Mar 162022
 

Time for me to rant a little.

Agile software development. Artificial intelligence. SCRUM. Machine learning. Not a day goes by in our profession without the cognoscenti dropping these and similar buzzwords, hoping to dazzle their audience.

Give me a break, please. You think you are dazzling me but all I see is someone who just rediscovered the wheel.

Let me present two books from my bookshelf. Both were published in Hungary, long before the Iron Curtain came down, back when the country was still part of the technologically backward, relatively underdeveloped “second world” of the socialist bloc.

First, Systems Analysis and Operations Research, by Géza Jándy, published in 1980.

In this book, among other things, Jándy writes (emphasis mine): “Both in systems analysis and in design the […] steps are of an iterative nature […]. Several steps can be done contemporaneously, and if we recognize opportunities for improvement in implementing the plan, some steps may be retraced.”

Sounds familiar, Agile folks?

And then, here’s a 1973 (!!!) Hungarian translation of East German author Manfred Peschel’s book, Cybernetic Systems.

A small, unassuming paperback. But right there, the subtitles tell the story: “Automata, optimization, learning and thinking.”

Yes, it’s all there. Machine learning, neural networks, the whole nine yards. What wasn’t available in 1973 of course was Big Data, the vast repositories of human knowledge that is now present on the Internet, and which machine learning algorithms can rely on for training. And of course hardware is a lot faster, a lot more capable than half a century ago. Nor am I suggesting that we haven’t learned anything in the intervening decades, or that we cannot do things better today than back in the 1970s or 1980s.

But please, try not to sell these ideas as new. Iterative project management has been around long before computers. The conceptual foundations of machine learning date back to the 1950s. Just because it’s not on the Interwebs doesn’t mean the knowledge doesn’t exist. Go visit a library before you reinvent the wheel.

 Posted by at 1:54 pm
Mar 112022
 

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma found the classiest way to protest Russia’s naked, unprovoked aggression. Without any publicity, he simply went to the Russian embassy in DC and played.

We would not even know about this had a passing bicyclist not recognized him.

I suspect that once it is all over (and who knows how many human beings will suffer and die before it’s all over?) the world will remember this scene as iconic.

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Mar 112022
 

Several years ago, while playing one of the computer games from the renowned Fallout series (to those unfamiliar with it: the games are set in an alternate retrofuturistic world, centuries after the apocalypse of the Great War of 2077 that ended civilization — in-game radio stations, however, play music mostly from the Golden Age of American radio, from the 1930s to the 1950s, including the iconic I don’t want to set the world on fire by The Ink Spots) I put together a “doomsday” playlist of songs I want to listen to while I await the fateful flash. (Here in Ottawa Lowertown, chances are that we will see the flash but won’t live long enough to hear the kaboom.)

Unfortunately I have no public links: the MP3 files reside on my computer along with the playlist itself. But I thought I’d share the list nonetheless, as most of the songs are easy to find. In any case, I think the titles alone tell a story.

  • I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
  • Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Is That All There Is – Peggy Lee
  • Yesterday – The Beatles
  • C’est la vie – Emerson, Lake and Palmer
  • Non, je ne regrette rien – Edith Piaf
  • I did it my way – Frank Sinatra
  • 99 Luftballons – Nena
  • Here is the news – 21st century man – Electric Light Orchestra
  • Mother – In the flesh – Pink Floyd
  • Rejoice in the Sun – Joan Baez
  • Adios Nonino – Astor Piazzolla
  • Blondie – Philip Glass remix – Daft Beatles
  • November – Tom Waits
  • Brazil – Geoff Muldaur
  • Strange fruit – Billie Holiday
  • Sway (from Dark City) – Anita Kelsey
  • Kurt Weill’s Ballad of the soldier’s wife – P. J. Harvey
  • Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics
  • Round midnight – Thelonious Monk
  • We’ll meet again – Vera Lynn

There you have it.

 Posted by at 12:23 pm
Mar 102022
 

World War Z used to mean a fictitious war with zombies. Not anymore: the Latin letter Z apparently became a symbol for supporters of Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine.

What prompts people to support Putin? What makes a religious leader declare unconditional loyalty to a decidedly un-Christian murderous dictator, even as a 91-year old survivor of the Nazi siege of Leningrad is struggling to remain alive in Kharkiv, besieged by Russian troops?

Is it the success of propaganda and disinformation? Russian nationalism? Self-deception, being able to convince oneself that it’s the rest of the world who act as blind “sheeple”? Being blinded by the charisma of the strongman, the macho warlord?

Meanwhile, decisions are being made with consequences that will fundamentally change the world in which we live, and quite possibly result in untold numbers of death and suffering.

History is no guide. Things can go either way. In 1914, the world opted to intervene when one of the “sick men of Europe”, Austria-Hungary attacked a much smaller neighbor. Had the world stayed idle, limiting its contribution to material help only, the Serbs would have won against the demoralized, badly led, ill-trained troops of the Monarchy. But the world felt compelled to step in, and the result was decades of devastating war and totalitarianism.

But in 1938, the world opted not to listen to political have-beens like a certain Winston Churchill, a warmongerer who was advocating war with Germany. This clown would plunge the world into another World War, they argued, as they celebrated the diplomatic triumph of Neville Chamberlain, who returned from Munich with a document signed by Adolf Hitler, representing “peace for our times”. Of course we know that Churchill was right all along, and had the world opted to confront Hitler in 1937 or even 1938, the resulting war would have been much less severe, much less devastating than the one that actually ensued.

Then again, a less devastating war would have meant no US involvement in Europe, no Marshall plan, no post-war golden era that characterized much of the world in the past 77 years. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

All that is my way of saying that I don’t envy those who need to make these decisions. We are at a historical crossroads: These decisions may determine the fate of our civilization for decades to come, and a wrong move can very possibly result in hundreds of millions of lives lost.

What can I say? I am worried. Scared even. We go about our business as usual, planning to do things next week, next month, next year. But will the world as we know it still be around next week, next month, next year? With the end of the pandemic in sight, we again contemplate travel, such as my wife visiting her Mom later this year. But Hungary is right there on the border with Ukraine. Will it still be peaceful? Will it still be safe?

It’s easy to blame individuals for the ills of the world, and Putin deserves a lot of blame. But I think it’s naive to expect that things would go back to normal if only some sane Russian with access had the presence of mind and the courage to get rid of him. There are historical processes at work here, and the past 77 years already represented an exceptionally long, exceptionally (perhaps uniquely) prosperous period in human history. And if there is one lesson that history consistently teaches us, it’s that nothing lasts forever, not even a golden age.

 Posted by at 11:23 pm
Mar 042022
 

Hitler mocked it. For Colin Powell’s 2003 speech announcing the war in Iraq, they covered it up.

And now the whole of Ukraine is beginning to look like Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.

 Posted by at 8:02 pm
Mar 032022
 

This beautiful creature was my Mom’s canine, who went by the name Labi.

I use the past tense because unfortunately, Labi is no more. He died a few hours ago. He was 13.

I know, I know. This is a very minor tragedy with all that’s going on in the world right now. But even minor tragedies are devastating to those who experience them first-hand.

Our first cat, Marzipan, taught us a lesson. Do not grieve death; celebrate life. It’s been almost 22 years since Marzipan’s life was cut short by illness, and every time we think about him, we smile. He continues to bring happiness to our lives even this many years after his death.

I’ll have to tell my Mom that this will also be true for Labi. Years from now, every time she thinks about him, she will smile, remembering all the love and all the mischief. Life, even a brief life, triumphs because it exists.

 Posted by at 12:42 am
Feb 282022
 

This image of Putin a few days ago, with his so-called “security council”, tells us all we need to know about a leader who lives in a self-imposed bubble, isolated from reality. Isolated from humanity.

It is beyond scary. Not even Hitler isolated himself this much from people whose advice he relied upon (or ignored, near the inglorious end of his regime). My reading of this image is that Putin represents an existential threat to the democratic West, if not the whole of our civilization.

 Posted by at 12:20 am
Feb 272022
 

This photo of a WWI/WWII memorial in Vácrátót, Hungary, just appeared in my feed moments ago in a group dedicated to historic photographs.

Yet it reminds me not of the past but the present: the observation that almost all the refugees streaming from Ukraine to Europe are women and children, as men stay behind to fight.

 Posted by at 4:02 pm
Feb 262022
 

This piece of news caught my attention a couple of weeks ago, before Tsar, pardon me, benevolent humble president Putin launched the opening salvo of what may yet prove to be WWIII and the end of civilization. Still, I think it offers insight into just how sick (and, by implication, how bloody dangerous) his regime really is.

We all agree that planning to blow up a major institution, even if it is a much disliked spy agency, is not a good idea. But this is what the evil extremist, hardliner Nikita Uvarov was trying to do when he was getting ready to blow up the headquarters of Russia’s FSB, it’s federal security service.

Oh wait… did I mention that Mr. Uvarov was 14 at the time, and the FSB building he was planning to demolish was, in fact, a virtual version that he himself and his buddies constructed in the online computer game Minecraft?

It didn’t deter Mother Russia’s fearless prosecutors, intent on restoring law and order and maintaining the security of the Russian state. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Uvarov was sentenced, by a military court no less, to serve five years in a penal colony.

 Posted by at 12:25 am
Feb 242022
 

These words, uttered by Putin, are the words of a madman:

Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so to create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard.

Enjoy these good days with warmth, food security, functioning Internet and a working infrastructure. They may not last much longer, no matter where you live in the world. And when the nukes come, thank Putin.

 Posted by at 1:25 am
Feb 222022
 

This is the last moment until well into the 22nd century that the current time and date in UTC can be expressed using only two digits.

I can only hope that this date will not be memorable for another reason, you know, something like the start of WW3?

 Posted by at 5:22 pm
Feb 212022
 

There is an imminent possibility that Russia, a fossilized, sick regime, might attack Ukraine. The supposed reason? Ukraine is seen as a persistent national security threat bordering Russia.

There is a sobering historical parallel. A little over a century ago, another “sick man of Europe,” the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, faced a similar perceived threat by a much smaller nation bordering their empire, Serbia. After the assassination of the Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist who was supposedly supported by the Serbian state, the Monarchy decided to act. Committed to Serbia’s defense, Russia entered the war; committed to their allies, but also fearing an emerging Russia, Imperial Germany soon followed suit. And as they say, the rest is history.

But what history books don’t often detail is what happened to the Monarchy’s armies in Serbia. Surely, the great armies of a major European power just crushed the defenses of a much smaller, less well-developed neighbor?

Er… not exactly. First, in August 1914, Serbian forces won the first Allied victory, when they pushed back the armies of the Monarchy in northwestern Serbia. Later that year, in December, the Serbian army launched a successful counteroffensive and pushed the troops of the Monarchy out of Serbia.

In other words: with sufficient material help from France and Russia, plus support on the diplomatic front, Serbia could have bloodied the nose of the Monarchy and won the war, without Russia or Germany (or France, or Britain) ever entering into the conflict. The Great War, arguably, was both avoidable and in the end, completely unnecessary.

I wonder what things will be like in the Ukraine. Should Russia attack, will other powers enter the conflict, risking a wider war, perhaps a world war? And if they do so… will it be just as unnecessary as it was in the case of Serbia a century ago?

I hope we won’t get a chance to find out. Meanwhile, I cannot help but wonder what Europe would be like had events in 1914 unfolded without the Great Powers entering the fray. An embarrassing military fiasco in Serbia might have done to the Monarchy what the Falklands war did to Argentina, ending authoritarianism, forcing the Habsburgs, if not to abdicate, then to enact reforms that would have transformed Austria-Hungary into a modern, constitutional monarchy. Similar developments might have taken place in Russia and Germany, following the British model, and avoiding bloody communist revolutions. Just imagine a united Europe emerge by the 1920s, 1930s, without the rise of fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, without the devastation of two world wars?

Instead, 1914 ended a golden era.

PS: I wrote much of the above last night, less than 24 hours ago, but before Russia’s announcement that they now recognize the “independence” of two regions of Ukraine that their irregular troops “liberated” a few years back, and before they announced that they will send “peacekeepers” there. History, here we come…

 Posted by at 8:53 pm
Feb 202022
 

Engineers sometimes have to deal with unexpected challenges. This is especially true for systems that have to operate in a natural environment, subject to the elements, unpredictable weather, and, well, wildlife.

Take these beautiful Starlink satellite dishes. Little technological marvels that bring Internet service to rural users through Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation. Key to the system is a steerable small satellite dish that can be set up, e.g., in the backyard of the Starlink customer.

Unfortunately electronics ultimately converts electrical energy into waste heat, and the Starlink dish is no exception. The dish actually has a “snow melt” mode that is supposed to keep it free of snow and ice for uninterrupted operation. And it certainly has a comfy shape… especially when you are a feral cat in the middle of winter.

I doubt this issue was ever considered by Starlink engineers who designed the customer equipment. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if, in the future, engineering courses end up using this as an example of the unexpected, facing engineers.

 Posted by at 5:31 pm
Feb 202022
 

Recently, I came across an interesting article by a Jonathan Jarry from McGill University, suggesting that the much heralded Dunning-Kruger effect is not real, but a data analysis artifact.

Here is the famous Dunning-Kruger graph:

The usual interpretation is that those in the bottom quartile significantly overestimated their ability. This is the famous Dunning-Kruger effect.

But, Jarry says, a completely random model yields a very similar-looking graph:

and thus concludes that the Dunning-Kruger effect may not be real after all.

But wait. When we compare the two graphs, there are qualitative similarities but also striking differences. Notice how, in the second graph, the two curves intersect each other at roughly the halfway point. That makes perfectly good sense: If the model is that people in all four quartiles fail to assess their abilities accurately at the same rate, those in the bottom quartile will overestimate their ability just as much as those in the top quartile underestimate theirs. This would be the effect of random noise.

However, when we look at the original Dunning-Kruger curve, this is not what we see. Those in the bottom quartile overestimate their ability to a much greater extent than those in the top quartile underestimate theirs. Even in the 3rd quartile, people tended to overestimate their abilities, though only slightly, by the same amount as those in the top quartile underestimated theirs. So what the original Dunning-Kruger curve actually appears to show is a more ore less random spread in the 3rd and top quartiles, but significant bias in the bottom and 2nd quartiles, consistent with the notion that people in these quartiles overestimate their abilities.

Of course it would be nice to see a proper statistical analysis that also evaluates the statistical significance of the finding, but a simple, qualitative comparison of the two plots seems to show is that the Dunning-Kruger effect is real, after all.

 Posted by at 2:18 am