Tom Pittman's WebLog

Earlier this year / Later this year
 

2022 September 23 -- Audit Trail

The Good Lord gave me an above-average ability to work through the implications of cause and effect, and a desire to understand How Things Work. I rather doubt anybody can be an effective computer programmer without both, but the point of today's post is the desirability of eschewing certainty -- at least in public. My friend Phil often would say of himself, "Often wrong, but never in doubt." For myself I amended that to "Occasionally wrong,..." because I tried to learn from my mistakes (and even more from Other People's Mistakes, see "Meditations on the passing of my father" some 19 years ago), so presumably I make fewer of them as I grow older. I never did any count, so it's only a presumption.

As much as I like (my modification of) Phil's aphorism, it only works in private. I really hate keeping two sets of books, my memory isn't good enough to remember which is which, so I do not propose to begin now. The problem is that people -- myself probably included -- really hate being told what to believe, and everybody makes up their own mind for their own reasons, not all of them as logical as I imagine myself to be. Even if they are logical, but are working from different data, they can and will get different results. I was not allowing for that. GR strikes again.

Read the rest of this posting...
 

2022 September 22 -- Futile 'Rays of Hope'

Clive Thompson is a regular columnist in WIRED, often more tech-centered than the rest of the rag, but the whole current issue is a zero, including his column, which brags about being able to waste energy now that he has solar panels. The highest tech in his column is the mention of friends who use their Tesla in the garage to store energy for the night. My response:
Clive Thompson is deceiving himself.

He obviously has not yet lived through a Brooklyn (where he lives) winter on his solar panel power: if enough solar energy hit the average house in 9 daylight hours of winter storm to heat the whole house 24/7, people everywhere would have done it decades ago. The only battery big enough to store up summer energy to heat through winter storms is OIL, and then only while home solar panels like Thompson's are in a minority. After there are enough of them to replace the (hoped, in 2030) 30% fossil fuels used by New York utility companies, they cannot buy any more home solar energy, and there will be no savings, and Thompson will continue to heat his home in winter on fossil fuels, as he does today, but there will be no offset for summer energy fed back into the grid.

The actual (unsubsidized) cost difference between electric heat and direct burning of fossil fuel is a factor of three, so most northern homes (probably including Thompson's, but he didn't say) are heated by fossil fueled furnaces. He could mitigate some of that by sleeping under the local heat of an electric blanket and letting the rest of the house go colder, but in the USA he can no longer (for the last ten or 15 years) buy an electric blanket that will stay warm all night -- and most of them, if the electricity blinks off during a winter storm in the middle of the night, the blanket stays off the whole rest of the night. Me, I don't think the government cares about carbon, it's just a political football, "Jobs" as Biden called it in 2020, and the people (Thompson not one of them) obviously agree.

Tom Pittman

I don't expect them to print it. WIRED is more political than tech, and their politics is far to the left of the rest of the country.
 

2022 September 17 -- Handel is Fun

The flick came out the year before I was born, and the actor they picked to play the title role couldn't get himself into the joy of the music he supposedly wrote (other than a little excusable mysticism during his composition marathon) but the soprano was celestial, and although in their presentation of the Messiah they never played any one number completely through, they did play enough that I could sing along, which made the whole flick a delightful departure from some of the usual fare on Archive.org. I dearly miss the annual Messiah sing-along, which was cancelled here the year of Covid, and I'm subsequently trying to avoid unnecessary contagion. I suppose if I went, it would mostly compensate for the musical wasteland that is the rest of the year. I can sing to the CD, but it's not the same.

Oh well, it was a suitable pick-me-up after the downer that ended this week's work.
 

2022 September 14 -- Is It Fun Yet?

Some six months ago I commented on being in a workplace where the director considers "fun" to be the most important motivation for work. Or at least you'd think so to hear him talk. I suspect money ranks up there, neck and neck, and maybe also family matters. Some days he obviously thinks we are doing innovative, world-changing -- well, maybe only part of the world -- stuff that's always fun to leave in your legacy, and other times he checks out and leaves me to run the show. He stopped asking me if I'm having fun, and now he talks a lot about how to monetize this. It remains to be seen how valuable he considers my contribution. My primary motivation was and is still the Golden Rule: "Make the world a better place," but the only objective metric I can find as to whether I'm succeeding is how much other people want it.

Anyway, back then I said "Teaching students who don't want to be there... is a drag that reduces my own productivity." I did not then realize how strong that negative effect is. Furthermore, the unix mentality poisons everybody and all their software. I had budgeted half my summer (after school was out) for building an SQL version of our server software, and the other half for getting the last two segments of our "English" programming language exercises recorded on video. I figured maybe a couple weeks on each, allowing for the standard hubris endemic in my profession. Three quarters of the way through the summer I was nowhere near getting the SQL stuff working. My niece, who works in bio-tech, commiserated, saying she has to do that stuff too. I abandonned the SQL and went back to what we used last school term, and spent the rest of the summer trying to fix latent bugs. I'm still working on it. The videos never happened.

What went wrong? SQL is a database "System Query Language" designed by unixies for unixies. It is accessed using PHP -- I think the initials stand for "Pretty Horrid Poop" -- a language for doing server software, designed by a unixie who had no idea what he was doing. It is now being maintained by a committee of unixies making a valiant effort to fix the worst of its flaws (and documenting the rest).

I was pushing hard over the summer -- 12 to 14 hour days in August, which I could sustain mostly because I had no students to worry about, and debugging is less work than new code (lots of waiting for compiles ;-) plus I was using my own computer and software most of the time -- trying to get things ready for the Fall. Lots of triage.

Then classes started. Some of the kids obviously didn't want to be there and dropped out. A couple more, same problem but didn't drop (one of them dropped today). What do I do with a guy who's trying to fake interest? Like math, it can't be faked (see "Reality" a dozen years ago). The director gave me instructions how to deal with him. It made me tired just listening to him. This is the guy who was so solicitous about me having fun, but he was not picking up my hints that this was not fun. There was no chance this was going to end positively, with the world better off for my having been through it. Fortunately the kid (perhaps still trying to appear like he was doing it right) actually paid enough attention to the instructions that he got over that hurdle by the time I went over to him to look. Maybe he got help from a classmate (both of them ahead of him). Today he dropped, but the damage was done: I was too tired to do anything else after class was over. I vegged and slept the rest of the day.

I have one student who is "in the zone." She's way ahead of where any of the students were last year, this far into the semester. She still has problems, but they are errors in my work (and I can see that). That's envigorating rather than tiresome, something I can fix.

So today is a long day -- 13+ hours so far, but I'm about to stop and go eat lunch/supper. Some of the bugs left over from summer, I fixed them today.

Last Sunday our Bible study in the Psalms looked at Ps.74, one of (I think he said) 47 Psalms of lament. Most of them end upbeat, God is in charge, God will take care of things. I guess my blog post today is like that. It helps when I don't need to deal with people who are lying to me. Their lies do me no personal harm, except for the cognitive summersaults needed to communicate with such people uses up my available energy at obscene rates, three or four times faster than writing software.
 

2022 September 2 -- Misinformation On-Screen

I guess it was supposed to be a war flick, but mostly it was four guys pretending to be soldiers behind enemy lines, but showing basically they had no military training. The flick was mostly about them going through inner turmoil (or an acid trip, or both). Women like inner turmoil, but this was not feminine, and sure enough, the writer was Howard something. He had to be on an acid trip when he wrote it, but Google wasn't about to say so. It did say that the director met the playwright in Greenwich Village, which sort of admits to that possibility. Maybe that also explains why the critics liked it.

Mostly Google called it an "anti-war" film, but I think it qualifies as "misinformation" in the sense of my previous post on the topic. If you want to do an honest anti-war flick, you need to portray the military characters honestly. This guy did not. Nut cases happen in war, but it's rare. Like Ben Franklin's remark about the gallows, when your life is at stake it tends to focus your attention. The American military, of all countries, works very hard at making sure soldiers act professionally out in the battlefield so they won't die. General Patton put it rather crassly: "No [SOB] ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other [SOB] die for his country." These guys were not doing that. True, they killed some enemy soldiers and didn't themselves die, but they didn't earn it, it was just dumb luck (you can do that in fiction). Two thumbs down.
 

2022 August 30 -- "Information Literacy" vs Misinformation

Do you know what "information literacy" means? The author of this piece in the current issue of ComputingEdge does not tell us, yet he throws the phrase around like it can be a panacea for any and all epistemological problems the way snake oil "cures what ails you" promised in prior centuries. The juxtaposition of polysyllabic vocabulary excerbates rather than mitigates misinformation.

"Misinformation," there's a word we might actually know what it means. In common usage, "information" is what (we think) we know, and the prefix "mis-" is used to suggest that what we thought is false. Think: "fake news." You probably do not remember from my friend Phil, the military intelligence agent,

Propaganda is the "skilled mixing of 99% truth with 1% deception to produce an overwhelmingly convincing message that is 180 degress opposite of the truth."
My blog post "True vs Fake" earlier this year touches on the same topic.

But this guy, a Professor of Information at the School of Information at some university in Michigan, has so filled his writing with obfuscating undefined long words (like my first paragraph above) that after I'd read halfway through it, I still didn't have a clue what he was saying. I got my advanced degree from the "Department of Information Science" at the University of California (they changed the name of the department before I completed, because "Information" in that context is ambiguous. It still is. I have no idea what kind of information Cliff Lampe is Professor of, but he attaches it to "literacy" and expects us to know what that means. I don't even know if he does, but at least he's a hammer looking around for a nail, and most everybody can agree that "misinformation" must be the opposite of whatever he's the Professor of. Instant credibility.

In this 2.5-page ComputingEdge item, at least his use of "misinformation" is consistent with the popular understanding of the term, that is, he seems to be throwing his "information literacy" thunderbolts at the problem of people finding their ideas about what's going on in the world in internet postings that are (at least in some people's minds) provably false. He says nothing so political in his article, but mostly discussions like this seem to be anti-Trump rhetoric aimed at whatever they think got him elected in 2016 and contributed to pro-Trump riots after the 2020 election, but disregarding the same technologies used to get Trump defeated in 2020 and to incite anti-Trump riots in 2016. The political bias in these discussions is consistent with the fact that the faculties at most universities lean strongly to the left, and this guy is a Professor at such a university.

Misinformation = the intentional spreading as "true," ideas that have no basis in verifiable fact, has been around as long as there have been humans in the world, and the biggest and oldest example of such misinformation in our time is the propagation of Darwin's hypothesis as "fact" by those same left-leaning academics; my own attempt to find in any peer-reviewed forum, any research at all supporting Darwin's hypothesis over the alternative, and after more than 40 years my search still comes up empty (see "Biological Evolution: Did It Happen?"), which convinces me that it is a poster case of misinformation, and consequently that any attempt by the political left-wing to make any case against misinformation aimed (as most of it is, in the last half-decade) against the right-leaning half of the country, is probably and fundamentally political posturing rather than an honest concern for truth. So ordinarily I would just stop right here and say no more.

However, the cover of ComputingEdge promoted this as one of two items about "Education" and I seem to be involved in education as it concerns computing technology, and I wanted to see if he had anything to say that might make my efforts better or at least more productive. I was disappointed: I can't even call his logorrhea an example of misinformation (although I suspect that outcome likely, should anybody ever succeed in determining what he is actually saying). How can something so unintelligible contribute to making my stock-in-trade better (or even worse)?

But playing the Devil's advocate a little longer, I ask myself, Is it possible that there exists some definition of "information literacy" where it might actually combat misinformation? It's an interesting question, apart from whatever Prof.Lampe might actually be saying. "Literacy" by itself refers to the ability to read, usually combined with the actual practice of reading a broad spectrum of written materials so as to become moderate in one's views of the world. In a phrase prefixed by some word specifying a more limited domain of knowledge -- "information" if you will -- its usual focus is entirely on maintaining a breadth of knowledge in that one domain. Obviously the word "information" in that context is (from its definition) tautologically equivalent to the word "literacy" alone, so that is not a useful phrase, unless it is intended to restrict the word "information" to refer only to the acquisition of knowledge, and not to all of human knowledge. From my perspective, given the use of the same word where I got my PhD to mean "knowledge about the manipulation of information encoded as binary data," the phrase "information literacy" would be equivalent to "computational literacy." I sincerely doubt Prof.Lampe had that sense in mind (he didn't say), but we can explore his thesis from that perspective also.

I have no idea if Prof.Lampe intended to be saying that teaching "information literacy" (whatever its definition) to students would help combat misinformation = the uncritical acceptance of "fake news" by the public at large, but at least such a notion is consistent with the demographic of which he is a likely member, and it is also the kind of topic often accepted for publication in the trade press (including ComputingEdge), and it also happens to be an interesting topic -- depending of course on the definition chosen for "information literacy."

We begin close to home, with "computational literacy." What I am teaching high school students is a form of computational literacy (= information literacy), so I am qualified to address the thesis question: does this study make the students and/or the public with whom they come in contact less vulnerable to misinformation? Given that the entire focus of this discussion in the aftermath of the 2016 election is on digital means being used to generate misinformation, it seems more likely that increasing computational literacy is more likely to increase the number and skills of the perpetrators, rather than to decrease anything at all. Recall that I, with an advanced degree in this science, failed to identify an example of "fake news" until after I was told (see "True vs Fake"). So I think we can safely say that whatever Prof.Lampe means by "information," it is almost certainly not what I teach and got my degree in, that he supposes will cure misinformation. Assuming he is reasonably logical -- otherwise how could he attain and hold the prestigious post of "Professor" at a major state university?

So now we turn to the possibility that Prof.Lampe's "information" refers to the process of aquiring knowledge, and the "information literacy" he proposes teaching to more people would make them more skilled in that process, which sounds to me a lot like he wants to teach his students to be and understand educators. I am reminded of when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, and I was intentionally sampling the course material from a wide variety of different departments. On one occasion I told my father what I was doing, and that I had recently enrolled in a course in the Education department. He harrumphed and said, "Them what can, do; them what can't, teach." Then he added, "And them what can't teach, teach teachers." He was absolutely right: it was the most worthless course I ever took in my life. I suppose the faculty in all those Education departments across the country probably think what they are doing is worthwhile, and the state Departments of Education also seem to think so when they certify teachers for their state, but I am currently going through that process for the state I live in, and I cannot say my opinion has changed much since I was at Berkeley. But if Lampe's "information" is about aquiring knowledge (that is, the process of education), I would have to say his thesis is just plain foolish.

That leaves us with the possibility that Prof.Lampe's "information literacy" is identical with "literacy" alone, that is, people who read a lot and a lot of different sources, would thereby become less vulnerable to fake news. My gut feel is that this should be true, in the same way as (so I was told) the best training for detecting counterfeit currency is to spend a lot of time handling The Real Thing. I happen to have read through the Bible numerous times, and if you offer me a quote allegedly from the Bible, I can usually tell you if it's there or not. Yet, when I first read that "fake news" item in WIRED, I did not detect it. Well, I don't have much reason to read stuff like that. If an article makes claims about ethics or science, I have given a lot of thought (and acquired some education) in those topics, and can usually detect fakery. I am not personally persuaded by the neo-Darwinian theory (it violates physics and also failed experiments to confirm it), but I understand it well enough to know that many people invoke an erroneous version of the theory to explain their fiction. But the story in WIRED was some kind of blog about travel in (I think maybe) some Eastern European country, about which I know little and care less. It doesn't matter (to me) if it's fake!

Politics is more of the same: I voted "None of the above" in the recent elections (I don't approve of any of the contenders, and besides, my one vote is insignificant anyway). Other people obviously think differently, but guess what? Their one vote is also insignificant. When they lose (think 2016 for leftists like university professors and writers in WIRED, 2020 for the other half of the country) they can yell and scream and stamp their feet (think: riots in both cases), or they can try to persuade (some of) the other half of the country to change their vote -- that would be what Prof.Lampe seems to be suggesting in this article, and what WIRED reported that the people at Facebook and Google were actually doing by actions they called "fake news" when Trump supporters did it.

Maybe Lampe has some other definition of "information literacy" in mind than these three I can think of, but he didn't say in any way I can understand. Maybe it doesn't matter. Despite the diligent and monopolistic efforts of the atheist (and crypto-atheist) power brokers in the last century to propagate misinformation about the origins of life, fewer than half of the people in this country actually believe their misinformation. "The Big Lie" doesn't work. People are going to vote for whom they want to vote for. There are some "poor, uneducated, and easily led" people who can be persuaded by the new misinformation (left or right), but mostly people are going to vote for whom they want to vote for.

After composing the prior analysis I went back to the article and re-read the back half. Omitting the fog-induced blur of the first half helped me to see some concrete context to help disambiguate his key phrase. For one thing, he was more vocal about the political nature of what he was saying than I first noticed:

...in the United States right now there is a deeply partisan divide on some issues on whether something is true or not. Party identity is an effective heuristic when people feel like they cannot trust information anymore.
I am at loss to understand if he means by "effective heuristic" that the political party you belong to actually succeeds at telling you the truth -- which is what the words mean, despite that this notion throws you into espistemological nonsense, where one party tells their members that "A is true and B is false" while the other party tells their members that "B is true and A is false" (and both are correct) -- or if he meant to be saying that party members believe that their respective party lines are accurate, without regard to whether it is correct or not (which I would believe as true, despite that his words don't say that).

He immediately follows this puzzle with the announcement of

Discerning Truth -- a course to teach information and media literacy to undergraduates
[italics his] which he was charged to create at his university. He goes on to tell us about its content by describing the speakers he brought in:
> Computer scientists: these speakers were experts in using computational methods to study online misinformation...
The only "experts using computational methods to study online information" of any kind at all that I know about -- mostly from reading publications of the IEEE like the one this article appeared in -- are using "AI" (neural nets = NNs) to build statistical averages of the text they find online, from which they use other NNs to generate examples of fake news, which they might test against readers to see if it's deemed credible or not. And since the statistical data these NNs build their models from is completely opaque (nobody ever looks inside the model to see where it came from), the best results they can hope for is new and better models for creating credible fake news without detection, except from...
> Legal experts: these speakers spoke to the nature of evidence. From a first amendment lawyer, the students learned about "close reading" of texts and how to understand...
"Close reading" is the only kind of reading anybody ever did to any document (other than modern poetry, which has no intended meaning at all) more than 60 years ago, and what lawyers and engineers and (some) conservative Bible readers still do, because it is the only way to know what the original author intended to say. It means looking at the individual words and how the grammatical structure combines the meanings of those words into the composite message of the text. If you Google the term, you will find more hits deprecating the practice than explaining and teaching it. If you do it to computer-generated (fake news) text, the flaws inherent in building a document from a statistical model instead of from a particular message to be communicated become obvious. I'd guess that was what this lawyer explained to the students, and it is the only positive contribution in the whole article.

His explanation of this course continued by describing "multiple exercises that would highlight the complex nature of misinformation. Exercises included:

> A trolling workshop where students were taskedwith creating misinformation campaigns in a sandbox social site...
That would be like trying to discourage bank robbery by teaching people how to break into bank vaults. I suppose some of the students, who (for reasons not addressed in this course) were already disinclined to engage in lying and stealing, when they see how easy it is to create misinformation, might be inclined to do more close reading than they otherwise would put the effort into, but such people have always been a minority, and their values generally do not infect the whole of society. Misinformation still wins overall.
> A moderation exercise where students took turns moderating content in an active social media site, collaborating in groups to build cases for what content should be deleted or not.
I have at various times in my life found myself in situations where participants were invited to "collaborate in groups to build cases for what" the text being analyzed means. I call it "pooling our collective ignorance," because the only person in the room who knows what the text means is the guy up front we came to hear, and he's not saying anything during these exercises. Without explicit guidance, these students in the workshop might apply their collective political and/or religious (or gender) bias against the posted messages, without regard to free speech or open dialog, much the same as when controversial but polite speakers brought onto a campus often get shouted down without being given a fair hearing. Maybe such guidance was given, but Lampe did not say so. Apart such guidance, this kind of exercise is necessarily counter-productive in fighting misinformation.

From this closer reading of the back half, I gather that Prof.Lampe's "information" truly is closer to what I got a degree in, but he is at least as ignorant of the nature of ethics and its role in social interactions as everybody else in this discussion. So I am forced to conclude that while my analysis (above) of that definition in the light of his stated objectives may be correct, my qualifying assumption at the end of that paragraph seems to be falsified. I leave to another time and place a discussion of how that might come about.
 

2022 August 25 -- Lost in the Fog

Now that WIRED magazine has lost their corporate compass, it would seem that Virginia Heffernan has stepped in to provide some form of alternative north star, not quite visible through the stormy night. The publishing conglomerate the founders sold the magazine to care no more for technology than the average housewife or truck driver, so like the second-rate writers a publisher brings in to carry on a super-star novelist's (or cartoonist's) brand, the editors and writers of the current version of WIRED just don't cut it. So they aim for anarchy and goofiness.

WIRED has no masthead that I could find -- mostly they try to hide anything (including page numbers) that might hint at somebody in charge -- and the 3-line author bio gives Heffernan no more credit than as "a regular contributor," yet she occupies the position in each issue generally accorded to the Editor of more conventional magazines: other columnists get one or two pages, but she usually has three, always first. The Editor in other rags often defines the overall editorial focus, here it seems to be none other than Heffernan herself. Where WIRED used to be about technology, Ms.Heffernan's personal interests (like most women writers) is more on what women care about: people and warm fuzzies, as evidenced by her feature article later in the issue -- not the cover story, and it's not even as long as the other features (eight pages to their 9, 10 and 12), but rather something to set the tone for the cover story.

She reviewed a new book which she claims "punches a hole in history," but of course it does no such thing. Her article, however, is not so much about the book and its insights as it is about the author and his grief over the death of his co-author, and his acceptance in academia (and at TED and other idea forums) -- remember, people & relationships -- so we get only a tiny hint at what the book is about, and not a clue at whether it is any good. Par for a female author (Heffernan, not the book's author David Wengrow).

Her limited peek at the book's contents seems to imply it is entirely based on archeology of human culture 10,000 years ago and older. Wengrow, she tells us, is an archaeologist at University College London. When you get past the internet puffery, UCL appears to be more or less equivalent to SanJose State College in California, where I went for a year before being admitted to a PhD program at the University of California. The "Institute of Archaeology" at UCL offers only Master's level programs (about like SJSC when I went there), less than a quarter of them about actual archaelolgy being done in the field, mostly the mechanics of archaelolgy and how it relates to current "soft" academics (Environment, Conservation, stuff like that).

As a long-time reader of Biblical Archaeology Review, I know something about the state of archaeology, and what we know about things that far back is pretty skimpy indeed. Wengrow is a full professor among a faculty of more than 60 PhDs, so I suppose he would know what there is to know about that archeology, but an awful lot of what passes for "history" of the far past is more guesswork than science. Dating is one of those problem areas.

In the next-last paragraph of her article, Heffernan offers this curious remark:

The book supplies hundreds of rich examples of early societies that didn't conform to evolutionary stages.
You need to understand that "evolutionary" as a way of seeing history is somewhat less than two centuries old, and known to be seriously broken (see my essay "Biological Evolution: Did It Happen?"). Wengrow is 40-ish and a member of a department less than 100 years old. He probably has tenure (so they can't fire him) and has the freedom to say goofy stuff to get attention. We have (and he apparently did not consider) eyewitness written records dating back to the actual "Dawn of Everything" (his book title), so maybe he got some things right that the Darwinists did not (which is not hard).

But this is not about technology, no more than our own Declaration of Independence is. It's just something that caught the fancy of a certain female magazine writer, and she has a forum to share it in. Like me when I write about WIRED or Darwinism -- except as a woman, she's far more accepting of goofy ideas that your average guy would be.

Oh well, it was more interesting than the cover story (the latest rage in bribing bloggers to shill products and politics) or the final article (your healthcare $$ being spent on inventing psycho-active drugs -- they didn't mention where those Billions of dollars are coming from, but where else could it be?). The longest article was slightly more interesting than the other, but just as wrong-headed:

Meckel points to a line of oil platforms squatting on the horizon. He envisions dozens of new wells drilled in the coming decades, this time to inject CO2. "We're talking about a whole area the size of Texas that you can develop for storage," he muses. "Who's not going to think that's not a good idea?"
I can think of a few, like the people all over the country who are stuck paying for this futile effort (in higher energy costs), and the toxic costs of what happens when all that CO2 is released under pressure into the surrounding air by inevitable mechanical failure. Maybe out in the middle of the Gulf, it has time to thin out before landfall, but the author (a guy) did ask about risks, and mentioned a 1986 incident in Cameroon where a CO2 "burp" killed some 1800 people in nearby villages.

Anyway, not one of the four features is about "WIRED" (digital) technology; one talks about the undisclosed funding of bloggers (who happen to use the internet as a broadcast medium, but that's not what it's about), and one is about a guy running a chemical lab making drugs not (wink, wink) for personal use, which is all about chemistry and finance -- and the reader is encouraged to think about (but the author carefully skirts around) getting high -- but none of that is electronics, let alone digital.

My compile finished. Time to get back to real work.
 

2022 August 2 -- CCM: Feeding Garbage to My Soul

I often say to myself (nobody else wants to listen) that Contemporary "Christian" Music is musically insipid and theologically dubious. The quotes are because -- my target today being a prime example -- these are self-serving songs about the singer or song-writer, not about Jesus Christ or God, which is what we in the church should be singing. The senior pastor's sermons at this church are pretty good, but they feed my mind; it's the music (if anything) that feeds my soul, and it's been on a starvation diet for the last couple years (see "My Starving Soul Is Filled Again" last year). A couple weeks ago I loaded into the computer I use for watching movies, those piano tunes I downloaded last year, and spent an hour or so singing along while pretending to clean house. I didn't get much work done, but it sure raised my spirits.

Yesterday, along with the discouragement of trying to get the worst possible programming language (PHP; Malbolge -- see "Malevolence vs the Golden Rule" earlier this year -- cannot be used to program computers, so it doesn't count) to run my programs, I found one of those garbage CCM songs running through my head. This one actually has a recognizable tune, so it's not quite as boring musically as the usual fare, but at 26 out of 251 words, the first-person pronoun is far and away the most frequent, even more than "the" (21) and "a" (20). No mention of Jesus or God at all, and all the second-person pronouns are somebody else, just three non-specific "King"s and three non-specific "heaven"s, which could equally be Mormon or Muslim. This is what I call a "I Worship ME" song.

The next most significant word is "louder" at 18 times -- the title word is a distant 8 -- which is interesting. In my experience "loud" is what people do when they run out of intelligent things to say. I once worked with a very sharp engineer, he generally spoke quite loud, but not when he was discussing electronics where he was expert. Me, I'm not loud at all: once I was doing something with my niece in the garage, and a cupboard started to close on my fingers, and I didn't yell or scream, I just said "ow, ow, ow," in a low voice. It took her a minute or two to realize I needed her to stop whatever it was she was doing. Her husband comes across much louder than I, so she was not prepared for my timid little voice.

There is a Hebrew verb that could be translated "shout for joy," and it is used often in the Psalms, so I guess there's a God-given place for making a lot of noise. It seems to be a guy thing: movies intended for guys tend to be about "going fast, making loud noises, and breaking things." I think it significant that the pastor here told his sound guy to "Amp up" the song service until it is physically painful, but that does not apply to his sermon. Do you see what I mean? He understands that the songs are meaningless noise, not at all like his carefully crafted sermon.

Theologically dubious, this song is. Shouting "Hallelujah" when confronted by your enemies seems a little misplaced. We certainly didn't see that in church, rather he said his "Hallelujah"s ("praise God") in the presence of his friends. Instead of praising God for the "presence" of his enemies, a more appropriate response to enemies should rather be "Hosanna" ([Lord] "save"). Joseph Smith of Mormon fame read his King James Bible quite a lot, but not with deep understanding. Otherwise he would have realized that "Hosanna" is a quote from Psalm 118 (see my "Palm Sunday Thoughts" two years ago), asking for help, and not mere praise (as in his "translation" of the Book of Mormon has it in the mouths of angels, who need no rescue, no "Hosanna"). God would not have made a blunder like that, not when Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon more than a century ago allegedly under direct dictation, and not more recently when whoever it was wrote this song.

Whatever. The sound booth crew forgot to turn on the monitors in the balcony this week, so I couldn't see the lyrics except by squinting at the screens in the front. It wasn't like I missed anything.
 

2022 July 25 -- Colorblind: Problem or Solution?

The church where I park my fanny on Sunday mornings these days is much more Biblical than the one that disinvited me a couple years ago, and I am (mostly) better off for it. A week ago the pastor here finished up a half-summer series on Biblical Justice -- as contrasted to the left-wing bigotry that pervades Blue states like Ore-gone, and half of the rest of the country -- and mostly he nailed it. One word last week I disagreed with, but mostly because he redefined it to mean something other than what the word really means to the people who use the word "colorblind" to describe themselves. People do that all the time to win arguments, but mostly it's The Bad Guys doing it.

Let me make it clear: people discriminate against other people all the time, for many different reasons, such as gender, face color, religion, Hindu caste level, language, national origin, education, wealth, past behavior (including accomplishments), past behavior of other people, and government certification. Some of these discriminations are reasonable and appropriate in their place -- nobody could rightly condemn a movie producer for discriminating against casting Chinese actors like Bruce Lee as the title role in a movie about Jackie Robinson, nor a hospital for discriminating against medical practitioners who lack a medical degree -- and many more of them are violations of the Golden Rule (moral absolute) which is also the foundation of Christian ethics. The first two in my list are easier to perpetrate than some of the others, and perhaps also easier to detect when it's happening (for the same reason).

I think the pastor chose the term "colorblind" from a book by some author trying to justify his whine against immoral discrimination, without thinking very hard about what he was saying.

"Colorblind" -- that is, refusing to consider the color of a person's face when considering their qualifications for a position other than playing a famous person of whatever race in a movie or theater play -- is, in my opinion, the only way to eliminate the systemic racism that annoys so many people in this country, but everybody needs to do it if they want it to work. The same principle (gender-blind or religion-blind or caste-blind or wealth-blind or whatever-blind) is similarly the way to eliminate whatever "systemic" discrimination may exist in those other categories, but again, everybody needs to do it.

"Colorblind" is not a useful descriptor for focussing public shame on the perpetrators of immoral behavior, as I suspect the author of the book the pastor read and referred to wanted to use the term, because it brings harm down on the wrong people, the people who are doing it Right.

Following the teachings of Jesus Christ, *I* think the best tool for attacking discrimination in other people (if that is what God calls you to do, but not everybody is given that duty by God) is the Godlen Rule. Other than for teaching positions in a religious organization, do you want to be discriminated against on the basis of your religion? Then don't do it. Do you want to be discriminated against because of your national origin, or social standing (such as caste) of your parents in that foreign country, or education, or wealth, or face color, in a position where your ability to do the job is the real issue? Then don't do that.

That's what he should have said. That's what the author of the book should have said. Demonizing a label best applied to the Right Way to stop discrimination is not helpful.
 

2022 July 12 -- He's a Hypocrite

My degree is in Computational Linguistics -- they didn't call it that at the time, but we designed compilers by building on linguistic theory formalized by Noam Chomsky, who (I later learned) is far more famous for his Marxist politics than the linguistics always mentioned as his specialty. The "Marxist" part I learned yesterday. One of the flicks that came up among my downloads was (I subsequently learned) a trailer for a forgetable premature dirge on the demise of the American Dream. My policy is, if I've seen the trailer, there's nothing left worth seeing, and in this case it is sooo true. The guy made such a fool of himself, I think I will desist from even mentioning his name in connection with my professional specialty. I wrote down his exact words:
The concentration of wealth... Not only is it unjust in itself, inequality has highly negative consequences on society as a whole, because the very fact of inequality has a corrosive harmful effect on democracy.
Let's unpack this, particularly that last line: "the very fact of inequality..." Chomsky himself has a very unequal status in society: he has an earned PhD granted by a reputable American university. If we were to believe what he says, the very fact of Chomsky's existence is corrosive on democracy, yet I do not see him repudiating his PhD, I do not see him refusing his very unequal respect among the pseudo-intellectuals of this country, not at all! He relishes that inequality, just like everybody else who has earned it.

Getting wealth in this country is easier than getting a PhD (if you want it), but like that PhD, you must work for it. You must do things that people are willing to pay for. If you enjoy doing those things, if you are willing to put the hard work into it, you too can be wealthy. Every wealthy person born here got that way from working hard at it, or his father or grandfather. Inherited wealth does not last much longer than that among the spendthrifts that populate this country. America is the most meritocratic nation in the whole world, and the wealthiest in all history. We got that way from reading (and believing) the Golden Rule in our Bibles for 500 years. It's going away, and well Chomsky might whine about it, but inequality is the effect, not the cause. The cause is corrosive harmful people like Chomsky sowing discontent and the foolish notion that wealth is a right, not something to be earned. The Marxists of the world used to think such foolish things, and every country they have tried to run on those principles has become impoverished -- even if they started out wealthy.
 

2022 July 11 -- Being Himmler

The Browning Version was a depressing flick, not the least because I saw myself in the lead character. All the principle characters behaved badly, all the more deplorably because it was set in a British boys' school apparently run by the Church of England, albeit after the nation had become post-Christian. But that is the world we live in, especially today in the USA.

The lead guy -- no "hero" in this flick, the most honorable thing he did was to apologize for his failures -- the students referred to him behind his back as "Himmler." The flick was released close enough to the end of the War, that most Britts knew who he was, no explanation needed. Our less-than-hero knew what they called him because his wife had a single virtue: she told him the truth. I have no such luck, so I don't know what they say of me, except during those rare moments of honesty when they are about to become "unspeakably" angry. Seven decades after this flick came out, "patronizing" seems to be the insult or abuse de rigueur.

I too behaved badly. The early years that were so much like this flick, I might blame on Clue Deficit Disorder. That doesn't make it right, only perhaps forgivable. My parents did not -- for they could not, they didn't even know how to -- instruct me in what I should have done. The church I grew up in, along with every other church I have ever been in, should have known and done better because it is clearly taught in the Bible they all claimed as normative, but every last one of them read their Bibles through the murky lens of Relationshipism (a human tradition not taught in the Bible, nor can it be, see my essay on "Relationshipism").

After a few catastrophic relational failures and seeing how the insights in a secular self-help book (The Art of Speed-Reading People) correlated with the actual teachings of Scripture in explaining what happened, only then did I begin to understand what went wrong. Not how to prevent the catastrophes, maybe I'll never figure that out (they keep happening), but I got better advice from an atheist in one hour last week than from all the churches and Christian books I have experienced over my whole life.

That's depressing. The movie only made it more poignant.

sigh
 
 

2022 July 7 -- The Demise of WIRED

The magazine started out as a communiction medium for the digerati, but the founders got tired of the non-digital effort required to put out a magazine, so they cashed out and sold to a publishing conglomerate, and it morphed into a come-on for digital wannabes. As the tech people left, it soon became more of a People mag with a light but incidental technical flavor -- like the main characters might be Bad Guys who happen to use cell phones. Yes, that really was one of their articles. This month they are one article plus one column short of completing the transition to a tech-free political / entertainment / opinion rag.

Virginia Heffernan, the lead columnist who often likes to imagine that she does tech, this month discussed a movie review she wrote for a non-tech publication before she decided to try to be technical, and the evolutions the story went through in the 17 years since then (same title, different movies and/or TV series). The whole column could have appeared in TV Guide or The New York Times, and nobody would have thought it out of place. Check one for entertainment.

Paul Ford is one of those "Them what can, do; them what can't, write about it" guys. His insights this month: "AI ... can't think, but it can tattle," and "Instead of worrying about other people's power, think of what you'll download." Actually good advice in both cases, as you already know from reading my blog over the last half decade, but he doesn't offer much basis for these insights.

Another column talks about the military's use of Virtual- and Augmented-Reality, but mostly in a generic, non-technical way. Substitute the word "gunpowder" or "messkits" and it would read just about the same.

A female author I never heard of spends her two pages whining about the poor maintenance record for electric vehicle plug-in stations. Nobody bothers to notice that it's an expected outcome when an ignorant left-wing government tries to drive the economy. Businesses who are there for profit are careful to build an infrastructure that serves the paying customers. But if their only source of profit is government subsidy, it doesn't matter if the stations work or not. Simple Econ 101, the same thing happened in the (former) Soviet Union with food and cars. That's why they are "former." And in this country with bio-fuel, as reported in WIRED a while back.

A 2-page graphic showing the debris left in space. It could just as easily been about plastic floatsam in the ocean or radioactive waste left over from power plants, or homeless people on the streets of Portland, and looked exactly the same.

Another two pages about "hot spots" in cities. The guy could have mentioned that most of the temperature measurements that are used to calculate so-called "climate change" are in these "hot-spot" cities, so of course it seems like the globe is warming up. But he didn't say that, it wouldn't be politically correct. Instead he talks about stop-gap measures like giving water to people in these hot spots.

A one-page piece on a female chemical engineer trying to develop flexible plastics that might be used to attach electronic circuits to people's skin. She's not doing the electronics, it doesn't even say if her plastics are anything more than latex gloves to which existing wires and circuits can be glued. But she's a woman, that's all that matters.

Another two pages, another obscure female who is only adjunct in a non-tech department at a forgetable school somewhere in New York -- "adjunct" is the title they give to faculty who have not yet earned a PhD which thus shows themselves competent in their field -- who demonstrates her ignorance and left-wing political bias by advocating for giving the vote to teenagers, and then warping the effect of their vote to nullify any votes from people experienced enough to know what works and what doesn't. Recall that the phrase "poor, uneducated, and easily led" came from the party that likes to bamboozle such people into voting for something they would not ordinarily approve of.

"Dear Cloud" is a regular column, this time about sharing electronic profiles to a video streamng service, but which is no more technical than if it were about sharing a mailbox or a park bench. Her questioner is a techie who knows what he wants, and she's trying to sell him on the female virtue of Relationshipism in its place. She doesn't use that word, but it's what she is selling.

Eight pages promoting expensive products, with less tech product coverage than your average Consumer Reports (five out of 18).

A 10-page cover story about a guy whose main claim to fame is his non-European racial heritage. The whole piece says nothing at all about technology, he writes and directs movies and bounces around a lot. Heffernan writ large. Something you might expect from another female writer.

14 pages following the life of a guy trying to start up an "eSports" department at an unknown (2-year) community college in Wyoming. Replace "esports" (video-gaming) with "snow-boarding" and it would read the same.

Another 8 pages (plus 6 full pages of text-free photos) gives a first-person agonizing story of a Black woman trying to break into physics, along with short bios of her Black female colleagues. It's not about technology -- replace "physics" with "history" or "economics" or "Shakespearean Sonnets" and you'd never know it wasn't originally written that way. You need to understand, an earned PhD degree is the Mt.Olympus of its arena, you need to be the best of the best to get it. When I wanted to do it, the only two schools within commute distance were Stanford and Santa Cruz. There was no way that Stanford would even take me, so I went to the school that was an academic joke. I wouldn't give a PhD for what I turned in. I don't know what the top physics schools are, but the names she mentions seem more prestigious than Santa Cruz. She complains because it's hard. She complains because she couldn't get any help. Of course not, you haven't earned a PhD if you need a lot of help. It's very competitive and the Chinese and Indian guys are willing to put that kind of work in. She was not. She wanted a "life." She's a female, and females crave "relationships" which use up some of those precious brain cells that would otherwise go toward competing for a PhD. At the end, she admits that the life of a PhD is not what she wanted after all, she plans to be a writer (see my remarks above).

Looking ahead, it appears that the next ten pages might actually be science. Then six pages interviewing a Ukrainian politician, no obvious tech. Six more, basically a non-tech photo gallery (entertainment). 12 more, (from the photo captions and pull-quotes) apparently Hong Kong politics. 12 more, apparently the politics of Covid. Politics, not tech. 128 pages. They must have gotten a big ad budget this month, it's rather thicker than usual this far from December.

This issue is a slow read, because (like the Black woman trying to break into physics at the highest level) I don't really like doing what it takes to plough through this stuff. But the competition is ComputingEdge -- which is even less fun, as you no doubt have seen me say numerous times -- and programming, which takes a lot of energy and attention, and it's been a long day, and I'm too tired. Them what can, do (some 11 hours today); them what can't, write (that's what I'm doing right now ;-)

Postscript, a week later: It turns out the picture captions and pull-quotes (like movie trailers) are an accurate representation of the contents you therefore don't need to read or see. Solar storms eject matter that once or twice every century hit the earth and damage electrical systems the way (he didn't say this) EMP from an air-burst nuclear bomb is supposed to do. Apparently that was the cause of the blackout in northeastern USA in 1989, and he thinks another is coming, and the power companies are not prepared to prevent a blackout across the whole country than could last for weeks or months. OK, sort-of tech, mostly politics for not getting the power companies to Do The Right Thing.

The interviewer of the Ukrainian politician said he went there to talk about technology, but in fact if you replaced all those references to the "internet" with "radio" or "printing" it would read like something dated one or five centuries ago: it wasn't about technology so much as using the best communications tools available to mobilize the public. The Hong Kong political piece (another female author), the most tech thing she mentioned was blue laser pointers deemed by the government as "instruments fit for a crime." The same charge could be leveled at anybody wearing shoes (which can be used to kick people to death) or carrying a belt or handkerchief (which can be used to strangle somebody), or even somebody who has hands (likewise). The article basically whines about the abusive Chinese government (which they are) trying to prevent another Tiananmen Square. That kind of unrest is inescapable in a country whose tradition of public virtue disappeared with Mao. The final artical has no tech at all, it's simply about a demographic group of people with a disproportionate political clout and lot of experience being a burden on the public health system, using their experience to comply with government notions about how to prevent the spread of Covid -- and having no perceptable effect on the spread of the Delta strain in their own community or anywhere else. That's not what the (female) author obviously wanted her readers to take away from her story, but there it was anyway. It wasn't worth the time to read it.
 

2022 July 1 -- Tech Details for (Un)Ethics

Except for the sign on the wall, which by its existence puts the lie to its own claim (see prior blog post, but no link, just search six weeks back for "Ethics" in the index), I have no reason to believe this company is any less ethical that any of its competitors, they are all subject to stringent Federal regulations, which limits the wickedness of their management (all of whom grew up in public schools where King SCOTUS invited them to be unethical, just don't get caught). Small local firms have local management, so they tend to be more circumspect (their customers know who they are), so I try to aim for putting my money there, but the last place where I had that advantage was in the State of Misery, six years ago. Anyway, the Federal regulations have gotten so onerous that small firms cannot hope to comply on their own, so they all buy technical (and legal) services from national vendors, and these vendors make the rules their clients must abide by, so I suspect any advantage of locality is largely gone.
 

Unethical Incidents

1. I am Guardian and Conservator (that means I make their decisions) for a "Ward" in another state. The distance makes it impossible for me to be there to control his spending on weekly groceries, and the least-hassle way to achieve the desired effect is to give him a debit card that I pump up here from time to time. Such cards exist and are advertized by the companies that offer them as suitable for this kind of use, typically for payroll. The company -- let's call them a "fink" because the name is made up from the first three letters of the kind of services they offer + the last two letters of the generic name for that kind of company (the 'n' is shared) -- this "fink" has such cards in their lineup of services, but they refused to issue that card in the ward's name without linking it to the Guardian account, so that overdrafts are automatically deducted from the account (for a specified fee). That defeats its purpose. I looked up the business of overdraft protection, and the Federal regulations tell how to do it, but they do not require that it be offered. This "protection" is like the Mafia "protection" offered in the movies from the 30s: This is profit for us (the Mafia or their modern replacement), not a benefit for you. In other words, unethical.

2. In case you haven't noticed, there's a pandemic going on. I have been told that I am "at risk" (see also "I Didn't Kill a Baby Today" last year) and I should be restricting my exposure to public places where I might be exposed to the virus(es). That includes standing in line inside a fink during the height of Omicron. What are the alternatives to standing there and getting exposed to a life-threating virus?

a. I could send them a piece of paper with my signature on it, directing them to pay out of my (very large, low-interest) savings account into my more modest (no-interest) checking account. They have a policy that refuses to do that. This was before COVID, so I went in and complained, and the guy said if I mailed it to him (local control) he would do it. This fink has a high employee turnover, so when I tried it after COVID hit, he was gone and it was refused. The disingenuous explanation I was given for this refusal was that it "protected" me, which is nonsense, they accept signed paper instructions for funds transfer all the time, it's called "checks." The difference is that the check clearing house operations are automated (there is still manual handling for unusual spelling like the fact that I write out the hundredths part, but I think the clearing house includes the average cost in their fees). This is another Mafia-style protection, saving a dollar in the time of some flunky to handle the paperwork, and replacing it with a couple dollars of the same flunky time doing the same paperwork with me standing there in front of him. So it's not actually a profit to them, they only assume it is, which is even worse.

b. When I complained about it, the guy said I could do it on the telephone. This is the least secure method possible. I checked, they have no way of knowing who is on the other end of the phone. Everybody records all telephone transactions -- they say it's for "training" but really it's CYA -- which if the dispute went to court, they could produce the recording and some expert to testify it's the same voice, but that does not happen in real time, they could use voice-print technology, but this fink told me they don't (tech like that costs extra). Instead they ask questions. I do not know the answers to any questions they might ask that is not public record. On a previous occasion they asked when the account opened, and normally I would have no idea, but in this case I was able to pin it to my mother's death (I was her Guardian also), but like I said, that's public information. Many on-line services ask questions like favorite dog (none) or third-grade teacher (ditto, or else I can't remember), so those questions are worthless or counter-productive (they give the Bad Guys better access than they give me).

c. Then he suggested on-line. Does he have a PhD in computer science (no, he had an MBA, a business school degree, not even PhD level), so he cannot know as much about the technology as I do. I was obviously much older than he is, so he tried to say the tech had changed since I got my degree. I'm not fast enough to think to say all this in real time, but the RSA technology they use for all so-called "secure" internet transactions was invented when I was in grad school, and I got my Master's degree (in part) for understanding and reporting on that technology. The protocols have changed several times since then, but the technology invented by Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman (RSA) in 1977 is still mathematically the best known encryption (other than a one-time pad, which is useless in business contexts) even today. I know how it works, and I also know it can be cracked by the American and Chinese (and maybe, but probably not, Russian and British) governments, who mostly don't want to, and that is not where it is most vulnerable (for more information, see "Is This Website Unsafe?"). The real vulnerability -- which his MBA teachers should have told him but probably did not (I heard in another context that the professors never tell their Master's and Bachelor's students the whole truth including the downside, but they cannot withhold that damaging information from PhD students) -- is that computer encryption of all kinds (including RSA) is based on secret passwords, which some of us cannot remember, and which in the specific case of RSA encryption used in browsers is held by "Certificate Authorities" which finks generally are not, they buy their certificate from one of the dozen or so CAs listed in every browser as "trusted" (meaning that somebody other than yourself trusted them), and nobody knows anything about these CAs, except that in 2011 RSA (yes, that RSA) was broken into and all their customers' secret passwords stolen. It can happen to anybody, it just takes a rogue employee with access, and all those employees went through the same no-ethics school system ("just don't get caught") that the fink managers did. Oh, by the way, the Federal government regulates the finks, but nobody (other than the Chinese government inside their own country) regulates the CAs. They can do and say anything they want to, and who's to know? Who even knows who they are? We heard about RSA, but they are famous (they invented the technology) and all their passwords were taken, but smaller breaches in other CAs are unlikely to be reported (or even discovered).

The bottom line is, this fink could offer a low-risk way for me to transfer money from one account into another (it's still my money, nothing is lost but a few pennies in interest if an attacker tries successfully to do it), but like a safe debit card, they don't want to do anything that might cost them a miniscule profit, even if the downside is risk of life in the customer. Getting that right is the very nature of ethics, and they didn't.

3. When a Bad Guy is standing there in front of you with a gun pointed at you and demanding your wallet, he expects a profit from the transaction at the cost of your unwilling consent. It is inherently unethical. What if the Bad Guy is nothing more than a fink offering to close down all your accounts so that you cannot use any of your money at all, and all he gets from it is a couple dollars worth of the flunky's time making the threat? The difference is degree, not kind. It's still very unethical. But he did it, I suppose because that's what he was trained to do. The sign on the wall may have been true in its specifics, but it was a lie.
 

Conclusion

I could be mistaken, but I don't suppose it is unethical to warn some other person of their own wrong-doing -- I certainly wish people would do that for me instead of the catastrophe they usually serve me up -- but in today's Feeler-driven culture it's not what people want to hear, and in any case it costs the business more than not hearing that warning (even if they choose to ignore it), so absent pending catastrophe (which their breach of ethics was not a violation of any Federal law, and therefore cost them nothing) it is arguably a violation of the Golden Rule to offer the warning. Besides, making them unhappy enough to provoke further unethical behavior almost certainly violated Jesus' command not to tempt other people to sin [Luke 17:2]. I was Wrong.

When God calls me to be a Prophet, I need to do things like that, but God did not tell me to do it. I should not do things like that apart God's specific command. I hope never to do it again. Enough said.
 

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