Modern Hotel Technology

 It’s pathetic, but true:  our lives have devolved to the brutal basics of the constant search for electrical outlets.  “Omigod!  My iPhone is down to 78 percent!  Where can I plug in? ”  And  we mutter and curse if wherever we are doesn’t have multiple charging stations at the ready.
Which is why you have to give the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. credit.  They’ve built outlets into the bed frame, for God’s sake!  So charge up while you slumber, compadres!  And then tomorrow charge some more.

A Serene Voyage To Nerdsville

Last Sunday I was walking home from work when I encountered a Segway tour of downtown Columbus.

It appeared to be a bespectacled family of four that was rolling along by the Statehouse, with the Mom holding her Segway handlebars in a death grip.  Even though the devices weren’t moving at a pace much faster than a good, brisk walk, all four of the riders and the guide were wearing bicycle helmets and appeared to be protected against any imaginable possibility of injury in the event of, say, a Segway collision where the rider is hurled six inches to the ground.  As I walked past, the little group was stopped on one of the Statehouse sidewalks, but after the guide had finished his spiel they went  gliding serenely and silently away in the direction of the Ohio Theater, looking for all the world like peculiar moving statues.

And I thought:  nerds.  Or, as Ogre might bellow in Revenge of the Nerds:  “NERDS”!

I’m sorry, Segway.  Your device might be a self-balancing, gyroscopic technological wonder, and another great leap forward to a future where humans don’t have to move a muscle, but helmeted people on Segways is the most infallible nerd indicator since the development of Dungeons and Dragons and the premiere of Star Trek:  Voyager.

I hate to admit it, but I would never don a helmet and take a Segway tour of Columbus, or anywhere else, because it would provoke a severe case of ipsenerdophobia.  True nerds need a refined sense of self-awareness, as a kind of defense mechanism to avoid putting themselves into obvious nerd situations, and a Segway tour sets my nerdar jangling at peak frequencies.  As a geek who wears glasses, read comics into my college years, and likes science fiction, I’ve got more than enough nerd tendencies as it is.

“Hi Urine”

Our firm uses a “voice mail preview” feature by which a computer program is supposed to interpret voice mail messages left on our phones and give us a transcription of sorts.  The idea is that busy people who are routinely checking their emails can simply read the textual “preview,” figure out what the message is and who called, and then immediately act on it without having to access voice mail itself and listen to a stumbling message that might drone on for a minute or more.

It’s a good concept, but the voice translation process is — how shall we say — imperfect.

Yesterday another attorney at the firm and I were trying to reach each other, but we had one of those days where we each just happened to be out of the office when the other called.  After going back and forth several times, I think she left a message that people commonly leave when they are mired in a frustrating and interminable game of phone tag:  “Tag, you’re it.”  At least, I’m guessing that was the real message — I didn’t actually listen to it after I got the “voice mail preview.”

That’s because the “voice mail preview” interpreted the message as “Hi urine.”

I’m hoping that the “voice mail preview” feature doesn’t an algorithm or program to determine whether the purported transcription satisfies some reasonable plausibility standard.  I’d hate to that that any such program concluded that it was deemed possible that one of my fellow attorneys at the firm would hold me in such low esteem that she would refer to me as liquid bodily waste.

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.