Death By Over-Complexity


Vinton Cerf, often called “the father of the Internet,” is giving a dire warning to everyone who uses the internet, print ALL of you pictures and data, or lose them forever. Cerf warned that images and documents we store on computers may disappear from history as the ongoing digital revolution makes older hardware and software obsolete.Cerf is the chief Internet evangelist at Google, and he spoke this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Rather than a world where longevity is a given, Cerf fears a “digital dark age” in which the rapid evolution of technology quickly makes storage formats obsolete thanks to a phenomenon he calls “bit rot.”

“In our zeal to get excited about digitizing, we digitize photographs thinking it’s going to make them last longer, and we might turn out to be wrong,” he said.

Since so much data is now kept in digital format, another problem will be with future generations that struggle to understand our society. Technology is advancing so quickly that old files will be inaccessible.

“If we don’t find a solution our 21st Century will be an information black hole”, Cerf explained. “Future generations will wonder about us but they will have very great difficulty knowing about us.

I can see what he means. Do you remember floppy disks? There must be all sorts of stuff on floppy disks which no-one can access, because nobody has floppy disk drives any more. Or hardly anybody.

These days I use memory sticks. But I have no idea how long they last. I wouldn’t be surprised if they gradually degrade, and after 10 years they’re just full of mush.

I store quite a lot of stuff on the web, like here on WordPress. But what happens if someone buys up WordPress – and deletes everything. It could happen…

I learned to program computers in the early 1970s. And I’ve been programming ever since. And over the past 40 years, it’s seemed to me that computers have just got more and more complicated, while becoming smaller and smaller. And while they’re still called “computers” computing – writing programs – is about the last thing anyone seems to do with them. Everyone’s using applications of one sort or other, like web browsers or text editors or synthesizers or whatever.

Back in the 1970s, the first microcomputers were very much computing oriented. When they fired up, there’d be a prompt on the screen (which was black back then with white or green letters), and if you typed “7*8” on it, it would come back and write “56”. And you could instantly write a little Basic program with numbered lines. Those microcomputers encouraged you to program.

Not any more. I haven’t seen Basic for years. On IBM PCs it was gradually moved into the background, and you had to start Now I think that maybe you can’t even do that.

These days I program in Java using NetBeans. NetBeans is an application which allows you to write Java programs. It’s a whole development environment. And it’s got so many features that I have no idea what most of them are. The same is true of Java. Back in the 1970s, a Basic language manual would be a slim volume you could read in an afternoon. But Java now comes with manuals as thick as telephone books (Do you remember telephone books?). And I have no idea of its true capacity. I just work with a limited instruction set that I know how to use.

It’s not just that computers have become more complicated. So has everything else. Take telephones. They used to to automatically switch on when you lifted the handset. The one I’ve got now has got about 20 buttons on the front. And it’s anybody’s guess what they all do.

Or wristwatches. My first wrist watch had two hands on it that went round in circles. My current digital watch has got an alarm, a stopwatch, and maybe even a calculator. And I’ve long since lost the manual.

Even my electric oven is programmable. But I never try. The manual got lost a long time ago.

I can imagine a day when I step into a shower one morning, and am confronted with a 20-button control panel. And I’ll step back out, and perform my ablutions over a wash basin instead (assuming the wash basin hasn’t got a control panel too), rather than try to figure out how to use the shower controller.

I think we aren’t dying of “bit rot”, so much as over-complication. Everything will just become too complicated to use. It will be impossible to wash, shower, cook, tell the time, make phone calls, watch TV, drive a car, or use any computer of any sort. Because they will have all become unfathomably complex.

And I will live with a hunting knife off tins of corned beef washed down with rainwater, and take a bath in the nearest river every 6 months or so.


About Frank Davis

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15 Responses to Death By Over-Complexity

  1. I would think that digital storage might also have the weakness of being vulnerable to EMPs from either a high altitude nuke burst or some sort of solar flare/pulse.

    Yes, I’m sure some of the more important stuff has backups in lead-lined bunkers, but just imagine if tomorrow afternoon there were a HUGE solar pulse that basically wiped out all the data on everyone’s (on that hemisphere at least) PCs and backup drives. Whew…. It might not be the Zombie Apocalypse… but imagine the amount of disruption that would cause!

    Or, almost as bad, (or worse?), if something happened that rendered the internet itself unusable (I don’t know what COULD cause such a thing though…. so it may be more fantasy than sci-fi.) … or even somehow simply fried everyone’s computer hardware! Heh… Dell ‘n HP etc couldn’t even glory in simply a sales rush: I’m sure their whole puter manufacturing process is pretty damn dependent on having working computers along the way!

    In terms of societal effect it wouldn’t be that far from going back a hundred years and eliminating fire.

    – MJM

  2. harleyrider1978 says:

    I was just telling my brother this morning after he purchased a brand new server for his business at 100 grand and it wouldn’t link up with Comcast yet AGAIN……….He just let his IT go he was paying a 100 grand a year to……… Anyway I said you know itd be easier to just go back to the old Icals 13 KEY calculators and enter by hand on paper the inventorys. The costs involved of keeping upgrades and maintenance is becoming non cost effective over labor costs.

    He tended to agree except the big corporations he does his biggest work for all want the latest digital wonders used……….I mean in a second as the market changes on oil prices you can watch the gas station pump price fluctuate with the market values literally.

    I sat one day at the pump watching it tick back and forth for 5 minutes until it literally landed on the lower value before I bought gas and locked in the price. That’s the same way in walmarts or many other large chains. As something is sold they know who has what and how much left in stock and the inventory is automatically updated on the next truck coming in…………

    Even with RFI chips built into 5 dollar and above items a smart thief just brings a big magnet to deguaze the strip and out the door they go…………

    No alarms no anything…………

    Then loss prevention inventories kick in to see the actual losses due to theft.

    But as mike says an EMP would devastate commercial internet and maybe even files but mostly itd just scramble the electrons in transmission and leave data in tact on hard drives.

    As far as I know the military is the only ones using EMP shielding on their connections ie physical connections. Microwave communications would be dead for up to week after an EMP burst.

  3. harleyrider1978 says:

    Measuring skulls, hereditarianism, and what data is for

    It seems eugenics and racism go hand in hand with the war on lifestyles……………
    Remember the study that smokers have smaller brains and smoking shrinks your brain.

    on May 4, 2015

    by Joshua Banta, Jonathan Kaplan and Massimo Pigliucci

    Why would the popular media be interested in a story about a historical argument surrounding measurement techniques and statistical summaries of human skull volumes? A technical scientific paper published by Lewis et al. in the journal PLoS Biology a few years ago [1] was just that, and yet it was picked up by major news organizations, including the New York Times [2], Wired [3], and Nature [4], as well as countless science blogs (as a Google search of “Lewis et al. 2011 skulls” quickly confirms). Clearly, something else was going on that piqued reporters’ and bloggers’ interest.

    Partially, perhaps, the impact of Lewis et al.’s paper can be attributed to the target of its attack: evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould. Gould spent much of his career at Harvard University, where he published technical scientific papers in paleontology, zoology, and evolutionary biology, as well as over 20 books for lay audiences about science. Gould was, and remains, a divisive figure. His strong opposition to “genetic determinism” led to some very public fights with other science popularizers, such as Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson, whose work he viewed as encouraging naïve views of the relationship between genes and development. Gould’s longstanding commitment to anti-racism came together with his concern about simple-minded genetic explanations offered by “hereditarianism,” the ultra-genetic determinist view that human behaviors are caused by specific genes that are fixed in their effects and impervious to changes in living and rearing conditions, and that genes that matter to important traits like intelligence vary among the “races.”

    In one of his popular books, The Mismeasure of Man, Gould set his sights on Samuel G. Morton, a 19th century American physician who catalogued and reported the cranial volumes of human skulls he collected while working at the University of Pennsylvania; importantly, these skull measurements were organized in Morton’s writings by race [5]. Gould argued that Morton believed the races could be ranked by intellectual ability, and that Morton thought that his measurements proved it. (In fact, it isn’t clear what, if anything, Morton meant his skull measurements to prove — more on this later.) Gould also argued that Morton’s racial biases had led him, unconsciously, to mis-analyze the skulls in his collection in ways that systematically advantaged “whites” and systematically disadvantaged “blacks” (and, indeed, all the other races). Properly analyzed, Gould continued, the skulls in Morton’s collection revealed no differences in sizes worth mentioning, demolishing both Morton’s claims to objectivity and the latter contention that skull sizes varied significantly with “race,” and hence undermining Morton’s goal of linking intellectual ability and race.

  4. Marvin says:

    I think Mr Cerf is really saying, store everything on “the cloud” and all your data will be “future proof”……….and NSA/GCHQ will never take a look at it……..honest.


    I think the rot set in, in the late 70s, early 80s, when the computer market changed from being aimed at technicians, engineers and scientists, to office workers and ease of use became paramount for non-technical office staff. But the cost of having fancy GUIs and point and click operation was/is horrendous complexity under the lid, added to this the often badly documented APIs which seem to have been written by a commitee, especially USB, and it is all utterly ridiculous.

    I still use floppy discs and I still have a proper DOS computer, the reason is quite simple, I have a professional printed cicuit board/schematic editor program, which cost £200 back in 1980, when I enquired about the Windows version of the same program, I was shocked to find you can’t actually purchase it, but you can hire it for one year at a cost of £3000!!! – so I won’t be binning my DOS system any time soon :)

    The real joy of programming today lies with microcontrollers. You have loads of hardware, I/O ports, timers, RAM etc, all on the same piece of silicon, with complete control over them. I got so pissed off with a commercial MP3 player I bought for use in my car (it had a tiny one inch screen, with umpteen menues you had to wade through, just to skip a track, not a good idea when you’re driving along!!) that I decided to build my own. So I bought a Microchip PIC controller, an MP3 codec (from eBay), an SD card (which holds 500 tracks) and one big yellow pushbutton marked “skip” and it only took about a week to build, great fun and the sound quality is excellent.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I used to write the firmware for specialised keyboards used on the trading floors in the City of London. They had dedicated microcontrollers with timers, parallel, serial, and I2C I/O ports, LED displays, and more, in addition to the keyboard itself. On those keyboards lots of keys wouldn’t just send one character, but up to 256. And some of them had subsidiary keypads. It was indeed great fun working on them. I wrote everything on the EPROM chips myself, and a lot of it was written in assembler. It was total control over a small universe. I knew how absolutely everything worked.

  5. smokervoter says:

    I live my life on the Keep It Simple Stupid principle (KISS), always have and always will.

    Brain-squirming Healthism, People for a Perfect World and Clean Living Movement III all thrive on overcomplexity, overanalysis and overthinking everything.

    Frank and Marvin, are you guys familiar with the Unix Philosophy by any chance?

    • Frank Davis says:

      I’ve heard of UNIX, but not the Unix philosophy. I tend to be a bit leery of computing ‘philosophy’, And of new languages (although Java is one of those new languages). It all too often seems a bit pretentious.

      I’m currently writing a 3D version of my orbital simulation model. I’d never tried doing 3D before. It’s been a learning process as much as a writing process. Half the fun of it is solving geometrical problems of one sort or other. It’s as much art as mathematics. It’s now working quite well, and I hope to produce a few YouTube videos of Earth fly-bys and stuff like that, which I’ll post here.

    • Marvin says:

      “The Unix philosophy emphasizes building short, simple, clear, modular, and extensible code that can be easily maintained and repurposed by developers other than its creators.” I have always used this “philosophy” without being aware it was a “Unix” one, basically break everything down into small, simple subroutines, which the main program loop can then call, as and when needed. Testing/debugging is then made easy, you can rem out a call, and/or insert a new one.


      Back in the 80s I disassembled a BSB D-Mac satellite TV receiver, (to convert it to D2-Mac, after British Satellite Broadcastings demise in the UK, in favour of the PAL BSkyB system) it used 6502 code and the main loop consisted entirely of a list of JSRs (Jump to Subroutine), it was a joy to work on, I have never seen such beautiful, easy to follow code, no way was that produced by a compiler. Anyway after finding the JSR that set the bit rate, I re-wrote it, to set the bitrate divided by two (that’s the ‘2’ in ‘D2’) and I could then watch all the Scandanavian channels, happy days :)

  6. harleyrider1978 says:

    Your going to love this one

    TROUBLESHOOTER / My smoking mom, in her 90s, gives me headaches

    The Yomiuri Shimbun
    Dear Troubleshooter:

    I’m a male company employee in my 50s. I have a problem with my mother in her 90s, who is a smoker.

    I don’t like tobacco. I get a severe headache not only by inhaling its smoke, but also from smelling even a little bit of nicotine. The headache usually lasts for a whole day and sometimes even a week in the worst case.

    Recently, when I visited my mother’s house, I was careless enough to inhale her tobacco smoke. I felt very bad because of it all through my stay there. I explained to her that I have a health problem caused by tobacco smoke and asked her to stop smoking at least while she was talking with me. But it seems difficult for her to do so.

    She raised four sons alone and even sent me to university. So I’m very grateful to her. I respect her, too. Despite her old age, she isn’t senile and has no physical problems. She always looks forward to my visits. Each time, she talks and talks happily to me for at least an hour or two. Seeing her that way, I think I should endure her tobacco smoking and patiently listen to her. But I have no way of dealing with my headache.

    Honestly, I don’t want her to smoke. Am I a cold person?

    D, Fukuoka Prefecture

    Dear Mr. D:

    Even if you tell your mother that you don’t like tobacco, she won’t listen. So, the only solution is that you make thoroughgoing preparations to cope with the situation.

    Why don’t you place a high-performance air purifier near her, install a strong ventilation fan at her house, wear a thick mask, or talk with her outdoors? I think you can find some other things you can do, too.

    But I can’t understand your problem well. You are concerned about your own health, not her health. You wonder whether you are a cold son if you don’t like your mother’s smoking. I wonder how I should answer you.

    I understand you don’t want to take away your mother’s favorite thing from her. If you want to know how to cope, I should just repeat what I said in the beginning of my answer.

    I have one more thing to tell you. Is there anybody at her house who looks after her? I’m concerned about a fire. As your mother is very old, you should be careful about this.

    You are responsible for this matter as her son. It’s much more serious than the harm of tobacco smoke.

    Tatsuro Dekune, writer

  7. harleyrider1978 says:

    Smoking taxes make cigarette smuggling an increasingly attractive option

    When a government treats citizens like criminals they tend to respond like criminals. The federal government, as large and intrusive as it has ever been, has helped create an underworld trade that is costing multi-billions of dollars.

    Every week, the equivalent of one full container of illicit cigarettes is smuggled into Australia. There are only guesstimates about the size of the trade because smugglers don’t do bureaucracy.

    The retail value of that standard container load of cigarettes, if sold legally, would be about $10 million dollars, such is the cost of a pack of cigarettes these days. On the black market, that container load would be worth about $4.5 million.


    The cost of acquiring the cigarettes in Asia would be only a fraction of its street value. So the amount of profit from that one container load is enormous. The risk-reward motive is self-evident.

    Given that Australian Customs only has the capacity to inspect about 5 per cent of the containers that arrive in Australian ports, even if one in three containers of illicit goods were intercepted, the operational loss is still small compared with the gains.

    It costs around $2.80 to buy a packet of Marlboro cigarettes in China, the world’s largest producer and market for cigarettes. The retail price in Australia is $20.60, almost 10 times higher.

    The bulk of this price chasm is Australian taxes – $14 per pack in excise and almost $2 in GST. So 90 per cent of the difference is taxes. It would be hard to find a clearer price signal to establish a black market. The profit potential is enormous.

    The government then also subjects consumers to horror porn, via mandated plain so-called packaging which is anything but plain. Packaging must, by law, depict images of advanced, deforming diseases.

    Thus the massive price mark-ups, the de facto criminalising of tobacco growing, and the state-imposed disease porn, is a classic example of a rampant nanny state passive aggression, where imposition is justified as For Your Own Good, for a product which is legal to consume and, indeed, widely consumed.

    About one in eight adult Australians are regular or irregular smokers (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare). That’s about 2.5 million people over the age of 14 who have made their own calculus of risk and reward.

    It is no surprise then, given the size of the legal market, that a large bootlegging black market has grown in direct response to the 25 per cent increase in tobacco excise in 2010 (by Labor), another 12.5 per cent increase in 2013 (Labor), another 12.5 per cent increase in 2014 (by the Abbott Coalition government, via Labor), a further 12.5 per cent increase due in September (Coalition) and another 12.5 per cent increase due in 2016 (bipartisan).

    The chances that the combination of rising taxes, plus government disease porn, will further stimulate the tobacco black market are 100 per cent.

    The tobacco bootlegging network will only grow and become more sophisticated, driven by market forces.

    Last week’s federal budget allocated $400 million for the creation of a new Australian Border Force, to inhibit people smuggling and product smuggling. So the multi-billions in revenue lost to bootlegging will be compounded by multi-billion long-term costs in bootlegging interdiction.

    According to a study conducted by KPMG this year at least $1.35 billion a year in tobacco excise and GST revenue is being lost to the untaxed black economy. The study estimates that the tobacco black market represents an estimated 14.5 per cent of total consumption.

    The KPMG study was funded by the tobacco industry but no-one has suggested that KPMG is corrupt, or that the study is not the most accurate estimate of the illicit tobacco trade we have, or that big tobacco does not have a vested interest in accurate market data.

    When it comes to nicotine addiction, the biggest addict, by far, is the federal government’s tobacco habit. It is a bipartisan addiction.

    In the 2015-16 budget estimates, the government expects to raise $9.37 billion from tobacco excise, or 27 per cent of all excise revenue, plus GST on tobacco products. In the forward estimates for next year, it expects to raise 10.18 billion, and by 2017-18, $10.7 billion, a 29 per cent increase over four years. So the government intends to be even more dependent on kicking smokers.

    I’m not buying it. Like so many of the projections in Joe Hockey’s second budget, this expectation is based on plenty of unguarded blue sky optimism.

    Government revenue from tobacco excise is actually projected to decline this year, from the $8.5 billion last year to $8.28 billion. Yet the government thinks it can aggressively milk smokers by raising taxes to a stratospheric 10 times what consumers are paying in Asia, without creating a blowback in consumer behaviour.

    Good luck with that. This is an open invitation to entrepreneurs in China, South Korea, Singapore and the Middle East to upgrade the already extensive tobacco bootleg network in Australia.

    It is very good news that the rate of regular smoking in Australia has halved in a generation, from 24.3 per cent of people over the age of 14 to about 12.8 per cent now.

    But high taxes, venue-banning and state-mandated disease porn are far from the only elements in this social change. Other advanced countries which do not have the same level of intrusive and punitive measures have also seen significant declines in smoking as the health dangers become widely known.

    The growing addiction to tobacco revenue by a succession of federal governments is a case-study in nanny-state churn, where blunt government intervention has unintended consequences and big government begets big government.

    I don’t smoke and would like to see smoking disappear, but at a certain point a big-spending, high-taxing, intrusive federal government – and this applies to the policies of the Coalition, Labor and the Greens – loses its moral authority with any group it is oppressing.

    Once moral authority has been lost, coercion promotes resentment, not compliance.

    The Abbott government, with its embrace of price gouging and disease porn, has crossed the same line of nanny state excess as Labor and the Greens. With smokers, the federal authorities have lost moral authority – and subversion should grow much faster than tax increases.

    Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_

  8. harleyrider1978 says:

  9. harleyrider1978 says:

    Jemma Fitzgerald was attacked with an ice skate because her attacker didn’t like her smoking

    A woman was hit in the head with an ice skate in an unprovoked attack because she was smoking, a court heard.

    Jemma Fitzgerald suffered a fractured skull and had brain surgery after she was targeted by university drop-out Natasha Welsh.

    Welsh, 28, walked free from court this week because she suffers from Asperger syndrome and does not like people smoking.

    Judge, Mr Recorder Wyn Lloyd Jones said he was taking an “exceptional course” because of the “obvious” problems she had.

    The court heard both women, who were strangers, were near the ice rink at Deeside Leisure Centre, Shotton when Welsh pounced.

    Without warning she swung her bag at Jemma, 20, from behind and the uncovered blade of her ice skate hit her in the head.

    Fragments of bone were later removed from her brain during delicate surgery at Walton Hospital.

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      Intolerance for smokers

      Kim Halsall, defending, said while a weapon had been used the ice skate had not been used directly.

      She said Welsh swung the bag intending to hit Jemma on the shoulder.

      The court heard Welsh was diagnosed with autism at the age of five, had a happy childhood, excelled academically, had taught herself to speak Japanese.

      But she dropped out of university because she was unable to cope and then lost her job because of her condition.

      In 2010 she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and was under the care of a psychologist.

      Miss Halsall said at the time of the attack Welsh was frustrated not having a job, felt unfulfilled and socially isolated.

      She said: “She developed intolerance to people who smoke as a result of her experiences with her former partner and her mother’s partner.”

      • harleyrider1978 says:

        What the hell kind of message does that send the world of nazis. Buy a gun shoot a non smoker because you cant stand non smokers………..then plead suffers from Asperger syndrome and does not like people not smoking. SAMO SAMO

  10. harleyrider1978 says:

    Chinese Tax increase goes up in smoke

    The case for the mainland to do something about its smoking habit hardly needs restating. But we are prompted to do so by Beijing’s announcement of a derisory increase in the consumption tax on cigarettes which is highly likely to fail one of its justifications – to discourage smoking. The government has raised the wholesale tax on cigarettes from 5 per cent to 11 per cent. This may sound a lot, but it has had a featherweight impact on over-the-counter cigarette prices and sales, according to retailers in the capital. For example, a popular brand that used to cost 25 yuan (HK$32) a pack now costs 27 yuan. One retailer said his business had not suffered at all from the rise, indicating a zero deterrent effect.

    The increase in the wholesale price is estimated to bring in an extra 20-billion-plus yuan in tax revenue this year compared with 2014, according to an informed source, although other experts put the figure much higher. In the absence of any significant deterrent effect on a dangerous habit that inflates national health-care costs, this is a socially questionable windfall for the state. There is an argument for socially “laundering” it by direct transfer to the national health budget. It would make even more sense, however, if the tax increase were also considerably larger. Since 2000, price inflation for cigarettes in the mainland has lagged rising incomes, and taxes account only for about 50 per cent of the retail price, compared with about 70 per cent in Hong Kong, up to 80 per cent in Europe and the World Health Organisation recommendation for China of at least 70 per cent.

    The mainland has more than 300 million smokers. According to the WHO, about one million deaths a year can be attributed to tobacco use. In Hong Kong, a decade of regular tobacco-tax increases is credited with cutting the incidence of lung cancer after allowing for an ageing population.

    That said, Beijing is to be commended for introducing, from next month, the nation’s toughest smoking bans yet since the first curbs on smoking in indoor venues in 2010. Weak enforcement has fostered defiance in eating places. Fines will now be 20 times higher at 200 yuan and the ban is being extended to schools, hospitals, and museums among other public places. A two-pronged approach of relentless enforcement of tougher penalties and higher tobacco taxes levied as contributions towards the future health-care costs would greatly enhance the deterrent effect.

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