The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Hidden complexity in software could be a problem

The Atlantic worries that there's a "coming software apocalypse:"

There will be more bad days for software. It's important that we get better at making it, because if we don't, and as software becomes more sophisticated and connected—as it takes control of more critical functions—those days could get worse.

The problem is that programmers are having a hard time keeping up with their own creations. Since the 1980s, the way programmers work and the tools they use have changed remarkably little. There is a small but growing chorus that worries the status quo is unsustainable. “Even very good programmers are struggling to make sense of the systems that they are working with,” says Chris Granger, a software developer who worked as a lead at Microsoft on Visual Studio, an IDE that costs $1,199 a year and is used by nearly a third of all professional programmers. He told me that while he was at Microsoft, he arranged an end-to-end study of Visual Studio, the only one that had ever been done. For a month and a half, he watched behind a one-way mirror as people wrote code. “How do they use tools? How do they think?” he said. “How do they sit at the computer, do they touch the mouse, do they not touch the mouse? All these things that we have dogma around that we haven’t actually tested empirically.”

The findings surprised him. “Visual Studio is one of the single largest pieces of software in the world,” he said. “It’s over 55 million lines of code. And one of the things that I found out in this study is more than 98 percent of it is completely irrelevant. All this work had been put into this thing, but it missed the fundamental problems that people faced. And the biggest one that I took away from it was that basically people are playing computer inside their head.” 

I'm not sure that there's a coming apocalypse. Things get more complex; we have adapted pretty well as a species. I imagine taking any of today's top technologists forward 1000 or 2000 years (or even 100 or 200) and watching their heads explode. A bronze-age Egyptian wouldn't understand a telescope. An iron-age Roman wouldn't understand movable type. And Guttenberg himself wouldn't understand a light bulb, let alone the 1920x1200 LED monitors I have in front of me.

So I'm not too worried about an apocalypse. But as a programmer, I'm very worried about crappy software.

Also, it's interesting that the author singled out Visual Studio, which is the tool I use most often to write software. (I wrote all this blog's customizations with it, for example.)

Whew

After a high temperature of 33°C yesterday (the 7th in a row above 32°C), a much-anticipated cold front came through overnight (as predicted). It's now 18°C. But:

Indications are that the air mass will begin to moderate Sunday, with another warmer-than-normal period a good part of next week. This time around, daily highs should approach the 27°C mark.

Rain looks to be sparse at least until the middle of next week.

That last bit is important, because we're having a drought. But at least it's delightfully cool.

Heat to break tonight; millions rejoice

Chicago is having its 7th consecutive day of 32°C-plus heat, including 5 straight days above 33°C, a new record for this late in the season. Fortunately, a cold front is marching across the prairie and promises to bring a 15°C temperature drop overnight and high temperatures in the 20s for the rest of the week.

We didn't have a horrible summer here. So we're not thrilled that the crisp, cool days of autumn have been delayed a full month. But tomorrow we can open our windows again.

What does Tinder know about you?

Via Bruce Schneier, a British reporter requested her data dossier from Tinder. As with so many other things in life, she was shocked, but not surprised:

The dating app has 800 pages of information on me, and probably on you too if you are also one of its 50 million users. In March I asked Tinder to grant me access to my personal data. Every European citizen is allowed to do so under EU data protection law, yet very few actually do, according to Tinder.

With the help of privacy activist Paul-Olivier Dehaye from personaldata.io and human rights lawyer Ravi Naik, I emailed Tinder requesting my personal data and got back way more than I bargained for.

Some 800 pages came back containing information such as my Facebook “likes”, my photos from Instagram (even after I deleted the associated account), my education, the age-rank of men I was interested in, how many times I connected, when and where every online conversation with every single one of my matches happened … the list goes on.

What will happen if this treasure trove of data gets hacked, is made public or simply bought by another company? I can almost feel the shame I would experience. The thought that, before sending me these 800 pages, someone at Tinder might have read them already makes me cringe.

Tinder’s privacy policy clearly states: “you should not expect that your personal information, chats, or other communications will always remain secure”. As a few minutes with a perfectly clear tutorial on GitHub called Tinder Scraper that can “collect information on users in order to draw insights that may serve the public” shows, Tinder is only being honest.

But as Schneier points out, "It's not [just] Tinder. Surveillance is the business model of the Internet. Everyone does this."

Two on Trump's mindset

First, New Republic's Jeet Heer calls President Trump "truly the first TV president and a harbinger of the decline in intelligence" in American politics:

While earlier presidents, notably John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, benefited from being telegenic, they were still tied to an earlier, pre-television world in ways that Trump isn’t. (If Kennedy was the magazine-star president, Reagan was the film-star president.) He’s a pure product of the age of television, someone whose mental horizon is the screen. And television isn’t just a passive medium for Trump, his main source for understanding how Americans think. As the star of the long-running reality show The Apprentice, where he played the tough, no-nonsense boss who relishes firing people, Trump actively used TV to shape how millions of Americans think of him.

The key insight of the McLuhan school is that print culture is deliberative, while television is performative. Typographical fixity preserves, and gives a certain permanence to, written thought. It doesn’t just transmit information; it creates habits of thought, and encourages the cross-examination of ideas. On television, by contrast, everything is in a perpetual present, an endless flux. No wonder Trump, a master of television, has no permanence of thought. He shifts his positions depending on opportunistic ambitions or passing whim, sometimes motivated by nothing more than a desire to echo whom he is talking to. Indeed, sometimes his ideas are little more than echoes of what he sees on Fox.

In last year’s election, nearly 63 million Americans supported a presidential candidate who was proudly post-literate. This is a testimony to the rising right-wing anti-intellectualism in the U.S., where being well read and well educated is not to be admired—or even something to aspire to—but rather bestows the black mark of elitism. The question remains: Is this a passing trend, or just a sign of things to come? The dumbing-down of American life, as traced by McLuhan and his descendants, suggests the latter. Just as Bush seems downright scholarly compared to Trump, we may one day look back at Trump and admire his ability to follow a teleprompter.

Meanwhile, Josh Marshall sounds another alarm at Trump's increasing militarism and always-present authoritarianism:

What we’re seeing today from President Trump is a very specific danger with the militarization of civic culture: an anti-democratic leader can use military sacrifice as a totem to squelch dissent.

[A]s [a Twitter image of a disabled Marine in uniform] is used here, you can see the whole mindset, use of loss and blood as a cudgel in its most brutal form. The act of protest is enrolled as a specific disrespect of this man who has had his body ripped apart in military violence. Images like this, combined with these words, are meant to inspire rage at the targets of the attack.  Guilt, admiration and vicarious horror are transmuted not simply into opposition but rage at dissenters.

[T]he weaponization of betrayed military sacrifice is a common, almost universal feature of rightist political movements.

Yep. And it works, if enough of the polity believes it. I hope we can get through this ugly phase of our history intact. And I'm not even commenting on James Fallows' shock at Trump railing on about black NFL players.

On assholes and disagreements

Two articles crossed my laptop today. First, from New York, Stanford professor Robert Sutton makes an argument that "we are living in Peak Asshole:"

Sutton doesn’t want to be, you know, an asshole: “Most of politics is everybody calling everybody else assholes.” And assholism, after all, is contagious. “Nasty behavior spreads much faster than nice behavior, unfortunately,” Sutton says. As he points out in his book, research shows that even a “single exposure” to negative behavior, like receipt of an insulting email, can turn a person into a “carrier.” “Literally like a common cold,” he adds. Similarly, when the president calls his detractors “haters and losers” in a tweet, when the wallpaper of life is made up of faces that belong to certified assholes like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Don Jr., etc., etc., ad infinitum, it most likely has a trickle-down effect. “The more assholes you’re around, the more asshole-y you get.” But there are other factors that have led to this explosion of assholes, Sutton points out, everything from heat and crowding to imbalances in power and the wealth gap. “The research says that when we’re in those situations, there’s envy going up, and sort of disdain goes down.” Research also shows that technology has increased the “asshole problem,” as Sutton puts it, because people are much more likely to be mean if they don’t have to make eye contact. And because technology has created the expectation for things to happen faster, and at all hours of the day, hurriedness and sleep deprivation have become major factors.

Although the new book seems exceptionally well timed, Sutton finished writing before the election, and he notes in it that he doesn’t buy into the adage that assholes finish first. The presence of a major-league asshole in the Oval Office would seem to prove him wrong, but Sutton stands by this theory. “The evidence generally is that when you treat people badly, the only time it really seems to work is if you’re in a zero-sum game and it’s a shorter-term game,” he explains. “And my perspective is that even if you’re in the zero-sum game, where the assholes get ahead, there’s all this negative carnage. The people around them, their physical and mental health and personal relationships, they all suffer. And I don’t want to go to Trump too much, but God, look how many people he’s gone through.” In the long run, he concludes, “people who treat each other with some civility generally do better.”

Very much in the same vein, New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens gave a lecture in Sydney, Australia, on Saturday about the dying art of disagreement:

To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.

But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.

And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.

There’s no one answer [about why this is happening]. What’s clear is that the mis-education begins early. I was raised on the old-fashioned view that sticks and stones could break my bones but words would never hurt me. But today there’s a belief that since words can cause stress, and stress can have physiological effects, stressful words are tantamount to a form of violence. This is the age of protected feelings purchased at the cost of permanent infantilization.

The mis-education continues in grade school. As the Brookings findings indicate, younger Americans seem to have no grasp of what our First Amendment says, much less of the kind of speech it protects. This is a testimony to the collapse of civics education in the United States, creating the conditions that make young people uniquely susceptible to demagogy of the left- or right-wing varieties.

Both articles are worth reading.

Who needs privacy?

Republican Illinois governor Bruce Rauner, the best governor we have right now, vetoed a bill that would have required companies to get affirmative consent from consumers before selling their geolocation data:

“The bill is not overreaching,” said Chris McCloud, a spokesman for the Digital Privacy Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit advocating for state-level privacy legislation. “It is merely saying, ‘If you’re going to sell my personal geolocation data, then just tell me upfront that’s what you are going to do so I can make a decision as to whether I want to download this app or not.’ ”

The Federal Trade Commission has issued general guidance, and there are a variety of industry self-regulatory codes of conduct, from automakers to online advertisers, but federal law does not provide clear geolocation privacy protection.

The online advertising industry increasingly depends on tracking consumers to serve up lucrative and effective targeted ads. Data collection enables advertisers to learn everything from your search habits and recent purchases to where you travel, often in real time.

Remember: you're the product, not the customer. And that's how Republicans like it.

Illiberalism on campuses

Via Andrew Sullivan's essay today in New York, Brookings released a poll this week that shows disturbing trends among college students' attitudes about free speech:

[A]mong many current college students there is a significant divergence between the actual and perceived scope of First Amendment freedoms. More specifically, with respect to the questions explored above, many students have an overly narrow view of the extent of freedom of expression. For example, a very significant percentage of students hold the view that hate speech is unprotected. In addition, a surprisingly large fraction of students believe it is acceptable to act—including resorting to violence—to shut down expression they consider offensive. And a majority of students appear to want an environment that shields them from being exposed to views they might find offensive.

We don’t need to turn middle and high school students into experts on constitutional law. But we can do a better job of giving them a fuller explanation of the scope of the First Amendment, and the fact that it protects the expression of offensive views. And, I would hope that we can do a better job at convincing current and future college students that the best way to respond to offensive speech is with vigorous debate, or peaceful protest—and not, as many seem to believe, with violence.

Sullivan thinks about the results:

Today’s students neither comprehend nor support the very concept of free speech, which is foundational to a liberal democracy. A full 19 percent even believe that physical violence is now justifiable to shut down speakers who engage in the vaguely defined term “hate speech.” That’s one in five students endorsing physical coercion. Antifa really is making headway, isn’t it? A small majority, 51-49, supports shouting down speakers you disagree with — and that goes to 62 percent of students who identify as Democrats.

We often discuss these things in the media without understanding the core ideas that animate them. But it’s important to understand that for the social-justice left, there is nothing irrational about any of this. If you take their ideas seriously, oppressive speech is violence and self-defense is legitimate. Violence is therefore not some regrettable incident. Violence to achieve liberation is a key part of the ideology they believe in.

Put another way, intolerance for opposing views is no longer just a feature of the right.

Meet the Plimp

Via AVWeb, a company in Seattle is making an old kind of drone:

Two brothers in Seattle, working as Egan Airships, have built a drone that combines features from both fixed-wing aircraft and blimps to create an aircraft that can hover, take off and land vertically, and fly at up to 40 mph. The 28-foot-long aircraft weighs less than 55 pounds and uses a patented streamlined envelope design, rotational wings and an extended tail. It’s powered on both the wings and the tail.

The inflated portion of the Plimp aircraft is filled with helium, which is not flammable, and provides part of the lift, which is supplemented by lift created by the rotational wings. Due to its buoyancy, the company says, the Plimp is more efficient than helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for surveillance and inspection operations. The aircraft is highly visible for miles, so line-of-sight rules can be adhered to for much greater distances than conventional drones, the company said. Its size and visibility also enhance collision avoidance. The aircraft can be operated remotely by a pilot and flight technician, and does not require a runway or launch/recovery system to operate.

Here's the company's video about the aircraft: