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broadstuff"broadstuff" - 5 new articles

  1. Disappearing Google Glassholes
  2. Profits from Prophets?
  3. Protecting our freedom by stifling it
  4. The game theory of Je Suis Charlie
  5. The perils of (In) expert systems
  6. Search broadstuff
  7. Prior Mailing Archive

Disappearing Google Glassholes

Google to stop making Glass "In present form"

Google is to stop producing its wearable technology Google Glass in its present form, but is still committed to the idea of smart glasses, the company has said.
The technology, which delivers news, messages and calls directly to a user’s field of view, has been on sale in the UK since June, and in the US since 2013.

In a statement posted to its Google+ account, the company said the Glass team would move out of the “Google X” incubator labs and become a separate division. What the "New New" form will be is anybody's guess, but I'd suspect it will be less obvious to other people more than anything else, to stop both the "Glasshole" problem and to not alert other people so visibly that its filming and recoding them. Somehow I don't think they will relinquish the "hoovering up all that data" play.

In other news today, UK hypermarket chain Tesco has just launched an app for Google about timing. While the aim is largely laudable, it seems like yet another unfortunately timed play from this beleagured retailer.

Update - Had a Twitter discussion with Steve Bowbrick, his point being that the Google Glass busiiness model (very expensive device that records other people as UGC) has been rejected (by the public). I am less sure that Google will let go of it, as with Facebook I suspect it will be a 1 step back, 2 steps forward when you're not looking sort ofplay - I think it will be interesting to see what 2.0 does.


Profits from Prophets?

The next edition of Charlie Hebdo went on sale on Wednesday, and the production run was up from 60,000 to c 5 million - and rather than c 25% of 60,000 copies being remaindered, this time 5 million was probably not enough. (The money will be going to support the families of those killed, though there is a bit of a sour note starting with people trying to sell copies on eBay)

If the aim of the shootings was to cow Hebdo and its satire it has been a complete failure so far, and also far any attempt to further inflame France (if anything the UK media seems more cowed than the French).

But (and this is why the subject surfaces on this digital tech blog) modern online technology probably has quite a lot to do with this beng different to what it may have been even a few years ago. In short, my thesis is that the huge amount of user generated content has both increased ordinary citizen participtaion globally, and lessened the ability of the various vested interest armed camps to twist this to various agendas. My thesis is that, (so far anyway):

Firstly, using violence or banning to suppress unwelcome media is hardly a new trick, and it usually works if there is no way to route around it - but if it can be routed around it often produces the opposite effect, i.e. drives a far larger distribution and hence support base for the victims. (This is why banning stuff always backfires if the material can find a route out, as it incites more, not less people to take an interest). Digital media, including video and image based media, was a major part of that alternative channel here.

Secondly, the #JeSuisCharlie campaign was hugely accelerated and amplified by the online media, it was the fastest and largest twitter trend yet seen - it had enormous reach, fast.

Thirdly, social media was heavily used to organise and co-ordinate gatherings of support all over the world.

Fourthly - the outpourings of user generated media from smartphones have made it something that huge numbers of people have engaged with at a visual level as well as textual - I don't know if this makes a difference but I suspect the higher information content and authenticity of UGC picture and video images makes it easier to see what is "real" and - it seems to me anyway (be interesting to see if any research confirms or denies this) harder to inflame by deliberate mis-representations.

In addition, the shootings have generated furious discussion about a multiplicity of conflicting issues to a new level of distribution and intensity. There are many interlocked issues - Freedom of speech vs Causing needless Offence; What observances can a religion rightfully demand of non-believers; Is this religious fundamentalism or a cynical use of religion for political ends, What is the role of Satire - to only speak truth unto power, or to poke at any sacred cows, etc etc etc.

It has engaged millions of people all across the world like nothing I've looked at online before, and (I can't prove this on my very limited analysis to date, however I think this is true based on what I've looked at so far) I think we're not merely seeing the all too usual polarisation and a spit-at-your-camp approach that contentious issues usually take, there is actually some hope that we are still in an Age of Reason.

At this "interesting" time in history this is something that can only do good in this writer's opinion....

Protecting our freedom by stifling it

I heard our Prime Minister was proposing to ban encrypyed messaging services in the UK (from the NYT Bits section - I prefer US papers' take on UK tech politics, they are usually more informed and detached than UK pundits):

“Are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn’t possible to read?” Mr. Cameron said at an event on Monday, in reference to services like WhatsApp, Snapchat and other encrypted online applications. “My answer to that question is: ‘No, we must not.’ ”

Mr. Cameron said his first duty was to protect the country against terrorist attacks

“The attacks in Paris demonstrated the scale of the threat that we face and the need to have robust powers through our intelligence and security agencies in order to keep our people safe,” he added.

Of course the comment was sparked by the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and the need to dress ones weak tells up as strongly as possible, and also that we have a general election in a few months so the Tories (the party of lawnorder) are all competing with each other to seem more draconian than thou while shuffling for post election pole positions. And of course it is only due to be execuited when everyone has forgtten about it, long after the election, if he wins.

Any restriction on these online services, however, would not take effect until 2016, at the earliest, and it remained unclear how the British government could stop people from using these apps, which are used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Except that it's unworkable (but you all knew that already).

The reason is that it can't work - or rather, it can to an extent, insofar as the average Brit will be unable to prevent being spied on for life (assuming all the commercial providers acquiesce - I'm less sceptical of this happening than some pundits on this) - is that the real bad guys will know exactly how to get around this all, so will do so. Of course so will all the UK tech experts, but they will immediately be suspected of nefarious designs - way to go to shut down a potentially lucrative UK stake in an emerging high value industry.

Also, by all accounts the impact of digital surveillance has been far less effective in staving off all these impending Bad Things than good old fashioned spying has. Most recent terror events (including Paris) have happened because authorities dropped their physical surveillance of known bad people, or forgot to tell each other who they knew was up to something. Thus, building a MegaData store of bigger haystacks to find needles in is probably not going to help enormously.

This way, all you will probably wind up with is permanent mass surveillance of civil society and little impact on the criminals you are after.

Mind you, from a State point of view that may be a totally desirable outcome, as all States like to control communications as naturally as they like to tax, and as a bonus it stifles all those irritating critics to boot. Every one of these events first brings cries of "we must not allow this to damage our free way of life" followed shortly by proposals to do just that.

There is a terrible irony that to so many of our glorious leaders, the best way they can think of to protect our freedom is to stifle it.

A better approach by far would be to carry on doing what has been shown to work already, and probably also be prepared to have a mature discussion with the Geat British Public about something that we alreeady know - you can't do anything that is 100% effective here.

The game theory of Je Suis Charlie

This is a strong sign of defending free speech

These....not so much

It is of course a given that every right thinking media organ in the Free World believes in Free Speech, and all would of course passionately and vehemently subscribe to Voltaire's maxim* that:

"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it"

Until the Charlie Hebdo shootings.

Then it immediately became very clear that defending Charlie Hebdo's right to say what they said may actually mean defending it to (your) death. And at this point we started to see a certain amount of wilting of resolve. The main resort of the brave free world mediarati was to backward shuffle to clicktivism, to wit "Je Suis Charlie" - easy to tweet, blog, say etc - but what precisely does it mean?. Will those proclaiming it from their barricades actually defend free speech to their deaths?

One can actually measure just how much any media outlet is "je suis" Charlie. There is an arcane part of game theory that looks at the actions people take to prove how strongly they support a proposition, idea or movement. The wording changes for these actions, they were called "tells" in my day (before poker grabbed the term) so I will use "tells". In general a strong "tell" is when someone gives something significant of themself (time, money, effort), or puts something of theirs at risk to back a position. A weak tell is when they will put very little of their assets or themselves at any risk.

Thus "clicktivism" - activists clicking buttons on social media - is a very weak tell. It's part of a general trend towards weak tell approaches that the digital world has facilitated, aka "slacktivism" - it's an easy and convenient out. Je Suis Charlie is, on its own, is merely one of these - you risk nothing, commit nothing, it just takes a click of a button to show how deeply you care. So of course most of the chatterati became Charlie for the day.

But what shouid be the response of those brave "free world" agencies with real voices, i.e our free press, be? Many ordinary people actually came out onto the streets that night, which is in itself a stronger tell than any form of slacktivism, and from a game theory "tells" point of view made it clear that our brave mediarati were leading from the rear. So what was the press going to do with their organs of mass distribution the next day?

Should they exhibit "strong tells" - prove their refusal to bow down, publish the same cartoons that got Charlie Hebdo staff killed and be damned?. Or publically proclaim they will subscribe to Charlie Hebdo (as Arnold Schwarzeneger has), or will they financially support Charlie Hebdo (as Google et al have). Or maybe even make it clear you will retaliate (As Anonymous has).

Or should one exhibit very "weak tells" - fulminate on one's op-ed pages about the right to free speech, draw a few "safe for work" cartoons, clicktivise "Je Suis Charlie Hebdo" prominently - but don't publish anything directly risky, and then argue for a host of reasons one couldn't possibly take the risk of upsetting people who may want to hurt you.

There is of course the tried and trusted victim blaming gambit - blaming the Charlie Hebdo people for bringing it all on themselves, as the FT (among others) tried - the game theory of the anti-tell I suppose.

In effect, quite a few continental European media outlets, Huffpo and many independent bloggers & cartoonists chose the strong tell, publishing Hebdo or other strongly satirical cartoons and being potentially damned, whereas most of the Anglo American free press and chatterati pundits - those proud upholders of free speech in their own lunchtimes - basically bottled it and then resorted to various Chamberlainesque arguments to excuse themselves. Je sort of suis Charlie for today isn't very convincing.

By their tells shall ye know them.....

By the way - Voltaire also said:

To hold a pen is to be at war.

You heard it in 1766 first, so it should hardly be a surprise now....

*Actually, it wasn't Voltaire who said that about defending free speech, strictly speaking, it was one of his biographers - but it is the sort of thing he would say. And arguably if anyone needed defending from the religious and other fundamentalists of the day it was Voltaire, who was one of the founders of the hard edged satirical tradition that people like Charlie Hebdo continue, and he did it at a time when many people did kill you for your opinions. If Voltaire was alive today, and lampooned todays' sacred cows as vociferously as he did those of the 1700's in his books like Candide, he would be strung from the gibbet of every religious and special interest extremist group on the planet today, and the Anglo-American chatterati would be baying for his blood along with them)

The perils of (In) expert systems

There is a crisis in the British Accident & Emergency (A&E) system at the moment, the causes are are a "perfect storm" of previous decisions, mainly around reduction in funding in the end to end care system overall, and the usual crop of winter bugs, especially ones that over-impact the ever-increasing numbers of elderly. But this week I discovered a possible self-inflicted cause - their own expert self-diagnosis system on the NHS website will erroneously send people who can safely medicate at home to A&E.

(As I understand it is the same system that the medically unqualified telephone helpers on the 111 system use for diagnosis, with similar results, it would seem).

TL;DR- I would suggest the NHS expert system is too poor a model of symptoms and then defaults to the lowest risk position - i.e. to send anybody with the slightest probabiliy of something serious to A&E, causing an unwarranted increase in demand for the most expensive part of the formal medical sytem. And that this lesson applies to similar expert systems being touted everywhere by the Technorati as the Next Big Thing.

The idea is laudable - you go online or ring up the 111 helpers and "self provision" your diagnosis, and potentially self treat, thus saving the expensive professional medical system a lot of time, capacity & money. An excellent idea, especially as the "family doctor" system in the UK only really operates for about 10 out of 24 hours at best, and even to access that in a hurry is damn difficult if you are working. So you go to the online help out of hours, or even in hours if you can't get an appointment that day.The flaw is that both the web system and the tele-helper are relying on an Expert Algorithm, that unfortunately isn't.

This is how it (doesn't) work. A member of my family started getting pretty ill with aching limbs, nausea and vomiting, and a blinding headache. If you go on the symptom website with any permutation of these symptoms, the system soon decides that you may have meningitis, a very nasty condition, and tells you to get to A&E post haste, if not sooner.

However, these symptoms are also the near-identical symptoms for Norivirus, or Winter-Flu, a nasty bug but one that can be safely self treated at home in the vast majority of cases.

Needless to say, the probability of my family member having Norivirus with those symptoms, in winter, while the bug is occurring at its max, is infinitely more likely than having meninigitis. The expert system does not seem to have this "probabiity" function however, and appears to default straight to a lowest risk stance "this could be meningitis - go to A&E now!"

Even so, this Expert System is probably OK for the single case - but now scale it to a country of 50 million or so people, make it the easiest method of getting advice, scale down on the more skilled alternative (aka "doctors") as a second opinion and and multiply me by all the other people getting hit by the current Norivrus bug going round, and you have very likely generated a large number of unnecessary visits to A&E by the "Worried-not-quite-well" who have had the bejeezus frightened out of them by having an automated system that can't discriminate properly between a dangerous condition and a nasty winter bug, and drops to the lowest risk position of "get thee to A&E".

Also, you'd expect the system to try and do a few clarifying questions, given the huge difference in potential outcomes in a diagnosis of norivirus vs meningitis. There are a few to be fair - far fewer than I'd have expected though - but even then they are odd. For example, one question is "have you flown in from abroad in the last 3 weeks". Well yes, we have, as a matter of fact. But I was then expecting the system to ask where from - we flew in from alpine Europe, not exactly a dangerous disease hothouse. Now I don't know if the lack of the "where did you fly from" question in this "Expert" system was to make it easier to use, or to not offend anyone, but to my mind it was a pretty useless way of separating norivirus from meningitis.

The main issue with the question chain though, was you sat there looking at the screen thinking that none of these options properly described the issue - where was the "other/tell us what really happened/that isn't right" button?

Anyway, our diagnosis was sorted by talking to a real expert system - our doctor - over the telephone the next morning. "Oh yes, there is a lot of it going round right now, here's a prescription coming via email, go to XXX pharmacy and pick up the medicine". Five minutes on the 'phone with a real expert system = no panicked visit to A&E, no blocking resources for those who need it more, etc etc. But to use this option you (i) have to take the risk that it isn't meningitis on yourself over an anxious night, and (ii) have the self confidence that is probably the right call despite the prevalence of lurid medical "advice" Google gives at the touch of a button. Not a good failsafe resort for a nationally deployed medical expert system.

I would therefore bet a lot of money that a lot of people, especially out of hours, used that website or 111 and, when told to get to A&E PDQ, went there in a panic and helped no little bit in creating the huge crunch in A&E over the last few days. It may have only been a small % uplift, but the way capacity constrained complex systems work is they don't degrade linearly, they degrade in a non linear (aka accelleratingly worse) mode until they collapse.

Now it is something of a belief in the Technorati that these expert systems are inevitable and will be the saviour of many services/automate many people out of jobs/be the great leap forward for mankind etc etc (choose your Future of Technology belief set) but this experience maps onto something far more prosaic that I have seen repeatedly in the 30 or so years I've been building system models and simulations, to wit that:

- no simulation ever captures the overall complexity of reality
- any error, no matter how small, is magnified massively when a high volume of "events" (the simulation term for, in this case, a user going through the diagnosis) are thrown at it
- those errors then cause huge downstream problems long before they are detected
- fixes are put in, usually with intervention by much higher cost informal side-systems
- all too often, a more compex edifice is created than the one it replaced
- the system winds up costing far more from its errors than any putative savings

In other words, be very careful of how these early-day expert systems are deployed, as their errors could cost a hell of a lot more than the theoretical savings they may generate (unless, as in the case of the banks in 2007/8, you can make the public pay of course).


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