Why a limited roll out of a credit card security program does not work

American Express has apparently started a program called "SafeKey". It's something like "Verified by Visa", except that instead of rolling it out worldwide, they decided to start out in the UK.

What's the problem with a limited roll-out of something like this?

It means that if you go, armed with your American Amex card, to British Airways's website, you can not pay for a ticket.  This is the only card I have that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees (British Airways, in its infinite wisdom, wants to charge me for the tickets in Indian rupees), so I really wanted to use the Amex.

British Airways says it is an Amex problem -- the card is getting declined by their verification system.  Amex says it is a British Airways problem -- the transaction is declined by the common system that handles "Verified by Visa" and "SafeKey".

The American Express support person got belligerent when I tried to explain the problem to him and asked how I could enroll my card in SafeKey. He had not heard of SafeKey, and kept insisting it was a merchant's custom program, and not anything to do with Amex.  The British Airways rep essentially threw up his hands while maintaining his posh accent and polite voice.  Sigh.

The First Muslim

It took me a while to read The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad primarily because I didn't want to read it on airplanes (a sad commentary of the times we live in!).

I'd heard bits and pieces of Muhammad's story before, but did not know much about his life because there are few non-pious biographies of the founder of Islam. This is in contrast, of course, to other historical-religious figures such as Jesus or Buddha whose lives and teachings have received the once-over multiple times (p.s. an excellent Manga telling of the Buddha's life is Kapilavastu).

I was surprised by how dichotomous Muhammad's life was.  In Mecca, his story as an outsider, preaching non-violence and detachment, is similar to that of Jesus or Buddha. In many ways, it's the prototypical founder-of-religion story, and there is little there to offend anyone's sensibilities. But in Medina, however, his life turns into that of a strategic political figure. In some ways, it is as if Jesus, Paul and Constantine were rolled into one lifetime.  Or Buddha, An Shigo and Ashoka rolled into one.  So, you have Muhammad orchestrating a triple cross, divvying up resources from raids on caravans, ordering that an entire tribe be wiped out, etc.  Pretty gruesome stuff.  But during it all, you never lose total sympathy for the central figure.

It is a wonderful biography and well worth the read.  (Even if you have to hide the title of the book as you read it ...)

Another sad commentary of the times we live in: I went to Amazon to see what the reader reviews were like. There were several reviews by Muslims hoping fervently that their compatriots would not be offended by the secular view of their prophet's life.

Texas, the uber-America

There is a famous quote, "As California goes, so goes the nation". An engrossing, witty book by Erica Grieder -- Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas -- argues that it is Texas that epitomizes America.

 She reaches back to the history of the Republic of Texas (a short-lived stretch of time between when Anglo settlers declared Texas independent from Mexico and they successfully annexed themselves to the United States) to explain why Texas settled into the stable equilibrium of a low-tax, low-service government.  As a bonus, this is her go-to-thesis to explain everything from why Texas is little law and a lot of order to why after the BP oil spill, Texans supported the oil companies over the federal government.

Ultimately, she argues, Texas works because it is pro-Texas business (in other words, it is unashamedly protectionist, welcoming of entrepreneurs, pragmatic about which laws it enforces and it does whatever business wants).  If America were smart, she says, it would look to Texas for how to run a successful economy in spite of having awful politicians and terrible leadership. The secret is to make government so small that it is ineffective and ensure what government there is will be in hock to business! She is not being tongue-in-cheek here.  I am paraphrasing perhaps unfairly, but it is a very cogent argument.

This is a book that is definitely worth reading and thinking about.

Traffic engineering search-and-replace

A few months ago, Norman changed its traffic signals.  At left turns, instead of a steady green light for "yield", we now have flashing yellow arrows. The first couple of times, the flashing yellow arrow was a surprise, but then I got used to it.  It is better to distinguish between a green for go and a green for yield.  Hurray for change.

Yesterday, I found myself waiting for a light at a T-intersection. The light changed ... and I saw that we had a flashing yellow arrow for the left lane (to turn left) and a flashing yellow arrow for the right lane (to turn right).  But wait a second, who are we yielding to?  After all, at a T-intersection, there is no traffic coming from the other side ...

Is this a simple case of search-and-replace where they changed all turn lane signals to flashing arrows without thinking through the scenarios?

Why American universities excel at research

I was on an airplane in India a few years ago and got to talking to the fellow in the seat next to mine. When he heard what I did for a living, he said he had something to ask me.

 "What is it?," he wanted to know, "that makes American universities so good?" The universities are not all that much better than those anywhere else in the world, I told him, it's just that American universities luck out in getting extremely motivated students. This explanation made no sense to him. "When all the good students in America go into finance and law," he insisted, "how can the science and engineering departments be any good?" I tried to tell him that intelligence is over-rated and that enthusiasm and persistence are usually the deciding factors in terms of what someone accomplishes. But he could not grok that -- the bias in India towards "innate ability" is too deep-seated.

The enthusiasm and motivation that the best students are capable of was on display this Saturday. We had been invited on a Nature Conservancy field trip to their newish preserve in Southern Oklahoma. Boehler Seeps and Sandhills Preserve is a marshland that is home to a surprisingly diverse set of animals. We gathered in a community hall just outside the preserve to listen to talk by a graduate student who'd spent the last couple of years doing research there.
A dam built by beavers in Boehler Seeps; home to chicken turtles
The research involved doing a survey of the animals in the preserve and studying in detail the life-cycle of the chicken turtle, an almost-but-not-quite-endangered species that made its home in the two beaver dams on the preserve. To do the survey, the student had to build the fences and the traps and check up on them several times a day. Every time he caught a turtle, he would drill a radio transmitter onto its shell, collect its feces (to see wha the turtles ate) and release them. He also talked to private land owners around the preserve so that he could monitor turtle movements into their ponds. He spent several weeks at a time camped out in the preserve so that he could build the fences, tag the animals and monitor them.

Notice the considerable range of skills needed here -- carpentry, electronics, field work, camping, neighborliness, statistics ... This sort of diverse skill set and can-do spirit is quite common on American campuses.

The result? This slide shows the amazing amount of data he had collected:

Nearly 8000 captures of 53 different species, including 1814 captures of 7 species of turtles.

Well, okay. That's the mechanics of research.  Did he understand the state of the science? Did he discover anything new?

Glad you asked. Turns out that there are three subspecies of chicken turtles. Two of them have bimodal estivation periods and it was assumed that this, relatively rare third subspecies of chicken turtles would too. He found that, on the contrary, they had a single estivation period.  Other chicken turtles of the species are purely carnivorous. But the ones in this marsh had diets that included lots of plants. A subspecies or a new species?  Turn into the News at 11!  Very exciting.  His advisor, sitting in the back, was beaming.  Body language speaks volumes and these guys were onto something.

Talk over, we moseyed over to the preserve.  He had an antenna and honed in on the frequency of the largest of his turtles which had burrowed onto land ("you don't want to see me wading into the marsh and catching a turtle") and quickly led us to where it ought to be.

And started digging.  All of a sudden, there was a note of the frantic to the effort. We soon discovered why he'd gotten so worried. The transmitter was there, but no turtle. A raccoon had probably gotten the turtle.  The heartbreak was palpable.  He would download the data, correlate it with temperature data from the lake and figure out when it had happened.  But this was sad. And this had been his favorite turtle.

So, I asked him, what he did plan to do after this?  He was going to finish his MS soon and apply to several other schools for a PhD in tropical biology because the college he was currently studying in doesn't have a PhD program.  Process that for a bit -- he was not in a big name college, or even a flagship university or a regional research college. He was doing a MS in a small, regional college with no PhD program. And yet, he was doing very high-quality work.

That is how deep the bench of American graduate schools extends -- all the way to teaching colleges that happen to have small research departments. The work done there is probably on par with "national  universities" elsewhere in the world.  And it all comes down to having great students. Of course, not all students are this good and this motivated. But enough of them are.

Preserving figs

We've suddenly discovered the drawbacks of growing figs in Oklahoma -- by the time it's warm enough for figs to start appearing, it's end of summer and frosty nights are here.

What do you do with 5 pounds of unripe figs? The internet to the rescue ... figs in sugar syrup!

Fig preserves turn out to be quite easy to make.  A little time-consuming, but easy. You start by almost quartering the figs and washing the milk off them:
And then you immerse it in water, boil it and drain.
Rinse and repeat.

The last time around, you boil it in sugar syrup that has lemon peel, lemon juice and cloves. Amounts are to taste. I used half the sugar of the recipes I found on the internet, and it is sweet enough.

Let it cool, and bottle it up:
I got three big bottles of fig preserves.

Something tells me the kids are going to be sick of fig preserves by next week.

Harmonic mean

Math can be cruel.

So, let's say you have a strong wind.  Oklahoma-strong.

On your bicycle, you ride a tailwind and zip along at 20 mph. Unfortunately, you have to come back home fighting a headwind all the way.  You manage to grind back in at 10 mph.

What was your average speed?

15 mph? You wish.

Answer: the harmonic mean of 10 and 20.  This works out to 13.3 mph.  Grrr.