Missing technical writing

30th of November, 2021

This blog is a few years old, and during its time, it has had a couple of different style changes (and a couple of domain changes). Initially, this blog started in 2018 when I was in school, and I thought some blogging platform could improve my writing.

Most of the posts back then were some assignments for various school related works. Blog was a clever publishing platform for those and was accepted in many courses. Most of those have since been deleted and forgotten.

During those days, this was very tech-oriented, focusing more on writing various tutorials about different subjects, mainly revolving around distributed computing. Then I landed my first job as a DevOps engineer, where I was able to put these tutorials that I had written to practice. Unfortunately, about the same time, I started losing my motivation on regular writing mainly due to time constraints.

Around late 2020, early 2021, I started to rekindle my writing habit with different styles and topics. Then I began to write down my thoughts about the world around me. So many topics were about music, art, some tech stuff here and there but not really "technical writing". I was mainly sharing my opinions about the various topics that interested me. While I enjoyed this little bit more pondering writing style - some could call ranting - for me, it felt that it was missing something.

I missed the technical writing. But now, since I had established a particular style in my writing, it felt out of place to start writing about various geeky subjects revolving around computer science. That being said, all those writings in the tutorial and guidance way or these recent little bits of more analyzing way of writing hasn't been gone to waste. However, I feel that now at least, I know about what I want to write.

I think the combination of both will suit me the best. At the same time, I don't necessarily see myself writing some basic how-to tutorials anymore. But I feel that technical analysis with various concrete implementations would be interesting to research and write. My main interests have generally lay in music, arts and how these intertwine with computer science. However, since my professional life is linked to topics such as designing and implementing distributed systems, distributed computing in big data environments, systems engineering, performance, reliability, and compilers and programming languages. I feel that those might also be a regular visitor in my ramblings.

My professional life has also revolved around these topics. So I feel that I'm able to write a lot in conjunction with my work. Especially since working with large distributed systems, you're bound to stumble upon some weird things, making this analysis-oriented technical writing is an excellent tool for thought. I would want to have this semi-regular to regular writing habit that I once had, but that is something I can't promise. Post at a time!

But since this is still my blog, I feel that occasional rambles and shitposts about various topics are in place. Do people want to read those? Probably not, but every once in a while its fun to vent. So going forward, I think you can expect a significant portion of more technical commentary with smaller portion of things that entertain and occasionally horrifies me.

Tags: computers


Music, AI, and the future

28th of July, 2021

Since the discussion about artificial intelligence has become mainstream, I have started to ponder AI's possible impacts on our day-to-day lives. While I work in tech, I come from this "culture and arts" background, at least a little bit. I did some theatre when I was young and have worked with music in one way or another for most of my life. This background has got me thinking about how AI could affect these fields.

We have already seen multiple interdisciplinary works mixing artificial intelligence with various art forms, like drawings, paintings, music etc. Already drawings and paintings generated with AI present a superb quality in those, in which you cannot make a clear distinction from if these were created by AI or an actual human. On the other hand, music is not quite at that level yet, at least in my opinion. At least in the form of an entirely generated song by AI. That being said, I have heard great pieces which utilize both human touch and AI, where AI plays more of a supportive role in the whole work. Similar things can be seen in all creative endeavours where AI could be utilized.

If AI gets used more and more in these creative projects with great success, to me, it raises a question, can human art be entirely replaced with AI? I believe it would be naive to say that it couldn't. But, considering the possible future where we cannot distinguish humans from computers, how could we distinguish this kind of smaller medium like song or book on how it was created or who created it? As a consumer of these kinds of mediums, does it matter if some algorithms made your new favourite novel to provide the same feeling that you might get from reading a regular author's book?

They are taking our jobs

To put it shortly, AI can replace anyone's job who happens to handle bits in one way or another. This means that AI can do it way better than you ever can in these kinds of jobs. So when we talk about "creative jobs", how you can do it better than someone else? Are you possibly better at drawing than someone else? Or can you compose better symphonies than someone else? What makes you better? Is it purely a technical thing, or is there something else? When we talk about painting or drawing's technicality, sure, you could argue that your "pen strokes", etc. might be better than someone else's. But does this make it better art?

Already there has been a trend of AI-generated music populating different streaming platforms. Currently, that music has almost always been something simple, in which AI definitely can excel. This could be called elevator music or Muzak. This kind of music is most likely something that many people wouldn't mind that it's generated with a computer and lacks the human touch. But how would people feel if there were a chart-topping song entirely generated with AI? Again, I believe many people wouldn't like that, other than a few tech geeks who might think it could be cool (me included).

Could then AI fully replace the human touch in our art forms? We might wait for that to happen for a very long time. Still, as I said earlier, it would be naive to think that this couldn't happen, especially in the future, where we have reached a certain level of intelligence where we can't distinguish each other from humans and machines.

So what could this mean for our "blue-collar" artists? What could be the driving force for them to create new art if the audience doesn't know if it was created by computer or human? To me, that seems very grim.

Creative programming

If we can't beat them, join 'em? Right? If we think that this will be the future, while it might not be a very uplifting thing to consider, it'll most likely be very realistic. While I think that AI will have some bad repercussions on our life in the future, I also believe that it can be used for great good. Whether AI is used in health, fighting climate change etc., there are many good use cases. In my opinion, utilizing AI in the arts is also one. Should you create your next song or novel entirely with AI? Possibly no, although GPT-3 has shown some great results on how good text it can write.

I like to write or play music, so I don't want to replace the artificial process that I enjoy so much. So the way I could utilize it in my creative endeavours is by working with it side by side. Possibly, it could generate some ideas for me for my next blog post, novel, poem or whatever. For example, AI could be taught with the text of a long list of your favourite authors or songs by your favourite bands. Based on this knowledge, maybe some of the possible ideas it could generate could then be finished by a human giving the final piece that human touch.

Conclusion

So while the future might look dark and grim for us, maybe we could make some use of it, so at least we might have a little bit of enjoyment. Thankfully we are a long way from this singularity that many people tend to talk about, but the trend has shown to be moving towards that kind of future. So rather than fighting against it, at least personally, I want to make the best use of our technical achievements in one way or another. Who knows if the next big novel or piece is created with AI or some other great technological invention. That being said, I have already found many great ways to utilize AI in my creative projects, so who knows what might come out of those.

Tags: ai, art, computers, music


Code reading

23rd of June, 2021

Code reading has always been this activity that I've just done without really giving any thought to it. But despite this, now, when I look back at this habit, I see it as immensely beneficial. This habit caught my attention when I was reading Peter Seibel's book Coders at Work, in which there is a section where Peter asks about code reading from his interviewees. His interviewees tended to be unanimous that code reading is very beneficial. Still, while reading his interviews, it left a picture that the practice itself seemed to be lacking even within those heavyweight programmers. Exception in this being Brad Fitzpatrick and, obviously, Donald Knuth. If these programmers speak for this practice but don't do it in the wild, then who does? This overall, it seems pretty odd to me. Seibel made a great comparison regarding this when he compared programmers to novelists, where if novelist hasn't ready anyone else's publications, it would be unheard of.

I've always enjoyed reading others' source code mainly, let's face it, to steal some ideas. But doing this, I've received a long list of different lessons, ideas, and patterns, which I've been able to utilize frequently in most of the work that I've done after these revelations.

Pattern Matching

One of the most significant benefits that I've learned while code reading is that you're able to learn various patterns after a while. Sure, every project might seem cluttered and hard to understand for a while, but when you get the gist of it, you start to realize why this or that has been done the way it is. Furthermore, when you've understood some of these patterns, it gets much more comfortable to start noticing them in other similar or not-so-similar projects. Fundamentally this means the graph of WTF-per-seconds starts getting less and less.

I have also noticed that pattern matching helps understand the whole project under study itself. It would be best to try to comprehend a large open-source project at once but in small pieces. Then, when one of these pieces is understood, it can help tremendously understand the other pieces.

Benefits of reinventing

It can often be pretty hard to understand the functionality of some part of an extensive program by looking at the code. So quite often, to get a better grasp of foreign code is to reimplement the way you would write it. This way, you're able to abstract the bread and butter out of the program and utilize it however you might want.

This kind of reimplementing can be quite hard on bigger projects. The best way to reinvent something in those projects is to change something and see changes in the new compilation. For example, try to change some text in some menu or output. This way, you can easily test how well you understand the foreign code.

Code as a literature medium

Many people say that code is not literature because you read it differently from prose. In my opinion, this doesn't necessarily need to be the case. Overall, code is written for humans first and then machine second. An excellent example of this is Robert C. Martin's ravings, in which he often recites that the "code should read like prose to be clean", which I tend to agree with. Another good one is Donald Knuth's approach to literate programming. However, the latter one is more about embedding code pieces amidst what one could call prose. Nonetheless, this kind of system makes the code much more readable since writing is such a big part.

One thing that I believe makes people think code is not literature is syntax highlighting. I don't use it. For some reason, I never grew used to colored text. Of course, I might be a bit biased, but when I turn on syntax highlighting, I tend to focus on the wrong things in the code, making it so that it doesn't read like prose anymore. Removing syntax highlighting has allowed me to grasp the whole structure better. Is this true, or does it work for everyone? I don't think so, but that's how I feel.

Code reading club

Based on these thoughts and Seibel's ideas, I decided to try some code reading clubs in my workplace. Initially, what I had in mind for this kind of club was choosing one library/program per week/month or whatever and then dissecting the main logic behind it and discussing it. However, I quickly realized that this would most likely work since people have different interests in programming. For example, I don't have an interest in various GUI applications or other frontend technologies, even though they might have some good ideas behind them.

So a much better approach would most likely be that person chooses one library/program and then dissects it sharing the findings to the rest of the group. This dissection done by someone else than yourself could easily inspire you and others to dive more deeply into the code itself, even though it might be a little bit outside your interests. That being said, exploring the world around your circles can be mind-opening since you can easily find new approaches to the same problems that you might face in your work.

I want to give this kind of approach a good try, and I could write some "deep thoughts" about it in the form of a review.

Tags: computers, programming


Extravagancy in tech

8th of May, 2021

I've lately started to ponder the repercussions of this trend of extravagant architectural choices in the tech industry. Unfortunately, these kinds of options seem to be prevalent in this current era of cloud computing. At least, I seem to stumble upon these regularly when I work with a wide variety of different distributed systems as a DevOps/SRE consultant. Great examples in this kind of trend are various Kubernetes setups in projects where you could easily manage to progress without it or some data infrastructure solution that feels like a sledgehammer for hitting a small nail.

I'm not bashing these technologies since I enjoy working with them, and I work with them daily. They have their purpose, but this purpose is often meant for a larger picture in mind. Now, if we focus on the example of Kubernetes, sure, it can bring a lot of benefits, like easier deployments, reducing complexity on large projects, and quite often reducing costs. But no one can argue that it can be overkill in many different projects. If it's not needed, it mainly brings unnecessary complexity and reduces productivity in these projects. So it can be a double-edged sword. But I don't want to focus on these singular technologies in this topic since they feel minor on the grand scale.

Implications on our evolution

When we are moving more and more to this science-fiction picture of the future, we need to start thinking more about topics such as transhumanism and how we are going to live with machines that'll outsmart us. Understandably, topics associated with transhumanism, like the singularity, AI, nanotechnologies, cybernetics, and much more, are challenging to discuss first of all on a technological level and but also on a moral and ethical level. But, on the other hand, it is also hard to say that will we even ever see the rise of these kinds of technologies. It could be that our civilization can see that these inventions are possible, but we cannot implement these. It could also be that technological evolution has also started to get so rapid that we will see the big turn of events in these topics in the near future. Overall technological evolution grows exponentially, so the time between significant inventions gets shorter and shorter. So, we can only speculate on how things might turn out for now.

Whatever the outcome may be, I believe that some degree of optimism is in place. However, I think the singularity is inevitable, and most of the industry's actions indicate that the path is not good. These actions are the main reason why these over-the-top architectural choices might be hinting about something that might be inevitably bad.

When I talk about some projects using these "sledgehammer" solutions in projects where they aren't necessary, I'm overall talking about a small pesky thing. What worries me about this topic is that we are using these kinds of hyped-up tools, which happen to be the month's flavor in every project; what could this mean, for example, in the development of AI or other future technologies? Could we seem to have endless resources cause of something that cannot be reverted? Bill Joy wrote a great essay about the future not needing us, which makes it scary to think that we run these extravagant systems just mainly because we can. A similar thing applies to data collection and many other issues in privacy. Most of the big platforms that utilize some tracking tends to collect a lot of data, which quite often isn't used thoroughly, so the data is collected to build minimal information about the user. Possibly the rest are saved for later.

Clever usage of limited resources

Back in the olden days, when I wasn't even born, computers tended to be understandably very limited in terms of resources. Computing has evolved tremendously since allowing us to use these kinds of larger-than-life solutions in environments where they wouldn't necessarily be needed. Has the quality of systems or programs evolved directly proportional to the increase of computing power? Definitely not. The fact that these kinds of powers are available to us everywhere has possibly increased the number of innovations since more people can start thinking possible uses for these machines that are all around us and because they are in contact with them regularly. Although you could think that since more people are in contact with these kinds of machines daily, it would equal more interest in programming, etc. This doesn't seem to be the case.

Where I'm getting with this is the fact that the quality tends to be going down when we go towards the future; how could this be tackled? Clearly, this kind of wild west design in these kinds of crucial systems can't continue.

Strategic approach in the development

When we talk about this extravagancy phenomenon in tech projects, it tends to affect the program/system developers the most. Often, they are not making these decisions since it tends to be someone from the ivory tower that plans these decisions most of the time. Thankfully, these people tend to have at least some background in these systems relatively frequently but not always. So should the developer's opinions matter more when considering various options for your project? I believe Sun Microsystems had a great idea when they marketed Java for people. Sun was a hardware company that figured out that they had to please programmers first to sell more hardware, which resulted in Java being one of the most widely used languages today. Now, did Java please programmers, maybe back when people hated C++, but opinions seem to have shifted in recent years, although both languages still enjoy immense support.

Overall, I think these large systems have their places in many domains, but these domains where their power could use efficiently are very rare. This ends up in a situation where we either have a lot of unnecessary computing power just laying there or used for something unnecessary. Now systems have this unnecessary complexity that mainly hinders the people's workflow developing the whole system.

I also think that doing something because "this might be needed in the future" is a bad practice since this tends to end up in an infinite loop of unnecessary work. Since more straightforward solutions tend to be quite often good enough for most projects with much better developer experience and much better efficiency. These kinds of solutions also often allow effortless migration to a bigger and better solution if needed. So don't optimize if it's not necessary.

Tags: computers


Contemplating web analytics

28th of March, 2021

I started to rekindle my, unfortunately, lost writing habit a couple of weeks ago. I set up Google Analytics for this page mainly due to its easy use to see simple analytics. I was only interested in visitor count, and possibly my readers' coming from. Google Analytics is a massive tool with massive amounts of data going into it. I tried to restrict this collection as much as possible, which suits my personal blog's needs.

Then my page rose to the front page of Hacker News, and it started to get a lot of traction. Suddenly there were thousands of readers coming every day to my pesky little page with just a few posts as I was following the visitor counts rising in my Google Analytics view. That got me thinking about the ethics of this kind of tracking. Which then ended up me deleting my account and data from it.

Discomfort of tracking

Before I deleted my data and account from Google Analytics, I first looked for alternatives. I stumbled upon many other privacy-oriented and GDPR-compliant analytics platforms, which at first seemed promising. Also, having good options for ever prevalent Google Analytics is a great thing. But despite these features, they don't remove the uneasiness what mining your users' data causes. Of course, we are talking about spying here. Thankfully there are now some restrictions regarding personally identifiable information (PII), at least in the GDPR, limiting the shadiness quite a lot. But that brings new issues in handling this kind of information since you need to be sure that your software doesn't leak this information. Thankfully, opting out entirely from collecting PII in your software is an option.

I understand why people might want to add at least simplistic tracking to their sites since it can provide helpful information about your content, and companies can see how users use their site, and the list goes on. Especially when you combine Google Analytics, or similar analytics tool, to ads, companies can reap significant benefits from this kind of tracking. But 9 of 10 sites shouldn't need this. You could argue that most administrators use this tracking only for dopamine fix and don't utilize the tracked data. Even though they might use it somehow, how do they inform the user? I dare to say that information about data usage is almost always written in some shallow boilerplate text or no way at all.

Informed consent

GDPR highlights mainly four things about data usage:

It enables EU citizens to have the final say on how their data is used. If your company handles PIIs, there are tighter restrictions on how these can be handled. Companies can store/use data only if the person consents to it. User has rights to their data.

Consent is the crucial part here since many sites lack on this front. There has been a lot of discussion about what should be considered consent. GDPR Art. 6.1(f) says that "processing is necessary for the legitimate interests pursued by the controller or by a third party". Now legitimate interest is relatively shallow and quite a few authorities in Germany, for example, consider that third-party analytics do not fall under "legitimate interest". You can utilize consent management platforms to ensure you have user's consent before you drop the tracking code in your page. But this then raises the question of what can be considered consent.

Drew DeVault wrote a great post about web analytics and informed consent. Informed consent is a principle from healthcare, but it still can offer significant elements to be utilized, especially in technology and privacy. Drew split up the essential elements of informed consent in tracking to these three points:

Disclosure of the nature and purpose of the research and its implications (risks and benefits) for the participant and the confidentiality of the collected information. An adequate understanding of these facts on the part of the participant, requiring an accessible explanation in lay terms and an assessment of understanding. The participant must exercise voluntary agreement, without coercion or fear of repercussions (e.g. not being allowed to use your website).

Considering these essential elements of informed consent, we agree that most tracking sites don't follow these guidelines.

Thankfully trivial tracker blocking is supported already in many browsers, which makes this issue slightly more bearable, and also, you're able to download external tools to do it. But still, this kind of approach is pretty upside down.

All kinds of cookies

Unfortunately, ad-tech companies have tried to make blocking these harder and harder by constantly evolving these cookies to evercookies, supercookies, etc. The way these have worked is that trackers have stored these harder to detect and delete cookies in different obscure places in the browser, like Flash storage or HSTS flags. Evercookies were a big thing in early 2010 since many sites were using Flash and Silverlight, and those were very exploitable. Today those technologies aren't used anymore, but that doesn't mean the evolution of cookies has stopped. On the other hand, Supercookies work on the network level of your service provider.

Thankfully lately, for example, Firefox has been able to start tackling these. In that post, the Firefox team discloses what they had to do to take some actions against this, and it is wild. First, they had to re-architect the whole connection handling in the browser, which was first made to increase user experience by reducing overhead to eliminate these pesky cache-based cookies.

Still, browser fingerprinting could be considered the evilest cookie of them all. Browser fingerprinting identifies everything it can from your system. Like some cookies, this has real use cases, e.g., preventing fraud in financial institutions. Still, principally this is just another intrusive way to track people. Thankfully some modern browsers offer at least some ways to avoid this, but not a full-fledged solution (other than disposable systems).

Future of cookies

Lately, there has been some news about privacy-friendly substitutes to cookies by tech giants. Cookies have been a relatively significant issue privacy-wise for decades, and since the ad industry is so large, finding a replacement for these have been hard. So only time will tell. We cannot get rid of cookies entirely in the near future. They might change into something else, maybe this kind of API utilizing machine learning analyzing user data. Which I don't know is better or worse. So cannot wait! tin-foil hat tightens

Conclusion

So what is the conclusion here? Probably nothing. Recently started small-time blogger just got scared from big numbers coming into his site collecting all kinds of data which ended up him stopping this kind of action at least in his site. Since for most users/sites, this kind of tracking is just a silly monkey-get-banana dopamine fix.

Don't track unless you need to and if you do, inform it thoroughly.

Tags: analytics, computers, gdpr, privacy


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