Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thanks, partner

So this happened yesterday:
With our advertising programs, we strive to create an online ecosystem that benefits publishers, advertisers and users. For this reason, we sometimes have to take action against accounts that demonstrate behavior toward users or advertisers that may negatively impact how the ecosystem is perceived. In your case, we have detected invalid activity in your AdSense account and it has been disabled.
I've had an AdSense account for quite a few years. It's never made a significant amount of money - in fact, never even enough for them to have to pay me at all, despite the fact that I had to give all sorts of financial guarantees and comply with US tax legislation.

More recently, my son linked the AdSense account to his YouTube video channel. In actual fact, he had set up his own AdSense account, jumping through all the required hoops. Just at the point that he had a video that had had enough views to earn some money, he was told that the account was invalid, as there was another one registered at the same address. Why they hadn't seen fit to point this out when the account was registered is not clear. So he cancelled that account, and linked it to mine.

Joel's videos were more successful at gathering revenue than mine were. A couple in the last month suddenly got a much higher amount of revenue than any previously had, with no warning. Having worked patiently at the account for years, that cheered us up. But it was too good to be true. Out of the blue, this email arrived, and the AdSense/YouTube partnership was suspended.

As far as I can tell, the likelihood is that bots - automatic programmes which crawl over the internet - had "clicked" on adverts, artificially inflating the rate of return. The account was suspended because of the suspicion that we had clicked on the advert links ourselves, or paid someone to do it. That's crazy given our context - I wasn't really interested but had adverts there because I might as well; Joel's long term ambition was to make a living as a YouTuber, so he had scrupulously stuck by the rules (and frequently had to explain them to me) - and beyond that, operated defensively. He lived in fear of getting a "copyright strike" - someone filing a complaint against one of his videos which would lead to YouTube "shooting first" and not bothering to ask questions at all.

The only "encouraging" thing is that other, much bigger, AdSense "partners" have had exactly the same experience - in some cases, losing revenue streams of thousands of dollars on a whim. An appeal process exists - you're invited to explain yourself in 3000 characters, but you aren't told the grounds for your suspension, and if the appeal fails, not only do you have no further recourse, but you are banned from working with AdSense in the future.

So here was my appeal:
How do users get to your site? How do you promote your site? *
I assume that the site in question is the YouTube channel (jomightymaniac) rather than the blog ( which has only ever earned pennies. It is promoted through YouTube subscriptions, posting of links on blogs (,, and links on social media sites.

I don't know who reads this. Please don't simply bin this account because you think it makes no real difference, and nobody can come back to you about it.

For years my son has wanted to make a living as a YouTuber, and has scrupulously tried to abide by the rules, and accepted that the impersonal YouTube/AdSense machine is actually indifferent to the people that provide the original material they display. Through their untimely actions, they have already cost him money on multiple occasions that, as far as he was concerned, he had earned. There is NOBODY that will talk to him about these either, but even so he has put up with it in pursuit of his dream.
Have you or your site ever violated the AdSense program policies or Terms & Conditions? If so, how? Also, include any relevant information that you believe may have resulted in invalid activity. *
Not consciously. I couldn't say that we have faithfully skipped every ad that started showing, or never clicked on an advert, but there has been no systematic attempt to artificially create ad traffic either. Neither have we watched videos multiple times to drive up traffic.

Google describes its AdSense users as "partners". In fact, it is completely indifferent to them, even though they are providing the original content that makes the internet a suitable medium for advertising. It won't lift a finger to help them and will drop them with any excuse, and apparently without meaningful appeal. This is not "partnership". Why do you have this policy of shooting first and asking questions later? Your "partners" are depending upon you.
Please include any data from your site traffic logs or reports that indicate suspicious IP addresses, referrers, or requests which could explain invalid activity. *
We have no such analysis of either website; we are amateur users, and not that sophisticated. We did notice that two recent videos attracted a surprising amount of revenue, especially given the relatively small number of views they received. In them, my son had been trying a new editing technique, but this should not have generated more revenue. We were surprised by this bulge in revenue, but since it hardly represented a fortune ($25, maybe?) we didn't consider it ridiculous.

I note from an internet search that Google has a record of hitting publishers when the actual issue seems to have been either bots clicking or possibly even malicious users (my son has lived in fear of being hit by a malicious or even incorrect "copyright strike"). Our accounts are not significant either to Google or to their advertisers; in the years that our relationship with AdSense has existed, we have not earned enough to be paid even once.

We await your response with hope, but not optimism.

And here was the response:
Thanks for the additional information provided in your appeal, we appreciate your continued interest in the AdSense program. After thoroughly reviewing your account data and taking your feedback into consideration, our specialists have confirmed that we're unable to reinstate your AdSense account.
So that's that. A "partnership" arrangement that has existed for probably ten years, which has cost Google nothing, deleted without warning, or explanation, or appeal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

MH370 - the smoke theory

Ten days from the disappearance of the aircraft, and it is not only still missing, but we don't even have a plausible story as to what may have happened. My North Korean scenario, already looking fairly implausible at the time I wrote it, was pretty much laid to rest with the revelation that the final satellite trace of the aircraft, some eight hours after its take-off, suggested that it was somewhere on a large arc stretching from Kazakhstan to the southern Indian Ocean (see here).

One of the few narratives that has come across as plausible is this one, by Chris Goodfellow, a U.S. pilot. His thought is that a fire had been gradually taking hold on the aircraft, damaging electrical systems, and it was detected just at the point at which communication was being transferred to Vietnam. The aircraft was turned towards the nearest suitable airport, but the pilots were then busy dealing with the smoke on board. Eventually, they were overcome by smoke or fumes and died, but the fire died out, and the aeroplane flew on until it ran out of fuel and crashed.

This hypothesis has the advantage of at least sounding like the sort of thing that a pilot might do, and also repaints the pilots of MH370 as heroes. However, it has not received complete acceptance. Two rather sarcastic responses can be found here and here.

I wrote my own response when I first saw Goodfellow's theory being circulated, as people were asking me about my opinions, and I wasn't convinced. My thoughts were that it was a possibility, and I wouldn't rule it out yet (after all, we are still very short of plausible scenarios). But there were several reasons that I wasn't convinced.
  • The aeroplane was actually not that heavy (contra his assertions). 239 people on board an aircraft that will comfortably carry over 300 - the payload could be increased by 10 tonnes or more. Eight hours fuel on board an aircraft (B777-200ER) that  has an absolute range of 18 hours - the fuel load could be increased by probably 40 tonnes. So it was probably at least 50 tonnes below its maximum takeoff weight. Neither was it that hot when it left Kuala Lumpur - it was midnight local, the temperature was probably around the mid-20s. So it was not a "hot night" or a "heavy aircraft" (indeed, if it were that heavy, then it would not have been able to get up to 45,000 feet later on). These details aren't necessary for the scenario - however, it does paint a picture of a scenario that has been constructed to fit Goodfellow's ideas, rather than the facts.
  • Key events need to take place at just the right time. The fire knocked out ACARS early in the flight apparently - an event that went unremarked by the pilots. (Incidentally, it's not hard to switch off ACARS - it may be as simple as selecting a different radio frequency). The smoke suddenly appeared and demanded a response from the pilots just at the point that they were handed over to Vietnam. It's possible, but requires a surprising series of coincidences.
  • Most electrical fire "power down" procedures don't leave you with no radio at all. Pilots would be on oxygen; the oxygen masks have microphones in them; and emergency electrical procedures will leave at least one pilot flying and operating a radio whilst the other seeks to deal with the problem on board. Some sort of distress call would have been a priority with the survival of the aircraft in jeopardy, even if "communicate" is third on the list of priorities after "aviate and navigate".
  • Finally (though not exhaustively) where did the aeroplane go? No trace of it has yet been found.
There are a couple of key bits of information that would help to make sense of the incident. Things like: what was the actual fuel load (and hence range)? The pilots can use ACARS to get information during the flight, and also get information before they arrive on the aeroplane; presumably, this information is recorded; what did they ask for? And other similar questions. I have little doubt that, if there are people who take seriously some of the more alarming theories circulating, they will have asked these questions already. Of course, I may be wrong - I only have the same information as everybody else. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

MH370 - a North Korean scenario

Okay, this post is a little tongue in cheek, and may get out of date very quickly – the story about Malaysian flight 370 going missing is still developing, and new information could appear at any time. And of course, especially since I know various people who work in airlines, I have every sympathy with passengers and crew and their families, and hope the truth comes quickly to light.

But as well as the human story, there's the events themselves, which have captured my attention along with that of many other people. What has taken place looks like quite a feat of planning. So I thought I'd chip in with my thoughts.

When the news about the disappearance of MH370 first broke around the eighth of March, a few people pretty quickly mentioned "North Korea" – after all, it's in Asia, it was about to declare election results, and its policy decisions are pretty unconventional. Maybe it had shot the airliner down, or something.

But if you look at a map, you see that North Korea is a long way from the area where the Boeing 777 went missing. So people set that thought aside fairly quickly, and the focus was on the aeroplane being lost close to where it went missing.

In the last couple of days, though, new information says that the aeroplane continued to remain powered for up to seven hours. That changes a lot – in that time, not counting the effects of any wind, the aircraft could travel another 2500 miles or so. That's a big search area – so big that the only way we might ever know what happened is if we have a story to start with. And if it's the case that the aeroplane was taken off route on purpose, then someone somewhere definitely has a story.

So here's what may have happened.

One hour out of Kuala Lumpur, the transponder is switched off, along with all communication systems. The aeroplane is basically invisible to the civil radar system, and not talking to anyone. The aeroplane continues towards Beijing, but not talking to the outside world. The passengers are unaware that anything untoward is happening. As it gets within an hour or so from the destination, the pilots announce to the passengers and crew that the aeroplane is diverting – perhaps to Jinzhou airport to the east. The cabin crew prepare the aeroplane for landing, but just twenty minutes before landing, off the Chinese coast, the pilots turn further east, and make for an airport in North Korea, landing there around the time they were expecting to land from the diversion. With careful management of the aeroplane, the first the cabin crew or passengers know about where they are is after the aeroplane is shut down. And if there's no mobile phone signal, then nobody can get a message away.

What evidence does this deal with?

No wreckage has been discovered where the aeroplane went out of contact, and it would have taken pretty much five more hours for the aeroplane to fly to North Korea, land and power down. It also explains why THIS flight was taken, as it can continue towards North Korea without the passengers being aware of it until too late. If the passengers were alive and knew that the aeroplane was going in a completely different direction, I think they'd have made attempts to use mobile phones or other communication devices – almost certainly someone would have managed something. The passengers' mobile phones were reported in some cases continued to ring – this might be because the passengers made it alive and well to North Korea, but then had the phones taken away from them or something.

The map below shows great circle tracks from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and Pyongyang.

What are the problems with the theory?

Well, to be honest, this is a pretty unlikely theory.

First, the radar return heading west across the Malay peninsula, which has resulted in the search attention being redirected to that area. There are various possibilities. One is that it was a deliberate decoy – in the same way that the aeroplane went incommunicado at a particular point to focus attention on that, a radar trace in the wrong direction which subsequently came to light would also provide a distraction and keep people looking in the wrong direction.

Second is, although the transponder, radio systems and presumably things like Collision avoidance systems, were switched off, is it really possible for an airliner to fly for thousands of miles without being detected? The transponder provides an active system, which air traffic control systems use – but aeroplanes also produce a passive reflection for radar – the system that was used before transponders were – and a Boeing 777 would produce a pretty big echo. If you look at the route from Kuala Lumpur to North Korea, it would take the aeroplane close to Hong Kong and Shanghai, pretty busy airspace. I showed the position of these airports on the map above. Could it really have avoided being detected all through this airspace?

Third, wouldn't someone have seen it? As far as people on the ground are concerned, how much notice do you take of an airliner at cruising altitude. When was the last one you saw? I suppose if it's somewhere that you never see one, then you might notice – but otherwise, you probably wouldn't consider it to be a significant event. What about other aeroplanes noticing? That's harder. If the aeroplane was invisible and its presence not known, with a lot of the systems switched off, then the pilots would have had to sort out their own means of avoiding other aeroplanes – there's a lot of space, but aeroplanes tend to be funnelled down narrow corridors called airways. Having said that, aeroplanes pass each other like ships in the night, and the pilots will just assume that they are being looked after by air traffic control. The easiest way of not being noticed is probably to look as though you're supposed to be there.

But finally, WHY? There's half an opportunity, but what could be the motive? It's possible to imagine that one or both of the pilots might have been bribed, and the North Korean government is notoriously unpredictable. But what would the government actually do with an airliner full of passengers if it arrived there?

There are all sorts of technical problems with this as a story, and it raises loads of questions. But at the moment, we don't have any stories at all. With this story, at least we have some parts of the "how", even if we don't have a "why".

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Judge Jones redux

Scientists are required to leave a detailed trace that shows how their facts produced or supported particular conclusions. Such a trace typically involves multiple stages of analysis. The researcher shows, for instance, how he or she moved from the context-specific empirical encounter (the "facts") to a concept-dependent conclusion. What scientists know, in other words, cannot be taken on faith: they have to show how they got to know what they know. This is hammered into the rules of the game; it is part of the prerequisites for publication.
For judges, however, such burden of proof does not seem to exist to the same extent. How they believe that the facts motivate a particular conclusion (and thereby judgement) can be expressed in a few lines of text.
This quote comes from "Just Culture", by Sidney Dekker. He is writing about the role of trials and criminal or civil proceedings following accidents or incidents that have been categorised as "human error" - particularly in the contexts of medicine and aviation. He argues in his book that the use of the justice system not only fails to produce a just outcome, but it fails to improve safety.

But although his insights into these things are very important, that's not why I'm quoting it. I'm thinking of the Kitzmiller v Dover trial. Here, Judge Jones ruled that intelligent design was not science. The whole thing, at the time, left me feeling uneasy, and not just because I disagreed with his analysis. Dekker puts his finger on one of the reasons why. The role of judges is to decide between competing truth claims on behalf of society. This doesn't mean that the version of the truth that they find in favour of is necessarily the absolute truth. As a society, we accept the role of the justice system to come to conclusions on behalf of society, in the same way that we accept the rules of a game. But a judge is not qualified to make a decision about a philosophical question. Judge Jones was called upon to decide between the different positions, and in this context apply the law as he understood it. That's fair enough; that's why we have a judicial system. But his opinions about the status of ID have no particular philosophical standing - the only authority they have is based on the authority of the evidence that he was presented.

Judges decide between truth claims; they don't make truth claims. Opponents of ID have said that "Judge Jones says ID isn't science" as though this represents additional authority. It doesn't.