Category Archives: Intellectual Curiosity

Right Thing, Wrong Time

Cryptocurrency, quantum supremacy, imminent death of the Internet.

So, Google recently announced that they’d achieved quantum supremacy. One of the things that quantum computers are supposed to be really good at is cracking crypto really fast.

The past couple of years have seen an explosion of cryptocurrencies, which are one application of blockchain, which relies heavily on crypto.

I have a Keybase account, because of lots of reasons, but mostly nowadays I use it for backing up my private git repos. But, as a consequence of having a Keybase account, I am being given Stellar Lumens (XLM), which is a cryptocurrency. I wondered what good these things are, and did a little bit of poking around. It seems to be the case that this is principally for moving other currencies around. I have dollars, I want to give you euros, I can turn the dollars into lumens, send you lumens, and then you turn the lumens into euros. So, remittances with better (maybe?) exchange rates, and with less (maybe?) government oversight.

But now, here’s the thing: you and I don’t have quantum computers. But nations and companies with budgets the size of nations’ do. So, how secure is cryptocurrency, really? And what good is blockchain when Google or Amazon or China or whoever can diddle the crypto? I dunno. Maybe someone smarter than I am can explain it to me.

Greatness Abides

Okay, so when I looked at Google news this morning, this story was in the “For you…based on your interests” section: Gremlin Brings Chaos Monkey Testing to Spinnaker CD Platform. Now, I’m a respecter of Dev Ops, but I’m not really a practitioner of Dev Ops. So I think this is cool, but the coolest thing about it is that my amazing wife invented Chaos Monkey. And now Dev Ops people all over the place are using it and excited about it and it’s really quite valuable. This, right here, is another reason that tech needs women.

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It Could Be Better

A long time ago, my housemate (who is one of the only people who reads this – Hi, Kurt!) had this great explanation for why his homework wouldn’t compile: “It was perfect, so I fixed it.” Man, that so describes every programmer I’ve ever worked with. (Incidentally and orthogonal to the point of this post, I suspect that this attribute of programmers coupled with the increase in the global number of active programmers accounts for so much of the frustration I experience with software nowadays.)

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Book Recommendations

My friend Matt Maxwell wrote The Queen of No Tomorrows and it got published by Broken Eye Books. It is totally worth buying and installing on your phone so you can read it in line at the grocery store, while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office, and any other time you have five seconds to spare. I did and my only regret is that I didn’t have more seconds in a row to slurp that creepy goodness in.

Ben Aaronovitch recently tweeted his approval of a book by Aliette de Bodard, so I ran off like a good fanboi and bought The House of Shattered Wings. Yup, I liked the book, despite really, really being irritated by the way the fallen monk behaves. So, yeah, check that one out.

Now I’m listening to Surveillance Valley on the recommendation of Patrick Reilly, and it’s got me thinking about network externalities, privacy, store-and-forward, dead letter drops, and other groovy communication behaviors. Totally interesting read.

I Hate Your Bot

I dunno, something like a year ago, a guy I know started retweeting a client of his who was working on building a chatbot platform. Now, let’s be honest: in customer facing positions, a lot of interactions are going to be the same. People are way more similar than they are different, and so if one person has a problem, it’s probably true that lots of people have the same problem. So, as a customer service operator, you’re going to spend a lot of your day saying the same things over and over. It’s understandable, then, that companies want to use automated systems to handle customer requests. Why pay a human to tell customers the same thing over and over when you can pay a human to type it once and have a computer send the text a zillion times?

I get irritated by this, though. Given that I understand the motivation and the logic, why do I get cranky? Because although I am far from unique, I am still far from the 80% case and there’s never a clear path past all the B.S. to get to a real, problem-solving human being. (And even when I get to a human, empirical evidence suggests that the human in question is more likely to hit a hotkey response than to actually answer my question.)

Chatbots, artificial voice systems, call center scripts, they all bug me a LOT. Why? Because they all are trying to send the signal, “I am a human being who deserves compassion and respect and engagement,” all simultaneously with sending the signal, “I do not respect you, I do not actually care about you, I am not going to listen to you, and I am going to consume your time and energy.”

If you’re going to build a system that pretends to be human, you need to build it to feel and to empathize.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

It seems to me that I’ve been seeing lots and lots of social media posts which assert that [artist | intellectual] predicted [dystopian future that looks just like one aspect of today’s world] and did it [years ago]. I have to wonder what that’s in aid of. I mean, the second half of the 20th century was all about living with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation or environmental collapse, to say nothing of national existential threats (as the US and the USSR engaged in worldwide political destabilization and regime change) and obvious corporate misandry. The stories of my youth in the 70s and 80s were all dystopian nightmares of one kind or another, each one based on the reductio ad absurdum of some then-current phenomenon.

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