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About Tweeting December 6, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

How Science Works October 11, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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About 65 million years ago, give or take, dinosaurs roamed the Earth.  Then, on a single day (more or less), a massive asteroid struck in what is today the southern Gulf of Mexico, just north of the Yucatan Peninsula.  A decade or two ago, there was evidence of a massive asteroid strike in the Gulf of Mexico at the K-T boundary.  Seemingly, this changed the Earth’s climate so drastically that dinosaurs became extinct (this took likely a million or so years).  While this theory was first proposed about two decades ago, it is receiving additional support through further research.

None of this is known in an absolute sense; there were no witnesses, of course.  Paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, and more have deduced this from evidence on the ground.  You will truly be amazed at the amount of effort scientists have put into discerning the distant past.

It’s important to note that the evidence is not first-hand.  Scientists typically start with a theory, then look for clues that support or reject the theory.  The clues are not clear-cut.  Other scientists pose alternative theories.  More research is conducted.  Based on the preponderance of research, one theory may win out over time, but other scientific theories may still be valid.  We may never know truth in an absolute sense.

I remember, now about 45 years ago, a novel by Larry Niven called Lucifer’s Hammer, which postulated a modern-day (well, the 1970s) asteroid strike on the Earth.  For months before the strike, the possibility was dismissed because the margin or error was too large.  That margin of error became smaller and smaller, until the day the asteroid, in major pieces, hit various parts of the Earth.  But only the “kooks” bought into it before the margin of error equaled certainty.

All science is messy, and that causes many people fits.  Theories are proposed, supported, refuted, and supported further.  We had Newton’s Three Laws (which are not the same as Asimov’s fictional Three Laws), until Einstein proposed a more accurate theory.  But Newton’s laws are still useful for many computations, and in a physical sense, easier to understand.  So we continue to use them.

Too many otherwise educated people become frustrated at the ambiguities and contradictions of science, and reject the conclusions because they don’t like the process.  Others fail to grasp the nuances, and fall back on undocumented legends and stories.

Does this mean we should reject science because it is a work in progress?  Many people say yes, reverting to other beliefs.  We think that science is all certainty, and when we become disillusioned, we reject everything.  But that’s not how science works.  As we are increasingly in a world where it may take decades or longer to discern truth, or even never completely be cognizant of truth, we can’t reject science because we don’t like the process.

Nuke the Hurricanes! August 27, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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The topic of dropping a nuclear bomb into a hurricane is currently making the rounds in general purpose journalism and politics.  The theory intrigues many people, in large part because it assumes that humans can exercise a large amount of control over their environment.

Now, I am not a meteorologist, but I think I understand a little bit of the physics involved.  First, a hurricane is likely far too large to be torn apart by a nuclear weapon of modest megaton explosive capability.  There may be some disruption of wind forces, but not at all stop a hurricane in its tracks.  Those who have been in hurricanes (I have been in two Category 1 systems) realize the incredible power of such systems, and how we are just bit players in a cataclysmic event.

Second, the more profound result is the spread of nuclear fallout across wide regions of the world.  The enormous winds of a hurricane will only serve to spread radiation across oceans and continents, endangering people and environment.

Instead, a more intriguing alternative was proposed by fiction writer (and university marine engineering professor) Hilbert Schenck in his 1983 novella Hurricane Claude.  Schenck postulates a hurricane similar to the unnamed 1938 Northeast hurricane (often called the Great New England Hurricane, or the Long Island Express) that wreaked havoc on Long Island, and devises an extremely powerful electrical current from a plane at 30,000 feet to a boat of the surface in the middle of a hurricane.

The problem is with the boat, of course.  Despite being waterproof and presumably unsinkable (of course, it hadn’t been tested in a major hurricane), the pounding taken had the potential to kill anyone on board, even if they are protected from drowning.

But there are still larger problems with Schenck’s concept.  Now, it is not at all clear that an electrical charge, no matter what its intensity, would affect a hurricane.  He presents a compelling case, but I have no idea if it is backed by science (Schenck died in 2013).  And it’s not clear that an airplane and boat can generate the electrical current required.

And even if it did work, would there be a larger environmental fallout?  It’s impossible to tell without trying it, yet the worst case is likely worse than we can imagine.

While Schenck presents an interesting possibility, I’m not sure this can ever reasonably be tested.  But it makes for a better read than a nuclear bomb.

The Future of Flight August 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I thoroughly enjoy travel.  Connecting with other regions and cultures only serves to educate me on just how much we all have in common.  Whether the city is a thousand years old (Tallinn) or a couple hundred years old (Helsinki), I marvel at everything and everyone.

As a flight aficionado, I don’t even mind getting there.  I’ve always been fascinated by aviation, and actually enjoy getting on a commercial airline to go somewhere distant.

However, this article from The Conversation, via Quartz, is right about one thing.  Air travel as we know it is unsustainable from an environmental point of view.  We are still burning massive amounts of petrocarbons to get relatively few people from one place to another.  Prominent people from Meghan Markle to Greta Thunberg are being shamed for their jet travel (unjustly, in part because so many more egregious cases abound; remember when GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt had a second corporate jet follow him around the world, on the off chance that the first one broke down somewhere?).

Here are the four solutions proposed, along with my semi-educated take on them.

  1. Limit and meter air travel by individuals. I presume that this will be accompanied by ways to buy flight credits for those with the need to travel more.  I also presume that politicians will exempt themselves.  Won’t work, of course.  It would put dozens of carriers and air manufacturers out of business with far less air travel.  It would hurt other businesses who would not be able to travel to support their business goals.  Further, this would lead back to air travel being a privilege for the wealthy, rather than a right of all.  It’s funny that most solutions proposed by elitists serve to benefit them at the expense of others.This alternative also included high-speed trains as a way to replace air travel.  It works to some extent in Europe and Japan.  However, both have a smaller land area and denser population (Japan especially), and that makes a huge difference.  Even in the dense Northeast, the Acela beyond short distances is problematic.  New York to California will take 2-3 days.  I’ve even tried to work trains into my conference travels, and they simply take too long to work.
  2. Electric-powered aircraft. This one seems intriguing; I used to think torque was a problem in electric motors, until I rode in a Tesla.  But the overwhelming problem here remains weight, particularly battery weight.  Weight is a consideration in cars; it is /the/ consideration in aircraft.  The first electric aircraft may well be hybrids, like cars, but that doesn’t overcome the weight issues.  While there may be opportunities here, they are not right around the corner.In 1988 Hilbert Schenck wrote a science fiction story of a nuclear-powered bomber that heated water to steam to turn engine turbines.  While steam is extremely powerful, it lacks torque, leading to the building of a 20-mile runway in northern Maine (think Loring AFB run amok).  The bomber only got off the ground because of clever manipulations by the command pilot.  And, of course, we can’t go building 20-mile runways all over the place.  And I’m not sure how that solution would work with jet engines.
  3. Bring back the zeppelin. Once again, this is creating a solution by the elite for the elite.  Those who can afford to take three or four days to cross the Atlantic are welcome to it.  But that won’t solve the pollution problem, because most people don’t have unlimited leisure time.
  4. Orbital maglev trains. As near as I can tell from the description, kind of a Jacob’s Ladder with frictionless acceleration and velocity at about 80km above the planet’s surface.  But there’s been no actual R&D here, so it is very much pie in the sky, at least for decades.

I applaud ways to consider less-unfriendly alternatives to enable travel, but these are pretty much off the charts.  More efficient engines, lighter (composite) aircraft, and better ATC aircraft routings are things we can do today to ease climate change, rather than 50 or 100 years from now.

Minority Report Has Arrived August 19, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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It’s not quite the Tom Cruise movie where the temporal detective is himself pursued for his intent to commit a crime in the future, but it is telling nonetheless.  In this case, the Portland (OR) police department digitally altered a mug shot to remove facial tattoos from a prospective bank robber prior to showing it to witnesses who reported no such tattoos.  This ended up with an arrest and trial of that man, based partially on the doctored photo.

The technology used was not at all cutting edge (it was Photoshopped), but it was intended to make the mug shot look more like the descriptions provided by the witnesses.  It’s not clear that the police and prosecutors tried to hide this fact, but they justify it by saying the suspect could have used makeup prior to the robberies.  The public defender is, of course, challenging its admissibility, but as of now there has been no ruling on the matter.  The police also say that they have done similar adjustments to photos in other cases.  Hmmm.

This specific instance is troubling in that we expect legal evidence not to be Photoshopped, especially for the purpose of pointing the finger at a specific suspect.  The more strategic issue is how law enforcement, and society in general, will use newer technologies to craft evidence advocating or rejecting certain positions.  I don’t expect Congress or other legal body to craft (imperfect) laws regulating this until it is far too late.

I can envision a future where law, politics, and even news in general comes to rely on deep fakes as a way of influencing public opinion, votes, and society as a whole.  We certainly see enough of that today, and the use of faked videos and voices will simply make it more difficult to tell the difference between honest and made-up events.  Social media, with its inconsistent fake news rules applied inconsistently, makes matters worse.

I’m rather reminded of the old (1980s) TV show Max Headroom, in which a comatose investigative reporter lends his knowledge and personality to a lifelike AI that broadcasts in his stead.  The name comes from the last thing the reporter saw before his coma – a sign saying MAX HEADROOM 2.3M.  His head hits the sign at high speed, and becomes his AI num de guerre.

We wonder why so many people persist in believing clearly unsupported statements, and at least part of that has to do with the ability of anyone to express anything and attract a wide audience (“It’s on the Internet so it must be true!”).  Doctored words, photos, and video will eventually make nothing believable.