Beyond Naughty Processors.

meltdown-spectreThe world is abuzz with stuff about the Intel bugs – so much so that Meltdown and Spectre are explained by xkcd better to the masses than most technical articles. It’s as if the world woke up and saw a small bit of what can happen within computing systems and, unfortunately for Intel, gets branded with Intel.

Did I mention Intel? Oh, don’t worry, it’s not the only brand that is getting sucked into this. Apple’s vulnerability to Meltdown and Spectre has also been admitted.

The potential is serious. But then, having seen code over the years that allowed pretty much the same thing– clearly, I fixed it where I saw it – I’m not as disturbed as the people presently flailing their arms until the next thing comes along. People will forget soon.

I’m not a chip designer, but the overall problem is pretty close to the Software Engineering issues the world presently faces.

People, generally – I still think of them as users – don’t care too much about technology. I’d say the same about management, too, in most companies – in the early 90s I said, “Management doesn’t know there is a fire until the flames are licking their asses.” This held true in just about every company I worked with until 2016, when I opted to start early on other endeavors to mitigate the risk of being an X-gen Software Engineer in a market that wanted millenial code monkeys.

Here’s the dilemma: Writing good code costs more time and money than most companies want to dedicate because, cyclically, they need to show profit faster because of increased competition in the sector.

Code monkeys are appreciated for fixing the bugs that they created in the first place, Software Engineers aren’t appreciated for the bugs that they keep from being introduced. And so, HR is always looking for code monkeys instead of true software engineers.

Venture capitalists and financiers care more about the commodity of  Intellectual Property than the service of Intellectual property, mainly because people find it difficult to think of copyrighted or patented – or even company secrets – as a service. We live in an age where information and processes do not stand still; it’s not that there is Intellectual Property anymore that you can sit on – it’s that there is Intellectual Property that you have to build on.

But Intellectual Property as a commodity is how trading is done – like the statistics on a baseball card (for the Americans reading) of a living player that will be outdated the very next game. Copyrights, Patents, Trademarks, Trade Secrets – these are snapshots in time. They are not as fluid as what they represent. They are bureaucratic stop gaps to elicit profit, which has worked for a very long time because they were designed to. But what they were designed on is changing faster than this bureaucracy can accommodate.

So all of this leads to design flaws because the designs can’t possibly cover all permutations of how something can be used. It’s getting better, but by getting better it gives a false sense of security that makes the more elusive problems worse for our systems. As I wrote to someone querying about whether foreign processors would have the issue or other issues, I said, “Nothing is secure. Act like it.”

The world is changing more rapidly than the people changing it can keep up with.

Let that sink in.

And then, if you suffer some history, you’ll find it has always been this way. The future has a mind of it’s own.

The only way to mitigate things – the only true way – is for people to be more conscious of what they use. When I was growing up, because of how I grew up, I picked up the habit of understanding at least the basic functionality of everything I used. If it broke, back in the days before the Internet, in a ‘developing’ country, I had to fix it or throw it away.

Now, landfills are filled by slowed phones and antiquated technology. If I’m a dinosaur, I see the meteors and appreciate keeping things around a while when others are quick to buy the next new (untested) thing.

It’s a brave new world.

I’ll be in my garden.

3D Printers Disrupting Copyrights and Patents (2013)

3D-Printed Slide-TogetherIt wasn’t too long ago that DIY 3D printers started making the news in geek circles. It captured the imagination of some and was largely ignored by others. I was somewhere in between until a few days ago. I’ve since slid somewhere closer to imagination, perhaps because someone printed a rotor from a Wankel engine and posted it on Facebook.

This got me thinking that in a few years, I could quite literally have a custom Wankel engine printed. Factor in last month’s Scientific American article, “Information Is Driving a New Revolution in Manufacturing“, things get even more interesting. Still, it enters a new dimension when in the future, having a 3D printer may be as normal as it is to have a printer now. And we all know those ink cartridges are ripoffs.

It’s going to get really interesting. Already a 3D gun has been printed and test fired, creating a bit of panic with some. The government is acting predictably. This is hopefully not the highlight of 3D printing’s contribution to society; I’d have preferred not to mention it but there’s no getting around it. We’ll get past that speed bump or we’ll all die in a crossfire of 3D printed guns.

Back to printing an engine. Or parts for your car. Or parts for your computer. Then we get into the costs of the raw materials and an economic upheaval as people who fabricate things become less and less needed. What the printing press was to scribes 3D printing is to the majority of fabricators.

But wait. There’s more.

You know all those copyright and patent issues we have with technology and, yes, even agriculture (Monsanto vs. Farmer). What happens when 3D designs escape into the wild, as the 3D printed gun already has? How are companies going to control that?

They won’t. They’ll try, but in the long run they won’t.

It’s a strange new world coming. Some people are going to become very upset.

Image at top left courtesy Flickr user fdecomite, made available under this Creative Commons License.

The Future Of Technology and Society (May 2016)

FutureIf you’re one of those who likes tl;dr, skip this post and find a tweet to read.

It has been bothering me. There are a bunch of very positive articles out there that do not touch on the problems we face in technology.

What I mean by this is that, since the early 1980s, I have been voraciously reading up on the future and plotting my own course through it as I go through long, dark tea-times of my career. It allows me to land where things are interesting to me, or where I can make a living for a while as I watch things settle into place. I’ve never been 100% accurate, but I have never starved and have done well enough even in 3rd world countries without advanced infrastructure or policy. Over the course of decades, I have adapted and found myself attempting to affect policies that I found limiting – something most people don’t really care about.

Today, we’re in exciting times. We have the buzz phrases of big data, deep learning and artificial intelligence floating around as if they were all something new rather than things that have advanced and have been re-branded to make them more palatable. Where in the 1990s the joke was that, “We have a pill for that!”, these days the joke is, “We have an app for that!”. As someone who has always striven to provide things of use to the world, I shook my head when flatulence apps went to war for millions of dollars.

Social networks erupted where people willingly give up their privacy to get things for ‘free’. A read of Daniel Solove’s 10 year old book, The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age, should have woken people up in 2006, but by then everyone was being trained to read 140 characters at a time and ‘tl;dr’ became a thing. I am pleased you made it this far, gentle reader, please continue.

Big Data

All these networks collect the big data. They have predicted pregnancies from shopping habits and been sued for it (Feb 2012). There’s a pretty good list of 10 issues with Big Data and Privacy – here’s some highlights (emphasis mine):

1. Privacy breaches and embarrassments.
2. Anonymization could become impossible.
3. Data masking could be defeated to reveal personal information.
4. Unethical actions based on interpretations.
5. Big data analytics are not 100% accurate.
6. Discrimination.
7. Few (if any) legal protections exist for the involved individuals.
8. Big data will probably exist forever.
9. Concerns for e-discovery.
10. Making patents and copyrights irrelevant.

Item 4, to me, is the largest one – coupled with 5 and 7, it gets downright ugly. Do you want people to make judgements about you based on interpretations of the data that aren’t 100% accurate, and where you have no legal protections?

Instead, the legal framework is biased towards those that collect the data – entities known as corporations (you may have heard of them) – through a grouping of disparate ideas known as intellectual property. In fact, in at least one country I know of, a database can be copyrighted (Trinidad and Tobago) even though the information in it isn’t new. Attempts are being made by some to make things better, but in the end they become feeble – if not brittle – under a legal system that is undeniably swayed by whoever has the most money.

If it sounds like I’m griping – 10 years ago I would have been. This is just a statement of fact at this point. I did what I could to inform over the years, as did others, but ultimately the choice was not that of a well informed minority but that of a poorly informed majority.

Deep Learning / Artificial Intelligence

Deep learning allows amazing things to be done with data. There is no question of that; I’ve played with it myself and done my own analyses on things I have been working on in my ‘spare time’ (read: I have no life). There’s a lot of hypotheses that can come from big data, but it’s the outliers within the big data that are actually the meat of any hypothesis.

In English, the exceptions create the rules which further define what needs to be looked at. For outliers in the data can mean that another bit of data needs to be added to the mix.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), on the other hand, can incorporate deep learning and big data. While an AI may not be able to write a news article that can fool an editor, I imagine it could fool the reading public. This is particularly true since, because of the income issues related to the Internet, media outlets have gone to pulp opinionated pieces instead of the factual news that used to inform rather than attempt to sway or just get more reads by echoing a demographic’s sentiment. Then it is shared by people of like-minded people on social media. It’s an epic charlie-foxtrot. 

People worry about jobs and careers in all of this with robots and AI, and a lot of white collar folks are thinking it will affect those in the blue collar jobs alone. No, it will not. There is an evolution taking place (some call it a revolution), and better paid white collar jobs are much juicier for saving money for people who care only about their stock price. 5 white collar jobs are already under the gun.

KFC and McDonalds have already begun robotizing. More are coming.

And then let’s discuss Ethics in the implementation of AI – look at what Microsoft did with their Twitter-bot, Tay. We have a large corporation putting an alleged AI (chatbot, whatever you want to call it) into a live environment without a thought to the consequences. Granted, it seemed like a simple evolution of Eliza (click the link to see what that means), but you don’t just let your dog off it’s leash or your AI out in an uncontrolled environment. It’s just not done, particularly in an environment where kids need ‘safe places’ and others need trigger warnings. If they didn’t have an army of lawyers – another issue with technology – they probably would have had their pants shaken severely in Courts across the world. Ahh, but they do have an army of well paid lawyers – which leads us to Intellectual Property.
Space Marines: Into the Future

Copyrights, Patents and Trademarks (and Privacy)

If you haven’t read anything about Copyright by Lawrence Lessig in the past decade, or Privacy by Daniel Solove, you’re akin to an unlicensed, blindfolded teenager joy riding in your Mom’s Corvette ZR1. Sure, things might be fun, but it’s a matter of time unless you’re really, really lucky. You shouldn’t be allowed near a computing device without these prerequisites because you’re uninformed. This is not alarmist. This is your reality.

And anyone writing code without this level of familiarity is driving an 18 wheeler in much the same way.

You need a lawyer just to flush a virtual toilet these days. I exaggerate to make the point – but maybe not. It would depend on who owns the virtual toilet.

You can convert any text into a patent application. Really.

Meanwhile, Patent trolls are finally seen as harming innovation. The key point here is that the entire system is biased toward those with more in the bank – which means that small companies are destroyed while the larger companies, such as Google and Oracle, have larger legal battles that impact more people than even know about it. Even writing software tools has become a legal battle between the behemoths.

‘Fair Use’ – the ability to use things you bought in ways that allow you to keep copies of them – has all but been lost in all of this.

Meanwhile, Wounded Warrior – an alleged veteran’s non-profit – has been suing other non-profits because of use of the phrase, ‘Wounded Warrior’. If you want to take the nice approach, they’re trying to avoid dilution of their trademark… at the cost of veterans themselves, but that doesn’t explain them suing two of their own former employees with PTSD.

And Here I Am, Wondering About The Future.

There are a bunch of very positive articles out there that do not touch on the problems we face in technology. Our technology is presently being held for ransom by legal frameworks that do not fit well; this in turn means our ability to innovate, and by proxy entrepreneurship, are also being held ransom. Meanwhile we have people running around with Stockholm Syndrome waiting for the next iPhone hand built by suicidal workers, or the next application that they can open their private data to (hi, Google, Microsoft!), or…

I can’t predict anything at this point. It used to be much simpler and, by proxy, easily controlled. The questions of whether to do something used to be an ethical question, but now we go to lawyers for ethics (a group that is largely not known for ethics – apologies to those who do). The governments institute policies biased by whoever funds the campaigns of politicians, or gives United States congress people nice things. It affects the entire world, and every few years I think it won’t last – it continues.

Too big to fail.

But out of all of this, I don’t mean to stop trying. I don’t mean to stop innovating, starting new businesses, etc. What I mean is – we have a lot of things to do properly to assure a future that isn’t as dim as I see it now, to assure that the kids who are hooked on realities that someone else created rather than what they imagined. Imagination itself needs to be revisited, cultivated and unleashed against all of this like a cool wind across the desert.

It cannot be done blindly. People need to understand all of this. And if you made it this far – congratulations – I offer that you should, if not share this, share the ideas within it freely rather than simply clicking ‘like’ and hoping for the best.

We cannot change things on our own.

As for myself – just surfing the waves as they come in, but I fully intend to build my house on a distant shore at this point.