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:: Trust Issues

There’s been quite a bit of discussion (me included) regarding Microsoft’s latest choices regarding Windows 10. Feel free to take the following as the Rando-rant that it may well be.

i have trust issues. It’s not that i don’t trust people. i actually believe that most folks tend to be reasonably benevolent. i’m pretty sure that most folks don’t mug homeless people for parking meter change or rifle through coworkers belongings. There are bad people, sure, but they’re the minority.

Still, i’m cynical and paranoid enough to realize that outside of general, formal interaction, trust needs to be earned. i’ll try using a service or person using a small action, then slowly build interaction based of of the history i have. i’ve done that with shops, restaurants, banks, auto repair, airlines, pretty much everything. i’m not going to magically change my behavior because i’m doing things using “virtual” stuff online. Well, maybe if it’s truly virtual, like a game with a reset button, but otherwise there’s not as much distinction as you’re hoping i don’t notice.

So, when a company asks for an inordinate amount of information in exchange for some form of goods, i want to know not only the value of the goods, but what the costs of losing that information is. Like when a store offers a “points” program. What are the values of those “points”? What benefit do i get? What information are you gathering? How is it stored? Who is it sold too? If you’re making $100 off of selling my complete purchasing history to social media, saving $1.25 on a shirt doesn’t really seem like such a great deal.

This is even more of a concern if a company has had a history of doing some fairly heavy handed and hostile things in the past. What do i consider hostile? Well, anything that doesn’t treat me like you’d want to be treated. If you don’t believe that i can be trusted, you’re not trustworthy either. i tend to use a lot of Open Source software mostly because they establish a level of trust that’s higher than many companies. i can look at the code, see what it does and determine whether or not i want to run it. i can’t do that with things like twitter or facebook, so i treat those as untrustworthy. i will not share more than minimal information with those parties.

This includes operating systems and even computers. i tend to “lobotomize” systems as much as possible. Yeah, this means i don’t use whizzy stuff like voice enabled actions or predictive enjoyment widgets or what-ever. Sadder life for me, i guess. i also don’t get vaguely creeped out by ads for possible medical concerns or have ads follow me around pestering me to buy a BMW constantly. For what it’s worth, i also always pick “Customize Install” and actually pay attention to what’s being installed. i also tend to disable or uninstall any app that doesn’t provide me clear value.

With Windows, there’s a lot of barriers to trust. The code is a black box, so i can’t audit it. There’s a good amount of history showing that they are interested in merchandising personal data and extracting maximum value from their customers. Plus, the idea of keeping a copy of my login credentials on hand with a third party is pretty much the same as me asking to have an all access badge to Microsoft. i can say that i won’t do anything bad, but that’s probably not going to make the prospect any more likely. Plus, if either they or i lost control of that controlled item for any reason, the other party would be deeply, deeply unhappy.

By the way, i lump Apple into that bucket as well. They’re far less likely to sell off my personal information, but the value their own secrecy and control over mine, which can lead to problems. Google, well, Google is a company that makes billions off of ads. Kinda puts a pretty decisive nail holding how i classify them.

Frankly, it’s annoying as hell to constantly lobotomize and switch things “off” whenever i get something new. It’s also a massive pain to constantly audit things to see if anything “helpfully” reset my work. The only incentive i have to even consider continuing on this path is the fact that i expose myself to increased risk if i don’t.

Makes me wonder if i shouldn’t just go find a vintage TRS80.

    What do you think, sirs?

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    :: Windows10 First Impressions

    Imagine if Target built condos. For those unfamiliar with the #2 “big box” retailer, Target is a sprawling department store that doesn’t look like someone set up shop in an abandoned warehouse. Things are generally clean and well presented with a nod to being more trendy. In some respects, Target is like the love child of WalMart and Apple’s Marketing department.

    (Yeah, that paragraph will age well.)

    The problem is that Target, being a very large business with reasonably narrow margins, is deeply interested in keeping you a customer, so they do lots and lots of analysis on you and your buying trends in order to keep you a Target customer. If you’re a regular customer, Target probably knows more about you than you do. They’re a bit famous for sending women coupons for maternity supplies before the women know they’re pregnant, just by observing their buying behaviors.

    It’d be handy at first, then a tad creepy if you even noticed, and eventually you might discover that “Customized for you” means “We’re recording and examining everything you do, all the time”. The larger population would probably be ok with this because they’re saving 10% and getting coupons for Twinkies. Well, until they started seeing more ads for type 2 diabetes treatment and cancer recovery services, i’d suppose.

    Windows10 seems to be a lot like that. There’s a lot of “Helpful” in there. Things like Cortana, which is your digital personal assistant. It can schedule things for you, keep you in contact with your friends and family, help you find things, etc. Mind you, doing voice analysis requires a fair bit of computer horse power and data in order to not only understand you said words, but to determine what those words mean at this time. So all that info gets sent to Microsoft (or Apple or Google) which teases out what you mean by looking at what you said, the history of things you’ve said, as much information as it has about you and anyone else it figures is associated with you. What else those companies do with that info is not your concern. You have no say. It says so in the terms.

    settingsThe latest version of Windows really, really wants to be “Helpful” in that way. Honestly, i’d go so far as to say the bulk of Windows10 doesn’t actually get installed onto your computer. It resides with Microsoft. You’re encouraged to use OneDrive as your remote storage for all your Windows devices. OneDrive are servers run and controlled by Microsoft. You’re encouraged to use Microsoft’s Mail program for all your email. Same with TV & Movies, music, and a host of other things. i’ll note that one semi-comforting thing is that many of these are “freemium”, in that you get a small allowance for free, but then pay a subscription for things you use more often. That can mean that they’re not selling what data or meta-data they harvest, but there’s no guarantee. i spent a fair portion of time after my install removing non-local apps like these.

    This doesn’t mean that Windows10 is unusable. If you’re willing to literally go through every setting and configuration option to turn off the bits that can “phone home”, you do get a system that lets you run programs. It’s a bit like going through your Target Condo with a roll of duct-tape for the cameras. You wind up with an apartment that’s a bit less “helpful”, but one that won’t start reminding you that your stool production is less than the national average and that you should eat more bran. It also means that you have to take your key out of your pocket and put it into the door lock rather than have the door magically be open when you or anyone who is authorized by the remote lock controller walks up.

    Every new version of Windows is a debate for me. i keep saying “this is going to be the last”. Windows7 had a bunch of fairly scary bits around DRM control that could have prevented me running apps i wanted (that’s one of the big reasons i don’t use iPads or iPhones). Fortunately, few of those came to be, and i was able to opt-out or ignore the bits that were. Right now, i tend to use Windows for three things: Running a browser, playing a few games, hosting a virtual machine for my main environment. The last one is kind of key since Linux tends to have bad driver support for some devices, and the VM masks that. Windows8 offered me no compelling reason to use it (although i’m running it on two machines because they’re newer, and yes, i also lobotomized them). Windows10 offers me less compelling reasons and slightly more reasons not to.

    Perhaps i finally will switch to running main Linux and keep a windows VM for the other crap.

    To prove that i work for the right company, Mozilla wrote this open letter talking about some of the same things.
      What do you think, sirs?

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      :: iFiefdom

      Who the hell thought this was a good idea?

      Imagine you had one key. Just one. One key to open your house, run your car, store your bike, get money from your bank, everything. The key was fairly special, obviously, and tied to you. It would be super convenient, right? Now, you’d probably want to protect that key, too, since it’s the one thing that unlocks everything that belongs to you, but since you use that key for everything you have to keep entering in your password all the darn time and it’s so hard to get to the “special characters” on your phone’s screen and your password shows up as “***********f” anyway so you can’t remember if you typed in “☃” at the correct spot and…

      So you use something like the street and zip code for where you were born.

      Needless to say, a LOT of folks are very interested in having that key too. It could be folks looking to steal your stuff, folks looking to see if you’ve stolen stuff, folks who just want to look, and folks who want to pin their looking on you. All sorts of folks. They might demand that you give them that key at gun point, or check point, or they could steal the key from the main server, or one of the places you used it to buy stuff, or unlocked some of your stuff, or even just make a copy of it by taking a picture of it and spending the time to cut the grooves right.

      Suddenly, someone who you said should have access to one thing, now has access to everything. Heck, it might not even be the fault of the person, it could be that they were attacked and got copies of lots and lots of keys, yours just being one of them.

      Having One Key is convenient, but also a HUGE LIABILITY.

      Right now, you don’t have one key. You’ve got dozens. You have passwords for your bank, a key for your car, a PIN for your bank cards, a key for your house, etc. Granted, if each of those were a physical key, you’d fit in with any New York super, but someone stealing one of those keys isn’t going to ruin every aspect of your life.

      So, again, who the hell thought that having one key is a good idea?

      Apparently, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google do.

      Each of those companies are currently hell bent on getting you to put all your worldly possessions under their control. They want access to your banking, your car, your phone, your home, you name it. And all of this would be controlled by your account with your Digital Overlord of choice. And yeah, since you’ll be entering in that password in dozens of “interconnected” devices you’re going to use as crappy a password as you can tolerate entering.

      Oh! And i nearly forgot! There’s one other fun fact about this upcoming future.

      If, for whatever reason, you fall out of grace with your Digital Overlord for whatever reason (missed payments, said naughty things about them, used a competitor once while on vacation, tried to fix something, etc.) they can terminate your account, effectively freezing you out of all of your “stuff”. It’s their stuff now, they control it. They just granted you temporary access, you peasant.

      Welcome to the future!

      i’ll be hanging out with Blank Reg.

      :: Corporate Tribes

      Humans are tribal by nature. This goes back to when we picked fleas off each other, avoided growly things with big teeth and had to protect our scarce stash of berries from those bastards down the hill. It is something deeply ingrained into our psyche since it’s the product of millions of years of evolution.

      So, it’s kinda natural for us to think little of the Server team or not be quite as inclined to go hang out with the Client guys as we ought to. This, of course, is horrible.

      The reason why is that we have a new skill that didn’t exist 100,000 years ago, we have communication. It turns out that collaborative communication tends to get us a lot further than clubbing others over the head. You can establish trade with communication, share and improve ideas, offer insight and learning, and lots of other stuff that will get you a lot further than a scrawny bush full of berries.

      Communication is so powerful and rich a medium that some seek to treat it like that crappy berry bush and tightly control it whenever possible. These people are backwards jerks, but again, they’re simply reacting to what’s hard wired into their genes. So, i won’t blame them for their actions so much as i will blame them for not getting past their primitive selves. You should try living in the future. The berries are better.

      Ok, all that is a rather long way to go to point out that in companies, we still have tribes. Call them groups, or business units, or verticals, but essentially they are tribes. These are tribes within a tribe (providing how hard wired we all are). In some cases, tribalism is encoded into the company and Team X is commanded to never talk to any other team. This makes Team X feel they are special and superior to all the other Teams, which is like saying 8 is obviously better than 17 with no further context provided.

      Granted, it doesn’t help that my industry is full of folks that tend to be more introverted than anything else. Many work from home, which makes them outliers in the tribe. Some work on different projects or feel that someone else’s contributions aren’t “the same quality” as their own. (Again, arguing that 5 is so much better than orange that i am obviously blind.)

      So we divide ourselves up into tribes. This is normal. Heck, there’s a course i’m taking that is dividing people up into tribes.

      The problem is that tribalism doesn’t always lead to cooperation. Tribalism re-enforces the inner ape’s competitive nature. That re-enforces our nature to see those that are not of our tribe as “the outsiders” or even “the enemy”.

      So, how do we best avoid that sort of trap? We’re simply not going to be able to say “Ok, everyone, no sub-tribes! We’re all here as one tribe!” No matter how stirring a letter from the CEO, it’s not going to reprogram our DNA. Familiarity between tribes helps, though. If you can identify a given member and associate no threat, or possibly some other form of common allegiance, then you’ll have an easier time. Heck you could follow the old tribal mechanism of colors by giving members a t-shirt, or sticker they can slap on their laptop as a tribal insignia. A token like that can help indicate to members that “i’m one of you. i’m on your side.”

      i’ll also note that this sort of thing is critically important for remote members of your team. They already feel excluded and isolated, so any form of membership you can provide (or that they can latch onto) is going to be far more precious than folks working “in house”. This is also one of the reasons that team changes (or change in tribal leadership) can be so damn disruptive. It may make sense for a new leader to “realign the synergies of the meta-org” or whatever before they drop the org chart in the blender, but your inner ape is going to be most sensitive to who your boss (and your boss’ boss) are.

      But how do we address the tribe problem? It might be useful to not try to constantly re-enforce the negative elements of it. People will organize as tribes, but recognize and reward cooperation. Foster “trade” among the groups rather than highlighting just accomplishments. People are divisive enough. There’s no need to encourage it.

      :: Why The Commenters on Hacker News Are Terrible Engineers

      CNN published an article a bit ago talking about Silicon Valley’s Poor. It’s a look at the stark reality of where i live and how hard it is for folks who don’t happen to be fortunate enough to be working in the current, hot industry. The article is really well done, and while i don’t agree that rent subsidies are the right approach to the problem, the bulk of the article makes a stirring case.

      So, it was no huge surprise that it showed up on Hacker News, and the comments are truly depressing. Not just because they’re full of the usual self centered, overly superior viewpoints that make reading comments there sad making (really, if you don’t want to get into the same sort of spittle fueled rage i’m in, don’t read the comments), but because they fail for one very simple spectacular reason.

      They show how bad these guys are at even understanding complex systems.

      First off, let’s run a few numbers, shall we? i mean, i’m an engineer, so before i start a conversation about a given problem, i want to make sure i understand the scope and scale. That’s what being an engineer is about.

      First off, let’s look at the population. Silicon Valley comprises of the southern portions of the Bay Area. The counties are Santa Clara (from Palo Alto south to encompass Gilroy and east to cover Milpitas) and San Mateo (up the peninsula to San Francisco. i could easily argue that it includes portions of Santa Cruz (to the south toward the Ocean) & Almeda (which covers the eastern Bay Area), but those are partial at best. i could also argue that San Francisco is part of this as well, since a vast majority of folks live there and commute, but those numbers are immaterial to the conversation at this point.

      The population of those two counties works out to be 2,699,483. While the total population is not employed, it’s fair to say that because of the high number of bachelors, it’s fair to factor out 30% of the population as being non-job holders (retired, children, infirm, etc.) It’s also fair to say that the Census is not fully accurate either, so there’s some fuzz here, for sanity, we’ll say the working population is two million.

      Working off the number of employees for the top companies in Santa Clara (plus google and facebook because, really? they’re missing?) gives about 756,000. Mind you, that includes big hire numbers like HP, Intel and Lockheed Martin which do NOT have their entire workforce located here, but should cover the countless “startups” and smaller companies like SmugMug, Imgur & NetApp. So, figure 40% of the employed here work for high-tech. Figure another 200,000 folks work in equally high pay positions like patent attorneys, doctors, financials and you’ve got about 50% of the population working in “High Pay” fields.

      Monthly rent in the two counties is about $2,650 a month, meaning $31,800 a year, just for housing expenses. If we say that weekly living expenses are $100 (for things like food, clothing, internet access, fuel, utilities, commuting, etc.) are a conservative $200 a week, that means that total cost of living is about $42,000. Now add tax to that (~30%) and you’ve got to earn a minimum of $55,000. That means that the minimum wage for the county has to be around $26.50 an hour. (Living Wage notes the number at $12.01 for Santa Clara, so i’m being VERY generous here.)

      “No big deal”, you say. “i earn more than that.”

      That’s because you’re special, but remember that you’re less than half the work force. There are more folks cleaning yards, checking your groceries, picking up your trash, teaching your kids, cooking and serving your meals at restaurants, driving trucks to supply businesses and all the myriad of things you need for a society to function. They’re not making $26.50 an hour. They’re making a lot less. i’ll remind you that minimum wage in Santa Clara is $8 an hour.

      “So, they should move out of the county!”

      Ok, sport. Let’s say they do. Well, San Benito County to the south has Hollister, where rent for a 2BR apartment is $1,200 a month, plus a 1+ hour commute. Tracy, out in the valley is also about $1,200 with a 1+ hour commute. (These commutes go up SIGNIFICANTLY during rush periods, so we’ll double the commute time to 2 hours one way.) That means that folks have to spend 4 hours a day in their car just getting to or from work. Mind you, a lot of folks are doing just that, so there’s not a lot of jobs out in those parts, so yeah, commuting isn’t really avoidable. So, your fuel costs just went up, as well as car maintenance costs. After all, car breaks down and can’t go to work? Well, you’re not getting paid that day, bucko.

      Oh, yeah, and God forbid you have kids. It’s not like you can lock them in their cage for the day and call the neighbors to go feed them if you’re running late. (Granted, we’re talking about valley engineers here, so breeding is probably not going to be a major concern.)

      So much for saving money, huh?

      Granted, i’m not a social engineer either, so i have no clear answer to this. i will note that there are dozens of empty office parks in Sunnyvale with new ones going up all the damn time. Getting some of that zoned as Commercial/Residential would help increase available housing driving the rents down. Likewise, putting some of the acquired wealth in the Valley toward improved infrastructure and better mass transit would make the place a helluva lot better than putting another damn McLaren or Telsa on the roads around here. i also think it’s high time we up the minimum wage around here to $12 and put in rent caps. i’ve seen that apartment that’s “a deal” at $2,000 a month. You painted it last century. You’ve made enough friggin’ money you greedy bastard, and yeah, $12 an hour means your latte’s getting pricier. As you said before, you can afford it. If not, maybe you should move.

      But, again, i’m not a civic engineer. Still, if this is the way that these apes approach a complex problem, no wonder they all fell in love with Mongo.

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