Wednesday, December 04, 2019

101 Things #33 - Professing ignorance

When people compile bucket lists of all the things they'd like to do before they die (or reach 30, or some arbitrary age), they tend to choose those items that, once essayed, can be done fairly quickly and definitively. For example, visiting the Grand Canyon. You go to the South Rim (or North if you like things a bit quieter), lean over, try and keep your lunch down and tick it off. You've done it.

It's always a little strange trying to deconstruct things that must be done over a much longer time frame and where you can never be quite sure that you've finished. Let us review a proposal on the Lifelot website, where amongst many recommendations suggested as worthy ambitions, we find the notion to
Try a profession in a different field.

This one definitely goes straight into my bucket list reject compilation 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die and does not even pass Go or collect £200 on the way. Perhaps the suggestion is tongue-in-cheek, casually jotted down to make up the numbers. I can't tell.

Do people really consider "trying" a new profession something worth doing in it's own right? I can see the point if you have been struggling for years with your chosen path, go home with headaches after trying to understand what the hell is going on, react in bafflement at articles in the trade journal, blench when you look at the questions in the exam papers, have been told in no uncertain terms by your bosses that they see more aptitude in your waste-paper basket than they do in you - yes, you should jack it all in and follow a different path, thank you for calling, that will be £250 plus VAT and do call in again at Ramblings Careers Advisory Service.

In all other cases we are dealing with someone set up in, and progressing, in a profession. (They must already be in one or the suggestion to try one in a different field makes no sense.) But why give up what you are already invested in? Professions are not like sweet shops - you don't pop in for some peppermint lumps one day and chocolate drops the following week. They need full time attention and a lot of diligent study. I know - I qualified for one many years ago and it was a lot of hard work and loss of much free time to get that precious bit of paper at the end. Having done all that, the incentive to shrug, pick up a phone book and stick in a pin to find a new occupation was not there.

In any case how do you go about this trial (or should that be try-on?)? Do you roll up at day 1 on the Medical School and chat to the kindly old admissions registrar in this way?

"Tell me Mr Smith, why do you wish to become a doctor?"

"Well, I've done a couple of weeks of engineering and couldn't get on with the slide rule, spent a day with a Lego set at the architects college but then I thought I'd have a bash at doing the old curing bit, you know, sticking needles in and setting the odd broken limb."

 "And what makes you think you are cut out for medicine? Does it run in your family?"

 "Not as such, but I do have a toy stethoscope, I got it from my nephew's junior doctor kit"

 "Ah, excellent, I think we can find a place for you ...."

And the minefield concealed beneath that innocuous "Try". [sarcasm mode on] Yeah, sure, you can join the Army for a few days, just to see if you like shooting people. You can whiz up to the International Space Station for lunch and then come back for a afternoon leading prayers at a nearby cathedral. Why not run the financial affairs of your country for a bit, they're always looking for help at the Treasury. And there's nothing like nipping down to the cells at the Old Bailey and seeing if you can get Krusher McNasty off a GBH in a new record time. [mode off]

No, it doesnt go like that, does it? You need the right qualifications to apply. You need to convince employers to take you on and train you. And you need big shoulders to shove aside all the other dingbats who are queueing up outside the admissions office trying to tick one off their own bucket lists. It may take months or years before you know if you will succeed. Obviously, I am not in need of a job change, having retired from one some time ago. But even if I was it would be a serious decision and not done just to get me over the line in the bucket list race. In short, even if I was in that fluid state of starting out on a career, I still would reject point-blank the notion of starting one and then "trying" another.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

101 Things #32 - Big Brother is Listening to You

When I was a teenager in the 1960s the world was an exciting place. We were promised dazzling advances in technology, usually to occur no later than the year 2000. That year seemed an immense distance away and therefore the promises appeared credible .Everyone would travel by personal jetpack. We would hang wafer thin televisions on the wall. We would open the pod bay doors in our spaceships by speaking to them (OK, 2001 for that one).

In the late 1990s voice recognition software became a commercial product. I tested out the leading product of the day, Dragon Dictate. This required at least fifteen minutes of dictation for it to recognise your voice and then, after considerable processing (and frequent crashes), one might begin dictating. The results were poor. So many errors were made you spent more time correcting them than if you had typed everything in from the start. I once spent an amazingly frustrating half hour teaching it a simple word - something like "hello" which every time I spoke would turn out something like "March". I would type in the word. I would say it several times, loud and clear and in standard English. I would start the dictation, say "hello" and watch in disbelief as it printed "March". I did not recommend that my firm buy it.

Now we have moved on apace. Computers can recognise what you are saying. They don't even need training. And a new breed of gadget, the voice assistant ("VA") is taking its place in our homes. Whether supplied by Google, Microsoft, Amazon or Apple (and there's bound to be more), it comes as a little box that sits quietly waiting to be woken up when you utter the trigger phrase and then your command is processed, whether it be to turn off the lights, play a music track or order groceries.

 This has been a much longer introduction than usual to one of these little pieces but I thought it useful to put in context the reason why I am adding to my slowly growing list of things not to do, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, any notion that I should

Acquire a Voice Assistant .

The future, as seen from that rose-tinted 1960s viewpoint was benign. We would be in control, selecting the products we wished, preserving our privacy and rights. Sadly there was always going to be a great deal more to it than that.

VA technology is big technology. To process thousands, maybe millions of simultaneous voice commands, requires seriously big infrastructure and highly sophisticated software. The back end systems that can interpret what someone says, turn it into a set of instructions, send those to a warehouse and have a delivery made promptly are awesome feats of human ingenuity. It takes very large organisations to make it work and once you have a big organisation you have enormous problems of accountability. "Commercial reasons" can be cited for a blanket of secrecy about everything. The people at the top become remote from the vast majority of their employees and may lose control over the direction of research and the practical implementation of changes to technology and working practices.

Echo Dot
pic: Amazon

I have no interest in bringing one of these sinister little boxes into my home. It is a matter of trust. Some of the suppliers in this business may make money from supplying goods that are ordered from them, others must do it via advertising or some other means, but all the time whenever we speak we are giving them our data.

Data is valuable. Suppliers may not gloat openly about the willingness of the public to hand over personal details in the way that Mark Zuckerberg once did, speaking about his fellow students, when he set up Facebook, but they collect as much as they can all the same. We, the consumers, have virtually no idea what they are collecting, how they are processing it and, crucially, who they are selling it on to.

Consider also how a VA works. It must be on all the time, waiting to hear that trigger phrase. Therefore every sound it hears has to be processed. It is not the same as you switching it on and then speaking. We are assured that until the phrase is heard nothing untoward is done; we have no idea if this is true. Earlier this year Apple was embarrassed at revelations about what its support staff were doing with recordings they were supposed to listening to only for quality assurance purposes, as reported, for example, in The Guardian.

When you have one of these devices and you use for it everyday purposes, the supplier gets to know what times you get up and when you go to bed, what you like to eat, what you listen to, what you read, who your friends are, what your views are ... you can't help it, it will either hear these things directly through the commands you give or interpret them through your general pattern of behaviour.

I am not particularly paranoid about this as I realise that all this data is only really useful when aggregated with thousands of other bits of data, but, nonetheless, I see no reason why I should be handing any of it over when I don't know what they are doing with it and I don't believe the assurances issued by the corporate PR people a) because they wouldn't know what the tech guys are doing and b) because the Apple case shows that these companies are starting from a position of owning your data and only caring about misuse when they are found out.

So I will not be adding a VA to the gadgets in the Ramblings household. I shall switch my lights on and off the old fashioned way using the tried and tested one finger click technique. I shall read from my own library (printed and digital). I shall use TV, radio and (yes) the internet to garner news but not from one proprietary source. And Mrs Commuter and I will continue to shop where we can see and check what we are buying (and bring the goods back same day, not have to hang around waiting for a delivery). Thank you Siri, Alexa, Cortana and the rest of you smooth-tongued "female" robots, it's a case of don't call me 'cause I'm certainly not going to be calling you.

I wrote this piece a while back and on the very day I reviewed it for publication came across a very detailed piece in The Guardian, written by an ex-Amazon techie, on precisely the points I discuss above. One of the most amusing, albeit unintentional, quotes is from an Amazon spokesperson who says
“Customer trust is at the centre of everything we do and we take customer privacy very seriously...."
No. Making money and keeping Jeff Bezos as the world's richest man is at the centre of everything Amazon does. When the Board meet, the first item on the agenda is not "How have we enhanced customer privacy this month?" It is "What are our earnings for the last quarter and how is the next quarter looking?".  Possibly the last item may concern privacy and trust but they'll probably be running late and will hold it over to the next meeting ....