Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Dot Beware

Earlier this week I allowed malicious software to run on my computer. It came as a well-disguised email attachment. It was abetted by my tablet email that did not show me the full address of the sender, which would have made me instantly suspicious.

The attachment claimed to be text compressed as a zip file. But the WinRAR program did not show the full, very long file name. Again, I’m sure another intended deception. Concealed by the long name was the file extension.

For those who don’t recall Windows 101, file names have two parts: the name and the extension. The latter identifies the type of file, e.g., .doc is MS Word, .wri is WordPad, and .txt is NotePad.

A file can be data or program—or both. This file I’m writing is text as data to be run with a word processor. Soon it will become an HTML file to be run with a browser. When you code, you’re writing data to be executed as a program.

The file extension tells Windows what programs to use for data files. It also tells Windows when the file is itself a program, i.e., an .exe or a .com. That’s not all. Windows also runs .bat and .pif files. And more.

The malware in question had a .js extension, for JavaScript. I didn’t see it until it was too late. I thought I was opening a compressed text file and when I saw it appear and immediately disappear, I knew something was wrong.

I ran my anti-malware software and did a System Restore to the day before. Didn’t find any problem, but in that blink of an eye who knows. Then I found the offending email and destroyed it.

Here’s the thing. A dozen years ago, .js didn’t exist on my computer. What other, newer languages are being put on our machines to run software we don’t have the first clue about?

There are many ways to run programs in Windows. Double-clicking on icons is the most common. You can also use the Command Prompt. But what if you don’t know what a file is?

The first option when you right-click an icon is Open. Meaning what? Well, it means whatever the file extension tells Windows to do. If it’s this file, it opens the word processor. If it’s a .js file, Windows runs it as a JavaScript program. See the problem?

How do you know whether Windows wants to run a file as a program or open it as data? You don’t unless you know all the file extensions that cause execution—which may be fatal.

Windows not only let’s the file extension dictate the action, it helps in the deception. How? In Windows Explorer, the default hides the file extension. Often, we see little more than icons.

In Microsoft’s push to simplify Windows, they have made us more vulnerable. Every year we have to work harder to protect ourselves. And we pay for the privilege.

What Standards?

Last week, while I was poking fun at Apple’s effluvia, I got bit by an extreme example of just how blind natural selection can be. In this case, the offender was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Apple’s $10,000 watch.

First, I need to remind you of the basics. When a creature fails to survive in its environment, it is not the only casualty. Any other creature dependent upon it, e.g., as food, may also be put at risk.

When a product fails in the business environment, it may not be the only casualty. Obviously, the producer may be at risk, but then the type of failure may also affect the users of this product. Think GM’s recent ignition debacle and the driver-victims.

For another example, recall the pets that died because of China’s faulty pet foods. Unfortunately, the list is endless as are its unintended victims. Now, you can add me to the list—fortunately, I will survive.

Pure blind luck, especially if you believe the advertisements for batteries. They often speak of how critical it is to have working (i.e., long-lasting) batteries. My situation was not critical; it was just TV.

I needed two AA batteries for my TV remote. Got out the new ones I’d purchased last month. Hmm. Had trouble getting them into their slots. Hmm. Then I couldn’t close the door to make the necessary contact. What the hell?

That’s right, sports fans, my brand new AA batteries didn’t fit! These AA batteries, the most standard object in out mostly digital universe, were too big! How could this be? I can tell you in just two words: Quality Control.

In their rush to get products and parts made more cheaply in China, our lazy manufacturers have lost sight of Quality Control. The Chinese may have made the error, but the responsibility was ours.

Back in the mid-60s, I was computer support for Management at NYU’s Graduate School of Business (now NYU Stern GBA). Also there was W. Edwards Deming. You can read about him on Wikipedia.

I can tell you this: at the time, he was a prophet without honor in his own country. His work was looked down on because it wasn’t glamorous, didn’t use the latest mathematical or computing methods. But it couldn’t have been more important.

Why? Deming’s approach to Quality Control was adopted by the Japanese, big time. It was the reason their automakers took over the world market, while ours are still making—poorly—longer, lower, and wider gas guzzlers.

It’s not an overstatement to say Deming was a God in Japan. Eventually, he was recognized here, but our auto makers are still playing catchup. All because no one (even the people at GBA and I was one of them) listened to him in the 60s.

Watch, The Dinosaur

The recent announcement of the Apple watch (iWatch?), is more than just another roll of Apple’s big dice. Even before it comes out, it’s an instant dinosaur. Why do I say this? Just look at the pricing structure: from $350 to $10,000!

Obviously, this is aimed at the richer (and more foolish) of the Apple faithful. Given the price of smart phones, who would pay $350 for a device that does less? There is a price point for a connected watch and it’s $50.

At least that’s what I thought was reasonable when I examined the idea a few years ago. A wrist watch, connected to your smart phone, seemed a viable product—at the right price.

It’s clearly handier to get/make calls, see the arrival of email, not to mention the endless clock functions it could perform. It could, but that’s not what Apple is aiming at. Not at those prices.

Most people are so attached to their wrist watches, they never take them off (not to sleep, and not even to have sex). The fact that most of these watches are self-powered makes this possible.

But Apple’s watch has an 18 hour battery life. How does that fit in with the way most people use their watches? It doesn’t, and that’s the way Apple wants it. Their watches are more symbolic than digital.

Non-connected watches are permanent devices (or jewelry) because people don’t have to think about keeping them going—or even keeping accurate time. I’m sure Apple’s watch will keep accurate time, as does any connected device. How many people can afford the time at this price?

The Apple watch may survive for a while as a status symbol, but as it’s priced now it’s sure to become extinct soon. And cheaper, lesser-known knock-offs will quickly fill its environmental niche—for a lot less money, maybe even for $50.

If some of that description sounds like natural selection, it’s because it is. Despite what many think, evolutionary survival does not mean superiority (except for the moment at hand) or any ladder of progress.

Survival means no more than that: survival. The cost of survival are all the failures, literally mountains of them. It would be better if we thought of evolution as blind selection. Success in this game is built upon massive waste.

I only point this out to suggest we can do better. The phrase to describe how is intelligent design. It can be more efficient and more productive than blind selection, if we design with intelligence and not blindly as nature does.

A Lost Art

Last week’s post concluded by expressing my desire to simplify my coding. That’s not a new idea. For many decades, we used the acronym, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I won’t go so far as to say we rivaled the Kiss Army, but there were a lot of us in computing who believed strongly in this approach. And it wasn’t because we thought anyone was stupid. It was meant as a precaution against trying to be too clever.

Clever is how smart people get into trouble. It’s why smart people do stupid things. Clever is the great temptation for anyone who thinks it’s smart to show off. Clever only leads to more cleverness.

The proliferation of new web languages and tools described in last week’s post entices programmers to be clever. They jump to the latest language or tool because it’s easier to perform clever tricks with something new than to take the time to master it.

In fact, the sheer volume of all these new languages and tools itself smacks of cleverness. It’s not that the new can’t be useful—but are they all really necessary? Or are they just another exercise in cleverness?

Cleverness exists primarily to stroke the programmer’s ego. But the goal of programming should be to meet the end user’s needs. To do that well in code, as in writing, requires the ability to revise and improve.

The computer industry calls fixing code maintenance. Maintaining someone else’s code is easiest when it’s straightforward, when it’s easy to read. In six months, that someone else could be the original coder.

Being able to fix code (my aim in the last post) greatly depends on keeping it simple. Choosing the right language and tools can help, but nothing works as well as simplicity. To paraphrase Hippocrates: First, know when not to be clever.

Society tends to mistake clever for smart, especially where technology is concerned. Choosing clever creates obstacles to more important choices, primarily common sense. Technology without common sense has proven to be highly dangerous.

Cleverness is good at making golden eggs, but such geese rarely last. Society’s day to day successes depend far more on common sense than cleverness. Society’s long-term survival depends upon wisdom, another choice subverted by cleverness.

Tower of Babel

Earlier this week I went online to find a book to help me upgrade my web skills to XML. Couldn’t. Simply put, I was both overwhelmed and astounded at the sheer number of books.

Not only was there a forest (trees turned into paper) of books featuring XML but many more related to XML. The scary part was these were dwarfed by books on newer web tools and languages.

When I speak of trees turned into paper, I’m talking about the many books that are thousand pages and upward. And no, I didn’t buy anything. But I discovered I had a book on HTML, XHTML, and XML (at 1107 pages).

That book is what the future looked like back in 2002 (it’s copyright date). It felt safe, because it connected the beginning, HTML, with the futute, XML, using the bridge of XHTML.

That was then. Now, I have no idea. That future has been blown to bits (sorry). Instead, we have this explosion (sticking to the metaphor) of new web languages and specialized tools.

However, this pandemonium of web languages and tools goes a long way towards answering one of my most frequently asked questions. Namely, why is so much programming so bad?

Programmers simply aren’t getting the opportunity to master anything. Decades ago I was told it took a full two years to be proficient in any programming language, and nothing I’ve seen since disputes this.

In other words, most code is produced by novices in that code. Regardless of years or even decades of experience, these programmers are relative beginners in their current language.

These web languages and tools proliferate more and more, making them less and less effective. This in turn becomes a cause of proliferation: our current language or tool isn’t as productive as we had hoped so let’s switch to (or even create) a new one.

Adding to the problem is the seemingly endless expansion of web browsers and their limitless versions, and the attendant difficulty of programming them to meet all the W3C language standards. Not so much a Herculean task as a new Circle of Hell.

As for me, I’ll look over the book I have and then decide. My main reason for upgrading my web skills was not so much to be current, but to use a better, cleaner—and thus simpler—language. Something more consistent and therefore easier to fix.

Who’s Watching You?

The other day I was in my Windows Control Panel trying to figure out why my closing sound wasn’t playing. (I did; something had changed my settings.) I happened to notice an icon for Flash Player. Huh. Out of curiosity, I opened it.

There I found a window labeled “Camera and Microphone Setting by Site.” Huh? Here was a list of 46 “Previously visited websites that have asked to use the camera or microphone …”. My camera? My microphone? What for?

The same message informed me that I could “allow or block the use of the camera and microphone by specific sites.” I could also “Remove a site to delete all settings and data for that site in Flash Player.” Player? What does a player have to do with my camera or microphone?

There’s a simple answer: Flash Player is what controls your video (from your camera and mic) as it goes out on the Internet. As in when you use Skype or other video phone programs.

But look at this (in Win7): Open the Control Panel, click on the Flash Player Icon to get the “Flash Player Settings Manager”. Select the tab “Camera and Microphone”. Open it and you’re asked to either “Ask me when a site wants to use the camera or microphone (recommended)” or “Block all sites from using the camera and microphone”.

Apparently, “ask me” is the default setting, inasmuch as I never opened this before. But . . . what does it mean this was the setting and I was NEVER asked? Exactly what happened when these 46 sites requested access? I don’t know.

Below these two options, is a large button labeled “Camera and Microphone Settings by Site . . .”. Click on this and you’ll see the window described above (mine showed 46 sites).

Flash Player for video phone is one thing, but what is this stuff? If you’re like me and have a web cam, you set it and leave the device on (which by the way includes its microphone). I don’t Skype very often, so I tend to ignore it.

What else am I ignoring that I shouldn’t? What else is concealed in the Control Panel that might be equally ominous? And why are these things concealed? Why would I—or anyone else—ever want a site to turn on the camera or microphone?

The other thing I don’t get is how much of this control of my devices is being orchestrated by Microsoft and how much by Adobe. Or are they in cahoots? Or is it the government? Or some other bigger brother?

Whatever. Meanwhile, I’m removing all sites, data, and settings, and changing my option to Block. Yet I have to ask—as you should—just why do these sites need any access to either my camera or my microphone? Ever?

Smart Streets?

Last week’s post asked how smart were these automated cars being hailed as saviors of our highways. I asked many questions, all presuming these cars were autonomous—because that’s how they’re being promoted.

Well, they’re not. Basically, they’re mobile computers and no computer these days is independent of the Internet, or if you prefer, The Cloud. Even your stationary desktop computer gets constant updates from its various hardware and software makers.

Any automated car will be no different and therein lies a whole new set of questions. To what degree are they independent and to what degree are they connected to (controlled by) The Cloud?

Aside from the usual updates for its hardware and software, an automated car needs current information about the streets it’s navigating, not to mention its destination. (Hence the title.)

These cars need The Cloud for updates about traffic, road conditions, and even the roads themselves. It might be possible to load all the roads into the car’s computer, but is it likely?

Point being, there are continual updates to the whole system of roads, but only rarely to your localized region of actual driving. Updating a car with information on all roads is wasteful, and it could be dangerous.

How to update what data will determine the dependency of vehicles on The Cloud and therefore the Internet. If connections go down—even for a minute—it doesn’t mean one car is on its own. Rather all cars in this vicinity using the same connection will be left on their own. This gives us new questions.

Can these automated vehicles be sufficiently autonomous if they lose their Internet connection? Think fail-safe. And don’t assume that simply stopping (or even pulling over to the side of the road) will always be the right option.

The makers who propose these vehicles are big on showing us how these cars avoid obstacles. But the real value of automated cars is controlled traffic flow. That takes coordination, which raises a new set of questions.

There’s the problem of autos from different manufacturers. Or will the government step in and choose a single supplier, or at the very least a single computer system to be used by all?

If there are different manufacturers, will they use the same data? Supplied by whom? (Is all this just a power play by Google?) If they do use the same data, will they all update at the same time?

The more I look at this, the more questions I have. My biggest question is: Are the people selling this concept and those who will have to approve it asking the same questions?

Street Smarts?

What is smart? Does the automated car they tell us is almost here qualify as smart? It’s pretty smart if it can steer itself and avoid obstacles. It’s very smart if it can recognize lane markings and traffic lights. How about reading street signs?

We know cars are smart enough to park themselves. What about NYC’s famed alternate side of the street parking? How smart does this car have to be for you to trust it with your life? The lives of your loved ones?

Living creatures are smart because they adapt to changes in their circumstances, e.g., the three-legged dog. Computers (and other machines) cannot. They are limited to their programming,

Can cars be programmed to be better drivers than humans? Not better than any human, but they can be programmed to be better than the worst human drivers. For example, they will never be distracted.

So far, I’ve been asking questions about the skill of automated cars versus humans. Skills can be programmed. The real question we should be asking is not about skills but judgment.

Can automated cars make decisions as well as humans? Can the designers of these vehicles anticipate every possible situation the car might encounter? What about life or death decisions?

I’m not saying humans don’t make mistakes. Tens of thousands of drivers still choose to drive impaired. Even more can’t ignore phone calls or texts. And texting is eight times more dangerous than driving drunk.

Automated cars won’t make those mistakes. The problem is, until we have years of experience and millions of miles with these cars, we won’t know the mistakes they might make.

Like drivers, programmers are not perfect. Unlike drivers, programmers can’t react to situations. They must anticipate them, instructing the machine accordingly. Can they foresee everything?

We encounter faulty programming everyday on our devices. (If you don’t, you’re not paying attention.) Programming a car to move safely in traffic is far more difficult than programming a stationary device.

Learning to drive doesn’t end with getting a license. Experience is what tells you someone will turn even if they don’t signal. Or that they won’t turn if a signal’s been on for blocks. How much experience will the programmers have?

Enchanted Objects

In David Rose’s Enchanted Objects, he posits four technological futures. I wrote about the first of these, Terminal World, a few weeks ago. He says it’s about “glass slabs and painted pixels.”

The second of these futures is Prosthetics, where we transform into our “Superhuman selves.” The third is Animism, a world filled with “swarms of robots.” (See last week’s post.)

Finally, he offers Enchanted Objects, a world where “ordinary objects are made extraordinary.” Not surprisingly, Rose is a big deal at MIT’s famed Media Lab and is immersed in the latest technological gadgets. Obviously, this is his preferred future.

The book is subtitled, “Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things,” but the last is its true focus. Things, says Rose and many others looking to shape our technological future, will be connected via the Internet to other things and especially to our computers, tablets, and smart phones.

And I’m sure they will be. As to whether this will be the dominant technology of the future, I have my doubts. Although the author favors the term “enchanted” to describe these, I’m sure we could all agree these are enhanced objects.

Like any added feature to any product, only the market can judge its success or failure. The key question for Rose’s preferred future is, will people pay the additional cost?

No matter how much a feature or set of features adds to a product, will enough people buy it if there’s a comparable product with less features for less money? In other words, enhancement is a luxury, not a necessity.

If you press Apple buyers, they will say its products are enchanted. Apple’s last quarter was the most most profitable of any company. Ever. More than half of that profit came from one product (iPhone) in one country (China).

This success has more to do with Apple’s image and marketing (and Chinese culture) than the iPhone’s features and price, which are comparable to other smart phones. Buyers may have desired enchantment, but didn’t have to pay more.

While Rose has a vested interest in a future filled with enchanted objects, others are invested in each of the other alternatives he presents. The inevitable result will be a mixture of all four.

It’s easy to see the trend to glass slabs. The future of prosthetics is less clear, as is that of robots . Even less obvious is how they all will join The Internet of Things. Some things may succeed as Enchanted Objects, but I don’t think they’ll dominate.

The Humanoids Are Coming

There are three major needs for humanoid robots. In order of likely implementation, the they are companionship, representation, and embodiment. The first may seem obvious, but the other two require considerable elaboration.

Companionship (and beyond) is already being marketed for robots that physically resemble humans. However, a companion that too closely resembles a human could create legal complications, e.g., marriage.

The owner of a companion robot wants to experience the human resemblance. To anyone else, the companion must be perceived as a humanoid robot. What will be the technological solution?

Humanoid robots as representatives are different. These do not simply function as servants, but rather as agents for their owners. Again, such devices are already on the market, e.g., the Double Telepresence Robot

While far from humanoid (it is little more than wheels and a vertical post carrying an iPad), the Double demonstrates the minimum necessary package to function as humanoid. Although limited to what the iPad can do, the Double can take your place at meetings, conferences, and similar gatherings.

The third category is far more problematical, both in implementation and actual potential. Embodiment means the humanoid robot embodies a person’s downloaded consciousness.

The uploading of consciousness may be a goal for some, but the methods to achieve it are still too vague to be assigned a probability. However, if it could be accomplished why not an occasional downloaded embodiment?

But how close to human form does it need to be? The embodied consciousness may want an exact duplicate of his or her former body. What is its legal status? Is it robot or artificial human? Does it have the rights of the embodied?

We are more comfortable attributing human characteristics to non-humans than dealing with things that may or may not be human. Both psychologically and legally, we need to know what’s human—and what’s not.

If we can’t prevent the robot makers from making robots that pass for human, why not pass laws requiring every robot to have a transponder (like aircraft) that identifies them as a robot? Of course, we’ll need to have an app to detect them.

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