Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Where There's a Wil

A few days ago I watched a video that affected me so deeply that it left me in a daze where I couldn't stop thinking about it, but I couldn't find the words to express what it meant to me either.

Now a few days have passed and I've been able to gather my wits sufficiently to write this.

There's something that has been bothering me for a long time. It relates to a delicate topic, really a taboo of sorts so I'm uncomfortable bringing it up for fear of how people might respond. The topic came up in a conversation recently, so I tried to explain it — the thing that bothers me — but the people I was talking to didn't understand at all. I don't know if it was them or me. The conversation left me even more bothered than I was before.

Then I saw this YouTube clip:

The video is of Savannah, an unassuming woman half my age, in the snow sort-of looking at the camera but having trouble maintaining eye contact, while the audio is Savannah speaking a message that she recorded separately.

Savannah starts talking about a technical glitch she experienced while making a video for Project 4 Awesome (P4A). P4A is an event where people make videos to promote a charity of their choice, and money is raised to support those charities. Her charity is Camp Goodtimes, a programme to support children affected by cancer and their families.

Creating a P4A video like that is pretty amazing, and the follow-up clip could have been about her feelings about the charity or the challenges of making a promotional video. Had I been following her previous videos, that's what I would have expected. But that's not what the follow-up clip was about.

Instead, the glitch caused Savannah to make a realisation that was totally unrelated to what she was doing; the same realisation that has been bothering me for so long. And she just SAYS IT. She says it better than I could ever imagine myself saying it.

Listening to that for the first time was a very emotional moment for me.

That could have been the end of the clip, and I still would have found it to be utterly amazing. Simply bringing awareness to this issue is a big deal to me. But there was more. However it took me a couple of days to get past that point; by that I mean I watched the rest of the video during that time, but I didn't really get it.

The rest of the clip was a call to help do something about this issue. There are lots of videos and Web sites that ask people for things, and most of us train ourselves to ignore such calls, so that's what I did at first. I still couldn't get the clip out of my head though so I went back to look at it multiple times a day.

After a couple of days I looked at the view count and the comments. The clip passed 10,000 views, which is not nothing but hardly a blip on the Internet today. I also saw at least one troll in the comments claiming how the whole issue is nonsense and the actions proposed won't help.

I thought to myself: why isn't this video catching on? Don't people understand? Don't they care?

That's when it hit me. The point of the clip was not to get a whole lot of people to understand or care; that's way too hard. The point was to get a smaller number of people who already understand and care to give and receive help.

The clip affected me so profoundly because I understand and care. The empathy I feel for this issue gives me an ability to help in a way that many other people can't or won't.

For years while I was working for a hospital I participated in their blood donor program. I had difficulty giving blood the first few donations but I persisted and after some experimentation I worked out how to fill the pint bag in 10 minutes without feeling sick or dizzy. However I saw lots of people come in wanting to donate but their bodies could not handle it at all, and they had to be turned away. Later I learned that my blood type (O+/Rh-) was very suitable for special kinds of transfusions, making me a valued donor. I learned to be grateful for the privilege of donating blood that others either were unable to or chose not to. I also learned not to judge others on whether they gave blood or not: there are so many different ways to give to others, and we all should be free to choose our own manner of giving.

I've never really done volunteer work before; I don't really count blood donation as volunteering, especially when the hospital I worked for made it so easy. However I think I can help with this. More than that, I think that I'm privileged to be the sort of person who can help with this, and it would be a waste to miss the opportunity to do so. So I signed up.

I don't expect many other people reading this to be affected by the video in the same way I was. However I would ask that you share the video so that others may have a chance to benefit from either giving or receiving help in this way.

PS. Some of you may have noticed that I do not say explicitly what the issue is. As I said earlier, Savannah said it much better than I ever could. Plus, I'm still not comfortable talking about it openly, at least not yet.

PPS. I really should get back into donating blood again.

Friday, January 6, 2012

How talking to your phone could change you

Both Android phones and iPhones have voice-controlled interface software, but their interfaces are very different. Android phones have Voice Search where the user speaks "commands" and the phone responds with results (or actions if programmed to do so). iPhones have the now-famous Siri where users "ask" the phone questions or requests and the phone responds in a human-like conversational style.

I'm a bit uncomfortable with using voice interfaces. I'm not sure why: perhaps it's because I don't want to sound like I'm talking to myself, or maybe I don't like the sound of my own voice. I'm really uncomfortable with the idea of talking to my phone or my computer as if it were a person. Once you start doing that I think it's a very short step before you start attributing real human characteristics to the machine.

Computer geeks are well-known for giving clever names to their computers and devices, but for me at least it's not a personal thing. Computers need names to help identify them on a network, and because computer geeks have multiple computers they like to use a naming scheme themed on something they have an interest in. I have named most of my past computers after monsters, and my current laptop is named 'wyvern'. However I have never actually talked to my computers the way many petrolheads are known to talk to their cars.

The episode of Radiolab I linked to below includes three stories of just how easy it is for people to start treating machines that pretend to be people as if they really were people, even when we know at a conscious level that they're machines. For me, the scariest story was the one in Clever Bots about Joseph Weizenbaum's secretary spending many hours after work "talking" to ELIZA about her personal life even though she was fully aware that ELIZA was not human. As someone who has difficulty with the art of human conversation, I can see how I could fall into a similar trap.

After listening to the program I felt that the science supported my concerns and I wasn't being overly paranoid. I support full discrimination between humans and machines. No rights for robots! And a big NO to human-robot marriage!!!

Source: Talking to Machines - Radiolab:

'via Blog this'

Will robo-wars become a cat-and-mouse game?

I think the current state of "robo-wars" is too imbalanced to be sustainable over the long term. The USA has launched over five times as many drone attacks against Pakistan (which it is not "at war" with) than manned bomber attacks in the Kosovo war 10 years ago, and the US military shows no sign of slowing down their use of semi-autonomous war machines.

It would be difficult for opponents of the US to match their level of spending and technology investment to build or acquire equivalent war-bots. However they might be able to find ways to turn these machines against their masters. This could vary from jamming a drone's control signals to take it down and convert them to the enemy's control, to planting malware inside a drone's control systems.

Drone malware doesn't need to be sophisticated to cause a lot of damage. One of the incidents mentioned in this radio program gives a clue on how this could happen. The malware could wait until the drone meets the conditions that suggest it is inside home base (e.g. a GPS location or receiving a control signal to dock) and then tell the drone to "go squirrely" (i.e. spin around in a circle firing all its weapons).

Autonomous and semi-autonomous war machines are amoral: they have no sense of 'loyalty'. It may be impossible to tell by looking at a robot (i.e. the hardware) that it's programming (i.e. the software) has changed. Soldiers are unlikely to be able to tell if and when one of their robots has been reprogrammed and is no longer 'trustworthy'.

As we have seen from Stuxnet, malware can be implanted at a very low level in embedded systems. When such malware activates, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish their effects from unintended software bugs.

Of course, once such war-bot malware appears, you can be sure that countries like the USA will work on developing countermeasures. A new technology cat-and-mouse game will then join the existing games of virus/antivirus and black-hat/white-hat.

Source: The morality of robo-wars: PW Singer - The Philosopher's Zone - ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation):

'via Blog this'

Indoors: Climate-Controlled Paradise or Toxic Gas Chamber?

Some of my work colleagues are a bit picky about the environmental conditions inside the office. The pickiest of them all is the group that I call "Management".

Management is very sensitive to bathroom odors, so makes a bit deal about using "air fresheners" to reduce the offensiveness of the smell. Management is also sensitive to temperature, and likes to keep the air conditioning set to a nice cool temperature. Opening the windows automatically disables the air conditioning, so Management usually keeps them closed.

Not much research has been done on indoor environments until relatively recently. One of the findings mentioned in this Future Tense program is that the chemicals in many air fresheners react to ozone to create toxic by-products. Most indoor ozone comes from outdoor air but is also generated by some equipment like laser printers. However once these toxic by-products are formed in a sealed indoors environment they tend to hang around for a while.

While these by-products are not being formed in high enough concentrations to cause office workers to suddenly drop dead all over the world, we don't yet know the health effects of long-term exposure to low concentrations of these by-products. For now, the best advise is to take it easy with the air fresheners and open the windows every once in a while.

Source: Indoor ecology - Future Tense - ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation):

'via Blog this'

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Proving atheists wrong with parodies

This image seems to be making the rounds on the Internet recently:

My first reaction was the same as that of many others: How could someone make an argument riddled with so many flaws of logic and science? They must have been morons!

After thinking about it more my questions changed to: How could someone make an argument riddled with so many flaws of logic and science? They must have been smartasses!

I thought it was a bit suspicious that it was the image itself was being circulated and not some site hosting it. No attribution on the image makes it hard to find its source and know who to blame. I thought it very suspicious that the author could handle multiplication and division of numbers in scientific notation, but somehow completely missed learning about the water cycle in school.

I'm now convinced that the image was created by some trolls as a parody, and not by serious Young Earth Creationists. However that hasn't stopped many people from laughing at it, and I'm sure there was derision in some of that laughter. Most responses were of the form "LOL don't they know about peeing?" A small few used it as a springboard to mount attacks against Creationists.

This phenomenon where people cannot distinguish between extremist views and parodies of such views is so common on the Internet that there is a name for it: Poe's law. In this particular case I was able to sniff out the parody even without the smiley-face, but I may not be so lucky next time. One should be careful of taking extremist viewpoints from anonymous or pseudonymous sources too seriously, as you risk fighting a position that nobody seriously holds.

Beyond the parody value, I think the argument is potentially useful as a critical-thinking exercise for middle school children (grades 7-10 or thereabouts). Identifying flawed logic in arguments is an important skill, and I'm not sure that modern education systems do a good job of teaching it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Paranoia of Social Networks

When I learned about MySpace, my greatest fear was that it would expose my personal information to identity thieves who would proceed to ruin my credit.

So I didn't sign up for MySpace.

When I learned about FaceBook, my greatest fear was that it would overshare personal information to the wrong people in my social groups and damage my relationships.

So if you have to ask...


When I learned about Google+, my greatest fear was that Google would eventually collect enough information about me that they could kidnap me and replace me with a replicant and nobody — not even my own family — would notice the difference.

So I signed up for Google+.

Even if my worst fears about Google+ come true, there's a good chance that my replicant would do a better job of being me than I have so far.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Moving Back Down Under

In less than two weeks I'll be moving back home.

For those that don't know, home for me is Sydney, Australia.

I have spent 13 years in Charlotte, North Carolina, and 12 of those years working for Carolinas Healthcare System (CHS for short). I had the pleasure of knowing and working with a number of good people at CHS. I also learned a lot about enterprise application development, from system integration to network application security to software design and architecture to maintenance and troubleshooting. I suspect there are not many IT environments where I could have learned so much about so many things as I did there, and I hope to put the lessons I learned to good use going forward.

My last day at CHS was this past Tuesday, November 30. It was quite a busy day for me, working to complete some final tasks even while I was finishing my packing and saying goodbyes, and I didn't get around to everyone I wanted to see that day. I think my supervisor anticipated this, which is why he scheduled my going away lunch for Thursday. It worked out better that way as I was able to say goodbye to everyone in my team at the lunch without me feeling rushed to get back to the office.

On Friday I'm making a day trip to Raleigh to attend CFLunch and chat a bit with members of the fine ColdFusion developer community in that area. After communicating with him so many times via email, Instant Messaging, and Skype, I look forward to talking in person to Model-Glue's Fearless Leader! On the way back to Charlotte I'll make a stop to visit an ex-boss and mentor. I have a lot of respect for him because he understood the software development process ... and because he wasn't afraid to kick my arse when I needed it :-)

Next week I plan to make farewell appearances at a CharLUG Mini Meet and an Adobe Charlotte December meeting.

The rest of my time will be spent panicking, furiously packing what I can fit in my luggage, and trying to find ways to sell or otherwise dispose of my furniture, electronics (including a CRT HDTV & 2 PCs), and anything else I happen to have. If you think I may have anything of interest to you, please contact me!

PS. You may also contact me if you're in the Charlotte area and are interested in a farewell L4D2 Steam LAN party: I have gift copies for people who can bring their own rig!

PPS. I regret that I won't be able to attend the CharlotteJS Holiday Party. CharlotteJS is a great group and I learned a lot from the meetups I attended. Garrett is a young but passionate and dedicated developer, and with him at the helm of CharlotteJS it's bound to keep getting better and better!