Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Tale of Two Principles



In the January 16 issue of the New Yorker magazine is a short piece, “End of Innocence” by Tad Friend which describes how the Internet has enabled child sex trafficking in the US. The article quotes a Senate report claiming that over 80% of online sex-ads revenue is generated by the website Backpage.com. Prosecutors have alleged that more than 90 % of Backpage's revenue — millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.

According to USA Today, law enforcement officials across the country have complained for years that the adult services ads on Backpage have given pimps the ability to easily advertise and set up meetings with johns. Now, with the aid of the seamy side of the Internet, prostitutes no longer need to troll the streets for customers and pimps can collect their fees automatically when the transaction is electronic. Unfortunately these ads disguise that the children may be underage, so this system allows children to be exploited which is, of course, against the law. The issue here is to decide which right is paramount: the right to free speech as embodied in the Bill of Rights as the First Amendment to the US Constitution or the right of minors not to be exploited which is part of every state’s statute law.


The right to protect children is easy to understand so let’s examine that first. Backpage claims that they are, in fact, protecting children from sex trafficking by working with police departments to help them root out those slimey advertisers who use code words like “young, Lolita, fresh, schoolgirl” to indicate the “escort” is a child. “Backpage offered... testimonials from law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, praising the site for assisting investigations. “I know your company is vilified nationally because it is an easy target,” read one testimonial, attributed to the Denver Police Department...I have told numerous people that Backpage is law enforcement friendly and does not support human trafficking.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/

Backpage also claims that they are actually providing a service to sex workers that makes their job safer as the ads serve as a buffer between client and provider. Here is a link to a website which argues for the right of Backpage to provide sex-related ads under the protection of free speech.

https://reason.com/blog/2016/10/07/charges-against-backpage-ceo-listed/print

The case against Backpage is more complicated. Most all media, including websites are protected by the First amendment which guarantees citizens free speech and under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

CDA Section 230 provides that internet service providers and website operators can not be held liable for content originating from a third-party. So, for example, if I use a social network like Facebook to harass someone, I can be successfully sued, but Facebook could not. This precedent was established when a suit was brought against AT&T because a stalker was using their phone lines to harass a customer and AT&T successfully argued they could not be held liable for illegal acts performed by others in much the same way that gun manufacturers are protected from prosecution when their gun is used in a crime. There are, however, provisions made If the host (Backpage.com) assists the third party (the Advertiser) in breaking the law because they become an accessory and are subject fines and imprisonment. In the instance of Backpage, prosecutors are claiming that Backpage actively helped the advertisers disguise the underage of the prostitutes so Backpage would also be liable. But this would be very difficult to prove. As a result Backpage has won two lawsuits, one in California and one in the Supreme Court which denied the lower court’s decision to prosecute.

This seems like an overly-complicated big mess but there may be a happy ending to this story. The latest twist has Backpage as of Jan 9 removing the “adult” ads section of their site. They continue to claim that their first amendment rights have been violated by the mean old feds harassing them until they had no choice but to acquiesce. Poor babies.

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.

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