Archive for February, 2011

Shedding Light on the Subject

If advertisements are to be believed, I will not need to update this post for three to five years.

Light bulbs… ya ever see one of those?
–Inside joke, circa 2005

Background

I have recently decided that a good many of my earthly problems can, as is so often the case, be attributed to bad lighting. Think about it—everybody blames beer goggles… but nobody points out that bars aren’t exactly renowned for their brightness. Many work and school headaches are likely formed along the same lines. And sadly, my home-office was no different. To remedy this, I could open the curtains bed sheet and try to do a little less work at night. Or I could bring in more lights. Guess which one I did?

Lamp pieces

Did I really have to ask?

Now some readers may point out that I have a documented history of overreacting to reasonable situations. In my own defense, expected behavior and level-headed thinking makes for bad blogging.

It was early on in my ownership of this new lighting apparatus (about 6 seconds after checkout) that I realized that I had failed to purchase light bulbs. This realization promptly gave way to dread, when I realized that I would need to select a light bulb type, purchase location, etc. I didn’t want to do that. But then, while thinking about light bulbs, the proverbial one turned on above my head.

The Inspiration

I am a fan of purchasing quality goods, but lately I have become more and more aware (and disturbed) of the premiums consumers are charged for largely imaginary benefits, or, in effect, nothing.

Two areas of which I have been made particularly aware: audio cables, and air filters.

Regarding the latter, I’ve had two independent A/C experts give the following suggestion: Use the cheapest air filters possible, and replace them often. No complaints so far.

As far as cables go… I’m a little reluctant to mention the brands here, but one company charges about $300 per foot (not a typo) for speaker cables… they claim go offer sound quality far above what (also over-priced) $60 cables can offer. Two personal experiences I can offer here… if you own and HD-TV or monitor, get ready to either spend some time searching, or else pay $40-$60 far an HDMI cable that is in no easily-verifiable way superior to a $4 one.

So for these new environmentally friendly light bulbs.. the ones that have mercury in them… I have noticed that their prices basically range from $3 each to however much you’re willing to pay. Then my wife pointed out that even the $3 ones are priced too high–you can get them at the dollar store. But surely those are crap, right? I intend to find out…

The Method

My new floor lamp takes 5 bulbs. Refer to the table below to see what was purchased. Note that this is not a truly scientific experiment. Strictly speaking, I’d need to get 5 differently-priced bulbs with the same advertised output and lifespan. That did not prove practical, and frankly, I wanted to get on with it.

Bulb Type Cost Watts Lumens Advertised Lifespan Qty. Purchased
Greenlite $1.00 13w 900 12,000 Hours 2
GE Energy Smart $2.88 13w 825 8000 Hours 2
GE Reveal $7.99 13w 800 8000 Hours 1

Not to say I didn’t have some fun playing with the scientific method.

Assembly of the lamp proved easy enough…

Lamp assembled

…after which came the light bulb installation. I wanted to free myself from bias as much as possible. The best way to do that was to be ignorant of which bulb was going where. To do this, I labeled 5 note cards, “Dollar Stare 1,” “Energy Smart 1,” etc. Then I flipped them over, shuffled them, and handed them to my colleague (a.k.a. uncle-in-law), Mike, to label A-E. I turned my back.

Notecards A - E

After labeling, Mike handed me light bulbs one at a time, starting with A. Once all 5 were installed and lit, the note cards were placed in an envelope, sealed, and put in a drawer… where I intend to keep them until the first burnout.

Envelope

any copyrighted likenesses appearing in this blog are purely coincidental

The Madness

I currently have no clue as to which bulb is where.

Starfe and lamp

Above: The face of ignorance

According to the packaging, the premium light bulb is worth the price because it produces “clean, beautiful light” (I think that means whiter?) There is an image below the printed claim, reporting to show the difference between the “beautiful” white light and the crude, harsh, inferior lighting produced by the bulbs sold immediately to the right and manufactured by the same company. The caption on this photo reads “Photos enhanced to dramatize difference in color.” So apparently, the company needs to doctor its own publicity shots, because a normal camera under reasonable conditions cannot clearly illustrate the improvement in quality that justifies charging almost three times as much.

Subjectively, I notice no difference. I understand that subjectivity is not scientific, but considering the fact that I should be living with this light for the next few years, I think what I see is important. I see 5 white-yellow bulbs.

Interestingly enough, the dollar store bulbs make the most grandiose claims… 12000 hours? At 4 hours a day that’s a little over eight years… AND they claim the greatest light output besides. Stay tuned for updates…

…well, not if you believe the packaging

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Security Sucks

A few weeks ago, my wife and I took our dogs for a frustratingly-short walk. Upon returning home, I reached into my left pocket and found… nothing. My wallet was not where it should have been. My wife, in her usual habit, had no keys on her. The dogs’ keys were on their other collars (couldn’t resist). And of course I had been sure to lock the door when we left.

It was around the time I found myself awkwardly crawling through a window that a few thoughts ran through my head. First, “We’ve gotta get this window fixed… or at least a wedge or something.” Then, “But if I weren’t lazy, and had done that already, then we’d be making an expensive phone call or breaking out a window.” Then, “It’s hilarious that you were so careful to lock the door this time when you went camping and left the back door open. Not unlocked. Open.” And then “Wow… security sucks.”

It sure does, Strafe, and I’ll tell ya why!

But first… I’d like to clarify some terms. First off, I do not wish to treat safety and security as the same thing. “Safety” is about practice and habits; things to do and not do. “Security” is about preventing possibilities. Safety is not playing with matches. Security is locking them up. You can drive safely. You can’t really drive securely. Now, some will try to convince you that the latter is not true—Google “safe browsing” and you’ll get 1.6 million hits… most of the top ten are lists of general tips. Now, do the same with “secure browsing.” Watch that number jump to 28.6 million. Most of the top ones there are from companies trying to sell you something.

To me, that is quite telling. You don’t buy safety, you practice it. And you don’t practice security. You buy it.

And what’s so wrong with that? Well, like most products, just because you bought it doesn’t make it loyal to you. It’s impersonal. The more locks you put on your door, the easier it is for you to lock yourself out. The more complicated your password, the easier it is to forget it (or, in my case, the easier it is to type incorrectly more than the requisite number of times and get locked out—another security feature—and need to make an embarrassing phone call). Try to keep the other-guys’ patriots (a.k.a. terrorists) off your plane, and a decade later they’ve got uniformed staff rummaging through your junk with a flashlight… and inspecting your luggage too. Accidental or not, it’s only a matter of time until added layers of security, at some level, turn on you.

I don’t believe this is accidental, either. I’ll throw out a modest number and say ninety-nine percent of car alarms that have gone off… ever… have been for nothing. Maybe we could drop that number to ninety-six if we count relatively harmless, yet intentional events, where theft was never a possibility, but nonetheless you don’t want someone screwing with your car. Now, alarm vendors can point out that if an alarm system isn’t sensitive, it isn’t effective. True to a degree, but at least a fringe benefit is that every false alarm, for all its irritations, puts the alarm’s owners at ease. They know that their investment in working for them. At the same time, people who have been victimized are reminded of their trauma, and are further informed of their need for an extra layer of protection…

I’m going to take a moment here to apply this line of reasoning to my field of expertise: computers. I own two machines that run Windows. One has a fee-based anti-virus suite installed. The fee-based one has has caught exactly one “threat” that was truly malicious. It intervened BEFORE I was actually at the point of infection, and when I intentionally infected a virtual machine later with the same virus, I discovered it was easily removable, either manually or with a free anti-malware utility. That’s fine; it was a little aggressive, but the security program did its job and it was over quickly. A few weeks later, it told me the machine was infected again, then proceeded to quarantine the file, shut down Windows, and urge me to perform a system restore. The file in question was a system file that had been on the machine since Windows was installed. I know that, and I know how to do the research to confirm it. But, to the layperson, which event would have seemed more serious? The false positives are what reinforces the perceived need for the product in the first place.

“But Strafe!” the people declare, “computers are weird like that. That’s not a generalizable event.” OK. Wait until you call your bank and accidentally transpose two of the last four digits of your social security number (I do it all the time), and suddenly you’re on hold while they get a specialist on the line. I take calls like that. Sometimes the callers are upset. Usually, though, they are pleased that the company has such security protocols.

And sometimes, these conversations are actually pro-active. People call to have conversations about security. I hate those calls…. because I have to try to respectfully and confidentially field questions addressing increasingly unlikely scenarios. “OK Mr. Zambonie… if the bad gets hacks your computer and your firewall doesn’t catch it, and you then log into your email and he gets your email password, and he uses it to send a wire request to us, that still wouldn’t work because…” These conversations reveal a lot about the security mentality. First, the human mind is really bad with probability. That’s why we like Vegas. Second, the more we dwell on spectacular theoretical scenarios, the more plausible they become to us. Third and worst, once we are convinced that these scenarios are not only possible, but likely, we become celebrities in a sense—we’ve got a Bond villain trying to break into our vault! And a security team just waiting to catch him in the act.

Trying to point out how unlikely it is makes it seem like you’re evading the question. It also puts on individuals the pressure of admitting to themselves that they are not that special.

Now, we see big companies pouring money into security measures, and I think we tend to react to that as if they’re setting an example. But there are reasons for corporate security, good and bad. They need to limit liability. They are high-profile (if you house a trillion dollars, it is no longer unreasonable to think that someone is, in fact, trying to break in). They also need to keep up with competitors. (“Why doesn’t Acme think mandatory third-passwords are important? GeneriCo does it!”). I’m not saying this is good. And I know that there are exceptions, but generally speaking, if life and limb aren’t at stake, there are really only two things bad guys can do with your stuff. Break it, and steal it. Get too overzealous and you will cause one while trying to prevent the other.

Earlier I made a TSA joke… it’s easy to do. That might have been a little out of place, considering that when it comes to planes in flight, life and limb are at stake. But you don’t need terrorists. For that to be true. Incorrectly installed parts can do that. Components in use beyond their recommended life spans will also. You’ve got pilot fatigue. You’ve got unpredictable weather. All of those have killed more American commuters since 2001 than terrorists (given the current count of… greater than zero). The more energy you put into preventing the unthinkable, the less energy you have to think about mitigating the preventable.

So what to do instead? Well, much as I hate clichés, I do believe that knowledge is power. I make fun of people who treat account security like they’re trying to hide from the bogeyman… but in a sense they are. They don’t have the facts, and you can’t hide from the unknown. I still stand by being safe… and when armed with facts, I think it’s fairly obvious what is safe and what isn’t. Lastly, perhaps we could use our vulnerability as a chance to take inventory. If I were to have ‘x’ taken from me, what would the result likely be? How much energy is it worth to lessen the likelihood? If those two questions don’t balance out, perhaps a shift of priorities is in order.