Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Bertell Schmitt at the automotive blog Daily Kanban writes about a bizarre twist in emissions testing. As it turns out, cars have essentially been lying to regulators about their fuel efficiency and the amount of pollutants they spew into the air. Volkswagen is about to recall a half-million cars:

The EPA was righteously appalled to find out that Volkswagen diesel “cars contained software that turns off emissions controls when driving normally and turns them on when the car is undergoing an emissions test,” as enforcement officer Cynthia Giles told reporters. OMG, really? How naïve can they be? Defeat devices are as old as emission controls. When computers entered cars some 40 years ago, they soon more or less routinely contained software that turned a car into a clean kitten when on the dyno, and into a pig when on the road. Cheater 1.0 saw that only one axle was turning, and deduced that the car was sitting on a dyno. […]

Cheating became so prevalent that a “Prohibition of defeat devices” entered the U.S. books in 2007. The rules also say that the EPA “may test or require testing on any vehicle at a designated location, using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat device.” It may, but it didn’t.

So the EPA never would have found out if it weren’t for the ingenious sleuthing performed by some watchdogs. What brilliant feats of reverse-engineering did they perform? What arcane rituals did they perform upon these Damned Cars to glean such profound insights into the oiled heart of these steely beasts?

Finally, a little known group, the International Council on Clean Transportation, did what should have been obvious: Stick a probe into the exhaust pipe, and actually drive the car around the country. In this real world test, “the Jetta exceeded the U.S. nitrogen oxide emissions standard by 15 to 35 times. The Passat was 5 to 20 times the standard,” says Bloomberg. The EPA opened an investigation into Volkswagen more than a year ago. Finally, Volkswagen admitted to be using a defeat device, if they wouldn’t have confessed, the EPA still would be sitting in the dark.

They… drove it. They drove it around and looked at what came out of the exhaust pipe.

That’s some fine regulating, EPA. Real fine.

Update Sep. 22, 2015: Volkswagen was off by a factor of 20. Not just with their emissions, but with the number of cars affected. It’s not half a million, it’s eleven million cars.

Filed on under This Doesn’t Add Up

So here’s a new thing from Frontline: just about everyone who plays football walks away from the sport with brain damage.

A total of 87 out of 91 former NFL players have tested positive for the brain disease at the center of the debate over concussions in football, according to new figures from the nation’s largest brain bank focused on the study of traumatic head injury.

Researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University have now identified the degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in 96 percent of NFL players that they’ve examined and in 79 percent of all football players. The disease is widely believed to stem from repetitive trauma to the head, and can lead to conditions such as memory loss, depression and dementia.

There’s really no disputing the fact that the sport kills the people that play it; not just some of them and not just the ones that play professionally. It’s hard to enjoy the sport when you’re really just watching young men die in slow motion.

On the other hand: it’s a free country. If some people want to trade their shot at old age for a shot at a life as a professional athlete, there are worse ways to go. Sure, statistically, I’ll live to be 80 years old. But I’ll never be on a Wheaties box, no matter how wildly successful this whole law blog thing becomes. That’s an acceptable tradeoff to me, but other folks might want to go for the glory. To each their own.

Let’s not pretend that this is a simple transaction. Consider the source: I’m awfully privileged. I came from a socioeconomic background that left me with a lot more career options than “get paid to turn my brain into mush.” There are thousands and thousands of poor kids from small towns and inner cities that just won’t have the same embarrassing richness of options that I did. That changes the calculus – a lot.

we can’t have nice things

It still might be worth the tradeoff. But we can’t have a real conversation about this stuff because the NFL is reluctant to admit or speak openly about the way its sport kills folks. They’ve been sandbagging this conversation for years. From the same Frontline story:

From 2003 to 2009, for example, the NFL’s now disbanded Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee concluded in a series of scientific papers that “no NFL player” had experienced chronic brain damage from repeat concussions, and that “Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.”

I’d have a lot more respect for their position as ‘merchants of brain death’ if they would just own up to it. The league should admit that the sport is disastrous for the people who play it, so the athletes could understand what they’re getting themselves into.

It’s hard to believe the NFL will ever do that. They display tremendous apathy toward more than just their athletes’ health. The vast majority of players are bankrupt a few years after they retire. Most careers last three to six years, depending on who you ask. Even if the league can’t keep the players from destroying their brains, it could at least get them a financial planner. Their families would appreciate it later.

Filed on under It’s Nerf or Neck Brace

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite takes a fascinating look at the lab that cooked up the world’s first Modern Bachelor, Esquire Magazine:

Instead of highlighting the realities of single life, Esquire‘s portrayal of bachelorhood was based on looking and acting the part of the swinging ladies’ man, even though most of the magazine’s readers were married. Esquire’s idealized postwar bachelor had no obligations outside of his own desire for women and luxury products (often considered one in the same) [sic]. He bought his own clothes, drove his own car, and took solo vacations to exotic places.

The bachelor became a symbol of postwar consumerism and hedonism, and as a result, became a symbol of freedom for white American men looking for a way to feel important again. Because Esquire relied on corporate advertising to continue existing, overthrowing corporate hierarchy and stratification didn’t factor into their discussions of masculine rejuvenation.

In the Handbook, women were presented as an obstacle to men’s success at entertaining, which reinforced the theory that women were ultimately responsible for men’s inability to control their lives.

Ah, yes. Women: the obstacle to controlling your life. Aren’t they a damn shame? Now here. Buy these clothes and drink this scotch and buy this snack food. Don’t listen to women, listen to our advertisers. These dudes are cool, these women are hot, and unless you do what we say, you won’t be cool and hot women won’t like you. You wanna be a winner, or you want to sit on the sidelines like some loser?

This is what it means to have your sexuality rented by people who want to sell you Doritos.

Filed on under It's a Man's World

Joshua Benton on ad-blocking software being built into Apple’s iOS, and what this means for news publishers:

For me, the arguments for using ad blockers range from the unconvincing (dude, information wants to be free) to the reasonable (I don’t need dozens of tracking beacons on every webpage) to the downright understandable (poorly built ads slow my browser to a crawl). I don’t use an ad blocker, but I do block all Flash by default for performance reasons, which accomplishes some of the same ends. The best arguments for adblocking are even stronger on mobile than they are on desktop — bandwidth and performance and battery life are all at a premium.

This is worrisome. Publishers already make tiny dollars on mobile, even as their readers have shifted there in huge numbers. To take one example, The New York Times has more than 50 percent of its digital audience on mobile, but generates only 10 percent of its digital advertising revenue there. Most news outlets aren’t even at that low level.

That looks grim.

I agree with Benton. For my part, I’ve had Flash disabled for years; Flash runs slowly, and it’s wildly insecure. There’s really no good reason to use it. Up until the last few months, I’ve let Javascript run wild on the web. I initially installed a plugin to let me keep track of how many Javascript files each web page was loading, and was a little flabbergasted by how many dozens of Javascript files sites want to run every time you click a link.

On the one hand, I’m on these web sites, consuming the Content that some person was paid to write. If I’m reading, I should be generating money for the site, right? That’s supposed to be the tradeoff.

On the other hand, these publishers have basically zero incentive to limit the number or scope of the Javascript things they’re running in my browser. Publishers seemingly just rent out space on their sites (and therefore your computer) to as many advertisers as they can. Web sites take forever to load all that crap, which slows your browser to a halt, and if you’re on your phone, they’re killing your battery life. It’s extra worse on your phone.

That’s Just Like Your Opinion

Not everyone agrees with that last point. Nilay Patel, The Verge’s Editor-in-Chief, wrote an op-ed this week called “The Mobile Web Sucks.” Patel thinks it’s actually your web browser’s fault:

But man, the web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution. Mobile Safari on my iPhone 6 Plus is a slow, buggy, crashy affair, starved for the phone’s paltry 1GB of memory and unable to rotate from portrait to landscape without suffering an emotional crisis. Chrome on my various Android devices feels entirely outclassed at times[…].

This goes on for a while before Patel backs himself into a corner.

I happen to work at a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks.

Yeah. You don’t say. A couple months ago, The Verge’s parent company wrote a grim assessment of just how “bloated and slow” their own sites are:

Here’s a sampling of our current performance metrics:

  • 4.85 seconds to first paint
  • 23.33 seconds to page complete
  • 13,406 speed index [time, in milliseconds, until most of the page is loaded]

Ouch. As you can clearly see, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, so the next step is to set up a budget.

And that’s not even on one of those starved or outclassed mobile browsers. That’s on one of those Real Computers. The Verge has literally dozens of random web sites running random javascript files. That goes for just about any web site where folks are trying to make money. They just load it up with garbage.

Lots and lots of Garbage

A researcher at Mozilla published a paper on this recently. As it turns out, Real Computers basically load pages twice as fast when they’re not larded up with a ton of advertising javascript. Mozilla is testing a new feature which blocks ads (noticing a trend here?) called Tracking Protection on popular sites:

Even though Tracking Protection prevents initial requests for only 4 HTML <script> elements, without Tracking Protection, an additional 45 domains are contacted. Of the additional resources downloaded without Tracking Protection enabled, 57% are JavaScript (as identified by the content-type HTTP header) and, 27% are images.

The largest elements appear to be JavaScript libraries with advertisement-related names, each on the order of 10 or 100 KB. Even though client-side caching can alleviate data usage, we observe high-entropy GET parameters that will cause the browser to fetch them each time.

The last bit is extra lousy: advertisers could at least save your bandwidth and let your browser cache a copy of their Javascript ad thingie. On our relatively slow mobile networks, that would help you load web sites. But instead, advertisers tell your browser to download their javascript ad thingies every single time, so they can tell where you are and when you look at each page. Hooray.

Publishers aren’t solely to blame for this situation, but they’re not exactly blameless. They hand the keys to advertisers and let them go nuts. Ben Thompson has a good breakdown of how we got here, how it works, and why all these sites aren’t just running their own ads instead of all these crazy ad networks’ ads.

It’s important to note that these ads aren’t just showing you random things. They’re built to gathering information about you, about what you like to read, about how long you spend reading it, and so on. The EFF has built a tool to demonstrate how this works.

The Broader Implications

These companies collect it and store it and use it to sell more specific ads to you. Some of them sell this information to other companies to help them fill in the gaps in what they know about you and what sites you go to.

You and I rely on all of these folks to treat our information properly and not dig through it, looking for high school exes or weird internet crushes. We rely on these folks to secure our personal information against hackers. And to keep making money; when they go out of business, their assets (our information) are sold off like desk chairs and printers. There’s really no telling just how much information about us is in how many different hands.

And really, none of that information is particularly private (big giant asterisk), and so I’m usually willing to make that trade. But the terms of the tradeoff shift a little bit every year. Publishers are serving us more and more advertisers’ javascript files, but publishers aren’t making more money in the process. And so we just make more and more trades, and I run more and more ads on my computer. My browser moves slower and slower. This is less “let’s make that tradeoff” and more “how many tradeoffs can you possibly squeeze into this space?”

It’s only going to get worse. At some point, advertisers will realize that fraud is rampant and the revenue from ads will plummet. There are entire classes of viruses which exist solely to infect users’ computers and load ads in hidden windows – this keeps users from realizing their computers are infected. Heck, you might have fake ads being loaded on your phone right now. Advertisers are already catching on that these “clicks” they’re paying for are bots, not human. So how much longer do sites keep making money for showing these ads? How many more ads will publishers display when advertisers pays them half as much for each ad?

Anyone really want to bet the answer to that is “fewer ads?”

Me neither.

Filed on under Eyeballs for Hire

A new study has found that a ten year old study was correct, and that most new studies are wrong. No, really:

The claim that “most published research findings are false” is something you might reasonably expect to come out of the mouth of the most deluded kind of tin-foil-hat-wearing-conspiracy-theorist. Indeed, this is a statement oft-used by fans of pseudoscience who take the claim at face value, without applying the principles behind it to their own evidence. It is however, a concept that is actually increasingly well understood by scientists.

It is the title of a paper written 10 years ago by the legendary Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis. The paper, which has become the most widely cited paper ever published in the journal PLoS Medicine, examined how issues currently ingrained in the scientific process combined with the way we currently interpret statistical significance, means that at present, most published findings are likely to be incorrect. […]

Last year UCL pharmacologist and statistician David Colquhoun published a report in the Royal Society’s Open Science in which he backed up Ioannidis’ case: “If you use p=0.05 to suggest that you have made a discovery, you will be wrong at least 30 percent of the time.” That’s assuming “the most optimistic view possible” in which every experiment is perfectly designed, with perfectly random allocation, zero bias, no multiple comparisons and publication of all negative findings.

Read the whole article. The evidence is impressive, and meticulously footnoted.

Filed on under Educated Guesses

We sit down with a team trying to revamp the Peace Corps website, then we walk over to chat with another team that recently created a user-friendly analytics web page,, that tracks which government websites are trending (a National Weather Service page usually tops the list). The goal here is to reveal how U.S. citizens use government websites, and to spark healthy competition among agencies to create more popular services.

In keeping with the tech corps’ guiding principles, everything is open source, so outsiders are free to adapt the program. And they do: A few weeks after the analytics website went live, Philadelphia used the program for its own analytics website, which the 18F team considered a measure of success. Thanks to their open-source code, they had improved government without doing any extra work.

The cool part is that the federal government is hiring nerds. The cooler part is that cities are using the technology that the federal government builds. It’d be nice to see New York City take advantage of this.

Filed on under Like Uber But For Blogs