The Portage & Main Debate

Debate surrounding the referendum to reopen the Portage & Main intersection to pedestrians has been dominating my social media so much so that I feel compelled to comment.

My feeds are filled entirely with #VoteOpenWPG proponent and in my humble opinion they could be doing a much better job. I’m not even strongly opposed to opening the intersection. Yet I’m not finding the arguments very compelling at all.

Here’s Why

I’ve organized the main points I’ve seen online into a few categories and put on my contrarian hat to illustrate how they could be seen as flimsy and irrelevant.

History

“The intersection was open to pedestrians for much longer than it has been closed.”

This argument has little weight because change is the inherent nature of history. A lot has changed since the intersection was founded in the 19th century. Modes of transportation are vastly different, horses and buggies are nowhere to be seen, streetcars have come and gone; skyscraper exist, etc. The fact that the intersection was once packed with pedestrians 50 years ago has little baring on what might or might not happen if the intersection was open again in 2019.

Accessibility

“People with mobility issues cannot cross the street because they can’t access the underground.”

This is true, but the argument is not compelling. Winnipeg’s downtown is relatively small. Taking a route that does not cross Portage & Main does not add significant distance to the trip. (Unless you need to get directly between the 3 buildings directly at the corner of Portage Ave E.)

The Underground Sucks

“The underground feels unsafe, poorly lit, the entrances smell like urine, etc.”

Again, this may be true, but if true it’s just not a compelling argument for opening the intersection to pedestrian traffic. It is an argument for spending resources on improving the underground.

“Good for business”

Making the argument that opening the intersection will be good for business automatically lumps this issue in with many other downtown revitalization projects that have been presented as magic bullets to “fix” downtown. With arguable success.

It’s also one of the only points that seems objectively false. For one, the intersection is dominated by office towers, there are literally no street-level businesses within the scope of that block. For another, if pedestrians stay above ground, the underground concourse would certainly suffer. If more pedestrians travel above ground, fewer will travel underground.

Future of the city

“It’s about what kind of city we want to be in the future.”

Do we we want a city that’s progressive and pedestrian friendly? Or do we want to live General Motors Utopia of the 1950s? As someone who grew up in the suburbs, current lives and works in the far flung reaches of St James, I get the sense that a vast majority of Winnipeggers are perfectly happy living in an autopia. If this is the argument the “yes” side is depending on, I am afraid they will be disappointed.


I think that sums up just about everything I’ve see in favour of re-opening the intersection. And to be fair (as Alyson Shane points out in her post for a few weeks ago) the arguments against opening the intersection are quite weak as well.

However, we are not being asked to vote in favour of not doing something. We are voting on investing tax dollars in a project that many Winnipeggers see as frivolous or of dubious value at best.

Status Quo Is Free!

Unless it’s not.

According to a July 24th, article in the Winnipeg Free Press by Dan Lett

All told, the city is committed to spending about $3.5 million on street-level upgrades and planning the re-opening of the intersection. We do not know the final cost of tearing down the barriers. However, the existing barriers are falling apart and removing them could very likely be less expensive than rebuilding them.

If true, this is the only point that matters. People of all political persuasions are motivated by dollars and cents. If it’s going to cost more money to keep the barricades up, taking them down should be a nobrainer. Moreover, $3.5M is well under 1% of Winnipeg $1B+ operating budget.

Lett goes to point out:

There is also the fact that private land owners at Portage and Main need to do repairs to the underground infrastructure that supports Winnipeg Square, the underground shopping mall. That work will require the removal of some of the barriers. Rebuilding them seems a pointless endeavour.

I couldn’t agree more.

The fact that we’re debating this, let a lone having a referendum is the most Winnipeg thing ever.

Return of Vegetarian Fast Food

I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian for roughly 5 years and a pescitarian for another 5 years.

That was nearly 10 years ago.

My reasons for becoming a vegetarian were vaguely ethical. PETA did a great job of marketing to my demographic around the turn of the century. The punk/DIY-esque social circles I interacted with on the early internet (and occasionally IRL) were generally pro-vegetarian/vegan and there were a large amount of resources available for new vegetarians.

At the same time, the early-to-mid-00s saw a huge jump in vegan options available locally. Grocery stores started carrying decent meat alternatives (like Yves). And surprisingly, mainstream fast-food chains began carrying (at least one) vegetarian option. McDonalds, Burger King and A&W all had veggie patties. KFC had a faux-chicken burger. Subway had their “veggie max” patty (much better than it’s gross sounding name).  Panago introduced their meat-free pepperoni during this time. It was a good time to be a fat vegetarian. With the exception of Panago, all of those options fell off the menu sometime in the past 10 years.

My reasons for starting to eat meat again were vaguely social and selfish. If I’m being honest with myself, the ethical and environment problems of eating meat are still something that troubles me occasionally. I’ve simply chosen not to care about them for the time being.

What I’m about to say is a bit of an uncharacteristically lofty statement for me to make but… I honestly think the world would be a better place if we ate less meat. I don’t think this can happen until we have nearly indistinguishable faux-meat, if not perfectly synthetic vat-grown meat. And I believe fast-food will be the major vector of change.

To that end, I’ve been watching the rise of more “realistic” faux-meat technologies with much curious anticipation. I was pretty stunned when I heard that A&W has started to serve (the Bill Gates + Twitter + Kliener Perkins funded) Beyond Meat “Beyond Burger.” I first heard about this company 2 or 3 years ago, they looked really promising, I just assumed they were still in R&D mode. Needless to say I’m looking forward to tasting this burger ASAP.

Coincidentally, I noticed that Subways has started to prominently stock their veggie max patty once again. I wonder if we might see a resurgence in vegetarian fast food.

The History of Vagrant Records

The Washed Up Emo Podcast published a great 2 part interview with the co-founder of Vagrant Records. If you were ever in to the first batch of Vagrant bands, I’d highly recommend listening to these to episodes.

#70 – Part 1 of 2 – The History of Vagrant Records with co-founder Rich Egan

#71 – Part 2 of 2 – The History of Vagrant Records with co-founder Rich Egan

I just discovered the podcast and these episodes are a few years old at this point, still well worth the listen.

DIY Internet: More on personal VPNs

A few followup thoughts regarding Monday’s post about setting up a personal VPN.

Self-Sufficient, DIY Internet

All the Facebook Cambridge Analytica nonsense has really emphasized how dependent we have become on third party services and social networks.

As I thought about it, the idea of being self-sufficient online has really started to appeal to me. I mean this blog has always been independent, fully controlled by me. As a web developer with fully-stack devops ninja experience, I have all the skill and experience I need to set up any sort of web service I want.

So when I thought about the reasons for using a VPN regularly and the likelihood that I’d have to pay for a decent service, I wanted to see if i could do it myself. On severs I own.

I think there are more opportunities to DIY online, to rely less on dubious third parties.

Peace of Mind

As I alluded to in my first post, the real world security threats associated with public wifi are only a minor concern. I’m not generally too concerned, most of the time.

That said this little icon next to my WiFi connection gives me such a massive sense of security and piece of mind. The fact that it auto-connects without me having to take an action is just the icing on the cake.

Censorship

Streissand is an anti-censorship tool designed to bypass draconian government censorship like China’s Greatfirewall. You don’t live in China, do you really need do worry about censorship? Probably — and if you hang around the right subreddits — increasingly so.

Canada’s telcos are presently lobbying for a censorship regime. Perhaps the first draft targets content most of us would agree is “bad,” but who knows what the next version will look like.

Even if you’re less paranoid, there’s a good chance your workplace or school is filtering some content. Maybe it’s not content you bump in to very often. But if even if they are not filtering traffic, they’re almost certainly collecting your web traffic. That’s something I’ve never been too comfortable with.

A VPN allows you to take back your online freedom whenever you’re using a work, school or any other network that distrusts you.

Bypassing Geographic Restrictions

In case you missed, VPNs allow you to bypass geographic content restrictions. When you use a VPN, you traffic originates from the IP address of the VPN server. And since cloud providers host servers in many physical locations, you can easily bypass any geo restrictions based on IP address.


If you missed Monday’s post you can read it here:

How to: Set Up A Personal VPN

My Thoughts on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

It has been almost a month since the massive Cambridge Analytica x Facebook improper-user-data-ex-filtration mess (don’t call it a data breach) came to light. The news is settling down despite the real numbers coming out of Facebook and a possible 600,000 Canadians possibly affected.

I’ve been mulling over how I feel about it and I’ve finally come to a conclusion.

As much as I’d like to see this as a catalyst for people to start finding (and building) alternatives to Facebook’s walled garden of exploitation, I don’t think they did anything wrong.


The basic narrative of the Cambridge Analytica story seems to be that Facebook tricked average Americans opting to share all their facebook data with some benign looking app (like a quiz); which in turn gave the app maker further access to the victim’s friends data. Without the victim’s friends’ permission. In other words, if your friends fell for this ploy, Facebook’s API gave the app maker access to your data without your permission.

I don’t believe there is any truth do this assumption. Facebook’s API never granted access to this level of data about friends (let alone friends-of-friends). They are not that stupid.

I was involved in building Facebook app integration during the time that Cambridge Analytica gathered their data, I read Facebook’s Open Graph API documentation numerous times. Unfortunately that version of the API no longer seems to be available online, but I was able to find some old how-to videos referencing it.

As far as I can piece together, the only data about your friends that Facebook ever provided via the API was their full name and user id. Any data about your likes, political affiliation, family connections, marital status, or anything else that could be used for “psychographic” modelling was never available via your friends.

However!

These personal details were available to anyone and everyone via your public profile! Assuming that you hadn’t opted out of sharing this info (and I really doubt most user were giving their privacy details much thought before they learned the name Cambridge Analytica).

In order for Cambridge Analytica and others to mine this data they would have had to write bots to scrape data directly from your public facing profile. In the past, it was very easy to gain access to these profiles in a programmatic way. Anybody could simply load http://facebook.com/profile.php?id= with your ID to see your public profile. Even a non-programmer can see how easy it would be to generate a list of targets for a bot to crawl.

At some point, Facebook started closing this “profile.php” access point as they rolled out username (I’m ohryanca). Once that was locked down, it became more complicated to scrape content and the bad actors became more clever.

I’m pretty sure I’m right

In a blog post yesterday Facebook announced an enormous array of restrictions to their APIs (which are undoubtedly pissing off a lot of sketchy developers). Regarding account recovery, they mentioned the following:

…malicious actors have also abused [account recovery] features to scrape public profile information by submitting phone numbers or email addresses they already have through search and account recovery. Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped in this way. So we have now disabled this feature. We’re also making changes to account recovery to reduce the risk of scraping as well.

Conclusion

As much as I hate to say it, I don’t think Facebook did anything wrong. Their APIs never fed this data to any and every app developer who wanted. Cambridge Analytica and friends had jump through additional hoops. They took actions that were outside of the normal/approved methods Facebook expected and allowed app makers to access our data.

Facebook simply built a reasonable public profile feature meant to allow you to use Facebook as a home on the web. A URL to share outside the platform.

They built a reasonable account recovery feature, that allowed users to recover their logins in standard non-controversial ways.

There is no evidence that Facebook’s APIs allowed access to the type of data Cambridge Analytica took advantage of. They were just outplayed by an opponent who thought of clever ways to get what it needed.

PS

In case the mainstream media has lulled you in to a false sense of whatever; the democrats have this data too (and then some).

Here is footage of Carol Davidsen (VP of political technology at Rentrak) at a conference in 2015 gleefully explaining how the Obama campaign mapped THE ENTIRE SOCIAL GRAPH OF THE UNITED STATES who were on Facebook at the time of the 2012 election. The techniques she describes are strikingly similar to what Cambridge Analytica is accused of.