Faithful Steed

We’ve had our Acura SUV for a long time now.  I think it’s a 2011 model, and we bought it new.  We’ve carefully maintained it in conformity with the manufacturer’s instructions, have complied with all dealer notices of needed servicing, have gone through several sets of new tires, and have avoided any major mishaps or accidents aside from a few tiny side door dings.

It’s been a good, reliable car, one that we’ve driven across the country — to Maine and back, and down the east coast, and on a dog delivery trip to Texas, and on other long road trips.  It’s always gotten us to where we want to go, and we use it with confidence.  We’ve gotten attached to it, as people often do with cars.  We haven’t named it, but I’ve enjoyed driving it and how it handles, and I also like the fact that, when I approach the car from the front and see the grillwork, it always looks happy to see me.

But . . . it’s time.  The car has more than 150,000 miles on it, the air conditioning system is on the fritz — which would be a concern if spring and summer ever actually arrive in central Ohio, which admittedly seems unlikely at this point — and when we’ve driven new rental cars we’ve noticed that advances in car technology have left the poor old Acura in the dust.  Whether it’s rear-facing cameras, dashboard computers, or other high-tech gizmos they’re putting into vehicles these days, car companies have made some significant improvements in the last eight years, and we don’t have any of them.

So, it’s time.  Today, we’ll go car shopping for the first time in almost a decade, and take a look at what the auto manufacturers have to offer.  If we find something that strikes our fancy we may trade in Acura for a new model.  But before we do, I want to acknowledge and salute the faithful service of our faithful steed.

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The Boy Who Cried “Regulation”

Recently Facebook’s billionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that called for “a more active role for governments and regulators” to establish “new rules” for the internet.  The op-ed has provoked lots of comment.

facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-testifies-before-us-congress-highlightsZuckerberg’s op-ed piece begins:  “Technology is a major part of our lives, and companies such as Facebook have immense responsibilities. Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyberattacks. These are important for keeping our community safe. But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone.”  He says he agrees with people who say Facebook has “too much power over speech” and argues that government regulation is needed in four area — harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.  Zuckerberg adds:  “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”

Zuckerberg’s article, while couched as a call for regulation, reads like a PR piece for Facebook; it argues, among other things, that Facebook has developed “advanced systems for finding harmful content, stopping election interference and making ads more transparent” and has taken other steps in the four areas.

It’s safe to say that Zuckerberg’s clarion call has been viewed with significant skepticism in the United States and abroad.  An article in The Hill says that “[r]egulators, lawmakers and activists who have grown wary of Facebook saw Zuckerberg’s move less as a mea culpa and more as an effort to shape future regulations in his favor,” and quotes, for example, a UK regulator who says that if Zuckerberg really believes what he has written he can start by dropping an appeal of a $560,000 fine the UK imposed for Facebook’s activities in connection with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  Others are leery of inviting the government to regulate on-line speech, and believe that Facebook — having thrived and made millions in a regulation-free environment — now wants to see regulations imposed in order to complicate and thwart efforts by new competitors to grab some of Facebook’s social media market share.

The reaction to Zuckerberg’s op-ed piece illustrates what happens when you have frittered away your credibility.  Facebook’s history doesn’t exactly fill people with confidence that the company has users’ privacy and best interests at heart; too often, the company appears to have placed generating revenue above user concerns and data protection.  I’m inherently dubious of any governmental action that touches free speech, and large-scale regulatory efforts often impose staggering costs without providing much benefit — but even if you think such efforts are a good idea, Zuckerberg is exactly the wrong person to float such proposals.  He’s like the boy who cried wolf.

Indexers And Thumbers

Have you ever noticed that people send texts in two different ways?  (And I’m not talking about overuse of emoticons, either.)  Some people use their index fingers to tap out their messages, whereas other people use their thumbs.  And people never seems to vary how they do the texting, either.  You’re either a thumber, or an indexer.

stop-texting-with-people-when-youre-not-interestedWhen you think about it, it’s a bit odd that there is no universally accepted method for efficiently and correctly performing what is now a widely used form of modern communication.  It’s like watching someone sit down at a keyboard and then use a totally unknown approach to quickly and accurately typing out a document — say, by positioning their hands at each side of the keyboard or coming in from the top, rather than the bottom.  Or handing someone a cell phone and watching them use the buttons to send a message in Morse code rather than speaking.

Both the thumb approach and the index approach seem to be equally functional — although, being a thumber myself, I firmly believe that the thumb method allows faster messaging.  I wonder if the two methods exist side-by-side because texting is still a relatively new form of communication and we’re in the VHS versus Beta phase, where standardization hasn’t set in.  The fact that there isn’t vocational training on texting — at least, to my knowledge, not yet — probably also contributes to texters having more freedom to develop their own favored method.

One thing is clear, however — thumbing versus indexing definitely has a different look.  The index approach to tapping out a message is far more genteel and elegant, with the three unused fingers of the hand dangling to the side of the phone, giving the same kind of look projected by blue-haired sophisticates who sip their tea from delicate china cups with the pinky extended.  The thumb approach, in contrast, treats the cell phone like a sturdy hand tool that you grip tightly and use to mash out a message without a second thought.

One approach is high society, the other is blue collar.  Me, I’m a blue-collar guy.

TMI, 40 Years Later

Forty years ago today, the “incident” at Three Mile Island Generating Station in eastern Pennsylvania occurred.  Due to a series of small-scale mishaps with cooling systems, the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor heated up to alarming temperatures and suffered a partial core meltdown. Fortunately, the overheated radioactive material itself was contained in the core and did not escape to the environment.

towers-1979The concern then turned to what to do radioactive gases that had been generated.  For days, “Three Mile Island’ dominated the news, with news reports always featuring the forbidding cooling towers venting steam in the background.  Ultimately, some of the gases were trapped in tanks, but other gases were vented to the atmosphere after migrating through a series of filters that were supposed to trap the most dangerous radioactive elements.  Residents were instructed to stay indoors, with the windows in their homes closed, but there was great concern that exposure to the gases could cause all kind of health issues.  People panicked, and thousands of frightened people fled the area.  It was one of the first instances of major federal government communications failure in the modern era.  Eventually, President Carter visited the site to let the general public know that the situation was under control — but by then the perceptual damage had been done.

It took about a month until the engineers at the site had the coolant systems under control, but the aftermath of TMI lasted for years.  There was significant litigation about the possible health effects of the incident, although authorities eventually concluded that the only significant exposure was experienced by four employees at the TMI plant.  Concerns about widespread birth defects and the development of radiation-related illnesses turned out to be unfounded.  In the meantime, clean-up operations lasted for almost 15 years and cost nearly a billion dollars.

TMI was the worst nuclear incident on U.S. soil.  In terms of its health effects, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Chernobyl incident, and many people now living in America either weren’t around when it happened or have forgotten about it.  But TMI has had one lasting impact that is undeniable — since it occurred, no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States, and every time one is considered, the grainy black and white photos of the TMI cooling towers with steam rising from them get displayed.

But as America increasingly focuses on lessening its carbon footprint and relying on renewable energy sources, nuclear power is cited more and more frequently as something that has to be considered as part of the solution.  Technology has changed a lot, and for the better, since 1979, and people also have come to realize that nuclear power offers some significant environmental advantages over other forms of power generation that are dependent upon fossil fuels.

Maybe now it is time to let TMI and those scary photos of cooling towers fade into the past, and take a fresh look at nuclear power without being hamstrung by 40-year-old fears.

Phone App Flim-Flam

How much do you really know about — and how much should you really trust — the apps that you are downloading and installing on your phone?

best_android_phone_uk_phonesLast week I ran across an on-line article with the unnerving headline “Two-thirds of all Android antivirus apps are frauds.”  The article reports on testing that was performed by an Austrian group called AV-Comparatives that specializes in testing antivirus products.  The group looked at 250 Android antivirus apps that were available on the Google Play Store.  It installed the apps on phones, then tried to download malicious software that was in use last year and therefore should be detected by any decent, functioning antivirus app.

The testing found that more than half of the apps didn’t work as advertised.  Many didn’t “scan” and analyze the code of the downloaded software at all, and instead just checked the title of the software against “whitelists” and “blacklists.”  As a result, some antivirus apps found themselves to be malware because the developers forgot to include them on the “whitelist” of approved software.  In addition, some apps were easily fooled because package names that included references to reputable software creators, like “com.adobe,” could bypass the software and permit malware to be installed without detection.

In all, the Austrian group found that 170 of the 250 antivirus apps failed the basic detection tests and were either ineffective or unsafe.  AV-Comparatives concluded that many of the apps were developed by amateurs or were basically being used as platforms for ads and were not legitimate antivirus protection.

I use an Apple iPhone, so I’m not directly affected by issues with Android antivirus apps, but the testing of the antivirus apps raises a more basic question — how are apps being screened, and how much of what is made available to the general public, on either a free or paid basis, is valid and works as advertised?  And, even worse, is anyone trustworthy actually looking at the apps to see whether they are vehicles for getting access to personal phones for fraudulent purposes?  How does anyone know that the app they are downloading isn’t a technological Trojan horse?

Saving Photos

My cellphone is old, and I regularly get messages telling me I’m up to storage capacity on things like phone messages and photos, and it’s time to start deleting.  The phone messages aren’t hard to get rid of — the fact that I haven’t deleted them already is just due to inattention, really — but the photos are a much harder call.

Sure, I could dump every photo that I’ve ever taken onto my home computer or store them in the cloud, but that’s not really a true solution — you just end up with a huge array of photos that are creating storage capacity issues somewhere else.  And if you’ve ever tried to find that one photo you are thinking of in an indiscriminate mass, you know it can be a frustrating and time-consuming task.  It’s similar to the problem that many of our parents and grandparents had — they’d have boxes  and boxes of unorganized Kodak and Polaroid photos from family trips, reunions, and other events, and one of their long-lasting resolutions was to actually identify who was in the curled up and browned-out photos from the past and put them into some kind of meaningful order in photo albums.  In many families, like mine, that just never got done successfully.

In my view, the key is to suck it up and engage in careful editing on the cellphone itself, respecting the device’s storage issues and limiting your library to those really worthwhile photos that you think you actually might look at in the future.  Where are you most likely to look at photos, anyway?  These days, it’s on your cellphone, when you are with friends or waiting at an airport gate for a plane and want to remember a good time from the past without going through some elaborate storage retrieval process.

So, how do you make the call on what to keep and what to delete?  It’s easy enough to delete the out-of-focus shots, of course, and there are always some photos that, when you look at them later, you wonder why you took them in the first place.  But once you’ve discarded the chaff, it’s a lot harder.  How many photos of beautiful sunrises or sunsets do you want?  Which photos of family and friends should you keep indefinitely?  When I look at the older photos on my cellphone, I see that there’s a pattern:  I have kept photos of special people, and places and times that I want to remember.  There’s a photo of Mom and the rest of the Webner clan at her last family birthday party, for example, and photos of me and Kish on vacation, and the photo with this post that was taken on Lake Louise in Canada on a perfect June day when the color of the water and the backdrop of mountains was just dazzling and we walked along the edge of the lake just reveling in the scenery.

My test is simple:  what do I want to remember, and what really makes me smile?

 

Messing Around With Genes

Since 2015, Congress has included language in its funding bills to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from approving any application to create in vitro fertilization children from embryos that have been genetically modified.  Because the prohibitory language has been included in funding bills that have expiration dates, it needs to be renewed every year.  The House of Representatives just passed legislation that includes the renewal language, as part of an effort to fund certain governmental activities like food stamps and drug approvals.

Khan1The issue of genetic modification of embryos has some special urgency these days, with the recent news that Chinese scientists have announced the birth of the first genetically modified children — twin girls whose genes allegedly have been altered to supposedly make them specially resistant to HIV.  The Chinese scientists used a protein to edit the genes on a “CRISPR” — a stretch of DNA.  Some people question the validity of the Chinese claim about these so-called “CRISPR babies,” but there is no doubt that genetic manipulation of human beings is moving from the realm of science fiction to the reality of science fact.

The bar to such activities created by Congress ensures that efforts to genetically modify humans are not going to be happening in America — at least for now.  Is that a good thing?  The FDA Commissioner has said:  “Certain uses of science should be judged intolerable, and cause scientists to be cast out. The use of CRISPR to edit human embryos or germ line cells should fall into that bucket. Anything less puts the science and the entire scientific enterprise at risk.”  Others argue that Congress has taken a “meat axe” approach when it should be crafting a more nuanced policy that recognizes that some genetic manipulation could be beneficial.

It’s hard to know what’s right.  Scientists have been involved in the reproductive process for years, and their work, through processes like in vitro fertilization, has allowed people who are struggling to conceive to realize their dream of having children.  But I think the notion of scientists tinkering with genes to create “better” human beings crosses a line in several ways.  First, I’m not entirely confident that scientists know what they are doing and that there won’t be unintended, negative consequences from the removal of the genes the scientists snip out.  Anyone who has read about the history of science knows that scientists have been wrong before, and its reasonable to think they might be wrong again — only this time, their errors wouldn’t just be about the impact of certain foods or the properties of atoms, but would directly affect specific human beings.  Second, where do you draw the line in genetic manipulation?  Modifying DNA sequences to try to avoid diseases or debilitating health conditions is one thing, but what if scientists want to edit genes to create humans who are smarter, or more athletic, or taller?  Do we really want to permit the creation of “designer people” — like Khan Noonien Singh, that memorable Star Trek character who was genetically modified to be a kind of superhuman?  And finally, as this article points out, the whole issue brings up uncomfortable memories of the eugenics arguments of the early 20th century, where certain ethnic groups and traits were considered superior and others inferior.  If “improved” humans are created, where does that leave the rest of us?

In my view, this is an area where a sweeping rule makes sense — at least initially.  I think we need a lot more evidence, and a lot more thinking, before we should allow scientists to go messing around with human genetic material.