Nothing to Celebrate

Some Limits on Freedom

Ok, it’s been an exhausting year of almost non-stop social chaos in this country. I’m sure there are plenty of retrospectives of the events of the past twelve months (and much trivia) you could watch and read this weekend but I’m not going to look for them.

I’m also not going to write one. I just have a few thoughts about all this crap, mostly recycled from three previous rants. Feel free to ignore them.

The origins of this mess we’re in go back farther than one year, of course, and I continue to assign primary responsibility to the dead weight of indifference expressed by a significant number of American citizens in 2016. I can only hope that enough of those who opted out of voting, or worse, voted as a “message” to some unknown entity, are now paying attention.

I’m sure many more people are now at least awake, as expressed by the so-called resistance of the past year. However, as I ranted previously, resistance is not futile, but it’s also not enough. Pushing back does not move the country forward. At best, it maintains the status quo. Most likely, resistance will only keep us from sliding too far back into that past you hear so much about. The one that was “great” for some, but not for most.

One positive will be the many new faces who will be running for office this year. However, they, as well as the more familiar ones who want to stay in office, need to do more than put up a lot of scary ads saying “I’m not with him/them”.

They need to explain, clearly and forcefully, their vision for positive change and how it can be achieved. Engage us with how we can progress and improve society, as opposed to returning the “normal” that obviously wasn’t working for large parts of the county.

Finally, much of what has been written and said by our so-called leaders over the past twelve months, also brought to mind an essay written almost twenty years ago by the great Isaac Asimov.1

His point in the column (published in Newsweek, an actual paper magazine), is that, although many in American society loudly exclaim that the people have a “right to know”, they rarely are referring to having accurate and meaningful information. Instead they ridicule and devalue knowledge.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Asimov ends the essay with this idea:

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism”.

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval and social rewards for learning.

Asimov’s refusal to accept willful ignorance would make a wonderful message for any candidate, for office at any level, to include at the center of their campaign.


The image is of a t-shirt for sale in The Newseum. If you are visiting Washington DC, plan to spend half a day in this wonderful alternative to that other museum of American history.

1 The whole essay is a little dated, as you might expect, but worth reading.

Go Ahead, I’m Listening…

During the holiday season, connected devices containing voice-activated assistants from Amazon (Alexa) and Google were among the most popular gifts. This week at the giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES), lots of companies demonstrated many more future products infused with Alexa, Google, and Apple’s Siri. Including “smart” shower hardware.

But, according to the ACLU blog, you may want to think twice about placing an always-on, internet connected microphone in your home.

Overall, digital assistants and other IoT devices create a triple threat to privacy: from government, corporations, and hackers.

It is a significant thing to allow a live microphone in your private space (just as it is to allow them in our public spaces). Once the hardware is in place, and receiving electricity, and connected to the Internet, then you’re reduced to placing your trust in the hands of two things that unfortunately are less than reliable these days: 1) software, and 2) policy.

The constant potential for accidental recording means that users do not necessarily have complete control over what audio gets transmitted to the cloud.

Once their audio is recorded and transmitted to a company, users depend for their privacy on good policies—how it is analyzed; how long and by whom it is stored, and in what form; how it is secured; who else it may be shared with; and any other purposes it may be used for. This includes corporate policies (caveat emptor), but also our nation’s laws and Constitution.

Lots of pieces, technical and legal, that all have to work together to protect your information and privacy. I’m not convinced we’re there yet.

Heading off on an only slight detour, this issue of artificially intelligent assistants is something all of us educators need to watch. I’ve read of a few teachers who have placed Alexa and Google Home devices in their classrooms, although I’m not at all clear on the instructional purpose.

However, beyond that, many edtech companies are already building some form of data-collecting AI into their products. I fully expect to see always-listening, education-related devices being pitched to schools in the very near future, very likely with many of the same issues raised in this article.

Tech Addiction Does Not Have a Tech Solution

The New York Times says the tech backlash is here.

Once uncritically hailed for their innovation and economic success, Silicon Valley companies are under fire from all sides, facing calls to take more responsibility for their role in everything from election meddling and hate speech to physical health and internet addiction.

The backlash against big tech has been growing for months. Facebook and Twitter are under scrutiny for their roles in enabling Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and for facilitating abusive behavior. Google was hit with a record antitrust fine in Europe for improperly exploiting its market power.

Evidently, the breaking point came this week when two of Apple’s large, institutional investors began pressuring the company to study and find solutions to the addictive nature of their technology, especially among children. Their statement expresses a belief that “long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy and the company itself are inextricably linked”. 

Ok, I understand the addictive properties of gadgets like smartphones and social media sites like Facebook and SnapChat. But is this another case of blaming technology for human problems? Of demanding technological solutions instead of the difficult job of working collectively to change the culture?

I strongly disagree with media that post clickbait headlines like “Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy.” and follow them with unsupported statements like this:

They have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes.

No. They – those evil smartphones – just sit there doing nothing until someone picks it up. They do not impede daydreaming and creativity and, in my opinion, can actually improve the ability to recall information. On their own smartphones don’t make people more anxious. And they certainly do not “make” parents ignore their children.

Yes, companies like Apple1 should provide tools to help mitigate the “addictive nature” of their products. And Facebook should use some of that highly touted “artificial intelligence” to do a better job of screening out anti-social messaging. All of them certainly need to do a better job of educating parents and teachers on how children interact with their products.

But at this point in history, it’s not possible to compel people to use those tools and that knowledge. I wonder if it’s even possible to educate people how to be more socially responsible on social media when some of the worst examples come from people our political, business, and entertainment “leaders”.

So, the tech “backlash” is here and this debate will continue. With too much of the blame likely directed at the technology and the companies that create it. And not nearly enough of the responsibility accepted by those of us who use it.


1 And Google, which provides the operating system for far more smartphones than Apple and is often ignored in these debates. Of course, much of Android is copied from iOS so there’s that. :-)

Average Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Fair

 

In all the yelling back and forth (aka “discussion”) about net neutrality rules last year, much was said and written about the “average” internet user in the US.

The FCC chairman, who led efforts to kill them, and his supporters claimed that competition in the market would take care of any issues related to ISPs who try to slow or block competitors on their networks. According to this theory, customers could just switch to another provider if their current ISP begins to play with the traffic.

Except that “average” doesn’t mean everyone is equal, and is usually a crappy way to understand any issue.

The map above illustrates just how bad the internet market is for most locations in the US. It uses actual data about the availability of high bandwidth access, the kind necessary to fully benefit from modern web services, and clearly demonstrates that it “varies greatly based on where you live”.

Average in this example is weighted very heavily in favor of metropolitan areas where households are likely to have at least two high bandwidth choices when it comes to internet service providers. The darker colors on the map show areas with fewer choices and slower speeds.

But even in those lighter areas, like that splotch of white around Washington DC where I live, choice doesn’t necessarily mean competition. Our two major ISPs offer the same packages at the same price. And once the furor over this issue dies down, both are equally likely to favor their own content over competitors. We do have a few other, smaller, options buzzing around but they are not equivalent, even if the chairman wants us to believe they are.

So, maybe “average” is acceptable to those who dislike all governmental regulation. But it’s not to the millions who are below, and far below, that average.


On another issue, this map was created using data from a variety of public sources and ESRIs wonderful Story Map application. You can zoom in to the county level to get more information, although you should pull the map into it’s own window for best results.

Some Thoughts for a New Year

New Year Sunrise

Although I’ve always thought September 1 would make a much better New Year’s Day, western society has decided today will be that largely artificial dividing line. So, here we are in the year designated as 2018.

So, how will today and the ones that follow be different from the 365 that came before? Unless you came into a big inheritance when the calendar clicked over, I suspect for most of us the answer is not very.

However, after the chaos of 2017 in the US (which spilled over into many other parts of the world), something needs to change. As I wrote in any earlier rant, resistance to negative change can only take you so far. If successful, it really only maintains the status quo. Even with the small positive steps that occasionally pop up.

In 2018, we can continue to complain about what has happened in the past. Or we can plan and work to improve the future. Only one of those is worth the time and effort.

I hope we can find good people to run for leadership positions, at all levels, not just Congress, who understand this. Because real progress is only going to come from clear, creative, positive ideas for improving government and society. Not from trying to scare people. Not from asking for support simply because “I’m not that guy.”.

Maybe in this new period of time known as a year we as a society can move forward instead of ranting in place.


The picture is of sunrise over the Potomac River as seen from the Alexandria waterfront, New Year’s Day, 2012. As I recall, the temperature was much warmer that morning than it is currently.