Uncommon Sense

June 3, 2023

The AIs are Coming for Us!

Filed under: Business,Culture,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 12:06 pm
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I went onto Amazon.com to see if I could get a pair of huarache sandals, inexpensively. I didn’t see what I wanted so I went off site to other things. In the past couple of days, I have received from Amazon, three (count’em three!) follow-up emails offering deals on huarache sandals . . . for women.

Now I have been doing business with Amazon since when they only sold books. If they do not yet know that I am a man, then they are incredibly stupid.

They seem to have brilliant software allowing them to follow me around the Internet, popping up ads for things I might want, but they make stupid, stupid mistakes. As another example, I bought a wall light fixture for my bathroom, and then got follow-up emails stating basically “Well, if you liked that wall fixture for your bathroom, you might also like this one!” How many light fixtures do people buy for their bathrooms? Sheesh.

I have had them offer shoes and suits to me, in the styles I was looking for but sizes I couldn’t possibly wear . . . “If you liked those EEE shoes, you will just love these B-width shoes!”

Keep in mind that Amazon is a company built upon greed as a fundamental characteristic (theirs, not yours and mine . . . well, maybe not). And they keep missing the boat this far? It looks like they are using spammer tactics . . . send out offers, zillions of them, one will want to do business with a Nigerian prince.

The danger we face from the indiscriminate use of AIs, is not from the AIs, it is from the users, the mostly incompetent users.

May 20, 2023

Real and Imagined Fears of AI

There seems to be a small but growing cottage industry writing articles about the fears associated with artificial intelligence (AI). Along side of that is another, smaller, cottage industry pumping out works extolling the virtues of AI and how it will make us all better off.

I, myself, wonder what natural intelligence is, as do many others, and wonder how it is we could even recognize the existence of artificial intelligence if it came up and bit us on the ass.

Most of this seems to be fueled by “content creators” who desperately want to capture our attention, for “likes,” “hearts,” or cups of coffee.

Let us assume that such a beast as an AI actually exists (which I doubt, but I will play along). Are there things to fear?

Yes, capitalism.

Capitalism will use AIs to improve profits, whether they improve anyone’s life or not. I envision health insurance companies using AIS in the following manner:

Insurer: AI, write a letter denying the claim for insurance coverage of this claimant using the facts in their file (here).

AI: Done! (Dear sir: . . . )

Think of the money the insurer will save. They do not need doctors to evaluate the validity of such a claim, nor do they need their lawyers or bean counters to do the same. They just deny all claims and only actually look into those who persist by refiling repeatedly.

Now, you may think that this is a harsh practice to ascribe to insurance companies, do realize they have already done this! Back during the Obamacare hearings it was exposed that several health insurance executives had their pay based upon how many claims they could deny and that they had created structures like the above to deny claims based upon a desire to please the boss, rather than the facts of the case, etc.

Also, I had a dentist who submitted claims for me to my insurer who insisted that the insurer denied almost all claims to see how serious the situations were, so he submitted and then resubmitted and even submitted a third time to get approval for procedures which seemed obvious to me (he showed me the x-rays and explained what was needed).

I am not so afraid of AI, although I have seen the Terminator movies; I am more afraid of what rapacious, conscience-less capitalists will do with them.

April 6, 2023

ChatGPT is a Republican!

Filed under: Technology,The News — Steve Ruis @ 9:18 am
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More and more reports are coming in like this one: a researcher used ChatGPT to seek articles from The Guardian. He then queried The Guardian about a single article that he couldn’t find. The Guardian couldn’t find it either, because “In response to being asked about articles on this subject, the AI had simply made some up.”

The Republican Party has finally found the Amazing Trump Expansion Device, a machine that makes up fake news. And unlike the current crop of Republican Operatives, the ChatGPT artificial intelligence has an IQ above 100.

April 4, 2023

Digital Chutzpah

Filed under: Business,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 11:01 am
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I just bought yet another laptop computer. The very day it was delivered I received an email entitled “You’ve got Windows 11! Let us help you get started.” The cheek! I have a copy of Windows 1.0 (which was a scam and a sham but that is another story) on my bookshelf and have used every version of Windows (except “Bob” and Windows 8) since and they have the gall to claim to “help me get started”?

I can’t but notice that they are pushing “cloud computing” up the yin yang. I was offered a “free” cloud account with 5 gigs of “free storage.” Here is the footnote they included: “2 Windows 11 customers get 5GB free OneDrive cloud storage. Internet access required. Fees may apply.” It is free but “fees may apply?” I told them to stick their cloud where the Sun doesn’t shine.

I then installed MS Office 2017 and refused their offer of the cloud based Office 365 (short term trial version). I wonder how they can, with a straight face, claim their cloud apps are available 365 days a year when they lose contact with their cloud servers fairly often. (Now, where’d that cloud go?)

I understand why they want you to have a subscription at a low, low price, because month after month, you pay and it updates automatically so you keep paying . . . and paying, and paying . . . and they set the prices, of course. In the old days, you bought a license outright, and when they offered an update, you spent some time determining whether it was worthwhile. If it wasn’t (like the “upgrade to Windows 8” you didn’t buy and got along fine with your “old” software. Now, you do not have to bother with such decisions. No more reading article after article about whether this or that upgrade is worth the cost (usually written by Microsoft gurus). You get them automatically, for free! Whether you want them or not.

What is irritating to me is that they change the user interface whenever they choose to. This means I have to relearn how to do all of the old things I had already learned to do. (Look up the MS Word “Ribbon” for an object lesson.) So, you had to relearn how to use the software and then on top of that learn to use its new features. Wait, most of their new features were useless. I am using Office 2003 on this, my main computer, with no problems whatsoever. Oh, in the next upgrade of Office, Microsoft changed the file formats of all of their Office apps and the old software couldn’t open the new documents. The uproar was so great they quickly created a translation app and distributed it for fee, so I can open both kinds of files on my old software, thank you.

How am I doing? One of my life goals is to achieve curmudgeon status. I think I may have got there, as least with regard to computers and software.

Postscript If you are still wondering about the “cloud,” it is just offsite servers. Servers you neither own, nor control, that they can give permission to the government to troll, etc.

March 16, 2023

Drug Names

Filed under: Business,Culture,language,Science,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 12:34 pm
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Humans are fond of naming things, even when they already have a name. Take for example marijuana, also known as: pot, grass, weed, mary jane, ganja, herb, reefer, Aunt Mary, skunk, broom, and many, many more names. Now some of this can be laid at the feet of that drug being made illegal and so references to it were often made in code, but this is not an isolated case.

I assume you have heard of vitamin C. This chemical also has the chemical name of L-ascorbic acid. But that is just one of its names. It’s name according to the official naming rules for chemicals is (5R)-[(1S)-1,2-dihydroxyethyl]-3,4-dihydroxyfuran-2(5H)-one. With a name like that, you can easily see why nicknames are often employed. (Chemists often refer to substances obliquely, such as “How’s the research going on your compound?” to avoid such problems.)

But if you look up vitamin C you will find it has over 200 names given to it! Most of those names are “patent names” which are names which are patented, not the substance itself, just the name for it. Super Ingredient X-7 is a name which can be patented (and many like it have been), so that businesses can advertise that their products now contain “Super Ingredient X-7! (and no one can use that name).”

The naming practices that I cannot defend are patent drug names. Now that the chains have been taken off, TV and the Internet are awash with ads for drugs, drugs with names like: dupixent, rybelsus, and humira, rinvoq, ozempic, trulicity, jardiance, skyrizi, rexulti, and tremfya. Recognize any of them? Those are the ten most heavily advertised on national TV in 2021 (ranging from 105.7 to 287.6 million dollars annually).

Now, here is the thing. Do you know what any of them do (not those you happen to be taking, but the others)? My point is that those names do not help “customers.”

My suggestion is that all drugs should be named according to the disease they treat. So, all high blood pressure medicines would be named “High Blood Pressure #(insert number here).” Their numbers would be determined by when they were certified by the Food and Drug Administration. For example, recently the drug cialis was certified as helping with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), otherwise known as an enlarged prostate gland, so it would have the names “erectile dysfunction #3” and “benign prostatic hyperplasia #12.” (I made up the 12 as I don’t know where in line it would be.) Same drug, but different names for different uses. (Oh, and the #3? I assumed oysters were #1 and viagra was #2.)

Cialis shows the problem. It also goes by the generic name tadalafil, which sounds like a dish served in a gyro shop. Neither name gives you any idea what they are for, no? (When I hear “cialis” I think of open air bathtubs, hmmm.)

Aspirin, which also has a plethora of names might become “headache #1,” and so on. At least the name of the drug would contain some information and dissuade people from taking drugs for purposes other than they have been certified. (Ivermectin, otherwise “roundworm infection #z,” anyone?)

Currently it seems that drug names are created to serve hypochondriacs and marketing agents, not the people they are supposed to help. (It seems to me that hypochondriacs thrill in being able to pronounce the names of the diseases and drugs they are attracted to.)

Postscript All of the drug names were assumed to have been misspelled by my spell checker (except viagra) which tells you something.

March 7, 2023

The Mystery of Consciousness

Human beings have been debating the concept of consciousness since there have been debates. So, how far have we come? Initially, the first few thousand years or so, speculation dominated. Lately we have developed tools which can address the problem from the other end; brain scanners and the like are allowing us to get actual data as to how the brain works, which may lead to an understanding of how consciousness works.

I am not competent to follow the leading edge of consciousness research (which is still highly speculative) but it seems to me the pathway to it is not entirely unclear.

I think the first step toward consciousness is the development of memory. The core of the value of this faculty is summed up in George Santayana’s aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Any animal which cannot remember that that other animal over there is a predator or eating that fruit will cause sure death, is less likely to survive and breed than those that do. Research shows that many animals possess the ability to remember, down to microscopic level animals, so its utility I think can be assumed.

Once memories are available, then I think imagination becomes a next step. For this purpose I equate imaginings as the creation of synthetic/fictional/hypothetical memories. Having this capacity allows us to game plan for threats. We know that the human brain spends a great deal of its energy in threat assessment. We look around and instead of having to go through any process of threat assessment, our brains do it for us, not always all that well, but safety first is our watchword. I and others have mentioned the development of agency through the predator in the tall grass scenario, which goes we are surveying our surroundings and there is disturbance in the tall grass nearby. Is that a predator swishing its tail, which is stalking us, or was that caused by a zephyr of wind? Our imaginations allow us to “picture,” that is create a false memory of, what happens if (a) we think it is a predator and it is not and (b) we don’t think it is a predator and it is. Each of those scenarios can be extended with possible solutions: (i) we move away and (ii) we do nothing. Even if we are wrong about it being a predator, moving away is the most prudent path. Obviously combinations of (b) and (ii) do not end well for us.

So, once we have caches of actual memories and synthetic/fictional/hypothetical memories some system of organization/categorization/ability to recall of those memories would benefit us. A memory that we died by predator, which we imagined, could cause problems if we thought it really happened. And since false memories are unreliable (being based upon what?) we definitely need to distinguish those from real memories. What developed is what I believe most people refer to as “mind.” Once the thing began, it grew like Topsy, because it was flexible and was applicable to many tasks.

Then, because we are a social species, our social nature taught us that as individuals we were quite limited but in groups we were much more capable. As our ability to communicate increased, prodded by learning to hunt and gather in groups, the ability to communicate and think collectively, which we call consciousness, developed. Our “minds” kept running in the background, and I think we refer to that as a “subconscious” mentality, our ability to focus on specific thoughts and develop them with others became what we call our consciousness mentality or our conscious mind.

Again, this is just more speculation, but at least it is testable. There are other social species. We can test other species for their ability to memorize and recall. So, this might be a framework that could help us organize out thoughts about consciousness.

Since I can’t imagine that I am the first person to come up with this, I assume others have already and those of you more steeped in the topic can comment on that.

A Concluding Scenario
Imagine a stone age man knapping stones to make tools. A boy comes nearby and watches him work, several days in a row. Finally the man gestures to the boy to come closer (coming closer without invitation invites a cuff of the head) and the man grunts, shows the boy how he is holding the knapping tool and how he is striking the piece of rock he is shaping.

Later the man finds the boy trying the task on his own, woefully poorly of course. So the man cuffs the boy on the back of the head and shows him that the rock he chose to work on was not a shapeable rock, a piece of flint, chert, obsidian, or other conchoidal fracturing stone. So, he gets him working on a shapeable stone and walks away.

Think about this process. Learning to shape stone tools would be of no value if one could not remember the process. One would have to reinvent the process anew each time a stone tool was desired. Once the process could be memorized, then it could evolve through brute experimentation or imagining other possible process steps. And evolution would require mind to organize the steps, possible new steps, steps that worked and steps that did not. And, then socially, the whole family group or tribe would benefit if those techniques could be shared/taught to others.

All of this could happen before the development of language, but each collaborative process pushes the development of language, which would be enhanced by the development of language. Hunting would be more efficient with better communication, teaching would be enhanced by the ability to ask questions and answer them, etc.

It seems as if the chain undergoes positive reinforcement every step of the way.

March 4, 2023

They’re Gonna Put Me in the Movies . . .

Filed under: Culture,Social Commentary,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 9:12 am
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“. . . They’re gonna make a big star out of me.” (Apologies to Ringo Starr and the Beatles and, of course, Buck Owens)

It seems that a major benefit of the Internet and its technological ancillaries is that it is allowing an outlet for myriad people to place themselves in the “movies” by posting self-written, self-staged, self-edited “movies” on various Internet web sites.

Now the song goes on to include verses like “The biggest fool that’s ever hit the big time, And all I gotta do is act naturally” and “The movie’s gonna make me a big star, ‘Cause I can play the part so well.” Prophetically, it seems that some of these posters want to become Internet stars and “influencers,” whatever those might be (a personification of an advertisement?).

At one level I admire their industriousness, but on another I question their motives. It seems that “fame” is the goal for some and that is hardly worth the effort. (Can you name an Internet star or influencer from, say 2019?) To become truly famous (not infamous) one needs a body of work. We even have slightly disparaging terms for people who began such a journey which went nowhere, e.g. one hit wonders. But I guess the first step is creating one really, really good product.

I have learned that to create just very good works “it takes a village.” Now that we have the ability to self-produce various kinds of works we find out that good editors can prevent a great many gaffes, as this blog points out quite frequently. It seems that major studio productions, Broadway productions, etc. take a city, let alone a village, if the credits of those things are any indication. Movies now list location directors, car drivers, lawyers, donut caterers, gaffers (no, not relatives of Sam Gamgee), and many dozens of people we didn’t know were involved in movie or play making back in the day.

Are all of those people necessary? It seems so.

Then what about our one-person TikTok video production companies? Maybe I am grumpy about not wanting what they want or maybe secretly wanting what they have, but when this whole Internet bizness began, it was often referred to as the “information superhighway.” What I am afraid of now is the “bad money drives out good” syndrome (e.g. the Fox Newses of the world are driving out good journalism) and that there is such a rapid growth in superfluous “content” that it will be harder and harder to find the valid information, let alone wisdom, amidst the distractions.

The term Cory Doctorow came up with is the “shitification” of the Internet.

Maybe I have met my life goal of becoming a curmudgeon before I die.

November 5, 2022

Hunter Biden’s Laptop—Where’s the Beef?

Recently a zombie story of the news keeps coming up. The latest iteration of this story is that the original version of the story was suppressed, suppressed I tell you!

Just operating from memory, the original story involved a laptop computer belonging to Hunter Biden, the President’s son, that was left at a repair shop and then not picked up. Shortly thereafter, the hard drive of that computer, or a facsimile thereof, made its way into the hands of Rudy Giuliani, a presidential advisor to Donald J. Trump.

Now, I understand that a piece of equipment left for repair and not picked up or the repair paid for can be forfeit, depending upon the laws of the state involved, but how is it that the owner of said laptop could not be contacted? Is not his father’s phone number listed in all government directories? Okay, let’s say Hunter Biden was too stoned to remember where he left his laptop or even that he had one. So, after jumping through the legal hoops, the repair shop owner takes possession of the laptop. Now he owns the hardware, but what about the software and data? Since he isn’t the owner of the licenses for the software, he doesn’t own that and, according to the law, cannot even use it. What about the data stored on the computer? Let us say that one file includes the formula for Coca-Cola? Does he now own that? Can he sell it? I don’t think so.

So, this “person” who is now the owner of the laptop takes the hard drive out or clones it and gets it to the political opponents of the prior owner’s father, who is running for the office of president.

So, where’s the beef?

Where are the documents on that hard drive that are so damning? Where is the political beef?

All I hear is whining about how the story was suppressed. What story?

This seems like a typical GOP story. There is no “there” there, other than the story that they have spun. Like Benghazi. Like Hillary’s emails.

I argue that if here were anything damning on that hard drive, the GOP would have found a way to leverage it . . . and they haven’t so . . . hey, GOP, shutupaboudit!

October 30, 2022

The Software Curse is Falling on Meta, aka Facebook

Filed under: Business,Culture,Reason,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 9:36 am
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I was responding to a post on Nan’s Notebook, and this is what I wrote:

Re “Years ago, pundits assumed the internet would open a new era of democracy, giving everyone access to the truth.” (Robert Reich)

“Sure . . . and you weren’t suspicious of a messaging app that originally limited messages to 140 characters (not words, characters). What democratic statement can be made in 140 characters? This “service” wasn’t designed for democratic discourse, it was designed for snark and sneers. Would the world be a better place or worse if Twitter were to disappear?”

What this brought to mind is a concept I call the software curse. For example, the first “word processor” I used on the Intel platform, was WordStar, then came Microsoft Word, then came version 2 of Word, then version 3, then version 4, . . . , I don’t know what version they are up to now (upwards of 16, so 17, 18?). In any case, each version promised cool new features that you were somehow able to live without. It wasn’t long after I realized that I needed none of the “new, improved features” in each upgrade. I am, for example, typing this on the version of Word that came with Microsoft Office 2003 (Word v. 11.8xxxxx) and never run into a problem that my word processor can’t handle. I am only using that version because I got a special deal on it way back when.

Now Word is notorious for implementing “new features (Yea, hurrah!)” that nobody wants. Remember “Clippy”? Remember how they changed all of the menus in 2007? Here’s one reviewer’s experience with the changes:

“What the fuck was Microsoft thinking when they built this piece of shit?? Every damn function that I use I have to go on an expedition to find it! Nothing is where I would expect it to be. There’s a toilet in the middle of the living room and the kitchen sink is out in the garage. I still haven’t figured out which light switch controls that big honking’ huge crystal chandelier that’s in the broom closet.”

I bought a copy of Word 2007 for instances where it seemed I needed it, but I avoid it like the plague because I can’t find anything in the menus. Microsoft also changed the file format for Word files, for somewhat good reasons, and there was such an uproar that they released a free (yes, something free from Microsoft) program that would translate the new and old Word formats back and forth.

This is the software curse. You pay for an “upgrade” and what you really get is confusion and a steep learning curve. The axiom they violate is the software you know how to use is much more valuable than the software you do not. So, people stop upgrading and the software companies are finding new and novel ways to force you to do so.

Currently Adobe has adopted the policy that they have stopped “validating” installs of their older software. If you are unaware, the “activation” or “validation” process was implemented at the publishers behest, not yours. It was there way to stem piracy. But by no longer verifying installations of their older programs, owners of the older programs cannot install those programs, even if they originally bought them from Adobe. They own the software. They have the right to use it. Adobe refuses to allow them to use the software. Instead they insist that you upgrade to a newer version.

Imagine of your car manufacturer, implemented a kill switch that stopped your car from working and when complaints came from people with cars that no longer worked they told people they would have to buy a newer model to get a working car. Yeah, like that.

So, the software curse is that when considerable changes are made in the software, people prefer the software they can use and don’t upgrade. Meta, aka Facebook, is finding this out first hand. Their “transition” to a suite of virtual reality spaces is going over like a lead duck, in other words, it isn’t flying. The people on Facebook now know how it operates and are comfortable with it the way it is. Zuckerberg and his staff geniuses are trying to make Facebook into something it is not, and people are not buying it. Why buy into a steep learning curve when the “upgrades” aren’t desired or even conceivable.

Since Facebook is just a large data collection factory for our corporate overlords (they buy scads of Facebook “data” and that is how Zuc gets paid for his “free” service) if it were to go away, would the world be a better or worse place?

September 11, 2022

Using Older Software

I was reading an article in a newsletter I subscribe to regarding Microsoft Office. The article was entitled “Buying Older Versions of Office.” The article addressed how one could get Office 2016 installed on an additional computer when the questioner already had it installed on two others. (Having the same versions of a software package on all of your computers prevents a great deal of confusion.

I had to laugh as I was currently using Office 2003. The advantages of much older software is that, if it meets your needs, all kinds of bonuses accrue. I recently acquired another copy of Office 2003 for Windows, with installation codes, etc. for US$20 on eBay. In some cases, older licenses offered multiple installs on multiple computers, a practice becoming more rare as we make the transition to “subscription” software.

I find “subscription software,” where you pay an annual fee and they provide “free” updates, offensive. If you add up the annual fees over five to ten years you will find yourself paying far more than when you bought the program outright. And, for someone using 20 year old software quite happily, I am not sure what value the updates have, certainly not enough to render the annual fees reasonable.

More modern users probably look at the current state of affairs and consider it “normal” as it were the “norm now. I sure don’t.

By the way I am writing this draft on Word 2003, part of my Office 2003 package, and the program I have used to write dozens of books and hundreds of magazine articles. None of the improvements made to Word over the past twenty years would affect my work positively. I don’t use most, or even many, of the features in the 2003 version.

Shortly after the 2003 version of Word, came the 2007 version, with a new standard document format for Word documents, the .docx format, which I submit is somewhat superior to the old, .doc format, in that it is harder to corrupt. But Microsoft also had to deal with a huge installed base of older Word versions that couldn’t handle the .docx formatted files, so they made a converter, a converter that converts files both ways (.doc to .docx and vice-versa). That converter is available as a free download and so my Word 2003 keeps ticking, working on even .docx files.

Some software programs get so old they become unworkable. Sometimes this seems the actions of a cabal of the hardware and software manufacturers. When I bought my last Bare Bones computer I tried installing Windows 7 on it, of which I had numerous copies and with which I was well pleased. The computer refused to accept the operating system. I contacted the maker and they said, the minimum system needed was Windows 10, which I hadn’t noticed when I bought the box. Such is progress.

I was recently offered a free upgrade to Windows 11 which would do very, very little for me, but quite a bit for Microsoft. I refused for now, although my hand may be forced in the future. (Win 11 is setting up an operating system which is only a couple of small steps away from determining which software programs you can run under it (guess who gets to choose). That is not what I ask from an operating system.

Oh, btw, Windows has had a Compatibility Mode built in for quite some time. If you had some really valuable old software you could tell windows to address it as if you were using a previous version of Windows (all the way back to Windows 95!). They seem now to be operating 180° away from that prior attitude of being flexible.

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