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Uber, Lyft, and Unintended Consequences April 24, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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There is a lot going on with, well, I cannot use the term ride-sharing, because it’s not, but with changing the dynamics of personal transportation, often in unforeseen ways.

So here we go.  I grew up in rural middle America (well, not so middle, but flyover country nonetheless).  I had my driver’s license the day after my sixteenth birthday (the day after I soloed in a Piper Cherokee 140), because in blue collar America, your family had one car that your father used to go to work in the mill, and otherwise you had no way of getting around.  If you were a guy, you got a beater for a hundred bucks, and you drove yourself.  And changed the oil and rigged the rust with bondo.

(I have a related story.  I was passed down my family’s 66 Chevy BelAir, a true rusting hulk.  In fact, the frame rusted through, underneath, on the driver’s side.  I drove a bolt between the frame and the crossmember, and drove it for another couple of years.)

But it was more than that.  I learned my way around my community, and the surrounding area.  I knew every single dirt road in a 25-mile radius, and the fastest way to get from the place I was at to the place that I needed to be (including driving through fields).

Uber and Lyft say several things about the future of personal transportation.  First, you have to live somewhere they are available.  You might think that is a given proposition, but in much of America it is not.  That may drive people toward more urban areas, or it may create another digital divide across our country.

But I think most important, you are not going to be able to get from one place to another on your own.  You don’t know your locality.  Now, I recognize that there are a couple of retorts to that statement.  First, I have my GPS.  Ah, but in rural America, just how accurate is that?  Even in my current East Coast suburbia, it has significant flaws.  People won’t have a mental model of their locality.

Well, it’s not my problem, you say, it’s Uber’s!  No, it’s yours too.  I have been deposited in places that the GPS has said was correct, only to find out that it wasn’t.  What do you do then?

I am a strong believer in situational awareness.  You need to know where you are at all times, and what is around you.  If you don’t, you are subject to mostly unpleasant surprises.  Don’t at all think it’s going to turn our well if you have no clue as to where you are, and where you are going.

I wonder if we are forming a geographic cocoon, unable to navigate ourselves outside of a range of a few hundred yards (less if we don’t even walk for recreation).  More so, is it necessarily a bad thing?  I think it is.  We have people who take their mobile phones on hikes in the wilderness, expecting 9-1-1 to rescue them if they don’t get home by dinner.

I wonder what my life would be like if I couldn’t navigate on my own, based on my own experiences and travels.  It would certainly be less rich, but I also wonder if it would be more, well dangerous, in the event that I found myself having to, but ill-prepared to do so.

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The Problems With Seasteading April 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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It’s a new word, at least to me, and refers to establishing a residence outside of any national boundary, generally at sea.  Chad Elwartowski, a US citizen, and his Thai girlfriend, Supranee “Nadia Summergirl” Thepdet built a home on the water outside of Thailand territorial waters (but within the country’s economic zone).  Thailand wasn’t amused, revoked Elwartowski’s visa, and are towing the ‘home’ to land (the residents apparently abandoned it the previous day).

It sounds free and in a way romantic, but isn’t practical by any means.  You may think that you avoid taxes and live outside of a structured legal system, but you are giving up much more than you are gaining.

So let’s list just a few things that can go wrong.

  1. Your transportation or communication fails. The assistance you need is relatively minor but very necessary.  You may think you can pay for it, until you get the bill.  And that bill is likely far larger than any tax bill you may have gotten over the years.
  2. You are attacked and kidnapped by pirates. You may think that is foolish, but these waters are among the most pirate-infested in the world.  Absolutely no legal national entity in the world will go to bat for you.
  3. A storm renders your home unlivable. These are also among the stormiest waters in the world.  You’re hanging onto a piece of debris, hoping that rescue is on the horizon.  But because you have rejected all legal entities, there is no reason for any nation to lift a hand.
  4. You are sick or injured, and need assistance. There are humanitarian services, but if you are nationless, it becomes more difficult to call on them.
  5. You want to order takeout pizza. Just kidding, but yes, you are giving up conveniences like that too.

We may debate the value of what we get from our tax dollars, but emergency services are usually available when we need them.  If you are in dire need, you probably think that nations will help you anyway.  To which I say, “Why?”  You want freedom, such as it is, but you also want someone there to backstop you.  Ain’t gonna happen.

You’re Magnetic Tape April 4, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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That line, from the Moody Blues ‘In the Beginning’ album (yes, album, from the early 1970s), makes us out to be less than the sum of our parts, rather than more.  So logically, writer and professional provocateur Felix Salmon asks if we can prove who we say we are.

Today in an era of high security, that question is more relevant than ever.  I have a current passport, a Real ID driver’s license, a Global Entry ID card, and even my original Social Security card, issued circa 1973 (not at birth, like they are today; I had to drive to obtain it).  Our devices include biometrics like fingerprints and facial recognition, and retina scans aren’t too far behind.

On the other hand, I have an acquaintance (well, at least one) that I’ve never met.  I was messaging her the other evening when I noted, “If you are really in Barcelona, it’s 2AM (thank you, Francisco Franco), and you really should be asleep.”  She responded, “Well, I can’t prove that I’m not a bot.”

Her response raises a host of issues.  First, identity is on the cusp of becoming a big business.  If I know for certain who you are, then I can validate you for all sorts of transactions, and charge a small fee for the validation.  If you look at companies like LogMeIn, that may their end game.

Second, as our connections become increasingly worldwide, do we really know if we are communicating with an actual human being?  With AI bots becoming increasingly sophisticated, they may be able to pass the Turing test.

Last, what will have higher value, our government-issued ID, or a private vendor ID?  I recently opined that I prefer the government, because they are far more disorganized than most private companies, but someone responded “Government can give you an ID one day, and arbitrarily take it away the next.”  I prefer government siloes and disorganization, because of security by obscurity, but is that really the best option any more?

So, what is our ID?  And how can we positively prove we are who we say we are?  More to the point, how can we prove that we exist?  Those questions are starting to intrude on our lives, and may become central to our existence before we realize it.

Your Money’s No Good Here March 7, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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In my younger days, that phrase meant that you were a local hero of sorts, and that you didn’t have to pay for anything in that particular business establishment.  Today, it means going cashless.

Few realize it, but there is nothing explicit in Federal law that says businesses have to accept legal tender.  So places like Amazon and Sweetgreen have gone entirely cashless.  There are some advantages in doing so.  Given today’s technologies, electronic payments are faster and more convenient than cash (maybe).

As I travel to various places overseas, I see some of the difficulties with cashless operations.  I was in a retail shop in Kyiv last spring; the power was out, and there was no way to process electronic payments.  The shopkeeper was resigned to losing a day’s business, until we showed up with cash.  “Discount!” she exclaimed.

And there is a significant portion of the population in the US that remains unbanked, as it is called.  There are a variety of reasons for this, including poverty, immigration status, and lack of knowledge of banking.  I will say that my parents, 50 years ago, were unbanked, my mother cashing my father’s steel mill paychecks at the supermarket, and paying bills at the supermarket, post office, and utility office, all within half a mile of each other.

Personally, I am a heavy user of credit cards (I don’t get the debit card thing), but there are still certain things that I buy with cash; for example, groceries.  I simply don’t want to be inundated by grocery stores knowing exactly what I purchase and sending me emails and texts encouraging me to do more of the same.  And I am also concerned about security issues, which based on my research haven’t yet been appropriately addressed.

And thank god for the nascent marijuana industry (disclosure: I do not partake), which out of legal necessity is entirely a cash operation.  In time, that will almost certainly change.

Yes, so I shovel against the tide.  Everything will be cashless at some point, and every bank and retail establishment will require cashless transactions.  And everything we might purchase will be completely transparent.  I already do much of that, and am not especially happy about it.  It’s not about hiding, it’s about taking control of the information surrounding your life.  We have less and less opportunity to do so, and that will only continue.

Followup:  https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/26/business/cashless-stores-amazon-go-sweetgreen-dos-toros/index.html.  This leaves me lacking in happiness.  Dos Toros founder Leo Kremer wants to do what he wants, and wants the government to force people to go cashless.  Arsehole!

Do We Even Exist if We’re Not on Facebook? March 3, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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It’s a rhetorical question, so please don’t respond.  This LinkedIn video provides a hilarious take on a young person in a fledging relationship who is shocked, absolutely shocked, at her potential partner’s absence on any form of social media.  “Have you ever seen a photo of his d***?”  Her friends ask.  “No, I’ve only seen the real thing!  I have a selfie of my boobs, but I don’t know where to put it so he can see it.”

It’s over the top, of course, but there is still more than a grain of truth here.  Has it become such that if something is not on social media, it is not real?  I would guess that some people think that way, especially in the era of fake news by the Russians and others.  If we are not constantly engaging face to face, is that a tell for an alternative reality of social media exchanges?

And, to be fair, if you are a digital native, why wouldn’t you accept social media as ground truth?  As we navigate our way through life, using primarily digital media to communicate and express ourselves, is this the inevitable outcome?  That we don’t believe it unless it is published on social media?

That’s not really a question, because of course it’s true.  After all, many people get all the information they need and want through news feeds of various types, and through retweets and the like by friends and colleagues.

The end result is that many people today are mixing real and social media experiences, often seamlessly, in their minds and activities.  That doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it does give one pause.  Should, in fact, social media be accorded the same status as in-person interactions?  A higher status?  While the answer may seem obvious, don’t forget that the world is shifting under our feet daily, where we have accusations of fake news and declarations of alternative facts.

The Internet and Health Care Live Together Uncomfortably February 18, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Several years ago, I had a very serious health scare.  Thanks in large part to my skepticism of the diagnosis and my desire to be my own health care project manager, and based on my own research using Dr. Google, I recovered completely, without the debilitating surgery recommended by several doctors.  I liked and trusted these doctors, even as I sought alternatives.

In short, it was a win for me personally, and for the notion that people can comprehend and act rationally upon their own health care information.

If only it were that simple.  Steve Jobs, for example, may have had a better chance at surviving pancreatic cancer if he had not insisted that he could be cured through his diet.

But today I speak of vaccinations for childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps, and chicken pox.  When I was in elementary school, everyone was vaccinated, and I can’t recall anyone turning it down.  Sometime in the 1970s, these childhood diseases were declared almost entirely eradicated in the US.

That is changing, and not for the better.

There has always been a small but vocal group of people who were opposed to vaccination.  Often the opposition was based on misinformation or a distrust of government intentions.  Recall the fluoridation controversy in the US in the 1950s and 1960s (I grew up in a rural area and drank untreated well water).

Today, measles, mumps, and chicken pox rates are rising as parents decline to have their children vaccinated.  In many cases, that decision is still based at least in part on distrust in government, but perhaps the biggest part was a study, published in the British medical journal Lancet, that tied vaccinations to an increased occurrence of autism in children.

That study was immediately criticized on methodology grounds, and eventually retracted from publication.  But not before almost every parent in the US had heard about it and believed it to be ground truth.

And worse, the study, and other unscholarly opinions, live on forever through the Internet.  Everyone hears tales of other studies that support this original one, and make even scarier claims.  And for parents, autism is scarier than measles, and they do what they think essential in protecting their children.  So we have fewer children vaccinated, and the incidence of these diseases is growing again.

But the reaction by parents is based on hearsay, bad science, and a misinterpretation of good science.  It doesn’t help that researchers can’t absolutely say there isn’t a connection, not because there might be one, but because in logic, you cannot prove a negative.  That is, no number of studies, no matter how unequivocal, cannot prove logically that a relationship doesn’t exist.  All they can do is support that there isn’t.

Of course, the Internet is essential to spreading these tales.  I did a quick Google search on vaccination, and found several sites on the first page of results that were clearly portals and gathering points for anti-vaccination groups.

I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago that every adult should have a fundamental understanding of the scientific method, its advantages, and its limitations.  Perhaps fifteen years ago, then-Time columnist Barbara Kiviat suggested that people have some level of minimum qualifications and licensure to use the Internet.  That wasn’t workable then, and certainly isn’t now.  But if it were, I would suggest training in the scientific method as the path to that license.

Genetic Editing: Next Decade, or Next Year, or Next Week? February 2, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Several years ago, I read Michael Crichton’s last published novel before his death.  It’s called Next, and while it’s a rather disjointed set of storylines, the one that resonated with me was one where Frank Burnet showed a remarkable resistance to leukemia, and as a result his cells are sold (without his knowledge or permission) to a commercial biotech company, BioGen.

The initial cells are lost, but BioGen consults lawyers, who advise that under United States law they have the rights to all of Frank’s cell line and thus the right to extract replacement cells, by force if necessary, from Frank or any of his descendants.  He and his family flees an onslaught of BioGen agents who claim the legal right to kidnap them and harvest cells.  Biogen’s lawyers apply for a warrant to arrest Frank’s daughter, on the grounds that she had stolen the company’s property, namely her and her son’s cells.

The conclusion of this novel was the judge’s decision on the validity of their ownership claim, and it went as we as human beings would have hoped.  Specifically, the judge rules in Frank’s daughter’s favor and rejects the precedents as attempts to abolish normal human rights by decree, a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids slavery.

However, this is fiction, and fact is turning to be a lot messier.

I’m not a geneticist, and I’m certainly not a lawyer, but as I understand it, cell and DNA ownership are still very much an open legal question.  If a biotech company sees a path to a genetic cure for a serious disease in a particular DNA or genetic sequence, I believe it will vie for legal ownership, in the courts, and spend a great deal of money and effort to achieve that ownership.

And let’s add CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technologies into the mix, which provide the ability to edit individual DNA sequences in an embryo, perhaps to remove genetic diseases.

Novelist Daniel Suarez, in Change Agent, postulates CRISPR not only as a means of editing out genetic defects, but also incorporating genetic enhancements, such as strength, speed, brains, or athleticism.  In fact, he goes still farther, postulating that genetic editing can also be done on live subjects, to turn them into a completely different person.

My point is that the boundary between fiction and science is here, and we as a society have some big decisions to make.  This article postulates that CRISPR editing will become morally mandatory, and I am hard-pressed to disagree.

At the same time, we must decide who owns the genes, the person or the company doing the editing.  We may find that we are not the masters of our bodies.

As a youth 40+ years ago, I read Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, and a host of other dystopian novelists, and was somewhat comforted in the gap between the existing fiction and reality.  Today, there seems to be no such gap, and it makes it a lot more difficult reading both fact and fiction.  This world is almost upon us, if it isn’t already.  Are we prepared to make life’s choices in this world?

The Evolution of Finding Aircraft January 30, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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In 1937, Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near their Howland Island destination in their Lockheed Model 10-E Electra.  The only navigation aids available at that time were the compass and dead reckoning (there was also a radio beacon on Howland, which they apparently never picked up).  While there are indications that Earhart crash-landed on or near Gardner Island, well to the south of Howland, it’s still not proven fact.

In 1996, a Learjet 35A disappeared near Dorchester, New Hampshire, in the United States, attempting to land at Lebanon NH airport.  There was radar contact with the plane, and the plane itself had navigation equipment that enabled it to use VOR for landing.  I selected this example because despite the fact that it happened during the day in relatively populated northeast United States, it took three years to find the crash site.

And, of course, we all know about Malaysia Airlines 370, flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, somehow seems to have ended up crashing in the southern Indian Ocean, several thousand miles in the opposite direction.  The main debris field has never been found, but some positively identified debris has washed up on the shores of Reunion, Madagascar, and southern Africa.

People find it amazing that we can’t find lost aircraft under these circumstances, and we create conspiracy theories about the loss, but just about all of the technology deployed to date presumes than an aircraft wants to be found, or defaults to being found.  When you squawk your assigned four-digit code on your transponder, you are positively identified.  If you turn off your transponder, you are just another blip on the radar screen.

And, of course, radar doesn’t cover large stretches of ocean; it’s a line-of-sight technology.  We’ve never conceived of the need for positive control over all aspects of flight, because we thought that airliners would have the opportunity to communicate, even in distress.

The answer seems to be satellites, specifically designed to track aircraft around the globe.  In today’s world, we need to know where every aircraft is, and what that aircraft is doing.  Better satellite technology will hopefully get us there.