Email E. Neumann

Email E. NeumannHow stupid is email?

Actually, email is great. It’s robust, widely-supported, and highly accessible (in the 508 and economic senses of the word). The problem is email clients.

Security

A colleague of mine and I once considered starting up a business around a new email client. The problem though, is that it works best when someone send emails using your email client to someone else using your email client. E.g. you can easily implement PGP encryption:

  • if you’ve previously exchanged email, you both have each others’ keys — snap you’re done;
  • if you haven’t, your client asks whether you want it sent insecurely or asks you for authentication information (something you know about the person that a man-in-the-middle probably doesn’t, or an out-of-band mechanism for authentication such as calling you on the phone; and then sends an email initiating a secure authentication process OR allowing them to contact you and opt to receive insecure communication; all this can happen pretty seamlessly if the recipient is using your email client — they get asked the question and if they answer correctly keys get sent).

It’s relatively easy to create a secure encryption system if you (a) opt out of email, and (b) have a trusted middleman (e.g. if both parties trust a specific website and https then you’re done — even a simple forum will work). But then you lose the universality of email, which is kind of important.

The obvious goal was to create a transparently secure email client. The benefits are huge — e.g. spam can be dealt with more easily (even insecure email can be sent with authentication) and then you can add all the low-hanging fruit. But it’s the low-hanging fruit I really care about. After all, I figure if the NSA can hack my storage device’s firmware, my network card’s firmware, and subvert https, encryption standards, and TOR — and that’s just stuff we know about — the only paths to true security are anonymity (think of it as “personal steganography”) or extreme paranoia. When dealing with anyone other than the NSA, Google, China, Iran, etc. you can probably use ordinary caution.

Well, how come Windows Mail / Outlook and Apple Mail don’t do exactly what I’ve just said and automatically handshake, exchange keys and authentication questions, and make email between their own email clients secure? If it’s that easy (and really, it is that easy) why the hell? Oddly enough, Apple has done exactly this (using a semi-trusted middleman — itself) with Messages. Why not Mail?

OK, set all that aside.

Why?

  • Why can’t I conveniently send a new message the way I send a reply (i.e. “Reply with new subject and empty body” or “Reply all with new subject and empty body”)? When using an email client most people probably use Reply / Reply All most, then create new message and copy/paste email addresses from some other message second, and create a new message and type in the email address or use some kind of autocomplete last. Furthermore, many replies are actually intended to be new emails to the sender or sender and recipients. Yet no email client I know of supports the second — very frequent usage.
  • Why does my email client start me in the subject line? Here’s an idea: when you create a new email you start in the body. As you type the body the email client infers the subject from what you type (let’s say using the first sentence if it’s short, or the first clause with an ellipsis if that works, or a reasonable chunk of it with an ellipsis otherwise).
  • Why does my OS treat email, IMs, and SMSs as completely separate things? Studies show grown-ups use email and hardly SMS. Younger people use SMS and hardly use email. Both probably need to communicate with each other, and both are generally sending short messages to a person, not a phone number or an email address.
  • (While I’m at it, why does an iPhone treat email and IMs as different buckets? How come they had the nous to merge IMs and SMSs, and even allow semi-transparent switching between secure and free iMessages and less secure and not-necessarily-free SMSs based on whether the recipient was using an Apple device or not? I don’t ask why Android (or heaven forfend Windows) does this because (a) Android generally hasn’t even integrated mailboxes, and (b) don’t expect real UI innovation from Google; they can imitate, but when they originate it tends to be awful — aside from Google’s home page which remains one of the most brilliant UI decisions in history.
  • Oh yeah, and voicemail.

Nirvana

Now imagine a Contacts app that did all this stuff. I’d suggest it needs to be built into email because email is the richest of these things in terms of complexity and functionality, but let’s call it Contact. Consider the nirvana it would lead to:

  • Instantly, four icons on your iPhone merge into one (Mail, Phone, Messages, Contacts (the existence of the last has always bothered me, now it would make sense). Three of those are likely on your home screen; now you have more space.
  • You no longer have to check for messages in four different places (e.g. if you have a voicemail system that emails you transcripts of voicemails, you can mark them both as read in one place, or possibly even have them linked automatically.)
  • Similarly, when you reply to a given message, you can decide how to do so. (Is it urgent? Are they online? Is it the middle of the night? What is your preferred method of communicating with this person?) Maybe even multiple linked channels.
  • Message threads can cross message domains (imagine if you reply to an email with a phone call and Contacts knows this and attaches the record of the call to the thread containing the emails, SMSs, iMessages, voicemails, and so on). Some of this would require cleverness (e.g. Apple owns iMessages, so it could do things like add subject threads to messages on the side, but SMSs are severely constrained and would lose their thread context).
  • Oh, and you can use the same transparent encryption implementation across whichever bands make sense.
  • Obviously some of these things won’t work with some message channels e.g. you can’t do much with SMS because the messages aren’t big enough, but MMS, which is what most of us are using, works fine, similarly Visual Voicemail could support metadata but doing it with legacy voicemail systems isn’t going to happen.

Consider for a moment how much rocket science was involved in getting Continuity to work on iOS and OS X devices. To begin with it requires hardware that isn’t on older Macs and iOS devices. And what it does is pretty magical — I am working on a Keynote presentation, walk over to my Mac and automagically I am working on the same document in the same place. But really, how useful is this really and how often? Usually when I switch devices I am also switching tasks. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a world without Continuity.

Now consider how this stuff would require almost no rocket science and how often it would be useful.

 

 

The Second Amendment

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

As a result of the sideshow over the Confederate flag that has replaced any substantive debate about racism and gun violence in the US (something had to, right?) I ended up having a bit of an argument with a pro-gun commenter on an Economist article suggesting that it may not [just] be guns that are the problem in the US.

This isn’t a particularly novel argument. People generally assume Bowling for Columbine is a standard left-wing anti-gun polemic, but at the end Michael Moore — a card-carrying member of the NRA — ends up discussing Canada, which is nearly as well-armed as the US and yet has a far lower homicide rate, and concludes that there’s something paranoid at the heart of American culture that may be the real problem.) Well, this blog post isn’t about the flaws in American culture — it’s about the right to bear arms.

Anyhow, my anonymous adversary argued that the point of the second amendment is that it has kept the US safe from the kind of ethnic cleansing and other large scale atrocities that afflicted Europe and Asia during the 20th century. In other words, for the enormous benefit of not having large scale ethnic cleansing occasionally we pay the price of having a high murder and suicide rate. “A well regulated militia” is meant to be understood as “The regulation of the militia by civilians”.

OK, I get it. My adversary is right. The NRA is right. The right-wing militias are right. The purpose of the second amendment is to allow us to regulate the militia — i.e. to overthrow the government so as to maintain our “free state”. Their interpretation is correct.

My adversary is wrong, I think, on his history.

The US has had plenty of opportunities for unjust government or corporate actions to be prevented by the armed populace — consider Douglas Macarthur’s use of cavalry and tanks against the Bonus Marchers — unemployed veterans no less! Or the Battle of Blair Mountain (John Sayles’s movie Matewan depicts the prelude to it). Oh yeah, and slavery. Where is there an example of real government excess being prevented by the right to bear arms? There are plenty of examples of government excess being resisted by the right to bear arms, the largest and most depressing examples being the resistance of some American Indians to the government, others (such as Ruby Ridge and Waco) simply being unsuccessful.

Perhaps the best example in favor of this argument is Little Big Horn (and that victory was Pyrrhic.

And if you believe that the Confederacy was right, then that’s the largest example of the populace (including a large proportion of the military) being unable to prevent government overreach, no?

On the other hand, Mahatma Gandhi defeated a superpower without using weapons. And when the injustices that were not prevented by the right to bear arms were mitigated (Congress paid the Bonus Army, Roosevelt allowed the miners to unionize), it wasn’t the right to bear arms that made it happen.

It seems quite clear that given the intent of the amendment, we should have the right to nuclear submarines, tanks, nerve gas, atomic warheads, and so forth. After all, how can we credibly regulate the militia with semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and handguns? The disparity in power between the government’s forces — military and paramilitary — and ordinary citizens has never been greater and shows no sign of narrowing. Even when the gap was considerably smaller, the second amendment proved of little use in preventing horrible injustices. The only real conclusion is that we need to abolish the second amendment — it costs us too much and gives us nothing.

Dell P2715Q Display

About this Mac — Displays

So, I came across this Dell 4K display while visiting the new Nebraska Furniture that has opened close to us. (It’s quite an amazing place — retail’s revenge on Amazon.com — and it sells a lot more than furniture.) Anyway, I got it home, plugged it into my Macbook Pro 15″ (2014) and it just works (at 60Hz). That’s about all I can say about it.

Common Core Comprehension

My favorite joke about the mathematically inclined goes like this:

A mathematician, a physicist, and an astrophysicist are attending a conference in Scotland, and between sessions walk through the hills and come upon a black sheep.

“I had no idea that sheep in Scotland are black!” says the Astrophysicist.

The Physicist, arching a brow, sneers, “Typical. You see one black sheep in Scotland and you assume that they’re all black.”

At which point the Mathematician says, “Actually, all we know is that this side of the sheep is black.”

I don’t know much about the Common Core aside from the fact that it’s not the same thing as No Child Left Behind, but the teachers I know don’t seem to care for it either. (In general, I don’t think teachers particularly like being told what to teach except in the broadest of strokes.) A little investigation shows that the Common Core for Comprehension is more interested in teasing out figures of speech than actually parsing the meaning of text

It seems to me that what we really need is a Common Core for Comprehension. Consider this:

Jane, a six year old girl, is playing at home when her father enters the front door with bags of groceries. “Daddy, did you buy chocolate?” asks Jane. “No, but I bought cherries,” replies her father, who then empties a bag of cherries into a bowl, washes them, and puts them on the dining table. “I hate cherries,” declares Jane. While her father unpacks the rest of the groceries, she eats all the cherries and goes back to playing.

Questions

  1. Did Jane’s father buy chocolate at the store?
  2. Does Jane like chocolate?
  3. Does Jane like cherries?

Answers

  1. Jane’s father entered with bags of groceries. Assuming he did go to the store, we know that he said he didn’t buy chocolate, but he may have.
  2. Jane asked for chocolate. Anything beyond that is supposition. She may, for example, have been checking that her father bought the things he was asked to buy earlier.
  3. Jane says she hates cherries, but she ate a bowl of them (apparently quite quickly). It seems reasonable to conclude she does actually like them, but she may have been very hungry.

Bear in mind that it appears that no-one in the mainstream news media would appear to be able to answer these three questions correctly (I’m sure that many actually could, they’re just paid not to), so we do have a problem here, and I think it’s more important than whether kids can solve arithmetic problems “lickety spit”.

According to its official website:

The reading standards focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information, arguments, ideas, and details based on evidence in the text. Students should be able to answer a range of text-dependent questions, whose answers require inferences based on careful attention to the text.

A little investigation shows that there is a “Common Core for Comprehension” (part of the English syllabus) but it devotes far more attention to figures of speech (most of 9th-12th grades) than actually parsing the meaning of text (some of 4th-5th). Such attention as there is emphasizes drawing conclusions and making inferences rather than figuring out what has actually been stated. While it’s no doubt useful to be able to correctly label figures of speech — none of which is necessary for comprehending the fact that “Fred is an ass” doesn’t necessarily mean Fred has four legs or infer from “Claude says, ‘Hi'” that Claude is probably male and not a stapler — apparently teaching kids to actually comprehend what they read (isn’t that “reading carefully”?) is not, in practical terms, part of “comprehension”.

Clifford Simak, Flying Houses, and Self-Driving Cars

When I got into SF in my teens, it was divided roughly into three broad phases, each dominated by an influential tastemaker. Hugo Gernsback (of the eponymous “Hugo” awards) essentially built a genre around the work of Verne and Wells. SF of his era were dominated by super scientists who were also all-round fabulous guys. This is the era in which E.E. “Doc” Smith emerged.

The second phase, from the late 30s through the early 50s, was dominated by John Campbell, who pushed for more rounded and realistic characters, but had his own foibles, such as a penchant for powers of the Mind (the Lensman series straddles the eras). Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein all emerged during this period, which — Wikipedia tells us — celebrated “hard” SF (i.e. SF which tried to get the science right).

The third phase, which I grew up in, was eventually dominated spiritually by Harlan Ellison, and it was characterized by the integration of speculation outside science (e.g. politics, social anthropology). Fussing over the science became less important than setting and character. Ellison, Silverberg, and Le Guin were ascendant.

Clifford Simak had the misfortune to do his best work in the later part of the Golden Age, while belonging in the third phase. He was also prolific and somewhat uneven. His best known novel is City — apparently voted the greatest SF novel of all time by the readers of Locus more times than any other. If you haven’t read City you need to stop reading this blog and go find yourself a copy. (It’s not easy — it’s out of print, and not available in electronic form.)

Even if Clifford Simak were a terrible writer (and Cosmic Engineers was pretty terrible, even though he was a working newspaperman when he wrote it) he would be worth reading as an antidote to almost every SF cliché. His robots have emotions, his aliens are friendly and helpful in a weird and alien way, his stories tend to take place in rural settings, there’s nary a space battle nor gunfight to be seen, and when there’s violence it tends to be catastrophic, one-sided, and not solve anything.

Cityspoiler alert — is presented as a collection of traditional stories, passed from dogs to their puppies around the campfire, about a mythical race of creatures called “humans” for which no archeological evidence has been found. The stories happen explain away the need for such evidence, which the introduction drily notes is very convenient.

In the earliest stories, humans are living very high on the hog. Their houses are able to fly where-ever the occupants want to live (assuming a “housing space” is available to park in) and life is good (at least in the US). Everything hard or dangerous is done willingly by tirelessly friendly robots. When it’s pointed out to one of the robots that they’re slave labor, one responds that it has been created with effectively eternal life, so why should it resent a bit of servitude in repayment?

In a later story, humans explore Jupiter by transforming themselves into native Jovians (the only practical method given the hostility of the Jovian atmosphere). The humans discover that being a Jovian is simply so much better than being a human that most emigrate to Jupiter and are never seen or heard from again. The few remaining gradually dial out of existence by going into long-term hibersleep.

Left behind, dogs — modified for greater intelligence and the ability to speak by the humans — together with robots mind the farm, and gradually form their own society, with each dog having an assigned robot helper referred to as its “hands”. They live in peace and happiness for a long time until ants, who have been uplifted by one of the few remaining non-hibernating humans, start taking over the world. Asked for advice on dealing with the ants, a briefly awake human suggests extermination. The dogs and robots instead migrate to a new alternate Earth.

In the last story, human children are being raised on the new Earth by dogs and robots, but despite removing all cultural legacy, the human children engage in horrific acts of violence.

Look, seriously, go read it.

If you’re interested in Simak’s best books, my nominees would be:

  • City
  • Way Station
  • Shakespeare’s Planet
  • The Werewolf Principle
  • Project Pope

Anyway, I was thinking of Simak today while musing over the news that we could see self-driving cars being allowed on California roads next year. My wife and I agreed that the impact of self-driving cars on society will probably exceed the impact of the car itself (consider that the “suburb” exists because of the car) and it struck me that if there was one SF writer who had foreseen anything like what we might experience, it was Clifford Simak with his [self-] flying houses.