Theft Detection

Sort of a painful post today. I hate to publish a downer about Google right after the neutral-to-good things I said yesterday, but putting it off doesn’t make it any better.

There’s an interesting story on The Verge about Google uncovering a ring of Chinese car thieves.

The gist of it is that the thieves would take pictures of cars parked on the street and use the photos in ads offering the cars for sale. When they found a buyer, they would go steal the car, take the buyer’s money, and leave him to deal with the repercussions of having purchased stolen merchandise. It’s a clever scam: the JIT procurement processes means that the car probably doesn’t get reported as stolen until after the deal is done, and the delays built into the Chinese banking system apparently make it almost impossible for the buyer to stop payment–and give the thieves several days to make their getaway.

So what’s the Google connection? It seems that when they were updating their tools for detecting fraudulent ads in their AdWords network, a bunch of used car ads were getting flagged alongside the expected ads for counterfeit designer goods and phishing schemes. Nobody was sure why, as the ads didn’t appear significantly different than other ads for used merchandise that didn’t get flagged. In fact, as far as I can tell from the article, nobody is still quite sure exactly what caused the fraud flag to be set. There are some obvious clues, most notably a pattern of quick buys from new accounts. But because the main algorithm incorporates its own feedback loop, using the results of past runs as input for new runs, the specific combination of pieces of information is obscure, to say the least.

Of course, there really isn’t much Google can do when they spot a fraudster in China. They can delete the ad from AdWords, but that’s about it. Their relationship with China is rather rocky, making the sort of fast, targeted communication necessary to catch the scammers somewhere between “difficult” and “impossible”.

But they’re spotting crime, and there are other countries where Google has better access. This is a good thing, right?

Well, no. Even without considering the question of false positives–not everything that gets flagged as fraudulent will actually turn out to be an actual crime–consider this quote from AdWord’s director David Baker: “There’s no one thing or even a handful of things. It’s thousands of pieces of information in aggregate.” In other words, it’s Google’s massive database of information about who is doing what using their system.

This is, of course, exactly the same database that the NSA and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies are accessing in secret. Do you really want Google being forced to produce a list of suspected terrorists based on advertising history? Keep in mind that the database doesn’t just include the ad buyers, it also includes who sees which ads, what pages the ads were shown on, and whether the viewer clicked on them. Are you confident that your name won’t show up on the list?

Sure you’re OK with that risk–terrorism is pretty bad stuff, after all? Consider the FBI’s definition of terrorism: “…the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”. “Any segment” could be as small as one or two people, which means it could apply to breaking windows during a protest (see, for example the recent protests in Oakland over the Zimmerman trial verdict). I’m not the only one who thinks this is a legitimate risk. As far back as 2002, the ACLU pointed out that Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, and WTO protesters were at risk for being treated as terrorists. Open Salon pointed out that the Department of Defense explicitly defines protests as “low-level terrorism” and that definition was used in responding to the 2008 “RNC Welcoming Committee” protests.

Still totally confident that your name isn’t going to show up on the suspect list? Let’s face it: if you came to this post via a Google or Bing search, you’re going to be on that list. Chances are good that even if you just have this blog bookmarked, a simple demand that WordPress turn over their activity logs would include enough information for you to be tied to your other web actions and identified.

And none of this discussion even considers the possibility of scope creep. If the NSA can use this approach to fight terrorism, who’s to say that the local police can’t use it to fight serious crimes like rape and murder? And once that door is open, history shows that other crimes won’t be far behind. Fraud (remember where this discussion started?), theft, and even driving violations could be next).

I implied back at the beginning of this post that it’s Google’s problem. It is and it isn’t. As with the NSA’s reported surveillance activities to date, Google wouldn’t have a whole lot of choice about cooperating with a demand for such materials. It’s their problem, but it’s ours too. And there isn’t any more of a good solution for this part of the problem than the rest of it.

Fifty… five?

Remember back on 1 July, I promised to share the “50 Followers” badge when I got it?

Remember 5 July when I said I had 49 followers?

Guess what?


Yup. I just got the badge for accumulating 55 followers.

Wait, what?

See, it’s like this. In reality, I have 55 followers.


That’s a nice number I can advertise (I’m sure any prospective employers will be thrilled to see such a high number…)

But it’s not the number WordPress uses when awarding badges. Those are based on the number of followers: people who have accounts (and therefore blogs, even if they never use them) at


That goes back to our discussion of why WordPress gives badges (for those of you who missed it, it’s all about the advertising).

So on 5 July, in WordPress’ opinion I had 44 real followers.

My apologies to the five of you who fall into the category of “second class citizens”. I just want you to know that I value you just as much as the other fifty folks keeping an eye on my ramblings here.

Thank you all for sticking with me. It took almost exactly four months to get to this point. Let’s see if we can get to the next official milestone (100 followers) in three months. Spread the word!

In conclusion, let me leave you with these immortal words from “UFO”:

Oops, sorry. Wrong movie. …these immortal words from “Blazing Saddles“:

Umm. …”Treasure of the Sierra Madre“:

Oh, bother. Never mind. Tune in later today for a new post. If Google cooperates, it’ll be on whatever it is they have up their collective sleeve.

Hot Buttered Cats

As has been discussed previously, the most popular posts on this blog seem to be those about butter and cats. Not that this comes as any particular surprise, given the general popularity of cats artery-clogging. Clearly, then, the next step to a massive increase in readers is to combine the two. (“You got your cat on my butter!” “You got your butter in my cat!” “Two great tastes that taste great together.“)

WordPress tells me that this blog has 47 followers. Despite my comments last week about the uselessness of badges, there is something emotionally special about hitting round-numbers. I don’t expect this one post to jump the blog over 1,000 followers, or even 100, but I’d like to see it get past 50. If it does, I’ll share the badge with y’all. And if it does get past 1,000, I’ll certainly share the pony too.

Moving on. Cats and butter.

I’ve already dealt with the popular notion of using buttered toast and cats to create perpetual motion machines, so I’ll need to cover something a little different this time. Let’s talk about the idea that when you move, you should put butter on your cats’ paws to prevent them from wandering away and getting lost.

I’ve seen the idea put forth seriously in discussions of keeping cats safe when moving to a new home. I find it difficult to believe that there are people who believe this works, but then again, there are people who believe that prayer cures all illness, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Let’s break this down a bit.

There are several different explanations given for why buttering a cat’s paws will supposedly prevent it from straying:

  • Cleaning it off gives them something to do until they get used to the new house. Cleaning up the butter isn’t going to take more than a few minutes. I’ve been living in my current house for more than seven years, and I still find myself flipping the wrong light switch or fumbling for the door knob. Is five minutes really going to accustom a cat to the house? That seems unlikely. I’m willing to grant the possibility that cats are more adaptable than I am, but this just seems excessively optimistic. As a counter-example, I’ll note that when we moved in, Velcro spent the better part of two days hiding behind the toilet before he felt comfortable enough to explore the house. (No, I didn’t hide behind the toilet–maybe if I had, I wouldn’t be fumbling for the doorknob now.)
  • While cleaning it off, they pick up the scent of their new home so they can find their way back. Variations on this idea include bringing some of the outside dirt in and using the butter to stick it to the cat’s paws or applying the butter just before letting the cat out. Again, how much are they really going to pick up in the five minutes they spend grooming? And given some of the noxious substances they clean off of themselves, I’m convinced that cats have the ability to turn off their noses while grooming. OK, maybe not literally, but if you had to clean yourself with your tongue after using the toilet, wouldn’t you do your best to not smell what you were doing? More seriously, do you really think your next-door neighbor’s yard smells significantly different than your own, especially if you’ve just moved in and haven’t started spending hours spreading your scent around while gardening? Even more seriously still, if you want the cat to stick around, why are you letting it out in the first place? (I’m not even going to get into the statistics on the lifespan of indoor cats as opposed to indoor/outdoor or outdoor-only cats.)
  • It makes their paws too slippery for them to walk. This is just plain silly. Haven’t the people suggesting this ever heard of carpets? Leaving that aside, even if the cat is on a hardwood, tile, or linoleum floor, spreading the butter so thickly that they can’t walk is going to use a hell of a lot of butter, much of which is going to get spread over your floor, your furniture, and probably you when you make a futile attempt to keep the cat off the furniture. Even if it worked as intended, what would the value be in getting the cat all pissed off and over-excited? Isn’t the point to make them feel better about the new place?

The bottom line is that buttering a cat’s paws to keep it from straying is useless at best, and counter-productive at worst. The best way to keep them from straying is to keep them indoors. If you have to let them out, at least keep them indoors for several days to a few weeks after moving to get them thoroughly used to the new house, and then supervise their first trips outside using a harness and leash.

Oh, and there’s no reason not to give your cat a little butter now and then if they like it. Many people use it as a treat. We use it to encourage them to take pills, and Dad has used it to lubricate the passage of aluminum foil through the feline digestive system*. Note though, that unless there are medical considerations involved, the key word in the first sentence of this paragraph is “little”.


* I’ll say it for you all: Blech! But Dad did assure me that everything came out right in the end.

You Like Me…

A few days ago, I won an award.

What did I get? This blog drew its 100th “Like”.

“Yes,” I hear you ask. “But what was the award?”

That is the award. Well, to be pedantic, the award is a notification from WordPress informing me that “You’ve gotten 100 likes”.

According to WordPress, they award “badges” for significant milestones in followers and likes, because “it’s important to stop, catch your breath, and look at your accomplishments”. They also send notifications when I beat a previous daily record for likes (29 March) and follows (5 April).

OK, that makes sense. Sort of. It’s nice to get a pat on the back for doing something, but I didn’t really do this – it’s you folks reading the blog who grant the likes and become the followers. By that logic, you should be getting the badges, or at least being notified of them. But these badges are only visible to the blogger. I can tell you about them, but that’s it. (Yes, I know I could take a screenshot and post it, but that’s kind of half-assed.)

And yes, I know that if I wasn’t blogging, there wouldn’t be anything for y’all to like and follow. The point here is that I’m being rewarded for your actions. If it was about my accomplishments, the badges should be for significant numbers of posts, or new records in number of posts in a day.

So what is the point of these badges, especially given that the information is available in the site stats? Cynically, I suspect it’s to keep new bloggers around long enough for WordPress to break even on them. The award levels are heavily biased to beginners (5, 10, 20, and 50), and then get very scarce (100, 500, and 1000). Pat the new kids on the head, keep them engaged long enough to seed ads on their pages (or up-sell them to the “no ads” package), and make enough money to cover the cost of their bandwidth and support needs. If they give up after the 50 award, WordPress is good; if they keep going, they’ve got the habit and don’t need further encouragement.

Oh, wait. According to a staff comment on the page linked above, “there’s a little secret if you get over a thousand”. Stick around and push that “Like” count up, won’t you? I want to see if the secret is that I get a pony!

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