Uncommon Sense

May 22, 2021

The Scary Side of AI

Filed under: Morality,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 11:21 am
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Efforts to create artificially intelligent (AI) computer systems is still in its infancy. I was intrigued at first but now I am concerned.

The most basic concept is to create computer systems that can “learn” as opposed to the “normal” process of programming in code all abilities desired from the system.

So far, nothing scary here.

Now that we have created systems that are somewhat adept at “machine learning” we have discovered, hey presto, that we often do not know what these systems have learned or how they did the learning of it. The systems don’t report back, “telling” us how they did it and what they are capable of doing.

Recently a system was created to “model” the entire universe. Much to the creator’s surprise the model, after proving itself faster and more accurate than previous systems (of all types), also showed abilities it was never “taught” to calculate. The “teaching” is the supplying of datasets that would lead the system to make up general rules which it would then apply. But it was showing abilities that weren’t predicted from the datasets that were supplied.

The scary part is there is a responsibility disjoint here. Such a system, which are more and more being used for facial recognition and for application (job, college admittance, etc.) evaluations, were it to go awry, there is nobody responsible for making the system the way it is. “I didn’t program it to do such a thing,” will be heard around the world.

But the “programming” of these systems is not in the previously understood form of written code but in selecting the datasets to feed the beast, as it were.

Recently face-recognitions systems were shown to be vastly more erratic when looking at faces of people of color than the mainstream (white Americans, or Chinese citizens). One system showed no response to the face of a black woman . . . until she donned a white mask (like a V mask) then it recognized there was a face present to analyze. The system showed high accuracy for white male face recognition, lower for white females, much lower for black and brown men, and even lower for black and brown women.

Right now these systems are being implemented willy-nilly by private companies and authoritarian governments. Clearly there is a role to play for regulation of such system, like a test sequence of faces that a system must recognize to a high degree, but there is little in the way of inducement for the implementers to seek out such “safety standards,” at the moment.

So, apartment buildings are implementing “face recognition” entry locks to keep out the riff-raff, of course, but they also have interior cameras which recognize the faces of the people in the halls and report rules infractions to the building’s management. Big Brother is here, now.

There are few laws and almost no privacy protections built into our system, certainly not governing these new “frontiers.”

May 3, 2021

The “New” Left

Filed under: Culture,History,language,Politics,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 11:03 am
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In today’s post on the Dead Wild Roses blog, The Arborist, wrote:

“When I came back to Canada in 2014 . . . I left a culture that was steeped in a sentiment that could be summed up as, ‘I may disagree with what you say, but I respect your right to say it.’ I returned to a culture summarized by, ‘I disagree with what you say, so shut up.’ (Obaid Omer)”

“Quashing debate and argument seems to be the name of the game these days, as certain opinions have been designated as unapproachable or ‘settled’ topics. In a society that values the free exchange of ideas almost everything has to be on the table. Odious free-speech must be protected along with the prosaically milquetoast free speech.”

You do follow Arb’s blog, no? If not, you are missing some very good stuff.

Back to my main topic: I have seen comments about how intolerant the left has become and yada, yada, yada and I wondered what the source of these comments were. (I suspect they are from conservative spinmeisters.) Liberal dogma throughout my life has defended the right of those we abhor to speak, but is this changing? Certainly there isn’t much person-to-person public discourse going on during this pandemic, so much of this must be second hand.

I tend to think the anonymity of the Internet is a player once again. Back when discussions were face-to-face, if one said something despicable, there were immediate responses, most unpleasant. We had got to the point that outright racist comments were rare as the consequences were too dire.

But now, if you read something you disagree with, you can flame the author using language you would not get away with out in the open. And the discourse level is often set by the most vociferous.

I think we are still adjusting to social changes such as Internet communication. I remember when “cancel culture” was a feature of the right: book burnings, rock ‘n’ roll record burnings, boycotts against celebrities who took unpopular political stands (Jane Fonda, perhaps, is a good example), etc. The left didn’t do this so much. Now that some of the more liberal bent are using the same tool as the right previously used, the professional whiny bitch conservatives are decrying the “cancel culture” as if it were just invented. (They hate a level playing field, so when a field is leveled, they pivot ninety degrees.)

So, “cancel culture” is not even a thing, certainly not a new thing. It is just us expressing our opinion about another’s speech. In the old days, you got to direct it face-to-face and then through gossip. Today you can marshal many thousands of people’s efforts almost instantaneously.

What we will come up with to rein in this overly exuberant behavior I do not foresee but there will be something. There always is.

March 31, 2021

A Mask Revelation

Filed under: Technology — Steve Ruis @ 10:36 am
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Claudia brought me some new masks she was trying out. I believe this is the eighth or ninth different commercial mask we have tried. The issues with the others are strain on one’s ears, fogging of eyeglasses, etc. all of the usual complaints. So, this mask was much like the other disposable masks we have tried. (We also had tried washable cotton masks.) I put one on to go get the mail and I immediately noticed a difference. When I inhaled the mask collapsed against my face and when I exhaled, it ballooned slightly away from my face. What that told me is that the air being moved was actually going through the mask rather than around the mask, constituting actual evidence that it was working. I hadn’t notice this effect on any of the other soft masks, actually, just the opposite—more air flowed around those masks rather than through them.

None of the masks we have tried so far are of the fairly rigid kind. I assume they, too, have advantages and disadvantages, but I like the feedback these masks give me (I’m working, I’m working . . . like the Little Engine That Could Mask it is).

I suspect we still have months if not years of mask wearing in front of us, so I thought these insights might be helpful.

Black Disposable Face Masks

December 23, 2020

/The Social Dilemma

Filed under: Art,Culture,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 10:24 am
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The documentary of this title is currently available on Netflix and I had passed over it quite a few times before viewing it, which I did last night.

The documentary mixes in taking head segments with little scenes in an ongoing drama of how social media affects a family. I could have done without the vignettes as the talking heads were quite spectacular. These were all people who either had something to do with the development of social media companies or had studied the effects of their existence in some detail.

The basic premise is that social media use algorithms to line their pockets . . . nothing wrong there, except that the algorithms have no mores, they just want to feed your attention more of what you are interested in. This results in a massive case of positive feedback for everyone who participates. Positive feedback is almost never a good thing.

The talking heads point out that we who participate are all being manipulated against any judgment applied either by us or the providers and it is dangerous.

Bless them as they say that there are no villains here. Nothing was done with intent to cause the problems that now exist. They found the inventor of the “like button” who explained what was behind its creation. An unintended consequence stems from the fact that we evolved in small social groups, in which it was important to be liked by a majority of one’s fellows. The social media platforms have extended that circle to thousands of strangers, often leading young participants into doing bizarre things to accumulate “likes ” from them. And to what end?

An expert on AI systems says that we all worry about when artificial intelligences get so powerful that they overwhelm human strengths, like SkyNet in the Terminator movies (accompanied by the crunching sounds of humans skulls beneath the feet and treads of robots . . .). But well before that point we would reach point in which AIs could overwhelm human weaknesses, a point they did not claim we are at yet, but they easily could have.

They discuss the effect of social media upon political polarization, even on whole nation’s stability and elections, and what might happen should an autocrat really use social media effectively.

From thinking I knew the topic well, I found myself much better educated for having viewed this doc. If you have also viewed this documentary, what do you think?

December 22, 2020

At the Risk of Being Overbearing . . .

I offer a link to yet another aspect of the Pfizer vaccine roll-out kerfuffle. This post explains why the critic “IM Doc” was disappointed in the article in the New England Journal of Medicine, which exists to inform people, especially doctors, regarding what they need to know.

Whether this can be laid at the fee of the NEJM or Pfizer is almost irrelevant (almost, but not quite). It does, however, lead one to wonder how informed the opinions of our own doctors are.

A Document Maven Looks at the Pfizer Vaccine Paper in the New England Journal of Medicine

 

December 15, 2020

Important: Before You Line Up for the Pfizer Vaccine . . .

Filed under: Economics,Reason,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 8:25 am
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I think it is imperative that you read this article. The hand waving going on in the news media, even scientific publications, is of the kind magicians use: to distract you from what the other hand is doing.

An Internal Medicine Doctor and His Peers Read the Pfizer Vaccine Study and See Red Flags [Updated]

December 5, 2020

An Error of Extrapolation

Filed under: Culture,History,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 12:29 pm
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It was a simple error, made long ago, but I have kept it up all of these years. It started from the factoid that the life expectancy of human beings (of the American kind) at, say, the first decade of the 20th century, was roughly 45 years. This was interesting to me because this was close to when my parents were born (1912 and 1919). By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the life expectancy of American females was well over 80 years and American men almost 80 years, so one can conclude that, well, things just keep getting better.

The extrapolation that was in error in my thinking was that from now back to about 1910 there was this large increase in life expectancy and that if one went farther back from 1910, similar changes were expected. Going back to our prehistoric ancestors, their lives must have been nasty, brutish, and short, as claimed by Thomas Hobbes. But in doing so, I made a major error, one of a statistical sort.

What do you think was the life expectancy of our hunter-gatherer modern human ancestors? If you say “fairly short” you will be somewhat right but let me ask another question: at what age did those human relatives usually die (essentially of old age)? This is an interesting question and it has an answer. Our hunter-gatherer forebearers lived well into their sixth or seventh decade, not much different from what it is now. How can this be so?

This will involve a little math, but I used simple numbers to keep everything simple, and well… sheesh, relax, you don’t have to do the math, just read it. Okay, consider a population of 100 humans who all grow up and die at an average age of 60 (some a little younger, some a little older). This means their life expectancy, at birth, was 60 years. What would happen to that life expectancy, though, if 10% died at birth? It drops to 54 years, even though 90 live to die at about 60. And if the infant death rate were 20%, the life expectancy would drop to 48, even though 80 live to die at about 60.

It is clear that the survival rate of infants was much lower in prehistoric days, and so their life expectancy, from birth, was dragged down. But if you survived for five years, better 10, you could expect to live into your 60s or 70s.

Okay, let me now go back to life expectancy in the early 1900’s. It was about that same as it was for our prehistoric ancestors! So, roughly 5000 years of civilization brought what in terms of progress? I think what we got were broader bell curves. The rich did very well indeed, but the poor did very poorly indeed . . . again, the curse of averages. So, the big question is what did civilization give us in the way of progress? For the vast majority of us, it was diddlely squat.

And yet, we have this impression of the inexorable movement toward “greater progress” to come. Things will “keep” getting better! Right . . . !

When people are asked what they want from their jobs, they invariably put close to the top of the list “greater autonomy” in their work, that is the ability to shape what it is that they do. Some degree of control is desired, instead of being told by a supervisor what to do and when to do it. So, what did hunter-gatherers have? Almost complete autonomy. Plus they lived, and still do in remote places, in quite egalitarian societies, and do “work” for only a small part of their days. All this was sacrificed when people were forced into becoming agricultural workers. Plus the poorer diets and close proximities of other people and domestic animals led to human beings being shorter, lighter in weight, being more disease ridden, including dental problems, and having shorter life spans.

Yet we continue in our delusion that being civilized is “better,” even morally so. (“What a piece of work is man …” Shut up, Wil!)

More on this later.

Addendum My mother lived to be 86 and my father 80. Your life expectancy goes up the older you get! There are estimators available on the Internet.

August 2, 2020

There’s Wrong and Then There is Wronger (and Wrongest?)

Filed under: Culture,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 7:52 am
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I was watching the Cubs baseball game last night and the announcers announced the temperature at the start of the game was “room temperature,” right at 72° F. An inning or so later one of them wondered why 72° F ended up standard room temperature (here in the U.S.). So, during a commercial message one of them went online and found an answer. He stated that 72° F was standard room temperature because that temperature was derived “from internal body temperatures being 98.6 degrees ±, thus making the temperature of skin to be around 72-76 degrees Fahrenheit.” So, room temperature was skin temperature apparently. The two announcers lauded having so much wonderful information at their fingertips and how it was so much better to know than to sit in ignorance.

I am sitting there thinking WTF?!

There is a clinical term for when one’s skin temperature is equal to room temperature, what was it now . . . oh, yeah, DEAD! My memory came up with a number of 92° F for skin temperature and a very quick search came up with a better number, a range actually: roughly 92° F to 98+° F. (Your fingers are exposed to the environment more so than, say, your armpit and so are colder. Your armpit is close to the conditions existing inside your body so the skin temp there is close to your internal body temp.)

So, the answer the baseball announcers come up with, how could it have been so wrong? Well, it was a quote from the Quora web site. Quora is a question and answer website on which people ask questions (sincere and not so) and other people supply answers (also sincere and not so). Whether the answers are right or wrong or in between isn’t curated.

So, the answerer on Quora either was blowing smoke or was told something that sounded right by someone else, or . . . whatever, and then the announcers shared this incorrect information with a couple of million people.

This is certainly indicative of our current culture.

We are at least past the “it has to be right otherwise they wouldn’t let them put it on the Internet” stage but not very far past. As was the case before the Internet, you have to know a lot to be able to find correct information. My favorite example from those pre-Internet days was looking up how to spell a word in a dictionary. So, to begin what do you need to find the listing for that word in the dictionary? The spelling, of course!

So, if you are looking for something on the Internet, you need to look at more than just the top listing provided by a search engine. If you have no way to verify whether what you looked up is reliable, you need to refer to several such items to see if you can find a consensus. You need to consider the sources of those bits of information. (This was one of the errors the broadcasters made; one of them needed to know that Quora answers are not necessarily dependable.)

And then when you mention what you have found, you begin the statement with “According to <reference> . . . blah, blah, blah.” This does not include using “According to the Internet . . .” as the Internet has no opinions or knowledge of its own, only what has been posted there by others. (I know the Internet. The Internet and I are friends and, trust me, you’re no Internet.—If you recognize the quote from which this was crafted, you are older than you look.)

And this is how any number of conspiracy theories and bogus movements get started. I honestly do not believe that there is a Flat Earth Society, or whatever they are called now, that is full of committed believers. I am more likely to believe it is full of iconoclasts and people who like attention over approval (almost always males, btw). But some of these other people are not healthy psychologically and it is not good for them or society in general to be so provoked.

If you are wondering why “72° F (ca. 22° C) ended up standard room temperature here in the U.S.” you can look it up and the real answer makes a great deal of sense.

June 23, 2020

Typography Evolves, Not Necessarily for the Better

Filed under: language,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 10:54 am
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I am a bit of a typography snob. I work as an editor and I work with people in their teens and their nineties. I note that people quite old tend to show some quirks of their past. For example, at one time English, as German still does, capitalized most nouns. We have moved away from that practice, but some older writers overcapitalize. It was also the practice to have a space before colons and periods which is no longer the practice, so as mentioned, things change.

There is also a slow morphing of compound nouns. In the 1930’s it was quite common to see to-day and to-morrow in print and now the hyphens are gone. This is a common process. A place in one’s home to have a fire becomes a fire-place and then a fireplace. The same thing happened to sail-boat, foot-path, black-face, skin-head, and dog-house.

Currently we are seeing another transition, one I hope does not stick. This is the recent practice of only capitalizing the first letter of an acronym, an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word, for example NASA. Back in my early days these things were typed out thus: N.A.S.A., F.B.I., and C.D.C. After a while we dropped the periods as being superfluous and so we got: NASA, FBI, CDC, CIA, SCOTUS, etc. This was acceptable because there were very few other situations in which words were formed from all capital letters. No one would be confused seeing NASA instead of N.A.S.A. But now I am seeing Nasa more often than not.

If the “all capitals” rule for acronyms is taken away, as is becoming the current practice, the possibility of confusion increases a great deal, especial for young or new readers of English. I tend to approve of such changes when they either (a) simplify communication or (b) make communication more accurate. In this case I don’t see what is saved. If I type <cap lock>,n ,a ,s, a, </cap lock> instead of <shift> n, a, s, a, I am not really saving a lot of effort.

I went to Wikipedia to consult a list of acronyms (and their ilk, such as initialisms) and I limited myself to just those starting with A and C.

Some of these, such as CAP, which stands for Civil Air Patrol, would easily be misunderstood if written as Cap, possibly referring to a piece of headgear, especially if the word begins a sentence, which always begin with a capitalized letter anyway. Others of this kind are:
FOE  Friends Of The Earth
ACE  Allied Command Europe
ADAGE  Air Defense Air to Ground Engagement (simulation)
AID  U.S. Agency for International Development
AM  Amplitude Modulation
CARP  Computed Air Release Point
CART  Championship Auto Racing Teams
CATS  Computer Active Technology Suspension
CIAO  Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office
CIS  Commonwealth of Independent States
COBRA  Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985
COIN  Counter-Insurgency (military)
COPE  U.K. Committee On Publication Ethics
CORE  Congress of Racial Equality
CREEP  Committee for the Re-Election of the President (Nixon)
Plus there are any number of these which could appear to be a person’s name, the first letter of which is typically capitalized.
TERI  Tata Energy Research Institute
ANA  All Nippon Airways
COLT  Combat Observation and Lasing Team (military)
CHiP  California Highway Patrol

Since these came from lists with just these two letters of the alphabet, I am sure there are hundreds of other terms that could also be sources of confusion.

I do not intend to adopt this new practice and hope that it dies out over time as being counterproductive.

How do such things get started? I do not know, but my guess is in magazines. Magazines are always looking for typographical ways to appear trendy, on the forefront of the topic they cover. Magazines are responsible for article and book titles now being formatted as if they were sentences (few are), which I believe emanated from ad copy. A header in an ad, if it appears to be a sentence with no “full stop” at the end encourages people to keep reading to find closure for the idea begun to be stated.

April 13, 2020

Election Security, Election Trustworthiness

Filed under: Politics,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 11:01 am
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I was watching a documentary called Kill Chain, last night. This was about how easy it is (not would be) to hack into the electronic systems used for our elections. A fact that by itself undermines the integrity of our election process. At one point the people leading the documentary took a series of machines to a hacker conference in Las Vegas and asked people there to try to hack the machines. So, with little to no preparation and only the tools that they had on them, the play began. In just a couple of days, every machine available (including all of the ones currently in use) was hacked. These were casual hackers working part-time attending a conference. As the hosts commented, in Russia and other countries there are highly trained and motivated professionals working 24-7 to do the same. How hard could it be?

That the technology was 16 years old, with four years being a long generation of computer hardware, this was hardly a surprising outcome. The documentary went on to document several rather egregious examples of hacked elections, so why hasn’t there been federal action to forestall our elections being undermined?

The documentary showed a clip of Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, saying that any such anti-tampering legislation would have to be bipartisan to be brought up for a vote in the senate. Then various senators pointed out that at least four bipartisan anti-tampering bills had been forwarded to Senate leadership and none had been brought to the floor. Each had been killed by . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . Mitch McConnell.

Even though McConnell seems to be in the pockets of the Chinese and/or Russians, it is quite extraordinary to accuse a sitting Majority Leader of such a treasonous act, so the politics are more likely to be more local.

So, think about this. Think about the current GOP membership and the current Democratic Party membership. On one hand you have CEOs who can barely type and bankers and the like and farmers and soldiers and on the other you have all of the New Age hippie computer nerds in tie-dyed teeshirts. Which party do you think would have the better hackers? Yeah, it was obvious to me, too.

So, why is Mitch McConnell acting to protect Democrat election hackers?

Why would he betray his own party like that? In any kind of reasonable contest, the hippie Democrats could hack the shit out of a band of GOP members, so why is Moscow Mitch protecting Democrat hackers? What do they have on him to make him their puppet? Do you think they are controlling the outcome of his re-election? What would make a staunch rock-ribbed Republican into such a toady for a bunch of hippie hackers?

PS Watch this documentary!

 

 

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