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.

Passworded Out

Over the weekend I got another of those messages telling me that my password for my handheld device was expiring, and it was time to come up with another one.

I groaned with dismay, then I sat there for a few minutes, thinking hard about how I could possibly come up with yet another “unique combination” of letters, numerals, and characters that I would be capable of remembering.  Because, after years of coming up with passwords, I’ve just about run dry.

passwords-on-sticky-notes-smallAt first, way back at the dawn of the data security era, coming up with passwords for my handheld and the computer system at work was kind of fun — like being a secret agent who knew the right code word to gain access to information.  Then it became a part of the routine.  But over time passwords became viewed as more important in the war against hackers, and longer and more complex “strong passwords” became the norm, and new policies were implemented to require that passwords be changed much more frequently.  After years passed in which passwords needed to be changed every 60 days, and I’ve therefore had to create and remember dozens and dozens of separate passwords only to see them vanish without a trace after only a few months, the act of password creation became drudgery, and finally it became a telltale sign of my clearly dwindling resources in the password creation creativity department.

I’ve used just about every mnemonic technique I can think of to create passwords.  Dog names.  Nicknames.  Streets where I’ve lived.  Places where I’ve worked.  Rock bands I’ve enjoyed listening to.  Old addresses.  The year our family first moved to Columbus.  The name of the unfortunate defendant in a legal case that my law school classmates and I made into a running joke. The phone number from a commercial jingle that I’ve somehow remembered since childhood.  The name of the robot maid on The Jetsons.   Pretty much everything in the memory bin, down to the most trivial bit of debris, has been hauled out and applied to satisfy the insatiable appetite for fresh passwords . . . and still the demands for new passwords keep coming.  It’s exhausting.

Can we please go back to the days of password1234?

Have A Happy Wi-Fi Christmas

You go to the food court at a mall, a coffee shop, or some other public space over the holidays, open your laptop or power up your tablet, and start checking for available wi-fi.  When you see a “free” network, you click on it with a chuckle, take a hearty sip of your peppermint stick latte, go through your email, and then start making sure your checking account is squared away before you buy gifts for the last people on your Christmas list.

p1264m1066840fWhat’s wrong with this picture?

Pretty much everything, say data security experts.  It turns out that fraudsters love to set up fake “free” wi-fi networks at public spaces over the holidays, hoping that busy shoppers taking a break, or the bored people accompanying them, will use the networks and expose their personal data, whether it’s passwords, bank or credit card information, or personal data that could lead to identity theft.  Many people who routinely use “free” public wi-fi networks are altogether too trusting, and are willing to agree to just about any terms to get the internet access they crave.

In fact, as the story linked above reports, an 11-year-old kid in Texas won his school science fair this year by proving that point.  He set up anonymous free internet access portals in shopping mall food court areas that had the most draconian conditions available — including allowing the portals to do things like “reading and responding to your emails” and “monitoring of input and/or output” — and more than half of the people offered those conditions agreed to them.  That’s a pretty stiff price for something that supposed to be “free.”

Hackers are everywhere (just ask Yahoo!) and are eager to get to your personal data.  So please:  use precautions and common sense.  Don’t go onto just any “free” network and start exposing your most important and intimate personal and financial data to whoever might have set up that network, or hacked into it.  Think about whether the network really seems to be bona fide.   And consider whether some activities — like on-line banking — really should be exclusively reserved for a network you know and trust.

This holiday season, don’t get ho-ho-hacked.

Out With The Old

I think we need to start thinking about buying a new home computer.  I’m kind of dreading the process and trying to forestall it for as long as possible.

IMG_1232Our current computer has served us long and loyally.  It’s stored countless to-do lists, been a repository for family photos, served as a mailbox and news ticker, and been a blogging platform.  It’s moved around with us to the point that we don’t really think our household has been established until the computer is hooked up and functional.  I’ve watched and rewatched YouTube videos of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ run to the National Championship on it countless times.  The keyboard characters have been tapped so often and the mouse clicked so frequently that they’ve acquired a worn, comfortable feel to the fingertips.

We’ve totally lost track of how long we’ve had the computer. Has it been six years?  Nine?  Longer?  We’re really not sure.  All we know is that the computer has been a staple of the desktop for as long as we can remember.

But lately we’ve started to have some performance problems with Old Faithful.  It’s sputtering and slowing down.  That annoying spinning circle, shown as the computer processes commands, seems to spin ever longer and longer.  “Force quit” has become a more frequent solution to apparently intractable problems that even the spinning circle can’t resolve.  We get more messages about certain programs “not responding.”  It’s as if they’re mad at us and have simply decided to give us the silent treatment — even though, so far as we know, we’ve done nothing to provoke such disrespectful treatment.

There’s a certain out-of-touch embarrassment factor to our computer set-up, too.  Our techno-nerdy friends who have those razor-blade-thin and ultra-light laptops and tablets, the kind that make even techno-nerds look a little bit cool, laugh at our clunky desktop unit.  Once it was cool and cutting edge, now it’s more like relying on an “adding machine.”  The ongoing technology revolution waits for no man, and no computer, no matter how faithfully it has performed over years of service.

So we’ll work a new computer into the home budget, and once we’ve saved up we’ll head to the Apple store, look with a lost and vacant expression at the lines of gleaming laptops and desktops and tablets, and hope that one of those bright instruments of the modern era speaks to us.  Hey, which of you wants to come home with us and become an important part of the daily pattern of our lives?

 

100 Million Times Faster

Recently I tried to read an article about huge advances in computer technology that appear to be just over the horizon.

I say “tried,” because the article includes sentences like this one:  “Quantum annealing (QA) has been proposed as a quantum enhanced optimization heuristic exploiting tunneling.”  I recognize each of those words as being English, and capable of being understood on a word-by-word basis — but put them all together and my conscious mind explodes.  Rather than grasping the intended, core meaning, my brain diverts into cul-de-sacs like:  “Hey, shouldn’t there be a verb somewhere near the end of that sentence?”
black-screen-spinning-wheel-on-bootBut the key concept from the article is that a new form of computer design called a quantum annealer, that a joint project between Google and NASA is experimenting with, is proving to be as much as 100 million times faster at solving difficult, multi-variable problems than the “classical” computer design.  The article cautions that there are still lots of technological hurdles and challenges to be addressed before the quantum annealing approach can be turned into practical technology, but the test results are enormously promising.

It’s not hard to imagine what such a dramatically enhanced and powerful computer could accomplish for an entity like NASA, in calculating the trajectories needed to dodge asteroids, skirt gravitational fields, and safely land spacecraft on alien surfaces.  You could also see how new computers with such tremendously accelerated raw processing power could be used by governments — in decrypting encoded messages, for example — or by hackers looking to crack passwords.  And, of course, such advancements typically are followed by great leaps forward in miniaturization and new applications that weren’t even considered before the technology came on line.  Futurists and dreamers will have a field day considering how faster processing power could be used, for example, in diagnostic medical equipment or implants.

What would having a computer that processes 100 million times faster mean for the rest of us?  We’ll still be moving at standard human mental and physical speeds, of course, unless the new technology results in a trend toward creation of speeded-up cyborgs.  Nevertheless, there is one great promise for all PC users arising from development of inconceivably faster quantum annealing computers:  no more frustrated staring at the computer screen, watching the annoying spinning circle of death!

Living In A Sim Universe

Here’s a bizarre thought for a Tuesday:  what if the world that we know is really just one gigantic, thorough, technologically adept computer simulation that encompasses everything we see, hear, know, and touch?  Believe it or not, scientists and philosophers are actually considering this concept in earnest these days.

In part, this is just another of those weird mind exercises and “proofs” that made philosophy class a tiresome exercise back in college, but it’s also being spurred by the advances in computer gaming technology that are making massive, realistic simulations seem increasingly plausible.  If you’ve seen the latest versions of some “reality” games, you know that things have changed completely in the 40 years since “Pong” — and the pace of improvement in computer simulation capability seems to be accelerating.

Is it so unbelievable that, in 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years, humans could create a simulated world that covers every last detail of life, from the feel of a wooden floor under your feet to the taste of coffee on your tongue to the laws of physics that control the natural world around us?  After all, we perceive the world entirely through electrical stimulation of parts of our brains — so why couldn’t our perceiving minds be wired into an advanced computer game?  Maybe what we call “sleep” is really the downtime when gamemasters load new simulated situations into the programming.

If we are just the imaginings of futuristic disembodied brains in vats, or the product of some hyper-realistic supercomputer existing centuries from now, would we know it?  Some of the scientists and futurists and philosophers quoted in the article linked above think we might search for back doors, programming glitches, or gaming options that could allow us to briefly do superhuman stunts — like Ms. Pac-Man gobbling an energy dot so that she can consume the ghosts that relentlessly chase her.  That seems unlikely to me.  If the goal is to create a truly realistic world that you could immerse yourself in, gizmos that create superpowers would be contrary to the whole goal.  Maybe what we consider to be “normal” is exotic and interesting enough for the jaded game players of the future.

So what if everything around us, from this computer keyboard I’m tapping to the great Mozart piece I’m listening to, is part of an elaborate game?  I would never be able to distinguish the difference, anyway.  In any case, I’m thinking:  Hey, this is a good game!

Computers, And Sod Carriers

We’re in the process of replacing the office computers at our firm.  This week, the wave finally hit my floor.

I had been dreading it, frankly.  I’ve had my computer for years, and it did just what I wanted it to do.  Like many aging Baby Boomers, I was comfortable with the existing technology and not especially eager to move on to something new that I would have to learn all over again.  The younger generation at the firm, on the other hand, was keen to get newer products and integrate them with the tablets, PDAs, and other electronic gizmos they’re always tapping on around the office.

IMG_6132This week, as D-Day approached, I got a multi-page memo about what I had to do to get ready for the change.  I groaned, thinking it would be a huge hassle.  But as my secretary and I walked through it, with her interpreting for the Luddite as necessary, I realized I didn’t have to do most of the stuff because I wasn’t using much of the functionality of even the older computer.  I hadn’t modified the tool bar, subscribed to any RSS feeds (at least, I think that is what it was called), added a bunch of websites as favorites, or changed my desktop, so I didn’t need to do much to get ready for the changeover.

I was grateful that the prep process didn’t take longer, but also a bit embarrassed that I really wasn’t making great use of the awesome capabilities of my desktop computer — which tells you something right there, because most of my fellow lawyers seem to have ultra-thin laptop units that they cart around and set up at every meeting.  The laptoppers seem to be far more technologically comfortable and adept than the desktoppers.  It’s like the separation that occurred in the late Middle Ages, when a craftsman class arose out of the serfs laboring in the fields.  I’m still one of the bent-backed, sod-carrying group.

When I arrived at the office yesterday, to find a new computer with a Skyping camera on top and a headset (a headset?), I was filed with wonder, trepidation — and determination.  Maybe it’s time for me to get off the sod and become a silversmith before it’s too late.

Bitcoins, Bubbles, And Beanie Babies

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of two individuals affiliated with “bitcoin” exchanges. The two men are charged with using the bitcoin exchanges — which allow people to trade bitcoins for currency like U.S. dollars — to obtain bitcoins that could then be sold to users of another on-line exchange, called Silk Road, where the bitcoins could be used to buy drugs anonymously, in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.

Bitcoins are a kind of token to which some people have assigned value. Each bitcoin is represented by a supposedly unique online registration number, created when a computer solves a difficult mathematical problem with a 64-digit solution. There are supposed to be a finite number of such 64-digit solutions and therefore a finite number of bitcoins, which is why bitcoin investors believe they will only appreciate in value. Users receive bitcoins at unregistered, anonymous addresses, which means the bitcoins themselves can be used to conduct anonymous transactions, as a kind of on-line currency. And, as the announcement yesterday reflects, bitcoins can be traded for real money.

I don’t pretend to fully understand bitcoins and how they are supposed to work — but I wonder how many people who have them and use them really do, either. It’s hard to understand how real value could be created simply because a random computer solves a complex math problem, and I expect that many bitcoin investors don’t have the mathematical and computer capabilities to really understand whether bitcoins are truly unique and just how limited their supply really is. And the anonymity of bitcoins means there is plenty of opportunity for mischief in how they may be used.

People who trade in bitcoins and are banking on their appreciation in value are taking a lot on faith. Of course, at a certain level you can argue that every form of currency involves a similar act of faith, but at least there are public, functioning markets for U.S. dollars, Treasury bills, stocks, and bonds and they are backed by functioning, publicly known entities. Bitcoins remind me of subprime mortgage bundles, or for that matter Beanie Babies. For a time, each of them was a hot commodity. Everyone seemed to be buying them and the word on the street was that their value was only going up. Then one day the frenzy ended, people stopped buying, and the investors were left with pieces of paper or a pile of children’s toys — and a big hole in their balance sheets and bank accounts.

Maybe bitcoins will be different . . . or maybe they won’t.

Questioning The Architecture Of The “Obamacare” Websites

The Affordable Care Act health care exchange websites continue to be plagued with problems, beyond the first-day “glitches.”  The Obama Administration says it’s due to heavy traffic.  Now Reuters has published an interesting article suggesting an alternative explanation.

Reuters interviewed IT experts who question the very architecture of the federal health care exchange website.  They believe that the website simply requires computers to load too much software and information, overwhelming the system.  One expert found that clicking “‘apply’ on HealthCare.gov causes 92 separate files, plug-ins and other mammoth swarms of data to stream between the user’s computer and the servers powering the government website,” including 56 JavaScript files and plug-ins that allow data to be uploaded.

As one expert explained it, the massive volume of data moving between computers and servers resembles a computer hacker attack on a website — except this attack is self-inflicted, as part of the website’s basic design.  If the experts are right, the website designers made a very fundamental, almost amateurish blunder.

The bottom line from these experts is that the solution is not simply adding more servers, but reconfiguring the system.  That possibility would involve more expense, and delay, and frustrations for people who are just trying to comply with their legal obligation to obtain insurance.

Father Of The Mouse

Most of us use one just about every day.  We roll it along the surface to guide that little arrow around the screen.  It’s how we point and click, edit our work, and drag and drop.

It’s the mouse, of course.  We take it for granted, but it didn’t always exist.  It had to be invented, just like every other manufactured item that has become an accepted part of our everyday lives.

In the case of the mouse, the inventor was Douglas Engelbart, who died this week.  He filed for a patent for the mouse in 1967 — describing it as a device that allowed the user to alternate visual displays at selected locations — and received one in 1970.

The early mouse was a clunky wooden object with two wheels, three buttons, and a cord coming out the back like a mouse’s tail.  After the patent was granted, other companies began experimenting with Engelbart’s invention, and by the 1980s the mouse had become an accepted part of every home computer kit sold at technology stores.  In the process, the design was modified and the bulky wooden mouse morphed into the sleek plastic item that conforms comfortably to our hands and that we now use without a second thought.

Engelbart’s colleagues considered him a visionary.  He also came up with far-sighted concepts concerning computer networking, digital collaboration, and video teleconferencing that the computer types consider to be even more significant than the mouse.

They may be right, technologically, but from a social standpoint it would be hard to top the impact of the humble mouse, which helped make computers accessible and usable for bloggers, and Facebookers, and other average folks like us.  We thank you for that profound contribution, Mr. Engelbart, and we will remember you.

About Skeuomorphism

Did you ever wonder why the delete file on your computer looks like an old-fashioned wire trash can that you haven’t seen in years, or why your email icon looks like a letter?  The answer has to do with skeuomorphism.

Skeuomorphism — in addition to being a great Scrabble word — has to do with the concept of patterning computer images after “everyday” objects.  It was a focus of Steve Jobs, who thought it would make computers more accessible and user-friendly to people who don’t wear pocket protectors and button their short-sleeved shirts up to the neck.  Rather than typing a line of code, you could just drag something you wanted to delete to that trash can on the screen.  The use of skeuomorphic objects made computers easier, and almost intuitive, to use, even for skittish people who formerly worried that one false keystroke could cause a hard drive crash.

But those skeuomorphic objects have grown more and more . . . anachronistic in our fast-moving modern world, and an increasingly tech-savvy populace started to make fun of them.  Who uses actual file folders, anyway?  Will kids even know what those objects are supposed to represent?  Why should your e-books be displayed on a cheap-looking wooden bookshelf?  Who wants ’70s-era, bulky looking headphones on the “desktop” of their sleek, super-thin, ultra-light laptop?  And we all know that, in the modern world, something that becomes the object of ridicule isn’t likely to last long.

So apparently skeuomorphism is out, at Apple and elsewhere.  The tech designers are confident that people are comfortable enough with computers that they don’t need to clutter computer screens with representations of outdated objects.  I’m not quite sure what will replace it, but that wire wastebasket is going to be tossed in the trash bin.

Striking A Proper Real Life-Virtual Life Balance

Lately lots of people have been talking about Pinterest, another new form of social media and on-line interaction.  Pinterest allows participants to explore and develop their interests in different topics — food, home decorating, body art, and the like — by “pinning” news articles, pictures, video, and other items to their “pinboard” for other people to see and comment upon.  Family members and friends have used Pinterest to plan weddings and vacations, share their views on books and TV shows, and find special articles of clothing.

photo-95My Pinterest friends sound like they become almost obsessed with browsing other people’s “pinboards” and filling up their own with interesting and exciting content that reflects well on them.  Similarly, we’ve all got friends who spend a lot of time posting things to Facebook, or blogging (guilty as charged), or playing fantasy sports, or doing the countless other social networking activities you can do on-line.  This shouldn’t be surprising; the internet is a constantly changing, interesting environment that puts the whole world at your fingertips and allows for all kinds of communication.  All of these nifty on-line interaction websites also can allow you to reconnect with high school and college classmates and faraway friends and keep track of how they are doing.  But when does the attraction of the internet pull your home life out of balance, leaving you tapping out a Facebook message or chuckling at a YouTube video while your spouse or girlfriend or children or friends sit idle for hours?  How do you strike a workable real life-virtual life balance?

People have always engaged in solitary activities, like reading a book or playing a musical instrument or jogging, but obsession with on-line activities seems to have special risks.  Studies suggest that people who spend lots of time on-line often struggle with depression and sleep disorders and tend to neglect their need for physical activity and in-person social interaction.  And, of course, the on-line world, with its anonymity and ability to create weird, fake relationships such as the one that has humiliated Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, involves all kinds of potential personal, financial, and criminal hazards that would never be presented by reading a library book or knitting on the sofa while your spouse watches a basketball game on TV.

We all need to figure out when to step away from the computer.

Keep The U.N. Away From The Internet

Some countries are pushing a proposal to give the U.N.International Telecommunication Union (“ITU”) more control over the internet.  The proposal will receive a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives next week.

Currently the internt is “governed” (if you can call it that) by a a collection of non-profit entities.  The result has been a lot of freedom and not much regulation.  Governments, however, are concerned that they don’t have sufficient control over this massive, still developing communications medium.  The U.N. proposal, backed by governments in China, Russia, Brazil, India, and other countries, would give the ITU more authority over cybersecurity, data privacy, technical standards and the Web’s address system.

This is such an awful idea that there appears to be bipartisan opposition to it in Washington, D.C., with both the Obama Administration and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressing opposition.  Imagine — a proposal that is so obviously terrible that our splintered representatives can agree that it sucks!

And, it does suck.  The last I checked, the internet wasn’t broken.  We can write what we want, and read what we want, without concern that some ponderous and corrupt U.N. regulatory body will try to stop or direct us.  Indeed, the internet is one of the few international activities where cooperation has managed to produce tremendous growth — economic growth, growth in access to information, growth in communications, and growth in freedom.  That’s why repressive governments hate the internet.  Why would we want to hand repressive regimes a tool they can use to silence critics and punish dissidents?  Let’s all hope Congress does the right thing and tells the U.N. to keep their hands off the internet.

Getting To Know Our New iMac

After a few weeks of trying to make do with just Richard’s old laptop, I broke down today and bought a new iMac.  I was just afraid that Richard’s laptop, which already has no battery power and is somewhat battered, was going to break down.  Given that computers have become my main informational resource, I thought we just couldn’t do without one.

I’m enjoying the wireless keyboard and the magic mouse, which are big improvements in my book.  The screen is a bit bigger, which is nice for my aging eyeballs.  There are some weird new icons on the desktop, though, and I can’t yet figure out how to access the stuff that was on the hard drive of our old computer.  That will just have to be a new project.

There’s a kind of “getting to know you” period when you get a new computer, even if it is just a newer model of the kind of computer you had before.  (In our case, a much newer model.)  It’s like getting a new car.  For a while you have to figure out where the windshield wipers are, and how to program the radio to your favorite stations.  The things fall into place and the car, or the computer, become as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe.

Death Of The iMac

Yesterday, I got the bad news that I feared — the resolute iMac, faithful blogging friend and desktop companion, has permanently given up the ghost.

Earlier this week the iMac screen went opaque.  I turned it off, hoping it was just a rebooting issue, but I couldn’t turn it back on.  Yesterday I took it to the Apple store and the blue-shirted folks at the Genius Bar opened it up.  It was weird seeing the iMac with its innards exposed — like being present in the operating room when a family member is getting an appendix removed.

The Geniuses took one look, saw that the capacitors were blown out, and advised, with appropriate respect and regret, that nothing could be done.  Our iMac is so old — or, as one of the Apple Geniuses said, “vintage” — that they don’t even make replacement capacitors for it anymore.  We removed the hard drive so that I can try to retrieve stuff from our iPhoto and iTunes folders, closed it up, and I carefully carried it back to the car.

The demise of the iMac leaves a physical void on the desktop in our study, and I think wistfully of its 8+ years of steady reliability and service.  But life goes on.  I’d welcome any suggestions from readers about Apple desktops that can fill the void and try to fill the big shoes left by the iMac.