Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Is this Election Rigged?


Every four years there is a topic that seems to come up during the last months of the election process: Voting Machines --- specifically, their sad state, and suggestions to fix the problems with them. Mix in one of the candidate’s claims that this election is rigged and that 30% of Trump supporters and about 20% of Clinton’s respond that they doubt the legitimacy of the president if the other party wins --- and you begin to understand why people can’t wait for this election to be over.

Given the benefits of using voting machines (they speed up the voting and tabulation process and hence encourage more citizens to vote) why are there so many scary headlines like:

“America’s Electronic Voting Machines Are Scarily Easy Targets”
“The Dismal State of America’s Decade-Old Voting Machines”
“10 Reasons Why Voting Systems Are Not Created Equal”
"Should voters be worried about aging voting machines?
“Election Day Woes: Some Question Voting Machines”

...and virtually no headlines containing the phrase “The voting machines are fine, thank you very much”? This leads me to assume that there are still some problems that need to be examined.

Let’s narrow the problem down to electronic voting machines which, like any computer system have vulnerable software and hardware. If I can hack into a voting machine and replace its programs with mine then I can make it produce any results I like. Also if the machines are on a network then my virus can travel on that network infecting more machines. And if the Internet (the ultimate network) is used to tabulate votes, fuggetaboudit. That’s the first major issue, but keep in mind that there is no evidence that this has ever happened ---- so far.

Another issue that cuts both ways is the decentralization of the voting machines. Not only the individual states but local voting districts can make decisions regarding the security provided for these machines. Since there exists about 200,000 voting precincts, it would be an overwhelming task to hack into all of them; in this case the decentralization is a benefit, not a cost.

So it’s pretty much impossible to make all the voting machines communicate via the Internet which is the greatest risk --- and that’s the good news. The real problem seems to be that many of the machines are outdated.

An extensive study by The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute, found that forty-three states will use outdated electronic voting machines when people head to the polls in 2016, potentially leaving the door open to various problems including the possibility of crashes and lost votes. Of course the results hinge on your definition of “outdated” and the assumption made by the researchers was that an outdated machine had to be at least 10 years old.

The Center discovered that 43 states have voting machines that are at least 10 years old putting them “perilously close” to most of the systems’ expected lifespan. This includes a significant percentage of machines in key swing states such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. The study also found that 14 states have machines that are at least 15 years old.

“No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years. How can we expect these machines, many of which were designed and engineered in the 1990s, to keep running without increased failures?” said Lawrence Norden, co-author of the study. He goes on to describe why outdated machines are a bigger problem than hacking, “If you have machines not working, or working slowly, that could create lots of problems too, preventing people from voting at all.”

Just last year, the election board of Virginia (one of the battleground states) decertified 3000 voting machines after an investigation revealed the software was hackable. When the governor proposed that the problem could be fixed by replacing the machines for $28 million the legislature turned down the request. So it’s a case of money and politics which has always been a problem --- with a dwindling state budget politicians confronted with replacing voting machine or fixing potholes will spend where the voters are complaining the most. Hopefully, after this election, our elected representatives will have the political backbone to deal with this issue.




Sunday, August 14, 2016

Technology changes Vocabulary and Productivity




A funny thing happened while I was reading the the article, “Amazon unveils cargo plane as it expands delivery network” by Phuong Le in the Sat Aug 6 2016 PR. In the last paragraph of the article is a quote from Dave Clark, Amazon’s Senior VP for worldwide operations,“Stay tuned and we’ll see what happens in the future”. It occurred to me that the phrase “stay tuned” has already become archaic in that it refers to a nondigital technology (tube radio) which had a tuner knob the user could control to find the “station” or broadcast frequency desired.

This struck me as serendipitous because just the previous day, my grandson Tommy had used the phrase, “Hang up the phone” to me referring to a cell phone. I (unpompously as possible) pointed out to him that “hang up” was an outdated phrase referring to olden times (early 20th century”) when phones looked like this:






You can see that it has a microphone on top , a dial at the bottom and a cradle on the side with which you can place the speaker to “hang up the phone” and end the conversation. I predicted that in a few years people will be saying, “Swipe off the phone” instead. To which he astutely replied, “Or ‘hang up’ will just become another phrase that we use unaware of its original meaning --- like “dialing” the number.

So I wondered how many other words of phrase have become archaic due to technological change and by searching on “outdated expressions” you can find a plethora of other examples; e.g.

http://distractify.com/humor/2015/06/17/outdated-expressions-are-the-cats-meow-1197927064


Speaking of change, the Aug 11 PBS Newshour the segment, “End of Growth”, examines technological change from two different viewpoints. Economics reporter Paul Solmon asks two economists, Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson, for their reasons for and against the prediction that the US economy is in for a long patch of slow growth. Gordon shows data that the period between 1870 and 1970 was an era of unprecedented growth and productivity fueled by such technology as the radio, the electric light, indoor plumbing, air conditioning/heating, the telephone, radio and TV, the airplane,the internal combustion engine, and last but not least, the refrigerator( which, besides convenience, kept food from spoiling and thus improved the nation’s health).

Brynjolfsson agrees pointing out that a multitude of tasks previously performed by human muscle or horsepower were replaced by machines in that century which not only raised productivity but lessened the burden and freed up time for most people. But he disagrees with Gordon’s thesis that our best days are over. He claims that we are in a “second machine age” where they now raise our productivity by supplementing our brain power using artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics. Gordon parries with the observation that this new utopia visualized by Brynjolfsson is not yet factual --- it is merely a hope.

Gordon rhapsodizes about the tremendous investment in infrastructure symbolized by the construction of the Golden Gate bridge and similar projects that led this country into a prosperity never before reached. . Further, his research indicates that during that 100 year span the US was growing three times faster than in the last 40 years. Brynjolfsson responds that while that may be so, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet and that the greatest failure of the human mind is in comprehending exponential growth (the bigger it gets, the faster it grows) because we tend to think linearly. Gordon responds that computers have been riding this wave of exponential growth for the last 50 years but it has not yet shown up in productivity. And so on and so forth.

Solmon ends the piece with the observation that no matter whose viewpoint will turn out to be correct we are certainly currently in a period of strong economic headwinds: problems in education, an aging population, a huge national debt, and growing inequality.

I believe that if anything can lift us up out of this “great recession’, it will be undergirded by technology. It is not surprising to me that technology not only changes society’s productivity but also its vocabulary.

Technology changes Vocabulary and Productivity




A funny thing happened while I was reading the the article, “Amazon unveils cargo plane as it expands delivery network” by Phuong Le in the Sat Aug 6 2016 PR. In the last paragraph of the article is a quote from Dave Clark, Amazon’s Senior VP for worldwide operations,“Stay tuned and we’ll see what happens in the future”. It occurred to me that the phrase “stay tuned” has already become archaic in that it refers to a nondigital technology (tube radio) which had a tuner knob the user could control to find the “station” or broadcast frequency desired.

This struck me as serendipitous because just the previous day, my grandson Tommy had used the phrase, “Hang up the phone” to me referring to a cell phone. I (unpompously as possible) pointed out to him that “hang up” was an outdated phrase referring to olden times (early 20th century”) when phones looked like this:




You can see that it has a microphone on top , a dial at the bottom and a cradle on the side with which you can place the speaker to “hang up the phone” and end the conversation. I predicted that in a few years people will be saying, “Swipe off the phone” instead. To which he astutely replied, “Or ‘hang up’ will just become another phrase that we use unaware of its original meaning --- like “dialing” the number.

So I wondered how many other words of phrase have become archaic due to technological change and by searching on “outdated expressions” you can find a plethora of other examples; e.g.

http://distractify.com/humor/2015/06/17/outdated-expressions-are-the-cats-meow-1197927064


Speaking of change, the Aug 11 PBS Newshour the segment, “End of Growth”, examines technological change from two different viewpoints. Economics reporter Paul Solmon asks two economists, Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson, for their reasons for and against the prediction that the US economy is in for a long patch of slow growth. Gordon shows data that the period between 1870 and 1970 was an era of unprecedented growth and productivity fueled by such technology as the radio, the electric light, indoor plumbing, air conditioning/heating, the telephone, radio and TV, the airplane,the internal combustion engine, and last but not least, the refrigerator( which, besides convenience, kept food from spoiling and thus improved the nation’s health).

Brynjolfsson agrees pointing out that a multitude of tasks previously performed by human muscle or horsepower were replaced by machines in that century which not only raised productivity but lessened the burden and freed up time for most people. But he disagrees with Gordon’s thesis that our best days are over. He claims that we are in a “second machine age” where they now raise our productivity by supplementing our brain power using artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics. Gordon parries with the observation that this new utopia visualized by Brynjolfsson is not yet factual --- it is merely a hope.

Gordon rhapsodizes about the tremendous investment in infrastructure symbolized by the construction of the Golden Gate bridge and similar projects that led this country into a prosperity never before reached. . Further, his research indicates that during that 100 year span the US was growing three times faster than in the last 40 years. Brynjolfsson responds that while that may be so, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet and that the greatest failure of the human mind is in comprehending exponential growth (the bigger it gets, the faster it grows) because we tend to think linearly. Gordon responds that computers have been riding this wave of exponential growth for the last 50 years but it has not yet shown up in productivity. And so on and so forth.

Solmon ends the piece with the observation that no matter whose viewpoint will turn out to be correct we are certainly currently in a period of strong economic headwinds: problems in education, an aging population, a huge national debt, and growing inequality.

I believe that if anything can lift us up out of this “great recession’, it will be undergirded by technology. It is not surprising to me that technology not only changes society’s productivity but also its vocabulary.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Reflecting on Reflection/Exploring Reflecting... Take your Pick




Sunday morning. Time to get to work on my next column. I start by checking my media sources for new ideas. Pocket has a link to a potentially interesting article from the New York Times: “The End of Reflection” by Teddy Wayne. It’s a fairly quick read which examines some of the research on how the technology provided by the Internet favors multitasking and scattered thinking to the detriment of thinking reflectively or “thinking about thinking”. I first heard the phrase, “thinking about thinking “ over forty years ago while I was working on my dissertation --- I didn’t care much for it then and I haven’t changed my mind. It’s an example of a self-referential statement which most always leads to a paradox; for example, “This sentence no verb” or “Absolutely all absolute statements are false.” Since language is meant to clarify and communicate ideas, it’s a good idea to stay away from paradoxes unless you’re telling a joke or just want to show off.

However, the interesting thing for me is that, while reading the article, about halfway down, there is an active link (you know, some text colored blue which holds the promise of whisking you off to another website) from which much of Wayne’s article was derived ( “Our Cluttered Minds” by Jonah Lehrer). Unable to contain my curiosity and being of easily distractible nature, I clicked and went. And guess what? Halfway down this article was a reference to the term, “Hot Take” which led me to another search which led me to “A History of the Hot Take” by Elspeth Reeve.

At this point I began to realize that I was confirming the Wayne and Lehrer hypothesis: I was allowing myself to be distracted by the hyperlink jumping ability provided by the Internet instead of first reading the entire article and then reflecting on its content. I was jumping in when I should have been standing back.

Before going further, I have (in the interest of full disclosure) tinkered with the truth a bit in the above description of my actions. While I may appear dumb, I am really not that dumb. In fact, as soon as I saw the first link, I did go to that page and after a hasty scan, realized it would be useful and simply saved the page in a new tab which I could come back to later. Same deal for all subsequent links. So maybe there is a middle ground, a compromise if you will, between completely standing back and reflecting vs jumping in and forging ahead allowing the creative drive to lead us where it may.

Perhaps the problem of reflection vs “distraction” is a false dilemma. Perhaps both are useful problem-solving tools. Then we could replace the pejorative word, “distraction” with a more positive one like “exploring” or “doing”. This idea is not a new one; somewher around 350 BCE Aristotle wrote, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them" and later in the early 20th century when educational theorist John Dewey promoted the concept of “experiential learning”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiential_learning

But this “learning by doing” strategy is not sufficient. Certainly we can learn by doing but our understanding is deepened and enhanced by reflecting on what we have just done: could it have been done better, more efficiently, how does it fit in with what we already know? Note that this is not the same as “thinking about thinking --- this is thinking about what we have done. Learning is an exploratory process while Reflection is an integrative one.

In short, we learn best by doing and then thinking about what we’ve done. But progress in Internet technology has made us more impatient: who has the time to reflect if we can’t wait out a two-second delay in response to our query? As the creator of old-time comic strip “Pogo”, Walt Kelly put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” On the other hand, as some other old sage has noted, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is a problem. I’m working on it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

INDIVIDUAL vs SOCIETAL Security: Deja Vu all over Again


You may have thought that the lawsuit by the FBI against Apple was amicablly settled out of court on March 21 but if you thought that you would be wrong. For those of us with less than adequate memories, here is a synopsis of the events leading up to lawsuit.

The FBI wanted to examine the Apple iPhone taken from the San Bernardino terrorist shooter in the hope it would reveal connections to other terrorists. Unfortunately the FBI bungled the attempt to hack into the phone which prevented anyone from logging into it let alone get information from it --- except perhaps the Apple Corporation who made the phone and theoretically could restore it to its prior state so the FBI could get on with its investigation.
Now comes the tricky technical part. In order to restore the phone, Apple software engineers must create a Trojan Horse virus which appears to be a valid update to the phone’s Operating System but in fact will launch an attack on it, disabling the code that is blocking the FBI and letting them have another crack at getting to its contact list. This process is called “white-hat” hacking (as opposed to “black-hat” which is what the baddies use).

All the FBI says that it wants is the phone back in the same condition it was before the shooter was killed and his phone captured. Then they can get back to work protecting the Homeland. “Not so fast!”, replies Apple CEO Tim Cook. If we do that and the code leaks out then everyone who owns an iPhone (an estimated 64 million people in the US alone as of 2014) will be at risk from malicious hackers --- not only in the US but in other nations) and tt will be a HUGE invasion of privacy and the world will never be the same. So the FBI responds, “if you won’t do what we want you to do voluntarily, we will have the courts issue an injunction forcing you to do so.” And they did and the blogosphere exploded with claims and counterclaims about what was the Right Thing to Do.

Privacy advocates claimed that this was like the government getting a search warrant to enter a home only to encounter a locked safe for which it had no permission to open so it asks the manufacturer of the safe to provide it with a master key and the manufacturer responds that it has no assurance that this master will be safe and not copied thus violating the security of their product and consequently their business trade will suffer.

A CBS poll of the US general public revealed that 50% of the respondents supported the FBI's position, and 45% supported Apple's.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FBI%E2%80%93Apple_encryption_dispute

The case never made it to court as the FBI blinked and ostensibly found a white-hat hacker to dig out the information they wanted to examine. (According to the Wall Street Journal, “FBI Paid More Than $1 Million to Hack San Bernardino iPhone”)

So, who’s right? I’ll tell you. I don’t know.

What I do know is that this is not the end but the beginning of the tortuous process of sussing out several thorny issues. One issue is that we have consciously designed a system of jurisprudence that meant to be slow and deliberate so that we sacrifice speed for for accuracy --- for getting it right. However, technology turns that philosophy on its head; we not only want our gadgets to run fast but we want them be created fast as well --- if it’s not right, we’ll make it right in the next version.

Also in our law system, precedents are important and you can be sure that law enforcement agencies will continue to press this issue because, for them, security will usually trump privacy

And finally, beyond smartphones, is there a reasonable expectation of privacy on Internet or not? When I post to Facebook, certainly not; when I send email, I certainly do expect privacy. T
his is not yet settled law and there is an ongoing conversation on this issue (on the Internet of course --- search on the term, “reasonable expectation of privacy”)

Pros and Cons of Autonomous Cars: Part 3





We’ve been investigating some of the Pros and Cons of driverless or autonomous cars. So far, we’ve looked at them in terms of Safety/Security, Time, and Money. We have also looked at comparisons between “robot cars” and other autonomous vehicles such as busses and trains. In this column we examine perhaps the thorniest of issues: Ethics.

While you can quantitatively measure Time, Money and Security, most ethical theories can only be evaluated qualitatively. Utilitarianism (Simple definition: Does the outcome of an action insure the greatest good for the greatest number of people?) attempts to overcome this problem by weighing the costs against the benefits and focuses on the consequences of an action regardless of the intention. At the other end of the spectrum is Deontology or Rule-based ethics where an act is judged right or wrong according to its adherence to a set of rules --- the ten commandment for example. If we use Deontology as our ethical guide then we would focus more on Intention rather than outcome. So,if your intention is good the act is good no matter the outcome.

A nice exercise in applying these two ethical theories is the “Trolley Problem”.( “Trolley” is a British word that translates in US english to “Train”) which is at:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

Briefly, here is the scenario: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice? A 2009 survey shows that 68% of professional philosophers would pull the switch (sacrifice the one individual to save five lives), 8% would not, and the remaining 24% had another view or could not answer”. (A surprising result as I would have expected a much higher percentage of philosophers responding that they could not, would not answer.)

For the Utilitarian, this is a no-brainer. One choice results in five dead, the other only One. Pull the lever and don’t look back. From the Deontological point of view it would depend on the set of rules you have chosen to follow; if it includes “Thou shalt not kill” then either action is wrong; the best one can do is modify the rule to “Thou shalt not kill, but if thou must, kill as few as possible” which puts one on the slippery slope to Utilitarianism. Some problems have no solution. Sigh.

For our purposes, imagine a driverless car in a situation where: a child darts out in front of the car, it’s too late for the ai car to stop but if it swerves you wipe out five pedestrians. Do we let the autonomous car make the call knowing full well that this decision is embedded in its software and ultimately that software was written by a team of programmers who, after all are only human? Some say these cars should have a human overide (like the emergency stop cord on a train); others say to trust the software --- it’s been tested (when was the last time your were tested?)) and can react much faster than you.

And what about letting the car break the rules when necessary? I usually give bikers a wide berth, even crossing the double line when it’s safe. Would a robot car be programmed to do the same?

All of this raises the question of responsibility. It’s your car, either owned or leased, and you better have insurance that covers situations like this. But what about the car manufacturer, and what about the programmers who wrote the software --- are they also liable?

If the thought of driverless cars scares you, consider the possibility of autonomous armed drones where their goal is not safety but destruction. For better or for worse, science fiction is rapidly becoming fact.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Autonomous Cars Part 2


As I indicated in my previous column, I will continue the discussion of the Pros and Cons of Autonomous or Driverless Cars. For a review of Part 1, see the January entry.

Lest you think that driverless cars are pie in the sky, consider this cartoon in the Jan 11, 2016 New Yorker magazine: A cop is saying to a stopped motorist, “Does your car have any idea why my car pulled it over?” Keep in mind that cartoons typically examine current societal themes.

In the last column I suggested that the pros and the cons debate of autonomous cars can be organized into three categories: Safety/Security, Time, and Money and that format was followed last column ---- except that the plusses and minuses were abbreviated to fit column length constraints. Here are some more pros and cons that were not covered last time.

Pros

Autonomous cars don’t have to be perfect, they only need to be better than the current system. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good..

The focus of police officers could be shifted from writing traffic tickets and handling accidents to managing other, more serious crimes.

The lines at the DMV would be shorter since people wouldn't need a specialized driving license to operate cars.

There would be less of a concern about taking the keys away from elderly parents when they get too old to drive carefully (Personally, I don’t care much for this one; I could argue that this is a Con, not a Pro for many of our elders.).

Cons

If humans were allowed to take control of the car, some drivers might game the system by rudely cutting into lanes secure in the knowledge that the other autonomous cars would slow down to let them in. A related scenario has teenagers playing chicken or trying to herd the robot cars into going in circles. Ah teens...

Prototype driverless cars are not yet able to operate at a high level of safety in all weather conditions. In fact, heavy rain can seriously mess up the car’s laser sensor which provokes the question what role the driver might have to play in the event the technology fails.

Another issue raised in the last column that the role of passenger trains --- aren’t they already closer to full autonomy? The answer is: “ Yes but... ” Many engineers believe that the technology is already available to implement fully driverless trains; in fact,some already exist. According to the International Association of Public Transport, by the end of 2013, there were 48 fully automated public metro systems in use in 32 countries. It is interesting to note that Canada has almost twice as many automated Metros as the US--- thanks mostly to Bombardier) So, if our neighbor to the north can do it, why can’t we, why don’t we? To answer that question let us (one more time) consider the Pros and Cons.

Pros

Once a train gets up to speed there need be few or no stops between stations making for a quicker smoother, and more comfortable ride.

There is a precedent. Airlines have been using pilotless airplanes which can takeoff , fly and land the plane safely and the many many autonomous systems which allow this are slowly migrating to first the high-end cars and eventually to the mid and lower-end cars. These systems which make the car more autonomous all have various input sensors such as blind spot monitors, parking sensors, even water-in-fuel sensors!
To view several dozen more, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sensors

Cons

The essence of these arguments mostly fall into the Money category. Basically, there are very little savings accrued by eliminating one engineer driving several hundred passengers.

Also, most workers in the transportation industries are in a union and are easily organized to turn out the vote. They are not going to vote for a project that will put them out of a job.

Overall, my prognostication is that we will see hybrid systems of autonomous cars,
busses and trains, each serving the unique needs of the passenger. not to mention nonautonomous bikes. Next time we examine the ethical issues. Stay tuned.

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