Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

Archive for October 2020

Is Internet Time a Good Thing?

leave a comment »

Introduction

Internet Time is the concept that things happen faster online than they do offline and that this phenomena is accelerating the pace of change. Practically, this is the justification that companies use to cut corners, that to compete they have to keep doing things quicker regardless of the consequences.

Neal Stephenson’s novel “Anathem”, considers what it would be like to go radically in the other direction. In “Anathem” monasteries of Mathematicians have ten, a hundred or even a thousand years to try to solve problems. The idea is that if you have the time, you will undertake solving much harder problems and instead of our current state of incremental improvement, you will get longer periods of stability followed by larger more fundamental changes. Stephenson partly wrote this novel in opposition to Internet time and it certainly makes you think and I recommend it, even though it’s around a thousand pages long.

In this article, I’m going to look at some of the consequences of Internet time, things we have accelerated and what are the pros and cons.

Software Development

It used to be that a software product would introduce a new version every two years, but with delays, it would really be every three or four years. Usually these upgrades were fairly major and rather disruptive to the end users, since there would be major changes to functionality that they had gotten used to over the last couple of years. Nowadays, most installed software such as Windows 10, or most major Linux distributions release every six months or so. Some more frequently, but few less.

For online applications like Facebook or Twitter, the matra is DevOps and continuous deployment, where as soon as a developer checks in their code to source control, it gets built, unit tested and automatically deployed to the live system. There is no such thing as a major release, just small patches being deployed continuously.

Practically speaking, all applications are updating themselves more frequently. Everytime you run Visual Studio, it wants to update some component or another. Your Linux distribution almost always has new updates you can install. So installed applications get small security and bug fixes continuously, with a major feature release every six months. Even Facebook works this way, you don’t see major interface changes that often and they tend to get rolled out to users one group at a time.

But does this make software better? I think both approaches suffer from the same problem, that as the software becomes larger and more complex due to all these updates, it gets harder and harder to understand and harder to add major new features. Once the software reaches a certain size, it becomes cost prohibitive (and a major risk) to refactor major parts of it. Ths slows the pace of change in the software and the increments get smaller and smaller.

If software developers had ten years for a release, could they do more and produce something better? The counter argument is that they would spend nine years in meetings and messing around and then still only work on the new version for less than a year. But suppose you did have the time to rewrite the entire piece of software with the newest tools, techniques and technologies? Could you produce something majorly better? If you had the time, could you use more low level high performance techniques rather than using really high level programming systems? Could you do a better job of QA and security testing?

News Reporting

News reporting used to be a lot of work. There was a lot of time spent researching stories, digging for the underlying reasons things happened. The problem now is that to be read you have to be the first to post to the Internet. If you aren’t the first to Facebook and Twitter, then no one will bother reading you when your wonderfully researched insightful story finally appears.

Internet time has destroyed journalism and led to the crazy world of Internet conspiracy theories.

Sure we get information way quicker these days; but, a lot of the information we get now is wrong, low quality and deliberately misleading. I really like that I get information in real-time as events happen. However, I do miss balanced researched journalism.

Politics

I blogged about being brainwashed by social media and how social media divides us. Politics is happening at Internet Time. Events are happening much quicker and the procedures followed by our institutions aren’t keeping up. Politicians are giving up on presenting their policies and using reasoned arguments to convince us to vote for them. Instead they are just brarraging us with malicious misleading information over social media. Now that people live in Internet Time, they don’t have time to read long articles on peoples policies and points of views, they just get bombarded by internet memes and make their decisions based on these. As politics has moved to Internet Time, I don’t think anything has changed for the better.

Communications

Long ago we used to communicate by writing letters, then talking on the telephone. Along came e-mail and now messaging. With messaging we don’t even have time to write complete sentences, instead we have gone back to hieroglyphics, sending streams of emojis to communicate. Are we communicating better in Internet Time? Or is something being lost? We are certainly communicating more, as you can message all day and use less time than the phone or e-mail, but is the quality and depth of communications still there?

Summary

These are just a few areas that have been affected by moving to Internet Time. There are a lot of advantages to things happening quicker. Humans aren’t necessarily all that patient and like immediate gratification. We instinctively want to innovate at a faster pace, move into the future quicker. But are we taking the time to ensure we are really improving things? Are we losing control of our technologies and spiralling into chaos? I like the faster pace of change, but I do miss some of the deeper thought that used to go into things.

Written by smist08

October 30, 2020 at 2:26 pm

Welcome Groovy Gorilla

with one comment

Introduction

This past Thursday Ubuntu released their new version Ubuntu Linux 20.10 (as in October, 2020) which has the code name Groovy Gorilla. Canonical releases a new version every six months and this is the latest, to a user this release is pretty similar to the previous 20.04 release, but there are a few notable upgrades under the covers. In this article let’s look at some of the highlights. A lot of other Linux versions, such as Linux Mint are based on Ubuntu Linux, so we’ll be seeing upgrades to these over the next few weeks, as they incorporate this version as their base.

New Linux Kernel 5.8

My personal complaint against Ubuntu Linux is that they quickly get behind on the Linux kernel. Ubuntu Linux 20.04 was built around the Linux kernel 5.4, which is now rather old (at least in Internet time). Groovy Gorilla jumps ahead to the much newer Linux kernel 5.8. The newest released Linux kernel is 5.9, so we are now only one version behind (at least until 5.10 drops). Canonical is very conservative in adopting newer Linux kernels preferring the devil they know over dealing with possible rough edges in the newest version. The big downside is that they have to back port all security updates back to this older version and that is a lot of work and sometimes leads to problems. This also means Ubuntu users don’t have the newest features of the kernel, but the only place this has really affected Ubuntu is in their Raspberry Pi and ARM support, where there have been lots of improvements in the newer kernels, plus a few applications that utilize newer kernel features or work better with newer kernel optimizations.

Although you can build a newer Linux kernel yourself to run, it is rather a long process and most people don’t attempt this.

The places a user might notice the new kernel is if they are running a newer processor, especially an AMD processor where there is a lot of new support for better performance. Also there are quite a few improvements in USB and thunderbolt support.

Not a Long Term Support Release

Ubuntu releases what they call a long term support version every two years, the most recent is April’s 20.04 release. 95% of Ubuntu users stick to the LTS version and only upgrade every 2 years. The LTS version is supported for five years and undergoes extra testing to ensure enterprise stability and quality. This 20.10 version is not an LTS version which means it will be supported for 9 months. I’m a developer and prefer the latest version and I’m not sure I want to stick with the Linux kernel 5.4 all the way to 22.04.

I haven’t had any problems with the intermediate versions, but, I’m quite willing to solve any problems I might run into. Further I always install into a virtual machine first and ensure the usual things I use all work before installing it natively on one of my computers that I regularly use.

Raspberry Pi Fully Supported Right at Release

Ubuntu has been supporting various ARM based single board computers for a while now. For instance my nVidia Jetson Nano came with the last LTS Ubuntu Linux 18.04. They had most of their versions available for the Raspberry Pi 3, but when the Raspberry Pi 4 came out, Ubuntu was quite slow to provide native versions. As a result I use Kali Linux on my Raspberry Pi 4 which is excellent and came out shortly after the Raspberry Pi 4. With this 20.10 release Ubuntu is fixing this problem providing all the Raspberry Pi versions at release. Raspberry Pi 4’s with 4 or 8 Gig of RAM are excellent at running full 64-bit versions of Linux including Ubuntu. You can run the full desktop and can run any applications you like. It used to be that you needed to run the so-called “Lite” desktops rather than the full Gnome desktop, but this is no longer the case. They have both server and desktop versions as well as 32 or 64-bit versions.

Lots of Other Updates

Of course, this new release updates all the various components and applications that are bundled with the core Linux including the Gnome desktop, LibreOffice and Python. Most of these you could install the newest version yourself over any version of Ubuntu, but almost no-one bothers and just use the version that the Ubuntu package manager provides. I didn’t find anything jarringly different, everything was quite familiar and although there are minor tweaks, I could happily keep working without searching for anything. Certainly a nicer experience than Microsoft’s sometimes jarring 6 month updates to Windows 10 (I dread installing the new Fall release).

Enterprise users might like that connecting to Active Directory is now part of the main install program and that the ZFS file system is not labelled as experimental anymore.

Summary

Groovy Gorilla is quite a nice release, it brings all the components of this Linux distribution up-to-date and from the few days I’ve been using it, it appears stable. I like that they are now on version 5.8 of the Linux kernel and I like that they have released all their versions for the Raspberry Pi at the same time as for Intel/AMD based computers.

Written by smist08

October 23, 2020 at 11:28 am

How Social Media Divides Us

with 2 comments

Introduction

Last time, we discussed how Social Media brainwashes us by presenting us false information repeatedly, triggering evolutionary learning mechanisms, to get us to believe patently false claims like the Earth being flat. In this article we’ll look at how Social Media presents only one side of a story, introducing bias and preventing a balanced view of the world. Social Media presents this as a feature, that we can filter to only see what we like, but let’s look at the consequences of this and how this is dividing us, rather than bringing us together.

News in the Olden Days

We used to get our news by reading the newspaper or watching network TV news broadcasts. Generally these organisations were balanced and there was editorial control to largely prevent the publication of blatantly false information. Further, reputable organizations would present both sides of a story and make it clear what was editorial opinion versus a news story. For instance, a newspaper might have both a democratic and a republican leaning editor and the editorial page would present both sides. There would be complaints that the Communist or Fascist parties wouldn’t get any coverage and that their opinions were censored, but generally this wasn’t considered bad and was considered the job of the newspaper.

This meant that people were exposed to both sides of an argument, if they were curious they could read the arguments of the other side of an issue and even if they disagreed, they could see there was logic behind the arguments and that the other side wasn’t just crazy. This meant people could have informed discussions and the level of argument was quite informed.

How Social Media Presents the News

Nowadays, few people read physical newspapers and respected TV news broadcasts have been replaced with highly one-sided 24-hour news channels. Newspapers tried to move to the web and some have quite good websites, but this caused a big drop in advertising revenue and people are very reluctant to pay a subscription fee for their services. Some news organizations have quite good mobile apps, but not many people will bother with these either.

All these news organizations have been forced to provide Social Media feeds to Facebook and Twitter. People then choose which organizations to follow and then will see stories from these sources in their feeds.

Anyone can create a newsfeed page for people to follow, it’s free and it’s easy. Of course Facebook and Twitter will try to get money from you to “promote” your feed, but whether you pay or just do self-promotion is entirely up to you. You can create a professional looking news feed with an authentic sounding name with the goal of promoting your theories on how we are all controlled by alien reptilian overlords. If you have a bit of money, you can pay Facebook to promote this feed and you will show up in people’s suggestions on an equal footing with feeds like the NY Times or Washington Post.

Further, it’s easy to create a news feed and then have an AI bot automate the posting, so you can have quite a busy feed without even doing any work.

To some degree, the claim is that this provides greater freedom, but most of these feeds are designed to scam people out of money, either by donating to fake political campaigns or buying scam merchandise. Facebook and Twitter have started to crackdown on the more violent of these like Qanon and the KKK, but it is easy for these groups to rename and be back in milliseconds.

The 24-hour news channels on TV seem to be morphing into social media feeds, showing only a very narrow set of opinions and being totally dedicated to one side of a story and attacking the other side, whether it’s the right wing Fox News or the left wing MSNBC.

The Algorithms of Information Distortion

Even if you only subscribe to proper news organizations like CNN, the BBC, the NY Times, the CBC, GobalTV, CTV, the Washington Post or the Vancouver Sun, the Social Media algorithms will distort your views. When you check your Facebook or Twitter feed, these companies want you to stay as long as possible and peruse their ads. Their goal isn’t to provide you balanced informed information, it is to keep you scrolling and hopefully clicking on the odd advertisement. If you subscribe to a number of news organizations then each one will likely have posted dozens of stories since you last looked at your feed. This is where the social media algorithms come in.

When you visit Facebook, the algorithm looks at all the stories that have been posted by your friends and pages you follow and then decide which ones it thinks you will be most interested in. Which ones you will look at and which ones might keep you scrolling down your feed a little longer. Social Media will not show you all the stories from a news organization, only a selection. You can see this by looking at what your social media feed shows and then go to the news organization’s website to see all the stories that have been posted. So even if a news organization publishes both sides of a story, your news feed will likely only show stories from the side of the argument that you agree with. This then feeds into what we talked about last time, and just reinforces the neural pathways for this point of view. This makes you very stubborn to ever change your mind and likely consider any other point of view as crazy.

Is There a Solution?

A lot of people suggest deleting your social media account. I wouldn’t do this. I like keeping up-to-date in what my friends and family are up to. I find that part of Social Media is great. I find it questionable getting my news from Social Media. Both Twitter and Facebook give me very one sided views of the world, with the occasional suggestion to follow something very bizarre. I find getting my news from a new website more reliable, both in completeness and in providing a more balanced view. If you are just following an echo chamber of your own prejudices then you aren’t being a free thinker, you are just being brainwashed. Visiting websites and running multiple Apps is considered old fashioned these days, but my impression is that both Twitter and Facebook have failed to provide a decent news feed experience.

Summary

Society has become extremely divided over anything political. In Canada, we aren’t as bad as the USA which is on the verge of a civil war, however, things can easily devolve and we could find ourselves in the same situation. Social Media is the big driver or this divide and it seems unlikely that Social Media will change. News organizations have become subservient to the social media algorithms and are having to become more polarized in order to survive.

The only real solution is for people to battle their Hebbian learning mechanisms and to look at things with more critical thought and logic. The sad part is that those politicians benefiting from this are fighting to remove such classes from the education system to keep the population easily fooled by their nonsense.

Written by smist08

October 16, 2020 at 11:29 am

Brainwashing by Social Media

with 3 comments

Introduction

There has been a lot of discussion around the Netflix show “The Social Dilemma” which blames social media algorithms and corporate greed for the irrational beliefs held by large segments of the population. Why do so many people believe the world is flat, that the moon landing didn’t happen, that 5G spreads covid, that Trump is truthful or anything that QAnon says? What is the mechanism in our brains that makes us so receptive to believing things that are completely crazy and easily disproved? Let’s look at how we learn and how this normally reliable mechanism is subverted by social media to cause the steadfast belief in what should be unbelievable.

Repetition and Practice

To master a skill, like a musical instrument or sport, usually takes 10,000 hours of practice according to Malcom Gladwell in his book “Outliers”. We all know how if we practice something over and over it reinforces our knowledge. For physical skills, it builds “muscle memory” where we can perform the tasks without even thinking about them. We often complain about how boring grade school is since we keep repeating the same things over and over again. Sadly, this is the best way to teach things that the student will retain. If this isn’t done the knowledge is never moved from short term to long term memory. Just hearing something once is almost never retained for any length of time.

Hebbian Learning

Hebbian learning is looking at what repetition does at the neural level. Donald Hebb’s theory is that as neural pathways are triggered repeatedly they become stronger, more neurons will be added to strengthen the signal, more weight in our neural network will be chemically built up. This is part of the physiological process that happens in the brain as we learn by repetition. This means that our brain is actually changing in response to this repetitive stimulus. The stronger this repetition, the stronger the structure in the brain and hence the harder it is to repudiate this knowledge.

Evolution Favours Repetition

In the early days of the brain, before social media and even before civilization, this made sense. Repeated bad experiences, for instance what areas flood when it rains, was good information to retain. This simple approach tended to work quite well with mother nature allowing human beings to survive and thrive.

Exploiting this learning mechanism is the science behind brainwashing. This tended to be a bad but smaller scale problem, but now with social media, it’s gotten out of control.

Social Media Subversion

When I took high school social studies we learned things like not to trust single sources. If a news story was reported by multiple independent sources then we give it more credence than single sources. This strategy fit well with repetitive learning and would naturally cause us to filter out most crackpots. Social Media throws this out the window.

Now a crackpot can post a crazy theory on Facebook, thousands of bot accounts can pick it up and repost it and hundreds of conmen can see an opportunity and also promote the craziness for their own gains. In your news feed you start to see this article over and over from different sources, perhaps sometimes rewritten but often not. It now appears like this is from multiple sources, which it is, but they aren’t independent, they are all copies. This repetition now starts to work on your brain’s structure and it starts to become believable. The brain is wonderfully complex and imaginative and manufactures rationalizations for nearly anything. Suddenly you believe the craziness and being persuaded otherwise becomes more and more difficult.

This is coupled with the social media algorithms that present one sided views, the theory being that you’ll like Facebook better if you only see what you agree with. So you never even see the counter arguments to the craziness.

Is There a Cure?

I’m not sure there is a cure. This would require a much higher level of critical thinking and logic from the general population. I don’t think regulating social media will help, especially since the government has a lot of interest in brainwashing and spreading false information.

Perhaps I would posit that the reason the Vulcan’s in Star Trek adopted their strict logic philosophy was a result of a social media mass craziness caused by their ancient evolutionary learning mechanisms. Is our only way out to adopt a culture of pure logic? Is this even possible? It would certainly not be in the interest of most governments or corporations.

Summary

Social Media exploits our deeply ingrained learning mechanisms, allowing us to be brainwashed. The mechanisms have been known for a long time and exploited by the likes of Goebbels and Manson to great effect. Social Media has opened up these techniques to be used by any crackpot out there. Coupled with state sponsored amplification intended to destabilize a target country the effects are proving catastrophic, allowing corporations to villainize climate change for their short term profits or corrupt politicians to hold on to power against the interests of their own people. Will we find a way out of this mess? It is proving difficult and might require the extreme step of banning social media (which seems unlikely). Hopefully sanity will prevail, but we don’t have a good history of that being the case.

Written by smist08

October 9, 2020 at 1:33 pm

Technology and COVID-19

leave a comment »

Introduction

This year of COVID has changed the technology landscape in some unexpected ways. It has accelerated some trends and put others on hold. This article will look at some of the trends that have emerged as a result of people staying close to home, maintaining social distance and worrying about infectious diseases.

Online Shopping Takes Over

The big COVID lottery winner is Amazon. Their sales have skyrocketed as either physical stores are closed due to COVID or people don’t want to risk going out and being exposed. Amazon isn’t the only winner here, Shopify, eBay and a number of others are doing great as well. This trend from physical stores to online has been in the works for years, but COVID has suddenly accelerated it. Quite a few retailers that were slow to transition to have an online component have failed this year, sadly including Vancouver’s favorite MEC.

Outdoor Recreation is Hot

If you already bike or kayak, you have probably noticed that getting parts or repairs is difficult. Sales of anything that can get you outside, but physically distanced have exploded. Bikes, kayaks, stand-up paddle-boards and hiking equipment have exploded and many items are on backorder for months. It’s good to see people taking up all these healthy activities, but a lot of people feel there are going to be some great deals on resales of these once COVID goes away. The big technology winner here is electric bikes where the technology has become good enough to make these usable and affordable. Combined with route tracking apps, people are using these more and more. They get you outside and are far better for the environment than driving around.

Computer Sales

Pundits have been predicting the death of the desktop and laptop computer for years now. In recent years PC sales have been starting to fade. COVID reversed that trend completely. People suddenly need good computers at home to work and sales are way up this year. This isn’t only for low end systems either, many companies are subsidizing employees upgrading their home systems, allowing them to buy better gaming computers with the benefit that they are more productive on higher performance computers.

Games and Gaming Systems

Games and gaming systems are selling great. There have been some games like Microsoft Flight Simulator that hit the market just right. With Flight Simulator you can virtually fly anywhere in the world at a time when COVID has pretty well shut down real flying and vacationing. Microsoft and Sony are really hoping COVID will be around for XMas as they release their next generation gaming consoles and are expecting great sales. Speaking of Flight Simulator, and related accessories like plane yolks are sold out and won’t be available again for months. Meanwhile AMD and nVidia are in the process of releasing their next generation graphics cards ready to be incorporated in new high-end gaming computers.

The Cloud

With everyone suddenly working at home, companies that already had their internal systems running in the cloud found themselves with an advantage since employees could easily access these systems easily from anywhere. Companies with their business systems running internally were suddenly challenged with the online demands and a sudden surge in hacking aimed at them as hackers exploited companies opening systems to at-home use without putting all the necessary security measures in place. The growth of cloud usage has continued to explode with Amazon (which just can’t lose), Microsoft and Google getting the most benefit.

The End of Manual Systems

People working at home can’t access physical paper filing systems or access manual systems like whiteboards. People can’t just pop in back to check on the availability of an inventory item. Anyone that hasn’t automated all their business systems suddenly ran into huge problems as all their employees had to struggle as they worked from home, but didn’t have access to all the information they needed to do their jobs. All the ERP type vendors are having a good year as these companies scury to automate all these manual processes. This isn’t easy as most of these types of transformations can take years. This is one of the leading causes for all the bankruptcies we are seeing.

Online Training

With COVID, people can’t attend training classes. Working at home people had to suddenly switch from older versions of MS Office to Office 365 or Google Apps to effectively work from home while keeping their work available to the company. All these people needed to update their skills and online training became the only option. Even my amateur radio club had to transition from in-person ham radio courses to online courses. A lot of the reviews of these courses are quite negative, but out of necessity they have been improving. More people are learning to offer YouTube channels and PodCasts. Sales of home broadcasting equipment like microphones, good cameras and software have been strong. Popular tools like Zoom only go so far and managing a class online takes skill and practice. Expect that once the bugs are worked out, that this change will be permanent.

Summary

This article looked at a few of the effects COVID has had on technology and people’s lives. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last or how long before we hit the next pandemic. It will be interesting to see how many of these trends stick, accelerate or die out. A lot of people have suffered during the pandemic, but as this article shows, others have prospered.

Written by smist08

October 2, 2020 at 11:34 am