It’s fascinating stuff if you can wrap your head around it.

Some of these videos take on the topic of traveling to distant stars. They talk about why it’s prohibitively expensive in time and energy to even come close to approaching the speed of light. If we hope to escape our solar system and colonize planets around distant stars we will have to figure out how to do this. What I’ve gleaned from these videos is that there is basically no way to do this. In the embedded video, the sun is reduced to the size of pea. The videographer then shows the distance of our closest star, Proxima Centauri, which would be 125 miles away. Moreover, Proxima Centauri would be the size of a radish seed.

Proxima Centauri is about 4.25 light years away. If you could get a spacecraft to go ten percent of the speed of light, which doesn’t seem technically possible due to the energy required, it would take 42 years to get to Proxima Centauri. The chance of finding a habitable planet around it is virtually nothing, which means the closest habitable planet is likely to be much farther away. Moreover, humans hoping to emigrate there would have to bring everything they need with them. Many generations would live and die in the void of interstellar space on this journey. Given the law of entropy, it’s unlikely their vessel would make it to its destination with any of its passengers alive.

Which is why in practical terms that humans should look closer to home. Mars is probably the closest possibly habitable planet, but it really cannot be considered habitable. It has 1/100 of the earth’s atmosphere, its atmosphere is toxic and too cold for us and everything is covered in a fine dust that would probably have us looking like coal miners. We’d probably have to live underground. Most likely going there would be a one-way trip, as our muscles would likely atrophy in the lighter gravity. Pretty much everything would have to be imported from earth, at least for many decades. Just getting there would mean being exposed to high does of cosmic radiation that would change our DNA and likely mean our children would have birth defects. In short, actually living on Mars would probably be hellish. No sane person would want to stay there. Even getting there and back might kill you or at least shorten your lifespan. Perhaps we’ll find ways to shield ourselves from the cosmic radiation on the journey, but it’s unlikely.

Venus has a more earth-like gravity but is literally hotter than hell not to mention filled with an atmosphere of lethal gases and constantly swirling storms. There is some talk that maybe a moon of Jupiter or Saturn could support a human colony. Getting there would take much longer than to Mars and there is no moon that can really be considered Earth-like. Some appear to have water (ice) and something resembling an atmosphere, but life there would be problematic at best. Many of these moons seems to be rocked by earthquakes.

All this leads this space-buff to conclude that we humans are stuck here on Earth, barring some sort of incredible technology that seems extremely unlikely or some asterisks to the laws of relativity that don’t appear to exist. It’s understandable that humans will want to explore new frontiers. It’s also abundantly clear that we are quickly making the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation, pollution and deforestation.

Attempts to colonize these brave new worlds will likely prove disastrous and prohibitively costly. Yet that’s seems to be where people like Elon Musk are anxious to go. If he can shoot a Tesla toward the outer planets, a manned trip to Mars can’t be that far away. He’s hoping to do something like this in the 2020s. I confess I will be excited if he or NASA succeeds in something like this. While it is likely to be exciting, it is certainly fraught with peril. Assuming the astronauts make it back, it’s likely that their DNA will not be quite what it was. Astronauts who have spent long time periods in the International Space Station have already noted chromosomal abnormalities. Science Magazine in 2016 noted that lunar astronauts had a much higher risk of heart disease. This is likely due to the higher cosmic radiation in the space between the Earth and the Moon.

While mankind’s desire to explore other worlds is understandable, if much of our motivation for getting off-planet is to deal with the population crisis then we are being hopelessly naïve. Which means that as painful as it may appear to be, it will be infinitely less costly to address our climate, population and pollution crises here and now. Our lovely Mother Earth that we are quickly destroying is all that cocoons us.

Hopefully the Trump Administration’s foolhardy rush toward oblivion will be short-lived. Hopefully Americans will come to their senses and elect politicians that will address these problems. Resolving seemingly intractable problems like our religious and ethnic wars, or poverty or population control simply must happen or we doom humans and our ecosystem to extinction.

There is no Planet B for humans to colonize. We live on a planet that should be our Eden. We must make it that or perish.

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

The Thinker by Rodin

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 your 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.