A True History of the Internet

yes its true, all of it - the internet doesn't really exist, so it must be.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I Need a Vacation

I went away (as we do) for 2 weeks to Paleochora, Crete and then 1 week in La Villa, Fosciadora, Garfagnana so I should be feeling great, n'est ce pas? well up til the last minute in each place, all was v. good, but then, in each case, there's a long drive to an airport, waiting around for a plane, and a long drive home from the airport in England. Then there's no food in the house and everything smells of damp and cat. Then there's a pile of obscure letters on the doormat. Then there's kids' results to open and ponder.

Then there are rental car add-on bills in the e-mail which appear to be made up out of thin air (thank you Maggiore, yes that's you - bogus bill about twice the amount of the quote on the booking).

Then there's email - two weeks away and 1300 mesages to deal with, at least 100 of which actually require thought - 1 week away, and another 450 messages - this is in august, for godsakes, when most people should be on a beach or by the pool, but no, they are writing research proposals, drafting theses, preparing responses to research funding agency calls, discussing research code releases, posting papers from conferences (yes that's you SIGCOMM, right in the middle of august and in Chicago, where no sane person would go except to see Buddy Guy, and then not in mid-summer). And my vacation away mail told people (and I told all my colleagues I'd be offline too).

I think that German Company that started to delete all e-mail for people on vacation has the right idea - work/life balance tricks like that are essential for some sort of sanity. I actually had a vacation message that said that once, but still people resent stuff after I know they got my auto-response.

Modern Technology is not progress - repeat after me:)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

NPfIT - NP Hard and Not Fit for Purpose

In an interesting report from the Cambridge MPhil for Public Policy student group, on the largest IT project failure ever, so far, a lot of historical detail is dredged up, and a number of useful conclusions drawn under headings like Haste, Design, Culture & Skills, which are pretty hard to disagree with.

Some stuff goes unsaid, but reading between the lines, one might ask

1. were no "references taken up" for the people who were shortlisted for the contract? I mean I know BT pretty well, and I'd never hire them for a systems integration job like this - sure, for the spine/N2 (which worked fine, and afaik, were loosely modelled on SuperJANET), but not to bring together an unknown outfit with a dodgy sounding name (iSoft - wannabe Microsoft:) and Fujitsu (ok, make decent clone PCs once then, but large databases etc? Not really).

2. So I realize it was a while ago, but even then, we had rapid growth internet outfits with many services (like google and apple and onlone gaming) who had built customer relation databases (with ok security) for 100s Millions of users, which managed a lot of stuff that scaled out, and could address the srts of needs the NHS requirements said (oh, ok - the requirement capture was one of the biggest failings in the whole thing, of course) - one thing that open source, internet/cloud companies do is to stay agile, so they can interface to legacy systems (as they get big enough to acquire them - e.g. google buying youtube or the maps system, or microsoft buying skype) - in the same way, rather tan imposing a central design on an heterogeneous set of health services, interfacing between them woould have been just fine...

3. How bad was Lorenzo? Didn't anyone do a code inspection ever? It sounds a bit like the Obamacare sign-on system fiasco - but why? I mean lashing up a bunch of patient recor databases into mongodb, mysql or whatever (let alone Oracle or Ingres or some big iron dbase) is not rocket science. Its done by Internet startups 100s of times a year and is hardly ever the reason they fail.

Of course, the other component that work (Picture Archiving / Comms) worked because there is much less heterogeneity in those systems - image standards exist and you just need web/email access to glue systems together....so lucky no-one managed to balls up that part, eh!

Anyhow, nice report, but would be nice to hear more about the contract failures (lack of penalty clauses with enough teeth)....

Sunday, July 20, 2014

forget me, forget me not - how to implement?

some haev argued that
copyright takedown == right to be forgotten
(ie. not quite the same as censorship - just enforcement of access control
by the data owner (in case of PII, person is owner of rights to access some
facts about themselves, unless there's a compelling argument for public knowledge) -
there are other arguments for and against, but this analogy (whatever its flaws) might be useful for estimating the cost of the right to be forgotten (as per EU court ruling)

whatever the many of pros and cons on the topic, but how to implement?
well, if you upload film, music (or stills) to youtube, and are worried about copyright, don't:
google have made it their business to acquire legal copies of Just About Everything digital, and will eventually match whatever you've uploaded to a copy they have in house - they will then discover if there is a rights holder (that isn't you) and, if they havn't already done so, will contact said owner, and ask/ngotiate
 a) do they want content taken down b) do they want analytics c) do they want advertising revenue -
in fact, google can and do optimise this by region by doing blanket agreements with large publishers of digital content.

so to do the same for stories in webpages (and search results) concerning individuals could be done exact same way (probably is) - the technical cost might be a bit higher because you need to
keep a per page (per region) filter entry. The bigger cost (by far) is establishing genuine rights holder (data subject) and whether there's a public interest angle or not - this requires judgement (rather than just money:) so I think its interesting that Google is doing this now...

but the negotiation is where this differs and that's a really tricky business...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mutually Assured Distraction

A lot of commentary on the current fad for extra-territorial mass surveillance misses the point - the reason countries are doing this isn't just because they can, its because they can't currently be held to account.

In the old days, spies would be caught from time to time, and executed (or exchanged). Now, the spies aren't in the other territory, and plausible deniability means you can't even use extradition agreements between allegedly friendly countries (e.g UK &US) to get them bought to book/justice. This shows up in other domains than mere military intelligence:

1. Drones
2. Finance
3. Energy

Sadly for all these, the level of technological development of a country really doesn't have to be that great to gear up to use a bunch of 100$ radio control quadcopters, or a cunning HFT instrument, or even just the ability to turn off the gas pipeline to a neighbour - of course, there are expensive versions of these weaponised tools (e.g. BAe Systems drones that US uses in Pakistan are quite pricey - surprisingly so given cost of crop spraying, or outside sports broadcast drones, really - but then the MoD/DoD were always targets for ripoff pricing) - also the US threatens banks who don't reveal US taxpaying customers accounts/transactions details with massive fines if the bank has a stateside operation (of course, swiss and german banks just close down US tax payer accounts rather than face this), and Putin wields the russian gas wealth like the playground chess playing bully he is:)

But the low cost versions are just as bad.

Hence, talking about this needs to move up a level, methinks, as the realpolitik of using this stuff is not going to go the way of nukes, quite the reverse, since the Use of Weapons of this type doesn't lead to Mass Destruction, just death by a thousand strikes......

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Horizon Digital Economy annual shindig - some ideas...

so we had the Horizon annual conference last 2 days in Nottingham, and jolly good it was too - esp. two v. good "industry" talks, one on New Media from local 21st century 'cinema' people in notts, the other from the link guy for NHS data projects which was v. v cool

couple of ideas sproinged up during discussions

1. the loneliness of the long distance spectator - instead of filing a long strung out event (marathon run, tour de france etc) from central, string together a set of friends and family of a given participant into a narrative...lovely idea  - whole new experience for all concerned - main problem is legal consent (if spe, participants have prior agreement, e.g. with news media channels) - should be fairly easy tho to think through

2. informedConsent.com - a startup idea - we are suffering from ethics questionnaire fatigue - we need a pool of people who agree to be study groups for repeated things (a la Nielsson ratings biz model) and just deal with their informed consent once (or occasionally) for all those twitter/facebook/email/emotionsense/mypersonality etc etc

3. Embrace Messy

Lots of studies of systems (esp. internet of things or other tech embedded in everyday life) involve lots of noise - e.g. multiple occupancy houses etc etc - why bother trying to be a control freak nailing down who is who (e.g. with fascistic rfid tagging of everyone or even worse, invasive use of cameras or mikes and face speaker/gait/gesture recognition etc) - embrace the mess - for example, lots of people in my house use computers at random, so we all get each others' profiles/recommendations - this is amusing and, indeed, gives us a community feel about who likes/watches/listens to what!! this is good not bad:)

the fact that it also acts as cover traffic is also good for fuzzing (plausible deniability:)

Friday, June 20, 2014

35 years of irresponsible research

Yesterday, I went to the very cool science museum london future room to attend the very cool Responsible Innovation project's flagship event showing off their rather good ideas on how we in the tech sector (the hated ICT term unfortunately due to funding agency's presence) should include some sort of notions of responsibility (e.g. to people, e.g. ethics and society) into our work in innovating (i.e. don't just do it because you can, but choose what to do because you should and what not to do because you should not:)

being a grumpy old git yesterday, I had to intervene in various curmudgeonly ways, but on the whole, I thought the proceedings were constructive, optimistic and helpful, and surprisingly, a lot of people in the audience seemed positive too:)

So here's some comments on the event

Marina Jirotka (University of Oxford) introduced the project - a few things I didn't like
1/ they were filming and we were told if we didn't want to be filmed, not to ask questions - that's a bit of a technology fail up front:)
2/ the noise level fro mkids running around in the science museum would have made life difficult for anyone with significant hearing loss (e.g. me, which is why i was sitting in the front row being annoying)

Marina showed a REALLY cool video showing affective robots as a use case example of hat can be good, but then bad - i didn't say it at the time, but Robots have been done to death in the Sci Fi (our ethical storifiers) community - not just going back to the Golem of Prague, but Asimov's Zeroth law, and then things like Aliens Synths (good and bad in Alien 1 and 2) and BLade Runner's Replicants (and Philip K Dick's dissection of what makes us human and them not (empathy!). and even humans falling in love with robots (see one of the original I Robot stories - or for a more oblique version, see John Wyndham's story abotu smart monkeys painting and revealing adultery in a family) see also Sladek's Roderick & Roderick at Random for a lot of discussions of robots in society
Indeed, one distinguishing feature of the Geek/Tech (ICT) sector is the addiction of many practitioners to the morality tales that we get from 100 years of Sci Fi (HG Wells, Jules Vern to Star Trek and Dr Who - many featuring techno ideas 50 years before they are realized, with a full exploratory discussion of their pros and cons - for more recent stuff, look at Pat Cadigan's  work, e.g. Synners or Charlie Stross's Accelerando....for other areas of concern including mixed reality and new economic forms...or even Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind
 Sir Nigel Shadbolt (University of Southampton)
Sir Nige is ever the optimist - I asked him about being forgotten - why do we need to save everything personal - he bought up the difference between Commons and Public goods and private goods (see question later about 17th century models:) which was a good answer - I asked why we just talk about data and not just processing - for example, why can't I direct th digital camera stream to my phone (which knows where I am in the room and has enough processing to remove the pixels with video of me and send back to the net without me, for example - many other examples, given the copious amount of CPU cycles out there where we could personalize and filter the interweb in ways that reflect our preferences for what is seen by who about stuff that concerns US! we could even build Social Machines (e.g. for democratic or dictatorial households or meetings) to determine what rules for processing and storage apply:)
Note, Technicolor routinely customies digital movies for over 30 different locales in europe (e.g. substitute for a coke can, Orangina in France, or IrnBru in Scotland) - so substituting for my image in known location in a (fixed) camera view is really quite trivial:)
 Artist display - Barbara Gorayska - quite a cool performance/installation in the break
PANEL: How do we innovate responsibly in a digital world?
Lizzie Coles Kemp (Royal Holloway, University of London) - great synthesizing chair person!
  • Daniel Stauffacher  (ICT4Peace) - very cool stuff - like the IRTF's GAIA group (see research group which will meet soon )
  • Derek MacAulay  (Horizon Institute, University of Nottingham) -- Gave a nice chat about Horizon model of personal cloud etc 
  • John Hand  (EPSRC) - the funders viewpoint - I mentioned the NSF as an Ethics for STEM programme that's more general that EPSRC should look at...
  • Anthony House  (Google) quoted Tim O'reilly "Create more value than you capture" and also got asked a great question about breaking concrete that cements us to 17th century values:)
  • Judy Wajcman (London School of Economics) - a GREAT talk about women and about time (why should everything that's faster be better:)

Q&A:  Questions to the panel
I asked "since many areas like banks/finance, government/war, pharma/medical, energy/global warming, as well as cloud/privacy, don't take ONE BLIND BIT OF NOTICE of what would be socially responsible, why should we in the tech (ICT) community bother?
Several questions followed, which were a bit less blunt....

The gist of the answers was that we could lead/set an example, but also that businesses if large need to keep their brand clean so theres is mileage (economic) in being ethical, plus small outfits would like help ("tell us what to do")

of course, not just being motivated by profit (Pikketty got namechecked) was good - i'd have love to have heard Precariat views too:)
 WRAP UP: Tristram Riley-Smith (University of Cambridge) wrapped up with the Science/Evidence-> Policy story which was good stuff

I'd have like to have heard about making the law responsibile too (GCHQ said "we don't break the law" - not on paper, bt in a moral sense they do:)
[shout out here to PIs Campaign to test this in European Court

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Duty Cycles Finished

We depend more and more on Solid State Storage, and more and more devices use rechargeable batteries.

What if one day, everything went wrong at the same time?

Why this is not unlikely?

Simple - the devices are made and sold in batches. They have a duty cycle limit (there are a maximum number of write cycles you can apply to Flash memory and there are maximum number of discharge/recharge cycles you can run a battery through). The chances are likely because of the law of large numbers - most people buy things at xmas or other holidays, so manufacturing and usage are synchronised.

Devices (like cars) are built so that components fail on the guarantee lifetime boundary (or just after).

The law of large numbers (central limit theorem) says that this is something that will apply to lots of stuff....

So picture this (cue Blondie music) a day in december, 2024, all the electric cars and phones and networks and power systems and internet of things die. And cannot be rebooted. Ever. Again.

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misery me, there is a floccipaucinihilipilification (*) of chronsynclastic infundibuli in these parts and I must therefore refer you to frank zappa instead, and go home