segunda-feira, maio 29, 2017

Professor of Something: "Learn Better" by Ulrich Boser

“The act of writing is a good example of metacognition because when we think about composing sentences and paragraphs, we’re often asking ourselves crucial metacognitive questions: Who will be reading this? Will they understand me? What things do I need to explain? This is why writing is often such an effective way to organize one’s thoughts. It forces us to evaluate our arguments and think about ideas. […] some describe writing as a form of “applied metacognition”.

In “Learn Better” by Ulrich Boser

When I was a kid, we played football (the European version; I hate the word soccer) all day and must have been well over 10K hours. None of us got near even semi pro football. My son could do sprint training for 4 hours every night but he's not going to be Usain Bolt. There are thousands of musicians who have put in the practice but they're all on the 9 to 5 as well like myself (well, I’m more on the 08:30 to no-end-in-sight schedule, but that’s just me being my usual obnoxious self…). Are we supposed to believe a la Gladwell that if we put in 10K hours we’ll become experts at something? I don’t believe this number, and neither does Boser. I think it’s just a number which Gladwell thought would look good in one of his books (I forget which).

What about thinking about learning? Is there something there?

I don't think there are universal rules for "learning better", as not only it depends on the individual, it also depends on the subject you'd like to learn. If you want to learn a language for example (which I did back in the day), what works (for me), is seeing a set of rules, a grammar table, the exceptions, etc., and then practice, practice, practice (read, write, speak and be corrected). But that's just me and that's because of my extremely intuitive nature of my personality (lol); I'm basically just too impatient to memorise each individual word and I like to just "get on with it", and add it to my vocabulary in its context straight away. I find it made me better at learning languages than other people who prefer to be more prepared. I’ve used this approach over and over again.

However, when it comes to improving an already learnt skill, this kind of extreme impatience and inability to narrow down and make selections and stubbornly insisting to everything in its entire context can be a “massive” handicap. Other people have beautiful sketchbooks with pretty images and traces of meticulous practice, while mines have very little in them because I prefer working on my idea straight away. I just get bored practicing on the same thing and I see it as a waste of time. I seem to have been getting away with it and I haven't produced too many failures because of that, but I haven't become particularly successful either, and due to not having learnt to be patient and to narrow down my interests, it can make my work (and my entire career - lol again) a bit too wide-ranging and all over the place, which is not necessarily a good thing, because there is a presumption that a person who's an expert of many things is an expert of none. It's a total trap lol. :(

On the other hand, because of this I'm able to see things in their wider contexts and that did get good results at exams too. I still remember my CPE exam at the British Council. We were given a list of topics we might be asked to speak about. What all the students usually did was to write down what was necessary to talk about for each individual subject and then learn your things to say from those notes. Everybody did it, my whole class did it like that, my sister did it like that, it's how you do it apparently, we were even given guidance on how to bullet point when doing this. But what's the point of all this extra work, I thought, when I need to learn everything anyway and they're all written down in my notes already anyway? So I just learnt everything in its own huge mass, and when I arrived in the morning of the exam, some people mentioned topics I didn't even remember seeing on "the list". I still got a distinction though, because I was able to explain everything. I never even used a highlighter…I just spoke my heart out! You might be thinking: “what a bunch of bullshit!” Not really. I’ve always been like this. When a lot of my fellow students where busy taking notes I was paying close attention to what was being explained in class. I even had a teacher in college who “doubted” this method…The class was Mechanics 101. He kept asking me over and over again: “Mr. Antão does not take notes in class?” to what I’d reply: “I don’t need them. I always pay close attention to what my esteemed professor says in class.” It goes without saying that he thought I was making fun of him, which I was in a way. When the time for Exam taking came, can you guessed what he did? He sat by me during the duration of the frigging exam!!! I couldn’t care less. I just did what I usually did back then. I aced the exam. “19” was my grade (in a scale from 0 to 20). Until this day I’m not even sure he always believed in my method. This long preamble just to say that most of what Boser advocates is not really new to me. But it was damn refreshing reading about it through someone else’s eyes.

So, it works I guess when it comes to just straight-on knowledge, or something ingenious, creative or inventive that requires experiments if the outcome is a one-off piece or skill or gaining practical knowledge of how to do something, but less so for learning routines with repetitive outcomes where an improving quality of outcomes is expected, needless to say I have always sucked at learning stuff by rote and regurgitating it afterwards.

10,000 hours? That makes me expert in only one thing - sleeping...I also went to the University of Life. I've already clocked up more than ten thousand hours. That means I must be a Professor of Something....

domingo, maio 28, 2017

Micro-Fiction, Text 008: "The Moon" by Myselfie (Dedicated to My Father)

The moon must have risen high in the sky, because the fog around them had turned into a silvery and impenetrable cocoon that seemingly had started self to shine. The humidity that was reflected down on his face and his forearms was cooling and let him slowly emerge from a state of deep exhaustion, like a submarine emerges from the pitch-black of deep sea into the twilight above it.
His first, blurred thought slowly drove over to Casabian, who still walked right behind him. The thick, glowing fog swallowed almost every noise but he knew she was there. He thought about whether he might have heard her footsteps and her breathing, without perceiving it consciously or whether he had developed an extra sense that made him feel Casabian's aura. The extreme terror that they had been through, might perhaps quite have been able to produce such a sense. The chance had made her to the only thing left to him and what would remain to him in view of his future prospects. Although he had no occasion for a glimpse into a future that lay farther than a few hours before him. But no matter how the situation would develop, if it should develop for him at all, then Casabian would be the only confided in his life.
He ordered his legs to go no further. Apparently his legs followed his command reluctantly two further steps and let him stop abruptly. Casabian also seemed to emerge from her reverie before she came to stand next to him. Her slender body was almost swallowed by the luminous mist and was no more than a thin, black silhouette. Wordlessly, she looked up at him and her eyes shone with silvery luster in the diffuse light of the moon.
As their eyes met, he felt the icy grip that had his heart squeezed in the course of the last few days to a cold, steely lumps, slowly loosen. The panicked fear of being tracked down and killed by their hunters, gave way to a feeling that seeped slowly into his body, like the alcohol of a heavy wine. If he was going to die in this strange place, then he would be close to the one person who meant everything to him. And that person would join him. Otherwise, he had nothing to lose.
With a slight breeze the fog seemed to set in motion and became thinner. Suddenly it teared up and opened a view of the desert-like environment that lay around them, such as under a silver shroud. He knew that he would fight until the last drop of his blood and to the last twitch of his muscles - for Casabian and for the justice that they deserved?

Dedicated to my father.

sábado, maio 27, 2017

WannaCry Ransomware

Question? As Linux is open source, is there not the chance that hackers can find vulnerabilities more easily?
Answer: No. Since it is open source, defects are easily found by competent engineers and patched quickly, as you'd know had you any competence yourself.

We are frequently told that proper architecture and solutions are too expensive and that they need to be more "pragmatic" (i.e. cheaper) in their approach and everything will be fine. The reality is that it doesn't work. The direction comes from the top; project and program managers are under pressure to reduce costs as their number one priority. Ministers take the line from those who tell them about cost reduction, not from experts who are "just being perfectionist" and "scaremongering".

There's a few other things in here. Security Architecture and Data Protection strategies need good threat and risk modelling and the application of year by year transformation. Overwhelmingly the 80/20 rule applies and that 20% (essential, difficult, error prone) gets descoped. We are only just getting to the point our expertise can handle the challenges at scale. This is because the last 20 years have seen the birth of the Internet and all its attendant tech... but even if we have reached the end of the beginning (and I would argue we haven't quite hit that, the IoT is just birthing all around us) things will not stand still, and our new-found powers won't keep up. Add to that the impotency of people relying on one and only one operating system without the ability to embrace other much safer and locked down systems and you know why IT literacy is thriving. And this start in schools where the “OS with windows” is basically creating a generation of young people not knowing that knowing how Excel works is not IT knowledge. Nevertheless, I rather resent the implication that this is a generational problem. The fact is the tech-savvy and the tech-incompetent are well-represented in every group. Being able to use instagram or attach a photo to an email doesn't mean that the person doing it necessarily has the first clue about how any of this stuff works, or indeed how to avoid security problems. It is certainly true that few politicians seem to understand how any of this works. Unfortunately, neither do their interlocutors in the media who seem quite capable of pinning down a slippery spokesman like the Portuguese one I saw on the TV this last week whose surname rhymes with “turbulent”, blaming the previous governments and companies for this latest security breach. Things are not so clear-cut.

If I’d built a car which was so badly designed it not only crashed all the time but anyone could steal it, you could call it a ShittyOS. Human nature being what it is, what can be easily stolen will be. And rather than redesign it you just added reinforcements, patches, bits and pieces and lock after lock after lock (equally flawed) onto the bits and pieces you might expect that no one would buy it and that victims of its failures would run to the courts. But inexplicably this glutinous tangle of threads, patches and flat tires still has a market and the idea that the maker is responsible doesn’t seem to occur to the owners of ShittyOS products.  Rather than focusing on the very simple point that the current administrations are culpable for both ending a support contract with some software houses I won’t name here, and failing to provide the resources to enable all older machines to be upgraded from older OS.

I think this problem is endemic in the public and private sectors. How many businesses were affected by the Dyn outage last year, the AWS S3 outage some time ago? The list goes on.

To protect and ensure services run smoothly, costs money, and also requires a proactive stance rather than a reactive one. Board members often see little value (wrongly) in upping their IT spend, and some IT professionals have apathy towards the confrontation it takes to push forward with initiatives. Commoditisation of the IT sector has also contributed in some way, with many providers on the 'race to zero' and therefore devaluing such services and conversations.

We rely on our IT, and services can crumble if there's a problem. Budgets need to reflect this fact better. I don't see this as a generational issue, an education one maybe, a reactive Vs proactive mentality. definitely.

By the way, do you know who the real beneficiary of the global ransomware attack will be? No, not the hackers. It will be none other than the software houses. I can almost hear the champagne bottles pop, because the attack will force companies and governments that still use WinXP, Windows Vista, Win7, Win8 (or Windows Server 2003) to switch to Win10 (or Windows Server 2012+). Incidentally, it appears it was Win7 and not WinXp which was the bad guy in this picture.

People think IT is a onetime spend, and it will work for its lifetime independent of investment. This is just not the case. IT is an ongoing expense, and should be one of the first things allocated in the budget. As much as you espouse the free OS's, users just aren't ready to learn them, and a lot of applications do not support them. It surprises the hell out of me they let the contract with some software houses to end though, without renewing or updating the machines. That is just stupid, and simply suggesting that "switch to Linux" is a flawless solution is pure hubris, both because of compatibility (have the diagnostic tools been written for non-Windows operating systems? It's not like you can just copy the .exe over and expect it to work) and for the fact that it's not 100% secure like so many people seem to fallaciously claim (remember Heartbleed?). Regardless of this, I'd always recommend Unix or Unix base systems because they were engineered for security from the start - for heavy duty use - but glossy marketing hype ensures we still use effectively the same old ropey ShittyOS that have been around for generations. Unix BSD kernel systems were indeed built for much more resilient counter virus infection, scalable robust operation.

Unix is used to manage the NY stock exchange, the ATM Banking systems and so on. All. Mission. Critical. Systems.

Any computer at work or home based on a UNIX kernel is hard to crack. And even harder to spread.
If you can’t go the Unix/Linux way, Win 10 made some major advances in the field of security. So much so that it would make my system more vulnerable if I were to install a third party anti-virus product than if I were to only use the included Windows Defender. Even Google engineers now recommend only using Windows Defender.

What’s the bottom-line? It's not 'tech experts' that are necessarily needed. What is required are senior IT managers that understand the issues and listen to the technical experts.

I vividly recall a period in my career when part of my brief was to oversee the implementation of management information systems. The constant battle was against a short-term accountancy mentality (and I knew even then that we had too many of them and too few practical technicians) which laboured under the delusion that computerised systems offered immediate savings for a modest one-off expenditure. Which they don't - any decent system will take time to implement, and will probably require a short-term rise in costs (apart from the capital expenditure) in order to glean any long-term savings.

And then there is the phenomenon of data growth that systems often generate, whereby what was an impossibility becomes possible, and expands the role of a particular activity. The syndrome illustrates poor IT management understanding - at a wider level - of the role of investment.

What about this specific wnacry issue? No, Microsoft doesn't have a duty of care here. If they had suddenly stopped providing security patches with no warning, then they would be at fault. But that's not the case. Windows XP has been unsupported (so-called 'End of Life', or EOL) since 2014, a date that had been widely known about since 2007. Win 7 since 2009. The reason for this is that security patches don't write themselves, and there logically must be a cutoff point where the software needs to be written off and upgraded (kind of like how, the fourth or fifth time your car fails its MOT, the repair costs eventually become higher than the value of the car and it's far more worthwhile to get a new one instead of patching up the old one).

Windows XP has been around for almost sixteen years now. Windows 7 for almost 8 years. This is ancient when it comes to software. It's long been time to upgrade, and the risks of not doing so were well known by those who decided not to. The emails that were opened should never have got that far. It's that simple. Of course, end-users cannot be trusted to act sensibly. Not open suspect emails. Not click on links in them. Ignore screen messages asking, "Are you sure?". Heck, one of mine even clicked the button when the whole page was in a foreign language and she didn't have a clue, literally, to what she was agreeing to. They trust the system providers to protect the system.

This isn't only a matter of "government and company cuts"; it's IT management failure. There should be a sudden blossoming of job adverts for IT staff and managers. Time for the dead wood to be identified and thinned out.

Once the email containing the worm got inside a network, it would not need any email attachment to spread further. The worm had been quietly spreading from machine to machine for weeks. The worm's encryption package triggered world-wide on May 12th, but it has been spreading silently for much longer. It seeks out machines that were not patched with the Microsoft solution in the last two months. Any Windows machine (10, 8, 7, or XP) not patched since March was vulnerable EVEN if its user never opened any attachments. Once an un-patched machine capable of being addressed by an infected machine on the same network or wide area network was switched on, if there was even one infected machine elsewhere in that network, t would become infected and would begin searching out vulnerable machines itself.

Imagine people take lots of LSD and keep jumping off balconies, breaking their legs, backs and /or killing themselves. You could say: “we need lower balconies” or you could get rid of LSD. Anyone with a degree in Computer Science will tell you that whatever IT system you have put in place, it will be hacked - many reasons for this, one of the simplest is that the dudes who develop the security systems are the same ones who hack it, since they know how to. Any senior people in industrial IT will tell you this. Modernity and its defenders will happily say that we need to lower the balconies, whilst our LSD-stoned friends now wander into the road and are killed by oncoming traffic. IT is the problem so we need more IT to counter it?

No, not really.

sábado, maio 13, 2017

The 4th Pope in Portugal (6th visit of a Pope to Portugal): Fátima's 100 Years of the Prophecies

Some atheist friends of mine keep saying this Pope faces a daunting challenge not faced over most of the 2000 years since a hastily assembled collection of short stories made it onto the bestseller list: the march of science. There was a time when the church could just impose rules and people knew they had to live by them because heaven or hell awaited. They knew this to be true because there were no alternative narratives. Sure, there were competing sects but these said pretty much the same kinds of things: god is in charge, do what we tell you he says. In the last 100 years, science has looked at the cosmos and found no god; it has looked back to the beginning of time and found no god; it has considered the building blocks of matter and found no god; and it has considered the formation of life and found no god. It is almost as though there is no god. The harder the church makes it to be a Christian the greater the incentive to accept what science is saying: that god is how people understood the world before people understood the world.

But I prefer to think otherwise.

I tried the above-mentioned rationale with my house. I looked at the bricks and found no builder. I looked all around the street and found no builder. I looked up the plans and found no builder. It is almost as if there was no builder. I know the bricks look as if someone made them just as the fine tuning of the universe gives the very strong delusional impression that this is not "base reality". When Einstein resisted the concept of the Big Bang conceived by a Catholic priest he was part of an atheistic tradition that held out an "eternal cosmos" theory of the universe. He later called it the biggest mistake of his career. The Church isn't in the business of "making it easier to be a Christian". It is in the business of making us better persons, but that's like asking the Portuguese Olympic team to make it "easier to run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds", but some of us are not built that way.

I fail to see why anti-religionists and atheists feel so offended if I choose to believe in God. Why ridicule my beliefs? Am I hurting you in any way? If you do not like what Pope Francis says, then do not listen to him. If your ideology does not match my religion, why should you care? If I die and cease to be, then I won't know it, and it makes no difference. And if I do not exist, you won't be able to tell me, "I told you so." I've already not existed for millions and millions of years and it didn't bother me. If I die in the state of grace, I'll have an eternity to live in happiness. The only problem would be if there is no merciful God and I'm sent to hell for eternity. That would be an eternity of misery for me, but why should you care? Besides, if I live by the beatitudes I can be happy and make others happy. Not a bad life. You might ask me why I'm concerned about what you believe, and you are correct - I do not need to be. But it would be nice to have you for a friend and see you happy in an afterlife. But that is your choice. And if there is a merciful God maybe I'll see you anyway, and you will be happy. If there is reincarnation, then I'll have another chance, but "I" won't know it.

sábado, maio 06, 2017

My Father, 1941 - 2017

"He was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again."

He lives on in his children and grandchildren's memory and hearts. I'm glad he was among us long enough to see my youngest bearing his surname.