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.

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Wake Me When It’s 2020

I’m capable of paying attention to a finite number of things at any given point in time.  And right now, the 2020 presidential race is not even close to making that list.

scottball_beto-orourke_alamo-music-hall_campaign_election_senate_11-4-2018-5-1170x782I see stories like this one — “Beto O’Rourke plans ‘reintroduction’ as 2020 buzz fizzles” — or this one — “Florida takes shape as Joe Biden’s firewall” — and I happily skip over them without a second thought or a guilty conscience.  And it’s not just stories about “Beto” or “Joe” I’m not reading:  I’ll also gladly pass on stories about how “Mayor Pete” is being received by big-money donors in Hollywood, or whether Amy Klobuchar’s campaign is gaining any traction, or how Bernie Sanders is doing in tracking polls in New Hampshire.  I’m not going to read any stories about how any of the candidates are doing on fundraising, or whether they are lining up “super-delegates,” or any inside baseball/horse race analysis pieces, either.

There are people who are political junkies, and I’m not one of them.  At this point, the 2020 election is so far away, and there are so many Democratic candidates vying for the nomination, that I really can’t spend time analyzing their positions or trying to figure out their qualifications or capabilities.  With the number of officially declared Democratic candidates at around two dozen, trying to do any meaningful candidate-by-candidate evaluation is an overwhelming task.  So at this point, I’m fine with allowing the political junkies to carry the ball and do whatever they do to let the field be winnowed down to a manageable number.  Whether the winnowing occurs because of fizzled “buzz,” fundraising efforts, or tracking polls, or super-delegates, I don’t care — just don’t expect me to pay any attention until we’ve got a narrower field that consists of people who might actually have a reasonable chance to win the nomination.

In short, wake me when it’s 2020.

Old, And Still Working

America’s elderly are working at levels not seen in decades.  Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

This year, the participation rate in the labor force of retirement-age workers — that is, workers aged 65 and older — has cracked the 20 percent mark.  That’s the highest participation rate in 57 years, and twice as high as the low mark participation rate in 1985.  Since 1985, the rate of participation has steadily moved upward, with a significant increase in recent years.

seniorsThe Bloomberg article linked above suggests that many of these working elderly are doing so because they have no choice:  “Rickety social safety nets, inadequate retirement savings plans and sky high health-care costs are all conspiring to make the concept of leaving the workforce something to be more feared than desired.”  But the statistics indicate that at least some of the people who are working longer are doing so by choice, rather than by desperate need.   The share of all employees age 65 or older with at least an undergraduate degree is now 53 percent, up from 25 percent in 1985, and the inflation-adjusted income of those workers has increased to an average of $78,000, 63 percent higher than the $48,000 older folks brought home in 1985.  The increase in wages of the working elderly is better than the increase for workers below 65 during that same time period.

So why are people working longer than they used to?  To be sure, some may be doing so because they’ve got no choice — America’s retirement savings statistics are dismal.  But if that is the root cause for some significant percentage of the working elderly, why is that a bad thing?  If people haven’t saved, working longer in order to build up your retirement nest egg, and cut down on the number of years in which you’ll be living on that nest egg, is just the responsible thing to do.  We shouldn’t feel sorry for them, we should be applauding them for recognizing that, when it comes to retirement planning and saving, it’s better late than never.

The more interesting and deeper trend is that the economy is welcoming these older workers and rewarding them with increasing salaries.   In short, it’s not like all of these older workers are serving as friendly, red-vested greeters at Wal-Mart.  The salary statistics indicate that the job creation in the current economy is strong, and that companies are holding on to experienced older workers rather than incentivizing them to retire.  They are recognizing that older workers have value, and still have something to contribute.  If you are an older person who likes working and wants to continue to work, that’s a very encouraging trend.

 

Oakland’s “Pothole Vigilantes”

Oakland, California is in the midst of some tough financial times.  The city is facing a $25 million operating deficit this year, and providing all of the basic services that those of us living in better-managed cities take for granted — like parks, street lights, and adequately maintained roads — just aren’t within Oakland’s current budgetary capabilities.

potholevigilantesRight now, Oakland has 7,700 unaddressed service requests to fix potholes on Oakland city streets.  The quality of streets in Oakland has been found by a recent study to be among the worst in the country, with bone-jarring potholes and other street-quality issues estimated to cost Oakland drivers an extra $1,000 a year in car repair and maintenance costs.  And to add insult to injury for hapless Oakland drivers, Oakland officials have decided that $2.9 million in money that has been generated by California’s high state gas taxes — money that is supposed to be used for road repair — will be used for street lights and parks instead.  Rather than providing some immediate pothole relief with the money earmarked for that purpose, Oakland is promising that it will move forward with a project to spend $100 million on street repairs over the next three years.

So what’s a frustrated Oakland driver who is tired of having to pay hundreds of dollars in car repair costs out of pocket because city fathers aren’t providing basic services to do?  Two Oakland residents have decided to take matters into their own hands.  They call themselves the “Pothole Vigilantes,” and at night they’ve gone out to tackle potholes in certain Oakland neighborhoods.  After they’ve made their repairs, they post videos of their work on Instagram, where they also solicit suggestions for new pothole projects, and donations.

Oakland city administrators asked about the work of the “Pothole Vigilantes” say that they sympathize with the frustration about unrepaired potholes, but they “can’t recommend anyone do this work themselves, not least because it raises safety issues while people are working in the streets.”  No kidding!  People pay taxes so their cities will do the work in a way that is safe, planned, and handled by people who know what they’re doing — but if cities fail to deliver on basic services, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people will take matters into their own hands.

If you had to drive every day on a street with a monster chuckhole that was never fixed and growing ever larger, wouldn’t you be tempted to try to fix it yourself?  And while the safety issues involved in citizens going out to do road repair under cover of darkness are obvious, there’s also something admirable about people who aren’t content to sit back and wait forever for an inept city government and its budgetary shell game to complete repairs, and instead have decided that some self-help is in order.  Don’t blame the fed-up “Pothole Vigilantes,” blame the city government whose failures produced the conditions that gave rise to their vigilantism in the first place.

A Heady Whiff Of Conference Room Air

It’s long been a standing joke that big office meetings — especially those that feature lengthy PowerPoint presentations — do nothing but make everyone in attendance dumber.  Now it looks like (gulp!) there’s some scientific evidence that the jest just might just have more than a kernel of truth to it.

conf-room-cm-2013-12-12_172632Conference room meetings involve two factors that don’t necessarily go well together:  living human beings, and closed spaces.   The human beings breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, and the closed spaces prevent the air in the conference room from circulating.  Indeed, modern buildings are a lot more insulated and better at keeping outdoor air outside, and indoor air inside.  That means that, if you’re in a conference room meeting with lots of other people, as time goes on the carbon dioxide generated by the breathing process will accumulate and the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air will increase.

Studies have shown that breathing air with carbon dioxide that are too high — much higher than you could expect to find at even the longest, most deadly office meeting — can have clear negative effects on the brain.  The impact includes stifling interaction between different regions of the brain, reduced neuronal activity, and dilated blood vessels in the brain.  Now, scientists are starting to look at the effects of exposure to air with lower carbon dioxide concentrations, like what you might find in a closed door meeting in a conference room, and what they’re finding indicates that the old joke just might mirror reality.  The studies are showing that, as the carbon dioxide levels in indoor air increase, human performance on tests designed to measure higher end intellectual acuity qualities like strategy and initiative declined.

So what can you do, other than avoiding large-scale meetings?  One answer is to increase the ventilation rate in modern buildings, but that’s not something that most of us can readily control.  Other options are to open a window — if you’re in one of the incredibly rare conference rooms that actually has one — or even a door.  Keeping all-hands meetings as short as possible will help, too.  And there’s always the option we used to urge teachers to adopt on a beautiful spring day — have class outside.

The bottom line is that people who work in office buildings, as many of us do, need to be sensitive to getting outside where the tools of nature — trees, plants and cool breezes — have had a chance to scrub the air and return carbon dioxide levels to normal.  It turns out that getting out of closed cubicles and into the fresh air outside isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the brain, too.

Meal Emotions

Burger King wants you to know that it respects your emotions and that you should feel however you want to feel.

burger-king-real-meal-hero-1To celebrate Mental Health Awareness month, Burger King has rolled out a new promotion in certain cities in which it is offering “real meals” in different colored boxes that are supposed to promote the “overall mental health of all Americans.”  Pointedly, there is no “happy meal.”  Instead, you can get one of five boxes with mood-matching colors — red for “pissed,” blue for “sad,” teal for “salty,” purple for “YAAAS,” and black for “DGAF.”  (If, like me, you don’t know what the last two moods are, “YAAAS” reflects extreme excitement and the first three words of DGAF are “don’t give a” and you can figure out the rest.)

Burger King explained:  “With the pervasive nature of social media, there is so much pressure to appear happy and perfect.  With Real Meals, the Burger King brand celebrates being yourself and feeling however you want to feel.”  A commercial running in one of the markets where the promotion is being offered — Columbus isn’t one of them — ends with the statement:  “No one is happy all the time, and that’s OK.”

I’m all for promoting overall mental health, but I wish companies like Burger King would just stick to making the best food they can at the best prices, and not act like they care about their customers as unique individuals with their own emotional lives — because they don’t.  And that’s really all right, because Burger King’s job is just to sell food, and any time they veer into other territory, like focusing on customer mood, they’re just being distracted from being the best at what they’re supposed to be doing.

At bottom, getting a different colored box at a fast food joint to celebrate your “mood” seems like a pretty weird and superficial way of promoting mental health.  If you feel sad when you’re ordering your burger, do you really want to confess it to the kid wearing the paper hat behind the counter so your order can be put into a blue box rather than a purple one? And the superficial nature of the whole concept is confirmed by the fact that everyone who orders a “real meal” gets a Whopper, french fries, and a drink, whether they’re feeling “pissed” or “YAAAS.”

So if you’re at one end of the mood spectrum or another, it all boils down to a different colored flimsy cardboard box that will get pitched into the trash and whether you get a diet soda or not.  That doesn’t seem like much of a way to “celebrate being yourself and feeling however you want to feel,” does it?

The Perils Of “Dutch Uncle” Advice

A “Dutch uncle” is somebody who doesn’t sugarcoat things.  When you get “Dutch uncle” advice, you’re getting a firm expression of a person’s unvarnished, straight-from-the-shoulder views of what you should, and shouldn’t, do.

dutch-uncle-image-of-a-stern-uncleConsequently, true “Dutch uncle” advice is often unwelcome.  Some people don’t want a “Dutch uncle” telling them what to do — they want somebody to give them a sympathetic hug and a piece of chocolate and tell them they’ve just had some bad luck and things are bound to turn out for the better, eventually.  Rather than hearing from the “Dutch uncle,” they’d rather hear from, say, the “hippie aunt.”

JP Morgan Chase learned this recently when it gave some classic “Dutch uncle” advice on its Twitter feed.  The bank evidently offers a weekly “#MondayMotivation” tweet, and one of the recent tweets was framed as a conversation where the customer asks “Why is my balance so low?” and the customer’s bank account responds:  “make coffee at home…eat the food that’s already in the fridge…you don’t need a cab, it’s only three blocks.”  In short, if you want to have more money in your bank account, pay attention to what you’re spending your money on and consider whether you really need to buy that caramel-drizzled frappacino latte grande every day.

Not surprisingly, JP Morgan Chase’s “Dutch uncle” advice was met with a hail of dead cats.  Some elected officials responded that JP Morgan Chase should pay its workers more, and argued that the problem isn’t frivolous spending, it’s what workers are making in the first place.  Other people argued that it isn’t about individual personal responsibility, it’s about the “hollowing out of the middle class,” and that Chase’s unwanted advice shows “stunning tone-deafness about the economic realities facing ordinary Americans” — even though the economy seems to be doing pretty well right now.   Others used the tweet as a chance to point out that Chase charges its customers high fees, and that Chase got a bailout from taxpayers during the Great Recession because of its own financial misadventures.  Only a few people rose to the defense of Chase’s advice, and Chase deleted the tweet after a few hours.

These days, apparently, nobody wants to hear that they have some degree of control over their own lives, or that their personal decisions may have produced their current predicament, because it’s easier to just blame somebody or something else.  Politicians are happy to promote the notion of helpless victimhood, because it promotes the perception that only political leaders can actually create change that affect the lives of individual Americans.

In our current culture, “Dutch uncles” aren’t welcome.  Say hello to the hippie aunt.