Category Archives: Technology

Just deal with it, not bothered how

I’m finding these kinds of articles about people moaning about their e-mail more and more annoying.

Unanswered emails were the bane of my life – until I spent a month in search of inbox nirvana
I renegotiate the terms of this week (with myself) and instead resolve never to check emails on my phone. This is because, as Gomes tells me, it is a “really, really stupid” thing to do. He describes a crushingly familiar scenario: you skim through emails on your phone, and half-read one that stresses you out. You can’t read it properly because it’s on a small screen which is “psychologically frustrating”, and you can’t reply because you get distracted – you so half-read it three times, growing more and more anxious, before you finally sit down at your computer, and realise it wasn’t as bad as you thought.

To prevent myself from checking my email on my iPhone’s browser, I move the Safari icon so that it is nine swipes away. It works. I feel simultaneously triumphant and riddled with self-loathing.

Yes, some people get more e-mail than others. And yes, it’s taking up more of our time than it used to. But no, it’s not an interruption from your work, dealing with e-mail is a part of your work now. And has been for, what, 20 years? There’s so much advice out there on how to work smarter with e-mail – filters and rules, labels and folders, even declaring e-mail bankruptcy now and then. Whatever works for you. Just get on with it.

The triumph of email: Why does one of the world’s most reviled technologies keep winning?
“Email has evolved into a weird medium of communication where the best thing you can do is destroy it quickly, as if every email were a rabid bat attacking your face,” Paul Ford wrote last year. “Yet even the tragically email-burdened still have a weird love for this particular rabid, face-attacking bat.

 

Mobile media minefield

The Guardian’s technology ‘agony aunt’ responding to a parent who has a problem with her 14-year-old son’s use of social media.

How can I control my child’s social media use?
The government recognises the risks of being online, but still hasn’t implemented roughly half the recommendations in Dr Tanya Byron’s report, Safer Children in a Digital World, released 10 years ago. And as she has just pointed out at the NSPCC, Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp didn’t even exist in 2008.

[…]

If you take these routes, you may be in for an extended game of Whac-A-Mole. It would be better to work towards a negotiated social solution, rather than a technological one.

It’s a minefield all right. We prefer the ‘negotiated social solution’ with our young teenagers, and we make sure as a family we’re all aware of the latest e-safety issues. We try our best to create an open atmosphere at home, rather than anything too heavy-handed, so that they can share with us any concerns they may have with anything they might see or read.

And here’s that NSPCC update from Tanya Byron.

Ten years since the Byron Review – Are children safer in the digital world? (pdf)
This document reviews the 38 recommendations made in the Byron Review “Safer Children in a Digital World” and discusses how these were implemented. It also considers the influence of political change and online developments in the past decade, in order to contextualise the changes we’re trying to bring about to keep children and young people safe online in 2018.

Inside the paper torture chambers

Why paper jams persist
There are many loose ends in high-tech life. Like unbreachable blister packs or awkward sticky tape, paper jams suggest that imperfection will persist, despite our best efforts. They’re also a quintessential modern problem—a trivial consequence of an otherwise efficient technology that’s been made monumentally annoying by the scale on which that technology has been adopted. Every year, printers get faster, smarter, and cheaper. All the same, jams endure.

A fascinating glimpse into the strange world of printers and jambusting, involving physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, computer programming, and interface design.

“The smooth functioning of the world depends on invisible tribological improvements.”

Couldn’t agree more.

Modern romance?

Who’d want to be young, these days? It’s far too confusing.

Instagram handles have replaced phone numbers
And while it may seem like handing out your phone number is a much more of a privacy concern than a social media handle, it’s worth noting the amount of highly personal information the latter conveys. Unlike a number, your Instagram profile is often attached to your first and last name, and exists in relation to your various other social media accounts. It has countless photos of you, your friends, and gives a stranger a distinctively personal look into your life. What’s more, unlike a phone number, it can’t be faked to appease an aggressively pushy creep.

And then, if you want to make a go of it, there’s this.

Social media addicts have a new way to propose with this engagement phone case
Once you propose, you’ll either have a memory you and your future spouse will want to look fondly on for years to come (and post all over Facebook at every opportunity, along with your future baby photos, meals, vacations and blurry sunsets) or a spectacularly masochistic play-by-play of the moment your heart was broken.

I’m glad I’m old (-fashioned?).

Getting lost trying to follow the money

I tried to explain to my better half what Bitcoin and the blockchain were all about. My explanation was muddled, to say the least. Here are some articles that I need to re-read, if any of it’s going to sink in.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies – what digital money really means for our future
[T]his speculative bubble could end with a crash so severe that it destroys faith in the entire sector, driving the investors out, bankrupting the miners who’ve spent thousands or millions on single-purpose hardware that requires a high bitcoin price to turn a profit, and leaving cryptocurrencies as a technological dead-end alongside cold fusion and jetpacks. But maybe things will continue as they have done for the past five years. Cryptocurrencies’ actual use stays stable, mostly illegal, largely underground, and completely disconnected from a market price that fluctuates wildly based on the whims of a class of financial speculators with little link to the ground truth. Instability, it turns out, is an oddly stable and predictable state of affairs.

Kodak, the blockchain and cryptocurrency: how Kodak is tapping into technology
Kodak’s platform takes the whole photography and imaging industry to a new level with the features of distributed ledger technology like encryption, decentralization, immutability, transparency, and security being utilized to create a digital ledger of ‘ownership rights’ for photographers. The digital ledger will secure the work of photographers by registering work and then allowing them to license the same for use (buy/sell) within the platform. KODAKCoin will be the currency to operate on the platform and will allow participating photographers, both professional and amateur, to receive payment for licensed work almost instantly via Smart Contracts.
economics technology photography

Bitcoin’s energy usage is huge – we can’t afford to ignore it
The economic outcome of all of this is laid bare in a Credit Suisse briefing note published on Tuesday: the network as a whole will reinvest almost all the bitcoin paid out as mining rewards back into its electricity consumption. (Credit Suisse’s ballpark figure assumes that 80% of the expenses of bitcoin miners are spent on electricity).

Blockchain’s broken promises
Boosters of blockchain technology compare its early days to the early days of the Internet. But whereas the Internet quickly gave rise to email, the World Wide Web, and millions of commercial ventures, blockchain’s only application – cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – does not even fulfill its stated purpose.

Pernicious Facebook

There’s a Pernicious Anaemia page on Facebook, but not an actual Pernicious Facebook page. Perhaps I should start one. I’m sure George Soros would give me a like.

George Soros: Facebook and Google a menace to society
“Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment,” said the Hungarian-American businessman, according to a transcript of his speech. “This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.”

There’s more from him on his webpage. (I’m guessing he doesn’t have a Facebook page.)

George Soros: Remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum
Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind.” There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.

You wouldn’t think those in charge of these social media companies would agree, but perhaps they do?

‘Never get high on your own supply’ – why social media bosses don’t use social media
“It’s possible that in 20 years we’ll look back at the current generation of children and say: ‘Look, they are socially different from every other generation of humans that came before and as a result this is a huge problem and maybe we need to regulate these behaviours.’ Or perhaps we’ll look back and say: ‘I don’t know what the fuss was – I’m not sure why we were so concerned.’ Until we have some evidence, until there’s something that seems tangible, I think it’s going to be very hard to get people en masse to change how they behave.”

Ambivalent, to say the least.

A time before Excel?

An article from 1984 about these crazy new electronic ledger sheets, or “spreadsheets”.

A spreadsheet way of knowledge
There is no doubt that the electronic spreadsheet saves time and provides insight; there is no doubt that even greater benefits will one day be derived from these grids. Yet all these benefits will be meaningless if the spreadsheet metaphor is taken too much to heart. After all, it is only a metaphor. Fortunately, few would argue that all relations between people can be quantified and manipulated by formulas. Of human behaviour, no faultless assumptions – and so no perfect model — can be made.

I wonder what the author would have made of the Quantified Self movement, that attempts to incorporate data from a person’s daily life into various formulas and models. Spreadsheets are everywhere now, not just in the office of accountants from Cincinnati.

Your favourite passwords

As well as the obvious “12345678”, “password” and “qwerty” (I can’t believe people really use those?), it seems people’s names beginning with J are especially common.

Top 500 most common passwords visualized
Most common passwords. Is yours here? Also, after some deep analysis, we’ve discovered that passwords fit into 11 categories. See what they are.

If any of your passwords feature on that chart, please read this and change them. Right now.

The usability of passwords
Using more than one simple word as your password increases you security substantially (from 3 minutes to 2 months). But, by simply using 3 words instead of two, you suddenly got an extremely secure password. It is 10 times more secure to use “this is fun” as your password, than “J4fS<2”.

Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should

How many times has that been said these days?

The 6 worst ideas of CES 2018
Year after year, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) brings us countless new products. A few are splendid. A majority of them simply don’t matter. And a few–a truly horrible few–are terrible wastes of basic human potential that both our ancestors and descendants would be hugely embarrassed by.

To err is human, to totally mess things up needs a computer

Here’s a fun article about a guy who accidentally deleted everything from all his company’s servers, including all his off-site back-ups too – in effect, deleting his entire company. As you can imagine, the forums weren’t especially helpful.

Man accidentally ‘deletes his entire company’ with one line of bad code
“Well, you should have been thinking about how to protect your customers’ data before nuking them,” wrote one person calling himself Massimo. “I won’t even begin enumerating how many errors are simultaneously required in order to be able to completely erase all your servers and all your backups in a single strike. This is not bad luck: it’s astonishingly bad design reinforced by complete carelessness.”

A timely article, as there’s a project underway here to look at the feasibility of replacing one MIS with another and how we’d manage the data migration that that would entail.

It’s not just a matter of moving bytes around though. The horrible mess-up above notwithstanding, that’s the easy part. When implementing a new MIS there’s as much people stuff to resolve as techy stuff.

Here’s an interesting essay from the University of Michigan, from a dim and distant past when universities and other large organisations were wanting to move away from mainframes to more networked environments.

Implementing an MIS
The implementation of a management information system can be a traumatic experience. At a minimum, changes in procedures will impact the ways in which plans are made, programs are developed, and performance is evaluated within the organization. New patterns of communications will emerge, and new – presumably better – information will be available to assist in carrying out decision-making and administrative responsibilities. Efforts to improve the MIS may also uncover the need for organizational changes which may be even more unsettling than the procedural changes necessary to implement the system. The introduction of a MIS may represent substantial change in the established way of doing business, which can be viewed with considerable alarm (and generate significant resistance) by those within the organization.

Different technologies, but the same concerns.

I found the principles proposed at the end of the article very interesting, and hope that a similar approach will be undertaken here.

It is important not to oversell the potential of the new system. Aaron Wildavsky offers a number of “rules” that are applicable to the implementation of any new management system. The rule of skepticism suggests that organizational officials should exercise a good deal of skepticism when presented with the initial concept of an improved management system. The rule of delay cautions officials to give the system adequate time to develop and to be prepared to face periodic setbacks in its implementation. As Wildavsky observes: “if it works at all, it won’t work soon.” The rule of anticipated anguish is essentially a restatement of Murphy’s Law – “most of the things that can go wrong, will.” Wildavsky suggests that management must be prepared to invest personnel, time, and money to overcome breakdowns in the system as they occur. And the rule of discounting suggests that anticipated benefits to be derived from the new management information system should significantly outweigh the estimated costs of mounting the system. Much of the cost must be incurred before the benefits are achieved. Therefore, the tendency is to inflate future benefits – to oversell the system – to compensate for the increased commitment of present resources.

And let’s not forget that Hofstadter’s law applies here too, as well.