Data is radioactive money?

This morning, I had a conversation with Karl H. Richter about data. He argues that data is money — and I mostly agree with him:

Sometimes we may want the tech companies to be trustworthy custodians, holding our data safely without being stolen or used without our consent – or we may want them to actively invest some of our data on our behalf, to work productively in the economy in exchange for a risk-adjusted return.

Karl on expectations with regard to handling data

I quite like this change of perspective. But I think there is something missing here — what happens if these custodian or „investment managers“ fail to keep our data safe? If we stick to the „money“ analogy, that would mean that the data is simply gone.

And yes, occasionally, this actually happens; just ask MySpace. Most of the time, though, data doesn’t get lost, but instead gets copied. It is a pet peeve of mine when these get labeled as "data loss" or "data theft" by those who report on it. Often this gets confounded by saying that the company who was the custodian of that data would be the victim here.

Please, nothing could be further from the truth, let me explain why and how:

  1. The data is usually still there. The company whose database was breached still has all their data. They can continue their normal operations, deliver goods and services, write bills, everything.
  2. The incident involved the companies servers, but they are not the true victim in these cases — it’s the users whose data became compromised! I would rather say, that the companies in question were more of an accomplice in this, by being (often willfully) negligent about their security practices.

The more fitting analogy for most data breaches is an environmental disaster. Think of it as a containment breech in a nuclear reactor. The reactor still produces energy, but the environment around it is damaged in ways we cannot entirely foresee. The long term effects are rather unknown and vague, depending on lots of external factors no one can fully control.

Worse: As with environmental disasters usually hit hardest on the most vulnerable or marginalized people, so do do breaches. And as with environmental damage, they are cumulative: Once the data is out there, it usually never goes away. And the more small pieces of my private data are known, the more they can be combined into something more dangerous.

For the privileged, it is easier to cope with data breaches. If I’m a millionaire, I can simply move when my home address gets compromised. Sure, it’s a nuisance, but it is completely doable. If I am living on minimum wage in an area that is under gentrification pressure, I won’t be able to afford a move.

If my sexual orientation, religion or race gets published (I’m a white, cisgender heterosexual atheist), I’ll have exactly nothing to fear. If I were gay and lived in Saudi Arabia, the same data piece suddenly becomes life-threatening.

So, we should think about data as if it were radioactive money. Whoever controls it can use it to generate wealth with it, but if it spills, there will be long lasting unfathomable damage.

We need to hold the custodians of our data accountable to the highest standards. And if they fail at their jobs, we shouldn’t let them get away with it as easily as we do today.

Visiting the Kodama office

Let’s start with some context: I’m a Kickstarter backer for the Kodama Obsidian 3D printer. The thing is long overdue, as so often happens for hardware crowdfunding campaigns. The backer communication was spotty at best, but two weeks ago, CEO Michael Husmann started posting video updates where he gave an apology for all the delays and promised more regular updates for the future. So far, that promise holds, and I also had an opportunity to do a quick visit of the Kodama office in Berlin.

The office is as tiny as the Kickstarter Update video shows: One room in a coworking space, crammed full with four desks and a shelf holding 3D-printers and parts. There are printers on the desks too!

me (on the right) and the Kodama Berlin team

So, right from the outset: Kodama is definitely an existing company, and I do believe they are working hard on finishing and delivering a 3D printer.

The Furling situation clearly doesn’t sit easy with the Kodama team, and I can’t say how things exactly broke down, and right now, I also don’t care.

In the end, the situation is as it is: Kodama had to transition from „marketing, product management & fulfilment company with a trusted partner to develop and oversee production“ to „do everything on your own and from scratch“. That is a major pivot with a very steep learning curve.

So yes, they did burn more money than planned when calculating the Kickstarter, but Chris and Michael reassured me that they do have the funds to finish production and ship everything. There’s still revenue from the Trinus coming in for example, and they are also releasing a new Trinus version soonish.

Having to switch their sourcing agent in China didn’t help the schedule either, but the new agent seems a lot more helpful and active.

The Obsidian without housing, but with the penultimate version of the PCB. The build bed is a BuildTak metal sheet (covered in blue tape here) that is magnetically attached to the platform.

Nonetheless: I saw a working printer prototype, and the team obviously understands the machine down to every detail. They know exactly which parts will end up in the production model, and are in the process of reviewing all the sourcing offers for them.

A thing that I didn’t exactly realize until today was that they won’t use the standard nozzle/heatbreak system that you for example find at Ender type of printers. Instead the nozzle will be in a proprietary form-factor and being held by a quick-release system, so you can exchange it quite easily. Might be old information to some, but I didn’t know :)

I also quite like the quick-clamp mechanism on the bowden feeder. My current printer is a CR-10S, and the one on the Obsidian looks&feels a lot more finger-friendly!

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The printer in action

The PCB has iterated a few times and as of Tuesday, they were eagerly waiting for the courier service to deliver the latest version. The one before had minor electrical noise, easily fixed. If that one tests out fine, they’ll have the golden sample and the PCB can go into production.

But other things are in a bit of flux: The LCD UI isn’t done yet, the app is still being worked on, and most of the parts that comprise the Plus and Deluxe versions are not final yet either.

When I asked for status on the sourcing, I got an exhaustive run-on-sentence answer on how they do it, what kind of things are on the desk right now, and that things are progressing, and so on. What I wanted to see though was a simple burndown chart: We need X parts, have sourced Y, which leaves us with Z. Once we have everything, we need to do steps A. B, and C.

They obviously do know what they need to do and what the status of all these things is. But they don’t have them in a simple list where they can cross them off. Because no one has the time to make that list.

It’s something I recognize as similar to what I’ve seen as an consultant when I was visiting overworked IT departments: They know they have a ton of work ahead of it, and so many people feeling let down and being impatient, they just hunker down and get crunching, pulling ever-longer hours and digging down ever-deeper, never actually getting the breathing room to implement the things that make work easier or faster.

So, when I mentioned that burndown chart, I think I accidentally broke through the fog: Michael immediately understood what I meant, and why it is obviously something they need, so we should hopefully see that in the next Kickstarter update.

To summarize: Those are passionate folks who really want to deliver what was promised. They are fighting an uphill battle. This is partly due to things that happened outside their control, and partly because there were probably some overly optimistic assumptions when starting the Kickstarter campaign.

But they seem to have all the things they need to finish this. As to the when — I am no hardware production person, so I can’t comment on that. But I also understand Michaels reluctance to give any sort of specific timeline after having overpromised one time too many.

Still, I’m pretty positive that I will have my own Obsidian Deluxe eventually. To say it with 3D Realms iconic words: „When it’s done!“

Disclosure: This post would have included ramifications on an idea that a few backers voiced on the Obsidian Creatives Facebook group. Everyone at Kodama seemed pretty excited about it, as it would help avoid delivery delays for a portion of backers. Alas, that idea might very well not work due to technical restrictions, and Chris and Michael asked me to not get anyone’s hopes up, until at least they’ve cleared the unknowns on this. I think that is fair enough, so I leave that part out.

Darth Poppins, here we come…

Last year, on a whim, I backed the Rainsaber on Kickstarter:

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Then, while waiting through the inevitable Kickstarter Project delivery delay, we watched Mary Poppins Returns — a movie that is sort of ok, but Emily Blunt ain’t Julie Andrews, sorry.

Anyway, while watching the movie, we riffed around the title, and ended up saying that it being the second movie, it should’ve been called „Mary Poppins Strikes Back“. And then I mentioned off-handedly that we’re getting a lightsaber umbrella kinda soon…

Your parents lied to you… I am your nanny!

Darth Poppins

So, with Nordcon coming up in June, and the saber hopefully arriving before that, we’re working on a Darth Poppins Cosplay. It’ll revolve around the umbrella, and of course it’ll need the correct pommel.

Thankfully, Ben was game and sent me the 3D file for the pommel cap:

And with some 3D builder magic, this emerged from my printer:

Spit Spot, this death star won’t built itself you know!

The parrot head was a bit more challenging though. The first try came out WAY too big:

(yes, that is 14cm width. Basically impossible to hold comfortably.)

I tinkered a bit more, and now got it down to a comfortable size, it just needs painting and, of course, the actual saber. In the meantime, the girlfriend needs to do the sewing for the actual costume, but that’s not my department anymore.. :D

Use the force, choke them, the lads.
choke them, choke them, choke them, the lads.

Small-scale pods as moderation advantage

Yesterday, I had a lengthy discussion with a proponent of big centralised social media platforms. Not because they have a particular love for big companies, but because moderation is actually one of these issues that are hard to do right.

The numbers I could find say that about 20% of all content posted in social media needs to get removed from moderation. Most of this is probably automated spam and similar, but there is also a fair amount of graphic violence, outright porn and, because humans are terrible, abuse and hate.

Moderators who have to sift through all this have the worst life, not few of them have to get counseling after a while.

So if you do moderation, you have to have the infrastructure in place to deal with large volume of content, the wellbeing of your staff, all the hassle of dealing with complaints about your moderation plus whatever regulatory requirements are needed.

Typically, this calls for a large scale operation.

Now, one of the reasons this happens is because people behave differently in a large-scale corporate environment than within their smaller circle of friends and acquaintances. If your social media pod is run by someone closer to you, you tend not to shit the bed so to speak. Because you know that your behaviour will possibly reflect poorly on your host.

If you federate the system, good moderation will still be needed, but it is entirely possible that one won’t have to deal with that many bad things, especially if there is an option to cut off whole pods from the federation if they behave too badly.

Of course, that last bit needs to be very carefully tuned, lest it results in censorship.