Category Archives: Internet

PayPal random security checks are ridiculous

PayPal recently emailed me to say that my account password had been disabled as a “random” security precaution. To re-enable it, I would have to reconfirm my credit card details and then receive a snail-mail letter in order to verify my address, and of course pick a new password.

Now let’s just think about this. When a PayPal account is compromised by the Ukrainian mafia or whoever, we can assume that they make use of it very quickly. Probably within minutes, certainly in less than a day. Who knows when the victim is going to get suspicious and change their password or notify their bank? Sitting on a compromised account has no upside and potentially a large downside.

In order for a particular random cancellation to be effective, it would have to occur by chance at the exact moment the account was compromised. If it happened beforehand, it would have zero effect (the new password would be compromised rather than the old one). If it happened more than a few hours afterward, the account would already be drained and any protection would be useless. The odds of a particular random check providing any protection are astronomical.

Of course, maybe they’re just lying to me. That would be a whole lot better.

The QWERTY keyboard

For years, the QWERTY keyboard has served as an example of a design decision taken for technological reasons that outlived its usefulness. Supposedly, the keyboard layout was chosen so as to slow down typing and prevent mechanical typewriters from jamming, but now we use electronic keyboards we’re artificially limiting our typing speed. Can we finally retire this old metaphor? I can think of several good reasons:

  • There’s no good evidence that QWERTY is substantially slower than DVORAK, indeed the QWERTY layout succeeded in a competitive marketplace against other keyboard layouts
  • It was never true that QWERTY was designed to slow people down anyway; it was designed to reduce the occurrences of subsequent kepresses being nearby in space, not nearby in time, the former being more important to preventing jamming than the latter
  • We have a far better metaphor now in the shape of Twitter

Allow me to explain. Millions of messages a day are now being shared via Twitter. Some people use it to communicate with their family, debate political ideas or get the daily news. Central to the Twitter model is that messages are strictly limited in size, to which many people ascribe its approachability and rapid growth.

But there was never any thought put in to what should be the optimum size for a Twitter message. No studies were done of what the trade-off is between messages long enough for rich communication and short enough to discourage excess verbosity. There were no competing systems. The founders of Twitter simply settled on 140 characters because it was envisaged that Twitter would heavily use the SMS system, and SMS messages are limited to 160 characters (truncating Twitter messages at 140 characters allowed for some metadata to be attached). It’s a technical limitation driving a supposedly human-centric tool.

But it’s even worse than that. The SMS system that set the boundaries for Twitter is itself a holdover from an earlier technologically limited era. SMS messages were originally limited to 128 bytes by the signalling formats used on the networks. Even though this was eventually extended to 140 bytes (the now-familiar 160 7-bit characters) I’m assuming the technological tail was still wagging the ergonomic dog. SMS was envisaged as primarily for traders to send terse stock market tips, not as a replacement for other forms of human contact (fact: you can contact The Samaritans for support with suicidal feelings via SMS; I can’t imagine a worse situation to be trying to repeatedly re-edit your message to fit it into 160 characters).

The News is not a competition

A while back, I came across the following from Dave Winer, and I couldn’t resist commenting:

I keep saying the same thing over and over, the Google Reader approach is wrong, it isn’t giving you what’s new — and that’s all that matters in newsSuccinctly put — news is about what’s new — and that’s it.

Why does Twitter work better for news than Google Reader? Simple, Twitter gives you what’s new now. You don’t have to hunt around to find the newest stuff.

The thing that annoyed me about this is the assumption that reading the news is some kind of competition, where if you’re reading stuff more than a few hours old you’re some kind of poor relation to those who are really up to date. It’s bad enough that anyone believes this obviously ludicrous idea, but what really got up my nose is the way Winer seems to believe this view of the news is not just his personal preference, but an unarguable part of what news is.

Certainly, there’s a benefit to having news sources that take account of the latest information that is germane to the subject under discussion, and that means that all news has a shelf life. If you’re a journalist who relies on making scoops to get readers then of course newness matters, but this isn’t even the case for all journalists, let alone the vast majority of people.

This idea about news is a new conception, and a technology-driven one. Back when people had to wait for the evening paper to find out what was going on in the world, society still functioned perfectly well. I dare say people were actually better informed than someone who spends hours a day on their twitter stream. Like all cases where technology allows us to do something new, we must ask ourselves whether we must, just because we can.

The reason that Winer’s conception of news is for most people not just inappropriate but actively harmful is that most information, most of the time, for most people, is not actionable. I don’t need to know about a buyout rumour or a shock opinion poll or a company’s financial statement the minute it happens because I’m not going to do immediately do anything with that information. There’s a downside to information too, in that the importance of news isn’t necessarily apparent until some time after the event, so trying to follow news as it happens inevitably weighs you down with lots of stuff that eventually turns out to be irrelevant.

Up to the second news updates? No thanks. Get back to me when you have a well-structured analysis telling me exactly what matters and how it will affect people like me. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.