Facebook and data mining

I have written before about privacy and Facebook, expressing the view that people should treat whatever they put on Facebook in the same way as they treat something they put on a completely public website at this one. It may be wise to give people more granular control over who can see what, but it isn’t intelligent as a Facebook user to assume that their privacy controls will always be adequate and that your information will stay safe.

In the wake of the latest Facebook privacy debacle, I have realized that there is an element to the situation that I hadn’t considered before. Especially now that Facebook is working to put everybody’s ‘Interests’ into a standardized format, there is a real difference between how information on Facebook can be used, compared to the wider web.

A person with some time and interest could scan through my blog, figure out about how old I am, learn what sort of books I read, discover my political views, and so on. It would be rather tricky to write an automated computer program that would achieve the same result. Blogs are non-standardized, and comprised of human generated text. By contrast, information on Facebook is increasingly organized in a manner that is easily machine readable. If I want to reach 25-27 year olds who enjoy reading Carl Sagan books and live in Ottawa, it is easy to do via the information on Facebook, but hard to do with information from the general web. That seems to comprise a different sort of privacy violation and/or data mining.

In response, I have stripped my Facebook account of everything that might be of interest to advertisers, at least where it is easily machine-readable: hometown, current location, music and films appreciated, etc. A determined human user could still learn a lot about me from Facebook, for instance by looking at status updates and communication with others, but this will at least make it a bit trickier for machines.

Collarbone injured

Thanks to an unseen pothole on Somerset Street, I ended up spending the night in the hospital with a broken left collarbone.

At the moment, it is quite obviously and painfully out of alignment. It needs to be kept immobilized in a sling for six weeks. In a week, the doctors will take more x-rays to determine if surgery is needed. At the moment, things are pretty foggy from lack of sleep and painkillers.

I will stay totally immobile for the rest of today, then see how I feel tomorrow morning. If moving is as painful as today, I will likely stay home to give my bones a bit more time to reconnect uninterrupted.

[Update: 3 June 2010] I had a follow-up x-ray at the Ottawa General Hospital today. At this point, it looks like surgery will not be required. I have another follow-up on June 18th.

[Update: 7 June 2010] As of today, my shoulder is a lot less painful than over the last week. I can even tie shoes.

Praise for Teksavvy tech support

For the last few months, my internet connection has been maddeningly unreliable. Oftentimes, it has trouble with basic tasks like loading text-based websites or accessing email. The only mechanism I have found for improving matters was to power down my DSL router, wait a few minutes, and then turn it back on. That made things better for a little while, but it soon got patchy again. TekSavvy is my internet service provider.

Non-geeks may want to skip the next section.

Technical details

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with a TekSavvy customer support guy named Peter who helped me break down the problem. Replacing the phone cord between the modem and the wall did nothing. The problem could be the modem, the wiring in my house, or the wiring outside. To know, I would need to test the connection at the demarcation point between the Bell network (which TekSavvy leases) and my apartment’s own wiring. To isolate a modem problem, I would also need to test it with another modem.

Today, I cycled way up Bank Street to the Home Depot beyond Billings Bridge. Despite not having a driver’s license, I convinced the manager there to rent me a 50′ extension cord for 24 hours.

My one complaint about tonight is how long it took to talk to a TekSavvy tech person. I called their customer service line at about 10pm and was told someone would call be back ‘shortly.’ Forty-five minutes later, I called again and was told they had no record of me calling before. I waited some more. Then, at 12:30am, I called their customer support person and told them I had been told two and a half hours before that someone would call me shortly. At that point, the customer service person put me directly through to Todd in tech support.

He was extremely helpful. Out in the rain with my headlamp, modem, multi-tool, and extension cord, I plugged my modem directly into the demarcation point. From there, it synced properly and at the right speed. My heart sank a bit. That meant the problem was with my wiring: Bell would not fix it for free and, in the worst case, it would be necessary to rip out from the walls. I started thinking about switching to a cable modem.

Todd then explained to me that the problem could just be corrosion. The inside of the box at the demarcation point had fine black powder covering every horizontal surface. The male portion of the telephone connector inside was also brown and gunky. After scraping through the gunk on the male portion of the connector, I closed up the box and moved my modem back inside. Now, according to TekSavvy’s diagnostic, it is syncing much better.

The next step is to do a more serious reworking of that demarcation box. Ideally, I should clip the copper wires inside, strip the ends, and wrap those around the connectors. Then, I should cover them with some sort of waterproof, oxygen-excluding gunk (Vaseline?) and seal up the whole box better than it was before. That might allow decent, reliable internet access without the need to tear wires out of my walls. Another possibility for improvement is replacing the telephone jack inside.


All told, I am very pleased with the service from TekSavvy. After all, the wiring in the old house where I live is not their responsibility. Rather than make me pay for some Bell person to come out, test at the demarcation point, and throw up his hands saying that the problem is my wiring, they helped me isolate the problem, and then suggested practical steps for improving the situation and hopefully eventually resolving it.

I called their customer service person one more time and asked her to make a note in the tech guy’s file that he had really helped me out and I appreciated it.

One thing about all this is a bit funny. While it is easy to think of the internet as some ethereal thing that empowers human communication like nothing before it, it is also possible for a gunky little connector inside a sooty grey plastic box to interrupt it, causing months of agitation for a person like myself.

Friends of Gin & Tonic

Friends of Gin & Tonic is an amusing website that sets out to mock climate change deniers. They describe their mission as: “Self Interest and Climate Change Denial” and elaborate by explaining:

We seek to inform the public of the findings of a handful of amateurs of unrivalled capability (but almost no ‘formal’ climatological expertise) that utterly undermine the so-called ‘scientific consensus’ that the planet is warming and that people are causing it. This ‘consensus’, the biggest scientific fraud in history, has been foisted on a gullible public by a politico-scientific elite intent on a single world government with themselves, via control of the United Nations, at its head. Exercising merciless control of the scientific literature by requiring that published work be consistent with such piffle as observations, physical principles, and mathematical models, this evil clique tries to suppress the promulgation of any alternative view. Small fringe groups like our sister organization the Friends of Science are thus reduced to using right-wing blogs, opinion columns of like-minded newspapers, and guerrilla publicity stunts at international meetings to promote their message.

Mockery is certainly part of the set of things richly deserved by climate change deniers, though it is not an adequate mechanism for countering their efforts in and of itself.

They came to my attention via DeSmogBlog.

The credit crunch, bailouts, and moral hazard

Why did governments bail out failing financial institutions?

They said it was because banks and insurance companies were so interconnected with the rest of the economy that, if they failed, they would cause a cascade of other failures. If the banks went broke, firms that actually have sound businesses would fall as well. That supposedly risked turning the credit crunch into a general depression.

Assuming this argument is correct, the natural question is what we should do to eliminate that vulnerability, termed ‘systemic risk’ by economists. It is as though we are mountain climbers attached by a tether to the banks. When they start to slip, we need to save them, in order to keep from being pulled over ourselves. Once we have done that, however, we need to start thinking about how to get rid of tether.

According to the argument that politicians are making, we got dragged to the edge of the cliff this time. To experience that and not think seriously about how to get ourselves untethered is stupid and irresponsible.

1) Make banks smaller

No single bank should be large enough that its collapse could threaten the economy as a whole. Banks should be small enough to fail.

2) Make finance more boring

Get rid of complex new products like collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps. Treat new financial products like new pharmaceuticals, with the onus on those developing them to show that they are safe, and with tough oversight and regulation.

These things seem to spread risk around in the financial system in ways that make it possible for relatively minor players (even non-banks) to really screw things up.

3) Separate the safe and risky sides of banking

There should be two sorts of banks.

The first sort will take deposits and make very safe loans, like well-secured mortgages or loans to businesses with a strong plan for paying them back. These banks should be insured, so that if they fail the depositors don’t lose their money.

These banks should be allowed to call themselves ‘safe banks’ or ‘guaranteed banks’ or something similar, so it is clear to everybody that they are in a special category that excludes the second type.

The second sort can basically do whatever they like. They can invest in all sorts of unusual financial instruments, and try to make profits. When they fail, their depositors get nothing. The only things they cannot do are get too big (see point 1) or sell products that threaten the system (see point 2).

The government loves to boast about how well Canada weathered the financial crisis. The basic reason for that seems to be how boring our banks were forced to remain, as the result of heavy regulation. The places with laissez faire regulatory approaches – like the United States, Ireland, and Iceland – are the ones that have had the most to fear from the credit crunch.

4) Accept the drawbacks

This plan has a number of drawbacks.

First, it might make the financial system less efficient at allocating capital. That’s what banks claim is their value added to society: they match up people who have wealth but no ideas for using it productively with people with ideas and talents, but not enough money.

Making the financial industry safer would reduce returns for savers, and reduce the financing opportunities for firms and entrepreneurs. We might be turning a Ferrari into a Volkswagen, but there are good reasons to do so. For one, it is better to ride in a Volkswagen at 90 km/h than in a Ferrari that goes 120 km/h but sometimes explodes and kills everyone inside. For another, banks and bankers will always have the financial means to manipulate politicians. They are well placed to get a good deal for themselves, whereas the general public is in a weaker position. Since there is a built-in bias in politics towards making things easier for the rich, having some special protection for the general welfare of the population seems justified and appropriate.

Second, making the system safer will make it harder for poor people to get credit. The safe banks won’t offer mortgages to people who are likely to default on them, and the risky banks are likely to change an arm and a leg for them. That said, it was probably always a fantasy for people of modest means to buy big houses in cities with overpriced property markets. Also, by reducing the speculative froth in real estate markets, the approach outlined here could end up helping such people in the long run.

That being said, I think a plan basically resembling this one is worthwhile. Most importantly, it would largely eliminate the systemic risk which we are creating right now by bailing out the institutions that have been the least responsible, because of the threat they pose to everyone else. What that approach will ultimately produce is another, larger crisis.

Of course, this is all a pipe dream. Politicians don’t have the bravery or far-sightedness to do any of this, and bankers are clever enough and rich enough to convince them and bribe them into leaving them basically alone. Besides, that next crisis will probably happen when another lots of politicians are in charge, and those who organized today’s bailouts are occupying well-paid seats on the boards of the banks they rescued.

Fair Vote Canada conference

In Canada, our First Past the Post voting system strongly favours the most popular parties and those (like the Bloc) that have concentrated regional appeal. Parties with a good chunk of popular support, but for which it is not concentrated in particular ridings, are excluded from Parliament.

Many proposals have been brought forward to address that issue. For those interested in the topic and living in Ottawa, this Saturday’s Fair Vote Canada 2010 Annual Meeting and Conference may be of interest. It is happening on campus at the University of Ottawa, between 8:30am and 5:00pm. Registration is $35, or $10 for students.

On smallpox

In 1977, smallpox was eradicated as the result of a massive global effort. Rather than completely eliminate the virus, it was decided that the United States and Russia would each keep a sample. Part of the reasoning for this is that pox viruses are common in the animal world, and could potentially jump between species. Having samples of human smallpox could be useful, in the event that such a thing occurred.

Unfortunately – and rather threateningly – the Russian smallpox sample didn’t sit idly in a freezer. Smallpox is a highly contagious, highly lethal disease and yet Biopreparat, the Soviet Union’s biological weapons agency, made some twenty tonnes of the stuff, tested it on animals, and developed mechanisms to use it as a weapon, including delivery via warheads on intercontinental missiles. This was done at the State Research Institute of Virology and Biotechnology (also called Vector), outside the city of Novosibirsk, in Siberia, as well as at a more secret facility in Sergiyev Posad. It was also tested on Vozrozhdeniya Island. The Soviets made so much that it couldn’t all be accounted for. Quite possibly, some found its way into biological weapons programs in other states, such as China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, and Serbia.

Whereas human beings once had two major forms of protection from smallpox – immunity resulting from exposure to the virus, and vaccination campaigns – the former is now absent and the latter defunct and potentially difficult to restore. A single case, perhaps arising from some accident, could directly infect hundreds of people and kick off an escalating series of waves of infection, spaced fourteen days apart, as people go through the incubation period and become infectious. Such a global outbreak could kill a massive number of people.

The idea of an accidental release is not fanciful. In 1978, medical photographer Janet Parker became one of the two last people to contract smallpox, working in the anatomy department of the University of Birmingham Medical School. It seems entirely plausible that accidental exposure could occur at some shady biological weapon lab in Cuba, Pakstan, or North Korea.

If anything like that ever happens, people may end up looking on the decision not to stick to just one frozen sample of smallpox as the worst thing the Soviet Union ever did. Hopefully, all the concern and money expended on security since 2001 has at least left the world in a better position to launch a mass vaccination campaign, should the need ever arise.

Our imperfect memories

Slate has produced a good series highlighting the limitations of human memory, particularly how easily it can be manipulated and people can be made to remember things that never took place.

The imperfect nature of human memory has important consequences, including in situations like criminal proceedings and psychotherapy. It is also discussed in this Paul Bloom lecture:

It turns out that the same sort of experiments and the same sort of research has been done with considerable success in implanting false memories in adults. There are dramatic cases of people remembering terrible crimes and confessing to them when actually, they didn’t commit them. And this is not because they are lying. It’s not even because they’re, in some obvious sense, deranged or schizophrenic or delusional. Rather, they have persuaded themselves, or more often been persuaded by others, that these things have actually happened.

Psychologists have studied in the laboratory how one could do this, how one can implant memories in other people. And some things are sort of standard. Suppose I was to tell you a story about a trip I took to the dentist or a visit I took to–or a time when I ate out at a restaurant and I’m to omit certain details. I omit the fact that I paid the bill in a restaurant, let’s say or I finished the meal and then I went home. Still, you will tend to fill in the blanks. You’ll tend to fill in the blanks with things you know. So, you might remember this later saying, “Okay. He told me he finished eating, paid the bill and left,” because paying the bill is what you do in a restaurant.

This is benign enough. You fill in the blanks. You also can integrate suppositions made by others. And the clearest case of this is eyewitness testimony. And the best research on this has been done by Elizabeth Loftus who has done a series of studies, some discussed in the textbook, showing how people’s memories can be swayed by leading questions. And it can be extremely subtle. In one experiment, the person was just asked in the course of a series of questions–shown a scene where there’s a car accident and asked either, “Did you see a broken headlight?” or “Did you see the broken headlight?” The ‘the’ presupposes that there was a broken headlight and in fact, the people told–asked, “Did you see the broken headlight?” later on are more likely to remember one. It creates an image and they fill it in.

It is always troubling to be reminded that we cannot entirely trust our own minds. That said, it is far better to be aware of the limitation and suffer from its troubling implications than it is to ignorantly assume that our memories are an accurate record of past events that cannot be altered.

2010 Arctic sea ice

The extent of Arctic sea ice has dipped below where it was at this time of year in 2007, the worst year recorded for sea ice. Within the next few months, we will see whether it goes on to set a new record low. If so, perhaps it could be the sort of dramatic event that drives people to take climate change more seriously.

It is important to understand that the maximum extent of sea ice during the winter is a less important climatic indicator than the minimum extent in summer. The Arctic is always going to be cold and dark in the winter, when it is hardly receiving any sunlight. As a result, at least a thin layer of ice will form, establishing a large extent of frozen ocean. What is vanishing is the multi-year ice, which endures from year to year. Climate deniers trumpeted how the maximum extent of ice this year was close to the 1979 to 2000 average, yet the major trend in ice extent and volume is ever downwards.

If the Arctic ends up ice-free in the summer, there will be numerous consequences. Species that depend on sea ice – including narwhals, seals, and polar bears – will be threatened. Also, migration between the Pacific and Atlantic will likely allow the emergence of invasive species. Because losing summer sea ice means losing a big white sheet that reflects sunlight back into space, it would also cause further warming.

Publish and Perish

I picked up James Hynes’ Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror as a result of it being recommended by the photographer Philip Greenspun. He called it: “the ultimate airplane read for anyone in the university world.”

I was expected it to be a light and humourous mockery of academia, written in a faux horror style. As comedy, horror, and writing in general it falls flat. The characters are boring, the plots are either predictable or uninteresting, and the jabs at academia lack poignancy. All the book really had going for it was that it was a quick read. In my ongoing efforts to clear the stacks of unread books on my dining room table, I decided to clear some of the light fare first.

I would not recommend this book.