Archives For technology

quantified self

With the explosion in fitness trackers and mobile apps that want to help manage everything from weight loss to pregnancy, there’s already a small panic brewing as technology critics worry that insurance companies will require you to wear devices that track your health, playing around with your premiums based on how well or how badly you take care of yourself. As the current leader of the reverse Singularitarians, Evgeny Morozov, argues, the new idea of the quantified self is a minefield being created with little thought about the consequences. Certainly there is a potential for abuse of very personal health metrics and Morozov is at his best when he explains how naive techno-utopians don’t understand how they come off, and how the reality of how their tools have been used in the wild differs drastically from their vision, so his fear is not completely unfounded or downright reflexive, like some of his latest pieces have been. But in the case of the quantified self idea being applied to our healthcare, the benefits are more likely to outweigh the risks.

One of the reasons why healthcare in the United States is so incredibly expensive is the lack of focus on preventitive medicine. Health problems are allowed to fester until they become simply too bothersome to ignore, a battery of expensive tests is ordered, and usually expensive acute treatments are administered. Had they been caught in time, the treatments would not have to be so intensive, and if there was ample, trustworthy biometric information available to the attending doctors, there wouldn’t need to be as much testing to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. As many doctors grumble about oceans of paperwork, logistics of testing, and the inability to really talk to patients in the standard 15 minute visit, why not use devices that would help with the paperwork and do a great deal of preliminary research for them before they ever see the patient? And yes, the devices would have to be able to gather data by themselves because we often tell little white lies about how active we are and how well we eat, even when both we and our doctors know that we’re lying. And this only hurts us in the end by making the doctors’ work more difficult.

That brings us full circle to health insurance premiums and requirements to wear these devices to keep our coverage. Certainly it’s kind of creepy that there would be so much data about us so readily available to insurance companies, but here’s the thing. They already have this data from your doctors and can access it whenever they want in the course of processing your claim. With biometric trackers and loggers, they could do the smart and profitable thing and instead of using a statistical model generated from a hodgepodge of claim notes, take advantage of the real time data coming in to send you to the doctor when a health problem is detected. They pay less for a less acute treatment plan, you feel healthier and have some piece of mind that you’re now less likely to be caught by surprise by some nasty disease or condition, and your premiums won’t be hiked as much since the insurers now have higher margins and stave off rebellions from big and small companies who’ll now have more coverage choices built around smart health data. And all this isn’t even mentioning the bonanza for researchers and policy experts who can now get a big picture view from what would be the most massive health study ever conducted.

How many times have you read a study purporting the health benefits of eating berries and jogs one week only to read another one that promotes eating nuts and saying that jogs are pointless with the different conclusions coming as a result of different sample sizes and subjects involved in the studies? Well, here, scientists could collect tens of millions of anonymized records and do very thorough modeling based on uniform data sets from real people, and find out what actually works and for whom when it comes to achieving their fitness and weight loss goals. Couple more data and more intelligent policy with the potential for economic gain and the gamification offered by fitness trackers, and you end up with saner healthcare costs, a new focus on preventing and maintaining rather than diagnosing and treating, fewer sick days, and longer average lifespans as the side effect of being sick less often and encouraged to stay active and fit, and you have a very compelling argument for letting insurance companies put medical trackers on you and build a new business model around them and the data they collect. It will pay off in the long run.

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server rack

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since my last post but life has a way of getting in the way of steady, regular blogging. And of course there’s still the work on Project X on the horizon which will affect that happens to Weird Things, but more on that in due time. Today’s topic is one which I heavily debated with myself before addressing because it’s been a near constant drumbeat in the news and the coverage has been almost overwhelmingly tilted towards setting the outrage dial all the way to 11 and tearing the knob off. I’m talking about the family of NSA surveillance programs for monitoring the internet and intercepting immense amounts of traffic and metadata, of course. As the revelations have been dropped on a regular schedule, the outrage keeps getting louder. In the techie media the most prominent reaction is "how could they?" According to online activists, the internet exists for the free exchange of ideas and a way to speak truth to power when need be, so the NSA’s snooping is a violation of the principles on which the internet was built.

Unfortunately, that’s just a soothing fantasy we tell ourselves today. Originally, the internet was developed as a means to exchange information between military researchers and Tor, the go-to tool for at least partial online anonymity (unless you get a nasty virus) was being developed to hide the tell-tale signs of electronic eavesdropping via onion routing by the U.S. Navy until it was spun off by the EFF. And while the web was meant to share scientific data for CERN over a very user unfriendly network at the time, it was given its near-ubiquity by big companies which didn’t adopt the technology and wrote browsers out of the goodness of their heart and desire to make the world into one big, global family, but because they wanted to make money. The internet was built to make classified and complex research easier, tamed for profit, and is delivered via a vast infrastructure worth many billions operated by massive businesses firmly within the grasp of a big government agency. It’s never been meant for world peace, anonymity, and public debate.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we can give political dissidents voices and promote ideas for peace and cooperation across the world at nearly the speed of light. We should be doing as much of that as possible. But my point is that this is not the primary function of the system, even if this is what cyber-anarchists and idealistic start-up owners in the Bay Area tell you. It’s a side-effect. So when massive companies give data flying through the web to spy agencies on request and even accept payment for it, we’re seeing the entities that built the system using it to further their own goals and means, and to comply with orders of governments that have power to bring them down if they want. It’s not fair, but picking a fight with the NSA is kind of like declaring that you’re going to play chicken with a nuclear aircraft carrier while paddling a canoe. At best, they’ll be amused. At worst, they’ll sink you with nary an effort. Wikipedia can encrypt all of its traffic as a form of protest, but a) the NSA really doesn’t care about how many summaries of comic book character plot lines you read, and b) if it suddenly starts caring, it’ll find a way to spy on you. It’s basically the agency’s job, and we’ve known it’s been doing that since 2006.

For all the outrage about the NSA, we need to focus on the most important problems with what’s going on. We have an agency which snoops on everyone and everything, passively storing data to use if you catch their attention and it decides you merit a deep dive into their database that’s holding every significant electronic communication you’ve had for the last decade or so. This is great if you’re trying to catch spies or would-be terrorists (but come on people, more than likely spies based on the infrastructure being brought into focus), but it also runs against the rights to due process and protection from warrantless, suspicionless searches and seizures. Blaming the legal departments of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo for complying with official orders is useless, and pretending that an information exchange network built to make money and maintained by a consortium of profit-minded groups is somehow a bastion of freedom being corrupted by the evil maws of the U.S. government just seems hopelessly naive. Americans don’t like to think of their country as a global hegemony just doing what global hegemons do and using its might to secure its interests. They like to think of it as having a higher calling. For them, reality bites.

But again the sad truth is that this is exactly what’s going on. While transparency activists loose their fury and anger in the media and on the web, realpolitik is relentlessly brutal, treating entire nations exactly like pawns on a chessboard. For all the whistleblowing of the past five years, not that much of the leaked information was really that shocking. It just confirmed our fears that the world is ran by big egos, cooperation is rare and far between, and that as one nation is aiming to become another global hegemon, the current one is preparing for a siege and quietly readying a vast array of resources to maintain its dominance, if not economic, then military and political. On top of that, rather than being elected or asked to rise into its current position, it chose to police much of the planet and now finds itself stuck where it doesn’t want to be. We know all this and a great deal of this is taught in history class nowadays. We just don’t really want to deal with it and the fits of rage towards corporations and government agencies somehow corrupting the system they built for power and profit seem to be our reaction to having to deal with these fast after the last whistle was blown. Sadly, we don’t get the world we want, we get the one we really build.

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censorship ad

Policy wonks, like most people, tend to think of IT as a magical black box which takes requests, does something, and makes their computers do what they want, or at least somewhat close to it. And so it’s not really surprising to see Ronan Farrow and Shamila Chaudhary rail against major cybersecurity companies for enabling dictators to block internet content at Foreign Policy, with allegations that show how poorly they understand what these companies do and how virtually all of the products they make work. You see, blaming a tech company for censorship is kind of like blaming a car manufacturer for drunk drivers. Certainly their tools are intended to block content but they’re not designed to filter all undesirables from a centralized location to which a dictator can submit a request. They’re meant to analyze and block traffic coming from malicious sources to prevent malware and any time you can analyze and stop traffic, you can abuse the ability and start blocking legitimate sites just because you don’t like them or the people who run them.

Most of the software they cited is meant to secure corporate networks and if they no longer get to stop or scan data, they’re pretty much useless because they can’t do threat identification or mitigation. WebSense does filter content and uses a centralized database cluster to push how it classifies sites to its customers so, as Farrow and Chaudhary noted, it was able to change up a few things to help mitigate its abuse by authoritarians. But McAffee and others are in a tougher spot because they’ve simply sold a software license to network admins. Other than virus and bot net definitions, there’s not much they can control from a central location, and trying to shame a company for selling tools made for something entirely different puts them in a position in which it would be very hard to defend their actions to someone convinced that they can just flip a switch and end the digital reign of tyranny across the world. And its even worse when the first reactions to articles about the abuse of their wares blame them for just being greedy.

On top of that, it’s not exactly hard to write your own filters and deep packet inspection tools. It’s just difficult to scale them for millions of users but it’s nothing out of the authoritarians reach. As they spend billions on security and control, surely they could divert a couple of million to build a capable system of their own. In fact, the Great Firewall of China is mostly home-grown and uses the country’s ISPs to scan incoming and outgoing traffic on a daily basis to find what to block. It sounds like a powerful indictment to point out that the Chinese use Cisco routers in their system, but it’s not as if they outsourced the task of pinging and blocking Tor nodes to the company. To be perfectly fair in charging tech companies in aiding and abetting censorship, you’d have to be talking about search engines that agree to modify their functionality to get a toehold in markets ruled over by authoritarians who will get someone to censor searches if not the company which was trying to expand. Bottom line: dictators will find a way to censor what they want to censor. If they use network monitoring security tools to do it, the blame still rests with them.

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quantum chip

Quantum computers are slowly but surely arriving, and while they won’t be able to create brand new synthetic intelligences where modern computers have failed, or will even be faster for most tasks typical users will need to execute, they’ll be very useful in certain key areas of computing as we know it today. These machines aren’t being created as a permanent replacement to your laptop but to solve what are known as BPQ problems which will help your existing devices and their direct descendants run more securely and efficiently route torrents of data from the digital clouds. In computational complexity theory, BPQ problems are decision problems that could be performed in polynomial time when using superposition and quantum entanglement is an option for the device. Or to translate that to English, binary, yes/no problems that we could solve pretty efficiently if we could use quantum phenomena. The increase in speed comes not from making faster CPUs or GPUs, or creating ever larger clusters of them, but from implementing brand new logical paradigms into your programs. And to make that easier, a new language was created.

In classical computing, if we wanted to do factorization, we would create our algorithms then call on them with an input, or a range of inputs if we wanted to parallelize the calculations. So in high level languages you’d create a function or a method using the inputs as arguments, then call it when you need it. But in a quantum computer, you’d be building a circuit made of qubits to read your input and make a decision, then collect the output of the circuit and carry on. If you wanted to do your factorization on a quantum computer — and trust me, you really, really do — then you would be using Shor’s algorithm which gets a quantum circuit to run through countless possible results and pick out the answer you wanted to get with a specialized function for this task. How should you best set up a quantum circuit so you can treat it like any other method or function in your programs? It’s a pretty low level task that can get really hairy. That’s where Quipper comes in handy by helping you build a quantum circuit and know what to expect from it, abstracting just enough of the nitty-gritty to keep you focused on the big picture logic of what you’re doing.

It’s an embedded language, meaning that the implementations of what it does is handled with an interpreter that translates the scripts into its own code before turning into bytecode the machine that it runs on can understand. In Quipper’s case the underlying host language is Haskell, which explains why so much of its syntax is a lot like Haskell with the exception of types that define the quantum circuits you’re trying to build. Although Haskell never really got that much traction in a lot of applications and the developer community is not exactly vast, I can certainly see Quipper being used to create cryptographic systems or quantum routing protocols for huge data centers kind of like Erlang is used by many telecommunications companies to route call and texting data around their networks. It also begs the idea that one could envision creating quantum circuitry in other languages, like a QuantumCircuit class in C#, Python, or Java, or maybe a quantum_ajax() function call in PHP along with a QuantumSession object. And that is the real importance of the initiative by Quipper’s creators. It’s taking that step to add quantum logic to our computing.

Maybe, one day quantum computers will direct secure traffic between vast data centers, giving programmers an API adopted as a common library in the languages they use, so it’s easy for a powerful web application to securely process large amounts of data obtained through only a few lines of code calling on a quantum algorithm to scramble passwords and session data, or query far off servers will less lag — if those servers don’t implement that functionality on lower layers of the OSI Model already. It could train and run vast convolutional neural networks for OCR, swiftly digitizing entire libraries worth of books, notes, and handwritten documents with far fewer errors than modern systems, and help you manage unruly terabytes of photos spread across a social networking site or a home network by identifying similar images for tagging and organization. If we kept going, we could probably think of a thousand more uses for injecting quantum logic into our digital lives. And in this process, Quipper would be our jump-off point, a project which shows how easily we could wrap the weird world of quantum mechanics into a classical program to reap the benefits from the results. It’s a great idea and, hopefully, a sign of big things to come.

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surveillance camera array

On the one hand, I am somewhat surprised by recent revelations about exactly how much we’re being watched on the internet by the NSA. However, the big surprise for me is that they couldn’t get data form Twitter. Considering that it’s building an immense data center in Utah, and works with tech companies on a regular basis, is it really that astonishing that the agency is browsing through our communications metadata on a regular basis? We all suspected this was the case, so if anything the current furor is almost a required reaction of anger and hurt to have what we always thought was happening and didn’t really want to, actually is happening. The question is what to do now, in the PRISM-aware world. Citizens know they’re being caught up in the dragnet when they’re just going about their day, foreign companies are afraid of the NSA spying on them via the advanced cloud technology the United States sells across the globe, and China could sit back and laugh off American reports of its hacking and spying on the web as hypocrisy.

Another fun fact is that Americans are actually split on how they feel about the NSA’s snooping and a majority of 56% says that privacy is an acceptable casualty in trying to catch terrorists. It might also be telling that the split hasn’t changed much since 2006 and that it breaks down by a distinct partisan preference, with liberals and conservatives flip-flopping on the issue when the other party was in the White House. So while the press is incensed and investigative reporters are falling all over themselves to talk about PRISM, the American people are shrugging it off by party affiliation. I would expect everyone to carry on as normal because if Facebook and Google didn’t have a mass exodus of accounts, it’s very unlikely they will. Plus, the NSA isn’t reading all the e-mail in your inbox. It just has a record of you e-mailing someone at a given time and if you are in the United States, your phone number and e-mail should be crossed out in their system, until of course a secret court order grants the analysis access to request the whole e-mail.

Even the slowdown in purchases of American high tech gear is likely to be temporary because much of what we’re hearing from many other countries is an almost mandatory response to the revelations about PRISM. In reality, many of the countries buying these tech products have very extensive spy networks of their own and engage in cyber-espionage on a daily basis. It’s kettle calling the pot black, and it’s likely that the rumors of tech companies giving the NSA back door access into their servers are just not true. There’s a number of ways to supply data to the NSA and a number of ways the NSA could’ve gotten the data itself. I’m not going to speculate how in this post because a) I don’t know the agency’s exact capabilities, b) there are people from both defense contractors and military agencies reading this blog who I’d just annoy with speculating, and c) most of them are probably much worse than having the companies just play ball when a court order comes down and an incredibly powerful agency is knocking on their door.

Now, none of this means this isn’t a big deal. But what it does signal is that the country which is dominating the world in the tech field and serves as the key node in the global communications grid has been crying wolf about cyberwarfare and espionage while actively waging it. We were starting to be sure of this when Stuxnet was discovered, we suspected it even stronger when all of its ingenious siblings like Flame and Duqu floated into the spotlight, we had a good idea that the United State was publicly holding back when reports of its potential in cyberwarfare drills with allied nations started surfacing, and with PRISM, we now know it for a fact. On the one hand, it’s bad news because your privacy is now not only being compromised by bad security or very lax internal policies of web giants, but by the government as well. On the other, we know that we’re hardly defenseless in the cyber realm and will fight and spy right back. Make of these facts what you will. It’s not like we can put this genie back in its virtual bottle anyway…

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approach to mars

According to Wired’s laundry list of technical and political issues with getting humans to Mars by the year 2030 or so, exploring another planet many millions of miles away won’t be Apollo 2.0 in many ways. It will be an order of magnitude more expensive per launch, require 30 months for a round trip, and needs to be financed, overseen, and executed by an international group that will include space agencies and ambitious aerospace companies with plans and launch vehicles of their own. And yet, the designs being drawn up sound remarkably like Apollo on steroids. We’re basically working with the same basic mission plans we had in the 1980s with a few workarounds for handling fuel and oxygen. Come on folks, this is another planet. It’s not just a status symbol and we don’t need to rush there just to say we went. Really, we don’t. Flag planting is great for propaganda and PR purposes, but it’s disastrous for long term exploration, which needs to be a very boring, consistent, and yes, expensive effort. We need a better plan than this.

Now, as much as this blog will support my assertion that I’m all about space exploration and will go as far as to advocate augmenting humans to travel into deep space (which led to numerous arguments with the Singularity Institute’s fellows), we don’t have to go to Mars as soon as we’re able to launch. It’s been there for 4.5 billion years. It’s not going anywhere for at least another five billion, and we owe it to ourselves to do it right. This is why instead of sending a much bigger capsule or an updated ISS for a 30 month round trip, we need to send inflatable, rotating space stations powered by small nuclear reactors. Instead of landers, we need to send self-assembling habitats. Instead of going to Mars to stick a flag into the ground, collect rocks, and do some very brief and limited experiments to look for traces of organic compounds, we need to commit to an outright colonization effort, and we need to test the basics on the Moon before we go. We won’t fulfill our dreams of roaming the stars and living on alien worlds if we don’t get this right.

Yes, it sounds downright crazy to propose something like that, especially thanks to the political climates of today. And it is. But at the risk of repeating myself, when we have trillions of banks to erase their bad bets from the books and nothing to aid the paltry budgets of space agencies or labs working on the technology of the future, the issue isn’t money. It’s priorities, vision, and will, and today’s politicians have the first one skewed, and more often than not either lack the other two, or envision our society going backwards as if this is a good thing. And we can keep right on placating ourselves by saying that we’ll at least get to roam around the solar system a bit like we did once, but that’s not how we should be exploring space. We know it’s not. if you want to really reach out into space, you go in for the long term with your eye on the spin-offs and benefits that will rain down from massive, ambitious, integrated projects that try to do what’s never been done before not by reinventing the wheel, but by attaching said wheel to a new airplane.

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newlyweds

There’s been a bit of a splash by a new study which says that meeting your spouse online could mean a longer, happier marriage, and confirms that far from being the last refuge of lonely shut-ins, online dating is now one of the top ways to meet your mate. Now, the numbers do bear this conclusion out. Out of a representative sample of 19,131 people, the researchers found that a couple that met online is 28% less likely to divorce than their offline matched counterparts, and that the happiest marriages start with a meeting in MMORPGs and on social networks. However, and you knew this was coming, the differences are statistically significant but far from huge, and there are several caveats to taking the findings too close to heart, caveats which result directly from the study’s design. Basically, they’re collecting some demographic information if a subject was married between 2005 and 2012, asking how the subject met his or her spouse, and how happy the marriage seems, then looking for any statistically notable trends to emerge.

Here’s what the data mining found. A smidgen more than a third of the subjects (35%) married a person they met online. Half of those meetings happened on a dating site, usually eHarmony or Match.com, which each claim a quarter of these dating site meetups. So if you’re looking to get into a serious relationship or get married, those sites are probably a very good bet. Likewise, a few very interesting data points jump out from the results. The more well educated and gainfully employed you are, the more likely you are to meet a serious partner online. Those who earn at least $75,000 per year and have a college education represent some 57% of relationships that started online. Oddly enough, those with graduate degrees have the lowest share of marriages to partners they met online, under 15% of the total. The data doesn’t show why, but I would be interested in figuring this out. Why is this finding so worthy of attention? Because it may have a connection to the so-called leisure inequality and tell us more about why online dating grown so much in the last decade or so. But I digress. Now, what about that marriage satisfaction?

Well, again, the numbers do show that people who married their online friends report a better marriage, especially those who met playing online games or on social networks (which could or could not include dating sites, the paper isn’t specific on this). On a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the equivalent of "I’m ready to file for divorce this second" and 7 being "this marriage is perfect," these subjects reported an average satisfaction score of 5.72, which is pretty damn good. But if we consider the score of the most miserable married couples who met offline in a bar or through a blind date, they still post a very respectable 5.35 average. Yes, the online couples are happy and they’re happier than many other couples, but not by leaps and bounds. Could you really tell the difference between a 5.35 and a 5.72 happy when general contentment is 3.5? If we indulge in paraphrasing Futurama, these researchers are techncially correct, the best kind of correct in science. But practically, they just found close to 20,000 happy couples, a third of which just so happened to have met online and got married in a certain time range.

And that brings us to the biggest caveat with this study. Only 8% of these subjects are divorced which is both, a lot lower than the national average, and only shows the short term trend. If you look at marriages 10 years out rather than the seven for this survey, the odds of a divorce are about 30% or so. Get 20 years out and the odds increase to 48% on the high end. The sample here just hasn’t been married long enough and it’s probably a safe assumption that a lot were caught in their early phases of marriage. But the goal for getting married generally tends to be staying married for life, which means roughly half a century, going by the typical life expectancy figures. The researchers are, in a sense, catching people a mile or two into a marathon when a whole lot usually hasn’t happened yet and the biggest bumps in the road are still ahead, getting a general thumbs up from some 92% of the respondents, and splitting hairs about who gave the most enthusiastic thumbs up. True, this doesn’t mean that there’s a problem with a marriage to someone you met online and yes, maybe these couples are happier. But it’s too soon to tell.

Likewise, we should also point out that marriage rates keep on falling and the domestic partner has been slowly becoming the new spouse. After witnessing messy divorces and confronted by general antipathy for marriage from many sides, a lot of people who would’ve already tied the knot are deciding to forgo the whole affair altogether. Now, this could mean that what the survey captured is a trend of people who get married staying together longer and being happier while more and more of their peers are opting out of married life, balancing out the high divorce rate over the next decade or so, but this is just an idea after looking at the data. Marriage as we are used to it in the modern world is changing. It’s becoming less commonplace, involves those who are more financially secure, and alternative households are becoming the new norm. So in light of all these changes, maybe the better question to ask is not what makes for a happier marriage but what makes for happy long term relationships, or at least what today’s long term relationship looks like from an academic standpoint. Work in that area is only beginning…

See: Cacioppo, J., et al. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line and off-line meeting venues PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1222447110

[ photo illustration by Carlos Zangheri/flickr ]

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dubai_600

Last time we took a look at what tech cynics and technophobes get wrong in their arguments, we focused on their lack of consideration for their fellow humans’ ability to exercise free will. Despite the fact that this is a huge hole in many of their arguments, there’s an even bigger problem with the dismissive stance they take towards science and technology. When they argue that we can’t feed all the hungry house all the homeless, or really prolong lifespans with technology, the facts they cite generally point not so much to technological limitations or scientific ignorance, but very convoluted social and political problems, then insist that because science and technology can’t solve them today, they likely never will, or won’t solve them adequately to consider the problem much smaller than it is today. While this argument is true, it’s also logically dishonest. You can’t fix the world’s problems with technology when the people who should be using it refuse to do so, or hijack it for their own less than noble means. No tool or piece of knowledge can help then.

As some of you might have noticed, the city in the graphic for this post in Dubai, a rich proving ground for how the cities of the near future are likely to be built. We know how to make cities of glass, steel, and concrete right out of science fiction. We know how to build the cheap, efficient housing complexes those making less than a dollar a day need to at least have secure shelter. We know how do diagnose complex diseases early enough to treat them before they’ll become dangerous, much less terminal, and our toolkits for understanding germs, viruses, and complex medical problems like cancers, are growing to become more sophisticated every day. We also have the tools and the money to apply all these solutions to the world at large. With something a little bit short of $100 billion just between Gates and Buffet pledged to fight poverty illiteracy, and disease, and when we can find $2 trillion laying around to help banks with a do-over, clearly, it’s not an issue of not having the technology, the scientific basis, or the cash. The issue is will.

Sure technological utopians have lofty ambitions and it’s valid to be skeptical of many of them, but when they vow that logistical problems can be solved with enough computing and research, they’re right more often than not. When the cynics deride these ambitions by pointing out that a lot of people don’t want to fund mass production of the necessary tools or the required science, and would much prefer to spend them on entertainment and public entitlements benefiting them directly, they’re not highlighting the problems with using technology to save the world, they’re a prime exhibit of why a technology hasn’t transformed the world of fixed a persistent problem. All too often it comes down to them saying it can’t be done, and politicians along with voters simply listening to them and deciding that no, it’s can’t be done since the critics said so, which is why it would be a waste of time to even bother. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, a social variation of Newton’s First Law: a society that insists on the status quo, sticks to the status quo unless an external event or constant pressure forces it to change.

It’s the same attitude which strangled the promising and much anticipated future of space travel and exploration, and we’re still stuck with it. Yes, not every retro-futuristic dream about space or living on other worlds was practical or even feasible and yes, we did need experts to burst our bubble before an unworkable project got off the ground. But today’s science and tech critics are going well past a healthy skepticism about bold claims and venturing into a territory in which they dismiss scientific and technological solutions to global problems for the sake of dismissing them, pointing to other ideas they dismissed in the past and doomed to being chained to the drawing board, and saying that because their relentless cynicism killed the ideas rather than refined the scopes and missions to eliminate problems with them, new ideas building on past visions must be scrapped as well. It’s even more insidious than political vetting of basic science, because vetting at least allows some projects to survive and get refined into new tools and ideas. The withering cynicism of what science and technology can do for us is like an anti-innovation WMD…

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future dystopia

This is not the first time Jaron Lanier gets a post on Weird Things, in fact we met him before as he quickly went off the rails in describing AI, then became more incoherent while bemoaning all social media as a dehumanizing waste, all the while trying to pick a fight with the Singularitarian version of a machine-directed utopia. Now, the former virtual reality pioneer has moved on to a book length rumination on how technology is killing the middle class by eliminating jobs. And as per his current modus operandi, he starts off with a tiny kernel of a reasonable statement, and proceeds to strap it to the Hyperbole Rocket and launch it into deep space. Is it true that a new software package or a robot might make your job obsolete? Yes, it absolutely can. But does the technology prevent you from getting a new job? No, it doesn’t because the reasons why you’re going to have trouble finding work in a globalized economy are more political than technological, and it’s short term greed, partisan bickering, and ignorance of the powers that be at fault.

Here’s an example. Lanier’s opening salvo says that when Kodak was at the height of its market domination of personal photography, it employed more than 140,000 people. Now, he says, the face of personal photography is Instagram which has only 13 employees. Therefore, jobs were lost because of technology, Q.E.D. Um, no. First and foremost, Kodak died the slow and painful death it did because it first refused to adapt to a world of digital photography, then couldn’t, as it wasted years assuming that as long as they can at least sell the tools to develop all those digital photos on glossy paper, they’ll be fine. They never even thought that paper may be useless for most of the pictures being taken today as social media and smartphones took off. Secondly, as much as tech blogs may have hyped it, Instagram was not "the new face of photography." Take away cheap, mainstream digital photography and it couldn’t exist. It was a distribution network, a network that Kodak could’ve built. But instead of innovating, it slowly withered away.

All right, so what happened to those tens of thousands of people laid off by Kodak? Well, they could find new jobs because among those laid off were managers, assistants, chemists, and IT specialists who could’ve applied their skills in other companies, doing other things, and I assure you that there aren’t 140,000 middle class workers out there who haven’t worked a day since a Kodak executive pink slipped them to meet the quarterly numbers. Eeyore would’ve been more optimistic about their future than Lanier, but then again, for optimism, Lanier would’ve needed to see technology as something more than a nefarious tool to use and abuse the populace. Where the disciples of Ray Kurzweil see immorality, sunshine rainbows, and unicorns frolicking in the meadows, he seems to see impending chaos, destruction, and socioeconomic dystopia adapted from the pages of very gloomy science fiction. And yet, Lanier plans to live with this grim future. For a fee of course. You see, in his version of if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them, he’s suggesting that if social media sites use our data to survive, they should pay us for it, and that’s how we will start solving the impending job crisis caused by these evil machines taking our place.

Certainly, while being paid to mess around on Facebook would be a great deal, the problem is that paying all of its users even pennies a day would leave the company insolvent. Social media sites simply don’t make all that much money because they fell short of the promises they give a lot of advertisers when it comes to moving product for them. All the data you submit simply won’t give them nearly as good of a picture of who you are and what you like as Lanier and so many tech pundits think it does when they fall for the company’s wild claims. In fact, predicting what a person will do based on his or her social media footprint is an exercise in warm reading. There’s plenty of detail to go on, but a lot of this detail may be useless and lead to broad conclusions or incorrect recommendations. Advertisers are not moving nearly as much product as they thought they would, people are giving them incomplete and misleading information, social media makes money but not as much as it thought it could, and now Lanier wants this struggling ecosystem to pay its users for making it profitably mediocre? Does he also have a bridge to sell us?

Yes, the world is changing. Yes, technology is doing things it’s never done before, and it’s now taking us places where we’ve never been, physically, socially, and economically. But instead of trying to figure out a way to productively deal with with the change of pace, by investing in R&D and shifting more jobs into innovation and design, while letting robots do more of the execution, people like Lanier want to take their ball and go home. The problem is that they can’t. Arguing if our sprawling data centers and powerful software needs to be scaled back and dumbed down is like protesting against the wind blowing. You can waste your oxygen telling it to slow down or go in a direction you’d personally find more acceptable, or you can raise some wind generators for an extra kilowatt hour or two to take advantage of the situation. At no point has any civilization ever grown or met a challenge by saying "no, we’re done," or demanding payment to participate in new ideas, new economies, and new social structures. Many have died and stagnated doing exactly that, which is why we shouldn’t take Lanier’s technophobic musings seriously.

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counting the days

One of Warren Buffet’s most famous pieces of advice to analytic managers is to measure the things that matter, not just the things that are measurable. It’s a lesson lost on Chris Dancy, the IT professional whose claim to fame is measuring every second of his workday. Every second. I meant it. Every call, meeting, bathroom break, document edit, e-mail reply, and work tweet has a special color coded entry in Google Calendar so his bosses will know exactly what he was doing at 1:13 PM last Tuesday and appreciate his ability to document every moment at the office. Just one thing is left out on his mind-bendingly detailed calendars — how much time he wastes on his pointless endeavor. Seriously, if your boss read that post and thinks this is a good idea, I would highly suggest firing up your resume and passing it along to some good friends because you’re working for someone who doesn’t want to manage employees, you’re working for someone who wants to manage robots and look at dashboards to make pretty reports for executives.

Here’s the thing. Factory work can be easily measured in terms of how much time is spent on a part, how much time is idle, how many widgets are out the door each day, and other very hard metrics that can track how a factory lives and breathes. Service oriented positions like IT have a lot of soft elements to them. Whereas parts have to be manufactured to exact specifications, an important code block can be written in many ways. Sending a 1,000 sprockets to quality control by the end of the day means meeting several orders on schedule. Sending 44 tweets about the newest app throughout the day might mean a few sales, or might mean nothing at all. You get a lot of numbers that don’t actually mean anything by using Dancy’s methodology. Yeah, he goes to a lot of meetings and does a lot of IT paperwork. So what? How many times did he have to do it again because it didn’t provide enough detail to developers? How would the developers rate it and would they rather have someone else do it next time? How thorough was his testing?

If you want decent metrics from your IT department, you have to look at quality of what it sends out to be used. How many people like the products? How many would recommend them to their friends? How much are they willing to pay for them? How many units were sold? What was the overall return on investment and how did the expenses break down overall (labor vs. tools)? Or what’s the turnaround time for fixing a defect? How many defects did internal QA workers catch versus how many were reported by users after shipping? Those are important metrics and they should matter a lot more to IT management than how many times someone like Darcy had to go to the bathroom or how many pages of documents he or she wrote that day. So the idea that if some aspect of your day can be measured it should be, and your bosses will appreciate you just going right ahead and measuring it for them, is absurd to put it gently. Ultimately what matters is what you produce so even if you’re extremely busy and making the most of out your day, if you produce nothing really useful, none of your intricate daily calendars will save you from the HR’s chopping block, and don’t you dare blame that on not measuring your day enough.

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