Adios BlogLines

For years now, I have been using BlogLines to keep track of hundreds of RSS feeds: posts on tech and climate blogs, comments on my own sites, updates on the sites of friends who update very rarely, etc.

Unfortunately, BlogLines is being shut down on Monday. This is one of the few times when a genuinely valuable internet service has faded away. There are plenty I have outgrown (Hotmail comes to mind) or that were never very useful (Google Wave). Napster was a tragic loss, and now this.

So, thanks a bunch BlogLines. I will be shipping all my subscriptions over to the clunkier interface of Google Reader.

The right way to do electronic voting

On Monday, Ottawa held its municipal elections. The physical process of voting achieved the major benefit of electronic voting, while retaining the security associated with paper ballots. This is the right way to handle things.

Each voter was given a piece of paper with lists of candidates for the three positions under contest. The voter selected candidates and filled in small circles beside their names with a pen – a process that should be familiar to anyone who attended high school in recent decades. The paper was then put into a sleeve to cover up the selections before being drawn through a scanner and into a storage box.

Because the scanners allowed quick tabulation of results, the outcome of the election could be known quickly. Because all the paper ballots were retained, there was little danger of an error or manipulation of the voting machines leading to an incorrect result.

I don’t know whether any auditing was done, but it would be a good idea. A certain portion of all the scanners and ballot boxes could be selected at random, with the ballots hand-counted and the tally compared with the electronic one. If significant disparities appeared, a manual recount of the whole election could then be conducted.

The only limitation I can see in the system, compared with all-electronic voting approaches, is that it cannot easily be tailored to help people with disabilities, such as very poor vision. That being said, it seems pretty straightforward for a volunteer to assist people in such situations.

The ‘Firesheep’ attack against Facebook

Facebook uses browser cookies to identify who you are. These are transmitted unencrypted across wireless networks. As such, it is easy for someone to listen in, copy the cookies, and then use them to impersonate you. Firesheep is a Firefox plugin that automates this process.

Sharing a wireless connection with a bunch of flatmates? Any of them can easily access all your Facebook information or impersonate you. Same goes for people in coffee shops, libraries, on vehicles with WiFi, and so on.

Bruce Schneier brought the attack to my attention and also suggests a good countermeasure: forcing Facebook to use encrypted HTTPS connections using other plugins.

Of course, HTTPS is vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, but that is probably beyond the scope of what some random Facebook hacker would attempt. That being said, what I said before about Facebook and privacy holds true – you are best off only putting things on the site that you are happy for everybody in the world to see. That applies as much to private messages between users and ‘private’ photo albums as it does to status updates broadcase to one and all.

Abusing the word ‘green’

I have written before about how the word ‘sustainable’ is frequently abused. People often refer to anything done with the slightest bit of environmental awareness as ‘sustainable’. Thus, it is ‘sustainable’ to bring your own mug to Starbucks or turn off the lights when you leave the room. In reality, a sustainable process or situation is one that can be carried on indefinitely. Sustainable electricity generation must be based on renewable sources of energy, and sustainable agriculture must have no non-renewable inputs.

If anything, the word ‘green’ is even more abused than the word ‘sustainable’. The U.S. Air Force claims that its synthetic jet fuel is ‘green’ even though it is made with fossil fuels. Any time there is a marginal improvement in a dirty process, it is heralded as a ‘green’ accomplishment.

None of this is to say that small improvements don’t matter. The global energy system needs to be reformed from the ground up, in big ways as well as small. What I am arguing is that we should not allow the definition of words like ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ to be diluted to the point where they are just public relations tools. A green initiative or innovation is one that contributes meaningfully to the kind of sustainable world we need to build. It is not just something that can be marketed to those who find it chic to care about the environment.

Signals intelligence and historiography

In intelligence, the protection of sources and methods is vitally important to continued success. There are few pieces of evidence more convincing than an target’s own encrypted communication, but making it plain that it has been intercepted and decoded is likely to drive the target to tighten security and change up their systems. As such, there is always a balance to be struck between providing authoratative information in the present and retaining the capacity to do so in the future. For example, when Neville Chamberlain read out decrypted Russian telegrams in Parliament in 1927, it led to them switching up their cipher systems and making broader use of one time pads.

All this has consequences for the writing and understanding of history. Roughly, historiography refers to the history and methodology of history. Of particular importance is the history of the lessons drawn from historical events. For instance, the lessons drawn from the two world wars. Very frequently, politicians, historians, and members of the general public draw conclusions without the benefit of access to classified materials, such as intercepted and decrypted military and diplomatic communication.

An example is the Dieppe raid of 1942. In Richard Aldrich’s GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency, the author describes how poor cipher security on the part of the British meant that the Germans had five days warning before the supposed surprise attack. I don’t know when that information became publicly available, but it is a fair bet that it was not until well after many of those involved in the raid had made their private judgments about why it failed.

Arguably, all this is an important reason for continuing to study historical events that are fairly long-past. It might seem questionable what utility there is in studying the Russo-Japanese War in 2010, but one good answer might be how the decreased political sensitivity means that formerly closely-guarded documents are now accessible to scholars. We will probably be waiting many decades before some of the most important documents relating to contemporary international events become open to scrutiny.

Change card

Change is annoying. Whenever I get anything smaller than a $1 coin, I dump it as soon as possible into either a big jar at home or a big jar at work. My pockets have enough holes in them already, without carrying around thin-edged metal objects.

It is no surprise that there are companies that make machines that eat change and spit out a credit for groceries, taking a fairly large commission. The other night, an idea along similar lines occurred to me: a contactless ‘change card’.

It would use the same RFID technology that credit cards are now adding. When you paid for something in cash, you would get back bills and perhaps $1 and $2 coins. The rest of the balance would get wirelessly added to your card. If they were privately deployed, the issuer would probably take some commission, but perhaps it would be worth having governments do in order to save them most of the expense and bother of making coins.

The cards would not be registered or tracked, but they would have a $10 limit. When you accumulated a balance at that level, you would need to buy small things like newspapers, coffee, or sandwiches to bring the balance down. This would be to reduce the risk of them being used for money laundering or other nefarious purposes.

The question – I suppose – is why not go whole-hog and use an entirely electronic payment system? That option is certainly already open to people, and for various reasons many people keep using cash. Giving people the opportunity to use cash without messing around with pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters seems like a good idea.

Being a non-driver

When I was in high school, I took the written test that kicks off British Columbia’s graduated vehicle licensing program. I took some lessons, but never progressed through the multiple stages required to get a full license. I left for university without one, and have never since had much opportunity or incentive to get a license. I may never decided to do so.

Quite possibly, that is becoming a less unusual choice for city-dwellers. Treehugger is reporting on a study of Canadian attitudes by GWL Realty Advisors. Some of the results are encouraging from an environmental perspective, such as a growing preference for apartments over houses. The commentary on the views of young people on driving is also of interest:

There is also growing research that younger generations do not relate to the automobile as enabling “freedom.” Instead, their electronic and social media devices–whether a smart phone, small lap top computer, music player, etc.–provide an alternate means for self expression and being free to do what they want. In the United States, kilometers driven by 18-34 year olds is declining, and this is likely the case in Canada as well (Neff, 2010). Younger generations seem to have less interest in automotive use, making apartment living in dense, walkable and transit-oriented urban areas a more natural fit for their lifestyles.

For those living in rural areas – or the 1950s – driving really is freedom. For those living in the cities of 2010, cars probably do more harm than good. Rather than spending money to further accommodate the dangerous, climate-destroying machines, it seems sensible that we should focus on building walkable neighbourhoods and good public transportation networks.

I have written before about driving’s declining appeal. I have also written about how the internet increases the social value of skills other than driving, such as photography.

Federal responsibility in Canada’s oil sands

The Pembina Institute – in cooperation with Environmental Defence and Equiterre – has released a new report on Canada’s oilsands. It concludes that even with optimistic assumptions about carbon capture and storage, greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands are set to be unacceptably large by 2050, making Canada’s climate change mitigation targets infeasible:

A key finding of the report is that the math on carbon emissions doesn’t add up. If expansion of the oil sands proceeds as planned, the oil sands industry will outspend its proportional share of Canada’s carbon budget under the government’s current target by a factor of 3.5 times by 2020 and by nearly 40 times by 2050, even assuming very optimistic application of carbon capture and storage technologies. The oil sands sector must do its fair share to reach the federal government’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or other sectors of the economy will be asked to shoulder the extra burden.

The report calls for oil sands operations to be subject to a carbon price, which would be applied equally across the economy.

The report stresses how, if the government gives the oil sands soft treatment, everybody else will need to work harder to achieve Canada’s climate targets.

The report does not particularly stress the sheer size of the fossil fuel reserve embedded in the oil sands, which may actually be the biggest problem from a climate change perspective.