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I’ll just put these articles out here.
Note that we count overdose deaths per 100,000, Europe counts them per million.
Our best state in 2015, Nebraska, had 69 overdose deaths per million, or back of the pack for Europe. Portugal, with decriminalized drugs, had 3 per million.
Here’s the European stats referenced in that article.

Estonia, the European country with the highest overdose rate (127 per million) would sit at 13th among US states, tied with Georgia. 8 states (New Mexico, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Ohio, New Hampshire, and West Virginia) had an overdose death rate about double that in 2015.

And of course, there’s all the violence that comes from pushing drugs into the criminal economy.

Portugal did the experiment, they’re not an especially wealthy nation, and they got great results. We study what they did and copy it exactly; we’ve never had a “War on Drugs” that came anywhere close to their results, and their approach didn’t require jail sentences, corrupted police forces, or no-knock warrants to “preserve evidence”. The humane choice is humane, AND it works.

Twitter algorithms

July 2, 2017

These are my rules for making Twitter more useful.

My goal, on Twitter, is a combination of finding fun and interesting stuff and to expose myself to (certain) other points of view. At work we have training on bias, unconscious and otherwise, and on techniques for reducing it and countering it. One of the instructors mentioned that you can’t just wish unconscious bias away; apparently repeated exposure to normalizing examples is required, but it takes time (this is yet another disturbing/annoying way that our brains resemble neural nets for machine learning; in this light, unconscious bias is just the result of a lifelong biased training set.)

So as a rule, by default, if I see a post from an interesting woman, interesting PoC, interesting LGBTQIA person, I try to be a little more receptive to pushing the follow button. Lately I’ve decided, if it’s someone from another country I don’t necessarily hear from, that ought to count, too.

My subject bias is bikes/transit/housing, tech-especially-security, Boston area, Florida, liberal politics, science, cute animals.

But everywhere you go, especially politics and often science, you find trolls. I can’t even tell if they’re really people, and there’s a lot of them. I won’t learn anything from them, they won’t learn anything from me, it’s annoying to see someone wrong on the internet and not reply, but that’s a total waste of time. I tried blocktogether.org and that worked pretty well once I had imported a couple of lists, but then I heard mention of something called “blockchain”, not the distributed ledger algorithm, but instead a Chrome extension for bulk blocking.

So now, if I’m reading replies to an interesting tweet and I see some especially trolly comment, I visit the troll’s profile, and if it also looks especially trolly, then I select their followers. If I see that several other people I follow also follow the troll, maybe I stop there, I scan a few of the followers to see if they also look slightly troll-aligned (and remember, I’m not sure if these are real people or networks of bots) and if they are, then I click the “Run Block Chain” button and wait. For someone with more than about 10,000 followers, this will eventually error out for some reason, but it does add the ones that it scanned before the error. Twitter block chain is open source so I have a prayer of figuring the bug out if I really cared and fixing it in my copious free time but for now it works well enough and few trolls have that many followers.

Block chain will not block someone you’re already following, but inevitably you’ll pick up someone who you’d follow if you knew about them (@soledadobrien follows 338k accounts, including quite a few trolls). Sooner or later you’ll notice someone you’re following approvingly quote-tweeting someone you’ve blocked (this doesn’t happen that often, but it happens) and when that happens, I look through the block to see who it is, maybe unblock them, maybe follow them (this morning it was @deborahblum).
I’m a little nervous that I’m blocking lots of people I might otherwise follow if I knew about them, but after passing 100k blocked accounts the troll chatter is vastly reduced and that’s a real improvement.

One amusing side-effect is that this method bootstraps itself; once you accumulate a few troll-followers in your block list, you’ll find that any new troll’s followers include quite a few that you’ve already blocked, right now around 50% for me. You can use this to quickly sanity-check whether someone you think might be a troll is likely to be one; if a scan of their followers shows a lot of already-blocked accounts, perhaps the rest are worth blocking as well.

It would be lovely/interesting to do something more nuanced — for example, @deborahblum has 17 followers that I “know”, @soledadobrien has 48 followers I know, that could be a rule for not blocking someone in a followers list. It would be interesting to see how many people on my existing blocklist have more than N “discriminating” (not @soledadobrien) followers that I know, maybe review/unblock/follow some of them. (This smells like a sort of 2-sided pagerank to me.)

Someone might ask “why block, why not mute”? I don’t want to see these people, and I don’t want them to see me. There are other people who are actually harrassed on the internet by networks of trolls; I think this is one way to blunt the effectiveness of those networks.

I use the mute button when someone that I’m following goes off on some tedious unrelated tear and I just don’t want to hear about it for a while. It would be nice if muting had a built-in time limit.

It’s a little depressing to look at how many hard it is to get all the different factions of the Democratic Party excited about helping each other. I wonder a bit if this is a case of scarcity pushing people towards fighting over scraps, and I wonder how much this is a case of Russians/Republicans using the internet to sow left-wing dissent.

At minimum, people ought to accept that each others’ problems are worthy. Is there really any question that blacks get a raw deal in this country? Or that people who are openly gay or trans are discriminated against? Or that women don’t get promotions and pay commensurate with their skills, productivity, etc? Or that unions are necessary in order to give workers an equal footing in negotiations over pay, hours, benefits, and worker safety? Or that many forms of pollution lead to statistically early death? Lack of an adequate social safety net is clearly a problem, and clearly one that can be solved, because countries that are less wealthy do a better job than we do — notably, they deliver life expectancy and lower infant mortality for less money per capita. They can afford it, so can we. Climate change? It’s happening. Slowly, but steadily, and it’s going to continue for decades-to-centuries after we finally decide to take it seriously; the only question is how fast it’s changing when enough of us finally get alarmed enough to really act. Education? College is stupidly, fantastically expensive, and to the extent this is Baumol’s Cost Disease, we should just subsidize it (other poorer countries manage to do this) and to the extent that it isn’t we should drive prices down by properly supporting public universities. Etc. These are all problems, and the Republican Party is on the wrong side of all of these issues. We shouldn’t pick just one, we should not be put off because we think labor is important but we’re a little nervous about the gays, or focus only on racism to the exclusion of college costs — there’s nothing wrong with wanting it all, we can have it all, and all of us deserve to have these problems addressed. There’s no mutual incompatibility between any of these issues.

And be a little more skeptical, say, when someone on Fox News tries to tell you that anyone who’s LGBTQ is a threat to the womean and children. We’ve done plenty to make life unpleasant for people who aren’t “normal”; if someone’s out of the closet and you notice them, they must feel very strongly about it, and must have been truly miserable in the closet. This has nothing to do with your children, and everything with them wanting to live happier lives. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to con you into being mean to other people for no reason at all; ignore them, they’re evil.

Or, similarly, that someone might trot out some bogus statistics to try to make white people nervous about “black crime”. Some of these stats are flat lies, in other cases the data has been tortured into confessing things that aren’t true. In practice, most people are non-violent, most people are law-abiding (well, except for traffic laws, which everyone breaks very often, and traffic violence is actually a big deal). Don’t take the bait, anyone trying to convince you that blacks are a Big Crime Risk is just plain evil, ignore them, change the channel, turn off the radio. They’re trying to turn you into a racist and create dissent on the left.

There are bullshit artists trying to sow doubt about health care, too. One dishonest clown keeps trying to claim that Medicaid is worse than no health care at all, because people on Medicaid (as a population) are sicker than people who aren’t, never mind that if you’re poor and sick you’re much more motivated to sign up for Medicaid than if you’re merely poor, in which case that might seem like more of a hassle than it’s worth. This is what passes for serious statistical analysis on the right; these guys are sad, lying clowns, don’t let their obvious bullshit make you doubt the worth of providing health care.

And so on. There’s probably better examples but I’m a cis het white guy 1%er descended (father’s side) from a family with strong ties to Dartmouth, clearly I’m a traitor to my gender, race, ancestors, etc, it’s a wonder I get any of this right. The main theme is to not let one left-wing cause be split from another, and anytime you catch someone trying to do that, think about why. I honestly wonder how many of the alleged “hard-core Bernie-bros” that get noticed on the internet now are actually left wing or even American; disinformation is a real thing, and sowing dissent is a standard tactic. I supported Bernie, I sent him money, I like (or liked) his politics. But when he didn’t win the nomination, we’re done, support the nominee, got to stay focused on outcomes. I have several friends who did the same. Ask yourself *why* someone on the left would now be interested in prolonging the primary contest after we lost the general election. It makes no sense; the Republicans are uniformly terrible for everything Bernie Sanders has supported over the years, the Democrats are uniformly better, and we tried plenty hard in the primaries and Bernie didn’t make the cut. If we don’t unite, all of us, we lose ground.

Reading List

June 2, 2017

Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow
How complex systems go wrong, or not.

Influence, Robert Cialdini
How we get conned / how to con.

The Control of Nature, John McPhee
Hubris wins, but it’s close.

Waves and Beaches, Willard Bascom
For mitigation of hubris, and there’s interesting mathematics happening right in front of us at the beach.

Bicycling Science, David Gordon Wilson
More than you’d ever want to know about the most efficient means of travel.

Roxana’s Children, Bonfield and Morrison
“Because they’re always writing about the men”, and reverse nepotism. Roxana’s my great-great-great-grandmother, married twice, raised nine of her own kids and two stepkids, all lived long enough to marry. (Morrison is my great-aunt).

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
Because I keep re-reading it and enjoying it. Time travel with bits of Christie, Sayers, and Wodehouse.

The March North, A Succession of Bad Days, Safely You Deliver, Graydon Saunders
Because I keep re-reading and enjoying them.

Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise, Myrtle Scharrer Betz
Florida before air conditioning and the crowds it has now. I grew up sometimes messing around in boats in St. Joseph’s Sound behind Caladesi Island, where she grew up.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, Braungart and McDonough
Read it once at the recommendation of my uncle, it made a real impression on me, and got me permanently thinking about the asymptote, after we’ve sucked up all the cheap-and-easy resources.

The Winner-Take-All Society, Luxury Fever, Robert Frank
Introduces you to tournament economies and relative-status utility functions (deriving satisfaction from your status relative to others screws up the mathematics of market economics; free markets can yield suboptimal results under those conditions).

There’s probably other books that I’ve forgotten, and at least one that hasn’t been written, about how flaky and weird our mental engines are, and why we shouldn’t just be content with how we’ve made ourselves, and how we could be better people (not smarter people, not longer-living people, but more considerate, less biased, more careful).

Been meaning to write something, always too distracted to “do a good job”, as if getting nothing written was a good job. So….

Just now read a Copenhagenize article on bikes and trains saying something I had believed, but had no data to support. They have data. They also point out by example yet another way we do bikes wrong here in the US. Read the rest of this entry »

Biking and cold weather

April 1, 2017

One thing I didn’t understand growing up in Florida was how people could bike in cold weather.  Now that I live near Boston, I do it all the time, and I understand how.  I will share these secrets with you.

The two most important things to know are that you need to shield your extremities (toes, fingers, ears) from cold wind, and that even moderate cycling generates an enormous amount of heat.  Humans are not efficient motors; for each 100 watts we deliver to the pedals, we leave 300 in our legs, to be swept into the rest of our body by our remarkably effective circulatory system. Most people can pedal at 100 watts once they are in any kind of shape at all. The heat isn’t all there right away, so you also have to get used to the idea that rides start “brisk”, but use layers because you’ll warm up.  Wind blocks and sweaters that unzip down the front (as opposed to pull overs) are a good thing because your thighs and torso will be warmest by far. And by layers, I don’t necessarily mean thick ones; it’s easy to overdress for a trip of more than a couple of miles, and then you’re sweaty, in the winter, which is dumb.

Another thing that helps is learning to personally quantify what is or is not endurable.  For example (note, I seem to run warm, especially after ten years of biking in the winter) above 45F, I can ride barehanded, below 45F I need gloves or some sort of a wind shield.  With “baggies” or “pogies” to shield my hands, I can ride barehanded down to 15F (you try it, and if it doesn’t work, you put on gloves).  Without a beard I need to do something for my face below 30F, with a beard I am comfortable down to 20F. It turns out that with a wool long-sleeve T-shirt and a wind block (and gloves) I can endure 40F raining or 20F dry. (“endure” means parts of me may be cold, but not painful, and my torso and legs are warm enough to keep it that way).  I don’t have a lot of experience biking in single digit temperatures, but a balaclava appears to solve the cold-face problem pretty well and that appears to be the main problem; gloves in pogies and two layers of socks handle the rest.  

In order to reduce my risk of being phished or otherwise have my account(s) hacked, I decided to get a Yubikey for my personal laptop. We use them at work, work is paranoid, if it’s good enough for them it is good enough for me.

So I bought a Nano4 and a NEO. I want the Nano4 so that it just stays plugged in by default, and the NEO has NFC so it can talk to my phone and tablet if I am authenticating from there. Both of these come with way more capabilities than I need, but they are the only two keys that can stay plugged in and support NFC.

Those way more capabilities are a problem because they’re all enabled by default. One authentication method that I’m not using is OTP — long press on the Nano4, and it burps a string of characters as if I had typed them. “Long Press” is what you get if your hand rests over your USB port, if it touches your leg, etc. Yubikey made a mistake here; almost certainly, the new customers for this gadget will be people less technical than me, and (more alarming) less technical than the tech support guys at work who hand these out (preconfigured) for our use, who also didn’t have an immediate answer to this question. Nobody’s going to want OTP configured, it’s incredibly annoying.

But, here you are, like me, you have your shiny new Nano4 and it does this annoying thing. How to fix? You need the YubiKey NEO Manager.

It has a window that looks like this, when you start it with your new YubiKey (NEO or Nano4) the “Change connection mode” button will include “OTP”. It’s pretty obvious from here: click the Change button, deselect OTP from the options presented, follow instructions (the key has to be removed and inserted) and you will be done and none of the U2F associations you’ve already made will be bothered (i.e., it will work exactly the same except that the annoying OTP typing burps will be gone).
YubiKeyNeoManager

If you don’t need NFC, or don’t need the key always resident in the laptop (that may have been a mistake; we use them several times daily at work, but I don’t for my personal account) you can save money and avoid this by instead buying a FIDO U2F Security Key. U2F is what Dropbox and Gmail use. I’m still working on figuring out how to not use text messages to my phone, since some of these services require both phone (which can be socially hacked from your provider, though that is well beyond normal phishing). One choice for some accounts is Google Authenticator (for a Mac); to use it requires physical access to the phone, not the account.

I would add, that at this point I feel a need to draw myself a graph of services and authentication methods and password managers (that can store data in the cloud on these services) to be sure that my access protection is “just right” — not so weak that it’s trivially hacked by phishing, not so strong that if I lose a single phone or key I am screwed.

Other stuff I use to help secure my laptop: Little Snitch (intercepts network connections) and Little Flocker (intercepts file I/O — i.e., ransomware). These tools are very annoying for normal people.