Show of 04-18-2020

Tech Talk

April 18, 2020

Email and Forum Questions

  • Email from Susan in Alexandria: Good morning, Dr. Shurtz and Mr. Russ, Gosh, what happened to the discussion of coronavirus models? Did you think we weren’t paying attention? Time management, gentlemen!  Or else manage expectations! (Or was today’s show just an example of “Always leave them wanting more?”) Just kidding – but don’t forget, Susan in Alexandria.
  • Tech Talk Responds: I think we got carried away with the Smart Toilet and Butt Recognition. We will cover the models today.
  • Email from Arnie in Colorado Springs: Hi Dr. Shurtz, As a physicist, you may be able to understand this. In any case thought you would like to see this theory. Not necessarily Tech Talk subject. Stephen Wolfram may have a path to the fundamental theory of physics and it beautiful. Arnie in Colorado Springs, CO
  • Tech Talk Responds: I have nearly finished reading and it is fascinating. Wolfram is approaching the fundamental laws on nature using very simply relationships that are replicated over and over again to create complexity. It is fascinating. When I finish reading his paper, I’ll talk about on Tech Talk
  • Email from John in Kansas City: Is a six digit PIN really all that more secure than a four digit PIN? My wife says that those two extra digits should not make much difference. I disagree. What are your thoughts on this? John in Kansas City
  • Tech Talk Responds: A six digit PIN isn’t just slightly more secure than a four digit pin. It’s actually a LOT more secure. A four digit PIN has 10,000 possible combinations. I know that sounds pretty impressive, but it’s actually quite easy to break using various electronic methods. However, a six digit pin has a 1 million possible combinations. And that of course makes it LOT harder to break (and a lot more time consuming) using those same methods. If you secure a device (or an online account for that matter) with a PIN, using a six digit PIN will provide a LOT more protection than selecting a pin with just four digits.
  • Email from Alex in Falls Church; Dear Doc and Jim. When I bought my laptop the salesman told me that Windows 10 does a horrible job at keeping the system optimized and running smoothly. He said I needed to buy a program called System Mechanic and use it to clean Windows up every few months. He told me the most important feature of System Mechanic is how it optimizes the Registry to make sure it runs right without causing any problems. But I heard someone at work say that it’s dangerous to optimize the Windows Registry. Is that really true? Alex in Falls Church
  • Tech Talk Responds:While it’s true that the Registry database in Windows does get cluttered up with digital junk over time, I’ve seen very little evidence that it places a noticeable performance hit on a machine. However, I’ve seen lots of evidence over the years that using a Registry optimizer tool to “clean” and organize the Windows Registry can cause issues ranging from minor intermittent system errors to total system freeze-ups. In the worst cases the machines wouldn’t even boot up into Windows.
  • Personally, I use CCleaner and perform each included task manually, making sure to skip the Registry Optimization tool altogether. I also recommend running Windows’ own native Disk Cleanup utility on occasion to keep the hard drive/SSD free of clutter. I also like to use the Geek Uninstaller utility to uninstall programs from my PCs because it prevents the accumulation of leftover fragments of deleted programs by removing every last trace of the deleted program. A little periodic routine maintenance can indeed keep your Windows PC running smoothly, but I recommend that you leave the Registry optimizer tools alone.
  • Email form Donna in Kansas: Dear Tech Talk. My old laptop wouldn’t come on the other day. The motherboard was bad and that it wasn’t worth fixing, so I bought a new laptop. The problem is I have literally thousands of photos on the dead laptop’s hard drive that I desperately need to get off of it and onto my new Laptop. Do you know of a way that I can retrieve the photos myself? Donna in Pittsburg, Kansas
  • Tech Talk Responds: Assuming that the hard drive in your old laptop still works, you should be able to transfer the photos and other files on it onto your new laptop’s hard drive. Purchase an inexpensive SATA/IDE to USB Adapter. They are less than $10 on Amazon. Remove the hard drive from the dead computer. Simply turn the laptop over and remove the plastic cover from the hard drive bay, then remove the tiny screw(s) holding the drive in place and gently, but firmly pull it free from the connector. Plug the SATA end of the SATA/IDE to USB Adapter into the hard drive and then plug the USB end into an unused USB port on the new laptop. You have effectively just connected the old drive to the laptop as an external USB hard drive. Boot the laptop into Windows and then press the Windows+E key combination to open the ‘Computer’ dialog box. Double-click the icon that represents the old hard drive and navigate to the folder(s) containing your photos. Copy the entire folder(s) onto the laptop’s internal hard drive.
  • Email from Jim in Bowie: Dear Tech Talk. I have been listening to your cut the cord shows and recently purchased a Tablo, so I could stream over-the-air TV on my Wi-Fi network. It has a remote feature that allows me to access TV even remotely. When I set up the port forwards on my Verizon FiOS router, remote access works for a while and then it stops. I cannot keep it active for more than a day. Is there a solution to this problem? Enjoy the show live. Jim in Bowie
  • Tech Talk Responds: I have solved the mystery with the Tablo Remote Access. The FiOS Router has a function called Universal Plug and Play (UPnP). It can be found in the Advanced section after you log onto your router. There are two options: UPnP Enabled, and Cleanup Enabled. The problem is with the cleanup. It deletes port forwards that have not been used, even if they are still wanted. UPnP automatically creates your port forwards upon request by an UPnP application. Tablo is an UPnP application, so port forwards do not have to be created manually.
  • First I unchecked the Remote Access in the Tablo app. I fixed my router by first deleting all Tablo port forwards, checking UPnP enabled, and unchecking Cleanup Enabled. Then I rebooted the router. After the router came up, I checked the Remote Access on the Tablo app. This creates two port forwards using UPnP, each time this is done on the Tablo app. No port forwards are deleted, even if there are more than two, because cleanup is disabled. Extra port forwards do not cause a problems. Your Tablo Remote Access will now be stable. This fixes the problem.
  • David in Boulder: Dear Tech Talk. I have been hearing about Dark Web scans to see if my private information has been stolen and is available. What do these services do and are they worth it? Enjoy the show. David in Bolder, Colorado.
  • Tech Talk Responds: Experian and many other companies are pushing “dark web scans.” They promise to search the dark web for your personal information to see if criminals are selling it. Do not waste your money.
  • The “dark web” consists of hidden websites that you can’t access without special software. For example, the Tor software can be used for anonymous browsing of the normal web, but it also hides special sites known as “.onion sites” or “Tor hidden services.” There are legitimate uses for Tor hidden services. It allows people in oppressive countries to access banned websites. The dark web is also used for criminal activities. Even if these services were scanning the entirety of the public dark web, they wouldn’t be able to see the exclusive information that is traded privately. These companies are simply gathering data dumps made public on the dark web.
  • Have I Been Pwned will tell you whether your email address or password appears in one of 322 public data dumps on the dark web. You can also have it notify you when your email address appears in a new data dump. Link: https://haveibeenpwned.com/
  • Email from John in Bethesda: Dear Tech Talk. I listen to Tech Talk every Saturday morning, but sometimes I miss the show. Where can I find the podcast so I can listen to the show later in the week? Tech Talk is very informative. John in Bethesda
  • Tech Talk Responds: The Tech Talk Podcast can be found in several locations.
    • Stratford Website: http://techtalk.stratford.edu/rss/techtalkradio.xml
    • Apple iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tech-talk-radio-podcast/id254985702?mt=2
    • Podcast One: https://www.podcastone.com/tech-talk-radio
    • Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/stratford-university/tech-talk-radio-2
  • Plus, many other podcast aggregator sites that harvest information from Apple iTunes. Enjoy the podcasts. The feed goes back for several years. If you go to the Stratford Tech Talk website (http://techtalk.stratford.edu/), you can find shows that go back over fifteen years.

Profiles in IT: Neil Morris Ferguson

  • Neil Morris Ferguson is a professor of mathematical biology, who specializes in the patterns of spread of infectious disease at Imperial College.
  • Ferguson was born in 1968 in Cumbria but grew up in Mid Wales.
  • He attended Llanidloes High School in Wales. His father was an educational psychologist, while his mother was a librarian who later became an Anglican priest.
  • He received his Master of Arts degree in Physics in 1990 and his Doctor of Philosophy degree in theoretical physics in 1994, both, Oxford University.
  • His doctoral thesis dealt with continuous interpolations from crystalline to dynamically triangulated random surfaces.
  • Ferguson was part of Roy Anderson’s group of infectious disease scientists who moved from the University of Oxford to Imperial College in November 2000.
  • In 2001, he started working on modelling the 2001 UK foot-and-mouth outbreak.
  • Ferguson and colleagues founded the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis in 2008.
  • During the swine flu outbreak in 2009 in the UK, Ferguson and colleagues endorsed the closure of schools in order to interrupt the course of the infection.
  • In 2013, he contributed to research on MERS- CoV during the first MERS outbreak in the Middle East, and its link with dromedary camels.
  • In 2014, Ferguson provided data analysis for the WHO, on Ebola in Western Africa.
  • Ferguson’s work has included research on several mosquito-borne diseases including zika fever, yellow fever, dengue fever and malaria.
  • Ferguson and his team predicted that the zika outbreak in the Americas would be over within three years.
  • In 2015, Ferguson and his team modelled the spread of the dengue virus and predicted that one strain of Wolbachia could reduce in transmission.
  • In February 2020, Fergusonn and his team used statistical models to predict the spread of COVID-19 from China. Ferguson and his team estimated that only 10% of actual cases were being detected in China. Ferguson calculated that only one in three cases coming into the UK was being detected.
  • He said that the new coronavirus could affect up to 60% of the UK’s population and that it could be comparable to the major influenza pandemics of the twentieth century.
  • Ferguson’s team predicted that over 500K people could die in the UK, and over 2M could die in the U.S. In late March, he calculated that with “strict social distancing, testing and isolation “, deaths in the UK could fall to less than 20,000.
  • The shift in the UK response from letting the virus spread through the population to the wholescale stay-at-home policy now in place resulted from Ferguson’s work.
  • Ferguson was appointed Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2002 for his work modelling the 2001 United Kingdom foot-and-mouth outbreak.
  • On 18 March 2020 he had developed the symptoms of COVID-19, and self-isolated.

The Dueling Coronavirus Models – Imperial College vs Oxford University

  • The language of models, and modelers, is at odds with the demands and communication style of the world of politics and policy.
  • It was a modeling change that sent U.K. policy rushing toward lockdown.
  • Britain had been leaning toward an approach known as “herd immunity,” whereby a large share of the population becomes infected over time, building up a broad resistance.
  • After researchers at Imperial College reported on March 17 that the impact of a go-slow response to the virus in the U.K. and the U.S. would be devastating, Johnson changed course. And Donald Trump stopped comparing the virus to the winter flu.
  • A week later, a team from Oxford University, led by Sunetra Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology, and Jose Lourenco, made a splash with the publication of a dramatically different model of the disease’s prevalence.
  • Their paper suggested that, among other possibilities, up to 68% of the population may have already been infected with the virus — many without knowing it.
  • If that’s true, they argue, the threat will have subsided in two to three months, with the health service stretched but not overwhelmed.
  • Then the Imperial team seemed to pivot again. The lead scientist on the study (who’s also a government adviser), Neil Ferguson, told a parliamentary committee last week that increases in hospital capacity and new restrictions in place made him “reasonably confident” that the NHS can handle the peak of the outbreak.
  • Imperial’s previous paper had warned of 250,000 deaths if the government did not pursue far more draconian measures to suppress the spread of the virus; with new lockdown measures, he said it could be less than 20,000.
  • Ferguson insisted his estimates of the disease’s lethality hadn’t changed; it could be up to 500,000 with no controls. But his update factored in data showing a greater rate of transmission (or higher reproductive number) than previously thought, which seemed to support the idea that more people have indeed been infected and the National Health Service would be able to cope.
  • How can we make sense of these models. All mathematical models start with a well-defined question, a framework and a set of assumptions. “Both models are right in their design. But both answer separate questions — and both are only as good as the data they rely on.
  • The question asked by the Imperial paper is: What strategies will change the epidemic curve of Covid-19 and flatten it? The Oxford paper asks a different question: Has Covid-19 already spread widely?
  • The Imperial approach is a stochastic model (the Greek root word means “able to guess”); by definition, results will vary depending on which probabilistic equations are assumed to best capture reality.
  • For cases in which data are limited, stochastic model predictions can swing wildly as a function of the initial assumptions. Add new data and the result can be seismically different, which is what happened when the team input new data from Italy and China and drastically altered their predictions of the severity of the disease’s impact.
  • There have been various criticisms of the Imperial model, including the decision to ignore the impact of widespread testing and contact tracing, which has been highly effective in places like South Korea.
  • The underlying mathematical framework was also adapted from a model used for a flu pandemic, which Ferguson published back in 2006 in the journal Nature.
  • Unlike the Imperial team, the Oxford group used a so-called deterministic model, one that starts with a known — in this case, the number of deaths in the first 15 days of non-zero deaths in both Italy and the U.K. — and then makes various assumptions (including about how much of the population is at risk of hospitalization and the time between infection and death) to find levels of infection that fit with that data.
  • Their paper, which also hasn’t been peer reviewed, suggests the virus may have been spreading a month before we were aware there was a viral enemy in our midst and that we may be approaching broader immunity.
  • Yet, that’s just one of the many scenarios that fits the model. The number of reported deaths could also be explained by a smaller number of infections and a larger proportion who are at risk of hospitalization.
  • Modelers and scientists of all kinds accept that uncertainty is infused in everything they do. They also cope with it better than most, naming their assumptions, setting parameters and changing them as more data becomes available.
  • Perhaps the best available basis on which to make actual decisions today isn’t so much what the modelers can tell us about coronavirus, but the experiential evidence coming out of China, South Korea, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.
  • This made clear what we’re supposed to do for a while now: isolate, test, trace, hope.

The Wolfram Physics Project

  • Physicist and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram has unveiled “The Wolfram Physics Project,” which he subtitles “A Project to Find the Fundamental Theory of Physics.”
  • The aim of the project is to enlist the assistance of people around the globe to find the fundamental theory of physics—the theory that ties together all of physics, from the general theory of relativity to quantum mechanics.
  • Wolfram has also published several documents on his website that outline the history behind the development of the project.
  • Early in his career, he was a distinguished physicist, but later, left to found a computer company.
  • More recently, he has found a renewed interest in pursuing his ideas about fundamental physics that he believes will lead to the discovery of a fundamental theory.
  • Wolfram suggests that the universe can be modeled using points in space and rules that, when applied, generate more points.
  • As more points are added, a network is built. He further suggests that model universes can be built using hypergraphs that describe such networks—and the rules that are applied eventually determine the characteristics that make up a given universe.
  • And this, he believes, suggests that it should be possible to start with a few points in space and develop a model that depicts the real universe—at least as we know it.
  • All that is needed, he suggests, is for somebody to come up with the right rules. And that is the whole point of his project. Those who are interested need only visit the project website and begin downloading documents that further explain Wolfram’s theories and how citizen scientists can get involved—and if they desire, create some rules and add them to the project.

Why Does the Financial World Depend on COBOL

  • COBOL took the business world by storm. It was rolled out by Grace Hopper.
  • Grace Hopper was a phenomenon. She earned a doctorate in mathematics from Yale, was a professor at Vassar, and left the U.S. Navy with the rank of rear admiral.
  • Driven to create a programming language closer to English than the machine-code computers understand, Hopper developed the first compiler.
  • This opened the door for the first compiled languages, such as FLOW-MATIC. This earned her a seat on the Conference/Committee on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) of 1959.
  • She was also instrumental in the specification and development of the Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL). The first meeting took place on June 23, 1959, and its report and specification of the COBOL language followed in April 1960.
  • COBOL contained some groundbreaking concepts. Arguably, the most significant of these was the ability to run on hardware produced by different manufacturers, which was unprecedented at the time.
  • The language was elaborate and provided a near-English vocabulary for programmers to work with. It was designed to handle huge volumes of data and to be exceptionally mathematically accurate.
  • Its vocabulary of reserved words (the words that make up the language) runs close to 400. A programmer strings these reserved words together so they make syntactical sense and create a program.
  • Any programmer who’s familiar with other languages will tell you 400 is an incredible number of reserved words. For comparison, the C language has 32, and Python has 33.
  • Our dependency on systems that still run on COBOL is astonishing. A report from Reuters in 2017 shared the following statistics:
    • There are 220 billion lines of COBOL code still in use today.
    • COBOL is the foundation of 43 percent of all banking systems.
    • Systems powered by COBOL handle $3 trillion of daily commerce.
    • COBOL handles 95 percent of all ATM card-swipes.
    • COBOL makes 80 percent of all in-person credit card transactions possible.
  • The programmers who know COBOL are either retired, thinking about retiring, or dead. We’re steadily losing the people who have the skills to keep these vital systems up and running.