08 October 2015

Schneier on Security: “Volkswagen and Cheating Software”

My worry is that some corporate executives won’t interpret the VW story as a cautionary tale involving just punishments for a bad mistake but will see it instead as a demonstration that you can get away with something like that for six years.

This problem won’t be solved through computer security as we normally think of it. Conventional computer security is designed to prevent outside hackers from breaking into your computers and networks. The car analog would be security software that prevented an owner from tweaking his own engine to run faster but in the process emit more pollutants. What we need to contend with is a very different threat: malfeasance programmed in at the design stage.

We already know how to protect ourselves against corporate misbehavior. Ronald Reagan once said "trust, but verify" when speaking about the Soviet Union cheating on nuclear treaties. We need to be able to verify the software that controls our lives.

Bruce Schneier

An important aspect of this scandal that hasn’t been discussed as much as it should. While Volkswagen is certainly to blame for cheating, the people designing the tests, those in charge of quality control, are equally to blame because of their poor standards and predictable procedures. For sensitive matters such as pollution and health we need to have independent methods to double-check the approval process; otherwise similar situations will keep happening and faking results will become more widespread and potentially harder to uncover.

03 October 2015

The Guardian: “Hitler’s world may not be so far away”

A misunderstanding about the relationship between state authority and mass killing underlay an American myth of the Holocaust that prevailed in the early 21st century: that the US was a country that intentionally rescued people from the genocides caused by overweening states. Following this reasoning, the destruction of a state could be associated with rescue rather than risk. One of the errors of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the belief that regime change must be creative. The theory was that the destruction of a state and its ruling elite would bring freedom and justice. In fact, the succession of events precipitated by the illegal invasion of a sovereign state confirmed one of the unlearned lessons of the history of the second world war.

Though no American would deny that tanks work in the desert, some Americans do deny that deserts are growing larger. Though no American would deny ballistics, some Americans do deny climate science. Hitler denied that science could solve the basic problem of nutrition, but assumed that technology could win territory. It seemed to follow that waiting for research was pointless and that immediate military action was necessary. In the case of climate change, the denial of science likewise legitimates military action rather than investment in technology. If people do not take responsibility for the climate themselves, they will shift responsibility for the associated calamities to other people. Insofar as climate denial hinders technical progress, it might hasten real disasters, which in their turn can make catastrophic thinking still more credible. A vicious circle can begin in which politics collapses into ecological panic.

Timothy Snyder

Fascinating article, linking the twisted logic of the Nazi movement to modern issues such as the fight against terrorism and climate change. The author argues – pretty compellingly – that some of these problems can be kept in check by the state, the political structure that can and should protect the rights of its citizens against racism and xenophobia, but also from long-term, harder to grasp threats like climate change.

28 September 2015

Scripting News: “Facebook uses RSS for Instant Articles”

Late yesterday Facebook released docs explaining how Instant Articles works for publishers. It's good news. They have, as I speculated earlier, built their system around RSS. This means there can be interop between all the big companies --Twitter, Google, Apple, Facebook -- now building new news systems.

To publishers and bloggers -- this is a big deal because it means that the same feeds you generate to post stories to Facebook can be used for other sites. It's a very strong statement. No publishing silos. Let news flow where it wants to. And let competitors arise who may do more interesting and useful things with news than the big companies can.

Dave Winer

Ironic how two of the companies infamous for their ‘walled gardens’ – Facebook and Apple – are using open standards for their news products, while the ‘open’ Google couldn’t figure out a practical use for RSS and simply abandoned it for the past few years.

27 September 2015

Tad Williams – Happy Hour in Hell

in Bucharest, Romania
Tad Williams - Happy Hour in Hell

Cu iubita captivă în ghearele unuia dintre cei mai puternici demoni ai Iadului și partenerul său Sam retras într‑o lume nouă departe de supravegherea Cerului, nu se poate spune că viața lui Bobby Dollar merge prea strălucit. Deși a scăpat pe moment de interogatoriul aspru al consiliului Eforilor, se află încă în posesia penei de înger care a pecetluit complotul secret între un înger misterios și demonul Eligor, ceea ce face din Bobby o țintă pentru toți oportuniștii din lumea de aici și de dincolo. Pe urmele lui apare imediat un asasin violent pe care îl credea mort, și hărțuirea continuă de care tocmai scăpase revine în prim plan. Între amenințarea aceasta constantă și dorința nebună de a o salva pe contesa Casimira din Iad, Bobby începe să planifice o incursiune într‑un loc care în mod normal e ultimul pe lista oricărei persoane întregi la minte: puțul Iadului!

Love. Tired old jokes aside, a real, powerful love does have one thing in common with Hell itself: it burns everything else out of you.

După cum dezvăluie primul capitol, nu durează mult până când Bobby reușește să se strecoare în locul pedepsei eterne într‑un corp de împrumut pe un drum abandonat, cu ajutor considerabil din partea șefului său, Arhanghelul Temuel. Povestea în sine este destul de liniară de aici înainte, urmărindu‑l pe îngerul încăpățânat de‑a lungul unei călătorii pline de peripeții către capitala iadului, Pandaemonium, și apoi înapoi către punctul lui de intrare, de unde se poate întoarce în lumea umană. Ceea ce menține nivelul de interes este discursul lui presărat de remarci ironice, capacitatea lui aproape infinită de a intra în bucluc – și din fericire de a ieși la timp din el – și imaginația bogată a autorului, care populează fiecare nivel al Iadului cu numeroase detalii și personaje, grotești, paranoice și periculoase. Peisajul Infernului e de o variație fascinantă, în mare parte structurat ca o societate medievală, cu demonii puternici în rolul lorzilor și sufletele condamnate drept servitori, sclavi, subiecte de distracție și tortură. Pericolele răsar la fiecare pas, oricine poate să te păcălească (în cel mai fericit caz), dacă nu să te jefuiască sau omoare, totul e murdar și urât mirositor, încât nici măcar cei mai sus‑puși demoni nu‑și doresc să trăiască aici, preferând identități umane pe Pământ, sau în cel mai rău caz o casă luxurioasă în capitală, departe de hăul din care răzbat continuu gemetele chinului fără sfârșit. O temă recurentă a pedepselor este reluarea greșelilor din cursul vieții, care capturează sufletele într‑un cerc vicios al suferinței. Unele din figurile de seamă sunt inspirate din cazuri reale (sau cel puțin legende), de la împăratul Nero la o criminală în serie din România interbelică.

25 September 2015

Viget: “The @font-face dilemma”

While this section of the specification was not actually present until 2011, it’s useful in framing the current font loading landscape. Some time in 2009, Firefox and Opera began shipping @font-face support with the former behavior: text would render with fallback fonts until downloadable font resources became available. But this choice frustrated many users (see the Firefox bug report) and was quickly dubbed FOUT, the Flash of Unstyled Text. Articles were written about fighting the @font-face FOUT. It wasn’t long before most browsers were hiding text while fonts downloaded.

Unfortunately, the main issue with @font-face now is what many wanted to avoid years ago: the FOIT, or Flash of Invisible Text.

Fallback fonts have been specified, but many browsers dictate that text should remain transparent until Open Sans has been downloaded or fetched from browser cache. Many Webkit browsers will wait 3 seconds before timing out and showing the fallback. Some browser may wait as long as 30 seconds, turning the flash of invisible text into an eternity for users on extremely slow network connections.

Chris Manning

It always perplexed me how web developers and standards went from a less than ideal, but acceptable experience (fonts changing during page load) to the current broken, user-unfriendly experience (text not rendering at all until custom web fonts are downloaded). Custom fonts are nice elements of design, but if this interferes with content – especially all-important titles – site owners should prioritize content over design; after all, most people browse the web for content, not to admire the typographic skills of designers. The problem may soon become more pressing, as the recently-launched ad-blockers for iOS offer the option of blocking custom fonts as well, forcing designers to work with built-in fonts for proper fallbacks in case webfonts are disabled.

23 September 2015

Ad-blocking on iOS – a storm in a teacup

So iOS 9 launched with support for content blockers and it seems like everybody on the Internet went crazy. In typical tech news fashion, an issue practically doesn’t exist until Apple does something about it. There are an incredible number of articles and opinions flying around, from apocalyptic visions predicting the collapse of the web, to diatribes against Apple for allowing people to steal the work of innocent journalists, to wake-up-calls for publishers to adapt to the new situation or die. There’s even developers who jumped at the opportunity to make a quick buck, only to back down days later, because of supposed moral concerns – returning the money in the process (one has to wonder why he hasn’t offered the app for free in the first place). And unfortunately, most of these aspects have some grain of truth.

Ad blocking

It’s certainly true that the web experience has slowly degraded under the load of more ads, trackers, banners, full-page overlays, auto-playing videos and so on. Equally true that advertising is, for the moment, the most reliable source of income for publishers and removing ads threatens their already meager revenues. On the other hand… many publications add so little value for readers, simply repeating what other sites said or spewing out click-bait titles, that I can’t help but think few people will miss if they go out of business. This is constantly happening in the tech press, with sites rewriting press releases or shamelessly copying articles behind paywalls. I have long given up on reading individual sites and I am mainly keeping up by reading Techmeme (and Twitter), which does a very good job of presenting top stories, important reviews and rumors. When one site shuts down, others take its place, and so the overall landscape changes little.

21 September 2015

Tech.pinions: “Apple Watch Satisfaction”

As I listened to 14 different people tell me about their Apple Watch, I observed a pattern. Those whose job it was to think about the Apple Watch or who were early adopters who thought deeply about tech and the tech products they buy, were all much more critical of the watch. You could tell they evaluated it and thought about it deeply from every angle by their responses. Then I talked with teachers, firefighters, insurance agents, and those not in the tech industry and not hard-core techies. These groups of people couldn’t stop raving about the Apple Watch and how much they loved the product. It was almost as if the farther away people were from tech or the tech industry, the more they liked the Apple Watch.

Ben Bajarin

Interesting results, but they should be taken with a (big) grain of salt, because the survey is inherently skewed. First of all, the respondents were all Apple Watch owners, meaning the survey doesn’t capture dissatisfied buyers who already returned or resold the gadget. And some of the responses (not mentioned in the article, but available in the full study) contradict the conclusion of near-perfect customer satisfaction, for example: when asked about the perceived value of the Watch, 12% consider that the Watch was a poor value relative to cost – much higher than the 3% dissatisfaction rate; when asked if they were likely to purchase the device for someone else, a full 34% replied with a ‘No’, again not an indication of satisfaction. This could mean that either the control questions were incorrectly formulated, or people in the survey are not that happy with the Watch as implied. The survey also fails to mention which model people own – that should have been one of the top questions.