Eschewing the Networks Of Noise

Social Media Signals

On one side is the gigantic internet, a miracle of fine articulation, which turns out the tabloid newspaper: on the other side are the contents of the tabloid itself, symbolically recording the most crude and elementary states of emotion.

I wish that I had written that but I didn’t. I simply switched ‘printing press’ with ‘Internet’ on a quote of Lewis Mumford (Technics and Civilization, 1934).

Someone mentioned that they would add me to some Whatsapp group this morning, but I didn’t have a smart phone – and they did so in a way that hinted at me being some stick-in-the-mud. I have no doubt that they see me as such, but as I responded, “If it weren’t for all the shit being posted, I might bother with it.”

“Yadda yadda yadda”

Case in point. Nothing of worth but implicitly saying, “I don’t care what you think”.

There’s only one suitable response to that, and they got it.

The signal to noise ratio of networks all over bugs me. I suppose part of that is the way that I grew up when minutes on a landline were a cost and thus one got the most value that one could. I suppose that my time in the military reinforced that, where you didn’t waste time in communication – and in dealing with ambulances from the Emergency Department in a Naval Hospital, where communication had to be clear, concise, and devoid of noise. I suppose it was reinforced even more with the SOAP notes that we wrote – quickly, accurately, no noise, anticipating what the reader would be looking for and making those things clear so that a month later you wouldn’t be asked questions about it.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a value to ‘noise’, I won’t disagree, but there is no value when it crosses a certain threshold. This threshold varies between people, and I’ll admit that I have a lower threshold than most that has increased with age.

A perfect example was using Whatsapp group to organize a Hindu funeral. It worked out fairly well despite only fragments of information being shared, and I used my own old smartphone on a wireless network to participate. Towards the end, though, it became a place where people were playing. Jokes inappropriate for a funeral were being posted, and other nonsense that didn’t pertain to the subject of the group were being posted.

Others on Whatsapp were interrupting my day with ancient memes I’d already seen on Facebook and Twitter. They meant well, but to me, what was it? Noise.

During all of this time, I was thinking of getting a smartphone here in Trinidad and Tobago – a period of months, and maybe soon enough I will, but right now I don’t want one because I don’t want to pay more to get less through both phone and service.

Am I the only one that feels this way? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t really care right now. I see children walking around with smartphones, and when I see that I wonder who is teaching them how to communicate clearly and concisely? If 20 and 30 somethings – much less 40 year olds and upward – can’t communicate clearly, do we wonder at the confusion that has become social media – a place of poorly communicated emotion, of poorly communicated ideas?

Society, with all the wonders of technology so well dressed in the palms of their collective hands, seems to be more interested in communicating the tabloid rather than the textbook, and while the tabloid most certainly has it’s place, we need more textbook in my opinion.

After all, competing with it has infected ‘news’ media…

The TechStew

WhirlpoolI’ve had some time away from working on Other People’s Problems (OPP) and I’ve spent it reading and studying things to see what comes next. It’s an interesting exercise in futility because of one main thing that I call TechStew.

Technology is, in engineering speak, an open system. Many of the business concepts around technology assume it’s a closed system, yet the very fact that they involve businesses demonstrates how open a system technology itself is. It’s the stew of exponentially increasing concept combinations (The Medici Effect) that don’t just come from technology.

During my lifetime, the main driver of technology has been business – and that is not likely to change. Every successful technology is sustainable and, in our world, that means having a market to build an economy around it. Students of Software Engineering would see a parallel in the software development life cycle, where the life cycle ends when the cost of maintenance exceeds the value – and value today is measured in money. That’s unlikely to change in the near future either, regardless of how many Star Trek episodes you convince everyone to watch.

Actual innovation, though, doesn’t come from money. It comes from ideas. And actual innovation doesn’t require as much money as people think, but making the innovation sustainable through a market does.

Innovation requires leveraging the tech stew and adding to it from externalities to create new things. Making money off of innovation requires resources. These two things are often confused as the same by passionate and frustrated people, but the distinction exists.

Since markets play a role, we get into sociology and economics to find what people value and what they don’t (so it can be fixed).

And the TechStew grows and grows, even as older systems form the new skeleton that limits what can be done within the market. Backward compatibility. What people are used to.

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.

 

 

Apples and Orangutans.

There was a discussion on Facebook about whether Apple products were worthy of the Enterprise, and there was some CTO of some company that processes data (just like everyone else) who put her title in front of her arguments – a nasty habit that diminishes a point – saying that Apple products are.

When it comes to processing and ability, Apple products are often superior to Windows products – but typically not within the same price range, so it’s an odd comparison of Apples and… well, you get the drift. But ability of a single machine wasn’t at issue, it was whether it could work within the Enterprise. At this time, I contend that Apple isn’t Enterprise-friendly because it’s not as cost effective – and let’s be serious, that’s not the market that Apple has really been going after. Yet? Historically, it never has.

But in this discussion, I was trying to tease out the importance of cost effectiveness and cross-compatibility between Apples and other machines on a network by pointing out that the developing world simply can’t afford the Apple-esque thought of the Enterprise, and that in turn got us into the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD)’discussion’ – where our opinions were drastically different. Her contention was not to worry about the LCD, she doesn’t care about them. Well, really, of course she doesn’t because the company she worked for at the time (and maybe now) doesn’t deal with users, and it hordes the processing. That’s their business model. But she couldn’t seem to make that distinction.

That’s a problem for the Enterprise, more so than the cost of Apples. The Enterprise, whether companies like it or not, extends beyond their infrastructure to other infrastructures – which are largely Windows and Linux hybrids. Why? Cost. And where does cost come to be a factor?

Oh. The Enterprise and the Developing world. And – excuse me, I need to twist this into a ending you didn’t expect  – it’s really about mobile devices (thin clients) and access to data.

Natural Language Processing, Health Records and the Developing World.

Case Investigation Team

The Veterans Administration will be using Natural Language Processing (NLP) for their medical records. It can be a powerful tool for searching for trends and getting the right people to the right treatments in a timely manner. That’s a gross oversimplification.

I know a bit about medical records1. I also happen to know quite a bit about Natural Language Processing, since I’ve worked with it in the context of documentation management.

And, as it happens, I know a bit about the developing world – the Caribbean and Latin America. And I know a bit about the hospitals in the region, where hand written records are kept, but lack the rigor and discipline necessary for them to truly be useful. I recently looked at the medical record of someone in Trinidad and Tobago, if you could call it that, since I found it odd that the Doctors and Nurses didn’t seem to communicate not only with each other but their own subgroups. I saw why.

I know of one doctor who keeps patient records in Microsoft Word documents – a step in the right direction.

There is an opportunity here for the developing world in general, but it’s a technology leap that must be undertaken with the discipline of good medical records in the first place. These delapidated medical systems, despite new buildings, need to have medical records that enable good care in the first place.

There’s no reason that medical care in the developing world should suffer; it can be done much more cheaply than in the developed world and with the advancements such as NLP already being implemented, it’s vacuous to build shiny buildings when the discipline of the medical records themselves should be paramount.

But then, maybe implementing electronic medical records properly would be a good start to building that discipline. 

1Medical Records have interested me from my days as a U.S. Navy Corpsman, where we were assiduous about medical records – Doctor’s orders, nursing SOAP notes, lab results – all had their place within a folder. It was just on the very edge of the medical databases that the U.S. Navy rolled out. When I was at my first USMC command, myself and other corpsmen’s first job was  to get the medical records ready enough to allow us to deploy – and it was an onerous task, with those who had gone before not having taken the records as seriously as they should. Later, I would work with a Reserve USMC unit at Floyd Bennet Field where I would be commended for my database work as related to their medical records.

The AI Future On Mankind’s Canvas

Doctor Leia.I met her and the young Brazilian woman on the flight from Miami to Orlando, this young Doctor who had an interview in Ocala. She was to drive across to Ocala, to the East, to see if she would get the job. She didn’t look old enough to be a Doctor, but I’ve passed the age threshold where doctors were younger than myself years ago. We talked about medicine and medical administration for a while even as I checked up on the nervous Brazilian high school graduate. I sat, a thorn between two roses, all the while thinking:

What sort of world were they entering? Doc Leia, a graduate from The University of the West Indies, off to Ocala, and the young woman to my right, off to see the sights as a reward for having survived so many years of schooling. They were both easily younger than most of my nieces. The Doctor had already become heavily invested in her future – medical school was a daunting path and might have been one I would have pursued with the right opportunities. The other was about to invest in her future and it bothered me that there wasn’t as clear a path as there used to be.

Artificial intelligence – diagnosing patients on the other side of the world – is promising to change medicine itself. The first AI attorney, ‘Ross’, had been hired by a NYC firm. The education system in the United States wasn’t factoring this sort of thing in (unless maybe if you’re in the MIT Media Lab), so I was pretty sure that the education systems in the Caribbean and Latin America weren’t factoring it in. I’ve been playing with Natural Language Processing and Deep Learning myself, and was amazed at what already could be done.

The technology threat to jobs – to employment – has historically been robotics, something that has displaced enough workers to cause a stir over the last decades – but it has been largely thought that technology would only replace the blue collar jobs. Hubris. Any job that requires research, repetition, and can allow for reduced costs for companies is a target. Watson’s bedside manner might be a little more icy than House, but the results aren’t fiction.

What are the jobs of the future, for those kids in, starting or just finished with a tertiary education? It’s a gamble by present reckoning. Here are a few thoughts, though:

  • A job that requires legal responsibility is pretty safe, so far. While Watson made that diagnosis, for legal reasons I am certain that licensed doctors were the ones that dealt with the patient, as well as gave the legal diagnosis.
  • Dealing well with humans, which has been important for centuries, has just become much more important – it separates us from AI. So far.
  • Understanding the technology and, more importantly, the dynamic limits of the technology will be key.

Even with that, even as fast food outlets switch to touchscreens for ordering their food (imagine the disease vectors off of that!), even as AI’s become more and more prominent, the landscape is being shaken by technology driven by financial profit.

And I don’t think that it’s right that there’s no real plan for that. It’s coming, there is no stopping that, but what are we as a society doing to prepare the new work force for what is to come? What can be done?

Conversations might be a good place to start.

 

 

 

 

 

Reinvention, Recursive.

Art evolvesWarning: This is kind of long and is a rant-ble. The short of it is that I’m not on the market anymore.

It’s time to evolve again.1

No, this is not the announcement of some Silicon Valley startup that will make you better elbows to stick in your ears or, heaven forbid, something useful.

No, this is about the site, myself, and the career path. To cut to the chase, I’m no longer looking for work or contracts in technology.

There’s a few reasons for this.

  • After 2 and a half decades, it gets boring when done right and annoyingly exciting when done wrong. More often than not in most companies, it’s being done wrong and it’s no fun getting excited for the wrong reasons.
  • Everyone wants a specialist and I’m a generalist.
  • Management doesn’t like me wandering around outside the building. They don’t think I’m working just because of the GIS coordinates of my body during thought.
  • AI is gonna take over at least some programming jobs (advances in programming in the past have had the reverse effect, broadening the field – something else for another time). It will only take one programmer who will because s/he can, and then an ecosystem to evolve it.
  • Did I mention I’m bored?
  • I have other options.

Plugging tech together can only be done in so many permutations. It’s a mathematical fact if you factor in that the geometric progression is necessary for evolution through the permutations.  

I’m not sure I like how the ecosystem is plugging tech together. Frankly, while it’s nice that the iFart application created a few jobs (don’t be the guy with the microphone), and while it will be seen as invaluable to those who pay for it, it’s crap and really doesn’t advance anything but a paycheck. Because, really, money got mistaken for something of value somewhere in the history of mankind.

Because I don’t like the way things are getting plugged together, to work means to evolve again, and the value of working on things I increasingly don’t like is… silly in a human and financial perspective. I’ve always believed that people should do what they want to, then later understood that people should do what they want to only if they’re good at it. I’m still good at it, but I don’t want to think about that too much.

There are other things I’m good at, and it’s time to go do them. It’s not that I’m becoming a Luddite – far from, you should see this heap of silicon I just bought – but that it’s not a career for me, at least for a few years. I’ll be using tech in other endeavors, and a great way to spend time waiting on others is to solve problems: Write code, design systems, or make a better mousetrap. But it’s not my main thrust, and oddly, I’ve been telling kids starting college not to do tech but to do other things with tech.

And in the meanwhile, things that I put my own sweat equity into over 5 years ago are paying, and require some attention.

1 Now there’s a marketing line…