Friday, November 25, 2022

Is it the end of the Web as we know it?

Or maybe a better question is "What is this Web we speak of, anyway?"  My default answer: dunno, I'm figuring it out as I go along.

I think the last time I mulled that second question over, in the context of "Web 2.0" (Remember Web 2.0? I think it was one of the exits on the Information Superhighway), my opinion was that the big division was between everything that came before and "the Web", or "Web 1.0" as I don't recall anyone calling it very much.  In other words, that first time someone chased a link from one web page to another using a graphical browser was an epochal event, even if hardly anyone noticed at the time, and what's come after has been a steady stream of technical improvements and services founded on that base.

Two types of service in particular have been prominent over the last decade or so: social media and cryptocurrencies, and both seem to be in questionable shape at the moment.  I've cast a somewhat skeptical eye on both over the years, but that hasn't stopped them from intersecting with the lives of billions of people.

Billions in the case of social media, at least.  I don't actually know how many people own cryptocurrencies, directly or indirectly, but who among us hasn't seen an ad for one or another, or read about the latest crash/rugpull, not to mention the millions of people living in countries that have made cryptocurrencies a significant part of their monetary system, so I'd say billions there, too, depending on how you count.

But the past year has not been particularly kind to either.  This is all over the news at the moment, but just for later reference, let me list a few items of note

  • Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter is off to a rocky start.  My guess is that the new ownership will find some way to keep the servers running and reach some sort of new equilibrium, but with a sizable majority of the workforce either forcibly terminated or choosing "take the severance and get on with my life" over hardcore intensity, it's safe to say there will be a period of adjustment.  Major advertisers seem to be sitting on the sidelines in the meantime and, thanks to the billions in debt that came with the leveraged buyout, the burn rate has increased from "we'll be out of cash on hand in a couple of years if nothing changes" to "we'll owe more in interest this year than we have in the bank"
  • Facebook seems to have wandered off into the Metaverse.  This seems to me to be a classic case of optimistic extrapolation run amok.  Virtual reality is interesting technology.  It clearly at least has good potential for useful applications in areas like design and education.  Getting from there to a world where people spend comparable amounts of time in the virtual world to what they currently spend on scrolling through their feeds seems like a stretch.  Personally, I've tried out an Oculus, and there were definitely some cool things on offer, from a deeply moving immersive art piece on refugees to super slow-mo of a couple of guys making showers of sparks that you can walk around in.  But the age of those links should tell you how long ago that was.
  • No less than Ian Bogost, of Cow Clicker fame among many other things, has written an article entitled The age of social media is ending.  It should never have begun.  I'm incorrigibly skeptical about proclamations of the End of an Age, or the beginning of one for that matter, but Bogost makes some good points about the crucial distinction between social networking (good, and computers can be very helpful) and social media (the never-ending pursuit of clicks, shares, followers, content and so forth, not so good in Bogost's estimation).
  • Crypto exchange FTX has imploded, most likely taking SBF (its colorful founder Sam Bankman-Fried) down with it, the latest of many crypto plays that turned out, shockingly, to have been built atop a house of cards.
  • Bitcoin, the grandaddy of them all, has fallen from its all-time high of close to $69,000 to, at this writing, around $16,000, down over 75%.  Interestingly, the price of BTC had pretty closely tracked the price of the S&P 500, leveraged about 3:1, until the recent FTX fiasco sent it further down.  What it didn't do was rise as reserve currencies hit a round of inflation, which as I dimly understand it was what was supposed to happen.
  • The whole advent of crypto exchanges has only emphasized the disconnect between cryptocurrency in theory -- decentralized, anonymous, free from government interference -- and practice -- centralized by exchanges and mining pools, generally tied to bank accounts in reserve currencies and subject to government regulation from several directions.
Plenty of cold water to be thrown on social media and cryptocurrency enthusiasts, but does this mean the whole thing is coming to an end?

Social media doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  There's even been a rush of activity on Twitter, speculating about the demise of Twitter and what to do next, and if you want to use that as a jumping-off point for a rant about modern culture eating itself, be my guest.

Even if cryptocurrency is dead as an alternative to reserve currencies and more conventional payment systems -- I'm not saying it is or isn't, but even if -- I doubt it's going to stop trading anytime soon.  My personal benchmark for "crypto is dead" would be something on the order of "I can personally mine and take ownership of 1 BTC using my phone at a nominal cost".  We're quite a ways from that, but on the other hand there's still plenty of time left before the mining reward rounds down to zero sometime around the year 2140 at current rates.

In short, there are certainly some major disruptions going on in some of the major features of the Web landscape, but, in answer to the question in the title, they seem more like the kind of shakeup or reigning in of excess that seems to happen fairly regularly, rather than some sort of deathblow to the Web itself.  Webvan, anyone?


But then, as I asked at the top of the article, what is this Web we speak of, anyway?

Other than the time constraints of a busy life, I've been a bit reluctant to post here, and in fact started a whole other blog (which I also don't post on very frequently), because I had come to the conclusion that a lot of things I wanted to post about weren't really related to the Web.  Even here, one of my more recent posts was me fretting about what even is the Web any more and why am I not writing about it?

That post, though, mainly talked about what the Web means day to day.  For better or worse, a lot of that has to do with social media, and I have no interest in devoting a large chunk of my time to what's going on in social media.  Plenty of other people do want to do that and do a better job than I would.  But what is it that makes the Web webby, and how does that relate to the Web as it impacts our lives?

If you peel back all the layers, all the way back to that first link chased on that first graphical browser, the Web is about links.  If you've ever meandered from one Wikipedia article to the next, following links in the page or the "see also", you've been using the Web at its webbiest.  Likewise, I think, if you've browsed your favorite magazine and followed the links from one article to the next, within that publication or outside.  The web of interconnections is what makes the Web.

That primordial web is still around and likely isn't going anywhere, because this sort of browsing from one topic to the next is probably pretty tightly wired in to the way our brains work.  What has happened is that a couple of layers have grown on top of it.

One is search.  You can find all sorts of interesting things by browsing, but often you just want to know where to find, say, a replacement battery for your cordless vacuum.  Browsing would be a horrible way to go about that, but you don't have to.  Just type some likely terms into your search bar and there you are.  This is useful enough that companies can make quite a bit of money by running ads on a search platform, and I doubt it's going away, whatever the fortunes of the particular companies providing it.

Social media constitutes another layer on top of the web.  As I've mentioned before, I'm not active on social media, but it seems to me that while you can certainly browse the links of your social network to find people that people you know know, and you can follow links from a post/tweet/story/whatever to more things that you might be interested in, the main innovation in social media is the feed, which brings content to you without your having to search for it or stumble onto it.

This isn't limited to social media.  I spend quite a bit of time reading my news feed, anti-social though that may be.  In any case, I think there is a distinction to be made between information you actively seek out and information that some person you're following, or some algorithm, or some combination of the two, brings to you.  I doubt that this is going anywhere either, but it looks like there is some rethinking going on about how to control the feed of incoming information, and, to some extent, how much attention to pay to it at all.

Interestingly there was a lot of interest a while back in social search, where you could ask questions of the crowd and people would dig up answers, and people would get paid, and various companies would take various cuts, one way or another.  I think that fell by the wayside because automated search does a better job in many cases, and when it doesn't, asking someone you know without anyone in the middle generally works fine, or at least no worse than trying to ask a pool of random people.

Also interesting: Nothing in those last few paragraphs involves cryptocurrencies, even though I implied earlier that upheaval in that world might have something to do with "the end of the Web as we know it".  I think that's because, even if stories about cryptocurrency have been all over the web, cryptocurrency itself doesn't have much to do with the Web, because it just isn't webby in that primordial sense.  Following some sort of network of transactions, link to link, is not exactly played up as a major use case.


I've actually found working through this pretty encouraging.  A few posts ago (that is, over a year ago), I was ruminating on whether there was anything webby left that I might want to talk about.  Going back to first principles about what makes the Web the Web immediately revealed a view in which the very basis for the Web is alive and well, and aspects of it that are prominent now, like search and feeds, can at least be understood in relation to it.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Dear screenwriters: Bits can be copied

There's a new thriller movie out on one of the major streaming services.  I don't think it matters which movie or which service.  If you're reading this years from now, that statement will still probably true, at least to the extent there are still streaming services.  If you're pretty sure you know which 2022 movie this is referring to, but haven't seen it yet and want to, be warned.  There are mild spoilers ahead.

As with many such films, the plot revolves around a MacGuffin, a term apparently coined by Angus MacPhail, which Alfred Hitchcock famously glossed as "the thing that the spies are after, but the audience doesn't care."  In other words, it doesn't really matter what the MacGuffin actually is, only that the characters do care who gets it and so spend the whole film trying to make sure it ends up in the right place and doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

The plot device of a MacGuffin is much older than the term itself, of course.  The Holy Grail of Arthurian legend is one, and the oldest recorded story known so far, The Epic of Gilgamesh, sends its protagonist to the Underworld in search of one.

Clearly there's something in the human brain that likes stories about finding a magic item and keeping it away from the baddies, and in that sense the MacGuffin in the big streaming service movie is a perfectly good MacGuffin.  The protagonists and antagonists vie over it, it changes hands a few times, lots of things explode and eventually the MacGuffin is destroyed, ending its magic powers.

Except ...

The MacGuffin in this case is basically a gussied-up thumb drive containing information certain people do not want to become known.  Our protagonist receives the item early in the film (with suitable explosions all around) and promptly sends it off to a trusted colleague for safekeeping and decipherment.  Later we learn that the trusted colleague has, in fact, received the drive and cracked its encryption, revealing the damning information.

In real life, this is when you would make a backup copy.  Or a few.  Maybe hidden in the insignificant bits of JPEGs of cute kittens on fake cloud accounts with several different services.  Maybe on some confederate's anonymous server somewhere on the dark web.  Or at least on a couple more thumb drives.  For bonus points, swap out contents of the original thumb drive for a clip of the Dancing Baby or some similar slice of cheese.

(As I understand it, there are some encrypted devices that are tamper-resistant and designed not to be readable without some sort of key, so you can't easily copy the encrypted bits and try to crack the encryption offline, but here we're told that the encryption has already been cracked, so they have the plaintext and can copy it at will.)

The problem with that, of course, is that the drive would then cease to be a MacGuffin.  Why send teams of mercenaries and a few truckloads of explosives after something that might, at best, be one copy of the damning information?  The only real reason is that it makes for an entertaining way to spend an hour or two and screenwriters know all about writing MacGuffin-driven thriller plots.

Which is fine, except ...

If you think about the practicalities, there's still plenty of tension to be had even if the bits are copied.  Our protagonist has reason to want the secret information to remain secret except in case of a dire emergency, but they also want to be able to preserve it so that it can be released even if something happens to them.  How to do this?

If you've uploaded the bits to one of the major services, then who gets access to them?  Do you keep the information in a private file, memorize the account password and hope for the best?  What if you're captured and coerced into giving up the password?  On the other hand, if you die without revealing the information, it will just sit there until the account is closed, unless someone can figure out enough to subpoena the major service into handing over access to a bunch of cat pictures hiding the real information.  Which you encrypted, of course, so who has the key?

Maybe you share the encrypted bits with a journalist (or two, or three ...) with an "in case of my death" cover letter saying where to get the encryption key.  But what if they decide to go public with it anyway?  The more journalists, the better the chance one of them will publish if something happens to you, but also the better the chance that one of them will publish anyway.

Maybe you put the encrypted bits someplace public but write the encryption key on a piece of paper and lock it away in a safe deposit box in a Swiss bank.  Now you've traded one MacGuffin for another.  But maybe someone at a different spy agency has a backdoor into your encryption.  The baddies at your own agency are going to keep the contents to themselves, but maybe one of them has a change of heart, or gets double-crossed and decides to go public as revenge, and they need your copy since they no longer have access to the original bits and didn't make their own copy.

And so forth.  The point is that information doesn't really act like a physical object, even if you have a copy in physical form, but even so there are lots of ways to go, each with its own dramatic possibilities depending on the abilities and motivations of the various characters.  Most of these possibilities are pretty well-used themselves.  Plots driven by who has access to what information have been around forever, though some have paid more attention to the current technology than others -- "Did you destroy the negatives?" "Yes, but I didn't realize they'd left another copy of the photographs in a locker at the bus station ..."

Opting for a bit more realism here gives up the possibility of a "destroy the magic item, destroy the magic" plot, but it opens up a host of other ones that could have been just as interesting.  On the other hand, the movie in question doesn't seem to blink at the possibility of a full-on gun battle and massive explosions in the middle of a European capital in broad daylight.  Maybe realism was never the point to begin with, since that seems pretty unlikely.

Oh, wait ...


Thursday, June 2, 2022

Check out this new kitchen hack!

In case that title somehow clickbaited you to this quiet backwater, no this isn't really about cooking, but for your trouble: The easiest and least tearful way I know to slice onions is to cut them in half lengthwise, so each half has a little piece of the roots holding it together.  If you think of the roots as the South Pole and the stem end as the North Pole, the first slice is from north to south.

Chop off the stalk end and peel off the outer layers, under cold running water if that seems to help (I think this is a little easier than slicing the stem off first, but your mileage may vary).  Put the halves down on the flat side and slice vertically with the slices parallel, running north-south.  Julia Child recommends another pass, horizontally, still slicing north-south, and who am I to argue?  At this point, the root and the shape of the onion layers are still holding everything together.  Finally, slice vertically, but with the slices running east-west.  Each cut slices off a little pile of nicely diced pieces.

This isn't new -- I first heard about it on a Chef Tell segment many years ago, Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961 and I'm sure it's been around much longer -- but it works a charm.  Bon Apetit, and remember that a dull kitchen knife is more dangerous than a sharp one.


So it's not new, but is it a hack?  And what's with all these "life hack" articles that have nothing to do with writing clever code?

For my money, the onion-dicing method is absolutely a nice hack.  A hack, really, is an unexpected way of using something to solve a problem.  The usual way to dice something is to slice it, then cut the slices crosswise into strips, then cut the strips crosswise into little dice.  If you try that with an onion, the root is in the way of the north-south slices described above, and the easy way to start is to slice it east-west, into rings.  You then have to dice up the rings, which are hard to stack since they're already separated, and like to slide around and separate into individual rings, and have a lot of exposed surface area to give off tear-producing onion fumes.  In short, you have a mess.

The chef's method takes advantage of the two things that otherwise cause problems:  It uses the root end to hold things in place and keep the exposed area to a minimum, and it uses the layering of the onion to save on cutting (if you omit the horizontal slices, as I usually do, you still get decently-diced pieces, good for most purposes, just a bit coarser).  This is the essence of a hack: using something in a non-obvious way to get the result you want.  It's particularly hackish to take advantage of something that seems to be an obstacle.

Not every hack is nice, of course.  The other popular meaning of hacking, that many geeks including myself find annoying, the computing analog of breaking and entering or vandalizing someone's property, stems from a particular type of hacking: finding unexpected vulnerabilities in a system and taking advantage of them to break the system's security.  As I've discussed at length elsewhere, this isn't necessarily bad.  White hat hackers do just this in order to find and patch vulnerabilities and make systems more secure.  The annoying part isn't so much that hack is associated with breaking and entering, but that it's associated with any kind of breaking and entering, regardless of whether there's any skill or actual hacking -- in the sense of making unexpected use of something -- involved.

I should note somewhere that hack often has negative connotations in software engineering for a completely different reason: If you take advantage of some undocumented feature of a system just to get something working, you have a fragile solution that is liable to break if the system you're hacking around changes in a future update.  In widely-used systems this leads to Hyrum's law, which basically says that people will write to what your system does, regardless of what you say it does, and with enough people using it, any externally visible change in behavior will break someone's code, even if it's not supposed to.

Hacking lives in gray areas, where behavior isn't clearly specified.  "Dice this onion with this knife" doesn't say exactly how to dice the onion.  Someone taking advantage of a quirk in an API can usually say "nothing said I couldn't do this".  There's nothing wrong with unspecified behavior in and of itself.  It's actively helpful if it gives people latitude to implement something in a new and better way.  The trick is to be very specific about what can happen, but put as few restrictions as possible on how.

There's an art to this.  If you're writing a sorting library, you could say "It's an error to try to sort an empty collection of things".  Then you have to make sure to check that, and raise an error if the input is empty, and whoever's using your library has to be careful never to give it an empty collection.  But why should it be an error?  A collection with only one thing in it is always sorted, since there's nothing else for it to get out of order with.  By that reasoning, so is an empty collection.  If you define sorted as "everything in order", that raises the question "but what if there isn't anything?".

If you define sorted as "nothing out of order -- no places where a bigger thing comes before a smaller thing", then the question goes away.  If there isn't anything in the collection, nothing's out of order and it's already sorted.  In math, something is vacuously true if there's no way to make it false.  "Nothing out of order" is vacuously true for an empty collection.  Often, allowing things to be vacuously true makes life easier by sidestepping special cases.

As a general rule, the fewer special cases you need to specify what happens, the easier a system is to write and maintain, the more secure it is against unwanted forms of hacking like security exploits and Hyrum's law, and the friendlier it is to good kinds of hacking, like people finding clever new ways to improve the implementation or to use the system.


So what about all this "life hacking"?  Should people use computing jargon for things that have nothing to do with computing?  I have two answers.

First, the term hack isn't really about computing.  It's about problem solving.  The first definition in the Jargon File (aka Hacker's Dictionary) is "Originally, a quick job that produces what is needed, but not well.", with no mention of computing, and elsewhere it attributes early use of the term to ham radio hobbyists.  As it happens, the actual definitions of hack in the Jargon File don't really include "using something in a non-obvious way to get the result you want", but I'd argue that the definition I gave is consistent with the The Meaning of 'Hack' section.

Second, though, even if hack was originally only applied to coding hacks, so what?  Language evolves and adapts.  Extending hack to other clever tricks reveals something new about what people are trying to get at by using the word, and in my view it's a lot better than restricting it to security exploits, clever or not.  Sure, not every "kitchen hack" or "life hack" is really that hackish, and headline writers are notoriously pressed for time (or lazy, if you're feeling less generous), but there are plenty of non-computing hacks floating around now that are just as hackish as anything I've ever done with code.


Thursday, October 28, 2021

Why so quiet?

I hadn't meant for things to go so quiet here, and it's not just a matter of being busy.  I've also been finding it harder to write about "the web", not because I don't want to, but because I'm just not running across as many webby things to write about.

That got me thinking, just what is the web these days?  And that in turn got me thinking that the web is, in a way, receding from view, even as it becomes more and more a part of daily life, or, in fact, because it's more and more a part of daily life.

There is still plenty of ongoing work on the technical side.  HTML5 is now a thing, and Adobe Flash is officially "end of life" (though there's a bit of a mixed message in that Adobe's site for it still says "Adobe Flash Player is the standard for delivering high-impact, rich Web content." right below the banner that says "Flash Player’s end of life is December 31st, 2020").  Microsoft has replaced Internet Explorer with Edge, built on the Chromium engine.  Google is working to replace cookies.  I realize those are all fairly Google-centric examples, and I don't want to imply that no one else is doing important work.  Those were just the first examples that came to mind, for some strange reason.

On the one hand, those are all big developments.  Adobe Flash was everywhere.  It's hard to say how many web pages used it, but at the peak, there would be on the order of billions of downloads when Adobe pushed a release, because it was in every browser.  Internet Explorer was the most-used browser for over a decade, and the standard browser on Windows, which would put its user base in the billions as well (even if some of us only used it to download Chrome).  Somewhere around 20% of web sites, however many that is, use cookies.

On the other hand, they are all nearly invisible.  I can remember a few times, early in the process a couple of years ago, when Chrome wouldn't load some particular website because Flash was disabled, but not enough to cause any real disruption.  I'm sure that the shift from Explorer to Edge was disruptive to some, but when I set up a laptop for a relative a little while ago, they were much more concerned with being able to check email, write docs or play particular games than which browser was making that happen.  As for cookies, I haven't looked into exactly how they're being replaced, because I don't have to and I haven't made time to look it up.

Because the web is everywhere, the huge number of websites and people browsing means that it's most important to keep everything running smoothly.  Unless you're introducing some really amazing new feature, it's usually bad news if anyone knows that you made some change behind the scenes (whatever you think of Facebook as a company, please spare a thought for the people who had to deal with that outage -- even with a highly-skilled, dedicated team keeping the wheels turning, these things can happen, and it can be devastating to those involved when it does).

The upshot here is that I don't really have much interesting to say about much of the technical infrastructure behind everyday web experience.  Besides not having been close to the standards process for several years,  I figured out very early that I didn't want to write about the standards and protocols themselves -- there are plenty of people who can do that better than I can -- but how they appear in the wild.  Thus the field notes conceit.

It was interesting to write about, say, Paul Vixie's concerns about DNS security or what copyrights mean in the digital age, but topics like that seem less interesting today.   Regardless of the particular threats, the real benchmark of computer security is whether people are willing to put their money on the web -- buy, sell, send money to friends, check their bank statements or retirement accounts, and so forth.  That's been the case for a while now, through a combination of security technology and legal protections.  Importantly, the technology doesn't have to be perfect, and a good thing, that.

The question of how creators get paid on the web is still shaking out, but one the one hand, I think this is one of those problems that is always shaking out without ever getting definitively resolved, and on the other hand, I'm not sure I have anything significant to add to the discussion.


As much as I don't want to write a purely technical blog, I also don't want to lose sight of the technical end entirely.  I'm a geek by training and by nature.  The technical side is interesting to me, and it's also where I'm most likely to know something that isn't known to a general audience.

Obviously, a lot of the important discussion about the web currently is about social media, but I don't want to jump too deeply into that pool.  Not only is it inhabited by a variety of strange and not-always-friendly creatures, but if I were commenting on it extensively, I'd be commenting on sociology, psychology and similar fields.  I muse about those on the other blog, but intermittently conjecturing about what consciousness is or how language works is an entirely different thing from analyzing social media.

Even so, Twitter is one of the top tags here, ironic since I don't have a Twitter account (or at least not one that I use).

My main point on social media was that some of the more utopian ideas about the wisdom of crowds and the self-correcting nature of the web don't tend to hold up in practice.  I made that point in the context of Twitter a while ago, in this post in particular.  I wasn't the first and I won't be the last.  I think it's pretty widely understood today that the web is not the idyllic place some said it would be a few decades ago (not that that kept me from commenting on that very topic in the most recent post before this one).

On the other hand, it might be interesting to look into why the web can be self-correcting, if still not idyllic, under the right circumstances.  Wikipedia comes to mind ...


Finally, I've really been trying to keep the annoyances tag down to a dull roar.  That might seem a bit implausible, since it's generally the top tag on the list (48 posts and counting), but in my defense it's fairly easy to tell if something's annoying or not, as opposed to whether its related to, say, copyrights, publishing, both or neither, so it doesn't take a lot of deliberation to decide to apply that label.  Also, with the web a part of everyday life, there's always something to be annoyed about.


So if you take out "technical stuff that no one notices unless it breaks", "social media critiques", "annoying stuff, unless maybe it's particularly annoying, funny or interesting", along with recusing myself from "hmm ... what's Google up to these days?", what's left?

Certainly something.  I haven't stopped posting entirely and I don't plan to.  On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be as much low-hanging fruit as there used to be, at least not in the particular orchard I'm wandering through.  Some of this, I think, is because the web has changed, as I said up top.  Some of it is because my focus has changed.  I've been finding the topics on the other blog more interesting, not that I've been exactly prolific there either.  Some of it is probably the old adage that if you write every day, there's always something to say, while if you write infrequently, it's hard to get started.

A little while ago, I went through the whole blog from the beginning and made several notes to myself to follow up, so I may come back to that.  In any case new topics will certainly come up (one just did, after all, about why Wikipedia seems to do much better at self-correcting).  I think it's a safe bet, though, that it will continue to be a while between posts.  Writing this has helped me to understand why, at least.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Please leave us a 5-star review

It's been long enough that I can't really say I remember for sure, and I can't be bothered to look it up, but as I recall, reviews were supposed to be one of the main ways for the web to correct itself.  I might advertise my business as the best ever, even if it's actually not so good, but not to worry.  The reviewers will keep me honest.  If you're searching for a business, you'll know to trust your friends, or you'll learn which reviewers are worth paying attention to, good information will drive out bad and everyone will be able to make well-informed decisions.

This is actually true, to an extent, but I think it's about the same extent as always.  Major publications try to develop a reputation for objective, reliable reviews, as do some personalities, but then, some also develop a reputation for less-than-objective reviews.  Some, even, may be so reliably un-objective that there's a bit of useful information in what they say after all.  And you can always just ask people you know.

But this is all outside the system of customer reviews that you find on web sites all over the place, whether provided by the business itself, or companies that specialize in reviews.  These, I personally don't find particularly useful or, if I were feeling geekly, I'd say the signal/noise ratio is pretty low.  It turns out there are a couple of built-in problems with online reviews, that were not only predictable, but were predicted at the time.

First, there's the whole question of identity on the internet.  In some contexts, identity is an easy problem: an identity is an email address or a credit or debit account with a bank, or ownership of a particular phone, or something similar that's important to a person in the real world.  Email providers and banks take quite a bit of care to prevent those kind of identities from being stolen, though of course it does still happen.  

However, for the same reason, we tend to be a bit stingy with this kind of identity.  I try hard not give out my credit card details unless I'm making an actual purchase from a reputable merchant, and if my credit card details do get stolen, that card will get closed and a new one opened for the same account.  Likewise, I try not to hand out my personal email or phone number to just anyone, for whatever good that does.

When it comes to reviews, though, there's no good way to know who's writing.  They might be an actual customer, or an employee of the business in question, or they might be several time zones away writing reviews for money, or they might even be a bot.   Platforms are aware of this, and many seem to do a good job of filtering out bogus reviews, but there's always that lingering doubt.  As with identities in general, the stakes matter.  If you're looking at a local business, the chances are probably good that everyone who's left a review has actually been there, though even then they might still have an axe to grind.  In other contexts, though, there's a lot more reason to try to game the system.

But even if everyone is on the up-and-up and leaving the most honest feedback they can, there are still a few pitfalls.  One is selection bias.  If I've had a reasonably good experience with a business, I'll try to thank the people involved and keep them in mind for future work, or mention them if someone asks, but I generally don't take time to write a glowing review -- and companies that do that kind of work often seem to get plenty of business anyway.

If someone does a really horrible job, or deals dishonestly, though, I might well be in much more of a mood to share my story.  Full disclosure: personally I actually don't tend to leave reviews at all, but it's human nature to be more likely to complain in the heat of the moment than to leave a thoughtful note about a decent experience, or even an excellent experience.  In other words, you're only seeing the opinions of a small portion of people.  That wouldn't be so bad if the portion was chosen randomly, but it's anything but.  You're mostly seeing the opinions of people with strong opinions, and particularly, strong negative opinions.

The result is that reviews tend to cluster toward one end or the other.  There are one-star "THIS PLACE IS TERRIBLE!!!" reviews, there are five-star "THIS PLACE IS THE MOST AWESOME EVER!!!" reviews, and not a lot in between.  A five-point scale with most of the action at the endpoints is really more of a two-point scale.  In effect, the overall rating is the weighted average of the two: the number of one-star reviews plus five times the number of five-star reviews, divided by the total number of reviews.  If the overall rating is close to five, then most of the reviews were 5-star.  If it's 3, it's much more likely that the good and the bad are half-and-half than most of the reviews being 3-star.

The reader is left to try to decide why the reviewers have such strong opinions.  Did the car wash do a bad job, or was the reviewer somehow expecting them to change the oil and rotate the tires as well and then get angry when they didn't?  Is the person praising a consultant's integrity actually just their cousin?  Does the person saying that a carpenter did a great job with their shelves actually know much about carpentry or did they just happen to like the carpenter's personality?  If the shelves collapse after a year and a half, are they really going to go back and update their review?  Should they, or should they maybe not store their collection of lead ingots from around the world on a set of wooden shelves?

Specifics can help, but people often don't provide much specific detail, particularly for positive reviews, and when they do, it's not always useful.  If all I see is three five-star reviews saying "So and so was courteous, professional and did great work", I'm not much better off than when I started.  If I see something that starts out with "Their representative was very rude.  They parked their truck in a place everyone in the neighborhood knows not to park.  The paint on the truck was chipped.  Very unprofessional!" I might take what follows with a grain of salt.


There's a difference, I think, between an opinion and a true review.  A true review is aimed at laying out the information that someone else might need to make a decision.  An opinion is just someone's general feeling about something.  If you just ask people to "leave a review", you're going to get a lot more personal impressions than carefully constructed analyses.  Carefully constructing an analysis is work, and no one's getting paid here.

Under the "wisdom of crowds" theory, enough general impressions will aggregate into a complete and accurate assessment.  A cynic would say that this is like hoping that if you put together enough raw eggs, you'll end up with a soufflĂ©, but there are situations where it can actually work (for a crowd, that is, not for eggs).  The problem is that in many cases you don't even have a crowd.  You have a handful of people with their various experiences and opinions.


This all reaches its logical conclusion in the gig economy.  When ride share services first started, I used to think for a bit about what number to give a driver.  "They were pretty good, but I wish they had driven a bit less (or in some cases maybe more) aggressively".  "The car was pretty clean, but there was a bit of a funny smell" or whatever.

Then I started noticing that almost all drivers had 5-star ratings, or close.  The number before the decimal point doesn't really mean anything.  You're either looking at 5.0 or 4.something.  A 4.9 is still a pretty good rating, but a 4.0 rating is actually conspicuously low.  I don't know the exact mechanics behind this, but the numbers speak for themselves.

It's a separate question to what extent we should all be in the business of rating each other to begin with, but I'll let Black Mirror speak to that.

Following all this through, if I give someone a 4-star review for being perfectly fine but not outstanding, I may actually be putting a noticeable dent in their livelihood, and if I give someone 3 stars for being pretty much in the middle, that's probably equivalent to their getting a D on a test.  So anyone who's reasonably good gets five stars, and if they're not that good, well, maybe they were just having a bad day and I'll just skip the rating.  If someone actively put my life in danger, sure, they would get an actual bad rating and I'd see if I could talk to the company, but beyond that ... everyone is awesome.

Whatever the reasons, I think this is a fairly widespread phenomenon.  Reviews are either raves or pans, and anyone or anything with reviews much short of pure raves is operating at a real disadvantage.  Which leads me back to the title.

Podcasts that I listen to, if they mention reviews at all, don't ask "Please leave a review so we can tell what's working and what we might want to improve".  They ask "Please leave a 5-star review".  The implication is that anything less is going to be harmful to their chances of staying in business.  Or at least that's my guess, because I've heard this from science-oriented podcasts and general-interest shows that clearly take care to present their stories as objectively as they can, the kind of folks who might genuinely appreciate a four-star review with a short list of things to work on.

This is a shame.  A five-point scale is pretty crude to begin with, but when it devolves to a two-point scale of horrible/awesome, it's not providing much information at all, pretty much the opposite of the model that I'm still pretty sure people were talking about when the whole ratings thing first started.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

One thing at a time

 As much as I gripe about UX annoyances (and all manner of other annoyances), I really do try to look out for specific ways to improve.  I don't come up with many, most likely because UX is hard and lots of people who are better at it than I am have spent a lot of time on the problem and come up with a lot of good ideas.  Much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and so has a lot of the not-so-low-hanging fruit.

However, while grumbling at a particular web page today, I think I hit upon a good rule.  I doubt it's new, because a lot of sites follow it (and see above regarding fruit), but a lot don't, so I'll put it out here anyway, for my vast audience, just in case.

Changing one setting on a page should only change the corresponding thing(s) on that page

For example, say I'm looking at statistics on farm production in US states.  I can rank output by, say, yield per acre, dollar value, amount per capita and dollar value per capita.  I can pick a specific list of states or crops.  I pick corn and soybeans for crops and North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma for states.  Up comes a nice table, initially sorted alphabetically by state.  I change the sorting order to dollars per capita, from high to low.  So far so good.

Now I decide to add wheat to the set of crops.  On a well-designed page, I will now see the same data, for the new set of crops, sorted the same way as before.  On all too many sites, I see the data for corn, beans and wheat, but sorted alphabetically by state, because that's how all tables start life.  I changed one thing -- which crops I'm interested in -- but two things changed, namely the data being shown and the sort order.  I only wanted one thing to change, namely the set of crops.

This is a small example, but I'd be surprised if you haven't run across something similar.  As described, it's a minor annoyance, but as the options get more sophisticated, annoyance turns into unusability.  If I've spent five minutes setting up a graph or chart of, say, crop distribution as a function of latitude, I don't want that all to go away if I decide to include Colorado or Iowa in my set of states.

This is not to say you can't have settings with wider-ranging effects.  If there's a tab on the page for, say, trends in agricultural veterinary medicine, I wouldn't expect my graph of crop production to stick around (though I would very much like it to still be there if I go back to its tab).  That's fine.  I changed one setting, but it's a big setting and the "corresponding things" that need changed are correspondingly big.

Again, this is nothing new.  For example, it fits nicely into considerate software remembers.  Still, it's often useful to find specific examples of more general principles.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Still here, still annoyed with the internet

Looks like it's been several months since the last post, which has happened before but probably not for quite this long.  I've been meaning to put something up, first about working from home (or WFH as we like to call it), then more about machine learning (or ML as we like to call it), which seems to be going interesting places but probably not as far and fast as some might say.  I probably will get back to at least one of those topics, but so far, having settled into a new routine, I just haven't worked in much time for the blogs.

I have been reading quite a bit, on various topics, a lot of it on my phone.  I've managed to train my news feed to deliver a reasonable mix of nerdy stuff, light entertainment and what's-going-on-in-the-world.  I'm often happy to read the light entertainment in particular, since I get to use my analytical brain plenty between work and writing the occasional analytical blog post.  The only problem with the light reading is the actual reading.

I've always said that writers, and "content creators" in general, need to get paid, and I don't mind having to look at the occasional ad or buy the occasional subscription to support that.  It's just that the actual mechanics of this are getting a bit out of hand.

Generally one of three things happens.  For major outlets, or most of the nerdy stuff, or publications for which I do have a subscription, I click through and read.  Great.

If there's a paywall, I usually see the first paragraph or so, enough to confirm what the article is about, and then a button asking me to join in order to see more.  I pretty much never do, even though I'm fine with the concept and subscriptions are generally pretty cheap, because
  • Dude, I just wanted to read the article and it sure would have been nice to have seen a paywall notice before I clicked through (sometimes they're there, but usually not).
  • I'm leery of introductory rates that quietly start charging you more because you forgot to go back and cancel.
  • And combining the previous two items, I don't really want to dig through the subscription terms and find out how much I'm really paying and what I'm actually paying for.
I'm a bit more amenable to the "You have N free articles left this month" approach, because I get to read the particular article I was interested in and figure out the subscription stuff at my leisure.  I seldom get around to that last part, but nonetheless I think all the subscriptions I've actually bought have been on that basis.  I'm sure there have been theses written about the psychology behind that.

Having re-read the whole blog a while ago, I recall that Xanadu advocated for a similar pay-as-you-go approach.  As far as I could tell from the demo I saw, it would have led to a sort of taxicab-like "meter is running" experience.  This seems even slightly less pleasant than paywalls and subscriptions, but Xanadu could probably have supported either model, in theory.

The more common experience, of course, is ads, particularly in the light entertainment department.  What happens is interesting: You see the ads so much you don't see them, and depending on your level of patience, you might not bother to see the light entertainment either.

Suppose you run across a suitably light-looking title.  Some popular ones are "Learn something new about <your favorite movie, album, artist etc.>" and "N best/worst/most surprising/... Xs".  In either case, there are always two or three paragraphs of things you already know.  "My Cousin the Vampire Chauffeur [not a real movie that I know of] was one of the great hits of the 1980s, starring Moviestar McMoviestarface as the vampire and That One Actor as their best friend.  At first, the friend only thinks it's a little odd that the Chauffeur only drives at night and has removed the rearview mirror from the car, but events take an unexpected turn when ..."  Yep, knew that.  I clicked through on this because I liked that movie so yes, I've seen it.

About that time the whole screen starts to rearrange itself as various ad-things jostle for position.  Often, it all settles back down with the text you were reading still in roughly the same place, but sometimes you have to scroll.  About the same time, a video starts playing across the bottom of the screen.  There's generally a tiny "x" box at the corner to make it go away, but that's a fool's errand.  Another hydra head will regrow to take its place, and there's always the chance you'll accidentally click through instead of dismissing.  Instead, stare steadfastly at the text on the screen and nothing else, secure in the knowledge that the whole "subliminal advertising" thing was most likely overblown.

Finish the paragraph you're on and scroll past the display ad between it and the next paragraph.  With a fair wind and a favorable moon phase, you'll get to the next paragraph.  If not, the game of musical chairs will resume until the new batch of ads have all found places, at which point I generally head for the exit.  But you persevere.  You quickly realize that this paragraph as well is more filler, so you try to scroll to the bottom for the nugget of information you were really after.  You scroll too far, too fast, and land in a column of photos and links for similar articles, some of which you've already read because, well, we're all human, right?

Scroll back up and you find the object of your quest, that last paragraph, derive whatever edification you can from it and hit the back button.  Rather than going back to the news feed, you quite likely go back to a previous version of the page you were reading, and maybe another after that, before ending up back in civilization.  I could write a whole other rant about "Why doesn't the back button just take me back?" but I'm not sure that would improve either my life or yours.

I mean, in the grand scheme of things this is all pretty trivial, but then, in the grand scheme of things so is this blog, so I guess we're even.

Except for ads in the middle of lists-of-N-things that disguise their click-through buttons as "next item" buttons.  Those are pure evil.

So, still here, still annoyed with the internet.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Did the internet kill the radio tower?

"Half your advertising budget is wasted.  You just don't know which half."

The other day I turned on my radio on the drive home from work.  There was a breaking news story I was interested in ("breaking" as in, it was actually happening at the time, not "someone told the Chyron writer to make something look important").  I hadn't done that in months.  Years ago, listening to the radio was an integral part of making a cross-country trip, just as reading the Sunday funnies and (lightly) browsing the rest of the newspaper used to be a regular habit.  Even not so long ago, listening to the news on the way home was the default option.

Then came podcasts.  I was a bit late to the game, mostly because I'm somewhat deliberately lazy about adopting new technology, but once I got a suitable app set up to my liking, podcasts rapidly took over.  I could pick out whatever information or entertainment I wanted streamed into my brain, rewind or fast forward as needed and never have to worry about reception.  The only downside is needing to get everything set up nicely before actually starting the car moving.  I'm sure there are apps for that, but as I said, I'm a bit lazy about apps and such.

I know that people still listen to the radio.  Somehow my switching over didn't magically cause everyone else to stop tuning in to their favorite on-air personalities and call-in shows.  But for a certain kind of listener, there's little reason to fiddle with a radio.  Chances are you can livestream your favorite sports events if you like, though then you do have to worry about reception.

Podcasts, livestreams and other online content don't just change things for listeners.  There's a crucial difference for the people creating and distributing the content.  Even if "podcast" deliberately sounds like "broadcast", it's actually a classic example of narrowcasting -- delivering content directly to the "content consumers" based on their particular preferences.

Broadcasting is anonymous.  I send a signal into the ether and whoever picks it up picks it up.  I have no direct way of knowing how many people are listening, much less who.  Obviously this is much more anonymous than the internet.  It also has economic implications.

There are two main ways of paying for content: subscription and advertising.  In either case, it's valuable to know exactly who's on the other end.  Narrowcasting gives very find-grained information about that, while broadcasting provides only indirect, aggregated information based on surveys or, failing that, the raw data of who's buying advertising and how much they're paying.  Between that and satellite radio's subscription model, is there any room left for broadcast radio?

Probably.  I mean, it hasn't gone away yet, any more than printed books have.

Sure, broadcasters and the people who advertise on broadcast radio don't have detailed information about who's listening to the ads, but that may not matter.  The advertiser just needs to know that spending $X on old-fashioned radio advertising brings in more than $X in business.  The tools for figuring that out have been around since the early days of radio.

If people still find radio advertising effective, the broadcaster just has to know that enough people are still buying it to keep the lights on and the staff paid.  In a lot of cases that staff is shared across multiple physical radio stations anyway (and the shows, I would expect, are sent to those stations over the internet).  In other words, it may be valuable to know in detail who's listening to what, but it's not essential.

On the other hand, if broadcast radio does go away, I probably won't find out about it until I happen to switch my car audio over to it and nothing's there.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Space Reliability Engineering

In a previous post on the Apollo 11 mission, I emphasized the role of software architecture, and the architect Margaret Hamilton in particular, in ensuring the success of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.  I stand by that, including the assessment of the whole thing as "awesome" in the literal sense, but as usual there's more to the story.

Since that non-particularly-webby post was on Field Notes, so is this one.  What follows is mostly taken from the BBC's excellent if majestically paced podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon [I hope to go back and recheck the details directly at some point, but searching through a dozen or so hours of podcast is time-consuming and I don't know if there's a transcript available -- D.H.], which in turn draws heavily on NASA's Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.

I've also had a look at Ars Technica's No, a "checklist error" did not almost derail the Apollo 11 mission, which takes issue with Hamilton's characterization of the incident and also credits Hal Laning as a co-author of the Executive portion of the guidance software which ultimately saved the day (to me, the main point Hamilton was making was that the executive saved the day, regardless of the exact cause of the 1202 code).

Before getting too far into this, it's worth reiterating just how new computing was at the time.  The term "software engineer" didn't exist (Hamilton coined it during the project -- Paul Niquette claims to have coined the term "software" itself and I see no reason to doubt him).  There wasn't any established job title for what we now call software engineers.  The purchase order for the navigation computer, which was the very first order in the whole Apollo project, didn't mention software, programming or anything of the sort.  The computer was another piece of equipment to be made to work just like an engine, window, gyroscope or whatever.  Like them it would have to be installed and have whatever other things done to it to make it functional.  Like "programming" (whatever that was).

In a way, this was a feature rather than a bug.  The Apollo spacecraft have been referred to, with some justification, as the first fly-by-wire vehicles.  The navigational computer was an unknown quantity.  At least one astronaut promised to turn the thing off at the first opportunity.  Flying was for pilots, not computers.

This didn't happen, of course.  Instead, as the podcast describes so well, control shifted back and forth between human and computer depending on the needs of the mission at the time, but it was far from obvious at the beginning that this would be the case.

Because the computer wasn't trusted implicitly, but treated as just another unknown to be dealt with, -- in other words, another risk to be mitigated -- ensuring its successful operation was seen as a matter of engineering, just like making sure that the engines were efficient and reliable, and not a matter of computer science.  This goes a long way toward explaining the self-monitoring design of the software.

Mitigating the risk of using the computer included figuring out how to make it as foolproof as possible for the astronauts to operate.  The astronauts would be wearing spacesuits with bulky gloves, so they wouldn't exactly be swiping left or right, even if the hardware of the time could have supported it.  Basically you had a numeric display and a bunch of buttons.  The solution was to break the commands down to a verb and a noun (or perhaps more accurately a predicate and argument), each expressed numerically.  It would be a ridiculous interface today.  At the time it was a highly effective use of limited resources [I don't recall the name of the designer who came up with this. It's in the podcast --D.H.].

But the only way to really know if an interface will work is to try it out with real users.  Both the astronauts and the mission control staff needed to practice the whole operation as realistically as possible, including the operation of the computer.  This was for a number of reasons, particularly to learn how the controls and indicators worked, to be prepared for as many contingencies as possible and to try to flush out unforeseen potential problems.  The crew and mission control conducted many of these simulations and they were generally regarded as just as demanding and draining as the real thing, perhaps moreso.

It was during one of the simulations that the computer displayed a status code that no one had ever seen before and therefore didn't know how to react to.  After the session was over, flight director Gene Kranz instructed guidance software expert Jack Garman to look up and memorize every possible code and determine what course of action to take when it came up.  This would take a lot of time searching through the source code, with the launch date imminent, but it had to be done and it was.  Garmin produced a handwritten list of every code and what to do about it.

As a result, when the code 1202 came up with the final opportunity to turn back fast approaching, capsule communicator (CAPCOM) Charlie Duke was able to turn to guidance controller Steve Bales, who could turn to Garman and determine that the code was OK if it didn't happen continuously.  There's a bit of wiggle room in what constitutes "continuously", but knowing that the code wasn't critical was enough to keep the mission on track.  Eventually, Buzz Aldrin noticed that the code only seemed to happen when a particular radar unit was being monitored.  Mission Control took over the monitoring and the code stopped happening.


I now work for a company that has to keep large fleets of computers running to support services that billions of people use daily.  If a major Google service is down for five minutes, it's headline news, often on multiple continents.  It's not the same as making sure a plane or a spaceship lands safely or a hospital doesn't lose power during a hurricane, but it's still high-stakes engineering.

There is a whole profession, Site Reliability Engineer, or SRE for short, dedicated to keeping the wheels turning.  These are highly-skilled people who would have little problem doing my job instead of theirs if they preferred to.  Many of their tools -- monitoring, redundancy, contingency planning, risk analysis, and so on -- can trace their lineage through the Apollo program.  I say "through" because the concepts themselves are considerably older than space travel, but it's remarkable how many of them were not just employed, but significantly advanced, as a consequence of the effort to send people to the moon and bring them back.

One tool in particular, Garman's list of codes, played a key role at a that critical juncture.  Today we would call it a playbook.  Anyone who's been on call for a service has used one (I know I have).



In the end, due to a bit of extra velocity imparted during the maneuver to extract the lunar module and dock it to the command module, the lunar module ended up overshooting its intended landing place.  In order to avoid large boulders and steep slopes in the area they were now approaching, Neil Armstrong ended up flying the module by hand in order to find a good landing spot, aided by a switch to increase or decrease the rate of descent.

The controls were similar to those of a helicopter, except the helicopter was flying sideways through (essentially) a vacuum over the surface of the moon, steered by precisely aimed rocket thrusts while continuing to descend, and was made of material approximately the thickness of a soda can which could have been punctured by a good jab with a ball-point pen.  So not really like a helicopter at all.

The Eagle landed with eighteen seconds of fuel to spare.  It helps to have a really, really good pilot.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Distributed astronomy

Recently, news sources all over the place have been reporting on the imaging of a black hole, or  more precisely, the immediate vicinity of a black hole.  The black hole itself, more or less by definition, can't be imaged (as far as we know so far).  Confusing things a bit more, any image of a black hole will look like a black disc surrounded by a distorted image of what's actually in the vicinity, but this is because the black hole distorts space-time due to its gravitational field, not because you're looking at something black.  It's the most natural thing in the world to look at the image and think "Oh, that round black area in the middle is the black hole", but it's not.

Full disclosure: I don't completely understand what's going on here.  Katie Bouman has done a really good lecture on how the images were captured, and Matt Strassler has an also really good, though somewhat long overview of how to interpret all this.  I'm relying heavily on both.

Imaging a black hole in a nearby galaxy has been likened to "spotting a bagel on the moon".  A supermassive black hole at the middle of a galaxy is big, but even a "nearby" galaxy is far, far away.

To do such a thing you don't just need a telescope with a high degree of magnification.  The laws of optics place a limit on how detailed an image you can get from a telescope or similar instrument, regardless of the magnification.  The larger the telescope, the higher the resolution, that is, the sharper the image.  This applies equally well to ordinary optical telescopes, X-ray telescopes, radio telescopes and so forth.  For purposes of astronomy these are all considered "light", since they're all forms of electromagnetic radiation and so all follow the same laws.

Actual telescopes can only be built so big, so in order to get sharper images astronomers use interferometry to combine images from multiple telescopes.  If you have a telescope at the South Pole and one in the Atacama desert in Chile, you can combine their images to get the same resolution you would with a giant telescope that spanned from Atacama to the pole.  The drawback is that since you're only sampling a tiny fraction of the light falling on that area, you have to reconstruct the rest of the image using highly sophisticated image processing techniques.  It helps to have more than two telescopes.  The Event Horizon Telescope project that produced the image used eight, across six sites.

Even putting together images from several telescopes, you don't have enough information to precisely know what the full image really would be and you have to be really careful to make sure that the image you reconstruct shows things that are actually there and not artifacts of the processing itself (again, Bouman's lecture goes into detail).  In this case, four teams worked with the raw data independently for seven weeks, using two fundamentally different techniques, to produce the images that were combined into the image sent to the press.  In preparation for that, the image processing techniques themselves were thoroughly tested for their ability to recover images accurately from test data.  All in all, a whole lot of good, careful work by a large number of people went into that (deliberately) somewhat blurry picture.

All of this requires very precise synchronization among the individual telescopes, because interferometry only works for images taken at the same time, or at least to within very small tolerances (once again, the details are ... more detailed).  The limiting factor is the frequency of the light used in the image, which for radio telescopes is on the order of gigahertz. This means that images from the telescopes have to be recorded on the order of a billion times a second.  The total image data ran into the petabytes (quadrillions of bytes), with the eight telescopes producing hundreds of terabytes (that is, hundreds of trillions of bytes) each.

That's a lot of data, which brings us back to the web (as in "Field notes on the ...").  I haven't dug up the exact numbers, but accounts in the popular press say that the telescopes used to produce the black hole images produced "as much data as the LHC produces in a year", which in approximate terms is a staggering amount of data.  A radio interferometer comprising multiple radio telescopes at distant points on the globe is essentially an extremely data-heavy distributed computing system.

Bear in mind that one of the telescopes in question is at the south pole.  Laying cable there isn't a practical option, nor is setting up and maintaining a set of radio relays.  Even satellite communication is spotty.  According to the Wikipedia article, the total bandwidth available is under 10MB/s (consisting mostly of a 50 megabit/second link), which is nowhere near enough for the telescope images, even if stretched out over days or weeks.  Instead, the data was recorded on physical media and flown back to the site where it was actually processed.

I'd initially thought that this only applied to the south pole station, but in fact all six sites flew their data back rather than try to send it over the internet (just to throw numbers out, receiving a petabyte of data over a 10GB/s link would take about a day).   The south pole data just took longer because they had to wait for the antarctic summer.

Not sure if any carrier pigeons were involved.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Martian talk

This morning I was on the phone with a customer service representative about emails I was getting from an insurance company and which were clearly meant for someone else with a similar name (fortunately nothing earth-shaking, but still something this person would probably like to know about).  As is usually the case, the reply address was a bit bucket, but there were a couple of options in the body of the email: a phone number and a link.  I'd gone with the phone number.

The customer service rep politely suggested that I use the link instead.  I chased the link, which took me to a landing page for the insurance company.  Crucially, it was just a plain link, with nothing to identify where it had come from*.  I wasn't sure how best to try to get that across to the rep, but I tried to explain that usually there are a bunch of magic numbers or "hexadecimal gibberish" on a link like that to tie it back to where it came from.

"Oh yeah ... I call that 'Martian talk'," the rep said.

"Exactly.  There's no Martian talk on the link.  By the way, I think I'm going to start using that."

We had a good laugh and from that point on we were on the same page.  The rep took all the relevant information I could come up with and promised to follow up with IT.

What I love about the term 'Martian talk' is that it implies that there's communication going on, but not in a way that will be meaningful to the average human, and that's exactly what's happening.

And it's fun.

I'd like to follow up at some point and pull together some of the earlier posts on Martian talk -- magic numbers, hexadecimal gibberish and such -- but that will take more attention than I have at the moment.


* From a strict privacy point of view there would be plenty of clues, but there was nothing to tie the link to a particular account for that insurance company, which was what we needed.