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Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

Living in a disrupted economy

July 21, 2016 — Carlos Fenollosa

There is this continuing discussion on whether technology destroys more jobs than it creates. Every few years, yet another tech revolution occurs, journalists publish articles, pundits share their opinions, politicians try to catch up, and those affected always voice their concerns. These couple years have been no exception, thanks to Uber, Airbnb, and the called sharing economy.

I'm a technologist and a relatively young person, so I am naturally biased towards technological disruption. After all, it is people like me who are trying to make a living by taking over older jobs.

I suggest that you take a few minutes to read a fantastic article titled The $3500 shirt. That essay reveals how horrible some industries were before they could be automated or replaced by something better. Go on, please read it now, it will only take three minutes.

Now, imagine you had to spend a couple of weeks of your time to make a t-shirt from scratch. Would that be acceptable? I guess we all more or less agree that the textile revolution was a net gain for society. Nevertheless, when it occurred, some Luddites probably complained, arguing that the loom put seamstresses out of work.

History is packed with dead industries. We killed the ice business with the modern fridge. We burn less coal for energy, so miners go unemployed. And let's not forget the basis of modern civilization, the agricultural revolution, which is the only reason us humans can feed ourselves. Without greenhouses, nitrates, tractors, pest protection and advancements in farming, humanity would starve.

Admittedly, it transformed the first sector from a 65% in workforce quota into the current 10%. Isn't it great that most of us don't need to wake up before sunrise to water our crops? In hindsight, can you imagine proclaiming that the 1800s way of farming is better because it preserves farming jobs?

The bottom line is that all economic transformations are a net gain for society. They may not be flawless, but they have allowed us humans to live a better life.

So why do some characters fight against current industry disruptions if history will prove them wrong?

******

As a European and a social democrat, I believe that States must regulate some economies to avoid monopolies and abuses, supporting the greater good. Furthermore, I sympathize with the affected workforce, both personally and in a macroeconomic level. All taxi drivers suddenly going jobless because of Uber is detrimental to society.

However, it pains me to see that European politicians are taking the opposite stance, brandishing law and tradition as excuses to hinder progress.

Laws must serve people, not the other way around. If we analyze the taxi example, we learn that there is a regulation which requires taxi drivers to pay a huge sum of money up front to operate. Therefore, letting anybody get in that business for free is unfair and breaks the rules of the game. Unsurprisingly, this situation is unfair not because of the new players, but because that regulation is obsolete.

It isn't ethically right that somebody who spent a lot of money to get a license sees their job at risk. But the solution isn't to block other players, especially when it's regulation which is at fault. Let's sit down, think how to establish a transition period, and maybe even reimburse drivers part of that money with the earnings from increased taxes due to a higher employment and economic activity.

There is a middle ground solution: don't change the rules drastically, but don't use these them as an excuse to impede progress.

At the end of the day, some careers are condemned to extinction. That is a real social drama, however, what should we do? Artificially stop innovation to save jobs which are not efficient and, when automated or improved, they make the world better for everyone?

******

Us millennials have learned that the concept of a single, lifetime profession just does not exist anymore. Previous generations do not want to accept that reality. I understand that reconverting an older person to a new career may be difficult, but if the alternative is letting that person obstruct younger people's opportunities, that's not fair.

Most professions decline organically, by the very nature of society and economy. It is the politicians' responsibility to mediate when this process is accelerated by a new industry or technology. New or automated trades will take their place, usually providing a bigger collective benefit, like healthcare, education, or modern farming.

Our duty as a society is to make sure everyone lives a happy and comfortable life. Artificially blocking new technologies and economic models harms everyone. If it were for some Luddites, we'd be still paying $3500 for a shirt, and that seamstress would never have been a nurse or a scientist.

Tags: law, startups

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"Think of the terrorists" is the new "Think of the children"

July 11, 2015 — Carlos Fenollosa

If I am prime minister, I will make sure that it is a comprehensive piece of legislation that makes sure we do not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other. That is the key principle: do we allow safe spaces for them to talk to each other? I say no, we don't, and we should legislate accordingly.

—David Cameron

What infuriates me the most is that is such a blind, selfish, first world argument. It implies freedom of speech is granted, ubiquitous, and irreversible, so those who want extra protection must be criminals. Mr. Cameron's statement also assumes that there is no middle ground, and all technologies that can be misused by some party should be illegal. You know, the Hitler-croquettes theorem: since Hitler liked croquettes, croquettes must be bad.

In some countries, the Government can kill you for your political views. Your neighbors can also kill you for what you are—gay, for example. Ill-named "activists" can kill you for private beliefs that don't affect other people, like your stance on abortion. Mafias can kill you for badmouthing. And these all happen in first world countries, can you imagine the rest of the world?

Requesting those people to abandon the tool that is currently saving their lives in exchange for the vague promise of finding terrorists is a false dichotomy. I can understand uneducated people considering this topic as black and white. But a Prime Minister? That's a supreme level of blindness.

Mr. Cameron and others surely understand how the world works. They know that hackings, theft, revolutions, and coups d'etat exist, and those who once were righteous, legal and legitimate may be prosecuted. Something being legal or punishable can quickly change, it is not written in stone, and definitely not universal.

Imagine a Christian in 2011 Syria. They lead an ordinary life, have a job, a Facebook, they send funny memes to their friends, they communicate online. Being a Christian something we can agree is a legitimate and harmless belief and, according to 2011 Syria's laws, legal.

Now meet ISIS. In just a year they have conquered a large portion of the territory and changed some laws considerably. Forbidding Christians in Syria to use encryption is, with Mr. Cameron's words, not allowing people a safe space to communicate with each other, and exposing them to ISIS. You see, in some cases, banning encryption helps terrorists.

That is not a paradox. Encryption is a tool, like a knife, a chainsaw or a Bic pen. Banning a tool has consequences, and arguing at a fallacy level with something as serious as the lives of people is deeply insulting.

We need encryption, period. Personal communications must be private, period. We can discuss the transparency/secrecy balance for governments, but that is a topic for another day.

Governments must find some other way of fighting crime than just exposing everybody naked to make it easier to pick the bad apples.

Encryption is saving lives of gays, Muslims, activists, individuals who are threatened. It is allowing Mr. Cameron to send private texts to their wife without The Sun intercepting them. It is what avoids ISIS to spy on the UK Ministry of Defence intelligence. Does he really not realize that? Is he not that bright? Is he ill-advised? Is he just a hypocrite?

Encryption is avoiding that in a massive wirelessly connected world anybody can listen to what everybody else is saying in any part of the planet. Do we allow safe spaces for people to talk to each other? I say yes, we do, and we should legislate accordingly

When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else

—David Brin

Tags: law, internet

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Hey NSA, as you sow, so shall you reap

September 25, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

It looks like the new "encrypted by default" policy on smartphones is freaking out law enforcement agencies. Honestly, what were they expecting? They have been abusing laws and courts for so long that we are starting to take measures to let private companies protect us from our governments. How twisted is that, huh?

"When I see a police officer now, instead of protected, I feel threatened." That's a bit demagogic but bears some truth. People seem to have interiorized that concept and we now prefer to have some privacy, regardless of what police think. Yes, we are so busy caring for our safety that we don't give a crap if that interferes with the FBI —probably necessary— counterterrorism work.

But wait, is that true? I mean, isn't that reasoning a bit flawed? Are people stupid or careless?

When you think about it for a minute, there is a crucial point. Who is more likely to have resources to circumvent police investigations? Of course, professional criminals. That's why you can't make a backup of your DVDs, but pirates can. Professionals always find a way, it's regular citizens who have no means to protect themselves.

This is a comic I made in 2005 (click to zoom).

It says, "The EU wants to keep a record of phone calls, SMS and emails as a security measure against terrorism." Then, an Al-Qaeda terrorist who's planning to bomb the twin towers starts using carrier pigeons. Both his phone and computer are wired to the CIA, but that's of no use now.

As time told, they passed that law, and now everyone's communications are under police eyes. It's ironic, but nowadays the communications protocol which is the most protected by law is... postal mail.

In the end, it is a false sense of security. We have to give our laptop password to a random guy on an airport and let him check our email and pictures while real terrorists have a decoy encrypted partition. They can manage all the hassle, we can't, so they win.

Or better, they will carry paper documents in a briefcase. Expect next decades' spy films to stop portraying criminals as cyberpunk hackers and go back to the 50's analogic look. In the age of Apple Watches, nobody will suspect that a Casio watch hides a microfilm with the schematics for a bomb.

Tags: internet, law

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Spanish media just shot themselves in the foot -- or maybe in the head

July 24, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

In Spain we have an old proverb, La avaricia rompe el saco. Literally "greed bursts the sack"; it means that if you fill a purse with too many coins it will break and you will end up with none.

This week, the Spanish Congress passed a law with two main goals:

  • Ban torrenting sites, i.e. that is link-only sites (not content hosts), which is a totally different topic.
  • Make social aggregators pay media publishers for the use of news excerpts.

More details can be found on this Gizmodo article

If this weren't so serious I'd say that news lobbies pressing against the right to quote, you know, the one their business is based on, is ironic.

But this is so outrageously hypocritical that it's not ironic, it's immoral and vomitive. Disgusting. Greedy to the extreme. This is a capital crime against ethics.

So why did they just do that?

Last year, Google was forced to pay French publishers for use of their content. Spanish publisher lobby AEDE (lack of link intended) saw here a huge opportunity: let's do the same and get free money from Google.

Google is so big that's it's an easy target. Demagogy is so simple; Google is a tech giant that does fiscal engineering to avoid paying taxes and profits from our content. Yes, that's true. But Google does exactly what these publishers do: curate what others say and provide citations to strengthen and validate their job.

But then, Google's natural reaction would have been, "You don't want my traffic? Wish granted! Next time, be careful what you wish". However, AEDE had anticipated this, so with the new law content providers can't opt out by not linking to AEDE's affiliated media. F*ck off genie, we wished for infinite wishes!

It's so effortless to lobby in a corrupt and manipulated environment where politicians don't even know what a link is.

But wait, there's more.

Once you start considering the implications of having to pay to hyperlink, things get worse. A study conducted by Coalición Prointernet, a lobby against this law, states the obvious:

  • It has not been proved that content aggregation limits the editor's earnings. Of course; it's the opposite, it actually drives them more traffic—300M yearly visits, according to an admin of one of those sites.
  • There is no basis to establish an inalienable compensation towards media editors and, if it were any, this new legislation is not the best way to go.
  • The new law reduces legal security for Spanish internet companies.
  • Media aggregation is necessary and positive from a "freedom of speech" standpoint. Unavailability of aggregators can drive small publishers to extinction and leave users without an important tool to diversify their media consumption.

Please read and think about the last point again, because it is very, very important.

Let's summarize what is happening here:

Big media editors AEDE, most of which pro-government, in collusion with the corrupt Spanish politicians have managed a masterstroke which they think will:

  1. Get them free money
  2. Destroy the discoverability of smaller media competitors, usually critical with the government
  3. Hinder the future of Spanish internet tech business, their main competitor
  4. Get more exposure, since readers won't have access to media agreggation and will resort to reading just one or two outlets

In reality, what is likely to happen is:

  1. Google will close Google News Spain, no big problem
  2. Spanish media aggregators will move their business abroad and won't contribute taxes to the country
  3. Tech enterpreneurs will realize that Spain is a shitty country to invest money on
  4. Without Google, the aggregators, and thanks to the increasing user boycott to AEDE media, those editors will lose traffic and money.

This is so, so sad.

It is clear that traditional media companies are suffering because of the internet revolution and need to fight in some way. However, they are cutting their own nose to spite the face. And, in the way, they are denying others a right, not a banal one, but the right to quote, which news business is built on.

I honestly think that traditional media is absolutely necessary even today. They are the ones who report, research, discover, analyze and interpret what's happening in the world. Specially in Spain, where we don't have these modern US internet-only media companies which don't just feast on press releases but do real journalism.

This is not a cry against traditional media. People, most of all, need them. But people also need aggregators to contrast different views on news. Aggregators need media because it's impossible to talk about news without a headline and an excerpt to reveal what's going on. And media, most of all, needs aggregators and people to survive in today's world.

Now the law has been passed. Though it needs to be ratified in the Senate, it is a pantomime because the majorities are the same as in Congress and also Congress has the last word even if the Senate votes against it (take that, Montesquieu!). What will media editors do when they start losing money and realize the harm they have done to themselves, the Government, Spanish media consumers and the Spanish tech industry?

Next time you think somebody is stupid, remember that the Spanish press just got in a war with Google, Facebook and Twitter because they want them to stop linking to their content.

Crazy world we live in, huh?

Tags: law, internet, news

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Bile is not freedom of speech, but neither is censorship

May 16, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

Twitter—and most sites which support user comments—are filled with filth. Unfortunately, that's an indisputable rule of the internet. Some people are just unaware of the power of their words, and write comments that expose the worst of human nature, like the guy who cheered the murder of a Spanish politician

Despicable as that comment is, however, I think that police resources would be better used if going after actual criminals or corrupt politicians instead of angry teenagers. On the other hand, people should start learning that throwing bile on internet comments may be freedom of speech but also an offence of verbal threatening. Let's just start behaving like intelligent people and try neither to threaten others nor indict dumb twitter users.

My point here is that the internet was born free, and it is now turning into a "regular" business: money will pay quality of service, online media will be regulated as if hyperlinks and news excerpts were copyright infringement, and now all internet comments will be treated as if they were uttered on the real world; at the main street or on a news outlet.

That is not necessarily bad, per se. However, the people and lobbies regulating the net are the same people who think cookies are a menace to user privacy and have strong political and economical interests on putting strong leashes to users. The internet has been bypassing their establishment for about 20 years and now it's time to put an end to that.

Should the internet be different from the rest of society? It's not a rhetorical question. However, there is no easy answer. The net has created new idiosyncrasies and, if we change the rules of the game, more things need to change. However, politicians don't understand—or don't want to—this concept.

If they charge business for their QoS, then those business must be able to demand public internet providers where there are monopolies or oligopolies. If a blog can be sued for copyright infringement, so must be TVs that feed from youtube users. The list goes on.

The problem now is that it's too tempting for the establishment to regulate everything in their favor. And, given that they have the ability to do so, puts democracy to shame. That is, if there is one.

As incredible as it sounds, the tinfoil-hat people were actually right. What's more indignant, teenagers may pay large fines for hate speech while governments steal their naked pictures from their webcams and companies take our tax money to turn it against our interests.

Regrettably, for those who didn't know it, that is how the world has always worked. The internet was a small oasis that lasted a few years and gave us a taste of real freedom, for the good and the bad—Silk Road, CP, etc.

What now? I think we should support organizations that defend our rights, software that empowers us instead of relying on the bona fide of our providers, and helping develop a new internet, if that were the case.

In Spain, we have a saying "hecha la ley, hecha la trampa". It means that the cheaters will always be one step ahead of the rules. Applied to the internet, that will be a good thing for users and freedom.

Tags: law, web

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The ignorant EU cookie law

March 18, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

It is 2014, and many webmasters still don't know that there is a new EU law which regulates cookies and other data stored in user computers. This is part of a noble effort to protect user privacy, which, well, I personally support.

Unfortunately, the actual law is technically incompetent and does nothing for user privacy while placing a lot of responsibility on webmasters and costing them a lot of time and money.

Put it another way, this law wants to protect users by forcing spoon merchants to inform clients about the chance of being harmed by a spoon while ignoring knife, drug or gun merchants. It's useless.

This uselessness and absolute ignorance of how the Internet works is costing EU webmasters a lot of time and money. In my case, I counted them, about ten hours. For large companies, it can be a lot more.

Why am I against this law? Why do I say it is useless?

It doesn't protect user privacy

Cookies are not the only way to track us. Modern methods use just Javascript (i.e. the Facebook 'like' button) and leave no data on the user's browser.

Furthermore, the browser itself can be used to uniquely identify you. Test it

What's worse, it says nothing about doing analytics with personal data, like the IP.

And how could we forget the fact that it is the governments themselves who are spying on users? How on Earth need cookies legislation if the UK and US just steal pictures from our webcams, data from our emails and information from our text messages?

Our legislators must be absolutely ignorant or absolute hypocrites to regulate cookies while governments spy on us. I'm not sure which one is worse.

Cookie management was solved 20 years ago

Let's assume that the previous reason wasn't valid. Let's assume cookies were a real menace to user privacy.

Well, this problem was solved since IE4, when browsers invented the cookie warning popup window.

Managing cookies in the browser is the best idea, for many reasons:

  • It is a central tool to manage cookies.
  • Display a common interface for all cookie warnings. With the current law, every webpage displays the notification with a different style and location: on top, on the bottom, on a side, on a popup. Visitors don't know where to find it.
  • We should trust user software instead of website policies. What if a website was using cookies to track me? Should I trust them? Would it solve anything that they had to pay a fine if they have already stolen my data? Concerned people should use trusted browsers, and hardened open-source operating systems, if possible. To state an example, Facebook would earn more money by breaking this law and spying on us with cookies than the fine it would have to pay if they get caught.

It confuses users

I did a quick survey with some non-technical people, asking them if they had seen this "cookies notice". They said they had. I then asked them if they did understand what it meant. They didn't.

Modern UXs have overwhelmed us with notification windows, up to a point that we just click on "dismiss" without even looking at them. Well, we should read the text, but the truth is that many people don't. Instead of arguing over what should be done, let's try to avoid contributing to the too-many-notifications problem, and just solve them on the browser.

By the way, I bet that the most clicked button on IE6 was the "Accept all cookies, do not bother me again" checkbox.

It costs people a lot of pain and money

Let's imagine there are a million websites in the EU. Let's imagine every webmaster takes, in average, 8 hours to adapt each to the new cookie laws. Let's imagine the average webmaster cost is 50€/hr

This useless law has costed EU companies and individuals 400 million euros. Nice way to impulse the internet economy.

Different countries have different requirements

In the UK, it is enough to provide a notice to tell users that the website uses cookies.

About ten years ago, browser developers decided to remove the UX label that notified the user when cookies were received because they thought there was not much to show. Now we have to implement them again, on a per-site basis. Outstanding, given that the cookie is set anyway.

Bad as it is, in Spain, a website can't set cookies unless the user accepts them, either by scrolling or clicking a link. At least, well, the user is "protected" by default, even though the technical solution is harder.

Helping the community

Angry as I am right now for having wasted ten hours of my life implementing a useless law, I thought the least I could do, besides writing a rage post, was to share my solution.

You can go to Github and download the sample I prepared. It's the same code that you can see running here if you noticed the banner. It might not be the best, but at least it gives webmasters a starting idea, and no-PHP, 100% HTML+javascript routine to run all Analytics and cookie-dependent code.

To summarize my implementation, it consists of a javascript file which handles the cookie banner, sets the actual cookie when the user gives consent, and also manages some exceptions. Unlike most of the solutions I found, which only display the banner, this code does actually handle cookies.

Check it out, and please, feel free to send pull requests and discuss its issues.

Final thoughts

I think my points are quite valid, and this is actually a useless and annoying law that serves nothing and costs money. If the regulators had consulted a competent panel, they would have learned that the cookie law does not serve their noble intention of protecting users.

The root problem, again, is that our politicians don't have the slightest idea of how the internet works. These are the same guys that now must decide on the fate of the internet as we know it.

I don't know about you, but I lost all my hopes long ago.

Did my code save you any time and money? Please donate it to the EFF.

Tags: law, web

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