If there is a point in a task when an interruption will result in disaster, assume that you will be interrupted at that point

Suppose a man hasn’t shaved in a very long time.  He decides to get rid of his facial hair, so he digs out his old electric shaver.  This is the only shaving tool he has, and it is not in good shape.  Still, it starts when he plugs it in.

So he goes to work.  Even though the shaver is clearly damaged and his whiskers are very long, it’s getting the job done.  He shaves his face first.  Then he shaves the top of his neck.  Then he shaves a path down the middle of his throat.  Then it breaks.  There’s no fixing it, and there’s no one else in the house he can ask to go buy him a replacement.

He goers to the store himself.  In the olden days, this would have been a potential embarrassment, if by some chance he had seen someone he knew.  Still, it would have been between him and that person.  The most the person could have done to make it worse was to describe it to other people, and the description would be less likely to call a visual image to mind than to raise the question of what happened.  The answer to that question would dissipate the embarrassment pretty quickly.

That was in the olden days.  Now people carry camera phones and post to social media.  So, our guy could end up like this:

I don’t know who this guy is, and have no idea how he came to look like that.  But the story above is the only explanation I can think of that doesn’t involve a lifestyle commitment to Seussical the Musical.  And it makes me glad that I shave my neck first.  Indeed, I sometimes think of the adage “If there is a point in a task when interruption will result in disaster, assume that you will be interrupted at that point” as Neckbeard’s Law.

I’ve searched for this adage online, but have so far found nothing.  There are a number of books with “Murphy’s Law” in their titles; perhaps one of those books would have a form of it.  And I find that there is a field called “Interruption Science” which consists entirely of studies about what happens when people are interrupted during tasks.  So if I wanted to christen it “Acilius’ Law” and gain worldwide fame, I’d start by looking in journals that publish research in Interruption Science and, if I couldn’t find any article there in which the adage was already named for someone else, proceed on to those Murphy’s Law collections.

The Internet: Bureaucracy or Fiefdom?

From the Bayeux Tapestry

Bruce Schneier declares:

It’s a feudal world out there.
Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them — or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.

The whole piece is worth reading.  For my part, I’ve often wondered if the Internet doesn’t fit Max Weber’s conception of a bureaucracy.  Weber described six major characteristics of bureaucracy (here‘s a handy summary of his views.)  First and most familiar in the popular use of the word, a bureaucracy has a formal hierarchical structure.  While there is no group of people who are the president and board of directors of the Internet, the machines that make up the Internet do in fact relate to each other according

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

to set routines.  Weber described bureaucracies staffed by human officials, but parts of his description still apply where, as in the functioning of the Internet, the officials are replaced by machines.

The second characteristic of bureaucracy in Weber’s description is a set of rules that consistently transform particular decisions made in one part of the structure into particular actions taken in other parts of the structure.  In this regard every bureaucracy aspires to the condition of a machine; as a bureaucracy composed of machines, the Internet would in a sense represent the ultimate bureaucracy. Along with these rules comes a heavy emphasis on written documents and permanent records, to ensure that decisions are communicated from one part of the structure to another accurately and that they are converted into action appropriately.  Here again, the Internet’s tendency to preserve data makes it the ideal form of bureaucracy.

Third, Weber says that bureaucracies are organized by functional specialty.   Here we see two levels of organization taking place independently of each other.  Of course, the machines are sorted together by their functions.  At the same time, the people who use the Internet develop specializations in their ways of relating to it.  Those who resist specialization remain on the fringes of the Internet.  So, a general-interest blog like this one toddles along for years with a handful of readers; start a tumblr site devoted entirely to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes, and you might  draw a thousand followers in a week.  Through them, you can learn more about your topic than you had imagined possible.  Because of the efficiency that results from the Internet’s specialization and consistency, users have strong incentives to specialize their own use of the system and to respect its rules.  Thus, the Internet’s human users behave as they would if they were clients of a bureaucracy staffed by human officials.

Fourth, Weber’s bureaucracies have missions.  These missions are not simply tasks for which groups might be established ad hoc, but are the overarching goals that justify the organization’s continued existence.  Because so many people have stakes in the continued existence of large bureaucracies, their missions tend to become rather broad and ill-focused over time; the last thing anyone wants is for the bureaucracy that provides his or her livelihood to have completed its mission.  A phrase like “the distribution of information,” precisely because it is so vague, is therefore a perfectly apt mission statement for a major bureaucracy.

Fifth, bureaucracies are impersonal structures, in which the relationship of one person to another is restricted to the roles that those people are playing.  So, if Alice is a sales agent for her company and Bob is a purchasing agent for his, their business discussions are between vendor and client, not between Alice and Bob.  When Internet cafes first appeared, nearly twenty years ago, a huge percentage of them had Peter Steiner’s cartoon from 5 July 1993 The New Yorker taped to the wall:

https://i1.wp.com/www.ricklatona.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/picresized_1229584137_youreadog1.gif

Now we’re living in the age of Facebook, and on the Internet everyone knows that you’re a dog, what you had for breakfast, where you like to do your business, etc.  Still, there is an element of impersonality built into online interactions.  So online political discussions, even on Facebook itself, quickly become interactions between supporter of Party X and supporter of Party Y, even when those supporters are close friends in other settings.  Obviously people can turn each other into symbols of opinions they dislike in any social environment, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that online discussions are particularly prone to this sort of reduction.  Moreover, the most pleasant online relationships tend to be the simplest, those in which participants change their personas least often.  If Alice and Bob meet at a site devoted to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes and interact simply as devotees of those recipes, I suspect they are likelier to look forward to hearing from each other than they will be if they start talking about other topics and expecting other kinds of emotional and intellectual support from each other.  Offline, I would think it would be the opposite, that people who discuss only one topic and present themselves to each other in only one way are unlikely to become close.  I’d be interested to see studies on this hypotheses, a quick Google Scholar search hasn’t shown me any but if you know of such, please enlighten me.

Sixth, employment in a bureaucracy is based on technical qualifications.  Civil service exams, educational requirements, efficiency ratings, and other devices for measuring competence are not necessary if the best person for the job is the person who has inherited it as a matter of right.  They are necessary if the best person is the ablest.  Of course, every human bureaucracy exists within a society where there are laws, institutions, and ethical ideas that predate the rise of bureaucracy and survive independently of it.  So one does not expect a certifying authority to require the person who owns a business to prove that s/he is the ablest person to oversee its operations.  Nor does one expect anyone to require potential parents to demonstrate any particular abilities in order to earn a license authorizing them to produce children, or to raise the children they have produced.  If all social life were subject to the demands of a single bureaucracy, we would expect to see such requirements.  Indeed, as bureaucratization proceeds apace, we see ever more footprints of bureaucracy in areas which were once matters of right.  In many parts of the USA, for example, voters are routinely required to produce identification before they are allowed to take ballots, even though there is no evidence that anyone has ever impersonated a voter, and absolutely no way to affect the outcome of an election by impersonating voters.  These laws are accepted, not because they serve any legitimate purpose, but simply because it seems natural to the residents of a social world dominated by bureaucracy to be called on to produce one’s papers.

As for the Internet, there are technical specifications devices must meet in order to be connected.  This automated bureaucracy rarely sorts its human users by technical qualifications, though they do sort themselves in much the way that the clients of bureaucracies staffed by humans sort themselves.  And, as they do when interacting with bureaucracies staffed by humans, Internet users do tend to see themselves as clients receiving services rather than as citizens asserting their rights.  Zach Weiner expressed that point very effectively in February, with his now-classic cartoon about the so-called “Stop Online Piracy Act” that was then before the US Congress:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

So you can see why I have thought it made sense to look at the Internet as a bureaucracy in Max Weber’s sense.  Perhaps, though, it makes more sense to follow Mr Schneier and look at it as a feudal realm.  While every element of a bureaucracy is, at least in theory, accountable to some overall authority that regulates that bureaucracy, the elements to which we trust our online security are accountable to no one.  As Mr Schneier writes:

In this new world of computing, we give up a certain amount of control, and in exchange we trust that our lords will both treat us well and protect us from harm. Not only will our software be continually updated with the newest and coolest functionality, but we trust it will happen without our being overtaxed by fees and required upgrades. We trust that our data and devices won’t be exposed to hackers, criminals, and malware. We trust that governments won’t be allowed to illegally spy on us.

Trust is our only option. In this system, we have no control over the security provided by our feudal lords. We don’t know what sort of security methods they’re using, or how they’re configured. We mostly can’t install our own security products on iPhones or Android phones; we certainly can’t install them on Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter. Sometimes we have control over whether or not to accept the automatically flagged updates — iPhone, for example — but we rarely know what they’re about or whether they’ll break anything else. (On the Kindle, we don’t even have that freedom.)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’m not saying that feudal security is all bad. For the average user, giving up control is largely a good thing. These software vendors and cloud providers do a lot better job of security than the average computer user would. Automatic cloud backup saves a lot of data; automatic updates prevent a lot of malware. The network security at any of these providers is better than that of most home users.

Feudalism is good for the individual, for small startups, and for medium-sized businesses that can’t afford to hire their own in-house or specialized expertise. Being a vassal has its advantages, after all.

For large organizations, however, it’s more of a mixed bag. These organizations are used to trusting other companies with critical corporate functions: They’ve been outsourcing their payroll, tax preparation, and legal services for decades. But IT regulations often require audits. Our lords don’t allow vassals to audit them, even if those vassals are themselves large and powerful.

In some of my darker moments, I’ve wondered if the USA is undergoing a revival of feudalism.  Mr Schneier makes a strong case that it is, at least in this area.

Random words

The other day, Bruce Schneier posted a note about “Recent Developments in Password Cracking.”  At the end, he mentioned: “Finally, there are two basic schemes for choosing secure passwords: the Schneier scheme and the XKCD scheme.”  The xkcd scheme, as some of you will recall, is laid out in this cartoon:

Much of the discussion on Bruce Schneier’s blog has included expressions of doubt that many users of the xkcd scheme are actually choosing the words randomly.

I use the xkcd scheme sometimes.  Here’s how I try to ensure that I’m picking the words randomly.  I have a telephone directory; fortunately, they still print those where I live.  I go to Wordcount.org, a site which indexes the 86,800 most common words in the British National Corpus in numerical order by frequency.  I close my eyes, open the telephone directory, and put my finger down on the page.  I open my eyes and see the last four digits of the number nearest my finger.  I put that number into Wordcount’s “by rank” search box and find the corresponding word.  I repeat the process to come up with four random words.

So, for example, the number sequence 6841, 1131, 4508, 1967, yields this word sequence in Wordcount:

hatred interested lecture beneath

Say the word “hatred” makes me uncomfortable.  Sometimes you will come up with a word you dislike, such as a curse word or an ethnic slur, or with a word that is too long, or one that is difficult to remember.  Well, there are more numbers on the telephone directory; repeating the process, I come up with 4300.  The 4300th most common word in the British National Corpus is “bench.”  So, the password can be either:

bench interested lecture beneath

or

interested lecture beneath bench

My usual practice when one of the first four words is problematic in some way is to put its replacement at the end, but since “interested lecture beneath bench” sounds like a series of words that might possibly appear in some bit of writing somewhere, I would choose “benchinterestedlecturebeneath.”

There are other ways to have fun with Wordcount.org.  You can look for little bits of unintended poetry in the sequencing.  One of my favorites is the sequence of words from #5595 to #5598, “touching shallow charming fuck.”  That tells the whole story of a bittersweet romance.  Or #44631 to #44634, “uneaten reticulum, oxidative fungicide.”  I can’t say that sounds like an appealing meal. Or #5844 to #5848, “publish solar petitions hurried Gabriel.”  Or #50 through #56, “so no said who more about up.”  Punctuate it as “‘So, no,’ said who?  More about up!”  A familiar story is told succinctly from #85 to #88: “See first!  Well, after.”  Punctuation can make a great deal of #100 through #164: “Got much?  Think, work- between go years; er- many, being those before right, because through- yeah?  Good- three make us such.  Still, year must last, even take own, too.  Off here come both- does say ‘Oh, used, going “‘Erm- use government day, man!'”  Might same, under ‘yes,’ however, put world another want?  Thought, while life again, against Never, need old look home.  Something, Mr Long.”  I grant you, it doesn’t make sense, but it keeps sounding like it is about to mean something.  And several of the sub-sequences in there sound so good that it really is a shame they are gibberish.

A weird spam comment

Here’s the text of a comment that our spam filter caught last night:

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It had been a while since I visited website with such quality information. Thansk quite a bit for the helpful information
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Mind you, this is a single comment.  There was only one link in it, at the beginning of the comment.  My guess is that it was supposed to be 22 separate comments.  I don’t know anything about how spammers operate, so I don’t know what kind of mistake would generate such a result.

Punchline search

I started using the web back in the mid-90s, when the top search engine was Yahoo.  I loved its “ontology,” the categories and subcategories into which it divided sites.  I would sometimes click on a heading for a topic I didn’t know much about, then on a subheading that I knew even less about, and end up with links to a dizzying array of sub-sub-sub-categories I would never have dreamed existed.  It was great fun.  Long before the success of Google’s radically simple format forced Yahoo to scrap its ontology, however, I had tired of that little game, and simply typed text into the search window.  So the switch to Google was seamless for me.

I’ve been wondering if people would use Google differently today, and if the web would therefore be structured differently, if the first generation of Google users had not included such a high percentage of people whose first experience of search engines had involved a lot of time monkeying around in the labyrinth of Yahoo’ old ontology.  For people like me, the search window was a straightforward place for relatively serious business; the ontology was for goofing off.  So when Google came along, we may have used it as a tool to find fun things, but we didn’t see it as a toy in itself, not at first.

The other day I passed a few idle minutes on Google typing in punchlines, looking for the jokes that went with them.  I was surprised at how little I found.  After a moment of thought, I was surprised that I didn’t run a series of searches like that the first day I used Google.  Without the experience of the old Yahoo, I suspect I probably would have done so, and that a great many other people would have done so as well.  That initial burst of inquiries might have led to the creation of any number of sites matching jokes with punchlines.  Such sites might have become one of the major components of the web, up there with blogs devoted to people telling stories about their cats and conspiracy theories that begin in the 1960s and experiments with Photoshop.

Mercator Rotator

Usually when we think of the Mercator Projection, we think of this map with the geographic North Pole at the top, Antarctica at the bottom, and the relative size of the Northern Hemisphere severely exaggerated:

Months ago, this picture appeared on a site called Apathy Sketchpad:

The map is also the Mercator Projection.  Mercator’s contribution was not in putting north at the top, but in developing a particular mathematical formula for representing the planet’s roundish surface on a flat map.  As the author of Apathy Sketchpad puts it, “the Mercator projection doesn’t need to make Africa small and Greenland big. It can do anything you want it to.”  Producing a map with Africa at the top, he explains:

In principle a Mercator projection can be continued infinitely in the vertical direction, and in this case the ‘north’ pole is in Africa, so the map would be Africa all the way up. The level of detail would, source image notwithstanding, get bigger and bigger until eventually sub-atomic particles started to appear. Theoretically, you could exploit this to produce a map where Britain opened out as Africa has at the top, and extend the map up to include a road map of England, including  a large-scale street map of Manchester, eventually opening out to provide a floor-plan of one particular building, then room, and eventually the layout of one table. This, however, seems like it would be very difficult so I haven’t bothered.

In the comments on this post, I remarked that I’d long thought someone should create a flash app called “Mercator Rotator” which would enable a user to put “north” wherever s/he liked and see the resulting Mercator map of the earth.  I have no intention to produce such an application myself, but if you, the reader, have the requisite computer savvy and some time on your hands, I recommend that you do so and let us know about it in the comments.

Really basic web defense

Yes, your browser is under attack and dark forces want to know which sites you visit and what you click.

One thing going on is user tracking via cookies – bits of identifying stuff left on your computer as you browse. There’s no keeping up with all the various schemes used by major sites like Google, Yahoo, and others, but suffice to say they and other third party providers to web sites are doing their best to follow your web activity and then “customize” your view of the web. Some of this works when you’re logged in to sites like Facebook, My Yahoo, etc., but some also works just by the basic actions of loading pages and images. Almost all of it is hidden from casual users. It may not bother you, and you may be content to allow marketers to guide you to products and services they hope you’ll like. On the other hand…

To resist this to some degree, in rough order of increasing effort and increasing inconvenience:

DO NOT CLICK ON WHAT YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND

The first, most vital rule. Delete all email or classify it as “spam” unless you are positive of its provenance. What’s the worst that could happen? You might delete a bill notification or a personal note. Usually those things have a way of working themselves out – clicking on a faux “Free $1,000,000 Watch If you Click the Hamster’s Cute Nose” inducement is guaranteed to lead only to tears.

DO NOT GO TO UNKNOWN SITES

Harsh, a restatement of the most vital rule, and not much fun, but isn’t a quick Google of a site’s domain name or vetting with a friend better than leaping into a boiling cauldron of corruption?

IE, NOT

  • Don’t use Internet Explorer. Just don’t. Sorry, if you like it. It’s worse on security and privacy. Yes, it is
  • If you insist, make sure Explorer is not saving your passwords and set the security level high – otherwise you’re insane

FIREFOX

  • Close your browser and restart it often, especially after visiting any encrypted or secure sites (sites like financial institutions, even shopping sites – anything with “https://” instead of “http://” in the URL.) This will flush (depending on Privacy Mode and cookies settings) cookies away and eliminate JavaScript “Klingons” that have accumulated, limpet-like, on your computer
  • On the Firefox browser, set to “Private Browsing”
  • Set your Preferences to “Allow cookies” but disable “Allow 3rd party cookies”
  • Turn off cookies altogether, or force cookie-by-cookie acceptance

You’ll experience failures and ugly pages on many sites if you do this. You’ll have to authorize MANY cookies if you choose to do so manually. You can always reenable to access a bank site or other cookie-requiring site, and you can also choose to accept cookies only from particular domains – but the proliferation of 3rd-party services used by sites means broken pages can still result.

ALL BROWSERS

  • Turn off Java support (only need this if a particular site does, be very wary)
  • Turn off JavaScript support (Painful – many pretty and useful sites use JavaScript extensively. Yet it has a lot of unpleasant new attack vectors. Notice it’s far down this list, as this one will annoy you and may require turning on for MOST places you like to visit)

SECURITY IS PROPORTIONAL TO INCONVENIENCE: THE HARD PART

  • Research additional software tools/add-ons that actually do block ads, monitor annoying cookies, and so on, which will work with YOUR particular computer and software
  • Learn how to use said software and actually use it
  • It would be great if I could offer specific suggestions that required no effort, but at the moment I can’t
  • If you don’t have time to learn a security tool and use it correctly, it will only drive you crazy and cause you more worry than the Bad Guys

Good luck!