Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Hello there, mates. How’s everyone doing thus far with this pandemic? I hope all is well with you and yours, and yes … I looking forward the return of Normalcy 2.0. Lets be real, normal will change for many of us, but enough of that. I came across this title during my monthly “vetting” of the booklist in order to decide what gets onto the stacks at my branch (and what does not). When you encounter a tagline, that reads “the biggest company, the perfect algorithm, what could possibly go wrong?”, on a book with a cover that is designed to parody the packaging of a certain well-known online retailer … well, an evil grin along with a good hunch emerge in my mind. And here we are. But enough with my usual bollocks and such and let’s get on with the blooming review. Yeah?
Qualityland is actually the name of a country in the (near, possible???) future. Somewhere along the line a certain country with a troubled history (I’m guessing Germany but don’t quote me on that … please) decided that they needed to change their name and voila … Qualityland. In Qualityland the citizens are known as QualityPeople that use QualityMoney (or Qualities) for currency and QualityPads for internet access (and just about everything else). TouchKiss is the way most digital transactions are concluded. Yes, instead of using fingerprint recognition, it is deemed more secure to use your lips since these are not so easily forged. A bit worrisome in the event of pandemics, if you ask me. AI along with realistic humanoid androids (apart and combined) are rampant and normal as everyday life. Self-driving taxis bicker and harass passengers to rate their service even though they may not carry you completely to your destination in what is determined as a red-zone (or unsafe neighbourhood). Yes, in case you missed that bit, algorithms have made self-driving cars very discriminating especially when it comes to certain neighbourhoods. It gets better. Daily or certain social interactions allow you to be rated. The higher your rating on Everybody (Qualityland’s version of Facebook and Twitter combined), the greater your access to jobs, medical care, and even wealth, fame, sex. If your ratings fall to 10 or less you are known as a Useless. Needless to say, your life becomes a crapshoot at that point. Oh, and another thing, surnames are based on parental or current occupations such as (for example) Melissa Sex-Worker or everyone that is unemployed shares the (indignity) of the surname, Jobless. And then there is TheShop, an online warehouse, with algorithms so tuned that they are practically psychic and knows (and delivers) what you (might) want or need before you even know it. And as it turns out they are usually correct. And for some strange reason Jennifer Aniston does not fare well and her rom-coms are seen as a celluloid curse that the world has to tolerate.
Peter Jobless, is an unemployed (shocker) slacker that inherited a scrapping business from his late father and also lives where he works. Due to some strange environmental law, repairs to any form of automatons (even Roombas) are forbidden and once discarded these devices have to report to the nearest local scrapper. Martyn Chairman is a sleazoid politician that cheats on his wife with every willing Qualiteen intern and loves browsing revenge porn sites … and also works for Conrad Cook, a celebrity chef turned president. Kiki Unknown is an enigmatic hacker that knows the ins and outs of most systems and makes a living through various unorthodox means (such as blackmailing men with videos of them self-pleasuring to revenge porn sites). Yes, I know you’ve just imagined one possible scenario in this book. Henryk Engineer is cross between Bezos, Musk with a hint of Zuckerburg thrown in, a recluse and the CEO of TheShop. And then there is John of Us, the first android poised to be elected as president of Qualityland. Somewhere along the way, Peter Jobless life hits the skids: first he’s dumped by his girlfriend since the dating app (called QualityPartner) advised her to do so and replaced him with a newer, exciting partner … whilst on an actual date (!). Then on a date with Melissa Sex-Worker (you can guess what she does for a living) he breaks a (Sex) contract by not (get this) having sex. This led to his rating plummeting and giving the status of Useless. Just when his life couldn’t get anymore complicated he gets a delivery from TheShop: a blue dolphin vibrator. To his chagrin and dismay, when he tries to return it, TheShop refuses to accept it since …well … algorithms don’t make mistakes. And so starts the strange odyssey to meet face to face with Henryk Engineer as Peter Jobless bumbles into love and unwittingly starts a revolution … all because of a blue dolphin vibrator.
Qualityland though set in the future, is a delightful parody and at the same time, a cautionary tale about where we’re actually heading (or already in). One of the most interesting moments in the book was the android, John of Us, speech about data-mining and not what but who is really the “product” that Big Data is selling out there. Not exactly earth-shattering, but enough to occasionally pop you out of sleep some of the nights and channel your inner Albert Finney (I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”). Throughout the book there are these little pop-ups of snapshots of web content, some humourous, some disturbing and some laughable … with comments (alas, there are trolls in Qualityland). A superbly hilarious, thought-provoking book with a wee touch of the disturbing (especially the obvious dislike for all things Jennifer Aniston), Qualityland has something for everyone of varying stripes. Dare I say, a nice beach companion for the coming summer (even if you’re a Jennifer Aniston fan and there is no more need of social distancing, or that coronathing hanging around).

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Running Title: Bad Blood – Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup

Several years ago I was sitting at home watching the telly and I came across this news flash about some woman named Elizabeth Holmes. Apparently, she was involved with some fraudulent behaviour involving some tech startup that got her into hot water. Sounds bang on and to the point. Little did I know, and thanks to members of my book club (yes, I run a book club in my branch and no it is NOT called the Evil Parrot Book club) and their recommendation of Bad Blood, I was made a bit wiser. And somewhat, troubled. But enough with the teasing, niceties, and other usual bollocks and let’s get on with the bloody review. Yeah?

The last thing I wanted to read was some boring blah-blah about some Silicon Valley tech startup, and about 20 pages into Bad Blood, it had dawned on me that Carreyrou’s tome was anything but boring. At some points I thought I was reading one of these creepy, conspiratorial Grisham novels, and to my dismal horror, it was not. Most importantly, it was based on something that was real and equally terrifying (don’t worry you’ll see the reason for such dramatic descriptions). Bad Blood introduces us to the interesting world of Elizabeth Holmes: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, super-intelligent AND a Stanford chemical engineering student. Or as my mum would say “wife material”, though my mum may be a bit biased since she is a retired chemist. Ah, we’ve detoured. When most of us at certain age were trying to figure out those labyrinthine first few years of college, Ms. Holmes was learning Chinese Mandarin and working at Singapore laboratory that performed tests for the SARS (remember that bit of craziness, oh … right we’re dealing with version 2.0 of that bollocks … coronavirus, they say). Then somewhere along the way Ms. Holmes had an Eureka moment and an LED bulb lit up in her mind: micro-sizing the world of blood testing. Instead of drawing vials of blood (as is currently done for blood testing) what if the same results could be achieved with blood droplets? Instead of scary needles, how about patches with micro-sized needles that could be applied to the skin to draw small amounts of blood? Best of all, instead of having to wait days or maybe more than a week, results can be sent back with hours? Now imagine if these testing devices were in everyone’s home and were beaming info back and forth through cellular and Wi-Fi technology. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? It most certainly did in Ms. Holmes’ mind to the point that she dropped out of college and filed a patent for the futuristic vision of a blood testing patch. And with college tuition money being used as seed money the health-tech startup known as Theranos was born, and Silicon Valley had a new neighbour. And the slow hitting of shit on the fan. Though a marvelous theory, building the machinery that would deliver all this medical greatness proved quite the bugger. And then appeared the silent partner known as “Sunny”: Ramesh Balwani, a Hindi-Pakistani software developer that was apparently more than a “mentor” and “advisor” to Elizabeth. Let’s just say that their relationship may have been more than “professional”. Chunder factor: this bloke was twice her age. Like a siren, Ms. Holmes had good sales pitch that most could not resist and it drew in the likes of many high-caliber personalities such as Larry Ellison, Henry Kissinger (aye, that one), and retired Marine general, John Mattis. Even after being told, by very competent engineers, that her “contraption” was very flawed and, in subtle terms, an engineering clusterfunk waiting to happen, Ms. Holmes did the next best thing: cheated by buying and hacking commercially competent Siemens systems to perform blood tests and then past the stuff off as Theranos testing. I know what you’re saying: that was wrong on so MANY levels. That was the good news part. The bad news was that she and Sunny went even further as they hired a high-end pitbull of a lawyer and weaponized non-disclosure agreements for incoming employees for “protection of intellectual property” (that was useless). And then there were the harassing and stalking of employees/potential whistleblowers (including family members that dared to work with her). And tossed into the mix, an unusual (and possibly unhealthy) fixation on all things Steve Jobs. Though being called a female Steve Jobs by Forbes magazine only added to the egos and the misery of others. Yes, characters were assassinated, reputations ruined and there was one suicide … all based on a carefully crafted lie.
Bad Blood, most would find in a very short time, is not a very boring read. Unchecked, Theranos was a potential Pandora’s box for the medical industry where faulty testing would have lead to healthy people taking unnecessary treatments (like chemotherapy or paying over $3000 out of pocket to find out that you’re really fine) and unhealthy people would be given a false sense of security (such suffering a heart attack when you were assured that you were “fine”).
A cautionary tale for those that are pro-business and at the same time think that regulations are too “bothersome” or “in the way of progress”. Though started with noble and lofty intentions, somewhere along the way ego, image, delusions and yes, greed kicked in and a lot of really good folks got plowed under into a churning, crimson tide. And in a time when whistleblowers and diligent journalism is treated with disdain, Bad Blood unwittingly, sheds a bright shining light on these silent and unsung heroes that are scattered throughout this society who remain oblivious to the greater good that they do. And the cost they pay. Good show, Mr. Carreyrou. Jolly good show.

P.S. I don’t think mum would approve too kindly of Ms. Holmes behaviour.

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Running title: Army of None – Autonomous Weapons And The Future of War.

Several years ago, I wrote a review for P.W. Singer’s Wired For War: a book that talked about the growing use of robots in the military. In the 80s, movies such as Short Circuit (Johnny 5 alive !!!) and the Terminator was among many factors that drove me in the arms of undergraduate engineering academia. And though I don’t work in the field, like a really great ex-wife, the interest still remains (just don’t mention that to my librarian career … she can be vicious). So, needless to say, when I discovered that this book was sitting on the (library) shelves, I homed in on it like a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone (yeah, I couldn’t help myself … and yes, I need to go out more). But enough of the bollocks and be on with it, yeah.

Drones have come a long way since their debut in the military. They’ve practically infiltrated many facets of society which, in some cases, seem odd but over the years have become one of those “what-would-we-do-without” moments. From aerial shots/videos in real estate listings and weddings to research to the occasional tosser out there that wants to watch female neighbours undress (yes, grade A wanks have been caught doing this … sad commentary there). Drones, love them or hate them, have become that the tool that we’ve always wanted but never knew. Written by Paul Scharre, a former Army ranger that served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, None is a well-researched and informative piece about what is quite active and what’s on the horizon in military automatons. And some of it is possibly , downright scary. Are we talking Skynet? Not quite, and as we speak there is still some reluctance in folks to commit Artifical Intelligence (AI) onto some decent and lethal weapons system (with no human interaction) and expect something “good” will happen. An even scary revelation about this is that America isn’t the only person with the cool “toys” on the battlefield, for there are now over 16 nations that employ robotic weaponry in their military. And to make you sleep even more soundly at night: they are finding themselves in hands of groups like ISIS and Hezbollah though not as sophisticated as those in the US military. But … still. Though based around military uses, the book explores the development of non-weaponized autonomous machines such as self-driving cars, etc. Apparently, we are in a sort of an AI development race. Interesting terms that’ll be added to your mental database: supervised autonomy and loitering munitions. Currently weapon systems that exist today and categorized as autonomous are actually a supervised autonomy (i.e. there is human that is still in the loop when using these systems). Unlike nuclear weapons, it is refreshing to see that there is a lot of thought going into developing and using fully automated, AI controlled systems and not usher in the age of SkyNet. Oh well, there goes my hopes of running off into the desert with Linda Hamilton. Of course it only takes one person to open that Pandora’s box and drink from that forbidden fount … and before you know it … SkyNet (and desert living with Linda, fingers crossed).
Like Wired For War, Army of None is informative and yes, a very cautionary about the use of autonomous military vehicles, but riveting and eye opening to the wonderful and promising non-military applications. Makes you wonder what the world would have been like if someone had spent the time writing about nuclear energy with the same passion of Singer or Scharre. BTW, as I always like to take the time and extend a bit of salutations to authors that have served in uniform and so I say to Mr. Scharre, thank you for your service and God Bless you and yours, mate.

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Running Title: Soonish – Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve And/Or RUIN Everything.
As the new year begins, and as we try to get over that year long hangover that was 2017, there is a need to find some hope in the future to come. Sure we’ll have to find a way to delete a significant portion of 2017 from our memory, but until they come up with Johnny Mnemonic type technology, we’ll just have to focus on the years ahead and try to ignore the braying of asses in the media. I was walking around my central branch after a training session (yes, librarians have to do training stuff) and for some reason I came across Soonish. One quick glance at the cover, led to hamster-like scanning of the chapters and before you can scream “Kelly Clarkson” I was bolting out the door with a checked out copy of Soonish. Even though I am a librarian, once in a while I always year to get back to my engineering roots (which will probably explain the Arduino kits scattered throughout my condo) and catch up on what’s going on in the scientific world. Bloody hell, I miss working in labs.
From space elevators/tethers, asteroid mining, programmable matter, robotic construction to augmented reality (AR), precision medicine, and bioprinting, the Weinersmiths paint a fascinating and intriguing futurescape of technology. To quote Timbuk3 (and I’ve always wanted to): “The future so bright, I gotta wear shades.” Well at least for those of you that grew up in or appreciate the 80s and its music. Being a big fan of robotics, I really latched on the chapters on programmable matter and robotic construction. Programmable matter is as cool as it sounds; think of a piece of paper that can fold itself into an origami piece like a swan or a fire breathing dragon carrying a white haired, gorgeous woman …er, sorry about that. But let’s face it, Emilia Clarke is the dog’s bullock, yeah? And yes, we’ve detoured (but such a good detour it is). Now imagine a house built with programmable matter systems where a kitchen can transform into a bathroom or bedroom. Fascinating stuff. Since we’re on the topic of robotics … robotic construction. Houses being built by robots. Cool (though many in the construction industry are going to be wearing their shitting pants and the art of female catcalling faces extinction). Yes, there is an actual roving robotic construction prototype out there. When they came out with 3D printers at some point, I heard myself say, “hey, won’t it be cool if they did this for human organs and tissues” and for a few weeks my head was swimming with visions of scanning tunneling microscopes, busy-body nanites immersed in a vat of amino acids and rigged to some strange elaborate (near-alien looking) printing apparatus. And then I went to binge watch the final season of Leverage. Thankfully, the science community isn’t as hamster-brained as I can be (sometimes) and … lo and behold … bioprinting. The future key to solve the organ donation crisis (just hoping it doesn’t turn into that remake of Repo Men with Jude Law).
Space elevators … what a concept … the ability to zip cargo from terra firma to low orbit stations that are tethered to the earth by miles upon miles of specially treated/enhanced cables … all without the costly NASA rocket blastoffs. Though I do worry about some twit or tosser terrorist walking by and deciding to “snip” the cable for pranks or disruption. I could go on and on about some of the things discussed in Soonish but I’ll be a downright wank for messing up your reading experience.
Zach and Kelly Weinersmith (both technological academics themselves) did something in Soonish very few technical writers can do: write about tech, make it entertaining … AND still manage to inform. Sure, Zach seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about (and against) Windows 10 ( I already love this chap), but then again which thinking PC user doesn’t. If it were up to me, I’d nominate that the Weinersmiths write all the science textbooks (for both schools and universities) and I’m willing to bet that there will be a surge in science studies … and a declining interest in bullshit music reality shows like The Voice and it’s rip-off rival, The Four (yes, I apparently did go there).

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Running title: Cyber War – The Next Threat To National Security and What To Do About It.

It has been awhile and I have been quite busy. Do forgive.

It is safe to assume that, prior to 9/11, the United States has had some sort of cyber-security infrastructure. After 9/11, cyber-security programs have grown and expanded across the border. From the Pentagon to United States Airforce (USAF), cyber-warfare and cyber-security is serious business. The question is, after 9/11, with all these tools in place, how safe are we? Enter CyberWar by Richard Clarke. Cleverly and brilliantly written, this book goes to great length to illustrate that  … yes … we’re still in dire straits when it comes to cyber-security when it comes to the US. Don’t get me wrong about this book is not meant to be alarmist, fearmongering prose that would most likely make you loose control of your bowels, but it is a wake up call to folks that work in the industry to really evaluate EVERY system that is out there. An eye-opener: China and North Korea not only has the ability shut themselves out  of the world wide web (sort of cyber-islands) but they also have the ability to launch some serious cyber-attacks. Oh right, I forgot to mention … very effective ones too. Now some may laugh at the possibility of a country shutting itself off the Internet. Oh ye of short memory. Only recently Egypt has proven this possibility. The fact that this stunned many people, pretty much made me a bit more worried. Another eye-opener: many of our utilities (powerplants, water-treatment, telephone, etc.) are not only online but are near 100% digital. No analog back-ups simply because it may seem to some that going analog is taking steps backward. As a former engineering student and computer-tech worker … I can’t help but mutter rapid fire WTFs at this. Me thinks that there is a lot of work to be done, and so does Mr. Clarke. The book, by no means (and as I have probably mentioned before), does not set out to cause us to start doing a Chicken Little. If anything it has shown that America is working hard at developing its cyber-infrastructure, in terms of defense and security. We just simply need to start to looking more closely at some of our systems out there. Well written, thought provoking book that is should be in the literary arsenal of anyone that works with computers and networks. A must read for anyone that uses computers and the Internet … and I’m guessing that’s probably most of us. Well … except the folks living under rocks.

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