November 29, 2010

Researching a seller online

New York times has a long expose on a particularly blatant case of online fraud, involving an unscrupulous seller who subscribes firmly to the adage that no publicity is bad publicity. He was able to use customer's blind reliance on Google to defraud them while continuing to raise sales. The case is clearly extreme, but raises an important question - how does one protect oneself from fraudulent online sellers. Instead of relying on everyone's favorite search engine to come up with a solution, I believe the answer is in thoroughly researching a seller online before committing to a sale.

Researching sellers online is a bit of an art and science. This post hopefully presents a bit of both. To begin, make sure you distance yourself from whatever deal that got you to the seller in the first place. The only question you have to answer with a simple yes/no is: "Should I buy from this seller". Nothing else.

The obvious first, prefer the big sellers - Amazon, etc. Yes you are dealing with the big bad businesses, but the odds are in your favor that you will get what you bargained for. At the same time, understand that Amazon, and online marketplaces like eBay, act as storefronts for other sellers. Be aware of who you are really buying from. If it is not the big chain, you still have to assess the seller.

The second obvious point, prefer a seller using a payment intermediary - PayPal, Google Checkout etc. This does not mean you don't research the seller, you just can push it knowing there is a layer of protection there. And if you have to use a credit card, see if your bank offers disposable virtual cards.

Google the name of the seller - by itself without the product you are looking to buy. Go at least two pages deep, remembering that a majority of the first page may just be links from the seller's site. Even if the seller is on eBay, you can still Google them.

The overall rating is the first indication. No one gets a 100% or 5 stars, but closer the better. If you are looking at a 1 star or 10% positive feedback, close the window and walk away. Assuming the seller is not an obvious psychopath, start reading through the negative comments. The idea is to try and look for trends, and get to the truth behind the comments. Here are some comments you will possibly see:

  • "The product I bought from this seller sucks" - you will see a few of these, and you can safely ignore them. These are product reviews, not seller reviews.
  • "Product is different from what was advertised" - this is a bit of a red flag. It could just be a miss on the part of the buyer, or deliberate misleading by the seller. Look for multiple comments saying the same thing before deciding to can the seller.
  • "The product is fake" - now this is a big red flag. Rarely is this going to be a misunderstanding; better stay away.
  • "Seller charged incorrect amount" - this is definitely a red flag. True there are mistakes, but this is one of the most important things a seller does. Not getting it right is at best sloppy, at worst fraud.
  • "Something went wrong, and the seller charged for replacement shipping" - if that was in the small print to begin with, there is nothing odious about it. Bad? Yes. But fraudulent? Probably not.
  • "Their customer service is really bad" - This is a yellow, does not always mean something is wrong. The customer, unfortunately, is not always right. And everyone has their buttons. Consider the specifics of the comments carefully and look for repeats.
  • "The seller is aggressive or otherwise abusive" - drop the seller. No deal is worth it.
  • "The goods got damaged during shipping" - not much a seller can do about shipping, but just watch out for a trend.
  • "The shipping was delayed" - if the seller is missing a 3-day shipping for a 5-day delivery as a trend, they are probably just cutting corners and you probably don't want to pay extra for quick shipping. If delays are a constant features, then there is something not quite right. Consider walking away.

Looking back at the article all three red flags above happened in this case. I am sure the lady meant well, but a bit of 'Google before your click' could have saved her a lot of trouble. These are just guidelines, but reading through some details of what the customers are saying about a seller, could swing the odds of a successful purchase squarely in your favor.

Update: Google seems to have figured out a technical solution beyond the obvious and has already implemented it.

November 28, 2010

Anthropomorphic realities

Screenshot from Brian Greene's TED talk

There is nothing like string theory and coffee to wake you up on a Sunday morning. I have been wanting to post this for a while, but never quite got the right angle to talk about. Until this morning, when I read this.

The article is a classic compilation of the anthropomorphic arguments for the structure of the universe. Notwithstanding the scary look of the word, the argument basically is that our world is the way it is, because we are in it. In other words, we are not living in a unique world, the world is unique because we evolved at the end of it.

The article from io9 essentially tackles the idea that any combination other than the 3+1 dimensions (three space dimensions and one time dimension) would be illogical. Having only two space dimensions would, for example, would result in the alimentary canal splitting your body into two. Having four dimensions would cause the laws of physics to produce an unstable world with electrons collapsing into the nucleus and the planets into stars. Similarly having a two-dimensions time would make it absolutely painful to meet anyone - even being in the same place you could be in completely different times and never manage to keep a date.

Anthropomorphic arguments are inherently persuasive, but dangerous. They tend to limit choices and directly impact analytical rigor. For the most part, I tend to stay away from them, unless it came to the interpretation of mathematical constructs. And in that, these argument present a layer of abstraction that has the power to raise fundamental psychological questions about ourselves and our universe.

Consider the perception of time for example. Persistence of vision dictates that the image we see persists for about 1/25th of a second. In a world without high-speed cameras, this would mean that all phenomena that occurred quicker than this limit would essentially be invisible to us. If you asked the question - why is the limit for persistence of vision that number, you are thinking about it incorrectly. Instead the anthropomorphic answer is more logical. We developed in a world where anything quicker than the persistence of vision would essentially be inconsequential to us, and therefore "invisible".

How better to close a discussion around physics and dimensions than to embed a TED talk on the subject by Brian Greene. After the break.

November 25, 2010

The accent of crowds

One of the most fascinating past of Web 2.0 for me, is the way it paints a study in crowd behavior. When I think about 2.0 sites, one of the biggest differentiating factors is their dynamic nature - where the readers contribute as much if not more than the site itself. And the tone of this contribution is distinct, an accent if you will, of these sites. Consider the following examples:

Slashdot, as the site proclaims, is a site that provides news for nerds and stuff that matters. The site for long has defined a sort of intellectual nerdy sub-culture on the Internet. Before the 2.0 moniker became the fad it is, Slashdot derived more from the comments everyone posted on "nerdy" news stories, than the stories themselves. And the tone on the comments has always been something that defined the site - nerdy, important, focused on being right and mostly brutal and unforgiving.

Woot is a hoot. For an e-commerce site that sells one - just one - item each day at a ridiculously low price, Woot has developed a strong following of users who go out of the way to research each deal. The tone starts with the description that is posted with each deal. Rarely focusing on the subject of the sale, the description is funny, satirical and whimsical. A tone that follows throughout the site into the comments. In stark contrast to Slashdot, your head is now chewed off if you are wrong. User posts are creative, sardonic and dare I say, useful.

Linking to 4chan, if you don't know what it is, is dangerous - so I won't. But the site is basically an image board, where all content is user generated, and no one needs to log in. Reflecting the permissive nature of the site, comments range from the downright obnoxious to the hilarious. There is an underlying element of mischief and theatrical excess. Then there are the memes, in all their wild and unrestrained creative glory. And yes, if you only know of 4chan through traditional media, there is an abundance of adult content, limited to a minority of the boards. Try filtering the boards to "work safe" to get some real value out of the site.

To the original point of this post. Sites like the three above, probably share a large chunk of the same users (no citation for that claim). But each site brings out a different aspect of its users. This accent of the sites, is something that is self propagated over time, but is also seeded by the site itself. A site proclaiming itself to be for the nerds, brings out the nerds. Another name woot, can never let anyone take themselves too seriously. The world wide web, is not so much a fragmentation of users, as it is a fragmentation of accents. And the tone you get in your users is, in all probability, the tone you portray in your site to begin with.

November 22, 2010

Mental helpdesk number

Much has been written about our ability (or rather inability) to truly multitask. Arguments range from the increased overhead in task switching to our inability to focus fully on one more than one task at a time. Here is a new to the mix - bandwidth crunches in our mental router.

Apparently, the underlying phenomenon is well known. When we need to decide a couple of tasks in quick succession, there is a measurable delay if the second task starts too close to the first. In other words, tasks get processed in our brain, one after the other. This is called Psychological Refractory Period. Researchers have recently discovered that there is a part of our brain, that acts like a router, and when there is too much traffic, there can be a delay while the outstanding requests are cleared out. In other words, questions go to one location, setup as the first level helpdesk number. These are then processed and handed over to more specialized parts of the brain that can then complete the requested activity. Guess the old adage was correct:

One thing at a time,
And that done well,
Is a very good thing,
As many can tell

From an evolutionary point of view, this is such a sweet example of functional specialization in the brain. A simple architecture, but that is as scalable as possible. Rather than have each part of the brain understand everything, everything is done in specialized pockets, including the generalized functions that specialize in nothing more than pushing paper. Examples of this specialization abound, including this one that identifies the brain center that tracks time.

Back to the original point. Not only is multi-tasking unsustainable from a macro point of view, the brain processing itself is set up to be incompatible with doing more than one things at the same time. If you are talking and driving at the same time, the fact that your driving decisions are queued up awaiting the finalization of your retort to the angry spouse is not only scary, but a sure shot recipe for disaster.

November 21, 2010

Why Gold

With Gold price scaling new heights during the current recession, there has been a justifiable explosion of interest in the shiny, yellow, inert metal. But the question it begs is - why Gold? What is it that make the metal Aurum, with 79 protons so special.

Turns out there is an explanation - a chemical explanation. NPR and Planet money tackled this recently, and requirements for an element to be a form of currency are these:

  • Not a gas
  • Doesn’t corrode or burst into flames
  • Doesn’t kill you
  • Relatively rare, but not too rare
  • Available during ancient times
  • Does not tarnish
  • Has a reasonably low melting point

There is only one element that fits the bill - Gold. The question of course is why do we need to restrict ourselves to elements and not include things like alloys. Not sure if chemistry may have an answer for that question.

The audio of the story from NPR embedded below. Turns out NPR is no longer providing embed code, so had to use a CC shared flash player from Dewplayer to embed the MP3 file from NPR. Thanks NPR, Dewplayer and Creative Commons.

November 18, 2010

Technophobe John

John apparently is a technophobe. And so his phone is as bare-bones as it gets. Unfortunately, John is only a moniker. Fortunately, it is also a company that makes the most simplest of cell phones - no camera, no operating system, no apps, not even text messaging. In fact the only thing you can do with the phone is power it up, make calls, hang-up, and (if it tickles your fancy) set the ringer volume level.

The phone clocks in with impressive specifications. It comes quad-band unlocked, includes a screen at the top edge to display inbound and outbound calls. The 1200 mAh battery stays on standby for about three weeks. The best part is that the phone comes in with two ways to store numbers - either linked to speed dial or noted on a paper phone-book embedded at the back of the phone (slot available, paper and pen sold separately at 3x for €9.95). Thankfully, it uses a micro-USB cable for charging, reducing your charger clutter. The question of course is, if you were technophobe John, why would you have a charger clutter.

By first impressions this seems to be a phone designed for John and Jane, the technophobes. But there is potentially a bigger market out there. Standard issue for sensitive workplaces - like the army or defense installations. A daily-swap program for contractors having access to classified information. An unbreakable version for every kid. And the list goes on.

But that is not going to happen at €69.95 (euros). Here to a solid demand that drives the price of this puppy down. And just maybe, John will need to buy a blackberry to keep up with the explosion of demand.

November 14, 2010

Emergence and Democracy

Emergence is the idea that given sufficient numbers of simple interactions, a relatively complex outcome may result, that cannot be trivially traced back to the simple interactions. Wikipedia, which is itself a great example of emergent behavior, defines emergence as:

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.

It struck me, in listening to coverage of the recent election season, that it should be possible to see voting as the building blocks of simple interactions, which should result in complex emergent behavior when it comes to the results of such elections. Having listened to pundits rave and rant on election results across the two largest democracies, there seems to be very little of this spontaneous complexity. Yes, parties win and lose, but over the generations of going through this process has not, in my opinion, produced a directed long-term behavior transcending local variations. To me that means that we are either asking the wrong questions of elections (and consequently democracy), or lack the tools to recognize emergence, or have democracy set up in a way to never achieve emergence.

The final thought is scary. Especially if you consider that most of humanity (caveats include China of course, but with the understanding that their adoption of democracy is only a matter a time) have hitched their future to this bandwagon. It appears, at least according to the superficial analysis above, that the current form of democracy is not set up to deliver on the promise of a future for humanity. The questions, therefore, are: why is today's democratic setup unable to produce emergent behavior, and what can we do about it.

When I initially thought about this, I had imagined this to be a problem with the lack of bounds for democratic emergence. Because there are so many parameters that modern democracies have to deal with, I figured the setup was not scaling in breadth. But the more I think, emergence has nothing to do with bounds. Emergent behavior changes with the change in bounds, but the behavior should nonetheless exist. Instead, I imagine the following three ideas may describe the reason for non-emergence in today's democracies.

Delayed feedback - emergent systems typically have a feedback loop as part of the simple interactions driving it. Democracy is time-delayed. Instead votes determining government actions occur every X years, while the actions themselves are continuous. This biases voting actions to the most recent governmental actions making the simple actions for emergence flawed.

Representative vs. Direct democracy - most democratic systems involve choosing of representatives who in turn make legislation. This one-removed nature of legislation eats into the continuity of feedback. There are no simple actions that vote on simple outcomes. Instead simple actions now are voting on complex outcomes themselves.

Non-uniform participants - emergent behavior requires all non-directed actions to be completed by similar participants. In other words, all voters ought to be equal. Unfortunately, this is not always so. With the Junta in Myanmar at one extreme of this example and the special interest groups in the US at another, participants in a democracy are never practically the same. This also means, the goal of pure emergence is that much tougher to attain.

This post is by no means the first look at such an idea. Joichi Ito, a Japanese journalist, talked about the idea of Emergent Democracy in 2001, and how blogs were/are going to be the engine towards making it happen. Wikipedia lists a book by Clay Shirky, called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. In both cases, the organization itself is proposed to be emergent as a result of the Internet.

While it is intriguing (and rather far-fetched) to give up the current democratic setup for the promise of anarchistic self organization of societies - there may be a case for a moderately direct form of democracy leveraging the Internet. And just may be establish a true form of emergent democracy that is actually able to propel human society forward.

November 13, 2010

Grand grand Canyon

The first time Grand Canyon took my breath away was when I saw this on Google Maps while I was researching our trip to the place. In what was otherwise a massively flat landscape, there was this sudden explosion of geography, like a massive fractal generator gone rogue. The scale of the natural wonder does not sink in, until I realized that the loop of road, from mid bottom to the bottom right corner, is about 20 miles long and takes half an hour.

Our trip to the Grand Canyon, was a day trip with no time to hike. That meant we were mostly interested in lookout points that provided great views. Curiously enough, for all the information there is about this natural wonder, we couldn't find many sites that definitely talked about key details of lookout points. Hence this post. In no way is this complete, but hopefully some of you may find it useful.

There are two rims to viewing the Grand Canyon, the quieter (and difficult to reach) North Rim and the more touristy (but equally grand) South Rim. If this is your first trip, go to the South Rim and keep it simple. The main route to the park is Arizona highway 64, that goes into the park itself through a checkpoint (where you can buy entry tickets). Continuing on the highway gets you to the visitor center and the first view point called Mather Point. As you can imagine, this is one of the most visited points. Off the highway to the left is the Grand Canyon Village, where you can find lodging and boarding if you so desire. Continuing on AZ-64 takes you onto East Rim Dr., that goes along the South Rim, passing a number of view points ending at the Desert View about 20 miles away.

All the points below are between the Mather Point and Desert View. There are a number of other points along the south rim that you could take a shot at, but these were the ones that worked best for us.

Mather Point: This is the first view point that comes up while driving north on AZ-64, and is linked to the visitor and learning centers. There are three parking lots, each of which connects to the main visitor area. The overlook with guardrails is located about a five to seven minute walk from the visitor center. The patch is mostly flat, well paved and accessible. The place is always busy, but the overlook is big enough to accommodate.

Yaki Point: This is the next viewpoint to the east of Mather Point. There are two ways to get to it - take the free shuttle from Mather Point, or park by the highway and walk the 1.2 mile connector road to the overlook. The connector road is not open to the public, only to the shuttle. There is also no parking by the road - there is a picnic spot by the connector where you can leave your vehicle instead. The shuttle starts early in the day, so this is a good alternative to Mather point for a sunrise experience.

Grandview Point: Grandview Point has a lot of historical significance, being among the first overlooks to be discovered. The views from here are spectacular with the Hance rapids visible from here. The view is accessible after a short drive through a connecting road ending in a loop that has some parking. The overlook is just beyond the parking.

Lipan Point: This overlook is accessible after a short connector road, just like Grandview point, with a loop at the end having some parking available. A pretty good view, but nothing you would not see from the next location.

Desert view: The Desert View is the eastern most point on East Rim drive, and it is a treat. There is a large parking just off the AZ-64, and walking about 5 minutes from the parking brings you to the historic watchtower. Not only are the views fantastic, but the watchtower itself is a treat. The river is visible from here and will probably be a great place to watch the sunrise from.

If you go to the Grand Canyon, you should probably spend some time and hike around the place. If you are unwilling or unable, and want to just want some views the places above may be a good place to start.

Update: Here is a photo-gallery of our trip to the Grand Canyon.

November 11, 2010

Stuff It

The Story of Stuff - is a cute and conscientious effort at promoting a more responsible and sustainable way of living. Narrated by a breathless Annie Leonard, the main video (embedded below) is an exploration of our current consumption-based economy and how unsustainable it really is. Interspersed with cute stick cartoons, Annie describes the linear nature of western economies, with particular focus on America - starting from extraction through to disposal of various material goods.

The core idea is not revolutionary - be sustainable because our current way of life is most certainly not. But the presentation seeks to gain a leg up via two different approaches, cartoon factoids and conspiracy theories. All through the video, you find instances of figures and ratios written up on virtual blackboards. They may all be true, or they may just represent the worst case scenario - one would never know from how neatly they are packaged. And then there are the conspiracy theories, right from the government - big business nexus to the secret cabal of post war economists and marketing directors. By no means is all of it false, and indeed expecting to get anything more than that in 20 minutes is rather naive. But by the same token, I would be hard pressed to imagine that all of today's economy is nothing more than a carefully packaged, herd the sheep, dog and pony show (talk about animated analogies).

With the facetious itch out of the way, let's get a tad more serious. The problem with sustainability in my mind, is that it has facets of the prisoners dilemma. In effect if all of us try to live sustainably, then it is a huge payoff for everyone. But if some of us do it and the others do not, then it leaves those of us acting in a sustainable manner worse off than those who are not. That is the way the dice of today's economy is loaded. When Annie talks about external costs she is not joking. Living off by your own self is not only more expensive, but it is not supported by the way society is set up today. That is what makes sustainable living a catch-22 situation.

Who then do we turn to? The same government that we blame for secretly getting us into this mess in the first place? The big business who care only about profits above all else? Or is the answer a more inclusive - all of the above? And that is the big issue I have with the tone of the message. The big question isn't how can we live more sustainably, but how do we make sustainability a social & economic imperative? Not one or the other. I have not heard a great answer yet.

Nevertheless, the video is a great way to communicate the message and urgency of a more sustainable life - to quote - "Make 'em Safe, Make 'em Last, and Take 'em Back."

November 10, 2010

Free WiFi or Secure WiFi

I wasn't a big fan of free WiFi. Don't get me wrong, I love having free stuff, but when it came to WiFi, free almost always meant it was unencrypted. And that meant that my security was basically at the mercy of everyone else sharing the connection with me.

This is because, every time you browsed on an open WiFi connection (except when it was a https page), anyone could easily see what you are browsing. There are a number of powerful tools that allow you to snoop on everyone else. To make matters worse, recent news indicates that even having https was no protection. FireSheep is a Firefox plugin that makes taking over other people's connections almost trivial.

The one protection against this form of security holes is, well, having an encrypted WiFi connection. Chester Wisniewski, a Security Advisor at Sophos, has a potential solution. To encrypt all free WiFi connections using a default password - "free". That way the connection remains just as accessible, but it also puts security high up on the agenda. And maybe, people like me would not be so wary of free WiFi connections anymore.