Benjamin Esham

The complex dynamics of wishful thinking →

Marcial Losada wrote three journal articles—in 1999, 2004, and 2005—which seem like they should have revolutionized the fields of psychology and sociology. In the first paper he demonstrated how the Lorenz equations (which describe the behavior of fluids) can also describe human emotions, with the spatial dimensions x, y, and z replaced with “inquiry–advocacy”, “other–self”, and “emotional space”. Of course, people who know how math works have alarm bells going off in their heads right about now, and correctly so, according to this paper:

We shall demonstrate that each one of the three articles is completely vitiated by fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors, and above all by the total absence of any justification for the applicability of the Lorenz equations to modeling the time evolution of human emotions. (Furthermore, although the second and third articles rely entirely for their validity on the presumed correctness of their predecessors—which, as we shall demonstrate, is totally lacking—we nevertheless invite the reader, at each stage, to assume for the sake of argument the correctness of the preceding article(s); in this way we are able to explain more clearly the independent flaws of each of the three subject articles.)

The article, which was published in American Psychologist in December, is well worth the short read. The authors exercise the utmost professionalism as they calmly kick the shit out of this pseudoscientific blather.

The real danger of losing net neutrality →

The United States Court of Appeals recently decided against the FCC in a case about net neutrality. (Nilay Patel of The Verge wrote a good introduction to the issue and summary of how we got here.) Reading through the article, it sounded like internet access was going to get worse before it got better. But I wasn’t truly alarmed until I read this article from Matt Drance:

The privacy implications are just as chilling. A discriminatory model bakes surveillance into the way ISPs do business. Sure, your provider can snoop on your traffic right now, but nothing in the fundamental concept of delivery requires or justifies that they do. With this environment in place, the implications for privacy and anonymity tools like Tor should be obvious: they would be banned in the provider’s terms of service (how else can they know how much to charge and what to block?) and lobbyists would waste no time making them illegal.

If we had all been honest with ourselves—and by “we” I mean the FCC—the internet providers would be regarded as dumb pipes; commodities on the same level as the electrical companies. Since that wasn’t politically feasible, though, we now have to worry about the loss of online anonymity at a time when that prospect has never been more chilling.

The death of expertise →

Tom Nichols:

[Democracy] means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.” And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense.

One of the values I try to live up to is that there’s no shame in saying, “Uh, actually I don’t know enough about that to have an opinion”.

“A principled stand against Mountain View” →

According to Kwame Opam at The Verge, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of global marketing, has taken “a principled stand against Mountain View” (and it “isn’t the first time Schiller has taken a hard line against Google”). Wow—what extreme action has Apple taken now?

9to5Mac reports that Schiller has opted to unfollow both [Nest] and Nest CEO Tony Fadell on Twitter.

This is middle-school drama wrapped in hyperbole. Why would The Verge think this is worth reporting?

Why I don’t stream my music →

Nick Heer, writing in January:

Spotify and Rdio probably work really well for people who see music as a transient background interest. But I’m difficult and picky, and music is extremely important to me.

This is a good summary of why you might want to keep a local library of music. I’ll add one more reason: historical metadata. I’ve been using iTunes for twelve years and I’ve accumulated twelve years’ worth of information on when songs were added and how many times they’ve been played. (My total play count is just over 133,000 right now.) I love being able to ask, “What was I listening to in the summer of 2009?” and getting an answer just by sorting by “Date Added”. Khoi Vinh believes that streaming services should be able to do even cooler things with metadata, but right now iTunes is the clear winner at furnishing that kind of information.1

  1. It’s great that I can export this information from iTunes, but will I ever be able to import it into another application? Apple has made some questionable interface decisions with iTunes, but they’ve never been problematic enough for me to leave my metadata and jump ship. I’m resigned to the fact that if I ever leave iTunes I’ll probably have to leave my history with it.

“I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.” →

The Washington Post has a long interview with Edward Snowden and a discussion of the effects of his disclosures. It’s a shame that Snowden grants so few interviews, because he’s thoughtful and articulate:

“Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions” in committee hearings, he said. “Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden.⁠… The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.”

“It wasn’t that they put it on me as an individual—that I’m uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens—as that they put it on someone, somewhere,” he said. “You have the capability, and you realize every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don’t do it. So somebody has to be the first.”

The period has become a sign of anger →

Ben Crair in The New Republic:

In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive. “Not long ago, my 17-year-old son noted that many of my texts to him seemed excessively assertive or even harsh, because I routinely used a period at the end,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me by email.

How science education changes your drawing style →

Elizabeth Preston summarizes a paper in Science Education:

Researchers at King’s College London gave a simple task to 232 people: “Draw a neuron.” […] Some of the subjects were undergraduates in a neurobiology lecture. A small group were experienced neuroscientists who led their own research labs at the college. And a third, in-between group included graduate students and postdocs.

The researchers saw marked differences in how the three groups drew their brain cells. To confirm what they saw, they also pooled the drawings together and asked a new batch of subjects to sort the drawings into categories. These subjects agreed: the drawings clustered into distinct styles.

Being comfortable with a scientific concept means being comfortable eliding the details unless and until they’re actually necessary.

If one CPU cycle took one second… →

In Systems Performance: Enterprise and the Cloud, Brendan Gregg shows how long it would take a computer to perform various tasks if each CPU cycle—typically about 0.3 nanoseconds—took an entire second. Suddenly it becomes clear that all of these processes, usually “too fast to notice”, actually span eleven orders of magnitude in time. (The difference between accessing data from RAM and from disk, even a solid-state one, is amazing.)

(Via Ryan Zezeski.)

Why array indices start at zero →

Mike Hoye:

So: the technical reason we start counting arrays at zero is that in the mid-1960’s, you could shave a few cycles off of a program’s compilation time on an IBM 7094. The social reason is that we had to save every cycle we could, because if the job didn’t finish fast it might not finish at all and you never know when you’re getting bumped off the hardware because the President of IBM just called and fuck your thesis, it’s yacht-racing time.

(Via Michael Tsai.)

Tap Tap Tap doubles down

Tap Tap Tap, the makers of Camera+ for iOS, got some heat a couple of weeks ago for Camera+ 4.2’s release notes:

[Those changes were] enough to justify calling it version 4.1. And then we thought about jumping on the bandwagon where we put Camera+ out as a whole new app and let existing customers pay for it all over again. And of course there’d be the ensuing sh__storm where those customers felt cheated and we’d have to backpedal and reverse that shortsighted decision.

So it was Clear that that would’ve been a knuckleheaded move so instead, we decided to treat our lovely customers fairly and make Camera+ 4.1 a free update as we’ve always done. But then we felt like it was all give and no take… so to make us feel better about giving-in too easily, we chose to call it version 4.2. That’ll teach you to mess with us.

This is a dig at Realmac Software, which in September released the new version of Clear as a separate app, meaning that existing users had to pay for the new version. After some users raised a stink Realmac backpedaled by backporting many of the changes into the existing Clear app (while releasing the rest as a new app called Clear+).

When I first saw the Camera+ 4.2 release notes I assumed that the person responsible for PR had just had a little too much snark with their coffee that morning. But today they doubled down in their release notes for version 4.2.1:

So the jury’s out… based on all the feedback from our last update, you nice guys & gals made it loud and clear that you really appreciate that we continuously update Camera+ AND that we don’t try to nickel-and-dime you in the process. There’ve been the cries of, “devs gotta eat!” by a small handful, but we’re more of the mindset that some devs can stand to shed a few pounds (we’re no stranger to the allure of the Baconator ourselves, so we can empathize).

In that blog post, John Casasanta includes “a little qualification”, which reads in part,

If we, or any other developers aren’t able to make ends meet through selling our apps, the solution is neither to blame nor to screw over your customers. It’s more along the lines of: get better at what you do… or find some other work that better suits you.

Being able to get out of bed at noontime and work out of your home in your fluffy bunny slippers is a privilege, not a right. And you need to earn that privilege. A lot of developers seem to have lost that perspective these days and sound far more entitled than the people who support them by buying their apps that they accuse of being entitled.

As a developer myself—albeit not one who receives income from the App Store—this attitude rankles coming from another developer. Casasanta implies that he doesn’t need Camera+ in order to put food on his table—great; that’s the dream—but I’m baffled why he’s so dismissive of the many others for whom that isn’t the case.

There’s been plenty said about the price dynamics of the App Store, and specifically about how paid-up-front apps seem to be becoming a harder sell. But far from trying to add nuance to this conversation, Casasanta seems to be deriding any pricing model other than selling an app for money up front. That model is great if users will go for it, but that’s happening less and less frequently these days. It’s not “entitlement” when developers try to explore different business models in an effort to stay afloat in a rapidly-changing market.

(There is also an important meta point to be made here. Tap Tap Tap seems slightly less jackassy when you read Casasanta’s qualification, but most users won’t. It was only while doing research for this essay that I discovered that Tap Tap Tap1 even published this kind of commentary. Release notes are the only standardized way for companies to communicate with their users after they’ve bought an app; I don’t understand why Tap Tap Tap would pour all of this arrogance into their release notes, only bothering to qualify their views in a separate venue that most of their users won’t ever visit.)

  1. “Tap Tap Tap” becomes more aesthetically offensive every time I type it.

“The end of antibiotics, period” →

Arjun Srinivasan of the CDC:

We are quickly running out of therapies to treat some of these infections that previously had been eminently treatable. There are bacteria that we encounter, particularly in health-care settings, that are resistant to nearly all—or, in some cases, all—the antibiotics that we have available to us, and we are thus entering an era that people have talked about for a long time.

For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about “The end of antibiotics, question mark?” Well, now I would say you can change the title to “The end of antibiotics, period.”

Well… shit.

(Via Jason Kottke.)

Google Street View takes you inside the LHC tunnel →

This is pretty cool.

Why you should passcode-protect your iPhone

Apple’s introduction of a fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S has made a lot of people reconsider whether they should be locking their iPhones or iPod touches with a passcode. For those who bought the 5S, turning Touch ID on has been a pretty easy decision: it works well enough that it’s not a hassle even for people who had never before passcode-protected their phones.1 Regardless of whether you have Touch ID, though, should you be locking your phone so that some random person who picks it up can’t use it? I say yes.

Let’s consider what could happen if someone swiped your phone and you hadn’t set it to require a passcode (or a fingerprint). The most likely outcome is that your drinking buddies just try to embarrass you on Twitter.

Another possibility is that for whatever reason, the person who steals your phone is targeting you personally and wants to screw your stuff up. (Unlikely, sure, but it does happen.) If they have unfettered access to your phone what can they do? Well, they also have unfettered access to your e-mail. There may or may not be sensitive messages in your mailbox,2 but the real problem is the password reset process. If you have access to someone’s e-mail, you can use websites’ password-reset facilities to gain access to their accounts and lock them out.

Maybe you’re clever and techy and you have two-factor authentication enabled on some of your accounts, but what’s the second factor (the “something you have”)? It’s probably your phone, right? Whether you receive the code as a text message or through an app like Google Authenticator or Authy, someone with access to your phone is going to breeze through the most common form of two-factor authentication. (It’s possible to set a passcode in Authy even if you don’t require a passcode to unlock your phone, although your non-two-factor accounts would still be vulnerable.)

There are a couple of caveats here. Some people don’t have their e-mail set up on their phones at all, in which case nothing I said above applies. There are also people who have their main e-mail account set up on their phone but who use a different one for password resets; that setup would mostly take care of this issue.

If you were to lose your iPhone you could remotely lock and wipe it, and if you were able to do it quickly enough the thief wouldn’t have time to mess anything up. (On the other hand, they might manage to use the same facility to erase your Mac before you get the chance to erase your phone. That’s what happened to Mat Honan.) I view locking my phone as a form of insurance: it’s a small annoyance each time I turn my phone on, but if my phone is ever stolen the annoyance will have been worth it.3

  1. Of course there are caveats to Touch ID. It frequently takes me two or three tries to unlock my phone. It’s not too hard to make a fake finger if you have someone’s phone and their fingerprint, so if you’re already using a long password on your phone you probably won’t be gaining security by switching to Touch ID. And some people are worried that the switch from a passcode to a biometric token may present fifth-amendment issues.

  2. To paraphrase xkcd, some of my e-mails are encrypted, but all of those are just discussions about e-mail encryption.

  3. At 54 minutes into episode 32 of Accidental Tech Podcast, John Siracusa said, “I never understood the people who did passcodes while they were in their house. It’s kind of like going room to room in your own house and each time you go from room to room you lock the door with a key behind you.” I get that, but the alternative would be to remember to enable the passcode each time you leave the house (and disable it each time you return). That’s a more involved process and you’re liable to forget to do it. For me, just entering the passcode every time is preferable.

The two basic facts that should be in every shutdown story →

James Fallows in The Atlantic:

  1. If the House of Representatives voted on a “clean” budget bill—one that opened up the closed federal offices but did not attempt to defund the Obama health care program—that bill would pass, and the shutdown would be over. Nearly all Democrats would vote for it, as would enough Republicans to end the shutdown and its related damage. (And of course it has already passed the Senate, repeatedly, and would be signed by the president.) […]

  2. So far House Speaker John Boehner has refused to let this vote occur. His Tea Party contingent knows how the vote would go and therefore does not want it to happen; and such is Boehner’s fear of them, and fear for his job as Speaker, that he will not let it take place.

Shame on John Boehner for bowing to these extremists. Shame on the Tea Party for acting like children. And shame on all of us for putting them into office in the first place. We need to reform our parliamentary procedures as soon as possible so that this kind of obstinacy cannot bring the entire federal government to a halt.

Life behind the Genius Bar →

In McSweeney’s, an anonymous employee recounts some of the tribulations and joys of working in the Apple Store.

This is the dilemma of working for a technology company that is also perceived as a luxury brand: We attract clients who understand that we provide the latest and shiniest things that they must have, while at the same time they have no idea whatsoever how to use them.

Why Generation Y yuppies are unhappy →

I don’t know who writes “wait but why”, but they’re spot-on with this:

With a smoother, more positive life experience than that of their own parents, Lucy’s parents raised Lucy with a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility. And they weren’t alone. Baby Boomers all around the country and world told their Gen Y kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be, instilling the special protagonist identity deep within their psyches.

This rings true, even the uncomfortable parts. It’s harsh, but more in a tough-love way than a judgmental way. Well worth the quick read.

The NSA can defeat much of the encryption used on the internet →

Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson, and Scott Shane of the New York Times report:

The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world, the documents show. […]

The agency treats its recent successes in deciphering protected information as among its most closely guarded secrets, restricted to those cleared for a highly classified program code-named Bullrun, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor.

The Times isn’t reporting specifically which algorithms have been broken or are susceptible—to do so would immediately drive people away from those algorithms. They only mention SSL, VPNs, and the encryption used on 4G cellular networks.

Bruce Schneier has written a manifesto urging engineers to rebuild the internet to make it harder for governments to spy. He’s also written about what you can do to stay safe in the face of pervasive government spying.

Just how repetitive is “Get Lucky”?

I recently read this article by Will Kurt in which he generates diagrams to show how closely related the lines of a poem are to each other.1 The diagrams look something like this:

Visualization of the repetition in Bright Eyes’s “At the Bottom of Everything”

Each square shows the relation between a pair of lines: a brightly-colored square represents two lines that have a lot of words in common, while a dim square represents lines with few or no words in common. The square in the first row and second column shows the relationship between the first and second lines; the square in the fourth row and seventh column shows the relationship between the fourth and seventh lines, and so on. The diagonal is so bright because each line is identical to itself.

I thought this was a neat way to visualize a poem, and when I heard Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” I had to create my own visualization. “Get Lucky” consists almost entirely of repeated hooks and I thought it would fun to illustrate that. Along the way I’ll make Kurt’s process more explicit and rigorous. This article will be accessible to anyone who’s taken first-semester linear algebra.

  1. The author was also active in the Reddit discussion about his article.

Continue reading…

We should all have something to hide →

Moxie Marlinspike argues that social progress requires people to bend the existing rules, and that that isn’t possible in a state that knows everything about you:

If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.