Erik McClure

Why Do People Use The Wrong Email?

Ever since 2013, I’ve consistently started getting registration e-mails in foreign languages from sites I definitely did not sign up for.

It started with Instagram, on which a bizarrely determined young boy from somewhere around Denmark was trying to register using my e-mail address. Instagram lets you remove an e-mail from an account, which is what I did, repeatedly, but the kid kept adding the non-functional e-mail back on to the account. Eventually I forced a password reset and forcibly deleted his account, in an attempt to dissuade him from using someone else’s e-mail in the future. Astonishingly, this did not work, and I was forced to register on Instagram just to prevent my e-mail from being used.

He shared a first name with me, and I noticed his name on a few of the other e-mails I had gotten. At first, I thought it was just this one kid, possibly related to the infamous gmail dot issue, but astoundingly, most of the time the e-mail had no dots and no apparent typos, it was just… my e-mail. Then I started getting even weirder e-mails.

  • Someone else near Denmark used my e-mail to open an Apple ID. I went in to disable the account and it included payment information and their home address, along with the ability to remotely disable their apple device.
  • I once got a Domino’s order receipt from someone on Rhode Island, which included their full name, home address, and phone number.
  • Just recently, someone signed up for Netflix, got the account temporarily suspended for lack of payment, and then added a payment option before I decided to go in and change the e-mail while also signing up for Netflix so I wouldn’t have to deal with that anymore. I could see part of the credit card payment option they had used.
  • Another time, I woke up to someone in a european timezone creating an account on Animoto and then uploading 3 videos to it before I could reset the password and lock out the account.
  • At least two sites included a plaintext password in the e-mail, although they didn’t seem very legitimate in the first place.

What’s really frightening is discovering just how fragile many of these websites are. Most of them that allow you to change your e-mail address don’t require the new e-mail to be verified, allowing me to simply change it to random nonsense and render the account permanently inaccessible. Others allow your account to function without any sort of e-mail verification whatsoever.

One of my theories was that people just assumed they were picking a username that happened to have on the end of it. My e-mail is my first name and a number, which probably isn’t hard for someone also named Erik to accidentally choose. However, some of these e-mails are for people clearly not named Erik, so where is the e-mail coming from? Why use it?

So far, I’ve had my e-mail used incorrectly to sign up for these services:

  • Netflix (Spanish) - Cely A.
  • PlayView (Spanish)
  • Mojang (English)
  • Apple ID (Danish) - Seier Madsen
  • Telekom Fon (Hungarian)
  • Nutaku (English) - Wyled1
  • Samsung (Spanish)
  • Forex Club (Russian) - Eric
  • Marvel Contest of Champions (Portuguese)
  • Jófogás (Hungarian)
  • (Russian)
  • Deezer (English) - Erik Morales
  • Crossfire (Portuguese)
  • Instagram (Danish) - Erikhartsfield
  • (Armenian)
  • ROBLOX (English) - PurpleErik18
  • (Hungarian)
  • ThesimpleClub (German)
  • Cadastro Dabam (Portuguese)
  • Első Találkozás (Hungarian) - Rosinec
  • Pinterest (Portuguese) - Erik
  • MEGA (Spanish)
  • (Hungarian) - Rosivagyok
  • Snapchat (English)
  • Skype (Swedish)
  • PlayIT (Hungarian) - hírlevél
  • Animoto (English) - Erik
  • Geometry Dash (English) - erikivan1235
  • Club Penguin (Spanish)
  • LEGO ID (English) - szar3000
  • (English)
  • Dragon’s Prophet (English)
  • Sweepstakes (English) - ErikHartsfield
  • School.of.Nursing (English) - ErikHartsfield
  • SendEarnings (English) - ErikHartsfield
  • Talkatone (English) - Cortez
  • Anonymous VPN (English)
  • Penge (Hungarian)
  • Apple ID (Swedish) - Erik
  • Snapchat (Swedish) - kirenzo
  • Snapchat (Swedish) - erik20039
  • ROBLOX (English) - Mattias10036
  • Riot Games (English) - epik991122
  • Instagram (English) - opgerikdontcare
  • Goodgame Empire (English) - rulererikman

Given how fundamental e-mail is to our modern society, it’s disconcerting that some people, especially young kids, have no idea how powerful an e-mail is. When they provide the wrong e-mail for a service, they are handing over the master keys to their account. These services use e-mail as a primary source of identification, and some of them don’t even seem to realize they’re using the wrong e-mail.

Perhaps this speaks to the fact that, despite all the work large software corporations claim they put into making intuitive user interfaces, basic aspects of our digital world are still arcane and confusing to some people. Forget trying to replace passwords with biometrics, some people don’t even understand how e-mail works. Maybe the software industry needs to find a more intuitive way to assert someone’s identity.

Or maybe people are just dumb.

Software Optimizes to Single Points of Failure

Whenever people talk about removing single points of failure, most of the suggestions involve “distributed systems” that are resilient to hardware failures. For software, we’ve invented code signing and smart contracts via blockchain to ensure the code we’re running is what we expected to run.

But none of these technologies can prevent a bug from taking down the entire system.

A lot of people point to Google being a single point of failure. They are only partially correct, because Google’s hardware is distributed and extremely redundant. No single piece of hardware in a Google Data center failing can take down the entire data center. You could probably nuke the entire data center and most Google services could fall back to another data center. In fact, Google has developed software canaries to catch bugs from propagating too far into production in an attempt to address the problem of their software being a single point of failure.

But something did take down the entirety of Google Compute once. It was a software bug in the canary itself. Of course, all the canaries were running the same software, so all of them had the same bug, and none of them could catch the configuration bug that was being propagated to all of their routers.

By creating a software canary, Google had simply shifted the single point of failure to its canary software. It was much harder for it to fail, but it was still a single point of failure, so when it did fail, it took down the entire system.

We’ve put a lot of work into trying to reduce the amount of bugs in mission critical systems, going so far as to try to create provably correct software. The problem is that no system can prove that it is free of design-flaws, which occur when the software operates correctly, but does something nobody actually wanted it to do. All of our code-signing and trusted computing initiatives do is make it very difficult for someone to sneak bad code into a widely used library. None of them, however, remove the single point of failure. Should the NSA ever succeed in sneaking in a backdoor to a widely used open source library, it will propagate to everything.

A very well guarded single point of failure is still a single point of failure, no matter how remote the chances of it actually failing. Tom Scott has an excellent video about how a trusted engineer at Google that is allowed to bypass all their security checks could go rogue and remove all the password checks on everything and it would be incredibly hard to stop them.

Physical infrastructure is much more resilient to these kinds of problems, because even if every piece of infrastructure has the same problem, you still have to physically get to it in order to exploit the problem. This makes it very hard for anyone to simultaneously sabotage any country’s offline infrastructure without an incredible amount of work. Software, however, lets us access everything from everywhere. The internet removes physical access as a last resort.

Of course, this is not an insurmountable problem, but it is deceptively difficult to overcome. For example, let’s say we have a bunch of drones we’re controlling. To avoid one bug from taking all of them out at once, half of them run one flying program and the other run a completely different flying program, developed independently. Unfortunately, both of these programs rely on the same library that reads the gyroscope data. If that library has a bug, the entire swarm will crash into a mountain. Having the swarm calculate the data for each other and compare results doesn’t help, because everyone gets the wrong result. The software logic itself is wrong.

The reason this is so insidious is that it runs counter to sane software development practices. To minimize bugs, we minimize complexity, which means writing the least amount of code possible, which inadvertently optimizes to a single point of failure. We re-use libraries and share code. We deliberately try to solve problems exactly once and re-use this code everywhere in our program. This a good thing because it means any bugs we fix propagate everywhere else, but this comes at the cost of propagating any bugs we introduce.

Soon, our world will be consumed by automation, one way or another. Cory Doctorow suggests that hardware should only run software the user trusts, but what if I end up trusting buggy software? If all our self-driving cars run the same software, what happens when it has a bug? Even worse, what if all the different self-driving car companies have their own software, custom built by highly paid engineers… that all use OpenSSL to securely download updates?

What if OpenSSL has a bug?

It’s not clear what can be done about this. Obviously we shouldn’t go around introducing unnecessary complexity that creates even more bugs, but at the same time we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking our distributed systems have no single point of failure. They may be robust to hardware failures, but the software they run on will continue to be a single point of failure for the foreseeable future.

Migrating To A Static Blog

I’ve finished constructing a new personal website for myself using hugo, and I’m moving my blog over there so I have more control over what gets loaded, and more importantly, so the page doesn’t attempt to load Blogger’s 5 MB worth of bloated javascript nonsense just to read some text. It also fixes math and code highlighting while reading on mobile. If you reached this post using Blogger, you’ll be redirected or will soon be redirected to the corresponding post on my new website.

All comments have been preserved from the original posts, but making new comments is currently disabled - I haven’t decided if I want to use Disqus or attempt something else. An RSS feed is available on the bottom of the page for tracking new posts that should mimic the Blogger RSS feed, if you were using that. If something doesn’t work, poke me on twitter and I’ll try to fix it.

I implemented share buttons with simple links, without embedding any crazy javascript bullshit. In fact, the only external resource loaded is a Google tracking ID for pageviews. Cloudflare is used to enforce an HTTPS connection over the custom domain even though the website is hosted on Github Pages.

Hopefully, the new font and layout is easier to read than Blogger’s tiny text and bullshit theme nonsense.

How To Avoid Memorizing Times Tables

I was recently told that my niece was trying to memorize her times tables. As an applied mathematician whose coding involves plenty of multiplication, I was not happy to hear this. Nobody who does math actually memorizes times tables, and furthermore, forcing a child to memorize anything is probably the worst possible thing you can do in modern society. No one should memorize their times tables, they should learn how to calculate them. Forcing children to memorize useless equations for no reason is a great way to either ensure they hate math, teach them they should blindly memorize and believe anything adults tell them, or both. So for any parents who wish to teach their children how to be critical thinkers and give them an advantage on their next math test, I am going to describe how to derive the entire times tables with only 12 rules.

  1. Anything multiplied by 1 is itself. Note that I said anything, that includes fractions, pies, cars, the moon, or anything else you can think of. Multiplying it by 1 just gives you back the same result.

  2. Any number multiplied by 10 has a zero added on the end. 1 becomes 10, 2 becomes 20, 72 becomes 720, 9999 becomes 99990, etc.

  3. Any single digit multiplied by 11 simply adds itself on the end instead of 0. 1 becomes 11, 2 becomes 22, 5 becomes 55, etc. This is because you never need to multiply something by eleven. Instead, multiply it by 10 (add a zero to it) then add itself.

    \[ \begin{aligned} 11*11 = 11*(10 + 1) = 11*10 + 11 = 110 + 11 = 121\\ 12*11 = 12*(10 + 1) = 12*10 + 12 = 120 + 12 = 132 \end{aligned} \]

  4. You can always reverse the numbers being multiplied and the same result comes out. $$ 12*2 = 2*12 $$, $$ 8*7 = 7*8 $$, etc. This is a simple rule, but it’s very easy to forget, so keep it in mind.

  5. Anything multiplied by 2 is doubled, or added to itself, but you only need to do this up to 9. For example, $$ 4*2 = 4 + 4 = 8 $$. Alternatively, you can count up by 2 that many times:

    \[ 4*2 = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 4 + 2 + 2 = 6 + 2 = 8 \]
    To multiply any large number by two, double each individual digit and carry the result. Because you multiply each digit by 2 separately, the highest result you can get from this is 18, so you will only ever carry a 1, just like in addition. This method is why multiplying anything by 2 is one of the easiest operations in math, and as a result the rest of our times table rules are going to rely heavily on it. Don’t worry about memorizing these results - you’ll memorize them whether you want to or not simply because of how often you use them.

  6. Any number multiplied by 3 is multiplied by 2 and then added to itself. For example:

    \[ 6*3 = 6*(2 + 1) = 6*2 + 6 = 12 + 6 = 18 \]
    Alternatively, you can add the number to itself 3 times: $$ 3*3 = 3 + 3 + 3 = 6 + 3 = 9 $$

  7. Any number multiplied by 4 is simply multiplied by 2 twice. For example: $$ 7*4 = 7*2*2 = 14*2 = 28 $$

  8. Any number multiplied by 5 is the same number multiplied by 4 and then added to itself.

    \[ 6*5 = 6*(4 + 1) = 6*4 + 6 = 6*2*2 + 6 = 12*2 + 6 = 24 + 6 = 30 \]
    Note that I used our rule for 4 here to break it up and calculate it using only 2. Once kids learn division, they will notice that it is often easier to calculate 5 by multiplying by 10 and halving the result, but we assume no knowledge of division.

  9. Any number multiplied by 8 is multiplied by 4 and then by 2, which means it’s actually just multiplied by 2 three times. For example: $$ 7*8 = 7*4*2 = 7*2*2*2 = 14*2*2 = 28*2 = 56 $$

  10. Never multiply anything by 12. Instead, multiply it by 10, then add itself multiplied by 2. For example: $$ 12*12 = 12*(10 + 2) = 12*10 + 12*2 = 120 + 24 = 144 $$

  11. Multiplying any single digit number by 9 results in a number whose digits always add up to nine, and whose digits decrease in the right column while increasing in the left column.

    \[ \begin{aligned} 9 * 1 = 09\\ 9 * 2 = 18\\ 9 * 3 = 27\\ 9 * 4 = 36\\ 9 * 5 = 45\\ 9 * 6 = 54\\ 9 * 7 = 63\\ 9 * 8 = 72\\ 9 * 9 = 81 \end{aligned} \]
    10, 11, and 12 can be calculated using rules for those numbers.

  12. For both 6 and 7, we already have rules for all the other numbers, so you just need to memorize 3 results:

    \[ \begin{aligned} 6*6 = 36\\ 6*7 = 42\\ 7*7 = 49 \end{aligned} \]
    Note that $$ 7*6 = 6*7 = 42 $$. This is where people often forget about being able to reverse the numbers. Every single other multiplication involving 7 or 6 can be calculated using a rule for another number.

And there you have it. Instead of trying to memorize a bunch of numbers, kids can learn rules that build on top of each other, each taking advantage of the rules established before it. It’s much more engaging then trying to memorize a giant table of meaningless numbers, a task that’s so mind-numbingly boring I can’t imagine forcing an adult to do it, let alone a small child. More importantly, this task teaches you what math is really about. It’s not about numbers, or adding things together, or memorizing a bunch of formulas. It’s establishing simple rules, and then combining those rules together into more complex rules you can use to solve more complex problems.

This also establishes a fundamental connection to computer science that is often glossed over. Both math and programming are repeated abstraction and generalization. It’s about combining simple rules into a more generalized rule, which can then be abstracted into a simpler form and combined to create even more complex rules. Programs start with machine instructions, while math starts with propositions. Programs have functions, and math has theorems. Both build on top of previous results to create more powerful and expressive tools. Both require a spark of creativity to recognize similarities between seemingly unrelated concepts and unite them in a more generalized framework.

We can demonstrate all of this simply by refusing to memorize our times tables.

Ignoring Outliers Creates Racist Algorithms

Have you built an algorithm that mostly works? Does it account for almost everyone’s needs, save for a few weird outliers that you ignore because they make up 0.0001% of the population? Congratulations, your algorithm is racist! To illustrate how this happens, let’s take a recent example from Facebook. My friend’s message was removed for “violating community standards”. Now, my friend has had all sorts of ridiculous problems with Facebook, so to test my theory, I posted the exact same message on my page, and then had him report it.

Golly gee, look at that, Facebook confirmed the message I sent does not violate community guidelines, but he’s still banned for 12 hours for posting the exact same thing. What I suspect happened is this: Facebook has gotten mad at my friend for having a weird name multiple times, but he can’t prove what his name is because he doesn’t have access to his birth certificate because of family problems, and he thinks someone’s been falsely reporting a bunch of his messages. The algorithm for determining whether or not something is “bad” probably took these misleading inputs, combined it with a short list of so-called “dangerous” topics like “terrorism”, and then decided that if anyone reported one of his messages, it was probably bad. On the other hand, I have a very western name and nobody reports anything I post, so either the report actually made it to a human being, or the algorithm simply decided it was probably fine.

Of course, the algorithm was wrong about my friend’s message. But Facebook doesn’t care. I’m sure a bunch of self-important programmers are just itching to tell me we can’t deal with all the edge-cases in a commercial algorithm because it’s infeasible to account for all of them. What I want to know is, have any of these engineers ever thought about who the edge-cases are? Have they ever thought about the kind of people who can’t produce birth certificates, or don’t have a driver’s license, or have strange names that don’t map to unicode properly because they aren’t western enough?

Poor people. Minorities. Immigrants. Disabled people. All these people they claim to care about, all this talk of diversity and equal opportunity and inclusive policies, and they’re building algorithms that by their very nature will exclude those less fortunate than them. Facebook’s algorithm probably doesn’t even know that my friend is asian, yet it’s still discriminating against him. Do you know who can follow all those rules and assumptions they make about normal people? Rich people. White people. Privileged people. These algorithms benefit those who don’t need help, and disproportionately punish those who don’t need any more problems.

What’s truly terrifying is that Silicon Valley wants to run the world, and it wants to automate everything using a bunch of inherently flawed algorithms. Algorithms that might be impossible to perfect, given the almost unlimited number of edge-cases that reality can come up with. In fact, as I am writing this article, Chrome doesn’t recognize “outlier” as a word, even though Google itself does.

Of course, despite this, Facebook already built an algorithm that tries to detect “toxicity” and silences “unacceptable” opinions. Even if they could build a perfect algorithm for detecting “bad speech”, do these companies really think forcibly restricting free speech will accomplish anything other than improving their own self-image? A deeply cynical part of me thinks the only thing these companies actually care about is looking good. A slightly more optimistic part of me thinks a bunch of well-meaning engineers are simply being stupid.

You can’t change someone’s mind by punching them in the face. Punching people in the face may shut them up, but it does not change their opinion. It doesn’t fix anything. Talking to them does. I’m tired of this industry hiding problems behind shiny exteriors instead of fixing them. That’s what used car salesmen do, not engineers. Programming has devolved into an art of deceit, where coders hide behind pretty animations and huge frameworks that sweep all their problems under the rug, while simultaneously screwing over the people who were supposed to benefit from an “egalitarian” industry that seems less and less egalitarian by the day.

Either silicon valley needs to start dealing with people that don’t fit in neat little boxes, or it will no longer be able to push humanity forward. If we’re going to move forward as a species, we have to do it together. Launching a bunch of rich people into space doesn’t accomplish anything. Curing cancer for rich people doesn’t accomplish anything. Inventing immortality for rich people doesn’t accomplish anything. If we’re going to push humanity forward, we have to push everyone forward, and that means dealing with all 7 billion outliers.

I hope silicon valley doesn’t drag us back to the feudal age, but I’m beginning to think it already has.



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