Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Net Neutrality Nullified?

Lately, the news has been covering the possible demise of “Net Neutrality”. You may be asking yourself “Should I care and what the heck is it?”

As background information, recall that the original Internet was financed entirely by the citizens of US via the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which needed a network of computer systems that were reliable enough to keep working under adverse conditions --- like a nuclear attack. The idea was to link together all of the government computers of various architectures to allow them to share information. Computers would be spread across the US so that if a computer in the network failed, the system could route information packets around it to one that was still online. It was called the ARPANET which evolved into what we today call the Internet.

“Net neutrality” is the principle that Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. For instance, under these principles, Internet service providers are unable to intentionally block, slow down or charge money for specific websites and online content.” [Wikipedia]

Like any complex defintion, in order to understand it, several terms within it must first be defined: what is an “Internet Service Provider”, what is “Content” and what is a “User”? “User” seems obvious: you and me and everyone who uses the Internet is a user. Also, you, the User, are also a customer when you use (read,see, listen to, copy, share..) “Content” on the web. Content is provided by (wait for it...) a Web Content Provider like Google, Amazon, Facebook or Netflix. To complicate matters, a “Web Content Provider” is also called “Content Service Provider” so anyone who hosts a web page on the Internet is a Content Service Provider. For example, Google hosts free websites (like the one for this column: tec-doc.blogspot.com). Finally, an “Internet Service Provider” (ISP) provides access to the Internet for you, the user, (or the company you work for), and is generally paid for this service.

So, given the above definitions, what exactly is the problem? There appear to be two main issues: the first concerns how to govern the Internet. Who should set the rules(if any) and who shall enforce them? While this may on its face seem like a reasonably tractable problem, it unforunately is argued according to political views. If you’re a conservative you tend to favor letting private enterprise and the free market be the governing agency; if liberal, you favor government regulation because not only did the government (all citizens) spend the cash to create the Internet, you feel it will look out for not only your intersts but the the interests of everyone and not just corporate interests. Just as the railroads and telegraph/telephone technologies began with tracks and wires funded with government assistance, so too was the Internet; therefore let the government govern.

The other division of opinion is over the question, “Who shall profit from the Internet?” and that issue becomes fuzzier as there is a growing overlap of services between the Web Content Providers and the ISPs. For example an ISP, in additiion to providing the “pipes” for the information highway, can also provide email, video, and phone service to residential and business customers. So you are not limited to getting your movies only from Web Content Providers like Netflix or Amazon, because ISPs like Comcast and Charter supply them too --- along with high speed Internet.

Generally, Users and Web Content Providers side with Net Neutrality principles enforced by a government agency like the FCC because Users dislike monopolies which drive up their costs and feel their interests will be best served by laws passed by duly elected representatives. Web Content Providers tend to think Government control will be more even-handed and wil protect them from the ISPs overcharging them for service. The ISPs however, tend to favor the free market approach which would allow fast and slow lanes (at different costs) to better regulate traffic on information highway; this will increase their wealth which they can invest in new and wonderful innovations (which, to the chagrin of the othe stakeholders seems to be an accelerating rate of ISP mergers inevitably leading to monopolies).

If you’re still confused, welcome to the club. Perhaps the best advice I can offer for following this three-way tug of war is to “Follow the Money!”

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Automation Revisited


The cover of the Oct 23 New Yorker magazine shows a street person with his begging cup and his dog at his side.  The beggar looks despondent but the dog appears to be surprised by the robot dog on a leash held by a humanoid robot passing by. In fact, it’s all robots of various forms carrying various objects like coffee and smartphones --- not another human or real dog to be seen. One of the robots is dropping what, at first glance looks looks like several coins into the beggar’s cup but on closer scrutiny we realize they are not really coins as we know them, they are instead washers and flat gears --- obviously the standard currency in this hypothetical world.

Since the covers of the New Yorker are usually cartoons depicting an ironic situation, what’s the joke here? The irony appears to be that not only are we becoming more and more dependent on robots and more and more useless to one another, we are watching the steady march of automation gobbling up our jobs.   This is a fear that could be said to have started in earnest during the early 19th century when Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented an automated loom which resulted in riots by the local English weavers who saw (correctly) that this device from the devil would eventually put them out of their jobs. The leader of this insurrection was Ned Lud and so  the disparaging label “Luddite” became applied to anyone who rails against new technology whether or not it displaces workers.


In the early 21st century economists sought to allay this fear of automation causing jobs to be lost by claiming that, on the whole, automation creates more jobs than it displaces.
However, current research shows that this claim is an oversimplification. Job displacement is, as commonsense dictates, dependent on the job type. In essence, jobs requiring little education are much more likely to be replaced by robots. Of course, there will be exceptions. Compare two occupations: housekeeper vs radiologist --- which would you predict is most likely to be replaced by automation? Certainly the radiologist needs higher level skills than a maid, but a strong case can be made that it is the job of the maid that is more difficult to automate. For example how do you program into a housekeeping robot every situation which may arise and the actions to take when it does? For example, A human maid upon finding reading glasses next to the TV would put them back in their case. (“The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future by Martin Ford.)



Many of the points made by Ford are echoed in the article in the 10/23 New Yorker article, “Dark Factory” (Can Humans adapt to a robot workforce?) by Sheelah Kolhatkar. She argues that since near full automation is inevitable, the best solution is to bite the bullet and pay people who have lost their jobs to automation so that they may continue to consume goods and services and keep the economy from collapsing.
But where will this “guaranteed wage” come from?  Kolhatkar suggests that the businesses which save money by replacing human workers with machines be taxed to pay the displaced workers. Understandably, there will be a massive pushback against this idea as it smacks of Socialism but she believes attitudes can and will change especially under massive economic pressure.


Thanks to my natural talent for procrastination, I see that the Nov 13 issue of the New Yorker has all of its Letters to the Editor devoted to this article. One of them,by Robert B. Price, ends his letter with the observation, “Sometime in the next twenty-five to two hundred years, A.I. will be capable of writing its own code, and will do it much faster and better than humans. We need to think very seriously about that, and take steps to avoid the scenario ... on the cover of the magazine” [ the parade of robots walking by the despondant  human beggar and his bewildered dog].


Fortuneately, there are computer scientists  who realize that when robots are capable of building smarter, better, and faster robots, generation after generation,  this will result in exponential growth of their capabilites. And while we humans can do the same thing by standing on the shoulders of scientists before us, it is at a much slower rate than the robots can progress. How long will they put up with us?

Something to think about indeed!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Internet Addiction?



One of my simple morning pleasures is my coffee and the comics section of the PR and this
includes the Jumble and the  “Dear Annie” column. The July 7 column was from a reader who believes that she  is addicted to the Internet via her smartphone and wanted advice on how to deal with it.  My first response was, “Well, what exactly qualifies as an addiction? I absolutely must have my morning coffee, so is that an addiction?”

Glad you asked. According to the websites Wikipedia and Dictionary, an addiction is “A physical or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, such as a drug or alcohol.” Additionally it may be harmful and may require larger doses as time goes by to achieve the same effect.

Applying the above definiton to my morning coffee: Is it habit-forming:? Yes, of course. Does the habit  require increased amounts to achieve its effect?: Yes but I can control my consumption to just a cup and a half only at breakfast; Are there harmful effects? The science is still out on that one --- I remember when the consensus was that coffe was supposedly bad for you but the current theory is that coffee ingestion is OK in moderate amounts (less than 2 cups per day). So, all in all, I guess I have a mild addiction to coffee but nothing near alcohol or drugs and nothing to worry about.

Similarly, I can’t count the Jumble as an addictionfor the same reasons I gave for coffee. Brain games like the Jumble have been touted by their marketers as increasing memory retention, problem-solving skills and attention span as well as  a good way to hold off dementia. However, new research indicates these claim are false (or as some presidents might say ‘fake facts”). In fact, one of the largest markets for brain games is Lumosity which as been fined two million dollars for overly-aggressive marketing and fraudulent claims that “preyed on consumers’ fears”. (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jan/06/lumosity-fined-false-claims-brain-training-online-games-mental-health)

If we consider how much we rely on the Internet (via smartphone or personal computer), it would seem that there is a high potential for addiction. It is certainly habit forming, uses more and more of your time, and, in many cases, is harmful. There are studies that even social networking sites like Facebook are a downer.  Many reasons for this negative effect have been proposed but I favor the theory that jealousy plays a large role in the downer effect. After all, who wants to know that their bff consistently gets more likes than themselves which, like it or not, is a measure of our popularity. Surely I am at least as interesting as what’s-her-name. This can also lead to a feeling of loneliness rather than the togetherness that social neworks purportedly nurture. All you have to do is search on the phrase, “does facebook engender a feeling of loneliness or togetherness’ to see that this is real issue.


On the other hand, some researchers claim that the cause and effect actually goes the other way: lonely people tend to be attracted to Facebook and not the other way round..Either way the studies also show that Facebook and similar social sites do not alleviate the feeling of loneliness that brings many users to the site.

Also, there may be a link between loneliness and boredom: When we become bored, many use the technique touted in self-help books: “Find a creative outlet.”  While this works when the outlet is gardening or music or any activity which helps connect us back into the real world,  it does not work for the Internet because, it’s not the real world --- at best it is just a simulcrum of reality and at some level of consciousness we realize that. Then a vicious cycle begins: we spend more and more time on the Internet in a futile attempt to combat boredom which leads to more loneliness, which leads to....

So, what’s the moral of this story? I’m not sure, but I think it’s something like: Until a Time Machine is invented, be mindful of how you spend your time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cookies and Milk


I was reading Consumer Reports about how goods are marketed using algorithms. In simple terms an algortithm is like a recipe. Step-by-step, you follow the instructions and, if the recipe is correct and you have followed the intructions correctly, you will achieve the desired outcome (e.g. a German chocolate cake). Gastronomic dreams aside, I was reminded of the meme, "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product."  Or as they used to say, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"  --- a phrase that originated in the 1930s refering to the ploy used by saloons to attract customers who might be tempted to order a few drinks.

So, exactly how is this done? What is the algorithm being used by marketers to stimulate your spending behavior as well as their profits? In a word, “targeted ads” so that  when I visit a website supported by adverisements, I will see ads tailored to my browsing history  that have been selected by an algorithm.

I remember when, in the early stages of the Google mail app, there were ads on a sidebar along with the email responses which I accepted as the cost of doing business.  However, one fine day while reading the email response I had received from a friend a response to the question, “when are the Jewish Holidays this year?”  I noticed the ad was, “Learn Hebrew!”  Now there was a targeted ad that made me laugh.  Upon further reflection I wondered how Google knew the contents of my initial email so that it could search its list of advertisers for the appropriate response. Then I remembered that Google was embroiled in a controversy over the privacy of its email customers. Google had openly admitted that it had an algorithm that took your email as input, searched for key words (like Jewish) and then tailored the ads to reflect these key words.


The public reaction to this scheme was basically, “What!!! The computer is reading my emails? What happened to Privacy?” and so forth. Google’s response was to point out that while the algorithm was searching for keywords, it was not trying to analyze content; it was not really Reading because it had no understanding of what was written and furthermore, the analysis was destroyed after the ads were chosen. Well, as you may suspect, this explanation did not mollify everyone. How do we know that Google is not going to use this analysis to exploit us --- all we have is their word. It comes to down to the basic question of trust and since Google’s motto at the time was, “Do no evil” and besides, Gmail had become a necessary convenience, and so the controversy soon blew over. Unfortunately everything old is new again: Google mail is redesigned to put ads into your inbox and while they are labelled with the word “ad” in very small font, the odds are greater that you’ll open an email than read a sidebar ad.


Unfortuneately, this issue has evolved to a more insidious situation whereby your profile and preferenes are shared across websites so that ads can even more targeted. Data such as your web visitation history and what you purchased at which website as well as other personal information can be shared with other sites using a mechanism cleverly called a “cookie”. Who could be against a cookie? Who does not have fond memories of cookies and milk at bedtime? There are two kinds of cookies that every Internet user should know about: First and Third party cookies. First party cookies are useful and not dangerous if they are encrypted. They can store your password so you don’t have to type it in every time you log on as well as remember where you left off the last time you visited the site. Third party cookies, however, have the capacity to invade your privacy by constructing a list of your browsing history. You can block these cookies by searching on the phrase, “How do I disable third party cookies?”


I must admit mixed feelings about cookies and targeted ads: if I’m going to get ads as the price I have to pay for using an app then i’d rather they be based on my interests rather than some random selection. On the other hand I don’t need to be reminded that, “ Here is a product that you didn’t know you needed”.

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.




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