The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Welcome to August

While I look out my hermetically-sealed office window at some beautiful September weather in Chicago (another argument for working from home), I have a lot of news to digest:

And finally, Jakob Nielsen explains to web designers as patiently as possible why pop-ups piss off users.

Niggling irritation at corporate hubris

Wednesday I caught a story on NPR's Morning Edition that lingered, and not in a good way. Reporter David Gura presented a story about how corporate boards have difficulty telling their top executives not to engage in risky activities. One executive Gura interviewed, former GM executive Robert Lutz, expressed his feelings thus:

ROBERT LUTZ: I will tell you, I encountered these restrictions my whole career, never took them very seriously and got away with it for 47 years.

GURA: He also liked skiing and motorcycles. And Lutz owned and flew two fighter planes. When GM wanted Lutz back for another big job in 2001, this came up, and Lutz remembers what he told the board.

LUTZ: I'm happy to rejoin the company. I'm happy to assume the post as vice chairman. But I need absolute freedom as far as my hobbies are concerned.

GURA: Lutz says he got that absolute freedom. And he flew those jets until he was 87, by the way. He had to stop two years ago when he failed an eye exam. Lutz thinks more executives should be daredevils.

LUTZ: As opposed to, you know, calm, peaceful guys who never want to put themselves at risk, always drive at the speed limit, drive a minivan as their only vehicle and so forth - who the heck wants a person like that to lead a corporation or be in a leadership position at a corporation?

Imagine that: an old, rich white guy who thinks only people like him should run corporations. No wonder America has so many problems! And that's only my first thought on why this guy pissed me off so much.

By the way, if you're 87 and have to fail an eye test to stop flying planes, that's not just putting yourself at risk; that's putting everyone at risk. No wonder GM did so well in the the early 2000s.

Did Gura not follow up on Lutz's outrageous statement because he figured the listeners would fill in the rest? Or did Gura drop the ball here? I'm tempted to ask NPR.

It was 20 years ago today

...that I left a medium-sized consulting firm based here in Chicago. The firm itself doesn't really matter. I left because I couldn't tolerate commuting to Houston every week to work on a project for a now-infamous energy trading firm there. No one seemed too interested in me saying the client had serious problems, and that the project, if it worked, would break all kinds of anti-trust laws. By mid-October the client proved me right when its house of cards collapsed.

I have some recollections of the summer of 2001, but of course things changed quickly, right after I started a new gig for a cool start-up on the eastern edge of Ukrainian Village. My first day was the Monday after Labor Day, the 10th.

What a strange year that was. Good thing everyone has calmed down since then.

Inside the Anom phone

Via Bruce Schneier, Motherboard got ahold of a pair of Anom phones, which the FBI and Australian Federal Police used to take down a bunch of criminal networks earlier this year:

Motherboard has obtained and analyzed an Anom phone from a source who unknowingly bought one on a classified ads site. On that site, the phone was advertised as just a cheap Android device. But when the person received it, they realized it wasn't an ordinary phone, and after being contacted by Motherboard, found that it contained the secret Anom app.

After the FBI announced the Anom operation, some Anom users have scrambled to get rid of their device, including selling it to unsuspecting people online. The person Motherboard obtained the phone from was in Australia, where authorities initially spread the Anom devices as a pilot before expanding into other countries. They said they contacted the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in case the phone or the person who sold it was of interest to them; when the AFP didn't follow up, the person agreed to sell the phone to Motherboard for the same price they paid. They said they originally bought it from a site similar to Craigslist.

Anom started when an FBI confidential human source (CHS), who had previously sold devices from Phantom Secure and another firm called Sky Global, was developing their own product. The CHS then "offered this next generation device, named 'Anom,' to the FBI to use in ongoing and new investigations," court documents read.

In June the FBI and its law enforcement partners in Australia and Europe announced over 800 arrests after they had surreptitiously been listening in on Anom users' messages for years. In all, authorities obtained over 27 million messages from over 11,800 devices running the Anom software in more than 100 countries by silently adding an extra encryption key which allowed agencies to read a copy of the messages. People allegedly smuggling cocaine hidden inside cans of tuna, hollowed out pineapples, and even diplomatic pouches all used Anom to coordinate their large-scale trafficking operations, according to court documents.

 

That's some cool and scary shit. I'm glad they got all those criminals, but what happens when the people targeted are political dissidents? As Schneier has discussed at length, there is no such thing as a zero-trust environment.

We're dumb, but we're not that dumb

Two sad-funny examples of how, nah, we're exactly that dumb. The first, from TDWTF, points out the fundamental problem with training a machine-learning system how to write software:

Any ML system is only as good as its training data, and this leads to some seriously negative outcomes. We usually call this algorithmic bias, and we all know the examples. It's why voice assistants have a hard time with certain names or accents. It's why sentencing tools for law enforcement mis-classify defendants. It's why facial recognition systems have a hard time with darker skin tones.

In the case of an ML tool that was trained on publicly available code, there's a blatantly obvious flaw in the training data: MOST CODE IS BAD.

If you feed a big pile of Open Source code into OpenAI, the only thing you're doing is automating the generation of bad code, because most of the code you fed the system is bad. It's ironic that the biggest obstacle to automating programmers out of a job is that we are terrible at our jobs.

I regret to inform the non-programmer portion of the world that this is true.

But still, most of the world's bad code isn't nearly as bad as the deposition Paula Deen gave in her harassment suit in May 2013. This came up in a conversation over the weekend, and the person I discussed this with insisted that, no, she really said incredibly dumb things that one has to imagine made her attorney weep. She reminds us that the Venn diagram of casual bigotry and stupidity has a large overlapping area labeled "Murica."

Just wait for the bit where the plaintiff's attorney asks Deen to give an example of a nice way to use the N-word.

I will now continue writing code I hope never winds up in either a deposition or on TDWTF.

How to screw up both time *and* money

Credit-card processing company Worldpay mixed up two fields in a batch on Tuesday (that they mixed up with a batch from April 18th), resulting in hilarious (in retrospect) errors processing charges from the Brighton Palace Pier in southern England. How do we know the error involved April 18th, you ask? Try to guess:

One woman who had visited the attraction in April told of her surprise on the morning of 24 June when a text message from her bank informed her that her account was overdrawn. She discovered that £2,104.18 had been taken on Wednesday by Brighton Palace Pier in what was described as a “deferred payment.”

Ah, haha, ha. I did spend about four minutes pondering how the process failed, as Worldpay claims the error actually occurred Tuesday of this week, but I have my own code to fix before I start debugging someone else's today.

Relaxing weekend

Cassie and I headed up to Tyranena Brewing in Lake Mills, Wis., yesterday to hang out with family. Today, other than a trip to the grocery and adjacent pet store where Cassie picked out an "indestructible" toy that now lies in tatters on the couch, we've had a pretty relaxing Sunday. I thought I'd take a break from Hard Times to queue up some stuff to read tomorrow at lunch:

I will now return to Dickens, because it's funny and sad.

I enjoy productive days

Yesterday I squashed six bugs (one of them incidentally to another) and today I've had a couple of good strategy meetings. But things seem to have picked up a bit, now that our customers and potential customers have returned to their offices as well.

So I haven't had time to read all of these (a consistent theme on this blog):

And finally, providing some almost-pure Daily Parker bait, the Post has a helpful breakdown of 8 common styles of hot sauce.

All work and dog play

Oh, to be a dog. Cassie is sleeping comfortably on her bed in my office after having over an hour of walks (including 20 minutes at the dog park) so far today. Meanwhile, at work we resumed using a bit of code that we put on ice for a while, and I promptly discovered four bugs. I've spent the afternoon listening to Cassie snore and swatting the first one.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, life continues:

And right by my house, TimeLine Theater plans to renovate a dilapidated warehouse to create a new theater space and cultural center, while a 98-year-old hardware store by Wrigley Field will soon become apartments.

Head to desk. Repeat as needed.

I spent nearly three days debugging a configuration issue that I resolved by simply deleting the wonky Azure App Service and rebuilding it from the CI pipeline. It's hard to find a real-world analogy. The total time required to simply start over (given the automation we've spent two years building) was less than an hour, meaning had I done that Thursday morning, instead of trying to fix the unfixable problem, I'd have saved myself a net 22 hours of grief.

Blarg.