Four Short Links

Nat Torkington's eclectic collection of curated links.

Four short links: 14 December 2018

Satellite LoRaWAN, Bret Victor, State of AI, and Immutable Documentation

  1. Fleet -- launched satellites as backhaul for LoRaWAN base station traffic.
  2. Computing is Everywhere -- podcast episode with Bret Victor. Lots of interesting history and context to what he's up to at Dynamicland. (via Paul Ford)
  3. AI Index 2018 Report (Stanford) -- think of it as the Mary Meeker report for AI.
  4. Etsy's Experiment with Immutable Documentation -- In trying to overcome the problem of staleness, the crucial observation is that how-docs typically change faster than why-docs do. Therefore the more how-docs are mixed in with why-docs in a doc page, the more likely the page is to go stale. We’ve leveraged this observation by creating an entirely separate system to hold our how-docs.

Four short links: 13 December 2018

CS Ethics, Insect IoT, Glitch Showcase, and SQL Repos

  1. Embedded Ethics -- Harvard project that integrates ethics modules into courses across the standard computer science curriculum. Those modules are straightforward, online, and open access.
  2. Living IOT: A Flying Wireless Platform on Live Insects -- We develop and deploy our platform on bumblebees which includes backscatter communication, low-power self-localization hardware, sensors, and a power source. We show that our platform is capable of sensing, backscattering data at 1 kbps when the insects are back at the hive, and localizing itself up to distances of 80 m from the access points, all within a total weight budget of 102 mg. (via BoingBoing)
  3. Looky What We Made -- showcase of Glitch apps.
  4. Git Your SQL Together -- why I recommend tracking SQL queries in git: 1. You will *always* need that query again. 2. Queries are living artifacts that change over time. 3. If it’s useful to you, it’s useful to others (and vice versa)

Four short links: 12 December 2018

Render as Comic, Notebook to Production, Population Visualization, and Location Privacy

  1. Comixify -- render video as comics.
  2. How to Grow Neat Software Architecture out of Jupyter Notebooks -- everyone's coding in notebooks as a sweet step up from the basic one-command REPL loop. Here's some good advice on how to grow these projects without creating a spaghetti monster.
  3. City 3D -- This project wields data from the Global Human Settlement Layer, which uses “satellite imagery, census data, and volunteered geographic information” to create population density maps. Best visualization I've seen in a very long time.
  4. Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They're Not Keeping It Secret (NY Times) -- At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information. They claim 200M mobile devices, with updates as often as every six seconds. These companies sell, use, or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets, and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior. [...] An app may tell users that granting access to their location will help them get traffic information, but not mention that the data will be shared and sold. That disclosure is often buried in a vague privacy policy.

Four short links: 11 December 2018

Can We Stop?, Everything Breaks, Edge Cloud, and Molly Guard

  1. The Seductive Diversion of Solving Bias in Artificial Intelligence -- provocative title, but the point is that the preoccupation with narrow computational puzzles distracts us from the far more important issue of the colossal asymmetry between societal cost and private gain in the rollout of automated systems. It also denies us the possibility of asking: should we be building these systems at all? The expected value of pursuing this line of thinking is pretty low because there's a vanishingly small probability that we can coordinate activity globally to prevent something bad from happening. Exhibit A: climate change.
  2. Everything Breaks (Michael Lopp) -- Humans will greatly benefit from a clear explanation of the rules of the game. The rules need to evolve in unexpected ways to account for the arrival of more humans. The only way to effectively learn to what is going to break is keeping playing...and learning. See also lessons learned from scaling Stripe's engineering team.
  3. Terrarium (Fastly) -- an interesting glimpse at a possible future for web apps, where your CDN (which you need to have anyway if you're publishing anything remotely contentious or interesting) blurs with your hosting infrastructure provider. Terrarium is a multi-language deployment platform based on WebAssembly. Think of it as a playground for experimenting with edge-side WebAssembly. Being one of the first Fastly Labs projects, you can also think of it as our way of publicly experimenting with what the future of real highly performant edge computing could look like.
  4. molly-guard -- protects machines from accidental shutdowns/reboots. Etymology of the name: originally a Plexiglas cover improvised for the Big Red Switch on an IBM 4341 mainframe after a programmer's toddler daughter (named Molly) tripped it twice in one day. Later generalized to covers over stop/reset switches on disk drives and networking equipment. (via Mike Forbes)

Four short links: 10 December 2018

Language Zoo, VS AI, Advertising Plus, and Minecraft Scripting

  1. The Programming Languages Zoo -- a collection of miniature programming languages that demonstrates various concepts and techniques used in programming language design and implementation.
  2. AI in Visual Studio Code -- good to see IDEs getting AI-powered features to augment coders. In some small way, Doug Engelbart would be proud.
  3. Outgrowing Advertising: Multimodal Business Models as a Product Strategy -- business models from Chinese companies that are augmenting advertising with other revenue streams.
  4. Minecraft Scripting API in Public Beta -- The Minecraft Script Engine uses the JavaScript language. Scripts can be written and bundled with Behaviour Packs to listen and respond to game events, get (and modify) data in components that entities have, and affect different parts of the game.

Four short links: 7 December 2018

Broken Feedback, Fake AI, Teaching with Jupyter, and Multiplayer Code UI

  1. Why Ratings and Feedback Forms Don't Work (The Atlantic) -- Negative feedback is actually good feedback because it yields greater efficiency and performance. [...] Positive feedback, by contrast, causes the system to keep going, unchecked. Like a thermostat that registers the room as too warm and cranks up the furnace, it’s generally meant to be avoided. But today’s understanding of feedback has reversed those terms.
  2. How to Recognize Fake AI-Generated Images -- worth remembering that researchers are in a war with these kinds of heuristics because if "straight hair looks like paint," then a researcher can get a paper out of fixing that.
  3. Teaching and Learning with Jupyter -- open about Jupyter and its use in teaching and learning.
  4. Multiplayer -- code with friends in the same editor, execute programs in the same interpreter, interact with the same terminal, chat in the IDE, edit files and share the same system resources, and ship applications from the same interface.

Four short links: 6 December 2018

Public Domain, Optimistic Sci-Fi, C64 Defrag, and Quantum Computing

  1. Re-Opening of the Public Domain (Creative Commons) -- after years of legal extension of copyright terms, 2019 will be the first year in which new materials fall into the American public domain, and Creative Commons is throwing a bash at the Internet Archive.
  2. Better Worlds (The Verge) -- starting on January 14th, we’ll be publishing Better Worlds: 10 original fiction stories, five animated adaptations, and five audio adaptations by a diverse roster of science fiction authors who take a more optimistic view of what lies ahead in ways both large and small, fantastical and everyday. Necessary! I heard a great interview with Tyler Cowen where he said, "you cannot live with pessimism, right? There’s also a notion that more optimism is a partially self-fulfilling prophecy. Believing pessimistic views might make them more likely to come about." It is a fallacy to conflate optimism with naivete.
  3. A Disk Defragmenter for the Commodore 64 -- I don't know what's more insane: watching a great 40x25 homage to the classic Windows defrag progress screen or reading the bonkers BASIC code behind it.
  4. Quantum Computing Progress and Prospects -- an introduction to the field, including the unique characteristics and constraints of the technology, and assesses the feasibility and implications of creating a functional quantum computer capable of addressing real-world problems. This report considers hardware and software requirements, quantum algorithms, drivers of advances in quantum computing and quantum devices, benchmarks associated with relevant use cases, the time and resources required, and how to assess the probability of success. Separate the hype from the reality and develop a sense of the probability of different possible evolutionary paths for the technology.

Four short links: 5 December 2018

NLP for Code, Monolith vs. Modular, Automatic Gender Recognition, and Budget Simulator

  1. code2vec -- a dedicated website for demonstrating the principles shown in the paper code2vec: Learning Distributed Representations of Code. An interesting start to using a productive NLP technique on code.
  2. Monolithic or Modular -- When monolithic adherents look at a modular project, they may think that it’s low quality or abandoned simply because commit count is low and rare, new features are not being added, and the project has no funding or community events. Interestingly, these same properties are what modular adherents will perceive as a good thing, likely to indicate that the module is complete. Monolithic adherents don’t believe a project could ever be “complete.”
  3. The Misgendering Machines: Trans/HCI Implications of Automatic Gender Recognition -- I show that AGR consistently operationalizes gender in a trans-exclusive way, and consequently carries disproportionate risk for trans people subject to it. In addition, I use the dearth of discussion of this in HCI papers that apply AGR to discuss how HCI operationalizes gender and the implications that this has for the field’s research. I conclude with recommendations for alternatives to AGR and some ideas for how HCI can work toward a more effective and trans-inclusive treatment of gender. (via Alvaro Videla)
  4. Occult Defence Agency Budgeting Simulator -- a hilarious exercise whose point is about what happens the year after you cut the budget, with parallels to UK fiscal policy left as exercise for the (pixie-ravaged) reader. I've long held that simulations are a fantastic way to make a point. (via David Stark)

Four short links: 4 December 2018

Voice Technology, AI Summaries, Time Tracker, and Homomorphic Encryption

  1. Fifteen Unconventional Uses of Voice Technology (Nicole He) -- Students had half a semester to learn tools like the Web Speech API, Dialogflow, and Actions on Google, and then were tasked with making something...interesting. The in-class code examples we used are on GitHub. Here are 15 funny, subversive, and impressively weird final projects from the class.
  2. Summary of 2018's Most Important AI Papers -- To help you catch up, we’ve summarized 10 important AI research papers from 2018 to give you a broad overview of machine learning advancements this year. There are many more breakthrough papers worth reading as well, but we think this is a good list for you to start with.
  3. arbtt -- a time tracker that sits in the background. You write rules that tell it how to categorize your activity.
  4. Microsoft Simple Encrypted Arithmetic Library -- an easy-to-use but powerful homomorphic encryption library written in C++. It supports both the BFV and the CKKS encryption schemes. (via Microsoft Research Blog)

Four short links: 3 December 2018

Amazon and OSS, Audio to Keystrokes, The New OS, and Software Sprawl

  1. Amazon is Competing with Its Customers -- What's more, Kreps said, Amazon has not contributed a single line of code to the Apache Kafka open source software and is not reselling Confluent's cloud tool. Sometimes Amazon contributes back, but increasingly often it seems like its software MO is exploitation not co-creation. This is what prompted the creation of various "open except if you resell it as a cloud service"-source licenses, like the Commons Clause.
  2. kbd-audio -- tools for capturing and analyzing keyboard input paired with microphone capture.
  3. Kubernetes is the OS That Matters (Matt Asay) -- provocative clickbait title, but the point is important: if single-machine apps are the exception, then the lowest layer of critical shared software is no longer the OS but instead the cluster manager.
  4. Software Sprawl, The Golden Path, and Scaling Teams with Agency (Charity Majors) -- good talk on how to recover from "we're using too many shiny tools, and it's hard to make progress because there's no common set of tools, so everyone's reinventing the wheel, and omg fire."

Four short links: 30 November 2018

Advents are Coming, Open Source, Restricted Exports, and Misinformation Operations

  1. QEMU Advent Calendar -- An amazing QEMU disk image every day!. It's that time of year again! See also Advent of Code.
  2. De Facto Closed Source -- You want to download thousands of lines of useful, but random, code from the internet, for free, run it in a production web server, or worse, your user’s machine, trust it with your paying users’ data and reap that sweet dough. We all do. But then you can’t be bothered to check the license, understand the software you are running, and still want to blame the people who make your business a possibility when mistakes happen, while giving them nothing for it? This is both incompetence and entitlement.
  3. U.S. Government Wonders What to Limit Exports Of -- The representative general categories of technology for which Commerce currently seeks to determine whether there are specific emerging technologies that are essential to the national security of the United States include: (1) Biotechnology, such as: (i) Nanobiology; (ii) Synthetic biology; (iv) Genomic and genetic engineering; or (v) Neurotech. (2) Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology, such as: (i) Neural networks and deep learning (e.g., brain modeling, time series prediction, classification); (ii) Evolution and genetic computation (e.g., genetic algorithms, genetic programming); (iii) Reinforcement learning; (iv) Computer vision (e.g., object recognition, image understanding); (v) Expert systems (e.g., decision support systems, teaching systems); (vi) Speech and audio processing (e.g., speech recognition and production); (vii) Natural language processing (e.g., machine translation); (viii) Planning (e.g., scheduling, game playing); (ix) Audio and video manipulation technologies (e.g., voice cloning, deepfakes); (x) AI cloud technologies; or (xi) AI chipsets. (3) Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) technology. (4) Microprocessor technology, such as: (i) Systems-on-Chip (SoC); or (ii) Stacked Memory on Chip. (5) Advanced computing technology, such as: (i) Memory-centric logic. (6) Data analytics technology, such as: (i) Visualization; (ii) Automated analysis algorithms; or (iii) Context-aware computing. (7) Quantum information and sensing technology, such as (i) Quantum computing; (ii) Quantum encryption; or (iii) Quantum sensing. (8) Logistics technology, such as: (i) Mobile electric power; (ii) Modeling and simulation; (iii) Total asset visibility; or (iv) Distribution-based Logistics Systems (DBLS). (9) Additive manufacturing (e.g., 3D printing); (10) Robotics such as: (i) Micro-drone and micro-robotic systems; (ii) Swarming technology; (iii) Self-assembling robots; (iv) Molecular robotics; (v) Robot compliers; or (vi) Smart Dust. (11) Brain-computer interfaces, such as (i) Neural-controlled interfaces; (ii) Mind-machine interfaces; (iii) Direct neural interfaces; or (iv) Brain-machine interfaces. (12) Hypersonics, such as: (i) Flight control algorithms; (ii) Propulsion technologies; (iii) Thermal protection systems; or (iv) Specialized materials (for structures, sensors, etc.). (13) Advanced Materials, such as: (i) Adaptive camouflage; (ii) Functional textiles (e.g., advanced fiber and fabric technology); or (iii) Biomaterials. (14) Advanced surveillance technologies, such as: Faceprint and voiceprint technologies. It's a great list of what's in the next Gartner Hype Cycle report.
  4. The Digital Maginot Line (Renee DiResta) -- We know this is coming, and yet we’re doing very little to get ahead of it. No one is responsible for getting ahead of it. [...] platforms aren’t incentivized to engage in the profoundly complex arms race against the worst actors when they can simply point to transparency reports showing that they caught a fair number of the mediocre actors. [...] The regulators, meanwhile, have to avoid the temptation of quick wins on meaningless tactical bills (like the Bot Law) and wrestle instead with the longer-term problems of incentivizing the platforms to take on the worst offenders (oversight), and of developing a modern-day information operations doctrine.

Four short links: 29 November 2018

Security Sci-Fi, AWS Toys, Quantum Ledger, and Insecurity in Software in Hardware

  1. The Cliff Nest -- sci-fi story with computer security challenges built in.
  2. Amazon Textract -- OCR in the cloud, extracting not just text but also structured tables. Part of a big feature dump Amazon's done today, including recommendations, AWS on-prem, and a fully managed time series database.
  3. Quantum Ledger Database -- a fully managed ledger database that provides a transparent, immutable, and cryptographically verifiable transaction log owned by a central trusted authority. Amazon QLDB tracks each and every application data change and maintains a complete and verifiable history of changes over time. Many of the advantages of a blockchain ledger without the distributed pains. Quantum in the sense of "minimum chunk of something," not "uses quantum computing."
  4. Sennheiser Headset Software Enabled MITM Attacks -- When users have been installing Sennheiser's HeadSetup software, little did they know the software was also installing a root certificate into the Trusted Root CA Certificate store. To make matters worse, the software was also installing an encrypted version of the certificate's private key that was not as secure as the developers may have thought. This is the price of using software to improve hardware.

Four short links: 28 November 2018

FaaS, Space as a Service, Bot Yourself, and Facebook's RL Platform

  1. Firecracker -- Amazon's open source virtualization technology that is purpose-built for creating and managing secure, multitenant containers and functions-based services. Docker but for FaaS platforms. Best explanation is on Firecracker is solving the problem of multitenant container density while maintaining the security boundary of a VM. If you’re entirely running first-party trusted workloads and are satisfied with them all sharing a single kernel and using Linux security features like cgroups, selinux, and seccomp, then Firecracker may not be the best answer. If you’re running workloads from customers similar to Lambda, desire stronger isolation than those technologies provide, or want defense in depth, then Firecracker makes a lot of sense. It can also make sense if you need to run a mix of different Linux kernel versions for your containers and don’t want to spend a whole bare-metal host on each one.
  2. Amazon Ground Station: Ingest and Process Data from Orbiting Satellites -- a sign that space is becoming more mainstream. Also interesting because they're doing a bunch of processing in EC2 rather than at the basestation. General-purpose computers often beat specialized ones.
  3. Me Bot -- A simple tool to make a bot that speaks like you, simply learning from your WhatsApp Chats. (via Hacker News)
  4. Horizon -- FB open sources reinforcement learning platform for large-scale products and services, built on PyTorch.

Four short links: 27 November 2018

Open Source, Interactive Fiction, Evolving Images, and Closed Worlds

  1. Open Source is Not About You (Rich Hickey) -- As a user of something open source, you are not thereby entitled to anything at all. You are not entitled to contribute. You are not entitled to features. You are not entitled to the attention of others. You are not entitled to having value attached to your complaints. You are not entitled to this explanation. Tough love talk. See also this statement by the author of the event-stream NPM module, who passed maintenance onto someone who added malware to it. If it's not fun anymore, you get literally nothing from maintaining a popular package.
  2. Ganbreeder -- explore images created by generative adversarial networks.
  3. 2018 IFComp Winners -- interactive fiction is nextgen chatbot tech. Worth keeping up with to see how they stretch parsers and defy expectations of the genre.
  4. The Architecture of Closed Worlds (We Make Money Not Art) -- One of the most striking lessons of the book is that it is extremely difficult to create a miniaturized world without inheriting some of the problems of the surrounding world. No matter how much control was exerted on the synthetic habitats, no matter how ambitious the vision, the breadth of engineering and human ingeniosity, the results were marred by surprisingly mundane obstacles: gerbils outsmarting the machine, bacteria loss, fingernails and skin infiltrating collectors, or simply the difficulty of implementing behavioural changes. The physical version of online social networks that are shocked to discover their userbase includes pedophiles, racists, stalkers, murderers, nutters, and malicious folks.

Four short links: 26 November 2018

Graphics Engine, Graph Library, Docker Tool, and Probabilistic Cognition

  1. Heaps -- a mature cross-platform graphics engine designed for high-performance games. It is designed to leverage modern GPUs that are commonly available on both desktop and mobile devices. 2D and 3D game framework, built on the Haxe language and toolkit.
  2. VivaGraphJS -- JavaScript graph manipulation and rendering in JavaScript, designed to be extensible and to support different rendering engines and layout algorithms.
  3. dive -- tool for exploring each layer in a docker image.
  4. Probabilistic Models of Cognition -- This book explores the probabilistic approach to cognitive science, which models learning and reasoning as inference in complex probabilistic models. We examine how a broad range of empirical phenomena, including intuitive physics, concept learning, causal reasoning, social cognition, and language understanding, can be modeled using probabilistic programs (using the WebPPL language).

Four short links: 23 November 2018

Chinese iPhone Users, Sci-Fi UI, MITM Framework, and HTTP/3

  1. Chinese iPhone Users are Poor -- The Shanghai-based firm also found that most iPhone users are unmarried females aged between 18 and 34, who graduated with just a high school certificate and earn a monthly income of below 3,000 yuan (HK$3,800). They are perceived to be part of a group known as the “invisible poor”—those who do not look as poor as their financial circumstances.
  2. eDEX-UI -- a fullscreen desktop application resembling a sci-fi computer interface, heavily inspired from DEX-UI and the TRON Legacy movie effects. It runs the shell of your choice in a real terminal and displays live information about your system. It was made to be used on large touchscreens but will work nicely on a regular desktop computer or perhaps a tablet PC or one of those funky 360° laptops with touchscreens.
  3. evilginx2 -- a man-in-the-middle attack framework used for phishing login credentials along with session cookies, which in turn allows one to bypass 2-factor authentication protection.
  4. Some Notes About HTTP/3 (Errata Security) -- QUIC is really more of a new version of TCP (TCP/2???) than a new version of HTTP (HTTP/3). It doesn't really change what HTTP/2 does so much as change how the transport works. Therefore, my comments below are focused on transport issues rather than HTTP issues.

Four short links: 22 November 2018

XOXO Talks, Git Illustrated, Post-REST Services, and Learning Projects

  1. XOXO 2018 Videos -- playlist of talks from XOXO 2018. (via BoingBoing)
  2. Learn Git Branching -- visual!
  3. Post-REST (Tim Bray) -- musings on what might replace REST in different parts of the current world of web services.
  4. Projects -- list of practical projects that anyone can solve in any programming language, divided into categories according to what the project will exercise your knowledge of—e.g., Files, Data Structures, Threading, etc. Good for teachers looking for ideas.

Four short links: 21 November 2018

Black Mirror, Innovation Toolkits, Code-Generator for APIs, and Hardware Effects

  1. Black Mirror Brainstorms (Aaron Lewis) -- In light of the latest FB scandal, here's my proposal for replacing Design Sprints: "Black Mirror Brainstorms." A workshop in which you create a Black Mirror episode. The plot must revolve around misuse of your team's product. See Casey Fiesler's Black Mirror, Light Mirror, which I've linked to before on 4SL.
  2. Toolkit Navigator -- A compendium of toolkits for public sector innovation and transformation, curated by OPSI and our partners around the world.
  3. Conjure -- Palantir's open source simple but opinionated toolchain for defining APIs once and generating client/server interfaces in multiple languages. For more, read the blog post.
  4. Hardware Effects -- this repository demonstrates various hardware effects that can degrade application performance in surprising ways and that may be very hard to explain without knowledge of the low-level CPU and OS architecture. For each effect I try to create a proof of concept program that is as small as possible so it can be understood easily. How full stack ARE you?

Four short links: 20 November 2018

East African ML Needs, Autonomy Corrections, Information Security, and UIs from Doodles

  1. Some Requests for Machine Learning Research from the East African Tech Scene -- Based on 46 in–depth interviews [...] a list of concrete machine learning research problems, progress on which would directly benefit tech ventures in East Africa. Example: Priors for autocorrect and low-literacy SMS use—SMS text contains many language misuses due to a combination of autocorrection and low literacy. E.g., “poultry farmer” becoming “poetry farmer.” Such mistakes are bound to occur in any written language corpus, but engineers working with rural populations in East Africa report that this is a prevalent issue for them, confounding the use of pretrained language models. This problem also exists to some degree in voice data with respect to English spoken in different accents. Priors over autocorrect substitution rules, or custom, per–dialect confusion matrices between phonetically similar words could potentially help. Expect much more work like this as AI/ML moves into non-WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) nations.
  2. How the Media Gets Tesla Wrong -- a reminder that our convenient shorthand and once-over-lightly reading of the news gives a false and rosy picture of what's possible.
  3. Why Information Security is Hard: An Economic Perspective -- fascinating arguments! I particularly like the statistical argument: a lone attacker might find 10 bugs a year, a well-prepared defender might find 1,000 bugs a year, but if there are 100,000 available bugs for exploitation, then there's very low probability that the defender found and patched the same bugs that the attacker found...
  4. DoodleMaster -- sketches->UI via a CNN, a proof-of-concept.

Four short links: 19 November 2018

Partial Time, Black Mirror, Implant Usability, and Open Source Game

  1. Time is Partial -- Even though time naturally feels like a total order, studying distributed systems or weak memory exposes you, head on, to how it isn’t. And that’s precisely because these are both cases where our standard over-approximation of time being total limits performance—which we obviously can’t have.
  2. Black Mirror, Light Mirror: Teaching Technology Ethics Through Speculation (Casey Fiesler) -- This is not a new idea, and I’m certainly not the only one to do a lot of thinking about it (e.g., see “How to Teach Computer Ethics Through Science Fiction”), but I wanted to share two specific exercises that I use and that I think are easily adaptable.
  3. How I Lost and Regained Control of My Microchip Implant (Vice) -- After a year of living with a totally useless NFC implant, I kind of started to like it. That small, almost imperceptible little bump on my left hand was a constant reminder that even the most sophisticated and fool-proof technologies are no match for human incompetence. (via Slashdot)
  4. System Syzygy -- open source puzzle game for Mac, Windows, and Linux. (via Andrew Plotkin)