Of Digital Shadows And Digital Ghosts

Ice, Shadow and StoneIn writing about shadows and ghosts, it’s hard not to draw the line to how we process data – the phrase big data gets tossed around a lot in this way.

Data Science allows us to create constructs of data – interpreted and derived, insinuated and insulated, when in fact we know about as much about that data as we do the people in our own lives – typically insufficient to understand them as people, something I alluded to here.

Data only tells us what has happened, it doesn’t tell us what will happen, and it’s completely based on the availability we frame in and from data. We can create shadows from that data, but the real value of data is in the ghosts – the collected data in contexts beyond our frames and availability.

This is the implicit flaw in machine learning and even some types of AI. It’s where ethics intersects technology when the technologies have the capacity to affect human lives for better and worse, because it becomes a problem of whether it’s fair.

And we really aren’t very good at ‘fair’.

Beyond The Box

Framed WorldI read a lot about what people have to write about innovation, particularly here in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the larger Caribbean. It’s a global issue, of course, where Silicon Valley faces increased criticism for being divorced from reality. In Trinidad and Tobago, I’ve seen talk of innovation with a prominent and ubiquitous software logo prominent in the background, I’ve heard people talking about the need for innovation.

And I see people doing largely the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, something Albert Einstein once defined as insanity. Arguments are made about how things have changed, how with this new product and this new knowledge unspecified innovation will arise.

It’s an old story told before I started in the software industry, and it will likely continue after I’m long gone. Under the surface, it’s the reinvention of language by marketing departments, much like ‘smart mobs’ was a novelty rebranding of ‘collective intelligence’. Reinventing the same thing is not inventing. 

“We trained hard—but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

– Charlton Ogburn

In the end, one cannot force innovation as one would a bowel movement or you get the same result, hemorrhoids and all.

Beyond The Box.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, ‘thinking outside the box’, or used it, it might be worth knowing the history of the phrase. It’s about being creative with what is available and using it beyond what most others would because they’re limited to a framework – a framework of 9 dots.

We like frameworks. They make things easy for us, but they also create framing – where we do not think beyond the frame, much as we acknowledge anything outside of a frame has nothing to do with a painting or picture. This is false, of course, as what is outside the frame of that art affects how the art is seen – the context within which the art exists, and part of the frame’s job is to make that boundary visible and aesthetically pleasing.

Everything is framed, and framing is a powerful thing because it implicitly frames our expectations. It also leads to what is known as ‘availability’, where if something keeps getting pushed as a solution we reach for that hammer even when we’re dealing with a phillip-head screw.

To think outside the box, we have to think outside the frameworks. To think beyond the frameworks, we have to explore beyond those frameworks and see what’s outside the scope of the issue. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most prodigious innovators, would go outside and stare at the sky, wondering why it was blue and actually figuring it out. Thus the phrase, “blue sky thinking”.

Framing works against innovation in so many ways, and only helps in one: It defines what is inside the frame, and in that way, defines what is outside of it. A shift in focus is needed beyond the frame, and that requires knowledge well outside of that frame. It requires the context. If everyone is reading the same books, seeing the same shows, seeing the same news, it falls to the individual to look at things differently.

This is why I’ve often disagreed with people who say that money needs to be spent on innovation. Moaning for money is a tragic attempt at a solution when someone has what they think is a great idea. If that innovation doesn’t have an audience willing to listen, it simply doesn’t matter.

Beyond that innovative spark, those eureka moments, comes the hard work of making something that makes money, that saves money, or that otherwise contributes value. There’s a tendency to forget the latter because the world is presented to us in dollar signs. The amount of money spent on a problem is a poor indicator on whether a problem will be resolved. We humans, for example, will say that a flooded area had millions of dollars of damage, but that says nothing about how much it affects lives.

In the end, innovation isn’t what you get from following the same paths or playing within frameworks. New paths aren’t created by traveling the same roads, innovative solutions don’t come from someone else’s framework, and doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result remains insanity.

Shirts and P10s: Function vs. Form, Import Businesses vs. The Online Tax.

I’ve been spending some time shopping here and there. I went looking for shirts, and found that the ones with designs I liked lacked pockets, and the ones with pockets were not to my liking. I don’t understand the war on pockets of all these imported shirts, particularly when everyone these days has a mobile phone that they could place there instead of near their posterior – rubbing their posterior against their mouth and ear by proxy.

It should be as unattractive as it sounds, shouldn’t it?

This isn’t really be about shirts. I’m certainly not in charge of fashion; I personally admit a fondness for function over form and make no apology. There is a room for pretty in my world, but it has to do more than look pretty.

Another thing I was looking at, and more on topic, is the Huawei P10. I presently have a P10 Lite that, for whatever reason, no one seems to have cases for – a shortcoming of Huawei I’ve found pretty consistent, at least in South-West Trinidad. So, the first month I bought it, I cracked the screen.

Truth be told, I wanted a P10 because Mark Lyndersay keeps showing off his great shots through the Leicos lenses. And now, having cracked the screen of a fairly decent camera that has more than earned it’s keep, I walked into bMobile to see if I could purchase one. I find their pre-paid bundles work best for me, and I don’t really like contracts. Their P10 was available only under a post-paid plan, apparently with a 2 year contract.

I don’t know anyone who walks into bMobile, or Digicel, and says, “Hey! I want a 2 year contract that I won’t take to a lawyer to advise me on!”. I don’t know anyone like that. I do know people who say, “I want to upgrade my phone.”

So I saw one today at an outlet, and I asked the person who was selling it, “Do you have a case for it?”

“No.”

I was about to plunk down the money. I really was. But if you’re not going to support what you’re selling even with a simple case for someone to protect their investment, I’d offer you’re not a shrewd businessperson. And as much as I like Mark and love his photos, this lack of cases is a horrible thing for someone who spends a lot of time off the beaten track. We get back to function and form.

Let’s take a deeper dive.

This should all be simple enough to solve, but in a small consumer base such as that of Trinidad and Tobago, it’s a problem. Foreign exchange is at an increasing premium. Importers haven’t necessarily been putting their best foot forward over the years because when money flowed like oil – excuse me, it still does – but when it flowed through the economy at a higher rate, people bought all sorts of things with their disposable income.

The oil price reduction as well as severe lack of economic diversification over the decades by every administration has lead to sub-optimum disposable income. In plain English, people aren’t spending money because they aren’t getting it.

This means that companies that import goods other than food have these stocks of inventory that they can’t return. They made choices in products that, at least to some, are outright silly. When I drive by and see fluorescent colored plastic home goods, I can’t help but wonder what the person importing was thinking. “Fluorescent pink and green laundry hampers will fly off the shelves!”, said no sane person ever. 

So, the only sane thing to do when you can’t get what you want is to get what you want online through an online tax of 7% that is inconsistent for the very same items imported twice. It’s the new gambling system put in place by the government, a government that is going to send out people to evaluate properties probably as inconsistently as they handle the online tax.

To some, the online tax roulette is worth it if you can find the foreign exchange to play the game. If you need a case for a P10 or P10 Lite, as an example. Or if you want to buy fender flares for your pickup, or if you want to buy shirts with pockets.

To others, what they wear and use is framed by what importers have in their inventory. The illusion of choice is just that, more so in smaller economies.

Bricking Machines: The Microsoft April 2018 Update (1803) (Updated)

LeaveEverythingToUsMSI’m leery of updates. Experience over the decades has taught me this, from my own code to those of others who worked with me, from using content management systems to operating systems.

Updates can break things.

This time, Microsoft broke my Dell laptop – one of my favored machines for dealing with the rest of the world because so many people are tied to their operating systems. Or chained. It’s a matter of perspective.

I put off rebooting after the update for reasons obvious to many. Despite my cautiousness, my Dell laptop still sits there quietly after 24 hours. There has been no official word from Microsoft on this. One shop, The Computer Cellar, had a useful link that mysteriously no longer works. One article indicated that this bricking during the update had something to do with Avast, saying it only happened to a ‘few’ systems – but on Twitter, someone told me that they heard Microsoft representatives say, ‘millions’ on two separate days.

There’s room for some thoughts on conspiracy here, about keeping things quiet to minimize the public outcry. The hashtag on Twitter, #Windows10April2018Update, doesn’t show millions and isn’t representative of anyone but those with a system they could still tweet from to complain about the update.

So, how does one fix it? People have reinstalled Windows, blowing away their previous applications and data. It seems really bad that no restore points could be found with this bug – that’s exactly what restore points are for.

I’m not done fixing my system yet, and I’m not sure that I can, but here’s some tips to help you survive and perhaps get your system back up and running:

(1) Get some media, like a USB stick, that you can boot from. Under the ‘troubleshoot’ option, you’ll find the command prompt. Use XCopy to backup your files directory by directory. I simply did the stuff under my Profile. This way, no matter what happens, you have your stuff.

(2) Get the latest Windows Media Tool. Some well intentioned IT person handed me an older version of this yesterday and we both mistakenly thought it would work for all versions, but as it happens every major release seems to have a corresponding tool. Which would be fine….

(3) If your system doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive, or you lack a burner to the appropriate media, when you run the Media Tool you need to use the USB stick option. This is grotesquely slow – overnight it has managed to only get 80% done for me. I read somewhere it’s faster if you run the Media Tool from the USB stick you’re using it on, which sounds a bit like witchcraft to me, but if you think it will work… This is an annoyance that is simply bad UX on the part of Microsoft, IMHO. Such a large download is… ugh! With better bandwidth, it’s not a problem, but most of the world doesn’t have access to the Big Pipes.

(4) When your USB key is done becoming bootable media – read some books or something – you’re now ready to deal with the violated system.

(a) Let the violated machine boot and do the Update dance until, eventually, you get to the black screen and the errors.

(b) Open up the Task Manager, either by right clicking the taskbar and selecting it or by CTRL-ALT-DEL. Do this only once, despite how unresponsive your system is… or you may end up with more than one task manager. Also, add your hard won USB stick.

(c) Based on what little has been shared on the Internet, I have already disabled Avast’s tools in the startup processes. I’d make sure that they’re not running for the update.  They have a tendency to show up again when the machine restarts for updates, so always check. Allegedly, there’s a fix for it, but I did not get it at the time I fixed my machine.

(d) From the top menu in the task manager, you’re going to add a process from a file. You can attempt to browse for it, as painful as that is. On my system I will only have to type D:\setup.exe. And from there, with the latest tool, it will probably fix things; it did for me after loading again broken, then updating again. With older setups, you end up having to wipe the data.

This was an annoying experience. Microsoft needs to work on doing things better for the people who choose to stay with their operating systems, needs to work better with software manufacturers who support their platform, so that ultimately, they don’t screw over their consumers as they did with an indeterminate number of people with this last update.

Me? Linux is on the horizon for all future machines. I can’t pay people to brick my machine. It’s against my good sense. I can brick my on machine for free.

 

The Networking of Truth And Falsehood: ‘Fake News’

MissionThere is an incessant debate over truth right now, the same as there ever is, branded this time as ‘fake news’.

It has everyone mistrusting everyone, everything – everyone but the least ethically or cognitively competent, willful or not. It’s the elephant on the chest of social media companies, traditional media companies fighting for business relevancy in a networked world, and we, the factually impaired.

In all of this, we focus on the lack of truth. Yet, where we find truth we find precision, and where we find precision, we find error. When we talk about fake news, we’re really talking about the innocuous stories fed to the media – social and traditional – that spread not because they’re good, but because they’re catchy. ‘Sticky’, as marketers would say.

The Basics

Truth itself is a fickle thing. We seek objectivity in our subjective experiences of life, and only when we master these subjectivities do we diminish error and improve the precision. Again, where we experience precision, we experience error – they cannot exist without each other.

There are seconds of truth.
There are minutes of truth.
There are degrees of truth.

It’s all trigonometry to an extent, which fuzzy logic measures by weight, but it’s there – particularly when reconciling two versions of the truth. When we get three versions of the truth, it gets more complicated. When we get 10 versions of the truth, it’s even more exponentially complicated. So we do what humans do – we simplify when we’re overwhelmed. When we’re scared, it might become about race or about people ‘over there’, a wide net that catches innocent and guilty simply to catch the guilty.

Aggregating Truth

All of this used to be more manageable when we had fewer versions of the truth. The Internet came along and gave us the metaphorical 10,000 monkeys typing out their own versions of Shakespeare all over the Internet. Most monkeys simply regurgitate the same stuff they read somewhere else, hoping to make their audience click around their site to get a little bit more advertising revenue. When you drill down, there are actually very few monkeys that come up with the best versions and they’re not the same all the time.

But the monkeys that come up with the most popular versions aren’t necessarily the best – and the best versions are not always popular. Network powered societies amplify this and we’re network powered, so much so we cannot truly conceive versions of truth as easily. Facts have become croutons on a low carb salad – almost extinct, if not extinct.

And it all happens faster. Where we might have gotten news once a day with the printing press, twice a day with the television, thrice with the radio, we have versions of truth on tap 24/7, where the first to cover something gets the prized advertising revenue no matter how uninformative and perhaps wrong the coverage is.

Because we simplify. It’s human nature. We ’round off’. We estimate. We guess. We find comfort in opinions and op-eds that get more clicks with less facts. And those that want to insert stories to spread can get their research done through aggregate data mined from social networks and your local grocery store.

We find in life that when the people around us make better decisions, we ourselves get better choices. We find that when we make better decisions, those around us get better choices.

And we find that the opposite is also true.

Rethink where you get your content. Re-assess your connections in what they share, reassess what you read and if none of it makes you uncomfortable, you’re not reading facts but your own fiction, cherry picked from the 10,000 monkeys including the ones who take joy in feeding nonsense to the masses.

Go find Shakespeare. Don’t trust the monkeys. An if you’re one of the monkeys, my word, at least try to get something in with the filler.

Paper vs. Digital: a personal perspective.

Books in: R.A. Salvatore signed!Someone asked about whether people preferred reading paper books or digital on Twitter, and I responded ‘paper’ with a brief and slightly inaccurate explanation.

So I’ll be less brief here and more accurate.

This is, of course, my experience – and my opinion.

When it comes to what I read, I rarely read novels these days – novels smaller than the ones in the picture (picture less than 500 pages) are sort of like snacks for me. Louis L’amour novels are typically done in a matter of hours.

When I read these days, it tends to be on different specialized topics – my father would complain I read only textbooks when I contributed to our library when I was in secondary school. It got worse since then.

What happens with all that reading is that I end up with references – sometimes I’ll poke back to a book and find something I’m not sure about, or look for a quote, or try to align ideas from other books. To do this, over the years, I’ve used my memory of the books themselves – shape, size, even smell, weight… I remember the books like objects.

Here I am, someone who has worked with data for decades, and I can tell you that the digital formats are also objects. They are not dynamic, like software (well, some are these days), so the way I remember things with digital revolves around how something works – not how something sits there and does nothing.

What I have found is that with digital books, I cannot reference as easily. Maybe it’s a problem I have, maybe not, but it’s simply that way for me. I can look at a bookshelf, though, and find a specific book and drill down to what I was looking for faster than I can search a digital text.

I know there are tools for digital text. I’ve tried them. I’ve used them. I’ve Grepped like a maniac. But in the end, I may not remember the exact words I’m looking for… but I can remember page numbers, the weight of the pages on either side of something I noticed. I can find what I need in the books I’ve read, no matter how old.

Maybe the indexing system of my mind is antiquated, a holdover from the times before the Internet. It is, however, what I have, and what I use.

Paper wins.

Wanting Things To Work.

A Technology Society Ponders Bureaucracy
A wonderful metaphor of a frustrated technology society that keeps hitting it’s shin on bureaucracy. 

The fun part of this article is that you can replace “Trinidad and Tobago” with just about every country I have lived in or visited and have it be understood. It’s a global issue. 

It’s been a long week for me here in Trinidad and Tobago, yet along the way I met kindred spirits of all varieties.

When I went to one government office, I found that there were no numbers and that people were called as the security guard dictated. Fortunately, she dictated in a way that benefited me, but I do not know that it was fair.  I was done in record time, largely because of things I had done with the office in 2011 to turn the bureaucracy against itself in a loop, in a hope it would be fixed. It hasn’t been fixed, of course, but my prior work and explanation – and I daresay my sincerity – got me out of there in less than an hour.

The next day, I would take the form from that office to Yet Another Government Office after researching the appropriate website as to the requirements. I almost got it done that day – the office required 2 forms of ID, the website said ‘some form of ID’, and I was stalled for a day. The next day, I dutifully returned bearing two forms of ID and some other unrequired documentation to smooth things over. In less than an hour, a complicated process that stymies people for weeks was begun.

I know how those systems work and how they don’t. I have insight. And in both of those cases, I spoke with customer service representatives who were as frustrated with the process as I was and who made a crappy process work right. Whether it works out, I should know within a week.

That’s Not So Bad.

If this sounds like it was easy, it may seem that way on the surface – but it wasn’t as easy as it should be. It wasn’t as easy as it could be. Dealing with government offices, paying bills, visiting the bank – these things are unpredictable. People end up losing hours of work in government offices all over the country. The offices will argue that the people weren’t prepared, or didn’t listen, and some even treat them so. Some people are simply idiots – I found a few sitting around me here and there on their umpteenth time speaking with the same people over and over again but not actually listening.

There’s the way things probably should work, and then there’s the way things really work. It’s that thing that maybe should be called cognitive dissonance I am writing about.

The least stressful way of dealing with things is largely by understanding reality and dealing with it. And yet, decades of doing that here in Trinidad and Tobago have not given any improvement – I will argue that it enables it. I was heartened, though, that a new generation is entering these government offices and that they understand it – empathize – from their side of the desk as well. I thanked them for that.

We Want Things To Work.

We live in a world where, thanks to the Internet, we can see things wrong faster than they can be fixed by the snaggle-toothed gears of bureaucracy. Many systems around the world are outdated by so much that it boggles the mind. For me at times, it’s a special kind of Hell where, as someone who has designed systems, I cringe inwardly even as I keep a smile on my face. Getting angry doesn’t make things better, allowing it to stay the same doesn’t make things better… but here and there some strategic poking might work.

Not everyone can do that. Not everyone can stand up to a system and stare it down with a smile. Most of us get frustrated, angry, depressed… either we are beaten, or we rage against the machine.

Neither works.

To fix the mechanisms of society, we need to not only understand how things work well beyond social-media (read: armchair) discussion, but be able to push things the way that we think they should go. A smile here, a joke there, standing up for yourself yet being flexible enough to get what you need out of the system.

That’s what made it a long week.

Those two offices alone, while I spent less than 2 hours altogether at them, required driving for 2 hours. It required researching things as best I could, it required roughly a decade’s worth of sorted documentation. It required patience that the world as it is pushed onto the shoulders of a once young and passionate man who raged against the machine… until he realized what he was doing wasn’t working.

Until he realized that he needed it to work now instead of when things were done ‘right’ at some point in an unforeseeable future.

Things get better, but it takes a moderate voice to make it happen. Yelling makes you hoarse and assures no one will listen to you. Allowing it to go on unchecked makes you an enabler. To affect change, a clear and human voice needs to be heard.

If only you could explain that to those that rage against the machine… or enable it by their silence.

And still, there’s that young man in me that wants to rage ineffectively against the machine.. which is why I wrote about it for me. Maybe you’ll benefit.