Less Facebook, More Faces and Books

I made the decision back in mid-November to radically cut down on my use of Facebook. Thus far it has been a great success, I have recovered at least ½-hr per day, maybe more. Even if I spent it sleeping, that would be a huge net win, instead I have been using the time to make a dent in my to-read list. For example I have two×20-minute train journeys on a working day that are now better used. There are other more subtle benefits too, I feel that I am less easily distracted, more able to work on things for a solid block of time and at the end feel like I have accomplished something.

What brought this on was an increasing awareness of the intrusiveness and manipulation of the algorithm. This crept up slowly like boiling a frog, but Facebook deploys cutting-edge ML to one and only one end, to maximise the time you spend looking at Facebook. I’d be looking at the next thing and the next thing thinking, why am I being shown this? It’s not important in a general sense, nor is it important to me personally… And what important things am I missing because I’m looking at this instead? I rarely write in this blog anymore; I don’t write much Open Source anymore; where did all that time and energy and attention go?

It’s an interesting aspect of neural nets and so-called “deep learning” (which should really be called “machine intuition”) that no-one really understands how to unpick it; give it a lot of data (everything you’ve ever done on FB or any site with a like or share button) and an objective function and it will maximise that function of course, but the how and the why remain opaque. “Fake News” is a thing because fake news and controversy in general generates clicks and “engagement” and so that’s what the algo pushes to you, no humans in the loop at all. I grew up in a more innocent age on the Internet; there was no algorithm on IRC or AIM or Usenet statistically analyzing every line of text before deciding whether showing it to me or not was more likely to make me spend more time there, and injecting an ad every few lines. There have been a few prominent ex-FB execs coming forward recently saying that this manipulation of the timeline/newsfeed has gone too far too. It pretends to be engagement with your friends but it isn’t really, it’s just engagement with Facebook itself. We didn’t need this extra layer before, why do we need it now?

Anyway, if anyone is considering this, or needs to find more time in the day (it’s a matter of priorities; will you die thinking I wish I’d spent more time clicking like on things an algorithm showed me?) this is how to do it:

  1. Start by switching off notifications. Get into the habit of looking at your phone when you want to, not when it wants attention. This might take a couple of weeks to ingrain.
  2. Cue up plenty of other stuff on your phone or mobile device. If you have a few minutes to kill, something other than Facebook to do. It took me a while to unlearn the muscle memory of pulling my phone out and clicking that blue f icon, but it is actually just as easy to click Kindle instead. Or even a quick game or anything that will take the edge off boredom. Also you probably aren’t really bored in the same way as you don’t snack on junk food because you’re really hungry. You will unlearn this impulse too.
  3. Once you are ready just uninstall the app. This will also boost the battery life of your device! Facebook has another interface at mbasic.facebook.com that provides an absolutely minimal experience; if you really need to check an event or reply to a message, you will still be able to, no need to worry
  4. Generate a random password on your desktop, e.g. with iCloud Keychain or whatever you use and activate two factor auth. This little extra step will reduce the temptation to look at it on a whim

Anyway there’s no high principle here or paranoia about tracking or anything; I need more time to do more important and ultimately more fulfilling things, resisting the engagement algorithm and the thousands of “data scientists” who would rather work on selling ads than curing cancer requires as much or more willpower than resisting junk food, so I simply choose not to play and actually after a few weeks I don’t even want to play, and I find it a little weird that I ever spent so much time doing it.

I’m no-one special or unique, I don’t think anything I do is particularly unusual, so perhaps 2018 will be the year mass Facebook Fatigue sets in…

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My First MOOC

Just completed the Data Analysis for Life Sciences XSeries on EdX, my first MOOC. I had been meaning to learn R for a while as I’ve seen some cool stuff being done with it (I am mainly a Python guy), and to try one of these online courses, and it was very interesting to take a peek into a field of computing that I’ve had no exposure to, biostats. Obv a course like this barely scratches the surface of a very deep and broad area, but it was enjoyable to do and a good foundation for future practice. And most interesting computation these days is really matrix manipulation/LinAlg so all the skills are very transferrable. My first degree was in Mech Eng and a lot of it was familiar once I had dredged it up from memory.

I actually started out doing the Microsoft Professional Program in Data Science a while ago after reading an article in El Reg but got sidetracked; I expect I’ll finish that one up in the next few months too in my copious free time.. The real skills are in the maths so again, all very transferrable, across industries and technology platforms. It’s free too, you only pay if you want the cert at the end.

I should really update this blog more often… My technology work and interests are quite different now than when I started it all those years ago… I am mainly planning to use so-called “data science” to explore some government data, perhaps I will write up what I discover (if anything) here, or if I create any tooling that might be useful to anyone else.

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I have been having a play with some cloud stuff recently, as hinted at in my last post, and have put together some nice Python objects wrapping APIs/command-line tools so I can do things like:

>>> from cloudlib import Aws # or Azure or VBox
>>> cloud = Aws() 
>>> ip = cloud.spinup_vm()

VBox is just my local machine, which I suppose is what people mean by private cloud :-) I have a bunch of other functions for managing them too, so the main code is transparently the same whatever the VMs are actually running on. This has made it easy to run a few scenarios like running Postgres in a VM somewhere, and Barman in a VM somewhere else. Pretty cool!

I also have come to realize that I have been thinking of AWS and Azure as glorified hypervisors but that isn’t really true; with all the services layered on top of them, it makes more sense to consider them to be fully-fledged operating systems in their own right. And they are clearly mature enough by now to be worth investing some time in, which I don’t think was necessarily the case when I first signed up for AWS in 2011 and found it wasn’t as good a fit for our use cases as the vSphere + 3Par platform we were operating at the time.

Speaking of 3Par, I am astonished that HP has bought SGI now. Never would have seen that coming in the ’90s!

Update July 2017 It’s been pointed out to me that Vagrant does this so I have actually switched to using that. I have also settled on Azure as my cloud of choice…

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Turbo Boost

We have a couple of machines at home†:

  • Core i7 – 2 cores, hyperthreading, 3Ghz turbo boosting to 3.5Ghz, 16G RAM
  • Core i5 – 4 cores, no HT, 3.2Ghz, 32G RAM

I compared them using the POV-Ray 3.7 benchmark with a single worker thread and no other workload than normal background tasks, the i7 system completed in 13m25s average, the i5 system in 12m58s. Now going on clock speed alone I would expect the i5 to have been 6% faster, it was only 3%, so clearly clock-for-clock the i7 does have some advantages, but with boost it should have beaten the i5 in this scenario. The whole point of Turbo Boost is that if you are only using one core it can accelerate it but I’m not seeing that it actually does in any useful way.

Other results, with 4 worker threads the i7 runs it in 6m13s, with 2 threads in 7m1s. So there is some advantage in HT of about 12% even for a compute bound task. But the i5 system runs with 4 threads in 3m35s, nothing beats real actual cores, at a higher frequency! Which is obvious really. Everything else is a gimmick.

No regrets buying the i7 box mind, it will do everything I need it to, and these results are the perfect excuse to really get to grips with something I’ve been meaning to do for years, and have only dabbled in so far, which is offloading compute in a serious way to Azure.

† Well more than a couple!

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HP Calculators I Have Owned

Over the years I have owned several HP calculators:

  • HP 28s, my first RPN programmable that I used when an engineering student in the mid-90s, and made the jump from GCSE/A-level Casio to a grown-up calculator.
  • HP 48GX, a very serious machine that I never really used the full power of, but would certainly have been used everyday had I continued into mechanical engineering. Upgrade from the 28s for better programming and graphing. Probably bought in 1996, still used for certain tasks.
  • HP 12C which I acquired while working as a consultant in about 1999 and needing to do TVM calculations, then used later while writing financial software to prototype and validate bond/portfolio pricing calculations. This is the one that presently sits on my desk at work and is still regularly used.
  • HP 17B-II which I bought as an upgrade to the 12C but then discovered I preferred the older one, so it was relegated to the status of a backup. This one is on my desk at home.
  • I also seem to have acquired a modern HP 35s somewhere along the way, probably for nostalgia’s sake. This one gets used for things neither the 12C nor the 17B can do, such as the odd bit of trig or binary/hex.

Quality products, built to last, providing their owners with literally decades of faithful service, just new batteries every now and then. Looking at HP now, it’s sad to see how far they have fallen, and I suspect they haven’t hit the bottom yet.

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What is Experience?

Like many people of my generation, I started programming at an early age. At 10, I was writing 6502 assembly language. My beloved BBC Micro lacked built-in flood fill, circle and ellipse drawing, and other graphics commands, and I spent many happy hours working on these. I used interrupts and vectors to place a clock in the corner of the screen, of limited use since the Beeb lacked a battery-backed RTC, but, multitasking baby!! Exciting stuff. I dabbled in making games, I did a little 3D and simple physics modelling, I wrote my own version of LOGO†.

I sometimes come across people with similar backgrounds, who count their programming experience as starting from those days‡. Now it is natural that I would feel an affinity here, but real experience has taught me that that experience doesn’t carry over into programming in a commercial setting. The problem is, a normal, working programmer, does an awful lot of things other than write code. Hobby projects don’t teach you to write documentation, or specs for new features, or clear bug reports that anyone can pick up to reproduce the issue. It doesn’t teach you how to work in a team, how to branch and merge, how to do code reviews, how to mentor others. It doesn’t teach you how to manage priorities or dependencies or balance conflicting demands. It doesn’t teach you how to talk to users or sponsors or vendors. It doesn’t teach you how to make intelligent use of technical debt. It doesn’t teach you about how to dive into unfamiliar code, under a tight time constraint, in a business domain you don’t fully understand, and make your change without breaking anything else (or what to do if you do). Dealing with distributed, heterogeneous systems can make things get very complicated, very quickly, in ways you can’t anticipate unless you’ve done it a few times before. There are a million other things… A guy or girl who does this isn’t even exaggerating their experience, they’re demonstrating that they don’t even understand what experience is. People in their early 20s who think their “10 years” experience puts them on a level with someone in their 30s who has 10 years commercial experience plus their teenage and other personal hobbyist projects. Please stop this!

† Then about 14 I discovered other interests and didn’t do much computing again ’til college at 18. FORTRAN baby!!
‡ Or equivalent for their generation.

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Form vs Function in Applications

When you have been around the industry for a little while, you will see that nearly all applications, especially user-facing ones, are made of only three kinds of things: Forms, Reports and Workflows. A Form is simply an interface, a screen or a page, for the user to input some data. It is made of text fields, checkboxes, drop-down menus, and so on. A good Form offers prompting and validation, such as a text field that is supposed to be a number is actually a number and within a sensible range. It can be dynamic, updating fields depending on each other, all sorts of fancy things, and when the user is done, saves the results in a database.

A Report is a screen or page that accesses a database, often one populated at least in part by Form input, filters, sorts and aggregates the records, and presents them in a useful way, for example a graph or a table. Often Reports have a few Form-like elements too, so the user can refine or drill down into the data. A Workflow simply links Forms and Reports together. Behind both you might have Services (APIs). So 4 things, to make (nearly!) any application you can think of.

Let’s consider a website like Amazon. You go to it, and it runs the default Report. You refine that Report into a selection of things you’re interested in, and select one, fill in a Form to buy it, and the database is updated, one item transferred atomically from their inventory to your basket, by calling a Service. Then in the warehouse someone runs a Report that tells them what to pack and who to ship to, then they fill in the Form to update the status. There’s nothing in this, fundamentally, that couldn’t have been done on a 1971 IBM 3270, it just might not look as pretty to modern eyes, but all the functionality and interactivity would be there. If you’re buying a book, do you really need a photo of the picture on the cover to decide?

Once you start thinking at this level, suddenly it doesn’t matter that the lifetime of the current fashionable web page generation language is only a few years, or the latest Javascript framework will only be around for a few months. Let junior programmers (who I’ll define as those who define themselves primarily in terms of their language rather than their domain) worry about that and worry about running just to keep up with their peers jumping on the latest bandwagon. Concentrate on the meat of the application, and use tried and true languages and platforms to do it. This isn’t an anti-technology rant by the way, just a piece of advice for those ready for the next level.

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