Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year

Hello everyone. I want to wish everyone a happy new year and say a few things about what I expect for the new year.

I believe that one of the most important issues facing "first world" countries like the USA and England are the issues of Internet security and privacy. The news this morning of the umbrage of US congress people to the news that NSA is monitoring of their communications with people in the Israeli government is laughable: let us be clear about this: these people don't care about the privacy of US citizens but they do care about their own privacy and the privacy of leaders of another country. This stinks, and badly.

While privacy is important I believe that a bigger issue security. I would like to see my government (USA) conduct a multi-year "going to the moon" type project for strengthening our information infrastructures to the benefit of people, companies, and governments. This means that there can be no encryption back doors installed in any software and hardware systems. If governments have universal decryption keys then eventually these keys will leak to organized crime, terrorists, and other governments. Imagine the scenario of everyone waking up some morning to emptied bank accounts - that is a possible scenario if 'back doors' are installed in public infrastructure.

On a happier note, the will of the people in my country regarding labeling of GMO foods has won out, at least for now. I believe that 90% of people in the USA poll in favor of accurate labeling of foods. When you consider the power of the food corporation lobbying block, with their paid for politicians (Hillary Clinton and most of the republican presidential candidates, as well as most of Congress) this is a surprising but good victory. Yay!

Despite environmental and political corruption problems I remain very optimistic about the future.

I expect scientific advances in clean energy, artificial intelligence and robotics, and medical breakthroughs to continue at a rapid pace and yield benefits for most people on earth.

In my field (artificial intelligence) we have seen enormous progress in development of useful systems based on deep learning. That said, I don't believe that deep learning is the path to general artificial intelligence. Deep learning is an elegant hack (for training many layer neural networks) but we need a formal model for true AI.

On personal technology: I have spent an enormous amount of time (very enjoyable time) studying and using Haskell, Clojure, Scala, and other languages on projects. While I will always allocate time for learning and practicing with new languages and technologies, for 2016 I have made a news years resolution to "just use Java 8" and "get stuff done." I will continue to mostly use Ruby when I need a scripting language. My decision is to spend more time on artificial intelligence research and projects and Java 8 is usually a practical enough language for this work.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Raspberry Pi and education

I may be late to the Raspberry Pi party - I just bought my first one this week. The Rasberry Pi is everything that I would hope for in an educational computer: cheap enough for all children to own and based on open source software (Debian Linux, LibreOffice, lots of games, and programming languages like Python, Ruby, Java, Scratch, etc. pre installed).

The open nature of the Raspberry Pi encourages kids to experiment. RPs might not be as practical as other systems like ChromeBook that have more distributed infrastructure behind them but I think that open systems provide a better better environment for experimenting with computers.

I reformatted a 32GB memory card and installed a fresh Debian Linux image provided by the Raspberry Pi project and when hooked up to a large monitor the Raspberry Pi 2 is quite capable. I installed the RubyMine IDE and git cloned a few of my Ruby projects and loaded the manuscript for my current writing project. I find the system is surprising fast with its 4 core ARM processor. For fun I have used it for my work for the last day. Of course I am writing this blog article on my RP setup.

Our future lies in how well our educational system works. In the modern world people should never stop learning new things both for the fun of it and to enhance their careers and their contributions to society. Very inexpensive devices like the RP (the latest model costs $5) that can be experimented with provide children with a good model for a life long process of experimenting and learning.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Digital Life: a modicum of privacy

This post contains my advice for maintaining a reasonable amount of privacy without reducing the utility and entertainment we get from the Internet. It is no news that governments are pushing back against our right of privacy and we should also be concerned by tracking by both corporations and organized crime. Privacy is a basic human right and once rights are lost or reduced in scope they can be very difficult to get back.

To start with I believe that everyone should have the privacy enhanced Tor web browser installed. Tor was developed originally by the US Navy in support of journalists and other people living in countries with oppressive regimes. I strongly recommend using Tor for the following reasons:

  • Research any medical conditions that you have.
  • You are interested in buying a product and you don't want advertisers to put ads on web sites you visit because you would rather make independent unbiased purchasing decisions.
  • Visit any sites for any reason that you would not like a future employer to know that you visited. We all look at odd information on the web out of curiosity, research, or for whatever reasons.
  • The availability of privacy enhancing tools is important and at least occasional use by the general public of tools like Tor help to legitimize these tools.
I don't think for a minute that privacy enhancement tools prevent major government actors like the NSA and GCHQ from accessing our private data. It slows them down a little, which I argue is a good thing, but does not stop them. For the general public the real benefits come from stopping (or slowing down) access to your data by corporations and organized crime. I think that it would be naive to think that organized crime does not have the interest and the ability to collect private data.

Private cloud storage: I use SpiderOak but there are several other good safe storage options.

When I was a kid I enjoyed writing in a diary. I sort of do the same thing as an adult, writing many short categorized notes about things I want to do, personal philosophy and spirituality, ideas for writing projects, travel notes, etc. I think that if it is worthwhile seriously thinking about something then it is worthwhile making notes. I now use the simple text markdown format for these notes - writing notes helps organize our thoughts and later quickly find old ideas we took the time to journal. For years I used cloud services like Google Docs + Keep and Microsoft OneNote. I am mostly transitioning to using secure and private cloud storage and as it turns out, well organized notes in markdown are as convenient as storing my ideas and notes other less secure cloud services.

Online banking: I prefer to use (relatively) locked down devices like an iPad or a Chromebook for online banking. I think it is less likely that these devices are compromised than Windows, Linux, or Mac laptops. And don't forget to use a private mode window in your browser when doing online banking, access sensitive government web sites like Affordable Health Care, etc.

What about using social media? I enjoy social media, especially Google+ and Twitter and I use all social media to shamelessly plug the books that I write. I use a simple trick for using social media and using Google search: I use the Chrome web browser for these tasks and use either Firefox or Safari for all other web browsing. As far as tracking activities go, this helps prevent information leakage. It is a bit of a nuisance: when I see a web link on social media I would like to look at, instead of clicking the link I right-click the link to copy the URI and use a keyboard shortcut to switch to Firefox or Safari and paste in the link. Yes, this takes about 4 or 5 seconds an is a little inconvenient.

Governments and corporations use strong encryption and so should you. Encryption drives safe information flows and is vital to all of the world economies. Encryption can not have "back doors" because of the threat to the global economy and that of companies and individuals if organized crime (when I talk about organized crime I am also including organizations that others might call terrorists) gained access to back door encryption keys. The damage this would cause is unimaginable. Fortunately many consumer computing devices support encrypted file storage out of the box: modern Android phones, iPhones, iPads, Mac OS X, Ubuntu Linux, and the professional versions of Windows 10. Use encryption - it is well worth the effort.