Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Is Net Neutrality Pie-In-The-Sky?

Since Net Neutrality has been prominent in the news lately, you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned it, in as much as I am discussing very relevant topics (e.g., filter bubbles).

Simple answer? It’s a political rat’s nest, involving governments of countries, states, counties, and even cities. Phrases like “right of way” and “eminent domain” come to mind. These and other legal terms are not solutions, but sources of potential conflict.

In one sense, Net Neutrality is an ideal, and as such could not possibly be legislated. That is, all of its necessary mechanisms are beyond legal resolution. However, limited legislation could assist in allowing other entities to implement what’s needed.

Specifically, laws permitting governmentally subsidized nonprofit ISPs to provide unrestricted access to all Internet data at reasonable prices. It is unconscionable for service providers to charge significantly more than most other industrialized nations.

Yet, they will claim it’s their right in a free market (whose competition is supposed to drive down prices!). They’d even ask, if governmentally subsidized ISPs charged less, then what would keep them from dominating the ISP market?

Simple. Limit the number of hours at the lower rate. If the avowed purpose is the unrestricted access to all Internet data at reasonable prices necessary for valid research, why would every user require unlimited hours of access? There are more factors.

I have seen no Net Neutrality discussion make the point that a truly neutral search would be significantly faster. The very fact of Net Neutrality would reduce total time of access. And more.

Institutions dependent upon research would not limit their researchers to the restrictions of their individual accounts; they would share the institution’s research account(s). That’s not all.

The current method used by Internet search engines, as I’ve said many times in this blog, sucks. A number of times in this blog I’ve described an alternative method I call Iterative Search (look it up here). It’s better because it’s easier and quicker to an answer.

Some may see this suggestion as government helping nonprofits take business away from for-profit companies. I say it’s the only practical way to get an affordable, unfiltered Internet. Since for-profits seem to have no interest in providing that, why not?

Besides, the for-profits can get into this game anytime they want. They can even charge less than nonprofits. As long as they provide the same unfiltered, full Internet access, why not?

Is Advertising Strangling the Internet?

Advertising used to be a black art. A famous quote was, “I know half of our ad budget is wasted; I just don’t know which half.” No more. Now, thanks to the Internet’s filter bubbles and Big Data, advertisers know exactly who is likely to like what.

Internet advertising knows exactly where best to put its money—and how much of it to be effective. In a few short decades, advertising on the Internet has moved from rooms filled with people to computers filled with math.

Once advertising’s focus was on focus groups; now it’s on math, like fractal equations. At least this is true for the Internet. And that experience is fast changing the game from art to science.

The economy is driven by marketing, of which advertising is the most visible part. The most effective advertising is Word Of Mouth (WOM). Yet it hasn’t really happened openly on the Internet. WOM is a natural fit for personalized Internets.

On today’s Internet, WOM is behind the scenes. At some point, like-minded users could be offered money (micro-payments?) to be the face and/or voice of WOM ads targeting individuals. Would you block all such ads? Even from friends?

For all I know it’s already happening. What I do know is that once advertisers understood what could be achieved by greater personalization of targets, there’s no end to how far they’ll go.

Well, not exactly. If history has taught us anything, we know they can go too far. Diminishing returns will only make them want to shrink the targets more. They’ll work harder, not smarter.

Since the gurus of capitalism are unconcerned about diminishing consumers, we can assume those numbers will continue to decrease. By the time advertisers realize there’s no one out there who can afford their products, it will be too late—for all of us.

But long before that happens be prepared for big changes. “The day when Americans can buy a cable-like television service via the Internet is inching closer.” —CNNMoney, January 7, 2014.

I’ve told you why this is inevitable, but nobody I read online sees the real motivators behind this move: the advertisers. Are they unaware what advertisers have learned from the Internet?

Why would advertisers want to keep throwing their considerable dollars at cable? Having advertised on the Internet, they know precisely how, where, and when to put their ads on Internet TV.

As a medium, television serves its advertisers not its viewers. When television moves to the medium of the Internet, it will still serve its advertisers, just as the makers of filters bubble do now.

The End of the Internet

All Internet users are aware that China (among others) censors access. Few users outside of China (and other restrictive countries) think their access is censored. How would they know?

If I had said filtered instead of censored, would you know the difference? You’re probably aware search engines use filter bubbles. What about browsers? If they do, how could we tell?

We know how to make the computer do anything. Given the how, who filters the Internet, and why? Google’s search engine uses filter bubbles and not just because they can.

Google filters make sure you see the ads they’re selling. They combine search and ads into one seamless personalized package. Think of it as the monetized you. I’m sure Google does.

The filters of a filter bubble are how a search engine (or a browser) uses your personal online history to block things you weren’t interested in. The bubble describes your own isolated version of the Internet, after filtration. One person to a bubble.

While you may appreciate not seeing ads for things you don’t care about, filter bubbles are no guarantee. If advertisers pay more, their ads will be seen by more people, interested or not.

Whether you’re interested or not, pages will appear in your search because they paid for Search Engine Optimization. Personalization is more about their control than your preferences. Different methods, but in the end a lot like China.

What you see is what you get, but you don’t know what you don’t get, i.e., what you didn’t see. It may not seem important if you’re just browsing for fun, but if you seriously need good answers, if you’re a researcher, writer, or scholar, what then?

If we each see the Internet differently, if we’re all confined to our own personal bubbles, then how can we discuss and compare? How can we apply the scientific method? What is an original source, if we don’t see the same books with the same text?

Saying our Internet experience is personalized, that it’s been filtered into a bubble, sounds somewhat innocuous. It’s not. The bubble is more like the inside of a mirrored prison cell. Being alone in a cell is not personalization; in prison it’s solitary.

If all we see is a reflection of who we already are, then the Internet is no longer the fabled Looking Glass—a path to new and wondrous adventures. If it only reflects who we are, then the glass bubble surrounding us is nothing more than a dumb mirror.

Isolated individual Internets seem to please the masses. If this is the end of the open Internet, the Internet of discovery, will enough people care? Many already don’t. I do, how about you?

Anti-Social Media

In twenty years, the Internet has transformed all of humanity. Although not every person interacts with the Internet directly, few have escaped its influence on those who have.

The Internet has made it easier for people to connect, or to communicate without really connecting, or to interact deceitfully. This on a world-wide scale that has grown so quickly, we rarely step back and seek the historical perspective.

The Internet made it easier for joiners to join. It united larger numbers of apparently like-minded people than ever before. It also helped loners to find loners, creating small groups of peculiarly-minded people that never could have existed before.

Long before the Internet, there was concern that the world had become more interconnected and more quickly connected. This centered on the spread of disease and was based on the speed of flight. Half a century later, the Internet spreads its mutations of the mind at the speed of light. Only now, strife trumps ebola.

The one constant in conflicts around the world today is the rise in number and power of social divisions best described as tribal. These seek political power in an overcrowded world, inevitably manifesting itself in violent forms, from dissent to genocide.

Tribal web sites, like all social media, want numbers. While their size and focus are the opposite of big social media, their ability to connect people is similarly expedited by the Internet.

The “likes” transmitted to these small but excessively extreme sites are more intensive than the “likes” on Facebook and its ilk. Without the Internet, loners connected to these small, unique sites would probably remain alone, rarely making the news.

Not all loners are sociopaths, nor are they all connecting. The Internet has surely brought together more ordinary, lonely people than dangerous loners. But it’s not simple arithmetic. Good connections don’t balance the evil from connecting bad people.

The factions produced by tribal-like activity does not aim to become mass movements. They seek to destroy, dominate, frighten, or otherwise influence both individuals and groups.

Tribal activity comes in many shapes and sizes, and its methods are covert. Their use of the Internet for recruitment, publicity, and funding is highly overt and very sophisticated.

They do not concern themselves with broad public opposition since they believe it cannot stop or even slow their fanatical goals. They believe, as they foolishly used to say in Hollywood, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The Dark Side of Computer Programming

October, 2014 is exactly fifty years (and one month) since my first job as a programmer. My training was a three months internship. In four years I was offered double my first salary, but I wasn’t a professional. I decided to move on. Read why.

I didn’t want to take time out from learning on the job to get a computing degree. In a field changing so rapidly, I felt my best shot to become a professional had to include experience in new developments. I also joined the professional computing society.

This was the oddly-named Association for Computing Machinery. I didn’t just join, I read as many of their publications as I could comprehend and attended conferences whenever I could. (I even had a paper accepted at a regional conference.)

I also chose jobs for learning opportunities, not salary. Positive choices means avoiding negatives ones. I shunned programmers who thought they were superior to non-programmers. If you had a problem with their software, it was your fault, not theirs.

I saw many people confounded by code written by those smarter-than-thou programmers. Instead of caring about their customers, these high-and-mighty programmers were more interested in showing off their cleverness. Not smart in my book.

The more of this arrogance I saw, the more I looked for gems of real wisdom. Early on, I discovered a programmer’s best tool was ignorance. Admit when you don’t know and get help. You can bluff clients for a while but not computers for a nanosecond.

My next epiphany came when I realized it was my job to communicate clearly to the client, not theirs to understand my jargon. Lose the tech terms and rely on common English. If you fail, try again. It’s not their fault—clarity is your responsibility.

In recent years (as I’ve written in this blog), I’ve seen a serious decline in good programming. I encounter errors so egregious they astound me. Too many programmers follow fashion, eschewing both logic and common sense. And worse.

I swear there are programmers who enjoy needlessly punishing users. I know there are programmers who write what’s easiest for them, ignoring whether it makes sense or how hard it is to use. It’s ridiculous to see this, but why do companies permit it?

The goal is obvious: things should work exactly as the user expects without thinking twice about it. The programmer may write the code, but the user should see nothing between what he or she wants and how to get it. In two words, total transparency.

Like a good writer, a programmer should produce the best experience possible without showing how it’s done. Just because you are in control is no reason to show off. Being clever is just ego. If you need that, you should avoid the reality of computers.

Search Engine Obfuscation

I imagine many of you realize this title means I’m about to take a poke at Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Probably not as many recall I’ve already written a post about this (May 13 2013).

Here’s a short quote from that post:

“No matter what you’re searching for or which search engine you use, what you get are never really the best matches. Many hits are there simply because their position was manipulated by Search Engine Optimization.”

Just in case you’re unfamiliar with SEO, it’s the process of improving the visibility of a website or page in a search engine’s results. While this may seem a reasonable goal for many a business, the service is available to everyone—for good or evil.

If you need to know more about what services SEO provides, take a peek at the obvious, Of course, they (or any SEO provider) won’t tell you anything about the downside.

See here’s the thing, the dirty little secret no SEO provider or search engine ever talks about. If you improve one site’s visibility, you also decrease the visibility of every other site.

All search engines have strategies, even if implicit. They can be found, analyzed, and manipulated to a site’s advantage. Some strategies may be more complex than others, and some may be revised more often than others, but there’s always something to be finessed if they’re clever or finagled if they’re devious.

In case you doubt how often search engine strategies change, here’s a quote from “Online marketing has developed beyond search engine optimization. At our services have eVolved to keep delivering the results you want.”

Calling it evolutionary is deceptive. These services optimize for all the major search engines, and strategies are always changing. And if you (or your company) want to benefit from these services, you need to keep buying what they keep delivering.

Of course, your webmaster can buy the SEO books and do this in-house. Either way, once you’ve bought into SEO, the fear of dropping out grows like a cancer. Since the spread of SEO is inevitable, so is the increasing distortion of search results.

What the purveyors of SEO and search engines don’t say is it’s just like an escalating arms race. After all, the more search become obfuscated, the more money they make. Not from us. We get to search for free; and it’s worth what we pay for it.

Down the Software Drain

This blog contains over fifteen posts on programming (so far). They offer a variety of explanations as to why software has declined in recent years. However, this post is less about the fading quality of software than examining its consequences.

First, consider a computer’s three main components: hardware, software, and peopleware. Assuming users are trained and proficient in both hardware and software, we will always have human failings. Once ordinary, these have now become digital.

For every program that’s strictly business, there are thousands whose sole purpose is distraction. Add thousands more that can be either time-savers or time-wasters. Now we have mountains of frantic over-activity yielding mouse-sized useable output.

Connect this person to others on a network and unless strongly roadblocked, apps like email, texting, and their many annoying relatives will drive even a dedicated monk to distraction.

Despite these expanding diversions, people are convinced they can juggle it all and still do the job. The personal delusion of multitasking goes against decades of scientific evidence. And if people can do it all, why do they always say, “I didn’t see that car.”

Software has developed over decades, and we should have improved quality, effectiveness, and reliability. Intentional selection should enhance the breed better and faster than blind natural selection. Yet it hasn’t for at least a dozen years.

Although software did advance in the early decades of computing, that progress is slowly eroding. In many (but not all) areas, software quality is not only becoming less efficient but less effective. But that’s not the worst of it.

Maintenance is essential to keep our software abreast of endless upgrades in hardware and software. Things change so quickly, we are overwhelmed by shortfalls in maintenance; we fail to see it’s totally inadequate. Replacements do not inspire confidence.

I said this post was about consequences. Having listed the causes, enumeration seems superfluous: lost time, wasted effort, missed communications, and lost or corrupted data. Ordinary business transactions are no longer easy, simple, or seamless.

Slipshod software goes hand in hand with careless and undisciplined humans. We can do better. We have done better. How much is lack of education; how much failure of management? Do we not care? Or do we simply lack the will?

Wither AI?

On the spectrum of smarts, what the pretenders to AI aspire to is cleverness. Why? Because it’s what they know, what they do, and therefore what they value (and think other people should also).

What they dismiss (because they can’t do, and therefore don’t value) are common sense and wisdom. The former is far more valuable than clever in our daily lives, and the latter invaluable for our future—as individuals and as a species.

Another reason common sense and wisdom are not valued is because they can’t be measured like IQ. To speak of smarts can only mean IQ—which is mere cleverness. We’d be better off with common sense or wisdom, both harder to attain.

The advocates (and acolytes) of AI, not only think super-clever will solve our all-too-human problems, they think it can solve them without our supervision. Not only wrong, but stupid.

By way of proof, I offer one man: John Von Neumann (1903-1957). JVN excelled in at least four areas: physics, mathematics, computing, and economics. In any one of these, his work achieved not only fame but proved him to be a unique genius.

As to which of the four was his greatest contribution, it’s hard to say but right now computing may be in the lead. Of course, that’s placing it above the development of the atomic bomb.

One of his lesser known books is Theory of self-reproducing automata. Machines making machines. It’s said its ideas led to the concepts of DNA (maybe that’s his most influential work.)

However, none of these are why I invoke him. Combine what JVN knew about computers (and their future), the brain (and AI), decision-making (Game Theory), and self-reproducing automata, and you’ll envision a dystopia worse than the Terminator’s.

Yet, he didn’t. Combine them, that is. He never saw AI as making decisions for us. Not at all. Here’s what he thought:

“. . . the best we can do is to divide all processes into those things which can be done better by machines and those which can be done better by humans and then invent methods to pursue the two.”

This I submit goes far beyond smart. More than clever, it’s actual wisdom. And I have to ask, why have we ignored it all this time? Why do we still listen to the pie-in-the-singularity-sky prophets?

Oh yeah, JVN also coined the term “singularity.” In his short life, he knew more than all these so-called smart guys combined. If we look to them for answers, then it is we who are unwise.

Insecurity, Part Three

Last week’s post ended with three questions: Why are we under attack? Who will protect us? Is there no hope for privacy? Here’s three more: Why do I have to do this? How did this problem get so bad? Does my life have to be this complicated?

The most important piece of advice I can give is this: choose carefully. All the concerns in the previous paragraph can be minimized by making good choices. You can do more with less if you simply buy less, and that includes the “free” stuff.

Far too many people buy new technology as fast as it’s announced. They’ll stand in line all night and dive deeper into debt to have the next great thing. Until the next great thing.

The cost of new technology goes far beyond dollars. It burns up your time and punches new holes in what’s left of your security. No matter how dazzling new technology is, you must see past the fun. What are the risks? How much of your life is at stake?

Media extols new technology, but ads are only the good news. Who will tell you about the downside of using public WiFi—whether for email, selfies, or shopping. Sites won’t warn you. Convenience trumps safety when banks push mobile banking.

Saying your data on the Internet is on a Cloud doesn’t make it safer, or quicker, or easier to access, or anything different from what it was before. But calling it a Cloud sounds really cool.

Advertising is all about appearances. Buyer Beware won’t reveal reality. If you want reality, you’ll have work hard and dig deep, Reality is where the risks are. Appearances can hide the risks.

Clouds are as irrelevant as the speed of Google searches. Speed only counts if you get what you want and get out. Google searches aren’t fast if you don’t get what you need right away. Google wants you looking (at ads), not finding. That’s browsing.

Finding is what the Internet does. And tracking. If this was a game, you would be IT (pun intended). When you’re online, how many people are looking at you? Literally if you’re Skyping.

GPS or triangulation reveals where you are. Texting or email speaks your thoughts. A selfie will pick you out of today’s lineup. We have lost any possible expectation of privacy.

What technology doesn’t bother to tell you is what makes the hacker’s job easier. The less you’re aware of exactly how and to what extent you are at risk, the more likely you will be a loser.

Clearly, the best we can do is minimize our losses. Web sites won’t help us; software can’t be bothered; government only listens to lobbies. We have to protect ourselves—and each other.

Insecurity, Part Two

Last weeks post (“Insecurity, Part One”) was getting a little long, so I left a few things out. One was very simple: keep your security information on paper, or hard copy as we used to say.

Or you could use a flash drive or any other medium not ordinarily connected to your computer, and therefore portable. If it’s not connected, it can’t be hacked. If it’s paper, hide it well.

The other point I omitted was Two-Factor Authentication (or 2FA). This was recommended by all the experts interviewed in those news stories last week. Unfortunately, it confused the reporters.

It’s supposed to work like this. You sign on to the site and then the site takes a second step (like sending a code back to you). This is meant to ensure it’s actually you and not some computer.

But no one agrees on just how to do this. For example, Google wants to send it to your phone, regardless of what device you used to sign on. In effect, they want two-device authentication.

It makes sense for the site you just accessed to authenticate by sending you a query to the device you just used. This will work even if you sign on from someone else’s computer. Just carry your security information with you (flash drive, hard copy).

If 2FA is a good idea, why not always use it? Well, for one thing they have to offer it. Currently, I use over twenty sites requiring secure access, but only one offers 2FA. Hasn’t really caught on.

So far, these things I’ve discussed are more work for you and me. The bigger question, which no one—not even the experts on TV—ever mention, is, Why don’t these sites do more to help us?

First, and most obviously, is their lack of imagination in providing Security Questions. Most of them seem only to copy from each other. Very few are unique to a single site. Laziness?

As for passwords, why can’t these sites make sure we don’t use any real words? Why can’t they come up with a way to measure the randomness of passwords, to help us make better ones?

Not only that, why can’t they suggest changing our passwords when they’ve been in use too long? Same goes for Security Questions. They could do all these things, but then they’d have to write some code. Guess our security isn’t worth their time.

Next week, the really big questions. Why are we under attack? Who will protect us? Is there no hope for privacy?

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