Where Would We Be Without Willis?

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As we deal with another day of sweltering heat in the Midwest, let’s all acknowledge the huge debt we owe to Willis Carrier — the guy who invented air conditioning.  Where would we be without Willis and his life-changing invention?

Interestingly, Willis Carrier did not invent air conditioning to increase human comfort on scorching summer days.  Instead, he came up with his invention, in 1902, to try to deal with the problems heat and humidity were causing for a Brooklyn printing business.  It was so hot and humid during the summer months in the printing plant that the ink would not adhere to the paper, so Willis came up with the idea of moving air over cooled coils to lower the temperature and the humidity so the printers could function.  The decreased temperature in the no-doubt sweltering area near the printing presses was just a pleasant by-product of the invention.

Willis’ invention caught on and air conditioning was implemented in many businesses, but it would be decades before air conditioning became common in American homes.   The first two houses I remember living in didn’t have central air conditioning.  But now, 117 years after Willis Carrier was touched by a stroke of genius, central air conditioning is commonplace, and it’s really hard to imagine life without it.

Thank you, Willis Carrier!

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Selfie Psychosis

We are learning more and more about people who have a “selfie” obsession.  We know that people taking selfies are at greater risk of having serious, and even fatal, accidents because they are oblivious to their surroundings while they are taking pictures of themselves on streets or, say, at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  We’ve also seen evidence that people who take selfies are so self-absorbed that they don’t show the decency and sensitivity you typically would expect from a fellow human being.

Woman taking a selfieNow new research is indicating what seems like a pretty obvious conclusion:  people who take selfies are more likely to undergo plastic surgery.  The connection is even stronger if the selfies are taken with filters, or if the posters regularly take down selfie postings that they later conclude aren’t very flattering.  Cosmetic surgeons are reporting that members of the selfie crowd are coming to their offices with selfies where the features have been digitally altered and asked the doctor to change their appearance to match the altered image.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose, that people who take selfies are narcissistic and are interested in changing their appearance to try to reach their own definition of personal perfection.  After all, if you spend your time constantly looking at your own pouting face, you’re bound to notice a few imperfections to be cleaned up.  The selfie-obsessed also tend to compare their selfies with the countless other selfies that appear on social media feeds and find their looks wanting.

As one of the plastic surgeons quoted in the article linked above notes, that’s not healthy behavior.  It’s the kind of behavior that those of us who don’t take selfies, and indeed don’t particularly like to have their photos taken at all, just can’t understand.

But we’ll have to, because the selfie epidemic seems to be getting worse, not better.  Researchers estimate that 650 million selfies are posted every day on social media.  That’s a lot of potential plastic surgery.

The Last Beetle

This week Volkswagen will make its last Beetle.  At a plant in Mexico, the last few newly manufactured vehicles will roll off the assembly line, and one of the most iconic car designs in the history of the automotive industry will end.

c7853e1d42303ca7b0e084c948a284e6The VW Beetle probably has the weirdest back story of any popular car brand, ever.  It was originally conceptualized by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a people’s car, although mass production never began under the Nazi regime.  Its production began in earnest after World War II, when it helped to lead the post-war economic revitalization of what was then West Germany.  Volkswagen sold huge numbers of its “Type 1” — known to pretty much everyone as “the Beetle” because of its familiar rounded, humped design — and then made serious inroads in America, where the VW Beetle was a cheap, small, efficient, easy to repair and customize alternative to the gigantic gas-guzzlers Detroit was cranking out in those days.

The Beetle — and especially the chronically underpowered VW van — became associated with the hippie movement in the United States, and when I was a kid it wasn’t unusual to see VW cars and vans decorated with peace symbols, bright flowers, and other signs of the tie-dyed set.  It’s no coincidence that 1968, when the hippie culture was at its zenith, was the year the most Beetles were sold in America.  In that year, Americans bought more than 560,000 of the cars.  But Japan and Detroit started to be more competitive in the small car market and their efforts made inroads into Beetle sales, and then Volkswagen started to focus on other designs.  A more high-powered Beetle was introduced that was specifically intended to target retro buyers.  Now, Volkswagen is placing its corporate bets on a newly designed compact, battery-powered car.

With the car now being retired, eight decades after the Nazis first thought of it, are there any other cars currently being sold in America that have an iconic image and design even close to the Beetle?  I can’t think of any.  Peace, love, Beetle!

Grip Evolution

Here’s another story to add to the slew of news articles about general health trends:  human beings, on average, are getting weaker.  In this case, the indicator is grip strength — that is, how much holding and squeezing force can a person generate with just the fingers of their hand.  Recent studies have indicated that grip strength has declined significantly, even in the last 30 years.

best-hand-gripper-exercisesSo what, you might ask?  You’re less likely to encounter the guys who give you a bone-crushing handshake, and you don’t see people walking around flexing those hand exercisers anymore.  What’s the big deal?  The big deal is this:  grip strength is one of those inverse health indicators lurking in the human body, with lower grip strength associated with increased mortality from all causes and cardiovascular mortality in particular.  And, especially for those of us who are getting up there, grip strength is a key indicator of sarcopenia, the loss of muscle that occurs as we age, and may also indicate issues with cognitive performance.

Why is grip strength declining?  Of course, gripping is a key part of the evolution of homo sapiens — whose distant ancestors needed a strong grip when they were swinging through trees, and whose more recent predecessors used their hands to create and then wield tools and weapons that allowed them to survive predators and gather food.  In short, humans needed that strong grip to make it through the natural selection melee and emerge at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.  But in recent years, the need for hand strength at home or on the job has declined.  White collar workers need hand dexterity as they tap away at computers, not hand strength, and even blue collar workers now use automatic tools that don’t need the kind of personal strength that hand wrenches of the past, for example, required.  Mix those factors in with a general decline in fitness and increase in obesity, and you’ve gone a long way to explaining why human beings increasingly are becoming a bunch of unhealthy softies.

In short, as a species humans may be losing their grip.  It’s not a positive development.

Idagio

I’m admittedly something of a cheapskate, and my cellphone is pretty much app-free as a result.  I’m willing to pay for music, however, and when my old iPod started to show signs of its age I began looking for a new, reliable source for music to listen to on my walks.

220px-beethovenAfter doing some research, I decided to subscribe to Idagio, a classical music app, and it has been a great choice for me.  I really enjoy classical music, but I feel like my knowledge — of the scope of the works of different composers and of pieces from different genres and periods — is both narrow and shallow.  When your exposure is confined to the stuff you’ve personally added to your iPod, it’s going to be limited by definition.  For the cost of only a few bucks a month, Idagio has fixed that problem.  Now I’ve got access to a sweeping library of works by composers I’ve never really listened to before, and I feel like I’ve been launched on a pleasant voyage of discovery.

I like how Idagio is organized.  The “discover” section of the app highlights new works from artists, new albums, and playlists that have been created for Idagio.  When you go to the “browse” section of the app, you can choose among composers, ensembles, soloists, conductors, instruments, genres, or periods,  If you pick a favorite composer, you can listen to the composer’s “radio,” which is a random selection of pieces by the composer, or you can listen to their work sorted by popularity or pieces that were recently added.  If you like baroque music, as I do, you can focus on that period, listen to an assortment of music, hear composers you’ve not heard before, then do searches of the “composers” library to take a deeper dive into what they’ve created.  If you then hear something that you like, you can download it and create your own library of personal favorites.  The app also organizes music into “moods” — like “gentle,” “happy,” “exciting,” “passionate,” or “angry” — and the Idagio-created playlists include a range of options, from collections designed to increased concentration and focus to composer-specific and period-specific options, like Mozart piano music or “baroque meditation.”

In short, there are lots of different ways to hear the music, which increases the ability to use Idagio as a tool to broaden your exposure to the sprawling world of classical music.  And that’s a big reason why I’m a fan of this app.

Deepfaking Mona Lisa

These days, it’s hard to tell the real from the fake.  You never know if a quote, or a photo, or a Facebook meme is truthful or manufactured as part of some scheme or for some deep political purpose.  Video footage seems more reliable, but we’ve all seen examples of how careful editing can change the context and the perception.

mona-lisa-1883925Now, it’s going to get even harder to distinguish the real from the fake.  The development of artificial intelligence programming and facial recognition software is allowing for the development of increasingly realistic, seemingly authentic video footage that is in fact totally fictional.  The new word to describe the result is “deepfake,” which refers to the use of AI technology to produce or alter video to present something that didn’t occur in reality.  And the use of rapidly improving technology to produce deepfake video is erasing boundaries that used to allow humans to spot video frauds by focusing in on gestures, subtle facial movements, and other “real” human behavior that computers just couldn’t effectively simulate.  The avatars in even the most advanced video games still look like, well, avatars.

But that is all changing.  A team of engineers from the Samsung AI Center and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow has developed new algorithms that are far more advanced and successful in replicating realistic human faces.  The software is the product of studies of thousands of videos of celebrities and ordinary people talking to cameras.  It focuses in on “landmark” facial features and uses a neural network to convert the landmark features into convincing moving video.  The new software also self-edits by critically scanning the individual video frames that are produced, culling out those that seem unnatural, and substituting improved frames.

As a result of all of this, the new software can produce realistic video from a single, static image.  Take a look at the video of a chatty Mona Lisa embedded in this article, created from the application of the new software to the single image in the famous portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, and then tell yourself that it doesn’t look astonishingly, and disturbingly, realistic.  If Mona Lisa can talk, it sure seems like we’ve crossed a new boundary in the ongoing battle of real versus fake.

Like any new technology, the AI that allows for the creation of realistic video footage from a single image could have positive applications, and negative applications.  It’s just hard not to focus on the negative possibilities in the current era of fakery and fraud, and wonder how this new technology might be used for political dirty tricks or other chicanery.  We’re all just going to have to be increasingly skeptical about what is real, and what is false and realize that passing the “eye test” might not be much of a test any more.

In Fear Of Facial Recognition

One of the features that was added to the technology mix during the period between the purchase of my old phone and the purchase of my new iPhone is facial recognition software.  During the set-up process at the Verizon store, I held the iPhone as if I were looking at messages, moved my head from side to side and up and down until the phone had acquired about a 270-degree look at my head and indicated that it had seen enough, and the facial recognition feature was activated.

facialrecognition_1-672x372Now, whenever I pick up the phone, the software kicks in automatically and substitutes for the entry of passcodes.  It’s pretty amazing technology, really, and it’s a lot faster and less clumsy than the passcode-entry process.  I really like the convenience element.

But . . . as a result of this Apple has got my face memorized and digitized and stored somewhere.  And, the modern tech sector world of information-selling and data-trading being what it is, who knows who else now has the capability to instantaneously identify my less-than-noble features.  My cell phone service provider?  Every Apple subsidiary and affiliate and technology partner?  The FBI, the CIA, or the Department of Homeland Security, or some Russian or Chinese hackers?

Recently San Francisco passed a ban on the use of facial recognition software by police and other agencies, and other cities are considering similar legislation.  The proponents of such measures tout them as a victory for privacy and a safeguard against governmental overreach that could conceivably allow governmental agencies to track citizens as they go about their daily lives.  Opponents note that facial recognition software can help the authorities solve crimes — as the article notes, the technology was used to identify a mass shooting suspect last year — and that it can help to secure our borders and airports.

I’ve long since concluded that while privacy is nice, in the modern world you have to make countless choices that can affect your privacy in different ways.  Do you pay with a credit card that tracks your purchases, or cash?  Do you use a cell phone that keeps track of your location?  Do you participate in social media and share some of your life through Facebook, Twitter, and the countless other outlets?  Have you traveled outside of the U.S. recently and returned to the country using one of those passport and facial scanning re-entry terminals?  It’s hard to argue, too, that a face that you show to the world each day, that appears on your driver’s license, and that is captured regularly by the various surveillance cameras positioned throughout American society, is something that is extraordinarily private.

All things considered, I’m not too troubled by the use of facial recognition software.  It’s the protection of other highly personal information — such as health information and financial information — that is of much more concern to me.