Sunday, August 14, 2016

Technology changes Vocabulary and Productivity

A funny thing happened while I was reading the the article, “Amazon unveils cargo plane as it expands delivery network” by Phuong Le in the Sat Aug 6 2016 PR. In the last paragraph of the article is a quote from Dave Clark, Amazon’s Senior VP for worldwide operations,“Stay tuned and we’ll see what happens in the future”. It occurred to me that the phrase “stay tuned” has already become archaic in that it refers to a nondigital technology (tube radio) which had a tuner knob the user could control to find the “station” or broadcast frequency desired.

This struck me as serendipitous because just the previous day, my grandson Tommy had used the phrase, “Hang up the phone” to me referring to a cell phone. I (unpompously as possible) pointed out to him that “hang up” was an outdated phrase referring to olden times (early 20th century”) when phones looked like this:

You can see that it has a microphone on top , a dial at the bottom and a cradle on the side with which you can place the speaker to “hang up the phone” and end the conversation. I predicted that in a few years people will be saying, “Swipe off the phone” instead. To which he astutely replied, “Or ‘hang up’ will just become another phrase that we use unaware of its original meaning --- like “dialing” the number.

So I wondered how many other words of phrase have become archaic due to technological change and by searching on “outdated expressions” you can find a plethora of other examples; e.g.

Speaking of change, the Aug 11 PBS Newshour the segment, “End of Growth”, examines technological change from two different viewpoints. Economics reporter Paul Solmon asks two economists, Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson, for their reasons for and against the prediction that the US economy is in for a long patch of slow growth. Gordon shows data that the period between 1870 and 1970 was an era of unprecedented growth and productivity fueled by such technology as the radio, the electric light, indoor plumbing, air conditioning/heating, the telephone, radio and TV, the airplane,the internal combustion engine, and last but not least, the refrigerator( which, besides convenience, kept food from spoiling and thus improved the nation’s health).

Brynjolfsson agrees pointing out that a multitude of tasks previously performed by human muscle or horsepower were replaced by machines in that century which not only raised productivity but lessened the burden and freed up time for most people. But he disagrees with Gordon’s thesis that our best days are over. He claims that we are in a “second machine age” where they now raise our productivity by supplementing our brain power using artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics. Gordon parries with the observation that this new utopia visualized by Brynjolfsson is not yet factual --- it is merely a hope.

Gordon rhapsodizes about the tremendous investment in infrastructure symbolized by the construction of the Golden Gate bridge and similar projects that led this country into a prosperity never before reached. . Further, his research indicates that during that 100 year span the US was growing three times faster than in the last 40 years. Brynjolfsson responds that while that may be so, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet and that the greatest failure of the human mind is in comprehending exponential growth (the bigger it gets, the faster it grows) because we tend to think linearly. Gordon responds that computers have been riding this wave of exponential growth for the last 50 years but it has not yet shown up in productivity. And so on and so forth.

Solmon ends the piece with the observation that no matter whose viewpoint will turn out to be correct we are certainly currently in a period of strong economic headwinds: problems in education, an aging population, a huge national debt, and growing inequality.

I believe that if anything can lift us up out of this “great recession’, it will be undergirded by technology. It is not surprising to me that technology not only changes society’s productivity but also its vocabulary.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Reflecting on Reflection/Exploring Reflecting... Take your Pick

Sunday morning. Time to get to work on my next column. I start by checking my media sources for new ideas. Pocket has a link to a potentially interesting article from the New York Times: “The End of Reflection” by Teddy Wayne. It’s a fairly quick read which examines some of the research on how the technology provided by the Internet favors multitasking and scattered thinking to the detriment of thinking reflectively or “thinking about thinking”. I first heard the phrase, “thinking about thinking “ over forty years ago while I was working on my dissertation --- I didn’t care much for it then and I haven’t changed my mind. It’s an example of a self-referential statement which most always leads to a paradox; for example, “This sentence no verb” or “Absolutely all absolute statements are false.” Since language is meant to clarify and communicate ideas, it’s a good idea to stay away from paradoxes unless you’re telling a joke or just want to show off.

However, the interesting thing for me is that, while reading the article, about halfway down, there is an active link (you know, some text colored blue which holds the promise of whisking you off to another website) from which much of Wayne’s article was derived ( “Our Cluttered Minds” by Jonah Lehrer). Unable to contain my curiosity and being of easily distractible nature, I clicked and went. And guess what? Halfway down this article was a reference to the term, “Hot Take” which led me to another search which led me to “A History of the Hot Take” by Elspeth Reeve.

At this point I began to realize that I was confirming the Wayne and Lehrer hypothesis: I was allowing myself to be distracted by the hyperlink jumping ability provided by the Internet instead of first reading the entire article and then reflecting on its content. I was jumping in when I should have been standing back.

Before going further, I have (in the interest of full disclosure) tinkered with the truth a bit in the above description of my actions. While I may appear dumb, I am really not that dumb. In fact, as soon as I saw the first link, I did go to that page and after a hasty scan, realized it would be useful and simply saved the page in a new tab which I could come back to later. Same deal for all subsequent links. So maybe there is a middle ground, a compromise if you will, between completely standing back and reflecting vs jumping in and forging ahead allowing the creative drive to lead us where it may.

Perhaps the problem of reflection vs “distraction” is a false dilemma. Perhaps both are useful problem-solving tools. Then we could replace the pejorative word, “distraction” with a more positive one like “exploring” or “doing”. This idea is not a new one; somewher around 350 BCE Aristotle wrote, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them" and later in the early 20th century when educational theorist John Dewey promoted the concept of “experiential learning”.

But this “learning by doing” strategy is not sufficient. Certainly we can learn by doing but our understanding is deepened and enhanced by reflecting on what we have just done: could it have been done better, more efficiently, how does it fit in with what we already know? Note that this is not the same as “thinking about thinking --- this is thinking about what we have done. Learning is an exploratory process while Reflection is an integrative one.

In short, we learn best by doing and then thinking about what we’ve done. But progress in Internet technology has made us more impatient: who has the time to reflect if we can’t wait out a two-second delay in response to our query? As the creator of old-time comic strip “Pogo”, Walt Kelly put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” On the other hand, as some other old sage has noted, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is a problem. I’m working on it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

INDIVIDUAL vs SOCIETAL Security: Deja Vu all over Again

You may have thought that the lawsuit by the FBI against Apple was amicablly settled out of court on March 21 but if you thought that you would be wrong. For those of us with less than adequate memories, here is a synopsis of the events leading up to lawsuit.

The FBI wanted to examine the Apple iPhone taken from the San Bernardino terrorist shooter in the hope it would reveal connections to other terrorists. Unfortunately the FBI bungled the attempt to hack into the phone which prevented anyone from logging into it let alone get information from it --- except perhaps the Apple Corporation who made the phone and theoretically could restore it to its prior state so the FBI could get on with its investigation.
Now comes the tricky technical part. In order to restore the phone, Apple software engineers must create a Trojan Horse virus which appears to be a valid update to the phone’s Operating System but in fact will launch an attack on it, disabling the code that is blocking the FBI and letting them have another crack at getting to its contact list. This process is called “white-hat” hacking (as opposed to “black-hat” which is what the baddies use).

All the FBI says that it wants is the phone back in the same condition it was before the shooter was killed and his phone captured. Then they can get back to work protecting the Homeland. “Not so fast!”, replies Apple CEO Tim Cook. If we do that and the code leaks out then everyone who owns an iPhone (an estimated 64 million people in the US alone as of 2014) will be at risk from malicious hackers --- not only in the US but in other nations) and tt will be a HUGE invasion of privacy and the world will never be the same. So the FBI responds, “if you won’t do what we want you to do voluntarily, we will have the courts issue an injunction forcing you to do so.” And they did and the blogosphere exploded with claims and counterclaims about what was the Right Thing to Do.

Privacy advocates claimed that this was like the government getting a search warrant to enter a home only to encounter a locked safe for which it had no permission to open so it asks the manufacturer of the safe to provide it with a master key and the manufacturer responds that it has no assurance that this master will be safe and not copied thus violating the security of their product and consequently their business trade will suffer.

A CBS poll of the US general public revealed that 50% of the respondents supported the FBI's position, and 45% supported Apple's.

The case never made it to court as the FBI blinked and ostensibly found a white-hat hacker to dig out the information they wanted to examine. (According to the Wall Street Journal, “FBI Paid More Than $1 Million to Hack San Bernardino iPhone”)

So, who’s right? I’ll tell you. I don’t know.

What I do know is that this is not the end but the beginning of the tortuous process of sussing out several thorny issues. One issue is that we have consciously designed a system of jurisprudence that meant to be slow and deliberate so that we sacrifice speed for for accuracy --- for getting it right. However, technology turns that philosophy on its head; we not only want our gadgets to run fast but we want them be created fast as well --- if it’s not right, we’ll make it right in the next version.

Also in our law system, precedents are important and you can be sure that law enforcement agencies will continue to press this issue because, for them, security will usually trump privacy

And finally, beyond smartphones, is there a reasonable expectation of privacy on Internet or not? When I post to Facebook, certainly not; when I send email, I certainly do expect privacy. T
his is not yet settled law and there is an ongoing conversation on this issue (on the Internet of course --- search on the term, “reasonable expectation of privacy”)

Pros and Cons of Autonomous Cars: Part 3

We’ve been investigating some of the Pros and Cons of driverless or autonomous cars. So far, we’ve looked at them in terms of Safety/Security, Time, and Money. We have also looked at comparisons between “robot cars” and other autonomous vehicles such as busses and trains. In this column we examine perhaps the thorniest of issues: Ethics.

While you can quantitatively measure Time, Money and Security, most ethical theories can only be evaluated qualitatively. Utilitarianism (Simple definition: Does the outcome of an action insure the greatest good for the greatest number of people?) attempts to overcome this problem by weighing the costs against the benefits and focuses on the consequences of an action regardless of the intention. At the other end of the spectrum is Deontology or Rule-based ethics where an act is judged right or wrong according to its adherence to a set of rules --- the ten commandment for example. If we use Deontology as our ethical guide then we would focus more on Intention rather than outcome. So,if your intention is good the act is good no matter the outcome.

A nice exercise in applying these two ethical theories is the “Trolley Problem”.( “Trolley” is a British word that translates in US english to “Train”) which is at:

Briefly, here is the scenario: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice? A 2009 survey shows that 68% of professional philosophers would pull the switch (sacrifice the one individual to save five lives), 8% would not, and the remaining 24% had another view or could not answer”. (A surprising result as I would have expected a much higher percentage of philosophers responding that they could not, would not answer.)

For the Utilitarian, this is a no-brainer. One choice results in five dead, the other only One. Pull the lever and don’t look back. From the Deontological point of view it would depend on the set of rules you have chosen to follow; if it includes “Thou shalt not kill” then either action is wrong; the best one can do is modify the rule to “Thou shalt not kill, but if thou must, kill as few as possible” which puts one on the slippery slope to Utilitarianism. Some problems have no solution. Sigh.

For our purposes, imagine a driverless car in a situation where: a child darts out in front of the car, it’s too late for the ai car to stop but if it swerves you wipe out five pedestrians. Do we let the autonomous car make the call knowing full well that this decision is embedded in its software and ultimately that software was written by a team of programmers who, after all are only human? Some say these cars should have a human overide (like the emergency stop cord on a train); others say to trust the software --- it’s been tested (when was the last time your were tested?)) and can react much faster than you.

And what about letting the car break the rules when necessary? I usually give bikers a wide berth, even crossing the double line when it’s safe. Would a robot car be programmed to do the same?

All of this raises the question of responsibility. It’s your car, either owned or leased, and you better have insurance that covers situations like this. But what about the car manufacturer, and what about the programmers who wrote the software --- are they also liable?

If the thought of driverless cars scares you, consider the possibility of autonomous armed drones where their goal is not safety but destruction. For better or for worse, science fiction is rapidly becoming fact.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Autonomous Cars Part 2

As I indicated in my previous column, I will continue the discussion of the Pros and Cons of Autonomous or Driverless Cars. For a review of Part 1, see the January entry.

Lest you think that driverless cars are pie in the sky, consider this cartoon in the Jan 11, 2016 New Yorker magazine: A cop is saying to a stopped motorist, “Does your car have any idea why my car pulled it over?” Keep in mind that cartoons typically examine current societal themes.

In the last column I suggested that the pros and the cons debate of autonomous cars can be organized into three categories: Safety/Security, Time, and Money and that format was followed last column ---- except that the plusses and minuses were abbreviated to fit column length constraints. Here are some more pros and cons that were not covered last time.


Autonomous cars don’t have to be perfect, they only need to be better than the current system. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good..

The focus of police officers could be shifted from writing traffic tickets and handling accidents to managing other, more serious crimes.

The lines at the DMV would be shorter since people wouldn't need a specialized driving license to operate cars.

There would be less of a concern about taking the keys away from elderly parents when they get too old to drive carefully (Personally, I don’t care much for this one; I could argue that this is a Con, not a Pro for many of our elders.).


If humans were allowed to take control of the car, some drivers might game the system by rudely cutting into lanes secure in the knowledge that the other autonomous cars would slow down to let them in. A related scenario has teenagers playing chicken or trying to herd the robot cars into going in circles. Ah teens...

Prototype driverless cars are not yet able to operate at a high level of safety in all weather conditions. In fact, heavy rain can seriously mess up the car’s laser sensor which provokes the question what role the driver might have to play in the event the technology fails.

Another issue raised in the last column that the role of passenger trains --- aren’t they already closer to full autonomy? The answer is: “ Yes but... ” Many engineers believe that the technology is already available to implement fully driverless trains; in fact,some already exist. According to the International Association of Public Transport, by the end of 2013, there were 48 fully automated public metro systems in use in 32 countries. It is interesting to note that Canada has almost twice as many automated Metros as the US--- thanks mostly to Bombardier) So, if our neighbor to the north can do it, why can’t we, why don’t we? To answer that question let us (one more time) consider the Pros and Cons.


Once a train gets up to speed there need be few or no stops between stations making for a quicker smoother, and more comfortable ride.

There is a precedent. Airlines have been using pilotless airplanes which can takeoff , fly and land the plane safely and the many many autonomous systems which allow this are slowly migrating to first the high-end cars and eventually to the mid and lower-end cars. These systems which make the car more autonomous all have various input sensors such as blind spot monitors, parking sensors, even water-in-fuel sensors!
To view several dozen more, go to:


The essence of these arguments mostly fall into the Money category. Basically, there are very little savings accrued by eliminating one engineer driving several hundred passengers.

Also, most workers in the transportation industries are in a union and are easily organized to turn out the vote. They are not going to vote for a project that will put them out of a job.

Overall, my prognostication is that we will see hybrid systems of autonomous cars,
busses and trains, each serving the unique needs of the passenger. not to mention nonautonomous bikes. Next time we examine the ethical issues. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pros and Cons of Autonomous Cars: Part 1

I recently attended my grandson’s wedding in the faroff state of Iowa and, at a family gathering, I listened to a discussion on the pros and cons of driverless cars.

The elder folks argued that the software required by a system of communicating vehicles would be so complex as to almost insure a disaster.; software engineers know that when a bug is fixed in a program of sufficient size, the odds are that several new bugs will be introduced by the changes. Robot cars would be unpredictable, even dangerous, and the experiment is doomed to failure.

The younger faction responded.that a robot chauffeur would actually be safer from human error (drunk drivers, tired or incompetent drivers..) if all cars were driverless. Of course, there would be a transitional period when there would be a mixture of driverless and human driven cars which would be tricky because the weak link in that scenario is you and me --- the human driver. Also, according to some studies indicate some problematic tradeoffs; especially comfort vs optimization of road capacity. There are virtually no complex solutions without some tradeoffs and autonomous cars are no exception.

But there is more to an autonomous vehicle than its ability to act as a robot chauffeur. Cars would become a part of the “Internet of Things”. If you’re not already knowledgeable about this, here is a definition from Google:

Internet of things

a proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data.

And here is a link to an understandable presentation from Forbes:

And here is a caveat from the second part of Google’s above definition:

"if one thing can prevent the Internet of things from transforming the way we live and work, it will be a breakdown in security"

When we take into account that cars are “things”, we can organize The Pros and the Cons of autonomous cars into three categories: Safety/Security, Time, and Money. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting and important arguments in each category


Pros: Somewhere between 81% to 99% of car crashes are the result of human error On the other hand, computers are not easily distracted and they don’t drive under the influence so there would be no need for a designated driver.. A computer-driven car should be safer.

Cons: As part 2. of the definition of the “Internet of Things” implies the security of autonomous vehicles would be problematic. If you think viruses and malware are annoying on your cell phones and home computers now, they will be more annoying and dangerous in a self-driving vehicle. There have already been successful experiments in hacking into.the software involved.
(Search on the phrase, “Researchers Hack Into Driverless Car System,Take Control of Vehicle “)


Pros: Speed limits could be increased safely since every car knows what every car is doing and where it is (not to mention where the slowdowns are); thus commute times are reduced;

Cons: Some studies show a tradeoff between time and comfort; saving timecan make the ride herky-jerky.

Gasoline/Battery usage would be optimized as they are controlled by a computer.

Money would be saved on parking as the car can drop you off to work and park itself out of the high-rent district and return to drive you home.


The cost of driverless cars could be too much for many citizens.. Estimates of the cost for design, implementation and testing are in the $100,000+ range.

And, finally, to make the debate even more complicated, driverless cars should be compared with similar modes of transportation that are already in place like passenger trains. For starters, trains would provide a smoother, faster ride than driverless car so some argue we should apply our efforts to driverless trains instead.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Top Three Internet Annoyances

The Internet is a double-edged sword. It helps us shop, watch movies, and settle bar bets. On the other hand, it is full of false information (Obama is an undercover Muslim), weird diets (Lose 15 pounds in 3 days!) and lots and lots of sites that begin with the phrase “Top 10”, or “Top 5” or “Top ”.

It is these sites that perhaps annoy me the most. Don’t get me wrong --- I really do appreciate the plethora of “Top Whatever” reviews when I’m considering a new laptop or camera or a mini version of a Pilot G-2 pen that will actually fit in my tee-shirt pocket --- virtually any piece of merchandise. On the other hand, I cringe when I see something like “ Top 3 Ways to Lose Belly Fat” , “5 Ways to Stop Constipation” or “How to pick safe stocks that will triple your investment !!!”. I’m not sure why these come-ons are so prevalent, but the advertisers must think they are effective or we would not be seeing so many of them. This got me to thinking about which is the most attractive number for these sorts of come-ons? Is it 5 or is it 10 or even 20? I was pretty sure it wasn’t 20 (who has that kind of time?) but curious about the rankings from 1 to 10.

In a previous column I discussed Google’s NGram site which graphs the frequency of usage for any phrase you input between 1800 and 2000. For this experiment, I found the usage of all the occurrences from “Top 1” to “Top 10” (plus Top 20 and 100). The Ngram chart I got was and was not surprising (before you read further, what would you guess the order of usage was?) Which phrase was used the most during the last 200 years?

I was not surprised to find that the winner was ....”Top 10” which had double the number of occurrences as “Top 20”, but was surprised that the second place was taken by 20 --- I was dead wrong about the “Top 20” phrase which really took off in the 1950s but then I remembered the Music Charts back then most always comprised the Top 20 popular songs. Following were: 1, 100, 5 (100 and 5 were very close, and essentially the same by the year 2000), 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 4, and 9 bunched together as the least referenced. Now there’s some trivia that could possibly buy you a beer at the bar.

Another annoyance is the message I get when I decline to subscribe to a web service such as one that tracks stocks or sports or politics. Usually I’m given only two options: Yes!!! Sign me Up” and “No thanks I’m not interested in or < I’m not interested in becoming smart, rich and famous> or some equivalent snarky, passive-aggressive response designed specifically to make you change your mind. There’s nothing quite like being patronized by a computer. Nothing.

The final annoyance that I have space to complain about is sort of a semi-scam. It usually appears on a search for merchandise. For example, the other day I realized that my Camry was over 12 years old and might need a new set of rotors and brake linings, so, on a whim I started to search out prices for a newer car to get a feel for the market. After navigating several sites that purportedly Toyota has approved, I found most of them wanted my email address before I could receive a quote which I don’t like to do as it just makes for more junk mail in my Inbox. I could have given them my decoy email address that I use for such cases,

but guessing that the site would just ask for more personal information, I just cancelled the transaction. After much searching, I found the actual Toyota website which did display list prices with no fuss or bother.

I’m sure that you, dear reader, have your own set of Internet Annoyances and I’d be interested in hearing from you. Please use my website ( or my email ( to share.

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