Review: Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier

tl;dr An enormously important book about understanding and optimizing security in the 21st century.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. I don’t know Bruce Schneier, and he certainly doesn’t know me. Even so, when he announced a heavily discounted signed edition of Liars and Outliers he was effectively testing the main hypothesis of the book: That in any society it is reasonable to uphold a non-zero level of trust even in complete strangers:

  • Schneier trusted 100 (or at least many enough to make a net gain) random strangers to reciprocate the offer by writing and publishing a review of the book.
  • 100 random people trusted him to sign copies of the book and send it to the correct addresses upon receipt of the money.
  • All 101 of us trusted essentially the rest of the human race not to interfere in the transaction, even when interference could mean easy money with virtually no chance of retribution.

Schneier goes on to explain, with his famous lucidity and reference to much contemporary research, why this trust is essential to all human interchange, how trustworthiness is highly dependent on the situation and not just the person, how a society with 100% conformity is not just a terrible goal but literally impossible, the human and artificial pressures to cooperate or not, how more severe punishments are often ineffective or even counter-effective, and how social and technological evolution is too fast for democracy to stabilize the overall level of trust.

[At this point I wanted to double-check the scribbled-down criticisms below, but the book is 3,000 km away with a nephew. Please take the following with a grain of salt. And now that I’ve lowered your expectations, let’s continue!]

In some very few places I found the wording misleading. For example, the iTunes store doesn’t allow you to buy music, merely to license it for your personal use. As far as I understand from what very little I’ve read of this, when iTunes shuts down, there are many jurisdictions where you would not be allowed to download songs which are audibly indistinguishable from what you had paid for.

The graphs are generally informative, but sometimes confusing. For example (pages 72-73):

  • Traits/Tendencies and natural defenses are both in the social pressures box, while the text says neither is a social pressure.
  • There’s an incentives line and a separate box.
  • Why are some of the lines double? If they’re strong, a thick line would be clearer.

One note is terrifying: On average, 7% of terrorists’ policy objectives are achieved? What method could conceivably be considered more effective than 7% for a (usually) tiny group of what is often foreigners? Compare it to normal bureaucratic channels, where usually only billionaire citizens or corporations have the slightest chance to change policy within a reasonable time.

Conclusion: I wish this had been compulsory reading at high school. With entertaining anecdotes, scary implications of human nature, and scientifically grounded careful optimism it’s the most dangerous book everyone should read.

Social contract – Fulfilled!

EIF replies

In response to Glyn Moody’s Open Source and Open Standards under Threat in Europe, here are the open replies to the key people (I’ll post as they are sent).

JoaquĆ­n Almunia:

Dear sir,

I have just read some disconcerting news and opinions regarding the EIF process (“Open Source and Open Standards under Threat in Europe” by Glyn Moody), and I hope you have the time to include the opinions of a software developer in your deliberations.

I have been working in private companies and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) since my graduation in 2004. I am also an active web user and contributor. This activity has taught me a few important business lessons:
1. Open source software and data based on open standards* are much more robust in the face of change than the alternative. Software is evolving fast, but if the proprietary software provider is unwilling or unavailable to make new software work with old data, the only options left are a costly and difficult re-implementation, a costly and difficult (often impossible because of data complexity) migration to other software, or outright abandonment.
2. Closed source means re-inventing the wheel over and over. Software business should be about creating additional value on top of what already exists, not about costly reiterations of what already exists.
3. With the availability of cheap Internet connectivity, storage and computing power comes the opportunity for individuals and communities to make millions of incremental improvements to software every day. These updates are available to anyone else, making for an enormous amount of work provided for free for anyone to build upon or profit from.

* I.e., software / standards which are available for free for anyone to view, modify and re-publish, optionally with additional restrictions or permissions such as the opportunity to change permissions on derivative works or the need for source attribution.

This text, and other appeals, will be available shortly at l0b0.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/eif-replies/

Just received a reply. The gist:

Recently, “draft versions” of the revised EIF have apparently been published on the Internet and we understand that you refer to these draft versions. You should note that the Commission cannot comment on such draft versions as they do not reflect a formal Commission position. But let me assure you that the guiding principles for the revision of the EIF include technological neutrality and adaptability, openness and reusability, as specified in the legal base of the Programme “Interoperability Solutions for European Public Administrations” (ISA)2, in the context of which the revision is being carried out.

Throw the fucking switch, Igor!

What would you like to have said, if it were you behind the “big green button” when the LHC starts in 2008? It’s the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, said to be the most complex machine ever built, and will most likely set the stage for the next level of theoretical physics, so it had better be in the “One small step” category.

Job trends in web development

The job search service Indeed has an interesting “trends” search engine: It visualizes the amount of job postings matching your keywords the last year. Let’s see if there is some interesting information for modern web technologies there…

XHTML vs. HTML

The relation between XHTML and HTML Relative popularity of XHTML and HTML in job offers could be attributed to a number of factors:

  • XHTML is just not popular yet (1 Google result for every 19 on HTML).
  • The transition from HTML to XHTML is so simple as to be ignored.
  • The terms are confused, and HTML is the most familiar one.
  • XHTML is thought to be the same as HTML, or a subset of it.

The XHTML graph alone Popularity of XHTML in job offers could give us a hint as to where we stand: At about 1/100 of the “popularity” of HTML, it’s increasing linearly. At the same time, HTML has had an insignificant increase, with a spike in the summer months (it is interesting to note that this spike did not occur for XHTML). XHTML could be posed for exponential growth, taking over for HTML, but only time will tell.

AJAX

This is an interesting graph Popularity of AJAX in job offers: It grows exponentially, which is likely to be a result of all the buzz created by Google getting on the Web 2.0 bandwagon. Curiously, the growth rate doesn’t match that of the term “web 2.0” Relative popularity of AJAX and "Web 2.0" in job offers. Attempting to match it with other Web 2.0 terms such as “RSSRelative popularity of AJAX and RSS in job offers, “JavaScript” Relative popularity of AJAX and JavaScript in job offers, and “DOMRelative popularity of AJAX and DOM in job offers also failed. The fact that AJAX popularity seems to be irrelevant to Web 2.0 and even JavaScript popularity is interesting, but I’ll leave the creation of predictions from this as an exercise for the readers. :)

CSS

While insignificant when compared to HTML Relative popularity of HTML and CSS in job offers, the popularity of CSS closely follows that of XHTML Relative popularity of XHTML and CSS in job offers. Based on that and the oodles of best practices out there cheering CSS and XHTML on, I predict the following: When CSS is recognized for its power to reduce bandwidth use and web design costs, it’ll drag XHTML up with it as a means to create semantic markup which can be used with other XML technologies, such as XSLT and RSS / Atom.

Discussion of conclusions

The job search seems to be only in the U.S., so the international numbers may be very different. I doubt that, however, based on how irrelevant borders are on the Web.

The occurence of these terms will be slowed by such factors as how long it takes for the people in charge to notice them, understand their value / potential, and finally find areas of the business which needs those skills.

Naturally, results will be skewed by buzz, large scale market swings, implicit knowledge (if you know XHTML, you also know HTML), and probably another 101 factors I haven’t though of. So please take the conclusions with a grain of salt.

My conclusions are often based on a bell-shaped curve of lifetime popularity, according to an article / book I read years ago. I can’t find the source, but it goes something like this:

  1. Approximately linear growth as early adopters are checking it out.
  2. Exponential growth as less tech savvy people catch on; buzz from tech news sources.
  3. Stabilization because of market saturation and / or buzz wearing off.
  4. Exponential decline when made obsolete by other technology.
  5. Approximately linear decline as the technology falls into obscurity.

PS: For some proof that any web service such as Indeed should be taken with a grain of salt, try checking out the result for George Carlin’s seven dirty words Relative popularity of George Carlin's seven dirty words in job offers ;)

Re: The Future of Tagging

Vik Singh has an interesting blog post on the future of tagging. IMO not so much because of the idea, since it looks quite familiar to the directory structure we’re all familiar with, adding the possibility for objects to be inside several directories at the same time. But it got me thinking on what tagging lacks, which is an easy to use relation to more structured data about what the tag means.

Anyone who’s used the del.icio.us tagging interface provided by their bookmarklets or Firefox extension knows how easy they are to use. Just click any tag, and it’s added or removed, based on whether it’s already used. Click the “save” button when done. Dead easy.

Creating RDF, when compared with del.icio.us, is quantum theory. But it’s already being used, and will probably be one of the biggest players in the semantic web, where things have meanings which can be interpreted by computers. Using RDF, you can distinguish between the tag “read” as an imperative (read it!) and an assertation (has been read). You can also make the computer understand that “examples” is the plural of “example”, and that curling is a sport (though some may disagree :)).

How could we combine the two? Here’s an idea: When clicking any of the tags in the del.icio.us tagging interface, you’ll be asked what you mean, by getting the possibility to select any number of from a list of one-sentence meanings. E.g., when selecting “work”, you could get these choices:

  • Item on my todo list
  • Something you’ve worked on
  • Something somebody else has worked on
  • A job/position
  • None of the above
  • Show all meanings
  • Define new meaning…

The list would normally only contain the most popular definitions, to harness the power of the “best” meanings, as defined by the number of users. The “Show all meanings” link could be used to show the whole range of meanings people have defined.

“Define new meaning…” could give you a nice interface to define the meaning of the word in the context of the link you’re tagging at the moment. This is where the designers really have to get their minds cooking to get something usable by at least mid-range computer literates.