Big Bro’s Apps

Every time I update my iPhone, weird new apps appear.  I have no idea what they are.

garageband_ios_iconThere’s one app with a guitar on it called “GarageBand.”  There’s another with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star on it called “iMovie.”  There’s also “iTunes U,” with a mortarboard cap, and “Keynote,” with a podium, and “Measure,” and “Numbers,” and “Pages,” all with their own different square icons.  What do they do?  Beats me!  I have no idea what they are or what function they are designed to perform or how they got where they are.  I didn’t consciously put them on my phone — they just appeared there.  Because I have no idea what they do, I haven’t tapped any of these apps.  I’m afraid that if I do, I might be charged for something I don’t want, or have to go through some long process to sign up for something I won’t use.  And, by using them, I probably would be transmitting data to someone somewhere would could sell it to some marketing firm who would use it to target ads to my phone.

The addition of these unknown apps makes me think about the reach of Apple and the power of its updates.  Somewhere, some unknown person is deciding what applications should appear on my phone.  I have no idea what process they use to make that decision or what they are trying to accomplish.  I get why Apple wants me to activate “Apple Wallet” — which I haven’t done, because I think my normal wallet works just fine.  But why would Apple decide that the standard iPhone set-up, which is what I have, should include an app like “GarageBand”?  What kind of design and standardization approach is at work here?

Cellphones are great, and the functionality they provide allows us to stay connected wherever we may go.  But there’s something about them that’s a little Big Brotherish, too — except that Big Bro isn’t the government, it’s some big company that is deciding what should and shouldn’t be on a device that you carry with you everywhere you go.  It gives me pause.

 

 

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Seriously Sick Of Surveys

Some time ago we made a significant purchase.  For purposes of this post, the product or service in question is irrelevant.  It could be a phone, it could be a vehicle, it could be a major appliance, or a stay in a hotel, or some kind of streaming service, or a political contribution.  The item makes no difference, because it is the experience surrounding the expenditure that is the point — and the experience is, unfortunately, pretty much the same no matter what you spend your money on these days.

survey-11In virtually every case, you’ve got to make the decision on whether to give your email address and get the app that is specific to the purchased item.  These choices raise key decision points for the consumer:  do you give out your email address, knowing that you are losing control of an important bit of your personal privacy, and do you clutter your phone with apps that may give rise to unwanted beeps and buzzes and messages clogging your primary communications device?  I try to be judicious about this judgment call, and think about what I might really want and need as a result of each particular purchase.  If I think I may need to get an important message — like a product recall alert, or a warranty issue, or a service call — I’ll grudgingly give up the information.  Otherwise, I politely decline.

But when you do give up that information, the upshot is as predictable as an overnight Trump Twitter storm — you’re going to be getting surveys.  And in the modern world it won’t be just one survey; now, you’re likely to get a survey as soon as you make the purchase, and then get additional survey requests in the future, even if you’ve faithfully filled out the initial survey.  The survey bombardment is relentless.  Each survey request promises that it will take “only” a few minutes, but it’s pretty clear from the questions that what the survey is really seeking is not customer satisfaction information about the specific product or service you’ve just bought, but rather information about you and your personal preferences and perceptions and lifestyle, so that the seller of the item can better market things to you in the future.

I hate this reality of modern life.  The survey onslaught really irritates me, and also negatively affects my perception of the product.  It’s obvious that the seller that sends the survey doesn’t place much value on my time and also thinks I must be a sap, besides, if I’m going to gladly divulge personal information that enriches them and provides me with no benefit.  Maybe sellers with surveys are like email scammers — they know most rational people will just delete the message, but if they get just one sap to participate they’ve received a significant benefit at minimal cost.  I routinely delete the survey requests, and spend a few seconds steaming about the arrogance of the sender.

Do sellers understand how people like me react to surveys, or do they just not care?

Uber Choices

I’m still a green-as-grass novice when it comes to Uber, and I’m trying to figure things out.  Like, which option to choose when I trigger the app and am offered different choices for the ride.

1141770989.jpg.0There’s obviously a price difference between the options, but I’m not quite sure what the price differences fully mean.  I’m assuming that some of the more expensive options feature larger cars and SUVs, so if you’re part of a group you’d want to choose them.  But, are there other differences lurking in the price points, too?  Does the age and condition of the car, the cleanliness of the vehicle, the skill and experience and ratings of the driver, or the presence of a pine tree air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror, enter into the price as well?  I’m sure there is a website somewhere that explains all of this, but life’s too short to spend time trying to puzzle out pricing for what is supposed to be an easy, convenient service.

I’m only the Uber decision-maker when I’m traveling by myself; if other people are part of the travel equation I let them make the call.  But when I’ve got to decide, I invariably choose the cheapest option.  I’m a cheapskate by nature, and I figure I’m only going to be in the car for a short period of time.  Given that fact, the car would need to be a real mess before I’d regret going for the cheapest option — which happened once, incidentally.  I figure that Uber is like a taxi, and if you’re flagging down a cab you pretty much take whatever stops to pick you up.

But I also think by taking the cheapest option I am helping out the driver.  For many people, including recent arrivals in the Columbus area, Uber seems to be a kind of gateway job.  They might not be able to afford the biggest and newest cars, but they’re trying to make a go of it.  Why not give my money to them, rather than to somebody driving a roomier and more luxurious vehicle?  And include a tip, too.

The Wearable Chair

In the new product development department, the other day I ran across a news story on the “wearable chair.”  It’s a contraption of bands and extendable aluminum legs;  you strap it to your keister and it allows you to sit wherever and whenever you want to do so.

1693822_web1_lex-chair-It’s an ungainly looking device, to be sure, and it gives the people sitting on it a distinctly bionic, quasi-insectoid appearance.  It seems like a pretty clumsy thing to wear around, and if you’re in a crowd it looks like it would take up space that might not be appreciated by the other people on, say, the subway train.  Presumably there are rigorous weight limits for the wearable chair, too.  It’s supposed to help with your posture, though — which doesn’t surprise me, because the photos of the product make it look like you need to sit in a particular, erect way or weight distribution issues would otherwise cause you to go tumbling to the ground.  No slouching when you are strapped into the wearable chair!

I guess we’ll find out whether there’s a market for the wearable chair.  It seems hard to believe that there are enough people who become so fatigued at the spur of the moment that they can’t find a chair or bench — or even spot on the grass — where they can sit, and would rather extend limbs from an exoskeleton on their butt and draw curious attention to themselves.  Maybe modern people have become so lazy and in need of instant comfort that the wearable chair will be a big success.  In a world struggling with obesity, however, it seems like we’d all be better off if people had to actually stand while waiting for a bus or train rather than plopping down wherever they wanted.

How long do you suppose it will be before somebody decides to combine a wearable chair with a standing desk?

Asking “What Could Go Wrong”?

Most actions have a potential upside, and a potential downside.  Some people are very good at envisioning about the rosy, positive consequences of an action, but not so good at identifying the possible negative outcomes.

Take scientists, for example.

aedes-aegypti-696x392In Brazil, disease-carrying mosquitoes are a huge problem.  Authorities there are keenly interested in wiping out the pests that spread the Zika virus, dengue, and malaria, but the issue is how to do it in an environmentally safe way.  Some scientists then came up with the idea of using gene-hacking techniques to tackle the problem.  The scientists would modify the genes of a control group of male mosquitoes so that their offspring would immediately die, release the mosquitoes into the wild, and then watch as the mosquitoes mated and the mosquito population plummeted.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.  Initially, the mosquito population did decline, but then it returned to its prior level.  Puzzled scientists looked into what had happened, and discovered that the genetically modified control group had in fact mated with wild mosquitoes — but at least some of their offspring survived.  What’s worse, the offspring carried genetic modifications that may make them even more resistant to future attempts to wipe them out.  In short, the gene-hacking experiment may have produced a new strain of superbugs that are more robust than their predecessors.

One of the researchers who looked into the issue commented:  “It is the unanticipated outcome that is concerning.”  No kidding!  We should all remember those words the next time somebody proposes messing with DNA and genetics and confidently assures us that their efforts will produce nothing but positive benefits.  Just because somebody wears a white lab coat doesn’t make them infallible.

50 Years Of ATMs

On September 2, 1969, a new machine was unveiled at the Chemical Bank branch in Rockville Centre, Long Island, soon to be followed by similar machines located outside bank branches across the country.  The machine was an ATM — an automated teller machines that allowed users to get cash from their accounts at the press of a few buttons.

atm_fAt first ATMs, like all new technological developments, were curiosities, and most people still got their money the old-fashioned way.  They went into a bank, filled out a paper withdrawal slip, and presented it to one of the human tellers at a window, or they went through the drive-thru bank lane, interacting with a teller remotely and getting their money via pneumatic tube delivery.  But as time passed people realized those ATM machines, once you got the hang of them, sure were convenient — and quick.  You could get money when you needed it and on your schedule, without being at the mercy of your bank branch’s hours.

As their usage increased, the number and location of ATMs multiplied, moving from their initial locations at bank branches to appear just about everywhere.  According to the article linked above, Chase Consumer Banking alone has 16,250 ATMs, and Bank of America has even more.  And as the number of ATMs skyrocketed the functionality of ATMs has increased, too, moving beyond dispensing cash to allow users to perform just about every banking-related service they might choose.  Chase says its ATMs now can do 70 percent of the things its human tellers can do for its customers.

People didn’t focus on it at the time, but ATMs were a precursor of the machine-oriented, self-service movement in American business.  There’s a debate about whether ATMs have ultimately eliminated human teller jobs or have spread them out among more bank branches that have been opened, but one thing is clear:  banking involves much less human-to-human interaction than used to be the case.  Who knows the name of their bank branch manager?  That’s become true in other businesses where self-service machines have been introduced, too.  And in that sense ATMs helped to pave the way for internet-based businesses, cellphone apps, and other consumer-directed options that don’t involve fact-to-face communications with human beings anymore.  We’re conditioned to doing things by tapping buttons on a machine, and there is no going back.

Happy 50th, ATMs!  You’ve helped to change the world, for better or for worse.

Robots In Space

Tomorrow Russia will be sending a humanoid robot into space.  The robot will be one of the passengers on a Soyuz capsule that will take the robot and other crew members to the International Space Station.  Once there, the robot will perform certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a Russian cosmonaut.

190723192309234a3550372iThere are some signs that the robot’s trip is a bit of a publicity stunt, with a whiff of the old “space race” about it.  For one thing, the robot’s name was recently changed, from “Fedor” to “Skybot F-850.”  For another, the Russians say the robot will occupy the commander’s seat on the Soyuz, rather than being carted up in the cargo compartment — although Soyuz being a capsule, there really isn’t a commander’s seat or much piloting going on.  The robot also seems to be a kind of multi-purpose robot who is largely controlled through immersive teleoperation (i.e., controlled by a human) rather than fully autonomous.

As for the whiff of the old space race days, there’s a conscious effort to compare Skybot F-850 to an American robot called Robonaut-2 that worked at the International Space Station a few years ago and is ready to return.  Robonaut-2, the Russians point out, was shipped to the ISS as part of the cargo rather than as a member of the crew.  Good thing for Robonaut-2 that robots can’t feel embarrassment!

Even though the Russian effort seems to have a lot of publicity elements to it, I’m still glad to see a focus on moving forward with robotics in space.  Astronauts are great, of course, but a lot of the hard work involved in tackling space is going to be done by robots who don’t have to worry about atmospheres or food.  If a little taste of the space race will help to move the process along, I’m all for it.