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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Breaking news only matters if it's happening next door

Like many people, I appreciate the distractions provided by the 24-hour news cycle. It is great for when I don't have the mental energy to absorb anything else.

However, I'm increasingly ignoring "breaking news" these days. After the initial story breaks, the lack of real information is spackled with speculation, opinion, and tendentious political commentary. Even from sources that I pay for.

I'd rather wait and read a longer three-dimensional analysis in a trusted and considered weekly or monthly publication.

"Breaking news" increasingly only matters to me if it's happening next door.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mark Zuckerberg and the Chinese competition

An interesting quote from Mark Zuckerberg during this week's appearance on Capitol Hill:

“Some of these use cases that are very sensitive, like face recognition for example,” he said carefully. “And I think that there’s a balance that’s extremely important to strike here where you obtain special consent for sensitive features like facial recognition. But don’t — but that we still need to make it so that American companies can innovate in those areas.

“Or else we’re going to fall behind Chinese competitors and others around the world who have different regimes for different, new features like that.”

I think that this is a valid point; however, falling behind Chinese competitors can have many meanings. I assume he didn't mean this one:

The technology’s veneer of convenience conceals a dark truth: Quietly and very rapidly, facial recognition has enabled China to become the world’s most advanced surveillance state.

A hugely ambitious new government program called the “social credit system” aims to compile unprecedented data sets, including everything from bank-account numbers to court records to internet-search histories, for all Chinese citizens. Based on this information, each person could be assigned a numerical score, to which points might be added for good behavior like winning a community award, and deducted for bad actions like failure to pay a traffic fine.

The goal of the program, as stated in government documents, is to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

Anyone who has seen S03E01 of Black Mirror would likely recall the following:

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Data, privacy, good AI, and stupid AI

With so many hands after my data, I occasionally think about the extent to which personal data should be protected.

Beyond the obvious - the attributes that the system so depends on to uniquely identify you and if stolen could lead to identity theft, such as your SIN and birth date - is your more mundane personal data worth protecting? Or do you trust that by making more data about yourself available, it will feed an ever-growing profile that allows public and non-public organizations to serve you better?

My answer is that I'm not too concerned about protecting my own trivial data. But having seen what #metoo can do to people with very little evidence - and really this was just a capstone on what has been emerging for a decade or more - I am concerned about protecting the data of people who want to exercise their democratic rights or perhaps even act to sustain them.

I'm not really the agitating type, but I recognize that we need agitators. We need journalists (and we need to pay for our journalism so that the people who want to sell us things don't pay them instead). We need whistleblowers. We need politicians who speak up when they see something that isn't right (and we need to stop assuming that all politicians are up to no good - else what genuinely upstanding person would want to do the job?).

I don't want to see those valuable people Shanghaied into keeping quiet because of some hijacked data that could be twisted to concoct a negative story that isn't that bad in the grand scheme of things but could still be fed to a shallow media to rapidly shut someone down.

So, that's my position at the moment - we need to collectively be concerned about privacy to protect the people whose privacy is most important in society, even if that's not our own.

Beyond that, my main personal concern is that I don't want faulty AI making stupid decisions with my data and presenting these decisions to human decision makers who decide my fate in various minor ways each day. We don't know what will be possible in 10 years with data that is harvested today. Who imagined that someone would be able to determine your name from a photograph you posted online 10 years ago as is increasingly possible these days?

The very best AI will be extremely valuable to society and this AI will be in the miniscule minority. The rest will be used to squeeze private profit from dust with the mental health of society receiving collateral damage.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

I just wanted to register a domain!

A couple of weeks ago, I registered a new .com domain name.

Since then, I have magically received exactly 48 e-mails offering website or logo design services.

All of these e-mails were caught by my mail service's spam filter.

A waste of resources, but I acknowledge that something in this chain of events worked as intended.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Paradise Papers and you

There are at least a couple of ways to tell whether someone from Canada that complains about the injustice of the offshore tax avoidance schemes revealed in leaks like the Panama Papers or Paradise Papers would participate in the same schemes if only they could afford to.

These are middle-class versions of the same thing:
  1. Regular cross-border shopping in the US: Get the benefits of living in Canada while reducing your cost of living by diverting your spending to a nearby country you probably would prefer not to live in to save a bit of money. Pretend that the lower cost of living doesn't have anything to do with the reason you'd rather not live there.
  2. Paying in cash: Pay for your services in cash for the purpose of tax evasion (avoiding HST for yourself and income tax for the recipient). Lowering your own cost of living at the expense of society.
  3. Renting out half of your house and not acknowledging the tax obligation: The rental income has to be reported as income and the capital gains when the house is sold are only tax-free for the portion you personally lived in.
While I'd consider #1 to be unethical, #2 and #3 are illegal. Tax avoidance is generally not illegal though to me it is in some cases unethical.

It'd be interesting to know how many people that do the above are maxing out their Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) as that is a very legal means of eliminating your tax obligation on a portion of your investment growth.

This isn't meant to say that I think the schemes revealed in the Paradise Papers are ethical. It's to say that they're all wrong, and that your righteous moral ground is significantly nearer to sea level if you're partaking in the schemes like those in the list above as you give every indication that you'd do the same thing, if only you had the resources.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Algonquin - Western Uplands Backpacking Trail - October 2017

As mentioned in my 2016 post on the Algonquin Western Uplands backpacking trail, I had planned to complete the trail again in 2017 without suffering the same knee and foot injuries. I succeeded in this, and attribute this to:
  • Pacing myself for the long haul. I over-reached on the previous trip, in some cases from frustration. Going in knowing what to expect over the long run makes a difference.
  • Better, larger boots. Specifically, Scarpa Zanskar GTX in a EU size 46. This is roughly equivalent to a US size 13 and is therefore about 1 full size larger than I'd normally wear. Very good boots, and kept the water out on what was a much wetter and muddier trail than it was in 2016.
  • Heel lock lacing pattern to keep my heel from slipping in the larger boots. Combined with some grease rubbed on my heel each day for anti-friction (I normally use Burt's Bees Hand Salve but for this trip used a Burt's Bees lip balm stick due to the much smaller weight/size), I avoided heel blisters for the first time on a backpacking trip.
There's not much else to add about this trip, as it was largely a repeat of the 2016 route with largely the same gear with some things left behind 35lbs of equipment, which was down to 25lb by the end (due to food and fuel consumption).

Some notes on relative difficulty:
  • Day 1: Entry to Maggie Lake E: Average difficulty.
  • Day 2: Maggie Lake E to Pincher Lake N: Second most challenging day. Shorter distance but more terrain variation.
  • Day 3: Pincher Lake N to Brown's Lake: Longest distance but counteracted by less variable terrain. This was the only day it rained significantly and when the first picture below was taken.
  • Day 4: Brown's Lake to Susan Lake: This was the hardest day and where my feet suffered the most.. The trail is narrow and slanted in many places as well as being rocky or laden with tree roots, increasing the friction between your shoes and feet.
  • Day 5: Susan Lake to Exit: I had an overwhelming memory of the 5th day being easier from the previous trip, but I must have been remembering the relief offered by the final few kilometres. The early part of this stretch is as challenging as the rest of the trail.
There aren't any grand lookouts on this trail, but I've attached some pictures from along the way.

Demise of Sears Canada

In what already feels like old news in the news cycle of today, Sears Canada will eventually be no more.

Here's what I take away from the coverage so far:
  • Nobody is surprised
  • Online shopping is partly to blame, but so is a lack of investment on the part of Sears.
  • Sears is a source of memories of bygone days. It's mostly older people that lament the passing of Sears, and they sound as if they are talking about Werther's Originals.
From my own perspective, it's been awhile since I shopped there with intent. There isn't a Sears close by, and when I did have a chance to visit one I used it for comparison shopping with The Bay (since they were frequently at opposite ends of whichever mall contained one or the other). In those cases, I usually ended up buying from The Bay because I liked their offerings more.

There was a Sears mattress and appliance store in town from which you could pick up catalogue or online orders, but it just seem to have disappeared one day.

Some general thoughts:
  • Outlet malls and high-end malls that have tightly-focused, branded offerings seem to be doing well.
  • Online shopping isn't the only part of online that's to blame. Direct marketing by brands is also a factor - many people no longer go to a store looking to be sold something in a particular category. They go looking for the exact thing they've already been sold online and just need a place to buy it.
  • The vast number of products sold under even a single brand produces cross-brand permutations of products that are now too large for a single department store to hope to satisfy and carry.
  • This makes outlet malls and high-end malls the new department stores. It also makes a lot of sense why The Bay is both present at outlet malls and has subdivided many of their stores into brand-focused departments within category-focused departments. It also makes Sears' selling off of their high-priced real estate (in high-end malls) look especially counter-productive.
  • Small towns are said to be affected. But the writing must have been on the wall in small towns more than anywhere else because they are just as reachable by online shopping as are major centres. If the Sears catalogue combined with local pickup drops was of particular benefit to small towns then I don't understand why online shopping where the products are delivered to your door isn't many degrees better.
I respect the challenge that they faced. Running a large, legacy business is hard during times of change, but they did not make the same effort as The Bay to stay current. The Bay is also not doing that well financially, but they at least seem to have identified what their modern market looks like.

Like many other people, I lament the passing of Sears as it's a part of my past, but it won't affect my present very much at all.