Monthly Archives: October 2013

politics tech

Change the narrative: privacy should be considered as a type of property to protect it

Thinking about the recent Verizon/PRISM/Muscular releases, the StopWatchingUs protest, and seeing the same “I’ve got nothing to hide” argument come up again, I’ve been thinking that perhaps the way to solve this from a public image perspective is to change the narrative in society. Instead of fighting for privacy arguing about privacy’s intrinsic value, we can discuss privacy as a form of personal property and gain some of property’s protections for privacy. That idea may have some cons, but perhaps could be useful to deflect the “nothing to hide” argument and to get moderates to join the fight for privacy online. I would apologize to my law school friends for the bending of legal frameworks for my own ends, but after Citizens United I don’t feel so bad doing it…

Let’s think about the units we’d be talking about. I’ll define privacy as the ability to control who knows certain things about you, whether it is basic information like your address, or who you talk to (NSA-Verizon-ATT, Chevron and email), or exactly what you look like naked (TSA scanners), to your inner beliefs and thoughts (unease with behavioral targeting).

In our idea of a ‘privacy property’, each receipt of this information by a new individual or organization would be a new property transaction. You should have control over your own ‘privacy property’, regardless of who is communicating your information. For instance, if Google is handing over your data to an advertiser or the NSA, you would have control over whether that transaction is allowed. Similar to property, the government could appropriate your privacy in an emergency or a war situation, but everyday privacy violations would be illegitimate takings by the government.

Now, let’s be clear, this regime would be very difficult to implement technically, but we are discussing how to change the public’s perception of the issue, not necessarily advocating that this framework should be implemented.

Quick Brainstorm of Pros and Cons:

Pros:

  • Appeals to moderates
  • Can demonize NSA by painting it as un-American since they are now anti-public property and potentially ‘socialist’ by appropriating privacy for the state
  • Much clear, longstanding law on property can be used in the fight for privacy

Cons:

  • De-sanctifies privacy
  • Government has precedent to take away property by eminent domain
  • Not a perfect mapping to conventional property, and thus potentially confusing
  • Uses a similar argument to the one record companies lost with during the 2000s

While I was thinking about this, I came across this ten-year-old article from Lessig trying to outline a viable framework.

In the article, Lessig talks about Amazon changing the terms of service retroactively to be able to sell information about their customers, even if those customers had indicated that Amazon should not sell their information:

If it were taken for granted that privacy was a form of property, then Amazon simply could not get away with announcing that this personal information was now theirs. That would be “theft,” and this is my point: “theft” is positively un-American.

Property talk would give privacy rhetoric added support within American culture. If you could get people (in America, at this point in history) to see a certain resource as property, then you are 90 percent to your protective goal. If people see a resource as property, it will take a great deal of converting to convince them that companies like Amazon should be free to take it. Likewise, it will be hard for companies like Amazon to escape the label of thief.

Lessig talks a lot about what a property system would look like for privacy, but I think this is unnecessary and for the short term, distracting. If instead we change the public perception about privacy, we can gain the cultural protections of associating privacy with property and change the discourse amongst moderates. We can change the discussion from “I’ve got nothing to hide, the NSA can see who I’m talking to” to “I don’t think the NSA should be allowed to commandeer so much property for so little benefit to America. If they can’t justify the benefits with specific examples of thwarted plots, etc, my ‘privacy property’ should not be taken. The NSA is an un-American institution if they continue this spying.”

I think we can even go further to gain the protection of not only the fourth amendment, which is somewhat confusing and endlessly debatable, but with the third amendment, probably the least controversial amendment in the bill of rights:

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

In a time of relative peace, the NSA is stealing some of our ‘privacy property’ every day with no compensation. Their justification for stealing is for defense of the country, however this defense is against undefined, undefeatable foes with no end time table. Thus, if privacy is considered property, it can be argued that the NSA is committing the exact crime that inspired the 3rd amendment.

While I don’t think a case could be successfully argued in the supreme court right now, we only need to win in the court of public opinion.

Yet, as a friend points out, the NSA reading your email does not feel like the British government posting a soldier in your spare room. However, if there is a mental shift to each new recipient of your personal information counting as a property transaction, it may very well start to feel like that.

There is the final complication that it seems as though the argument is very similar to the argument record companies failed to ‘win’ with during the 2000s, that data online is property and must be treated as such. While everyone seems to take it for granted that the record companies lost this battle:

  1. The law is clear that piracy counts as at least copyright infringement punishable by serious fines and jail time
  2. When you poll the general public, people still do consider piracy to be theft, although probably a ‘less severe’ form of theft

Quick note on that Rasmussen poll I linked to- yes, this is likely voters who were reached by land-line telephone. Nate Silver has written a ton on how Rasmussen polls are biased but this is bias is actually a boon for us. Generally the younger generation has been less receptive to the security argument, and to expand the fight against spying we need the support of the older, less urban generation which Rasmussen is biased towards. These polls suggest that this older group is more likely to respond well to the “privacy is property” narrative, and could be allies in the struggle against government surveillance.

Let’s go out in the world (and on the internet) and try to emphasize that:

  • Privacy is a form of property, where each new receipt of your information is a property transaction
  • The NSA is therefore stealing your property every day, in relative peacetime
  • While there may be a national security justification in some cases, broad collection in peacetime violates the fourth and third amendments and are a serious danger to the first amendment

Especially as the holidays come up, let’s see if our currently-less-concerned relatives can be swayed by this argument. If the connection to the third amendment is a stretch, at least that privacy should be afforded some of the protections of property.

Example Interactions from the thanksgiving table:

“Doesn’t matter to me, I have nothing to hide”

Neither do I, but it should be my choice to provide information to the government, as private information is my ‘privacy property’. Without the ability to give consent to spying, the government is stealing from you, whether you support the program or not.

“But the government needs to protect us from terrorists”

Yes, but at what cost? Your privacy is your property, and while we accept that the government sometimes needs to take property to protect the country, our country’s founders specifically rejected the equivalent of the NSA’s spying. The British used to post soldiers in houses (quartering) without paying the owners of the house, effectively appropriating the house’s private property. The NSA is stealing your private property day-in, day-out just like the British stole our forefathers’ spare rooms. It goes against the ideals of America to support this spying program.

“What about child predators, hackers, etc?”

These are police matters and should be handled through the regular justice system. Just because something is online does not mean it is up for grabs, and the constitutional protections given to you in real life should follow you onto the internet. As it is, we are spending more and more time on the internet so we need to ensure we protect our rights online as well as offline.

“But you give data to Facebook, don’t they own that information now, and could give it to the government if they wanted?”

Perhaps, but just like you can’t go and print off copies of Harry Potter and sell them on the street, institutions who I’ve given my data to should not be allowed to resell my information without my consent. Just as you would go to jail for stealing from JK Rowling, Facebook should be liable if it passes on my information to anyone, not just the NSA. Start thinking about each time a new organization receives your information as a transaction that you should have to authorize – it is your data!

finance green

Is investing in Mosaic a smart move?

Note: I am not a financial expert, and while I have invested using the Mosaic platform, I do not get commissions of any kind for blogging about it

I was recently telling a friend that he should consider investing via the Mosaic platform, a sort of crowdfunding platform for solar installations. Similar to Lendingtree or Prosper, investors see vetted projects with varying rates of return based on the riskiness of the loan, as determined by Mosaic. Mosaic takes a 1% cut, as well as origination fees for the loans, while providing risk analysis, paperwork / regulatory help to the borrowers, and a snazzy web platform for investors to analyze possible investments.

When I was explaining this to my friend, he started asking more detailed questions about how it works – who actually is getting the checks, who is liable, what happens when a loan goes bad, etc. I then realized when I couldn’t answer all of his questions that I had forgotten to do proper due diligence! The social benefit of the investments and the positive mentions of the platform was enough for me to start investing, but if I was going to recommend it, I had better know what I was talking about. So here’s my analysis, after reading a few prospectuses and the fine print. Any corrections or clarifications are very welcome.

Pros:

  • Higher rate of return than your bank account, between 4ish and 7ish percent compared to 1% in your savings account
  • Positive social impact, which will come back to you as ‘dividends’ in a world in which we invade fewer oil-rich countries and fewer mountain tops are blasted off for coal. If you are looking very-long-term, climate change must be dealt with for human society to be prosperous in the future
  • Stocks are likely overpriced currently, or at the very least expecting 8% returns YOY is optimistic
  • Small investments down to $25 are possible, which is convenient especially when you want to reinvest your interest payments
  • You probably have lots of stocks and lots of cash, but few bonds (if your portfolio looked like mine before investing in Mosaic-selected loans) – diversify a bit!
  • Impress possible significant others with your commitment to the environment. Although maybe not the best thing to bring up at a party…
  • Mint.com integration is on its way

Interesting and Important Risks:

  • Mosaic is the middleman- it has no obligation to repay in a default situation
  • That inflation will rise drastically from the ~2% now to over the return of the bond in the time before bond maturity. However, this is very unlikely especially given that such inflation is not desired by Wall Street
  • There is little governmental oversight. From the prospectus:

    “We are not subject to the periodic examinations to which commercial banks and other thrift institutions are subject. Consequently, our financing decisions and our decisions regarding establishing loan loss reserves are not subject to period review by any governmental agency. Moreover, we are not subject to regulatory oversight relating to our capital, asset quality, management or compliance with laws”

    (how the hell do they get away with that? good job, sirs)

  • In the case of a default, the things you can grab on the way out (aka as collateral) are very limited: only the solar capital equipment is allowed as collateral, which is something that probably quickly depreciates especially with new tech coming out all the time.
  • Mosaic can charge max(35% of the recovered funds, lawyers fees) in an attempt to regain funds in a default situation
  • Early repayment can happen without penalty by the borrower, however given the low interest rates currently, this does not seem like a big deal
  • Mosaic itself could go bankrupt, and that could make things very complicated. However the funds are probably safe from seizure in that case as the loan is technically between you and the business, not with Mosaic. See Mosaic’s assertion.

Annoyances:

  • Mosaic takes 1% of cash sitting around in the account more than a month as well as the 1% from the loan– as payments slowly trickle in from investments it is annoying to have to clear that cash out each month. My other investment account actually gives me interest on the cash stored there (a pittance, but it keeps you happy to have cash sitting in their system and is probably a smart move long-term).
  • The terms of the loans are generally around 10 years, a very long time! However ultimately this may be a good thing- short term financial outlooks are part of the reason why the Global Financial Crisis happened, and I figure if I ever screw up too badly in the next 10 years I’ll at least have a little bit of income coming in that I can’t easily raid for beer money.
  • The constraints on who can invest (set by the government) mean that you can’t really recommend it to people outside of CA or NY unless they’re a ‘qualified investor’. Even in CA and NY you can’t invest more than a small fraction of your wealth (although you shouldn’t put more in yet anyway!). Unfortunately Mosaic is not covered by the JOBS act, either, so smaller investors in other states probably won’t be able to contribute for a while.

Open Questions:

  • There is one item in the prospectus that I am particularly confused by:

    You will not receive any payments we may receive after the final maturity date of your Note.
    The Notes will mature on the initial maturity date, unless any installment payments in respect of the corresponding Loan Obligations remain due and payable upon the initial maturity date, in which case the maturity of the Notes will be automatically extended to the final maturity date. If we receive any payments from the Borrower after the final maturity date, we may retain 100% of these payments and will not be obligated to distribute those payments to you.”

It seems as though the extension of the maturity date would cover all cases in which you would have a claim on the funds paid by the borrower… perhaps this is just cover-your-ass-legalese?

  • What happens if the solar panels get destroyed?

I invested in the solar panels on the Wildwood Convention center in New Jersey, and I can easily see Hurricane Sandy v2 coming by and knocking them out. Wildwood would still have to pay off the solar panels, but how easy would it be for them to declare bankruptcy and shed their responsibility in that case? I did see in the FAQ that Mosaic ensures that there is proper physical capital insurance to handle this, but perhaps in a catastrophic event that coverage would not be sufficient. This also seems like one of the first corner-cuts that Mosaic might do if they desperately needed the revenue. See Mosaic’s take on the issue.

Also there is one open question which can not be answered currently:

  • What is the default rate of commercial loans for solar panel installs?

There is a very small default rate for residential installs, but since no one has done this kind of program for a long enough time or for commercial properties, there is very, very little historical data about default rates for the types of loans Mosaic is facilitating.

Analysis:

I’m still definitely pro-Mosaic, and will suggest it to anyone living in CA or NY who is looking for a long-term place to park their cash which will give better returns than a savings account or a CD. I would still advise the person to realize that the cash is locked up for a while, and that since these types of investments are somewhat experimental they should only invest < 10% of their wealth in them, if not less.

Essentially, I see it as a relatively safe investment for the benefits, particularly for California projects. Suppose a business installs solar panels on their roof and goes out of business. Likely the buyer of that commercial property will also undertake the loan on the solar panels- after all, the solar investment was a good one at the beginning of the loan term, halfway through the investment is just as good. This calculus would only change if the price of solar electricity decreased in CA, which I really don’t see happening – we love our green energy subsidies! Since the money coming in from PG&E is pretty steady in the next 10 years, and inflation is likely to stay within a percentage point of 2% in that time as well, I feel comfortable signing up for the long term.

The list of risks is long, but much of it comes down to trust in Mosaic and in the business that they are trying to create, which Mosaic seems to understand. In a not-well-developed and somewhat experimental market, they need to do what it takes to gain trust in both the company and the investments offered. As such, their diligence on credit-worthiness is probably going to be less motivated by the short term, and more focused towards building a trusted business and keeping the stinkers out.

Additionally, I think that overall the incentives are properly aligned. They do make a good amount from origination fees, which means that the company also does have an incentive to push less-than quality loans out the door, however the 1% loan lifetime cut of the loan means that Mosaic also has skin in the game. The returns from seeing a project to completion are more than the origination fee, and the ‘business-building’ incentive to keep the quality of loans high is a strong force.

TL;DR:

Mosaic is a good, experimental investment with a definite social good and a positive fiscal return. Since it is still experimental, only put a small fraction of your wealth into Mosaic. Given how much you’ve probably put into bitcoins, you probably can spare enough to test this out ; )

Uncategorized

See the template a spam commenter uses for comments

I was looking at the comments section (yes, I’ll sign up for Akismet now- I am sick of dealing with it) and saw that one spammer had miscoded their bot. The bot posts an entire wall of text which appears to be their templates for all comments! I picked out one that I received a spam comment from the day before. Check it out, below, and hope that it doesn’t ruin my SEO to have it here…

{Hοwԁу|Ηi theгe|Heу thеre|Hello|Hey} just wanted to gіve you a quicκ headѕ
up. The {text|wοrds} іn yοur {сontent|post|artiсle}
ѕeеm to be running οff the screwen in {Ie|Ιnternеt explorer|Chrome|Fiгefox|Safari|Operа}.

I’m not sure if this is a {format|formаtting} issue or something tо do with {web browser|inteгnet browѕer|bгowser} сompatibilіty but I {thought|figured} I’d poѕt tо let
you know. Тhe {ѕtуle аnd dеsign|dеsign anԁ stуlе|lаyout|design} looκ gгeat though!

Hopе you get the {pгoblem|issue} {solved|resolveԁ|fіxed} soon.
{Kuԁos|Cheers|Many thаnks|Τhanks}

git tech

Git’s empty tree

It’s late. You’ve been coding up a greenfield project and it needs to be done by tomorrow. Yes, the team could have gone with a similar tool that has some of the necessary features, but damn, that thing written in PHP! This is your chance to write a totally new project and to show the company that python/ruby/go is the future. I mean, PHP, really? No, didn’t think so.

Ok, ready for reviewboard.
diff --full-index --oh-crap-you-forgot-to-make-an-initial-commit

Oops. This is dumb. You can’t believe you forgot to do an initial commit, and your first commit was only after 2 hours of work- totally useless to your coworkers… Damn it, why didn’t you create an alias for git init?

Here’s my stream-of-consciousness from solving this one:

Hmm- if only there was a way to diff against a totally empty commit, a magic empty git repository…

Well, how about we check out the first commit in the internals of git:

> cat .git/logs/refs/heads/master
0000000000000000000000000000000000000000 a7726d5201b0e56bf6e15e9ed72ea42192013d09 Colin P. Schimmelfing <theboss@colinschimmelfing.com> 1369722239 -0700 commit (initial): adds money-printing functionality to our app. biz-dev should be happy

those zeros look good as some sort of magic original empty commit… lets try that:

> git diff 0000000000000000000000000000000000000000
fatal: bad object 0000000000000000000000000000000000000000

Nope, no go.

What if we init a new repo and see what a blank repo is like:
> git init test2
Initialized empty Git repository in /Users/cschimmelfing/code/blog/empty_git/test2/.git/
> cd test2
> git show
fatal: bad default revision 'HEAD'
> git log
fatal: bad default revision 'HEAD'
> cat .git/logs/refs/heads/master
cat: .git/logs/refs/heads/master: No such file or directory

Damn, no commits means normal ways I’d look at the repo are pretty useless. Looking elsewhere in the .git directory gives just as little insight.

At this point, you hit up stackoverflow, and when I ran into this problem I was able to find a few items mentioning the magic commit I was looking for. (From this thread or this Stack Overflow post)

drum rolllllllll:

4b825dc642cb6eb9a060e54bf8d69288fbee4904

Huh. Well that’s random.

> git show 4b825dc642cb6eb9a060e54bf8d69288fbee4904
tree 4b825dc642cb6eb9a060e54bf8d69288fbee4904
(END)

Well, let’s try it out:
diff --git a/test1.txt b/test1.txt
new file mode 100644
index 0000000..95f29d0
--- /dev/null
+++ b/test1.txt
@@ -0,0 +1 @@
+hi HN
(END)

So now you are thinking: “Colin, that looks good, but where does this magic hash come from?”

Well, we can see that it’s a tree, so let’s try:

> git init test2
Initialized empty Git repository in /tmp/test3/.git/
> cd test3
> git write-tree
4b825dc642cb6eb9a060e54bf8d69288fbee4904

Aha! there it is, the hash is simply the value git creates when you ask for the hash of an empty directory. For more on this, check out this breakdown on the internals of git .

In both of the links that mentioned the special hash, it looks like there is another way to find the magic value, a little faster:

> git hash-object -t tree --stdin < /dev/null
4b825dc642cb6eb9a060e54bf8d69288fbee4904

So there we go! A little window into the internals of git, and a useful trick. If you don’t use review board (or always remember to touch an empty README, etc), you may also find it useful in other contexts, for instance creating a patch that can recreate the whole repo. Yes, you could tar the whole repo up, but maybe there are some embarrassing commits you’d like your colleague not to see, or a FUBAR-ed history that you might want to totally nuke before starting to collaborate.

Of course, this is git, so there are probably three other ways to do the same thing. Please comment, internet points will be awarded to the best answer!