Something is Going Well Around Here!

The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…

The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?

I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.

Thank you, everyone!

MSOC

Consumer Algorithms

Ours is not to reason why, ours is just to get our data mined, sit back, and enjoy it?

I visited my Amazon app last week and was amazed to find the entire scroll packed full of thoughtful recommendations for what women’s apparel I should consider purchasing that day. While I entirely understand that this may have its appeal—and totally support whatever self-identification individuals make in their lives—the simple truth for this aging boomer (me) is that (1) I am (as the saying goes) heteronormative with (2) no fetishes that I have detected to date. But there were all these clothes on my Amazon app and they were 100% women’s items! I’ve been shopping with Amazon since 1997, have never purchased a single item of this type (nope, never secretly wanted to either), and you’d think that with nearly two decades of consumer purchasing data from me directly—information I have given them because I like using them for books, CDs, computer equipment, some bulk or hard to acquire foods, the occasional pair of men’s pants or a definitely male UA workout shirt—I could be spared this bombardment of off-kilter suggestions.

But there they were. And there I was, wondering why I had been provided this menu of stuff I was not going to purchase—ever—and definitely not wear—ever—and that my cat (the wonderfully talented eating, sleeping, and pooping home entertainment center known to me as Emma and known to herself as some derivative of “meow,” I assume) was too small to enjoy, although she is a female and would probably enjoy sleeping on them and eventually rip them to shreds with her inadvertent claw catches (how, by the way, since I’m here, is it that cats are so agile and intelligent in so many ways but can’t seem to figure out how to unhook their claw(s) from my shirt or pants fabric or the chair cushion, etc.?).

It is equally mystifying on Netflix. I log in and there are the films and TV shows they recommend, most of which I wouldn’t watch if they paid me (full disclosure: they don’t; I pay them) and would not recommend to my least intelligent acquaintance (or our state’s governor—same difference).

“May we remind you, kind customer, that our completely useless comedy series starring the nearly always awful Adam Sandler is available for your viewing pleasure?” I suppose you may but I sure wish you knew me better through my long history of NOT choosing Adam Sandler in anything other than Punch Drunk Love as I think he is an unfunny pillock of the worst kind (has anyone else in the U.S. noticed that the British are WAY more inventive with their insults than we are? Their lists just go on and on and we should purloin them to our version of the language as quickly as possible! Note to the wary: some of them already have alternative meanings in “American” and should not be used here or may result in a kick to the yarbles (not British slang but a word created by Anthony Burgess, so kind of British anyway).

To be clear, my film tastes tend to go towards serious drama topics, including well-done period pieces, dramas about demographics I know little about (films from other countries and social strata, here or elsewhere, etc.), really dark British detective series (Happy Valley, Luther, Line of Duty, in which almost all of the characters are having troubles at work and home), in other words, stuff I can think about, mull over, learn stuff from in one way or another. These are NOT areas that are best summarized by the two nouns Adam and Sandler. I also like some comedy (the sillier the better (e.g. W1A, Red Dwarf, Monty Python), some stand-up (e.g. Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Ali Wong, Iliza Schlesinger, Louis C.K.) some others that don’t spring to mind (all of these get down and dirty, btw)).

This kind of thing happens with social media platforms as well. Many of us are dutifully entering our personal likes and dislikes into these things. Our information is harvested, transmogrified into values of some type, sorted into the demographic to which we unwittingly belong, and ads are summoned up that are supposedly tailor-made for our eyes only. To misquote both Robert Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita, “Now we have become data, the destroyer of worlds” (Q1: does one place misquotes in quotations? and Q2: is it wrong to take such a serious quote and make it about “Big Data?”).

It would be one thing I suppose if our data doppelgänger would provide endlessly useful, on-point suggestions. It is another thing altogether when our data are so incredibly misinterpreted as in the couple of examples I’ve provided above (the link on data doppelgänger is a legitimately interesting article on the topic I am whining about today; please read).

The behavior of search engine algorithms is at least as odd as the results described heretofore. I search for appropriately odd images for my posts and select “labeled for reuse” through Google as many of you do. I searched for an image for “A Cold House” recently and was immediately presented with the following item (I’ve given her a little cover as she was a bit too revealing for my imagined readers):

 

a-sailors-rear
Attribution

 

Why would this be an image suggested by the search phrase “A Cold House?” There were many similar images provided as suggestions that day but even on days where the thong-enhanced buttocks of a sailor are not among the suggestions, there are many suggestions that make absolutely no sense at all! These Google suggestions are not in the same realm as those provided by Amazon or Netflix but there should be SOME correlation between the search string and the results, shouldn’t there?

(To be a tiny bit fair, Google seems to have refined their algorithm since my initial search and although this young lady is still offered up as “a cold house” for some reason, many other scantily clad women who initially appeared have made their way elsewhere.)

I am puzzled every time I do such a search and am presented with random stuff that does not meet my needs. This time, the prompt gave me an opportunity to vent a little. It’s a little rant-y and I have no useful suggestions, except that jobs for data-mining large data sets, i.e. jobs focused on “big data” seem to be on the rise and this suggests that developing skills in whatever that all is might be useful… until they aren’t.

Given that virtually any article you read about Amazon, Netflix, or Google touts their ultra-refined customer and/or search algorithms, you would think that better results would be forthcoming.

That has not been the case for me.

Featured image (to be fair once more time, this illlustration is about a computer science algorithm problem called the dining philospher’s problem that may or may not have anything to do with consumer algorithms).

I Was Nominated (and Accept)

Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!

My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.

1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?

It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:

mydas_sp
Gauromydas heros

If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures  with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):

800px-kabutomushi-japanesebeetle-july2004
Allomyrina dichotoma

 If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):

Giant_isopod.jpg
The underside of a male Bathynomus giganteus, a species of giant isopod captured in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2002.

2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?

I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.

My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!

3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?

Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.

4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?

This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!

5. A song that makes you dream?

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie


6. Have you ever planted a tree?

Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!

7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?

Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).

8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?

As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.

9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.

I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).

I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.

10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?

I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.

Now the rules:

1.thank the person that nominated you.

Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!

2. Answer the questions from your nominator.

Done.

3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.

Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):

Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?

November_child –  in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time

anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute

English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!

Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!

Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics

Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often

The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not

The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses

afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!

Yaskhan – for her lovely, succinct way with words

urbanagscientist – because she is at least as worried about the misunderstanding of science as I am

Luke Atkins – because he writes really well about difficult subjects and he writes like the stuff matters a lot, which it absolutely does!

And there are more in my list of 119 writers that I am following but this is enough for now.

4. Give them 10 questions to answer.

If you wish (and I clearly cannot impose this on any of you, please respond to confabler’s funny questions. I enjoyed them, maybe you will too!

Kind regards, MSOC

https://confabler.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/shiny-shiny-sunshine-award/

It was Generous of confabler to choose me. Now I have to Jump off and do other stuff!

Coders

I’ll be really clear from the beginning. I could not code my way out of a virtual, damp, recycled, organically-grown hemp fiber bag if I was given the rest of time – not just my time but ALL time. Even if you enclosed me in said virtual bag with a stack of coding manuals and an appropriate set of computing gear, I would remain in the sack, alone, damp, and surrounded by pesticide, herbicide, and chemical fertilizer-free hemp forever.

But I have the greatest admiration for what coders have done with their various languages, from ones and zeroes up through the hierarchy of (seemingly) always-expanding numbers of languages. I can’t list them all, nor would it be interesting to do so, but these folks out there beyond Firefox browser and WordPress website, out through my monitor, the HDMI cable that connects it to my video card, through a PCI Express high-speed computer peripheral expansion bus into the motherboard, bios, OS, machine language and whatever else it needs to connect with so I can see my typing, and out through my I/O port and LAN line to my cable modem/router and relatively efficient ISP, those folks who have coded this whole improbable mess together into a stable, functioning way to entertain myself and, occasionally, some of you, dear readers, have done is nothing short of miraculous. Well, I say miraculous but it was all a product of human intelligence and our incessant drive to solve problems that many of our fellow creatures weren’t even thinking existed.

Programming – coding – started eking its way into existence in 1801 with the invention of a loom which was run by punchcards (fondly thought of to this day by anyone who took upper level science, engineering, or computer science courses into the ’80s (perhaps beyond, not sure)). Charles Babbage intended to use this punchcard method to create programs for his difference engines and analytic engines, conceived as early as 1821 but never completed during his lifetime. His thinking about the analytic engine was remarkable and to a significant extent foreshadowed computing into the 21st century. Ada Lovelace (or more properly Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron; 10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852), aside from being the only legitimate heir to George Lord Byron, romatic poet, close friend of Percy and Mary Shelley, adventurer and noted profligate, is credited as using her friend Babbage’s ideas to create the first computer algorithm.

Ada_lovelace
Countess Ada Lovelace (not your typical neck-beard)

Although not directly related, it is interesting to read about the development of automated models (birds, toys, etc.) and devices like the music box and player piano as these types of creations were proto-computers in a limited sense; they only did what they were programmed to do, rather than perform a range of calculations. But onward!

Starting in 1889 Herman Hollerith started experimenting with punchcards (Hollerith cards) and paper tape as methods of feeding instructions to instruments he designed. In 1896 he started the Tabulating Machine Company, later to transform into International Business Machines (IBM). His designs led to creation of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) designed to solve linear equations. The Bombe (1939) and Colossus (1943-1945) computers led to valuable breakthroughs in decrypting German communications.

Hollerith
Herman Hollerith, founder of IBM, noted soup strainer

Having enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943, Grace Murray Hopper worked in computing throughout WWII and, in 1947 while working for the Harvard Computation Lab discovered the first computer bug – a moth trapped in a Mark II Aiken Relay calculator, probably one of the simplest debugging jobs ever. She retired as Rear Admiral in August 1986 and received the Defense Distinguised Service Medal.

Grace_Hopper_and_UNIVAC
SI Neg. 83-14878. Date: na. Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960. Grace Brewster Murray: American mathematician and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who was a pioneer in developing computer technology, helping to devise UNIVAC I. the first commercial electronic computer, and naval applications for COBOL (common-business-oriented language). Credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

We zoom into the ’60s and the development of FORTRAN, developed in 1954 and released to the public in ’57, around the same time COBOL (1959) was developed by Grace Hopper. The first computer game was called SPACEWAR! and was released in 1961.Steve Russell created it in what he estimated to be 200 hours; he never profited from his work, but it was later released as an arcade game (1977).

The internet started taking shape in the mid-70s and by 1992 the world-wide web was released to limited, but ever-expanding public use. I think I started using internal email on an HP mini-frame around 1983, but I could be off by a year. My academic advisor bought a TRS-80 from Radio Shack in 1982. It occupied a semi-sanctified place in his office and could be used only for those writing up their dissertations, etc. I bought my first computer in 1984, a skinny MacIntosh for about $2500; it had an 7.8336 MHz CPU, 128 KB RAM and there was an 8 KB ROM chip included, along with a 64 KB. I bought the 400 KB 3.5″ floppy disk drive as a peripheral.

I played a game called Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. To play it I had to graph out my progress down hallways by turning right or left (if there was a wall, I graphed a wall, if there wasn’t it was a turn or a room that needed exploring). You didn’t know what was going to happen until a text box popped up and told you to open something, cast a spell, smite something (and what that something was), and that kind of thing. To say it was rudimentary is to do it a kindness, but I was hooked. I just found out you can download various versions of the game to this day and play it if you have an inexplicable nostalgia for doing something the old-fashioned way. I also found some YouTube videos, but they were in Japanese so you can go look at those if you’re interested. As far as I can recall, my game was in black and white.

I didn’t play anything else until Doom and Quake came out in the mid-’90s. Both were kind of terrifying; I introduced Quake to my workgroup (I was the manager) and we would play it on the company network after 5 PM. It felt like good team-building (all of them were better than I was so I got killed a bunch) and a little naughty (we were using company assets for our amusement).

Let’s jump again and visit the early ’00s. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind came out for PC. For the time, it was a beautiful and innovative fantasy role-playing game (RPG) in which you started off at level 1, went around trying to avoid all creatures and evil non-player characters (npcs) as virtually all of them would kill you if you didn’t have armor, weapons and skills to defend yourself (I use the word “kill” loosely of course as you could always reload a saved game and get out there again; annoyingly, I spent a good deal of time forgetting to “save” and losing a bunch of progress due to absent-mindedness). You would go around collecting herbs, flowers, wood, a bunch of stuff, that you could sell to a local merchant and upgrade your armor; all the while you were earning experience and gaining skills, making it more satisfactory that you wander off the beaten path and encounter bad npcs who would try their best to revert you to a load game. I played Oblivion and Skyrim, both for unhealthy amounts of time. Then Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. I didn’t really enjoy the Fallout games as much as they are quite bleak in my view, but they were truly incredible kinds of modern story-telling at the same time.

In each case, I became increasingly fascinated by what was happening beyond the screen, in the world where lines of programming interacts with ones and zeroes and become these astonishing worlds full of beauty, characters that talk to you, environments that go through diurnal/nocturnal shifts, in which weather occurs, in which the grasses on a hill and the flowers in a meadow blow in the wind. And in which little pieces of code sense that you are approaching, get really upset with you and do everything in their programmed power to make you reload a game. You can almost hear them chortle fiendishly when you die, particularly if you forgot to save your game in the past hour or more of game play (usually they just walk away and go back to whatever they were doing before you interrupted, which may include farm work, millwork, blacksmithery, marching and patrolling, buying stuff from local merchants, talking to each other, and other bits of coding brilliance.

But the folks who code games are up to much more than just making a game. They are also pushing the limits of what current commercially-available computing will do and making further innovations in central processing units (CPUs), graphic processing units (GPUs), operating systems (OS, like Windows 10 or OS X El Capitan), audio processing, like Creative Labs sound cards, etc. They are pushing for better home computing, better console computing (Playstation, XBox, Wii U, older models, etc.), more stable server and internet protocol technology, more secure computing (getting your account hacked after you’ve leveled up, saved a bunch of armor, weapons, gold, etc. is a horrible thing!). They are redefining the limits of technology for everyone in the world; as the gaming platforms increase in power, all other computing increases in power as well. While “power” in computing might cost a bit more, entry-level computers fall in price and deliver that power to increasing portions of the world’s population. The whole human race lurches forward in its abilities to (1) learn computing skills, even if they are related to writing and calculating applications and (2) make a larger percentage of the world capable of getting 21st-century employment.

I play a massive multiplayer on-line role-playing game (MMORPG). I’ve been doing this in my spare time for the last 3.5 years, again with a huge number of hours. About 50,000 players from around the world play this game on any given day (it is hard to pin a number down on this, but even if you put ±20% error brackets around 50k a whole bunch of people are playing this game, interacting with each other, chatting in text chat within the game, chatting/helping each other using a voice communication application). It is visually beautiful, a huge world with many environments, tough “boss” monsters, new play mechanics (gliding, updrafts, bouncing), new weapon and armor classes, and all of it pushes a good computer pretty hard.

There are a bunch of serious jobs for coders ar0und the world as well. I wish, for instance, that the battle between hackers/virus-and-malware-writers and people who are just trying to use computers would get managed in some reliable way. It is unacceptable that personal bank and credit card accounts are hacked into. It is absolutely frightening that there is some probability that electricity/utility grids will be hacked, damaged and/or crashed. While I personally wish that international governments were more transparent in their information-sharing with their various citizens I also think it is dangerous to have troves of classified documents hacked and shared; my hope is that (1) systems will become more secure (although I don’t know how short of disconnecting them from the internet) and (2) hacking will drive governments to be better at sharing without the hack.

I don’t know for a certainty how many jobs there will be for coders in the future – and coders, of course, is a catch-all phrase that includes many different types of languages, so there is no single number for the number of “coders” needed. I do know that there is an increasing push to get more women to learn coding and more young people to start coding at early ages.

https://girlswhocode.com/

https://code.org/

edx.org and coursera.org have a bunch of free courses in a variety of languages for achieving your particular interest (some require pay for certificates, so be aware of that).

There is also sage advice about being wise if you’re thinking of a career coding. This article from TechCrunch summarizes some issues you should know (the title overstates his argument for the sake of rhetoric, but pay attention to what he says):

https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/10/please-dont-learn-to-code/

But be aware that this is difficult, painstaking work that requires creativity in a language with many hard-and-fast rules. Every word, every punctuation mark, every number has a special and inflexible meaning that, if mistyped or misunderstood, may lead to hours or days of painful debugging (we’re not talking fishing a moth out of the machine this time). Programmers, system administrators, database administrators, server administrators, security administrators, etc. may work long hours. Not every job you get involves the adventure in wonderland jobs available at Google or the other tech giants; some are just sweaty, long days hunched in a cubicle, staring into a monitor, slashing away at lines of code that may come to seem infinite in length and complexity – and unintended, perhaps insoluble, consequences. Some of these people have rich lives and many interests, some have normal personalities and live healthy lives. Some live on a steady diet of salty chips, caffeinated soda and stimulants, grow beyond their belt loops and have amazing neck beards, fail to understand humanspeak any longer as they have become extensions of the code in which they live. It’s all up to you whether you become a designer of infinite beauty or an updater of cell phone apps. It’s all up to you whether you learn enough – persistently – to stay employed or whether you fall by the wayside when new hot languages emerge to rule the problem sets.

On the other hand, you’re helping define tomorrow – or might be if you’re good enough.

In my view, I bow humbly in all directions so that all coders, whatever their mission, feel the respect I feel for them. Keep pushing the limits and making new stuff. I can’t wait to see what you’ve been up to!

P.S. I am not a coder or a computing historian; I apologize for any liberties or oversights (which are many) that I have taken with the contents herein.

Featured image attributed to Duncan Hull @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/dullhunk/4833512699 under Creative Commons requirements for attribution.

Profound