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Maybe I Should Just Give In to the Facebook Juggernaut January 13, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Despite the fact that Facebook keeps active a live stream of a 12-year old committing suicide, yet pulls down a Pulitzer Prize winning historical photograph, the vast majority of the US, and the world in general, seem copasetic with the decisions that Facebook makes about our lives.

I have serious reservations about Facebook, but even more about founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is reported to be looking into a run for the US Presidency in the next election. Someone who publically says that we don’t want privacy in our lives, yet spends millions of dollars in property and legal fees to attempt build a wall around his house, clearly talks out of both sides of his mouth.  It is a classic case of “do what I say, not what I do.”  I’ll actually take that one step further.  Zuckerberg is telling the world that “I want my privacy.  And I can afford it.  You don’t, and you can’t.”

I have yet to ever sign up for Facebook, even though an increasing number of web properties are requiring Facebook user IDs to access their content. And of course, an increasing amount of interesting content is being posted exclusively on Facebook, available only to members.  I still decline, but who am I against two billion other people?

I confess that my flabber is ghasted. Is it just me?  Does no one else see what a heinous effect that Facebook is having on our interactions with other people?  What is it, really?  I am starting to doubt my own judgment that Facebook is something that I can rail against, and achieve some modicum of, well, at least acknowledgement.

I’m asking, no begging. Can someone please explain the almost universal fascination with Facebook?  And if we are concerned about Donald Trump as the US President, we should be horrified at the prospect that Mark Zuckerberg may succeed him.  Imagine a world where we are all required to have Facebook accounts, and to post required information about ourselves.

I would like to think that I have many more years of my life in front of me. Yet I cannot see value in them in the world of Facebook.

Is Cursive Making a Comeback? January 4, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Anne Quito reported on Quartz about the possibility that more states will be adopting writing requirements that include learning cursive.  I read, now almost five years ago, in Wall Street Journal about how cursive instruction was being cut back or eliminated in several states.  Anne notes that at least a few states may be reversing that trend.

I am at the other side of spectrum of life, and have been removed from innovations in public school instruction for quite some time. But today I almost never write anything longhand, but I can sign my name.  And I can read the Declaration of Independence, which is one of the stated reasons for studying cursive.

Beyond that, I don’t have a lot of skin in the game, but I find it fascinating that such a cultural icon as cursive may be struggling for survival. More so, I wonder what we may be losing if we lose cursive.  That may be a biased question, in that I am assuming we are losing something.  Others may be a bit more sanguine about the whole thing.

Are we losing the ability to read, in the original, significant writings of the past? It’s not clear to me that not writing in cursive is the same thing as not being able to read it, but if it is, yes, we are losing something tangible.

Less tangible, but every bit as real, is that we generally consider handwritten notes more personal and heartfelt than an electronic equivalent.

What’s even less clear is what we are gaining. The Wall Street Journal article from several years ago reported that the state of Indiana was going to stop teaching cursive, in favor of teaching typing.  Really?  I don’t mean to sound incredulous, well, yes I do.  I realize there are certain skills involved (mainly motor skills that do not well relate to cursive), but I learned typing in about a semester of 50-minute classes, well enough to still do about 40 words a minute.

In 1958, the late great Isaac Asimov wrote a short story about world that had used only calculators for hundreds of years, and a man who knew how to perform arithmetic longhand.  The man was looked upon as a savant, and it gave him, as the title notes, “A Feeling of Power.”

Someday, somewhere, someone who can read historical documents may well have the same feeling.

Where Were You? December 28, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I was nineteen years old, in Air Force officer basic training, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, when the original Star Wars movie made it to the theaters. I had a 24 hour (actually less) pass, Saturday afternoon, a group of us visited the local movie theater in Dover.  The line stretched halfway around the block, but oddly later at night the theater was only half full, and I saw my first Star Wars.

What to say about Star Wars? It was about the adventure.  For those of us who grew up with science fiction, Isaac Asimov, Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13, and more, this was our vision of our future.  A future that we would never see, but a future that we could dream about.

And, of course, this is really about Carrie Fisher, now passed before her time. I didn’t realize it, she was only a year older than me.  Nineteen years old, in that movie.  She had issues, certainly, and may not have been all that she could have, but that counts just about all of us.  She did more than most of us.

And she was a strong woman, as Princess Leia and as Carrie Fisher. As Leia, she showed us, in the 1970s, that women could be heroes.  As Carrie, she showed us that you could be comfortable in your skin, no matter how famous.  I’ve known many strong women, and I wish I had known her.

Bully for Carrie Fisher.

Alexa, Delete My Data December 25, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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As we become inundated this holiday season by Amazon ads for its EchoDot voice system and Alexa artificial intelligent assistant, I confess I remain conflicted about the potential and reality of AI technology in our lives.

To be sure, the Alexa commercials are wonderful. For those of us who grew up under the influence of George Jetson (were they really only on TV for one season?), Alexa represents the realization of something that we could only dream about for the last 50+ years.  Few of us can afford a human assistant, but the intelligent virtual assistant is a reality.  The future is now!

It’s only when you think it through that it becomes more problematic. A necessary corollary to an intelligent virtual assistant is that assistant has enough data about you to recognize what are at times ambiguous instructions.  And by having that data, and current information about us, we could imagine issues with instructions like these:

“Alexa, I’m just going out for a few minutes; don’t bother setting the burglar alarm.”

“Alexa, turn the temperature down to 55 until January 15; I won’t be home.”

I’m sure that Google already has a lot of information on me. I rarely log into my Google account, but it identifies me anyway, so it knows what I search for.  And Google knows my travel photos, through Picasa.  Amazon also identifies me without logging in, but I don’t buy a lot through Amazon, so its data is less complete.  Your own mileage with these and other data aggregators may vary.

To be fair, the US government currently and in the past has been in possession of an incredible amount of information on most adults. I have held jobs and am a taxpayer; I have a driver’s license (and pilot’s license, for that matter); I am a military veteran; and I’ve held government security clearances.

I’d always believed that my best privacy protection was the fact that government databases didn’t talk to one another. The IRS didn’t know, and didn’t care, whether or not my military discharge was honorable (it was).  Yeah.  That may have been true at one time, but it is changing.  Data exchange between government agencies won’t be seamless in my lifetime, but it is heading, slowly but exorably in that direction.

And the commercial firms are far more efficient. Google and Facebook today know more about us than anyone might imagine.  Third party data brokers can make our data show up in the strangest places.

And lest you mistake me, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. There are tradeoffs in every action we take.  Rather, it’s something that we let happen without thinking about it.  We can come up with all sorts of rationalizations on why we love the convenience and efficiency, but rarely ponder the other side of the coin.

I personally try to think about the implications every time I release data to a computer, and sometimes decline to do so (take that, Facebook). And in some cases, such as my writings and conference talks, I’ve made career decisions that I am well aware make more data available on me.  I haven’t yet decided on Alexa, but I am certainly not going to be an early adopter.

Update: Oh my. http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/28/tech/amazon-echo-alexa-bentonville-arkansas-murder-case-trnd/index.html

Of the Things that Surprise You in Life December 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I am a distance runner. I have been reluctant to admit that, even to myself.  But after almost two and a half years of this, with a few weeks out for a hospital stay, I think it is a reasonable conclusion.  There have been hundreds of 5AM excursions out into the dawn or (at this time of year in New England) pitch darkness that I think make me eligible to claim that mantle.  I’ve done about 20 formal races over that period, with mostly 5Ks, but also a couple of half marathons (I doubt that will ever happen again).

To be fair, even now, compared to some of those I see, I don’t feel particularly dedicated or determined. And I never thought I would reach this point.  I could, and would, quit at any time.  I’m not sure I feel particularly healthier as a runner (my doctors beg to differ).  I am no more than a casual runner (maybe a little more), and will almost certainly not be anything more.

I am somewhat older; on my proximate birthday, I will be a sexagenarian (and no, it has nothing to do with sex, regrettably). How long can I keep this up?  Oddly, in the winter it is more difficult to get out.  However, I also run better when it’s colder.

And it is a surprise. I have no athletic history, and except for a brief burst of activity in my late 20s and early 30s, I have been pretty sedentary.  I’m an office worker, after all.

I have to say, what has motivated me was the numbers. Yes, I got a low-end Fitbit.  After a day of wearing it, I saw my steps.  I said, “Tomorrow I can do better.”  And I did, and continued to do so.

I am a distance runner. I have a bit of obsessive-compulsive in me.  But I don’t burn myself out in the process.  The step counts don’t work for everyone.  In a few cases, they drive users to excess.  But it my case, it was just about perfect.

A Brave New World December 21, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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As more and more sober people call attention to the fact that there is a dichotomy between the winners and losers of the information/technology economy, it’s still not at all clear that this issue is concerning or even recognized by those best in a position to do something about it.  Many of us are operating under the impression that advances are universally good, and that attempts to slow or stop such advances are universally bad.

I am not at all sure that the future of society will take care of itself. I am reminded of the old Sydney Harris cartoon, below:

harris_miracle

We advance technology because it is fun, it is intellectually invigorating, and it will make us money. We acknowledge that in many cases we are disrupting the established order, and that in significant cases we may be the proximate cause of eliminating jobs and even entire industries.  We justify that by saying that other jobs will arise to replace them.

Probably true; almost certainly true. But that process could take years, even decades.  In the meantime, many lives will be disrupted as jobs and lifestyles disappear without a clear way forward.

We justify that by saying that every adult needs to be a lifetime learner, and become accustomed to multiple career shifts over the course of a lifetime. Again, true.  But some are more capable at this than others, for a wide variety of reasons.

Well, those who are left behind deserve to be, right? Here is where the logic starts to break down.  In a strict economic sense, that may be correct.  But economics only models society at large, and only loosely (yes, I know the difference between macro and micro).  Forces other than economics are at work, and economists don’t seem to want to model those forces at all.  And the end result seems to be coming as a surprise to many.

In 1968, psychologist Garrett Hardin defined “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  He noted that when there was a shared interest in a limited resource, it was in every person’s self-interest to use as much of that resource as they could, thus destroying the resource for all.

What we have in society today is possibly approaching a tragedy of the commons. That’s not to say that economic value is a fixed resource, but however we grow it, it is finite.  If all use the value to the best of their abilities, some will achieve great wealth.  Others will lose out.

I strongly believe in advances in technology, and in capitalism. In general they benefit society, and make it wealthier and more secure in the aggregate.  I also strongly believe in democratic processes.  Others are welcome to disagree with my beliefs in technology and capitalism.

Beyond the intellectual simulation and possibilities for profit, we in technology largely believe that we are building a better society. There are those who disagree with us, with some justification.  The disagreements between these two forces may be getting closer to a head.  If there is confrontation, I have no doubt that many of us will be among the first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

To be clear, I’m copasetic with being one of the haves (relatively speaking) in a have/have-not society (I also realize that society can turn on me in a heartbeat). I’m not nearly as copasetic with helping to create (in a very minor sense, but still) the have-nots.  We can do better, and it is in our personal, economic, and societal interest to do better.

I wonder what Ayn Rand would say.

If You Want to Know Something About a Culture December 16, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Know the words they are using. This simply fantastic infographic helps enormously in understanding how different words are used to reflect regional cultures in the US.  Among the examples they provide are different words for meals, food, cities, and, well, swear words.  This is seriously good information for those who attempt to differentiate how language makes us who we are.  We don’t pay enough attention to that.

The Conundrum of Health Care December 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I write about health care because now, about 18 months ago, I was under a death sentence. I ultimately didn’t die (I will someday, but it won’t be today), but such a situation does tend to focus your thoughts.

Health care in the US is mostly private, based on employment. In other countries, notably the UK, it is largely public.  I came across the story of a writer in Britain, Adrian Gill, who passed of cancer a few days ago, and offers praises for the National Health Service there.

There is a fatal flaw in health care that societies in general refuse to acknowledge. Health care is not an unlimited resource.  There is not an infinity of doctors, nurses, and hospitals.  Drugs cost money.  Out of necessity, health care must be rationed.  Here in the US, we largely ration through, as I said, employment.  That isn’t particularly satisfactory, of course.  But in places such as the UK and Canada, they ration through availability.  That isn’t satisfactory, either.

But it’s a discussion that no society is willing to have, and that’s the real problem. I have a friend who says, crassly but no doubt reflecting what many people truly think, “I love nationalized health care, as long as I can afford to buy what I need on my own.”

No one wants to say, “You can get as much health care as you can afford.” Or “You can have health care as long as you are willing to wait a long time for it.”

And there is the rub. They are the realities.  But we ignore them because of the friction built into our health care systems.  We can dismiss rationing as being an unintended consequence of the broken systems.

I do have one objection to Gill’s description of the NHS. He says that you don’t get the humanity in private health care that you do in public.  I respectfully disagree.  People are people, whoever signs their paycheck.  We have a human connection.  He was wrong.