Why Governments and Others Outsource… Almost Everything

January 24, 2023

I read a very good essay called “Questions for a New Technology.” The core of the write up is a list of eight questions. Most of these are problems for full-time employees. Let me give you one example:

Are we clear on what new costs we are taking on with the new technology? (monitoring, training, cognitive load, etc)

The challenge strike me as the phrase “new technology.” By definition, most people in an organization will not know the details of the new technology. If a couple of people do, these individuals have to get the others up to speed. The other problem is that it is quite difficult for humans to look at a “new technology” and know about the knock on or downstream effects. A good example is the craziness of Facebook’s dating objective and how the system evolved into a mechanism for social revolution. What in-house group of workers can tackle problems like that once the method leaves the dorm room?

The other questions probe similarly difficult tasks.

But my point is that most governments do not rely on their full time employees to solve problems. Years ago I gave a lecture at Cebit about search. One person in the audience pointed out that in that individual’s EU agency, third parties were hired to analyze and help implement a solution. The same behavior popped up in Sweden, the US, and Canada and several other countries in which I worked prior to my retirement in 2013.

Three points:

  1. Full time employees recognize the impossibility of tackling fundamental questions and don’t really try
  2. The consultants retained to answer the questions or help answer the questions are not equipped to answer the questions either; they bill the client
  3. Fundamental questions are dodged by management methods like “let’s push decisions down” or “we decide in an organic manner.”

Doing homework and making informed decisions is hard. A reluctance to learn, evaluate risks, and implement in a thoughtful manner are uncomfortable for many people. The result is the dysfunction evident in airlines, government agencies, hospitals, education, and many other disciplines. Scientific research is often non reproducible. Is that a good thing? Yes, if one lacks expertise and does not want to accept responsibility.

Stephen E Arnold, January 25, 2023

Is SkyNet a Reality or a Plot Device?

January 20, 2023

We humans must resist the temptation to outsource our reasoning to an AI, no matter how trustworthy it sounds. This is because, as iai News points out, “All-Knowing Machines Are a Fantasy.” Society is now in danger of confusing fiction with reality, a mistake that could have serious consequences. Professors Emily M. Bender and Chirag Shah observe:

“Decades of science fiction have taught us that a key feature of a high-tech future is computer systems that give us instant access to seemingly limitless collections of knowledge through an interface that takes the form of a friendly (or sometimes sinisterly detached) voice. The early promise of the World Wide Web was that it might be the start of that collection of knowledge. With Meta’s Galactica, OpenAI’s ChatGPT and earlier this year LaMDA from Google, it seems like the friendly language interface is just around the corner, too. However, we must not mistake a convenient plot device—a means to ensure that characters always have the information the writer needs them to have—for a roadmap to how technology could and should be created in the real world. In fact, large language models like Galactica, ChatGPT and LaMDA are not fit for purpose as information access systems, in two fundamental and independent ways.”

The first problem is that language models do what they are built to do very well: they produce text that sounds human-generated. Authoritative, even. Listeners unconsciously ascribe human thought processes to the results. In truth, algorithms lack understanding, intent, and accountability, making them inherently unreliable as unvetted sources of information.

Next is the nature of information itself. It is impossible for an AI to tap into a comprehensive database of knowledge because such a thing does not exist and probably never will. The Web, with its contradictions, incomplete information, and downright falsehoods, certainly does not qualify. Though for some queries a quick, straightforward answer is appropriate (how many tablespoons in a cup?) most are not so simple. One must compare answers and evaluate provenance. In fact, the authors note, the very process of considering sources helps us refine our needs and context as well as asses the data itself. We miss out on all that when, in search of a quick answer, we accept the first response from any search system. That temptation is hard enough to resist with a good old fashioned Google search. The human-like interaction with chatbots just makes it more seductive. The article notes:

“Over both evolutionary time and every individual’s lived experience, natural language to-and-fro has always been with fellow human beings. As we encounter synthetic language output, it is very difficult not to extend trust in the same way as we would with a human. We argue that systems need to be very carefully designed so as not to abuse this trust.”

That is a good point, though AI developers may not be eager to oblige. It remains up to us humans to resist temptation and take the time to think for ourselves.

Cynthia Murrell, January 20, 2023

Eczema? No, Terminator Skin

January 20, 2023

Once again, yesterday’s science fiction is today’s science fact. ScienceDaily reports, “Soft Robot Detects Damage, Heals Itself.” Led by Rob Shepherd, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Cornell University’s Organic Robotics Lab has developed stretchable fiber-optic sensors. These sensors could be incorporated in soft robots, wearable tech, and other components. We learn:

“For self-healing to work, Shepard says the key first step is that the robot must be able to identify that there is, in fact, something that needs to be fixed. To do this, researchers have pioneered a technique using fiber-optic sensors coupled with LED lights capable of detecting minute changes on the surface of the robot. These sensors are combined with a polyurethane urea elastomer that incorporates hydrogen bonds, for rapid healing, and disulfide exchanges, for strength. The resulting SHeaLDS — self-healing light guides for dynamic sensing — provides a damage-resistant soft robot that can self-heal from cuts at room temperature without any external intervention. To demonstrate the technology, the researchers installed the SHeaLDS in a soft robot resembling a four-legged starfish and equipped it with feedback control. Researchers then punctured one of its legs six times, after which the robot was then able to detect the damage and self-heal each cut in about a minute. The robot could also autonomously adapt its gait based on the damage it sensed.”

Some of us must remind ourselves these robots cannot experience pain when we read such brutal-sounding descriptions. As if to make that even more difficult, we learn this material is similar to human flesh: it can easily heal from cuts but has more trouble repairing burn or acid damage. The write-up describes the researchers’ next steps:

“Shepherd plans to integrate SHeaLDS with machine learning algorithms capable of recognizing tactile events to eventually create ‘a very enduring robot that has a self-healing skin but uses the same skin to feel its environment to be able to do more tasks.'”

Yep, sci-fi made manifest. Stay tuned.

Cynthia Murrell, January 20, 2023

MBAs Dig Up an Old Chestnut to Explain Tech Thinking

January 19, 2023

Elon Musk is not afraid to share, it is better to say tweet, about his buyout and subsequent takeover of Twitter. He has detailed how he cleared the Twitter swamp of “woke employees” and the accompanying “woke mind virus.” Musk’s actions have been described as a prime example of poor leadership skills and lauded as a return to a proper business. Musk and other rich business people see the current times as a war, but why? Vox’s article, “The 80-Year-Old Book That Explains Tech’s New Right-Wing Tilt” explains writer Antonio García Martínez:

“…who’s very plugged into the world of right-leaning Silicon Valley founders. García Martínez describes a project that looks something like reverse class warfare: the revenge of the capitalist class against uppity woke managers at their companies. ‘What Elon is doing is a revolt by entrepreneurial capital against the professional-managerial class regime that otherwise everywhere dominates (including and especially large tech companies),’ García Martínez writes. On the face of it, this seems absurd: Why would billionaires who own entire companies need to “revolt” against anything, let alone their own employees?”

García Martínez says the answer is in James Burnham’s 1941 book: The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening In The World. Burnham wrote that the world was in late-stage capitalism, so the capitalist bigwigs would soon lose their power to the “managerial class.” These are people who direct industry and complex state operations. Burnham predicted that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia would inevitably be the winners. He was wrong.

Burnham might have been right about the unaccountable managerial class and experts in the economy, finance, and politics declare how it is the best description of the present. Burnham said the managerial revolution would work by:

“The managerial class’s growing strength stems from two elements of the modern economy: its technical complexity and its scope. Because the tasks needed to manage the construction of something like an automobile require very specific technical knowledge, the capitalist class — the factory’s owners, in this example — can’t do everything on their own. And because these tasks need to be done at scale given the sheer size of a car company’s consumer base, its owners need to employ others to manage the people doing the technical work.

As a result, the capitalists have unintentionally made themselves irrelevant: It is the managers who control the means of production. While managers may in theory still be employed by the capitalist class, and thus subject to their orders, this is an unsustainable state of affairs: Eventually, the people who actually control the means of production will seize power from those who have it in name only.

How would this happen? Mainly, through nationalization of major industry.”

Burnham believed it was best if the government managed the economy, i.e. USSR and Nazi Germany. The authoritarian governments killed that idea, but Franklin Roosevelt laid the groundwork for an administrative state in the same vein as the New Deal.

The article explains current woke cancel culture war is viewed as a continuation of the New Deal. Managers have more important roles than the CEOs who control the money, so the CEOs are trying to maintain their relevancy and power. It could also be viewed as a societal shift towards a different work style and ethic with the old guard refusing to lay down their weapons.

Does Burnham’s novel describe Musk’s hostile and/or needed Twitter takeover? Yes and no. It depends on the perspective. It does make one wonder if big tech management are following the green light from 1651 Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan?

Whitney Grace, January 19, 2023

Tech Needs: Programmers, Plumbing, and Prayers

January 17, 2023

A recent survey by open-source technology firm WSO2 asked 200 IT managers in Ireland and the UK about their challenges and concerns. BetaNews shares some of the results in, “IT Infrastructure Challenges Echo a Rapidly Changing Digital Landscape.” We learn of issues both short- and long-term. WSO2’s Ricardo Diniz describes the top three:

“The biggest IT challenge affecting decision-makers is ‘legacy infrastructure’. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said it is a top challenge right now, although only 39 percent expect it to be a top challenge in three years’ time. This indicates a degree of confidence that legacy issues can be overcome, either through tools that integrate better with the legacy platforms, or the rollout of alternatives enabling legacy tech to be retired. Second on the list is ‘managing security risks’, cited by half of the respondents as a current problem, though only 41 percent expect to see it as an issue in the future. This is not surprising; given the headline-grabbing breaches and third-party risks facing organizations, resilience and protection are priorities. ‘Skills shortages in the IT team’ complete the top three challenges. It is an issue for 48 percent and is still expected to be a problem in three years’ time according to 39 percent of respondents. Notably, these three challenges are set to remain top of the list – albeit at a slightly less troublesome level – in three years’ time.”

A couple other challenges, however, seem on track to remain just as irksome in three years. One is businesses’ transition to the cloud, currently in progress. Most respondents, concerned about integrations with legacy systems and maximizing ROI, hesitate to move all their operations to the cloud and prefer a hybrid approach. Diniz recommends cloud vendors remain flexible.

The other stubborn issue is API integration and management. Though APIs are fundamental to IT infrastructure, Diniz writes, IT leaders seem unsure how to wield them effectively. As a company quite familiar with APIs, WSO2 has published some advice on the matter. Founded in 2005, WSO2 is based in Silicon Valley and maintains offices around the world.

Cynthia Murrell, January 17, 2023

Insight about Software and Its Awfulness

January 10, 2023

Software is great, isn’t it? Try to do hanging indents with numbers in Microsoft Word. If you want this function without wasting time with illogical and downright weird controls, call a Microsoft Certified Professional to code what you need. Law firms are good customers. What about figuring out which control in BlackMagic DaVinci delivers the effect you want? No problem. Hire someone who specializes in the mysteries of this sort of free software. No expert in Princeton, Illinois, or Bear Dance, Montana? Do the Zoom thing with a gig worker. That’s efficient. There are other examples; for instance, do you want to put your MP3 on an iPhone? Yeah, no problem. Just ask a 13 year old. She may do the transfer for less than an Apple Genius.

Why is software awful?

There Is No Software Maintenance” takes a step toward explaining what’s going on and what’s going to get worse. A lot worse. The write up states:

Software maintenance is simply software development.

I think this means that a minimal viable product is forever. What changes are wrappers, tweaks, and new MVP functions. Yes, that’s user friendly.

The essay reports:

The developers working on the product stay with the same product. They see how it is used, and understand how it has evolved.

My experience suggests that the mindset apparent in this article is the new normal.

The advantages are faster and cheaper, quicker revenue, and a specific view of the customer as irrelevant even if he, she, or it pays money.

The downsides? I jotted down a few which occurred to me:

  1. Changes may or may not “work”; that is, printing is killed. So what? Just fix it later.
  2. Users’ needs are secondary to what the product wizards are going to do. Oh, well, let’s take a break and not worry about today. Let’s plan for new features for tomorrow. Software is a moving target for everyone now.
  3. Assumptions about who will stick around to work on a system or software are meaningless. Staff quit, staff are RIFed, and staff are just an entity on the other end of an email with a contract working in Bulgaria or Pakistan.

What’s being lost with this attitude or mental framing? How about trust, reliability, consistency, and stability?

Stephen E Arnold, January 10, 2023

Backups: Slam Dunk? Well, No and Finding That Out Is a Shock to Some

January 9, 2023

Flash back in time: You have an early PC. You have files on floppy discs. In order to copy a file, one had to fiddle around, maybe swapping discs or a friend in the technology game with a disc duplicator. When one disc is bad, one just slugs in the second disc. Oh, oh. That disc is bad too. In the early 1980s, that type of problem on an Eagle computer or DEC Rainbow could force a person back to a manual typewriter and a calculating machine with a handle no less.

Today, life is better, right? There are numbers that explain the mean time between failure of speedy solid state discs. If one pokes around, there are back-in-fashion tape back up systems. Back up software can be had for free or prices limited only by the expertise of the integrator bundling hardware and software. Too expensive? Lease the hardware and toss in a service plan. What happens when the back up data on the old, reliable magnetic tape cannot be read? Surprise.

The cloud provides numerous back up options. One vendor, which I shall not name, promises automatic back up. The surprise on the face of the customer who stores high-value data in a uniquely named file folder is fascinating. You may be able to see this after a crash and the cloud believer learns that the uniquely named folder was not backed up. Surprise for sure.

I read “EA Says It Can’t Recover 60% of Players’ Corrupted Madden Franchise Save Files.” I am not into computer games. I don’t understand the hardship created by losing a “saved game.” That’s okay. The main point of the article strikes me as:

EA says that a temporary “data storage issue” led to the corruption of many Madden NFL 23 players’ Connected Franchise Mode (CFM) save files last week. What’s worse, the company now estimates it can recover fewer than half of those corrupted files from a backup.

It is 2023, isn’t it?

What’s clear is that this company did not have a procedure in place to restore lost data.

Some things never change. Here’s an example. Someone calls me and says, “My computer crashed.” I ask, “Do you have a back up?” The person says, “Yes, the system automatically saves data to an external drive.” I ask, “Do you have another copy on a cloud service or a hard drive you keep at a friend’s house?” The person says, “No, why would I need that?”

The answer, gentle reader, is that multiple back ups are necessary even in 2023.

Some folks are slow learners.

Stephen E Arnold, January 9, 2023

Tech Transfer: Will Huawei Amp Up Litigation for Alleged Infringement

January 4, 2023

Those patents can be tough to read. However, there are legal eagles who have engineering degrees and industry experience, to determine if one firm is infringing on another outfit’s patent. What do the legal eagles for the allegedly intellectual property misdeeds do. I am no lawyer, but I think the basic objective is to figure out the alleged infraction and then do as much research as possible to learn. Ultimately the exercise can lead to patent litigation. In some instances, however, owning a patent opens the door to some fascinating analytic technology. Relationship maps, documents authored by the inventors or the engineers snared in the research, and a reason to ask questions, take stuff apart, and determine the appropriate action. In some cases, there will be a wham bam patent lawsuit. But in other situations, the outfit which feels as its it crown jewel was torn from its well formed head, just gets smarter.

Ah, has. Could this desire to get smarter or just ask a lot of questions be part of the Huawei plan for the Samsung patents?

Samsung Transfers 98 of Its US Patents to Huawei” reports:

a new report from The Elec claims that Samsung has just transferred 98 patents it owned in the United States to Huawei last month. This includes the 81 patents that Samsung transferred to Huawei in 2019. So far, the South Korean company has transferred a total of 179 patents to Huawei.

What about the sanctions? Well, what about them? Armed with legal eagles, Huawei may obtain some useful information if it pursues alleged infringement investigations. The legal work can take place in the US. But what about the data harvested by the Huawei legal team? Could that information find its way to the China-affiliated firm?

Birds fly don’t they information going to be helpful? Hmmm.

Stephen E Arnold, January 4, 2023

Southwest Crash: What Has Been Happening to Search for Years Revealed

January 2, 2023

What’s the connection between the failure of Southwest Airlines’ technology infrastructure and search? Most people, including assorted content processing experts, would answer the question this way:

None. Finding information and making reservations are totally unrelated.

Fair enough.

The Shameful Open Secret Behind Southwest’s Failure” does not reference finding information as the issue. We learn:

This problem — relying on older or deficient software that needs updating — is known as incurring “technical debt,” meaning there is a gap between what the software needs to be and what it is. While aging code is a common cause of technical debt in older companies — such as with airlines which started automating early — it can also be found in newer systems, because software can be written in a rapid and shoddy way, rather than in a more resilient manner that makes it more dependable and easier to fix or expand.

I think this is a reasonable statement. I suppose a reader with my interest in search and retrieval can interpret the comments as applicable to looking up who owns some of the domains hosted on Megahost.com or some similar service provider. With a little thought, the comment can be stretched to cover the failure some organizations have experienced when trying to index content within their organizations so that employees can find a PowerPoint used by a young sales professional at a presentation at a trade show several weeks in the past.

My view point is that the Southwest failure provides a number of useful insights into the fragility of the software which operates out of sight and out of mind until that software fails.

Here’s my list of observations:

  1. Failure is often a real life version of the adage “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. The idea is that good enough software chugs along until it simply does not work.
  2. Modern software cannot be quickly, easily, or economically fixed. Many senior managers believe that software wrappers and patches can get the camel back up and working.
  3. Patched systems may have hidden, technical or procedural issues. A system may be returned but it may harbor hidden gotchas; for example, the sales professionals PowerPoint. The software may not be in the “system” and, therefore, cannot be found. No problem until a lawyer comes knocking about a disconnect between an installed system and what the sales professional asserted. Findability is broken by procedures, lack of comprehensive data collection, or an error importing a file. Sharing blame is not popular in some circles.

What’s this mean?

My view is that many systems and software work as intended; that is, well enough. No user is aware of certain flaws or errors, particularly when these are shared. Everyone lives with the error, assuming the mistake is the way something is. In search, if one looks for data about Megahost.com and the data are not available, it is easy to say, “Nothing to learn. Move on.” A rounding error in Excel. Move on. An enterprise search system which cannot locate a document? Just move on or call the author and ask for a copy.

The Southwest meltdown is important. The failure of the system makes clear the state of mission critical software. The problem exists in other systems as well, including, tax systems, command and control systems, health care systems, and word processors which cannot reliably number items in a list, among others.

An interesting and exciting 2023 may reveal other Southwest case examples.

Stephen E Arnold, January 2, 2023

Evolution? Sure, Consider the Future of Humanoids

November 11, 2022

It’s Friday, and everyone deserves a look at what their children’s grandchildren will look like. Let me tell you. These progeny will be appealing folk. “Future Humans Could Have Smaller Brains, New Eyelids and Hunchbacks Thanks to Technology.” Let’s look at some of the real “factoids” in this article from the estimable, rock solid fact factory, The Daily Sun:

  1. A tech neck which looks to me to be a baby hunchback
  2. Smaller brains (evidence of this may be available now. Just ask a teen cashier to make change
  3. A tech claw. I think this means fingers adapted to thumbtyping and clicky keyboards.

I must say that these adaptations seem to be suited to the digital environment. However, what happens if there is no power?

Perhaps Neanderthal characteristics will manifest themselves? Please, check the cited article for an illustration of the future human. My first reaction was, “Someone who looks like that works at one of the high tech companies near San Francisco. Silicon Valley may be the cradle of adapted humans at this time. Perhaps a Stanford grad student will undertake a definitive study by observing those visiting Philz’ Coffee.

Stephen E Arnold, November 11, 2022

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