Zara’s Space on the Web – Musings

December 4, 2013

A summary of the article that made me care about the NSA issue

Filed under: Computers,Geekery,Politics — zarazilla @ 8:33 am
Tags: , ,

I’m going to admit that I didn’t really care that much about the whole NSA spying thing for a while.  Maybe because I’d assumed it was always already kinda happening.

Then I read an article by the New York Times, which made me care, as it explained exactly how the NSA had managed to do all this spying, including weakening international cryptography standards, which I found most alarming.  If you have time, I highly recommend reading the article, N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web, by Nicole Perlroth, Jeff Larson and Scott Shane (September 5, 2013).

If not, I’ve attempted to summarise the main points here, with a little restructuring of information to get around newspaper format, which can be repetitive and/or confusing.  I’ve copied text straight from the article when convenient and skipped parts people might already have known/suspected.


In the 1990s the NSA attempted to legally insert a government ‘back door’ into all encryption (the Clipper Chip).  This means that they would be able to bypass encryption efforts so that they would be able to access anything they’d want, but the proposition was deeply unpopular and they eventually backed down in 1996.  But rather than stopping there, they went on to try to gain access to anything they wanted through stealth and trickery.

Working with, coercing and deceiving companies

The NSA hacked into computers to retrieve messages before they were encrypted, used super fast computers (I take it they mean supercomputers) to break codes and worked with technology companies in the US and abroad into building in back doors into their security.  Some say they were coerced, and there are cases where companies shut down rather than compromise themselves and their customers.  Lavabit, an e-mail encryption company closed while Silent Circle ended its e-mail service.

According to a leaked intelligence budget document, the NSA spends more than $250 million a year on its Signit Enabling Project, which “actively engages the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make the “exploitable”.  In one instance after learning that a foreign intelligence target had ordered new computer hardware, the American manufacturer agreed to insert a back door into the product before it was shipped.

Still others have been compromised without them knowing it.  In 2012 GCHQ (the British NSA counterpart) had developed new ‘access opportunities’ into Google’s systems.  Google denied giving any government access and said it had no evidence its systems had been breached (This later article describes what might have happened).

The agency maintains an internal database of encryption keys for specific commercial products, which can automatically decode many messages.  Independent cryptographers say many of the keys are probably acquired by hacking into companies’ computer servers where they are stored.  To hide what the NSA were doing, only keys that have been acquired through legal means (i.e. not hacking) could be shared with other agencies.

Weakening Cryptography standards

Another tool the NSA have been attempting to use to aid them in obtaining information is to introduce weaknesses into encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world. This is a dangerous game for the NSA to play, because although by weakening cryptography standards they are able to access communications from potential enemies, they’re also compromising the security of American communications.

The NSA wrote a standard for cryptography which was adopted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2006 and later by the International Organization for Standardization, of which 163 countries are members.  In 2007 Microsoft cryptographers found fatal weakness in the standard, which classified NSA memos appear to confirm were engineered by the agency.  The article claims the standard was aggressively pushed on the international group.

September 4, 2013


Filed under: Computers,Economics,Geekery,Hippiery — zarazilla @ 10:57 am

As an environmentalist, an economist, a computer scientist – I’m a bit obsessed with efficiency.  I just wanted to write a little bit about how I think about efficiency from different points of view.

Perhaps one of the things that divides a programmer from a computer scientist that programs is that a computer scientist will strive for efficiency.  They’re going to try to use the least processing power and the least amount of memory (you could say it uses as few resources as possible), because that makes for an efficient program, which means that it runs as quick as possible.

In the field of economics ‘efficiency’ takes on a slightly different meaning – an efficient society is one in which no one could be better off without making someone else worse off (this is called Pareto efficiency).  It could also mean that you get the greatest amount of benefit from a single unit of cost (you can’t get anymore output without any additional input).  If you think about it, that’s what a computer scientist does – they try to use the least amount of resources to do get the result they want.

I try to live my life efficiently – the greatest amount of well-being from the least amount of discomfort/time, and this sometimes overspills to friends and family – say I want that last slice of cake but I know I don’t want it as MUCH as my boyfriend does; but he is trying to be nice by letting me have it.  I’d prefer he has it because our total joy would be larger.  On the other hand, if I’m sure I’d enjoy it more, I’ll let him know how much I’d like it and, unless I’ve underestimated how much he wants it, I usually get it. :)

As an environmentalist, we must completely be mindful of efficiency.  In our lifestyles we try to be efficient to produce as little waste as possible and to make as little impact on the environment as possible.  In bigger considerations we want to be efficient in how we spend our energies and the budgets for environmental conservation.  An idea might sound good but actually cost a lot and produce very little benefit, while another idea could produce a lot more benefit with less cost.  A good example of this is climate change mitigation – it might sound like a good idea to place solar power panels on every available surface you can find, but actually the cost of producing the panels, in both energy and monetary terms could probably be better off going into building a better public transportation system which will remove cars off the road.  That’s just an example, by the way.  I’m sure there are more efficient ways to use energy and money.

Lastly, my favourite comic offering on efficiency: SMBC addresses the best use of Superman.

*For those of you who are not familiar with the field of economics, we measure benefit not by monetary terms  but by well-being.  It’s just that for the most part it’s actually kind of difficult to measure well-being, so we use monetary terms as a proxy.  Of course a lot of things are missed by looking at just hard currency, and these things are called ‘externalities’.  Environmental economists attempt to measure these externalities through a number of different methods.

August 30, 2013

Why are smartphones so expensive? (and why they’re about to get a lot cheaper)

About 3 years ago I finally gave up carrying a Nokia-brick equivalent around and acquired my first smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S1.  3 years later and it’s pretty much asking me to put it out of its misery.

So I’ve been looking around and considering my options.  The new Samsung Galaxy (the S4) 16GB will set me back about £500 from a reputable store (and there are many fakes going around, so you want that reputable store),  and lets just set that as the benchmark as I’m sure the iPhone 5 is more expensive and I think the HTC One is too.  That’s a lot of money for a jobless person, but luckily I have much cheaper options.

For instance, picking up a 7 inch tablet instead, such as (to stick to Samsung for a fair price comparison) the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 16gb which ALSO MAKES PHONE CALLS and retails for £310.

In other words, the  Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 is a 7 inch smartphone which is 65% the cost of it’s 5 inch counterpart.  Which one might consider a bit strange, seeing as it has 2 inches more display, albeit probably slightly crappier specs than the phone, including a non super-amoled screen and crappier cameras.

But then again we might imagine that miniaturization costs more, hence why the 5 inch phone is more expensive than the 7 inch tablet.  But then… if that’s so how come the Samsung Note II costs more than the normal sized phones?

So not knowing much about the cost of parts and miniaturization and random technologies here’s my take on what’s going on here.

  • The cost of the highest end smartphones have always been high (some say the costs of them are coming down but the S4 costs today what my S1 cost 3 years ago).  Similarly, when the first tablets came out, they were also very costly.
  • Then in the middle of 2012 Google came along and crushed the market* with the very affordable Nexus 7 at £160 for an 8gb and £199 for the 16gb.  To put this in context the iPad 2, which had already been succeeded by the iPad 3 was still retailing for £329 without 3G (these are prices I pulled off an email discussion with my sisters talking about which tablet to get my Dad for his birthday)!  This instantly made tablets a lot more affordable while installing an ‘anchor’ price on 7 inch tablets.  Competitors had to stick to the general area of this price or customers would just not give their product a second glance.
  • So now we have very expensive smartphones** and very cheap tablets.  While before there was some overlap between the markets, they were pretty much separate markets, so it was okay.  But now tablets have the ability to make phonecalls… which I foresee many customers whose phones have come to the end of their lifespan (such as myself) switching to the 7 (or 8, thank you Samsung) inch tablets (and a bluetooth headset) instead of getting a much more expensive smartphone.

This means that the smartphone market will start experiencing a high customer dropout which means that demand will fall which means… in about a year or two our smartphone prices will drop to tablet prices or even lower.

That’s my guess anyway.  And why I’m going to be trying to prolong the lifespan of my already tortured S1.

*How did Google make such a low cost tablet? Well I’m guessing there was some economy of scale/using lower specs but mostly they just sold it pretty much at cost.  Now why they did that is another topic for discussion… but I’m willing to bet it has something to do with taking tablet market share from Apple. This guy’s theory sounds good, anyway.

**So following on from the above asterisk, yes, smartphones are probably so expensive because you, or enough people, are willing to pay them that much, and therefore manufacturers are probably making pretty large profits off of them.


Oh are you still reading?  I also want to say something real quick about customer differentiation! That’s what companies do when they’re trying to get the most money out of each customer.  As you know, everybody has different preferences and also different willingness to pay for things.  So say someone with a lot of money is willing to pay a lot for the highest end product because it looks good and probably functions pretty well.  Someone with less money is probably going to spend a lot more time researching their options and weighing up what they get versus what they pay.

So I’m thinking the technology companies have done something like this.

  1.  Rich customer/customer who cares a lot about their tech/Customer who wants to look hip with the latest high-end tech – High-end smartphone AND high-end tablet (costs lot, big margins)
  2. Poorer customer who just wants a smartphone or tablet – low-cost smartphone OR low cost tablet (pretty cheap, small margins)
  3. Savvy customer who’s chosen what’s best for their (bigger) budget – High-end smartphone
  4. Savvy poorer customer who’s chosen what’s best for their (smaller) budget – Low-end phone tablet

August 21, 2013

Today’s 6 point plan for personal growth

Filed under: Geekery,Hippiery,Personal — zarazilla @ 11:02 am

Hello blog!  I have been absent, yes.  I’ve also been busy.  But I’ve now been ‘on holiday’ for coming up to 2 months so I better get started on being productive again.  I’m not sure how long/regularly I’ll be blogging for but I just wanted to write a public post on what I’m going to be concentrating on for the next few weeks for personal growth, seeing as I finally have the time to do things to update myself that I’ve been anxious about not having the time to do before.

So, I aim to do the following (presented in no particular order):

  1. Finish reading ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre, which should give me a quick review on critical thinking and introduce me to some interesting tricks that at least those in the medical industry play to manipulate research as well as how people see research results.
  2. Read the main sequences on LessWrong (available here in compiled, printable, easy to read formats). This should also help me update/upgrade my critical thinking/logical reasoning skills as well as introduce some new concepts I might be able to use in my professional life*.
  3. (speaking of professional life) update myself on the latest international going-ons in environmental economics/policy I might have missed in the past few months while I was attempting to learn Mandarin.
  4. Update myself on current environmental policy and use of environmental economics in Malaysia, Indonesia and China, areas I’m particularly interested in working in.
  5. As part of 3 and 4, start writing blog posts again, possibly for Mesym (if they deign to publish me). Possibly even think about giving one or two talks.
  6. Yes, in point 3 I mentioned learning Mandarin – I may no longer be in China on a full-time course but I hope to not only remember but continue to learn Mandarin. This will involve reviewing and learning even more Hanzi, probably with the use of Memrise, which had been very effective for me in learning my first 800 Hanzi before arriving in Beijing.

There. That seems like a lot to do, but I do have a mighty amount of free time on my hands. I should probably mention I’m also searching for work, but hopefully  points 3-5 should help with this.

* If you are interested in Rationalism but not quite ready to jump head first into it and are open to Harry Potter fanfiction, you might find Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) a fun and interesting read. Even if you’re not interested in rationalism but are just open to Harry Potter fanfiction I think you may find HPMOR a fun and well-written read, although it is not quite finished.  There are currently 97 chapters up and the author mentions there’s only one more main story arc to go though, so if you read particularly slow you might only have to wait a short time before it is finished?

June 22, 2011

Protecting the internet’s freedom of information

Filed under: Computers,Geekery,Politics — zarazilla @ 8:37 pm
Tags: ,

A while back I was sitting on the tube, and a woman sat down next to me who was perusing a Daily Mail app on her phone. It was only then that it occured to me that none of my friends or colleagues actually read the Daily Mail (apart from to make fun of it). It was then that I realised just how much I live in my own little bubble, where my friends agree with me on most of my political views. I mean sure I have an ex-classmate on facebook who is a member of the Tea Party and a friend who has recently come out on the Austrian side of economics, but he still believes in many of the same things I do and she and I agree on…

Okay. There is not much politically that the Tea Party member and I agree on, including abortion, immigration and climate change. We do, however, agree on at least one thing – the freedom of the internet.

And that is what I am writing about here because, unfortunately, her views and posts on all these things are slowly getting erased from my facebook News feed. I say ‘unfortunately’ unsarcastically (if that is a word) because I believe in looking at all sides of the debate for informed opinions and her posts have kept me informed on the Tea Party arguments. I may not click on 99% of them, but I like having them amongst pictures of babies and cousins’ vanity pictures and vague status updates about the night before to peruse.

Of course if you’re on Facebook you know that they have a very select filtering process. I have 476 ‘friends’ (it’s a TCK thing) and there is no way I am seeing facebook updates from, say, 90% of them. So when I’m not clicking on the posts on guns and why Obama is an asshole, Facebook decides her posts are not worth my time and starts filtering them out of my news feed.

This, however, is not merely a Facebook phenomenon. My main search engine, Google, has been busily filtering things specifically for me too. Pushing things it thinks would be more interesting to me up the search results.

This, to me, is a huge threat to the internet that promised so much in the past decade with the ability to give the average layperson (in a relatively developed country) free information and opposing viewpoints in order to make informed decisions – on purchses and politics (and probably other things but I can’t think of them right now!). The provision of comparison sites have made markets in music, flights and insurance (to name a few) much more competitive, the provision of information from global sources has been a lifeline to many in propaganda-pushing countries.  No wonder one of the first things Egypt’s beseiged government did during the Egyptian demonstrations was cut off the internet. It’s also why I think internet astroturfing is such a huge threat.

But this ‘filter bubble’ is a threat too – because unless we are actively looking for information or views outside of what we are normally exposed to, or are happy with, we won’t get it. How many people will say they actively look for it? This is a danger because many opinions on subjects we are not very informed about are formed through what we, probably unconsciously, pick up from the people and information that surrounds us.

I listened to a great talk on this subject by Eli Pariser, who recently released the book ‘The Filter Bubble: What the internet is hiding from you‘. One thing I found particularly interesting is the danger of the Facebook ‘like’ button – and the use of the word ‘like’!

You can download the podcast from the LSE website.

If you are interested, Pariser has also given 10 tips on how to get as unfiltered an internet experience as possible.

February 25, 2011

Thoughts on fighting internet astroturfing

Filed under: Geekery,Hippiery,Politics — zarazilla @ 11:48 pm

A bit on the late side as usual, I read this article by George Monbiot tonight on the bus (coincidentally while going around Parliament Square) and was immediately outraged.  For those of you who can’t be bothered to read the article, the summary is thus:

For a while now, PR companies (and the Chinese government) have been paying people to go on the internet and promote products (or ideologies) subtly – i.e. not as an obvious advertisement, but more like Jane Doe goes on a message board and tells everyone how much she loves using hair product K or a Chinese citizen getting upset and abusing a criticism of the Chinese government. What’s even more worrying though, is that lately organisations (companies and other types of organisations including the US Airforce) are now paying dedicated companies who are creating multiple fake people to do the same thing.  Two quotes from the article:

“I was contacted by a whistleblower… part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them… He posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more accurate, as a crowd of disinterested members of the public: he used 70 personas, both to avoid detection and to create the impression there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments.”

“This software creates all the online furniture a real person would possess: a name, email accounts, web pages and social media. In other words, it automatically generates what look like authentic profiles, making it hard to tell the difference between a virtual robot and a real commentator… Human astroturfers can then be assigned these “pre-aged” accounts to create a back story, suggesting that they’ve been busy linking and retweeting for months.”

As somebody who feels like she grew up with the internet, believes in democracy and free speech and participated in online forums, this absolutely outraged me.  I’m always one for thinking I can help make a change.  So I started writing an e-mail to the George Monbiot discussion group.  The rest of this post is an edited version (for clarity) of this e-mail which turned out into a mini manifesto of what we as individuals can do to fight back against internet astroturfing.

The first thing is to raise awareness.  Being an ex-computer scientist and now working in the environmental sector, I feel like I should have heard about this by now, but it came as a huge shock (although, “oh, that makes sense” did make itself heard at the back of my mind).  So perhaps what we can do is post this on any popular message boards we frequent, make people aware and solicit opinions.  Tweet it, post it on facebook and reddit.

Which brings me to the second thing.  The article mentions ‘social media’ a lot.  It may mean other services, but to me the largest social media networks are Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.  I’ve never actually read the terms and conditions of any of these services (and I can’t afford the time to right now), but the first question should be if what these companies are doing are contravening these services’ terms and conditions. Same goes for the targets of these companies: the newspaper websites, popular forums, etc.  If they are, great.  If not, we need to write to these websites to make them aware of what is happening – maybe they are already, maybe they’re not.  But I’m guessing that none of them want their websites used in the manner by which astroturfers are attempting to. They’ll need to rewrite their terms and conditions, and they’ll need to put people onto the case to figure out how they can detect and stop it.

This will be the difficult part for these companies.  The Daily Kos reports that HB Gary are recruiting from “many different agencies and top universities like MIT”. The social media companies will have to stay ahead of these guys, but I’m sure they can do it. I know they, too, are recruiting from top universities and stealing staff from each other.

I’d love to have a discussion on this and hear anybody’s thoughts.  In the meantime, I’ve posted George’s article to my facebook wall and tweeted it as per my suggestions. :)


The article that kicked this post off

George Monbiot’s first article on astroturfing

The Daily Kos report on an e-mail from one of the astroturf companies

March 25, 2010

March 9, 2010

Data visualisation

Although I’m at work, I figured I could do a really quick post about this to reinforce the point I am about to make: Data visualisation is awesome!

My friend Frank sent me a link to the Public Data Explorer at Google Labs, saying he figured I’d like it as an economist.  He was right!  I watched  the bubble graph visualisation embedded in the front page about three times…. the first time just because I was curious, the second time because the first time was over so quickly and random things had caught my eye, and the third pausing and retracing to check who those little outliers bouncing off to the sides and back again were about.

Try it! You can pause at any point and hovering over each bubble will tell you which country the bubble represents.

So in the space of about 5 minutes I had been able to pick out the devastating effect on average life expectancy that the civil wars in the 70s in Cambodia and Timor-Leste had, and the insane genocide in Rwanda in the late 80s/early 90s.  You can also see the South African countries moving out to the left in the late 90s – average age expectancy falling undoubtedly by the spread of AIDS (although the drastic fall in Zimbabwe’s life expectancy may be a bit more than that!).  In recent years however you can see that some of them are coming back up.  Is this due to better medicine to treat AIDS or a fall in victims?  We don’t know, but the data can tell us where to look.

In a nutshell, data visualisation is great for quickly picking out anomalies in data and telling us where to dig deeper.

Now please excuse me as I should get back to work as well as satisfy my curiosity by looking up why the fertility rate in Guinea-Bissau plummeted in the 60s!

April 12, 2009

MMOs for Economics research

Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. I can’t claim this idea for my own, but I was talking to some guy called Ian while at EnvEcon. Unfortunately I didn’t pick up his last name but he is currently a masters student on Imperial College’s Environmental Technology course and speciailising in Environmental Economics and Policy (yes, the same course and option that I did).

Anyway, he mentioned the idea of testing out economic theories in Second Life. Which, when I thought about it, sounded like an absolutely astonishing idea. Obviously there would be many caveats, a few of which I will discuss, but, unless someone can point out something I am missing, it seems like an stonking good idea. Data from everquest and WOW has already been pulled for study by social scientists ( ), so it is perhaps only another step to design economic experiments in Second Life.

The obvious caveat would be that second-life characters are virtual. Unless you are one of the truly obsessed, the welfare of your second-life character is not going to be as important as your own welfare. Furthermore, the wealth of your character doesn’t (and I am guessing here, I have never played second life or even read that much about it) affect the health of your character. You will also probably take higher risks with your character than you would in your real life. This all said, I know there are people out there who put a lot of time and energy into their online virtual characters, which may change reduce these issues somewhat if you could somehow cherrypick your players.

Then there are the moral implications – if you design an economic experiment in second life, do you have to tell the players? If not, are there moral implications in the fact that people are participating in an experiment without knowing it? If you do, will this change behaviour due to Observer Effect?

Then there are the socio-economic factors in play. Who are the people playing second life? My guess is that the majority of the population is made up of young/middle age (Late 20s to 40s) people, probably middle class, and probably at least slightly geeky. This will undoubtedly affect the decisions they make for their characters.

Links: Article talking about whether Second Life’s economy is in recession – Showing that yes, Second Life does have an analysable economy.
Google search for second life economics

Having said all this though, I think it is a very interesting concept and lots more thought should be given to it. Perhaps social scientists and computer scientists can get together to build a MMO specifically designed to carry out social experiments and selectively invite people to play with a bit of cheap talk*?

Comments, discussion?

(H/t Tom for first coming up with the articles on social scientists data mining MMORPGs).

* Cheap talk is used in suveys that ask participants how much they are willing to pay for a service or a good to get more realistic amounts. This is achieved by saying something along the lines of “In these kinds of surveys many people say they are willing to pay more than they actually are willing to pay. Please think carefully before stating your amount, evaluate your finances, and ask yourself whether you really are willing to pay the amount you state”. In this case, of course, it would be something along the lines of “Look, we know this is a game, but pretend the outcomes really affect you, and act accordingly”.

Blog at