Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How tech is changing business

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business, technology, artificial intelligence, trends

My, my, what a long time it took me to work my way through this book! It goes to show that I still have a poor mind for business. During the latter half of my career in IT, the managers and even some supervisors would speak of the "business reasons" for doing one thing or another. One day I asked a manager named Carol, "What is a 'business reason'?" She replied, "It's something people are willing to pay for." The thought had never entered my head. I have always done things for reasons such as "it is interesting", "it will make this or that task easier", "it does things in a more excellent way" and so forth. Getting paid was nice, but it wasn't my focus. When I heard a new company president speak of having a "passion for profits", I sent him an e-mail explaining how I had always had a passion for excellence, and that profits seemed always to follow. His response was so disturbing, revealing such abysmal blindness to everything I find meaningful, that I immediately sought work in a different company among the Dupont family of companies, and luckily found one within a few months.

I am not sure what I expected once I saw the cover of Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. Something more techie than what it delivered, certainly. But the authors' application of technological trends to present and future business was sufficiently appealing that I read it all.

The three words that begin the title emphasize the subjects of the book, which is a follow-on to their book The Second Machine Age. These words outline three dichotomous trends that are driving businesses:

  • Mind and Machine
  • Product and Platform
  • Core and Crowd

The trends are toward the right, and it is uncertain how far each will proceed. I debated with myself, whether to use "versus" rather than "and". But these pairs are not truly at odds; rather they are synergistic and supplementary to each other. For example, I built much of my career as a scientific programmer and systems analyst on discerning the appropriate tasks for the Machine to do, so as to free up people's Mind to do the things that we do better. From the beginning of the Computer Century (now about 70 years along), computational machinery has been called "mechanical brains", and the term "artificial intelligence" began to be applied even before ENIAC's tubes first lit up.

We now have pocket phones and nearly-affordable wristwatches that are millions of times as computationally powerful as ENIAC (this article includes notes on its speed of computation). But only within the past decade have "AI applications" begun to carry out tasks that are still – usually – done better by people and many animals. Many Sci-Fi stories bring us ideas of giant computers somehow becoming conscious more-or-less by accident (e.g., "Colossus" and "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"). There is a reason for that. Nobody yet has the slightest idea how to define consciousness in any unambiguous way, and therefore, no idea how to write appropriate code to "do consciousness". To repeat myself, I define "genuine artificial intelligence" thus:
That a mechanism, electronic or electromechanical, carries out its own investigation, does its own research, and obtains a patent or at the very least has its patent application accepted by the U.S. Patent Office.
For the time being, the next generation or two at least, there will remain numerous "real world" tasks that minds will perform better than machines. The authors contend that nearly any repetitive task, including many now deemed "too creative" for a machine to carry out, will over time become the province of machine work, and that humans will be squeezed out. Will the day arrive when humans are no longer permitted to pilot an automobile? Cook their own meals?

The discussion of Product and Platform was harder for me to follow. Having a viable Product is the essence of a Business Reason for doing something. People pay for products, including those more squishy "products" we call "services." For example, technically, nursing care is a "service", but in the context of business, it is a product, delivered as a series of "service tasks" by a skilled person on behalf of another. Where does that fit into the notion of a "platform"? I think I understand that a platform packages products and services to make them easier for a producer to deliver and for a consumer to order and obtain. Will there one day be a platform like Uber for nursing care? I am almost afraid to look; it may already be out there. But there is still the need for the nurse-person (one day, a nurse-machine?) to physically do something to or for the person receiving nursing care.

Then, Core and Crowd. Hmm. I look on this as an expansion of Mind and Machine, where the "machine" has become a human-machine synergy we call the Crowd. I love the Citizen Science efforts out there, 73 of which (to date) are available under the Zooniverse umbrella. I have participated in about a dozen of them, and am most recently active in three that are of most current interest to me. A few years ago I classified more than 6,000 galaxies in one of the early Zooniverse projects. The machine part is the image delivery and questionnaire system. I and thousands of others (many minds) do the crowd part. The designers build in lots of redundancy, so as to spot errors and the occasional troll. The key to such projects is good planning and curation.

The authors focus on more business-oriented crowd projects. Their aim is to show that many untutored folks find innovative ways to solve problems that the "experts" would never think of. Very frequently the synergy of various "out of discipline" methods come together to do something ten or 100 times as well as the best that the "experts" had produced.

This principle comes home for me. Although I long aspired to be a scientist, because I was someone who nearly always wrote software for other scientists I had little occasion to publish; I wrote stuff to support work that other scientists published about. But the key paper of mine that made it into a peer-reviewed journal (Computers and the Geosciences) applied some sideways thinking to the numerical analysis of stiff differential equations used to simulate complex chemical reaction networks. I mixed principles used by astronomers in orbital mechanics with methods devised originally by civil engineers. In my dissertation, I used, and described, another numerical method that applied descending reciprocals to Runge-Kutta methods so that linear equations (linear in the "Diff Eq" sense) could be solved to any order desired. It was just a little part of my research, but crucial for certain computations that were otherwise too lengthy to carry out on the mainframes of the late 1970's.

So, I have rambled a lot into technical areas, mainly to cover up my difficulties "getting" the business focus of the book. It is written as a self-help text, with summaries and guiding questions following each chapter. It is written for business managers and executives. It is well enough written to hold my interest, even where I was in over my head.

Not to end on a downer, but I must quibble: on page 271 it is stated that the "amino acids" are strings of the genetic bases A, C, G and T. Those who know how wrong this is, just take comfort in "the old college try" that McAfee and Brynjolfsson gave it, when they were even more out of their depth than I am in their realm of expertise. (Hint to others: ACGT make genes, which are translated into proteins, composed of amino acids that do NOT include ACGT. That is why it is called translation.)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The most comprehensive course ever

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, astrophysics, cosmology, physical universe, galaxies

As a student of geophysics, I occasionally remarked that the subject's bailiwick was "from the center of the Earth to the end of the Universe." The same could be said for astrophysics. Geophysics and astrophysics are a kind of tag team, covering the same realm from different perspectives. Astrophysics deals in part with how stars forge the elements that wind up in planets, while geophysics deals in the main with what happens to those elements once they form a solid or semisolid body (e.g. a gas giant planet).

I have great interest in both subject areas, so it was a real treat to read Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott. The book is a distillation of material from a course taught by these three men at Princeton University, to non-astronomy students.
  • Part I: Stars, Planets and Life, was written (and I presume taught) primarily by Dr. Tyson with certain sections by Dr. Strauss.
  • Part II: Galaxies, was written (and presumably taught) entirely by Dr. Strauss.
  • Part III: Einstein and the Universe, was written (and presumably taught) entirely by Dr. Gott.
You could say that Tyson deals with stellar and condensed matter, Strauss with galaxies and their formation, and Gott with the gamut of cosmological theories. For me, given my lifelong love of reading astrophysical books, both popular treatments and texts and monographs, there was little I would call "new to me." But these scientists are writing at the top of their form, and present their subjects in a most enjoyable way. I had certain take-away's from each author:
  • Chapters 7 and 8 [Tyson], "The Lives and Deaths of Stars", parts I and II, are a good summary of the different types of stars based on their masses, certain features of their internal dynamics that are a result of their mass, and the fate of each type. I did not note a discussion of the first stars, those that were entirely metal-free (Astronomers call all elements heavier than helium "metals", which is understandable from a statistical viewpoint: of the 88 natural elements beginning with lithium, and also the two synthetic elements among the first 92, all but 18 are metals). Perhaps it would have been confusing, because such "zero-metallicity stars" could not have had "careers" that fit well into the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram that does such a good job classifying all known stars in the present universe.
  • Chapter 16 [Strauss], "Quasars and Black Holes", provides a clear summary of the spectral evidence that led firstly to the discovery that quasars are receding at phenomenal rates and are thus very distant (up to more than 90% of the way to the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago) and thus extremely luminous; and secondly that they must be powered by matter streaming into enormous black holes at the centers of galaxies. Nearly all quasars are more distant than a few billion light years. The closest is 600 million l-y. Quasars are the highest energy "active galactic nuclei" (AGN's), and since it seems that every galaxy hosts a supermassive black hole (from millions to billions of solar masses), any galaxy could host an AGN whenever a clump of matter finds its way to the galactic center.
  • Chapter 24 [Gott], "Our Future in the Universe", discusses what has happened to the whole universe since the Big Bang, and what is expected to happen, according to current theories. It is on a sort of super-logarithmic scale, highlighting 15 events ranging from the first 10-44 second to (very approximately) 10100 years in the future. In the text other possible events are mentioned, and one is as far off as a number of years described by a number with 1034 zeroes! That number of zeroes equals the number of hydrogen atoms in about 17 billion kilos of hydrogen. There will never be enough paper to "write" it down.
I was eager to see how Dr. Gott discussed Dark Energy and the (alleged) accelerating expansion of the universe. In the seven chapters he wrote, from time to time he discusses one or another mathematical principle that seems to require cosmic inflation (near the very beginning) or accelerating expansion (ongoing). I have yet to see an explanation of accelerating expansion that makes sense to me. The "evidence" for such acceleration is the anomalous brightness of some very distant supernovae. I have read recent articles that question both the data and the interpretation.

For my own part, I have yet to see an analysis of Type 1a supernovae that originate with a C-O white dwarf that accretes material of very low metallicity, as we would expect of very ancient objects at very great distances. Accretion, however, is not certain as a mechanism; WD-WD collisions are thought to produce the more prevalent type of supernova. The mass limit that must be crossed to yield a supernova is 1.44 solar masses. Thus the product of a collision will momentarily have a mass in the range 1.44 (plus a little) to 2.88 (minus a little). So, how "standard" is the standard candle known as a Type 1a supernova?

Well, that question did not get addressed, but for now that is OK. Astrophysicists and cosmologists are not single "voting bloc" in this regard, and I continue to read with interest the work being reported in this area.

Fascinating subjects, excellent writing: I expect this book to become a classic in its field.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

A millennial in space

kw: book reviews, science fiction, near-future, space aliens

Caution: the book reviewed was written in the language of many millennials and late Gen-Xers, including the casual cussin' my generation calls "potty mouth." It's not suitable for youngsters you wish to shelter from such language.

I wonder why space aliens are so frequently imagined as having magical attributes. In Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfaƙ, a Czech astronaut on a solo flight of 8 months' duration, to a mysterious purple cloud between Earth and Venus, spends a lot of time with a spider-like being that apparently talks to him in his language, but soundlessly, in his mind. It also rifles through his memories.

The real thrust of the story is, what is real? what is imaginary? How does the ill-starred astronaut return to Earth after the destruction of his space capsule, from a distance of tens of millions of miles? I was reminded of The Life of Pi (reviewed in 2015), and the long trip the young man Pi takes in a lifeboat with a tiger as his companion. The same ambiguity fills both stories.

In its wider sense the story is one of someone cycling back to the beginning to restart with a wiser outlook. Yet the protagonist is full of obsessions, and not all have been resolved at the end. Was his experience more delusion than fact, and is he still delusional? Probably.

About half the chapters are flashbacks to the astronaut's formative experiences, from the Velvet Revolution to the "Capitalist Invasion" of Prague. Assuming the history is accurate, there are a few things one can learn about the development of Czechoslovakia into the new nations that succeeded it after 1989, and a few things to learn about peasant life pretty much anywhere in Eastern Europe in those years.

I wonder how much astronomy and cosmology the author has been exposed to. The purple cloud is supposedly emitted by a "comet … from the Canis Major galaxy." There actually is a dwarf galaxy well behind the Canis Major constellation. It is about 25,000 light-years away. All known comets are members of our solar system, and perhaps a very few originate as far away as half a light year. So this is a book for the astronomically illiterate.

The book jacket blurbs treat the book as a great feat of humor. I found nothing funny in it. I wonder what joke I have been left out of. I'll chalk that up to a generational thing, and remark only that, if this is humor, I tremble for the generation now entering middle age.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Russian spiders at it again

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

Late last evening I went in to add a post to the blog and noticed heavy traffic from Russia again. We'll see how long it lasts this time. The activity is not as regular as before (though the Russians are not as regular as the Americans), and began on June 30. That tall peak just over a day ago (as I write this) represents 96 hits in one hour. When the spiders aren't active, I seldom exceed 96 hits in two days.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

What might one learn from having cancer?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self help, cancer

When I saw The Cancer Whisperer: Finding Courage, Direction, and the Unlikely Gifts of Cancer by Sophie Sabbage, I wasn't sure what I would find, but I was hoping for a practical self help book. I think that is what this book is, but let me confess at the outset that I did not read the whole book: I read the Introduction and the first and last chapters in their entirety, and skipped here and there within the other 8 chapters.

I am certain this book is worth at least beginning to read, by anyone facing a new cancer diagnosis. You will know soon enough whether it suits your needs. I had cancer 17 years ago, died in the recovery room and had to be resuscitated, and fought a series of very different battles from those that Ms Sabbage describes. This was one reason I could not connect with the book's message.

The other primary reason I could not connect is that the writing style, though written in a self help style that is quite popular, simply puts me off. Sorry, Ma'am!

It is worthwhile to introduce the Compass concept, the subject of Chapter 1. In a diagram of an 8-point compass, the first item (the subject of Chapter 2) is at the top, and the subjects proceed clockwise around. They are, in order:

  1. Coming to Terms – a matter of balancing feelings and facts, and setting the boundaries you wish to preserve (such as those around work and relationships).
  2. Understanding Your Disease – learning all you can: more facts, the more the better. And here the author wisely tells (most of) us to avoid statistics, but I'll touch on this later.
  3. Knowing Your Purpose – to decide what you want and why, and establish a plan toward obtaining it.
  4. Stabilizing Your Body – prioritize actions such as changing eating habits.
  5. Clearing Your Mind – including building the support network you need when your own control slips, as it will from time to time.
  6. Directing Your Treatment – learn from your doctors, set your own priorities, and preserve your own integrity as a person not a disease. You may need help from your support network to lead your healing team, not just blindly following "what the doctors want". I'll have more on this below.
  7. Dancing With Grief – embrace grief; there are automatic losses, including the possible loss of your future. 
  8. Breaking the Shell – I am not totally sure, but this seems to entail "making friends" with your cancer to learn from it. Here we part ways. I am quite comfortable learning all I can from an enemy, all the while planning the most efficient way to totally eliminate it!

For many of us, the first in time will be 4…if we have time. In my case, I was working toward stabilizing a deteriorating situation for about two months before I had a cancer diagnosis. Once that occurred, I had no more than 8 days from diagnosis (Nov 22, 2000; the day before Thanksgiving!) to major surgery (Nov 30). I entered the hospital on Nov 27, and they took care of the stabilizing, because the doctor was not sure I could survive surgery. The bare facts:

  • Stage 3+ colon cancer, with a major mass visible in the colonoscope, about the size of my fist (I have big hands).
  • Nearly two months of enforced fasting due to intestinal blockage.
  • Loss of 25 pounds during 2 months.
  • Blood count of 8.5 and falling (15 is normal).

On Nov 27 I was placed in the hospice ward, and they began intravenous feeding. The normal "dose" is one 1-Liter bag of "lion milk" daily. I was given three bags daily. I was allowed a little walking around, steering my IV pole. I realized I was in the hospice when the message board outside all the other rooms said, "Comfort", while mine said "Comfort and Feed 3x". How many people do you know who spent 3-4 days in a hospice, and came out alive?

What led up to my diagnosis? I had a rather passive doctor. When I went to him with persistent pain that seemed to be near my stomach, he spent more than a month trying ulcer remedies and then an antibiotic. One day he said something like, "Maybe it would be a good idea to get a colonoscopy…at some point."—Appalling! At that point, I silently took charge (in the book's terms, I began directing my own treatment). I had been in the ER twice already with violent vomiting and bloody stools, and had overheard the ER doctor say, "There is a very high white blood count, but we can't find an organism." I was thinking, "Sounds more like cancer than an infection." Inside me I already had my diagnosis.

The next day, after the doctor had expressed puzzlement and made his immensely stupid statement, I went to the receptionist and innocently asked her, "He said something about seeing a gastroenterologist. Is there one he prefers?" She gave me a name. I had a fleeting thought that my inept doctor might have inept friends, but decided to give the man a try. In those days you needed a referral so I faked one. After a talk with that doctor's receptionist, she got me an appointment three weeks on. I'm not sure why I didn't immediately call some other GI doctors, but I didn't.

I made it through the 3 weeks (now it was 2 months since I had effective nourishment), and saw him on a Monday. He asked, "3 weeks? How'd you get in here so fast? My backlog is 3 months! Did you tell her you are bleeding?" I said, "Of course!" He said, "You're very pale" and took me right downstairs to a clinic that drew blood and determined my blood count was 8.5. He said, "Go to such-and-such a hospital at 7:00 AM on Wednesday and I'll meet you there." And on Wednesday the cancer was seen by my wife and me via the 'scope. But I was on Demerol and the memory didn't "take"; I had to be told about it after I came around.

Thanksgiving Weekend! What a time to suffer through telling my dear friends of my disease. They prayed for me. My wife and I had planned to go to a church conference for two days, so we went. It was just 2 hours away. There I told certain ones, who took the news to their churches so they could pray for me.

Early Monday I called my doctor. He called back saying he had a surgeon who would see me for "consultation" on Thursday. I hung up without a word, thought it over (chronic pain level had reached 8 and I had to think very slowly and thoroughly). I called him back and said, "I won't live that long." He said, "Go to the ER now. I'll call ahead that you are coming." Thus began 3 nights in a hospice, 9 days of IV feeding in 3 days, an an operation on the same Thursday that was going to be a "consultation." I was in the OR 5 hours. In the recovery room they put in an epidural to administer Morphine. It turns out I am over-sensitive to Morphine and I stopped breathing. My heart slowed to about 30/minute (any slower and it'll simply stall and stop). A nurse stood by with defibrillator paddles as another gave me mouth-to-mouth and then oxygen. Once the morphine wore off, they tapered off the oxygen and let my wife see me. After that I suppose I recovered as normally as one can.

That's enough on such a subject in this much detail. I followed up with chemotherapy. The GI doctor was frank enough to give me accurate statistics. In my case, being a mathematician, I knew exactly what they were telling me and what they were not telling me. He said, after the operation, I had a 15% chance of living for one year. After the "gold standard" chemotherapy for six months, that chance would improve to 35%. "Gold standard" is leukovorin plus 5-FU. 5-FU was originally developed as a "weapon of mass destruction", but was found, rather accidentally, to cure many cases of colon cancer. Leukovorin helps it work better.

And what does 35% mean? Survival rates in such cases follow the same statistics as failure rates in a transistor factory. Technically, it is a type of Weibull distribution. At some time 65% of the devices will have failed. The doctor's prediction put that point at one year, when 35% are still alive. Such a distribution has a very long tail such that, for example, about 10% survive for five years. In the case of colon cancer, there is very little chance of recurrence after five years, and different statistics come into play. Most folks who live for five years after colon cancer surgery will die of something besides colon cancer, 10, or 20, or 30-40 years later, depending on their original life expectancy. In my case, I was 53 at the time of my operation (pretty young for this kind of cancer), and now I am just a couple of months shy of being age 70. My father is alive, so I have some chance of living into my 90's, at least medically speaking. The last time I saw the GI doctor (he does a follow-up colonoscopy every 3 years), he called me "a trophy".

Looking back at the list above, I think I covered most of the bases of the Compass. The one thing I'd have added, perhaps as a part of "Dancing With Grief", or perhaps as a ninth point: "Laugh as much as possible". For some reason, the six months of my chemotherapy were the longest sustained period of great happiness of my life. Perhaps 5-FU has a side effect of being a superb anti-depressant (too bad about losing your hair if you are young; I didn't lose any). I also stumbled on AFV (America's Funniest Videos) on ABC, and have watched it pretty regularly every since. My kind of humor.

Considering that this is not a very popular blog, I conclude that few people think the way I do or like many of the things I like. So, while I was not so enamored by this book, I think it can help a great many people either to become cancer survivors, or to muddle their way through their cancer experience better than they might have done if left totally to their own devices.