Over Old Mars

I admit it: I’m a space geek. I avidly followed the space program when I was a kid and watched all of the launches and landings, I joined The Planetary Society when I was a college student and got some great photos of planets taken by exploratory spacecraft of the ’70s that I tacked up on the wall around my desk, and I’ve been hooked on space and planets and the technological advances made in our exploration efforts ever since. That’s why I think what we’re doing now on Mars is pretty darned thrilling.

The photo above is a picture of the latest Mars rover, Perseverance, taken by Ingenuity, the helicopter/drone that has been taking short flights over the surface of Mars. It’s not the greatest photograph from a technical standpoint, of course, but the amazing thing is that it is a picture of human technology taken by another item of human technology on the surface of a distant, alien planet. The picture was snapped on Sunday on Ingenuity‘s third, and longest, flight over old Mars, when Ingenuity was about 16 feet above the Martian landscape and about a football field away from Perseverance.

We keep making significant advances in the space arena, whether it is developing reusable capsules and rockets, sending drones to Mars, or seeing more entrepreneurs entering the space technology and exploration business. It makes me believe that the next few years are going to see some real landmarks established: space tourism, permanent bases on the Moon, and even human landings on Mars. But for now, a blurry, grainy photo of Perseverance is still a pretty cool thing.

The Right To Be Left Alone

Louis Brandeis was one of the legendary Supreme Court justices, with a knack for turning a phrase. Early in his career, he co-authored one of the most famous law review articles of all time — admittedly, not a hotly contested area — called The Right to Privacy and published in the Harvard Law Review in 1890. Years later, in a 1928 case where the majority of the Supreme Court authorized the warrantless wiretapping of a telephone line, Justice Brandeis dissented and returned again to the concept of personal privacy. In his dissent, he wrote of “the right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by a free people.”

I think of Justice Brandeis these days, whenever I receive an unwanted cell phone call from a stranger, or am bomboarded with unwanted emails because someone has sold my email address to someone else who wants to sell me something, or when I go anywhere to purchase a product or receive a service and am hectored to fill out a survey and provide more personal information that can be bundled and sold. Because Justice Brandeis was correct, of course: the right to be left alone is a crucial right in our society.

I’m confident Justice Brandeis would be appalled at the many and increasing intrusions into the zone of personal privacy in modern society, be they by overzealous governmental entities, annoying and persistent telemarketers, uninvited emailers, or nosy service providers. And even if you delete the email without reading it, decline to answer the spam calls, and refuse to complete the surveys, the need to do so nevertheless disrupts your solitude and makes inroads on your valuable free time.

Unless you want to totally disengage from cell phones, email, and social media, your right to be left alone is going to be eroded. Bugging people and soliciting them to buy something or contribute something is big business — the FCC, for example, recently assessed a record $225 million fine against two Texas companies that made an estimated one billion robocalls to falsely sell health insurance plans. If $225 million is the fine, how much money did those two firms make through their robocall ploy in the first place?

The right to be left alone that Justice Brandeis expressed so eloquently is being frittered away, dying the death of a thousand tiny cuts. Unfortunately, giving up some of our right to be left alone is the price we all pay for modern technology and communications devices. Paying that price might be necessary in our modern world, but we should never forget that it is a high price, indeed.

“Advanced Toast Technology”

Yesterday morning our old toaster gave up the ghost. It had been a good toaster, faithfully performing every toasting service we required of it for years and delivering delightfully golden brown slices at our command, but yesterday morning the heating elements failed. I tried banging it around and plugging it into different electrical connections–in short, the standard actions of someone who has no earthly idea how to repair a toaster but figures it’s worth a shot–but neither of those pointless exercises had the desired effect. As a result, it was clear that we needed a new toaster.

This had a thrilling benefit: it gave us a reasonable excuse to get out of the house and buy a new toaster. Sure, we could have ordered one from Amazon and had it delivered to our doorstep within minutes, but as the shutdown period nears its one-year anniversary we’re looking for any reason to get out and about. So, we seized the opportunity presented by the dead toaster development to don our masks and head to the local Target and support the brick-and-mortar merchants who provide local jobs.

When we arrived at the Target, we were surprised to find an extensive toaster selection, shown below. Target not only featured the expected two-slice and four-slice options, but also toasters that offered significant and unexpected complexity in exchange for added cost. After careful deliberation befitting the significance of the decision, we grabbed the cheapest two-slice toaster–which even so promised “Advanced Toast Technology.”

The promise of “Advanced Toast Technology” concerned me, frankly. If you think about it, toasters have been a rock of reassuring stability in an ever-changing changing sea of technological advancements that has affected even the straightforward world of kitchen appliances. The toasters of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s would perform perfectly well in a modern kitchen. Decades later, toasters still feature slots for the toast, heating coils, and a knob to be depressed to start the toasting process. No one needs a instruction manual to operate a toaster.

So when I opened our toaster and saw that it had a multi-page manual, it sent a chill down my spine. What unnecessary complexity has been injected into the tried-and-true toaster design? What new parts or elements have been added that might break down and interfere with the core toasting function? Fortunately, “advanced toast technology” turns out to be pretty basic stuff, befitting the timeless toaster functions: extra wide slots “to accommodate a variety of foods,” a removable crumb tray, “bagel & frozen options,” and seven (7!) toasting settings. I was grateful to find that there were no “smart appliance” features that require you to give your detailed personal information to toast a slice of bread. And our new toaster does a pretty good job of toasting, too.

All hail the timeless toaster, ever-immune to the confusing tides of pointless technological advancement!

The Pleasures Of Paper

Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.

It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.

Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.

I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.

My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.

Bottom Phishers

The IT Department at our firm periodically sends out notices about the latest email phishing scams that are making the rounds. “Phishing,” for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, refers to the efforts of fraudsters to send out emails that purport to be legitimate — like, say, a notice from a reputable bank. The phishers hope to get you to click on a link that either allows them to inject malware into your computer system or asks you to provide personal information, like Social Security numbers or bank account information, that they can then use to defraud you.

In short, phishers are fraudulent scum.

But they are creative, and they make efforts to try to keep up with what is going on in the world. Yesterday, for example, the notice from our IT Department concerned a new phishing email that tried to get the recipient to click on a link that purported to provide information about COVID vaccine scheduling. Like many phishing efforts, this one was oddly phrased and not written in the King’s English and wouldn’t fool most people — but all it takes is a few credulous or concerned people clicking on the link and the fraudsters are off to the races.

As I read the notice from our IT folks, I wondered about what kind of low-life loser would try to take advantage of a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and the interest in being immunized in order to commit fraud and steal money from worried people. If phishers are low-life scum — and they are — then any phisher who would based a phishing effort on coronavirus vaccine distribution is the lowest of the low. You might call them the bottom phishers, which is apt because the fish that live at the bottom of the ocean are typically the ugliest fish of all.

Don’t be deceived by bottom phishers. If you get an email about a vaccine, don’t just click on a link — call your doctor instead.

Let Your Fingers Do The Tapping

The other day I saw a plumbing truck drive by with a company name that started with “AA.” “There’s a Yellow Pages” name, I thought.

Then I wondered: are there even “Yellow Pages” any more? I can’t remember the last time I saw that thick softcover book with the flimsy yellow pages.

For those of you who are too young to remember the Yellow Pages, it was the household sources that you used to consult whenever you needed a plumber or electrician. The Yellow Pages came to you every year, along with your regular White Pages phone book. Both were made with the cheapest, thinnest paper you can imagine, but the Yellow Pages tended to be a lot bulkier than the White Pages. The White Pages listed the phone numbers of people and businesses, listed in alphabetical order, while the Yellow Pages was reserved solely for businesses, and was organized functionally, by type of business or service offered. If you wanted a plumber, you turned to the plumber entries of the Yellow Pages and all of the local plumbers were listed there, in alphabetical order — which is why the Yellow Pages caused a lot of plumbers, roofers, and electricians to come up with company names that started with “AA” so they would be among the first entries in the listing. They figured, correctly, that people would start at the top of the list and wouldn’t go much beyond the first few names.

The idea was that you were supposed to let “your fingers do the walking” through the Yellow Pages, rather than roaming around town yourself to find the right trademan for the work you needed to have done. Of course, nobody does that anymore. We’ll do a Google search for a plumber, or post a Facebook message to friends to get a recommendation for a painter, and therefore nobody really needs to start their business name with “AA” these days.

But the Yellow Pages, cheap and ponderous as it was, was a kind of precursor to the modern way of shopping for goods and services. Our fingers may not do much walking, but they still are the way we get information.

The Ceiling Perspective

I’ve seen more of ceilings this year than I’ve probably seen in my entire life. In fact, it seems like every day, somebody’s office ceiling, or home office ceiling, or family room or dining room ceiling, is there in front of me, begging to be studied and analyzed.

It’s because of video conferencing, of course. It seems like there are three common video conference perspectives. There’s the straight-ahead perspective, where the camera is roughly on the same level as the person’s face, and the big issue is head size in the frame. Then there’s the setting where the camera is above the participant, looking down, and the person ends up looking sort of small and pathetic and overwhelmed by it all. (Not a good look if you’re interested in power dynamics during the call, obviously.) And then there is the ceiling perspective, where the camera is below the person, looking up, and you end up seeing the top half of their head and a whole lot of ceiling.

I’d never really paid much attention to ceilings before this year, finding them intrainsically uninteresting. I mean, after you determine whether or not the ceiling has crown moldings, what is there of interest? But I was wrong. On a boring video call, you can learn a lot from thoughtful ceiling examination. If you can see more than one smoke detector up there, for example, that tells you something meaningful about the person — or perhaps the fire trap status of their place. Is there a dream catcher or anything else hanging from the ceiling? Do they have a fan? Any spider webs up there? Are their light fixtures simple or elaborate, and what kind of lighting do they provide?

And if somebody is dancing on the ceiling, you’ve inadvertently called Lionel Ritchie.

2020 has changed my perspective on ceilings, as on so many things.

Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam

Our days often begin with a review of our email boxes to delete the spam. The other day, as I was performing this mindless chore, I wondered: why are random, unwelcome emails (and now, phone calls too) called “spam”?

Even though the internet and email are recent developments in the arc of human history, the true origin of “spam” to refer to unwanted emails seems to be lost in the mists of time. “Spam” apparently is not an acronym, nor is it some kind of direct slam on the canned meat of the same name that is produced by the Hormel Foods Company and is evidently beloved in Hawaii. Instead, the most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that, in the very early days of the internet, undesired email was called “spam” as a reference to the Monty Python spam sketch, in which a diner menu recited by a waitress features multiple dishes made with spam, a gang of Vikings sing a song about spam, and a fed-up British matron is forced to confess that she doesn’t like spam.

Some claim the term “spam” was first used to describe email in 1993, when an early email user mistakenly sent multiple copies of the same email message; others say it dates back to the ’80s. In any case, the fact that there is a lot of spam email (like the spam-oriented dishes on the diner menu) and the spam email is not appreciated (like the diner patron who doesn’t like spam) seems to have been the connection that gave spam email its name.

Language is interesting, and “spam” email is a good example of why. In this instance, some early email user was a Monty Python fan who thought of the connection to the sketch and attached the name, it stuck and was used by early internet users, and then it spread to become the common term used by your iPhone, the filters on your computer, and the world of email users at large. It’s short, it’s as good a name as any, and if you’ve watched that classic Monty Python sketch, you know it’s apt. Like the high-pitched, purse-clutching English lady, we all “don’t like spam“!

Refrigerator Envy

On Thanksgiving, everyone could use a large, empty refrigerator that is about twice its normal size. You know — a refrigerator that is large enough to allow you to retrieve a can of Diet Coke without risking knocking over multiple aluminum-foil covered bowls, serving dishes, and gravy boats that have been carefully stacked and balanced to consume every square inch of scarce refrigerator space?

Why can’t somebody invent an expandable refrigerator that you could use for the holidays? Like dining room table manufacturers did years ago, when they figured out that you could design tables to be extended so as to include an extra leaf or two when needed? Ideally, the expandable holiday refrigerator would include a special pie storage area, a beer bottle rack that would project out when the door is opened, and an extra large storage area to carefully secure all of the leftover turkey that will be used over the coming week.

Pavlov’s Snippets

This morning I woke up, walked downstairs, and turned on my JBL Flip 5 device to listen to some music. When I hit the on-off button, I heard the familiar chord and saw the button light up that tells you that you’ve got power, and then when I hit the button that syncs the device with my iPhone, I heard the happy-sounding, rising three-note snippet that told me that the syncing had worked and it was time to make my selection–which I promptly did.

Then I went to my computer, turned it on, and went through the steps of the multi-factor authentication process. When I completed the process, I heard another bright three-note snippet that confirmed I had successfully connected to the system, and I mimicked the tiny fragment of music as I started to look at my email.

These are just three examples of the little snatches of music that often accompany the basic electronic activities of our lives. Virtually every device–from computers to smartphones to refrigerators to video games–uses some combination of music, lights, and text as multi-factor messaging to tell us about our successes or failures. We want to hear the three happy notes that signal accomplishment, rather than the thud of notes that tells us we didn’t do things right. What’s more, we get to the point where we react to the musical cues without a conscious thought. Play the right sequence of notes for me and, like some modern combination of Pavlov’s dog and Nipper, the RCA pooch hearing his master’s voice, I’ll immediately feel the urge to go to Outlook and open up my email.

I like these little snippets of music, which add a little welcome color and dash to our rote daily activities, and I salute the unknown composers who came up with them. I guess I don’t mind that these brief tunes have burrowed into my brain and are effectively urging me to take steps A, B, and C. I do wonder, however, whether the unconscious reactive impulse on hearing these sounds is permanently imprinted on my synapses. I haven’t played Tetris in years, for example, but I can still distinctly remember every note of the Slavic-sounding song that played while you were trying to position the blocks correctly. When I’m in my dotage, if I hear the right three notes, will I still think “it’s email time”?

Aspirational Screensavers

Our firm’s computer system recently changed to a new approach to screensavers, taking another quantum leap forward in information technology. When I first got a desktop computer back in the early ’90s, the big screensaver development allowed you to create a message that would scroll from left to right on your screen when your computer went into “sleep” mode. (Mine was “parturient montes, nascetur mus.”) A later upgrade allowed the technologically adept to upload a favorite picture of your kids as your screensaver.

With our firm’s latest advance, we get an ever-changing menu of beautifully framed photographs of evocative faraway places, ancient towns carved into mountainsides, colorful wild animals, and balloons drifting over rugged, exotic scenery under a clear blue sky. I always have two reactions to every one of the screensavers: (1) I wish they would tell me where this picture was taken, so I could try to go there one of these days; and (2) boy, that place looks a heck of a lot more interesting than the scene out my kitchen window.

I’m curious about the psychology (if any) behind the new screensavers. Did anyone do any kind of survey or testing to determine the impact of the wondrous photos on workplace morale and motivation? Did they attempt to determine how many people are just going to stare dreamily at the latest photo to pop up on their laptop, wishing they could be wherever that photo was taken rather than getting ready to start another day of working from home during a pandemic? Or is the thinking that we worker bees will be incentivized by the beautiful photos to work even harder and become more successful in hopes of being able to travel to those fabulous places one of these days?

On balance, I guess I like the screensavers and their depiction of a gorgeous, tranquil world. I wonder, though, whether it wouldn’t be smart to put into the mix some real-world photos of abandoned factories or Chernobyl to remind us that it’s not all puppies and cotton candy out there, and we need to put our noses back to the grindstone.

Back To Kindergarten Rules

We’re all still getting used to video conferencing and Zoom and Teams calls, but I’ve decided there are things I like about them. In a way, they take us back to first principles, and the basic, threshold lessons in interpersonal conduct that we first learned back in kindergarten.

Take the “raise your hand” feature. When was the last time you raised your hand to be called on for anything? But you learned about the importance of raising your hand from your kindergarten teacher — mine was named Mrs. Radick, by the way — who got you to understand that if every kid in the class tried to talk at once it would be chaos, which is why there had to be some mechanism to allow order to prevail. Of course, the same concept applies to a multi-party video call, which would quickly devolve into bedlam and gibberish without a method of organization. That’s why I like the “raise your hand” feature, and the fact that it reminds me of grade school days doesn’t hurt, either.

Other kindergarten concepts apply to video calls, too — like taking your turn, and trying not to interrupt the person who is speaking, which means waiting a decent period after the speaker appears to be done to account for potential technological glitches. These rules are essential to making video technology work, but they also embody core concepts of politeness and civility. I’m sure there are video calls that turn into unfortunate shouting matches, but I’d guess that, on the whole, video calls are more well-mannered and the participants tend to be more deferential and well-behaved than in direct, in-person interaction. The use of the mute button, to make sure that the discussion isn’t interrupted by barking dogs of the garbage truck rolling down the street, is another form of courtesy.

Mrs. Radick would approve of all of this.

Savoring The Small Stuff

So much of what goes on in the world these days is vast and sweeping and far beyond the capability of normal people to control. It can make people feel overwhelmed and helpless.

That’s why I think it’s important for us to step back and focus on the small stuff. We may not be able to determine when the coronavirus pandemic will end, but there are bound to be little things that we can change to make our lives incrementally better. If we focus on those little adjustments, we can accomplish something that we can feel good about.

Here’s an example of what I mean. We use a Roku device to get access to Netflix and Amazon and other streaming services. It worked like a charm . . . until one day a service called Crackle appeared on the Roku menu and immediately made using Roku an unpleasant annoyance. Ever time we tried to access Netflix or one of the other services, we’d hear a “bee doop” sound and the screen would take us to Crackle —which we didn’t want and will never, ever want. Whether by glitch or design, we were unwillingly routed to Crackle multiple times every time we tried to use Roku. It made what was supposed to be the pleasant diversion of watching TV into a frustrating exercise in high blood pressure irritation.

This week I decided to take action. I actually watched a Roku tutorial to see how to delete a channel, followed the instructions, and successfully deleted Crackle. Obviously, I should have done that long ago. But last night, we were able to use Roku and watch shows without seeing the hated Crackle logo or feeling the blood pressure soar. It made for a very pleasant evening.

It’s a small victory, but I’ll savor it nevertheless. And I’ll be on the lookout for more of that small stuff to change.

Capturing The Moment — Good And Bad

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much cell phone cameras have changed our lives — and the world — for good, and for bad, too.

The good is pretty obvious. Cell phone cameras are easy to carry around with you, so you’ve always got a camera at hand if you want to capture a moment in space and time — like this picture of boats at Burnt Cove, silhouetted against the dying glow of the sun just after it had plunged below the horizon, as we were returning from a boat trip to North Haven with Dr. Science and the GV Jogger in early August.

I like having a camera at hand because you never know when those special moments might occur. (I like it so much, in fact, that UJ calls me “Snappy” whenever I haul out the phone to take a picture.) Taking these kinds of photos helps me to really lock those special moments into my memory bank. And, of course, there have been instances where people have used their cell phones to capture real news — natural disasters, police misconduct, public officials behaving badly — that wouldn’t have been preserved or come to light otherwise.

But there’s obviously a dark side, too. Selfie obsession — to the point where people are injuring and even killing themselves walking backward to get the perfect framing of their face — is an obvious issue. But there is more to it than that. If you go to your news feed page, how many “news” stories are really nothing other than one person’s bad day captured by a cell phone camera?

So much of what is presented as “news” these days consists of random private people misbehaving in their own worlds, in ways that would not be “news” at all if there weren’t a camera at hand to capture it. The exhausted mother lashing out at a misbehaving toddler, the delivery driver who wouldn’t stop to help a senior citizen who had fallen, the pilot who asked a woman wearing a revealing outfit to cover up — all of these are examples of stories that wouldn’t be stories at all without the salacious picture or video footage. People look at these kinds of stories because it’s always interesting to take a peek at other people’s lives, but they really aren’t “news” in any meaningful sense. And I wonder if, in this way, the cell phone camera has helped to knock real news off the public radar screen and contribute to the trivialization of public discourse.

Cell phone cameras truly are a double-edged sword.

Computer Grading

We have lots of software programs that we use at work, and it seems like new ones are rolled out every day. Recently, I’ve noticed that some of the newer programs that have been have a very annoying feature: they presume to grade you on how well you use the program.

Gone are the days when the computer world was fresh and friendly and new computer programs always featured a little paper clip guy with a squeaky voice or some other anthropomorphic icon that was supposed to help you master the new software. Sure, they quickly became incredibly irritating and were promptly disabled after their “helpful” badgering and unwanted “tips” got on your last nerve, but at least they were trying to help us. They’ve now been replaced by some hectoring schoolmarm who gives you grades because she can’t rap you on the knuckles with a ruler.

The other day I checked my dashboard on one of the programs and found that I had been given a C-. I have no earthly idea why I got a C-. Seriously — I swear that I did what the program requires me to do, in timely fashion. And yet, there it was, for all the world to see: a C-. I’ve never been given a C- grade on anything in my life (that I know about, at least). Now my record has been shattered by some soulless computer that assigned me an embarrassing grade based on wholly arbitrary and unknowable metrics lodged somewhere in the semiconductors and chips and RAM. And what’s most annoying about it all is that I actually care that I got a C-. I don’t think anyone logs or pays any attention to these grades, but still . . . it bugs me. Decades after my last formal schooling ended, I still care about grades, even if they are totally meaningless. Of course, that’s why the computer does it. The American educational system has trained me to be like Pavlov’s dog, except instead of salivating at the sound of a metronome I’ve been conditioned to respond to arbitrary grades.

Thank goodness that I’m not assigned grades in other areas of life — by family, or friends, or colleagues, or neighbors. The fact that I respond to grading, even now, is an Achilles heel of sorts. Don’t tell anyone, will you?