Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

My First Smartphone

For the past 6 years, I have been using my Samsung SGH-A707 flip phone. It wasn’t my first phone: I actually had a Nokia brick for most of my senior year of high school, but most of my phone experience is with this thing.

Those icons are buttons. I never used them
Those icons are buttons. I never used them

But as of roughly 24 hours ago, I have joined the modern world and picked up a iPhone 5S.

me and my iPhone

 

I saw  2 main reasons for upgrading to a smartphone. First, I was still driving like it was 1999 and printing out or writing down directions from Google Maps. When that failed, I relied on the resources of my navigator to pull out their smartphone and lead us back in the right direction. Second, everyone believes that mobile is the future (or at least the present), and since I work in that industry, I was quickly becoming disconnected with potential users and their use cases. Unless I wanted to begin working on web apps for either babies before their first phone or senior citizens incapable of using smartphones, I needed to step up. Continue reading “My First Smartphone”

Discussion Questions for “Alone Together”

For November, my book club* read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. In it, Turkle, a professor at MIT, investigates how our relationship with technology has developed. In part 1, she writes about robots, from tamagotchis and furbies to robots for elderly care, and how we interact with and feel about them. In part 2, she writes about how Facebook, texting, and online communities have changed our relationships with each other.

Since it can be heavy reading, we focused primarily on the second half of the book. In all, we were pretty neutral about the book. Although she had many good points, some of her examples seemed somewhat extreme, and we also felt that there was a lot of bias. I think we spent most of the discussion disagreeing with her, but she brings up some very interesting topics for discussion. Below are the discussion questions we worked from, which I think are interesting enough even having not read the book. I have, however, added a bit more context for it.

  1. Turkle writes about how we develop an online self  that is independent of our real life self. What do you think of that?
    1. Pete spends significant about of time on Second Life talking Jade, a sort of second wife. He notes that it’s easier to talk to Jade about some issues than his real wife because he doesn’t have to be concerned with Jade worrying about him like his wife would. Thoughts? What is it about the medium that makes this work?
    2. Adolescents seem worry a lot about their Facebook profiles and the sort of person that it portrays. This includes the obvious things such as profile pictures, but also minor things such as the order of artists in “favorite music”. Have you cared so much about your online presentation?
  2. Turkle suggests that thee digital world can’t offer the same opportunities for relationships that real life can.
    1. Is this a problem? Is there a place for this type of relationship?
    2. How does this work for adolescents or others who aren’t fully capable of developing relationships?
  3. We love multitasking because it makes us feel productive. We love technology because it allows us to be on-call at all times to respond to things. Neither of these, however, are working well for us. Multitasking makes us less efficient at all of the things we’re working on , and being more able to quickly deal with problems leads to more stress
    1. Are you okay with this change?
    2. What is it about this method of working that appeals so strongly to us?
    3. If you think it’s bad, how do we reverse this trend?
  4. Time is a big theme. Technology leads us to expect faster responses to each other. Technology also makes us expect things to develop quickly, whereas many things in real life (relationships in particular) happen incrementally over a long time.
    1. Adolescents today are growing up like this. How do you see this affecting us in the future?
    2. How have you expectations changed about response times with technology?
  5. Being disrupted sounds bad, but really, we love it. We check our email and Facebook obsessively for updates. We love the ping of push notifications like texts and emails, and it’s all instant gratification
    1. It may seem intrinsic to the technology, but products are designed to get us addicted to using it. Do ou think this is good?
    2. How does this change our reward system?
  6. The phone call is dying. These days, we don’t use the phone as much because we’re often not up to the demands of it. Many adolescents love the fact that texts can be carefully constructed, whereas phone calls
  7. because we can’t meet the demands of it. There’s a lot of talk about being able to control things better when it’s done via text, where you can edit your message exactly as you like.
    1. How important is it to you to be able to control the message you present when talking to others?
    2. Do you see phone calls as a lot of pressure?
    3. Is texting more or less efficient than talking?
  8. Another benefit to texting is that it’s asynchronous. Suddenly, we see phone calls as a possible inconvenience to others as we demand their attention immediately, and maybe they’re busy
    1. Before, we mentioned that we like being disrupted, though. How do we resolve this?
    2. Since when did we get so sensitive about bothering others?
  9. PostSecret and communities. The internet is supposed to be our liberation as free flow of information allows us to develop the exact communities that really fit us.
    1. Are these communities good substitutes for what we have in reality?
    2. Turkle seems to believe that these aren’t real communities in that you can run from the bad stuff. Is she right?
    3. What about authenticity in these? Is it okay that a good portion of PostSecret is fake? Or FML?
  10. Technology is supposed to make us feel better. We’re constantly connected so if bad things happen, we have a safety blanket. It also, however, makes us anxious as we’re tied to it
    1. Is this inherent in the design of these things?

About my next computer: insert words in mouth, commence chewing

Since I wrote about how I have been moving to a desktop setup, I have been telling everyone that my next computer would be a Mac Mini. The specs looked good, and it would force me to walk away from my computer instead of lugging my computer around with me. Despite being on the computer more than half the time, I pretend to appreciate reality as well and want to step away from computers as much as possible*.

As of Monday morning, however, I feel as though I can no longer do that. That morning, all of the engineers were following live blogs of the WWDC keynote as they announced the new hardware. We moved on as soon as they moved onto software updates, but we were anxious to hear all about the new hardware. Apple announced a new Macbook Pro, a hybrid between the beefiness of the old Macbook Pro and the slim shape and the Macbook Air. The specs are great for a laptop, the retina display is by all accounts amazing, and it is on its way towards manilla envelope size. I admittedly don’t follow non-Apple hardware much, but I haven’t seen anything with the industrial design of this computer, and the specs are almost a kicker.

The skinny kids who didn’t get picked to play on either team during recess, however, were the Apple desktops, including the Mini. A few months ago, I was certain that the specs on it would last me long enough, but there’s truly no comparison with what the new MBP has. The difference in the specs is significant enough to my gaming experience that I think I need to go back on my commitment and get a portable computer.

It ruins my attempt to prove I’m “better” than a computer, but it is clearly the right choice. Except for price, it has the Mini beat in every respect. Thinking back to when I first got my current MBP, it had the slickest case design and the best specs. And it lasted me 5 years. I would give the same opinion of the new MBP and would certainly hope that it would also last 5 years.

The price will be what it is, but the surprising criticism of the new MBP is that is, in some sense, too well engineered. Kyle Wiens, co-founder of the popular ifixit.com that shows you how to do repairs on your own hardware, describes it as the “least repairable laptop” in this opinion on Wired. Read for yourself for some contrarianism against the hype, but his main point is that Apple sacrificed repairability and upgradeability in literally gluing together the most compact internals ever, and by buying it, we’re supporting a future of light, thin computers with planned obsolescence as the battery slowly drains itself. If you don’t like that, the older MBP design is the way to go.

Most of the comments seem to dismiss this opinion, but I have taken it surprisingly seriously over the past few hours. On the one hand, I haven’t upgraded my MBP. If it were truly modular, I would have, but the graphics card alone is too specialized for me to want to swap parts. And of course, the new MBP is very thin and light. On the other hand, my hacker instincts tell me that I want the flexibility, and it actually has been useful. The battery in my model happened to be defective, and it was a simple exchange at the Genius Bar to get it fixed. And earlier this year when I thought my computer was dying, it was pretty easy to open it up and clean out the fan. Most of the wins of the new design don’t benefit my outlook, either. I have since purchased a 23″ external display that makes the retina display unimportant, and I think my desk can withstand the difference of a pound as my computer hopefully spends most of its time immobile.

At the moment, though, I’m having a hard time resisting the specs of the new MBP. The older design is cheaper, but it might need a few additions to bring it on par with the new specs. As Julie helpfully pointed out as she just saw me on the Apple Store, “[I] don’t need to decide by the end of the blog post.” And in truth, I actually really enjoy thinking about what hardware to buy. After waiting months for the newest revisions, I’m still uncertain.

At this rate, I might as well just savor the prospect of a new computer as long as possible and wait for a new Mac Mini.

*At some point recently, I sarcastically said something like, “Well, the physical world is just a substrate for the virtual world we actually live in.” That might be the scariest, most honest thing I have ever said.

My Google+ Hangout Success Story

This past weekend, 3 friends and I met up to play Dungeons & Dragons in the early morning, mid-afternoon, and late night, in California, Washington, the UK, and Korea. Simultaneously. And we could all see each other and share notes and drawings with each other. Technology just works when we can easily do things we haven’t been able to in years, like meeting up with friends from junior high.

Since we were split across 3 time zones exactly 8 hours apart, one of us is working at literally every hour of the weekdays, with some spill onto the weekends. It took us maybe 4 weeks to schedule our first session, but it was well worth it to get a chance to catch up under the premise of playing Dungeons & Dragons, a game that I will try to sell you on in the next 2 paragraphs.

Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) is improvisation with a few dice rolls as a final arbiter for how things go. The players take the role of adventurers in a fantasy world of swords and magic controlled by the Dungeon Master (or DM). Unlike most tabletop and video games that have rules to dictate what you do, D&D lets you dictate your actions and makes the DM determine how those flesh out in the game. Want to stiff-arm retreating goblin instead of just swinging your sword? Or do you have a 5 minute argument to give the innkeeper about why his fedex quest was a waste of time? Just about anything goes.

Despite its nerdy association, D&D is very social: in this last session, we extensively discussed a battle plan that was obviously (and hilariously) flawed as soon as we began fighting, I described how my character was pretending to play dead to get a jump on a hobgoblin (which also didn’t work when I failed to roll well enough to bluff the enemy), and we interrogated a rescued hobbit about his plans. Like any good game should, it encourages interaction between players.

Being able communicate in speech and gestures, share documents with character details, and draw out various rooms is critical for D&D, and in truth, nothing beats sitting around a kitchen table. Even so, a Google+ Hangout was about as close as you can get without being physically present. Group video chat let us all look at each while talking and brought back the surprisingly important gesturing to conversation. While waiting for our last player, we watched a YouTube video together of the promise of custom games in StarCraft 2. The chat window let our DM copy-and-paste in written descriptions of the scenario, as well as being used as a log of in-game events. We shared Google Docs describing our various abilities (and also used an online character sheet I wrote to keep track of our stats. Check out my character!). The sketchpad took the place of the game board as we drew a grid and placed ourselves on various parts. And we even had a few laughs over the mustache and hat effects.

I have admittedly been somewhat fearful about Google’s integration of everything into their platform. With my email alone, they basically control me, but when they know what information I’m looking for (search history), where I’m going (google maps), what I’m working on (google docs), and more, I’m concerned about how much they know about me. At the moment, I’m not even using Google Chrome (which I admit is all-around the best browser) as my primary browser because I’m scared of the vertical integration of products in addition to the horizontal integration they already have.

But integration isn’t entirely to be feared. Google+ Hangouts are awesome because Google glued a lot of good features together in a single product. We spent surprisingly little time fighting with technology to make things work, and our game just went smoother as we discovered more features to use. At this point, this post likely sounds like an advertisement, but I’m just really excited about how well it work, so let me round out this post.

I’m very cynical about a lot of technology. Despite how “social” we’re being pitched that technology like facebook or mobile phones are, I think that these communities built on a virtual substrate are making us more disconnected than ever. I’ve been taught about the importance of physical embodiment in the world, and I worry tremendously that we’re replacing meaningful interactions with impersonal bursts, 140 characters at a time.

But this time, technology worked. When my friends and I are spread across 3 continents, it is impossible for us to get together for a quick check-in, much less playing a game. With this, however, we were instantly back to joking around and sharing the latest news with each other. I’m still anxious for the opportunity for us to all be in the same room again, but until then, I’m glad we have another way of hanging out  like we were.

Purchasing the Right Mouse

Low motivation to do schoolwork and being caught up in work caused me to spend an hour and a half of researching about computer mice this evening*. The result is a feeling of satisfaction, decent knowledge of mice, and 3 notifications on slickdeals for mice that I will instantly buy.

Like most things I do, I simmered on the idea of buying a mouse for a few weeks as I found more and more reasons to do something about it. My current mouse is a Logitech MX700, an apparently decade-old piece of hardware that I’ve used for just over half that time. I got it as a peripheral to a computer I was supposed to fix up and reallocate, and it was a great change. Previously, I had used a cheap, dependable Microsoft optical mouse without any particular concern about how it felt. This mouse, however, felt much better: it was larger to fit my hand better, it had a thumb indentation for better grip, it was much heavier, and overall, it was just much more comfortable to use. I’m using it for this post right now, and it still feels good.

But I also use a Logitech Performance Mouse MX at the office, and it’s also awesome. Found in a random pile of peripherals, its shape has the same indentation and feel that I like about this mouse, but it’s better in other ways, too. I thought I liked the heft of my MX700, but it turns out that the much lighter Performance Mouse also works: the size was more important. According to Razer, I’m a palm grip guy, and I like tall mice that fit into my palm. And while I have to charge my mouse every few days, I used the Performance Mouse on low battery for 6 months. And it also doesn’t have a huge dock/receiver, like my MX700. So given how many hours a day I use my mouse, it’s time to upgrade.

It’s honestly been awhile since I’ve needed to do serious shopping research. I’ve been contemplating my next computer setup, but since I’m a Mac user, there are actually very few choices, and the deciding factors are larger usage questions. In looking at mice, there are tons of small questions: optical or laser? Wired or wireless? How many DPI? What about the shape? Ultimately, most of these choices aren’t going to matter too much to me, and as overwhelming as it seemed, I think I’ve figured it out in about an hour.

My primary concern is to get a comfortable mouse. First, it should be a full-sized (not a mobile/compact) mouse. Second, it should be shaped for my hand, which would include a mouse indentation. Finally, it shouldn’t be light, as I have developed a preference for slightly heavier mice. Oddly, I discovered that this meant that I need to look at gaming mice. Nowadays, the best computer peripherals are gaming devices, and although I certainly do get my game on, I primarily want a good mouse for daily use. I’m already an emacs user who will develop carpal tunnel from how I need to use the keyboard anyways, so I might as well be as comfortable as possible with my mouse. So, all the details about DPI and extra random buttons weren’t particularly important.

Research went relatively quickly. I had previously accumulated a few links from random browsing, so I put all of those into a spreadsheet. In total, I had 11 mice with some basic spec and price points. From there, I used Google product search to find reviews for each and sorted them according to my preferences given all details. This narrowed me down to a list of 3 mice that seemed roughly equivalent and worth buying: the Logitech G400, the Razer DeathAdder, and the Logitech G500. All of them appear to have roughly the shape I want, aren’t too expensive when on-sale ($30 or $40), and are well-reviewed. At that point, I googled direct comparisons between them, which yielded a ton of forum threads on exactly this choice. As I figured, the preferences there were a wash as various people spoke up for personal preferences and mentioned their own particular malfunctions with each device.

I think this is where I call it a draw and let price and chance decide for me. I have deal notifications on slickdeals setup for each mouse, and when a good deal comes up on any of them, I’ll be upgrading. Sadly, I saw the G500 come and go less than a week ago while I was still deliberating whether to researching buying a nice mouse or not.

Anyways, that’s about it. This post ended up being a lot drier than I was shooting for, but that’s okay. I have 2 takeaways from the experience, which you might consider as well.  First, a lot of shopping research is really easy nowadays. The number of choices and unimportance of most of them can be overwhelming, but a combination of a well-deliberated system and a ton of opinions from others got me through the process in almost no time.

Second, it’s worth thinking about computer and desk peripherals if you spend as much time at a computer as I do. At the beginning of college, my desk was my Macbook Pro 15-inch screen, its built-in keyboard, and my MX700. Now, I’m on a 23-inch LCD screen and an external keyboard, looking to buy a new mouse, and more comfortable than I’ve ever been before. So if you haven’t thought about your mouse much until reading this post, I recommend it. Even if it makes you feel like a tool or a nerd, I recommend looking at the Razer Gaming Mouse Advisor, which can help you think through what you should look for in a mouse.

Or if you can wait, there will be a Logitech MX700 coming onto the market as soon as one of my deal alerts fires. It’s in fine condition, will come with rechargeable batteries, and may be more comfortable than any mouse you’ve ever used before. There might even be a blog-reader’s discount.

* not actually written this evening. I backlog and space out my blog posts nowadays. As of this evening, I have already bought the G400. Anyone want a MX700?

How to Be a Secure Computer User (Within the Bounds of Convenience)

It’s an old paradox to wonder why there are any doctors that smoke. It’s somewhat hypocritical, but mostly just confusing that the people who know the most about the effects of smoking should partake in it as well. I would like to say that I know better, but until a few days ago, I didn’t. Until then, my passwords for computer accounts and online services were all stored in plain text in a GMail draft. Were you to know that you could find it there, it would be very easy to steal all of them.

Using computers securely is a big battle for experts and users, and the best practices really depend from person to person. Every person needs to decide what their tradeoff between security and convenience is. On the completely secure side, one can remember long, random, unique strings of characters for every account. This, however, is extremely inconvenient to remember. On the completely convenient side, one can use “password” for every password. This, however, is extremely easy for hackers to break. Everyone’s practices lies somewhere in-between, using known methods and a little bit of personal construction.

That personal construction, however, is where we really get ourselves into trouble. Security is very hard, and most methods of compromising aren’t good. For example, I know that I should have long, unique, hard-to-guess passwords for everything. Because I couldn’t remember that, I decided it would be okay to record them in an easily accessible place for me. Unfortunately, that happened to be a really awful practice.

Most people aren’t security experts and don’t know the best way to use computers securely. Given that, I think that a lot of bad practices can be rooted out with a quick 2 question quiz:

  1. If a hacker knew where you store your passwords, could they guess your passwords easily?
  2. If a hacker knew a subset (none, one, a few) of your passwords, could they guess any of your other passwords easily?

The first question mostly deals with people securing their passwords by obscurity. This is mostly how my old system worked, and it’s a bad idea. The United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) thinks it’s a bad idea. It’s unlikely that you’ll come up with a method on your own that no one else has thought of, and if you’re borrowing someone else’s system, you’re already screwed. And even if you hide things, they can be found easily.

The second question deals with bad security design. In a world where you create passwords for many different services, some of which are well-built and some of which aren’t, it’s not hard to imagine that one of your passwords might be leaked to a hacker. That itself is somewhat unavoidable. If knowing that password, however, allows them to determine the rest of your passwords (either as a straight copy or by design), you’re in trouble.

Let me walk through a few common methods I’ve heard from friends recently (and a few trivial examples) and point out the possible problems with each of them:

  1. Use “password” for all passwords. This password is very common and not hard to guess. By question 2, a hacker could guess your password knowing a subset of size 0 of all of your passwords. This is an awful idea, as you can imagine.
  2. Use a small set (maybe 3) of passwords for everything. This is also a problem for question 2. If a hacker gets 1 of your passwords, they can now guess 1/3 of your accounts fairly easily.
  3. Store passwords in a (unencrypted) document on your computer. Even if you name it something other than “passwords.txt”, it’s not hard for a hacker who gets read access to your computer to find the file and copy it. At that point, this method fails on question 1.
  4. Start with a base password and modify it slightly for each service. For example, Google might be “abc123GoogleRocks” and Facebook might be “abc123FacebookSucks”. This ensures that each password is unique and somewhat long. Unfortunately, this is still a problem for question 2 because other passwords are deducible from a single password. In the example above, even though “Rocks” and “Sucks” are different suffixes that you can remember, it’s still a systematic method that doesn’t ultimately leave that many possibilities.

As you might have guessed, some of the above are better than others, but assuming you’re okay with the level of security each will give you, they’re all fine if they work for you. You should just be aware of the risks associated with it.

Given all this talk, I need to support my claims, so my new method is using a password manager (specifically, 1Password). Essentially, I have a single master password for an encrypted database that stores all of my other passwords. With that, I only need to type in my master password, copy the specific account password into the box (or use the auto-fill feature), then lock my manager again. Like other methods that aren’t memorized, random, long, unique strings, it’s not perfectly secure, but it’s good.

It isn’t susceptible to the flaw of question 1. Because the database is encrypted (using tested methods), it is presumed to be secure*, so even though I have announced that I’m using 1Password and the file is not hidden on my computer, a hacker shouldn’t be able to get my passwords without knowing my master password. Question 2 is a problem: if a hacker knows my master password, my world is open to them. Otherwise, my passwords can be arbitrarily complex.

The caveat to all this is that I trust that the creators of the password manager are honest people using secure methods of security. If they’re sending all of my passwords out to their secret server, of if they screwed up the implementation of some security protocol, I’m in trouble. But that’s the line I draw for myself between convenience and security: I believe that my master password cannot be guessed and that 1Password is honest and secure, and this is the furthest I’m willing to go to be secure.

So maybe a password manager is a solution for you, or maybe it isn’t. I just wanted to write about it since I had thought about it so much recently and think it’s worth it for everyone to evaluate the ways that they are being secure. Again, it’s a tradeoff between convenience and security. Just be aware and comfortable with the consequences of your method, keeping in mind these 2 questions:

  1. If a hacker knew where you store your passwords, could they guess your passwords easily?
  2. If a hacker knew a subset (none, one, a few) of your passwords, could they guess any of your other passwords easily?

* I say presumed because even security experts don’t know if any construction is completely secure, but it’s the best that anyone knows. The limit of that is whether P=NP, for the CS literate among you, so it’s pretty certain.

If We’re Moving Classes Online, Where Are They Leaving From?

There’s been a recent trend of moving opening up coursework to the world on the internet. The first steps towards this happened a few years ago with resources such as iTunes U and OCW, where recorded lectures and notes were made available online. This trend, however, has taken the next step as university courses in their entirety are being offered online, with graded homework and a certificate to boot. I’m mos  t familiar with offerings from Stanford, but I think others are jumping on the bandwagon, too.

The reasoning behind it is sound. A lot of coursework is moving online anyways as convenience for students, and it seems like the right thing to do. I’m fortunate enough to be a student at a well-funded private university, but that luxury isn’t available to most people. With the popularity of this model from sites such as Khan Academy and the pipeline to do it, it seems almost unfair to restrict the content to the few who can afford it.

It’s not perfect. For many classes, there’s no replacement for the ability to work hands-on and in-person for a class. You lose the physical environment of a college campus and the ability to collaborate with instructors and other students directly. Some argue that the most valuable part of college is not the class but the people you meet. If you can’t have that, though, this is pretty close. The traditional teaching model with hour-long lecture and problem sets don’t really involve interaction to a large degree.

At the risk of sounding privileged and snooty, however, I’m a little disappointed by how this change is being embraced in class design for in-person students. Since this was an initiative in the Stanford Computer Science department, I’ve taken several classes (and am currently taking a class) that are now in the online format. To accommodate the students, they’ve made some changes to how the class is taught, both for online and in-person students. And I think they’re a little worse for it.

Most professors really do just lecture, and a recording is no different. I actually depend heavily nowadays on watching lecture online to work with my schedule. But some professors are really good in class, and it’s a shame to lose that. For example, Dan Jurafsky is teaching an online class on Natural Language Processing. I took the class from him junior year, and the lectures were great. He actively pushed students to think in-class, ask and answer questions, and just made it a really fun environment, even though he did teach by lecturing from slides. Even though the class was early in the morning, everyone was awake and could really be a part of things.

That class, however, might be an exception. The other substantial change that I’ve noticed is a change in the workload for students. In order to make classes available to possibly thousands of students, grading must be automated: it isn’t practical have TAs go through all the assignments by hand. This model isn’t really scalable for, say, English classes, where most of the work is discussion and essays. But for many technical fields, where work boils down to getting the right number at the end of a derivation or writing a program that computes the correct output for some specification, it might work.

Having gone through these classes, however, I think that might be cutting students short to some degree. Let’s take Computer Science as an example. Past the 3 course introduction to programming series, most of my work has been tailored towards proofs and conceptual understanding. Once you has a sense for how to program, actually programming in classes becomes much less relevant: if you need to implement a program, you take a few days and learn the specifics of the language. The real trickiness comes in understanding how to build systems, which requires conceptual understanding to compose and extend systems.

Take, for example, Probabilistic Graphical Models. Roughly, this class on artificial intelligence is about modeling phenomenon using probability. This class is historically known to destroy students. In the past, there were biweekly problem sets involving derivations and proofs for 5-ish problems, often the results of research papers in the field. TAs were responsible for grading these lengthy, often page-long proofs involving a mix of mathematical derivations, cleverness, and intuitive explanation. This syllabus, however, needed to be switched up, so it’s now weekly programming application projects.

So admittedly most of my response to that is bitterness at having been brutalized by the problem sets for this class while current students can just write a little bit of code. But it seems to me that students now aren’t getting the same depth that they would have thinking through problems. For many advanced algorithms, the actual implementation is relatively easy when it’s already outlined: it’s basically just translating a description into code, which often doesn’t require much insight into the algorithm itself. Trying to re-derive the same result or prove a similar concept, however, is much more difficult and requires understanding of how things work. I don’t need a class to teach me whether I did something right: I need a class to teach me whether I understand.

We’ll see how this shift goes moving forward. I’m all for providing content online as long as it doesn’t displace valuable aspects of current teaching methods. By focusing on the most tangible products of coursework, such as lecture content and quizzes, we might lose out on more subtle parts of an embodied, learning experience. Let’s democratize education as best we can, but don’t sacrifice the vitality of colleges while we’re at it.

Using the Web to Make Academic Work Useful

For several stretches of several academic school years, I have allowed my class-related work to become my blog content. Sometimes it’s more natural, such as the final essay for Creative Nonfiction, and sometimes it’s less natural, such as short critiques for Moral Philosophy. Most of my motivation for posting this work is pure laziness: it’s really hard to will myself to write a blog post after having worked through an essay. A smaller point, which is the crux of this post, is that it seems a shame that I should spend so much time on classwork that will ultimately be seen by only one grader.

Not all classwork is valuable beyond its own context. Mechanical math problems and proofs of known results are obvious examples of classwork for its own sake, so I hope you won’t be offended if I avoid posting addition and multiplication worksheets. A lot of other classwork, however, emphasizes critical thinking, synthesis, and creativity in research and projects.

I’ve tried to make most of my original and less embarrassing writing available on this site, either in blog posts or on my Writing page. Despite its pedagogical purpose, classwork can still be original and contribute to knowledge as a whole, especially given how sparse some of the content may be. For example, Google Analytics tells me that my essays and responses for Moral Philosophy are some of the most popular content from google searches on specific philosophers and philosophies. Posting this content is cheap and easy for me, and it may be extremely valuable to anyone else who ends up researching similar topics to those papers.

Even so, most of my work has been relatively simple, and I have often been frustrated by how difficult it can be to find similar resources for some actual published papers. Many researchers have released open frameworks for their work, but more often than not, the details aren’t available. Datasets, stimuli, program code, and all sorts of other work are poured over by researchers for months and sometimes years, yet are basically forgotten after being summarized and presented in a paper. I’m not a full-fledged researcher and don’t understand most of the logistics, red tape, and politics that probably drive most of the reasoning behind the process, but in the pursuit of knowledge, it only seems right to make as much known as possible.

Along those lines, I’ve taken that first step and released several of my projects on GitHub, where you can view much of the code for research I’ve done, along with some results and write-ups. As you might expect, the code is something of a mess, though should anyone want to use or understand it, I would be happy to clean it up. In all likelihood, the repositories will likely sit on the web, unseen and unimportant, but for how much I complain about not being able to find things, I can at least say that, “I tried.”

For many of my peers who have also worked on various projects, I recommend that you do the same. I’ve seen some really impressive work come out of class projects, and it would be a shame for that to be the end of it. And use it for current projects as well. Should you be doing any coding or research, you should be using a version control system anyways, so you might as well make it publicly available as well. In academia, we’re always all collaborating with everyone.

Why We Don’t Need to Worry About Robots’ Rights

Last Thursday, I went to a panel discussion being held at the Stanford Law School by The Center for Internet and Society on “Legal Perspectives in Artificial Intelligence.” My mind is mostly buried in the AI, but since I have recently become more interested in policy in general and the social impact of technology, I thought it could be interesting to see where the crossover is.

There were a lot of possible intersections, such as the use of AI in assisting lawyers put together cases or IP rights to AI code and programs. The topic they mostly discussed, however, was the possibility of AI being considered a legal person and what the implication of that was. It was an unfortunate angle to take because AI equal to a human doesn’t exist, so it was mostly non-answers, roughly of the form, “Interesting; we’ll see what happens.” They also chose not to jump into the philosophical aspects too much, with only minor discussion of philosophical zombies (a being that behaves exactly like a human but has no consciousness), and instead left those as largely open questions as well.

Disregarding how unsatisfying those answers were, I was also disappointed by the conversation as a whole because I found their conception of AI somewhat narrow, and that limited the topics they could consider. Instead of considering the state of technology as it is today and the issues surrounding that, they mostly clung to the more fantastic view of AI. This view, perpetuated largely by popular media, is best represented by robots like C-3PO that are human in all except form. More generally, this view treats AI as a system with intentions, self-motivation, and more psychological properties similar to humans. And that AI doesn’t exist.

Stepping back from that, however, and we already have some forms of AI, and I will make the stronger claim that what we have now will be the form of AI for the foreseeable future (with respect to legal rights; of course we’re making great progress in the nitty-gritty). So, I think that this panel was appropriate for us now, but for different reasons than what the organizers likely considered. AI is here now and it has plenty of problems surrounding it. For better or worse, though, I think it’s largely invisible in our lives. Let me give a few examples of AI in our lives, what its role is, why I don’t see it changing into HAL, and what the legal implications of it are.

First, AI in the market. The panelists discussed the legal status of AI as a trustee, an advisor to a trustee, or as a business operator. I don’t see this coming soon because AI don’t have their own desires, so it doesn’t make sense for them to be in charge. AI can be a tool to make recommendations and crunch the numbers, but the last mile will be all blood and guts. And this form of AI already exists. Take algorithmic trading: a computer is executing trades for a fund or some other trader based only on the numbers and often faster than humans are capable of. On the whole, it’s a black box. Very smart physicists and computer scientists can build models to make it run, but once it’s going, it’s past our ability to actively monitor it. Just last year, the Dow Jones crashed, which was largely blamed on algorithmic trading. The SEC ended up changing some rules based on this, so this is a problem being dealt with right now. I haven’t followed the situation, but I imagine that there are questions about liability when AI runs havoc on the market.

Second, health care. This came up in the discussion of Watson, the Jeopardy playing AI that IBM claims it wants to retool for health care. They were concerned about the possible issues here, as health as least as touchy of a topic as the market. I’m not scared about it, though, because we still have doctors. Doctors may receive advice from computers, but the final decision is going to be in the hands of a human. We don’t send our brightest to school for a decade just to let them defer judgement: they’ll still sit between a patient and AI. Even so, this is again already happening today. In fact, we apparently even have a journal dedicated to this topic. As it is, we can use probabilistic models to diagnose various illnesses by telling a computer what the various symptoms are, and it’ll spit back the likelihood of various possibilities. AI researchers will tell you that they’re actually better than doctors since they have the accumulated knowledge of many more cases than any 1 doctor could ever know. Importantly, AI here is just a tool, not a legal person. We do have questions today, such as patient privacy when the data are being aggregated into a single machine, and these will be the questions moving forward.

To wrap this up, let’s bring this around to an example of AI that you must be familiar with to be reading this: web search. On the surface, it seems like this is a task that humans are performing, any non-trivial search engine you’ll encounter has all sorts of interesting AI in it, such as trying to figure out if you meant the scooters, the mice, the hygiene product, or the phone when you type in, “Why isn’t my razor working?” The net result is that people usually click on the first link, which means that we’ve already deferred a lot of our choices to AI in picking the “best match” to our search terms. But that’s a far cry from R2D2, and hopefully, no one will ever sue a search engine for giving them bad results.

And it’s everywhere else, too. Google translate, autonomous cars, Bing flight search, Amazon search recommendations, and Siri are all examples of what AI really looks like today, and frankly,  it’s not that scary. None of it may sound that impressive or very AI-like, but that tends to be a funny problem with AI as a field of research: once we figure out how to do it, it’s not AI anymore.

I think it’s important that all of those things I just rattled off are tools, not independent agents. We build things that we want, and for the most part, we want things done for us while leaving us in control. This means that we build wonderful systems that use AI to make our lives easier, but that last mile is still human.

Given that this is what AI is and what it will be (so I claim), then the issues are already in front of us now. And if they don’t seem like issues, it’s because they aren’t. Do we worry about incorrect diagnoses from AI? A doctor may blame a computer, but it’s still the doctor’s call. What about an autonomous car getting into an accident? Assuming it’s entirely autonomous, it’s no different than trams that have a preset schedule. Cars aren’t going to have their own desires (such as to tailgate the jerk who cut them off), and since we’ll understand how they work, the mystery is gone.

So in summary, AI is here now, and it’s as it will be. There are legal issues to consider with respect to AI, but we shouldn’t be worrying about AI as a legal person. And appreciate and understand how important AI already is in your lives. As tools.