Locklin on science

Decoupling from fakebook

Posted in privacy by Scott Locklin on October 5, 2017

I was around for the glory days of the internet: the 90s and early 2000s. Back then it was truly what it was supposed to be; a decentralized network where you could find all kinds of interesting data and interact with people who share obscure interests with you. The browser was organized to help you, rather than monetize you for evil megacorporations. And there was plenty of stuff that wasn’t browser intermediated. Very little of the remaining internet is anything like early libertarian internet. /chan probably comes closest, with some of the blockchain projects being in the correct utopian spirit. There is nothing inherent in modern day internets which prevents us from having decentralized social networks; a protocol which does this could be built directly into browsers, but nobody has done it yet, so the interwebs decay into the corporate surveillance dystopia we have today.

I’ve always disliked Facebook as a company.  Zuckerberg stole the idea from the Winkelvoss entity, and they even lifted the blue and white color scheme and layout from Friendster. I continued to use it for much too long as a way of sharing pictures with my friends and family, a chat application, a sort of recent cache of things I’m interested in, and a way of keeping touch with distant relatives and people I went to grammar school with. Reading Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants” finally made me realize there is no reason to use it, and lots of good reasons not to. One big reason not to continue: it’s a waste of time. You only get so much time on earth, and real human interaction is vastly more important than wasting even a few minutes a day on fake human interaction.

One of the sinister things about it is having as an audience hundreds of people you barely know (and if your privacy settings aren’t set to maximum; the entire world). You begin to censor yourself. While this is natural in any community; these people are not really your community.  There is no existing actual community where your Aunt Sadie, three of your ex girlfriends, a half dozen people you knew in the third grade, your second boss and some guy you met at a party once all watch your every interaction. Such an agglomeration of people is actually a nightmare.

Social networks should not be owned by profit-making companies; in this situation you are the product, and your very being is strip mined for nickels and dimes. It is inherently and trivially wrong to do this. We know now that some people catch depression from logging into this corporate dystopia. Some of the finest minds of our generation have worked very hard to make FB as addictive and misery spreading as a slot machine.

Sharing data with your friends, something the internet should be used for, is more difficult without companies like this, but it can be done; Diasporia, Riot/Matrix.org, Mastodon, Telegram, Signal all exist and I encourage people who need this sort of thing to use them.  People who want to keep my contact information in a handy place; use linkedin (which isn’t as obnoxious or time wasting as FB, but is still obnoxious), or find me here.

https://catchoom.com/wp-content/files/2017/08/facebook-mwc-vr-zuckerberg.jpg

 

Even examining FB on their merits as a business: the ads they’ve served me have been a joke from the beginning. “Become a Physics Teacher” was an early and hilarious regular one. I’m pretty sure my Ph.D. in that subject (which was in my profile) qualifies me for such a job without any additional training.  Subsequent ones have been similarly ridiculous; they serve me ads for dishwasher soap (don’t own a dishwasher), money for “refugees” (sorry, I’ve read “Italy and her Invaders” and know how this story ends), NBA (don’t care about sportsball), potato chips (make my own) and various objects I’ve already purchased on the internet, generally from the same company serving a facebook ad. The one overt ad I clicked on in my entire FB career was for a home CRISPR kit, and I didn’t buy it.

These ads are annoying in that they are incorrect, but they’re also annoying in that FB is tracking my browsing in sites that have nothing to do with FB activities. It also offends my engineering sensibilities that Amazon or ebay pays FB for a display ad for stuff they know I have already purchased.  Yes, I understand why this happens: their purchase database doesn’t talk to the ad server, and yes, Amazon can afford to do this, but why should FB get paid even a penny CPM for this? There is also compelling evidence their click traffic is mostly fake. Weird things certainly happen when my non-secure browser window is open to a FB tab; I wouldn’t put it past them. We also know unambiguously that their metrics are science fiction.

If you want to follow me into the unFBing abyss; a checklist for you.

  • For normies who use phone-apps that rely on FB for identity; fix that first. Since I have never and will never do this, it wasn’t a consideration for me; best of luck.
  • Download your data if you want it for something. I did. Some of the links and photos will be amusing later. Some of this data may be useful in the event that some kind hearted software engineer actually create a useful decentralized social network which doesn’t treat its users as cattle to be exploited.
  • Delete your data. They make it really hard to do this, which is one of the reasons I don’t want to persist in using their shitty software. It’s also really hard to get at old data, and their reminders of what  thing I said or did 4 years ago are not helpful. I wanted to use this  and this to help assist in doing so, but they were flakeypants. So I moved on to:
  • Delete your account. Supposedly it will be fully deleted from backups and such in a couple of months. I think EU regulations require a hard delete,  but it isn’t in their T&C. You will get a hilariously misformatted message like this

 

BR BR BR!!!!

Next up: getting google out of my life as well.

https://www.networkworld.com/article/2942161/opensource-subnet/kicking-google-out-of-my-life-part-4-goodbye-gmail.html

Review and summary of Wu’s book
https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product

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“AI” and the human informational centipede

Posted in fraud, stats jackass of the month by Scott Locklin on September 2, 2017

Useful journalism about technology is virtually nonexistent in the present day. It is a fact little commented on, but easily understood. In some not too distant past, there were actually competent science and technology journalists who were paid to be good at their jobs. There are still science and technology journalists, but for the most part, there are no competent ones actually investigating things. The wretches we have now mostly assist with press releases. Everyone capable of doing such work well is either too busy, too well paid doing something else, or too cowardly to speak up and notice the emperor has no clothes.

Consider: there are now 5 PR people for every reporter in America.  Reporters are an endangered species. Even the most ethical and well intentioned PR people are supposed to put the happy face on the soap powder, but when they don’t understand a technology, outright deception is inevitable. Modern “reporters” mostly regurgitate what the PR person tells them without any quality control.

The lack of useful reporting is a difficulty presently confronting Western Civilization as a whole; the examples are obvious and not worth enumerating. Competent full time reporters who are capable of actually debunking fraudulent tech PR bullshit and a mandate to do so: I estimate that there are approximately zero of these existing in these United States at the moment.

What happens when marketing people at a company talk to some engineers? Even the most honest marketing people hear what they want to hear, and try to spin it in the best possible way to win the PR war, and make their execs happy.  Execs read the “news” which is basically marketing releases from their competitors. They think this is actual information, rather than someone else’s press release.  Hell, I’ve even seen executives ask engineers for capabilities they heard about from reading their own marketing press releases, and being confused as to why these capabilities were actually science fiction. So, when your read some cool article in tech crunch on the latest woo, you aren’t actually reading anything real or accurate. You’re reading the result of a human informational centipede where a CEO orders a marketing guy to publish bullshit which is then consumed by decision makers who pay for investments in technology which doesn’t do what they think it does.

centipede pyramid

How tech news gets made

Machine learning and its relatives are the statistics of the future: the way we learn about the way the world works. Of course, machines aren’t actually “learning” anything. They’re just doing statistics. Very beautiful, complex, and sometimes mysterious statistics, but it’s still statistics. Nobody really knows how people learn things and infer new things from abstract or practical knowledge. When someone starts talking about “AI,” based on some machine learning technique, the Berzerker rage comes upon me. There is no such thing as “AI” as a science or a technology. Anyone who uses that phrase is a dreamer, a liar or a fool.

You can tell when a nebulous buzzword like “AI” has reached peak “human information centipede;” when oligarchs start being afraid of it. You have the famous example of Bill Joy being deathly afraid of “nanotech,” a previously hyped “technology” which persists in not existing in the corporeal world. Charlatan thinktanks like the “center for responsible nanotechnology” popped up to relieve oligarchs of their easy money, and these responsible nanotech assclowns went on to … post nifty articles on things that don’t exist.

These days, we have Elon Musk petrified that a near relative of logistic regression is going to achieve sentience and render him unable to enjoy the usufructs of his toils. Charlatan “thinktanks” dedicated to “friendly AI” (and Harry Potter slashfic) have sprung up. Goofball non-profits designed to make “AI” more “safe” by making it available as open source (think about that for a minute) actually exist. Funded, of course, by the paranoid oligarchs who would be better off reading a book, adjusting their exercise program or having their doctor adjust their meds.

Chemists used nanotech hype to drum up funding for research they were interested in. I don’t know of anything useful or interesting which came out of it, but in our declining civilization, I have no real problem with chemists using such swindles to improve their funding. Since there are few to no actual “AI” researchers existing in the world, I suppose the “OpenAI” institute will use their ill gotten gainz to fund machine learning researchers of some kind; maybe even something potentially useful. But, like the chemists, they’re just using it to fund things which are presently popular. How did the popular things get popular? The human information centipede, which is now touting deep reinforcement networks as the latest hotness.

My copy of Sutton and Barto was published in 1998. It’s a tremendous and interesting bunch of techniques, and the TD-gammon solution to Backgammon is a beautiful result for the ages. It is also nothing like “artificial intelligence.” No reinforcement learning gizmo is going to achieve sentience any more than an Unscented Kalman filter is going to achieve sentience. Neural approaches to reinforcement learning are among the least interesting applications of RL, mostly because it’s been done for so long. Why not use RL on other kinds of models? Example, this guy used Nash Equilibrium equations to build a pokerbot using RL. There are also interesting problems where RL with neural nets could be used successfully, and where an open source version would be valuable: natural language, anomaly detection. RL frameworks would also help matters. There are numerous other online approaches which are not reinforcement learning, but potentially even more interesting. No, no, we need to use RL to teach a neural net to play freaking vidya games and call it “AI.” I vaguely recall in the 1980s, when you needed to put a quarter into a machine to play vidya on an 8-bit CPU, the machines had pretty good “AI” which was able to eventually beat even the best players. Great work guys. You’ve worked really hard to do something which was doable in the 1980s.

“The bot learned the game from scratch by self-play, and does not use imitation learning or tree search. This is a step towards building AI systems which accomplish well-defined goals in messy, complicated situations involving real humans.”

No, you’ve basically just reproduced TD-gammon on a stupid video game.  “AI systems which accomplish well-defined goals in messy … situations” need to have human-like judgment and use experience from unrelated tasks to do well at new tasks. This thing does nothing of the sort.  This is a pedestrian exercise in what reinforcement learning is designed to do. The fact that it comes with accompanying marketing video (one which probably cost as much as a half year grad student salary, where it would have been better spent) ought to indicate what manner of “achievement” this is.

Unironic use of the word “AI” is a sure tell of dopey credulity, but the stupid is everywhere, unchecked and rampaging like the ending of Tetsuo the Iron Man.

Imagine someone from smurftown took a data set relating spurious correlations in the periodic table of the elements to stock prices, ran k-means on it, and declared himself a hedge fund manager for beating the S&P by 10%. Would you be impressed? Would you you tout this in a public place? Well, somebody did, and it is the thing which finally caused me to chimp out. This is classic Price of Butter in Bangladesh stupid data mining tricks. Actually, price of butter in Bangladesh makes considerably more sense than this. At least butter prices are meaningful, unlike spurious periodic element correlations to stock returns.

This is so transparently absurd, I had thought it was a clever troll. So I looked around the rest of the website, and found a heart felt declaration that VC investments are not bets. Because VCs really caaaare, man. As if high rollers at the horse races never took an interest in the digestion of their favorite horses and superfluous flesh on their jockeys. Russians know what the phrase “VC” means (туалет). I suppose with this piece of information it still could be a clever Onionesque parody, but I have it on two degrees of Erdős and Kevin Bacon that the author of this piece is a real Venture Capitalist, and he’s not kidding. More recently how “Superintelligent AI will kick ass” and “please buy my stacked LSTMs because I said AI.” Further scrolling on the website reveals one of the organizers of OpenAI is also involved. So, I assume we’re supposed to take it seriously. I don’t; this website is unadulterated bullshit.

gartner

Gartner: they’re pretty good at spotting things which are +10 years away (aka probably never happen)

A winter is coming; another AI winter. Mostly because sharpers, incompetents and frauds are touting things which are not even vaguely true. This is tragic, as there has been some progress in machine learning and potentially lucrative and innovative companies based on it will never happen. As in the first AI winter, it’s because research is being driven by marketing departments and irresponsible people.

But hey, I’m just some bozo writing in his underpants, don’t listen to me, listen to some experts:

http://www.rogerschank.com/fraudulent-claims-made-by-IBM-about-Watson-and-AI

http://thinkingmachines.mit.edu/blog/unreasonable-reputation-neural-networks

https://medium.com/project-juno/how-to-avoid-another-ai-winter-d0915f1e4798#.uwo31nggc

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/3454567_Avoiding_Another_AI_Winter

Edit Add (Sept 5, 2017):

Congress is presently in hearings on “AI”. It’s worth remembering congress had hearings on “nanotech” in 2006.

http://www.nanotechproject.org/news/archive/congressional_hearing_on_nanotechnology/

“By 2014, it is estimated that there could be $2.6 trillion worth of products in the global marketplace which have incorporated nanotechnology. There is significant concern in industry, however, that the projected economic growth of nanotechnology could be undermined by either real environmental and safety risks of nanotechnology or the public’s perception that such risks exist.”

Edit Add (Sept 10, 2017) (Taken from Mark Ames):

Technologies which did not live up to the hype

Posted in Progress by Scott Locklin on May 14, 2017

There are many, many false technological alleys which continue to be pimped as things worth investing time and money into.

  • Automotive Gas Turbines:
    In the 1960s, several car manufacturers made gas turbines. The batmobile, for example. Turbines were supposed to be “jet age” machines of the future. You could get more fuel efficiency and energy per cubic meter out of the things, plus they were simpler in design (in theory, only one moving part), and easier to cool (they basically cool themselves). Unfortunately, gas turbines are lousy at acceleration in stop and go traffic. You might some day have one in your laptop though.
  • Disco Space Colonies:
    Back in the 1970s, when America had just been exposed to its first real energy crisis, a fellow by the name of Gerald Kitchen O’Neill came up with the marvelous scheme of blasting enormous chunks of glass and metal into space (presumably not using fossil fuels), which would produce clean solar energy and beam it back to earth in the form of microwave radiation. O’Neill wasn’t just some looney with a Pete Rose bowl cut; he invented the particle storage ring. His disco space colony idea was related to this in that he suspected the “mass driver” -a sort of particle accelerator for large pieces of matter he also invented, might one day be an important component for construction of such colonies. He also proposed this immediately after the Apollo Space program, which was a huge success, and made space travel look routine rather than extreme. He forgot to take into account that, at it’s peak, the Apollo program was consuming about 1% of the economic output of America. Just to send a couple of freemasons to the Moon, let alone skyscrapers filled with space colonists, giagantor microwave guns and mongo solar panels made of unobtanium the equivalent distance. Amusingly, a guy named Eric Drexler was one of O’Neill’s proteges via an MIT conference on space colonization in the 1970s. I like to think Drexler realized one could make a career out of making scientific sounding honking noises about impossible technology from hanging out with O’Neill.
  • Nanotech:
    I’d first heard of nanotech as a science fiction plot device. I never gave it much thought until I was writing my Ph.D. thesis. Sitting in the library alone with my laptop in my own personal hell, I did a ton of procrastination reading. One of the things I read was Drexler’s alleged science book on nanotech; “Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation.” I figured it would be interesting and inspiring, as it was a very famous Ph.D. thesis, and of course, nano-stuff is gonna change the world, right? Hell, there was a ton of funding coming into my lab to set up the center for nanotechnology (name changed to equally bullshittium “molecular foundry”); maybe I could stick out my hat and capture some low hanging fruit! By the time I was done this book, I finally made up my mind to go into finance and applied mathematics. It is the sheerest science fiction. Almost every assertion he made about what is possible is wrong. Much of the “science” asserted as fact is obvious baloney. Many of the things he waves around as trivial violate the laws of thermodynamics. Matter simply doesn’t work the way he wants it to. I remember running into a very bright surface scientist who had gotten on board the mighty gravy train of nano-nonsense at tea time shortly after reading this book. I was all, “dude; Drexler is smoking crack!” My pal gave a world weary moue, and agreed that one could make a living correcting Drexler. But, the money was good, and there was interesting material science to be done under the rubric of “nano.”
  • Fuel Cells:
    Fuel cells are one of those ideas that’s been around for almost as long as regular chemical batteries; since the early 1800s. The problem with fuel cells has been obvious since then. They’re hugely expensive, big, fragile and they either require extremely clean fuels like liquid hydrogen, or they wear out fairly quickly. There isn’t much that technology can do about this, though mass production may lower the cost some. And nobody likes the idea of driving around with a bunch of hydrogen in the tank of their car.
  • Biotech:
    Biotech provides employment for a lot of my smart friends. None of them have been able to tell me what their work actually does for humanity. In the realm of human health, it has enabled enormously fat people to live longer and eat more sugar, by making humulin cheaper than what they used to extract from dead racehorses. It also allows idiot bodybuilders to inject themselves with human growth hormone grown in toilet water, instead of HGH extracted from pineal glands of cadavers. There are also enormously expensive and mostly ineffective drugs used in certain kinds of cancer. In agriculture, it has provided some modest benefits, and created an entire industry of paranoids who think they’ll grow 8 heads if they eat genetically modified corn (which gets fed to cows anyway). While this could change in the future, I’ve been hearing about how biotech is going to change everything since Genentech was founded in 1976.
  • Stem Cell Research:
    Remember stem cell research? How we were going to cure Parkinsons and chewing with your mouth open using stem cells? How the eeebil Jeebers creeps from the middle of the country were denying the progress of science by keeping the white jackets in test tubes from sticking embryos in a blender? Well, as I recall, nothing ever came of it. It’s not because it was banhammered (it isn’t, mostly); it’s just not useful. I mean, it was politically useful for beating up on people who are classically religious rather than politically religious people who “fucking love science.” But to first order, the political battle seems to have been the main contribution of stem cell research to human culture.
  • Quantum Computing:
    I opined that it was probably a big nothingburger 7 years ago, despite having myself expended some not-inconsiderable time thinking out the semiclassical dynamics of such a device. Nothing has happened since then to revise my opinion on the subject. It’s now been 32 years since David Deutsch had his big idea. He’ll most certainly die before a useful quantum computer exists. I probably will too, as will everyone reading this prediction, making me, alas, unable to collect on the bet. All you need do is look at history: people had working computers before Von Neumann and other theorists ever noticed them. We literally have thousands of “engineers” and “scientists” writing software and doing “research” on a machine that nobody knows how to build. People dedicate their careers to a subject which doesn’t exist in the corporeal world. There isn’t a word for this type of intellectual flatulence other than the overloaded term “fraud,” but there should be.

I don’t think people should abandon all thought of any of the above subjects. Nor any of the abundant subjects which are presently grossly overrated by futurologists. I do think these historical examples should give any young researcher pause when it comes to devoting their lives to future boondoggles. Do you really want to work in the technological equivalent of macro-economics?

The more hype there is around a subject, the more  marketing personnel and quasi academic mountebanks there are involved in promoting it, the less likely it is to be important or useful. The really important breakthroughs of the last 20-40 years; networking protocols, photolithography improvements, cryptography, various improvements in statistics, signal processing and linear algebra and such; these have been relatively quiet occurrences.

If you want to make a difference in the world, learn some practical math, physics and chemistry. Ignore the wares of humbugs and quacks, keep your nose to the grindstone and read Phil Anderson (greatest physicist of our era);

Feynman’s cryptic remark, “no one is that much smarter …,” to me, implies something Feynman kept emphasizing: that the key to his achievements was not anything “magical” but the right attitude, the focus on nature’s reality, the focus on asking the right questions, the willingness to try (and to discard) unconventional answers, the sensitive ear for phoniness, self-deception, bombast, and conventional but unproven assumptions.

Please stop writing new serialization protocols

Posted in Design, fun by Scott Locklin on April 2, 2017

It seems that every day, some computer monkey comes up with a new and more groovy serialization protocol.

In the beginning, there was ASN.1 and XDR, and it was good. I think ASN.1 came first, and like many old things, it was very efficient. XDR was easier to use. At some point, probably before ASN.1, people noticed you could serialize things using stuff like s-expressions for a human readable JSON like format.

Today, we have an insane profusion of serializers. CORBA (which always sucked), Thrift,  protocol buffers,  Messagepack, Avro,  BSON,  BERT, Property Lists, Bencode (Bram … how could you?), Hessian, ICEEtch, CapnProto (because he didn’t get it right the first time), SNAC, Dbus, MUSCLE, YAML, SXDF, XML-RPC, MIME, FIX, FAST,  JSON, serialization in Python, R, PHP, ROOT and Perl… Somehow this is seen as progress.

Like many modern evils, I trace this one to Java and Google. You see, Google needed a serialization protocol across thousands of machines which had versioning. They probably did the obvious thing of tinkering with XDR by sticking a required header on it which allowed for versioning, then noticed that Intel chips are not Big Endian the way Sun chips were, and decided to write their own  semi shitty versioning version of XDR … along with their own (unarguably shitty) version of RPC. Everything has been downhill since then. Facebook couldn’t possibly use something written at Google, so they built “Thrift,” which hardly lives up to its name, but at least has a less shitty version of RPC in it. Java monkeys eventually noticed how slow XML was between garbage collects and wrote the slightly less shitty but still completely missing the point Avro. From there, every ambitious and fastidious programmer out there seems to have come up with something which suits their particular use case, but doesn’t really differ much in performance or capabilities from the classics.

The result of all this is that, instead of having a computer ecosystem where anything can talk to anything else, we have a veritable tower of babel where nothing talks to anything else. Imagine if there were 40 competing and completely mutually unintelligible versions of html or text encodings: that’s how I see the state of serialization today. Having all these choices isn’t good for anything: it’s just anarchy. There really should be a one size fits all minimal serialization protocol, just the same way there is a one size fits all network protocol which moves data around the entire internet, and, like UTF-8. You can have two flavors of the same thing: one S-exp like which a human can read, and one which is more efficient. I guess it should be little-endian, since we all live in Intel’s world now, but otherwise, it doesn’t need to do anything but run everywhere.

IMO, this is a social problem, not a computer science problem. The actual problem was solved in the 80s with crap like XDR and S-expressions which provide fast binary and human readable/self describable representations of data. Everything else is just commentary on this, and it only gets written because it’s kind of easy for a guy with a bachelors degree in CS to write one, and more fun to dorks than solving real problems like fixing bugs. Ultimately this profusion creates more problems than creating a new one solves: you have to make the generator/parser work on multiple languages and platforms, and each implementation on each language/platform will be of varying quality.

I’m a huge proponent of XDR, because it’s the first one I used (along with RPC and rpcgen), because it is Unixy, and because most of the important pieces of the internet and unix ecosystem were based on it. A little endian superset of this with a JSON style human semi-readable form, and an optional self-description field, and you’ve solved all possible serialization problems which sane people are confronted with. People can then concentrate on writing correct super-XDR extensions to get all their weird corner cases covered, and I will not be grouchy any more.

It also bugs the hell out of me that people idiotically serialize data when they don’t have to (I’m looking at you, Spark jackanapes), but that’s another rant.

Oh yeah, I do like Messagepack; it’s pretty cool.