Social Media Services Assume You’re an Idiot

Last year I finally gave up entirely on social media (if you came here due to a Twitter link, those posts are automated and I haven’t logged into the account in some years). I won’t bore you with every reason, but I would like to take a moment to highlight one in particular.

I don’t care if somebody assumes I’m an idiot. I don’t care if somebody calls me an idiot. But if somebody assumes I’m an idiot or calls me one, I’m not going to contribute to their welfare. When you post content to a social media service, you contribute to its welfare. Without user generated content a social media service is a barren wastelands. It has nothing with which to entice people to sign up. Social media services by and large rely on having large numbers of users since user interactions are their product. No users, no user interactions. No user interactions, no income.

This brings me to the reason I want to highlight. Every mainstream social media service assumes that its users are idiots. Not only do they assume that their users are idiots, they call their users idiots. Every time a social media service “fact checks” a post or comment it’s saying that its users are too stupid and gullible to discern fact from fiction.

Rather than contribute to the welfare of services that assume I’m an idiot, I’m contributing to the welfare of services that don’t insult my intelligence.

Maybe Connecting Everything to the Internet Isn’t a Great Idea

I’ve made my feelings about the so-called Internet of things (IoT) abundantly clear over the years. While I won’t dismiss the advantages that come with making devices Internet accessible, I’m put off by industry’s general apathy towards security. This is especially true when critical infrastructure is connected to the Internet. Doing so can leads to stories like this:

Someone broke into the computer system of a water treatment plant in Florida and tried to poison drinking water for a Florida municipality’s roughly 15,000 residents, officials said on Monday.

The intrusion occurred on Friday evening, when an unknown person remotely accessed the computer interface used to adjust the chemicals that treat drinking water for Oldsmar, a small city that’s about 16 miles northwest of Tampa. The intruder changed the level of sodium hydroxide to 11,100 parts per million, a significant increase from the normal amount of 100 ppm, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said in a Monday morning press conference.

The individuals involved with the water treatment plant have been surprisingly dismissive about this. They’ve pointed out that there was never any danger to the people of Oldsmar because treated water doesn’t hit the supply system for 24 to 36 hours and there procedures in place that would have caught the dangerous levels of sodium hydroxide in the water before it could be release. I believe both claims. I’m certain there are a number of water quality sensors involved in verifying that treated water is safe before it is released into the supply system. However, they’re not mentioning other dangers.

Poisoning isn’t the only danger of this kind of attack. What happens when treated water can’t be released into the supply system? If an attacker poisons some of the treated water, is there isolated surplus that can be released into the supply system instead? If not, this kind of attack is can work as a denial of service against the city’s water supply. What can be done with poisoned water? It can’t be released into the supply system and I doubt environmental regulations will allow it to be dumped into the ground. Even if it could be dumped into the ground, doing so would risk poisoning groundwater supplies. It’s possible that a percentage of the plant’s treatment capacity becomes unavailable for an extended period of time while the poisoned water is purified.

What’s even more concerning is that this attack wasn’t detected by an intrusion detection system. It was detected by dumb luck:

Then, around 1:30 that same day, the operator watched as someone remotely accessed the system again. The operator could see the mouse on his screen being moved to open various functions that controlled the treatment process. The unknown person then opened the function that controls the input of sodium hydroxide and increased it by 111-fold. The intrusion lasted from three to five minutes.

This indicates that the plant’s network security isn’t adequate for the task at hand. Had the operator not been at the console at the time, it’s quite possible that the attacker would have been able to poison the water. There is also a valid question about the user interface. Why does it apparently allow raising the levels of sodium hydroxide to a dangerous amount? If there are valid reasons for doing so (which there absolutely could be), why doesn’t doing so at least require some kind of supervisory approval?

It’s not uncommon for people involved in industries to cite the lack of budget necessary to address the issues I’ve raised. But if there isn’t a sufficient budget to address important security concerns when connecting critical infrastructure to the Internet, I will argue that it shouldn’t be done at all. The risks of introducing remote access to a system aren’t insignificant and the probability of an attack occurring are extremely high.

Whenever somebody discussing connecting a device to the Internet, I immediately ask what benefits doing so will provide. I then ask which of those benefits can be realized with a local automation system. For example, a Nest thermostat offers some convenient features, but many of those features can be realized with a local Home Assistant controller.

Educating People in Order to Argue with Them

Long ago I was taken aback when a friend of mind who was a prolific online debater told me he swore off online debates. I was curious and asked him why. He said, “I’m tired of educating people just so I can debate them.”

After that conversation I started to pay attention to my online debates and quickly realized that most of what I thought was debating was actually educating. Since I hold views that are outside of the zeitgeist, most people I encounter have little, if any, understanding of them. In a majority of online debates the people with whom I’m debating make arguments that have no meaning within the context of what I’m saying. I then have to spent time educating them about what I mean just so they can actually debate me.

I’m certainly not unique in this. Consider Marxists for a moment. It’s pretty easy for them to have a very rudimentary debate about workers’ rights because that issue is part of the zeitgeist. However, if they want to make an argument based on historical materialism, they usually have to invest time in educating the other individual(s) on the subject so they have enough of an understanding to intelligently debate the issue. Libertarians have the same issue. It’s pretty easy for a libertarian to debate somebody about decriminalizing cannabis because that issue is part of the zeitgeist. But when a libertarian wants to debate monetary theory, they have to first teach their opponent(s) about the Austrian tradition of economics.

This problem runs even deeper. Few in what I will refer to as the masses appear to be educated on the topics of rhetoric and formal debate. Rhetoric is the skill of speaking convincingly. Formal debate is a framework which establishes ground rules for debates. A lot of people tend to conflate the two. They will try to argue against rhetoric by citing logical fallacies and make statements in a formal debate that contain logical fallacies. For example, consider the phrase “All cops are bastards.” The statement is valid rhetoric, but would not fly in a formal debate because the proposition is made with insufficient data (namely that every single individual who works in law enforcement is a bastard even though the debater is likely basing their argument on a small sample size of law enforcers).

I’m going to create two sides to further illustrate this issue: pro-cop and anti-cop. An anti-cop individual may say, “All cops are bastards,” as a form of rhetoric. They may not have meant the statement literally nor were they taking part in a formal debate. They’re merely trying to convince people to join their cause. But a pro-cop individual may rebut with, “That’s a hasty generalization fallacy!” The pro-cop individual is citing a rule that doesn’t apply to the situation. Now I’ll change the scenario. The two individuals have agreed to participate in a formal debate. When the anti-cop individual says, “All cops are bastards,” it would be proper for the pro-cop individual to say, “That’s a generalization fallacy,” because they both agreed to operate under the rules of formal debate.

How does this relate the the need to educate people in order to argue with them? More often than not I run into individuals who know nothing about rhetoric or formal debate. Their counterarguments will often involve pointing out logical fallacies in my rhetoric and making logical fallacies of their own. They know just enough about logical fallacies to recognize and call out a few of them, but not enough to avoid making the rest (which is usually the majority) of them or to know when they are appropriate to cite. They unknowingly (or knowingly, but I’m giving the benefit of the doubt here) attempt to establish an environment where I have to abide by the rules of formal debate while they operate by the rules of rhetoric. I then need to explain the difference between the two and convince them to pick one or the other. By the time that’s done the thread has digressed so far that everybody has lost interest.

This is where I reminisce about the good old days of the Internet when I could participate in online debates without having to spend a lot of time educating my opponents just so they could intelligibly argue with me. At one time I blamed the change on the diminishing state of education in the United States. However, when I was reminded of the term Eternal September, I started to blame two related issues: everybody and their grandmother is now online and Internet forums are more centralized. The early Internet was broken up into a large number of small Usenet groups, forums, and chatrooms. Most of those were topical so the people who joined usually already had an interest and at least a basic understanding of the group’s, forum’s, or chatroom’s topic. Today it’s not uncommon for a random user to find a Facebook group because it appeared on their Timeline when one of their friends made a comment in it. That random user may have no understanding of the group’s topic, but they end up posting a comment to the thread because they saw it on their Timeline and disagreed with something another user posted.

The Fragility of the Centrally Planned System

If COVID-19 has accomplished nothing else positive, it has been doing a wonderful job of illustrating the fragile nature of the centrally planned system under which we suffer.

At the tail end of last year the City of Minneapolis, for the good of Mother Gaia, required stores to charge a nickle for every plastic bag. This policy was put into place to encourage people to use reusable bags. Now many stores are banning reusable bags because they can spread disease.

The City of Minneapolis has also been waging a war against personally owned automobiles. I guess when you spend over $2 billion on trains you really want people to use them. But cramming a bunch of people into a small train car or bus is an ideal environment for a spreading contagion. To mitigate this problem, Metro Transit has asked people to avoid getting onto buses and train cars with 10 or more passengers. Oh, did I mention that Metro Transit also reduced service and suspended it entirely between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m.? So don’t wait too long for the next bus or train!

Another centralized system that is under a great deal of stress is, as you might guess, the unemployment application system. Some people in Minnesota who have applied for unemployment benefits aren’t getting their checks and are unable to get a hold of anybody in the bureaucracy who can help them. To help alleviate the pressure, Minnesota is asking people to apply for unemployment benefits on specific days based on their social security number. Hopefully you don’t need your benefits right away!

In addition to a stressed unemployment system, Minnesota is also facing a lack of intensive care beds. Perhaps the State of Minnesota shouldn’t have put a moratorium on the construction of new hospitals into law.

These are just a handful of local examples. On a national scale the system is falling to pieces. The Federal Reserved has announced that it will print infinite money to alleviate the crisis brought on by national and state level economic shutdowns. Everybody will receive money, but they won’t be able to buy anything with it for very long.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Ars Technica ran this story with the title China’s “democracy” includes mandatory apps, mass chat surveillance. The important part to note is the scare quotes around the word democracy. From the article:

As the National People’s Congress gathers in Beijing for the beginning of China’s “Two Sessions” political season, state media is making an international propaganda push on social media—including on platforms blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”—to promote China’s “system of democracy.”

[…]

That system of democracy apparently involves mass surveillance to tap into the will of the people. While China’s growth as a surveillance state has been well-documented, the degree to which the Chinese leadership uses digital tools to shape the national political landscape and to control Chinese citizens has grown even further recently. That’s because authorities have been tapping directly into Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members’ and other Chinese citizens’ online activities and social media profiles.

I’m using the Ars Technica article for illustrative purposes but the general attitude amongst Americans seem to be that China isn’t actually a democracy. However, democracy is a system where voters have the opportunity to gang up against each other. This inevitably results is a paranoid police state where everybody has voted to surveil and punish everybody else.

The primary difference between China and apparently freer democracies is where they started. Take the United States for example. It started with an almost powerless federal government and a strong mythology about individual freedom. It took a great deal of time for voters to first vote a larger government into existence and then vote to wield it against each other. The People’s Republic of China, other the other hand, started with a much more powerful government so there was no delay from voters having to first vote it more power before they could wield it against each other.

The things for which us enlightened people of the glorious Western democracies mock China are in our future. Just look at the massive surveillance apparatuses in the United States and United Kingdom. There is scarcely a thing you can do or a place you can go that isn’t surveilled by some government entity. The Ars Technica article discusses the effort China is putting into propagandizing its party members but the author likely failed to recognize the similarities between those efforts and the efforts in Western public education systems to propagandize young children. While most Western democracies aren’t as overt about controlling their news outlets as China is, all of the major supposedly independent media outlets are little more than government propaganda machines (how else are reporters going to get access to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room or get themselves invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner).

Make not mistake, what we’re witnesses in China today is the endgame of any democratic system. To insinuate that China isn’t a democracy is to misunderstand what a democracy truly is.

Self-Inflicted Dystopia

Nike has released its self-lacing shoes and the result is funnier than anything I predicted:

One user writes, “The first software update for the shoe threw an error while updating, bricking the right shoe.” Another says, “App will only sync with left shoe and then fails every time. Also, app says left shoe is already connected to another device whenever I try to reinstall and start over.”

“My left shoe won’t even reboot.” writes another. One user offers a possible solution, saying, “You need to do a manual reset of both shoes per the instructions.”

People like to argue over whether Orwell or Huxley more accurately predicted our dystopian future but I think Mike Judge’s prediction is proving most accurate.

Products like the Nike Adapt BB provide the opportunity for a self-inflicted dystopia. If your life is too free from anxiety, you can buy some. Running a little late for work? Now you can worry about whether or not your shoes have enough charge in them to lace themselves or whether or not your smartphone app will connect to them to activate the self-lacing operation. Will the lithium-ion batteries in your shoes explode? Who knows! Will wearing them outside in -20 weather cause the batteries to discharge to such a point that you won’t be able to unlace them? Perhaps!

On the upside, the entertainment derived from watching people struggle with their “smart” shoes is free.

A Barrel of Laughs

If it exists, politicians will try to tax it. As a correlative, politicians will try to tax it and tax it again. Politicians already tax personal electronics via federal and state sales taxes, regulatory compliance costs, tariffs, etc. But now some politicians in Kansas want to add an additional tax under the auspices of fighting human trafficking:

Two bills introduced in the Kansas House on Wednesday generate funding for human trafficking programs by requiring all new internet-capable telephones or computers sold in the state to feature anti-pornography software and by mandating adult entertainment businesses charge a special admissions tax.

Sabetha Rep. Randy Garber sponsored legislation requiring the software installations and dictating purchasers would have to pay a $20 fee to the state, and whatever cost was assessed by retail stores, to remove filters for “obscene” material. No one under 18 would be allowed to have filter software deleted.

Pay a $20 fee to the state or ask a neighborhood teenager (who will probably do it for free out of spite) to remove it just for the irony? Tough decision.

Setting aside the mental gymnastics required to tie human trafficking to the legal pornography industry, we’re left wondering how, exactly, Kansas legislators plan to enforce this. Take my ThinkPad for instance. Let’s pretend I purchased it in Kansas 20 minutes into the future and it included this hypothetical filtering software. The first thing I did after purchasing my ThinkPad was replace the stock hard drive with an SSD, which removed all of the included software. Moreover, I didn’t reinstall the included software, I install a Linux distribution. I effectively bypassed this legislation in a matter of minutes.

“Ah, you cheeky bastard,” you say, “but what about your phone?” If I lived in Kansas under this law, I would purchase my phone in a neighboring state. If that wasn’t an option, I would likely purchase an Android smartphone with an unlockable bootloader and flash something like LineageOS on it, which would accomplish the same thing as installing Linux on my ThinkPad.

I also guarantee that if this legislation passed, a script to remove the filtering software would be published to GitHub within a day or two. “But that would be illegal,” you say? Maybe in Kansas but that doesn’t apply to anybody in, say, Minnesota.

Play Stupid Games, Win Stupid Prizes

This story is an illustration of how not to handle a fender bender:

Following the fender bender, Kamrowski stopped in the left lane and got out of his Ford F-150 pickup truck to exchange insurance information with Fitzgerald, according to police.

Fitzgerald, 37, of Ashland, Massachusetts, stayed inside of his white 2016 Infinity QX70 SUV, authorities said.

“That encounter became adversarial,” police said in a statement.

At some point, Kamrowski of Framingham, Massachusetts, reached into Fitzgerald’s vehicle and snatched a water bottle and then stood in front of Fitzgerald’s SUV, police said.

Ideally, after a collision, both parties get out of their vehicle and cordially exchange insurance information and let their respective companies deal with the situation from there. However, ideal situations are almost as rare as honest politicians. If you find yourself in a collision and the other party won’t exit their vehicle, don’t approach. But if you can’t stop yourself from doing that, at least don’t reach into the vehicle. Record the other driver’s license plate number, the make and model of their vehicle (if you can determine it), and identifying characteristics of their car (color, bumper stickers, etc.) and person. If the driver flees, you have a good description to give to the police. If they don’t, they’ll have to get out of their vehicle eventually.

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re an idiot though and couldn’t restrain yourself form approaching and reaching into the car. At least don’t do this:

“Fitzgerald then began driving towards Kamrowski, who subsequently jumped on the hood of Fitzgerald’s vehicle,” according to the statement from police.

The box of his F-150 would have been a better place to go (or, better yet, back into the cab). But if do jump on the hood, do it only long enough to jump off the vehicle in a safer direction. If you decided to overstay your welcome (and your welcome will be approximately zero seconds), you could end up going for a ride:

With Kamrowski clinging to the hood, Fitzgerald headed west on the turnpike, accelerating and stopping in an apparent herky-jerky attempt to shake Kamrowski, police said. Fitzgerald’s Infinity hit speeds of up to 70 mph as it traveled about three miles on the highway with Kamrowski holding on, police said.

Now you get to ask yourself a question, is the driver panicked and working from their fight or flight state of mind or are they purposely trying to kill you? It’s a pointless question because the answer is irrelevant to your situation. But asking it might distract you from the fact that you’re probably going to die because of your poor decisions.

Fortunately for Kamrowski, a good Samaritan managed to end the situation before he died:

Several motorists tried unsuccessfully to get Fitzgerald to stop, police said. When Fitzgerald eventually got bogged down in traffic, a motorist with a permit to carry a concealed weapon approached Fitzgerald and ordered him out of the SUV at gunpoint just as troopers arrived on the scene, according to the police statement.

But that’s not something you can bet your life on. Moreover, you’re probably still going to jail:

Fitzgerald was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon on a person over 60, negligent operation of a motor vehicle and leaving the scene of a property damage accident.

Kamrowski was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and malicious damage to a motor vehicle.

In summary, don’t be either Kamrowsky or Fitzgerald. Especially don’t be Kamrowsky though because he put is life in danger (Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was at least smart enough to stay in his vehicle and thus maintained a significant advantage in the deadly situation they both worked to create).

Sometime to Amuse You

Here’s something to amuse you, an opinion article written by a Transportation Security Agency (TSA) schmuck who thinks ordering people to throw away bottles of water and touching children is a tough job.

Though we’re just enforcing the rules that keep the public safe, most people treat us as the jerks who take away their nail clippers.

That’s because you are jerks who take away nail clippers.