Friday, February 10, 2012

Recommended reading: Dan Geer

Anything Dan Geer writes is worth reading. His draft "People in the Loop: Are They a Failsafe or a Liability?" is no exception. Two standout parts, to whet your appetite to read the whole thing, are:

On healthcare privacy:
We installed at a major hospital. There, the Chief of Medicine
demanded that under no circumstances could our product block access
to patient data since who knows what sort of emergency might be in
progress. At the same time, the General Counsel demanded that under
no circumstances could our product permit a breach of regulatory
controls on data handling. The solution to this standoff was that
whenever someone asked for data that was nominally forbidden, a
popup window would appear which said "Against policy. Click here
to proceed." With that, no data was denied but at the same time
no person could deny having intent. This finesse represented the
well-placed insertion of a tiny bit of sentience in an otherwise
fully automated protection regime.

On cars:
...consider the manual transmission versus the automatic
transmission. To describe the manual transmission:

. feedback from engine and road to hand and brain
. can be push started
. get to neutral from any gear directly
. coast hills at no shifting risk (overrunning N -> R)
. solid, not fluid, coupler so no power loss there
. downshift braking including when brakes have faded
. simplicity, per se, including less required repair skill
. focus: one hand on wheel, one on stick, none on {burger,phone,dick}
. still operable if only clutch works but shifting is lost
. still operable if only shift works but clutch is lost
. manual transmissions weigh less
. non-sequential shifting possible
. know what gear you are in, including not having to look to see
. learn neutral thrust by learning to shift clutchless
. parking brake failure is of no concern
. ignorami can't steal your wheels

Now there is no one in this room with insufficient sentience to
gain the advantages I just listed. If you prefer the macro view,
consider that at the time of its construction, the total energy
output of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline was approximately equal to
the efficiency loss due to the then prevalence of automatic
transmissions in the US auto fleet of the era.