Satnavs and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

One of the best pieces of economic advice I know is ”Don’t throw good money after bad”. Or in other words, when you consider whether you should continue to invest in a project, don’t let the sum you’ve already invested figure into your decision. To do so is known as the ”sunk cost fallacy”, and leads to ”escalation of commitment”. A good way to avoid this is to decide beforehand what your exit conditions will be, and then stick to them. A bit like saying “I’m going to play the slot machines until six o’clock or until I’ve lost $50, whatever comes first”.

Google Maps offers a beautiful real-life illustration of this. It’s particularly instructive because unlike the case with your financial investments, this software can tell you with a high degree of accuracy what the outcome will be if you escalate your commitment – and if you don’t.

I’ve never had a dedicated satnav in my car. My route planning has always been “look at the map, find the shortest path, see if any major highways are near that shortest path”. But recently I’ve begun using Google Maps. I tell it the endpoints of my trip and the means of transportation I’m using. It computes a couple of itineraries and tells me how long each is likely to take. “Path A is the fastest and path B will take 17 minutes longer”. I then start driving along path A. I invest in it.

Now, I don’t check Google Maps continuously. My smartphone is not in a dashboard holder and I have no lighter cable for powering it. I check the status of my investment maybe once every two hours of driving, or when I get the feeling I may have taken a wrong turn. And sometimes in unfamiliar territory I find that I have indeed veered off path A. Should I retread my tracks and get back on that path? I ask Google Maps again.

The software has no memory of recommending path A to me. It has no sense of commitment whatsoever. It just knows where I am now and where I want to go. So in many cases it tells me “Path C is the fastest. You could take the later stages of Paths A or B instead, but that would take 10 and 13 minutes longer, respectively.” Escalated investment in my original project would clearly just be stupid. I chose path A at the outset because I trusted Google Maps, so why shouldn’t I trust it now that I’ve left that path? On the strength of new information, I invest in path C instead.


Ten Years Of Portable Internet Access

My 2006 smartphone, a Qtek 9100

My 2006 smartphone, a Qtek 9100

On 2 February 2006 I took delivery of my first smartphone, or handdator as I called it in my diary – “hand computer”. On the following day I got the machine on-line. It was a Qtek 9100, with a slide-out mechanical keyboard that I still really miss, a tiny screen, a stylus and a crappy camera. Since then I’ve had portable Internet access.

I was already a self-described “net head”, and a particular reason for me to get a smartphone was that I’d started blogging a few weeks previously: I wanted to be able to post no matter where I was. On 8 February, for instance, I almost managed to blog from a train. On 26 February I blogged while skiing cross-country. On 14 April I blogged about my hatred of aluminium bottle tops while sitting on my haunches in an Östergötland field. And on 1 June I blogged from the top of a tree in the middle of the Erstavik woods. Though I had no way of putting photographs on-line from my smartphone at the time.

Quite apart from the blogging aspect, this constant access to the net has of course changed my whole way of life. Google Maps means I don’t prepare for trips anywhere near as well as before. That info can be had on the fly. Even tickets for buses and planes are in the smartphone. And any discussion of factual matters is now simply resolved by someone checking Wikipedia. Ebooks, streaming music and podcast subscription software keep me entertained and my luggage light. And email and Facebook are always with me.

The Samsung Galaxy S6 that I use these days is of course so much better than that old Qtek in most respects. Except for the virtual keyboard and autocorrect. And for the ridiculous fact that phones are no longer made with anywhere to fasten a wrist strap. But what really hampers my smartphone use is a weakness that has been with these devices ever since 2006: I still have to charge the silly thing every night.

20 Years On The Web

bloingI got access to email through the SöderKOM BBS in 1994. In early 1995 I got a dial-up connection to the Internet via Algonet, an ISP started by my childhood buddy Ragnar. And in June of that year I put up a web site. It was a hand-coded static HTML page. A clearly recognisable version of it is still on-line after 20 years! But I haven’t updated it since 2009.

My site was one of the first to mention archaeology in Swedish, so for many years it had an absurdly high search-engine rank despite its rather modest contents, beating out the National Heritage Board and most of the country’s universities.

Is Facebook’s Android App Monitoring My Phone Calls?

Facebook’s Android app seems to be monitoring whom I talk to on my phone. A few days after I’ve called somebody who wants to submit a paper to Fornvännen, or after I’ve texted the mom of one of Jrette’s buddies, the web site will suddenly suggest, “Hey, maybe you might want to be Facebook buddies with this person you didn’t even know was on Fb, and with whom you have no shared Fb contacts!”. And there’s that person.

It’s possible, I guess, that this is actually set off by those people looking at my profile on Facebook. But it’s happened a few times too many. I wonder…

Ownit Deploys Wifi Routers With Security Hole Across Sweden

My whole housing development recently changed Internet Service Providers. We now have optical fibre from Ownit, offering hundreds of megabits per second. It works just fine. But there’s a security issue and Ownit aren’t taking it seriously.

All over Sweden, Ownit are deploying wifi routers that work out of the box. If you want to change any settings on your router (such as the name of the access point or the wifi password), you’ll find a URL in the manual which brings up a set of admin menus. Same URL on all their routers. All over Sweden.

Actually, Ownit holds the password to the “admin” account and won’t tell you what it is. But if asked, they will happily tell you that there’s a “user” account with a lot of the same capabilities, and give you its extremely easily guessed preset password. Which is the same on all their routers. All over Sweden. In order to change the “user” account’s password you have to take independent action on that point, tell the new password to user support and ask them to change it for you.

Some users may want to run an unprotected wifi access point. Almost all users will want to give their wifi password to friends and family members, even to casual acquaintances. In either case, most people will believe that all they’re opening up there is the link from people’s laptops and smartphones out onto the net. But unless special care has been taken by a semi-knowledgeable owner, they are also in effect giving the same people access to the router’s (limited) admin menus.

Let’s say your teenage son Jack gives the family wifi password to his girlfriend Jill so she can watch YouTube on her smartphone. Three months later, Jill dumps Jack because of what he did with Zuleika behind the crafts building. Jill then walks past your house one day, stops outside the fence, sets the name of your wifi access point to “Jack.Has.A.Tiny.Penis” and changes the wifi password. All computers in your house are now off the internet. And in order to do something about this, the family’s tech person will need a certain amount of knowhow and an IP cable. Note that the people most likely to end up in this situation are the ones with little knowhow who would’t even recognise an IP cable.

Someone might say, “That’s why people need to change their wifi passwords often!” Well, Ownit’s customers aren’t given the admin login info for their routers unless they ask for it. The easily guessed admin login info they need to change their wifi passwords. The login info that heartbroken and disgruntled Jill already has, for all intents and purposes, since it’s the same on every Ownit router across the country.

Summing up: Ownit gives new customers unique wifi passwords. But they also need to start giving them unique passwords for the “user” account on their routers.

Swedish Linux Users: Avoid Elgiganten

As detailed here before, a few Samsung laptop models have a firmware bug that makes them liable to becoming inert bricks if you install Linux. It’s a one-way process. This happened to me when I bought an ultrabook from the Elgiganten big-box store last summer. Both Samsung and the store refused to reimburse me for the loss of my machine’s use. At the suggestion of my home municipality’s consumer advisor (konsumentrådgivare), I took the matter to Allmänna reklamationsnämnden, the National Board for Consumer Disputes (complaint no 2013-10081).

My main argument was that installing Linux is a common procedure these days. Elgiganten sells many brands of computer that don’t have the hidden design fault I ran into, and not even most Samsung models have the fault. Nobody warned me that the particular model I happened to get would fail on such an everyday point.

Yesterday the National Board sent me their verdict.

The Board finds that the computer came with a pre-installed operating system and that Martin Rundkvist has then installed another operating system. Normally such installations and similar changes in the computer are done at the buyer’s risk. Our investigation does not suggest that the vendor has promised that the computer would be compatible with the operating system Martin Rundkvist has installed. According to the Board, nor has Martin Rundkvist had reason to assume that the computer would be compatible with the operating system in question. In this assessment, the Board finds that the fact that the computer stopped working due to the installation Martin Rundkvist did, does not constitute the kind of defect for which the seller is responsible. Martin Rundkvist’s claim should therefore be dismissed.

Nämnden konstaterar att datorn levererades med ett förinstallerat operativsystem och att Martin Rundkvist därefter har installerat ett annat operativsystem. Normalt sett sker sådana installationer och andra liknande förändringar i datorn på köparens risk. Utredningen ger inte stöd för att säljaren har utfäst att datorn skulle vara kompatibel med det operativsystem som Martin Rundkvist har installerat. Enligt nämnden har Martin Rundkvist inte heller haft skäl att utgå ifrån att datorn skulle vara kompatibel med det aktuella operativsystemet. Vid denna bedömning anser nämnden att den omständigheten att datorn har slutat fungera till följd av den installation som Martin Rundkvist har utfört, inte utgör ett sådant fel som säljaren ansvarar för. Martin Rundkvists yrkanden ska därför avslås.

I guess there are a number of lessons you can draw from this.

  • Let’s just disregard “Never run anything but Windows.”
  • “Beware Samsung laptops” is a lesson the Linux community has already learned.
  • For Swedish Linux users, the main lesson seems to be “Ask your big-box store salesperson to certify in writing that the machine she sells you is capable of running Linux equally well as it runs Windows”.

Tech Note: How To Install Linux On A Laptop With UEFI

Here’s what I did to replace Windows 8 (boo) with Linux Mint (yay) on a 2013 Asus ultrabook with the problematic UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) firmware, using an external DVD drive linked to the machine with a USB cable.

  1. Download Linux Mint and burn a bootable DVD.
  2. Disable Windows Fast Startup (in Windows’ Control Panel).
  3. Reboot machine while pressing F2, to get into BIOS setup.
  4. Under the Security menu, disable Secure Boot Control.
  5. Under the Boot menu, disable Fast Boot.
  6. Under the Boot menu, enable Launch CSM – if you can. (I couldn’t at first. This menu option was visible but inaccessible – “greyed out” in effect, though with no visible indication. In order to make the menu item accessible, I had to save the BIOS parameters, re-start and go back into BIOS setup. Then the item spontaneously became not just visible but selectable. This is an obvious bug in the Aptio setup utility.)
  7. Save the BIOS parameters, re-start and go back into BIOS setup.
  8. Under the Boot menu, Add New Boot Option and make your DVD drive boot option #1. My drive is named “HL-DT-STVRAM GPZON AP00”.
  9. Boot the install DVD you made and install Linux.

The above steps worked to get Linux Mint 14, the second-newest version of that linux distro, up and running. My troubles thus far were due to a buggy and undocumented BIOS. But then I ran into a bug in the installation software for Linux Mint 15. It installed without a hitch but then would not boot.

Here’s what I did to get an apparently problem-free install of Linux Mint 15 to actually boot when I turn on my laptop.

  1. On another machine that isn’t currently autistic, download an .ISO file of the Ubuntu Boot-Repair CD and burn it to a disc. (I had to install Free ISO Burner on an old Win XP machine in order to do this.)
  2. Boot the afflicted machine from the Boot-Repair CD and select “Recommended repair”. (And marvel at the funky graphic design.)
  3. Follow the instructions exactly, including opening a terminal window and typing (because copy & paste doesn’t work) four long arcane linux commands that they show you, where the distinction between one hyphen and two hyphens makes a difference.
  4. This creates a functioning GRUB menu that will show up on re-boot and send you straight into Linux Mint 15.
  5. Disconnect DVD drive, reboot. Phew!

All this on an Asus laptop. None of it, sadly, is any help if you’ve got a Samsung laptop rendered useless by the Samsung UEFI BIOS bug.

Samsung Sweden to Linux User: “UEFI BIOS Bug Not Our Problem”

Linux is a common operating system, not least in its Android version, and it is universally assumed that a PC (or whatever “IBM compatible” is called these days) will be able to run it. In fact, machines that can’t run Linux are extremely rare since aficionados keep porting the open-source operating system to even the most obscure and outdated machine families.

One of the PC makers who sell Linux compatible computers is Samsung. That is, almost all of their machines can run Linux, and when it was discovered last January that some recent laptops cannot, it was universally seen as a bug. Nobody designs a Linux-incompatible PC on purpose. It became big news, though I myself didn’t learn about it at the time. It was also soon discovered that a Linux boot is not the only way the bug can be triggered — Windows users are also at risk.

The problem is known as the Samsung UEFI BIOS bug. I won’t go into details I don’t understand: suffice to say that it has to do with the bootup sequence, where Samsung’s engineers have embraced the new UEFI technology without testing it sufficiently with Linux.

The bug they inserted is pretty serious. The Samsung UEFI BIOS bug disables a machine’s bootup firmware entirely if you boot Linux under certain circumstances. This renders the computer dead, without even the distasteful option of reverting to Windows. Your computer becomes a brick.

This happened to me Friday before last. I bought a Samsung NP535U3C laptop in July, immediately installed the most recent version of Mint, the most widely used Linux distribution, and happily used my new machine for 3½ months. Then I fiddled around a tad too much (as Linux users are wont to do) and had to reinstall the operating system, using the same disc as back in July. This time though I seem to have touched the UEFI settings, and my machine became unresponsive. Only then did I learn about the Samsung UEFI BIOS bug.

I paid about $1000 for that machine, and I had expected to use it for years, not 3½ months. So I asked the retailer, Elgiganten, to reimburse me for the obviously flawed piece of hardware they had sold me. I mean, its 2013 and I expect to be able to run Linux on my laptop — and to be able to boot the machine afterwards. No dice: they refused on the grounds that a) “it’s a software error”, and b) “changing your operating system is like switching engines in your car from one make to another”.

Having become a former customer of Elgiganten’s, I turned to Samsung’s support desk. There one Jim likewise refused to help me, instructing me instead to “contact linux” (!) and ask for help. Where does Samsung find these people?

After continued prodding from me, Jim directed me to Samsung’s court of appeal, “Voice of Customer”, in Gothenburg. Their representative Madeleine refused to help too, making the somewhat odd claim that “no production flaw has been determined”. In my opinion, a non-standard BIOS bug that renders the machine unresponsive is a textbook production flaw.

Then she continued, “I’ve checked with our head technician for matters like these, and when the preinstalled operating system is changed or the customers installs a new one, that is their responsibility and sadly not something whose functionality we can guarantee.” No, I’m not asking Samsung to guarantee that Linux works. The Linux community has that covered for me. I’m asking Samsung to guarantee that it will be possible to boot my laptop at all.

I look forward to learning what the Consumer Protection Ombudsman thinks about this.

Update 31 March 2014: I did not get any reimbursement whatsoever. Avoid Elgiganten.

Tech Note: Get Rid Of LibreOffice’s Annoying File Recovery Failure Message

This bug in OpenOffice / LibreOffice has been with me for years and years. You open a file, you delete it while open, you close LibreOffice — and then LibreOffice will henceforth tell you eeeevery time you start the program that it tried and failed to recover that file. But I found a bug fix. Thank you “user177723”!

1. Open LibreOffice and create a new file with the same name as the lost one in the same directory. (Which directory this may have been, you have to remember/guess.)

2. Save it.

3. Close LibreOffice completely. (Yes, this is an essential step.)

4. Open the newly created file. Close it.

5. Repeat for every individual file the stupid program moans about on start-up.

I Was Wrong About Book-On-Demand

Here’s a fun case of me not anticipating an imminent technological development, not thinking that last centimetre of far enough. In July of 2007, six years ago, I wrote:

Lately I have come to think of books as computer devices, combining the functions of screen and backup medium. All texts these days are written and type-set on computers, so the paper thingy has long been a secondary manifestation of the text. People like publisher Jason Epstein and book blogger the Grumpy Old Bookman have predicted that we will soon have our books made on demand at any store that may today have a machine for making photographic prints. The texts will reside on the net, on our USB memory sticks or on our handheld computers/cell phones. The paper output/backup-storage device we call “a book” will be produced swiftly in the store by a dedicated machine.

A bit less than six months later, Amazon released the first Kindle e-book reader, making sure (in the words of The Guardian’s tech editor Charles Arthur), that a few years later “Amazon has millions of stores right on peoples’ desks, smartphones and tablets through its website and Kindle app”. Book-on-demand printing will never become big as I thought in 2007, because the texts don’t just reside on our phones as I noted – we read them on our phones now. I’ve never seen the point of a dedicated e-reader, just as I quit using my iPod as soon as I got a smartphone with enough storage for my music files. All devices dealing with information are converging on smartphones. And so, while use of the free Kindle smartphone app is booming, sales of the physical Kindle device are dropping off, reports The Guardian. And brick-and-mortar book stores are going the way of the record and video rental stores.

Strange though how poorly we (well, myself in this case) interconnect the various contents of our heads – an inability which H.P. Lovecraft calls the most merciful thing in the world in the opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”. When I wrote enthusiastically about book-on-demand printing, I had actually already begun reading books on my phone more than a year previously, in April of 2006, and I was already aware of e-reader hardware at the time. Only in 2010 however do I find myself entertaining the possibility of the paperback book becoming obsolete. This oversight probably had to do with e-book availability. In early 2006 few new books were available in digital format. The first one I read was a novel put on-line for free by its author, Michael “Grumpy Old Bookman” Allen. And reading PDFs on a smartphone still is no fun today, let alone on my tiny 2006 Qtek smartphone. Little did I know what Amazon was planning.

The Grumpy Old Bookman has returned to blogging! Check out his site if you like reading and/or writing and/or publishing!