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Archive for the category “technology”

What are these disc thingies, anyway?

At work, I moved into my current office in the autumn of 2015. We’re moving some of our offices around, and mine is one of them, so I’m cleaning out some old stuff – business cards of people who have switched jobs, business cards for companies that no longer exist, and (sadly) a business card for someone who passed away a couple of years ago.

Oh, and I found a whole bunch of these things.

cds

For my younger readers, I should explain that these cases hold something known as “compact discs.” You see, back before iTunes or Amazon Music or any of those services, if you wanted to buy music, you would actually have to go to a physical store (kinda like a 7 Eleven, but these stores had names like “Tower Records” and “Licorice Pizza”), get a physical item like a compact disc or a tape or a vinyl platter, take it home (or, in some cases, to your car), insert the physical item into a player, and play the music that way.

For most of my life, that’s the way we did things. The physical media changed from time to time, but the concept pretty much stayed the same. I have long since thrown away most of my vinyl records and all of my cassette tapes, but I’ve retained most of my CDs.

And, for the last three years, several of my CDs have been sitting in an office drawer, untouched.

Incidentally, I do have to correct one statement that I made above. At least two of these cases do NOT hold a compact disc. Somewhere along the line, I lost my disc of Air’s “Moon Safari,” but I’m saving the case, on the off chance that I will find it at some point. The other missing CD is Ontario Emperor’s “Or a Little Faster,” which may also be floating around somewhere. (But society would agree that the Air CD is a greater loss.)

Oh, and regarding the two CDs at the top of the stacks:

Yes, Maria (Maria is a young Italian woman), I do have a CD of “that old guy” Zucchero.

And yes, everyone else, I do own a Ray Stevens CD. And “In the Mood” is truly a classic. (Sadly, the CD does not include “Misty,” which is a comedy classic in its own right.)

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Driving is not a crime. (Yet.)

I am writing this on January 1, 2018 – which happens to be the day that recreational marijuana is being legalized in the state of California. Whatever you may think of this particular move, it’s worthwhile to note that at the same time that people are going to be lighting up, the state of California is getting people to NOT light up. And because government seeks to protect us from things that can harm us, there will be a point in which the recent move to legalize marijuana will be reversed.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about making driving illegal.

Because of the recent reorganization of my employer, I’m looking a little more at driver’s licenses these days. And, of course, I’ve been looking at driverless cars in Tymshft for years.

So I was very interested in a recent National Review article that talked about a “war on driving.” And unlike the war on Christmas, the National Review writer proposes a Constitutional amendment to protect our way of life.

But why would anyone engage in a so-called war on driving?

Think about it.

While autonomous cars seem like a disaster waiting to happen, the truth is that human drivers are very accident-prone. Regardless of how you define the data measurement, tens of thousands of people die in automobile accidents every year. And why?

[D]rivers are concerned about safety. Some 83% of respondents said driving is a safety concern. But that hasn’t stopped many of them from speeding, texting, or driving while impaired by alcohol, prescription medication, or marijuana.

Whoops – there’s marijuana again. But the point being made is that autonomous driving algorithms, if designed correctly, will actually be safer than human drivers.

So what does this mean for the future? Back to National Review.

At some point in the future, be it years, decades, or a century hence, the federal government will seek to ban driving.

This, I’m afraid, is an inevitability. It is inexorably heading our way. The dot sits now on the horizon. As is common, the measure will be sold in the name of public health. “Now that robots can do the work,” its bloodless advocates will explain, “there’s no need for human involvement.” And from then: On, the snowball will roll….

Our debate will rest largely upon charts. The American Medical Association will find “no compelling reason to permit the citizenry to drive,” and Vox will quote it daily. Concurring in this assessment will be The New England Journal of Medicine, the Center for American Progress, and the newly rechristened Mothers against Dangerous Driving, for which outfits “dangerous” will have become a lazily supplied synonym for “human.” Atop this endless statistical beat will be a steady stream of mawkish anecdotes. “Joey was just 17.” “Sarah had three kids.” “Not a day goes by in which . . . ”

Those who are familiar with National Review will realize that it opposes such measures as a threat to liberty and privacy, both from public and private entities. (Do you want the California Department of Public Health or Google or Tesla knowing where you are going…and trying to redirect you somewhere else?)

And as I previously noted, the National Review suggests a Constitutional amendment to remedy this frightening future. The exact wording isn’t important – frankly, I’d choose slightly different wording than the National Review did – but the point is that the freedom to go places is presented as a freedom that is just as important as the freedom to peaceably assemble.

After all, how can you peaceably assemble if you can’t get yourself to the place of peaceable assembly?

So the university studied about obsolescence

I was trying to trace down the origins of something shared by Mitch Wagner – namely, a tweet from Vala Afshar that included the following:

“Investor concern over the threat of new technologies is overstated”

—1999 Blockbuster analyst report

Today, our local Blockbuster Video is a Chase Bank.

When I first read the quote, I placed great emphasis on the fact that it was uttered by an analyst, not by Blockbuster itself. But then I read something that stated that the quote came from a report commissioned by Blockbuster itself.

The “something” that I read was in the Digital Communications Team Blog at the University of St. Andrews.

standrews

This blog post recorded the salient points from a lecture by Paul Boag, co-founder of digital consultancy Headscape and author of Digital Adaption. Apparently this lecture was given to staff at the University; I’m not sure if any students were present. However, as we shall see, Boag’s message was primarily to the staff.

The lecture was entitled “Digital Change.” Boag started by talking about the Blockbuster example, where the whole digital media movement passed the company by. Then he moved on to Kodak, another company that was so attached to the physical medium that it never really mastered the digital one.

After that, as Carley Hollis notes, Boag hit a little closer to home.

The inability to adapt to a world which is changing around us is one of the biggest risks to institutions today – and that includes the University of St Andrews.

What? A risk to a university? But people are always going to want to travel to an educational institution and read books, right?

We need to realise that if we do not work to meet the needs of these students – recognise that their needs are different to the need of students of even five years ago – then we will be failing them. And if we are failing students, we are at risk of failing as an institution.

The remainder of the post describes how the University’s digital communications team is seeking to render ITSELF obsolete. Until such time as “digital” is integrated into everything, though, the digital communications team is striving to help students and staff move forward.

Swiss rescue operations mix old and new

We’ve all heard about the Swiss dogs who venture forth in the Alps to rescue people.

Well, these days the dogs have a little bit of help.

Capo, a golden retriever wearing a bright orange rescue harness, runs with his handler in tow towards a body sprawled in the high grass as a giant drone whirrs overhead.

The scene was part of a simulated dog rescue operation this week aimed at highlighting the rapidly growing use of drones to help speed up and expand such searches in Switzerland.

The exercise took place on Wednesday, the same day as a massive landslide on the Piz Cengalo mountain in the Swiss Alps that left eight people missing and triggered a search-and-rescue mission where dogs and drones were deployed.

The article states that there are cooperation efforts between the dog people, represented by the Swiss Association for Search and Rescue Dogs (Redog), and the drone people, represented by the Swiss Federation of Civil Drones. (Almost sounds like ham radio there.)

In fact, one Redog person put it this way:

This allows us to have an eye in the air and a nose on the ground.

What I said about the communications revolution…in 1991

Many years ago, when I was taking MBA courses at Cal State Fullerton, I wrote a paper for one of my classes. Some of the content was derived from research that I performed at the time, while other content came from books that I had lying around my apartment, such as the autobiographies of Jimmy Carter and John Sculley.

I guess the paper must have been OK, because after I wrote it, the professor, Brian Kleiner, approached me and said that he could get it published.

Why not? I thought.

So in 1991, an English journal called Industrial Management & Data Systems published a paper by John E. Bredehoft and Brian Kleiner entitled “Communications Revolution and its Impact on Managing Organisations Effectively.”

I’ve referred to this paper at times. You can find it on my LinkedIn profile. I’ve referred to it on Google Plus – twice. And I just mentioned it in an Empoprise-BI post.

But I haven’t actually READ the paper in decades. Oh, I was curious about reading it, but not thirty-two dollar curious.

But then I found a free copy of the article by searching. You can bet I downloaded it.

JBBKCommRev

And now I’m looking at the paper, curious about what I thought about the communications revolution in 1991 – and how my thoughts relate to the present-day 2017 communications climate.

Now bear in mind that I wrote my original class paper over a quarter century ago, and I don’t really remember the details of its creation. And Kleiner obviously had a hand in the final printed article.

Having said that, our emphasis on three variables – the speed of business communications, the distance over which timely information can be transmitted, and the volume of business communications – was certainly on target.

If anything, “distance” has been removed as a variable. After I got my MBA, I was tangentially involved in discussions regarding how electronic data interchange (EDI) could send data from Walmart’s headquarters in Arkansas to my then-employer in Monterey Park, California. Today, the data for those transactions could be stored in Colorado, or in Europe, or in India, making concerns about distance minimal.

And volume? Um, kids, back when I was an MBA student in 1991, I couldn’t whip out my mobile phone and watch a movie. Come to think of it, I didn’t even have a mobile phone in 1991.

Needless to say, the passage of time has resulted in some amusement while re-reading the article today. Back in 1991, the editors of Industrial Management & Data Systems saw fit to call out this profound statement:

A person with a modem can “dial up” and solve a problem

The quote itself comes from a paragraph in which we assert that the technologies could allow people in different locations to work together to solve a problem. We even quoted from an article in Rural Sociology in which Don Dillman discussed “geographically unbounded interactions” and wondered how they would affect rural life.

(Yet people still insist on living in Silicon Valley. Go figure.)

And, I’m sorry to say, there is one instance in which we got it plain wrong. I’ll take the blame for this one; I doubt Kleiner originated this idea.

Because of the technology advances, we can gather much more accurate information than we could previously.

Yes, I wrote that.

And I thought I had a compelling case. I talked about the use of grocery checkout scanners and how it allowed the Ontario Alpha Beta (I lived near the Ontario Alpha Beta in 1991; it’s now a 99 Cents Only Store) could give really, really precise information about purchases.

Boy, was I stupid.

I made the assumption that the scanners were providing correct information, and that there were no malfunctions in the scanners or in the systems tabulating the data from the scanners. More importantly, if you’ve been paying attention to the recent news, I also made the assumption that any reports of this data were completely accurate, and that no one had falsified any of the data. To be fair, this paper was published several years before Enron’s collapse, and a couple of decades before automobile companies were caught falsifying emission data.

On the whole, though, while some of the details ended up being skewed over time, our paper clearly emphasized the importance of communications in 1991, and the continuing importance of communications today.

Now I just have to find an online source for the other publication that I cited on LinkedIn – my undergraduate thesis on the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That’ll be a hoot, even if it is written in American rather than English.

How the home game Pong started in a bar

Retroist recently ran a photo showing two boys sitting on a living room floor, staring at a large screen in front of them. The black and white screen showed a dotted vertical line separating the screen into two halves. Numbers (in this case “3” and “2”) appeared on each side of the screen, and if you looked very closely, you could see a short vertical line on each edge of the screen.

The two boys are staring at this boring black and white screen, acting like it was showing something riveting.

Actually, the screen WAS riveting.

If you haven’t looked at the picture – or even if you have – you might not realize that the television screen in the picture is showing the game of Pong. All revolutions have to start somewhere, and the move from traditional pinball games to video games was accelerated by Pong.

But before Pong became a home game, it was an arcade game. And the whole idea of bringing an arcade game into the home was a terrifying thought in the early 1970s. This article (which I’ve cited before) describes the seedy reputation of arcades, pre-Pong.

The invention of the flipper by Gottlieb in 1947 helped to launch pinball more firmly into the “game of skill” category, and manufacturers began to aggressively pursue a family-friendly image. Of course, that didn’t matter to much of the country where pinball was illegal, forcing machines into even seedier locations like porn shops and dive bars. New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood became a haven for backroom pinball machines. Like so many things which are illicit, though, the attraction of pinball only increased in the prohibition years following World War II, and, by the 1950s, the quickest route to proving your rebel status in America was to be seen within a few feet of a pinball machine.

But these smoky pinball machine havens were about to see a new type of video game. Video games themselves had been around in some form or another for a decade, but they weren’t the types of things that you’d bring into a bar.

Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, wasn’t the kind of place where fights would break out every night. But the hole, named for the surly British comic-strip slacker, was shadowy and dark. Cigarette smoke swirled so thick that it rivaled the fog that rolled in over the Santa Cruz Mountains. You might bring your girlfriend to Andy Capp’s, but not on a first date.

But three former Ampex employees, Nolan Bushnell, Allan Alcorn, and Ted Dabney chose this Sunnyvale bar to test their company Atari’s new game Pong. While the initial success of the game at the bar may have been exaggerated (did the bar patrons fill the game with too many quarters, or did Bushnell?), the game did become successful at bars throughout the country and eventually around the world.

Pong
By Bumm13 [2] (Originally upload at en.wikipedia.org [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And why not? Compared to pinball machines of the day, Pong WAS revolutionary and mesmerizing. No moving parts on the play board, a deceptively simple – and addicting – game. As competitors improved on Atari’s game – and as Magnavox took Atari to court alleging the Pong infringed on an earlier Magnavox game – the entire industry worked at creating games better than Pong, ushering in a golden era for video games.

Much has happened since then – you can now play Pong on your iPhone, and Andy Capp’s Tavern is now a comedy club – but Pong has undeniably changed the entire gaming industry.

Poppy covers ancient history

One day not too long ago I was watching videos and encountered one in which kids react to Poppy reacting to kids reacting to Poppy.

I had never heard of Poppy before this time.

Yes, I am not trendy.

Well, while I’ve been listening to some of her music, I occasionally take a dive into her videos that treat The Human Condition or something like that. And here’s one that she created for her younger fans. It’s like history and stuff.

And since “floppy” rhymes with “Poppy,” I see a new marketing effort in her future.

Can the @AINowInitiative achieve its goals?

Confession – when I first saw Marshall Kirkpatrick’s tweet, I thought that it sounded too much like Newspeak. Most of you probably won’t react that way, but I did.

AINowMarshall

“Preventing fascism through AI?” After the recent Wikileaks revelations about purported CIA listening technology, you kinda wonder if the AI would be used to IMPLEMENT “fascism” – whatever “fascism” is.

But when I went to the AI Now Initiative website (which, as far as I can tell, does NOT use the f-word), it looks like they have a valid point. But can they get where they want to go? And where DO they want to go?

First, let me introduce the AI Now Initiative itself.

Led by Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker, AI Now is a New York-based research initiative working across disciplines to understand AI’s social impacts….

The AI Now Report provides recommendations that can help ensure AI is more fair and equitable. It represents the thinking and research of the experts who attended our first symposium, hosted in collaboration with President Obama’s White House and held at New York University in 2016.

The thing that struck me in the details was their discussion of bias.

Bias and inclusion

Data reflects the social and political conditions in which it is collected. AI is only able to “see” what is in the data it’s given. This, along with many other factors, can lead to biased and unfair outcomes. AI Now researches and measures the nature of such bias, how bias is defined and by whom, and the impact of such bias on diverse populations.

I wanted to read the report (PDF) of the first symposium – since the second symposium hasn’t yet been held, its report has (I hope) not yet been written – but the definition of bias is a key step here. If you’re wearing a MAGA hat or have one of North Korea’s approved hairstyles, then anything involving Barack Obama and the city of New York is already hopelessly biased, infused with New York values – one of those values being the Constitution and laws of the United States.

While reading the report, it appears that “bias” is defined as “lack of fairness.”

As AI systems take on a more important role in high-stakes decision-making – from offers of credit and insurance, to hiring decisions and parole – they will begin to affect who gets offered crucial opportunities, and who is left behind. This brings questions of rights, liberties, and basic fairness to the forefront.

While some hope that AI systems will help to overcome the biases that plague human decision-making, others fear that AI systems will amplify such biases, denying opportunities to the deserving and subjecting the deprived to further disadvantage.

An example will illustrate the issues involved.

Person A and Person B are applying for health insurance. What data is required to evaluate the risks from insuring each person? Do we need to know their ages? Their genders? Their races? What they ate for dinner last night? Their genetic test results? Some will argue that all of this data is not only desirable, but necessary for decision-making. Others will argue that collection of such data is an affront to the aforementioned “New York values” enshrined in the Constitution.

So should an AI system have access to all data, or some data? And should it be neutral, or “fair”?

One sentence in the report, however, justifies the common scientific plea that more research (and funding for research) is needed.

It is important to note that while there are communities doing wonderful work on these issues, there is no consensus on how to “detect” bias of either kind.

 

Viral spam goes low-tech

We’ve all run across viral spam.

Common traits include an unbelievable claim (“Facebook will start charging for posts!” or “Trump will imprison all non-whites!”), an appeal to authority (“I saw this on CNN!” or “This is from the police!”), and – most importantly – a plea to IMMEDIATELY share this important news with ALL of your friends.

Oh, and there’s one more common trait – the pleas are conveyed electronically via email (don’t you know someone who ALWAYS emails these things?), social media post (don’t you know someone who ALWAYS shares these things?), or some other electronic format.

Well, guess what? According to Imgur, you don’t ALWAYS have to share it electronically.

fyfyv6w

UPDATE: As Bob Levine noted, the warning itself has been going around for more than a decade and is unsubstantiated.

Before that pendulum shifts away from the cloud, check the full story

The secret to writing success, political success, or whatever is to make an outlandish statement which gets people so angry that they can’t help but read it. I haven’t quite gotten to that stage yet, but my 2014 post The pendulum is shifting away from the cloud. Told you so. was admittedly a bit of a contrarian attention-getter. Not that I’m negating my basic point – that we switch between distributed vs. centralized computing in a pendulum-like fashion – but back in 2014, you could clearly get more attention by saying that the cloud is out.

Well, cloud is still hot – in fact, my employer deployed a cloud-based solution last year – but people are beginning to question whether the cloud is totally wonderful.

And so we have this Geektime article:

With a steady increase in concerns for our cyber security, people will begin to move away from the cloud to secure their data and provide their own solutions.

Why? Because Yahoo, apparently. At the time that I write this, Yahoo (and its acquirer Verizon) are dealing with the fallout from a revelation of a second attack on Yahoo’s accounts – this one netting information from a billion accounts. Because of this and other threats, people are looking at non-cloud solutions.

Last month, CNET reviewed home storage solutions that cost less than $100, making it affordable to store data locally in one’s own “Cloud in your Attic.”

Even the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, said, “As people assert control over their data, the web will ‘re-decentralise,’ reducing dependency on technology giants, returning power to individuals and businesses and allowing developers a rich space for innovation.”

And who would know better than the man who got us all online?

However, before you jump ahead and spend $99.99 to get your own server, ask yourself – are you a better cybersecurity professional than Yahoo’s cybersecurity professionals? Because if you’re not, then your system will be LESS safe than Yahoo’s system, which was breached at least twice.

Because one thing is constant whether you’re dealing with public cloud, private cloud, or your own box – someone is going to have to secure the thing. While I’ll admit that Yahoo is a much more tempting hacker target than, say, Joe’s Server in the Hall Closet, both need to be secured.

In my case, I am not a cybersecurity expert, so if I were to implement a home server, I’d need to get someone to secure the thing for me. And even people who are cybersecurity experts are not necessarily going to know all of the threats that could affect a home server.

I’m not saying that there aren’t valid reasons to move off the cloud in some instances. But before you move off the cloud because it’s “not secure,” think through the ramifications of selecting an alternative.

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