Apple Safari Backdoor Install "Wrong"

Since I wrote about Apple installing Safari on people’s computers through the backdoor on Thursday, there has been a lot of reaction.

Mozilla CEO John Lilly said:

Apple has made it incredibly easy–the default, even–for users to install ride along software that they didn’t ask for, and maybe didn’t want. This is wrong, and borders on malware distribution practices.

It’s wrong because it undermines the trust that we’re all trying to build with users. Because it means that an update isn’t just an update, but is maybe something more. Because it ultimately undermines the safety of users on the Web by eroding that relationship. It’s a bad practice and should stop.

I certainly agree with the assessment that it borders on malware distribution. I remember installing GoZilla! or some kind of file download manager on my Windows 95 PC when I saw it recommended in a computer magazine. Little did I know, a spyware application was bundled with the program. After that incident, I disabled Windows Update and started installing all my updates manually. It wasn’t until I switched to XP did I finally allow my system to download updates but I still wanted to know what was being installed before it completed the process.

I know that Safari isn’t a piece of malware. It’s a nice little browser: very fast, standards-compliant. But let people decide that: tell them about Safari so they can install it and then use it. Don’t distribute it through an automatic update system where it’ll probably won’t benefit Safari at all… users won’t know it’s there and Safari gets a reputation as bundled malware.

It has been argued that IM distributors such as MSN and Yahoo also bundle toolbars, etc. That’s true. But they ask you whether you want to do it during the installation process where you expect new applications to be added. And you give the green light for the toolbars to be installed. With Apple’s Software Update, I certainly do not expect a new piece of software to appear on the computer.

Apple pushes Safari as iTunes Update

CyberNet News reports on Apple pushing Safari 3.1 on Windows as an update to everybody who has iTunes installed. Now fair enough pushing an update to Safari for people who’ve installed it. But to people who haven’t? Steve Jobs said:

How are we going to distribute this? We don’t really talk to these customers, do we? There are over 500,000 downloads of Firefox a day. What are we going to do? Well, it turns out, there are over 1 million downloads of iTunes a day. As a matter of fact, there have been over a half a billion downloads of iTunes to Windows Machines. Over half a billion. And so we know how to reach these customers and we are going to do exactly that.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if we see 500 million copies of Safari for Windows installed soon. Whether anybody will use it and whether this is an ethical thing to do given that Firefox has gained it’s users through word of mouth and actually being a better product is another question.

Iraq War: $25,000 per US household

The Economist reports on a study by two economists on the costs of the Iraq War for American households. The study wasn’t simply a look through the government balance books to look for direct financial costs: it also looked at the knock-on impact on oil prices, number of deaths or injuries caused (and perhaps controversially putting a financial value on these lives), bonuses paid to recruits who were put off by the war and also the opportunity cost (see my previous post on cost-benefit analysis).

The opportunity cost is the benefits to the USA which would have been gained if it didn’t go to war in Iraq: for example the money which went to the war might have funded better education or healthcare insurance.

The study was carried out by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winner in economics and Linda Bilmes, budget and public finance expert from Harvard. They found the total costs were $3 trillion. The Economist asks:

SUPPOSE that, five years ago, George Bush had asked every American household to stump up $25,000 to pay for an imminent war on Iraq. How would they have responded?

Of course, this study doesn’t conclude that the Iraq War was a bad idea. To weigh that up, you need to look at the benefits which were gained. We now know Saddam doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Is that knowledge worth $3 trillion?

What I really want to get across is this: economics and cost-benefit analysis offers a much better way of analysing whether government policies have been successful. It’s great to have an opinion based on what is published in the media but things are not always as they seem. Cost-benefit analysis offers a logical method to evaluate the consequences of a policy.

Facebook Chat in Weeks

From Inside Facebook, “Facebook chat launching in the coming weeks. We’re opening up a new communication channel and enable real time conversation on the site.”

The Chat UI appears at the bottom; looks and works pretty similar to Gmail Chat. You can also pop conversations out into new windows, and possibly in the future there will be Jabber support as well as on-site messaging.

If Facebook could exploit the contents of your MSN/Yahoo/AIM address fields to build a seamless interface to these IM systems but using Facebook friend list, this would be an instant killer app. As it stands, I reckon Facebook IM would probably displace a good proportion of my IM usage.

Interest Rates

The US Federal Reserve reduced base interest rates from 3% to 2.25%. Inflation last year in the USA was 4.1%. If you placed money in a savings account at 2.25%, you would actually lose 1.85% of it’s value in 1 year. Not really “savings”. According to The Economist, if you use GDP per head (a more accurate indicator of standard of living), the USA has actually been in recession since Q4 2007 with quality of life falling by 0.4%/year. Just something to think about.

Globalisation of Football

The British tabloid, Daily Mail, earlier this week published an opinion piece talking about the commercialisation and globalisation of football. The article highlights the performance of British clubs in the UEFA Champions League:

You may not have noticed, or even care, that out of the eight clubs that have just made it into the last round of the European Champions League, four are English.

That may not sound like a big deal.

But if one considers that clubs from dozens of European countries are eligible, and that these countries collectively speak for hundreds of millions of people, it is interesting that half of the finalists should come from a single country – England – with a population of only 50 million.

Germany has one team out of the eight, Spain another. Italy and Turkey account for the other two. (France, note, has none.)

It then goes on to talk about how football in Britain has been transformed in the last 25 years with higher attendances; racism has been stamped out; stadia are now state-of-the-art.

If that’s not enough evidence of the commercial nature of football, England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 is believed to cost the British economy £1billion.

My interest in football is only really a passing one but what I found really interesting was how this article looked at football from an economics viewpoint and then argues for protectionist policies.

To take some of the Daily Mail’s articles in turn:

Protectionism – Protecting British footballers 

In the same year that four “English” teams have made it into the last eight of the Champions League, England’s national team has failed to qualify for this summer’s European Cup.

The article argues that because so many foreign players are playing in British sides, British players never get the opportunity to reach the top flight. This is a parallel argument to trade barriers in international trade. Some countries argue that if they import lots of food from abroad cheaply, domestic farmers will never be able to develop and would have to shut up shop.

According to economics, protectionism is a very bad thing. Let’s take tea: in Britain we import our tea from countries such as India. Why? Because they’re better at producing tea. They can produce more tea, and sell it for less. We could impose some trade barriers and encourage British tea growers. But our climate and weather just don’t suit growing tea. So we use greenhouses and contribute to climate change and our tea costs more to produce. Or alternatively, we could stick to producing something that we’re good at (e.g. financial services). If we trade our financial services for tea from India, then both countries benefit.

Bringing this all back to football, does foreign players playing in British clubs really damage the chances of British footballers? I don’t think so. Football brings a lot of money into Britain; money which then goes towards academies and training for youngsters. A substantial number of young people in Britain do play football in their school breaks.

A loss of national identity

And yet this loss of local or even national identity in the Premier League is an extreme version of what has happened in our country. Mass immigration is justified on the grounds of greater economic efficiency. One consequence, though, is the weakening of a sense of belonging.

An interesting way of arguing against immigration, a favourite topic of the Daily Mail. But of course immigration has brought huge benefits for Britain. Migration-friendly policies mean that companies situating in the UK have access to the best workers from all across the world. These companies and workers contribute to the economy through taxation as well as greater efficiency.

Of course, there has been a homogenisation of city centres across the world. You’ll find a McDonalds in almost every large city across the world. But what is happening is that we’re all gaining from being able to experience more cultures. Visiting a typical city centre, you might have a choice of Japanese sushi, Italian pizza or American hamburgers. Are we really losing our identity or are we just benefiting from access to more?

The free movement of labour has also done wonders to for tackling world hunger and poverty. We might have nurses come to Britain from poor African countries; they earn money here and send it back home. They may, at a later date, take those skills home. Indeed, it is believed that globalisation and trade has done more for the third world than handouts ever have.

Similarly in football: who’d have expected some of the poorer third-world countries to participate in the World Cup? Skilled footballers playing for British clubs gain experience; this benefits their national side in the World Cup.

Globalisation is a win-win situation. It makes no sense to argue for protectionism: everybody loses out. That applies both to international trade and to football.

Dynamic Gradient Background (Canvas)

A really clever script here which makes use of Javascript and canvas to give dynamic gradient backgrounds.

Here is the problem: when you use the <canvas> tag to manipulate an image or a graphic, it is treated in HTML as an inline object (similar to a super-charged <img>). This means you can’t set a canvas as the background image of a <div> for example.

This script gets around this limitation by using the toDataUrl() function in canvas (supported in Firefox and Opera). toDataUrl() essentially takes the contents of a canvas and turns it into an image, which can then be made into the background of a <div>.

It sounds complicated, check out the JS source if Javascript is your preferred language as opposed to English.

I can see Reflection.js being adapted to work for background images using a similar method, but it’s likely only to work in Firefox and Opera.

Thinking about the Future

I’m reading a really interesting book about psychology at the moment.

In one study, volunteers were told they won a free dinner at a fabulous French restaurant and were asked when they would like to eat it. They could perhaps go now, tonight, tomorrow or to put it off to a later date. Most people put it off to a week later.

Now I’m not privy to the exact details of the study, but the book argues that most people will chose this option because they get seven days to look forward to the meal (and hence gaining pleasure from looking forward to it) as well as the enjoyment from consuming the meal.  “Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience”.

It goes on to talk about why we anticipate the future: how it doubles the pleasure of enjoyable events and how it can minimise the impact of disappointing outcomes. Human beings, the book argues, are the only species to think about and to anticipate the future.

I might make another few posts on this book but in the mean time, I really recommend it if you’re interested in this kind of stuff.

Anti-terrorism costs 10x the benefits

The Economist reports on a cost-benefit analysis of anti-terrorist spending. Economists at the University of Texas found that the benefits gained by tackling terrorism have been a tenth of the costs.

For those of us who don’t study economics of pretend to know anything about it, cost-benefit analysis is a method used to make decisions between competing choices, or to determine whether a decision was beneficial.

What is cost-benefit analysis? 

Let me indulge you with an example: The building of Terminal 5 at London Heathrow airport. When the government decided whether to build Terminal 5, they would have used a cost-benefit analysis.

The first step is to list all the costs: this would include the cost of the building materials and workers, upgrade to surrounding infrastructure and increased security. As well as the direct financial costs, effects such as greater noise pollution are quantified and someone must make a judgement – something like “the greater levels of noise caused to residents by Terminal 5 equate to £1bn of damage”.

After listing all the costs to society, the benefits to society are then listed. For Terminal 5, this would be time saved for travellers in airports, jobs provided to local residents and so on. After completing the cost-benefit analysis, we then look at whether the cost or the benefit is greater. If the benefits are greater than the costs, it is a good decision: if we spend £5bn and get a return of £10bn, we’re £5bn better off. But if costs are greater than the benefits, we are all made worse off by the building of Terminal 5.

Anti-terrorism

Economics lesson over… The study found the US has spent $65billion on homeland security since 2001, or $200bn if this is broadened to include the “War on Terror”. By my own calculations, that is $110 per person in the USA per year.

Anyway… the study found terrorism only reduced economic activity by $17 billion. So fighting terrorism cost $200 billion and only $17 billion of benefits were gained, the benefits are about a tenth of the costs. Or in other words, the country is $180 billion worse off.

The Economist adds:

In 2007 Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, said his country had disrupted 15 al-Qaeda plots since 2001. Yet so big is counter-terrorism spending and so limited is terrorism’s economic impact that, even if 30 attacks like the London bombings of July 2005 were prevented each year, the benefits would still be lower than the costs.

Now of course, there are a lot of criticisms to looking at anti-terrorism measures in such a way. Many people argue that the value of a human life is infinite or very high; it doesn’t matter if we spend millions to save a small number of lives. Additionally, there is the psychological effect: would we all be as happy as we were if the government did nothing about terrorism and just let it happen?

I think this study really highlights some great points. I feel that perhaps the government has been curbing too many civil liberties and freedoms lately under the guise of anti-terrorism measures. Take ID cards in the UK… very expensive, liable to data losses and presenting fairly small benefits.

I don’t think anybody should take this study to say that we shouldn’t try and fight terrorism, but perhaps, let’s reconsider just how we do it and make sure that we’re not harming ourselves more than the terrorists have.