No, no, no on Windows 11

Today is the official launch of Microsoft’s Windows 11. How’s my $2,500 state-of-the-art-in-2015 PC doing with the new software? Here’s the report from PC Health Check:

I thought that I had filled out all of my TPS reports, but apparently there is no Trusted Platform Module in my PC. This is because the idea is new? I think it goes back to 1986 when IBM Watson developed ABYSS (1990 paper), in which a secure coprocessor decrypts software before it is run, first checking to see if the user has the right to execute the code (the ultimate copy protection hammer!).

Who here is actually running Windows 11? Is it a whole new world of awesomeness that would justify days of pain to set up a new PC, transfer applications from the old PC, move hard drives, etc.? And how many kidneys would I have to donate to get a GPU? Just one? Or two and then go on dialysis?

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The first computerized medical diagnosis systems (late 1950s)

“The Automatic Digital Computer as an Aid in Medical Diagnosis” (1959, Crumb and Rupe) is an interesting example of hope versus reality. Computers will turn medicine into a science and they’ll also save money.

The authors predicted that computers in medicine would “contribute to the good of mankind”:

What do we have, 60+ years later? Epic, whose primary function is making sure that the providers get paid!

Were these authors the pioneers? No! The references include a 1956 punched card-based diagnosis system for diseases of the cornea (TIME).

The comments on the article are interesting. Then, as now, we don’t know if computers are useful in medicine because we don’t know how often human doctors are correct:

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Meth head Sudafed policies adapted for PC sales

A lot of retail in Cambridge, Maskachusetts did not survive the coronapanic shutdowns and mask orders. Micro Center did however, and while up in Boston to retrieve the Cirrus SR20 I stopped in for nostalgic purposes. These are photos from August 26, 2021, shortly before the City of Cambridge went back to its indoor mask order (coronaplague was an emergency on August 27 when the order was enacted, but they decided to let COVID-19 rage until September 3 when the order went into effect), so masks were optional and, in fact, mask usage in the store was lower than the observed voluntary average in Palm Beach County.

As you can see from the below, people can’t buy a PC or video card without presenting a government-issued ID, similar to the process that would be required to purchase Sudafed (a precursor to meth, or so I am told). Even motherboards are limited to 1 per household. (When everyone in the same house uses a single PC, privacy can be compromised; see Au pair to green card.)

And, since I like to follow the examples set by our Presidents (even the one-termers)…. let’s remember that this is Pearl Harbor Day. (“I wonder how many Americans remember today is Pearl Harbor Day. Forty-seven years ago to this very day we were hit and hit hard at Pearl Harbor and we were not ready.”

“In a Bush administration that lesson would not be forgotten,” said Bush, who was a Navy flier decorated for combat missions during the war. “It would guide my defense and foreign policy.”)

Should we be grateful to meth heads for preparing U.S. retailers to distribute motherboards, graphics cards, and PCs?

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Archival properties of CD-ROMs after 20 years

As part of the move from Maskachusetts to the Florida Free State, I decided to dispose of all of the CD-ROMs that were lying around in the garage and hangar. These contained backups of long-discarded PCs, 600 MB drum scans that I previously considered too large to maintain on an NAS or local drive, etc.

Despite the crummy storage conditions (temps ranging from 0 degrees to 100 degrees F and high humidity at times), only 2 out of nearly 100 CD-ROMs were problematic for reading with the $75 ASUS Blu-ray burner purchased in 2015 as part of a new PC build. (Would all of you cryptominers please let me know when you’ve stopped so that I can refresh this 6.5-year-old machine?)

Among the scans, I found this one of an early coronascientist:

Here’s a Fuji 617 slide of an oil refinery in Benicia, California:

Check out the detail:

Not bad for old tech and a single image rather than stitched-together multiples!

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Annals of Government Computer Programming

On August 4, 2021, the Web site for renewing a Global Entry card tells me that I can’t start the renewal process until September 28, 2020:

One for the textbook chapters on the merits of the IF statement…

The site did not get better. On nearly every page, before I started answering questions, I would be greeted with a banner at the top:

The plus side of coronapanic:

And the renewal might involve a “remote virtual interview”.

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Osborne 1 computer potentially up for grabs

We’re trying to clear out the house for our escape to the Florida Free State. One item that must go is an Osborne 1, a portable computer from 1981. I wish that I could say that it had been mine ($1,795 in 1981, about $5,606 in today’s Bidie Bucks), but in fact I was not prescient enough to put all of my time and effort into PCs. I always wanted to use the computers with the best (most efficient) programming tools and at least a medium amount of computing power. That meant, in 1981, a refrigerator-sized Lisp Machine. I did not deny that the tiny PC acorn could one day become a mighty oak, but did not want to work directly with acorns.

I’ve got this on eBay right now. But if there are no bids I will send it, free of charge, to any reader who wants it. I will even pay for packing and shipping, as long as you aren’t an Act 20 tax refugee in Puerto Rico or similarly expensive to reach by UPS.

I can get it to say “put in a floppy disk” but not to boot once the floppy is inserted.

How did I get it if I wasn’t smart enough to realize the promise of the PC back when PCs were feeble? A much smarter friend was clearing out his unnecessarily big house and gave it to me.

Speaking of PCs, my latest purchase is a Seagate 16 TB Exos disk drive. What kind of a loser buys a mechanical hard drive in our Brave New World of SSD? A loser who wants every possible version of every file backed up for decades to come via Windows File History. (What if the drive fails? See What’s a good online backup service? (Crashplan can do only 10 GB per day)) Since we’ve been looking at exponential growth recently in the context of taxes (see Effect on children’s wealth when parents move to Florida), let’s consider the growth from the Osborne 1 to 16 TB. Each floppy disk held 90 KB of data. Today’s hard drive holds 180 million times more than the floppy drive of 40 years ago. That’s roughly 60 percent annual growth over 40 years to go from pathetic/feeble to awesome.

What’s more shocking? It was the same engineer responsible for the floppy inside the Osborne 1 and the Seagate 16 TB drive: Alana Shugart (a feminine pioneer in magnetic storage and a relentless smasher of gender barriers).

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I love AOC even more now

Some folks have harsh words for AOC, plainly America’s greatest living political philosopher. Even if you don’t agree with her economic and social plans for the United States, you will, I hope, agree with me that she is a huge success as an electrical engineer.

The AOC 1601FWUX makes it easy for those fleeing the COVID-plagued Northeast to work from a laptop computer. For only $180, the device doubles the amount of screen space available when working from a laptop. The 15.6″ IPS display gets both power and signal from the laptop’s USB-C port, which means that you don’t need to carry another power brick. It worked immediately with my 2017 Dell XPS 13, which has been a spectacularly crummy laptop in nearly every respect.

The included magnetic stand lets you position this second monitor in either landscape or portrait mode (ideal for reading a PDF while typing at a word processing document on the main laptop screen).

This is the perfect gift for anyone who travels.

Readers: Who has used a similar device? I think that ASUS pioneered the segment, but their current product is compromised in brightness due to a desire to have it work from legacy USB-A ports that can’t supply as much power.


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Smoke alarm with wireless access point for hotels?

Our April trip to Florida and back entailed a bunch of stays at Hilton-family hotels with crummy Internet. The WiFi networks at Embassy Suites and DoubleTrees seem to be throttled to about 5 Mbps when they work, but coverage was spotty. Working remotely would have been impossible in most of our Embassy Suites room in Atlanta (at right), for example.

When we looked up to pray to the WiFi gods, however, we inevitably saw smoke alarms in the room. These were hard-wired back to a central station. If each device needs to be connected to power and signal, then mounted to the ceiling, why not have that device also provide WiFi service? It couldn’t add more than $20 to the cost of a smoke alarm to have it serve as a wireless access point, right? Maybe the wires back to the central station would need to be beefed up.

Something vaguely along these lines exists for the home: “First Alert Has Its Own Wi-Fi Mesh Router That Hijacks Every Connected Device With Smoke Alarm Warnings” (Gizmodo, January 2018).

Every new hotel by law must have a smoke alarm in each room, right? And every new hotel for commercial reasons must have WiFi coverage. Why isn’t there an off-the-shelf solution combining these two requirements?

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Software ideas for a Web archive?

A friend’s daughter is tasked with developing a Web-accessible archive for a multi-year collection of material that has been generated by an organization within a university. All of the material will be public, so there are no security issues and everything can be indexed by search engines. Ideally all of this can be maintained by non-programmers from Web browsers and minimal technical effort will be required for setup (though perhaps some programming would be useful/needed for an ingestion step).

The material is a mixture of PDFs, images, text, etc. She found some interesting software targeted at this very problem. Examples:

All of these provide for comprehensive tagging of each item, boolean searches, etc. But I wonder/worry that these are overkill. The collection is not especially valuable and I don’t know if people want to take the trouble to craft elaborate queries.

I was thinking that she might be better off using standard WordPress. Every item that is in the archive can become a WordPress post dated whenever the item was created (maybe this can be done via a batch process inserting things into the WordPress tables). She and anyone else involved in the project can tag items with however many tags make sense. At that point users can

  1. search with Google
  2. search by date (WordPress lets you go back and look at posts by date)
  3. search by tag

One advantage for WordPress over the above systems that are built for archiving is that WordPress is much more popular and constantly being improved (changed, anyway!). There are plugin modules available, e.g., to improve full-text searching through PDFs. For those who already have a museum collection organized, there is even a “Culture Object” plugin that is designed to import a collection into WordPress.

Readers: Better ideas?

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Life on the Google Manhattan Coding Plantation

“After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again” (NYT), by Emi Nietfeld (Harvard CS graduate):

I bought into the Google dream completely. In high school, I spent time homeless and in foster care, and was often ostracized for being nerdy.

(The product of an unsuccessful family, she herself was unsuccessful at Google, adding some weight to University of California research on heritability of success; see The Son Also Rises: economics history with everyday applications and also The Son Also Rises: Tips for Optimizing Your Life (summary: don’t expect a smooth relationship if you hire (or date/marry) someone from an unsuccessful family; if that person appears to be successful, e.g., due to having obtained an elite degree, regression to the family mean is likely).

Matrix management prevails…

The few people who’d worked at other companies reminded us that there was nowhere better. I believed them, even when my technical lead — not my manager, but the man in charge of my day-to-day work — addressed me as “beautiful” and “gorgeous,” even after I asked him to stop. (Finally, I agreed that he could call me “my queen.”) He used many of our one-on-one meetings to ask me to set him up with friends, then said he wanted “A blonde. A tall blonde.” Someone who looked like me.

(i.e., humans formerly known as “guys” who work at Google have trouble getting dates in New York City, a city with 200,000 more single women than men, according to Mini Mike (who never had any trouble finding women!))

The company encourages denunciations, but then keeps the denouncer and the target of the denunciation yoked together in close quarters while it investigates at a glacial pace:

As soon as my complaint with H.R. was filed, Google went from being a great workplace to being any other company: It would protect itself first. I’d structured my life around my job — exactly what they wanted me to do — but that only made the fallout worse when I learned that the workplace that I cherished considered me just an employee, one of many and disposable.

The process stretched out for nearly three months. In the meantime I had to have one-on-one meetings with my harasser and sit next to him. Every time I asked for an update on the timeline and expressed my discomfort at having to continue to work in proximity to my harasser, the investigators said that I could seek counseling, work from home or go on leave.

Note the faith in therapy (“counseling”)!

Eventually, the investigators corroborated my claims and found my tech lead violated the Code of Conduct and the policy against harassment. My harasser still sat next to me. My manager told me H.R. wouldn’t even make him change his desk, let alone work from home or go on leave. He also told me that my harasser received a consequence that was severe and that I would feel better if I could know what it was, but it sure seemed like nothing happened.

The aftermath of speaking up had broken me down. It dredged up the betrayals of my past that I’d gone into tech trying to overcome. I’d made myself vulnerable to my manager and the investigators but felt I got nothing solid in return. I was constantly on edge from seeing my harasser in the hallways and at the cafes. When people came up behind my desk, I startled more and more easily, my scream echoing across the open-floor-plan office. I worried I’d get a poor performance review, ruining my upward trajectory and setting my career back even further.

I went weeks without sleeping through the night.

I decided to take three months of paid leave. I feared that going on leave would set me back for promotion in a place where almost everyone’s progress is public and seen as a measure of an engineer’s worth and expertise.

After my leave, the manager I loved started treating me as fragile. He tried to analyze me, suggesting that I drank too much caffeine, didn’t sleep enough or needed more cardiovascular exercise. Speaking out irreparably damaged one of my most treasured relationships. Six months after my return, when I broached the subject of promotion, he told me, “People in wood houses shouldn’t light matches.”

(Note: do not invite this guy to any Hanukkah celebrations, COVID or no COVID.)

Having been inside Google’s Manhattan building, which is one of the largest in the world, I’m shocked that they engage in these multi-month investigations while leaving the unhappy co-workers together. With so many thousands of engineering positions all around the enormous building and all around the world, why not give those who are unhappy for any reason an immediate transfer? Investigate later if desired, and punish the guilty if the kangaroo court so rules, but transfer first so as to defuse the situation.

(Separately, someone I know from MIT worked at Google, became disillusioned, and, like Ms. Nietfeld, joined Facebook. For a while she would post on Facebook about how awesome Facebook was and how Sheryl made sure that it was specifically a great place for those who identified as “women”, etc. But eventually she became disgruntled with Facebook along similar lines.)

Here’s my favorite reader comment on the piece, from Eva Klein of Washington, D.C.:

Judith Martin (Miss Manners) put it best — the American workplace is too informal for its own good. We reject strict hierarchies, but at the end of the day, the bottom line reigns and there is no loyalty to any worker, regardless of how cherished they were when they contributed profits to the company.

Americans would do well to learn about the European approach — strict work and life boundaries. You won’t celebrate your colleague’s birthday or new baby at the office. But you also won’t feel a visceral tear at the heart strings if you are fired (or “made redundant”, as the lingo goes).

Another Harvard graduate (this one with a Ph.D. in research psychology (not counseling!)), the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, says that Google can and does determine the outcome of American elections, e.g., by reminding liberals, but not conservatives, to go out and vote. Google can also sway swing voters by tweaking search results (stories about Hunter Biden’s cash-stuffed plaintiff might be pushed way way down, for example). See “Big Tech’s Greatest Threat”, by Robert Epstein. Excerpts from an article that is way too long for modern attention spans:

During a period of days before the 2020 election, we found that on Google’s home page, it was sending “go vote” reminders just to liberals. That’s a powerful ephemeral message, and not a single one went to conservatives. How do we know this? Because we were recording the content our 700 “field agents” were seeing on their computer screens. That was a diverse group of registered voters we had recruited in three key swing states. Google was sending those vote reminders only to liberals. That’s a powerful manipulation that’s entirely invisible to people — unless a group like ours has found a way to monitor what people are seeing.

A preliminary analysis of the more than 500,000 ephemeral experiences we preserved in Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida, turned up some disturbing things. Number one, we found a strong liberal bias in the search results people saw on Google when they searched for political topics; this bias was absent on Bing and Yahoo. 92% of searches are conducted on Google, and we know from years of experiments we’ve conducted that biased search results can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters, and those are the people who decide the outcomes of close elections. In experiments, we can easily shift 20% or more of undecided voters after just one search by showing them biased search results.

Even before people see search results, biased search suggestions — those phrases Google flashes at you when you start to type a search term — can shift thinking and behavior. We have shown in controlled experiments that biased search suggestions can turn a 50‑50 split among undecided voters into a 90‑10 split, with no one having the slightest idea they have been manipulated.

Tailoring suggestions is an interesting idea. I’m surprised that the effect can be as large as this guy says. Maybe it would be for product purchases. If you type “ergonomic mouse” and the first suggestion is “ergonomic mouse logitech” that could give a big boost to Logitech. But how can it help with an election? If the completion for “Joe Biden” is “Joe Biden kids in cages” that will be read by Democrats as a reminder that Joe Biden freed migrant children from their cages and by Republicans as a reminder that Joe Biden is continue to park migrants who say they’re under 18 into the same kinds of facilities as were used during the Trump and Obama administrations. Same deal with “Joe Biden higher tax rates” or “Joe Biden $2 trillion spending”.

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