Unintended Dystopia

I’ve recently finished my 16th book (according to Goodreads, at any rate). This one is a little different than my normal fare—it’s essentially an expanded and revised version of the dissertation. Rather than being about technology proper, this latest is an examination of the history and philosophy of the superset of social media, which I’ve dubbed neurodigital media.

Fair warning, some readers might find this book a little … controversial.

From the back of the book—

Social media, shopping experiences, and mapping programs might not seem like they have much in common, but they are all built on neurodigital media. What is neurodigital media? It lives at the intersection of the Californian Ideology, the digital computing revolution, network ecosystems, the nudge, and a naturalistic view of the person. The Californian Ideology holds individuals should be reshaped, naturalism says individuals may be reshaped, and digital computing provides the tools, through network ecosystems theory and the nudge, that can reshape individuals. This book explores the history and impact of neurodigital media in the lives of everyday users.

Hedge 113: The PLM with Jeff Jakab

Over the last few episodes of the Hedge, we’ve been talking to folks involved in bringing network products to market. In this episode, Tom Ammon and Russ White talk to Jeff Jakab about the role of the Product Line Manager in helping bring new networking products to life. Join us to understand the roles various people play in the vendor side of the world—both so you can understand the range of roles network engineers can play at a vendor, and so you can better understand how products are designed, developed, and deployed.

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Quality is (too often) the missing ingredient

Software Eats the World?

I’m told software is going to eat the world very soon now. Everything already is, or will be, software based. To some folks, this sounds completely wonderful, but—leaving aside the privacy issues—I still see an elephant in the room with this vision of the future.

Quality.

Let me give you some recent examples.

First, ceiling fans. Modern ceiling fans, in case you didn’t know, don’t rely on the wall switch and pull chains. Instead, they rely on remote controls. This is brilliant—you can dim the light, change the speed of the fan, etc., from a remote control. No unsightly chains hanging from the ceiling.

Well, it’s brilliant so long as it works. I’ve replaced three of the four ceiling fans in my house. Two of the remote controls have somehow attached themselves to two of the three fans. It’s impossible to control one of the fans without also controlling the other. They sometimes get into this entertaining mode where turning one fan off turns the other one on.

For the third one—the one hanging from a 13-foot ceiling—the remote control sometimes operates one of the other fans, and sometimes the fan its supposed to operate. Most of the time it doesn’t seem to do much of anything.

The fan manufacturer—a large, well-known company—mentions this situation in their instructions and points to a FAQ that doesn’t exist. Searching around online I found instructions for solving this problem that involve unwiring the fans and repeating a set of steps 12 times for each fan to correct the situation. These instructions, needless to say, don’t work.

There is no way to reset the remote, nor the connection between the remote and the fan. There is no way to manually select some dip switch so the remote has a specific fan it talks to. Just some mystical software that’s supposed to work (but doesn’t) and no real instructions on how to resolve the problem. The result will be a multi-hour wait on a customer support line, spending hours of my time to sort the problem out, and the joy of climbing (tall) ladders to unwire and wire ceiling fans in four different rooms.

Thinking through possible problems and building software interfaces that take those situations into account … might be a bit more important than we think they are if software is really going to eat the world.

Second, the retailer’s web site—a large retailer with thousands of physical stores across the United States. Twice I’ve ordered from this site, asking to have the item held in the local store so I can pick it up. The site won’t let you order the item for store pickup unless they have it in stock.

The first time they called me to say they couldn’t find the item I ordered, but they found a “newer model” that was a lot less expensive. It was a lot less expensive because it wasn’t the same item. They never did find the item I originally ordered.

The second time they called me to say they couldn’t find the item I ordered. I asked if they could just ship the item to my house when it’s back in stock. “I’m sorry, our system doesn’t allow us to do that …” Several hours later, they called back to tell me they found it, but they cannot reinstate my order—I must place a new order.

Again, software quality strikes … what should be a simple process just isn’t. There will always be mismatches between the state in software and the state in the real world—but design the system so it’s possible to adapt when this happens, rather than shutting down the process and starting over.

Third, I own a car that has all the “bells and whistles,” including an adaptive cruise control system. There are certain situations, however, where this adaptive control does the wrong thing, producing potentially dangerous results. There is no way to set the car to use the non-adaptive cruise control permanently (I called and waited on the phone for several hours to discover this). You can set the non-adaptive cruise control on a per-use basis by going through set of menus to change the settings … while driving.

Software quality anyone?

Software eats the world might be someone’s ultimate dream—but I suspect that software quality will always be the fly in the ointment. People are not perfect (even in crowds); software is created by people; hence software will always suffer from quality problems.

Maybe a little humility about our ability to make things as complex as we might like because “we can always have software do that bit” would be a good thing—even in the networking world.

Marketing Wins

Off-topic post for today …

In the battle between marketing and security, marketing always wins. This topic came to mind after reading an article on using email aliases to control your email—

For example, if you sign up for a lot of email newsletters, consider doing so with an alias. That way, you can quickly filter the incoming messages sent to that alias—these are probably low-priority, so you can have your provider automatically apply specific labels, mark them as read, or delete them immediately.

One of the most basic things you can do to increase your security against phishing attacks is to have two email addresses, one you give to financial institutions and another one you give to “everyone else.” It would be nice to have a third for newsletters and marketing, but this won’t work in the real world. Why?

Because it’s very rare to find a company that will keep two email addresses on file for you, one for “business” and another for “marketing.” To give specific examples—my mortgage company sends me both marketing messages in the form of a “newsletter” as well as information about mortgage activity. They only keep one email address on file, though, so they both go to a single email address.

A second example—even worse in my opinion—is PayPal. Whenever you buy something using PayPal, the vendor gets the email address associated with the account. That’s fine—they need to send me updates on the progress of the item I ordered, etc. But they also use this email address to send me newsletters … and PayPal sends any information about account activity to the same email address.

Because of the way these things are structured, I cannot separate information about my account from newsletters, phishing attacks, etc. Since modern Phishing campaigns are using AI to create the most realistic emails possible, and most folks can’t spot a Phish anyway, you’d think banks and financial companies would want to give their users the largest selection of tools to fight against scams.

But they don’t. Why?

Because—if your financial information is mingled with a marketing newsletter, you’ll open the email to see what’s inside … you’ll pay attention. Why spend money helping your users not pay attention to your marketing materials by separating them from “the important stuff?”

When it comes to marketing versus security, marketing always wins. Somehow, we in IT need to do better than this.

Worth Listening: Heidi Roizen

Project AI+Compassion just interviewed Heidi Roizen about compassion in IT; it’s worth listening to. From the show notes—

Storytelling is a powerful way for humans to connect and for humans to move other humans to action. To understand your story and understand the stories of others, we can develop a lot more compassion for people when we understand that everybody has a story. Everybody story is important. So, don’t dismiss other people’s stories. Take the time to get to know everyone has a story.

How the Internet Really Works, Part 1

I’m a bit late posting this … but this Thursday (an odd day for me) I’m running How the Internet Really Works, Part 1, over at Safari Books Online. From the page:

This live training will provide an overview of the systems, providers, and standards bodies important to the operation of the global Internet, including the Domain Name System (DNS), the routing and transport systems, standards bodies, and registrars. For DNS, the process of a query will be considered in some detail, who pays for each server used in the resolution process, and tools engineers can use to interact DNS. For routing and transport, the role of each kind of provider will be considered, along with how they make money to cover their costs, and how engineers can interact with the global routing table (the Default Free Zone, of DFZ). Finally, registrars and standards bodies will be considered, including their organizational structure, how they generate revenue, and how to find their standards.

You can register for the training at the link above. I’ll be giving part 2 of How the Internet Really Works next month.

New Video Course: How Networks Really Work

Those who follow my work know I’ve been focused on building live webinars for the last year or two, but I am still creating pre-recorded material for Pearson. The latest is built from several live webinars which I no longer give; I’ve updated the material and turned them into a seven-hour course called How Networks Really Work. Although I begin here with the “four things,” the focus is on a problem/solution view of routed control planes. From the description:

There are many elements to a networking system, including hosts, virtual hosts, routers, virtual routers, routing protocols, discovery protocols, etc. Each protocol and device (whether virtual or physical) is generally studied as an individual “thing.” It is not common to consider all these parts as components of a system that works together to carry traffic through a network. To show how all these components work together to form a complete system, this video course presents a series of walk throughs showing the processing involved in various kinds of network events, and how control planes use those events to build the information needed to carry traffic through a network.

You can find this How Networks Really Work here.

This course is largely complimentary to the course Ethan and I did a couple of years back, Understanding Network Transports. Taking both would give you a good understanding of network fundamentals. This material is also parallel and complimentary to Problems and Solutions in Computer Networks, which Ethan and I published a few years ago.

I am working on one new live webinar; I really need to get my butt in gear on another one I’ve been discussing for a long time (but I somehow dropped the ball).