Data Science is Hard: Units

I like units. Units are fun. When playing with Firefox Telemetry you can get easy units like “number of bookmarks per user” and long units like “main and content but not content-shutdown crashes per thousand usage hours“.

Some units are just transformations of other units. For instance, if you invert the crash rate units (crashes per usage hours) you get something like Mean Time To Failure where you can see how many usage hours there are between crashes. In the real world of Canada I find myself making distance transformations between miles and kilometres and temperature transformations between Fahrenheit and Celsius.

My younger brother is a medical resident in Canada and is slowly working his way through the details of what it would mean to practice medicine in Canada or the US. One thing that came up in conversation was the unit differences.

I thought he meant things like millilitres being replaced with fluid ounces or some other vaguely insensible nonsense (I am in favour of the metric system, generally). But no. It’s much worse.

It turns out that various lab results have to be communicated in terms of proportion. How much cholesterol per unit of blood? How much calcium? How much sugar, insulin, salt?

I was surprised when my brother told me that in the United States this is communicated in grams. If you took all of the {cholesterol, calcium, sugar, insulin, salt} out of the blood and weighed it on a (metric!) scale, how much is there?

In Canada, this is communicated in moles. Not the furry animal, but the actual count of molecules. If you took all of the substance out of the blood and counted the molecules, how many are there?

So when you are trained in one system to recognize “good” (typical) values and “bad” (atypical) values, when you shift to the other system you need to learn new values.

No problem, right? Like how you need to multiply by 1.6 to get kilometres out of miles?

No. Since grams vs moles is a difference between “much” and “many” you need to apply a different conversion depending on the molecular weight of the substance you are measuring.

So, yes, there is a multiple you can use for cholesterol. And another for calcium. And another for sugar, yet another for insulin, and still another for salt. It isn’t just one conversion, it’s one conversion per substance.

Suddenly “crashes per thousand usage hours” seems reasonable and sane.


Self-Driving Cars: Inside the cabin

The above talk was given at SXSW this year. It’s an excellent talk, but I understand if you don’t want to watch the whole thing.

I especially love how he totally doesn’t mention that the “driving on the freeway” concept is exactly how Tesla’s AutoDrive currently works.

The bit that really caught my attention was at 17:09 where Chris Urmson shows a rendering of what a self-driving car’s interior could look like. No steering wheel, a small display… more like a small living room if the chairs or chesterfield had seatbelts.

A rendering of what the interior of a self-driving car might look like. Instead of a steering column and control surfaces there is a luggage shelf and a small display.

Something in my brain was instantly repulsed by this. Not the design, which is fine. Not the lack of leg room, though my lower back tightened up slightly. Not the complete lack of heating vents, which would make it useless in Canada.

Eventually I realized it was, incongruously, the absence of a steering wheel that caused me to go “Nope.”

But this is a self-driving car! The whole point is that there is no steering wheel! Don’t you get that?

Well, yes, I do. Which is why it took me so long to figure out what was bothering me about the render. I was, and still am, convinced that the lack of a steering wheel and other control surfaces is a benefit, not a detriment. But there are some use-cases I think a lack of a steering wheel will significantly hamper.

Self-driving cars are excellent if the car knows where you are and you can tell the car where you are going. “OK Google Car, take me to work” “OK Google Car, let’s *sigh* go to the in-laws”

But what if you don’t? “OK Google Car, take us someplace nice for dinner”

It can take you to the closest Google+ listing for a restaurant. It can find the most efficient route to take you to a Michelin Star-rated eatery in a neighbouring metropolis. But you can’t browse. You can’t see the line from the street and change your mind and say “Actually, where else could we go?”

But maybe this isn’t a common enough use-case to care about. Maybe having to choose from amongst the available options before you put the car in motion is a good thing.

“OK Google Car, take me to my coworker’s BBQ” << Where is that? >> “According to the invitation, head to the Red Barn past the crossroads, take a left, then keep going until you see the balloons or a sign saying Kalamazoo”

Or: << Arriving at destination >> “OK Google Car, make sure not to park next to the begonias or my mother’ll kill me”

Or: << Arriving at destination >> “Aw nuts the parking lot’s full. Guess we have to park in the field. Watch out for the furrows or we’ll never get out.”

Is it enough to create a car that can only do most of what other cars can do? There is already an understanding of how that works in the snowier parts of the world: there are some cars that can drive before the snowplow gets to your street, and there are other cars that cannot. But will this sort of restriction, like range anxiety for electric cars, slow adoption of this crucial piece of transportation infrastructure?

I think it is necessary that people who cannot drive still be able to get where they need to go. I think it is necessary to eliminate traffic fatalities as an understood fact of life.

I think it is necessary that the Google Self-Driving Car team think some more about how the car interacts with its occupants at the same time they’re thinking about how the car interacts with its adjacent road users.


Mozilla, Firefox, and Windows XP Support

Used with permission from Microsoft.

Last time I focused on what the Firefox Windows XP user population appeared to be. This time, I’m going to look into what such a large population means to Firefox and Mozilla.

Windows XP users of Firefox are geographically and linguistically diverse, and make up more than one tenth of the entire Firefox user population. Which is great, right? A large, diverse population of users… other open source projects only wish they had the luck.

Except Windows XP is past its end-of-life. Nearly two years past. This means it hasn’t been updated, maintained, serviced, or secured in longer than it takes Mars to make it around the Sun.

The Internet can be a scary place. There are people who want to steal your banking passwords, post your private pictures online, or otherwise crack open your computer and take and do what they want with what’s inside of it.

Generally, this is an arms race. Every time someone discovers a software vulnerability, software vendors rush to fix it before the Bad Guys can use it to exploit people’s computers.

The reason we feel safe enough to continue our modern life using computers for our banking, shopping, and communicating is because software vendors are typically better at this than the Bad Guys.

But what if you’re using Windows XP? Microsoft, the only software vendor who is permitted to fix vulnerabilities in Windows XP, has stopped fixing them.

This means each Windows XP vulnerability that is found remains exploitable. Forever.

These are just a few vulnerabilities that we know about.

And Windows XP isn’t just bad for Windows XP users.

There are a variety of crimes that can be committed only using large networks of “robot” machines (called “botnets“) under the control of a single Bad Guy. Machines can be recruited into botnets against their users’ will through security vulnerabilities in the software they are running. Windows XP’s popularity and lengthening list of known vulnerabilities might make it an excellent source of recruits.

With enough members, a botnet can then send spam emails in sufficient volume to overload mail servers, attack financial institutions, steal information from governmental agencies, and otherwise make the Internet a less nice place to be.

So Firefox has a large, diverse population of users whose very presence connected to the Internet is damaging the Web for us all.

And so does Google! At least for now. Google has announced that it will end Windows XP support for its Chrome browser in April 2016. (It previously announced end-of-life dates for April 2015, and then December 2015.)

So, as of April, Windows XP users will have only one choice for updated, serviced, maintained, and secured web browsing: Firefox.

Which puts Mozilla in a bit of a bind. The Internet is a global, public resource that Mozilla is committed to defend and improve.

Does improving the Internet mean dropping support for Windows XP so that users have no choice but to upgrade to be able to browse safely?

Or does improving the Internet mean continuing to support Windows XP so that those can at least still have a safe browser to access the Web?

Windows XP users might not have a choice in what Operating System their computers run. They might only be using it because they don’t know of an alternative or because they can’t afford to, aren’t allowed to, or are afraid to change.

Firefox is their best hope for security on the Web. And, after April, their only hope.

As of this writing, Firefox supports versions of Windows from XP SP2 on upwards. And this is likely to continue: the latest public discussion about Windows XP support was from last December, reacting to the latest of Google’s Windows XP support blog posts.

I can reiterate confidently: Firefox will continue to support Windows XP.

For now.

Mozilla will have to find a way to reconcile this with its mission. And Firefox will have to help.

Maybe Mozillians from around the world can seek out Windows XP users and put them in contact with local operations that can donate hardware or software or even just their time to help these users connect to the Internet safely and securely.

Maybe Firefox will start testing nastygrams to pop up at our Windows XP user base when they start their next browsing session: “Did you know that your operating system is older than many Mozillians?”, “It appears as though you are accessing the Internet using a close relative of the abacus”, “We have determined that this is the email address of your closest Linux User Group who can help you secure your computer”

…and you. Yeah, you. Do you know someone who might be running Windows XP? Maybe it’s your brother, or your Mother, or your Babbi. If you see a computer with a button that says “Start” at the bottom-left corner of the screen: you can fix that. There are resources in your community that can help.

Talk to your librarian, talk to the High School computer teacher, talk to a Mozillian! We’re friendly!

Together, we can save the Web.


Windows XP Firefox Users

Speaking of fourteen-year-old technology: Windows XP.


Ah, Windows XP. The most-used Operating System until August, 2012. Released in October of 2001, it was an incredibly-popular upgrade to the previous champion, Windows 98 Second Edition.

It was so popular that Microsoft kept sending it security updates and assorted bugfixes up to April 8, 2014. That’s nearly twelve and a half years. That’s four and a half years after XPs true successor, Windows 7, was released. (We do not speak of Vista)

Windows 7 will end-of-life after only 10 years, in 2020. Windows 8 lost it after 3 (if you include 8.1, it will only last 9).

Why am I talking about it, almost two full years after even Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP: the most long-supported of OSes from Redmond? Because people are still using it. And not just any people: Firefox users.

Roughly 12% of Firefox users on release and beta channels are running Windows XP. That’s almost as many as are using Windows 10 (15%) and almost double how many users we have on Mac (6.7%).

(For the record, Linux users on these two channels make up less than 1%)

[edit – oh, and please remember that the usual rules of Data Science apply: I’m only able to analyse what is being provided. So if a disproportionate number of Firefox users on, say, Linux aren’t reporting Telemetry on release or beta channels, they will be undercounted in the presented numbers]

“But… Who? I don’t know anyone who is using an operating system two years past its end-of-life.” you might be thinking. Well, this is called an “inherent bias”: just because it doesn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Intrigued by this result (as I too know no one still running XP) I tried to find out what was different about the XP population as compared to the wider Firefox user base, and what was the same. I used a longitudinal dataset that we’re experimenting with internally, which is why all of my figures aren’t linked to analyses.

It might interest you to know that Windows XP users are more likely to have configured their Firefox to run in the Russian, Polish, or Spanish locales. They are less likely to have configured it to use the English or German locales.

Windows XP users are less centrally-located than other users. According to geo-ip lookups of users’ IP addresses when they submit Firefox Telemetry reports, nearly 18% of the Firefox user base is in the United States. That is a great degree of centralization and means Mozilla can get great “bang for its buck” with outreach programs that operate in the United States. A Windows XP Firefox user is far less likely to be in the United States or Germany, and is slightly less likely to be in Great Britain, France, or Japan. Instead, a Windows XP Firefox user is somewhat more likely to be in Russia, Poland, India, the Ukraine, Egypt, Spain, or Italy.

How engaged are Windows XP Firefox users? Maybe they only have it installed and running, but don’t actually use it much day-to-day.

A good predictor of engagement is having Firefox set as the default browser on a system, so a lower proportion of “default browser: Yes” for Windows XP users might signal lower engagement. However, the data shows that Windows XP Firefox users are more likely to have Firefox set as their system’s default browser (even accounting for how difficult it now is in Windows 10 to set non-Edge browsers to be the system default).

Another good predictor of engagement is having addons installed. Addons might also be a good signifier that a user chose Firefox because it offers, with its addons, a compelling feature that not just any other browser can match. Data says: Windows XP Firefox users are much more likely to have 0 addons installed than the Firefox users in general, so maybe the choice of browser was made for them? Maybe they don’t know about addons at all.

All these differences might make it easy to divide the user base into “us” and “them”. “They” are running an outdated OS. “They” make hardware acceleration development harder in Firefox.

But we are all similar in more respects than you realize. We are all just as likely to live in Canada, Mexico, Indonesia, Belgium, Portugal, South Africa, or any of the other dozens and dozens of countries where Firefox users live. We are all just as likely to be running an up-to-date version of release Firefox. We are all as likely to have a truly-ridiculous number of addons installed (13 or more).

And, most importantly, we all use Firefox to access the global resource that is the Web.


Edit – I don’t have data to back up my assertion that “A good predictor of engagement is having Firefox set as the default browser on a system” and :dolske told me about an experiment Firefox ran where we just didn’t ask users to set us as their default browser. In the experiment, user retention and active hours did not decrease. Desktop users’ engagement is apparently unaffected by what browser is opened if you click on a link in another program.

Ode to the Schoolyard Snow Boulder

(title image “Wheatley Public School” by flickr user used under license CC BY 2.0)

Why isn’t there a snow boulder there? The ever-present schoolyard snow boulder… find me a schoolyard in Canada after a packing snow fall, and I’ll find you a snow boulder. Maybe children in the UK (where the picture was taken) don’t get enough snow to know that rolling snow boulders is what’s done.

Especially when it is packing snow. Look how it sticks to the tree. Perfect.

There’s something really childish and lovely and wondrous about the Snow Boulder. It starts out solitary, perhaps in partial rebellion against the draconian snowball prohibition. Quickly it becomes — has to become — a matter for many. Packing, rolling, steering, pushing, slipping.

Other kids try to make their own but can’t quite catch the same celebrity. That other boulder down by the baseball diamond isn’t half as big. Popularity contest judged by size of snowball.

Then, eventually, inevitably it becomes too big to roll. It stands there, daring for someone to try. The harsh reality of the square-cube law means it just isn’t possible to fit enough kids on one side to push it any more. The geometry of the angles of everyone’s hands compacting into the side just doesn’t provide the torque.

And by next recess it has compacted flat, in place.

And by next day it has frozen.

This isn’t the end of the snow boulder. I sometimes think it ought to be. To me it is all about the journey: it is something that is to be built. Once there, it’s… what? A memento of the better kind of building snow that you won’t see until the temperatures rise on the other side of the season? When the snow has become filthy with months of roadsalt and wind-fallen twigs and boot grime?

No, better for it to just disappear somehow. Be cracked asunder by the older kids, or melted away in an odd early-December thaw.

Then maybe another packing snow fall will come — another chance at reclaiming the magic. It doesn’t come often, and that might be part of the charm: its rarity.

Or maybe it’s just me.

Mozlando Diaries

Travelling to Orlando

I was randomly selected for diminished security. They funnelled me to the Nexus line. I get to keep my shoes on? “Put anything with metal in the bin, sir. No, not your wallet.” What?

“Take out your laptop, put it separately in the bin. But not any tablets, ereaders, raspberry pi… Sir, we only want the computers.”

Shoes off, but only if you’re older than 13. Or was that 18. You yes, you no. Oh, not you, sir, you are in the Nexus line.

Apparently those X-ray machines can distinguish between full and empty water bottles. Whoops.

MCO – Orlando International Airport

Coming from Pearson T3, land of construction, the three-story Christmas tree was a shock. It was also an annoyance as it blocked the signs directing me to the main terminal tramway.

No signs indicating which baggage carousel you need to visit… or maybe there was a display, but it was hidden by a 100-foot-long garland?

No worries, manners get you answers (“Are you Canadian?” ..Yes. “Ah, that’s why you’re so polite.” …you don’t have to be Canadian to be polite, I thought…) and then there are lots of people with purple shirts and mozlando signage to point the way.

Mozlando Hotel Bus

“Machine Gun America” reads the billboard on the highway. I hope that’s a wordmark and not a suggestion.

A blimp in the sky! Advertising the Peanuts Movie. I wonder why we don’t see blimps further north. You wouldn’t have to heat the lifting gas nearly as much.

Two registered guests in the shuttle, not Mozillians though they talk a good game using the words “bug” “wiki” “yammer (ugh)”, trying to figure out how to get to Universal Studios. I take a wild stab “Wizarding World?” “Well, yeah!”

Excitement on the hotel shuttle is high, fueled by jet lag, jet fuel, Disney, Harry Potter, and more sunshine than December ought to have in the northern hemisphere. “So, you must be eleven now. When do you turn twelve?” “Ha. ha.”

The Walt Disney Dolphin Hotel


The hotel is a behemoth of striking architecture. Well-maintained, though it is starting to show its age. Also, the lobby level is a rabbit warren. It does give a thrill of discovery to find a new shortcut to breakfast, though.


…and I thought the airport liked Christmas. I don’t even know how tall that Christmas tree is. And the garlands by the escalator to the fountain are neon-green. Mrs. Claus lights the tree at 6pm, and you can visit with the big man himself from 6:15-8 (there is a whole schedule of happenings. And this is just the hotel.)

And of course the palm trees are lit. And of course the lights change based on the music. And of course the music is Wizards of Winter.

At least the hotel Wi-Fi reaches the hammocks on the beach. (whut.)

Opening Reception

The opening welcome reception has live music, food stations, open bars… and Donald, Goofy, and Lilo and Stitch? Why yes, I would like you to take my picture with them. No, of course, I’ll make sure my beer is set down out of view. I understand.

It seems as though the purpose of these receptions is for everyone to catch up with people they haven’t seen since the last one. I’m stuck in an induction proof’s base case. How do I bootstrap my way into knowing people, when I can’t say “I haven’t seen you since…”

Simple: introduce yourself. What would be unthinkable to me mere years ago only requires a little mental effort to smile and make eye contact and say “Hi, I’m chutten”.

Plus I eventually found Kats, whom I haven’t seen since I was blaming him for ecmascript failures in BB5. Though I’ve talked to him since, as evidenced by him referring me to this position.

Day 1 – All Hands

Fresh Florida orange juice served at breakfast. How could they afford the expense of importing it all the way from… oh.

The all-hands started with multipart vocal harmony and beatboxing. I now have a high standard for future all-hands meetings.

Firefox plushies adorned every seat. And they’re so soft! I grabbed a few extra just in time for them to announce that there’s going to be an Adoption Centre. Because of course there will be.

Finally met up with the Toronto contingent. Apparently they were all on a later flight on Monday. Stood in the sun complaining about the unseasonably-warm December we’ve been having in Southern Ontario. Canadiana at its best.

Three free t-shirts! But they’re all the same design. But you can get different sizes so you can give them away! But I don’t know anyone who wears graphic t-shirts anymore… or their t-shirt sizes, off-hand. Ah well, wear one out, sub in a new one.

The Firefox All-hands is in a smaller room and opens with a choice: want us to go through the Planning slides, or want us to just take questions? The consensus was: go through the slides, but don’t take forever about it, I mean, geez.

This company, people. This company.


Welcome to 3 Years Ago

I bus to work. I recently moved houses.

Combined this means I have dead time where I’d like to escape into fiction (rather than be faced with how poorly my bus is maintaining its schedule in this city of detours), but can’t find any of my books.

So I devoured the quite-excellent design podcast 99% Invisible on the recommendation of my ex-coworker Ron.

But then I ran out.

In a podcast frame of mind, and having a weather eye turned to the Internet for quite some years, I decided to see what all that Night Vale hootenanny had been about.

Oh man. Oh man oh man. It is good.

Well, I’m only four episodes in. And it’s a little uneven. I mean, Glow Cloud was cute and all, but Station Management was a bit overplayed.

But when it’s on, like the Pilot, it is Really On. Dog Park, Perfect Carlos, Hooded Figures, Angels… oh geez. So nice.

And now Episode 2’s Weather is my jam:

I only have about 70 episodes left, and then I’ll be subject to that specific and keen frustration (that I more commonly associate with book series and webcomics) where you’ve binged your way up-to-date on something and then have to actually wait for the creators to create more of it for you.

What a world.