Monday, August 29, 2011

Scam, Trade, Charity and Advertising Strategies

I was browsing my spam folder this morning looking at all the fascinating opportunities that had luckily found their way to my door and started trying to categorize the social engineering strategies that were in play.

1. Curious Cat Strategy.

Mail contains only a weblink with no contextual information (unless you look at the "from" field).  Often even the link itself is not interestingly named and does not contain any meaningful keywords.  I estimate that this would capture only the completely ignorant or the terminally curious.

2. Fear Me Stategy

The mail contains some threat to the user.  Usually either their email account or their bank account is going to be closed/suspended/locked etc unless they do something stupid like send their details to some foreign country.  This can only work on people who are poorly informed or are not willing to call the senders bluff.  This could be due to stress, lack of capacity, etc.  Really only exploiting the vulnerable.

3.  Lets work together strategy

These mails basically present an opportunity that could have something in it for both the sender and the receiver if only the receiver will do something.  Nigerian money scam is the most famous, but I still see variations for money mules and other dubious courier type work "opportunities".  This kind of scam will appeal to people who are either really ignorant or think they can beat the odds.

4. Greedy Bastard Strategy

These mails usually involve some sort of immediate payoff for the receiver.  "Prize draw", "free Giveaway" that sort of thing. All they have to do to receive the prize is.... ...  These sort of strategies play to people who are both ignorant and greedy.  They have not yet learned NSTAAFL. 

The interesting thing is the complete lack of certain other strategies that I would expect to be used.  Things like "Please give money for sick children" or "help X". Appeals to the charitable nature.  Perhaps there is charity fatigue and the criminals think that other routs are more successful.  Or perhaps they are too ethical to use the approches that the actual charities use.  Or perhaps the charities have dominated that strategy and already have the "market" sewn up.

If we consider that scams, advertising and charities are all involved in the same sort of activity. That of trying to tap us for resources. Then we could look at them as being competitors and see them engaging in similar monopolistic activities in certain areas of the strategy spectrum.

While charities are trying to "voluntarily" extract cash resources, advertising is trying to manipulate our behavior directly, and scams are trying to manipulate our behavior to extract cash resources (involuntarily).

What happens when a charity stops asking politely and starts using manipulation to "extract" resources (with the best of intentions of course....)?  For instance, showing graphic pictures to elicit horror, guilt, discomfort etc.

How does this compare to a beggar showing tourists some personal injury/body odor etc and refusing to remove it until they are paid?  It uses the same mechanism of shock and discomfort.

Is the charity asking you to pay for a happy outcome or to make the picture go away?

Contrast this with charities that show positive outcomes only.  Happy healthy people working and growing, children learning in schools, crops growing etc.  Does it press any buttons?  Satisfaction, pride, sharing, communal feelings of karma?  Does it press the buttons hard enough to get cash to pop out of our pockets?

In the middle are charities that use both. Certain medial charities who show the injured and then show a doctor rushing in to help them, from which we assume there is a positive outcome.  Then ask for some funding to help pay for the doctor to keep doing this kind of work.  This plays on our assumptions that a doctor arriving means that the problem is solved ( Does everyone think that doctors are miracle workers? Do we watch "House" way too much?  Most of the GP's I know are barely competent to prescribe antibiotics. If their handwriting is anything to go by they are mostly illiterate.  This may be a rant for another day.) 

This really raises the question about the difference between a scam and a charity.  Either or both may be started with either noble or selfish reasons, the difference between them is measured on the number of people who benefit and to what degree they benefit.  Where many people benefit in ways that raise them from below the poverty line to above, its called "Social good", while when few people benefit and are raised significantly above the poverty line, its called crime.  Same sort of model for medical work, education and farming programs etc
Now with those two anchors, imagine a spectrum between them, where the two variables ( number of people, average change in poverty) and you can start to see not only a range of models but also a few edge cases where the models allow hiding massive personal gain for a few people.

For instance, a scam that raises a small number of people from poverty to subsistence... has a similar effect as a charity that raises a small number of people from poverty to subsistence.  

We need a more useful metric for evaluating charities and scams.

This also highlights the other side of the equation.  Who looses and how much do they loose.  Any removal of resources, either "voluntary" or involuntary results in some degree of loss to the "victim".  How many people lost something and how much was the loss. (Be it time, money or other resources)

Basically, all these systems are value transfer mechanisms.  Different to trade but not completely alien.  They all share similar basic psychological mechanisms, its just the degree of utility that the various mechanisms are employed that differentiates them.

Trade based on fear, horror and guilt is alive and well at your local shopping center; but so is altruistic, ethical, fair and meaningful trade. How do we evaluate and make decisions, policies and choices between them? 

On another spectrum are those scams that camouflage themselves as charities.  The door to door donation collector who pretends to be from some charity; the disaster relief workers who evacuate children from disaster zones and then sell them for "adoption".  These both exploit trust and reputation and focus the benefit towards a very small number of people.

The properties that I think are meaningful for the evaluation of these kinds of trade mechanisms are:

Evaluating the Exchange (Resources - time, money, well being, stress level, karma etc)
Aggregate Value Change for Party A
Aggregate Value Change for Party B
Aggregate Value spill to environment (incidental value spillage into the environment outside the control of both parties)

Mechanism to motivate the exchange (What buttons have been pushed to motivate the transaction? Hunger, Threat of Pain/Damage, greed, fear, status, popularity, novelty, excitement, horror, pity, anger, love, hope, desperation etc)
Mechanism applied to Party A
Mechanism applied to Party B
Mechanism spilled to the environment ( exposure of people/places/animals etc of parts or whole of the manipulation mechanisms outside the control of either party)

Really they can only be evaluated when its all "complete" or reaches some status point if its an on-going or cyclical relationship.

What about the use of "free give away's" and "prize draws" for advertising.  Scam?  There is still a value trade between the parties so does it count in some way as a "trade"? Do both parties some how come out with more value than they went in with?  Is this a value creation mechanism?

Does value obey the laws of thermodynamics?  Can value be created or is there a finite amount ( at least a finite amount for the purpose of calculating a trade exchange) Can value be destroyed?  Where does "value" come from?

If "value" does not obey the laws of thermodynamics and it can be created and destroyed (in an absolute sense within the abstraction we call the global/national/local economy)  then understanding the mechanisms for both the creation and destruction would be of interest to various people.  Especially on a personal level. 

Does each person born introduce a fixed amount of value into the economic environment?(If so ecconomists should be scrounging every single person on the face of the planet for harvesting...) Does education add value to a person or reduce some "negative" value abstraction that has yet to be named (Ignorance? or could "stupid" be considered as a measurable quantity), and thus "increase" the availible value up to some abstract maximum?

Fun games.....

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mythbusters robot rant

I really want to take exception with Grant from Mythbusters "robots".  I would contest that at best they are mechanisms or devices.  They are specifically intended to be deterministic, repeatable (usually) and very predictable.  Just because they are often remote control or include fun actuators, do not, in my book, a robot make.  I can't remember ever seeing any of them being driven by sensor arrays.

My definitions are:

A Tool: A thing that focuses the energy of the user for a specific task.
A device: Something that harnesses an energy source for a specific task. (Superset of a tool)
A basic robot:  Something that has sensors, actuators and a means of making a decision based on the sensor input as to whether to drive the actuators or not.
Artificial inteligence: A system, that given the same inputs, has the ability to modify (or learn) its response based on evaluation of the responses against a constant critieria. (Goodness, happiness, pleasure, task success etc)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

HTML5 Games

Interesting site on HTML5 for games.  Need to read some more here.

3D engine in HTML5

This is a very good article on building a lean 3D engine in HTML5.  Very applicable to other platforms.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Community Resiliance

In my never ending interest in post-appocolyptic narratives, I'm fascinated in the ways that small social groups adapt to catastrophic changes in their environment. While the usual nuclear/plague/astroid strike/(insert very sudden catastrophy here) provides more substance for a long form narrative, the basic premis is the same. Take one community, change or destabalise their relationship with more distant communities, place pressure on resources and see what happens.

Usually in the narratives the community devolves into a game of every family for themselves, predation, looting etc. Smaller sustainable groups form, families, gangs, couples and singles. Group size and composition dictate the strategies that are adopted for success.

Because the "Rule of law" is the first thing to go, the groups fall back on the law of the jungle. Strong groups predate on the weak. When there is no prey, the groups decompose further and repeat the same patterns. When there is sufficienc basic resources (food, water, shelter), trade and cooperation flourish. Groups can afford to merge with smaller groups and gain in strength.

This is about as deep as the usual narrative will go. There is sometimes a nod to some interesting social adaptions such as group marriages or communal parenting but nothing about skill retention, education models or research and development.

Another intersting issue is that of currency. Most systems quickly devlove into some sort of barter/trust/reputation model. This works fine for a very small community where everyone has the ability to have a shared idea of the current value of something. It becomes weaker as the size of the trade network grows. The relative value of something at two different points in social graph could be quite substantial and cause runs and bubbles even within a relativly small group. This can have a very distructive effect on a small fragile ecconomy. Situations like this need some stability in value over at least a yearly cycle. That way seasonal produce will dominate the value chain. Animals may have a different value model due to their durability over more than one cycle. They can also be cashed in as food with very short notice. Access to wild food stocks would also be highly valued and have good longevity as long as the ownership model can be enforced.

I think that any community that is disconnected suddenly needs a new knowledge model. Having specialists who know lots has two drawbacks. Fistly its incredibly risky and secondly it gives one person a great deal of individual power. So I think the first thing to do would be to distribute the knowledge as broadly as possible. Essentially, teach everyone in town to be a doctor. Obviously everyone does not have time to be a doctor full time, so the town needs to maximise the learning opportunity every time some doctoring is going on. Perhaps even have some regular training days to teach first aid and basic medicine. Same for any other specialist knowledge that is useful. (Metalwork, woodwork, hunting, fishing etc) This means that for just about everything being done, there should never be one person doing it, there should always be someone watching and learning over their shoulder.
At any point in time that person doing the leaning could suddenly be the only expert availible.

Another thing that communities need is a sense of identity and a chance to bond. This usually means some communal gathering and opportunity to socialise. Regular town meetings, dances, bonfire nights, drunken orgies... whatever. As long as everyone gets invited and everyone comes. As for the identity, its simply a matter of selecting a name and enforcing a sense of us and "them". Having someone else to persecute is also a favorite.

I think the basics of life are food, water, shelter, health, security. While semantically there is a little overlap between them, I think none are valuable without the others. As long as a community can collectivly provide these things to all members (with acceptable levels of equity) that community can be self sustaining. Being able to supply additional needs would just make life better.

Where things get socially interesting( and usually brutal) is when there is either a resource cap or insecurity in one of the 5 essentials. At this point the community (large or small) needs to come up with clever ways to deal with that constraint. This usually comes down to "population control" ( in all its variations ) or individual portion control (again in various variations).

Population control seems to be the most popular in narratives because it means that the loner can be kicked out/eaten/disposed of and the remainder can live in guilt and eventually all go crazy. Alternates are "natural attrition", "Abandon the elders(logans run, Inuit society)",

Individual portion control works as long as the system appears equitable and individuals are getting "just enough" as soon as the portion size falls too low, the group disintergrates again.

Either situation is complicated. So far I have not seen any narratives where some other strategy was proposed to deal with a resource cap.

Resource insecurity causes a range of other strategies to develop. Things like hording, division and stratafication (class systems with "have's" and "have not's"), religion(Scarsity is the will of a devine being... happy feet), seasonal predation(banditry when times are hard. Farming when times are good), nomadic movement(the grass is always greener...), raiding etc.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The social contract

This is a recurring question for me...

What is in the social contract at a local, state and national level?

Its the same problem over and over again. Manage your clients expectations and everyone has a good experience.  The example in front of me at the moment is the rioting thats popping up all over England.  While there are lots of issues to pick at, the underlying cause is violation of the assumptions of some of the parties to the social contract in England.  (Simple isnt it... nice neat answer to everything....)

The problems are:

What is actually in the social contract?
Do all parties share the same understanding of the contract?
Are any of the parties holding unrealistic assumptions about the contract?
Are all parties playing fairly?

Generally the answer is fairly unplesant to all of the questions above.

What is in the social contract

The social contract is the implied agreement between an individual and the "Society" in which they live. It defines what the individual is expected to do and what they will get in return. 

The individuals responsibilities

The first part would usually be the law, morals and ethical standards, "normal" behaviour etc all define what an individual should do to be a "normal" member of the society.  This could include things like, "Sleeps at night and goes to work at 9am".  "Does not steal stuff" etc.  Basically the contract promises that "If you do all these things (and avoid doing any of the wrong things) society will give you....".

What the individual gets
The social contract defines all the stuff that society will provide for a "normal" member of society.  This might be things like "clean streets", "Safe to walk after dark", "basic health care", "education" etc.  There are lots of things on this side of the contact.

What happens when the contract is violated....

Essentially when one side or the other feels like the contract has been violated ( i.e they are not getting what they think they are entitled to after having fullfilled their side of the deal) bad things start happening.  Usually the social party of the contract deals with this regularly so they have a whole range of rules, structures and men with sticks to deal with these cases. 
On the other side, individuals generally act out or try to satisfy their needs as they can.  This often involves feelings of betrayal, anger and general "I got shafted" kind of retoric.

All this is fairly normal stuff.. the problem comes when large numbers of people feel like the social contact has been violated at the same time and for an extended period of time.  Basically most of the western world in one way or another is in that situation at the moment.  There are riots from England to Syria, across north africa, through the mediteranian and certainly feelings of dissatisfaction in the US. All of these are symptomatic of the violation of social contracts between individuals ( in a group they are called "The citizens") and "Society" (usually personified by public servants and politicians) 

The major problem with acting out is that in reality, public servants and politicans are not actually "Society".  They are just some conveiniet faces and voices... society incldes the individuals who are feeling screwed... so their acting out always comes back to hurt themselves.... in large or small measure.

Like that logic will help someone who feels like they have nothing to loose.....

Watching the English politicians practice "divide and persecute" politics to try to chase the problem back under the carpet where its been simmering for the last decade is both scary and sad.  The first step is to admit there is a problem.  But to do that publicly is going to be fairly traumatic for the whole country... so its easier to blame the protesters.  Make it about choices... pretend they are just criminals who have taken a day off from being productive, contented members of society to have a bit of a looting spree and see if they can get their heads bashed in.... talk about wanting to beleive.  But then I guess thats easier than admitting that for the majority of the population, the social contract has been violated repeatedly and constantly by one side ( again personified by the government ... however generally through no bad intention of anyone. 

I feel that this really indicates just how little power most of the democratic governments have to take drastic corrective action.  Democracy is a very slow ship to turn.  Even when there is a will to turn it... often there is no consensus on which way to go... which means a fairly random approch to problem solving. 

Compare that to a centrally managed system like China.  They still retain the ability to make quick direction changes when a problem arises and then revert to a more inclusive model when things are going well. 

The common problem for both systems is still choosing a solution to the problem... the difference is how quickly they can impelment it.  (And the problem of getting a dictator into the power chair in a centrally managed system who will not listen to good advice.... )

An interesting model is the one shown in the godfather movies.  Where the mafia family has one system of governance during "good times" and changes to a "war leader" when there is a time of crisis.  Once the crisis is over, the war leader steps down and they revert to the "good times" model.

While this strategu is hardly unique to marfia movies... its essentially the same strategy as that employed in various software systems.  Use one algorithm for general cases and employ specialist algorithms when an edge case is detected for which the general algorithm would be either inefficient or, for some other reason, poor.  The problems are always picking the right time to swap between the algorithms and when to swap back.  Much harder with people....

Monday, August 8, 2011

Death from below

I'm sitting here watching the hard drive die on my main work computer. I sceduled a set of chkdsk scans on all the drives on friday and when I booted this morning they started running.

Couple of minor index errors and such on some of the drives... until it got to one and stated a cascade of segment unreadable errors.

You know that bad feeling you get .....

Funnily enough, I was rebuilding a little dell laptop on the bench beside the computer and it took less time to install win XP than it did to run chkdsk on my big computer. Since its only got about 1.1T of drive space... well I would have expected it to go a bit quicker and the install to be a bit slower. Swings and roundabouts.

Either that or the coffee has not soaked in yet and I'm completely halucinating.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Arduino video out to TV

This looks like a fun project for the weekend. I even have a tiny 12v CRT tv that I picked up on the side of the road looking for a project to be part of.... hmmm might make a nice little retro robot out of it all... Just about the right size to fit into a little perspex fish tank.... thinking....

Robotics Motion Library

This looks quite useful.  Must add it to the arm controllers.

GPU programming for .NET

This looks quite handy.

Playing with Google Trends

Try this for watching key words and phrases. Recreational data analysis.

Example of Information Visualisation

While the topic is fairly uninteresting to me, its a nice simple example of visualization of information. 

Debugging close to the metal

This is the collection of tools you want to have when you are debugging at an extreme level. Some of the anti-root kit utils are also useful for diagnostics.  They may not help dis-infect a machine but it gives more clues. I have a suspicious laptop on the todo list at the moment that has symptoms but nothing conclusive.  All the basic scanners are failing.... so the only thing to do is either flatline it and rebuild or go in at a level below the potential rootkits.  As it was riddled with malware... chances are it has either a botnet or rootkit somewhere.

Best Practices and Philosophy for the Developer

There are not too many new nuggets here but its a good roundup of lots of the most quoted gems for software engineers.

More on Patent Trolls

Fairly good summary of the situation. Nothing new or controversial, as you would expect from a conservative institution.  Just interesting because its the stature of the voice doing the speaking.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ghost from the past

I happened to be searching for information about a recurring crash today and came across a page that triggered a memory.... not a clear one... just an echo of something familiar from a time years back... I couldn't clearly remember the details but by following a link or two I arrived at a page that brought it all back:

Sadly time has moved on for everyone and some have passed away.  Ah, my miss spent youth. Its going to be a melancholy day....