Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How Do You Like Them Apples?

Anybody unfortunate enough to be standing near me recently while I'm using my iPad will be aware that I am not a fan of iOS7.  I have not been shy about expressing my vexation about the new look and feel, and my feelings towards its creators, along with my speculations about their activities, inclinations, and parentage.  However, it occurs to me that I have not always been as eloquent as I might about its exact shortcomings.

After all, iOS7 does in fact live up to most of its advertised goals.  Is it not a sleek, modern looking interface?  Well yes, yes it is.  Is it not bold and distinctive?  Sure.  Does it not have a spare elegance, and striking use of colors?  Yes, but all this misses the point.  Ask the wrong questions, and you'll get appropriately pointless answers.

Perhaps an analogy will do a better job expressing my opinion.  Another recent acquisition, an early Christmas present from my wonderful wife, is a Martin guitar.  It's an absolutely gorgeous instrument.  This present follows the theory that even though I don't know how to play, having such a beautiful instrument will make me want to learn to play.  So far, this is an incredibly successful strategy.  I don't want to put it down, even when the steel strings make my fingers hurt so much I can no longer hold it.  The top and bottom are a rich, dark mahogany, with a lovely woodgrain and a gleaming satin finish.  The headplate is East Indian Rosewood, bearing the words "C.F. Martin & Co Est 1833" in ornate gold letters.  The tortoise pickguard and the ebony endpins provide a lovely accent and blend of textures.  The Sitka Spruce struts help contribute to a beautiful smell, which makes holding it an incredible tactile experience.  It's a feast for the eyes, ears, nose and fingers.   
I know my flute is beautiful too, but I'm having a hard time remembering it at the moment.  New toy syndrome.  We'll see.

Now let's imagine that one day, a friendly rep from Martin & Co comes by my house and knocks on my door.

"Hi there!  I'm from Martin, and we're coming by to do some work for on your guitar."
"Um, wow, that's great.  Is there a charge for this?  I didn't schedule an appointment."
"No, it's absolutely free!  It's just part of the superior service that we like to provide to our loyal customers."
"Wow, that's great!  Come on in!  So what are you going to do?  An adjustment, or something?"
"Even better!  We've been working very hard at Martin to come up with a completely new look for your instrument.  We love it, and we think that you will too!"
"Great!  What will it look like now?"
"Well, for starters, we're ditching the whole natural wood grain look.  That's feeling a bit old - we've been doing it since 1833, after all.  We'll start by painting the body solid white."
"That's right.  Very sleek, very modern.  Of course, it's not all white.  We've accented it on the fingerboard and headplate with bright, vibrant colors.  Very edgy, very eye catching."
"You're joking."
"Not at all!  And you'll see that we replaced the font on our logo as well.  Those letters in that loopy font in the golden paint was so last century.  Our logo is now in Helvetica.  Very cool!"
"But I like the old look of my guitar!"
"No, you don't.  We've got top designers that say this look is much better.  It's all sleek and modern."
"Can't I keep the same as it was?  I appreciate your coming all the way out here, but I'd really like to keep things as they are."
"Well, I won't do the work today, if you insist.  But I'll keep coming back.  And pretty soon, none of our replacement guitar strings, or straps, or anything else will work on your guitar unless we make this modification.  Sooner or later, you'll need to upgrade, and then you'll thank us.  Really."
"If Mr. Martin were still alive, he'd be appalled.  He was a huge fan of the natural wood look on guitars, and he had more taste than your whole design department put together."
"Well, that's the issue, isn't it?  He's not around anymore, so we need to do something different, or people won't think we're an innovative guitar maker anymore."
"Even if it's worse?"
"Yeah, even so.  By the way, I see that you have some sheet music for movie music on your bookshelf?"
"Well, we're changing that as well.  We're going to replace your sheet music.  We think it's wasteful to have the title of the music on the top of the page.  After all, you can see what movie it's for on the front cover."
"But wait a minute!  I don't have covers for any of my music!  I won't be able to tell what anything is!"
"No problem, we thought of that.  If you don't have the cover, you just have to label each bit of sheet music as 'my personal music'.  That way, we won't take away the title from the front page!"
"I don't know why you care so much, but if that's your policy, why don't you simply leave the title on the front page whenever I don't have a cover?"
"Our designers didn't like that option.  They really think it's much cooler if everything is sleek and uniform."
"Why can't I have a choice with all this?  I mean, I'm sure that some people like this new sleek, modern look, but it doesn't seem like it would be that much trouble to offer the classic guitar, and then the new guitar look as a separate option.  Isn't that possible?"
"Possible?  Sure, it would be easy.  But it doesn't hold with our philosophy.  We offer you loads of choice.  That choice is 'our way or the highway'.  Lots of people like it, so we must be right."
"But I don't like it."
"Yes, but you're not going to switch to another guitar, are you?"
"Probably not.  I have too much invested in this one."
"Wow!  I'll have to send a note to our business strategists and tell them what a great job we're doing.  Our guitars are so enmeshed in our customers lives, that they don't feel like they can switch, even when they hate what we're doing to them.  Good news for our stockholders.  Have a nice day!"

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Google Glass: Course Set for Failure

I wish I didn’t believe in this blog. Like many people, I’m intrigued by the potential of Google Glass, and would like to see it succeed. But so far, I haven’t seen evidence that anybody working with Glass really understands what it is or how to use it.

In many ways, Google Glass is simply a continuation of a long trend in making computing power more accessible.  We started with mainframes, then evolved to minis, desktops, laptops, and smart phones.  Mainframes could not be moved without a small team equipped with a truck or two, and could only be accessed by a small number of highly trained individuals employed by an institution large enough to spend millions of dollars.  Each successive phase of computing evolution reduced the barriers for accessing computing power, and in the process, opened up new possibilities of what you could use that computing power for.  Using a mainframe for word processing made no sense, but it’s a great use for a desktop computer.  It would be technically feasible to log your location in Foursquare using a laptop, but it only took off once we had smartphones.

Viewed simplistically, Google Glass is simply the next phase in making computing power smaller and more accessible.  Its only modestly smaller and more mobile than a smart phone, so on the surface, it might seem to occupy a similar niche in terms of applications.  However, in terms of its usage, its much more akin to the difference between a mainframe and a laptop.  Every previous phase of technology had an interface which the user interacted with to the exclusion of doing anything else.  You could run programs on a mainframe, or you could go sightseeing in town, but you couldn't do both at the same time.  Smartphones come close to crossing this line, as you can shift your gaze quickly from phone to your surroundings, but its still an either/or proposition, as many people learn to their dismay after unsuccessfully attempting to drive while texting.


Google glass, on the other hand, offers a unique opportunity to integrate computing power with your everyday interactions with the worldThis opens up an entirely new world of computing applications.  This is why I was so disappointed when the New York Times recently reported on the latest Google Glass developments from Google's I/O developers conference.

Apps under construction include
·         Twitter
·         Facebook
·         CNN news alerts
·         Elle fashion features

In short, these are simply repackaging existing applications and data feeds onto the new device.  All of them buttress the worst arguments that Google Glass's critics make, which is that people are going to be distracted (with potentially fatal results) from whatever they need to be really focused on.  None of these apps enhance the user's existing visual experience.

What should developers be working on instead?  Here's a few initial ideas:

·         The personal database.  A lifesaver for those of us who have difficulty remembering peoples names, but also useful for anybody without a perfect memory.  Whenever the camera focuses squarely on somebodys face, it uses facial recognition to compare that person to the people in your database and reminds you of that persons name.  It would also quickly pop up any timely facts such as if that person's birthday or anniversary was coming up.  A quick input from the user (perhaps a nod or a tap on the side of the glasses) would produce a quick summary of facts you had previously stored, either displayed on screen or recited to a bluetooth earphone.
·         The tour guide.  Travel through any location, and have great attractions, good restaurants, and other points of interest presented to you in real time.  Focus and tap again, and get detailed reviews for that restaurant or historical information on the cathedral.  Ideally, this application would be an API, rather than being a single vendor's perspective, so you could subscribe to whatever perspective you liked.  Imagine legions of bloggers, each with their own unique voice, annotating the landscape with a variety of viewpoints.  Anything from the Hipster's Guide to San Francisco to the Italian Gourmet's Guide to Topeka Kansas.
·         The training assistant.  Need to change the oil on your car, or install a video card in your computer, but not quite sure how to do it?  Youtube has thousands of great videos instructing people how to do all sorts of things, but they are limited by the context of the film-makers environment.  Imagine getting step by step instructions, and when you got stuck, the glasses would highlight the component you're looking for via pattern recognition.

Google Glass has the potential to be the indispensable tool for tomorrow.  It's a pity that  the developers working on it seem to be thoroughly fixated on yesterday.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

We need to re-examine gun control

I'm not a gun person.  I've never owned one, and my father never took me hunting when I was a kid.  I once went to a firing range, took some training, and spent half an hour punching holes in a paper target, but that's about it.  I've never been particularly anti-gun either.  Had you asked me in a survey if I supported increased gun legislation, I would have said yes in an ambivalent sort of way, but it was never my issue.

That changed on December 14, 2012, in the Newtown Elementary school massacre.  My thoughts on the subject are captured below in question and answer format.  If you are a gun proponent and believe I've missed some significant arguments, I would sincerely like to hear them in the comments.

Q: Aren't you politicizing a tragedy?
A: No.  Politicizing the tragedy would be to suggest it wouldn't have happened under a republican white house, or a democratic congress, etc...  Advocating gun control following a gun related tragedy is no more political than advocating a review of fire safety standards after a fire.

Q: Guns don't kill people.  People kill people.
A: True.  But guns make people much more efficient at it.  Newtown Elementary involved guns.  So did Columbine, and the shooting at Aurora.

Q: What about 9/11?
A: True.  Even with no guns, there will be the potential for large scale catastrophic incidents.  But they'll be much more rare.  9/11 took years of sophisticated planning - it's not something a lone lunatic is likely to be able to achieve.  Also, you'll note that after 9/11, we took significant action to prevent a recurrence.  While you can argue for or against the effectiveness of any particular bit of airport security, you must acknowledge that there has not been a recurrence of that type of large scale airline hijacking since 9/11.  There have, however, been multiple recurrences of large scale shootings in public places since Columbine.

Q: What about Oklahoma City?
A: Once again, you'll note that after the bombing of Oklahoma city, we introduced new safety restrictions around government and other buildings to make it more difficult for somebody to drive up and detonate a bomb.  And once again, you'll note we haven't had a major recurrence since then.  We try to make things better after every plane crash, after every major fire, and after every financial disaster.  It's only gun violence that we allow to recur again and again.  Something is wrong with this picture.

Q: But if you take away the guns, only criminals will have guns.
A: Criminals and police, yes.  Some criminals will still have guns, but far fewer than otherwise.  That means fewer crimes, fewer household accidents, fewer rampages.

Q: Gun ownership prevents crime via deterrence.
A: While there is anecdotal evidence of specific crimes being prevented, there is no evidence that gun ownership lowers the overall crime rate.  Gun ownership did not prevent Newtown, or Columbine, or Aurora, or Virginia Tech.  Also, if gun ownership prevents crime, we should expect to see significantly higher levels of crime in countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia (which I picked for their cultural similarity to us, and different approach to gun laws).  This is not the case.  The United Kingdom has an "intentional homicide rate" of 1.2 per 100,000.  Australia's rate is 1.0.  The rate for the United Stated is 4.2.  That's a higher rate than France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, or Italy.  It's even higher than Libya, Algeria, Somalia, Iraq or Iran.  A citizen of Switzerland coming to the United States faces roughly the same increase in danger that a citizen of the United States would face traveling to Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, or Tanzania.  In case you're not familiar with these countries, it would be safer to go to Rwanda.

Q: The constitution protects gun ownership.
A: Three points on that:
1.    Congress has already implemented some gun legislation.  It’s relatively toothless, but the legal precedent has been established.
2.    The constitution doesn't spell out the right for individual gun ownership.  It states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  Our current policies on gun ownership do not require a prospective owner to be a member of a well regulated militia.  One could easily restrict guns to members of the police, army and national guard without straying from the wording of the constitution, as long as any able bodied individual was permitted to join these institutions (especially the guard).  I admit that I'm on the opposite side of current judicial thinking on this one.  In his decision on District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Antonia Scalia wrote "Nowhere else in the Constitution does a 'right' attributed to 'the people' refer to anything other than an individual right. What is more, in all six other provisions of the Constitution that mention 'the people,' the term unambiguously refers to all members of the political community, not an unspecified subset."  In short, he argued that because every other part of the constitution only deals with individual liberties, this section should be interpreted as dealing with individual liberty as well.  Put another way, he argues that this section of the constitution is unconstitutional, and should be reinterpreted based on how the rest of it is written.  I think that logic requires a serious re-examination in court.
3.    I'm willing to back a change in the constitution if need be.  The constitution supported slavery.  Then one day, we said "that's not who we are", and we changed the constitution.  It's a great document.  It's not infallible.

Q: Changing the constitution just isn't feasible.
A: Neither was eradicating smallpox, or traveling to the moon.  Until we did both of these things.  There are some problems that are so vexing that we just have no idea how to start.  This is not one of those problems.  Difficult?  Yes.  But that's hardly a reason not to do it.

Q: Restricting guns is a restriction of individual liberty.
A: True, to a point.  Not restricting guns is also a restriction of liberty.  The word freedom is an often misused concept.  It is rarely acknowledged that every "freedom to" is an infringement on a "freedom from".  This was well summarized by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said: "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."  Whenever we discuss protecting or infringing liberty, we need to look at both sides of this equation.  In this case, I believe that your freedom to own a gun is outweighed by a first grader's right not to be massacred in the classroom.

Q: If the shooter in Newtown didn't have guns, he just would have found another way to commit this atrocity.
A:  I'm sure he would have tried.  But I don't believe he would have gotten nearly as far as he did before one of the adults at the school managed to take him down.

Q: We have a long tradition of gun ownership in this country.
A: The South had a long tradition of slavery.  But it was wrong, so we ended it.  Not all traditions can or should be maintained.

Q: If we abolish gun ownership today, what's to stop somebody from ending other constitutional liberties like free speech tomorrow?
A: Me, you, and every other citizen who values free speech.  The day that we are massively outnumbered by citizens who believe that the costs of free speech are too heavy to bear, then free speech will end.  Whether or not that day ever comes has nothing to do with whether we address gun ownership today.

Q: I'm a responsible gun owner.  Why must I pay the price for some lunatic's actions?
A: Because, unfortunately, lunatics look like everybody else.  If there's a reliable way to prevent lunatics from ever getting their hands on guns, I'm all ears.  Sadly, the NRA, which should have been leading the effort to ensure that only responsible, committed people get their hands on guns, had instead been opposing every effort to take steps in this direction.

Q: If the citizenry is unarmed, what's to stop the US government from taking over and turning into a police state?
A: The same thing that prevents this from happening in the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and most other first world countries that have much more restricted gun ownership.  The fact that politicians and the army consist of your friends and neighbors.

Q: If you made it illegal to buy guns tomorrow, there would still be millions of guns in people's homes.
A: Most gun owners are responsible, honest citizens who would turn in their guns if it became illegal to own them.  That right there would have stopped the Newtown shooter, who apparently got his guns from the collection of his mother, a gun enthusiast.  There would still be people who would insist on keeping grandpa's vintage rifle in the attic.  But the more effort it takes for lunatics to find these guns, and the more people they have to ask to find where these guns are, the more likely they'll be stopped before the tragedy begins.  It would definitely take time.  Once again, that's no reason not to begin.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Most Influential Person in History

"There is no need to run outside
For better seeing

Nor to peer from a window.  Rather abide
At the center of your being;
For the more you leave it, the less you learn.
Search your heart and see
If he is wise who takes each turn:
The way to do is to be."
-Lao Tzu

I was recently catching up on back episodes of the truly excellent British History Podcast (which I strongly recommend if you haven't yet discovered it), and found myself listening to an argument between a number of history podcasters over which person was the most influential in all of history.

An interesting question, and one virtually impossible to answer without a time machine, because you never know if somebody changed everything, or was simply marching in front of the parade.  For example, you could argue that Constantine ushered in the age of Christianity, which had enormous influence over Europe and most of the rest of the world.  On the other hand, Christianity was already spreading rapidly.  If not Constantine, would some other Emperor a few decades later have done the exact same thing?  Similar arguments can be made for many historical events and technological innovations.

However, there is one figure who I think is a very strong candidate for the most influential person of all time, by virtue of the fact that if he hadn't been exactly where he was, there's at least a reasonable chance that the entire human species would have come to a very abrupt end.

Stanislav Petrov was a Soviet officer monitoring a nuclear early warning system.  On September 26, 1983, the alarm went off, indicating five missiles had been launched from the United States.  Imagine yourself in his shoes.  You have moments to decide, and only one chance to get it right.  The fate of your entire nation, and the rest of the world, lies in the balance.  Your worst enemy has done what everybody feared, and launched a pre-emptive strike.  Under these circumstances, could you even think straight?

Commander Petrov clearly could.  This attack made no sense to him.  He knew that the United States knew that an attack would precipitate a counter-attack.  The only hope for victory under this scenario was to wipe out your foe in one sudden onslaught.  Five missiles wouldn't do that.

So Commander Petrov made an instant decision.  With no time to run a diagnostic on the system, no theory to offer as to what might have gone wrong, and knowing what was at stake, he informed his commanders that it was a false alarm.  Based largely on this information, Soviet command chose not to launch a retaliatory strike.  Petrov was correct.  Later analysis showed that a quirk of the weather had played havoc with the system, indicating missiles where none existed.

Another man in that position might have easily made a different decision.  It's not a sure thing that humanity would have been wiped off the map had Petrov called in sick that day, but it's a very real possibility.

So next time you weigh the influence of Aristotle versus Caesar versus Pasteur versus Napoleon, remember that had it not been for one man, you might not have the luxury of thinking about it at all.  Remember Stanislav Petrov.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Who's driving this car?

In September 2012, the state of California passed a bill (SB1298) allowing self-driving cars onto California's roads.  This is a great step forward for a technology that many have been researching, though perhaps none as enthusiastically as Google, which has logged over 300,000 miles so far in its fleet of self-driving automobiles.

While still in its infancy, this technology shows every sign of maturing very quickly.  Nearly everybody is eagerly anticipating the day when they can spend time doing something other than grimly staring at the road while sitting in bumper to bumper traffic.


One group that is not so thrilled is Consumer Watchdog (CW).  In an open letter to California State Assembly Speaker John Perez, Consumer Watchdog urged the banning of driver-less technology without strict controls preventing the collection of information for marketing or other non-driving purposes.

Really guys?

I have to say, I'm a hate receiving advertisements, mostly because advertisers are universally incompetent.  In the seventeen years I've been using the internet, I've seen exactly two advertisements that were of interest to me.  Not a great track record.  Monkeys on typewriters could probably do better.
But still, CW is really missing the bus on this one.  If they had their way, it would be illegal to offer a reduced fare or free bus or taxi service that used driver-less technologies that subsidized its service using advertisements.  Such a service offered to people too poor to own a car might be the difference between having a job and not.  And preventing this is CW's best idea for how to improve the world?

Even ignoring this point, you have to take a look at the bigger picture,  we now have face recognition technology that can identify people from photographs.  We have have license plate scanners that can read and identify up to 1800 plates per minute.  And CW thinks that the driver-less technology is the Pandora's box in this equation?

So let's keep some perspective.  Much as I dislike it, the concept of privacy is vanishing fast.  Let's not stand in the way of some of the most promising technology we've seen in many years in a quixotic attempt to slow down this process.  Because I can think of all sorts of better uses of my time than staring at the road in bumper to bumper traffic.

After all, when else am I going to find time to keep up with funny cat videos?