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EARTHDATE: August 6, 2017

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WINDING DOWN

An idiosyncratic look at, and comment on, the week's net, technology and science news
by Alan Lenton

Normally August is pretty quiet, because everyone and their dog goes on holiday (at least on this side of the pond). This year those of us who remain have had low tech scandals involving contaminated eggs, with accusations and counter accusations sloshing around. None the less, I’ve managed to unearth a few interesting items from the tech frontlines for you to read. We start with problems that are likely to face users of the Slack chat system in the not too distant future, then there is a little digression on ‘averages’ which comes out of a recent ‘league table’ of countries’ broadband speeds, and there’s a floating cloud lamp, a story about Ada Lovelace, plus a composite picture from the 2008 eclipse. Scanner URLs point you to material on 3D printer watermarking, voter data for sale, 27 years for a fraudster, GIFs in a bacteria, suspect greenhouse gas data, bypassing ad blockers, postcards to ‘most wanted’ fugitives from justice, and Microsoft threatens to axe its venerable Paint program.

That should keep you going for the rest of the week.

Shorts:

I see that in the UK the regulators (the ICO) are starting to ask questions about government use of the Slack chat system. The problem they identify is going to apply to a lot more governments than just the British one. What the ICO want to know is how matters discussed over Slack are going to be available for Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. Ooops...

But it seems to me that while FOI requests are the most visible problem, this is also going to affect the ability of investigators – like the taxman – to put together an audit trail. I feel regulation coming on...

Oh, and as a side issue, considering Slack is supposed to improve productivity, there’s a discussion on of the programmer lists I use about whether extensive use of Slack damages productivity, because people are worried about missing something important and spend so much time monitoring what’s being said!
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/08/07/ico_investigation_into_slack_in_government/

Homework:

I was (digitally) leafing through The Register this week when a headline caught my eye “Mediocre Britain: UK broadband ranked 31st in world for speed”. My interest was piqued, partly because I once had a job working for a firm that made such measurements. They’d just got a contract with a provider, and wanted someone to write the code. Unfortunately, my code gave measurements below the figures the provider was quoting, and they wanted my figures tweAking. I resisted, I had my reputation to consider, but the company was desperate to get the contract so, after a few weeks, we parted company, and they found someone a little more pliable to write code that gave the results their customer wanted.

When I came to look at the figures in the league table, it wasn’t the methodology of measuring that particularly struck me. Since it was being used for comparisons, as long as the same measuring methods were used for all the results, it should be OK.

What I really noticed was the fact that right at the top of the league tables is Singapore. So what’s so special about Singapore you may ask. Well, according to the United Nations Population Division, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world where the population is all urban. It’s one 277 square mile city.

It is, of course, a lot easier and cheaper to lay cables (including fibre) in cities than in the countryside. Even at the most basic level this should be obvious. Run a fibre optic cable to an apartment block and you immediately have a whole bunch of potential customers. Run a cable to a farmhouse and your potential customers are far less. Furthermore, because the distances from the hub are less in cities, it’s less expensive to run high capacity lines in cities than in rural areas.

Big corporations, like cable companies, primarily exist to provide dividends for their shareholders, so of course, that’s why they grab the low hanging fruit – the cities. It’s also why, if they don’t have nationalised communication industries, western governments tend to have public service requirements on these companies.

So, what’s this got to do with average broadband speeds?

Quite a lot. You see, averages only provide an accurate picture if the results are clustered or evenly spread. Let me give a couple of examples. If we have some numbers close together, say 1,2,3,4,5,6 then we can take the average 1+2+3+4+5+6 = 21/6 = 3.5. No problem – that accords with our instinctive feeling of ‘correctness’. Now, what happens if we have outliers? Let’s say 1,2,580,581,582,583,584 then the average is 1+2+580+581+582+583+584 = 2,913/7 = 416.14. Look what’s happened. The two outliers have dragged the average down massively.

Think of 1 and 2 as representing rural broadband, and the 580 numbers as representing urban broadband. Most of the people are getting an experience in the 580s, and a few are experiencing single digits, yet the average suggests everyone is getting a number in the low 400s.

This use of averages can be misleading (for instance you only need a couple of badly performing children in a class to drag down the average mark for the whole class). So maths has an alternative metric to use when this situation occurs.

It’s called the ‘mean’.

So how do you calculate the mean? Easy! Just line up the numbers in order. If there’s an odd number of numbers take the middle one, if there’s an even number of numbers take the middle two numbers, add them together, and divide by two. In our first case the middle numbers are 3 and 4, so 3+4 = 7/2 = 3.5, same as the average. In the second case there are seven numbers and the middle one is 581, which is our mean. In this case the mean gives us a much better picture of what is going on.

So, what can we conclude from this, other than Benjamin Disraeli’s comment that, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”? What it means is that whenever someone quotes an average, we should try to figure out what’s behind it, because averages are often (sometimes deliberately) misleading.

And for your own homework, you could consider whether the countries at the bottom of the broadband league table might well be using their very limited resources to get all of their citizens clean water, rather than blowing the available cash on broadband which no one has the equipment (or electricity) to use anyway...
https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/08/08/uk_broadband_ranked_31st_in_world_for_speed/

Geek Stuff:

I want one! And so will any geek out there. It’s a floating thundercloud that doubles as a lamp. Unfortunately, it’s a limited edition of 100, and is correspondingly pricey – US$4,620. However, for those of you with the cash still left over from the dotcom boom, it’s a cloud made of hypoallergenic polyester fibre having a hidden 6,600mAh battery. It magnetically levitates above a base, and the LEDs in it change the colour in response to the ambient sound in the room. Magic!
http://newatlas.com/floating-cloud-lamp-richard-clarkson/50796/

There are conflicting claims about whether Ada Lovelace (born 200 years ago) really was the first programmer. Now Stephen Wolfram (yes, he of Mathematica fame) has delved into the lives of Ada and Babbage, and the Difference and Analytic Engines, and come up with an interesting blog piece about the two of them. So, what was his conclusion? Read it and see, but be prepared for a longish, but totally fascinating, read.
http://blog.stephenwolfram.com/2015/12/untangling-the-tale-of-ada-lovelace/

Pictures:

With the Solar Eclipse coming up later this month, I thought readers might like to take a look at a picture of the Solar corona taken during the 2008 eclipse. It’s a nifty bit of work – take a look.
https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap170813.html

Scanner:

How to watermark 3D printed stuff with air bubbles
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/07/21/watermark_3d_printed_plastic_with_air/

Voter registration data from nine states available for sale on Dark Web
https://www.darkreading.com/attacks-breaches/voter-registration-data-from-9-states-available-for-sale-on-dark-web/d/d-id/1329451

The opsec blunders that landed a Russian politician’s fraudster son in the clink for 27 years
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/07/27/russian_politicians_son_gets_27yrs_fraud/

Scientists upload a galloping horse GIF into bacteria with CRISPR
https://www.wired.com/story/scientists-upload-a-galloping-horse-gif-into-bacteria-with-crispr/

‘Dodgy’ greenhouse gas data threatens Paris accord
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40669449

Revealed: The naughty tricks used by web ads to bypass blockers
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/08/11/ad_blocker_bypass_code/

Europol writes postcards to “Most-Wanted” fugitives
https://www.worldcrunch.com/culture-society/europol-writes-postcards-to-most-wanted-fugitives

Microsoft hits new low: Threatens to axe classic Paint from Windows 10
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/07/24/windows_10_fall_creators_update_deprecates_
paint_axes_outlook_express/

Acknowledgements

Thanks to readers Barb and Fi for drawing my attention to material for Winding Down.

Please send suggestions for stories to alan@ibgames.com and include the words Winding Down in the subject line, unless you want your deathless prose gobbled up by my voracious Thunderbird spam filter...

Alan Lenton
alan@ibgames.com
13 August 2017

Alan Lenton is an on-line games designer, programmer and sociologist, the order of which depends on what he is currently working on! His web site is at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/index.html.

Past issues of Winding Down can be found at http://www.ibgames.net/alan/winding/index.html.

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