Robotics and Your Job

Now that word has gotten around that I’ve been working with both data science projects (Python for Data Science for Dummies) and machine learning projects (Machine Learning for Dummies), people have begun asking me hard questions, such as whether a Terminator style robot is possible (it isn’t, Ex Machina and The Terminator notwithstanding) or whether they’ll be without work sometime soon (the topic of this post). (As an aside, deus ex machina is a literary plot device that has been around for a long time before the movie came out.)

Whether your job is secure depends on the kind of job you have, whether robotics will actually save money, what you believe as a person, and how your boss interprets all the hype currently out there. For example, if your claim to fame is flipping burgers, then you’d better be ready to get another job soon. McDonald’s is currently opening a store that uses robots in Phoenix and plans to have 25,000 more moved to robotics by the end of 2016. Some jobs are simply going to go away, no doubt about it.

However, robots aren’t always the answer to the question. Many experts see three scenarios: humans working for robots (as in a doctor collaborating with a robot to perform surgery more accurately and with greater efficiency), humans servicing robots (those McDonald’s jobs may be going away, but someone will have to maintain the robots), and robots working for humans (such as that Roomba that’s currently keeping your house clean). The point is that robots will actually create new jobs, but that means humans will need new skills. Instead of boring jobs that pay little, someone with the proper training can have an interesting job that pays moderately well.

An interesting backlash against automation has occurred in several areas. So, what you believe as a person does matter when it comes to the question of jobs. The story that tells the tale most succinctly appears in ComputerWorld, Taxpayer demand for human help soars, despite IRS automation. Sometimes people want a human to help them. This backlash could actually thwart strategies like the one McDonald’s plans to implement. If McDonald’s finds that the robots cost too much to run or that people are going to the competition to obtain food from other humans, it might need to reevaluate what appears to be a winning strategy. However, the backlash would need to involve a significant part of the population of people who buy food at McDonald’s to induce the company to make the change.

There is also the boss’ perspective to consider. A boss is only a boss as long as there is someone or something to manage. Even though your boss will begrudgingly give up your job to automation, you can be sure that giving up a job personally isn’t on the list of things to do. Some members of the press have resorted to viewing the future as a time when robots do everything and humans don’t work, but really, this viewpoint is a fantasy. However, it’s not a fantasy that companies such as Hitachi are experimenting with robot managers. Some employees actually prefer the consistent interaction of a robot boss. It’s unlikely that managers will take this invasion of their domain sitting down and do something to make using robots untenable.

It really is too soon to tell where robots will go for one simple reason. The algorithms used to make robots functional are still works in progress. In addition, society must decide the place that robots will take. The interaction between business and the people that businesses serve will play a distinct role in how things play out. However, all this said, your job will likely be different in the future due to the influences of robots. For the most part, I feel that life will be better for everyone after the adjustment, but that the adjustment will be quite hard. Let me know your thoughts on robots at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Discerning the Use of the Six Questions in Writing

In a previous post, Creating the Useful Sidebar, I discussed the need for emotion in any book, even technical books. It’s not possible to convey information in a manner that helps a reader understand the technology without including emotion. Facts alone are available in many places on the Internet—what a smart author wants to convey is the emotion behind the facts. Of course, this means adding bias in the form of your perspective on the topic.

Most people know the six questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Newspaper authors stress the questions, but anyone who writes technical (non-fiction) materials must consider them as well. They’re good questions. However, most treatise on the topic look at the questions from a factual perspective—what you need to do to answer them and why they’re important. In some respects, it’s better to look at the effect and orientation of the six questions, rather than their factual nature.

The four fact questions are: who, what, when, and where. If you answer these four questions in any piece you write, you have covered the facts. Your writing will likely be as dry and entertaining as the Sahara, but no one will be able to argue that you’ve covered the essentials—the bare minimum. The best authors aren’t happy with just the bare minimum.

The question of how is a slightly emotional question. It not only covers facts, but it also covers some of the emotion behind the facts because you’re presenting a view of the facts. In your (or possibly an expert’s) opinion, this is how the other facts fall into place. For example, a procedure on how to perform a task using a piece of software is your opinion on how to get the job done. Rarely is there a time when your method is the only available method. You discuss how based on your experience. Likewise, looking at the historical context of an event, the how often views the event from the viewpoint of the historian who researched the process, rather than providing a precise and infinitely detailed discussion. A historian could quite well leave out steps in order to streamline the process (to make it easier to understand) or to convey a specific view (in order to support bias).

When looking at the question of why, you enter the territory of pure emotion. It’s impossible to ascertain a factual why, no matter what sort of writing you do. Even addressing the why behind the reason to perform a particular task in a specific matter is based solely on the author’s opinion and is therefore ultimately biased. The why of a situation, any situation, tends to change with time. As an author gains knowledge (facts), experience (knowing how to apply the facts), and wisdom (knowing when to apply the facts) the question of why changes. In addition, memory, perspective, and all sorts of other environmental considerations affect the interplay of emotions that answer the question of why. In fact, you may encounter situations where even the entity that is the focus of why has no idea of why and you must create your own answer to the question.

Great writing revolves around the six questions. The first four are easy, the fifth is a bit harder, but to answer the sixth requires time, focus, and commitment. Let me know your thoughts about the six questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Old Laws, User Privacy, and Vendors Caught in the Middle

I’ve talked a number of times about researchers creating security busting software just because they can. The software often gets out into the wild where people who wouldn’t normally have a clue as to how to overcome security features can now use it to break the latest security in some product or application. Now the government is trying to force Apple (and probably other vendors) to write such software in pursuit of information hidden by encryption based on the mandates of a 227 year old law written at a time when no one had any idea that modern digital devices would even exist. The decree issued by the judge in charge of the case seems quite reasonable until you consider the fact that once Apple writes the software, it could end up in the wild, where hackers will almost certainly find ways to use it to overcome the security of legitimate users—making it impossible to ensure private information, such as credit card data, really does remain private.

The iPhone comes with some interesting security features that make it a relatively secure device. For example, tampering with certain device hardware will brick the device, which is the sort of security feature more devices should have. Modifying the security hardware should cause the device to lock down in order to protect the data it contains. The encryption that Apple offers with the iPhone is also first rate. No one but the user has the key used to unlock the encryption, which means that only the user can create a security problem by handing the key out to others.

The government is trying to change this scenario to make it easier to learn about anything it can about the data on Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone (one of the two San Bernardino shooters). On the surface, it seems like a good idea, if for no other reason than to potentially prevent other shootings. However, the manner in which the government has pursued the information opens the door to all sorts of abuse and then there is the matter of that software getting out into the wild. The issue here is that the law hasn’t kept up with technology, which is a recurrent problem. The government doesn’t have a law to cover the need to break encryption in a reasonable way, so it resorts to a 227 year old law that was never intended to address this need. The fact that the government is using the same law to try to force Apple to breach iPhone security in at least twelve other cases means that the argument that this is a one-off requirement doesn’t hold any water. Once Apple cooperates even once, it sets a precedent that will allow the government to force additional cooperation, even when such cooperation decidedly damages the privacy of innocent parties.

Tim Cook has rightly refused to cooperate with the government. There really is too much at stake in this case and even the government should be able to figure it out. What needs to happen is that our government needs to catch up with technology and write laws that everyone can live with to deal with the need to preserve the privacy engendered by encryption, yet make it possible for the government to obtain information needed to solve a case.

The question here is more complicated than simply managing information properly. It’s also one of keeping good technology (such as that found in Security for Web Developers) working properly and ensuring that government entities don’t abuse their positions. What is your take on the San Bernardino shooting and the information needed to pursue it? How do you feel about keeping your private data truly private? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Pruning Your Grapes After a Major Freeze

Previous posts, Pruning the Grapes (Part 1) and Pruning the Grapes (Part 2), have discussed techniques for pruning your grapes. In most cases, these two posts contain everything needed to prune your grapes using the four-cane Kniffin system. However, pruning grapes sometimes involves more than simply dressing them up. In general, your canes can remain fully productive for many years, but sometimes mother nature steps in and causes severe damage. In my case, all of my young caned died completely and there was nothing to do about it. In addition, two-thirds of the mature canes suffered above ground loss, which is what I want to talk about in this post.

Good hearty canes will come back after a major freeze that kills the top of the plant. No, you won’t get anything in the way of grapes after the top is killed off, but the root stock is well-established and coming back after the freeze is a lot faster and easier than planting new canes. The spring after the freeze will see the old canes looking like gray skeletons and you might think everything is lost, but give your plants time. Look carefully at the ground around the old canes.

The first year after a major freeze will see all sorts of suckers coming out of the ground. Just leave them be. Let them climb up using the old canes as support. What you’ll end up with with look like a horrid mess. The new canes will grow everywhere. That’s fine, just don’t look too often if the mess offends you.

In the spring of the second year, carefully work with the mess. Remove the skinny trunks. One or two the trunks (with their associated canes) will look quite hearty. Leave both for the time being. Also remove the old, dead, trunk and associated canes with extreme care. You don’t want to damage your new canes, which may very well end up resting on the ground for a while. It takes time, but work slowly and carefully. (I find that working through the mess usually requires an hour or perhaps two per plant, so allocated plenty of time and don’t rush.) Eventually, you’ll clean up everything but the two strongest canes.

Now that you’re down to two contestants, carefully look at the canes attached to each of the trunks. You need to consider which trunk has the heartiest canes placed in the right positions for the trellis system you’re using. In my case, I looked for the best trunk with four canes—two upper and two lower. Cut off the trunk you don’t want to use.

It’s important to remember that your plant is frozen and won’t be very flexible during this time of year. Carefully tie the canes to the trellis using a stretchy material that won’t harm the canes. I cut up old, clean pantyhose. It’s stretchy, holds up moderately well in the sunlight, and is inexpensive. Plus, it tends to dry out quickly after getting wet, which means you won’t introduce mold to your plants. You’ll likely need to work more with the canes later in the spring, after they defrost, but before they become productive.

In most cases, mother nature won’t kill your plants. The roots will survive even if the top of the plant is completely dead. Unlike most orchard plants, you don’t normally need to worry about grafts when working with grapes, so using those root suckers is a great way to get your grapes back after being killed off. Instead of the seven years required for new plants, you could potentially get grapes from the restored plants in as little as three years, so the time spent coddling the damaged grapes is well worth the effort. Let me know your thoughts on grape pruning at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Is Security Research Always Useful?

Anyone involved in the computer industry likely spends some amount of time reading about the latest security issues in books such as Security for Web Developers. Administrators and developers probably spend more time than many people, but no one can possibly read all the security research available today. There are so many researchers looking for so many bugs in so many places and in so many different ways that even if someone had the time and inclination to read every security article produced, it would be impossible. You’d need to be the speediest reader on the planet (and then some) to even think about scratching the surface. So, you must contemplate the usefulness of all that research—whether it’s actually useful or simply a method for some people to get their name on a piece of paper.

Some of the attacks require physical access to the system. In some cases, you must actually take the system apart to access components in order to perform the security trick. Unless you or your organization is in the habit of allowing perfect strangers physical access to your systems, which might include taking them apart, you must wonder whether the security issue is even worth worrying about. You need to ask why someone would take the time to document a security issue that’s nearly impossible to see, much less perform in a real world environment. More importantly, the moment you see that a security issue requires physical access to the device, you can probably stop reading.

You also find attacks that require special equipment to perform. The article, How encryption keys could be stolen by your lunch, discusses one such attack. In fact, the article contains a picture of the special equipment that you must build to perpetrate the attack. It places said equipment into a piece of pita bread, which adds a fanciful twist to something that is already quite odd and pretty much unworkable given that you must be within 50 cm (19.6 in) from the device you want to attack (assuming that the RF transmission conditions are perfect). Except for the interesting attack vector (using a piece of pita bread), you really have to question why anyone would ever perpetrate this attack given that social engineering and a wealth of other attacks require no special equipment, are highly successful, and work from a much longer distance.

Another example of incredibly weird security research is found in the article, When the good guys are wielding the lasers. I have to admit it’s interesting in a James Bond sort of way, but we’re talking about lasers mounted on drones. This attack at least has the advantage of distance (1 km or 0.6 mi). However, you have to wonder just how the laser was able to get a line of sight with the attack object, a printer in this case. If a device is critical enough that someone separates it from the Internet, it’s also quite likely that the device won’t be sitting in front of a window where someone can use a laser to access it.

A few research pieces become more reasonable by discussing outlandish sorts of hacks that could potentially happen after an initial break-in. The hack discussed in Design flaw in Intel chips opens door to rootkits is one of these sorts of hacks. You can’t perpetrate the hack until after breaking into the system some other way, but the break-in has serious consequences once it occurs. Even so, most hackers won’t take the time because they already have everything needed—the hack is overkill.

The articles that help most provide a shot of reality into the decidedly conspiracy-oriented world of security. For example, Evil conspiracy? Nope, everyday cyber insecurity, discusses a series of events that everyone initially thought pointed to a major cyber attack. It turns out that the events occurred at the same time by coincidence. The article author thoughtfully points out some of the reasons that the conspiracy theories seemed a bit out of place at the outset anyway.

It also helps to know the true sources of potential security issues. For example, the articles, In the security world, the good guys aren’t always good and 5 reasons why newer hires are the company’s biggest data security risk, point out the sources you really do need to consider when creating a security plan. These are the sorts of articles that should attract your attention because they describe a security issue that you really should think about. Likewise, reading articles such as, Software developers aren’t implementing encryption correctly and 4 fatal problems with PKI help you understand why your security measures may not always work as well as anticipated.

The point is that you encounter a lot of information out there that doesn’t help you make your system any more secure. It may be interesting if you have the time to read it, but the tactics truly aren’t practical and no hacker is going to use them. Critical thinking skills are your best asset when building your security knowledge. Let me know about your take on security research at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Fuller Understanding of the Internet of Things

You can find the Internet of Things (IoT) discussed just about everywhere today because the Internet has become pervasive. IoT is part of most business applications today as discussed in Security for Web Developers and part of any PC you build as discussed in Build Your Own PC on a Budget. It appears as part of smart TVs and Blue-ray players. In fact, you find IoT employed in a lot of places you might not have thought possible even a year ago. The point is that IoT is here to stay and we need to consider some of the ramifications of it on every day life.

One of the issues that hasn’t surprised me too much is the issue of security. Both my smart TV and smart Blue-ray player require me to enter a password to access the Internet through my wireless router (mostly because the router is configured to require one). So these devices do employ security to some extent. However, they remain logged on at all times, so the router is also configured to disconnect devices after a certain time. Each time I turn the devices on, I must reenter the password. It’s a level of security, but not necessarily the best security. Some devices, such as Apple Watch, lack any form of security. (In the case of Apple Watch, the device authenticates through an iPhone, so it still has some level of security, but not security that is part of the device itself.) Some industry pundits are saying that these devices will eventually kill the password, which means that some other form of primary authentication is needed.

The problem is increased by the proliferation of headless devices (products that lack any sort of display, such as a door lock, security system, or robots). In these cases, you can’t enter a password. No one is really sure how to secure these devices, but a solution really is needed and soon. Unless we find a solution, the issues surrounding intentional hacking will increase. A recent InfoWorld article, Welcome to the smart home … of horror!, emphasizes some of the sorts of things that could happen due to a lack of security.

Security and configuration problems aren’t just limited to outsiders gaining access to your home, office, business, or other location due to holes in IoT security. It also turns out that smart devices aren’t particularly smart, so sometimes you lose access to your network and its connected devices due to a combination of security and configuration issues when a failure occurs. In the ComputerWorld article, The Internet of Things: Your worst nightmare, you can hear about one person’s attempt to recover from a simple router failure. It turns out that simply replacing the router wasn’t enough—everything connected to the router needed reconfiguration and sometimes the task was less than easy to perform.

The world is in a age of transformation. The ride will be bumpy and the problems severe. When you consider the immensity of the things that are changing, the future looks incredibly different from anything that has gone on in the past. Not only is there IoT to consider, but the whole issue of robots and other technologies that are coming to fore. As these new technologies become part of everyday life, we have to ensure we can use them safely and that ability of someone to hurt us through them is curtailed. Let me know your thoughts about IoT security and configuration at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Perfect Love (Reposted)

Valentine’s Day is that special time to tell others that you love them. Most people associate Valentine’s Day with lovers—romantic love. However, Valentine’s Day can also be about friends telling each other that they’re glad to have each other. The world is a better place when we can express our love to each other, whether that love is for significant others, friends, neighbors, or the person down the street. Everyone needs to feel loved and respected. Even though it’s the day after the event, there is always time to express your love to someone and this is my expression of love to you, my reader.

Perfect love casts out my fear.
Keep your perfect love so near
that I never fear again.
Perfect love for you attain,
‘til my heart with love is filled
and my spirit never chilled.

All around the world I see,
how a perfect love could be,
an answer for mankind’s woes,
when hatred and evil flows,
fueled by fires of doubt and fear,
no one lets the other near.

Open eyes to perfect love,
gift of wonder from above.
A love that gives, never takes,
love that grants others mistakes,
that counts no loss and no gain,
that makes our hearts young again.

Copyright 2012, John Paul Mueller

Recycling Stalled

Recycling is an important part of the strategy for keeping planet Earth livable for future generations—not to mention making lives more enjoyable today. After all, no one wants to end up neck deep in garbage. Most recycling revolves around paper, metal, plastic, and glass. However, recycling efforts are starting to stall in America and other countries for various reasons. A common theme is that recycling doesn’t generate enough money to make it practical as a for profit effort. The companies tasked with obtaining, recycling, and selling the materials don’t make enough money to remain viable.

Of course, theories abound as to why this problem occurs, but the bottom line is that recycling must increase. Most countries recycle less than 50 percent of the waste that people generate (34 percent in America according to a number of sources), which means that the landfills still fill at a prodigious rate. I know that some people point to ancient civilizations that survived just fine without recycling, but the earth’s population also continues to grow and we will end up neck deep in garbage sooner than later at the current rate of use. A few people have embraced a radically new idea of simply moving to another planet once this one is used up, but barring some major advance in space travel, I don’t think that particular idea will work.

A major problem is that some companies have a hard time finding profitable venues for selling the recycled goods they make. You can find sites online that discuss all the innovative uses for recycled materials, but the fact is that the companies actually doing the work still say that profits are low and customers continually get more picky about the materials they’ll accept. In order to make sorting the materials easier and to ensure customers will actually buy the recycled materials, it’s up to individuals to ensure they do their part. For example, rather than stick an entire packing carton in the big blue bin, make sure you separate the materials to remove the materials that a company can’t recycle (such as Styrofoam) from those that it can. Sloppy consumer habits have actually resulted in the disappearance of some public recycling bins, such as those in shopping centers like Walmart.

Keeping some materials out of the garbage can in the first place can help you as well as the company responsible for performing the recycling. For example, composting materials (such as food) to create soil for items you can grow yourself saves money in the long run and makes it a lot easier to recycle the glass and other materials that currently end up creating a huge mess at the recycling company. In addition, ensuring you actually sort the materials according to the conventions for your local community will help.

The point is that recycling will continue to stall until everyone does their part. Ultimately, this effort may require that governments step in and provide financial incentives to keep recycling going (although, it would be better if they didn’t have to). Let me know your thoughts on why you feel recycling is stalling at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Creating the Useful Sidebar

There are many styles of writing employed for technical writing. Each style has specific benefits and today’s blog post won’t delve into them. However, many of these styles rely on the sidebar to add interest to the writing.

A problem occurs when an author seeks to present only facts as part of any written piece. Readers can find facts on the Internet. What readers can’t easily find is the specific viewpoint that an author presents, which includes supplementary materials in the form of sidebars. A sidebar adds interest to the writing, but more importantly, it provides background material that augments the topic at hand. For example, when discussing smartphone hardware, a sidebar that provides a brief overview of the communication technologies employed by that hardware can prove useful to the reader. The radio frequency transmission isn’t part of the main topic and some would argue that discussing it doesn’t belong at all in a pure hardware discussion, but the addition of that supplementary material is essential to the piece as a whole. It helps present a particular view of the technology that the reader wouldn’t otherwise receive.

Sidebars shouldn’t become a main topic. A good sidebar is at least one long paragraph, but more commonly two or three paragraphs. Never allow a sidebar to consume more than a page of text. For example, a two or three paragraph overview of the history of a technology is useful—a discourse that spans multiple pages is overkill unless the author is trying to make a particular point (in which case, the discussion should appear in the topic proper).

Depending on the sidebar content, you can include bulleted lists and numbered steps. A sidebar should never include graphics unless the book style accommodates such an addition (which is rare). The idea is not to detract from the piece as a whole, but rather augment it in a specific way—to help direct the reader’s attention in a specific manner. Using visual styles and white space correctly help make the sidebar attractive.

Many authors forget the need to evoke an emotional response in any sort of writing, including technical writing. In making a point, the author needs to express the idea fully by making an emotional appeal. A sidebar can perform this task nicely without creating distractions in the overall writing flow. For example, a piece about implementing accessibility features in an application can include a sidebar that contains a case study about the effects of such an implementation on a specific person or within a real world environment. The point is to help the reader understand the implications of a technology and make its use imperative.

Sidebars are an essential tool in the creation of a usable piece of writing that helps a reader understand a topic in ways that many factual Internet pieces can’t. Using sidebars effectively makes your writing better and more appealing. More importantly, a sidebar presents a unique view that the reader identifies with you as an author and sets your style of writing apart from that of other authors. Let me know your thoughts about sidebars at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

 

3D Printing – Fad or Practical Tool?

For a while, it seemed as if 3D printing would take the world by storm and that we’d all have 3D printers in our homes pumping out anything we needed. However, since my last article on the topic, 3D Printing Done Faster and Better, the number of articles about 3D technology have decreased noticeably. In fact, the trade press has been a lot quieter on the topic, which makes some people wonder whether 3D printing is actually a fad. The problem with much of the new technology that becomes available is that people initially think there are all sorts of uses for it, but then discover that those uses aren’t practical or that they’re too expensive, and they end up dropping the technology (rather than revise their vision).

You can still find some fanciful uses for 3D printers. For example, the Washington Post recently ran an article recently ran an article on how 3D printers can change the presentation of food. The idea is that you really can have the food presented in a manner that is both pleasing and unique. The idea is to make food in unusual shapes, sizes, and colors, so that it appeals to a larger group of people. However, the original vision was to combine ingredients to actually make the food—this application scales the idea down to a more practical level.

It also looks like 3D printing will see practical use for various higher end needs that aren’t quite professional, but are out of reach of the home owner. Think of printers like the da Vinci 1.0 Pro 3D as a middle ground for experimenters (see the ComputerWorld review). The price is out of reach for the general consumer, but definitely within the range for experimenters and early adapters. Again, the vision is scaled down, more practical, and infinitely more usable.

The military is also using 3D printers to perform practical tasks. Having been a sailor myself, I can tell you without reservation that I would have loved to have been able to print some of the items I needed. Waiting to get back to port before I could even order parts meant serious delays and downed equipment. Imagine having the ability to print a new drone or other needed items while out to sea, rather than waiting for a supply ship or in port visit.

Of course, the medical and other high end uses for 3D printing continue to evolve. For example, 3D printed hands are becoming ever more usable. Expect to see all sorts of new medical uses for 3D printing evolve because humans are notoriously difficult to fit. I envision a day when it becomes possible to print just about any body part needed in the right size, color, shape, and characteristics. New printing strategies may even make the use of organ replacement drugs a thing of the past.

The point is that 3D printing is expanding, growing better, becoming more practical, and still evolving. Yes, you might eventually have one in your own, but don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. Practical uses for 3D printing are becoming more common. Until 3D printing becomes a must have technology for industry, science, military, medical, and other industries, the price won’t come down enough for the home user. To answer my initial question, 3D printing is becoming more practical tool than an interesting new technology, which is why you hear a lot less about it today. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.