Data Visualization is Compression

by Matt Zagaja on March 11, 2015

I cannot believe I missed this TED talk by David McCandless from Infomration is Beautiful. The most important point that he made was how long it took him to make a single graphic in his book, and that graphic provided context that otherwise did not exist. A lot of times people will put numbers on top of an image, but that kind of visualization does not have the impact that McCandless's visualizations have. Check out the website and share your favorites in the comments.

The CIA v. Apple

by Matt Zagaja on March 10, 2015

From The Intercept:

By targeting essential security keys used to encrypt data stored on Apple’s devices, the researchers have sought to thwart the company’s attempts to provide mobile security to hundreds of millions of Apple customers across the globe. Studying both “physical” and “non-invasive” techniques, U.S. government-sponsored research has been aimed at discovering ways to decrypt and ultimately penetrate Apple’s encrypted firmware. This could enable spies to plant malicious code on Apple devices and seek out potential vulnerabilities in other parts of the iPhone and iPad currently masked by encryption.

Very disappointing to see this happen, but glad to see Cook stand firm to the extent he can. Ultimately the problem with any backdoor is that if it works for one person than others can exploit it. There is not some kind of middle ground where we can know for certain our devices are secure but also that the government can snoop on them. We deserve secure systems, and our privacy. These things were embedded in our fourth amendment and I think the interest of law enforcement in snooping on our communications should not override it.

The Apple Watch Event

by Matt Zagaja on March 09, 2015

This afternoon I watched the Apple Watch event. In addition to the watch Apple unveiled a new MacBook and refreshed their MacBook Pro with Retina Display. We finally learned about the widely variable pricing of the watches and their release date. Overall it was exciting to see the improvements but I am not sure what is going on with this new laptop.

Apple has now abandoned its MagSafe and Thunderbolt connectors for a single USB-C type connector. This seems silly to me on two fronts. The first is that the lack of a Thunderbolt port precludes the use of the computer with the thunderbolt display and other accessories. The second is that users lose the advantage of the connector that does not cause the computer to fly across the room if it is tripped. However based on everyone else's enthusiasm I am clearly not in the target market for this unit.

The new keyboard seems interesting but the initial reviews are not strong. The new trackpad, however, has been getting rave feedback. I am excited to experience it. I think that Apple opted to replace it not just for the feature, but also because from an unscientific sample of friends, the trackpad click is one of the things that seems to most often break on MacBook Pros.

A Controversial Opinion about Debt

by Matt Zagaja on March 08, 2015

There are lots of charlatan financial advisors out in the world that are waging a war on debt. In the strange world that these creatures inhabit, being able to own a yacht or ferrari at age 65 is much more exciting than taking a trip to Europe at age 25. Investing $60,000 in college to earn $46,000 is a much more rational decision than taking a job at $30,000 out of high school but you would not know it from the debt fearmongers. Some people say that money cannot buy happiness, but the data does not support this.

In the introductory economics class that many of these financial advisors missed, they teach the concept of diminishing marginal utility. Diminishing marginal utility is the idea that your first dollar is much more valuable to you than your hundreth. This concept is universal, important, and largely missing from a majority of policy debates. However you can conveniently use it to make personal financial decisions. $1000 today might give you more joy and satisfaction than $2000 in five years. Debt allows you to time travel some of tomorrow's happiness into a lot more happiness today, and interest is the price you pay to do that.

The second mistake that advisors make when cautioning against debt is that they presume the expenses are pure consumption and not investments. If you have the option to attend Harvard but go into debt, or attend Manchester Community College but not go into debt, the decision should be easy. If you plan to live somewhere for a long time it is almost always more rational to purchase a house than to rent because you will build equity, and unlike your rent the debt payments have a portion that are deductible in the tax code. If you replace an ancient car with a modern vehicle that has updated safety systems and later are in a car crash, I do not think it is difficult to justify the utility of that purchase. In fact your insurance company may thank you in the form of a lower premium.

Finally from a mechanical standpoint they ignore the very real benefits and protections that financial services firms offer users of credit cards. By paying for things with my credit card and paying it off monthly, at no fee to me, I receive warranty extensions, travel insurance, and the ability to dispute charges from unscrupulous vendors. I further enjoy an interest free thirty day float of my expenses so that my money can accumulate interest in my savings account. When the credit card company cut me a $250 check to cover a new keyboard for my MacBook Pro, and I did not have to pay $350 for the extended warranty, the benefit was both real and financial. Even if my computer did not break, I enjoy the percentage kickback that the card company gives me for using their card.

Debt is a tool in the toolbox. It is not a necessary tool and plenty of people live without it, much like there are people who do not carry smartphones or do not have Internet connections. However it is a valuable tool that can be used to increase your happiness, and people that refrain from using it do not get some kind of special prize.

Deploying a Rails Application to a Linode VPS

by Matt Zagaja on March 07, 2015

This seemed like a simple thing to do when I watched a 30 minute video on it. Unfortunately it has been more of a learning experience than I hoped. A minor difference in a file that Ubuntu includes by default meant that the documentation for Phusion Passenger 4 was not correct. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get environmental variables working in my deployment, and my solution is now on Stackoverflow.

I also have spent quite a bit of time setting up PostgreSQL. It works now but it is strange that flipping the authentication method between peer and md5 does not seem to impact Rails or Postico's ability to access the server even if I have it set on peer and access it from a different user over SSH. I only find it odd because before I briefly flipped it to MD5 initially, I could not connect to the databse server at all using localhost. I am going to just accept this for now since it's not a problem.

Finally I am still in the process of getting the static assets to load and work properly. Heroku did much of this automatically and I now understand its appeal. If you want to start programming in Ruby on Rails I strongly recommend using and sticking with Heroku until you are ready and interested in learning some Linux server administration. It saves you a huge amount of pain.

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