Saturday, 26 March 2016

People Don't Read

I wonder if this has anything to do with the dumbing down of our written communication in this age of Facebook and Twitter, but it seems to me as if somewhere along the way people have lost their ability to read. Or, to pinpoint, their ability to comprehend the written word.
Things are fine as long as one sticks with writing a simple, non nuanced message. Dare write something more complicated, with arguments and counter arguments, and maybe even delve into finer detail? Get lost!
It happened to me several times with the past fortnight that I wrote detailed emails, expecting the addressees to appreciate the fact in order to supply me with the exact answer I needed. But no, each and every one of those people failed their reading comprehension: one totally ignored me, another came back with that most stupid "I respect your opinion [but won't do shit about it]", and the third had me attend in person just so I can say exactly what I wrote down in the email.
No, I do not think today's people are dumber than older generations. I think it's clear it is exactly the opposite. However, I suspect that a modern day's brain is so flooded with messages that there is no room for anyone to accept the complicated anymore. And that's sad, because life is complicated.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The People's Car

There are a lot of factors to take into account when looking for a car, but I was usually working under the assumption these are to do with the car itself. Recently I learned that approach of mine was rather naive; there is more to a car than just the car. There is the matter of the dealership with which you interact.
Take, for example, our adventure with a local car dealership. I won't name the brand the dealership represents, but - in an effort to help you with your German skills - I will mention it translates to car ("wagen") for the people ("volks"). I will also mention that particular manufacturer has been starring in the news recently, for all the wrong reasons, having found deeply involved in a con to cheat on emissions laws. Heads should roll, on the floor.


Anyway, we made our way to said dealership, and eventually - the place was quite crowded - found a sales representative that would talk to us. She had us sitting down and asked, in a rather peculiar manner given that should have been the start of her sales pitch, whether we have any questions.
I did my homework and I did have questions. "Do all your cars use premium fuel", I asked.
Yes, I was told, and that is because non premium fuels ruin their cars' engine, came the reply.
So there you have it: an official representative of a global car manufacturer is telling me engines worldwide are being destroyed by the very fuel they are designed to run on.
Just to clarify, I would have gladly taken something along the lines of "we design our engines for top performance and efficiency, hence their reliance on premium fuels" as an answer. It happens to be the truth, too. I was simply trying to inquire whether other non premium models exist, but instead I was subjected to bullshit propaganda lies.
Affairs did not improve. The salesperson asked us next if she can interest us in diesel models. Given the above mentioned emissions scandal, I was genuinely surprised and asked whether these are still on offer (given the problems are yet to be solved and those engines are still breaking the law). My reaction seemed to have personally offended our helper; it became clear she was not going to help us in the least, but was rather doing her best to get rid of us.
We chose to spend our money elsewhere.

To put it simply, a car manufacturer or its representative dealership that thinks it can sell me a car for Goddess knows how much money but refuses to adequately address my questions does not deserve my money. Nor yours.
It appears as if this manufacturer is working under the assumption that the people of Australia should be thankful to it gracing us with its cars. Me, I went elsewhere, wishing their business practices would soon see them wiped off the market.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016


And now it's time to ask myself a question I asked several times already during the lives of my blogs:

Last time I had ads on my blog I got myself a nice check (or cheque, as per the rather grotesque Australian English version). Nothing to help with the deposit for my Tesla, but a nice one nevertheless. It also occurred to me that, hits wise, my blogs are scoring nicely; if I was to deploy ads full time, as opposed to merely trying to see what extra analytics data they bring along, I should be able to get more such nice surprises.
You know me, I like money. On the other hand, I dislike ads; I block them fervently with every means at my disposal. I also detest the unwritten contract of the Internet, the one that says that one shall be allowed to access contents freely for the price of one being exposed to ads as well as tracking mechanisms that trade with one's privacy under the false pretense of attempting to offer more relevant ads.
Despite these fine arguments, I am still inclined towards adding ads. For two reasons.
First, given my blogs are hosted by Google, Google already deploys trackers from its vast arsenal over these pages regardless of whether they come bearing ads or not. Seriously, if you're reading this on the actual website (as opposed to an RSS feeder of sorts), do yourself a favour and use protection such as Privacy Badger, Ghostery, Disconnect, or any of many blockers available on iOS (try Focus, Mozilla's implementation of Disconnect) and Android. And in the name of all that is pure, do not read this blog while you're logged in to Google.

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Death by a Thousand Cuts

The security of our online data is being compromised again and again by all sorts of folks and companies who are simply ignorant of the grave potential consequences of what they are doing. By now I am sick of being the only one that notices these things and raises the alarm bells.
Perhaps one needs to be the victim of identity theft to be able to feel what I am feeling? That said, if that is the case, how come I am the only one? Why is it that everyone else is so ignorant on these matters? How come everyone else is accepting things the way they are, no matter how shitty they are?


As can be expected, problems start with institutions running on low budgets. In other words, our health and education systems.
This past month I noticed an interesting fact. All the medical institutions I have been visiting, from GPs through dentists, specialists and culminating with private hospitals, all of them are still running on Windows XP. That’s incredible given how long we have had to move away from Windows XP, the fact that by now those institutions should have learnt their lesson, and the fact that some of these specialists and private hospitals are actually swimming in money.
I can see how hard it is for a bulk billing GP clinic to make the upgrade effort, though. By the same token, these are the people maintaining the bulk of our deeper secrets as well as some of our most important personal info. And by continuing to use their archaic system with their multitudes of well publicised vulnerabilities, they are sacrificing the security of all of us.
Oh, and do I need to mention last week’s case, when a clinic sent us a whole set of documents relating to another patient of theirs? Those documents contained pretty much all there is to know as far as that patient’s health was concerned: contact details of patient and doctor, Medicare and private health numbers, you name it. When we pointed the mistake out to the clinic their excuse was they misfiled our information because both patients have the same name.
You know your information is in good hands when you hear that.

Next in line is the education system.
Last year, our school started implementing a system to send us notifications with. It felt much better then what fellow parents in sending their kids to other schools had to endure. One such school forced all parents to communicate via Twitter (a commercial company making its money from data mining people's tweets), comfortably forgetting that Twitter is thus a part of all children related communications.
Things changed at the start of this school year. Us parents were informed that all communications with the schools and the teachers will now be based on this system; generally speaking, no more emails. To emphasise the point, school started a competition between classes: the first to have all parents registered on the system would win an award. The following week, all children had it in their homework to ensure their parents are registered; as the children know all too well, those that do not “do” their homework by Friday are punished.
It was time for me to check this system out. Up to that point, I couldn’t care less if all the notifications we received were public; no one cares if “tomorrow is pink dress day, don’t forget to come dressed in a pink dress”. However, when I am now required to enter some very personal information into the system, information of the type that can be used to separate me and the contents of my bank account, my alert level steps up a notch.
So I went to the system provider’s website and checked their privacy policy. I could tell they were reliant on Google systems, which is not a good match for school; one doesn’t want Google to mine their children’s data. I could also tell that privacy policy missed out on vital information, such as how the school’s data is stored: does it reside on a server on someone’s garage? Is all the data stored with, say, Google? For a parent to trust their child's data with someone, one expects more than the usual "we take every measure to protect the data" ass covering statements.
Curiously, the privacy policy stated the facilities utilise Google Analytics and provided instructions for parents on how to avoid Google Analytics’ tracking. Adding to the intrigue was the fact our school’s facilities did not actually utilise Google Analytics (but rather some other trackers), plus the fact those counter measures specified in the privacy policy cannot be applied to a smartphone app.
Thus, several weeks ago, I contacted the provider with questions concerning the application of their privacy policies. To date I am still waiting for an answer.
A week went by and my son was threatened by his father’s lack of registration to the school facilities, so I decided to give those a try despite the lack of provider feedback. I did not get too far: that password protected website, where all the school communications are now being dealt through, and where tons of private information is now stored? That website is uses a very open HTTP protocol with no protection whatsoever. Any two cent hacker in Russia listening in to the traffic could pick my login credentials up, as well as all the rest of the information passing through. And we know there are enough such people in the world (Russia, please accept my apologies for picking on you) that actually do so.
So I raised a complaint with school and wrote on my child’s homework form that I refuse his homework. Two weeks later, I am still waiting for a reply.
I know what’s going to happen. No one would answer my feedback on account of no one willing to take the “credit” for coming up with such a shit system. Further, now that there is awareness on the matter, no one would dare claiming “the facilities are well protected as they are”, because they know they will only be making fools of themselves and endanger their positions once matters are escalated. Talking escalation, once I am fed up and do bother to escalate things, I will be the school’s evil parent, the one single person because of whom this entire lovely system had to be dropped.
But hey, I love being the evil guy. The thing that amazes me is how, in this school with more than 500 children, I happen to be the only evil parent.

Then again, it’s not only the health and education systems that screw with our online security. There are also tons of companies out there seeking to save a buck by not giving a fuck about their customers’ data security and privacy.
Take my car manufacturer as an example. I received an email from them informing me I can now save time and book my car services online. Not only that, but online is the only place I could go to find out how much I can “save” through their service capping plans.
So I went to have a look. And guess what? Just like that school online facility, this car manufacturer - a global brand with tons of stuff going for it, racing titles and all - is also completely insecure. That could be fine, still, if all I want is to book a service time slot. Alas, in order to do so - or, for that matter, in order to receive that service capping information - I have to provide a long list of private details through that very exposed website. Screw that.
So I raised a formal complaint, citing the manufacturer’s own privacy policy claiming that “We take all reasonable steps to protect the security of personal information collected by us.” Unlike school, that email of mine was quickly escalated through the car manufacturer’s upper echelons. Within a day the matter was raised before their IT provider. They also called me the next day to let me know they agree with me. I still doubt they will do anything about it; that would require them to spend some cash.
Amongt other things, they pointed out yours truly is the first of their customers to ever notice the problem. Sometimes I hate being right.

Image by Seniju, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence