OSI Model Layer 5 and 6, Freedom and Democracy

Layer 5, the Session layer, is really a nuts-n-bolts layer that is difficult to explain in context.  And the implications are minimal, so we’re going to skip over that.  There are some relevant points to VPN and authentication, but the real good parts are in layer 6.

Layer 6 is the subject of a lot of debate.  And boy, is it a geeky debate.  Think “how many Picards can dance on the head of a pin” kinda debate.  I won’t get too into it other than to say some people would disagree with my thoughts on this.

(For my fellow geeks who would disagree…here’s it is in a nutshell:  Layer 6 is where data interoperability lives–compression, encryption, text conversion, etc.  The line is a little blurry with layer 7.  But in my interpretation, the mechanisms, programs, and code in layer 7 may be very different, but they are reading  the same data and successfully interpret it.  That action indicates a lower abstraction layer, and that  is layer is layer 6.)

For the non technical, that means a JPG file from your home security camera also works in a web browser.  And an MPG from your iPhone can also play on your Android.  And a PDF can work across multiple devices.

Tsunami Wave
The tragedy of the 2011 Tsunami in Japan can be felt by billions of people due to the standard formats used to capture the event.

So the most important implication for freedom and democracy at Level 6 is a standard form of media across all devices and programs.

Not too long ago, you couldn’t watch a video from England (and most of Europe) on a device in the US.  They used two completely separate video standards.  You needed a different video tape, a different VCR, and a different TV (or “tele”). 

During the Soviet Coup attempt, the coup leaders captured President Gorbachev and sent him away to “rest”.  While captive, Gorbachev’s son-in-law Anatoly secretly recorded 4 messages from him to the outside, and cut the physical video tape up so that it could be smuggled out.  

Interestingly, I am unable to find any video from this tape online.  That may very well be due to the limited ability to encode the format of the tape, since the format of that tape was probably very….Soviet.  But you can see a video of Gorbachev describing his captivity by clicking here.  

In today’s world, interoperability means you can watch a drone video from the battlefields of Ukraine, watch a debate in Australian Parliament, or see video directly from protestors.

In short, this layer is what has opened up the media to anyone with a phone and an internet connection.  The implication is as profound as the printing press on freedom and democracy.

 

The Federalist Number 1. Blogging Our Way to Modern Democracy

I read somewhere that the written word will be humanity’s only true form of time travel.  It is a method of communicating across the ages thoughts directly from one mind to another.  When you read a word, the writer reaches out across minutes, years, or eons and puts those thoughts directly into your head for examination.

Video, audio, and other means have a similar effect but there are so many competing factors.  The written word is the most direct method.

Is it any wonder, then, that God chose writing to convey His will across all these hundreds of years?  The uniqueness of this medium is manifest in the gravity of the phrase “the Word of God”.  Indeed, in John 1 God Himself is defined as “The Word”.

Gutenberg Bible
A 1455 Gutenberg Bible in the Library of Congress. While the age of the document itself is amazing, the fact that the words reach out through thousands of years is really hard to fathom.

Ok so shove me in the shallow waters here.  I’m only fixin’ to talk about the government.

It is a trip to think that the direction of government can be completely changed with words.  Pamphlets, newspapers, doorhangers, and facebook post can all convey thoughts to a critical mass of people that will change the course of history.  It’s why our First Amendment is so important.

The American Crisis
Pamphlets like “The American Crisis”, by Thomas Paine were critical in motivating people during the Revolutionary War.

There are many other examples of how this has happened throughout history, but I want to focus on a collection of moderately obscure works called the Federalist papers.

Most people are familiar with what the Federalist Papers are.  But it seems like very few people (including me) have actually dug into them to any degree.  This is understandable given the sheer volume and density of the material. But in a time when the validity of the US Constitution is questioned at the highest levels of government, I think it might be a good exercise to dig in to such a thorough effort to justify it’s adoption.

In a nutshell, the Federalist papers (simply labeled “Federalist No. #” where # is a Roman numeral) were a series of articles across several New York newspapers arguing in favor of a new Constitution vs. the old Articles of Confederation.

Articles of Confederation
Our original “Articles of Confederation”. Note the relatively boring lede: “To All to Whom”? Doesn’t really work on a bumper sticker.  It was worth scrapping the whole thing just to get the much better “We the People”.

Federalist #1 was published in “The Independent Journal” on October 27, 1787, and was written Alexander Hamilton.  One month earlier, the new Constitution had been proposed.

There really are some good tidbits in these documents.  You can read Federalist number 1 by clicking on this link.  

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

-“Publius” in Federalist No. 1

Here are my summarizing points:

  • This nation is unique.  There are fundamental questions on how a country should function that are being addressed here and nowhere else.
  • We’re at a turning point here.  Either we update how our country is going to work, or things will descend into chaos.  It will affect all of humanity negatively.
  • That chaos will create (and is creating) power for some people, so they will oppose a new constitution.
  • They will try to hold on to this power by painting the new constitution as oppressive.
  • Some people are also planning to dissolve or split the union of states to create more power for themselves.
  • It takes a strong government to protect liberty.
  • I’m writing under a pseudonym so that the arguments will stand for themselves.
  • We’re going to go over the utility of a unified, federal government for your political prosperity.
  • We’re going to show how the existing Articles of Confederation aren’t good enough.
  • We will show how a new government as proposed in the Constitution is necessary to preserve our original ideas for a republic. We will list the reasons why it will do this.
  • We will compare it with the current state constitutions.
  • We will also show how a unified republic as defined in the Constitution is more secure.

So essentially Federalist #1 is an opening statement for the series.  It talks a little about why they are being written, what they hope to accomplish, and what points they are going to make.

It’s interesting to think that some of the most fundamental values and structures of our country were once open to such debate.  I’m looking forward to digging in further.

Self Driving Cars and the Need for Standard Roads

Like any child of the 80’s who’s into tech, I’m fascinated by the idea of self driving cars.  The only thing cooler would be flying cars, but it seems we’ll have to keep crawling before we can fly.

Thanks to Google and Tesla, self-driving automobiles are now a real possibility.  In fact, Tesla’s communication  and Musk’s relative record of success have made it more than a possibility.  It’s an expectation.  There is now a baked-in expectation that self-driving cars will revolutionize the world of transportation.

However, the reality is proving to be more difficult.  Delays and complications abound.  And predicting timelines has become foolhardy.

The obvious issue  is that driving is very, very complicated and unpredictable.  So much so that human minds get routinely confused.  It just makes sense that artificial minds will have the same issues.  It makes sense that this is a very difficult problem to solve and it will take awhile to do so.

But there may be ways to speed up the process.  And there may be tragic events that will suddenly slow down the process by many years or decades if we’re not smart about all this.  Let’s start with the latter.

Self driving sensorsLidar and Radar and Cameras, oh my! The complexity in feeding information to self-driving AI is very complicated. It should give us new appreciation for our own 5 senses. Source: Boston Consulting Group

Artificial Intelligence needs tons of data to learn.  This means that AI engines will have to spend huge amounts of time to get the tons of data needed to learn how to drive our roads.  I think we’re learning that our roads are more complicated and unpredictable than we thought.  Which means the AI behind autonomous driving will take more and more data.

Telsa uses “shadow mode testing”, in which the AI engine pretends to drive a car, and its decisions are tested against the actions of a real driver.  The large number of Telsa drivers helps in this regard.

But this illustrates the problem.  Artificial Intelligence and machine learning depend on mistakes.  The systems make mistakes and learn from them.  They makes an enormous amount of mistakes.   The more complex the environment, the more data you need.  And the more data you need, the more mistakes will be required to generate that data.

Yet driving is dangerous.  A mistake in driving can cost lives.  So the question quickly becomes “what is our tolerance for mistakes by self-driving cars?”  Are we willing to sacrifice lives so that cars can learn to drive themselves?

I think the answer is very likely to be “no”, and probably a more resounding “no” than we anticipate.  There have already been some episodes of loss-of-life related to autonomous cars.  And there have been odd attempts to cover up some close calls.  But the day we have a high profile event–a loss of a family of four, a school bus accident, an elderly veteran run over–public (and legislative) opinion will shift quickly against the current tech.

An episode like that will be tragic for the individuals involved, but it will also set the autonomous vehicle effort back for decades.  People are too important, and this tech has too much potential to let that happen.  So what can we do?

Tesla view of pedestrians
Tesla’s visualization of pedestrians. Super cool…but what if these simple icons represented someone you love? A spouse, grandparent, or child? Are we ready to trust tech to this? Src: DirtyTesla Youtube

When it comes to autonomous driving, all the attention is on the cars themselves.  That make sense given the ‘cool factor’ and the agency of the companies making the cars.  This is where the work is.

Hardly any attention is paid to the technology of roads themselves.  Even less attention is paid to the technology of planning, design, and construction of the roads.  It’s just accepted that the roads are what they are.

A huge part of advancing autonomous vehicles, I think, is to develop a set of standards and guidelines that will certify a road for autonomous cars.  Autonomous driving should require this certification.  It would include things such as:

  • Universal, standard lane markers, including curb and hash marks in turns
  • Assisting sensors in blind corners and unprotected turns
  • Redesign of crosswalks and bike lanes to protect pedestrians and bikers
  • Standardization of other vulnerable areas such as loading areas for passengers
  • Indicators of places where pedestrians and other vulnerable individuals are likely to be present.  “high caution” areas that will tell AI to enter a heightened state of precision and sensitivity.
  • Appending or tagging some of this information to the GPS standards

Federal and state highways would be pretty easy to outfit, as they already follow standard guidelines.  The obvious issue will be local and rural roads.

Google’s self-driving project addresses part of this situation by mapping every area’s detail ahead of time.  This approach has a similar effect, in that it ‘certifies’ every road by documenting its features ahead of time.  There are a couple problems with this, however.

Google NYC map
In essence Google’s Waymo ‘pre-certifies’ areas by training AI in the area and creating extensive maps.

First, it is a daunting task.  Even with the resources at Google’s disposal, it is nearly impossible to map every road.  Indeed, Google street view still misses huge chunks of coverage despite the significant effort to cover everything.   And you can’t underestimate the tendency in some places to consider mapping a privacy concern.

Second, streets change and those changes could have significant implications.  Using street view as a reference, it’s not uncommon to find places that haven’t been visited for many years…again despite a very comprehensive effort by Google.

Adding and adopting street standards and certification would help Google’s approach and speed up the process.

Retro Self Driving
Interestingly, many retro-fantastic illustrations imply standard highway markings for self driving cars. It’s fun to see just how close these visions are in other ways. (Gunther Radtke)

There are no guarantees in life.  Walking out the door has its own level of risk.  But when it comes to life-and death safety, we should mitigate these risks as much as practically possible.  When it comes to AI, autonomous driving, and self-driving cars, I think it’s obvious that a set of standards and a requirement for certification is required.  Moving in this direction now will allow us to leapfrog both delays in adoption, and tragedy in achieving adoption.

 

On a Return to Blogging

I was reading through my old blog archives the other day.  As I parsed through the slow slog of daily entries, I realized just how bad things have become over the last 10 or so years.  The internet used to be a positive place.  Full of interesting things and cool information.

Back then, it wasn’t about likes or re-tweets/shares/broadcasts.  It was just a fun way of putting some things out there that people might enjoy.  There was less concern about how many people were interested in what you said(although you knew a certain number were), and you really didn’t have all that much information on how many did anyway.

I’ve also looked at old social media archives from the 2010 era, and the realization was similar.

This used to be fun….

What in the world happened?

I know ‘blogging’ is dated and all this sure seems like a hackneyed good-ol-days rant.  But I think there’s more to it.

Let’s explore what happened.  And further, let’s NOT resolve to fixing it.  The internet is still an open and positive place if we’ll let it be.  But we can’t build on the things that took it awry.  We have to step back and look at the fundamentals.