More Satellites Than You Can Shake a Stick At

This video is really amazingly inspiring:

Not only does it show more satellites than I’ve ever seen in a single frame of video, but the rocket that took them up was launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation, who managed to launch not only the largest satellite constellation ever, but had room for a few more birds in the launch. It’s an impressive achievement, and it (visually) crystalizes a shift in how we approach space. Also, congratulations to the team at Planet, the ability to image all of Earth’s landmass every day.

Launching a micro satellite into low Earth orbit is now accessible to hobbyists. Many readers of this blog could do it. That’s astounding. Stop and think about that for a moment. Our failure to have exciting follow-on missions after Apollo can obscure the fascinating things which are happening in space, as it gets cheap and almost boring to get to low Earth orbit. The Economist has a good summary. That’s not to say that there aren’t things happening further out. This is the year that contestants in the Google Lunar XPrize competition must launch. Two tourists have paid a deposit to fly around the moon.

But what’s happening close to the planet is where the economic changes will be most visible soon. That’s not to say it’s the only thing to watch, but the same engines will enable more complex and daring missions.

For more on what’s happening in India around space exploration and commercialization, this is a fascinating interview with Susmita Mohanty.

Video link: ISRO PSLV-C37 onboard camera view of 104 satellites deployment

The Dope Cycle and the Two Minutes Hate

[Updated with extra links at the bottom.]

There’s a cycle that happens as you engage on the internet. You post something, and wait, hoping, for the likes, the favorites, the shares, the kind comments to come in. You hit reload incessantly even though the site doesn’t need it, hoping to get that hit that jolt even a little sooner. That dopamine release.

A Vicious cycle of pain, cravings, more drugs, and guilt

Site designers refer to this by benign names, like engagement or gamification and it doesn’t just happen on “social media” sites like Twitter or Instagram. It is fundamental to the structure of LinkedIn, of Medium, StackExchange, of Flickr. We are told how popular are the things we observe, and we are told to want that popularity. Excuse me, I mean that influence. That reach. And that brings me to the point of today’s post: seven tips to increase your social media impactfulness. Just kidding.

Not kidding: even when you know you’re being manipulated into wanting it, you want it. And you are being manipulated, make no mistake. Site designers are working to make your use of their site as pleasurable as possible, as emotionally engaging as possible. They’re caught up in a Red Queen Race, where they must engage faster and faster just to stay in place. And when you’re in such a race, it helps to steal as much as you can from millions of years of evolution. [Edit: I should add that this is not a moral judgement on the companies or the people, but rather an observation on what they must do to survive.] That’s dopamine, that’s adrenaline, that’s every hormone that’s been covered in Popular Psychology. It’s a dope cycle, and you can read that in every sense of the word dope.

This wanting is not innocent or harmless. Outrage, generating a stronger response, wins. Sexy, generating a stronger response, wins. Cuteness, in the forms of awwws, wins. We are awash in messages crafted to generate strong emotion. More, we are awash in messages crafter to generate stronger emotion than the preceding or following message. This is not new. What is new is that the analytic tools available to its creators are so strong that the Red Queen Race is accelerating (by the way, that’s bait for outraged readers to insist I misunderstand the Red Queen Race, generating views for this post). The tools of 20th century outrage are crude and ineffective. Today’s outrage cycle over the House cancelling its cancellation of its ethics office is over, replaced by outrage over … well, it’s not year clear what will replace it, but expect it to be replaced.

When Orwell wrote of the Two Minutes Hate, he wrote:

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

I am reminded of Hoder’s article, “The Web We Have to Save” (4.4K hearts, 165 balloons, and no easy way to see on Medium how many sites link to it). Also of related interest is Good-bye to All That Twitter and “Seattle author Lindy West leaves Twitter, calls it unusable for ‘anyone but trolls, robots and dictators’” but I don’t think Twitter, per se, is the problem. Twitter has a number of aspects which make trolling (especially around gender and race issues, but not limited to them) especially emotionally challenging. Those are likely closely tied to the anticipation of positivity in “mentions”, fulfilled by hate. But the issues are made worse by site design that successfully increases engagement.

I don’t know what to do with this observation. I have tried to reduce use of sites that use the structures of engagement: removing them from my reading in the morning, taking their apps off my phone. But I find myself typing their URLs when I’m task switching. I am reluctant to orient around addiction, as it drags with it a great deal of baggage around free will and ineffective regulation.

But removing myself from Twitter doesn’t really address the problem of the two minutes hate, nor of the red queen race of dope cycles. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what to do about them.


[Update: Related, “Hacking the Attention Economy,” by danah boyd.]

[Update (8 Feb): Hunter Walk writes “Why Many Companies Mistakingly Think Trolls & Harassment Are Good for Business,” and I’d missed Tim Wu writing on “The Attention Merchants.”]

Happy Independence Day!

Since 2005, this blog has had a holiday tradition of posting “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Never in our wildest, most chaotic dreams, did we imagine that the British would one day quote these opening words:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. [Ed: That article is jargon-laden, and interesting if you can wade past it.]

So, while it may be chaotic in the most negative of senses, there’d be some succor should we see a succinct success as England secedes from the United Kingdom. Of course, London, West-Virginia-style, secedes from said secession. Obviously, after this, the United Kingdom of Scotland, Northern Ireland and London should remain a part of the EU, dramatically simplifying the negotiation.

Or, perhaps, in light of the many British who were apparently confused about the idea that Leave meant Leave, or the 2% margin of the vote, it would be reasonable and democratic to hold another election to consider what should happen. A problem with democracy is often that a majority, however slim, votes in a way that impacts the rights of a minority, and, whilst we’re waxing philosophic, we would worry were the rights of that minority so dramatically impacted as the result of a non-binding vote. Perhaps a better structure to reduce chaos in the future is two votes, each tied to some super-majority. A first to negotiate, and a second to approve the result.

It doesn’t seem like so revolutionary an idea.

The Evolution of Secure Things

One of the most interesting security books I’ve read in a while barely mentions computers or security. The book is Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things.

Evolution Of useful Things Book Cover

As the subtitle explains, the book discusses “How Everyday Artifacts – From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers – Came to be as They are.”

The chapter on the fork is a fine example of the construction of the book.. The book traces its evolution from a two-tined tool useful for holding meat as it was cut to the 4 tines we have today. Petroski documents the many variants of forks which were created, and how each was created with reference to the perceived failings of previous designs. The first designs were useful for holding meat as you cut it, before transferring it to your mouth with the knife. Later designs were unable to hold peas, extract an oyster, cut pastry, or meet a variety of other goals that diners had. Those goals acted as evolutionary pressures, and drove innovators to create new forms of the fork.

Not speaking of the fork, but rather of newer devices, Petroski writes:

Why designers do not get things right the first time may be more understandable than excusable. Whether electronics designers pay less attention to how their devices will be operated, or whether their familiarity with the electronic guts of their own little monsters hardens them against these monsters’ facial expressions, there is a consensus among consumers and reflective critics like Donald Norman, who has characterized “usable design” as the “next competitive frontier,” that things seldom live up to their promise. Norman states flatly, “Warning labels and large instruction manuals are signs of failures, attempts to patch up problems that should have been avoided by proper design in the first place.” He is correct, of course, but how is it that designers have, almost to a person, been so myopic?

So what does this have to do with security?

(No, it’s not “stick a fork in it, it’s done fer.”)

Its a matter of the pressures brought to bear on the designs of even what (we now see) as the very simplest technologies. It’s about the constant imperfection of products, and how engineering is a response to perceived imperfections. It’s about the chaotic real world from which progress emerges. In a sense, products are never perfected, but express tradeoffs between many pressures, like manufacturing techniques, available materials, and fashion in both superficial and deep ways.

In security, we ask for perfection against an ill-defined and ever-growing list of hard-to-understand properties, such as “double-free safety.”

Computer security is in a process of moving from expressing “security” to expressing more precise goals, and the evolution of useful tools for finding, naming, and discussing vulnerabilities will help us express what we want in secure software.

The various manifestations of failure, as have been articulated in case studies throughout this book, provide the conceptual underpinning for understanding the evolving form of artifacts and the fabric of technology into which they are inextricably woven. It is clearly the perception of failure in existing technology that drives inventors, designers, and engineers to modify what others may find perfectly adequate, or at least usable. What constitutes failure and what improvement is not totally objective, for in the final analysis a considerable list of criteria, ranging from the functional to the aesthetic, from the economic to the moral, can come into play. Nevertheless, each criterion must be judged in a context of failure, which, though perhaps much easier than success to quantify, will always retain an aspect of subjectivity. The spectrum of subjectivity may appear to narrow to a band of objectivity within the confines of disciplinary discussion, but when a diversity of individuals and groups comes together to discuss criteria of success and failure, consensus can be an elusive state.

Even if you’ve previously read it, re-reading it from a infosec perspective is worthwhile. Highly recommended.

[As I was writing this, Ben Hughes wrote a closely related post on the practical importance of tradeoffs, “A Dockery of a Sham.”]

The Unexpected Meanings of Facebook Privacy Disclaimers

Paul Gowder has an interesting post over at Prawfblog, “In Defense of Facebook Copyright Disclaimer Status Updates (!!!).” He presents the facts:

…People then decide that, hey, goose, gander, if Facebook can unilaterally change the terms of our agreement by presenting new ones where, theoretically, a user might see them, then a user can unilaterally change the terms of our agreement by presenting new ones where, theoretically, some responsible party in Facebook might see them. Accordingly, they post Facebook statuses declaring that they reserve all kinds of rights in the content they post to Facebook, and expressly denying that Facebook acquires any rights to that content by virtue of that posting.

Before commenting on his analysis, which is worth reading in full, there’s an important takeaway, which is that even on Facebook, and even with Facebook’s investment in making their privacy controls more usable, people want more privacy while they’re using Facebook. Is that everyone? No, but it’s enough for the phenomenon of people posting these notices to get noticed.

His analysis instead goes to what we can learn about how people see the law:

To the contrary, I think the Facebook status-updaters reflect both cause for hope and cause for worry about our legal system. The cause for worry is that the system does seem to present itself as magic words. The Facebook status updates, like the protests of the sovereign citizens (but much more mainstream), seem to me to reflect a serious alienation of the public from the law, in which the law isn’t rational, or a reflection of our collective values and ideas about how we ought to treat one another and organize our civic life. Instead, it’s weaponized ritual, a set of pieces of magic paper or bits on a computer screen, administered by a captured priesthood, which the powerful can use to exercise that power over others. With mere words, unhinged from any semblance of autonomy or agreement, Facebook can (the status-updaters perceive) whisk away your property and your private information. This is of a kind with the sort of alienation that I worried about over the last few posts, but in the civil rather than the criminal context: the perception that the law is something done to one, rather than something one does with others as an autonomous agent as well as a democratic citizen. Whether this appears in the form of one-sided boilerplate contracts or petty police harassment, it’s still potentially alienating, and, for that reason, troubling.

This is spot-on. Let me extend it. These “weaponized rituals” are not just at the level of the law. Our institutions are developing anti-bodies to unscripted or difficult to categorize human participation, because engaging with human participation is expensive to deliver and inconvenient to the organization. We see this in the increasingly ritualized engagement with the courts. Despite regular attempts to make courts operate in plain English, it becomes a headline when “Prisoner wins Supreme Court case after submitting handwritten petition.” (Yes, the guy’s apparently otherwise a jerk, serving a life sentence.) Comments to government agencies are now expected to follow a form (and regular commenters learn to follow it, lest their comments engage the organizational anti-bodies on procedural grounds). When John Oliver suggested writing to the FCC, its systems crashed and they had to extend the deadline. Submitting Freedom of Information requests to governments, originally meant to increase transparency and engagement, has become so scripted that there are web sites to track your requests and departmental failures to comply with the statuatory timelines. We have come to accept that our legislators and regulators are looking out for themselves, and no longer ask them to focus on societal good. We are pleasantly surprised when they pay more than lip service to anything beyond their agency’s remit. In such a world, is it any surprise that most people don’t bother to vote?

Such problems are not limited to the law. We no longer talk to the man in the gray flannel suit, we talk to someone reading from a script he wrote. Our interactions with organizations are fenceposted by vague references to “policy.” Telephone script-readers are so irksome to deal with that we all put off making calls, because we know that even asking for a supervisor barely helps. (This underlies why rage-tweeting can actually help cut red tape; it summons a different department to try to work your way through a problem created by intra-organizational shuffling of costs.) Sometimes the references to policy are not vague, but precise, and the precision itself is a cost-shifting ritual. By demanding a form that’s convenient to itself, an organization can simultaneously call for engagement while making that engagement expensive and frustrating. When engaging requires understanding the the system as well as those who are immersed in it, engagement is discouraged. We can see this at Wikipedia, for example, discussed in a blog post like “The Closed, Unfriendly World of Wikipedia.” Wikipedia has evolved a system for managing disputes, and that system is ritualized. Danny Sullivan doesn’t understand why they want him to jump through hoops and express himself in the way that makes it easy for them to process.

Such ritualized forms of engagement display commitment to the organization. This can inform our understanding of how social engineers work. Much of their success at impersonating employees comes from being fluid in the use of a victim’s jargon, and in the 90s, much of what was published in 2600 was lists of Ma Bell’s acronyms or descriptions of operating procedures. People believe that only an employee would bother to learn such things, and so learning such things acts as an authenticator in ways that infuriate technical system designers.

What Gowder calls rituals can also be viewed as protocols (or protocol messages). They are the formalized, algorithm friendly, state-machine altering messages, and thus we’ll see more of them.

Such growth makes systems brittle, as they focus on processing those messages and not others. Brittle systems break in chaotic and often ugly ways.

So let me leave this with a question: how can we design systems which scale without becoming brittle, and also allow for empathy?

The Future Is So Cool

When you were growing up, 2014 was the future. And it’s become cliche to bemoan that we don’t have the flying cars we were promised, but did get early delivery on a dystopian surveillance state.

So living here in the future, I just wanted to point out how cool it is that you can detect extrasolar planets with a home kit.

A camera mounted on a clever set of hinges to track the sky

Read the story at IEEE Spectrum: DIY Exoplanet Detector.

L'Academie Gawker

Via Poynter, we learn that the word “massive” has been banned on Gawker.

We want to sound like regular adult human beings, not Buzzfeed writers or Reddit commenters,” new Gawker Editor Max Read says in a memo to the publication’s writers. Words like “epic,” “pwn” and “derp” are no longer welcome on the site. Read also says the word “massive” is “never to appear on the website Gawker dot com.”

The desire to sound like regular human beings is admirable, and Mr. Read is correct when he says that jokes made using strikethrough are generally not worth saving.

However, he seems to fall into a trap of believing that there is an hierarchy of language goodness which is removed from our social hierarchies. We’re not the French, with L’Acadamie française to define correct language, and to be ignored by Le Frenchmen dans on le weekends.

The observable reality is that language evolves as a result of a variety of pressures or opportunities. That is, language is emergent, not decreed. There is no authority who gets to declare what words a community uses (outside of NewSpeak, and even in Orwell’s world, normal people don’t use NewSpeak daily, because the words decreed by Big Brother didn’t serve their needs. Real language is inevitably chaotic and messy.

This is a massive pile of derp, and an epic mistake on Gawker’s part.

[Updated to add a strikethrough joke.]

3D-printed guns and the crypto wars

So there’s a working set of plans for the “Liberator.” It’s a working firearm you can print on a 3d printer. You can no longer get the files from the authors, whose site states: “DEFCAD files are being removed from public access at the request of the US Department of Defense Trade Controls.
Until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information.” Cue Streisand Effect.

My understanding is that the censorship order was issued under the ITARs, the “International Traffic in Arms Regulations.” Cory Doctorow has said “Impact litigation — where good precedents overturn bad rules — is greatly assisted by good facts and good defendants. I would much rather the Internet-as-library question be ruled on in a less emotionally overheated realm than DIY guns.” I think that’s reasonable, but recall that Shaw claimed that all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Doctorow also refers to Bernstein, who did good work, but his lawsuit was the last nail in ITARs applying to crypto, not the first. (ITARs still do apply to crypto, but in ways that allow both open source and commercial software to ship strong crypto, which wasn’t the case in the 90s.) Me, I see lots of evidence that gun control doesn’t work any better than alcohol control or marijuana control. And I think that the regulatory response by the DoD is silly. (One can argue that the law gives them no choice, but I don’t believe that to be the case.)

So the right step was demonstrated for crypto nearly 20 years ago by Phil Karn. He filed a pair of “Commodity Jurisdiction Requests.” One for Applied Cryptography, a book, and one for a floppy disk containing the source code.

The State Department ruled that even though the book itself is “in the public domain” and hence outside their jurisdiction, a floppy disk containing the exact same source code as printed in the book is a “munition” requiring a license to export. It’s old news that the US Government believes only Americans (and maybe a few Canadians) can write C code, but now they have apparently decided that foreigners can’t type either!

In the past three years I have taken my case to all three branches of the federal government. Here is the full case history in the Executive and Judicial branches, including all my correspondence with the US State Department, the Bureau of Export Administration (BXA) in the Commerce Department, the US District Court for the District of Columbia, and the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

I believe the analogy is obvious. The DefCad files are 2mb zipped, and the STL files can be opened with a variety of software. Unfortunately, STL looks to be a binary format, and it’s not clear to me after a few minutes of searching if there’s a trivially printed text format. But that’s a very low hurdle.

As Doctorow implied, reasonableness on all sides would be nice to have. But at home printing isn’t going to go away, and censorship orders are not a productive step forward.

[Previously here: “What Should a Printer Print?“]

Gamifying Driving

P90115441 highRes 640x419

…the new points system rates the driver’s ability to pilot the MINI with a sporty yet steady hand. Praise is given to particularly sprightly sprints, precise gear changes, controlled braking, smooth cornering and U-turns executed at well-judged speeds. For example, the system awards maximum Experience Points for upshifts carried out within the ideal rev range and in less than 1.2 seconds. Super-slick gear changes prompt a “Perfect change up” message on the on-board monitor, while a “Breathtaking U-turn” and a masterful touch with the anchors (“Well-balanced braking”) are similarly recognised with top marks and positive, MINI-style feedback.

For more, see “MINI Connected Adds Driving Excitement Analyser.”

Now, driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do on a regular basis. Most Americans don’t get any supplemental driving instruction after they turn 17. So maybe there’s actually something to be said for a system that incents people to drive better.

I can’t see any possible issues with a game pushing people towards things that are undesirable in the real world. I mean, I’m sure that before suggesting a U-turn, the game will use the car’s adaptive cruise control radar to see what’s around, even if the car doesn’t have one.