The Babel Problem

Babel TowerSome self-centric perspectives shared using social media creating a communication failure got me thinking more about information and how it affects us, as individuals, and how it affects humanity. It’s also something that I’ve been researching off and on, and one which has me working on a hobby software project related to it.

Information is everywhere. We’re all pattern recognition and information analysis experts in our own right. It’s a part of being human, as Stephen Pinker wrote about in the context of language, which is one of the  ways that we process and communicate information. There is the nature aspect, and there is the nurture aspect, which is often seen as a matter of which has more influence.

This is particularly interesting in this day and age for a variety of reasons, particularly when interacting using social media.

Language is the most obvious barrier, and translation algorithms are getting much better – but interpretation of translations leaves much to be desired at times. Another aspect is dialect, born of geography, which do not always translate well. There are some who will argue about cultural identity, but if cultural identity isolates, what use is that identity?

Another aspect is the ability of people to actually read and write to be understood.  While we may have a lot more literacy in the world than we did some decades ago, functional literacy is something different and is something that educational systems only measure within their own dialects. This leads to how people think, because people typically communicate as clearly as they think. And what affects how we think?

We get into world views – a factor of nurture, largely, and the ability to process the information of our world clearly. The most obvious aspect of these prejudices has to do with the color of skin of human beings – something that haunts us despite scientific evidence that there are no actual races. Other things are less obvious.

There are commonalities, as mentioned in a very thorough exploration by Pierre Levy in “The Semantic Sphere“, that weave commonality through concepts around the world despite language – but they can fail in that last mile of neurons, as people may have very different reactions to the same concepts.

When it comes to all of this, I live a very different life and look at things, at times, in very different ways than others. This has allowed me to sometimes solve problems that others could not solve.

Everyone looks at things differently, but commonly, people don’t look at things that differently when they read what everyone else reads, watch what everyone else watches, and thus think fairly closely to what other people think.

That, in turn, gives us the codification of problems in a way that is sometimes more popular than correct, and thus any solution may be solving the wrong problem. It’s a convoluted mess when you start thinking about it (and worse, trying to express it as I am here).

And that, really, is the core of this post. A thought of why the people who come up with appropriate solutions are typically the ones who can identify what the problems actually are… in a world of popularity.

 

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Let It Marinate.

downside www

One of the things that makes the rounds in the blogosphere as a ‘truth’ is that you have to blog every day.

In a niche, if you follow another ‘truth’.

This leads to all kinds of crap content. Really. People reblog other people’s blogs, trying to capitalize on something someone else wrote in the hope that they can write it in a more popular way so that their blog can get traffic so that…

Take a breath.

That’s the newspaper business model. That’s the 24 hour news business model. It’s driven by advertising, as many blogs are, and that incentive can actually cause a decrease in quality.

An example: I picked on sex toys in Trinidad and Tobago recently. The story the newspapers carried was rushed, was not well researched, and of course provocative. When Finance Minister Colm Imbert called it fake news the next week, I laughed – because, of course, he pointed out that there’s no definition of what a sex toy actually is. In the video interview, it was even said that a woman had her edible underwear seized by Trinidad and Tobago Customs. The joke from the peanut gallery was that it was a snack. My joke would have been that Customs didn’t know how to use edible underwear- you don’t seize it. 

As it turns out, a company named Websource had simply sent out a circular stating that imported sex toys could be confiscated, and were not permitted through their service. The government’s alleged ban was hearsay. Hearsay is heresy in factual reporting.

Waiting, sometimes, is the best thing to do. You don’t have to be the first to publish. You can simply aspire to getting it right before you publish.

So it is with any kind of writing, any kind of social media posting, any kind of sharing of information – even in person. You don’t have to fill what you perceive as voids with inaccurate or incomplete information.

You can wait.

More often than not, you should.

Write frequently, write well, and don’t focus on being first.

Focus on getting it right.

Where Communication Fails

Communication is the keyIt amazes me how people make things more difficult through communication, enough so that sometimes I wonder if there is a special group of us that talks to ourselves for lack of anyone else receiving on the other end.

Exhibit A.

Last year, here in Trinidad and Tobago, someone asked me to be a reference on a visa application – which I willingly did because I know these people. I was at their house, filled out the form for their granddaughter and thought this was done other than a phone call. There was no signature, just the filling out of a name, address and phone number – as most references are.

Time passed – maybe a week. The grandfather calls me and tells me that they had filled out the old form and that they needed a new form filled out – and so, I told him it was a simple matter of copying the information over. He said that the new document needed a signature, which I was sure was not the case. He insisted, dropped by…

And lo! There was no signature necessary. It was as I expected, the form simply needing the same information that was on the old form, that anyone could have copied over. I showed him that, and he got upset with me. I filled it out anyway. We’re friends.

Why did he get upset? It took some time to unravel that. This 70-something year old man was upset because his granddaughter told him it needed my signature. She’s in her mid-20s, a product of an education system that apparently can’t distinguish between simply filling out a name and actually signing something.

It broke down to a functional literacy failure, something that I’ve found increasingly common.

Exhibit B

I was ordering a breakfast I normally order at a place I am a regular at, from a lady I normally order from and who is familiar with my order. The scene was tense for some reason as I walked in, having nothing to do with me. Yes, I asked, and she would have told me – which is why I value this relationship.

The sound of the AC was buzzing above the register, and the background noise of the busy place was at a high. I hear her say that there’s ‘No ham bacon’.

I’m puzzled by this. “Do you have ham?”

“No ham bacon”.

We go on like this for a few moments. She doesn’t speak up. I’m not understanding what she’s trying to tell me, and I know that she is trying to help me. After a while, it gets sorted out when she finally raises her voice a bit so I can hear over the background noise – when she spoke quietly, her voice was deeper and it merged with the underlying buzz.

She was saying there was no ham, only bacon.

But why couldn’t I hear her? Frankly, maybe I should get my hearing checked – I should get on that – but the other part of it was that she was upset and was making a conscious effort not to raise her voice because she was upset about other things.

This was a situational communication problem. Had we not known each other, it probably wouldn’t have ended with both of us laughing.

Exhibit C

I’d sold a piece of land to someone who was already on it – a simple solution (hack) to a silly problem caused by laws in Trinidad and Tobago – and a year had passed.

Out of the blue, I see this person is trying to contact me on Facebook messenger – by calling me (who does that?). So I message them back, and they message me that they were having trouble registering the deed. A year later.

Now, they had my phone number. After a year, this suddenly became an emergency – which is easy to judge someone on without knowing how their life is, but a year is a long time and I know that the deed registration had to have been done or I would have heard about it from the lawyer, who I do know, and who has done other transactions similarly.

Something wasn’t adding up, and it was already clear that this was a communication error.

I sent them my phone number – they should already have had it. Then they tell me that they don’t have my phone number. I respond that I just sent it. “Scroll up.”, I typed, even as I wanted to scream it.

11 messages and 5 phone calls later, they tell me that they’re at the tax office and can’t find the deed number. And this is where a lack of specialized knowledge created the core communication error – they were confusing the assessment number and deed number up, and finally, after repeating myself a few times, it sunk in. They blamed the government office for not telling them, but based on everything I had experienced with the person…

I was pretty sure that the person just wasn’t paying attention to what anyone had told them, written to them, or tattooed on their forehead. The whole situation showed over and over that they were not interested in finding out what they needed to know to solve their problem. They were happy just annoying people until someone held their hand and guided them to the right solution.

Maybe they were hugged too much as a child. I don’t know.

But this example shows not only a problem with understanding specialized things, but also the joys of dealing with people who do not listen well.

Exhibit D. 

In dealing with purchasing something, I ended up dealing with 3 separate entities who are allegedly working together: A lawyer, the seller, and the agent. During this process, I handed over documents required to the seller.

Their lawyer contacts me. They want me to come up and submit the very same documents to them. I explain that the seller has the documents, and the lawyer tells me that they can only receive those documents if I authorize the seller to release them.

The rub here is that the seller has their own lawyer that, by circumstance, I have to use. One would think that the documents that the seller had would be furnished to the lawyer. The lawyer explains that it’s to safeguard my privacy (nevermind all the photocopies of my IDs hanging around) – but it’s really a process failure.

In the course of a few hours, I get conflicting information from all 3 parties who were legitimately trying to help me around the process failure, which I ended up resolving by simplifying. I only need to deal with the lawyer. What she says is what we go with, in the hope that it all falls together properly.

So this was a conflicting communication error, caused by trying to work around a process failure. I have to wonder how many people get stuck in those loops.

So Many Problems.

This is just a sampling. All of these communication problems, at their core, are human problems. In an age when we can communicate so quickly all over the world – I remember a time when postcards were a big deal – we still don’t communicate well enough to make use of it.

We build things on communication. We build things on flawed communication. Technology is not waiting for us to get it right; it’s a wildfire of acceleration on all fronts.

Take a moment. Take a breath. Listen. Speak clearly. Know of what you speak of. Ask the right questions.

Communicate. The world actually does depend on it, and more specifically, your world depends on it.

The Age of Dune

The-Spice-Must-Flow-PosterWe’re in a strange age of Dune, metaphorically. If you haven’t read the books or, for the reading impaired, the movie, you won’t get the metaphor – you should go do either immediately and not return to the internet until you have.

If you’ll recall, the book was about Spice – and how the spice must flow. Last century, it was a metaphor for oil, and this century, it’s a metaphor for information.

I bring this all up because of the Russian submarines making NATO nervous because they’re prowling near underwater cables. The conversations around this speculated on them eavesdropping – relatively tinfoil hat – when a real threat is the severing off those cables. Remember how Mua’dib rose to power? Who can destroy the Spice controls the Spice, and who controls the Spice is the real power.

Factor in the death of network neutrality, which has been long dead in other ways while people have been discussing the imminent rigor mortis while poking it with a stick. It’s not as if Facebook has been deleting accounts at the requests of the U.S. and Israeli governments.  It’s not as if any despot of any sort hasn’t at least tried to control the information flow. The trouble is that most people don’t understand information and don’t understand data beyond the definitions in dictionaries and antiquated textbooks.

Information flows. In a battlefield somewhere, a severed submarine cable can mean chaos on the ground somewhere. In a world where cables connect markets, severed cables mean being unable to get access to those markets. It means isolation.

The spice must flow, the information must flow. And those who seek to destroy information, from burning books to limiting access for people to information is about isolating, about controlling, and about power. How will it end?

I’ll be in my garden, monitoring the situation. You kids play nice.

Net Neutrality and Trinidad and Tobago

Internet Innovation is The Goose That Laid the Golden EggThe global debate on Net Neutrality persists and the consequences are writ large for consumers everywhere.

Yet, there’s almost no interest in the Net Neutrality issues arising lately – I spent my time advocating for it to the uncaring masses who are more intent on other things that they believe are more important.

It is important though. Very important.

David Pogue of Scientific American has a great summarization of the net neutrality debate. I suppose the core of the problems happening over the heads of those in the world – not just the United States – is how the FCC classifies things in an antiquated system rather than create a new classification. The lines between being a provider of telecommunications and providing telecommunication services are said to be blurred, but the reality is that they no longer exist. The people who own the infrastructure are competing with those that don’t.

Businesses that do not own the infrastructure are at a disadvantage. They can be squeezed out by those who do own the infrastructure, effectively monopolizing user services. The end user – us, all of us – doesn’t get the variety that it would otherwise have when those that control the infrastructure can make sure that their services can run faster than their competitors. That’s the core of the issue for users.

The Local Context.

In Trinidad and Tobago and likely throughout the Caribbean, Digicel is cheering the repeal of what was called Network Neutrality (I could say it wasn’t for a variety of reasons). Their premise is actually quite real – they are rolling out infrastructure in the region at a cost, and shouldn’t they get their cost back? Of course they should, why would anyone invest in something that they don’t get paid back for? There is no digital philanthropy here, and Trinidad and Tobago’s National ICT Plans have always pushed broadband penetration, enough so that I’m surprised an over-exuberant feminist hasn’t accused the phrasing of misogyny.

Others in the local context of telecommunications have been relatively silent so far – perhaps wisely so – despite the fact that we’re connected to the U.S. pretty directly economically, through Internet connections, and through other things.

What it means, though, is that applications not owned by local providers – Digicel and bMobile mainly, since the most common data usage is through mobile phones, is that they could create competing applications to… for example… WhatsApp, and make WhatsApp undependable in the same twist. And of course, since these same providers have to report to the government by Law, will give away the encrypted anonymity that seems to only hide poor political commentary and bad pornography. Maybe there’s more to it than that, but I haven’t been added to the LOLCats group (please, don’t invite me).

It means local startup companies will have to get the blessings of those who own the infrastructure and maintain a relationship with them – practically at gunpoint.

Yet Digicel makes a valid point: Why invest in infrastructure if you don’t get paid for it?

The debate is much more nuanced than what is presented – arguably, by design. Show me a Member or Parliament, though, who has taken a stance on network neutrality. They don’t really care too much, and that National ICT plan doesn’t address it in any way. It makes us completely dependent on our own legislation, and our own legislation – despite some bold and debatable efforts by the present government – is not fast, is not as comprehensive as they might like to think, and is going to require more intellectual capital to debate and enforce than anyone seems interested in mustering.

We’re along for the ride in Trinidad and Tobago, hoping for a water taxi but instead getting a ferry to Tobago in a country that should be making strides toward progress… not stagnation. It should be making bold moves – debatable moves – that push the envelope for local talent to strike it’s colours boldly on an infrastructure being built rather than making a mockery of it by making it consumption only with no regard to using it for creating foreign exchange (we can talk about those banks another time, right?).

We could be using our infrastructure to leverage foreign exchange income, subsidizing it’s roll out while diversifying the economy. That’s not what we’re doing, and that’s why Network Neutrality is not even discussed outside of Digicel Press Releases.

So Many Pies.

pies-9People tend to categorize things by how many ‘hats’ one wears, or how many fingers you have in pies.

In a world of specialization, I have specialized in not being a specialist – which, unfortunately, confuses people. Asked recently what I do for a living, I was caught off guard. Should I speak of having made a living from Software Engineering? Should I go with writing? What about land management? Real estate? Connecting people who need to be connected outside of the cultural ruts that exist in Trinidad and Tobago? Agriculture? Photography? Even recently, someone got stuck on the fact that I had been in the military even though my service and reserve service ended around 2006 (I think).

So my response was, “I think for a living.” That’s consistent, but it brought more confusion. I wonder how other polymaths deal with this?

It wasn’t a solid answer to the person asking, and I was revisited again by the demons of a society that defines you by where you were born (doesn’t work for me), by where you live (pick a place, I may have been there), by what you do for a living (see above), who you’re related to, what ‘race‘ you are, what religion you are, etc.

I don’t fall into categories as much as people attempt to shove me into them. I suppose part of the problem is that I gave up on categories somewhere in my 20s. It started before then, because even then I didn’t really fit – but I was not yet tired of being uncomfortable in my explanations.

All of this came to mind as I renewed this domain, where I’m uncertain where to write what. My technically related writing with a more local (Trinidad and Tobago) twist ends up on TechNewsTT.com. My more personal writing goes on RealityFragments.com.

And I suppose now, everything else goes here – as I have done historically, as you might see had there not been losses of data over the decades of my owning this domain name.

A strange world you live in.

Technology And Arts

Sisyphean TechnologyPeople in technology of my era and later are strange creatures that delve into the depths of understanding the cold and relentless logic of systems that they create and maintain. We see the same in other fields, in Law, in Medicine, Accounting and so many others.

Today, as Lessig wrote, ‘Code is Law‘, and Law wrestles with technology even as technology works to circumvent existing Law. Law, as a freshman student will tell you, is not Ethics – it is an attempt at the codification of Ethics in a society. That distinction is important yet routinely forgotten by many – and that’s where some empowered by technology have an ax to grind. Others are just in it for the money, or for some political agenda.

One of the problems we face, as a global society of screen-watchers, is that we have separate silos of technology and arts – where technology is often used as a platform for the liberal arts.

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Social Media

Grim JoyI used to be heavily involved in social media; some might think I still am when I’ve simply become more efficient and have sculpted my networks. In all, though, I rate myself a curmudgeon – a ‘a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person.’

This is not to say that I am a curmudgeon, but I imagine that there are some people who send me things who now believe I am a curmudgeon. Wishing people happy birthday on social media with a click is silly. A deluge of images of politicians leaves me feeling dirty in ways a shower cannot cure, a stream of people who believe Putin masterminded everything from the Presidential Election in the U.S. to their lost sock makes me roll my eyes, watching building blocks of uninformed opinion become representative of otherwise intelligent people is the intellectual equivalent of being assaulted with gift wrapped feces.

David over at Raptitude figured out that he could have more time to do things with his experiment. Yet even as a curmudgeon, I have to point out that social media, social networks and the humans that use them are a part of our lives – we just don’t need to exist on their plane; they need to exist on ours.

What that means is we should understand that it’s typically not very important, and we should be OK with telling people not to send us crap on WhatsApp, Facebook messenging, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever crackpost (that was a typo but I like it) network that people use as echo chambers to feel good about themselves.

We shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as curmudgeons to do this.  We can control what we take in simply by telling people what we don’t want to spend our time on –  be it the stale joke networks on whatsapp to the in depth discussion on doomed men’s fashion, from the cute puppy videos to the insane amount of posts about adopting animals, etc. In my spare time, I don’t want that to be what defines me.

No, I’d rather define myself than be molded into an acceptable image of what society likes. We are society.

Reflect. Refract Toward The Future

Wall-E looking At The StarsI got it all wrong.

This is not to say that I have regret, or that I’m disillusioned. It’s more of the realization that I have suffered an illusion, and while I do not understand yet how I became illusioned, I understand that I have been.

It started as a child, really. I grew up the son of an engineer, and understanding how things worked was simply a way of living. It’s not a bad way to live. Later on, the personal computer revolution started and despite then living in a developing nation, PCs became my surfboard – and writing code became a primal need. I happened to be good at it.

The early 80s were a happening time in tech. It was a true revolution; the power of a computer in the hands of individuals and small businesses was unheard of. Given that we didn’t have the Internet and networks were just beginning, the world changed as rapidly as that would allow. The teenage version of me thought that it would be a great way to add value to the world. To make things that would make the world a better place, like the advertising promised… but I was too young to understand that one shouldn’t believe the advertising.

At one point, I began to understand that. And I began to understand that despite my best intentions, I wasn’t actually doing anything of worth. You, reader, may believe you are doing something of worth. I will tell you that maybe you are now, but it will likely not last – the churning evolution of technology swallows things, digests them and incorporates them into other parts – and you never see those things again. And it does so with people, too. Sure, you have the success stories.

In the end, though, you look back on the things you’ve played with and worked on decades later, nostalgically, and realize that they are gone. You made companies money for your living expenses, sold your abilities to the highest bidders, and one morning you wake up and realize that coding is the next blue collar job. There’s nothing wrong with that. But code has a way of changing, being tossed out or simply sitting somewhere on a server as technology rolls by.

I recall at job interviews over the past 10 years being asked about things I wrote, as if I single-handedly wrote anything or maintained anything in the last 10 years other than websites – and websites built disappear over time not through fault of the coders, but through faults of the businesses. And the same happens with the less visible code. Companies get bought out and their technology is either adapted, or tossed out (even if it’s better).

What I got wrong in all of this is not what I did but why I did it. This idea of generating actual value instead of making money is antiquated in this world, and perhaps the best reason for that is the people running things believe that money is the value and that everything else is transient.

Had I known that 3.5 decades ago, my approach on many things would have been different. I joke about being raised wrong, and there was a point when I wistfully pointed out that things used to be built to last  – but the world doesn’t want that. The constant evolution of everything requires, in this world, the financial backbone to do so. No technology survives without it’s own economy, and in that it is a slave to those with the disposable income to pay – not the masses whose lives could be improved by it. The cognitive dissonance of Silicon Valley in this regard, as well as others, leads a path to those who wish to follow – and that path is one of the financial backbone, of bankruptcies and failures unmentioned in the marketing brochures.

Tech will continue to change the world, but the socioeconomic disparity is playing itself out in democracies around the world. Interesting times.

 

 

Internet Governance (2014)

Funny Internet Spam for eMail and Websites is Spicy

The continued battle over who should police, or better, govern the Internet continues (BBC). It’s nothing new, really – I’ve been active in Internet Governance discussions since about 2003 when the first World Summit on Information Society was held – I was even a nominee to go. Since then I’ve participated in active discussions regarding Network Neutrality, spam, spam, spam and spam (amongst other things, as spam often comes). It is interesting, particularly in the context of the BBC article, that the lines have become so clear that even the media can see it. It was apparent in 2003 at the WSIS because the United States – the de facto originator and leading service provider on the Internet (everyone say ‘hi’ to the NSA) – did not send any government officials of note but the corporations did show up.

‘Governing’ or ‘policing’ the Internet is not a simple thing but most of the issues are quite simple. If, for example, as much attention was paid to spammers as there is on copyright law agreements, you likely wouldn’t need to subscribe to an anti-spam service. A standardized approach to dealing with spam across the globe should probably be a priority but instead it has become an industry, an industry that I imagine is quite lucrative and unwilling to actually solve the problem rather than treat the symptoms for a price.

Other problems, such as dealing with pornographic websites, are also easily solved by simply forcing/encouraging (stick/carrot) such websites to use ‘.xxx‘ instead of ‘.com‘ – but the discussion quickly devolved into what pornography is and is not, enough so that there really was no discussion and probably a lot of pornographic sites being visited by bureaucrats with an excuse to investigate. “Is this porn? Lets discuss it…”

Now in an age where cyberwarfare does exist, where large groups like Anonymous hide in the cracks – some say for better, others for worse – there are more and more issues coming to the fore. Consider what nationality the cloud is as an example – privacy laws in countries are largely incompatible even while copyright laws have become, thanks to corporations really interested in copyright, ubiquitous.

People do need to get involved if they want to have some say in the matter – I’ve been at it for 10 years.

If you’re using the Internet, you might want to take a global view at the issues. Some are complicated, some are not.

A good place to start would be the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Why should you bother?

Because even as the continuously stymied ‘discussion’ of internet governance and policing continues, Google has already begun launching internet beaming balloons. There’s nothing wrong with that but it demonstrates the difference in velocity between governance issues and internet corporations.

The world can’t figure out how to cooperate, but now the Internet has balloons.