Ramnode VPS review

I moved my site to Ramnode a little over 6 months ago. Before, I was hosting my site on a friend’s VPS, and paying for the shell service xShellz, but I decided to pay a little extra and consolidate my services. It was a great choice.

On Ramnode, I have an OpenVZ VPS with 512MB of RAM, on SSDs, running Debian. It’s extremely fast and reliable. I’m running the following services:

  • WordPress / PHP / Apache / MySQL
  • Postfix / Dovecot / Roundcube / SquirrelMail / ClamAV
  • ZNC
  • TOR relay
  • Mumble server

— all of the above on 512MB!

Anyway, I’ve been blown away by the quality and performance. They offer 2TB of bandwidth on even their lowest tiers.

Žižek plagiarism scandal

I have mixed feelings about Žižek’s plagiarism of a book review in a white nationalist magazine . There have been many important intellectuals who have had similar dust-ups with minor incidents of plagiarism. Heidegger and Kierkegaard, for example, and people still read them. Everyone reads other works and borrows ideas from them without necessarily citing every single idea – we legitimately don’t remember the original source.

To put a different angle on it, who would actually want to read a book with white nationalist ties? Who would want to cite a white nationalist magazine? There were times when intellectuals were hesitant to cite anything with Buddhist origin, out of fear of looking flakey. In literature, nobody in academia would admit to reading or directly talk about fantasy and science fiction, but their pretentious counterparts, “magical realism” and “speculative fiction,” are universally acclaimed.

On the other side, though, the rules of the academy are that credit must be given to non-original ideas – always. If you or I did this on a dissertation, our academic careers would be over. Heck, people left and right are disavowing any former support for the ideas of Colin McGinn after his sex scandal, and his mistake was outside of the scope of his intellectual thought.

I want to see how the dust settles on this. I don’t feel like this should be a career-ending black mark, but it does reflect Žižek’s sloppy approach to intellectual thought and scholarship.

Network Neutrality simplified

I wrote a letter to my local paper giving a simplified explanation of the network neutrality issue, for the low-tech crowd. You can read it below:

The FCC is considering a proposal to allow Internet service companies to give higher and lower priority status to websites who pay special fees, and to restrict consumer access to websites who don’t pay for this special status. Consumers pay for access to the Internet, which means all of the websites on it; websites pay their own Internet service costs. This proposal is akin to companies setting up an extra tollway on a road you already paid to use.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is a former lobbyist for these Internet service providers. The fox is in the henhouse and the FCC is now being abused to give special kickbacks to Internet service companies, and in doing so risks the free flow of ideas in America. Your favorite websites will soon be slower or go completely dark, unless they pay the special fees. If your local Internet service company doesn’t like a website because it doesn’t agree with their politics, they can block it altogether.
The only viable solution is to reclassify Internet service as a common carrier. This would make it like phone service. Your phone company can’t decide who you can and cannot call, and Internet companies shouldn’t be able to control which Websites work and which Websites don’t.

Open Letter to Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz

An Open Letter to Senators Cornyn and Cruz:

On May 15, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler—who comes from the telecom industry and who will presumably return there once his term as a regulator for the telecommunications industry ends—will reveal his proposal that is expected to represent a turning point in the history of the Internet. There are indications that he will be moving us away from net neutrality—the concept that ISPs can’t prioritize or de-prioritize certain internet traffic—and towards a “commercially reasonable” litmus test. In other words, ISPs will likely be allowed to treat online traffic however they please as long as people like Tom Wheeler deem what they decide to do “commercially reasonable.”
Wheeler has been an executive at two lobbying groups: he was the President of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and the CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA). I have to infer, based on that history and the news that he plans institute the “commercially reasonable” standard, that these new rules are designed to benefit the major telecom and ISP companies rather than the public at large.

This is a prime example of regulatory capture: the current chairman of the FCC was an executive at lobbying firms for the industry he’s now regulating. The fox is in the henhouse, and the FCC can’t be trusted to do the right thing when they’re controlled opposition for the companies they’re supposed to be keeping in check.

As such, I am asking you to introduce a simple bill that would re-classify ISPs as Title II common carriers and which would briefly clarify that ISPs may neither prioritize nor de-prioritize any information flowing through their networks.

Failing to prevent the decay of net neutrality would have widespread consequences. If the FCC is allowed to apply a “commercially reasonable” standard at Tom Wheeler’s discretion, we will see the stifling of both online activism and the free association of like-minded individuals online and, almost inevitably, an assault on the freedom of the press (Did a muckraking journalist just publish a groundbreaking investigation of the ISP industry? Guess what webpage isn’t going to be loading anytime soon.).
Please do not allow ISPs to dictate the future of the First Amendment.
Do the right thing and re-classify ISPs as common carriers.

More information can be found at www.savetheinternet.com

GfK KnowledgePanel is a scam

What is GfK KnowledgePanel?

GfK is a market research company that mails envelopes to the homes of consumers, and the envelopes contain a $2 and a letter telling the ‘chosen’ that your household has been randomly selected to perform short market research surveys, a la the Nielsen ratings. You receive an email when a new survey is available for you, based on your demographic, and usually that comes around every few days. For every survey completed, you generate ‘points’, which you can eventually redeem for either a spin of the prize wheel or other contests (lowest amount), coupons, small gift cards, magazine subscriptions, a check for cash (at a $25 interval), or big items (huge amount of points required). The check gets paid out at 25,000 points, and the prizes generally break down so that 1,000 points = $1. You generate about 1,000 points for most surveys. Each survey, as of now, takes about 20 minutes, which means you earn around $3 per hour.

If you are a KnowledgePanel member who just gets the check, and you’re comfortable making about $3/hr (it takes over 8 hours to earn that $25 check), you can stop reading and enjoy the rest of the Internet. For those who want to know where the scam comes in, read on.


Honeymoon period and the first signs of trouble

To start off, I’ll tell the story of how I got started. Like everyone else, we got the letter in the mail, in November 2012, signed up for the site, and took the occasional survey we were sent. The surveys were initially quite short, around 5 minutes or so, and after a few months we accrued enough points for a $25 check. It came, we were happy, and everything was right with the world. Not long after that, however, my wife tells me that she has stopped taking the surveys. “Why?” I ask. She explains that the surveys are taking longer and longer, and it just isn’t worth her time. Thinking about it, I noticed that the surveys were becoming more dense and taking more time – but I was accruing points and about to get a second check, so I wasn’t worried.

Then, this July, a survey asks me to install a mobile Android app, so I can answer questions on the go. Being that I can’t think of much else to do in the bathroom, I looked into it. The app is called SODA Mobile. According to KnowledgePanel, the only security permissions the app requires is Network Access and Sound Control, which seems reasonable for loading surveys or videos. However, when I try to install the app, the following permissions are requested:

This app has access to these permissions:

  • Yourlocation
    • precise location (GPS and network-based)
    • approximate location (network-based)
  • Network communication
    • full network access
    • view network connections
  • Phone calls
    • read phone status and identity
  • Storage
    • modify or delete the contents of your USB storage
  • System tools
    • mock location sources for testing
    • access extra location provider commands
    • test access to protected storage
  • Bluetooth
    • pair with Bluetooth devices
    • access Bluetooth settings
  • Camera
    • take pictures and videos
  • Microphone
    • record audio
  • Affects Battery
    • control vibration
    • prevent device from sleeping
  • Your application information
  • Run at startup

That is definitely more than than Network Access and Sound Control. Complete location information, records audio and takes pictures, and it starts up with my phone! Not only that, but a Privacy Policy for SODA Mobile could not be found. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with a marketing research firm having completely unrestricted access to everything I do, and everywhere I go, with my phone. I sent an email to GfK support about my concerns, asking if there was a Privacy Policy for SODA Mobile and about the discrepancies between how they describe the app and what permissions it requires on Android. Their response, in layman’s terms: if you don’t like it, don’t use it. So. I didn’t. I skipped that mobile survey and every future one, but this was how my first suspicions about GfK KnowledgePanel began.


The Prize Wheel

Spend your points to spin for nothing!

After completing a survey, the participant sometimes gets a free spin of the Prize Wheel. You can also spend your points on getting more spins on the Prize Wheel. Most of the things you can spend your points on, without accruing an obscene amount of points, are either coupons or contests like this one. I was just in it for the cash, but I always spin the Prize Wheel when it’s offered.

I noticed, after spinning the Prize Wheel, that my result was frequently the green tile directly next to the Grand Prize. Having an attention for detail, I kept track of what colors I would frequently land on. Every time, without fail, I would land on either green or pink. At first, I chocked it up to simple probability. However, after a few months, I became suspicious. Unfortunately, you only get 1 free spin on the Prize Wheel. I’m not going to spend my cherished points, I really want that $25 check!

I finally got up the energy to do some snooping. Looking through the source code for the web page, I found the URL for the Prize Wheel. It’s just an SWF, a standalone Flash file! I don’t have Flash Professional, however, so I couldn’t take a look under its hood. I can, however, approach it statistically. Given that there are 16 tiles, there is a 6.25% chance of landing on a tile on any given spin. Given enough spins, we should see some even distribution between the tiles. So, I did it. I performed 1,000 spins of the Prize Wheel, refreshing my browser to reset it each time, and recording the results.

Here are the results:

The Prize Wheel’s very uneven distribution

The results are pretty clear. The Prize Wheel only lands on Green and Pink. For a breakdown of the color distribution:

You can never win if the game is rigged!

This invites a question: If the Prize Wheel is rigged, are their other contests rigged, too? Looking at these results, I have no reason to believe otherwise. So, what’s left for a “volunteer” to do? Well, you can keep letting them pay you $3/hr for fulfilling the occasional survey, getting a check about once every other quarter, or you can slowly save your points to receive an actual reward in a few years. At that pace, though, you could spend that same time scouring parking lots for change and make money a lot faster!

Conclusion: If $3/hr is really worth your time, you can’t think of making money any other way, and giving feedback on ads seems really exciting, KnowledgePanel is for you. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.

Children: Rationality, Morality, and Human Development


When talking with friends over drinks, we came upon the discussion regarding the role of punishment to discipline bad behavior in children. While generally accepted that arbitrary or passion-driven physical punishment to children was unacceptable, there were different alternatives. One participant shared how her parents would administer spankings: the child would be sent to his/her room and told to think about what he/she has done, and the parent would come in later, explain the problem with the behavior and both would speculate on how the behavior could be rectified – and then three spanks would be administered. Another participant, who is a parent, said that she has not used physical punishment, but that she is concerned that the her non-violent punishment may be just as, if not more, damaging to her child than physical punishment. A third participant in the discussion took the position that physical punishment is absolutely unacceptable and creates the precedent for future violent behavior, and it establishes the notion that the human right to not be harmed is put into question if any physical punishment is administered.

The question then came to mind: do children have such rights in a parent-child relationship? Children are human beings, without question, but they are often denied privileges that we give to another human beings: free speech, free movement, suffrage, etc. Why are they denied these privileges? The common explanation is that they do not understand them, yet. From a child development standpoint, they are incapable of truly understanding these abstract freedoms and to utilize them properly. Children are, instead, driven largely by basic instinctive and impulsive motives. Though children are capable of understanding reason, it does not seem that they are able to reason through their actions – they simply do.

Given this predilection, it seems that the only way to curb undesirable behavior would be through classical conditioning – desirable behavior is rewarded and undesirable behavior punished. As children do not possess full understanding and reasoning capacity, punishments that are privilege-depriving may not be clearly understood, as they again rely on understanding abstract notions like freedom; this is not to say that these methods may not work, or should be chosen before other punishment methods, but we need to be clear that classical conditioning methodology requires the subject to comprehend that they are being punished rather than some vague restriction. It seem reasonable to project that classical conditioning in humans, being that we are reasoning-capable, serves the function of eliciting rational behavior; punishment forces the suppression of impulsive behavior and requires the development of making rational judgments.

To get back to the topic at hand, is physical punishment, when applied appropriately to the context with a full explanation and without excess in suffering, ever appropriate? Pain is something that appeals to the basic instinctive knowledge that all humans, and almost all animals, understand – that this situation is undesirable. The restriction of social or entertainment privileges appeal to a more sophisticated sense of situational awareness and desires – something that older children, adolescents, and adults may understand, but that may not be understood by small to middle children. In this situation, these punishments will be ineffective, the children will not begin to develop the cognitive skills for rational decision making, and the distinctions of basic morality will never develop at this stage in life. Spanking is rarely particularly painful, but may have enough resonating force to appeal to this basic instinct, and thus providing this lesson to the undeveloped.



Side discussion: the lack of rational development in children is why we consider children “innocent” – they do not clearly understand the nature of their actions. Children are not rational actors, and we do not treat them as such. If an adult punches another adult on the street, we expect both adults to have impulse control and rationally understand that violence is not appropriate – thus, we charge the offending adult with assault. We do not do the same to children because we know that they are not rational actors and cannot fully weigh the value of their actions.

Children may lack certain rights and privileges, but they are equally not given the responsibilities for rational acting and all of the obligations thereof.