IoT: Internet of Trash

Narrated by Anchor.fm AI (that will do the best it can with my typos and grammatical problems)

Last week during trash day, the garbage pickup crew missed my bin. This profoundly disappointed me at a similar level of the feeling of missing the bus and knowing that the next bus won’t arrive for another 30 minutes. This particular trash was supposed to be picked on this particular day. Now the trash will spoil. This spoilage has nothing to do with the kitchen scraps that will rot in place for a week. The spoilage is in the information.

We have trash pickup once a week. Many people manage to fill up their bins every week. This is a baseline measurement: a weekly filled bin indicates an active and engaged household. I deliberately make it a point to put out trash every other week. I’m sure the trash collectors do not mind, but if there was any tracking on the houses, there would be that signal that trash is skipped every week. This house is not like the others.

I go further by collecting two weeks of trash into just one bag. Even for pickup just every other week, they have to reach in deep to pull out the single bag. I noticed they do this rather than pull the entire cart and have the hydraulic lift and dump it, it is faster to just pull out one bag and toss it. However, they have to notice that this is recurring thing, this house they can just lift the lid and pull out one bag, once every other week.

There is a message in trash. In this case, the message is deliberate. I’m reasonably sure no one is receiving the signal, but it is there. I’m doing this deliberately.

By missing the pickup, this signal is spoiled. There is now a 3 week interval between pickups, and the next pickup will have 2 bags instead of one. If there was any monitoring of trash pickup, the algorithm would detect something very unusual happened at this house.

There is a message within the trash as well. Besides food scraps, the trash can contain junk mail, opened envelops, paper statements, and paper receipts. These paper items are optional for any particular trash day.

Recently, I noticed that delivered mail has dropped off substantially. I am guessing the so-called pandemic is reducing the number of things that are worth advertising. Another explanation is that I crossed into the over-60 age group and probably outside their targeted demographic.

I used to get annoyed by the amount of unsolicited mail I get. I found a way to voice my displeasure by allowing the discarded mail to stack up and then stuff the garbage with that discarded mail so that the weight of the mailed items exceeded the waste from things I actually bought. I recall many weeks where this would happen each trash pickup day. Lately I have to wait a few cycles to make that point.

If there were some kind of monitoring of the contents of the trash, there would be that signal that the weight of the unsolicited mail would exceed the weight of waste from things I actually bought. The signal is there, and it is deliberate, if they trash were picked up on time.

I send other signals as well. I am unusually conscious of what I put in the trash, the order I put it in. Each time I throw something away, I imagine someone rummaging through the contents and I imagine what kind of information they would figure out from my trash. I fantasize that I can encode a message that says “I know you are watching my trash”.

This obsession with message in trash probably started a long while back. I don’t recall the specifics, and I am not interested in researching it. There was a well publicized case where someone was arrested based on clues investigators got from rummaging through the trash he set out the night before the scheduled pickup date. This is the county’s recommended practice and within the neighborhood it would be a customary practice. If a person did not set his trash out the night before, there would be cause for some concern.

In this case, the investigators took advantage of this. They drove by in the middle of the night and swapped out the bagged contents of the bin with similar looking trash bags. This was done quickly in the middle of the night so no one would notice. To be clear, this was during the era before Internet was widely available, let alone home surveillance cameras so it was easy for them to get away with this.

The investigators examined the contents of the garbage at their leisure back where ever they do investigative work. It took many such swaps before they found clues. Those clues were evidence that the person was spending more than he was making. There may also have been some paper notes such as some jotted-down phone number. This occurred before phones would have an easy way to store temporarily needed phone numbers.

I don’t recall all the details of the case, but I do recall being amazed at the amount of information they were able to obtain by going through trash. Apparently, I was not alone. Shortly after that, there was a new market for paper shredders for the home and the arms race to shred more thoroughly. People understood that even something as simple as a discarded envelop would tag the entire contents of the bag as belong to a particular street address even if the bag ends up in a landfill hundreds of miles away.

The first response was to get a shredder. I got one eventually. I’m on my third one now. The first two wore out. This one is lasting longer because it is more robust, but also because I am shredding less. I am shredding less because most of my transactions are done electronically. I don’t get paper statements as much anymore. I still get some, but that’s because I’m too lazy to convert them to electronic. Another reason I am shredding less is because I’m deliberately seeding the trash with my information. The discarded envelop with my address is a way to tag the the rest of the trash as coming from my house. This is the trash of this house. Some investigator would probably be thrilled to have such a naïve homeowner.

He wouldn’t realize that the message in the trash is different. This is the trash of what I want him to know about this household. More fundamentally, the message is acknowledgement that I know he exists. It is the equivalent of putting in a freshly bought greeting card.

Trash is a treasure trove of information.

I have a habit of stacking up all the old shopping receipts, and in particular receipts from the grocery store. About twice a year, the stack would get too larger and I would fold up the entire bundle and toss it in the trash. I am well aware of what can be learned from such a concentrated record of my grocery shopping habits. Reading the receipts, it should be obvious that I live alone, I don’t go out to eat much, and I don’t host any dinners for guests. Also easy to read is that I like fresh baked bread, but that is evidenced by the fact that following junk mail, the second heaviest part of my trash is the discarded bread that is no longer fresh enough for me.

Eventually this log will disappear as the pandemic will get me to order groceries online and have it delivered, saving me the hassle of roaming a store behind a mask or carrying a smart phone so I can show them my current health passport. Online shopping also has logs that are useful, but access to those logs are more controlled than receipts in a trash bag. Also, I’m likely to use multiple delivery services so getting a complete picture would require getting data from all of them, and knowing they that have captured all of them. In contrast that bundle of paper receipts in my trashcan is a complete list of everything I bought in half a year. The only absence are the cases where the receipt printer jammed or ran out of paper and I waived the option to wait for them printing one.

There was a case where someone objected that such searches were an illegal search and seizure and an invasion of privacy. The court ruled that the process of discarding something into the trash makes that item public information. After all it is heading to be intermingled with everyone else’s trash and may end up in a landfill that is open to scavenging or recycling. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy for anything thrown into the trash. Thus the interest in shredders.

Literal trash as described above is very costly to decipher. It would take some really high profile case to motivate a team to go through trash and piece together the interesting stuff after scraping off the junk.

There was a trend recently that would make it easier by giving people multiple bins: one specific for recyclables and another for yard waste. I’m sure this was done to improve the efficiency of the waste streams, but it could offer new ways to collect data. A simple measure is to simply count the number of times each bin is set out, and measure how much each one weighed. If there was an interest in investigation, some types of investigation could simply focus on what was recycled. The contents would have labels, and the labeled can be traced to costs, and that can be compared to the person’s income. It is a lot easier if the homeowner separated the recyclables from the discarded food waste.

Compared to law enforcement, archeology and anthropology sciences have more impressive skill in going through garbage. When excavating a site, there is a particular attention to the trash heap. Like with modern trash, there is much that can be learned about house habits and diets by examining what they throw away. Scientists go further than that by recognizing that there was a reason for discarding some item. That item no longer had any salvage value for that society. In cases where the would be still usable when discarded, this is evidence that the group is wealthy to replace such an item. In other cases, the item would show a pattern of being used for other purposes than originally intended, and this would tell a different story. In all cases, scientists can trace the origin of the discarded items and this can tell us how the regional economy and political controls affected that community.

In archeology in particular, trash is important source of information about the past. Trash offers information that is unavailable in any other way. For many sites, archeologists are frustrated by the lack of any obvious trash heap to explore. These are common for many important megalithic sites. They were built without leaving behind evidence that there were builders that needed to live nearby.

I first became fascinated with the potential information in trash in the virtual sense. Early in my career, I was enthusiastic about discrete event simulations. These simulations used various statistical models to generate events that would be put on a calendar for when they would complete. The simulation would step through the calendar until it reached an event and then compute one or more future events based on what else is happening at the same calendar time. At the time the simulations were difficult to get to run in a reasonable amount of time given the available computing resources. One work-around was to set checkpoints where the entire state of the simulation would be saved to disk so that the simulation could start from that checkpoint instead of starting from the beginning. This checkpoint save cost a lot of time to transfer to disk so a large simulation may only have have a couple of checkpoints for the entire run.

While working with checkpoints, I wanted to study the checkpoint itself. Prior to introducing the checkpoint, the simulation state at this time would exist only momentarily, just enough time to populate the calendar with future events. Once the checkpoint is on disk, I could explore the entire state of the simulation at that time. I don’t recall the specifics, but I recall learning something important from the checkpoint and that something had nothing to do with the intention of the simulation. This lesson was not a conclusion, but instead it was a new hypothesis that could be introduced for future testing.

Once I experienced this by observing the left-over artifact of stored checkpoint of a now completed simulation, I fantasized about saving the simulation state at every calendar increment. This was impractical at the time and unmarketable. People were looking for simulations to run as fast as possible so they can answer their first question. A product that ran slower and that created more questions to ask is not something that would appeal to our customers. Yet, I held onto this dream, leaving the simulation world and entering instead computer networking that just happened to leave an extensive record of prior state in the form of logs. At first the logging was meant for diagnostic purposes, but quickly it became a necessity for security and also for accounting.

While above I attempted to be the innovator in this concept of exploring data in logs, I was late to the game when it comes to information technology. There is an entire market for what is called security information and event management, or SIEM. This is similar to what I was thinking, but it was more focused on specific incidents while I was interested in the entire landscape.

The key thing about SIEM is that strives to have a permanent record of every event log from every device, and also to have a means to quickly retrieve and summarize that data.

A log is basically trash. SIEM is essentially the same thing as that story above about investigators finding evidence by searching someone’s garbage. When an information technology system performs some action it needs specific information to complete the action. Once the action is complete, that specific information is no longer needed, so it becomes trash.

Coincidentally, software technologies introduced a concept called garbage collection as more robust way to manage memory when processes no longer need it. There would be some process that runs periodically and scans memory for no-longer used memory and then makes it available for future processes. The garbage collector could record this discarded information by sending a log over the network to some device prepared to accept it. This is not what is happening in actual logs, but it captures the concept metaphorically. A log is a record of something that was previously operationally relevant. Recording this information is immensely useful even if the information itself is no longer relevant for any future operation.

As the security term in the SIEM acronym implies, there is particular interest in the events that should not have occurred. SIEM is interested in the logs of bad behaviors. The goal is to understand and hopefully improve the behavior. No one proposes to solve the problem by preventing the bad behavior from being logged.

While the concept of SIEM is primarily focused on logs about automated systems, I keep thinking about how the concept would apply to if we similarly logged regular life.

About two decades ago when there was first discussions about a peer-to-peer or social aspect of the Internet, called Internet 2.0 (among other names) at the time, but eventually became known as social media. It is a way for people to self publish anything they wanted, and for at least the possibility of finding an audience. The initial iterations of the technologies facilitated this not only by hosting the content but by including the contents in various search methods. People were finding things they never otherwise would not have found. This encouraged more people to publish their own ideas that they mostly kept private.

When it first started, I was very excited about finding alternative views especially when expressed with conviction by people who are not recognized as authorities. I tried to participate but larger failed. I don’t have the right kind of rhythm or passion to sustain the interest of any audience. The particular blog site started much later and had a different goal of just logging my thoughts. The thoughts are in my mind temporarily and of not much use to me later, but I find comfort in logging them especially if no one reads them. The objective is that combined with other voices the information in this blog may piece together a broader reality of modern life than what is normally inferred from credentialed and authoritative sources.

I recall early in work trying to promote the concepts of blogs, an internal business equivalent of twitter, or of wikis. The idea was to better open up communication between workers. I made my own blogs and wiki pages about work topics on an internal server someone set up just for this purpose. I was hoping that others would respond to my posts with their own posts, or add new wiki links to related content. It didn’t happen. Partly because my content was not that inspiring to encourage others to participate. A larger explanation is that everyone else recognized that this was dangerous to their careers. I may have recognized the danger but I didn’t care as much. Instead I was frustrated by not being able to learn more from my predecessors. I think I could have done a better job if I better understood what the more informal opinions and outlooks of those who came before me.

Without stating it explicitly, I accepted that social media was supposed to be a trash bin of sorts. You have some idea, you publish it on social media, and then you move on. I imagined that the record would become valuable far in the future, especially after I am no longer around that community. That record would be enhanced if there were complementary records from my associates’ informal thinking at the time.

Recording thoughts this way is a short term risk and long term benefit. Unless you have celebrity status or a position of authority, there is only downsides for opening out about ideas. If someone were to attack your reputation based on what you wrote, there would be no one to defend you.

This risky period is relatively brief. It is similar to the security world where there is no interest in some offense as long as the person who did then is no longer doing it now, for whatever reason. Meanwhile the record of it happening is a valuable lesson for future planners. Earlier the lesson was what we need to do to prevent it from happening again, but later the lesson is that there will always be some new way for someone to do something we don’t like. The goal is to manage it rather than guarantee its prevention.

Recent history has stories where people were punished due to their social media contributions from many years ago. Even more disturbing is the social media operator’s eagerness to remove content and even to outright ban individuals and delete all of their content. To me, this marks the end of the social media. It is no longer an avenue to express ideas and share informal thoughts. While this is disappointing to the participants, there is a bigger disappointment to the future data analysts.

The social media groups are undermining their own future by banning content that could later be very useful when combined with the broader conversations. It is not hard to imagine people ten years from now wanting to better understand what happened in this period. I have no doubt they will have a lot that they will want explained. They will find a point where the only information available were celebrities parroting the same approved talking points but with their own peculiar style.

I recall noticing something going wrong, from my perspective at least, many years ago when I was using LinkedIn. When I first started, there was a warning about adding to your network only contacts of people who personally experienced working with you. I recall when attempting to add someone, there would be a page where I had to accept the statement that I have personally worked with the person. I accepted this as a valuable safeguard because anyone looking at my profile would be able to judge me in part by the people I actually worked with. That changed seemingly abruptly where there became a competition of having a large network, the larger the network, the more impressive you were. People were networking back anyone that networked with them, to get their network numbers up, and also to extend their reach when they posted something. At that point, they poisoned the original value of a network being actual real-life work associates.

Now every time I open LinkedIn, I get dozens of suggestions of people to add to my network. These are people I have no opportunity to work with in the future, let alone knowing in the past. But the recommendation now is to add as many people to my network as possible. At the same time, there is the threat that your account will be deleted if you say something that offends someone. This is a recipe that can not end well. I am adding people to my network that do no know me personally and don’t understand where I am coming from. It is inevitable that I will offend someone now, so the only safe thing to do is to be a passive observer of those with large networks.

Social media started out as an inversion of the broadcast model where only a few stations broadcast the same content to everyone who just watched. The original ideal was that everyone can be their own broadcaster and have their own unique audiences. That has now transformed to be identical to what we had before. A few channels by celebrities with large audiences that passively watch. The only permitted audience reaction is applause.

This new model has pervaded the entire Internet now. Not only with social media, but also with things like web-site hosting services or cloud services. The Internet is open to everyone to passively consume, but only certain approved voices are allowed to publish with some comfort that they will not immediately be banished for an offense.

I think the current situation returns us to the original problem that social media was supposed to solve. There is a need for a means for people to share their thoughts, including strongly held yet offensive thoughts.

The solution may be to consider the existing Internet as an authoritative or approved information channel. Approved content providers will continue to use this Internet. Newcomers will have to pass additional scrutiny that their predecessors didn’t have.

There is a need for another network for the rest of the population. I would call it the Internet of Trash. Instead of the pretentiousness of publishing something, we would discard ideas into the Internet of Trash. The trash becomes available for others to poke through, but this is trash. One should not be offended by something someone threw out as trash. If they think is it valuable, they can publish it themselves, similar to how people offer their findings on eBay. I just want an Internet that will take my trash.

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