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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

The Internet is Best!

March 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I hear a lot of debate about whether the internet is making us dumb, uninformed, or more close-minded. The problems with a lot of these debates are these: first, saying the internet has resulted in the same outcome for everyone is too simplistic; second, these opinions are usually offered with no justification other than it is just “common sense” or “obvious”; and third, whatever the deficiencies of the internet, is it better or worse than not having an internet?

There is no doubt that some people could be said to be more dumb as the result of their internet use. By “dumb” I mean being badly informed (believing things which are unlikely to be true) or not knowing basic information at all, and by “internet use” I mean all internet services people use to gather information: web sites, blogs, news services, email newsletters, podcasts, videos, etc.

How can this happen when information is so ubiquitous? Well information isn’t knowledge, or at least it isn’t necessarily truth, and it certainly isn’t always useful. It is like the study (which was unreplicated so should be viewed with some suspicion) showing that people who watch Fox News are worse informed about news than people who watch no news at all.

That study demonstrates three interesting points: first, people can be given information but gather no useful knowledge as a result; second, non-internet sources can be just as bad a source as the internet itself; and third, this study (being unreplicated and politically loaded) might itself be an example of an information source which is potentially misleading.

So clearly any information source can potentially make people dumber. Before the internet people might have been made dumber by reading printed political newsletters, or watching trashy TV, or by listening to a single opinion at the dinner table, or by reading just one type of book.

And some people will mis-use information sources where others will gain a lot by using the same source. Some will get dumber while others get a lot smarter by using the same sources.

And (despite the Fox News study above) if the alternative to having an information source which can be mis-used is having no information source at all, then I think taking the flawed source is the best option.

Anecdotes should be used with extreme caution, but I’m going to provide some anyway, because this is a blog, not a scientific paper. I’m going to say why I think the internet is a good thing from my own, personal perspective.

I’m interested in everything. I don’t have a truly deep knowledge about anything but I like to think I have a better than average knowledge about most things. My hero amongst Greek philosophers is Eratosthenes, who was sometimes known as “Beta”. This was because he was second best at everything (beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet which I can recite in full, by the way).

The internet is a great way to learn a moderate amount about many things. Actually, it’s also a great way to learn a lot about one thing too, as long as you are careful about your sources, and it is a great way to learn nothing about everything.

I work in a university and I get into many discussions with people who are experts in a wide range of different subjects. Obviously I cannot match an expert’s knowledge about their precise area but I seem to be able to at least have a sensible discussion, and ask meaningful questions.

For example, in recent times I have discussed the political situation in the US, early American punk bands, the use of drones and digital photography in marine science, social science study design, the history of Apple computers, and probably many others I can’t recall right now.

I hate not knowing things, so when I hear a new word, or a new idea, I immediately Google it on my phone. Later, when I have time, I retrieve that search on my tablet or computer and read a bit more about it. I did this recently with the Gibbard-Satterhwaite Theorem (a mathematical theorem which involves the fairness of voting systems) which was mentioned in a podcast I was listening to.

Last night I was randomly browsing YouTube and came across some videos of extreme engines being started and run. I’ve never seen so much flame and smoke, and heard so much awesome noise. But now I know a bit about big and unusual engine designs!

The videos only ran for 5 or 10 minutes each (I watched 3) so you might say they were quite superficial. A proper TV documentary on big engines would probably have lasted an hour and had far more detail, as well as having a more credible source, but even if a documentary like that exists, would I have seen it? Would I have had an hour free? What would have made me seek out such an odd topic?

The great thing about the internet is not necessarily the depth of its information but just how much there is. I could have watched hundreds of movies on big engines if I had the time. And there are more technical, detailed, mathematical treatments of those subjects if I want them. But the key point is that I would probably know nothing about the subject if the internet didn’t exist.

Here’s a few other topics I have got interested in thanks to YouTube: maths (the numberphile series is excellent), debating religion (I’m a sucker for an atheist experience video, or anything by Christopher Hitchens), darts (who knew the sport of darts could be so dramatic?), snooker (because that’s what happens after darts), Russian jet fighters, Formula 1 engines, classic British comedy (Fawlty Towers, Father Ted, etc).

What would I do if I wasn’t doing that? Watching conventional TV maybe? Now what were my options there: a local “current affairs” program with the intellectual level of an orangutan (with apologies to our great ape cousins), some frivolous reality TV nonsense, a really un-funny American sitcom? Whatever faults the internet has, it sure is a lot better than any of that!

Are You Getting It?

January 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Ten years ago Apple introduced one of the most important devices in the history of technology. It has changed many people’s lives more than almost anything else, and nothing has really supplanted it in the years since then. Obviously I’m talking about the iPhone, but you already knew that.

Like every new Apple product, this wasn’t the first attempt at creating this type of device, it didn’t have the best technical specifications, and it didn’t sell at a particularly good price. In fact, looking at the device superficially many people (the CTO of RIM included) thought it should have immediately failed.

I got an iPhone when Apple introduced the first revision, the iPhone 3G, and it replaced my Sony phone, which was the best available when I bought it. The Sony phone had a flip screen, plus a smaller screen on the outside of the case, a conventional phone keypad, a rotating camera, and an incredibly impressive list of functions including email and web browsing.

In fact the feature list of the Sony phone was much more substantial than the early iPhones. But the difference was the iPhone’s features were something you could use where the Sony’s existed in theory but were so awkward, slow, and unintuitive than I never actually used them.

And that is a theme which has been repeated with all of Apple’s devices which revolutionised a particular product category (Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad). Looking at the feature list, specs, and price compared with competitors, none of these products should have succeeded.

But they did. Why? Well I’m going to say something here which is very Apple-ish and sounds like a marketing catch-phrase rather than a statement of fact or opinion, so prepare yourself. It is because Apple creates experiences, not products.

OK, sorry about that, but I can explain that phrase. The Sony versus iPhone situation I described above is a perfect example. Looking at the specs and features the Sony would have won most comparisons, but the ultimate purpose for a consumer device is to be used. Do the comparison again, but this time with how those specs and features affect the user and the iPhone wins easily.

And it was the same with the other products I mentioned above. Before the Mac, computers were too hard to use. The Mac couldn’t do much initially, but what it could do was so much more easily accessible than with PCs. The iPod was very expensive considering its capacity and list of functions, but it was much easier to use and manage than other MP3 players. And the iPad had a limited feature list, but its operating system was highly customised to creating an intuitive touch interface for the user.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 10 years ago he teased the audience like this: “[We are introducing] an iPod, a phone and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone – are you getting it? These are not separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone.”

Today I made a list of the functions my iPhone 6S regularly performs for me, where it replaces other devices, technologies and media. This list includes: watch, stopwatch, alarm clock, point and shoot camera, video camera, photo album, PDA, calculator, GPS, map, music player, portable video player, calendar, appointment diary, book library, ebook reader, audiobook player, magazine, newspaper, recipe book, email client, note pad, drawing tablet, night sky star map, web browser, portable gaming console, radio, TV, audio recorder, TV and audio remote control, landline, and mobile phone.

Not only does it do all of those things but it does a lot of them better than the specialised devices it replaces! And, even though the iPhone isn’t cheap, if you look at the value of the things it replaces it is a bargain. My guess at the value of all the stuff I listed above is $3000 – $5000 which is at least twice the cost of the phone itself.

My iPhone has one million times the storage of the first computer I programmed on. Its processors are tens of thousands of times faster. Its screen displays 25 times more pixels. And, again, it costs a lot less, even when not allowing for inflation.

Most of what I have said would apply to any modern smart-phone, but the iPhone deserves a special place amongst the others for two reasons. First, it is a purer example of ease of use and user-centered functionality than other phones; and second, it was the one phone which started the revolution.

Look at pictures of the most advanced phones before and after the iPhone and you will see a sudden transition. Apple lead the way – not on how to make a smartphone – but on how to make a smartphone that people would actually want to use. And after that, everything changed.

The Next Big Thing

January 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Many (and I really do mean many) years ago, when I was a student, I started a postgrad diploma in computer science. One of the papers was on artificial intelligence and expert systems, an area which was thought (perhaps naively) to have great potential back in the “early days” of computing. Unfortunately, very little in that area was achieved for many years after that. But now I predict things are about to change. I think AI (artificial intelligence, also very loosely described as “thinking computers”) is the next big thing.

There are early signs of this in consumer products already. Superficially it looks like some assistants and other programs running on standard computers, tablets, and phones are performing AI. But these tend to work in very limited ways, and I suspect they follow fairly conventional techniques in producing the appearance of “thinking” (you might notice I keep putting that word in quotes because no one really knows what thinking actually is).

The biggest triumph of true AI last year was Google’s AlphaGo program which won a match 4 games to 1 against Lee Sedol, one of the world’s greatest human players. That previous sentence was significant, I think, because in future it will be necessary to distinguish between AIs and humans. If an AI can already beat a brilliant human player in what is maybe the world’s most complex and difficult game, then how long will it be before humans will be hopelessly outclassed in every game?

Computers which play Chess extremely well generally rely on “brute force” techniques. They check every possible outcome of a move many steps ahead and then choose the move with the best outcome. But Go cannot be solved that way because there are simply too many moves. So AlphaGo uses a different technique. It actually learns how to play Go through playing games against humans, itself, and other AIs, and develops its own strategy for winning.

So while a conventional Chess playing program and AlphaGo might seem similar, in important ways they are totally different. Of course, the techniques used to win Go could be applied to any similar game, including Chess, it’s just that the pure brute force technique was sufficient and easier to implement when that challenge was first met.

Also last year a computer “judge” predicted the verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights cases with 79% accuracy. What does that really mean? Well it means that the computer effectively judged the cases and reached the same result as a human judge in about 80% of those cases. I have no data on this, but I suspect two human judges might agree and disagree to a similar degree.

So computers can perform very “human” functions like judging human rights cases, and that is quite a remarkable achievement. I haven’t seen what techniques were used in that case but I suspect deep learning methods like neural networks would be required.

So what does all this mean? I think it was science fiction author, Arthur C Clarke, who said that a thinking machine would be the last invention humans would ever have to create, because after that the machines themselves would do the inventing. I don’t think we are close to that stage yet but this is a clear start and I think the abilities of AIs will escalate exponentially over the next few decades until Clarke’s idea will be fulfilled.

And, along with another technology which is just about ready to become critical, 3D printing, society will be changed beyond recognition. The scenario portrayed in so many science fiction stories will become reality. The question is, which science fiction story type will be most accurate: the utopian type or the dystopian type. It could go either way.

The Golden Quarter

December 14, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an article titled “Aviation is flying into exciting times” which claimed to list the most exciting new developments in aviation which are about to happen. The list included: more choice of airlines and better prices; more connectivity (basically, internet services in flight); new planes and cabins including the B787, A350 and upgraded 777s; better loyalty schemes; and some new equipment for New Zealand’s air force (actually just aircraft which have been around for a while but are still newer than the rather ancient Hercules we have now).

That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? Well if you are still awake after reading that compelling list (not) you will probably answer “no, not really”.

And it isn’t. One reason I find it a bit uninspiring is that I have just finished reading Jonathan Glancey’s book “Concorde: The Rise and Fall of the Supersonic Airliner”. And I have also spent some time researching the “The Golden Quarter”, which is the idea that many of our greatest cultural and technological achievements happened between 1945 and 1971, and that progress has stalled since then.

I’m not totally convinced that the idea of technological and social stagnation in the last 45 years is true, but I do see some signs that the ideas has some merit, and I have commented on similar ideas before coming across the Golden Quarter concept.

If I compare the world of 1971 with today there are very obvious technological changes, especially in the area of computing and communications. Also, every other significant area of technology has progressed very obviously.

For example, the cars of today are hugely superior to those of the 1970s. They are far more reliable, far more powerful, better handling, have better economy, and they are a lot safer. And despite what I said in the first paragraphs of this post, modern aircraft are much more advanced than aircraft of the 70s in similar ways.

But this is all about evolution rather than revolution. And building aircraft with good fuel economy and safety is important, but it doesn’t have the same “cool factor” as building a commercial airliner which can travel at over double the speed of sound! In comparison, current commercial jets fly at about 0.8 to 0.9 times the speed of sound.

Here are a few things which are claimed to have come from the Golden Quarter:
electronics, computers and the birth of the internet, nuclear power, television, antibiotics, space travel, civil rights, the pill, feminism, teenage culture, the Green Revolution in agriculture, decolonisation, popular music, mass aviation, the gay rights movement, cheap reliable cars, high-speed trains, a man on the Moon, a probe to Mars, the elimination of smallpox, and the discovery of the structure of DNA.

I tried to get a list of significant achievements since then and they might include: the Hubble Space Telescope, the LHC, the discovery of gravitational waves, gene sequencing, huge advances in the power and price of computers, and the modernisation of certain countries (China, India) leading to a better standard of living.

Sure, it’s significant, but compared with the first list it’s not that impressive, is it?

And what about the areas where we are (or seem to be) going backwards? Conservative and nationalistic politics seems to have become popular. The total number of people affected by conflict is reducing but there are still many examples of war and terrorism around the world. Science funding seems to be becoming more difficult, and science is more often asked to contribute to commercial solutions rather than perform much more important fundamental research.

So if my hypothesis is correct, what went wrong?

I think it is just a phase we are going through, which started in the 1970s, when the current political-economic environment began. Clearly people are getting rather sick of all the unfulfilled promises and things are now changing. Unfortunately they appear to be becoming even more repressive, irrational, and unprogressive than before.

So unfortunately it looks like we really are heading down hill, and I don’t think we will have another golden quarter in the foreseeable future.

McLaren Spin Out

December 7, 2016 Leave a comment

One of my main areas of interest is cars. Although unfortunately my current (and most likely, future) financial position means I can’t afford a supercar, I do drive a reasonably fast cheap car (a twin turbo Subaru) and keep up with the latest car news and trends.

Maybe the supercar manufacturer I admire most is McLaren. That’s because they produce brilliant cars, including what is arguably the greatest car ever, the F1 (produced in the 1990s). I admire the F1 so much that I wrote a blog post specifically about it, titled “Favourite Things 4” and posted on 2013-02-17.

Recently there was a convoy of McLaren cars touring New Zealand, which included an F1 which had an estimated value of $20 million! Unfortunately the cars didn’t reach my home town so I didn’t get to see them, and the F1 was actually involved in a fairly serious crash just a couple of days ago.

The organisers of the tour claim the driver wasn’t exceeding the speed limit, but skid marks 80 meters long were found near the crash site. Now, I haven’t tried this, but my car (which as I said has good performance but obviously nowhere near that of the F1) can stop from the speed limit in less than 40 meters. So it seems to be that the driver of a car capable of 4 times our speed limit (yes, that is 400 kph or 240 mph) might have been going just a tiny bit faster than 100. And who could blame him? I know I certainly would be!

But the really intersting aspect of this event, and the thing which encouraged me to write a blog post, is the way McLaren handled the accident. They were on the scene fairly quickly offering large sums for photos, and covering the car with a cover, the name badges with tape, and then removing it as quickly as possible. I thought the protection of their corporate image was bit over the top.

And it’s not the first time. McLaren make another car called the P1 (yes, I know their names aren’t so inspirational) which is one of the “holy trinity” of modern, hybrid supercars (the other two being the Porsche 918 and the Ferrari LaFerrari). Car enthusiasts have wanted a comparison of these cars for years but McLaren has been uncooperative.

To be fair, so has Ferrari, threatening owners with having their cars confiscated if they allowed them to be used in a comparison race. I know, could you make this stuff up? Only Porsche seem to be fairly relaxed about having their cars used however the owners wanted.

One common measure of performance, car enthusiasts often use, is Nurburgring lap times. McLaren did this test but never released the result. The Porsche 918 has the best recorded time for a standard road car (there are better times but they are for open-wheel, quite specialised cars). Again, McLaren seems to be playing corporate games.

The first episode of “The Grand Tour”, the new program featuring the hosts of the old Top Gear, managed to test all 3 cars and found the Porsche was the fastest and the McLaren the slowest. Of course, this was a rather informal test on a specific track with a specific driver, so we shouldn’t read too much into it. But it is an indicator that the P1 isn’t quite as good in real life as it should be. I do have to say that even though the Porsche and Ferrari were faster, the P1 was still incredibly fast, and not far behind the other two.

Now to move on to my more general point. There are obvious parallels between Apple and McLaren. In fact, recently there were talks between the two and a rumour that Apple wanted to buy or invest in McLaren in some way. At the very least they both represent great engineering and premium pricing. And while they both represent great products they also both suffer from questionable corporate ethics.

So people ask me as an Apple fanboy (I use Apple computer products almost exclusively) and as a fan of McLaren cars, what I think of them as corporates. Well, like almost every corporation (or maybe that “almost” isn’t necessary): they suck!

I have a theory (which is based around my personal political biases rather than any real empirical evidence) that there are two types of big business: successful ones, and moral ones. For anyone who works in IT you just have to choose which immoral corporation you will tolerate. And for any car fan you have to choose which products you like while trying to ignore the corporate malfeasance shown by the manufacturer.

There is no doubt that large corporations do achieve some excellent results, and that some projects do need extensive teams that only larger organisations can provide, but I can’t help but think that things would be even better if the power of the corporates was significantly curtailed. I think things have gone a bit too far towards greater dominance by corporations.

We don’t really need that. We don’t need dodgy tax deals, we don’t need dominant companies forcing their inferior technology on us, and we definitely don’t need any more corporate spin!

Pure Worthless Drivel

September 14, 2016 Leave a comment

While I was deciding what to call this blog post I went back over previous posts looking for duplicate names and for the frequency of use of the constituent words. One word which showed up a lot more than I thought it might was “drivel”. But it’s a word I think is particularly useful in so many contexts today. With the dumbing down of society there is more and more drivel and that’s the main subject of this post.

The particular source of drivel I want to concentrate on this time is mainstream news. And the particular news item which has just pushed me over the edge and lead to this rant was the reporting on the introduction of the iPhone 7.

I am an IT expert and a consultant/programmer, specialising in working with Apple products, so I do know a bit more than most on this subject. That means that the poor reporting and discussion on the new phone was more obvious than most other subjects would be. But I also notice poor reporting on other subjects where my knowledge is above average (that’s probably almost everything I can say with all due modesty, not so much because my knowledge level is high, but because the average is so low) and I suspect it’s about the same for everything else too.

The drivel on this occasion was from a program called “Story” on one of New Zealand’s main TV channels. I have noticed when it first started it did some fairly worthwhile and controversial investigations and reporting, but as time goes by it really has sunk to the level of inane, simplistic, unsophisticated nonsense that many people predicted when it was first announced.

You might ask why I watch that particular program instead of another channel or not watch TV at all. Well you might guess what I am going to say here: the other channels are even worse! And the program is on at dinner time and it is slightly more sociable to watch TV with other people rather than just look at my iPad screen. Plus there is the point that I like to keep up with the latest drivel, oops I mean news.

You might say that programs like these are as much about light entertainment as they are about real news, but I have occasionally noticed the same thing – although certainly not quite as bad – from more respectable news sources like RNZ.

So the discussion on the iPhone 7 consisted of a few people, none of which had any knowledge of the iPhone or even of tech in general, sitting around making their opinions known. The main source of discussion seemed to be the lack of a headphone socket on the new phone and how that would mean people would not be able to use the earphones of their choice.

Not once during the discussion was it mentioned that other (Android) phones had already dropped that connector (over a year ago) and the world seems to have continued without a major meltdown. Not once was it mentioned that, in the box, is an adapter allowing you to use your existing headphones with the new iPhone through the digital port. And not once was it mentioned that the new phone comes with earphones which connect to the digital (Lightning) port directly.

Now in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if TV news and current affairs programs are totally accurate about one particular product, but it does matter that the same level of inane ignorance extends to everything.

As I said above, the program in question is called “Story”. Here are the two main definitions of that word from the Oxford Dictionary: 1. an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment; and 2. a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast.

I’m sure they had definition 2 in mind when the name was approved, but they seem to be straying more into the area of definition 1 all the time. Truly we are doomed. There’s just too much pure worthless drivel.

They’re Taking Over!

August 31, 2016 Leave a comment

As an IT professional and technology enthusiast I generally feel quite positive about advances where computers become better than humans at yet another thing. Many people thought that a computer would never beat a human at chess, but now it is accepted that computers will always be better. When our silicon creations beat us at chess we moved on to another, more complex, game, Go. But now computers have beaten the world champion at that too. And in the process made a move that an expert described as “beautiful and mysterious”.

So what’s next? Well how about one of the most esteemed jobs in our society and one which most people, who don’t really understand what is going on, might say would be the last that a mere machine could tackle. I’m talking about law, and even the top tier of the legal profession: being a judge.

Before I start on that I would like to make an important distinction between the approach to the two games above: Chess and Go. Most computers solve Chess problems by using brute force, that is considering millions of possible moves and counter-moves and taking the move that leads to the best outcome. But that wasn’t practical for Go so the program instead learns how to play by playing against other players and against itself. It really could be said to be learning like a human would and that is the approach future AI will probably use.

An experiment was done in the UK which replicated court cases and compared the AI’s decision with a judge’s. The computer agreed with the judge in 31 out of the 32 cases – maybe the judge got the last case wrong!

Computers do well evaluating complex and technical areas such as international trade dispute law, but are also useful for more common laws, such as divorce and child custody. Plus computers are much better and faster at doing the research tasks that law firms currently use legal professionals for. Another highly rated job that won’t exist much longer maybe?

An expert has stated that creating a computer system that can answer all legal questions is easy, but getting that system used in most societies (which might be quite resistant to change) is the difficult part!

I find the idea of replacing lawyers and judges with computers quite appealing for a few reasons. First, traditionally it has been poorly paid manual workers who have been at threat of being replaced so it is nice to see society’s elite aren’t immune. Second, there are so many cases of terrible decisions being made by judges that having an unbiased computer do the work instead seems like a potentially good idea. And third, if highly rate jobs like these can be replaced then the idea of replacing other jobs becomes easier (the medical profession will be next).

It all sounds quite exciting, as long as you can get over the rather obsolete idea that all humans should exist just to work. But there are a few more unsettling possibilities which are also being tested now. One is to predict whether people convicted of crimes are likely to re-offend in future. There are already claims that this system is biased against blacks. Unfortunately the algorithm in use is secret so no one can ever know.

And that brings me to what is maybe the key point I want to make in how I think this technology should be implemented. Allowing computers to control important aspects of our society, like law, needs to be transparent and accountable. We cannot trust corporations who will inevitably hide the details of what their programs do through copyright and patents. So all the code needs to be open source so that we all know exactly what we are getting.

Many people will just deny that the computer takeover I am describing can happen, and many will say that even if it can happen we shouldn’t let it. I say it can happen and it should happen, but only if it is done properly. Private business has no place in something so critical. We need a properly resourced and open public organisation to do this work. And everything they do should be completely open to view by anyone.

If we do this properly the computer takeover can be a good thing. And yes, I know this is a cliche, but I will say it: I, for one, welcome our silicon overlords!