The Black Liszt

Demon’s Dictionary for 21st Century Computing Trio

More cynical definitions in the series introduced here, for Deep Learning and Blockchain.

A duo definitions from his book:

Mr. Kelly-Bootle sometimes provided extended explanations of the words he defined:

Sometimes he even needed illustrations. See the two definitions below, followed by illustrations:

Definitions for 21st Century Computing

A duo more from the student:

Deep learning is an evolution of shallow neural networks, in which the neural networks are stacked in many layers, making them “deep.”

Decades after the one thousand nine hundred fifty nine biological model introduced by Nobel Prize-winning scientists Hubel and Wiesel inspired artificial intelligence pioneers at MIT and elsewhere to invent neural network technology, someone noticed that biological neurons are connected in many layers, unlike the single-layer neural networks that AI researchers had been touting for years as the basis for recreating human intelligence inwards a machine. Since everyone knows that prestigious artificial intelligence researchers don’t commit errors, or at least elementary ones, “deep learning” was introduced as a brand-new idea that would eventually crack the code of making machines as clever as the average fifth grader. Someday. Maybe.

A hot fresh technology that is sweeping through the world of finance,  healthcare and elsewhere, whose greatest practical success to date has been the secret transfer of funds inbetween cooperating parties in a criminal enterprise.

A freshly discovered database that has recently been liberated from the almost unbreakable bonds of its cryptocurrency prison; however, as a fresh kind of database, it stubbornly rejects to be classified as a “database,” preferring to be known as a “distributed ledger,” of which it is evidently the only known exemplar. A cynic might point out that that the stubborn refusal to agree to be part of genus database-imus may be due to the wholly inadequate functionality and spectacle of blockchain on generally accepted measures of database value, but this is almost certainly unfair to such a widely hailed future solution to problems that undoubtedly are pressing, and have resisted solution for many years.

I apologize in advance: there could be more to come.

My Cat Trained me about the state of Healthcare Provider Data

My daughter's cat trained me a major lesson about healthcare as I described here. Pretty amazing. But Jack the cat also thought I should learn about the advanced databases that providers and insurers maintain about each other. While not as brilliant as the inter-provider EMR interchange breakthrough I've described, the databases have a similar effect to the brilliant gamification strategies for wellness implemented by leading hospitals, but take a entire different treatment. The depth and extent of innovation in this industry never fails to amaze me.

As I described before, the horrified cat was outdoors and I had to pick him up to bring him inwards. He was frightened, so he scraped and bit me. I witnessed my doctor and got a mis-prescription for antibiotics. Then I needed an X-ray to see what was going on inwards the mitt that was painful after weeks. That's the situation.

Jack the cat determined this was an chance for me to learn about databases and get some extra exercise, no doubt as penance for failing to pet him well or often enough.

The search for the X-ray provider

Very first, I got a referral to a provider that was way far away from where I live. How did this happen? The doctor claims she called me to find where I live twice and got no response. Hmmm. I guess the information was mysteriously missing from my records and no one thought it was significant to get it, and I guess the fact that I only got one message, and it had no request for where I live was just . whatever. So I determined I better get active, rather than waiting another duo of days for a referral.

I went onto the Anthem site — the provider of my health insurance in spite of their horrible computer security track record. I discovered a provider that is covered by them just a duo blocks from where I live:

That should be an effortless walk. After more fumbling with the doctor's office, I ultimately got them to give me a referral.

Here's the place to which I was referred:

Same place. Good. I called them up, and they said no appointments were required, just display up with the referral. I walked right over, but they weren't in the building directory. Hmmm. I asked the person at the desk, who had clearly seen confused and lost people like me before. She told me they've moved, and gave me the fresh location. Excellent!

I went back home, and discovered that someone else at my doctor's office had also given me a referral, only to a place that actually has an X-ray machine. So out I walked again, and got my medicinal dose of radiation.

Anthem didn't know that they'd moved. The people on the phone at the X-ray place had no idea. One person at my doctor's office did know — but another one didn't. In normal life, companies that acted like these did — my doctor, the X-ray place and the insurer — would be out of business. But as we all know, healthcare isn't normal life.

What happened with me was no big deal. Business as usual in healthcare, and in this case had no consequences beyond getting me to walk more, which is a good thing whether I determine to do it or I'm tricked into doing it.

But let's consider the consequences of this trivial gig.

Where are the Big Minds, the elite in healthcare, spending their oh-so-valuable time and effort? Lots of things, of course, but two of the big obsessions are Big Data and Blockchain. Each of these, for different reasons, is a holy grail of technology for healthcare, if you pay attention to the talks, conferences, articles and real dollars invested.

Big Data is a concentrate because the leading thinkers and influential, powerful people are coaxed that if all this healthcare data is poured into a giant Hadoop data lake and poured over by ultra-modern machine learning devices, we'll detect significant things that will make us all healthier.

We already knew that EMR's are riddled with data problems; now Jack has shed light on problems elsewhere:

  • If the data is missing or wrong, no amount of bathing in Data Lakes will cause accurate results to pop out. Bad data in, bad results out.
  • If there are protocols that have been proven to be the best for treating patients and doctors simply turn down to go after them, nothing improves.

Blockchain has attracted the attention of leading figures among the healthcare elites because of its awesome promise to solve the problem of data interchange and effortlessly created universal health data — on which Big Data can proceed to work its magic.

BUT . if no ones cares or is permitted the time to get the data accurate and finish and the data is no good, spreading it around hardly helps anything.

As usual, all the attention goes to the very visible frosting on the cake, while the underlying layers of the cake rot from inattention.

The consequences of extreme cat skill

This valuable skill about provider databases and the reliability of doctor decision making came from just a duo days of cat-sitting our daughter's cat. The practice was so rich that we determined to get a cat of our own, Priss:

We impatiently await the medical skill that Priss will bring our way!

How Blockchain will Produce Value

Blockchain is already a giant phenomenon. But it has issues. Can blockchain fulfill its promise? Can it have a big influence on financial services, healthcare and perhaps other industries? You betcha! Here’s how.

Blockchain is big

Very first it was BitCoin. Now it's blockchain, which is what people call the "underlying technology" of BitCoin. Albeit that's about as accurate as calling the combustion engine the underlying technology of the car, only leaving out the gas tank — it won't work!

In any case, expectations among investors are railing high. Here's a snapshot of investor interest:

Obstacles to blockchain's success

Very likely the largest problem with blockchain is that it's just a kind of database with a peculiar set of characteristics. Just having a database doesn't make everyone involved in a problem abruptly determine to digitize everything in the same format, make the same calls to the same API's and react to everything appropriately. So the problem is often one which blockchain simply doesn't solve.

There's also a deep obstacle. It's one that is visible to any technical person and makes common sense, but for reasons that elude me, is uncommonly discussed among blockchain investors and enthusiasts.  The problem is the community validation protocol that assures the integrity of the ledger. As part of BitCoin, the problem is cleverly solved by miners, who are incented to provide this service by being paid in BitCoin. When you take BitCoin out of “blockchain” and apply blockchain to other applications, you take away the payment mechanism for miners to do their job. This fact alone has a long string of ramifications, among which is the integrity and security of the "distributed ledger."

History of other advanced technologies

The obstacles to success for blockchain are serious. I wonder what we could learn from looking at history? Perhaps there are other abstruse, advanced technologies that also overcame serious obstacles and became smashing successes. Maybe we could learn from them and see how blockchain could similarly love the good success that is so widely predicted for it.

There are several historical parallels that could be applied to block chain. One that seems relevant is neural networks.

HNC Software was embarked in one thousand nine hundred eighty six to exploit the incredible power of neural networks. "Neural," like what's in your brain, get it? It's like clever computers! The bright boys of HNC got contracts and were solving all sorts of significant problems in numerous fields. Sort of. Around 1990, the CTO of a credit card company, Household International, brought them in to solve his company's fraud problem. After a while, with the data and help of Household, they got something good going.

Household let them get data from other card companies to make their models even better, and soon HNC was rocketing. They went public, became the card industry's standard solution, and eventually merged with FICO.

I was active in the card industry when they were rapidly growing, and I knew a duo of the people whose names were on the patents. Everyone accepted that HNC's solution trumped everyone else's because, after all, it was based on that amazing fresh technology . neural networks!

Looking under the covers

If you took off just the top sheet, you would see that HNC had devised cautiously managed training protocols to overcome the over-training that frequently hobbles neural networks. Clever!

But eyeing what was indeed going on was an eye-opener. Underneath all the neural net stuff was a large and growing figure of . get ready . human-created rules! Little snippets of code, each of which would identify a certain pattern of fraud. As fresh fraud was discovered, humans at HNC (mostly) would add a fresh rule to the set of (when I last witnessed it) thousands of rules. The latest set of card transactions, both legit and fraud, would then be run through the training system, and the neural network would be trained to balance the output of all the rules and combine them into a single probability score.

Net-net: the rules did the fraud recognition, the neural networks weighted the rule outputs into a combined final score for a given transaction.

The message of HNC and the understanding of the market was clear, however: the HNC solution was better than anything else, it was based on near-magical neural networks, and life is good.

Applying the lesson

HNC provides an excellent model for how blockchain can succeed in the market. They'll do it the same way neural networks did. Investment and attention will go to significant problems; the problems will get solved by stubborn, hard-working people who are motivated to get something that works, and don't indeed care about the extent to which what people call blockchains are involved. The marketing people will promote the magical elixir of blockchain, everyone will ohhh and ahhh, and no one will care what's under the covers, so long as it works.

It worked for neural networks and HNC, and genuinely frustrated the fraudsters. The same pattern can work for blockchain.

The magic of block chain

There’s a shiny fresh fucktoy on the block. It’s called block chain, i.e., the technology behind BitCoin. It’s going to solve lots of intransigent problems, the kind that have remained unsolved for years! Indeed! Everyone says so, from big banks to superb investors to authoritative media with brainy journalists!

I love Bitcoin, and think that block chain is one of the cleverest technologies I’ve encountered in some time. But this level of enthusiasm is a bubble, and like all bubbles, it will burst. Meantime, geysers of people are bubbling about all the problems worth billions, problems that have gone unsolved for years, that block chain will solve.

The stock transfer problem

Just for joy, I picked a clever five minute movie produced by the Wall Street Journal that explains to us rubes in the back forest how BitCoin works, and how it will be used to solve the horrible problem of stock transfers. According to the authoritative folks at the WSJ, transferring stocks takes days, while Bitcoin makes it “nearly instantaneous.”

 This is fat. Those authoritative WSJ folks, no doubt after consultation that was broad and deep in the world of Bitcoins, assure us that the result will be billions of dollars in savings.

Billions! And imagine, all you have to do is use BitCoin!

Little things

There are lots of things wrong with this picture. Let me just pick on a little thing. Bitcoin makes the transfer “nearly instantaneous.” Is that so? Because of all the computing the Bitcoin miners have to do to make the block chain secure, the actual waiting time varies, but a reasonable estimate ranges around ten minutes. When you’ve gone to an ATM to withdraw cash, would you say getting the cash is “nearly instantaneous?” Well, no. You wait for the bills to count out. How long before the cash is in your palms? Ten seconds? Maybe twenty at the outside? What if it were a utter minute? You would think the machine was violated. What if it were five minutes? You’d be sure the machine was cracked, and you’d have left long before.

Why do people explaining things like this determine to switch the facts on us? While I agree that, compared to “days,” ten minutes or so is a vast improvement, why exaggerate? What else have they got wrong, if they get non-crucial little things like this wrong?

Big things

There’s some magic that happens in the movie. It’s not called out, but it’s clearly magic. And it has nothing to do with Bitcoin!

The magic is how the sender of the stock trade has all the data required for the transfer tied up in a neat little digital bundle, ready to send off to the block chain network – and identically magic, how the receiver of the stock trade is ready to receive said neat little digital bundle, unwrap it, store it, and be totally pleased that it had received the stock.

Digitizing all the required information in a standard format all senders can send and all receivers can receive is the magic – and the genuinely hard-to-solve problem here. Why do things take days to lodge? I don’t know, but the usual reason is that lots of departments are involved on both sides of the transaction, not everything is digital, and … it’s always been done that way!

Block chain is undoubtedly a cool technology. But what it solves is not the problem here! The actual problem is entirely unrelated to Bitcoin and block chain!

Once you’ve solved the genuinely hard problem – digitizing all required information in standard form on both finishes and adapting all relevant systems to generate and accept it – there are geysers of ways to transport the data from the sender to the receiver. There are even lots of peer-to-peer methods that could be used, thus avoiding all the hoo-haw of having your stock information stored many times in a distributed ledger all over the world. You could, for example, agree on a set of RESTful calls the sender could make on the receiver’s system that would work fine. The industry could set up a cooperative central place that used normal DBMS technology to make the transfer. There are fountains of approaches, all of them viable, all of them quicker than Bitcoin, and many of them no more expensive to implement.

Imagine you’re living in a house and you’ve bought a fresh one a duo of states away. You want to stir all your stuff. As everyone knows, the hard part is packing and boxing up before you stir, and unpacking after you’ve moved. That’s what takes the time and care, and that’s what Bitcoin-based solutions airily assume. In the real world, once you’ve packed everything, you blast it into a truck, which drives to your fresh house, unload all the boxes, and then the “fun” of unpacking commences. In the Bitcoin world, you would still have to go through all the time and work of packing. Then you would call trucks (still!) and send your boxes to the various depots of the distributed moving service, which would budge your boxes all over the place, let them be examined by explosions of people, and put them on their shelves with exquisite care. Then you would … get ready … send your own trucks to the depot, pick up your boxes, budge them to your house, and commence the joy of unpacking. This added step in the middle would take at least 1,000 times longer than the moving van would have.

Isn’t Bitcoin superb? See how it solves the moving problem so nicely?

There’s a pattern here

This misunderstanding of a technology and claiming it solves all sorts of long-standing problems is typical of the fresh technology hype cycle. It’s happened explosions of times before, and will keep happening for the foreseeable future. A good current example is the Big Data mania, which is supposed to solve all sorts of long-standing problems and unlock the keys to the kingdom – except that it doesn’t. When people have trouble understanding the basics of relatively plain things like email, is it surprising that they get Bitcoin wrong?


I’m anxiously awaiting problems for which the super-cool block chain technology is actually relevant. I suspect they're out there. I've even embarked looking at a duo candidates. I’m ready.

What E-mail trains us about Bitcoin and Block Chain

E-mail is widely used, and everyone knows what it is. Bitcoin is a hot fresh techno-bauble, and Bitcoin technologies like block chain are getting lots of attention and money. It turns out that e-mail has a fine deal to train us about Bitcoin and its technologies. Here’s the punch line: in spite of its ubiquity, practically no one understands how e-mail works, and this causes enormous errors with practical consequences! By comparison, Bitcoin and its spawn are amazingly complicated;  most of the people who do understand e-mail have little chance of understanding Bitcoin. Think about the consequences of this, please.

Do You Know How E-mail works?

E-mail is elementary, right? You login to your e-mail account, pack out the To and Subject fields, maybe add a duo people in the CC field, write your e-mail, and press send. Then some magic happens, and the e-mail shows up in the in-boxes of the people to whom you sent it. You can read your own e-mail by looking at the items in your in-box, and even go to your sent-mail folder and look at what you sent. It’s elementary, wonderful and true! For the vast majority of the time, it’s fine to leave “then some magic happens” alone.

The trouble comes when trouble comes, i.e., when there’s some special circumstance that requires knowing something about how that “magic” in the middle works. That’s when it comes out that almost no one has a clue about what’s going on, even in something as ordinary and ubiquitous as e-mail.

The IRS e-mail case

There are lots of examples, but the issues involving e-mail at the IRS which have been in the news off and on for the last duo of years are a good case in point. Here’s the lead paragraph from Wikipedia on the subject:

Now, reminisce – I’m not talking about the merits of the issue on one side or the other. I’m solely talking about the skill exhibited of how e-mail works, and the practical consequences of that skill. Read this succulent lead from an AP story on the subject:

Here are the key points:

  • In June 2011, Lois Lerner’s computer crashed.
  • This resulted “in the loss of records”
  • It was determined that the records on the hard drive, i.e., Lois Lerner's emails, were gone forever

I am aghast. Agog. At a loss for words. I’d like to be shocked at the “depth” of misunderstanding, but I think it’s more adequate to be shocked at the “shallowness” of misunderstanding exhibited in this quote, and in the goes of all the IRS employees, FBI, Congressional staffers, the archivists, and all the journalists with their fancy degrees from fancy schools.

Here is the core concept that everyone involved on every side seems to agree on:

The e-mails Lois Lerner wrote are uniquely stored on the hard drive of her individual computer. If it is true that the hard drive is severely bruised, then the e-mails are “gone forever.”

The ordinary thing

Even from the simplistic view of how e-mail works, every e-mail is either a draft or is sent to someone. If it's been given an accurate address, it arrives. It's in the receiver's in-box, and perhaps eventually in their deleted mail folder. Since the issue involved e-mails not only received by Ms. Lerner, but ones sent by her, presumably to other IRS employees, there is an visible strategy: do a search on the e-mail of every IRS employee to whom Ms. Lerner could have sent an e-mail, and see if she did send one. It's the magic of e-mail: the sender has a copy of what was sent, and the recipient has a copy of what was received. There are at least two copies: both sender and receiver have one!

Have you ever read that ordinary thought anywhere else? Neither have I.

The "deep" thing, requiring understanding of how it works

Now we get to the real point. An e-mail address has two main parts: the name, and the domain. The name is the part before the @ and the domain is the part after the @, for example Similarly, all e-mail systems have two main lumps of software involved: a client and a server. Software by Microsoft is widely used in governments and corporations. Outlook is the client software, which runs on the computer on which you read and write e-mails. Exchange is the server software, which runs in a data center somewhere. Exchange is a program with a database holding the e-mails, address books and calendars for a entire bunch of users. A domain like is implemented with many Exchange servers, each with the e-mails of a particular collection of IRS workers, typically a duo for each physical location.

When Ms. Lerner wrote an e-mail, she used her computer running an e-mail client such an Outlook. When she hit the Send button, the e-mail instantly went to her Exchange server, which filed it away. It then found the Exchange server(s) of the recipient(s) and passed the e-mail to it (them), which it turn sent it to the user's Outlook clients. Shortly after Ms. Lerner sent an e-mail to her colleague Mr. Lowe, it was stored in no less than four places, including a duo servers. In addition, assuming the government had at least moderately responsible Exchange administration, the e-mails were further copied to replicas, on and off-site, and in addition periodically backed up to yet another medium and location.

There are other e-mail clients and other e-mail servers. I have no information about what the IRS actually used. But this is how e-mail works! There are clients. There are servers, which serve a number of users/clients. When a human writes an e-mail, it goes from her client to her server to the recipient's server to the recipient's client. As as result, it should have made no difference whatsoever that Ms. Lerner's computer "crashed." It wouldn't matter if it all of a sudden grew wings and flew off to Tahiti to frolic in the swings. Any e-mails that Ms. Lerner wrote were securely stored on her e-mail server collective with other users and in a data center, and on numerous replicas, backups and disaster recovery sites.

The fact that Ms. Lerner's computer crashed and people supposedly spent time attempting to recover e-mails from it, and when they failed, proclaimed them "lost forever," and the fact that everyone else involved, including journalists and commentators and experts of all sorts, accepted that as the state of affairs ("well, if her hard disk crashed, what can you do, ya know?"), demonstrates that none of them has a clue about how e-mail works. It's like not knowing that cars have engines. It's that bad.

What e-mails have to do with Bitcoin and Block Chain

Compared to many other computer technologies, e-mail is plain. Compared to many other computer technologies, Bitcoin is complicated. Even worse, what's interesting about Bitcoin isn't Bitcoin the crypto-currency — it's the block chain technology on which it's implemented. Block chain is getting all sorts of attention from financial technology people and investors. I won't review it here, but a brief look at the act will persuade you it's foamy.

What if investors, financial industry executives and Bitcoin technology company leaders are as informed about block chain as everyone involved was/is about e-mail? What if they're making significant decisions based on critical observations as sound as "well, the hard drive is kaput, so the e-mail is gone, and that's that?" If the understanding of significant actors in the e-mail drama exhibit paper-thin understanding and wrong-headed conclusions, are we to understand that all the folks involved in Bitcoin and block chain are geniuses by comparison?

Place your bets, people. I know what I'm betting on.

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