Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Right to be Let Alone

“There is a concern that the Internet could be used to commit crimes and that advanced encryption could disguise such activity. However, we do not provide the government with phone jacks outside our homes for unlimited wiretaps. Why, then, should we grant government the Orwellian capability to listen at will and in real time to our communications across the Web?”

The preceding was a direct quote made almost 20 years ago by John Ashcroft as a Republican Senator in a statement criticizing the Clinton administration’s proposal to place an encryption/transmission device ( nicknamed “Clipper Chip”) into every US phone. This would have allowed the FBI and other national security agencies access to the phone calls made by all Americans. While the Clipper Chip proposal was never implemented, the Privacy issues it raised in the 1990s have returned with a vengeance to the current national discussion of Security vs Privacy. (

Ashcroft went on to become the Attorney General of the United States of America during the George W. Bush administration and although a staunch conservative, he might be surprised by the current actions of the NSA to expand its domestic spying capabilities. Ashcroft, as well as other critics, have cited unwarranted phone surveillance as a violation of the Fourth Amendment which includes protection of citizens’ privacy from the US government.

Another reason supporters defend the right to privacy is they trust the government to “promote the general Welfare” of its citizens and this includes, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, more than a century ago, has famously said, “the right to let alone” (not “left” alone as it is often quoted). And while we may argue over the meaning of “general welfare” and even whether the Preamble grants certain rights to all citizens, most agree that privacy is an important component of the good society.

A comprehensive and interesting analysis of this issue, by Stuart S.Taylor, Jr., can be found at :

The article begins with an attention-grabbing sidebar containing a hatful of information it has gathered from you just visiting the site (although, it listed my town as Redcay rather than Beekmantown). The article contains “The divergent views of four respected experts help frame the debate over the future of the NSA in the Snowden Era.”, a comprehensive history of covert government operations and intelligence gathering, short “Word on the Street” video opinion polls and podcasts, as well as a nice graphical timeline explaining the major Supreme Court decisions shaping the interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. Comments on the role and effectiveness of the NSA’s methods vary from, “ When searching for needles in a haystack, you need the whole haystack." to “They're draining the ocean in order to catch a few fish.” Despite the author’s obvious bias against Snowden’s motives I would recommend it to you most highly.

As the link above reveals, Oliver asks Snowden some tough questions such as why he released this cache of classified documents to journalists without reading all of them and whether he thought through the consequences of his actions before he released them.

The video also shows how little US citizens care about domestic NSA surveillance and while some recognize Snowden’s name, they are unsure of who he is and what he did. The underlying serious purpose of Oliver’s interview is to rekindle interest in the Privacy vs Security debate as Congress must act by this June to renew, revise or let lapse those sections of the Patriot Act which allow what Snowden calls, “domestic spying” and the government terms, “intelligence gathering”.

I am not arguing against the need for security; we humans need our society to protect us from one another because, well, we’re only human. But like most real-world situations, this is not a simple black vs white choice as too much security stifles individual freedom and too little may be asking for trouble. Our job is to find an appropriate balance. That said, it would be wise to remember Hecate’s warning (in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”) about overconfidence in our ability to control our world: “You all know that security is mortals’ chiefest enemy.”

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Accentuate the Positive...

Most media emphasize negative stories over positive ones. We’re more likely to see headlines like, “Fire Destroys Local Chicken Coop” or “Yemen invades Ukraine” rather than “How Technology helps Suicidal Teens”. So, to help balance the scales, here is a positive story about technology.

The Feb 9, 2015 New Yorker Magazine contains an inspiring piece, “R U There?” by Alice Gregory describing the work of the Crisis Text Line ( Nancy Lublin (CEO) and Stephanie Shih have teamed up to create a crisis hotline targeted toward teenagers that uses only text messages to communicate. The rationale is that this is a more natural, effective and non-threatening approach for communicating with teens.

The rationale behind this innovative approach is that texting is in a teen’s DNA (almost) and is usually their main method of communication with peers --- landlines and phone calls are so 1990s. As Gregory points out, “Communications by text message is halting and asynchronous [not synchronized], which can be frustrating when you’re waiting for a reply but liberating when you don’t want to respond. If you’re a parent,you know that, even if your son does not text you back about where he is, he has read your message. If you are a distressed teen or a counsellor, you know that what you say will be read.”

Investigations performed at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research back this up: “People are more likely to disclose sensitive information via text messages than in phone conversations.” Apparently the privacy afforded by texting overrides the fear that a record of the conversation is somewhere in cyberspace. Texting can also hide emotions (tears) and seems to move the conversation straight to the point much faster than voice. It also allows clients the ultimate privacy: not only do others in proximity not hear them --- they do not hear their own voice making embarrassing revelations. This facilitates a more open conversation and hopefully, a more effective prescription from the counsellor.

At a personal level, I remember when, back in the nineties, we were running our Computer Science program using a large centralized computer which was accessed by the students via remote terminals (sort of like your PC or Mac but not as smart) whose screens were capable of displaying only alphanumeric characters (the digits 0-9, the upper and lower case alphabetic characters and a few special punctuational characters like: ,./?() etc.). One cluster of these terminals was in a small room just outside the faculty offices so we could help students who were stuck on a programming assignment. One day I noticed the room was empty except for two students sitting next to each other typing away and occasionally giggling. I surreptitiously looked over at their screens and saw they were texting one another using the system chat software. My first reaction was to look away as a courtesy to their privacy but not before it registered that they were indeed chatting at a very superficial level --- much as we all do when making idle conversation ( Whassup? Not much. ...)

My subsequent reaction was, ‘Oh, no --- we’re doomed!” If the next generation prefers to communicate through a heavily mediated technology when they are sitting right next to each other and could use a perfectly good old-fashioned method like talking face-to-face, then civilization as we know it must be on the downward road (paved with good intentions) to Chaos.

But as time has passed, my judgement has softened. Texting allows the user more control over the conversation; you don’t have to respond immediately to a text, you can take a few minutes to mull over your response. A text message is less annoying to receive than a phone call and it’s more private --- especially when you’re in a public place.

An ironic development allows newer smartphones to provide an option where you can speak your message and it gets converted to text which you then can send as a text message. So we seem to have gone full circle: I speak into my phone which converts it to text and then sends it. I’m still waiting for the technology that allows me to send messages using brain waves.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Whom do You Believe?

Author's Note: This column does not cohere well. The point I was trying to make was how our beliefs influence our trust and how liberals and conservatives trust different news sources and living in this "echo chamber" results in a no-compromise, polarized society. In retrospect, Haidt's taxonomy is a weak way to explain this. [SD]

In this column I will attempt to transcend the shackles of Technology and address an issue in the lofty world of Science. Traditionally, science is placed on a higher intellectual pedestal than technology since the reasoning goes: Science lays the theory and the technology, more of a craft, follows. Scientists do science; engineers do tech. However, some anthropologists claim that the process in fact goes in the other direction: technology advances science not vice-versa.; for example, when technology delivers more accurate measuring instruments, science is able to advance. I’m a great compromiser and believe both can be true at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive --- one does not necessarily rule out the possibility of the other.

But what if a large chunk of the general public does not trust science or more specifically government scientists? I was advised as a young professor that the most important thing I could do during the first week of class was to learn all of the student’s names. This, I was assured, would increase the odds that the students would listen to what I had to say because just knowing their names increased their trust in me. And conversely, you can’t hear what someone you don’t trust is saying. This simple fact can have significant consequences.

For example, I stumbled across this article in my Google news feed and jumped on it because I remembered that “petrichor” (which describes the smell after a rain on dry soil) was one of my daughter’s favorite words so I forwarded her the article which includes much interesting and useful information such as, “This research may help explain how rainfall may spread diseases such as E-coli through the environment and even to humans.”

Then I began to read the comments. Here is a representative sample:

“My life is complete now that I know this vital information.”

“Well, according to Liberal educators. We can’t believe them until the government tells us so. Since they are all knowing, and all seeing. So we will not believe them until we hear a PSA. And have a law requiring Mother Earth to get a permit and pay taxes.”

“...these guys are super smart. They’re 36.2% sure that this was the hottest year in the history of the world. This is the kind of concrete data point worth collapsing the world economy for. I can’t wait till they tell me butter and eggs are good for me again!”

While I could sympathize with the butter and eggs part of the last comment , I wondered why most of the comments following this cool article were suspicious, even hostile to government -sponsored research (actually performed at MIT). I recalled reading about Moral Foundations Theory and Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind” in which he proposes six categories of ethical values:

Values and their opposites:

1.  Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others.

2,  Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules.

3.  Liberty/oppression: the loathing of tyranny.

4.  Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation.

5.  Authority/subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority.

6.  Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions. “

One could argue that Loyalty includes Trust and the above comments are from folks who do not trust their government.

In other words, if our beliefs are more heavily influenced by these six values than by data presented by untrusted government scientists, it’s easy to deny the science. It’s easier to construct arguments denying or questioning the science than it is to change your belief systems.

Also of interest is that when Haidt interviewed self-identified Conservatives and Liberals,he found that, of the six values, Liberals care mostly about Liberty, Fairness and Care while Conservatives stress all six values about equally. If the research pans out, one could make the argument based on this data that Conservatives have a more balanced approach to making ethical decisions. (Please no hate mail from Progressives --- I’m a left-leaning independent centrist and nice to little children and animals.).

Here is another good analysis by PEW Research which helps to explain political differences:

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Law Lags Technology

I started writing this column on Dec 21, 2014 and while this subject may be somewhat dated by the time it’s published, the ramifications for technology’s effect on society are clearly important. I speak of the SONY hack on Nov 24, 2014 which contained the warning not to release the movie, “The Interview” and all of the news dominoes which fell as a result.

Besides the titillating revelations about who gossiped what to whom in Entertainment-Land, there is the much more important issue of blackmail and cyber-hacking between nation states. It’s one thing for a hacker in the US to invade your privacy with some silly malware and quite another for some foreign country (let’s say hypothetically it’’s north of South Korea) to blackmail a corporation based in Japan with offices in the USA.

The apparent reason for the hack was to retaliate for showing a movie that depicted the assassination of the leader of the northern Korean state (which seems, at best, disrespectful). But,for me, the most interesting issue is the clash of cultures. In the US we pride ourselves on being a representative democracy that reveres “private property” and in which the “freedom of expression” is sanctified (it is, after all, the very first amendment to our constitution).

Corporations ( the latest Supreme Court rulings notwithstanding) are not allowed to vote and are responsible only to their shareholders (despite the vision statements they issue laying out their responsibilities to the little people) On the other hand, the hackers purportedly work for an authoritarian, centralized society where there is no private property and no notion of the distinction between industrial espionage and government aggression. In other words, we make a distinction between actions between corporations and between governments and the hacker country does not. In this country if corp A is hacked by corp B, their formal legal recourse is decided by civil courts (Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases involve an action that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole. (

However, there is no clear body of international law about adjudicating conflicts involving aggressive hacking between Nations: “Today, the international community lacks consensus regarding the generally accepted principles of law applicable to cyber conflicts.”

( This usually means is that if nation A plants a virus which cripples he centerfuges for refining nuclear material for nation B, rather than take A to International court, Nation B, like any normal third-grader will strike back with a hack of its own --- like swapping the internet links for Facebook and PornHub in the state of Georgia, for example.

The frustrating irony is that a democratic government responsible to its people seems to be losing this battle because a ruthless centralized state can act and respond more quickly and brutally.

Will this mean that our country will trade more of it’s citizens’ privacy and liberty for more security? Or, should we heed the Zen warning, “The best way to clear up muddy water is to leave it alone.” Or do we follow the advice of Thomas Jefferson and/or Patrick Henry, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Or try to strike a balance between the two strategies?

As I mentioned previously, I knew that many more dominoes were destined to fall since I first wrote this column on Dec 21, 2014. Here are just a few:

There is evidence that it was Iran and not North Korea that sponsored the SONY hack.( ) Supposedly,those sneaky Iranians left false fingerprints in the code which pointed back to North Korea.

A defector plans to airdrop 100,000 DVDs of the movie from helium balloons into North Korea. He believes, as Charlie Chaplin did with “The Dictator”, that the best weapon against tyranny is satire and that once North Koreans view “The Interview”, Kim Jong-un will be laughed out of power.

“The Interview” is to have "a wide release" in the UK and Ireland, Sony Pictures has confirmed.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

High-Tech Performance

James Surowiecki writes the Business, Finance and Economics columns for the New Yorker magazine, so I was surprised to see an article in the Nov 10 issue entitled, “Better All The Time --- How the ‘performance revolution’ came to athletes --- and beyond.” What could an economist have to say about sports? Intrigued, I read on.

Like all good storytellers, rather than outline his thesis at the outset, Surowiecki begins with a real-life story which illustrates his thesis. He tells the tale of Kermit Washington, a power forward playing his third season in the NBA. Washington’s performance had been, ‘less than mediocre” in 1976 and while most every NBA player would never admit that they “still had something to learn’, he enlisted the help of Pete Newell, an assistant coach. Thanks to Newell and the grit of his pupil, Washington continued to improve to All-Star status. This did not go unnoticed by other players in the league who followed suit realizing finally that it was a fallacy to believe that, “what you are is what you are:” and there are always ways to improve your game.

This is where the technology comes in. The development of biometric sensors working with computer software to capture and analyze the data (e.g. heart rate, muscle activity, oxygen levels, etc. ) while an athlete trains has fostered a revolution in all sports. The computer program analyzing your heart rate as you accelerate, twist, turn and decelerate during your training sessions is able to recommend a training regimen tailored to maximize your performance. Even sleep patterns can be factored into the training. We are now able to answer questions on an individual athlete basis like, “Does training in extremely hot and humid weather increase or decrease performance on game day?”

Of course the economist in Surowiecki speculates that this trend toward high-tech training “reflects the fact that the monetary rewards for athletic success have become immense. ... It has become economically rational to invest a lot in player training.” While players of the past had jobs like insurance salesmen during the off season, now they can now afford to spend that time training. He goes on to describe examples of how training (or the lack thereof) has led to success (or failure) in such disparate fields as baseball, football, chess, classical music, manufacture of automobiles,, medicine,and education. Guess which field has shown the least improvement in the last 3 decades? Hint: it rhymes with “vacation”.

While it’s pretty obvious how performance can be boosted through higher tec training in the two sports mentioned above, it’s interesting to see how that applies to some of the other categories..Surowiecki gives evidence for the improved performance of modern day chess players: “In the 1970s, there were only two two chess players who had Elo ratings (a measure of skill level) higher than 2700. These days there are more than 30 such players.” ( Visit Wikipedia to see what Elo ratings are all about) He makes a similar claim for current classical musicians: “Pieces that were once considered too difficult for any but the very best musicians are now routinely played by conservatory students.” These gains he attributes to more effective training programs.

Personally, the most interesting enterprise investigated was Education (rhymes with “vacation” --- sort of.). Surowiecki claims that “Schools are, on the whole, little better than they were three decades ago --- test scores have barely budged...but he is quick to point out that, on average, poor kids get the lowest test scores across the board --- and “the US has more poor kids relative to other developed countries.” But that doesn’t completely explain our poor performance relative to countries like Canada, Japan and Finland; the key difference is that these countries spend a great deal of time and money training their teachers before they enter the classroom and this training continues throughout their careers.

Surowiecki ends the article with a succinct and potent observation: “...the way you improve the way you perform is to improve the way you train. High performance isn’t, ultimately, about running faster, throwing harder, or leaping farther. It’s about something much simpler: getting better at getting better.” To which I would add: The technology for collecting and analyzing the relevant data is a crucial piece of the solution.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Back in the days when I was teaching Computer Science (which, if we were honest, really should be called “computer studies” --- but that’s another column) the method I used to deal with students who were talking (usually in the last row) was this: I would pause glancing at the offenders and say, “You know, I have this problem: I’m easily distracted. When that happens, I tend to lose my train of thought and it’s a bit of a struggle for me to get back on track. This usually means that I unconsciously make a negative association with the source of the distraction. Now since this negative feeling is embedded in my unconscious, when it comes time to assign final grades for this course and I’m looking at a student whose performance is a tossup between a B+ and an A- and this student is associated with the distraction then of course I’m going to be more likely to go with the B+ on a gut feeling without ever realizing the role of my unconscious in this decision. I just thought I’d like everyone to understand my problem so you could all factor that into your behaviour in class. Now, where was I....

This strategy worked very well and in fact I befriended a few students who appreciated not being called out in front of their classmates. I am telling you this because I have noticed of late much ado-doo on the topic of “distraction” flowing on the Internet lately. Examples range from the frivolous: Hugh Grant said in an interview that the Internet has completely destroyed his attention span. “I can barely get to the end of a tweet without getting bored now.” (

to the scholarly: A PEW Research report entitled, “The Six Types of Twitter Conversations” describing “The Six Structures of Communication Networks. describing a taxonomy for classifying communication networks such as the Internet.


Twitter, to my mind, symbolizes the quintessential distraction/addiction app. As I have mentioned in a previous column, when I questioned my (then) 13 year old granddaughter why she used Facebook but not Twitter, she said that she only used Facebook a few times in a day but, she noticed that her peers were on Twitter almost continuously and she couldn’t afford that much time for what seemed to her a frivolous activity. Unfortunately, two years later I find that she has a Twitter account just like me. I can justify my account as an “astute observer of technology but my granddaughter has different reasons. She told me that she got a Twitter account because most all of her friends have one and she found herself out of the “loop” regarding stories and info that her friends were sharing. She finds it easier to keep up with the backstory as a Twitter subscriber.

Since this is my beautiful, intelligent granddaughter, I am forced to admit that all who tweet are not necessarily twits. Douglas Coupland also believes some of the best writing in the English language today is being done on Twitter an in the one-star reviews on TripAdvisor. “They aren’t allowed to swear, so they have to be extremely inventive in their attack.” On the other hand he goes on, “I mean my attention span is gone. If anyone tells me that theirs hasn’t, I just assume they are lying. “


So, some good can come from sites like Twitter --- even as they are destroying the attention spans of some, they are providing an opportunity to practice writing under some heavily constrained circumstances (e.g. tweets are limited to 140 characters) not unlike the sonnet or haiku forms of poetry. Whether or not users should direct their efforts to more creative activities (such as writing this column), something more useful to society (like volunteering at a soup kitchen), or something that contributes to spiritual growth (like prayer, meditation or yoga) is another question.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Sorrows of Technology

Teachers often extol  “the joy of learning” and, while they certainly have every right to do so, they almost never mention the other side of the coin: “the pain of learning”. My guess is that many folks probably experienced the pain more often than the joy and most teachers the joy rather than the pain. I believe that the same analysis can be applied to Technology: while tech affords us much convenience and even joy, it also can be a source of great frustration and pain. I’m sure we all have our stories. Here is mine:

Recently my wife and I decided we needed a fax machine and, after a bit of research, purchased one at a Local Purveyor of Things Electronic. Turns out, in order to get a good price on the fax, you have to buy a whole package: Printer, Scanner, Copier, and Fax.

Before, I begin this sad story of pain, frustration and woe, let me just mention that I had also bought a new Panasonic phone system that had lots of bells and whistles including a built-in answering machine.  Somehow, during installation, the phone system decided that I had an unanswered voicemail at Charter, my phone service provider, and that I should enter my code to access it. Well, it’s an annoying message but I think I can live with it because I know that I told Charter long ago to cancel that service so I could use the phone’s built-in answering machine.

What I did not foresee was that my phones would keep flashing day and night helpfully reminding me to call my Charter voicemail. Three phones continually flashing is very nettling so I decide to call Panasonic to help remedy this  situation. After many frustrating minutes, I eventually reach a technical person who gives me the fix and it works --- until next morning when I discover all the phones busily flashing again. Well, I think, maybe there really is a message in my voicemail at Charter so I give them a call only to find that my mailbox has been disabled per my previous instructions: I have no mail because I have no mailbox. Also I learn during the course of the conversation that the best way to go is to disable my home phone’s answering machine and restore my voicemail at Charter and Oh, by the way I will also  need to apply for a “distinctive ring” thru Billing as a Tech Service guy can’t add “new” services all by themselves. A distinctive ring is a special ring for an incoming fax and will prevent the voicemail from intercepting it.

I tell Charter that I will think about their solution and will get back to them after I’ve tested the Fax machine to make sure it works.  So I call my son-in-law in Iowa and ask him to respond if he gets my Fax. That works OK but he recommends a new solution. He uses a website  called that provides a free fax service for receiving only ---  but sending costs. It even sounds simple to use: you go to their website to get a fake fax phone number which you give to anyone who wishes to send you a fax. Instead the fax goes to your account on their website where you can read it, download it, modify and print it and send it back to them over your own fax. After many more hours of hunting down the free version of efax (which includes a long online chat with representative Lindsey) I manage to set up the receive-only fax account.

This hybrid solution of receiving faxes via the Internet and sending them via my fax machine over my phone lines, as cumbersome as this bi-functional system sounds, seems the best way for me to go. I don’t need a second phone line and it only ties up the single line when I’m sending a fax at a time of my, not the caller’s, choosing. I rationalize it in the same way I use my wireless car door key/lock: When I exit the car I use the rocker switch on the armrest to lock the car but when I return I use the wireless on the key to open the door.

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