Friday, April 13, 2018

Farcebook

I'm pretty sure the Facebook hysteria now qualifies as a moral panic. We've named a problem ("loss of privacy"), identified it with a public enemy (Facebook is obviously tailor-made for this role; Google might be an even better fit, but - well, they drew a long straw this time), abused tens of thousands of innocent words on describing and discussing and distancing ourselves from The Problem. Now we're at the stage where lawmakers have got in on the act, and Congress is grandstanding at Mark Zuckerberg.

That's worrying, because moral panics generally end in new laws to crack down on some pastime that had, up to now, been classed as - if not exactly virtuous, then at least not harmful enough to be worth the loss of freedom entailed by passing laws about it. Think legal highs, dangerous dogs, alcopops, motorcycle gangs. And the pastimes at stake here - communicating with friends and family, networking, personal publishing - are, basically, everything that is best about the internet. If politicians come to see "social media" as something that needs to be clamped down on, then it's hard to imagine any result that would leave blogs like this one untouched. (The British government is already going this way: its recent changes to press regulation are clearly designed to stifle independent comment, while keeping the press barons onside. It's not, in itself, fascism - but it's one of its building blocks.)

I imagine, by now, just about every country with any kind of commercially-driven media sector has had its say on the Facebook panic. Here is what someone who passes for a media commentator in New Zealand has to say. And I think it's an instructive study in how moral panics - as well as their direct dangers - are also susceptible to hijacking by special interests.

Look at the headline: "Govt needs to protect Kiwis from Facebook's power". Explicitly calling for government action (i.e. new laws), explicitly aimed at Facebook. The writer criticises Facebook - not for collecting data, nor for slinging "targeted" ads, but for doing all this from abroad. "Fundamentally", he says, "we need to have a voice with these overseas organisations who are increasingly playing such an important role in the daily life of New Zealanders". On the other hand, you can "trust local retailers and organisations who have no agenda apart from being useful and understanding you".

Yeah right.

The author, one Ben Goodale, is a frequent contributor to the New Zealand Herald. More germanely he's described, in an easily missable footnote, as "the managing director of justONE". I didn't know what "justONE" is any more than you do, but its website describes it as "New Zealand's pre-eminent data-driven marketing, CRM and loyalty agency".

So no, the stench of self-interest that rises from this drivel is not just our imagination.

Note to every legislator: Facebook is a publisher. (Zuckerberg denies this, on the grounds that Facebook doesn't create the content, and it's "a technology company". In other words, he doesn't know what a publisher is.)

You know how to regulate publishing. You've been doing it for hundreds of years. Don't let the new technology and associated gobbledegook blind you to that simple fact: Facebook needs to be treated exactly like every other publisher. How would you react to a publisher that surreptitiously gathered data on people, then carelessly shared that data with third parties?

NZ already has a perfectly good privacy law that covers that scenario, but for some reason nobody has ever thought to apply it to Facebook. We don't need new laws, and we don't . We just need to enforce the laws we've got.

Monday, March 19, 2018

More in sorrow

Dear Mozilla,

I've been using Firefox, loyally, since before it existed. I used it when it was called Firebird, and Phoenix, and before that I was using the Mozilla browser. Occasionally - maybe once a month or so - I'll fire up some other browser for a specific task, but Firefox has always been my standard, everyday, all-purpose browser. The interface is clean and simple, the extensions are beautiful, I like the focus on privacy and putting the user in control. It just - works the way a browser should.

Until now.

The Quantum leap was, for me, not a good thing. True, pages rendered faster. But that performance came at a price: pages sometimes crashed, or slowed the whole system to treacle (Trello was particularly badly affected, presumably because of something in their Javascript - but whatever it was, it didn't affect other browsers). Nevertheless, I persisted. I told myself that Quantum had been a huge change, and teething problems were only to be expected. The next major update, I thought, would cure some of these ills.

Sadly, the opposite has happened. The "next major update" has landed, and while it has cured whatever ailed Trello, it has reduced several other sites to "completely unusable". As in, it simply no longer renders the page content at all. It will load a frame, or maybe a background image, but not display the content; or the content will disappear when I scroll. This happens across multiple sites and multiple computers, with and without extensions enabled; so I'm picking Firefox as the culprit.

(The content is loaded, it's still "there". It's sometimes possible to select it, by clicking and dragging with a mouse, and sometimes when this is done it will remain visible after deselecting. But sometimes not. At any rate, this is not an acceptable workaround.)

It is therefore with a heavy heart that I have decided, I can no longer wait for Firefox to get this excrement back together. Right now I have little choice but to adopt Chrome at work; for home use, I will probably prefer Vivaldi. A lot of people speak highly of Palemoon and Waterfox; I may give one or both of them a try within the next month. But Firefox, most sadly, is a broken vessel.

Goodbye. I wish you nothing but the very best of luck in the future; but from today, I'm no longer a user. I just don't have the time to deal with this level of crap.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Dumb meters and dumber journalism

This post was inspired by a bunch of press coverage last month of a Dutch research paper, which found big differences between the measurement of certain "smart" meters and a regular (old-style) electromechanical meter. Here is one of the more sober reports. Choice quotes:

Smart meters are giving readings up to six times higher than the energy consumed by households when connected to energy-saving light bulbs, according to scientists.[...]

It is the first ever proof that smart meters, which the Government wants in every household by 2020 to improve the accuracy of people's energy bills, are producing readings which are too high.[...]

So called "green" devices such as energy saving light bulbs, heaters, LED bulbs and dimmers change the shape of electric currents which can result in a distorted reading, it said.

The whole article illustrated by a picture of a pensioner's hands, clutching on to the last of their meagre savings in front of a log fire. Heartrending stuff, obviously. But nothing on the really hysterical coverage:

Smart meters can give readings almost seven times higher than the actual electricity consumed – particularly in homes when energy-saving bulbs are used, a study found.

Modern devices including dimmer switches and LED bulbs can confuse some smart meters, leading to massively inflated readings and higher bills.

All this is based on a paper published in the IEEE Electromagnetic Compatibility Magazine, from research conducted in the Netherlands. The University of Twente's press release is here, and the abstract is here. (In theory you can buy a PDF of the full paper for the modest donation of US$33, but the IEEE's portal defeated my best efforts to give them money. I eventually managed to read the paper from my local academic library.)

Now, the first thing to note about the above coverage is the heavy emphasis on household bills. The Telegraph article mentions the word "household" twice in the first three paragraphs, and backs it up with that scary picture. The Mail unabashedly talks about "homes" and "massively inflated readings and bills". But as even the paper abstract makes clear, it's not about household meters. Your average household has a single-phase electricity supply and a single-phase meter to go with it. Here is what the paper has to say about single-phase meters:

Several single-phase static energy meters were measured in various setups. [...] The results can be summarized in one sentence: no deviation beyond the specification could be observed; no influence of interference due to interfering or distorted voltage, and no influence caused by interfering currents were observed.

No, all the headline-grabbing results concern three-phase meters, generally used in large commercial and industrial premises. That poor old pensioner with the fire? Not affected. "Homes where energy-saving bulbs are used"? Not affected. (Well, to be completely accurate, it's not unheard-of for a home to have a three-phase supply. But unless you've got a welding station in your garage or something, it's pretty unlikely.) The household meters? - those took everything the researchers could throw at them, and ticked along like clockwork.

So, about those three-phase results. The Torygraph makes the connection to "So-called "green" devices such as energy saving light bulbs, heaters, LED bulbs and dimmers". In fact, to get the big anomalies, you need to be using both a dimmer switch, and energy saving (CFL/LED) bulbs - and not just a handful of them either, you need dozens of the things, all connected to the same dimmer switch. And then you need to turn the dimmer switch to 135°. If you leave the dimmer switch alone, or turn it to a mere 90°, you actually save money. Here is the, pardon the pun, money chart from the paper:

DimmerMeterResistiveCFLCFL+LEDCFL+LED+Resistive
SM1-2%-4%-4%-3%
SM2-3%-9%-11%-3%
SM3-3%-7%-6%-3%
SM4-3%-7%-6%-4%
45°SM1-14%0%-4%-16%
SM2-14%6%-5%-16%
SM3-3%7%-8%-3%
SM4-4%7%-6%-3%
90°SM15%-46%-52%-40%
SM25%-46%-53%-40%
SM3-1%3%1%-6%
SM4-2%-26%-28%-20%
135°SM1122%253%169%265%
SM2105%268%180%276%
SM3-1%-10%-3%-4%
SM42%-46%-36%-39%

So you need a three-phase meter and a whole lot of low-energy bulbs that are connected, in series, to a single dimmer switch that for some reason is permanently melted into position at 135°. And then you'll get inflated readings?

Well, maybe. It's still far from a sure thing, because only some three-phase meters show this effect - and the researchers, bizarrely, decline to name them. They do say that the offending meters use Rogowski coils (a century-old technology) for measurement. But no-one seems to know, and the researchers aren't telling, which meters those are.

Which brings me neatly to my topic for part 3 of this series: what really is wrong with smart meters. For now, what I can tell you for sure is that if your bill has gone up since you got a smart meter installed? - there is no reputable evidence to support the idea that it's the meter's fault.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Data is good, 'mkay?

Early this month, the story broke of a study in the Netherlands that had found large inaccuracies in the measurement of "smart" electricity meters. I started writing this post in response to that story, but it's far too long, so I've broken it into parts. Part One is why 98% of the bad things people say about smart meters are wrong. Part Two will be about the Dutch story specifically. Part Three, if I get that far, will be about what is wrong with smart meters.

Even so, it's a wall of text. Sorry about that.

I like "smart" meters.

Like most houses in New Zealand, my home is already fitted with one - has been since 2013. But more pertinently: as the billing and reconciliation manager of a small electricity retailer, I handle about a million smart meter reads every month. And I am, perforce, actively involved in working to get the things deployed "everywhere". (The scare quotes are there because we all know they'll never be everywhere. Hey, there are people out there who are still running Windows 98. But for statistical values of "everywhere", it is possible.)

And so I am more than averagely aware, both of the uses of these things, and of the popular resistance to them. This resistance is well organised. It looks like a genuine grassroots movement, but at the same time I would guess it's quietly egged on by interested parties, such as electricity retailers, meter manufacturers and meter readers, as well as the usual troublemakers (journalists and self-styled activists).

Sample website here. (I am indebted to smartmeterharm.org, for providing a central repository of the more plausible arguments. It beats heck out of such amateurish efforts as stopsmartmeters.org, which earnestly argues that all wireless technology is evil because RADIATION!!!) Marginally more rational arguments are:

  1. remote disconnection
  2. data privacy/security
  3. incompatibility between meter types and readers
  4. lack of benefit to customers
  5. inherent unreliability in the meters themselves.

The last of these is pretty technical, and it's really the theme of part two of this series. For now, let me consider the less geeky objections. To deal with the weakest point first:

Radiation

If your smart meter is located under your pillow, then it's just possible that you might absorb as much radiation from the smart meter, during the night, as you would during a two-minute conversation on a mobile phone. If it's located a few feet away from your bed, then the dosage will be less than 2% of that. If it's, like mine, on the far side of the house - then in terms of radiation strength, you would have a hard time even detecting it above the background radiation of terrestrial broadcasts, phone signals, alarms, car keys, baby monitors, garage door openers and all the other hum of 21st-century technology going on all around you. And don't even think about getting a wifi router, smart TV, or IOT-enabled device of any sort.

Of course there's no such thing as "totally harmless radiation", in the same way as there's no such thing as "totally harmless sunlight" - but most of us have long ago decided that the undoubted benefits outweigh the hypothetical risk. If you want to dissent from that opinion, then... I'm sorry, but I see no reason why the rest of us should have to pay for your hyper-caution. (It's not a huge cost, yet. At present, you're probably costing us something in the ballpark of $5-7 per month. But that figure will rise sharply as the number of legacy meters declines, because the economies of scale in handling them will fade away, so be ready for a substantial surcharge in a few years' time.)

Remote disconnection

Really, there are three separate fears under this heading. Remote disconnection may be done by your power company, by the police/government/similar, or by criminals (terrorists or other hackers). So let's take them in turn.

The procedure for your power company to disconnect you is closely regulated. We have to make certain efforts to warn you before we do it. There are laws prescribing the methods, wording, and timing of those communications. And - this is the key point - those laws are exactly the same, regardless of what type of meter you have. The big difference is that the whole process is a lot quicker (and easier to reverse), and cheaper, with a smart meter. This alone is a big win for customers. And if we do it wrong, either way, you can sue us.

At this point, I once had the rejoinder "for now, maybe, but what happens when the capacity is getting slim and the grid is desperate to shed load?" The answer to that is a thing called a ripple relay, which disconnects some loads in your house that are both heavy, and unlikely to be time-critical. (Generally, that means "an immersion heater".) The worst that happens is you have to go without hot water for a few hours, while the rest of your house continues to work as normal. Of course having no hot water is bad - but only until you compare it to the alternative, which is uncontrolled brownouts affecting your entire supply.

If you're worried about the police/government taking the time to disconnect your power supply - get your priorities straight. I've never heard of them doing that, and can only imagine that if a SWAT team is about to bash in your door, the power supply to your house is not going to affect things much either way. (Okay, so you may have some half-baked fantasy about standing them off with a homemade Gauss rifle or something. I recommend buying a battery. And life insurance.)

As for evil hackers/terrorists doing it: well, terrorists already have much simpler, low-tech ways of doing much greater damage (Google "northeast blackout 2003" to see what I mean). If it does happen to you - well, congratulations on being the world's first ever victim of an entirely new type of crime. Now call your power company and tell them what's happened, and your lights will be back on in a jiffy.

Data privacy/security

Probably the most overblown of all concerns. The issue here is the granularity of data.

When I look at a set of smart meter reads, I see usage per half-hour for the previous month. (Note, the previous month. We don't get the data in anything like "real time". Not even the meter owner knows how much you're burning right now. There are companies that get the data only one day late, but that's a significant amount of extra work for them.) I may be able to see, for instance, that your usage was around 0.2-0.3kW overnight, then started to ramp up at 5 a.m., peaking at 2kW at 7 a.m. and then dropping off to a steady daytime rate...

And that's all very interesting. It gives me an idea of what time your household gets up, showers and has breakfast. But - that's about all it tells me. It doesn't tell me what you have for breakfast, or whether you watch TV while you eat it, or whether you shower in the morning. There's no way of distinguishing between "a TV turned on for the whole half hour" and "a toaster turned on for a few minutes". I might guess that the 5 a.m. ramp-up is a timed dishwasher - but that's only a wild guess, it might just as easily be an immersion heater, or even an early riser getting in some quality screen time before the rest of the household gets up. There are dozens of possible explanations for any given pattern, and without more data there's no way of picking one.

And that is how I know that companies like ONZO are full of shit. In order to do what they claim to do, they would need more - much more - than your smart meter reads. I would guess that when they demo their technology, they do it on households that have a lot of interconnected and/or spying stuff in the house (an IOT-enabled toaster, or an XBox, or a smart TV, or a cable box, or Alexa, for instance - any of these would provide some serious quality spy data to supplement the meter reads). If you have any of those things in your house, then you're giving away far more data than your meter can gather.

Incompatibilities

This is a real problem in the UK. It is not, however, a problem in New Zealand, even though our technology is not all that exciting. Because it's not a technological problem at all - it's a structural or organisational problem.

There are two big companies that provide metering in Auckland. (Actually there are about eight, but only two major players controlling well over 90% of the market - Metrix and AMS.) These companies fit and maintain the smart meters, and collect read data from them. They pass that data to us retailers in (reasonably) well defined file types. If you want to be a retailer in New Zealand, you learn those file types and love them - and that's all you have to do. Dealing with the fine detail of extracting raw data from the meter and translating it into this standard format - that's the meter owner's problem (and we, the retailer, pay them for the service). If you switch retailer, the same meter continues recording the same data and it's collected by the same company - the only thing that changes is who they send it to for billing.

From what I gather, in the UK, power companies are supposed to read their own meters. That's... well, let's just say that it looks very much like a racket got up by the big, established retailers to raise barriers to entry for competition. It needs to be fixed with a clawhammer.

Lack of benefit to customers

This is probably the hardest case to argue, because it means engaging with a counterfactual: how different would the consumer's experience be, if there were no smart meters? And that, of course, drags us into a whole briar patch of assumptions.

There are some solid numbers we can point to. First, and most obviously, the cost - of all things related to meter reads and changes - drops dramatically with a smart meter. You want to get a read because you're moving in or out? That drops from $15 to zero. You've been disconnected and want to be reconnected? Price drops from $150 (hey, disconnection/reconnection is two site visits) to $40. You've paid your overdue bill and want to be reconnected immediately? The average time to accomplish that task drops from 2-3 hours to about 15 minutes. All of these are real, tangible gains for the customer.

Then there's timeliness and accuracy of billing. You may not think it's a great benefit to have an accurate bill. But when your immersion heater is playing up, or your kid has taken to leaving the heater on all night, or someone has switched your spa pool on and left it - often the first you'll know about it is when you see your power bill. If some of your bills are estimated, you may not know anything about it until two, three months after the problem has started, at which point you're already several hundred bucks out of pocket. With a smart meter, you'll at least get a chance to notice it much sooner (because every bill is based on a real read). If you ask your retailer for more data (as is your right), then you can even figure out exactly when it started, and hence who's likely to blame.

And finally, there's the competitive effect. I don't know the UK industry in much detail; but here in New Zealand, I know of at least three retailers (out of a total of about 18) who would never even have entered the market, if they hadn't seen Opportunities in the data afforded by smart meters. (One company makes a big advertising feature of "an hour of free power" every day. Can't do that without a smart meter.) So without them, there'd be at least that much less competition.

Conclusion

It's not hard to come up with superficially plausible objections to any new technology. And we live in an age when tens of thousands of wannabe activists are just itching to find a cause, preferably a conspiracy, to latch onto and tear down, to make their names and claim their place in celebrity culture. We reward people in our society for being loud, rather than coherent. Heck, look at Donald Trump.

But we shouldn't judge arguments on the shrillness of their proponents. An awful lot of what gets argued, online, is just plain bollocks, no matter how fervently the true believers cling to it. And the whole "smart meter conspiracy" story is firmly in that category.

Next instalment: the dodginess of the meters themselves. How bad are they, really? (Spoiler: far from perfect, but not nearly as bad as the press would have you believe.)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

It's beginning to look a lot like Fascism...

What do you call it when your political opponents are repeatedly threatened, harrassed, persecuted, marginalised and smeared?

Don't misunderstand me: I know the Democrats are far from guiltless, they've done similar things themselves. But never, so far as I know, so blatantly, so proudly. It's like Bush and torture: Trump is, to use the buzzword du jour, "normalising" these things.

It's still possible for Trump to prove me wrong. He could stand up to Putin, he could divest his businesses (or at least put them in a blind trust, like Bush and every other millionaire president before him), he could announce his conversion on climate change... The man is so inconsistent that all of this is possible. But the signs are not there.

In other news, I got an email from Yahoo! telling me that my account had been compromised and I should be sure to update my login details.

But: I'm pretty sure I've never had a Yahoo! account. I can't think of any reason why I would create one. I searched through my email history for evidence of having done so, and came up blank.

If I were of a paranoid disposition, I'd think someone was trying to trick me into typing my passwords into a system that they've owned.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Not a good year

So, for the second time this year I sat glued to my computer, watching with growing incredulity as a country I thought I knew placed its vote for "democracy is too hard".

Because what else can you call it, when the demagogue who pretends everything is simple trounces the professional politician who's spent her life learning how the system really works? Rejecting her, in great part, because she's had the temerity to learn these things.

So long, democracy. It was a noble experiment.

If you should find yourself a little way north of Los Angeles, take a moment to stand and listen. That rhythmic rumbling you hear is Ronald Reagan spinning in his grave, as his party - the Republican party - hands control of the Whitehouse to a Russian stooge.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The American nightmare

Dear USA,

Snap out of it.

Putting up Donald Trump as a primary candidate was funny. I must admit, I thought he'd burn out long ago. In particular, I couldn't see how the religious wing of the GOP could ever support such a transparently debauched man, one who - unlike, say, George W Bush before him - does not even pay lip service to repentance and redemption, his own or anyone else's. (Note, I'm not accusing GWB of lip service - I think he was quite sincere, for whatever that's worth. But Trump doesn't even pretend to be anything but a satyr.)

But that joke stopped being funny roundabout the time of the Republican convention.

This man has vowed to repeal the 16th amendment, to turn the US army into a mercenary corps, to sharply raise the national debt (including, he makes no attempt to conceal, taking as much money as he can stuff into his pockets for himself), to start a trade war that looks set to make people nostalgic for the Great Depression, to introduce a religious test for would-be immigrants (and even tourists, for that matter), and to look the other way while Russia rebuilds the Soviet empire - thus, incidentally, throwing away Ronald Reagan's greatest achievement.

People make excuses for all this. They say things like "the media is out to get him" - ignoring the fact that everything they know about Trump comes from "media", the only choice being between "media controlled more or less directly by Trump" (which says nice things about him), and "media that isn't" (which, for the most part, doesn't) - yet a large number of Americans have somehow persuaded themselves that the former are more trustworthy than the latter. Or they say "he always takes an extreme position to open negotiations, so he can make concessions" - which, apart from sounding like something that could have been said of Hitler, also implies that you know the man's lying but you give him a pass, because of course what he really means is whatever you happen to want him to mean. He's projected himself as, effectively, a blank canvas onto which people paint their own ideas, and delude themselves that he shares them.

I'm sorry the Democrats couldn't find anyone better than Hillary to run against Trump. Yes, she's uninspiring. Unlike her husband, she's never been a good orator. She's too old, too unprincipled, and has too many skeletons in her closet. Yet on all three counts, she's still somewhere between "much" and "infinitely" better than Trump.

But if you want to know why the Democrats couldn't find anyone better, look in a mirror. Hillary's route to power, unlike Donald's, has been one that's open to any middle-class American. If you want to make that kind of change, 30 years down the line - start now.

I know there's a popular idea that the country is run by and for powerful, corrupt elites. But that's bullshit. It's very popular bullshit, because it gives everyone in America an alibi for why their life hasn't worked out the way they wanted - but still purest, weapons-grade bullshit, peddled by people like Trump and his friend Mr Putin, because both of them have put a lot of effort into disempowering ordinary, middle-class Americans.

And if you were even thinking of voting for Trump, be ashamed. The man is the opposite of everything that made America worthwhile:

that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement [...] [A] dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

If Trump has his way, then "the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position" will become the only thing that matters.

What's horrifying to me is that it looks like almost 50% of the country - including, if the polls are to be believed, a clear majority of the men - are in favour of this programme.

I don't know if America can ever recover from this fiasco. If Hillary could (contrary to the polls) score a landslide victory on the scale of Reagan in 1980, that would go a long way to repairing the damage. But if the election is close, or if (God forbid) Trump wins - that will mark a step in US decline comparable to the reign of the Emperor Commodus.