December 21, 2009

I don’t really understand the outrage against Google StreetView (and judging from the fact I’m posting this on a blog nobody reads, I also don’t want to).

The Information Age caught us by surprise, and many non-tech-savvy people happily fell for the traps set by others who had more insight. Now it begins to dawn on us that things have changed a lot. Your information isn’t hidden by default, the Internet does not forget, and if you ever get its attention you should better be ready for it.

While individual things get easier, life becomes more complicated. If you want to know something, you ask Google (for things somebody said or wrote), Wikipedia (for things people agree is “knowledge”) or Wolfram|Alpha (for specific knowledge and computation). That’s easy now. But if you want to retain your privacy and keep corporations and scammers away from your money, you have to work more than ever. Nowadays, your mind is your biggest asset.

Google’s founders understood that and quickly started to gather as much brainpower as they could. This made them very, very powerful. And that creates fear. You probably meet a lot of people now who just plainly reject anything coming from Google. Sometimes they rant about it the way a free software evangelist rants about Microsoft. They might even go so far as to not use Google Search!

And yes, Google knows a lot about you. Even if you don’t use any of its products, most ads come from them. That way, they can track “you” across multiple websites. If you have a Google account, they might link you to the person who visited all those websites (I don’t know if they do, but they can.). If you have a GMail account, they can read your E-Mail. Then there’s Google Docs, Google Maps… but few things tell as much about a person as the things they put into the search bar.

Apparently, the worst thing about this is the fact that it’s all going to one place. Somehow it’s worse than your ISP – who could filter all your unencrypted data if it wanted to.

That’s still hard to grasp for the average person who thought the biggest problem of the 21st century would be unsafe hover-cars and robot revolts. All that potential spying is pretty much invisible. Making photos on the other hand – that’s easy to understand. They can see you. Or at least that what it feels like.

If you are more pragmatic about it (and I’m sure all the PhD’s at Google are), StreetView is just about gathering information that is freely available already. Anyone can walk the streets and look around. Anyone can take photos while walking the streets. Anyone can publish their photos on the internet, using services like flickr. Computer scientists know that most of these random images can in theory be linked together (and therefore, will be in the near future). Look at software like Photosynth – it already works pretty well. But using special equipment to scan each street is easier, more accurate and much faster. And also way scarier.

Let’s compare StreetView to what you are already accustomed to:
StreetView captures each street once and probably won’t again for the next few years. You are unlikely to be photographed unless you spend all day walking through the city the day they make the photos (and even then it’s still not very likely). If you or your car end up on a StreetView image, your face and your car’s licence plate will be blurred out.
While you are lamenting about your loss of privacy and terrorists being able to target your house (because they hate your freedom as much as other people hate your garden gnomes), you are probably part of many tourist’s digital vacation memories (face not blurred out), appeared in the views of countless security cameras (not your security) and your cellphone provider knows where you are right now.

Let’s stray from the visual paradigm even more and make sure you are sufficiently paranoid. Ever sold a flash memory chip you used to store photos on? Whoever bought it can see those. Erasing them is much harder than you think. Same thing with hard-disks. Gave your computer away for repairs? Chances are that it was scanned for additions to someone’s porn collection – or identity theft. Don’t update your software regularly or install ad-infested software from the internet? It’s not really “your” computer anymore. Also, your tech-savvy roommate who configured your router can find out what sites you visit without you being any wiser. And this is still just the tip of the iceberg. An exponentially growing iceberg by the way.

So, there are more important things to worry about then a huge corporation making photos of things anybody can already see. Instead of being outraged you should use that energy to learn. I know, it’s more difficult to learn new stuff than it is to shout at something. But all you’ll accomplish is that “they” will make a bigger effort to hide the things they do.

Focus on this:

  • Acquire a basic understanding of how computers work. How does electricity drive calculations? What’s a processor? What’s a program? What’s an operating system?
  • Understand computer networks, like the internet. What kind of voyage does your data make between your computer and the one on the other side of the planet? If you type an URL into the address bar, how does the computer know what to do and where to look? What exactly is a “router”?
  • Security: Who or what are you trusting? If you buy something on the internet, who gets what information? Do you have personal data like passwords, E-Mails, potentially embarrassing photos you don’t want anyone to see? Is it safe? Is all your software up to date and configured correctly?
  • Known attacks: If you connect your computer to the internet, you’ll soon get under (automated) attack. No, there isn’t some hacker or virus who will mess up some little things just to spite you. But there may be a trojan that scans your computer for personal information or that uses it as a tool for criminal actions. There might be websites designed to look like your banking site. Know how to spot traps.
  • Stay up-to-date. Things change rapidly. Several years ago, viruses erased hard-drives – now they do much more sinister things without you noticing. There is no software that is completely safe. All you can do is to make sure you have all the current patches installed.
  • Don’t give away personal information you don’t want everybody to see, unless you are very positive it is in good hands – or that there is a plan B if something goes wrong. That service that has all your personal info might get hacked. The person you send your pictures might distribute them knowingly or unknowingly.
  • Make sure your most important data can’t get wiped out by a single event. Power surge? Computer is fried, but luckily you have another (unplugged) backup-hdd. Flat burns down or gets robbed? You made another (heavily encrypted) copy on the internet. Internet storage service goes out of business or suffers a huge hardware failure? Backup-DVDs get scratched? Make sure those things are unlikely to happen simultaneously.

If this is all second nature to you, then go ahead. Yell at Google. At best it will delay things by several months, but at least you know what you are talking/screaming about.


Dangerous Knowledge

December 6, 2009

I just watched this documentary about great mathematicians and their decent into madness after trying to solve profound problems, while being mocked and even hated by fellow scientists.

Being ahead of your time while being suppressed by your peers is a powerful narrative. It only happened to few people, but of course every other wacko with a messiah complex will see himself in the same light. People don’t believe me or try to shut me up? I must be ahead of my time!

But there are some lessons to be learned. Many geniuses share a characteristic with idiot savants: They are great at exploring a very small world, which happens to be only a small partition of the real one. It’s even harder to rethink the basis of your reasoning if you believe that you are already doing exactly that: Cantor was questioning the very principles of the mathematics of his time, while being deeply religious. Gödel changed the very essence of logic while assuming that he himself was somehow beyond it. These guys reached planes of knowledge I can’t even begin to understand, yet what they wanted to believe was what held them back in the end. The hostility of their peers – had none of their greatness but shared their flaws – wasn’t really their limiting factor. From the documentary, the only person whose life was made unlivable by the intolerance of the people in that time was Turing – and that had nothing to do with his work. Now while the things they discovered have long been accepted, we still haven’t learned from their errors. I guess it’s because only to geniuses these things are really unbearable. The rest of us, we just acknowledge them, and go on with our lives (having resolved nothing).

I think I can explain the things that worried people like Cantor and Gödel, even not fully understanding their actual work. For them, perfection existed somewhere. They had a preconceived, maybe native idea that everything could be understood, and that a reality where that wasn’t possible is one that is too cruel to be true. Don’t underestimate the emotional attachment to a human-understandable, in some way perfect world! Finding out otherwise is like discovering there is no god (for a deeply religious person), that your mother doesn’t like you, and that good things happen to bad people without anything to offset it. But that’s the problem: even the greatest minds let emotions cloud their judgment. That’s because emotions led them to their discoveries in the first place! No emotions – nothing that could motivate you to do great things.

So in order to discover the true face of reality – or to do so withing the possible restrictions set to us by the nature of our minds – we must first prepare ourselves emotionally. If you have any preconceived ideas about what you will find, you are limiting yourself to a solution space that might only contain local optima. Whereas if you accept the idea of an uncaring, random world where it’s not even certain that you could ever understand it – you have the best chances of finding the best possible solution. And that’s our optimum: the best thing we can achieve, not the best thing there is. Mathematicians like to make a clear distinction between the two and shoot for perfection. And then they miss. It’s probably inherent to their thinking. The rest of us can only hope that on their way (to crashing and burning), these geniuses develop a number of tools that are actually useful. There’s a lot of examples in computer science: The mathematician says “You can’t solve that problem perfectly and efficiently. It’s driving me crazy!” whereas the computer scientist says “I’m not sure if there’s an efficient algorithm for solving all problems, but here’s a subclass of problems I can solve well enough!”.

Like the documentary noted, mathematicians trying to solve a problem can behave like a computer trying to solve the halting problem. Programmers have long come up with a solution: timeouts. That would look like pure idiocy to a mathematician (you don’t really solve the problem, you just get the class of problems that are solvable before the timeout), but in the real world these things play an important role. After all, a computer will shut down at some point, just like a mathematician will cease to exist. Also, there is a very short amount of time I’m willing to wait for a program to respond. And since there’s only a finite number of algorithms that halts before a given point in time, maybe we should spend more time looking at those.

With this post already losing structure, let me repeat the points I was trying to make:

  • Reality doesn’t care what you want it to be. Be it god, karma, free will, the brain being more than a machine or the human capacity to understand everything: if the only thing you know for sure is that the world look very bleak without that concept, it’s probably a figment of your fragile little mind.
  • If you find yourself going crazy about what you can’t do, try to focus instead on what you can do.

Actually, the last point still needs some explanation. Let’s look at the Design Space of our universe. It contains every object that can be made using the matter around us. Now try to estimate its size. It is big enough to hold all of our inventions, with most of them working the way they should even if dramatically altered. It is big enough to hold all of us – that is all humans that ever existed or will exist. It is big enough to hold every pattern of atoms from the beginning of time up until now (and beyond). And that’s still only a small subset, if you remind yourself that a) we haven’t invented that much yet and b) most objects have been made under most severe constraints. Even the most simple organism is able to replicate – that means it contains all the information to make something similar to itself in a specific environment (that still contains a lot of variables). You can’t say that of any human invention (yet). But what is the most amazing thing: each object must come from a line of similar objects that changed only in very small increments through evolution. This seems to imply that for larger increments (as the ones made possible by inventive humans, creating things like the automobile which hardly resembles anything found in nature), the Design Space must be vast indeed. So let’s really explore it.