Friday, February 21, 2014

The TTC, Wi-Fi and Impression Fraud

For those that don't live in Toronto, here's a quick primer:  We have a transit system known as The TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) and for the longest time, us subway users have been screaming that we want data when underground.  So, the TTC met us half-way and started installing Wi-Fi in the stations only.  

Right, as you are aware by now, we have a new Wi-Fi system called TConnect being rolled out on the subway system.  It's plenty quick, and I do use it to refresh my twitter feed before jumping on the subway train, or to tell the house I'm coming home from work.

But, I've found a problem.

In advertising, you have metrics that show you how many people you're reaching.  These metrics are usually based on numbers in the multiples of 1000 - and for reasons I still don't understand, we use the Latin version (mille) instead of English (thousand) so the "Cost Per Thousand" eyeballs, or listeners, is usually represented as "CPM" (Cost Per Mille).  Thus, a CPM of $10 means it's costing you a cent per person reached.

Understanding this is crucial, because advertising is based on a simple premise.  An advertiser pays a certain amount of money based on this CPM and the advertising system reaches that many people.  This is why a Super Bowl advert is way more than a daytime weekday ad spot - you're reaching more people.

In the digital advertising world, you have a slightly altered version of this.  Whereas TV and Radio can't say "OK, you've reached the 10,000 people you wanted to reach, now we're cutting you off", the digital systems can record an exact count of the number of times an advert has been played.  This is known as the "Impression Count".  It's supposed to be more accurate than a TV or Radio system, so it's trusted more.

Now imagine you are purchasing advertising space on the new TTC TConnect system.  Imagine you are paying a cent per impression (so a CPM of $10)... You would expect that when you're presented with a $500 bill for reaching an impression count of 50,000 that 50,000 people have actually seen your advert, right?

Not on TConnect.  

They've left the ability to scrub through adverts (FFwd through them) enabled.  So, if you are required to watch a 30 second video to get your free connection because an advertiser is paying for it, you just immediately FFwd to the last 2 seconds so it records reaching the end of playing the advert - then you're in.  Meanwhile, the advertiser still gets billed for showing an advert that hasn't actually been watched.

That is basically Impression Fraud.

A Primer On Basement Flooding In Toronto

Basement flooding is one of the realities of living in Toronto.  There's three major problems here:

  • The houses are often built over the top of aquifers, flood-plains and other places with a naturally high water table.  This means the water rises until you find it coming up under the floor.
  • The infrastructure wasn't designed to handle what the city planners threw at it.  A perfect example is the street I currently live on.  The storm sewer was laid in the 1950s and it's plenty big enough to handle our street, but in the 1960s and 1970s when the city planners decided to pave over 100 acres of nearby fields to turn it into car parks and big box stores, that's 100 acres of storm water catchment with no ground to seep into.  The water runs into the drains, and those are connected to the storm sewers that run towards the lake.  On its way, it runs past our neighbourhood, which is also connected to the same sewers and so it barrels back up into people's basements.
  • The homeowners are at fault, for not fixing up eaves-troughs, downspouts, soil-grading, disconnecting weeping tile, etc.

As a home-owner, you end up having to play detective - trying to work out what combination of the above is causing your flooding.

The current house I live in, which was built in 1952, was purchased by me in 2011.  In 2012, we got flooded in our basement after 50mm of rain fell in one hour. That cost $26,000 to fix (thankfully, we had sewer backup and flood insurance!).  The main cause there was the city sewers backed up.  This was easy to fix going forward - install a back flow preventer.  In 2013, we had a storm where over 70mm of rain fell in one hour, and our flooding was reduced by 95%... the back flow preventers were doing their job.

The new problem we could see was whilst we solved the problem of back-flow, the water table would rise so fast it was breaching the basement floor.  Now it looked like we needed a sump pump to relieve the hydrostatic pressure (the pressure from the rising water table) by pumping out the water before it gets high enough to breach the basement concrete floor.  Thankfully, I already had a 1/2hp submersible pump, so I threw that down the hole where the back-flow preventer was - thus I had jury-rigged a sump pump to remove most of what had still entered, but we didn't need to call the insurance company.

The next issue was the downspouts and eaves-troughs.  I emptied those, got everything ship shape, and we survived another 50mm an hour downpour with just a little puddling.  However, I'd still not saved up enough for the sump pump. 

Then, I made a silly mistake...

My partner had ordered some eaves trough cleaning company from Groupon to come and empty everything in the autumn.  They got so overwhelmed it's now spring and they're still not coming for another month.  In the meantime, I didn't brave the cold and go up there myself.

So, we arrive at today, and where the eavestrough overflowed down the wall, we have another huge puddle in the basement.  Further, because I'd still not got the sump pump in, we had more puddles in the family room.

Whilst I couldn't fix the horses that have bolted, I could prevent one more catastrophe - the 3ft of snow round the house had to be dug up and shifted, so it's not melting against the foundation walls.  That appears to have relieved some of the downward flow to the puddles.

I'm now entertaining estimates for the sump pump, and come spring, will re-grade the soil where necessary.

The moral of the story is this:  I've got 99% less problems now, than I had when I first bought the house.  Further, most of the issues now are preventable.  Whilst the sump pump is expensive (they have to break through the basement floor, go down a good metre or more and install the well wall and drop in the pump, then go through the external wall and install a discharge pipe), the rest is free - it's just a case of taking the time and planning when to do preventative maintenance. 

A good 75% of today's issues in my basement could have been prevented for free, but I would have to have put in the effort last year, then moved some of the snow as soon as it fell.  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Government Rant

As most people know, I live in Canada as a "Permanent Resident", but I'm actually still British and not a Canadian.  What this means is I have a British Passport, but I live in Canada and have every obligation that a Canadian has, such as paying taxes and abiding by all laws without exemption, but I have have the added benefit in that I can't be blamed for anything the government does, because taxpaying residents aren't eligible to vote.  

Unlike governments, I'm a product of the modern era.  It was through helping North Americans from my base in the UK during the mid-90s that brought me here.  However, like governments, I have a habit of integrating myself into many things.

I'm intimately familiar with four governments.  

  • The UK Government is the one that raised me - and I don't have too much respect for the top level, though I do for the local levels.  The reason for this is simply that once I worked with the upper levels, I felt like there wasn't much substance to it.  Meanwhile at the local levels, people don't shuffle around so much and so they actually try to make a difference.
  • The French Government is the one that I have never forgiven after they tried to pin blame on me for something that required the services of American forensics experts to prove I wasn't the cause of the issue.
  • The American Government is the one that (border control people excepted) always appears to be in sync with me.  I explain how something can be improved and they listen.  I also never hit a problem where things just "stop" because of "not my job" mentality - if I needed to be handed off to someone else, they hand me over.
  • The Canadian Government is the one that has been my host for the past 15 years.  It appears to be a cross between the UK one and the American one.  It inherited the disjointedness of the US System, and the arbitrary anchors of bureaucracy that hobbles the UK one.
There's one additional "government" I am very very familiar with: Toronto's municipal government - meaning the City of Toronto.  My face is probably on a dart-board at City Hall, because I don't actually deal with City Hall much; choosing instead to find the name of the person responsible for each problem and then dealing with them directly. 

I look at the role of government as very simply being a framework that helps it's people to prosper.  How it does this is through silos of health, education, economics and safety - and all of this is paid through taxation.  The way it should work is like this:  The government helps you, and you prosper thus giving money to the government to help it help you further.  It should be a symbiotic relationship.

However, it's not actually like this.  More often than not, the government doesn't want to help and it offloads the responsibility to the people.  This then leads to the observation that the government only exists to further the government.

Anyone that knows me well will know that I have a habit of integrating into all things.  Sometimes, I end up in some strange places that I didn't expect to be in.   I also keep an eye out for things that need fixing, and I'm more than happy to voice my opinion or show people a better way.  

Sometimes, I fix or make things work in sensitive environments.  This ranges from Air Forces and Armies, through to Home Offices, Police Forces, Supermax Prisons, Nuclear Facilities, Presidential Libraries, and local authorities.  In the case of Canada, one particular example of my tinkering is that Canada has an industry silo called "Industry Canada" and that has an R&D department called The National Research Council of Canada.  The very top of this chain are top advisors to guide the national effort.  Who has been called to help them?  Me.

So, in Canada, I've already managed to achieve the situation of being simultaneously above the top of the government chain whilst also being ignored at the bottom of it.

Contrast this with the USA:  There, I'm a nobody as I don't live there and I'm not American, but I'm a nobody that gets listened to.  They understand I'm actually trying to help.  This has led to humorous situations where my receptionist has in the past come to my desk in a state of disbelief saying that the White House, or Andrews AFB, or Fort Bliss is on the phone.

Of course, this level of tinkering like a one-man-band/loose-cannon couldn't go on forever, so I was put into the Joint Certification Program to have a few house rules put around me.  Cutting a long story short, that path culminated with me becoming a one-man NATO codified C4ISR R&D mobile software engineer, which just pushed me even further down the path of being taken seriously by the Americans.  

This resulted in a new "at the top and bottom at the same time" scenario where I'd gotten people from Fort Bliss calling me about running prototype software at White Sands Missile Range and this was brought to a successful resolution, whilst in Canada I was trying to tell Service Ontario to put twins birth certificates in the same envelope to save postage costs and to this day (I checked) Service Ontario hasn't listened to me as I heard from another parent of twins that their's recently arrived in two envelopes.

Fast forward to today...  

Today has a common theme:  Government Finance.  I'm working on fixing an American taxation system that ran into a spot of bother.  Again, I'm able to call people and if it's not someone's job, I just wait ten minutes and someone else calls me back to resolve the issue.  You help me and I help you.

Today, I also walked into a Service Ontario centre today for the first time (I usually use the website) to ask a question about my Social Insurance card as I was passing, having just left a meeting.  After suffering a wait through a very loud rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way", I get to the desk and I'm told that this is a Service Canada problem.  Further, their solution was to go to another city (Scarborough) to resolve it.

I'm sorry, but this is Toronto - there has to be a sodding office in Toronto.  That's just bad advice from Service Ontario.  So this little tale ends, where I'm both helping one government and being brushed off by another... again.

I can't be bothered today to track down a responsible human being at the Government today, so I'm going to just leave an idea here - someone will find it eventually.

What Canada needs is this.
First you create an office, let's call it a "Service Centre" or something similar. It's purpose is to act as a coherent link between the government and the community. When you walk in there, you should be able to do simultaneous things like get a new health card and a new Social Insurance card... Believe it or not, you can't currently do this as the system is too fractured to handle even related things like this.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hey Parallels - You have our money, now leave us in peace!

Imagine this...

You bought a General Motors car last year.  Today you jump into it, turn on the radio and before you get to hear the station that you normally tune into every day, today is different because of instead of hearing the radio, you get some General Motors sanctioned advert intruding in your car experience.

This is precisely what happened today with my copy of Parallels (which allows me to run Windows and other OS's on my Mac).  Having purchased the product some time ago and always being able to start and use it without interruption, this screen appeared.

I don't know why some software companies feel this type of intrusion is OK.  I've bought the product, now leave me alone to use it in peace.

My rage with this type of "squeezing advertising into every nook and cranny" grows when I think about how this interruption was obviously tabled by Parallels staff and some executive there actually thought that putting tawdry advertising on the desktops of customers who've paid $80 for their product already was a good idea.  

That's just not professional!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why can't local and knowledgable anchors comment on the Olympic opening ceremonies?

The other day I was watching the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony.  For the London 2012 one we had watched the Canadian coverage of it, but this drove me mad as a Brit because the presenters and commentators appeared to be chosen based on seniority and not on their knowledge of all things British.  This time for Sochi, we decided to watch the British (BBC) version.  They chose a different tack to the Canadians previously - here, they chose to put a sports commentator in what is really a cultural spectacle - not a sporting event. 

Again, I was getting a bit hot under the collar...

Some days before the opening ceremony there was a rumour circulating online that people had heard t.A.T.u (a group who's name is from the acronym for "This girl loves that girl" - but it's pronounced the same as "tattoo") singing at the rehearsals.  

I made a comment on twitter that if true, this would be one of the greatest trolling moments in Olympic history.  Given the circus of issues surrounding gay rights in Russia currently, the only thing they could upstage this with is probably playing a song from Pussyriot.  So, the ceremony started and as the Russians came up the entrance ramp, there in the background was the unmistakable chants of "Nas ne degoniat" ("Not gonna get us") by t.A.T.u.

So, what did the BBC have to say about this?  Nothing.  

Just like the senior Canadian anchors couldn't work out what references to British life they were looking at during London 2012, this BBC sports-based crew had no idea about the significance of what Russia was playing in the audio.

This cluelessness about the magnitude of foreign things in context reminds me of when the American news were covering the planes finally taking off after being grounded for days due to 9/11...  It was an ANA (All Nippon Airways - a honking great big airline) plane that taxied out first on the screen - the anchor was like "and here comes the first plane... Er, no idea who they are... Oh, look, here's a United plane behind them, we are back!".

It infuriates me when anchors have the chance to do their job of explaining the significance of things to the public and then omit key details that change the way the entire story can be told.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Normalcy Bias

I hate to sound like a constant doom-monger, but I'm sure that from time to time, that's exactly how I sound to many people.  From my perspective, I'm simply being realistic about things.

There's something called the Normalcy Bias which I see everywhere I look.  Wikipedia explains what this is very succinctly as follows:
"The normalcy bias, or normality bias, refers to a mental state people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster occurring and its possible effects. This often results in situations where people fail to adequately prepare for a disaster, and on a larger scale, the failure of governments to include the populace in its disaster preparations. The assumption that is made in the case of the normalcy bias is that since a disaster never has occurred then it never will occur. It also results in the inability of people to cope with a disaster once it occurs. People with a normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before. People also tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation."

Just thinking back to yesterday's post about more high end stores opening up in Toronto to cater to the top 20% whilst ignoring the purchasing power of the lower 80%, I can see this bias where the city planners are concerned.  They must be thinking that since nobody in Toronto has ever seen a problem where the elite are the only people being catered to in the downtown core, this must be a very good thing for all because just look at all the money!

I'm no economist, but I know a huge mistake when I see one.  When there's no department stores that cater to 80% of the population, you have to wonder if they're trying to turn the entire downtown core into Yorkville.  Just imagine it; an entire city core clogged up with poodles and posers. 

The problem is caused at the moment by debt.  There's just too much of it that the economy is trying to win over what expendable income there is by going cheap or expensive.  Cheap means the wages are low too, which drives more debt.  Expensive means you're limiting your market to the top 20% of the country's wage earners.

So why is debt such a problem?

Debt pulls more demand from the future. Unless you forgive debts or pay them off, they will strangle the economy.  Someone, somewhere, has to take the hit.  Eventually all that debt leads to negative growth some time in the future.  

Bondholders get whacked 

- or -
Debtors get whacked

- or -
A combination thereof happens.

When Bondholders get whacked, look for pension funds and states to go broke.
When Debtors get whacked, look for asset liquidations.

If you understand that, then it's not much of a mental leap to understand what's happening around us.  It's a disaster just waiting to happen.

If you understand Normalcy Bias, too, then it's not much of a mental leap to understand what's happening around us where the media and ministers are concerned.  It's just another disaster just waiting to happen.

You have to question though, what they're doing to prepare against this gumming up of the retail sector?  The way the current economy is designed means that much more will happen than just a bunch of shops going under. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Squeezing The Middle

This morning I read a NY Times article that claimed that the retail space was collapsing in the middle, leaving only premium or bargain-basement retailers.

The same thing is happening in Canada, and especially in Toronto.  Some people don't like to admit it, but there's a huge squeeze on any business who generates revenue from the middle class.

Just look at HBC or Sears; they're being replaced on the high street because people are betting they can get more money per sq/ft selling to the top 20% of earners, rather than the bottom 80%. So, we are getting Saks where HBC was and Nordstrom where Sears was.

Looking at the USA where Walmart is warning that cutting back on food stamps will hurt the corporate bottom line at the same time as it's staff is also often reliant on government assistance, you have to question what is going on?

It's long been an adage that the rich are getting richer whilst the poor get poorer, but you have to ask who in charge here is fixing this?

It's becoming increasingly obvious where the ripple effects are coming from and going to, but nobody is going to those sources.  For instance, are Toronto city planners happy that a second area is about to vie for the wealth of the top 20% whilst ignoring the purchasing power of the majority?

If allowed to continue, these ripples will continue to divide and flow into further auxiliary businesses.  That's going to force them to also go cheap or go expensive.  This forces the division in wages to get larger and thus the cycle will propagate.

It's not looking good for Toronto.  As I mentioned earlier, you have to question what is going on...  There's only two options:

1) Nobody is in control here, so we have a bad situation for the majority.
2) Someone is in control here, and this is apparently what they've decided is right.