Episode Seventy Three: Recall; ATMs; Cities

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Today was nominally a day out of office – my wife and son are back, briefly, from their trip to the family farm out in Missouri. Whilst things don’t look appreciably better out there, it felt like a good time to give them a bit of a break. So while I returned from a week away working out of Menlo Park/San Francisco on Friday night, they returned from Missouri on Saturday night and Sunday morning, my mum came in from England for three weeks. So it’s a full family house, albeit one that’s strained due to events in the Show-Me State. I’m back out to Menlo Park tomorrow, so today was a no-brainer – an extra day to make sure that I had at least two days to remember what my wife and son look like before jetting off again. Which is why today’s episode is being written late – past 10pm on the West Coast.

1.0 Recall

One of the things we did today with three generations in tow was to head out to the Vancouver Community Library[1], of which before I say any more:

a) what the hell is going on with that URL;

b) why is a community government service hanging off a sirsi.net URL;

c) one of the reasons why Google Maps is so horrendously bad is that when you search for “Vancouver Community Library”, it doesn’t actually return to you a Vancouver Community Library, and instead, you have teeny tiny tap targets as red dots all over the map and you have *no idea what they are*

Anyway. We went for Storytime, which was good – grandmother had a fun old time encountering American nursery rhymes, for starters, and then we went over to the Childrens’ Play Area for 0-7s, of which a) it was better than the inappropriately named Portland Childrens’ Museum (because that museum is not a museum, but also likes to make a point of it not behaving like a museum) and b) it was free.

Libraries are pretty awesome these days. Anyway, again: this time two weird future-y things happened.

The first was that a whole bunch of parental smartphones went off, roughly at the same time, because an AMBER ALERT had been triggered. This was not entirely unlike that scene in The Siege where a bunch of journalists are gathered at a press conference in a theater and suddenly all of their phones start ringing because the school where all their children are at has just been fingered with a bomb threat.

The second was that there was a binder full of consumer safety product recall notices[2], and that it told you where you could continue to get recall information:

a) they told you to visit a URL (even though the URL was a dumb one and not googlejuiceable);

b) or get the recall notices via email;

c) or through – get this – “an RSS feed reader”;

d) “The Droid Recall App”

e) “Twitter: U.S. CSPC @OnSafety”

For one, it’s been ages since I’ve seen a reference to RSS out in the wild. For two, the hierarchy of the options seems a bit interesting. But really, it’s because “OMG RSS” was one of my reactions.

Okay, so here’s a bunch of reckons based around the idea of Recalls:

– internet connected objects *ought* to be better at this, but hey, they’re not

– isn’t it interesting who you got a Heartbleed disclosure email from and who you *didn’t* get a Heartbleed disclosure email from. Did anyone get one from their banks? No? Utility providers? No? Maybe just random internet service startups like IFTTT? Interesting, huh?

And then a whole bunch of thoughts around: you know, if we wanted to, we could get rid of (and are getting rid of) Polio. But that’s because there’s a whole bunch of Polio/disease infrastructure that’s evolved. There’s a standard delivery mechanism for “vaccines” in general, and we know how to make lots of them. In some ways, it’s *just* the infrastructure that’s implicated in not spreading the vaccine further – things like needing to keep vaccines refrigerated, for example.

So here’s a question: if we wanted to get rid of Heartbleed, like the way we get rid of Polio, could we? What sort of infrastructure would we need? At what point do we say: hey, you know what, being able to run arbitrary code on a general purpose computing device is cool and all, but at some point maybe we do want auto-updating mechanisms that help devices mitigate against zero-day attacks. And thus: Windows Automatic Update, OS X and iOS over-the-air updates and so on. But then, of course, that requires us to think, as a culture, or population, or whatever, about what it is that we “own” when we have devices that are merely endpoints for networked services. You don’t own a thing, anymore. In fact, for that thing to be safe (and thus all the other things), you have to kind of not-own-it. You have to let some sort of service be able to reach in and make it more safe.

[1] http://fvrl.ent.sirsi.net/client/en_US/default/?rm=VANCOUVER0%7C%7C%7C1%7C%7C%7C2%7C%7C%7Ctrue&dt=list

[2] http://instagram.com/p/nn_M5vNQ73/

2.0 ATMs

I was out at dinner tonight and there was one of those – if you’re British, anyway – skeezy kind of non-bank-affiliated ATMs, the ones that look like tiny upright thin droids that you swipe your card into and cross your fingers and hope that you just haven’t been cloned. This one was interesting if only because it was old and thus the user interface metaphor that it employed for “we’re processing your transaction”[1] was a sort of Windows 95-era pixel-art files being copied between two folders. Which is, er, not entirely untrue and at the same time really really frightening when you think about the sort of infrastructure that the banking system is run on.

Protip: don’t think about the infrastructure that the (Western) banking system is run on, because that way lies madness and the need to want to take off, nuke the various financial centers from orbit, and start again with something relatively sane.

Anyway: if you weren’t already worried enough about ATMs running deprecated, unsupported operating systems and just hanging around out there in the wild, then spare a thought for the user interfaces on them, too.

[1] http://instagram.com/p/npEos-NQwS/

3.0 Cities

So I’m predictably and probably somewhat annoyingly first-world in that I have a bunch of (mainly Western) friends who live in lots of big cities, and they’re lucky because they kind of get to decide what city to live in.

It turns out, and it feels, that London and San Francisco are increasingly getting the raw end of the deal. London because, realistically, no one can afford to buy property there anymore thanks to, amongst others, awesome rules like allowing non-residents to purchase property, and San Francisco, because apparently San Francisco doesn’t like building things.

New York is an interesting case, though, because although Manhattan real estate may be priced high, perhaps forever so, the thing that it and San Francisco have going for them *in terms of young people wanting to live there and have jobs and stuff* is rent control. Because whilst it might be somewhat impossible for the “average young person” to buy property in any of those cities any time soon without coming into a rather unreasonable amount of cold hard cash, one thing that people can still roughly do in New York, is find an affordable place to rent. It might be tiny, but it’s affordable.

Potentially less-so London and San Francisco. And this is the bit where London feels a bit weird, because *without* rent control, what’s inevitably going to happen is that people are pushed further and further outside the interesting zone-1 bit, not just because they can’t afford to buy a place there, but because the rents are pretty much crazy too.

And that’s without thinking about the super crazy thing which is: at what point will the UK just kind of not necessarily give up, but recognise the fact that having a city like London in a state like the UK is *mental*. London isn’t just an overpowering city, it’s *the* city. Sure, you can point to regional hubs like Birmingham and Manchester and whatever, but at some point, London’s pull and influence on the rest of the country is going to approach some sort of calculus where it’s increasingly impossible to justify spending outside of the capital. Because, really, if they actually build any of the High Speed lines, most of the cities outside London just end up being London’s commuter belt, because hey: Londoners don’t actually own the property in London.

I say this, because I’ve been thinking a lot about living in Portland and what it’s like: and what it’s like is a minimum viable city. There’s stuff, but only really *one* of stuff. There’s *an* art museum, *a* classical concert hall, and so on. And while there are lots of other things (lots of hospitals and people employed in the healthcare industry, for example), the other bits of what-makes-a-city-a-city don’t appear to be in big supply. This isn’t a surprise – we knew this going in – but part of the thing is that it’s a nice city *because* it’s not a big city. As soon as big city becomes a big city then there’s shortage of housing stock and you either get higher prices and/or sprawl. And, well, we don’t really like sprawl.

At the very least, I feel a whole bunch of reading about urban planning coming on…

So, anyway. It’s late on Monday night and the Brits are going to get what feels like two episodes tomorrow. In the meantime, you should send me notes, and we should all celebrate because as I draft this I have 935 subscribers, which is not that many off a thousand, which is super fun.