Windows 7 Service Pack 1 Available

February 23, 2011

Microsoft has released Service Pack 1 for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 Release 2 for download.   This overview page provides links to documentation for the Service Pack; mostly, it is a roll-up of previous security patches and hot fixes.  You can get the actual Service Pack from Windows Update (recommended for single-machine updates), or from this download page.

Given that this is mainly a roll-up of previous updates, you might want to wait a couple of days before installing the service pack, if you are confident that your patching is up to date.   You should definitely plan to do it, but these mega-patches sometimes have unexpected issues, which tend to surface fairly quickly.

The Evolution of Machine Translation

February 22, 2011

One of the potential applications of computers that people have always found intriguing is the automatic translation of natural (human) languages.  It is easy to understand the appeal of the idea; I certainly would love to be able to communicate easily with any person on Earth.  Yet, despite some serious efforts, for many years computer translations were mostly a joke.  There is a classic story, quite possibly apocryphal, of the program that translated the English phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind”, into the Russian equivalent of “Invisible insanity”; going the other direction, it translated the verse from the Bible, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”, to “The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten.”

Of course, to be fair to the machines, translation can be a tricky business.  We have all probably puzzled over the assembly instructions for something, as translated from the original Chinese, or have encountered some decidedly odd variants of English in various places.  I remember a sign in my room in a small German hotel, which requested, “Please not to smoke while being in bed.”  This was the translation of the perfectly straightforward, “Bitte nicht rauchen im Bett”, which is more or less literally, “Please do not smoke in bed”. Humans are also far from perfect at the translator’s job.

Today’s Washington Post has an interesting article on the evolution of machine translation.  Beginning in the early 1950s, the general approach to the translation problem was to build a rule-based system.  That is, the system “knew” about the rules of grammar, how to conjugate verbs, and so on.  (Of course any translation system must also have a comprehensive dictionary of some sort.)   The idea was that, knowing the rules of the source language and the target language, one could be reliably transformed into the other.   But it is fair to say that these systems never did much to threaten interpreters’ job security.

The problem is not that there are no rules, but that there are too many of them.  According to the work done by Chomsky and others, there is a certain amount of deep structure common to all languages.  But there are an enormous number of special rules, idiosyncratic to particular languages, that have to be taken into account.  (Recall when you were learning to spell.  Let’s see, it’s “I before E, except after C …” except when it isn’t.  Mark Twain once remarked that he would rather decline three free drinks than one German adjective.)

As the article points out, machine translation has improved considerably, mostly because newer efforts have taken a different approach.  Instead of trying to specify all the rules of a language, they approach translation as an exercise in statistical inference.  By examining a large body of parallel text in two or more languages, the system could learn common constructions and words usages in each language.  In a sense, the approach is like that used in trying to break an unknown cipher.

Warren Weaver, a mathematician at the Rockefeller Foundation, had first raised the idea of a statistical model for translation in a 1947 letter in which he wrote: “When I look at an article in Russian, I say: ‘This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols.’ “

(I wrote last summer about the use of a similar technique in the attempt to decipher unknown languages, like those of some ancient civilizations.)

The new, statistically-based techniques are the basis of Google’s translation service, and are also a significant part of Yahoo’s BabelFish service.   The quality of the results for European languages has also been helped as a side effect of the formation of the European Union.  Because all official documents must be translated and made available in all 23 official and working languages of the EU, and because governmental organizations produce documents as routinely as cattle produce cow-pats, there is a very large and steadily growing body of text to use as a source.  Having used some of the older systems, and the newer ones, I think it is fair to say that a significant improvement has been made.

I think, too, there’s an interesting parallel between the evolution of machine translation, and the evolution of “intelligent” systems — but that is a subject for a later post.

Real Causes of the Financial Crisis

February 21, 2011

Yesterday’s Washington Post has an amusing article by Michael Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, and others) on the true causes of the financial crisis.  It’s short, but entertaining; here’s an excerpt to give you the flavor:

Government policies have emboldened ordinary Americans to borrow money they never intended to repay, just like rich people do, and cowed the financial elite into lending it to them. You can’t forget to bear-proof the garbage cans and expect the bears won’t notice.

I’ve been a fan of Lewis’s writing since I read his first book, Liar’s Poker; it was the first honest inside account of what Wall Street is like that I ever read, and still one of very few.


Security Snake Oil, Revisited

February 20, 2011

We have met the enemy, and he is us. — Pogo, by Walt Kelly

Back at the  end of 2009, I posted an article about one Dennis Montgomery, a self-styled scientist and software expert who, it appears, conned numerous agencies of the US government out of several million dollars for security software of, at best, questionable value — if it ever really existed at all.  The New York Times this weekend published another article on the case; it appears that Mr. Montgomery’s ship has not come in since I last wrote about him.

For eight years, government officials turned to Dennis Montgomery, a California computer programmer, for eye-popping technology that he said could catch terrorists. Now, federal officials want nothing to do with him and are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his dealings with Washington stay secret.

The article recounts the story of many of the same technology products that I mentioned last time (and which were originally reported in  an article in Playboy, of all places).  But it goes a bit further, reporting that several actual terror alerts were based on “intelligence” provided by Mr. Montgomery’s technology.

The software he patented  … prompted an international false alarm that led President George W. Bush to order airliners to turn around over the Atlantic Ocean in 2003.

The CIA began to have suspicions about the technology as early as 2003, and the French intelligence service, upset about the impact of the supposed 2003 plot, conducted their own review of the technology.

French officials, upset that their planes were being grounded, commissioned a secret study concluding that the technology was a fabrication. Presented with the findings soon after the 2003 episode, Bush administration officials began to suspect that “we got played,” a former counterterrorism official said.

Nonetheless, at least as late as 2009, Mr. Montgomery’s firm was awarded a $3 million contract for its technology by the US Air Force.  And apparently some of that same technology was still being used as an intelligence source, and generating terrorism alerts, as recently as the inauguration of President Obama in January, 2009.

Mr. Montgomery himself is currently in bankruptcy, and is about to be tried in Las Vegas for attempting to pass bad checks totaling $1.8 million at local casinos.  According to the Times, he has not been charged with anything related to his government contracting activities; some suspect that the government is trying to cover up the case out of embarrassment.  That is, I think, entirely possible; but I would like to say a bit about how all this came to pass.

When I first read about this case, back in 2009, I had the feeling that Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again”, because I have seen this kind of thing before.  In fact, I wrote about one specific case from my own experience in the financial markets, in which I said:

I have seen, first hand, situations where otherwise well-qualified, intelligent, sensible people have temporarily, in essence, lost their minds.  The combination of rushed time scales and knowledge of how one would like the results of an analysis to come out can definitely impair one’s judgement.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, government security and intelligence agencies were given large additional resource allocations, in an entirely well-intentioned attempt to prevent any such attack from happening again.  As the Times put it:

Government officials, with billions of dollars in new counterterrorism financing after Sept. 11, eagerly embraced the promise of new tools against militants.

The people involved had a very sincere and legitimate wish to accomplish their objective; I would suggest that this made them particularly vulnerable to just the kind of scam Mr. Montgomery is alleged to have been peddling.  Technology, of course, can do many wonderful things.  But some of the reported claims were pretty far-fetched; for example, Mr. Montgomery is alleged to have claimed that his technology could locate submerged submarines from satellite photographs. (There are some specific circumstances where this may be possible, but in mid-ocean it seems implausible.)

Undoubtedly, though, the most compelling alleged claim for that audience was that the software could identify secret coded messages from Al Qaeda, hidden in video broadcast by the Arab network, Al Jazeera.  Government officials already had an instinctive antipathy toward the network, because of what they saw as its anti-American bias, so they welcomed the technology.

The software so excited C.I.A. officials that, for a few months at least, it was considered “the most important, most sensitive” intelligence tool the agency had, according to a former agency official, who like several others would speak only on the condition of anonymity because the technology was classified.

As I’ve observed before in other contexts, ideology is a very powerful prophylactic against the influence of inconvenient facts.

Back in the 1970s, Bob Townsend, CEO of Avis Rent-a-Car, wrote a popular management book called Up the Organization.  In it, he suggested that companies should have an executive, one of whose main functions was to go around and yell “Horseshit!” at appropriate times, when peoples’ enthusiasm had trampled sense.   Maybe the US government needs a Secretary of Horseshit (we’ll have to work on that name a bit).

National Broadband Map Released

February 20, 2011

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration [NTIA], part of the US Department of Commerce, has released the National Broadband Map, a Web-accessible, searchable data base of broadband Internet service across the US.   The creation of the database, which contains approximately 25 million records detailing broadband service options, was mandated by Congress.  The data were collected from the various service providers; it is important to note that the service speeds claimed were, in general, not independently verified.

The announcement also contains some summary observations about the availability of high-speed service.  In particular, there is still a significant group of Americans who have no high-speed options.

The map shows that between 5 – 10 percent of Americans lack access to broadband at speeds that support a basic set of applications, including downloading Web pages, photos and video, and using simple video conferencing. The FCC last July set a benchmark of 4 Mbps actual speed downstream and 1 Mbps upstream to support these applications.

The NTIA also says that many “community anchor” institutions, such as school and libraries, probably do not have adequate capacity to support a reasonable number of users.

The map allows you to enter an address, or a county, and see the available service options.  It is obvious that some of the data may not be complete; I entered our address here, and our ISP was not listed.  Still, this is the first release of the data, and some lacunae are to be expected.

The site offers a variety of ways to look at the underlying data.  Ars Technica has an article outlining some of its capabilities.


Securing Infrastructure

February 19, 2011

I’ve made occasional posts here about the challenges of securing various pieces of the US infrastructure from attacks, particularly cyber attacks, most recently in connection with the GAO’s warnings about the risks of the “smart grid” for electricity distribution.   In addition to the power distribution networks, there are other sections of critically-important systems that need to be protected: for example, the interbank electronic payments system.  (The two largest US banks process transactions each day worth $ 7-8 trillion.)  An article at the Network World site reports on a panel at the recently concluded RSA Conference 2011 that discussed the issue.

This is a tricky problem for a few reasons:

  • The US systems are (mostly) owned by private entities, although some are operated by the government.  There is no existing mechanism for ensuring their security, or even for finding all the pieces.
  • The need for cyber-security is a new one for many of these infrastructure operators.
  • Networked systems are, generally, only as strong as their weakest component.

There are some economic reasons for concern, too.  A small participant, acting rationally in its own interest, will not spend more than it can possibly lose; yet a security vulnerability there may threaten the whole network.  This is another case of externalities, which I’ve mentioned many times here.  They occur, in this case,  when some part of the cost of a security failure are borne by someone other than the entity that can prevent the failure.   In this situation, rational market transactions will provide less security than the optimal amount.

The conference participants did come up with some sensible suggestions.  First, although the government may need to be involved to set standards, those standards should specify objectives or results, not technologies or solutions.  Mike McConnell, former Director of National Intelligence, and of the NSA, and now an Executive VP at Booz Allen Hamilton, spoke about this:

“To protect those transactions there should be a requirement for a higher level of protection to mitigate that risk,” he said, but that government should set the requirement and the private sector should compete to figure out how to meet it.

Another good suggestion was to require corporate officers to certify that any security requirements have been met, just as they are required to certify their financial statements.

[Bruce] Schneier concurred, noting that holding individuals at a company accountable for certain protections has worked with environmental regulations and Sarbanes-Oxley, the post-Enron law that requires directors and executives to certify their financial results

I can tell you from personal observation that this is one approach that corporate executives do take seriously — that is why they can be expected to fight it, tooth and nail.

This is really a situation where I think the idea of some kind of self-regulation is non-starter.  The various industries involved will not like it, but it seems to me that a joint government-industry effort is going to be needed if any effective solution is to be obtained.

More Stuff on Watson

February 18, 2011

As I guess one might expect, from the outcome of the Jeopardy! IBM challenge, in which the computer system Watson scored a convincing win over former Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, there has been a good deal of subsequent conversation about the result, what it means, and so on.  There are a couple of items, in particular, that I wanted to mention here, since I think they are more informed and insightful than much of the commentary that I’ve seen.

The first, which I’ve mentioned before, is Stephen Baker”s Final Jeopardy blog, on which he has a number of interesting and amusing posts about the match.  He has always made insightful comments on the project; and, of course, he is the author of the book, Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine, which I am in the process of reading, and will review here when I’m done.  He notes a couple of questions about Watson posted on Twitter, one of which was “What is love?”.  It seems to me unreasonable to expect a machine to come up with the answer to a question that humans have been trying to answer, never entirely successfully, for millenia.  As Baker has often been at pains to remind us, it is tempting to use anthropomorphic language to describe what Watson does, but it really is better to avoid it, lest we disappear down the rabbit hole in discussions of the meaning of meaning.

Baker also mentions an article by Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the New York Times, who writes in The Atlantic about Watson’s natural language processing ability.  He refers to Ken Jennings’s quip at the end of the match (I quoted it here.).   As he points out, although Watson’s Natural Language Processing abilities are very impressive, it sees words as symbols, and doesn’t “get” their cultural context.

All of this is to say that while Ken and Brad lost the battle, Team Carbon is still winning the language war against Team Silicon. The “war” metaphor, incidentally, had been playing out for weeks, stoked by IBM and Jeopardy! to build public interest in the tournament.  …  IBM knew from the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue days that we’re all suckers for the “man vs. machine” trope, going back to John Henry’s mythical race against the steam-powered hammer.

The last item I want to share is one from the site.  TED describes itself this way:

TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

It also runs the site, which features the “TED talks”, some of the best presentations from TED’s semi-annual conferences, on a wide variety of subjects.   It awards the annual TED Prize, for “One Idea to Change the World”, and sponsors an Open Translation Project to make the talks available in a wide variety of languages.

On Thursday morning, February 17, TED sponsored a panel discussion, hosted at IBM, on Watson’s success, and what he should do next if he wants an honest job.  (In this context, I find the anthropomorphic language impossible to resist.)  The discussion moderator was Stephen Baker, and the other participants were IBM’s principal scientist on Watson, Dr. David Ferrucci, IBM Fellow Kerrie Holley, and Prof. Herbert Chase from the Columbia University Medical Center, one of the participants in a test of using Watson as a medical diagnostic assistant.  The video presentation, which runs slightly more than half an hour, is archived here.

There were a couple of interesting things that came out in the discussion.  The first was the announcement that IBM has partnered with Nuance Communications to endow Watson with speech processing and recognition capabilities.  That will obviously make it more usable in a wider variety of contexts.

One claim, which has been circulated in various discussions on the Internet, is that Watson had an unfair advantage because it could press the Jeopardy! buzzer faster. As both Mr. Baker and Dr. Ferrucci point out, though, human contestants have a compensating advantage, because they can see the clue as it is read by Alex Trebek, and anticipate his finishing it.  (Contestants are not allowed to “buzz in” before that point.)  So it seems to me that neither Watson nor that human contestant has an advantage, on balance.

Another highlight, at least for me, was a question asked by Stephen Baker, which he says is asked all the time, “Does Watson think?”   Dr. Ferrucci’s answer to this question, besides being somewhat humorous, really pointed out how silly this question can be; he asked “Can submarines swim?”   The point, of course, is that in both cases, the answer to the question depends almost entirely on how we define the activity, a point I tried to make in a previous post.  Humans, of course, have a conscious experience of thinking, which Watson doesn’t have (although, as I also said before, I don’t believe any of us is sufficiently introspective to understand our thought processes completely, and certainly not all the way down to the “hardware”).  In any case, Watson’s real value is its ability to process a huge amount of data, expressed in natural language, and present a set of alternative answers, with its estimate of the likelihood of their being correct.  As Prof. Chase pointed out, this is just what is wanted by a physician doing differential diagnosis.

I do encourage you to have a look at the video.  Mr. Baker does a great job at moderating the discussion, and the other panelists all have interesting insights to contribute.

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