Category Archives: identity

The Backfire Effect

You may have noticed that sometimes: you argue with somebody and you come away thinking: “My that backfired!”   Rather than loosening their attachment to their foolish belief they have become more committed.

In years since the effect was named studies have revealed that the effect is common and potent.   They have discovered that some public health advertising campaigns backfire. The target audiences become much less likely to change behavior.  Even bizarrely after the audience admitted that they accepted the facts.

With a public health mindset you can then start to wonder what dosage of facts and information is optimal to change a person’s mind.  Studies that attempted to start to get a handle on that (see links below).  But slight spoiler – it’s really hard! – but not too hot, not too cold.

So what’s going here?  Naturally we all labor to keep a consistent world view.  Whenever new information comes over the transom our minds devote some calories to folding it into that world view.   Let’s call that work skepticism.  It can be defensive, curious, even light hearted  skepticism – smart people take pride in this work.    If the information is at odds with our current world view we are motivated to take the exercise more seriously.  The name for that syndrome is “motivated skepticism.”

It’s not actually that surprising that engaging in the exercise would often strength the existing world view.

That all reminded me of what in back in the 70s the AI community used to call truth maintenance.   Failure to keep the software’s model of truth well maintained was treated as an existential threat to the system.  Because, it’s well known that in simple sets of equations a single mistake doesn’t just lead to bad results; it lets you prove that anything is true.

Here are three podcasts (123) about this.   Part of David McRaney’s the “Your not so smart” series.   David’s turf is around questions of what social science can tell us about discourse, debate, and changing people’s minds.  If you are not into podcasts you can skim the posts enumerated above for an overview and links to other materials.

tracking an immovable installed base

Here’s another example of the ongoing spread of tracking devices.  Cell phone tech applied to grave stones.  Is this first example of tracking applied to what is nominally an immovable object.  The equipment cost for tracking has fallen so low; the costs are now all in the service side of the business; particularly the marketing.

I do hope thunderstorms will be able to trigger howling graves like high-end car alarms in a parking lot.

Contrast that scheme with this tracking scheme where trash bins capture passing device identifiers.  Or this variation $20/year, not shipping yet though.


social networks -> social venn diagrams

The following 200+ slides are a foreshadowing of what is what with google+.

I’m not sure exactly why, but I’m not as impressed with that deck as I wish I was. I know three reasons though. The not-facebook competition undermines it. The transparent ‘this will be great for marketing/advertision’ is tacky. And I hatz that 150 limit meme.

Maybe this leaves me cold because having worked on the identity management problem a lot is that sure you get points for starting to understand the nature of the problem (and yes, yes, the number of people who get even that far is few) but we are a decade plus into this problem and at this point solutions are all i’m interested in hearing about. Sadly there are none in that deck.

“you don’t have a self unless you have a secret”

Kieran Healy  joins the fun (or is it nervous laughter) of discussing the way our identities are being forced to collapse into a singularity.

But this is obvious, and I don’t think I’ve heard it called out clearly before:

“In a very deep sense, you don’t have a self unless you have a secret, and we all have moments throughout our lives when we feel we’re losing ourselves in our social group, or work or marriage, and it feels good to grab for a secret, or some subterfuge, to reassert our identity as somebody apart,”

The article that’s drawn from is fun too.

You call that a name?

Nice posting, rant?, about names.  Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names

And let me also draw your attention to this extremely interesting talk on “Face Blindness,” or the inability to recognize faces.  A more serious case, suffered by  3% of the population, lack that ability to recognize themselves in a mirror!  It was unclear how many people suffer from less serious versions of this; but even with 3% that’s approximately one in every school room.  So we all know a lot of people who have this.  I got to wondering what it must be like at the other end of this spectrum; is that another affliction?

Facebook PAIN

In the best scenario all Facebook is doing with their new service that allows 3rd party sites access to your Facebook identity along with a bit of what they know about your is a slightly more transparent version of what, say, Google’s Doubleclick can does. They are selling a service to their partners that identifies the visitor. It removing their anonymity. These tracking networks are troubling from a privacy point of view since they enable trafficking in a surprisingly detailed user profile. For example it enables knowing that your currently working, or shopping, or away from home. Browsing Yelp for a resturant? Working on your a Microsoft document.

We need a name for these networks that enable the trafficking in personal data. How about persona-attribute-info-network or PAIN. There are other PAINs. The credit reporting in the financial industry for example. There are ones in health insurance. There is usually one for every kind of license, i.e. drivers licenses. In the long run, i.e. after fortunes are made and I’m dead, these tend to get a complementary “privacy protection act” that serve to limit the liability of the network owners, raise barriers to entry, and add a modicum of consumer protection.

A key term or art here is “globally unique identifier,” GUI. The social security number is the poster child of a GUI. Leaking a social security number bad for two very discrete reasons. The first is it’s role as a password, but ignore that. The more serious concern is how it is a dependable key that vendors can use to unique identify you. Once a GUI tags your account data the vendor can then trade the data in that account with each other. You licensed them to trade when you assented to their “privacy policy.” I like to joke that they do not lie when they say “your privacy is important to us.” Well yeah, it’s an asset that it is important that they leverage.

GUI come in variations of quality – Social security numbers, email addresses, open ids are all pretty high quality. Cookies are actually pretty good. Google’s Doubleclick cookies can be very high quality. What your are licensing when you leave the Facebook toggle on is tagging you with a high quality GUI owned by Facebook.

A PAIN will have rules that govern the exchange of data between members. And all the usual questions arise. What are the costs, benefits, and risks of membership. Who sets the rules? I think we can assume that Facebook has not bound the members to limit data exchange laterally, i.e. Yelp and Microsoft can traffic in info about you using the facebook GUI as a key. At that point do we care what info Facebook shares with them?

Now, mind you that was all written wearing a care-about-privacy hat. There are other hats!

How about the were-things-are-going hat. It’s obvious that reach, accuracy, and tracking skill of the PAINs is only going to continue to grow. Scenarios long imagined, like enabling the car rental agency to prefill the forms based on your recent airline ticket purchase – a behavior that it pretty trivial to enable, but spooks the user if he hasn’t been carefully preped to comprehend how it happened – are inevitable.

Put on the business-strategy hat; the puzzle is who owns the PAIN that enables the scenarios like, will they make a good landlord, how many such networks will exist, should you try to establish one. The business-tactics hat depend on the answers to those questions. But moving fast maybe necessary or it could be fatal.

Having written that, I think I have a brilliant solution … but putting it here on the end … well it really doesn’t fit.


I dropped a friend off at the suburban train station in the intense nor-easter that dumped 10 inches of rain on us recently. My friend has taken to wearing a very handsome bowler hat, of which I am slightly jealous. The wind plucked his hat off and sent it rolling around the parking lot in fast large circles. We laughed at our mutual delight in getting to experience, in real life, a classic cartoon troupe.

I have since been reminded of another cartoon troupe.  When I was young, to illustrate what a rube some character was, he would sign a contract by making an X on the dotted line. And so I was pleased to observe a gentleman signing his credit card purchase by swiping the pen on the terminal screen from left to right making only a horizontal line. As I like to see if I can get a reaction out of the retail clerk I’ve taken to drawing a little smillie face when I sign on those terminals.

Signatures have legal standing, and some years ago the Feds authorized industry to go forth and invent some standards for electronic signatures. We now have a multitude of such systems. I was greatly amused by this one:

In that example the user signs by typing into the top box. In the lower box there then appears a faux signature. It’s a cartoon signature! Giving the impression that somebody actually signed this using a pen.

micro-gossip account linking

Quite a few years ago now I spent many months thinking and working on the Internet Identity standardization. At the time we spent a lot of energy on what we called “account linking.” We blocked out lots of scenarios; for example linking the account at your stylist to your account at the tailor so your color preferences could move back and forth between them. I don’t believe I saw this scenario coming.

In all the scenarios I recall working on the end-users had relationships with vendors, called accounts, and the idea was to create schemes that enabled vendors to flesh out their model of the end-user by trading data with each other. In the best case they would do that after getting the end-user’s permission.

Alice might have accounts with Sam and Tom; account linking would enable Sam and Tom learn more about Alice by exchanging info in their account records. Better to ask Alice to permit that, absent that permission Alice, and I, call that gossip.  Sam and Tom are talking about her behind her back.  The intent of these designs was, and is, to make Alice comfortable before she notices that Sam is pitching products to her based on info that only Tom could have known.

In the above screen capture YouTube is offering me gossip about Betty. In effect YouTube is saying “I know something about Betty you don’t know.” The mind boggles at how many different ways YouTube and it’s parent, Google, might have come to know of my interest in Betty. For example possibly GMail told YouTube; or DoubleClick. Maybe they scrapped Twitter’s friend network, Twitter makes no effort to protect that data.

Maybe …. this is really about the old kind of account linking. They want to exchange info with other vendors and they are hoping I’ll hit those buttons across the bottom of the dialog.

Of all the things I might subscribe to, and all the things that Google knows about us, how in the world did product management (sic) at Google pick this one?

The Game

Living as I have for decades right off the information super highway I was already aware of the seedy underworld of pick up artists. Or, if your the kind of geek who likes a mnemonic: PUAs.

Some commodities suffer from an imbalance, high demand and low quality of supply.  The skill of how to get the girl is one, as are cures for cancer, weight loss programs,  or how to close a sale.  There is a kind of evolutionary arguement to be made that in all these cases if a high quality solution were to emerge the other side would come under  powerful evolutionary pressure to discover a counter measure.  One reason the hucksters thrive in these markets by virtue of the plausable premise that it just might  be some secret high quality trick to it.  Cancer?  Positive attitutde.  Weight loss?  Bacon!  Close a sale?  “Would you like it in blue or grey?”  Get the girl? Demonstrate value and  play hard to get.  Humans are a mess, the ultimate rube goldberg device, so these all work.  Sometimes.

You could write a book like Neil Strauss’s The Game about any one of these markets the exhibit high demand and an unlimited supply of low quality goods.  And in each case you’d get the same assortment of characters; the desperate, the needy, the clueless, the hucksters, and the occational guys with talent.  You’d also get that delightful pattern, common on the internet, of groups of common cause forming. Random samples of people who share the problem at hand who gather and toss about ideas about what works and what doesn’t work.

The nature of such groups can cut across a wide spectrum from cheerful good fun, thru wholesome, into vile, and unto distructive cultism.  In the venn diagram of what kind of book The Game is one bubble should be about the transition of one such community thru all those stages.  At the beginning we have a bunch of dweebish shy disfunctional guys who are teaching each other to take a bath, wear snappier cloths, how to approach a stranger, how to make small talk, how to avoid wearing out your welcome.  At the end we have power hungry entrepeurs pulling down vast sums of money to teach this demographic the skill of being assholes (see photo of author and his teacher) and how best to apply their new found skills – approach women in quantity.

The venn diagram of what kind of book this is would include quite a few more bubbles.

This is certainly a book about cults.  And I might add it to the small pile of my favorites.  It’s a rare example of a “I was a cult victum” narrative where the author is not entirely angry, alienated, and damaged at the end.  That said I suspect there is more of that then he is letting on.

This is certainly travel narrative of that fun kind: fool goes to strange and exotic foreign land where he behaves like an idiot and makes a long series of very bad choices.  As readers we get a continual perverse frisson from that.  We regularly roll our eyes, gasp in disbelief, and take comfort in the fact we wouldn’t be such a bozo.  By way of example at one point he, as instructed, picks up a set of thick acupuncture needles and shows up at he dissheveled home of an amazingly  dysfunctional  celebraty where she alternately sticks him and runs out for junk food.  And that’s only an example!

It is also a fine example of the classic story of hero leaves home, has adventures, return home wiser.  But oh our hero is flawed, which makes us sad.

It is also a comedy, we know because it ends romantically.  But then is is also a tragedy, since many people die – well they don’t necessarilly die but there is a souless cult leader with his nest of scary of zombies left unresolved at the end.

It has that nerd, fantasy fiction, geeky element where in you learn a secret language.  Not Kilingon.  I was reminded of that fun book Edge City where you can learn bits of the secret language of Real Estate developers.  For example here we learn the term “Chick Crack,” i.e. those little personality surveys found at the back of women’s magazines.  There are plenty more.

I recomend this book for all that.  Who doesn’t like a book about men behaving badly.  It’s expensive, but if you get it from your local library you get a kind of director’s edition.  Since at least one sad sweet shy dweeb will have selectively underlined portions in the hope of treating his problem.

(I have a bad feeling this post is going to attract a lot of spam.)

Microsoft using patents to shape standards

I’m writing this because Microsoft recently granted a limited license for some awesome intellectual property they acquired two years ago.  I want to temper the press accounts that are tending suggest they granted a generous license.

Almost immediately upon the wide spread adoption of patents industries fell into gridlock.  In a classic game of mutually assured destruction the individual firms in the industry would gather up patents.  Sooner or later somebody pulled the trigger.  If you lack a license to a patent the judge can shut down your entire business.

I think the first historical example of an entire industry shutting down was back in the late 19th century and involved the sewing machine makers.  That was in the days before antitrust laws.  So the captains of the sewing machine industry all got on the train and gathered in a smoky hotel room in Florida; where they invented the patent pool, cross licensing, etc.

An interesting side effect of a good patent pool is that it keeps other players out of your industry.  They only way they can get in is to accumulate enough patents to demand entry.

The anti-trust laws don’t prevent patent pools from arising.  They are common around industrial standards.  The players contribute, often under surprisingly murky terms, patents to a pool.  In this scenario the patents often play an interesting disciplinary role, if you try to implement the standard in a way the standards body considers offensive they remove your access to the patent pool.

Using IP rights in a disciplinary, or exclusionary, manner is also key to the solidarity of the FSF community.  Microsoft plays similar games as well.

For example Microsoft has a short list of psuedo-standards – i.e. standards they either wrote up entirely in-house or were the work of captive standards bodies.  You can see  that list here.  In entirely an entirely unexceptional manner they then grant a license to practice a limited amount of the IP on some of their patents.  Just what you need to implement the standards, nothing more, nothing less.  Of course a naive journalist might think these licenses are more generous then that.

The IP that Microsoft captured two years ago is incredibly useful for solving internet identity problems.  In particular it could be used to allow users to reveal only exactly the minimum amount of information required to do this or that.  If the site wants to know if your over 18, you can let them know yes, you are.  Proving it.  And revealing nothing else.  If the site wants to know if your credit score is over 550; it can do that that.  It’s incredibly clever tech.  It’s incredibly useful.  If your the kind of person who thinks patents should exist, but only for really really innovative ideas – well this is it.

Sadly though.  This tech could be solving a vast range of real world problems today.  It could have been solving them for years and year now.  So if you looking for an example of IP rights undermining innovation and real world problem solving – well this is it.

If you are looking for interesting examples of a company using patent rights to shape the market toward standards that they own and operate then – well this is it.

Of course nothing is to stop  foolish journalists from writing junk like: “This is a irrevocable promise by Microsoft that the company will not assert any claims against anyone using the technology that relate to any patents covering the technology.”  Which is bull.  You can use this IP only in implementing that short list of standards.  Only two on that list actually.  And I suspect only one of them, e.g. the standard that implies you have adopted Microsoft’s in house solution to the identity problem.