Monday, November 19, 2018

Away With All 32-Bit Mac Software


There is a totalitarian frame of mind that favors what I would call routinely hyperbolic language.  Some years ago, I read a book that was published during the Great Cultural Revolution in the Peoples' Republic of China from 1966 to 1976.  It described the work of an English doctor who had defected to China and cooperated fully with the regime's propaganda machine.  The actual good he did medically, which was considerable, is not the point.  But the title of the book was classic totalitarian-speak:  Away With All Pests. 

Apple is not the PRC, but their attitude toward individuals and smaller companies in their orbit of influence is, shall we say, hardly cooperative and democratic in all cases.  Take, for example, the situation of a small or medium-size software developer, for whom a total rewrite of their software product is a crippling and possibly prohibitive undertaking.  Now, I'm not a computer scientist, and so some of what I say may be speculative or even wrong.  But from what I can tell, taking an application written for a 32-bit operating system (which was the typical PC and Mac system until about 2004, when Intel introduced their 64-bit processor), and rewriting it for a 64-bit OS is a big deal, and presents all sorts of backward-compatibility and other issues that may be insurmountable in some cases.  So it's understandable that many software firms simply haven't bothered yet.

Well, along comes Apple last June and announces that the next OS upgrade—OS 10.14, called Mojave—will be the last version to support 32-bit software at all.  High Sierra—the one my fairly new Mac runs—will tolerate 32-bit stuff, but it's the last one that will do so without problems.  So what that means is, if I have to upgrade my OS beyond what I have now, I risk losing, and am eventually certain to lose, all my 32-bit software.

Up until 2016, that included near-vital things like Microsoft Office.  Microsoft finally got in gear and issued 64-bit versions of Office for Mac, but those of you clinging to the old friendly version of Excel that I used to like so much are going to be out of luck when 32-bit becomes anathema. 

Personally, I stand to lose three different apps that are specialized enough that the supporting companies are fairly small, or in one case is just open-source freeware hosted by a government agency.  I have no idea whether these organizations are going to offer 64-bit versions in time for me to keep using them when the dark day comes that I kiss High Sierra good-by and grit my teeth and get the new 64-bit-only OS.  But if experience is any guide, I'll lose some valuable software, and the ability to work with its legacy files, in the process.  The last time this happened I lost an expensive video editing application and all its video files—toast, after only three or four years.

Of course, if I had the attitude prescribed by our fearless Apple corporate leaders, I would not harbor such traitorous thoughts as the notion that Apple can do anything wrong, and think that the latest OS upgrade is anything other than an unalloyed boon to humanity.  And I would regard the 32-bit software vendors as running dogs of imperialism, or whatever the latest totalitarian insult is. 

But I have a life outside of the time I spend on my computer, and in that life I try to relate to things of permanence and eternal significance:  God, for instance, and my place in His universe.  And to God, as the psalmist tells us, even an entire human lifetime is like grass that springs up in the morning and dries out and dies by the same afternoon.  We may not like that idea, but if an entire lifetime dwindles into insignificance in the light of eternity, how can I take seriously the urging of even a corporation as large as Apple that their new operating system is the greatest thing to come along since—well, since we hope you can't remember back farther than last week, when we just made you give up your last 32-bit application. 

I'm not making a lot of sense here, perhaps, but I'm trying to express something about the culture of Apple, or at least the attitude it tries to encourage among its customers, that I find distasteful, unhelpful, and pernicious if carried outside the narrow field of software and applied to life in general.  It's basically the attitude that I must have the newest, latest, most advanced of everything in order not just to be happy, but to be able to function in society at all.  And because so many things we do now, from contacting friends to doing our jobs, depend on software products, Apple has the raw power to enforce that attitude at the pain of our being severely inconvenienced in various ways.  I don't expect the Apple secret police to show up at my door and haul me away if they find out I'm running 32-bit scanner software.  But just the other day, I had to let go of a Canon scanner that was still mechanically perfect because I discovered that there are no drivers available for it that are compatible with the operating system of the Mac I bought last spring.  What's the difference between having a scanner worth $100 quit working because of something Apple did, and paying a $100 fine to the cops?  Not a lot that I can tell.

Calmer heads will urge me to take the bitter with the sweet, and will remind me of all the good things I can do with computers and software that I wouldn't be able to do otherwise, and to take upgrade losses like this in stride.  Well, maybe they have a point.  But Apple in particular is running its 32-bit ban in a rather cultural-revolutionish way, and unless everybody decides to abandon Macs altogether in protest (which is about as likely as it was for 700 million Chinese to revolt in 1966), we will all have to knuckle under and give up our 32-bit applications.  All I can hope for is that my new machine keeps running a long time and I don't have to get the new OS for any reason.  And maybe those three software outfits will come out with 64-bit versions of their software, but I'm not holding my breath on that either.

Sources:  Last July 9, Computerworld carried the article  "What Apple's 32-bit app phase-out on Mojave means to you" at https://www.computerworld.com/article/3269007/apple-mac/what-apples-32-bit-app-phase-out-on-mojave-means-to-you.html.  And I also referred to an article at the PC Magazine website at https://www.pcmag.com/article/350934/32-bit-vs-64-bit-oses-whats-the-difference.
-->

Monday, November 12, 2018

Aquinas Looks at Bitcoins


On the face of it, it's hard to think of two more unrelated subjects than St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the greatest philosopher of the Middle Ages, and bitcoins, the original blockchain-enabled digital currency that has spawned a flock of imitations and variations.  But Aquinas set out some guidelines that can let us at least speculate (so to speak) about what he would say about bitcoins.

It's hard to imagine how different the economy of 1250 A. D. was from today's economy, but some things were the same.  There were merchants, traders, banks, and markets then as well as now.  But in Europe, everything was done under the direct or at least indirect supervision of the Church, and so anyone who tried something too innovative had to justify it on the basis of Christian doctrine. 

Aquinas viewed money much as his philosophical ancestor Aristotle did:  as a medium of exchange, a legitimate accounting method that allowed trade to take place without the inconvenience of bartering this good for that unrelated service.  To use a time-honored analogy, if a shoemaker needs bread and a baker needs his shoes repaired, a swap could conceivably be arranged without money.  But if the baker needs his shoe fixed at a time when the shoemaker doesn't happen to want any bread, the barter system breaks down.  Money solves this problem by keeping track of the values of goods and services and allowing trade to take place without the need for barter.  The baker takes money he's earned and pays the shoemaker for his services, even if the shoemaker doesn't like the kind of bread the baker makes.  And so on.

Even in the case where a person gains a speculative advantage, Aquinas said that there is nothing necessarily wrong or sinful in taking that advantage.  According to an article by Murray Rothbard, Aquinas gave the example of a trader who is the first to bring a wagonload of food to a famine-stricken area where food is very scarce, and consequently the price he can get is very high.  In essence, Aquinas asks the question, "Would it be wrong for the trader to charge the prevailing high price, even though other traders will probably follow him and lower the price?  Or should he charge the lower price that he knows will prevail after the other traders arrive?"  Aquinas says charging the higher initial price would not be a sin, though it would be more charitable to sell the food below the market price.  So in saying this, he implied that taking advantage of a favorable market position, as we might put it today, is not necessarily wrong.

The bitcoin variety of digital currency is a particularly pure form of speculation in which the thing of value is so abstract as to be nearly nonexistent.  A bitcoin itself is just a record of transactions that play out under certain rules that are publicly known, and can be created only with the expenditure of a certain amount of energy, time, and other resources.  Its value in terms of more familiar monetary measures such as the dollar depends entirely on what people perceive its value to be.  While that perception is not completely random, as the throw of a die is, it is so far beyond the control of most individuals that it might as well be random.  So in this aspect, speculating in bitcoins amounts to a kind of gambling, as many other forms of financial speculation do as well.  And Aquinas had something to say about gambling.

In one section of his magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas says that giving gambling winnings to charity would be wrong if the winnings were garnered from those who have "no power to alienate their property," such as children and the mentally disabled.  And if gambling is illegal according to civil law, it would also be wrong.  But he implies that gambling winnings from a game in which everyone knows and understands the rules, and gambles anyway, would at least not be sinful, although as with any other indulgence, excessive gambling can become harmful to oneself and others and becomes a sin against charity.  So to the extent that buying bitcoins amounts to gambling, Aquinas would also give them a conditional pass.

I will close with a personal bitcoin story that I hope the subject of it won't mind my sharing, if I don't give any names.  Some time ago I had a student in one of my classes come up to me and ask for advice.  It turns out she had learned about the bitcoin business in the very early days of its existence when you could get some for a few dollars each, and she'd gone ahead and bought some.  At the time she approached me about the matter, they were worth some very serious money—many thousands each, was my impression—and she wanted some advice as to what to do with them.  This was when their value was reaching a historic high.

I warned her about adverse tax implications, and told her I was no financial expert, but selling a few of them with awareness of her tax situation wouldn't be a bad thing.  I'm not sure what she did, but it's likely she was able to pay for her whole college education that way and then some.  I also encouraged her to give some of her profit away as a way of developing a habit of charity.

To be frank, I began this post hoping that I could find a blanket condemnation by Aquinas of bitcoins.  But I don't see that in what I was able to find, at least in this brief and superficial inquiry.  After all, we're used to our bank accounts being recorded in digital form, and bitcoins are just an elaboration of digital banking, in a sense, although with different rules.  So I'm pretty sure that if we had Aquinas with us today, and we could manage to translate the idea of digital currency into Latin, he would catch on and probably say that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with bitcoins.  But like any medium of exchange, bitcoins or dollars or bars of gold can either be used wrongly—e. g. stolen—or used to benefit people.  The problems with them, if any, will not be found in the software or the hardware, but will arise from the human heart.

Sources:  I referred to the website https://mises.org/library/philosopher-theologian-st-thomas-aquinas which carries an article dated 12/25/2009 "The Philosopher-Theologian:  St. Thomas Aquinas" by Murray Rothbard, and a Google-enabled excerpt from the Cambridge University Press edition of Aquinas' Summa Theologiae edited by R. J. Batten, O. P., vol. 34 (section 2a2a3, 23-33, art. 7.2), p. 263.

Monday, November 05, 2018

The Google Walkout: Not A Strike, But. . .


Last Friday, Nov. 2, some 20,000 worldwide employees of the Google division of Alphabet Inc. walked out at 11:10 AM local time, presumably taking a long weekend off.  The reason?  According to the seven core organizers who published an essay detailing their demands, the proximate cause was the news from the New York Times that Android developer Andy Rubin received a $90 million severance package after being credibly accused of sexual harrassment, and other top executives who were allegedly guilty of similar escapades have also been let go with generous golden parachutes.  The #MeToo movement has raised the visibility of such things to the extent that the Google organizers found enough grass-roots support among both male and female employees around the world to stage a successful job action that garnered headlines and brought a promise from Google CEO Sundar Pichai to meet with them the following week.

As Bloomberg editorial writer and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman pointed out, this is not your traditional labor-management strike, with demands from a homogeneous group of laborers for higher pay and shorter hours.  Feldman likens it more to a student protest at a university aimed at a cultural or value issue such as racism, sexism, or whatever the popular -ism of the day happens to be.  For example, students last March staged protests about gun control, a subject that their universities have relatively little say in. 

I partly buy Feldman's argument, but partly not.

He's right in that this is something new in the area of labor-management relations.  One novelty is the international scope of the protest, reaching literally around the world in countries with radically differing labor laws and cultural milieus of their own.  Such international reach is necessary for the global-capitalist world we live in if a labor action is to be effective against a multinational corporation.  Another novelty is the type of worker involved:  well-paid professionals (largely engineers), not low-level manual laborers and semi-skilled workers.  A third novelty is the subject matter of the protest:  It is no skin off most workers' personal noses that Andy Rubin got a $90 million severance package—such an amount is chump change to Google, and dividing it up among the protesters is not the point.  The point is that a certain type of wrongdoing—sexual harrassment, in this case—was tolerated by management, and Google didn't punish the wrongdoers, who were treated financially as well as any other upper management person leaving the company for a neutral reason.  So it's the company's culture and its moral implications that people are angry about.

But I part company with Feldman when he says a company can deal with these kinds of things with little if any economic cost, and can usually even support the demands themselves without much trouble.  Topping the list of demands the core organizers published was a call to end forced arbitration and the right to have a "representative of their choosing" with them to any meeting with Human Resources.  Unionized workers will recognize in this a move toward the standard right of having your union rep with you when you meet with management about a personnel issue, and to have disputes settled not in company-provided arbitrators' offices, but by a third party such as a law court or independent arbitrator.  The second demand was for an end to "pay and opportunity inequity," which sounds to me like it could cost quite a bit.  The devil is in the details of such inequity and how to fix it, but you can bet the walkout organizers won't be happy if male engineers get their pay cut in order to increase the pay of female engineers, for example. 

So in these and the other demands, one can perceive some of the same types of demands that classic unions such as the AFL-CIO imposed on automakers in the 1960s:  adjustment of pay inequities and improvement of working conditions.  The organizers of last week's walkout have carefully refrained from using the word "union" in any of their statements that I have seen, but if it talks like a union and acts like a union, they are effectively in the early stages of forming a union, but one that is very different from the classic national unions. 

Personally, I am no friend of unions in general, but a saying I came up with while I was employed at a university which had a faculty union may apply here:  "Unions are a sign of bad management."  In a well-run company that values both the labor and opinions of its employees, management will create a working environment that is positive enough so that any attempts at organizing the workers into a union will fail.  (Of course there are underhanded ways of suppressing union organizing, but I'm not talking about that.)  In most cases of unionized workers, at some point the management has been greedy and negligent enough that their employees decided to take united action to get justice from their employer, whether that amounts to an eight-hour day and basic safety regulations, as it did in the 1930s, or higher standards regarding sexual harrassment and its consequences, as it does in the 2010s at Google.  It looks to me like Google's management has crossed the line into union-creating territory, and now they're going to have to deal with the consequences of their actions, or inaction.

Feldman is right in that this situation may have initiated a new era in labor-management relations.  Historically, by and large engineers have not been unionized in the U. S., but there are examples of well-paid professions which are, and arguably to the benefit of the employees (think airline pilots, who have been unionized for decades).  So there is nothing intrinsically contradictory, illogical, or particularly immoral about a union for engineers.  Perhaps if engineers design a union, it will leave behind some of the potential for corruption, graft, and union-management wrongdoing that were endemic in some of the classical unions like the Teamsters.  Instead, maybe engineers will create lean, mean, and focused virtual labor organizations that form, achieve their intended purposes, and then go away until the next crisis comes along.  That's how this job action happened, and the organizers have perhaps found a new path forward for engineers to assert themselves collectively in the face of soaring executive compensation and job uncertainty.

Well, I better quit before I start sounding like a union organizer myself.  But the Google walkout is the first instance of a novel form of labor-management relations that may bear interesting fruit in the future.

Sources:  The demands of the core organizers of the Google walkout were carried by the website The Cut at https://www.thecut.com/2018/11/google-walkout-organizers-explain-demands.html.  The New York Times article about the sexual-harrassment issues of Andy Rubin and others can be found at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/technology/google-sexual-harassment-andy-rubin.html.  And Noah Feldman's commentary on the situation was carried by Bloomberg News at https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-11-02/google-walkout-isn-t-a-traditional-union-workers-strike.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Open Loop in Lawrence, Massachusetts—Cause of the Columbia Gas Disaster


Every profession has its inside lingo, expressions that mean something only to practitioners.  In the disciplines of electrical and mechanical engineering, one such expression is to "go open loop."  The loop referred to is a feedback loop, a concept that control systems of all kinds use to regulate quantities such as speed, flow rate, and pressure.  A well-designed feedback loop works as a clever automatic hand on a control valve to maintain constant pressure in a gas supply line, for instance, in the face of variations in demand for gas or delivery pressure from the high-pressure gas main.  But in order to work, the feedback loop must be closed, or complete, all the way from the regulator that controls the pressure, say, through supply pipes to the sensor that tells the system what the pressure is, back to the regulator.  If the information flow is interrupted anywhere in the loop, the regulator usually goes to an extreme and jams, which can lead to dire consequences.  So if you ever hear an engineer talking about a person who lost control of his temper as "going open loop," that's where the expression comes from.

On Sept. 13 of this year, dozens of people were injured, one was killed, and over a hundred structures were damaged in and around Lawrence, Massachusetts, when a natural-gas supply line's pressure soared and turned pilot lights into blowtorches and stove gas burners into towering infernos.  The National Transportation Safety Board has released its preliminary report on the cause of the disaster, and it looks very much like it was a classic case of open loop.

That afternoon, work crews were in the final stages of performing a tie-in to connect a new set of plastic gas-distribution pipes to the system, and to decommission a set of old cast-iron pipes that dated back to the early 1900s.  While many modern gas distribution systems place individual regulators at each customer's location, the older systems such as the one in Lawrence used low-pressure gas (about 0.5 pounds per square inch gauge, or psig) in the distribution pipes.  To regulate this pressure, control-system sensors were placed on the pipes and fed their data back to regulators at the junctions between the high-pressure transmission pipes and the low-pressure distribution pipes.

The instructions to the work crews did not say anything about what to do with the sensor  signals coming from the old cast-iron pipes when the gas was switched over from the old system to the new plastic one.  So when the crews shut off the manual valve that fed the old pipes, the sensors in them were still connected to the regulator that was now feeding the new plastic pipes, which were connected to most of the homes in the affected area. 

It's easy to see that cutting off the valve broke the feedback loop.  The control system saw pressure falling in the old pipes, so it opened up the regulator.  But the higher pressure wasn't being sensed, because the crews hadn't been told to switch the sensor signals at the same time they switched the pipes. 

Pressures are monitored constantly on the system, but only at Columbia Gas headquarters back in Columbus, Ohio.  Overpressure alarms went off shortly after 4 PM at the monitoring center, but the dispatchers there had no way of shutting off the system.  All they could do was to try getting in touch with the technicians in Lawrence to tell them to shut off the gas.  Even though that was done about a minute after the alarms went off, it wasn't until 4:30 that the regulator supplying the overpressure gas was shut off.  By then most of the damage had been done. 

An article in the Boston Globe last week describes the anguish of Lawrence residents who are still waiting for Columbia Gas to restore gas service.  Many homes in the area are unlivable without gas heat, and as cold weather intensifies the situation is getting intolerable.  The company's self-imposed deadline of mid-November for having all customers back on line recently slipped to Dec. 16, and there are many complaints about poor communication regarding repair-work schedules and shoddy workmanship once the crews arrive.  Columbia Gas is going to be paying for this mistake for a very long time, as are the affected residents of Lawrence.

The behavior of Columbia Gas approaches a poster-child status of how not to run a utility.  You can bet that when the gas company was locally owned and operated, the monitoring center in Massachusetts probably also had the ability to shut off the gas.  But when consolidator Columbia Gas purchased the system, the move of the monitoring operation to Ohio was probably done to save money, money which was not spent on a corresponding control system to allow Ohio monitors to shut off regulators and valves remotely. 

Work-crew training and planning also came up short in this disaster.  It's sometimes hard to say exactly how much knowledge technicians and their immediate supervisors should have about the technology they are working on.  There's no need for every lowly tech to know enough to design the entire system, for example. That's what engineers are for.   But on the other hand, you would hope that the person in charge of the work crew would know enough to realize that if the sensor signals were not swapped at the same time as the pipe systems they were connected to, there could be trouble.  Presumably the company has done this sort of thing before successfully, so it may be a case of an isolated incompetent worker rather than a systemic issue.  But clearly, more explicit instructions and better training are needed.

Finally, Columbia Gas hasn't exactly covered themselves with glory in the public-relations department.  Gas utilities are by nature local monopolies, and it is easy for them to act like what they are, namely the only gas company in town.  Unfortunately, in misleading their customers as to when gas would be restored, they have created a lot of ill will that more careful and cautious scheduling could have avoided. 

Let's hope for Lawrence's sake that it's a mild winter in Massachusetts, and that everybody gets their gas lines working again before it's too much colder.  And for all you other gas utilities out there:  don't act like Columbia Gas.

Sources:  I referred to the article "Merrimack Valley residents voice frustration with recovery effort" which appeared on the Boston Globe website on Oct. 28, 2018 at https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/10/27/residents-voice-frustration-with-recovery-effort/dY3LvbGLsqqWj3feaeLS3O/story.html.  The preliminary NTSB report on the incident is available at https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/PLD18MR003-preliminary-report.aspx.  I blogged on this disaster on Sept. 17, 2018.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Soyuz Failure and Emergency Return


Proponents of manned space flight have looked forward to the day when space travel will be as routine as getting on a bus in Toledo to go to Chicago.  You don’t normally see national headlines when a bus breaks down, but when the Russian Soyuz rocket taking an American and a Russian astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) last week suddenly failed and the astronauts had to be rescued by an automatic emergency system, it made the New York Times and other media outlets around the world.  So we aren’t quite there yet, and it will be some time before we can even get anyone else up into orbit.

First, the failure.  On Thursday, Oct. 11, astronauts Aleksei Ovchinin and Nick Hague took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Russian Soyuz rocket.  The first stage consists of four detachable engines on four sides of the central second-stage rocket.  Two minutes into the launch, the four first-state engines normally eject themselves and the second stage lights up to continue the flight into the orbital range of the ISS.  But according to the website www.extremetech.com which quoted Russian head of human spaceflight Sergei Krikalev, experts suspect that something went wrong with one of the first-stage engine ejection systems.  One of them may have incompletely separated and collided with the second stage.  At any rate, enough damage was detected that an automatic abort system went into action, separating the capsule containing the two astronauts from the second stage and sending it in an earthbound trajectory that produced up to 6 Gs on the pair, twice what they experience during launch.  A parachute automatically deployed, and instead of spending six months in space in the ISS, Hague and Ovchinin ended their flight only a few minutes after launch in the desert-like steppes of Kazakhstan, where they were rescued by ground crews without further incident.

We can thank the Russian engineers who designed and installed the safety systems 35 years ago in what is now a pretty old but well-understood and reliable rocket system.  Russia has had its share of space-related accidents, dating all the way back to 1967 when a parachute on the Soyuz 1 flight failed to open, causing the death of astronaut Vladimir Komarov when his capsule crashed to the ground too fast.  Simplicity and reliability seem to be watchwords with the Russian space program, and while the two astronauts are no doubt disappointed that their flight was cancelled, so to speak, they are at least alive and well to talk about it.

The current residents of the ISS are in no immediate danger, as unmanned resupply rockets are still operational and they have an emergency escape capsule at hand should something require them to leave for Earth in a hurry.  But the failure of the only current means of human access to the ISS has put a big hold on the station’s plans, and on manned spaceflight in general.

In possibly a year or so, both Boeing and SpaceX hope to begin manned flights of their own, ushering in a new era of spacecraft built by private firms dedicated to the purpose, rather than the cumbersome government public-private partnerships that have up to now been responsible for all manned space travel.  But those companies’ rockets are not ready, and if recent history is any guide, they may not be ready for several years yet. 

Unlike the race to the moon, which was basically the Cold War between the old USSR and the U. S. carried out by peaceful means, private space firms are in competition only with other firms.  So it would be better to err on the side of prudence rather than rush into manned spaceflight only to have your latest creation blow up and kill people.  The rewards awaiting companies that make it first into space with humans are by no means certain, other than the glory of the thing.  But glory is hard to take to the bank. 

Tourism is one way to make money with space, but no one believes that will support the whole enterprise by itself.  And tourists have an obstinate prejudice against running a high risk of ending up as space junk or worse, so the safety record of space flight will have to be significantly improved before anything like mass tourism can come about. 

Regarding re-crewing the space station, currently the Soyuz is the only show in town, and if the accident investigation isn’t wrapped up satisfactorily by the end of 2018, we might see a situation in which the ISS crew comes home and the empty station is piloted remotely until Russian engineers are confident in launching more astronauts with the Soyuz.  Published schedules for the ISS through 2020 do not include any plans for using rockets other than Soyuz to transport astronauts to the station, so SpaceX’s manned flights will presumably be orbital demonstrations independent of the space station itself.

If manned space flight were completely routine, it wouldn’t attract the attention and excitement it does.  In my own field of engineering, some of the best students have ambitions to get involved in private space enterprises, and they go with my blessing.  But the period we are in now may be compared to where the aviation industry was in around 1920.  Flying was still regarded as an exotic and dangerous sport, and it was not yet clear how anyone would make any serious money at it. 

We can hope that the cause of the Soyuz failure can be identified and fixed soon enough that we don’t have to depopulate the ISS, and that transportation to the station can go back to its desirable no-headlines mode.  But we can also expect that the upcoming launches of private manned space rockets will get tons of publicity, even if they’re successful.  Because taking a rocket into space is still nowhere near as routine as taking a bus to Chicago.

Sources:  I referred to news reports on the Soyuz accident carried by the New York Times on Oct. 11, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/11/science/soyuz-rocket.html, and also the sources https://www.space.com/42155-soyuz-abort-astronaut-nick-hague-first-interviews.html and https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/278883-russia-blames-soyuz-launch-failure-on-booster-collision.  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on a list of spaceflight-related accidents and incidents, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the International Space Station. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Microcosm of Technological Culture: A Foundry Closes in San Jose


Every now and then, something happens that epitomizes an era.  When the first railroad to cross the North American continent was completed with a gold spike, that single event symbolized not only a success for the railroad industry, but opened a new chapter in American history.  So many meanings are packed into today’s subject that I won’t have space to explore them all, but I’ll try.

In 1919, a metals foundry called the Kearney Pattern Works began operations in what was then the small town of San Jose, California.  Back then, the state was largely agricultural, and the castings the foundry made were used by farm-product manufacturers, canneries, and the water and power utility industries.  During and after World War II, Kearney no doubt participated in the huge defense-plant buildup that transformed a sleepy agricultural economy into one of the nation’s economic powerhouses.  Corporations such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard (now HP) became clients.  In my own career as an RF and microwave engineer, I became familiar with some of HP’s products that used heavy aluminum castings for electrical stability, and it is entirely possible that those castings were poured in the shops of Kearney Pattern Works.

Metal casting is an ancient art mentioned in the Bible.  My university is one of the few in the U. S. that has an active foundry-education program, complete with a small working foundry, where once or twice a semester you can see the soul-stirring pouring of nearly white-hot glowing iron into molds.  For many people who grew up in the middle or latter part of the twentieth century, foundries symbolized the essence of industry.

We still have foundries, but increasingly, at least in my branch of engineering, the word means silicon foundry—a place where silicon chips are fabricated.  And even those are mostly offshore now.  After a century of operation, the Kearney Pattern Works is shutting down and the land will be sold to Google, which is planning a 245-acre complex employing 20,000 people in downtown San Jose.  I know nothing about the details of Google’s plans for their complex, but I’d be willing to bet any reasonable amount of money that if you walk in and observe what most of those people will be doing once the facility is up and running, they will be in clean, well-lit, air-conditioned offices sitting at computer monitors. 

Is that a bad thing?  The city of San Jose doesn’t think so.  Jim Wagner, 71, is the principle owner of the foundry and grandson of the founder Al Kearney.  He says the city has been pressuring him and other heavy-industry firms to leave the downtown area, but the expenses of moving would have been prohibitive.  So the alternative is simply to close the doors and sell the property to Google, which is probably one of the few private entities in the world that can afford to buy more than 200 acres of prime real estate at the southern end of Silicon Valley.

Foundry work is hot, dirty, and dangerous.  But foundry workers didn’t need a college education, or even much high school learning, at least at the lower levels of the firm.  During the Great Migration of blacks from the rural south to the industrial north, many found work in foundries and other muscle-intensive industries, which often paid well and allowed even uneducated people to afford decent housing and living standards for their families.  The hollowing out of these industries over the last four or five decades has contributed to the deterioration of many Northern cities and the inner-city areas of many other parts of the country as well.

If this were Cuba, the foundry would still be operating, because the government wouldn’t let it fail.  Socialism tends to freeze industries at a given moment and make them independent of actual economic conditions in the rest of the world.  But the bad result of this is that state-controlled industries tend to make stuff that nobody wants, and can’t make stuff that people do want.  The free-enterprise approach of letting innovation, success, and failure happen more or less as the market demands seems to keep companies on their toes to change with the technological and social environments they must operate in. 

It was Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) who came up with the phrase “creative destruction” to characterize the way technological innovation makes whole industries obsolete when new ones come along.  If everyone just accepts this process as a price of a free economy, progress continues.  But inevitably, companies that decide to do only one kind of thing end up taking the risk that some day, no one will want that kind of thing anymore.  And something like this has happened to Kearney.

When the timing of a firm’s demise coincides with the end of one’s career, as it has in Jim Wagner’s case, creative destruction isn’t so bad.  But the reporter who wrote the story didn’t mention any younger employees who will have to find work elsewhere.  Maybe there weren’t a lot of younger workers—even at its peak, Kearney employed only about 35 people, and many of those left years ago.

There are many contrasts between what Kearney has done at their location for the last century and what Google plans to do there for the next century, but another contrast is size.  Kearney was a small, privately-owned firm.  Google is—well, Google:  a nearly ubiquitous but oddly anonymous presence in the lives of people all around the world, whose doings are often opaque, secretive, and hugely influential.  In a foundry, what you saw was what you got:  the molds, the sand used in the molds, the hot metal, the smoke, the finished product.  What Google is doing at this moment, how they make their billions, and what goes on inside their shadowy corporate universe is known largely only to Google employees.

Modern industrial societies have accepted disruptive technological changes as the cost of enjoying the benefits of those same changes.  And while almost nobody will miss the smoke or mess or dirt of the Kearney foundry, it’s possible that some of its employees will wish it was still in business.  And maybe some of their children and grandchildren will get jobs at Google.  But they will probably have to spend a good part of their lives in school first, and even then, they might not make the grade.

Sources:  The article “Foundry’s departure ahead of downtown San Jose Google village project ends century of work” by George Avalos appeared on Oct. 12 on the website of the San Jose Mercury News at https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/10/12/foundrys-departure-ahead-of-downtown-san-jose-google-village-project-marks-end-of-era/.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Seeing May Not Be Believing: AI Deepfakes and Trust in Media


The 1994 movie “Forrest Gump” featured authentic-looking newsreel footage of the 1960s in which President Kennedy allegedly appeared with Tom Hanks’ fictional Gump character.  Trick photography is as old as cinema, and the only remarkable thing about such scenes were the technical care with which they were produced.  At the time, these effects were state-of-the-art and took substantial resources of a major studio.

What only Hollywood could do back in the 1990s is soon coming to the average hacker everywhere, thanks to advanced artificial-intelligence (AI) deep-learning algorithms that have recently made it possible to create extremely realistic-looking audio and video clips that are, basically, lies.  An article in October’s Scientific American describes both the progress that AI experts have made in reducing the amount of labor and expertise needed to create fake recordings, and the implications that wider availability of such technology poses for the already eroded public trust in media.  Fakes made with advanced deep-learning AI (called “deepfakes”) can be so good that even people who personally know the subject in question—President Obama, in one example—couldn’t tell it was fake.

The critical issue posed in the article is “. . . what will happen if a deepfake with significant social or political implications goes viral”?  Such fakes could be especially harmful if released just before a major election.  It takes time and expertise to determine whether a video or audio record has been faked, and as technology progresses, that difficulty will only increase.  By the time a faked video that influences an election has been revealed as a fake, the election could be over.  We faced something similar to this in 2016, as it has been conclusively shown that Russian-based hackers spread disinformation of many kinds during the runup to the Presidential election. 
Some voters will believe anything they see, especially if it fits in with their prejudices.  But the firmer a voter is embedded in one camp or the other, the less likely they are to change their vote based on a single fake video.  The people who can actually change the outcome of an election are those who are undecided going into the final stretch of the campaign.  If they are taken in by a fake video, then real harm has been done to the process.

On the other hand, the public as a collective body is not always as stupid as experts naively think.  If a deepfake ever manages to be widely believed at a critical moment, and the fakery is later revealed publicly, the more thoughtful among us will will keep in mind the possibility of fakery whenever we watch a video or listen to audio in the future.  This can be likened to an immune-system response.  The first invasion of a new pathogen into one’s body may do considerable damage, but a healthy immune system creates antibodies that fight off both the current infection and also any future attempts at invasion by the same pathogen.

If deepfakes begin to affect the public conversation significantly, we will all get used to the fact that any audio or video, no matter how genuine-looking, could be the concoction of some hacker’s imagination. 

Low-tech versions of this sort of thing happen all the time, but with lower stakes.  When I’m not writing this blog, I find time to do some lightning research, and a few years ago someone forwarded me a YouTube clip purporting to be a security-camera video of a guy who got struck by lightning, not once, but twice, and survived both times.  I watched the grainy monochrome recording of a man walking toward the camera on a sidewalk.  Suddenly there was a bright full-screen flash, and he’s down on the pavement, apparently dead.  Then he raises his head, shakes himself, and groggily rises to his feet, only to have a second flash knock him down again.  I heard from another lightning expert about this video that it was definitely fake.  Some people want so desperately to achieve viral fame, that they will go to the trouble of setting up an elaborate fraud like this one just on the hopes that their production will be kooky enough to get shared widely.  And in this case, they succeeded.

Speaking theologically for a change, some (including myself) trace the origin of lies back to the father of lies himself, the devil, and attribute lying to the only Christian doctrine for which there is abundant empirical evidence:  original sin.  No amount of high-tech defense is going to stop some people from lying, and if they can bend deep-learning AI to nefarious purposes such as creating inflammatory deepfake videos, they will.  The best defense from such scurrilous behavior is not necessarily just working harder to make fake-video-detection technology better, although that is a good thing.  It is to bear in mind that people will lie sometimes, and to use the time-honored rules of evidence to seek the truth in any situation.  And to bear in mind something that is often forgotten these days, that there is such a thing as objective truth. 

I think a more serious problem than deepfake videos is the fact that in pursuit of the online dollar, social media companies have trained millions of their customers to react to online information with their lizard brains, going for the thing that is most titillating and most conforming to one’s existing prejudices regardless of the likelihood that it’s true.  They have created an invisible mob eager and willing to be set off like a dry forest at the touch of a match.  And once the forest fire is going, it doesn’t matter if the match was real or fake. 

Sources:  Brooke Borel’s article “Clicks, Lies, and Videotape” appeared on pp. 38-43 of the October 2018 issue of Scientific American.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Implementing an Internet Bill of Rights


The U. S. Constitution’s first ten amendments make up what is called the Bill of Rights.  These guarantee freedom of religion, of the press, the right to a speedy and public trial, and other rights that were not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution itself.  As I was sitting in on a telecommunications class taught by industry expert Andres Carvallo last week, he speculated about something that I’m going to call an Internet bill of rights.  It doesn’t exist yet, and there are good technical and economic reasons to suspect it never will, but it’s a great idea and deserves airing.

Right now, your rights online are a hodge-podge of hundreds or maybe thousands of legal boilerplate agreements that you’ve checked that you agree to, probably by lying that you have read and understood them.  As I mentioned recently, this is a nasty little piece of hypocrisy that nevertheless is forced on anyone who deals with computers or the Internet.  But legally, your rights online are nothing more than the sum total of all the incomprehensible technical gobbledegook of those fine-print agreements, plus any applicable laws of the municipality, county, state, or country you happen to live in.  

And that’s just the stuff you are entitled to know about.  Internet companies sometimes do things with your data that they don’t admit to in their agreements, and the only way we find out about such things is through news reports of data breaches and underhanded dealings.  Such is the fragmented state of online rights today.

Carvallo’s vision is this:  you, the individual user, get to say exactly what your online privacy and other rights are.  If you don’t want anybody sending you ads for stuff you view online, you can say so. If you don’t want companies accumulating data about your eight-year-old daughter when she uses a toy that’s connected to the Internet, you can say so.  And if you’re on social media platforms, you don’t have to figure out each one’s arcane permissions structure individually.  You just state your preferences once for all in a centralized location, and everybody you deal with has to follow the rules you set up.  

Now this notion may not be original to Carvallo.  But it’s the first time I’ve heard of such a concept, and it’s very appealing.  It would also be very hard to implement, but as he spoke in the context of teaching an engineering class, he encouraged the students to think of future technical possibilities, of which this was one.

You could push this even farther, to the extent of being able to say what ads you do and don’t see.  Google has been making a feeble effort in this direction for some time, in that when I close an ad that’s popped up in the middle of some article I’m reading, I will sometimes get a Google Ads option to say whether I never want to see that ad again and why.  But this is only a tiny step in the direction of the comprehensive vision of personal control that an Internet bill of rights would involve.

Of course, the reason most of the Internet is free is because there are ads. And having the privilege of saying no to some or all ads would mean that for you, anyway, the companies would have to find some other way to make money.  And they’re not about to do that, not if the present system works for them. 

Pay-for-viewing websites are a step in this direction.  In my limited experience, they seem mainly to be operated by newspapers and other old-school media who are striving to maintain some vestige of the old subscription model that worked for so many decades for physical newspapers and magazines.  So something like this can work, but only within the context of a single organization. Fixing things so no matter what you looked at, you’d never see ads anywhere on the Internet is presently almost unimaginable, although I suppose somebody could come up with some kind of shell or filter gizmo that might do that.

Which brings us to the technical question of how an Internet bill of rights could be implemented.  My answer is, I have no idea.  But anything that has to work with any website you go to, would have to be built into the very structure of the Internet, and that means global standards and protocols. When strictly technical problems come up, such as running out of IP addresses or something like that, the world’s engineers have figured out a pretty efficient and effective way of forming working groups, hashing out a technical solution, and agreeing on a standard that implements it.  

But this only works for technical matters.  Things that threaten to affect an industry’s bottom line drastically are not suitable for the technical standards-setting mechanism. And an Internet bill of rights such as we’re discussing would be viewed as a threat by most online for-profit entities. 

In that case, we’d have to get into the political, social, and economic aspects of the problem.  And you’re not going to solve those kinds of matters with merely a working group of engineers.  Something like the United Nations or its International Telecommunications Union might have to be involved, but again, they primarily handle technical matters. Because of the international nature of the Internet, an effective implementation of an Internet bill of rights would have to be agreed on worldwide.  And getting the world to agree on something even as simple as what time it is, can be a hard thing to do, let alone a matter affecting the online activities of everybody on earth.

Well, we’ve traveled from one classroom in San Marcos, Texas to the whole Internet in one column.  I don’t think we’re any closer to having an Internet bill of rights than we were when we started. But it’s a nice idea, and I thank Andres Carvallo for bringing it up.  And if you’re optimistic, maybe you think that this won’t be the last time you read about it.

Monday, September 24, 2018

YouTube, COPPA, and Twelve-Year-Old Lawyers


YouTube, as anybody who is reading this online probably knows, is a video-streaming service owned by Google.  Because Google makes money from ads that go along with its services, it is in Google’s interest to make such services as easily accessible as possible to the most people.  Accessing YouTube requires only the ability to spell, or maybe even just to point on a smartphone screen to an icon.  Such skills are easily mastered by children as young as eight. 

In April of 2017, USA Today carried a story about an eight-year-old boy in Ohio who not only figured out how to watch YouTube, but learned how to drive a car by watching instructional videos.  He and his four-year-old sister waited until their parents were asleep one day.  Then they went out to the family car and drove to McDonald’s, where he used his piggy-bank money to buy a cheeseburger.  People who saw him on his way to the restaurant and called the cops when they figured out what was happening nevertheless said he obeyed all the traffic laws and didn’t hit a thing. 

COPPA stands for the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, a federal law that prohibits collecting online data from children under 13 without the consent of parents.  Last April, a coalition of childrens’ privacy protection groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that YouTube does indeed collect data from kids under 13—location, usage habits, and more.  And just last week, a pair of U. S. representatives, one Democrat and one Republican, wrote a letter to Google chair Sundar Pichai to ask him how his company uses data collected on those under 13.

The only substantive response from the company so far on these matters has been the following:  Protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us. Because YouTube is not for children, we've invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children. We appreciate all efforts to protect families and children online and look forward to working with members of Congress to answer their questions."

Of course, kids get into all sorts of things that aren’t intended for them, YouTube included.  The only barrier that keeps kids under 13 away from YouTube is item 12 in the YouTube Terms and Conditions, which reads in part, “In any case, you affirm that you are over the age of 13, as the Service is not intended for children under 13. If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.”

A recent Roz Chast cartoon in The New Yorker portrayed an updated carnival freak-show sign, and one of the featured creatures was “The Man Who Actually Read the Terms and Conditions.”  If I had a twelve-year-old child who came to me and told me that she had dutifully read the YouTube terms and conditions, and said to me, “Paragraph 12 told me to talk to you about what sites are appropriate for me,” I’d tell her to go check out the Harvard Law School application page.  And then I’d probably never forgive myself for having raised a lawyer. 

Everyone, including the lawyers who wrote those terms and conditions, knows that the chances of a child actually reading Paragraph 12 and acting on it are indistinguishable from zero.  But technically and legally, YouTube has told precocious under-13 lawyers, and anyone else in that age category, that they shouldn’t be watching YouTube.  Presumably, the company’s default position on this issue is, “Well, we warned kids to stay away and not to lie to us about their age.  What else can we do?”

And that is the question.  Displaying content that is inappropriate for young children is bad enough, but collecting data on them is illegal—technically, according to COPPA.  But here again, we run into a legal fiction.  While there are all sorts of good laws on the books to prevent this sort of thing, laws are pointless unless they are enforced.  And as far as I know, the filing of the childrens’ privacy group complaint to the FTC has vanished into the federal bureaucracy, and Sundar Pichai has not yet replied to the letter from David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska). 

This whole situation begins to remind me disquietingly of a joke that was told about the way work got done in the old Soviet Union.  When a Western tourist asked a worker privately about conditions in a town in Siberia where the pay was low and the store shelves were almost empty, he replied, “Well, we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” 

YouTube pretends to keep children under 13 from watching it, and when that doesn’t work, the federal government and its representatives pretend to try to do something about it.  I normally don’t like sounding cynical, but sometimes the level of hypocrisy gets so high that you simply can’t ignore it.

I am not accusing either privacy groups or members of Congress of hypocrisy in this case.  Filing complaints and writing letters are sincere efforts to do something about the situation.  But so far, they appear to be just as ineffectual as YouTube’s Paragraph 12 in keeping kids from being exploited or having their innocence (remember innocence?) stripped from them. 

Every age has its public priorities—institutions and ways of doing things that are so accepted and even praised that they cannot be seriously challenged.  Slavery was one such priority until less than two hundred years ago, but that finally changed for the better.  Perhaps kids watching YouTube videos and having their data used by Google is not the worst thing that can happen to them.  But it’s one tip of the iceberg of this culture’s neglect and exploitation of children that will have long-term effects that we may not even understand for decades, let alone be able to do anything about. 

The first step toward righting a wrong is to recognize it as wrong.  A few people are questioning whether a giant corporation should get away with pretending it’s not doing something that it’s doing, at the expense of children.  And that is a good first step, but only the first step on a long journey.

Sources:  I referred to an article at https://www.multichannel.com/news/reps-press-google-on-kids-data-collection-issues entitled “Reps. Press Google on Kids Data Collection Issues” published on Sept. 17, 2018.  The quotation from a YouTube representative is from https://www.cnet.com/news/lawmakers-pressure-google-to-share-how-youtube-collects-uses-kids-data/ published on Sept. 18, 2018.  The story of the 8-year-old who taught himself to drive on YouTube is at
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/04/13/8-year-old-learns-drive-youtube-heads-mcdonalds/100408432/.  And in case you’re having trouble falling asleep, YouTube’s terms and conditions can be read in full at https://www.youtube.com/static?template=terms. 
-->