I Have A Dumb Refrigerator

As the world reels in the face of another computer hacking attack, this time at the hands of the “wannacry” virus, I have come to realize that my refrigerator is dumb — and I really prefer it that way.

img_4173It sounds mean to say that my refrigerator is not “smart,” but it’s true.  It’s shiny on the outside but not very bright, if you know what I mean.  It keeps our food cool, or downright frozen, and it gives us ice and cold water at the thrust of a cup, but that’s about it.  It’s not linked to the internet or controlled by an app.  It’s not programmable and tracking data about electrical usage that I can access when I’m drinking coffee at the office.  It doesn’t stream music or take verbal commands or have an inside/outside video camera or suggest recipes when we’re trying to decide what to have for dinner.

It’s embarrassing to say it, I guess, but our other key appliances — the stove, the oven, the microwave, and the washer and dryer — are pretty much equally dumb.  It’s not their fault, it’s just the way they were made.  In fact, they probably even lack the self-awareness to recognize that they are . . . different from their more gifted cousins.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure that we have any really smart devices around the house.  Our seven-year-old car has satellite radio and a GPS system, but that’s about it in the high-tech department.  These days, that’s kindergarten stuff.  Our TV allows us to access various content providers, so it’s probably at about the third-grade level.  And our 10-year-old desktop computer is so laughably backward that it might as well be sitting on a stool in the corner with a dunce cap on.

So in our household, we’re surrounded by dumbness.  But with each new hacking attack, I’m thinking that’s really not such a bad thing.  While our refrigerator might not get great test results in the smart appliance department, at least we know it’s not spying on us, or accumulating personal information that some hacker could access, or subject to being controlled by the next round of North Korean mischief.  When the next “wannacry” or “stuxnet” or “bindlehoffer” virus is sweeping the globe and paralyzing smart households, it’s reassuring to know that our refrigerator will still be purring along, keeping the cottage cheese and beer cold.

When You Know Your Doctor Is A Hopeless Nerd

Look, I love the original Star Trek TV series as much as any ardent Trekker.  I loved Kirk, and Spock, and Bones, and Scotty’s thick Scottish accent, and Uhura and the cool little gadget she wore that stuck out of her ear, and Sulu and Chekhov.  I even liked some of the bad guys, like Kang and the Romulan woman with the bad complexion that Spock seduced in one of the later, forgettable episodes.

3-27-14-1But even I would never try to invent a tricorder like the one used on the original series.  Of course, as any dedicated fan of the show knows, the tricorder was a device that allowed the crew of the Starship Enterprise to gather enormous amounts of information simply by vaguely waving the tricorder in the general direction of an object or person.  In the classic episode City on the Edge of Forever, where Kirk must kill his beloved Edith Keeler, Spock apparently used a tricorder to record millennia of human history being displayed by the time portal that allowed Bones to go back in time and change human history so the Nazis won World War II.  (Trust me — this synopsis, while totally accurate, doesn’t do the episode justice.  It really is a great episode.)

But I digress.  Three ER doctors from Philadelphia, who seized upon the fact that Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy used the tricorder in diagnosing the medical condition of his patients, have invented their own version of the tricorder.  Their device monitors vital signs, goes through a series of questions that assist in the diagnosis, and ultimately helps the doctor to come up with a determination of what’s wrong with the patient.

So, these doctors are total Star Trek nerds — a conclusion confirmed by the fact that, as the article linked above shows, they had their picture taken in replicas of the uniforms worn by crew members in the original series.  So what?  It looks like they’ve been inspired by the show to create a useful diagnostic tool, which is a good thing.  No word, however, on whether this tricorder also makes that really cool whirring sound that fans of the show remember so well.

Next up — the transporter!

The Fall Of ESPN

Is ESPN the Blockbuster of broadcast TV?

Those of you who are over, say, 35 probably remember Blockbuster.  It was the place where you went to buy, or rent, new video releases.  For a time in the ’90s, you couldn’t go to any suburban strip shopping center without seeing a busy Blockbuster store thronging with people eager to get their hands on the new releases.  But then . . . things changed.  New methods of getting entertainment delivered directly to our houses were developed that made going to the Blockbuster store seem inconvenient, and expensive, and clunky, and kind of a pain in the ass.  And before you knew it, all of those Blockbuster stores were gone.

sc2ESPN seems to be following the same path.  From the new station that padded its programming with weird sports events like Australian rules football games, ESPN grew into a glitzy, multi-channel cable TV megaplayer that had an enormous impact on the sports segment of American culture.  Athletes would make a great play and mimic the Sportscenter theme song, hoping that their play would be broadcast on that nightly highlights show.  ESPN broadcast anchors became celebrities.  In 2011, ESPN had 100 million cable TV subscribers.

But then . . . things changed.  ESPN is down to 88 million subscribers, and those numbers continue to decline.  Ratings are down, and the channel has had to make some very public layoffs of some of its familiar on-air talent.  Even this NFL draft weekend, when the coverage on ESPN used dominate the sports conversation, ESPN doesn’t seem to be quite so significant anymore.  Why is this happening?  In part, it’s because people are giving up on standard cable TV in favor of watching content on the internet.  Cable TV packages are expensive, and watching events on the internet is free.  So why sign up for increasingly expensive cable TV programming with a standard package filled with channels that you don’t watch, when you can save that money and watch what you want on the internet?

Doesn’t that sound familiar, in a Blockbuster kind of way?

There are other proffered reasons for ESPN’s decline — the high salaries it pays on-air talent, the rising cost of obtaining broadcast rights for sports events, and even the theory that ESPN has increasingly injected “liberal” political views into its broadcasts, irritating sports fans with more conservative political views — but I think the real reason is the cultural change in people’s viewing habits.  When cultural shifts occur, companies can go from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the ditch in a hurry.

Who knows?  In a few years, even that iconic Sportcenter theme song might be as forgotten as the once-familiar Blockbuster logo.

Automatic Soap Dispensers And Self-Driving Cars

There are some of those automatic soap dispensers in bathrooms at the firm.  We’ve also got automatic faucets.  Both are supposed to be triggered by waving your hand underneath.  The idea is to take the messy, germy human element out of the equation, and let sensors and machines do the job neatly and cleanly.

But here’s the problem — the machines are not very precise.  Sure, for the most part they dispense the dollop of soap or the stream of water when you place your hands underneath.  But 9 times out of 10 another injection of soap occurs after you’ve moved on to the water side, and vice versa.  So, a lot of soap and water seems to get wasted.

And it’s not just the automatic soap and water dispensers at the firm, either.  How often have you found yourself at the movie theater, or the airport, or some other public place, flapping your hands like a magician having a seizure in hopes that the balky machinery will dispense soap, or water, or a tiny section of paper towel that never is sufficient to fully dry your hands?  Typically, they’re not working correctly, are they?

So when I hear about the technological wonders of self-driving cars, and then read about how one of the prototypes had one mishap or another, I nod inwardly and think:  “No surprise there.  They’re just like those stupid soap dispensers.”

I’m probably not going to be in the market for a self-driving car anytime soon.

Recover, Reuse, Relaunch

Yesterday the SpaceX venture reached a new milestone:  the company took a used rocket that it had recovered from a prior mission, relaunched it into space, deposited a customer’s satellite into orbit, and landed the rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean so it can be used again, and again, and again.

falcon-9-dscovr-launchAs I’ve written before, private, commercial ventures like SpaceX are making significant progress in making space flight a common, everyday option.  Yesterday’s flight was a key development in that effort, because a significant part of the cost of space flight has been rockets that are designed, built, and used only once.  That single-use approach might have been viable back in the ’60s, when government funding was plentiful and the United States was on a national quest to be the first country to land a man on the Moon, but it’s simply not sustainable or feasible in our modern world of massive budget deficits and competing national priorities.  It’s also an approach that commercial space concerns could never afford.  That’s why SpaceX has been focused on developing technology that allows those expensive rockets to be reused.

No one should take away from the mighty, ground-breaking accomplishments of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs, and there remains a key role for governments in space exploration.  Governments will always have more resources than businesses do, and the need for scientific exploration, and the technological developments that seem to inevitably accompany it, will often fall to governmental entities like NASA.  But profit-making entities and capitalist risk-takers are adept at building on the foundation the government has laid and figuring out how to make things affordable and, not incidentally, profitable.

If tourist trips to the Moon and settlements on Mars are in our future — and I hope they are, because I still hold out hope that I might see a glorious Earthrise from the Moon some day — commercial concerns inevitably will play a huge role.  SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology is another important step forward toward a future in which the “final frontier” becomes a much more accessible place.

The End Of Privacy As We Know It

The right to personal privacy isn’t a right that is specifically recognized in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but it has been a recognized area of the law for decades, as well as a treasured ideal for many Americans.  For many people, the right to be left alone is an important one.

But this is another area where technology is simply changing the game.  Whether it is cookies left on personal computers that lead to pop-up ads that are specifically targeted to your website viewings, search engines that can sift through mounds of news stories, photos, and data in split seconds whenever a name is entered, tracking mechanisms on cell phones, surveillance cameras on every street corner, drones in the air, computer hacking, or listening devices that are routinely used by governmental entities, technology makes the ability to maintain some zone of privacy harder and harder.

20130203_adde1Social media also has had a significant impact.  Anyone who likes the convenience of Facebook as a way to keep in touch with their old friends, family members and colleagues is giving up a piece of their privacy.  And when technology and social media meet, the erosion can become even more pronounced.

Consider the news that a software developer has used the advances in facial recognition software to develop an app that allows you to take a photo of a stranger in a public place and immediately run a search for the identity of that person through Facebook.  It’s called Facezam, and it’s apparently going to launch on March 21, although Facebook is raising questions about whether the software is in compliance with the Facebook privacy policy.  But even if Facebook quashes the idea as to Facebook, you would imagine that the app could be modified to be applied to search through other sources of photos.

It’s creepy to think that random strangers, simply by taking your picture in a public place and unbeknownst to you, could then find out who you are and, if they’re so inclined, track you down.  One person in the story linked above describes that concept as the end of anonymity in public places, and I think that’s right.  If you want to guard against it, you can withdraw from any social media, refuse to get your photo taken, avoid going out in public except in disguise, avoid any travel, and stay in your room.  Those aren’t especially attractive options, are they?

Welcome to the Brave New World!

 

Keyless

I’ve been on the road a lot lately, and many of my travels have required me to rent a car.  Through the rentals, I’ve been introduced to the wonders of keyless automobiles — at least, keyless in the sense of the old-fashioned, cut metal, keychain jangling in your pocket, keymaker and locksmith keys that I associate with cars.

img_3660We bought our Acura just before the keyless revolution really took hold.  It’s got a kind of awkward interim technology, bridging the gap between metal keys and totally electronic unlocking.  There’s a plastic part of the key with buttons that open and lock the doors and the rear gate, but there’s also a little button that you push to make a metal key flip out, and the car’s ignition requires the insertion of that metal key.  It’s as if the designer recognized the simplicity of electronic access, couldn’t quite bring himself to go the Full No-Metal Monty.

When you’ve been using metal car keys all your life, the electronic gizmos take some getting used to.  When I get into a rental car, habit compels me to look for the key in the ignition switch — but of course there is no ignition switch, just a button.  The “key” is a plastic device sitting in the cupholder.  You don’t need to touch it, or do anything with it; it’s very electronic presence is so powerful it allows you to start the car by stepping on the brake and pushing that button.  Because you don’t use the key to turn the car on or off, I always wonder how many people inadvertently leave the key in the car when they’ve completed their journey.  I don’t, because I’m anal about locking any car I use even if it’s totally empty, but I’m guessing that forgotten keys, and perhaps also stolen cars because the keys have been left in them, are a lot more common now than they were before.

I don’t mind the electronic keys, really; we’re living in an increasingly electronic age and you’ve just got to be ready for the next technological leap forward.  But while pushing a button and hearing the engine start is perfectly fine, in my view it doesn’t really compare with the tactile sensation of sliding that key into the ignition switch, feeling the rasp of metal on metal, and turning the key to hear the throaty thrum of the engine.