Specialized Technology: Why Processing Talk Can Be Helpful to Anyone

May 7, 2021

Some specialized services companies have provided cheat sheets for audio and video intercepts. I heard that this technology was under wraps and available only to those with certain privileges. Not any longer.

An outfit at Wordcab.com can perform what once was an intelligence function for anyone with Internet access, content, and a way to pay. Navigate to Wordcab.com and sign up. The company says:

Automagically summarize all your internal meetings. Wordcab creates detailed, natural-language summaries of all your meetings and sales calls. So you can focus on people, not paper.

Thumbtypers will thrill with the use of the word “automagically.” The service can ingest a Zoom recording and generate a summary. The outputs can be tweaked, but keep in mind, this is smart software, not Maxwell Perkins reincarnated as your blue pencil toting digital servant. There’s an API so the service can be connected to whizzy distributed services and, if you have a copy of Palantir Gotham-type software, you can do some creative analysis.

The idea is that the smart software can make an iPhone toting bro or bro-ette more efficient.

The key point is that once was a secret capability is now available to anyone with an Internet connection. And to those who don’t think there is useful information in TikTok-type services. Maybe think again?

Stephen E Arnold, May 7, 2021

Making Processes Simple Is Tough Work: Just Add Features and Move On

May 3, 2021

I read “Science Shows Why Simplifying Is Hard and Complicating Is Easy.” I am generally suspicious of “science says” arguments. The reproducibility of the experiments, the statistical methods used to analyze data, and the integrity of those involved. (Remember MIT and the Jeffrey Epstein dalliance?) With these caveats in mind, let’s consider the information in the Japan Times’s article. (Note: You may have to pay to view the original article.)

The core of the write up is that making a procedure or explanation simple is not what humans do. The reasons are set forth in  a paper published in Nature by scientists from the University of Virginia. Yep, the honor system outfit. The write up states:

In eight observational studies and experiments, they found that people systematically overlook opportunities to improve things by subtracting
and default instead to adding.

One of the reported findings I noted was:

The more intriguing insight was that people became less likely to consider subtraction the more they felt “cognitive load.”

When I commuted on Highway 101 in the San Francisco area, I recall seeing wizards fiddling with computing devices whilst driving. Not a good idea, science says. Common sense? Not part of the science, gentle reader.

I noted this passage too: Then dare to dream what thoughtful subtraction could do for the real mother lodes of self-propagating complexity — the U.S. tax code springs to mind, or the European Union’s fiscal rules. We can simplify our lives, but we have to put in the work. That’s what the
philosopher Blaise Pascal captured when he apologized, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

I would have sworn that that snappy comment was the work of Mark Twain or a British Fancy Dan who allegedly said Common sense is the best sense.

Let’s add footnotes, a glossary, and marginalia. Keep stuff simple like the automatic record-the-meeting feature added to Microsoft Teams. I think this is called featuritis or what could go wrong?

Stephen E Arnold, May 3, 2021

Common Sense: Unlikely When It Comes to Software for Thumbtypers

April 28, 2021

Here is some intriguing research we should all probably consider. Sometimes, the best solution to a design problem is to remove something instead of piling more features on. However, Scientific American reports, “Our Brain Typically Overlooks this Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy.” Perhaps the Microsoft Teams’ professionals might find value in a reduced-features approach to software. Just a suggestion.

Balance bikes that eliminate pedals instead of sporting training wheels for kids learning to ride. The elimination of traffic lights and road signs for safer streets. Solutions like these can be startling because they involve deletions instead of additions. Who would’ve thought? A pair of researchers at the University of Virginia tested their suspicion that humans tend to add elements instead of to removing them and that there is a psychological explanation. They conducted a series of observational studies that seem to confirm their hypothesis; see the write-up for those interesting details. Reporter Diana Kwon writes:

“These findings, which were published today in Nature, suggest that ‘additive solutions have sort of a privileged status—they tend to come to mind quickly and easily,’ says Benjamin Converse, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia and a co-author of the study. ‘Subtractive solutions are not necessarily harder to consider, but they take more effort to find.’ The authors ‘convincingly demonstrate that we tend to not consider subtractive solutions as much as additive ones,’ says Tom Meyvis, a consumer psychologist at New York University, who was not directly involved in the study but reviewed it and co-authored a commentary about it in Nature. While the propensity for businesses and organizations to opt for complexity rather than simplification was previously known, the novelty of this paper is that it shows that people tend toward adding new features, ‘even when subtracting would clearly be better,’ he adds. Meyvis also notes that other reasons for this effect may be a greater likelihood that additive solutions will be appreciated or the so-called sunk-cost bias, in which people continue investing in things for which time, money or effort has already been spent.”

Does this bias against subtraction cross cultures? Is it present in childhood or do we grow into it? Several questions remain to be investigated. Meanwhile, the researchers hope their findings will encourage all of us, whatever our field, to consider subtraction as well as addition when we go to make improvements or solve design problems. We might just find brilliant solutions we would otherwise have overlooked.

Cynthia Murrell, April 28, 2021

Microsoft Teams: An Interesting Message

April 27, 2021

Today my lecture will be via Zoom. The reason? Because Teams. The tweets greeted me with interesting content; for example:

We’ve confirmed that this issue [Teams spitting error messages] affects users globally.

Gobally. Okay. Now that’s a pretty fascinating statement from Microsoft, the outfit which has the ability to make it impossible for some people to play games at normal frame rates or print documents.

Very pro Microsoft online information services are explaining the oh-so-minor glitch; for example, “Microsoft Teams Down to Start the Day on the East Coast.” Without the usual rah rah, the objective news service states:

Many people struggling to use Teams see a message stating, “Operation failed with unexpected error.” As of 6:55 AM EST, reports spiked for outages from zero to 355, but they are rising quickly. Teams has millions of users, so 355 reports isn’t a dramatically high number, but the rate of change indicates an issue.

One can assume that “the rate of change indicates an issue” a pretty strong statement about the feature rich Teams’ service. Will some of the technical professionals working on the SolarWinds’ misstep be shifted to shore up the Teams mishap?

The technical issues with security, consumer updates, and Teams seem to be intractable to me. Instead of too big to fail, has Microsoft become too big to create stuff which works?

Stephen E Arnold, April 27, 2021

Scrutinizing Technology Wild Stallions: Regulators Care

April 13, 2021

Does government regulation bring some adulting to technology companies running wild? Yes, if the information in the weird orange newspaper is accurate. “Chinese Tech Groups Scrap IPOs at Record Pace after Ant Listing Pulled” reports [Note: You may be asked to pay to read the orange one’s write up. Sorry. You will have to subscribe]:

Companies cancel plans to sell shares on Shanghai’s Star Market as regulatory scrutiny rises.

Will this tactic work in the longer term? Nope, but it does suggest that some controls are applied to frisky tech horses.

It is possible that these stallions will work at dude ranches, happily carrying semi-authentic cow pokes to the faux cook out. But that’s a long shot.

Here’s a more practical response in my opinion:

  • Look elsewhere. That’s the greener pastures approach. What type of controls can one expect in London or a more exotic location in the EU
  • Pivot. There are plenty of doctors and dentists who are eager to invest in a whiz bang high tech stallion. With some lawyering, there are opportunities for private deals.
  • Look for Softbank-type outfits, get some cash, and leave it to the wizards in the lead funding outfit to find a buyer.

The MBAs and legal eagles can find other options as well.

The main point is that regulation often spurs innovation in the financial sector. How about an NFT for Chinese high tech companies? How about some regulation in the US of FAANGs?

No. Okay.

Stephen E Arnold, April 13, 2021

Software Development: Big Is the One True Way

April 13, 2021

I read an essay called “Everyone Is Still Terrible At Creating Software At Scale.” I am often skeptical about categorical affirmatives. Sometimes a sweeping statement captures an essential truth. This essay in Marginally Interesting has illuminated software development in a useful way.

I found this passage thought provoking:

I’ve seen a few e-commerce companies from the inside, and while their systems are marvel of technologies able to handle thousands of transactions per second, it does not feel like this, but things like the app and the website are very deeply entangled with the rest. Even if you wanted, you couldn’t create a completely new app or website.

After I read this, I thought about rotational velocity. I also thought about the idea of how easy it is to break something. Users want a software component to work and be usable. Software often appears fluid. What’s clear is that outages at big vendors and security lapses are seemingly the stuff of daily headlines. Big outfits deliver one thing; users get another.

Here’s another statement I circled:

My recommendation is to look at structures and ask yourself, how hard is it for any one “unit” in your “system” to get stuff done. Everything that cuts across areas of responsibility adds complexity.

Complexity is an interesting idea. Does Google “change” how the Page Rank method is implemented, or is Google in the software wrapper business? Can Microsoft plug security gaps when those gaps are the fabric of core Azure and Windows 10 processes? Can Facebook actually change feedback loops which feed its content processes? Is it possible for an outfit like Honda to change how it makes automobiles? In theory, a Honda-type operation can change, but the enemies are time, Tesla-like disruptions, Covid, and money.

Like the big ship which managed to get stuck in the Suez Canal, altering a method once underway is tricky.

The essay ends with this observation:

Unless you take care everyone has different understanding of the problem, and there is no focus on information gathering and constructive creativity.

But big is the way, right?

Stephen E Arnold, April 14, 2021

Brin Balloons His Bet on Buoyancy

March 22, 2021

I spotted the story “Is Sergey Brin Really Building the World’s Biggest Aircraft? Here’s Everything We Know.” Darned uplifting. The drift of the write up is:

… the ninth richest person in the world’s focus has been on exactly that: building a giant “sky yacht.”

As the IRS might term it, this is a hobby.

The write up explains:

… the LTA [Lighter Than Air] website states only humanitarian goals: “LTA airships will have the ability to complement — and even speed up — humanitarian disaster response and relief efforts, especially in remote areas that cannot be easily accessed by plane and boat due to limited or destroyed infrastructure.

Ah, ha. Tax deduction maybe?

How big you ask?

At this size [650 feet or two soccer pitches], the flying machine would definitely be the world’s largest aircraft today — although it would still be smaller than the ill-fated Hindenburg zeppelin of the 1930s, which was 804 feet long. For context, that’s more than three times the length of a Boeing 747 and more than four times the length of your typical Goodyear Blimp.

Several observations:

  • The write up does not explore the Loon balloon initiative. It drifted into oblivion by the way.
  • The airship’s size is bigger than Roman Abramovich’s Solaris super yacht which is about 200 feet smaller in the length department. But the ship is fungible; the balloon is plein d’air chaud.
  • The science club project will prove that buoyancy is a verifiable phenomenon.

Soon the uplifting impact of the world’s largest humanitarian balloon will cast its long shadow over the land. Quick question: Will Mr. Abramovich undertake an even larger inflatable object with a possible tax deduction. Solaris is difficult to shape into tax benefit, but it could be done with surplus Loon balloons.

Stephen E Arnold, March 22, 2021

Apple Confronts the Middle Kingdom: Another Joust between a High Tech Country and a Nation State

March 19, 2021

How did Australia fare in its head-to-head death match with Facebook? Readers of this blog know that I declared Facebook the winner over a mere country. Imagine. A country with kangaroos thinking it could win against the digital social kingdom. I declared Facebook the winner and pegged Australia as the equivalent of a company selling used RVs to residents of Silicon Valley who could not afford an apartment.

Now China finds itself in the midst of Apple peels because Chinese iPhone app developers are following Apple’s privacy guidelines. Imagine. Programmers in China have the daring do to veer outside the boundaries of the orchard owner.

Apple Warns Chinese Apps Not to Dodge Its New Privacy Rules” explains:

But even before introducing the changes, Apple is facing problems in China, where tech companies are testing ways to beat the system and continue tracking users without prompting for their consent. Apple previously said it would reject from its App Store any apps that “are found to disregard the user’s choice”. On Thursday, Apple fired pre-emptive warnings to at least two Chinese apps, telling them to cease and desist after naming a dozen parameters such as “setDeviceName” that could be used “to create a unique identifier for the user’s device”.

The write up explains that Chinese developers are testing technology to put gates in the fence around the Apple app orchard. That’s not what Apple permits. The techniques referenced in the source article smack of breach techniques long in use by specialized software companies. Some of the methods were hinted at in some of the Snowden documents and in the public dump of the Hacking Team’s RCS. Certain government-supported intelware companies employ similar techniques in their solutions as well.

What’s ahead?

  1. Apple declares victory and makes changes as it did for Russia. Business is business, and the ethical issues are really super important unless the economic hit is a consideration
  2. Apple declares that China has ruined the apple orchard, so no more digital delicacies will be exported to the Middle Kingdom
  3. China demonstrates that it can influence behavior by pulling certain supply chain strings, suggesting tariff changes to countries in its orbit, and engaging in face-to-face discussions with Chinese nationals working for the Silicon Valley giant.

Surveillance operates on steroids when app developers have access to the treasure trove of data from users’ actions.

This is another distinctly 21st century issue: A mere country and some of its state backed developers finding that access to the abundance in the Apple orchard hindered.

Stephen E Arnold, March 19, 2021

Quantum Computing: The Solution to SolarWinds and Microsoft Security Gaps

March 12, 2021

I am an optimist. I have been waking up with the idea that life is good and my work might make the world a slightly better place. However, I don’t put much trust in unicorns (nifty horses with a long pointy horn or the Silicon Valley type), fairies, or magical mermaids. When new technology comes along, I view the explanations of the technology’s wonders with skepticism. Mobile phones are interesting, but the phone has been around for a while. Shrinking chips make it possible to convert the “phone” into a general purpose thumbtyping machine. Nifty, but still a phone on steroids.

I thought about the human tendency to grasp for silver bullets. This characteristic runs through Jacques Ellul’s book The Technology Bluff. Its decades-old explanations and analyses are either unknown or ignored by many informed individuals. My hunch is that the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal assumes that its writers are responsible for understanding certain topics.

I read “Effective Cybersecurity Needs Quantum Computing.” Perhaps I should send a copy of Dr. Ellul’s book? But why? It’s not like the hippy dippy books included in the Murdoch book reviews. Dr. Ellul likes interesting words; for example, Mancipium. Does Mr. Murdoch’s oldest son know the meaning of the word? He should he lives in a mancipum-infused environment.

The essay asserts that a new and essentially unworkable technology will deal with the current cybersecurity challenges. How many years will be required to covert baby step lab experiments into a scalable solution to the business methods employed at outfits like SolarWinds and Microsoft? One, maybe five, or a more realistic 25 years?

The problems caused by flawed, short cut riddled, and uninformed approaches to coding, building, deploying, and updating enterprise software are here-and-now puzzles. For a point of reference, the White House sounded an alarm that a really big problem exists and poses threats today.

Sure, let’s kick back and wait for the entities of nifty technology to deliver solutions. IBM, Google, and other firms are beavering away on the unicornesque quantum computing. That’s fine, but to covert expensive, complex research and development projects into a solution for the vulnerability of that email you sent a few minutes ago is just off the wall. Sure, there may be a tooth fairy or a wizard with a magic wand, but that’s not going to be the fix quantum computing allegedly will deliver.

The WSJ essay states:

The extraordinary sensitivity of qubits reveals interference instantly and unfailingly. They would alert us when hackers read, copy or corrupt transmitted files.

Sure, if someone pays attention. I want to point out that exactly zero of the cybersecurity systems monitoring the SolarWinds’ misstep sounded an alarm. Hooking these systems into a quantum system will result in what, another two to five years of development. Walking by today’s quantum computers and waving an iPhone close to a component can create some excitement. Why? Yep, sensitivity. But why worry about trivial details.

The Murdocher does admit that quantum computers are years away, there is zero value in kicking today’s security disasters down the road like a discard can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Funding is fine. Conflating the current radiation poisoning of digital systems with quantum computing is like waiting for an Uber or Lyft driver to come by in a chariot pulled by a unicorn.

Stephen E Arnold, March 12, 2021

What Can Be Like a Bee? A Drone

March 11, 2021

Drones are mainly associated with aerial photography, eventual package deliveries, and unmanned attacks.  None of these, however, drive drone scientists to improve the robot technology.  What really moves them forward is the desire to replicate bees’ graceful movements and fully seeing flowers’ ultimate beauty says Science Daily in the article, “Appreciating A Flower’s Texture, Color, And Shapes Leads To Better Drone Landings.”

Technically it should be impossible for bees to fly, but reality proves that idea wrong.  Bees are amazing navigators who use optical flow, perceiving an object’s speed in their view field.  Robotics researchers designed an algorithm based off the optical view concept to allow robots to judge distances by visual cues (colors, shapes, and textures).

Drones will learn from the optical flow AI, but the concept has limitations:

“Optical flow has two fundamental limitations that have been widely described in the growing literature on bio-inspired robotics. The first is that optical flow only provides mixed information on distances and velocities — and not on distance or velocity separately. To illustrate, if there are two landing drones and one of them flies twice as high and twice as fast as the other drone, then they experience exactly the same optical flow. However, for good control these two drones should actually react differently to deviations in the optical flow divergence. If a drone does not adapt its reactions to the height when landing, it will never arrive and start to oscillate above the landing surface. Second, for obstacle avoidance it is very unfortunate that in the direction in which a robot is moving, the optical flow is very small. This means that in that direction, optical flow measurements are noisy and hence provide very little information on the presence of obstacles. Hence, the most important obstacles — the ones that the robot is moving towards — are actually the hardest ones to detect!

The limitations can be fixed if robots can interpret optical flow and visual appearances of objects in their field.  Seeing some distance by visual appearances resulted in better landings for drones.

Learning how to land the drones leads to better understanding of insects’ intelligence.  Biology and robotics do not often mesh outside of science fiction, but tiny bees could leads to advances in robotic navigation.

Whitney Grace, March 11, 2021

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