Change in the Age of Information – Part 2 Linus Torvalds / Linux

The last post in this series ended with the observation that Elon Musk is a great example of a person with a highly developed ability to utilize information, but maybe with a less developed sense of understanding his impact. In his mind, he probably thinks he should be free to drink and smoke pot on a podcast that is listened to by millions. That’s a reasonable assumption since he is definitely a disruptor, creating market transforming companies like PayPal, SolarCity, Tesla, and SpaceX (just to name a few) and having a current net worth of over $20 billion. However even if he didn’t do anything illegal, immoral, or out of character, those few puffs dominated the headlines for weeks despite being less than a minute out of almost three hours of fascinating conversation with Joe Rogan.

This is not an isolated incident in the high tech world. Linus Torvalds, the creator of the free, open-source software Linux, has also been in the headlines for “questionable” behavior as well. While most people don’t know Mr. Torvalds as well as Mr. Musk, all of us use the results of his creations everyday. The free software he created in 1991 in his dorm room in Helsinki powers over 40% of the websites on the Internet (including Google, PayPal, Amazon, etc.) and is at the core of over two billion Android phones. The issue was expertly explained in the recent New Yorker article, “After Years of Abusive E-mails, the Creator of Linux Steps Aside.” The headline is a little misleading because he has only stepped aside temporarily and the abusive emails were more of the insulting / demeaning type targeted at his peer group than anything else. Here’s an example of a recent one.

In fact, it is probably the New Yorker article that motivated Torvalds to replace his self-named “Code of Conflict” with a “Code of Conduct” based on something called the “Contributor Covenant” written in 2014 by “transgender activist Coraline Ada Ehmke.” As a result, the opinions of a very large group of technical people who use and love Linux exploded onto every major Linux forum. Here’s a summary of the sources and reactions.

  1. Torvalds final statement of the problem and his suggested course of action was: “I am going to take time off and get some assistance on how to
    understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.” As far as I can tell, except for an email to the BBC (see below), he hasn’t been heard from since.
  2. The Reddit thread that discussed Torvalds final statement with over 1,200 comments.
  3. The new Code of Conduct itself published in the most techie way possible by Torvalds himself.
  4. The Reddit thread that discussed the new Code of Conduct. It was locked after one day because the moderators felt that “Civil discussion had stopped.” Reddit is usually a fairly permissive place to comment so this is a severe step to take.
  5. The Reddit thread that discussed how Torvalds’ daughter has signed the “Post-Meritocracy Manifesto.” This was written by the same person who wrote the Code of Conduct. It was locked after 340 comments probably because it devolved into mostly negative comments about Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) destroying the tech community.
  6. The Linux World News (LWN.net) article that covered the whole story two days later. They also published a shorter comment on “Linus taking a break” that got several hundred more comments.
  7. Finally, 10 days later, the BBC published what might be the best short summary of the situation in the article “Linus Torvalds: I’ll never be cuddly but I can be more polite” which was based on “an exclusive email” from Mr. Torvalds.

What can I possibly add to the thousands and thousands of pages already written on this topic? Maybe just the fact that leaders in any environment have a responsibility to constantly strive to maintain that delicate balance between civility and directness, between effectiveness and inclusiveness, and between “mob mentality” and common sense. Team members consciously and unconsciously mimic leaders which is why people like Musk and Torvalds are, rightfully or not, held to a higher standard. They might think that their goal is to produce the best electric car, rocket, or best performing operating system, but one of the true goals is much deeper, to create environments where creative people can grow and thrive despite their differences and thereby make their best contribution possible to the world.

Finally, it’s good to keep in mind that every leader is a follower as well, which will be the topic of the next post in this series!

Linus Torvalds 2016 TED Talk
(5:30 – “I am not a people person…” and 13:30 – the “people people”)

Change in the Age of Information – Part 1 Elon Musk

I started this post weeks ago with the quote, “The age of information is not the age of understanding.” Unfortunately, it has been sitting in my drafts folder for so long that I can’t remember what motivated it, but on the positive side several interesting situations have come to light that make this quote a good starting point for exploring the complex relationship between information and understanding.

The first situation was the widely publicized interview of Elon Musk by Joe Rogan. If you haven’t heard of “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, you might be surprised to know that it has been running weekly since 2009, it is on Apple’s Top 5 list, and the almost three hour Musk interview was episode 1169. Despite its popularity, 99% of the press has highlighted the controversy over Elon Musk smoking marijuana and drinking whiskey on the show.

To get you hooked on watching this fascinating, but long interview with one minute of pot smoking, here are five of my favorite sections.

  1. On Artificial Intelligence – It is becoming a new “third part” of the brain where the it will help support the role of the brain’s cortex (“thinking brain”) making the limbic system (“primitive brain”) happy.
  2. Simulation (aka advanced “Video Games”) – Musk believes that simulation is a distillation of the most interesting parts of reality and that “most likely, and this is just probability, there are many, many simulations. These simulations, you might as well call them reality.” This is similar to how a movie can be a two hour distillation of what people find interesting in life. You just have to watch this part for it to make sense.
  3. Tesla Automobiles – Teslas are designed with the explicit intent of being enjoyable. “I think a Tesla is possibly the most fun thing you could buy, ever. It’s not actually a car, it’s a thing to maximize enjoyment, maximum fun.”
  4. The Boring Company – Musk’s idea to revolutionize transportation is based on boring underground tunnels because despite the fact that “Earth is a giant ball of lava with a thin crust on the top,” tunneling 10,000 feet down is “not a big deal” so it’s possible to have hundreds of three dimensional levels of tunnels.
  5. Musk Goes 100% Engineer when he explains why flying cars are a terrible idea. To summarize, too noisy and too much airflow, but the long version includes a wonderful description of “the fundamental momentum exchange with the air.”

So how does this interview relate to the quote at the beginning of this article? In my opinion, Elon Musk is a great example of a person with a highly developed ability to utilize information, but with a less developed sense of understanding. He can harness the power of science, engineering, and manufacturing to do amazing things, but at what cost to himself? Even when he explains that his favorite feeling is, “doing something useful for other people,” he soon follows that by admitting that his mind is like “a never-ending explosion [of ideas].” Even Elon Musk admits that it is difficult to be Elon Musk!

The next part of this post will begin to explore the social damage that results from information being out of balance with understanding. The creator of Linux, which powers almost 40% of the websites on the Internet, is experiencing this firsthand at the moment and it has created quite a heated discussion in tech circles.

ElephantTech is Changing and Change Can Be Scary

“Change can be scary, especially when it’s not under your control, and it’s really scary when it threatens things that you find familiar and I think as the kinds of people we are… we have a really complicated relationship with the familiar and with change… we love changing things when we’re doing it. When someone else tell us “Don’t change that” we go “No no no wait, it’s good” but when they come over to us and say, “You should change this” we go “Hold on, hold on” and systemd represents a lot of disruptive change. And part of the problem with that is that getting a whole community to change, that’s really hard and it results in a kind of knee-jerk reaction to it and the problem with those kind of knee-jerks is that they lead to things like abuse and that’s not cool. You might not like systemd, but that doesn’t mean that you need to go and send death threats to Leonard.”
— Benno Rice (@jeamland) from the video below – 24 minutes

The quote above is taken from a highly technical talk on a highly technical topic, but it reads like good advice for so many of the political, religious, and societal discussions today. If the word “systemd” is replaced with “trade tariffs” or “gun control” or “climate change,” the piece would still make perfect sense.

This post is the beginning of a new direction for Elephant Tech, exploring some of the historical and psychological underpinnings of current events. Change is nothing new and despite differences in the topics, people, and speed of change, a deep dive into the human nature behind it all might provide helpful clues for understanding and addressing some of these major issues.

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 8 – Why Oh, Why WiFi?

I debated writing this article for quite a while before finally diving in because WiFi problems are some of the most frustrating in the digital world. Sometimes it can work for months flawlessly then for no apparent reason stop, become “flakey,” or otherwise misbehave in a wide variety of bizarre ways.

Googling “WiFi connection problems” returns 99,100,000 results and almost a dozen other suggestions in the “People Also Ask” section. After quite a bit of research and some interesting personal experience, it seems that there are three main categories of issues: Slow (including gradually slower and slower), Stopped, and Intermittent. To make it even more complex, the solutions to each of these situations overlap each other.  For example, a dead spot in a home can result in a connection that is slow, stopped, or intermittent. Even worse, WiFi radio waves are only about an inch long, so moving a phone or laptop slightly can make a big difference in the signal received. There can also be a dead spot right next to the WiFi router so putting a computer on the same desk right next to it might cause problems.

Specific Google searches combined with a systematic approach to solving the issue is the best way to solve 90%+ of WiFi problems. This CNET article “The most common Wi-Fi problems…” is a good starting point though I wish they had put the section “No Internet Connection” first. As usual, rebooting the WiFi router is the first step I usually take. I also like the website “Down Detector” which provides real time information on major internet service outages.

Ignore their big, scary message about cookies. They are located in the Netherlands where privacy is taken VERY seriously. Of course, if WiFi is down, how do you access a website? Simple, just turn off WiFi on your phone and use the cellular data connection, but don’t forget to turn WiFi back on or you might get an unpleasant billing surprise…

At this point, it is worth repeating that a systematic approach is best. First get closer to the router, then reboot the router, then reboot the computer, phone, TV, etc., then check to see if other devices can connect, then check Down Detector to see if the internet is down in your area, etc. etc. etc. If none of these suggestions work, then it’s time to go deeper by asking what might have changed around the time the problems began. Each requires a different approach and a specific Google search. A few examples include:

  • If you just installed a major software upgrade, do other devices like phones or tablets still connect? If so, Google the specific device that received the upgrade. If you’re having a problem, probably hundreds of others are too.
  • Maybe it’s something simple, like a cleaning spree near the router than has jostled a connection loose? It only takes a minute to mark the connections, unplug everything, and plug them back in.
  • If new neighbors moved in next door, is their router causing interference? A Google search for “wifi interference” might be helpful in this case. Baby monitors are particularly bad sources of interference as well.
  • If there was just an electrical storm and/or power outage, maybe the router was damaged? Despite usually painful wait times, some Internet Service Providers like Comcast or CenturyLink can diagnose problems like this from their end.

Finally, a small number of WiFi problems are just nasty ones and like a nasty plumbing problem, they require professional help to solve. I can’t vouch for Geek Squad personally, but they do have a “Home WiFi” service for $99… just sayin’…

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 7 – TV

In the beginning, there were TV antennas. Big ones on the roof, rabbit ears on top of TVs, small round ones on the back of TVs, and many other shapes and sizes. Then Cable TV became popular in the 1980s which made it possible to get rid of that ugly antenna and pay a monthly fee for dozens of local and special interest channels, back then 50 channels cost around $20 / month. Over the next few decades cable and satellite TV options exploded into the market. Soon there were hundreds of channels and costs skyrocketed. By last year, it cost over $100 / month for basic service which consisted of local channels plus hundreds of “special interest” channels that were anything but interesting.

So my wife and I finally became “cord cutters.” It wasn’t just the cost that was an issue, but ugly dishes and lousy digital video recorders (DVRs) finally swayed us. It was scary at first, but in the spirit of adventure, we tried Hulu, Sling, and Google TV (unrelated to YouTube). Unfortunately despite “Cloud DVRs” and the convenience of TV over the internet, they all had serious shortcomings and still cost around $40 / month.

The solution was to go back to the 1960s technology, an ugly antenna on the roof, but with a modern twist: a standalone DVR called Tablo. Now we get local channels (including PBS) in High Definition, record what we like, and watch it when we like. For movies and many older TV shows we have Netflix, Apple, and Amazon Prime Video.

For a total of $324 we purchased:

We actually used an existing bracket and cable on the roof so we only spent $288 and many people already have something that can take the place of the Roku so the total could be as low as $225 and even lower if you can use an indoor antenna. The Tablo works with Apple TV, Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast, some Smart TVs, and even an Xbox. Monthly charges are minimal and include $5 for the Tablo digital TV Guide (not required, but useful), Netflix $8, and Amazon Video $0 (included in Prime Membership). For people who have good reception, who only rarely watch local channels, and who can live with commercials, there are $20 indoor antennas that connect to any TV made in the last decade. Done.

Of course, some people are in apartments or locations that do not receive over the air (OTA) television so it is best to start with some online research. Websites like AntennaWeb.org (or the FCC website) can predict reception based on your address. On this website yellow does not mean caution, it means a small antenna could work. If reception seems possible then take the next step. An indoor antenna (purchased somewhere with a good return policy) connected directly to a TV is an inexpensive way to confirm. We needed a rooftop antenna because of a small hill near us, but an indoor antenna still picked up several stations.

How do we like our new TV world a couple months into this experiment? We LOVE it. There are no more complex boxes behind our TV with a rats nest of wires or an ugly dish on the roof. We can watch TV from our iPads if we want and even watch recorded shows when we are away from home through the Tablo. The Roku stick works very well and streams other services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. There are tons of other streaming apps available also like Acorn TV for British shows, PBS for streaming older shows, Vajra for Buddhist TV, etc.

It is funny though how we have come full circle. At least the indoor antennas are much more interesting now. Who thought the antenna below that looks like a piece of paper could save you $100 a month?