jump to navigation

Are Cell Phones the Cause of Society’s Schisms? January 9, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

More broadly, we might ask this question of social media in general, since the phone is simply a proxy for a wide range of services.  This intriguing article in the MIT Technology Review provides an anecdotal tale of a philosophy professor who, believing that he wasn’t communicating with his students effectively, offered extra credit to those who would give up their use of cell phones for nine days, and write about the experience.

While it doesn’t have the same academic rigor as Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, it is a telling story of teens finding out that there is more to the world than is available from their phone screens.

And it’s not a new thesis, but stories like these also reinforce that there have been drastic changes in society and culture in a short period of time.

At one level, social media lets us engage many people without actually seeing them.  When you look someone in the eye, and gauge their reaction in real time, what we say can be very different.  When we don’t, negative messages seem to be magnified.

At another level, social media lets us pick and choose who we communicate with.  Generally, that means we are less likely to be exposed to different ideas, and more inclined to believe unreliable or bogus sources.  I would like to say that is our choice, except that it’s not clear we easily have any other choice.

What we have created is a massive societal experiment in which within a decade we have dramatically shifted the nature of interpersonal interactions.  Whereas the majority of interaction was face to face, today it is largely remote.  Where most interaction were one on one, we find that the remote interactions are more one on many.  And where many of our interactions were casual encounters with random people, today they are with people we already know and associate with.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook say it’s all for the good of society, and that’s what they stand for.  They are too biased to offer an honest take, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.  I will say that it’s instructive that Zuckerberg, while publicly promoting openness and sharing, has chosen to build his own personal estate behind walls.  Let him live in a walkup for a few years; he never has, and never will.  Live like your users live, Mark, is my final word to him.  You have created this world; you are not responding to it.

In the meantime, are cell phones good or bad?  I will offer that they are a tool, and it is the apps that we choose to use make them one or the other.

Will We Have Completely Autonomous Airliners? January 2, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in aviation, Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

This has been the long term trend, and two recent stories have added to the debate.  First, the new FAA appropriations bill includes a directive to study single-pilot airliners used for cargo.  Second is this story in Wall Street Journal (paywall), discussing how the Boeing 737 MAX crashes has caused the company to advocate even more for fully autonomous airliners.

I have issues with that.  First, Boeing’s reasoning is fallacious.  The 737 MAX crashes were not pilot error, but rather design and implementation errors, and inadequate information for documentation and training.  Boeing as a culture apparently still refuses to acknowledge that.

Second, as I have said many times before, automation is great when used in normal operations.  When something goes wrong, automation more often than not does the opposite of the right thing, attempting to continue normal operations in an abnormal situation.

As for a single pilot, when things go wrong, a single pilot is likely to be too focused on the most immediate, rather than carrying out a division of labor.  It seems like in an emergency situation, two experienced heads are better than one.  And there are instances, albeit rare, where a pilot becomes incapacitated, and a second person is needed.

Boeing is claiming that AI will provide the equivalent of a competent second pilot.  That’s not what AI is all about.  Despite the ability to learn, a machine learning system would have to have seen the circumstances of the failure before, and have a solution, or at least an approximation of a solution, as a part of its training.  This is not black magic, as Boeing seems to think.  It is a straightforward process of data and training.

AI does only what it is trained to do.  Boeing says that pilot error is the leading cause of airliner incidents.  They are correct, but it’s not as simple as that.  Pilot error is a catch-phrase that includes a number of different things, including wrong decisions, poor information, or inadequate training, among others.  While they can easily be traced back to the pilot, they are the result of several different causes of errors and omissions.

So I have my doubts as to whether full automation is possible or even desirable.  And the same applies to a single pilot.  Under normal operations, it might be a good approach.  But life is full of unexpected surprises.

Statistical Significance and Real Life December 23, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Education, Technology and Culture.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

I have a degree in applied math, and have taught statistics for a number of years.  I like to think that I have an intuitive feel for numbers and how they are best interpreted (of course, I also like to think that I am handsome and witty).

Over the last few years there has been concern among the academic community that most people massively misinterpret what statistical significance is telling them.  Most research is done by comparing two separate groups (people, drugs, ages, treatments, and so on), one of which is not changed, while the other of which undergoes a change (most experiments are actually more complex than this, with multiple change groups representing different stimuli, different doses, or different behaviors).  The two groups are then compared through a quantitative measurement of the characteristic under test.

Because we are sampling the population, there is some uncertainty in the result.  Only if we have complete information (a census) can we make a statement with certainty, and we almost never have that.  Statistical significance means that there is a small percentage (usually one or five percent) that a certain result can be found only by chance, thus suggesting that there is a real difference between the control and experimental groups.

Statistical significance is a narrow mathematical term.  It refers to interpreting the mathematics, not applying the result to the real world.  I try to make the distinction between statistical significance and practical significance.  Practical significance is when the experimental conclusion can result in meaningful action in the problem domain.  “This drug always cures cancer”, for example, can never be true, for multiple reasons.  But we might like to make the statement that we can save twenty thousand lives a year; that might result in action in promoting a cure.

The problem is that many policy makers and the general public conflate the two.  If something is statistically significant, how can it also not be practically significant?  A large sample size can identify and amplify tiny differences that in many cases don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

And there is such a thing as the Type I error (there is also a Type II error, which I’ll write about later).  The Type I error says that we falsely reject the hypothesis that there is no difference between the groups.  And what are the odds of that?  Pretty good, actually.  Chances are that you got those results through random chance, not because there is a real difference.

Many studies analyzed by statistics use multiple statistical tests, sometimes numbered in the hundreds.  If you do a hundred statistical tests, and you find five that give you statistically significant results at the 95 percent level, what do you conclude?  Many researchers breathe a sigh of relief and exclaim “Publish!”  Because in many cases their jobs are dependent on publishable results.

While we can use statistics and mathematics in general to help us understand complex problems, we have to mentally separate the narrow mathematical interpretations from the broader solution and policy ones.  But most researchers, either through ignorance or because it behooves their careers to publish, do so.  And the lay public and policy makers will bow to the cult of statistical significance, making things worse rather than better.

What Will History Write of Today’s Robber Barons? December 10, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: ,
add a comment

I love studying history, and have not done anywhere near as much of it as I would like.  In my public school youth, I studied Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, George Westinghouse, and others that came to be known collectively as the “robber barons”.  They and others became symbols of the abuse of common labor (my ancestors), even as they drove the expansion and modernization of the United States.

Now, in my formative years, we had massive industrial companies that became the leaders of the world – US Steel, Standard Oil (granted, that was the Rockefellers, but it persists through successor companies), and others.  In those years, I realized that while they were titans of industry, they also created a very polluted world.  I recognize that we didn’t necessarily know better as a society, but I also recognize that these industrialists took advantage of the Commons for their own extreme financial benefit.

(As a Boy Scout at perhaps 13, my troop was taken on a tour, arranged through a parent, of the St. Joseph zinc smelting plant in Shippensburg, PA.  Yes, the same town that had the first commercial atomic power plant in the US, and where I was a Pinkerton night watchman at 20.  We had to climb a 400-foot open staircase to get into the plant.  I, with a fear of open heights at the time, held on to the railing for dear life.  In doing so, I scraped several inches of industrial grit, likely hazardous, off that handrail.)

Today, we have our own set of robber barons – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and others.  They too broke new ground in innovation, in definitely cleaner industries, yet may not be leaving the world in better shape than it was.  I use the term robber barons non-judgmentally, but rather in comparison to similar figures in the past.

Fifty years from now will bring a new generation of robber barons.  I will be dead at that point, as will most or all of the current generation (Bill Gates is two years older than I, and Steve Jobs has already passed), but I’m curious as to how history will treat them.  A lot depends on what the world looks like at that time, but I would guess that their companies would represent legacy industries, with entirely new ways of computing coming into being.

Their wealth is clearly generational, although Gates has said that he and Melinda will give away 95 percent of their wealth during their lives.  I’ve had recent exposure to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and I can believe they are serious about it.  I think the foundational aspects of traditional Microsoft computing (Windows, Office) will be eclipsed by then, but its approach to cloud computing may be adaptable enough to last fifty years.

Databases are a different story.  There will always be the need to store and access data, and process it, but the technology has become fragmented by different approaches – SQL, No-SQL, time series, graph, and so on.  Search will also likely change and fragment, and is likely not to be driven by an advertiser model.  In fact, search may become a public utility.  Facebook is fundamentally flawed in its current iteration, yet unacknowledged by Zuckerberg, and will almost certainly be supplanted by other ways to connect with people.

The question of whether the current generation of robber barons did fundamental good is more difficult to answer.  Like most robber barons of the past, they attempted to maximize their net worth, sometimes through questionable means.  They are cleaner than past industrial corporations, yet still have significant deficiencies (equality, advocacy for modern employment standards) that they will likely not account for anytime soon.  And they may influence laws and regulations in undesirable ways.

So today’s robber barons will likely be held in the same mixed contempt as those in the past.  While the unbiased judgment may be a bit more nuanced, they will be held to the standards of the future, not of today.  And the future will not look kindly on some of the actions that may seem acceptable today.

About Tweeting December 6, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

I’ve done a presentation generically entitled “Talking to People: The Forgotten Software Tool.”  The time I gave it at DevOps Days Berlin 2016 was probably the closest I’ve ever come to getting a standing ovation.  The thesis of the talk, based in part on MIT’s Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation is that we as a society are increasingly preferring digital means of communications to physical ones.  For generations raised with smartphones, tablets, and (legacy) computers, face to face communications can be a struggle.

I am not a digital native in broadcasting my thoughts and activities to the rest of the world.  I have held jobs where tweeting, for example, was a job requirement in order to help build the company brand or get more page views.  I did so, even willingly, but my efforts were not nearly as voluminous as some of my colleagues.

I have to remember to tweet, or blog.  While I tend to be an introverted person throughout my life, decades ago I reluctantly recognized the need to reach out to others.  At the time, all of that was face to face, because digital connections didn’t exist.

Now there are so many ways to communicate without looking at someone.  I’ve had a number of video calls lately using Zoom, often with people who are using dual monitors.  They have the video showing on the large screen to one side, and look at that screen, and seemingly away from me.  It was funny, once I realized what was happening.

By itself, that’s not a bad thing, and in fact those with dual screens may not even realize they’re not really looking at you.  But it does damage the trust you try to build up by looking someone in the eye, and reading their nonverbal communications, is degraded even further with many digital forms of communications.

And tweeting is one of them.  And because we don’t know many (if at all) of the people who are reading our tweets, and don’t have to look them in the eye, we don’t feel obliged to be respectful (like many of Elon Musk’s more bizarre tweets).  That’s true even for those of us whose tweets are almost entirely professional.

Speech is not free.  We pay for it with everything we say.  Our reputations, the trust other people have in us, our ability to communicate effectively, and even to the point of lawsuits, are dependent upon not using Twitter as an attack platform.

Okay, here’s my solution.  Twitter needs to be banned from normal discourse.  In fact, Twitter is without normal discourse.  It should be entirely a professional platform.  I realize that this isn’t going to happen, but Twitter is too dangerous to our means of communication to simply dismiss.

Capricorn One and Other Conspiracies November 18, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

Capricorn One was a 1977 movie about a purported Mars space mission.  It turned out that the three astronauts were escorted off the spacecraft just before liftoff, and were told that the spacecraft was not capable of supporting life during the journey.  Months (more like two years) later, the entire spacecraft malfunctioned on the way home, and the astronauts realized that they out of necessity must die to maintain the illusion of success.  Thanks to an intrepid reporter and one astronaut who made it briefly to freedom, they exposed the conspiracy to fake the Mars landing.

It was a really good conspiracy movie.  But there were many situations where in real life the conspiracy could have been exposed.  Essentially, it took all of NASA to maintain the illusion of a successful mission up until the point the capsule malfunctioned.

That simply won’t happen.  As it won’t in any secret conspiracy.  In Capricorn One, it couldn’t have happened like this, because much of NASA would have known.  Yes, there was a NASA worker who thought there was something suspicious, but in reality it would be far more than a single control room worker.  And they can just speak up, without threat of an untimely death.  There is absolutely nothing that motivates them to keep a conspiracy.

That’s not to say that people won’t try to conspire.  It simply means that they are all doomed to failure.

So this leads us to the Flat Earth conspiracy.  You can personally see the Earth curve at altitude, and the images of Earth from space are convincing to all but the conspiracy-minded.  Yet people, for reasons unknown, are convinced that the Earth is flat.

I’m sorry, the physics of rotation and gravity and the like (some apparently claim that because they haven’t seen gravity, they are convinced it doesn’t exist.  Whatever that means.) are pretty unambiguous.  Apparently the members of Flat Earth are growing rapidly.  It’s really a shame that people, even seemingly intelligent people, don’t have a fundamental grasp of science.

The psychology behind this and other conspiracies is fascinating.  According to the experts, conspiracies are a way for people to believe they are in control of events.  Yet it’s not at all clear to me how believing in a massive conspiracy makes people in control.  So in reality, we have people rejecting hard science because, well, because they want to.  And that’s not a reason that will help them through life at all.

When A Grab for Revenue Looks Like Conspiracy November 14, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

As I’ve explained on several occasions, I don’t believe in conspiracies, despite their current popularity.  They simply go against rational thought.  Ten thousand people cannot possibly keep a secret about Roswell, and Area 51.  Kennedy was killed by a single deranged gunman, not a cabal of the Russians and the CIA (aside: I love the cartoon from the early 1990s, where two Kennedy assassination researchers were examining photos of November 22, 1963 – “Look!  There behind the grassy knoll.  It’s . . . Bill Clinton!”).

My thesis is that the only way that three people can keep a secret is if two are dead, and that logic is impossible to argue against.

So I generally believe in what those in positions of authority say about controversial events.  It’s simply too hard to make up a credible alternative.

Yet a surprising number of people believe in aliens, a Kennedy conspiracy, or, well, that vaccines are deadly (or at least deadlier than no vaccines).  In some of these conspiracy issues, there are reasonable questions that science doesn’t have definitive answers for, but that is the nature of science.  Science is rarely definitive, and allows for alternative theories backed with rigorous science.

But not with vaccines.  The only anti-vaccine study that even pretended to be scientific was immediately discredited and was eventually withdrawn from the medical literature.  Yet that doesn’t stop people from referring to it ad nauseum.  Other cited studies are bogus, unrefereed, or made up, and all refer back to that original, discredited study.

Why was it discredited?  It was performed by a group paid by lawyers suing vaccination manufacturers.  The sample selection was biased toward those children already diagnosed with autism, whether or not they had vaccines.  Fast-forward thirty years, and no unbiased study has found a link between vaccinations and autism or other childhood afflictions.

Let me repeat.  No unbiased study has found a link between vaccinations and autism or other childhood afflictions.

Yet Google, Twitter, and Facebook are still accepting money from anti-vaxxers for advertisements that cite this, as well as bogus research on the health detriments of vaccination.  Google and Twitter claim that they don’t, although the above link demonstrates conclusively that they do.  Facebook, the money machine that it is, proudly accepts such advertising, although it claims to place such advertising lower in its priority list (whatever that means).

Folks, wise up.  Google, Twitter, and Facebook aren’t here to let you search for information, share your thoughts, or keep in touch with people you don’t even remember.  They are here to help sell you stuff.  And if they have to bend the bounds of logic to do so, well, let the buyer beware.

About Facebook and Free Speech October 18, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
Tags: ,
add a comment

I read Mark Zuckerberg’s commentary on Facebook and free speech with a measured amount of incredulity.  Measured, because it was about what I expected him to say.  Incredulity, because with Facebook standing for fake users, made up news, fake ads, political influencing, and the dark underside of the Internet, he has the chutzpah to claim that he is all about free speech, and the rest be damned.

Free speech is a wonderful ideal, and rallying cry.  I would love to be able to claim a free speech mulligan for anything said online.

It’s not that easy.  Especially today and in the future, when speech is not just limited to face to face.  We tend to say things online that we would never say in a live setting.  And can do so anonymously, or even with a pseudo identity.  And we can make up things, and manufacture news, and it is accepted by many readers.

So if we let everyone say anything they want, in any identity they want, we end up with people with the time, money, and clout who say whatever it takes to get attention.  They can slur individuals without evidence, make absurd claims without proof, and bring discord and division to people who should know better.

So this is where free speech gets messy.  When so-called free speech includes lies, slurs, insults, unwarranted accusations, and more that can potentially reach millions of people, it is dangerous to individuals and society.  We try, imperfectly, to mitigate that danger through laws governing bias and hate, but the likes of Zuckerberg battle against both honesty and integrity, in the name of the almighty dollar.  You heard me correctly; Zuckerberg has no personal or professional integrity.

And that means that Facebook has no desire to mitigate such danger.  Zuckerberg knows this, but his advertising dollars are more important to him.  In a sense, he is propagating his own set of lies in order to achieve his goals of money and power.  And he is succeeding, despite the cost to society.

I debated writing this at all, because no one has listened to my screeds of Facebook in the past.  And Zuckerberg certainly has a much broader reach than I could ever hope to achieve.

I don’t believe that Zuckerberg is naïve to the subtilities and practical limitations of free speech in the Facebook era.  However, he is highly cognizant of the profits he makes by allowing anything, whether or not truthful in any sense of the word, to be given the same credence as real news and facts.

And don’t kid yourself; the MSM still delivers the vast majority of truth that is published.  Facebook is not a news creator; they have no reporters or editorial staff.  They get their “news” from those whose interest it is to manufacture it, and to pay for it.

The only other thing I will add is that we (well, not me, because I have never used Facebook) enable Zuckerberg to pervert free speech into whatever he wants in order to make money.  Remember that the next time you log on.