Big Zucker

Today I followed my time-honored morning routine.  I got my cup of coffee, pulled out my cell phone, and checked my work email messages.  My Facebook app was showing there were messages there, too, so I clicked on it.

“Good morning, Bob!” the Facebook page read, a little too cheerily.  “Skies are clearing in Columbus today, so enjoy the sunshine!”  It also gave the temperature in Columbus at a spring-like 25 degrees.

03facebook-xlarge1I recognize that, as a 60-something male, I’m not in Facebook’s target audience.  Perhaps 20-somethings feel warm appreciation for the fact that Facebook is so tuned in to their lives that it gives them personalized weather forecasts and wishes them a heartfelt good morning.

Me?  This increasingly cranky old guy gets a case of the creeps that Facebook thinks it knows where I am and presumes to provide weather forecasts for my assumed location and addresses me by my first name.  It also bugs me that Facebook does things like prepare slide shows of Facebook posts that happened in March, or videos celebrating the “anniversary” of the start of a Facebook friendship.  I feel like Facebook needs to back off and butt out.

The fact that Facebook has been implicated in the Cambridge Analytica story heightens the risk arising from the mass of data that Facebook is compiling about the people who use it.  Rather than making me feel warm and fuzzy that Facebook cares about me, Facebook’s little devices, like the weather forecasts and the slide shows, just remind me that Facebook holds all of that data and can use it however it wants.  It’s not an appealing prospect.

Perhaps George Orwell’s 1984 should have been written about huge, data-compiling social media companies like Facebook, rather than the government.  Instead of Big Brother, maybe we should all be worrying about Big Zucker.

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A New Sign Of The Approaching Apocalypse: Melt-Resistant Ice Cream

We’re in the midst of an era of profound technological change, with advancements in “smart” technology, robots, self-driving cars, designer plant and animal breeds, and countless other developments that all have one overarching goal — to allow lazy, pampered human beings to move and do as little as possible while being amply fed, tracked, and tended.

thebslaproteAnd now there’s been a development that is the latest sign of the approaching apocalypse:  scientists have developed melt-resistant ice cream.  The scientists determined that “banana plant waste,” in the form of tiny fibers from the banana plant stem, can be mixed into ice cream compounds and significantly slow the rate of melting.  The resulting mixture also is supposed to be creamier and potentially healthier, because . . . . well, because banana stem fibers are bound to be healthier than the combination of sugar, cream, chocolate, and other totally empty calories that make ice cream so delectable in the first place.

Some might argue, as the article linked above does, that this is a significant positive development that won’t leave ice cream consumers with “sticky hands” and “stained pants.”  I think the exact opposite is true.  The meltiness of ice cream on a hot day is part of the fun, requiring inventive ice cream fans to develop highly technical strategies on how to approach their cones in a way that minimizes melt loss and maximizes actual consumption of ice cream, like regular use of the “around the top of the cone” lick, careful attention to telltale signs that parts of the ice cream scoop might be liquefying, and properly timing the decision to bite into the bottom of the cone itself to allow all of the cool, already melted ice cream to run into your happy, waiting mouth.

Now, thanks to banana fiber technology, we won’t have to worry about such things and instead will be able to take desultory licks of our cones without thought or fear of consequences.  Is that really something to be hailed as a profound advancement in the history of homo sapiens?

You’ll be surprised to learn that I’m not a fan of self-driving cars, either.

The Sap Test

The story of Cambridge Analytica is an interesting one.  Mother Jones has a fascinating article on how the British firm came to America making big promises to provide in-depth voter profile data and targeted marketing to Republican presidential campaigns — including the Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump campaigns — and not really delivering on its big promises.  Along the way, Cambridge Analytica got Facebook into trouble, because Cambridge claimed to “harvest” Facebook’s user profiles and other data to “exploit” what was known about them and to “target their inner demons.”

d40It’s a good read on several levels.  There’s a bit of a thrill in seeing, again, that political masterminds can be played for saps, and it’s always a rewarding reaffirmation of democratic values to read how people’s contributions to political campaigns are spent — or in this case, misspent — on efforts to manipulate voter views and carefully position candidates to appeal to them.  That the Cambridge Analytica big promises apparently went largely unfulfilled doesn’t alter the fact that political campaigns paid it huge amounts of money precisely to provide the kind of information that would permit the campaigns to appeal to voter biases and prejudices and preexisting views — in short, to “target their inner demons.”  And let’s not kid ourselves, either:  Cambridge Analytica was working for Republican candidates in 2016, but Democratic candidates no doubt hired similar research firms and consultants to try to use data to warp voter views in the opposite direction.  It’s worth thinking about that the next time you’re asked to contribute money in response to the latest in the endless fundraising appeals we get from candidates.

But there’s another good lesson lurking in the Cambridge Analytica story, too — about how apparently innocent “personality tests” and other social media staples can be used to assemble masses of data about millions of Americans that can then be used in totally unknown ways.  Every time you respond to the command on one of those annoying “like if you agree” or “share if you agree” posts, or take a “test” to show that you’re one of the people who would be able to identify TV stars from the ’80s, you are creating data that somebody is storing, accessing, counting, analyzing, and then using to develop targeted ads for products — or, potentially, some kind of targeted political message that is supposed to appeal to your likes, dislikes, and demographic category based on the data that you’ve voluntarily provided.

The Cambridge Analytica story, and what it tells us about the data being provided, is food for thought the next time you’re considering disclosing a little piece of your personal information in response to a Facebook quiz or other social media meme.  It would probably be better for everyone if saps like us keep the information about those “inner demons” under wraps.

3 Reasons Why Clickbait Headlines Use Numbers

You can’t go on the internet without stumbling into “clickbait” — those annoying yet tantalizing articles that you aren’t looking for, but that are designed to entice you to click on a link and see, for example, how “unrecognizable” some ’80s TV star is now.

If you pay attention to clickbait (and of course you shouldn’t, but you can’t really help it, now can you?) you notice that there are definite patterns to it. The headlines for many of the clickbait pieces advertise something that is supposedly “shocking” or “jaw-dropping,” but a lot of them — say, 50 percent — also feature numbers.  As in “6 reasons why your retirement planning is doomed” or “7 signs revealing that your boss actually hates your guts.”  Today’s MSN website page, from which the above photo is taken, includes a bunch of sports-related clickbait, and numbers are prominent.

Obviously, the clickbait brigade thinks numbers are likely to lead to clicks.  Why?

The article “Why We Respond Emotionally to Numbers: 7 Ways to Use the Power of Numbers in Your Designs” — which itself has a clickbait-like title — argues that humans respond viscerally and subconsciously to numbers.  Even numbers, for example, are supposed to reflect feminine qualifies, while odd numbers are purportedly masculine.  Numbers also are associated with luck and with religion.  More basically, many games, especially those where you gamble, involve numbers.  Obviously, numbers must have a deep intuitive appeal for homo sapiens, even those who didn’t like math class.

In the case of clickbait, though, I think it is more than that.  People on the internet are typically in a hurry, and clickbait by definition is something that you’re not actually trying to find.  Numbers in the headlines signal clear limits on the amount of time you’re going to need to spend to check out that provocative clickbait.  Typically the number in the headline is below 10, encouraging you to think that even if the article is a colossal waste of time, at least you’ll figure that out quickly.  The fact that there are only 5 reasons to believe that the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was cursed might just tip the balance and cause you to move that mouse and cursor and click away.

 

Revisiting 2001, 50 Years Later

2001:  A Space Odyssey has been one of my favorite movies ever since I first saw it.  The only word that adequately describe the film, in my view, is “awesome.”

2001-space-odyssey-watching-recommendation-videosixteenbyninejumbo1600Awesome in terms of its enormous storytelling sweep, taking us from the discovery of weapons by a bullied group of protohumans to a voyage to Jupiter; awesome in its special effects, which kicked off the rapid development of special effects in films, made “space movies” a new genre, and gave all viewers a new perspective on The Blue Danube; awesome in its anticipation of new technology and artificial intelligence; and especially awesome in its absolute embrace of an inexplicable, entirely weird, jaw-dropping storyline.  Oh, and there’s some funny moments in the film, too, such as when one of the characters has to figure out how to use a zero-gravity toilet, which involves carefully studying a long set of instructions.

It’s one of those favorite movies that I’ll always sit and watch if I stumble across it being shown on TV.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article on 2001, its initial critical reception, and its anticipation of technology that is well worth a read, whether you are a fan of the film or not.  It’s fascinating.  And who would have thought that a movie that one highly regarded critic dismissed as “trash masquerading as art” would, 50 years later, be universally regarded as one of the most influential movies ever made?  It just reinforces a valuable lesson:  sometimes — perhaps often times — movie critics can be dead wrong, and paying too much attention to them might cause you to miss seeing a classic on the big screen.

App-rehension

Earlier this week I was having lunch with a younger colleague in a busy airport, talking about how tough it is to juggle the demands of young children, a work schedule that involves lots of travel, and other elements of modern professional life in America.  As she noshed on her salad, she mentioned that at times she took out her phone and used “Calm” and “Buddhify” to help her reduce stress.

IMG_1092Eh?  There are smartphone apps geared toward meditation?

Yes, she explained.  They are part of the “mindfulness” segment of smartphone apps, and then she described how you can use the apps to look at calming scenes, hear soothing sounds, and select mediation routines that are specifically targeted to helping you deal with a particular scenario, like getting to sleep or dealing with stress at work.  She then thumbed through her phone app index pages in a way that made it clear that she had a lot of apps.  My younger cousins have a lot more apps than I do, she said — dozens and dozens of index pages of them.

I thought about my smartphone, with my skimpy two pages of apps, most of which came with the phone, and I felt apprehension and, frankly, inadequacy.  And as my colleague showed me some of the other apps she has on her phone — apps like TuneIn, which allows you to listen to sports broadcasts of your favorite teams wherever you are, or Happier, which helps you think most positively (UJ must already have that one), or Pandora or Spotify, which allow you to listen to lots of good music of your choosing — I realized, again, that there’s a huge world of potentially useful or enjoyable apps out there and I am completely oblivious to them.  My poor, underutilized iPhone is like what they used to say about the human brain — it’s using only about 10 percent of its potential.

But here’s the problem for me.  How do you find the good apps?  Is it primarily word of mouth?  Do people regularly have conversations about apps, and discuss which ones, in their experience, are worth it or not?  Or do people do on-line searches for app ratings and comments?  Or do they go to the app store and just look around and try things out?

I’m feeling a bit lost here.  But if I can find an app that transforms modern business travel into more of a zen-like experience, for example, I’m willing to work to find it.

Watching The Launch

When I was a kid back in the ’60s, we used to be trooped into the school auditorium at Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio to watch every launch of every rocket that was taking an American astronaut into space.  Between the countdowns, and the holds, and the cryptic communications of “launch control,” and the possibility of a disaster, and Walter Cronkite urging “go, baby, go!,” rocket launches were almost unbearably exciting.  And when NASA started launched the enormous Saturn V rockets that were used to propel the Apollo missions to the Moon, which were among the loudest devices ever made by humanity, the spectacle became even more intense.

So I watched the video of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday, beginning with the rocket on the familiar Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy launchpad, heard the countdown, saw the smoke and the flames and the rocket pushing slowly and inexorably against the titanic forces of gravity to slip the surly bonds of Earth and go soaring into space, and it brought those memories all back, and produced the same kind of tingle and hairs-standing-on-end feeling that I got in those long ago days in the school auditorium.

I’m glad the launch was a success and that SpaceX was able to successfully land two of the side boosters back on Earth, although the main booster was not successfully retrieved.  It’s a huge achievement and step forward for a company that is one of the leaders of the movement toward getting us back into space.  And I’m glad that, thanks to the efforts of the Falcon Heavy thrusters, Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster and a “Starman” wearing a SpaceX uniform have been successfully thrown out past Mars, where they will orbit around the Sun forever.

But mostly, I’m just glad that I got to see a huge rocket launch again.  Deep down, I’d still love to be an astronaut.