Thumbing It

The other day I inadvertently caught my thumb in a door I was closing.  My thumb throbbed, I cursed, and then I realized with a start that until my poor pollex was 100 percent again I was totally unable to fully participate in essential activities of modern life.

The development of an opposable thumb has long been viewed as a crucial step in the human evolutionary process.  The thumb is a simple body part, made up of bones and hinges.  Yet the fully opposable thumb is unique to humans, and its development allowed humans to become complex organisms.  The thumb permits us to grip items securely and throw them accurately.  The thumb is essential to the use of the fine motor skills that allow us to perform detail work.  It is what made humans into toolmakers and tool users.

In the modern world our thumbs are more important than ever before.  They are our principal texting digits.  Your thumb performs the swipe that unlocks your iPhone.  Your thumbs anchor your hands on a computer keyboard and pound the space bar when you type your report.  Your thumb is what empowers you to open a clutch purse, use a bottle opener, pry open a child-proof container, and take notes with a pen.  Of course, it also allows you to signal an interest in hitchhiking and indicate ready assent in a noisy place.  The list of activities that require a thumb is endless, and it will continue to grow as inventiveness moves our species toward even greater reliance upon handheld devices.

With the enormously increased use of our thumbs these days, you’d think that doctors, physical therapists, and surgeons would be besieged by people with thumb-related ailments — but that doesn’t appear to be the case.  The humble thumb abides.

Forcing Adherence To The Law

We may be on the verge of a new era in personal choice and personal responsibility:  Ford is getting ready to roll out a new car that simply will not allow you to exceed the speed limit.

From a technology standpoint, the Ford S-Max is an interesting step forward.  The car will come equipped with a camera that will read speed limits posted on roadside signs.  The S-Max will then automatically adjust the amount of fuel to the engine to prevent the car from reaching speeds above that posted limit.  So, rather than using braking action to control speed, the S-Max will use the operation of the engine itself to prevent any lawlessness by the lead-footed driver.

The Ford S-Max is in line with a recent trend to use technology to force adherence to the law, whether it is through electronic ankle bracelets that control where people can and cannot go or proposals for cars that require you to pass a breathalyzer test or to fasten your seat belt before the ignition will engage.  Leave aside the issue of whether requiring complete compliance with the law at all times is always safe and smart — there are circumstances, for example, when exceeding the speed limit to get out of the way of other vehicles in a merging situation is the only prudent course — and consider, instead, what such technological controls do to affect concepts of personal morals and to encourage governmental intrusion into personal choice.

If you have no ability to break certain laws, do you even need to develop a personal code of ethical behavior that will apply to your daily life and help to guide your actions?  If you can’t make the wrong choice, what does the concept of personal choice really mean?  And if we start to accept routine technological controls on our behavior, will government entities be tempted to increase the range of controls, by enacting new laws that regulate behavior and by requiring further technological limitations on our ability to act freely?

The Ford S-Max is a long way from futuristic, sci-fi worlds where computer chips are implanted into human brains to rigorously control behavior, but every journey begins with a single step.  I’m not going to be in the market for an S-Max — if the choice is left up to me.

There’s Gold In Them Thar Poop

The members of the American Chemical Society must be very curious people.  For example, a presentation at the most recent national meeting of the ACS addressed the prospects for recovery of gold, silver, copper, vanadium, palladium, and other precious metals that are found in . . . human waste.

According to a BBC report, the ACS presentation concluded, through a study that must have been incredibly disgusting to conduct, that gold is found in waste from American sewage treatment plants at the same levels found in a minimal mineral deposit. A prior study had found that the waste from 1 million Americans includes about $13 million in rare metals, and scientists are evaluating whether an extraction process using certain leaches could be applied to the solid waste produced by waste water treatment plans to see whether the rare metals could be pulled out, presumably cleaned up, and then sold.

The concept of extracting metals from solid waste is similar to the notion of “mining” metals from landfills and waste dumps.  Some experts estimate that landfills contain billions of dollars in metals, if they could just figure out an economical way to separate the metals from the disposable diapers and other vile items that have American landfills filled to the brim.  Already some “landfill mining” operations are underway.

Metals, if improperly disposed of, can be environmentally damaging, so I’m all in favor of any process that results in more complete recycling — even if it means sifting through smelly tons of human waste.  The BBC story about the ACS presentation left unanswered my central question about this issue, however:  how in the world does gold and vanadium get into the human digestive system, and its end product, in the first place?

Scrutinizing The Search Engines

How do search engines work, exactly?  When you type in your poorly worded, off the top of your head inquiry, how do they sift through mountains of data and come up with responsive information — and then rank that information, to boot?

Staffers at the Federal Trade Commission looked at Google and concluded that Google skews its search results to favor its own services and offerings at the expense of its rivals.  Among other things, the report concluded that Google modified its ranking criteria so that Google options fared better and that Google “scraped” content — whatever that means — from other websites as part of its effort to favor Google offerings.

IMG_4976I suppose I should be irate about the notion of Google jimmying search results in its favor, but it’s hard to get too exercised about it.  I really don’t care about how the rankings are determined or presented, nor do I want to get into the boring details of search algorithms.  How many people automatically click on the top option their search produces?  I don’t.  I’m perfectly happy to skip the sites that have paid for priority and the cached options and scroll through until I find what I’m looking for.

The search engine world is a black box to most of us non-techies, but there seems to be a lot of games being played, by everyone.  How often have you done a software update on your computer and found that your default search engine option has mysteriously changed from Google to, say, Yahoo as part of the process?  That’s happened to me, and I assume that Yahoo has paid for that modification, figuring that most people won’t go through the hassle of changing the default back to Google or Yelp or whatever it was before.  And most people won’t.

The reality is, most of us don’t care which search engine gets used, or how the search engine produces its results, or whether those results are faithfully based on objective criteria.  We just want to get instantaneous answers to our questions.  I’m more interested in how Google comes up with those funky substitutes for the letters in its name that recognize special occasions, like today’s colorful flower-based nod to the official beginning of spring.

Ringtone Deductions

Ringtones are a kind of window into the soul, when you think about it.  If you’re with a person and their cellphone rings, for that brief moment you are getting a glimpse of some personal information about that individual.

IMG_2622For many people, including me, their ringtone is the default option chosen by the phone’s manufacturer.  For my iPhone 4, it’s called the “opening” ringtone — that vaguely Caribbean, quasi-steel drum trill that everyone has heard thousands of times but is so common and generic that people don’t really notice it anymore.  If someone’s cell phone uses the default option, you can reasonably conclude that the owner views the phone as a pesky, purely functional tool and hasn’t done anything to experiment with it or customize it to their tastes.

Then there are people who have rejected the default option, but choose a ringtone from the alternatives offered by the phone manufacturer.  My iPhone offers dozens of options, from dogs barking to ducks quacking to angelic harps to psychedelic snippets.  One of my friends uses the “trill” ringtone, which sounds like the noise Fred Flintstone made when he bowled on tippy-toes.  I asked if he was a big fan of the Man from Bedrock, but he says he chose it because it’s easier for him to hear.  It’s fair to infer that people who have gone beyond the default option but stayed within the manufacturer’s menu are comfortable with technology, intrigued by the different choices, and like playing around with their phones.

What about the people who’ve downloaded ringtones from the internet?  I often notice this in cabs, where I’ve been startled by driver ringtones that are a wild blast of foreign music or sound like a snippet from a sermon in an unknown tongue.  Those cabbies are making a statement — they’re in their taxis all day, they routinely take calls with passengers in the back seat, and there’s not much privacy.  They don’t care if you hear their rings or their conversations, which usually are muttered in another language, anyway.  Their ringtones are a way to stay connected to their native lands or their religions.

And finally there are the folks who have customized their ringtones so that different sounds are associated with different callers.  I was in a meeting recently where another attendee got a call and the ringtone was a portion of a Led Zeppelin song.  He explained that he had a different ringtone for his wife and each of his kids, and that was the one for his daughter.  Interesting, I thought, but I couldn’t imagine spending the time to figure out how to do that, then pick the right song, then download it from the internet into my phone.  Either that guy had a lot of time on his hands — or he got one of his kids to do it for him.

Big Brother Barbie

Mattel has introduced a new Barbie called “Hello Barbie.” Implanted with voice recognition software and a microphone, Hello Barbie records children’s voices, sends them over the web to a server where they are reviewed and analyzed, and then uses that information to develop a response.  Eventually Hello Barbie is supposed to learn and remember names and chat away with kids.  The new doll is designed to get Barbie, which has been declining in popularity with digitally obsessed kids, back into the game.

Privacy advocates aren’t impressed. They call the new doll Eavesdropping Barbie and Creepy Barbie, and question why any parent would want their child’s conversations recorded and sent to a faraway server to be analyzed.  You could imagine how such recordings could be misused if they were intercepted, or the server was hacked, and they ended up in the hands of kidnappers or child molesters.  Privacy advocates also wonder if the doll’s chatter could be used to encourage kids to ask for other Mattel toys.  Mattel, for its part, says it is committed to safety and security.

I wouldn’t want to bring any device into my home that would intentionally record and analyze my children’s conversations — but I also think we have forgotten just how much information our existing electronic devices already collect and analyze information about us.  Our cellphones have apps that track our location and tell us about the nearest restaurants. Our home computers collect cookies that remember the websites we’ve visited and the searches we’ve done and then direct pop-up ads for products to our screens based on that information.  Our cars have satellite radios and GPS systems that follow our daily journeys.  Our home cable and wireless systems are tied into networks that are transparent to call center employees thousands of miles away.  A good rule of thumb is that any “smart” device — whether a phone, or a dishwasher, or a refrigerator, or a car — is collecting and recording information and sending it somewhere, where it probably is maintained on a computer server and being used or sold.

Hello Barbie?  It’s more like Hello Big Brother.  And Big Brother is already here.

Non-Emailers

The fallout from Hillary Clinton’s decision to use a personal email address and server rather than an official U.S. government one when she was Secretary of State continues.  Most recently, she announced that she should have used a government email address — no kidding! — but also says she’s deleted emails from that personal server that were private and that the server itself will never be produced if she has anything to say about it. I guess we’ll just have to trust her and her staff to make a complete and thoughtful production.

But enough about Hillary; we’ll no doubt be hearing more from her in the future.  One of the more interesting elements of her email tale is that it has provoked some politicians to step forward and declare that they don’t use email.  South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham says he has never sent an email — which is a bit strange because he is a member of the Senate Internet Policy subcommittee.  Other Senators similarly don’t use email.

Bill Clinton also is a non-emailer.  His spokesman says he’s only sent two emails in his entire life, both while he was President, which means he hasn’t used email for about 15 years.  That’s kind of weird, too, because Hillary Clinton says that one reason she’s not producing the email server she used is that it includes “personal communications from my husband and me.”  How personal communications from a confessed non-emailer made it onto an email server is anybody’s guess, but I’m sure the Clintons will promptly clear up that little inconsistency, too.

It’s hard to imagine not using email at all in the modern world.  I can understand wanting to have some important conversations face to face, where the people involved can react to each other, or concluding that a nice handwritten note about an important occasion is a more meaningful, personal touch than sending a message that ends up in typeface on a glowing computer screen.  But email is now so ubiquitous that complete non-use makes you wonder:  why?  Is it really plausible that these folks never tried to use a new form of technology even once?  Do the non-users think they’re just too important to use a handy communication tool that the rest of us use on a daily basis?  Are they afraid that they are going to say something stupid or intemperate and that it will be preserved for all time?  Are they so clumsy and incapable in their typing — or thumbing — skills that they just refuse out of frustration?

It’s like still using pony express when you could make a telephone call.  It immediately suggests that you are out of touch and out of step with the modern world and the daily lives of most Americans.  Politicians who aren’t using email aren’t violating federal law, but they are violating societal norms.