Let Not RIP Aaron Swartz’ Legacy

8. February, 2013

Aaron Swartz is dead. There is no arguing the fact, we can only disagree why he died.

His girlfriend says: “I believe Aaron’s death was caused by exhaustion, by fear, and by uncertainty.” (source)

I, too, get the feeling that the world is turning from an adult into a child again.

When does someone stop being a child? When they realize that actions have consequences and that they have to take responsibility for their every action. Some even realize that you have a responsibility for your inactions as well but that’s probably too much to ask for most people.

So as soon as you refuse to take responsibility for your actions and start denying the consequences, you must be turning into a child again.

What are the consequences of incarceration of almost one percent of the whole population? Is adding more rules to a broken system the adult or the childish way out?

A lot of people argue in favor of the death penalty when there is no indication that any of the arguments is supported by facts. Isn’t it typical childish behavior to refuse to listen something you don’t want to hear?

Let’s all grow up again.

The End is Nigh

12. September, 2012

No, the world doesn’t end 2012 but it will soon be a much less hospitable place for us humans. Before I share my view, what do you believe will be the most prominent factor in the massive reduction of the human population?

Update: Polldaddy didn’t keep my poll alive and I missed to copy the results before it was gone. Sorry for that.

Jazoon 2012: Stay Human – on the future of men and robots

4. July, 2012

What I like about the Jazoon is that they try to widen your horizon. We had presentations how to publish books, psychology and the NASA. This year, the closing keynote was about androids – as in artificial humans, not Google.

Henrik Scharfe from Aalborg University talked about “Stay Human – on the future of men and robots” and Geminoid-DK, an android which Scharfe had built after his image (production notes). For this project, Time magazine put him on the “100 Most Influential People” list in 2012.

According to Scharfe, we’re all part of the “ultimate project: Make sense of the world” in a perpetual loop. To achieve this, we communicate. A very powerful means of communication is the story. Stories need not be true, they have to be relevant. In a sense, we talk to scale, to widen our influence.

During the presentation, Scharfe gave some insight into the production of the android. How odd it feels to enter a room where a copy of yourself is assembled. When the skin on the head is hanging open like from a nasty wound. When “your” arms are still missing. A head without hair. The different stages of coloring. When a worker stabs a needle through the skin to add the facial hair. Thoughts how the workers will treat your copy when you’re not around.

The team did celebrate its “birthday,” the date when it was first activated. For Henrik, it “felt like a friend waking from a long coma.”

After the android was assembled, automatic movements were programmed. We don’t usually notice but the facial expressions only “work” when all the details are right. This was hard to achieve because of the properties of the silicone skin, it’s thickness and the distance to the actuators. When the android is presented in public, this leads to opposite reactions by children and adults.

While adults are fascinated how human-like the android is, children are frightened by it because they sense that something is wrong. When the automatic movements (breathing, blinking) are deactivated and Henrik switches to manual control, this flips. Now, adult and teenagers are worried but the children suddenly see the android as a toy – something they can relate to.

When used as a mannequin, customers are hesitant to touch the clothes on the android while they have no problem to touch the dummies.

Looking at the future, Prof. Scharfe sees new modes of presence. Instead of traveling to Australia for a presentation, you might send your android (or just the skin). Over time, there will be a blended presence.

Beware: His android always causes a commotion at customs (when they stuff him into the X-ray) and the cabin crew (“Who is flying?” “I thought you were!”)

Of course, that causes questions: What happens if someone gets hurt by your android? Or when someone hacks into the remote control? As the androids get smarter (= they will be able to do more things on auto pilot like finding a room in a building), are they allowed to protect themselves against theft or attack?

Do we want to allow people to build androids for recreational activities? What about sex?

What if I order an android that looks like my girl friend? My ex-girl friend? Adolf Hitler? The pope? The President of the United States? My beloved dog? A Saber-toothed tiger (scale 1:1)? A child of mine that died in an accident or from an illness (like in A.I. Artificial Intelligence)?

Can I destroy this android? Walk it to a public square and club it with a baseball bat? Run it over with a car? Shoot it? Have it beg for mercy while I’m doing this? It’s just a recording, right?

If androids get really smart, will we grant them rights? How will you feel when your android greets you in the evening with “Honey, we need to talk. There is this really cute model at the other end of the city. Oh, and I’ll keep the kids.”

Will it be murder when I wipe the memory of such an android?

As you can see, these questions are important because technology just plows on. Technology doesn’t decide what’s right or wrong, we do. Answers will come through technology but we must still ask the questions. We must stay human where it counts.

To do that, more advanced research structured need to be built. It must be more simple for researchers to find relevant information (Watson comes to mind). It must be easier to share research. To collaborate. Today, it’s hard to combine resources. Some things aren’t on-line. Instead of individual PCs, universities and high-schools need to offer cloud services for their staff and students.

And most importantly, research needs to get out of the lab. It’s a neat story that people greet Geminoid DK when they enter the lab and say goodbye even when it’s switched off. But seeing surprise in the faces of children in a crowd only happens on the street.


Make Money Fast (Or Not)

4. July, 2012

There is no safe way to get rich.

Proof: There are still poor people.

How is that a proof?

If there was a simple, safe and legal way to get rich, a lot of people (= all those who know about it) would be rich. That would leave the rest (= those who don’t know) poor. But the poor would be wondering: Why am I poor?

And a some of them would eventually learn about this simple, safe and legal way to get rich and become rich, too. So over time, the number of poor people would inevitably shrink. Since it’s a safe way, the rich would stay rich. Even if they lost some money, they would just apply the scheme again to make up for the losses.

That means after a certain time, there couldn’t be any poor people left.


Final Java Questions

3. September, 2011

Recently, I read a blog post which talked how “stupid” today’s developers are. As an example, “the interviewed candidates claims that they are very good at core java and saying that we can’t add/remove elements to an ArrayList which is declared as final.” (Are Frameworks Making Developers Dumb?)

Funny, right? But it got me thinking.

How important is it really that someone knows this? With over 60K points on stackoverflow, I’m one of the most knowledgeable software developers in the world but there was a moment, when my brain stumbled over the question. I rarely use final in my code. So how much value does this information have? How often do I need this every day? Once per week? Month? Year? How much damage can the wrong answer cause?

While I agree that sound knowledge helps a lot, I see team mates struggle much less. They don’t know as much as I do but there is a demotivating effect here: If you know too much, every simple question triggers a flood of thoughts: What can go wrong? Didn’t we encounter this already? What’s the best solution?

Sometimes, there are two “best” solutions and missing any further input, I can get stuck in a deadlock. Which way to go?

Or the solution to a problem triggers a new problem which in turn triggers a third. Suddenly, I’m caught in a maelstrom of dread which overwhelms me: Every possible way out just causes more trouble.

So for me, knowledge isn’t everything. Some people are “just” decent developers but that should not stop you to hire them. Here are some other, valuable factors:

  • How easily do they give up?
  • How well do they play as a team? That doesn’t mean everyone has to be a “team player” (whatever that might be). But strengths and weaknesses of each individual should compensate each other. One guys likes to talk a lot, let him handle customers. The other guy likes to work alone, give him the hard tasks that need a lot of time and concentration.
Most of all, make sure that every member of the team understands that a weak spot doesn’t make someone less valuable. It just makes them less valuable for certain tasks. If you can distribute the tasks just right, the team will be much stronger than one made up from the best developers in the world.

The Audacity of Hope

29. January, 2011

I’ve just started reading “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama. In the first chapter, he talks about a change in how politics are being made. Before the change, people would reason which each other and seek compromise. With the change, they started to go for the jugular.

Which got me thinking: Yeah, I feel the same way. For some reason, people got more radical and absolute in their beliefs. More fanatical. Fundamental. Even here in Switzerland. But why?


We all have a growing feeling of helplessness. The flood of information that overwhelms us every day creates an illusion of “I know everything” and at the same time, our options to influence even the things at our fingertips seem to vanish. Bills are passed that make you weep because of their stupidity. A small group of people (several thousand) ruin the world economy for billions and get a bonus for it instead of 120’000 years of prison. Some art project is supported with millions of tax money but the street in front of our house keeps its holes. Companies announce billions in revenue while our bridges collapse.

So the desperation is a result of the feeling that the world is falling apart and can do nothing about it. The constant flood of useful information is fueling our own fears of insignificance.

It’s the same thing the politicians feel. When something comes up, even the worlds best expert can’t tell them anymore how to fix it. The world has become too complex to control and thanks to the many source of information we have today, we know it.

So what can we do about it?

Nothing. Accept it.

Or maybe you can stop reading newspapers and watch TV. Or at least stop watching the news casts and documentaries. Most of the information you receive this way will only make you mad or fuel your feelings of helplessness. So getting to know more doesn’t help. Focus. Get a local newspaper unless you can change things on a bigger scale. Take a hundred bucks, drive to your local do-it-yourself, buy a bag of gravel and fill the holes in your street yourself. Instead of shoveling your good money into a financial system that can ruin a medium-sized country like, say, America, search for local entrepreneurs and give your money to them. That way, you at least have a face to scream into when it’s gone. Or maybe it makes the place where you live a better one. Hollywood is already good enough.

Do you really need that 60″ LCD TC? How about taking a week off instead. To fix your house. So you smile when you return home instead of thinking about all the things that you can’t or should change.

The audacity of change.


10. October, 2010

In another blog, I read a comment “I want the ‘truth‘.” Uh huh. The “Truth.” What is “The Truth”? A little thought experiment.

A police officer walks along a house. Suddenly, a shot is fired. Three seconds later, the officer kicks in the door and finds a woman, dead, with a black hole in her chest and a man with a gun in his hands.

Question: Did the man kill the woman?

What is the “truth” here? A whole ago, I read in the Perry Rhodan Sci Fi series: There are four levels of “truth”. One is called the absolute or objective truth. We can never hope to glimpse at it.

Then there is the social truth. It is what a whole society believes true. For example, a society can believe that stealing is bad.

On the next level, we have group truth. Groups define themselves by being different from all other groups. This also means they have their own beliefs about truth. Even if society believes stealing is bad, a group of street workers will have a more detailed view on the topic. In effect, the group shares the same ideal but they have their own beliefs how to solve the issue.

The last level is the personal truth. As a member of a group, a person can believe something that (s)he personally would reject. An example here could be to steal to belong to the local gang – or to risk being their punching ball.

If we return to the thought experiment, what are the various levels of truth here?

The objective truth will know what really has happened and why. What the man thought at any moment. What the woman thought. What happened to her as she died. How the worms in the earth felt as the police officer stomped over the flagstones of the path leading to the door.

There is no way to know these facts – ever. The woman is dead and beyond questioning. The man was in a state of mind that could be described as “temporary lunacy”. Even if he knew what he had thought, he probably won’t be able to tell us – or he might even have serious reasons to lie. The police officer didn’t see the act, only the aftermath. And if you know a way to talk to worms, there are a couple of people in Stockholm waiting for you.

Social truth dictates that the man has killed the woman. Just three facts are enough: Man and woman present, man has gun, woman is dead. Did you notice that the gun was smoking? I didn’t write that. If you remember that scroll up and read the sentence again. No smoking gun. There is no indication that a shot was fired but social truth still says “he has killed her.” Remember next time you read “someone committed a crime.”

On the group level, truth depends on your peer group. Feminists: Surely the man is a monster, serial killer or worse and must be sentenced to death. Machos: That bitch probably teased him till he snapped. Any firearms association: If she had a gun, she could have defended herself. Police: There are too many guns around. Psychologists: Another life lost because of ignorance of the human mind. Cleaning crews: Blood is hell to clean up. Teachers: What will happen to the poor children? Journalist: Is there a story in there or is it just another homicide?

On the personal level, truth depends on your experience. Have you lost someone due to a crime? Then your reaction will be completely different from someone who is just enjoying this thought experiment. If you have lost someone, you will think about the grief and sadness while someone else will think “Hey, this is cool. I’ve never thought of that.”

This will then influence how you remember this text. Memories are always linked to emotions. If I fail to evict some strong emotion in you, you will forget. The brain is trained to keep an eye on the important stuff (which can kill you) and forget about the boring things ASAP.

So what is the truth about the story above? What has happened? As we know, the man is likely not to know or not to tell. Some ideas:

  1. The man has killed the woman
  2. The man just found the already dead woman and the killer is in the backyard where he fired a shot
  3. A sniper has killed the woman and the man just drew his gun to defend himself
  4. The whole scene is part of a movie about a man who is accused to have killed a woman
  5. It could be a computer game
  6. Or a scene from a book
  7. The man is holding a book in his hand which has a gun on the cover
  8. The whole thing is just part of some thought experiment

The “truth” is a lie. We can only hope to get ever closer to something that is out of reach because our brain wasn’t designed to contain it.


When to micromanage

11. December, 2009

When it comes to work, there are two extremes: There are those people who are enthusiastic and, once started, can hardly be stopped and there are the ones which think “Monday, 9:00am, and the weeks still isn’t over”.

Micro-managing the former will make them quit (or as Joel Spolsky put it: “Doesn’t micromanagement turn smart people into robots?“). Not micro-managing the latter will result in no work being done.

Which explains nicely why it’s a pleasure/pain to work with some craftsman: Some of them love their job, they delight in producing a perfect result which will make the customer happy. And the other ones can’t be bothered.

Why New Technology is so Complicated

14. May, 2009

Ever wondered why the new cool thing is so complicated? There is a very good article which explains just that. In a nutshell: When the technology is invented, it’s invented by experts in the field. They have toyed with this idea for years, refined it, applied it in numerous projects and honed it until something new and useful came out.

Next come the early adoptors which are usually also experts in the field. They are always searching for a new, better solution and they are actively searching. The also have the background to understand what a new technology means for them, since they have the experience.

After that comes the normal user. The normal user has little idea what is going on, she just “wants to solve this simple problem.” The documentation (so far only written by experts for experts) mean little to her since she simply doesn’t have the background. She also doesn’t want to become an expert, this is usually going to be a single-strike project, so there is no intention to spend any time on learning the technology.

Fighting Child Pr0n on the Net

8. May, 2009

Child abuse is something I keep an eye on and about which I have a strong opinion. In the last few weeks, German politicians discovered the topic. Foremost, our Minister for Family, Ursual von der Leyen, started a crusade to implement Internet filter technology at the ISP level to “fight” child pr0n. Note my subtle attempt to influence your opinion by using “crusade” which means to go to a foreign place, lay waste to the land, kill everyone there, in the name of all that is Good and Just.

Let’s see what the new law is trying to achieve. If you happen to click on a link that leads to a child pr0n site, you’ll see a stop page instead, explaining that you were about to see illegal content. While she insists that this will have no further consequences (especially, the time and IP will not be logged, the minister promised in a radio interview), there are already voices who want that data. Other voices already start crying “why don’t you block pirate sites, too?” We Germans know all too well how great censorship works, how easily it starts small, how fast it grows and what kind of persons it attracts. Not convinced? Let me give you some examples.

You’re browsing the web, follow an ad, and suddenly, you see the stop page. No harm done. Unless some clever guy at the ISP is making a private copy of the stop server’s log. And calls you the next day (since he can easily figure out who you are), threatening you to tell everyone about your disgusting character. Think about a moment how you would defend against such an attack. How would you explain to your wife/husband if it wasn’t you answering the phone?

Everyone knows how to secure a WLAN. Well, everyone, who knows more about WLAN other than how to buy one. So there are still many unprotected WLANs out there and guess who will go to jail after a criminal has used one of them to download lots of child pr0n. If it’s not a WLAN, then you’re better an expert in protecting your computer against viruses and remote control exploits. I mean, everyone is. There are no bot-nets out there, counting thousands of computers, where a criminal can do anything they damn well please, knowing full well that all the blame will go to the fool who owns the PC.

Or you’re like me and find child pr0n disgusting. Only, even downloading such an image is a criminal offense. So … when I would stumble upon something, I could not report that to the authorities because they would first arrest me, before considering going through to the tedious and probably futile process of trying to figure out who owns the domain where I found that stuff. If I would claim that a German domain contains child pr0n, the ISP would have to take down the site without being allowed to check whether my claims are true! If they did, the police would have to arrest them! Otherwise, the owner of the site could argue in court why he was being prosecuted and they were not. Before the law, all are equal, are they not?

To protect the people working at the German ISPs, the list of blocked sites must be secret. If that single sever is not working correctly (and how would you check that without going to jail?), this ISP is going to have a whole lot of very upset customers who suddenly see stop pages for legal sites. Or, the other way around, the server is not blocking something it should. How do you argue in court that a site which should have been on the list wasn’t blocked? It’s a secret list, you must not look at it!

So instead of spending money to create a help line for abused children, helping mothers and fathers to leave an abusive other, making the topic a non-taboo, so we could speak about it, politicians propose that we just don’t see the problem anymore. Sounds like a simple solution. We all know how good a simple solution sounds and how rarely they work out.

No criticism without a better proposal. If you don’t like thought-provoking ideas, this is not for you. Go away. Don’t read on. You’ve been warned.

All laws making temporary ownership of a small number of images must be revoked. Anyone on the planet must be allowed to report these findings without having to fear any kind of prosecution. No Internet censorship. Instead, we block access to domains which are run by registrars that boast not to comply to any law. That’s simple because we can block by IP (the list above would contain site names and as someone who knows what that means technically, that gives me nightmares). Anything left over must then come from a law-abiding registrar and those can and will take down such sites. Furthermore, they can quickly turn over the details about the person behind the offering, so they can be prosecuted like any other criminal. That doesn’t even need a lawyer or judge or court, anyone working for the ISP could check the site (because they won’t go to jail anymore), see what is going on and pull the plug within minutes. Before the police could hang up the phone, they’d have the name and address of the owner of the site and half an hour later, someone would have to answer some serious questions. And even if that person couldn’t be found, the site would be gone  forever, for anyone on the planet (instead of just for the 80 million Germans).

To find such sites, I’d turn to locked up, incurable offenders. Since they are incurable, they are effectively locked up forever. Why not use that as an advantage and, with their prior consent, give them a computer, a fat Internet connection and a well-loaded credit card? They could even locate material in closed user groups and fast-flux-networks, something a filter list will never be able to do. Everyone would get what they want. Cynical, but still true.

Radical? Maybe … but how would you call a “solution” which leaves the victims to suffer and the offenders free to cause more pain? Because that’s, in a nutshell, what the current proposal is all about. It’s probably a pure coincidence that such an important issue comes up close to the reelections.

Next time you see someone pointing and screaming at something, remember that they point at themselves with three fingers.