Ph.D In Boating

  
We took a boat trip with friends yesterday, and I realized that boating technology has progressed about as rapidly as cell phone technology.  The boat’s instrument panel featured RPM monitors, fuel gauges, depth finders, fish finders, engine monitors, more buttons and lights and switched than you could shake a stick at, a GPS link and map that could be scrolled up or down or in or out — and Sirius XM radio.  

It all looked so complicated, like the cockpit of a plane, that I wondered if you needed a Ph.D to operate it.  That turns out to be a slight exaggeration — our friends only took a week-long course to get up to speed.

Chimes In The Foyer

IMG_0135Today I woke up early, for a Sunday, and went downstairs to make some coffee.  As I padded barefoot across the floor, thinking about how cold it is supposed to get, a familiar sound kept me company.  It was the gentle chimes of the wall clock in our foyer, letting me know that 6:30 had arrived.

We inherited this clock from Kish’s Mom, Faith.  It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and design, inside and out.  I like the Roman numerals on the round clock face, the filigreed hands, and the cap on the top of the clock (called, technically, a bonnet), with the split pediment that looks like a bird’s wings and the round finial at the center.  The clock still functions perfectly and is wound with a key — a job that is reserved exclusively for Kish, who knows how to do it properly, because you don’t want to overwind an old clock.  But when the clock has been wound, and the hands are moving and the pendulum is swinging, you can see why “moving like clockwork” is synonymous with flawless functioning.

But what I like best about the clock is the sounds it makes.  The pendulum moves with a very audible tick-tock, and the chimes that mark the hour and half-hour are gentle and subdued.  Those are soothing sounds in the wee, dark hours of the early morning, as you sip your coffee and read your book and wait for the rest of the family to awaken.

Lab Rats

Forbes has reported that Facebook “conducted secret tests to determine the magnitude of its Android users’ Facebook addiction.”  In the tests, which apparently occurred several years ago, users of the Facebook app for Android were subject to intentional crashes of the app. without being informed of the tests.

Why would Facebook want to provoke crashes that would frustrate users who were trying to wish a Facebook friend happy birthday or post their latest selfie?  Purportedly, to test the “resilience” of Facebook users.  If your app suddenly crashed, would you just say the hell with Facebook, or would you try to access Facebook through an internet browser instead, or through a different app?

paralyzed-ratsWhen you think about it, intentional crashes aren’t really testing “resilience” — they’re testing obsession and addiction.  After a crash, a rational person would avoid Facebook, for a while at least, reasoning that time was needed for anonymous techno-geeks at some far off location to address the cause of the crash and fix it.  Only somebody desperate for an immediate Facebook fix would spend time searching to get to Facebook via alternative means, because nothing time sensitive ever really happens on Facebook.  You can always send your friend an email expressing birthday wishes, or save that choice Throwback Thursday photo until next week.

But the point, of course, isn’t whether it’s resilience or obsession that is being tested — it’s the fact that Facebook is intentionally frustrating its users at all.  It sounds like the kind of experiment some evil scientist with a futuristic base on a remote island might use on hapless prisoners.  After all, why would you knowingly thwart the efforts of somebody who is trying to access your website?  Facebook no doubt would shrug and say the tests provided needed information — but really, it did the tests because it could . . . and it was confident that Facebook fans would keep coming back.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this:  Facebook has done similar kinds of tests before, and other companies do, too.  On the internet, we’re all lab rats.  Our movements are tracked constantly, but instead of scientists in white coats checking when we take a sip from the water dropper or stop running on the wheel or are responding to the electrodes placed on our hind quarters, data is compiled about which websites we visit, how long we stay there, what we click on, and whether we’re showing an interest in one product or another so that we can be bombarded with pop-up ads for that product forever.

Time for another spin on the wheel!

Breeding Like Email

Several months ago, Kish and I went to Williams-Sonoma to buy some cookware.  We were happy with our buying decisions, but some of what we wanted needed to be ordered and shipped.  The clerk asked if we would like to have updates on the status of the shipments emailed to us.  I thought about it, reasoned that we would want to know when the deliveries were being made so the packages wouldn’t be sitting out on the front step for hours, and gave the clerk my email address.

Big mistake!

IMG_0075Sure, we got the updates on the delivery status of our packages, and it was useful.  But then Williams-Sonoma starting sending all kinds of emails about special offers and, more recently, the availability of holiday shipping and last-minute purchases.  And then we started getting similar emails from Pottery Barn, west elm, and now, Pottery Barn Outlet and Pottery Barn Kids, even though I’ve never set foot in any of those stores or visited their websites.  In short, the junk email appears to be breeding.  Maybe Williams-Sonoma has some kind of agreement with west elm and Pottery Barn where they sell or exchange personal information about their purchasers, reasoning that a Williams-Sonoma customer might just turn into a Pottery Barn customer — or a west elm customer, although I have never heard of west elm or any have no idea what they sell.  Tree-related goods, perhaps?

Now, whenever I check my email, the painful first step is to go through all of the unsolicited email I’ve received from these businesses.  I never open them and read them, just check the box and hit delete.  It only takes a few minutes, but it never ceases to irritate me because it’s a few minutes I won’t get back.

I sometimes wonder whether it would be better to simply respond to the emails and start the process of being removed from the mass email rosters.  I haven’t done so because I’m afraid all that effort will accomplish is confirm for the businesses that they have a good, live email address and that the unlucky person getting the emails is reacting to them.  So, while I might ultimately be removed from their email lists — after whatever protracted process is required — my email address will end up being sold to the world and the unwanted emails in my inbox will breed still further.  So, I just stew and hit delete, hoping that after months of no response the emailers will just give up.

I’m guessing that’s a vain hope.

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!

Droning About Drones

Recently the Federal Aviation Administration announced that Americans who own “hobbyist” drones — those that weigh between .55 pounds and 55 pounds — must register their drones starting on December 21.  Registration is free if it occurs before January 20; after that, it will cost $5.00.  Failure to register can result in civil penalties of up to $27,500, or criminal fines of up to $250,000 — and the FAA estimates that, through 2020, it will cost $56 million to operate its drone registration program.

dronesteaserIn our outsized federal government, the institution of a new program is a barely noticeable event.  Still, $56 million over 5 years seems like a lot of money to me, so I wonder:  are the operation of hobbyist drones really a problem that can be dealt with through registration?  Notwithstanding the institution of a nationwide registration program, the answer isn’t very clear.  In 2014, the FAA received 238 reports of unsafe drone use; so far in 2015, it has received 1,133 reports of unsafe drone operations.  The FAA also reports that pilot sightings of drones are increasing.  So far, there hasn’t been a catastrophic incident in which a drone has produced a safety problem by, for example, colliding with a commercial aircraft.

Although you see humorous commercials featuring skies filled with drones ready to dive-bomb workers heading to their cars, and drones seem to be prominent in oddball news stories, most of us have never seen a drone being used — at least I haven’t.  That may be about to change.  The federal government forecasts that as many as 1 million drones will be sold in America this year to hobbyists, and drones outfitted with cameras are available for less than $600.  So, if you want to spy on your neighbors, catch people misbehaving in their cars, or try to get footage that you can sell to a website, buying your own drone won’t break the bank.

Maybe that means there will be a lot more drones overhead in 2016 and beyond, and the droneless among us will come to view them as colossal pests someday soon.  But still — is requiring registration by the federal government, and the institution of some new bureaucratic office of Federal Drone Registration And Enforcement, really a necessary or appropriate response?  Isn’t the better approach to simply ban the use of drones in the areas where they might create a safety issue, such as around airports, above highways, or in places that might interfere with the work of firefighters or emergency personnel, and then prosecute people who violate such safe-use laws?  And how is the mere act of registration going to ensure safe or appropriate operation of drones in any event?

I’m all for being proactive in trying to make sure that new technology is used safely and properly, but I also think we are way too quick to establish costly nationwide programs that don’t really address the problem.

Further Vetting The Vetting

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, officials are looking at whether they may have missed clues that could have predicted the murderous death spree of Syed Rizwa Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.  And it appears that some blazing red flags were, in fact, not seen, and that the immigrant screening process employed by the United States is not, in fact, as foolproof as some advocates have represented.

The biggest missed clues were social media posts.  As the New York Times recently reported, Tashfeen Malik had talked openly on social media posts about her support for violent jihad and her interest in being part of it.  However, the agencies charged with deciding whether she should be permitted to enter the United States never saw those posts because “immigration officials do not routinely review social media as part of their background checks, and there is a debate inside the Department of Homeland Security over whether it is even appropriate to do so.”

tashfeen-malik-l-and-syed-farook-are-pictured-passing-through-chicagos-ohare-international-airport-in-this-july-27-2014-handout-photo-obtained-by-reuters-december-8-2015-reutersus-customs-and-border-pStrange, isn’t it, that in our modern, internet-obsessed age, where many people share their innermost thoughts and views on-line, that social media posts of an applicant for entry to the U.S. aren’t reviewed as a matter of course to search for violent, pro-terrorist, or anti-American sentiments?  Wouldn’t you think that unprompted social media posts are much more likely to yield insights into a would-be immigrant’s true feelings than the answers given at a stilted, formal interview with a consular official?  And it’s not as if the jihadists are shy about sharing their views on social media — after all, ISIS and other Islamic terror groups actively use the internet as a recruiting mechanism and are happy to post videos of beheadings and other bloody activities as part of their recruitment campaigns.

What’s most troubling about the New York Times article linked above is the “debate” within the government about whether it is “even appropriate” to look at social media in the visa application process.  The concluding paragraph of the Times article, apparently seeking to explain the reluctance to review social media, states:  “Social media comments, by themselves, however, are not always definitive evidence. In Pakistan — as in the United States — there is no shortage of crass and inflammatory language. And it is often difficult to distinguish Islamist sentiments and those driven by political hostility toward the United States.”

Such justifications make no sense to me.  Sure, social media posts endorsing violence might not be “definitive evidence” (whatever that means) that the writer will become a mass-murdering terrorist, but don’t we want to even check on whether someone seeking entry to our country has voiced such sentiments, and if so build that undoubtedly relevant information into our decision-making process — and maybe ask a question or two about such statements in that stilted interview?   Why take a head-in-the-sand approach to available information.

And why the curious concern about whether it is “appropriate” to look at social media postings?  After all, social media posts are public statements, available to the world.  Companies routinely review social media postings as part of the job application process, and parents counsel their children to consider how that Facebook picture of their embarrassing behavior at a boozy party might be perceived by a prospective employer.  Yet the delicate sensibilities within our government are worried that it might not be “appropriate” to look at whether the likes of Tashfeen Malik have expressed violent, anti-American views before they decide to let them enter the country?

It’s bad enough that Farook and Malik were motivated to gun down innocents in San Bernardino in furtherance of their own, twisted beliefs.  It would be inexcusable if the government did not learn from the process by which Malik gained entry and use those lessons to improve our immigration protocols and enhance the information-gathering process.  Establishing a mechanism for reviewing public social media posts of visa applicants would be a good place to start.