Accentuating The In-Car GPS Voice

The other day Kish and I were driving, listening to some classical music and using the car’s GPS feature to direct us to a place we were visiting for the first time. That combination of activities didn’t work out very well.

Why? Even though the classical music was being played at low volume, the monotone female GPS “exit in one mile, then right turn” voice couldn’t be heard distinctly with a Beethoven piano concerto in the background. So, we were left with the option of turning off the music and driving in silence because we never quite know when the GPS voice will speak (an intolerable choice for me) or not hearing the directions, which doesn’t exactly use the GPS function to its maximum potential.

I suppose you could design the GPS speaking function to cut off the music automatically whenever a message is being delivered, but that seems a bit presumptuous. I think the better solution is to offer a range of accent options so that the GPS voice can be heard above the music — accents that are so different and distinctive that the driver immediately sits up, takes notice, and gets the message.

I think a strong hillbilly accent would do the trick, if you could get used to the concept of taking directions from Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. Maybe an over-the-top Cockney accent, with a few “guv’nors” thrown in, would work, too.

In Search of Internet Anonymity

Some of the most popular new smartphone apps offer users the prospect of anonymity. With names like Secret, Whisper, Confide, and Yik Yak, they employ different methods to allow people to post items, and responded to other posted items, without attribution.

The developers of these apps say that anonymity is a kind of pressure-release valve: people have carefully crafted their on-line personas on social media sites, and anonymity lets them really expose their true natures without risk of blowback. (Wait a minute! Are they saying that what people post on Facebook isn’t a true window to their very souls?) So, the apps supposedly allow people to be more “honest.” Of course, there are dangers — such as bullying and defamation — with any social media outlet that allows posters and commenters to hide their identities, so the app designers have to develop techniques to detect or restrain malicious behavior.

Why is the promise of anonymity attractive? It’s a question almost as old as the human species. The classic form of anonymous comment is graffiti, and that dates back thousands of years. Obviously, there’s something about making public statements, without significant fear of retribution, that some people find attractive. Of course, often those anonymous public statements are cruel and repulsive, and frequently the veil of anonymity produces statements that are consciously designed to inflame. Are the people who use these anonymity apps really being more honest, or just saying things that they know will be provocative?

The story linked above mentions the early days of the internet, when pseudonymous postings were commonplace. Some people apparently enjoyed those early days, but I wasn’t one of them. My first few ventures onto the internet, using a dial-up modem and ridiculously slow connections, suggested that the world was filled with mean-spirited people who would glibly say the most awful things imaginable. It took a while before I found websites where I was comfortable.

I think the internet’s move to attribution — like its move to high-speed connections — has been a definite improvement, and I’m not interested in going back. I won’t be looking to add one of the anonymity apps to my iPhone.

Using Crutches As Tools

At one time, scientists theorized that humans are distinguished from other animals by their ability to use objects as tools. Then they discovered that chimpanzees use sticks to get tasty ants out of anthills, and that theory went by the wayside.

Still, there’s something about using tools that is innately appealing to humans. We are instinctively drawn to labor-saving devices. If an invention makes our lives easier — and, particularly, if it allows us to remain prone and otherwise immobile while we are using it — we are going to go for it every time.

I’ve been exercising this inherent human characteristic by experimenting with new uses for my crutches. Sure, they’re perfectly useful for their intended purpose of allowing people with leg injuries to hobble unsteadily to and fro, but it turns out they’re plenty useful for other things, too — particularly for those people who have dogs around the house. For example, I’ve used my crutch tools for a number of other actions:

* Crutches are light enough and long enough to allow you to push a door shut when dogs inexplicably start barking during the middle of a conference call

* The rubber tip on the end of a crutch is well-suited to lifting and tossing dog blankets and shoving aside other obstacles that might entangle the crutch-user, to gently prodding and awakening snoring dogs, to retrieving towels from a faraway towel rack, and to pulling within reach of the invalid footstools, satchels, and other needed items

* Crutches allow you to successfully scratch the small of your back

I’m still working on other ways to use the handy crutch, but right now I’m wondering — is there anything crutches can’t do?

When The Internet Is Fun Again

-6I recognize there are downsides to the internet. It can be an angry place, where anonymous people hurl their rage like weapons. It’s filled with porn, and scams, and falsities, and predators looking to inflict harm on the unwary.

There is so much about the internet that is bad that we forget, sometimes, that the internet can be fun, too. I remembered that today, when I received a comment on our blog from a fellow named Tim. He’d read some of our blog posts about Grandpa Neal, and he wanted to reach out and connect. You see, he’s related to one of Grandpa’s lifelong friends, and he has some pictures of Grandpa with that friend that he wanted to share.

This kind of contact with an unknown person is exactly the kind of thing that makes the internet so much fun — and, sometimes, so treacherous. I responded to Tim, we exchanged emails, and he has sent me some great old photos and news articles. This picture of the Firestone Bank 1923 basketball squad, which apparently won the Akron bank league competition, is a classic that made me smile. I’ve never seen it before. That’s a ridiculously youthful Grandpa Neal holding the ball, and Tim’s grandfather standing above Grandpa’s left shoulder.

Were it not for the internet, I never would have communicated with Tim or seen this photo. For all of its drawbacks, the internet remains an extraordinary communications tool. Thanks, Tim, for sharing — and thanks to the internet for making it all possible.

Scrutinizing The Habitable Zone

This week the NASA Kepler telescope team announced the discovery of another 715 “exoplanets” outside our solar system — all of which are in their own multi-planet solar systems. The announcement represents another giant leap forward in our understanding of other solar systems, and how commonplace multi-planet systems are.

The Kepler space telescope was focused on finding instances of “transits,” when light from a faraway sun drops slightly in brightness because a planet has crossed in front of the sun. The size of the variation in light allows scientists to calculate the size of the planet moving across the face of the sun. Most of the newly discovered planets — about 95 percent — are smaller than Neptune, which is four times the size of Earth. The size of the planets is of interest to scientists because it is believed that life is more likely on smaller planets than on Jupiter- and Saturn-like gas giants, with their enormous storms and atmospheres that feature crushing pressures.

Four of the newfound planets are less than 2.5 times the radius of Earth and orbit their suns in the so-called “habitable zone,” where water could be free flowing without being boiled away or frozen forever. The term “habitable zone” may be a misnomer, because we just don’t know yet whether life of some kind exists on, say, Jupiter’s moon Europa — and we won’t know for sure without actually exploring there. We do know, however, that life exists in the “habitable zone” in our solar system, and therefore it makes sense to try to determine whether life might exist in a planet in a similar position in its solar system. All of this effort, of course, is ultimately geared toward trying to make a truly game-changing discovery of some other intelligent life form in the universe.

If you grow weary of the tribal mire of domestic and global human affairs, where progress is rare and and halting and the same disputes and controversies will seemingly never end, you would do well to consider the extraordinary advances in science and technology that we have witnessed in the last few decades. The discoveries of the Kepler telescope team say a lot — all of it good — about what humans are capable of achieving.

Fracking And Utility Bills

This week the Toledo Blade ran an interesting story about fracking — the word used to describe horizontal drilling and using pressurized water to break up shale formations and free natural gas and other fossil fuels — and its effect on the utility bills of Ohioans.

IMG_1751The gist of the story is that there are abundant supplies of natural gas due to fracking, and as a result Columbia Gas is charging its lowest amounts in years. The story estimates that, without fracking, the cost would be somewhere between 65 to 129 percent more. In a winter that’s been brutally cold, with higher natural gas usage as a result, the lower monthly bills are welcome indeed.

As the Blade story indicates, environmentalists are concerned about whether fracking will have an impact on water and its potential for causing earthquakes. My sense, however, is that most Ohioans are happy with how the development of the Utica Shale formation in eastern Ohio has proceeded. There’s no denying that the discovery of apparently vast natural gas and fossil fuel supplies deep underground has produced an enormous amount of economic activity in a formerly economically depressed part of the state, producing new jobs and causing lots of money from other places to be spent in the Buckeye State. If fracking also is lowering utility bills, and Ohioans make that connection, it will further increase the support for the entire fracking enterprise.

The Mile-High Club App

I don’t have many apps on my iPhone, and I don’t keep up on what’s available, but I saw this story about development of an app that is intended to help people find willing, anonymous partners for sex among their fellow air travelers.

The app will be called Wingman. On planes that have wifi, the app would allow people to enter their airline and flight number, find out if there are other Wingman participants on their flight, and then enter their seat number and destination so they can set up a sordid tryst in the airplane bathroom, under the scratchy blue blanket, or in a no-tell motel when they arrive.

It’s another reason to bemoan the race-to-the-bottom morality of our era, and to wonder about how much of our technological creativity is focused on finding new ways to get lonely men to spend money on testosterone boosters, hair implants, singles clubs, and other things that supposedly will allow them to increase their chances of having sex. They say that a huge portion of internet capacity is devoted to porn. How much of the app world focuses on trying to hook people up?

Wingman also should remind us all of the need to avoid use of airplane bathrooms to the maximum extent permitted by kidney and intestinal function. Now we don’t have to worry only about the sketchy characters with questionable personal hygiene who are sprinting back to the bathroom with urgent looks on their faces, or the unsteady octogenarians who’ve been in the can for half the flight. Now we also have to be concerned that lonely, desperate people might be swapping bodily fluids back there, too. If you’re planning on using the bathroom on your next flight, you might as well board in a hazmat suit.

Bitcoins, Bubbles, And Beanie Babies

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of two individuals affiliated with “bitcoin” exchanges. The two men are charged with using the bitcoin exchanges — which allow people to trade bitcoins for currency like U.S. dollars — to obtain bitcoins that could then be sold to users of another on-line exchange, called Silk Road, where the bitcoins could be used to buy drugs anonymously, in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.

Bitcoins are a kind of token to which some people have assigned value. Each bitcoin is represented by a supposedly unique online registration number, created when a computer solves a difficult mathematical problem with a 64-digit solution. There are supposed to be a finite number of such 64-digit solutions and therefore a finite number of bitcoins, which is why bitcoin investors believe they will only appreciate in value. Users receive bitcoins at unregistered, anonymous addresses, which means the bitcoins themselves can be used to conduct anonymous transactions, as a kind of on-line currency. And, as the announcement yesterday reflects, bitcoins can be traded for real money.

I don’t pretend to fully understand bitcoins and how they are supposed to work — but I wonder how many people who have them and use them really do, either. It’s hard to understand how real value could be created simply because a random computer solves a complex math problem, and I expect that many bitcoin investors don’t have the mathematical and computer capabilities to really understand whether bitcoins are truly unique and just how limited their supply really is. And the anonymity of bitcoins means there is plenty of opportunity for mischief in how they may be used.

People who trade in bitcoins and are banking on their appreciation in value are taking a lot on faith. Of course, at a certain level you can argue that every form of currency involves a similar act of faith, but at least there are public, functioning markets for U.S. dollars, Treasury bills, stocks, and bonds and they are backed by functioning, publicly known entities. Bitcoins remind me of subprime mortgage bundles, or for that matter Beanie Babies. For a time, each of them was a hot commodity. Everyone seemed to be buying them and the word on the street was that their value was only going up. Then one day the frenzy ended, people stopped buying, and the investors were left with pieces of paper or a pile of children’s toys — and a big hole in their balance sheets and bank accounts.

Maybe bitcoins will be different . . . or maybe they won’t.

The Merry Pranksters Of Mars

The rover Opportunity has been on Mars for years. It’s been sitting patiently on the rim of Emdeavour Crater, and every few days it takes a picture of its campsite. Then, a few weeks ago, something startling happened — a weird-looking rock suddenly appeared in the field of view, where it hadn’t been before.

The rock doesn’t look like anything from the nearby area, or any other rock Opportunity has seen. Instead, it looks like a French pastry, with jam in the center and thick frosting around the edge. Scientists are analyzing it, but . . . how the hell did it get there?

The scientists have two theories — a nearby impact flung the rock into the picture, or it was “flicked” out of the ground by Opportunity‘s wheels. Neither theory is very satisfying, and neither makes much sense. The only bit of debris thrown into the frame by a nearby impact is a large, unusual rock? And how did a rock of that size and shape get “flicked” by Opportunity‘s wheels, without any other sign of the landscape being disturbed?

The fact that the scientists have come up with only two boring theories just shows a lack of imagination. There are lots of potential explanations for the mysterious appearance of a weird rock on an alien planet. If you’re a conspiracy theorist, this confirms that Opportunity isn’t on Mars at all, but is parked in some dusty studio in Burbank where a studio technician inadvertently dropped a doughnut. If you’re a sci-fi fan, this shows there really is intelligent life on Mars that decided to have some fun with us, so they placed a weird rock in the picture frame and now are sitting back, laughing hysterically at the puzzlement on Earth. Perhaps they’ve watched TV broadcasts showing cops eating doughnuts and are trying to tell us to send some up to the Red Planet. Maybe a secretive scientist has developed a teleportation device and is using the Martian doughnut delivery as part of a marketing plan. Maybe there really is such a thing as magic. Or perhaps future humans have conquered the laws of time and space, and it is one of them who is pulling the prank.

Keep your eye on this story: I’m betting that, in a few weeks, scientists will announce that a steaming Starbuck’s grande latte cup has appeared next to the doughnut.

Facebook And The Arc Of Coolness

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the future of Facebook. Millions of teenage users apparently are no longer using the social media network. Some Princeton researchers have concluded that social networks are like communicable diseases that infect people rapidly then just was quickly burn out; they predict Facebook will lose 80 percent of its peak user base by the 2015-2017 time period.

There’s no doubt that Facebook is not as cool as it once was, but that result always was inevitable — because nothing stays ubercool for long. The equation of coolness is simple: young people add to coolness, and old people who aren’t rock stars detract from it. Once Moms and Dads and people in their 60s started to use Facebook to post boring pictures, send inspirational messages, and attempt to make “hip” comments about their kids’ drunken selfies, any self-respecting youngster would realize that the coolness luster was gone . . . and move on to the next big thing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook is doomed. My guess is that Facebook wants to end up as a kind of utility — that is, an invention that initially is cutting-edge and used by only a few people and later becomes so broadly accepted that it is unconsciously integrated into everyone’s daily life, like the electric light or the telephone. iPads might not be as cool as they once were, but does Apple care if they are being sold by the millions to uncool people in the business community who love the idea of a lightweight device that they can customize to meet their unique business and personal requirements?

The key for Facebook, or for that matter any other form of social media, is whether it can make that transition. If Facebook sticks around and keeps that critical mass of users, will those coolness-sensitive teens return to the Facebook fold when they hit their late 20s and realize that the social media network is a really handy, one-stop place to keep in contact with high school buddies, college friends, and former co-workers, remember their birthdays, and have some sense of what they are doing with their lives?

TV-Free

Sometime over the weekend our TV went on the fritz. We’re not sure exactly what happened, but we lost our ability to change cable channels.

IMG_1708The TV itself turns on and off, so we believe the problem lies with one of our remote control units. Like many American households, we have more remote units than we need. The black one turns the TV on and off and controls the volume, the gray one changes the cable channels, and we don’t really know what the high-tech silver one does or, for that matter, how it got into our house. Nevertheless, we’re afraid to get rid of it for fear that it may eventually be needed to do something essential, like unlock America’s nuclear arsenal.

When the gray remote stopped working, Kish and I went through our entire array of electronic repair techniques. Unfortunately, that array consists solely of changing the batteries, then standing directly in front of the TV, pushing down on the channel-changing buttons with maximum force, and ultimately handing the remote control to the other person so they can do precisely the same thing. Those time-honored techniques didn’t work. And yesterday, when we returned from our brief trip to Pittsburgh, we clung to a forlorn hope that the remote control problem had gone away during our absence — either through miraculous self-repair or due to a visit from the remote control fairy. Those things didn’t happen, either.

Despite all of our efforts, our TV remain locked on The Golf Channel and its urgently whispered coverage of a tournament in Hawaii. It was riveting TV, but we decided to pass on the linksters and instead spend a TV-free weekend reading our books, chatting, and catching up on the news on the computer. It was nice — but today Kish goes out to get a new remote control unit so we can watch the new episode of True Detective.

Oh, No! There Goes Tokyo!

Godzilla is returning to the big screen next year.  The teaser trailer for the movie is out, and it looks like the film will have many of the elements that have made the Godzilla franchise a classic: a city laid waste, terrified running crowds, commuter rail cars ripped to smithereens — and Godzilla’s trademark shriek.

Of course, among the things that will be lacking are the stunt guy in the rubbery suit who portrayed Godzilla, the clearly fake buildings being stepped on and destroyed by the King of Monsters, and the cheesy special effects as Godzilla encountered and fought giant moths and other oversized and bizarre creatures.  One of the delights of the original Godzilla was the spliced-in footage of Raymond Burr playing a reporter covering the carnage caused by Godzilla’s emergence, which was added as an obvious afterthought in a studio effort to make the movie more palatable to American audiences.  All of that will be gone now, replaced by state of the art computer-generated images and devastation.

The Godzilla films have been interesting for a lot of reasons.  Godzilla helped to reintroduce Japan to America after World War II and led the way for the much more significant cultural and business interaction that was to come in later years.  Godzilla also tapped a core fear of atomic power in the post-nuclear age, and was the first true environmental disaster film.  And the enduring power of Godzilla himself became clear when, in later movies, Godzilla morphed from a mindless engine of destruction into a sensitive and sympathetic defender of Japan who was as much a victim of technology run amok as the poor wretches on the subway trains who were crushed in virtually every Godzilla movie.

And then one day Godzilla met Bambi in one of the greatest student films ever made.

The “New Space” Race

Yesterday, the Indian mission to Mars, called Mangalyaan, fired rockets that caused it to leave Earth orbit and begin a voyage that will see it rendezvous with Mars in September, 2014.  This morning China launched its first moon rover, with a rocket carrying the “Jade Rabbit” on a mission to explore the lunar surface.

India and China are competitors in a new space race.  They are vying to join the United States, Russia, and Europe in showing the scientific and engineering capability to conduct complicated space missions and enhance their international prestige as a result.

In the meantime, the focus of American space efforts have changed.  Although NASA continues to produce amazing unmanned space exploration missions, with the end of the shuttle program the United States government is temporarily out of the business of launching humans into space.  As the Washington Post has recently reported, the torch of manned space flight is being picked up by a number of private companies that are taking a different, more entrepreneurial approach.  Many of the companies are located in the Mojave desert — a location familiar to anyone who has read The Right Stuff and knows the history of the Mercury space program.  The companies feature imaginative business models that forecast how space flight and exploration can become a profitable venture.

As the Indian and Chinese missions show, there will always be a role for government in space.  Many of us regret that the federal government didn’t ignore the naysayers and move much more aggressively into space after the triumphs of the Apollo program with the building of a large, functioning space station, lunar bases, and other efforts.  But the government didn’t do so.  Now those of us who dream of space exploration should be pleased that private enterprise sees opportunities in the heavens.  The history of America has shown that capitalism can work wonders, and competition among companies can spur extraordinary technological advances.  If the same visionary leadership and engineering savvy that produced our personal computer and smartphone revolution can be brought to bear on the commercial development of space, who can say what opportunities might be realized?

Keep your eye on the high desert.  When we start reading more about readily available “space tourism” flights or mining efforts in the asteroid belt, we’ll know that the future envisioned in countless science fiction novels has moved a little bit closer.

The Deadline Arrives

It’s December 1.  Normally that wouldn’t mean much, except for a turn of the calendar page.  This year, however, it’s a bit different, because it’s been established as the date by which the healthcare.gov website is supposed to be operating at some reasonable level of functionality.

It’s not entirely clear what standard of performance will be the measuring stick; if you listen to different members of the Obama Administration, the goals seem to be a bit of a moving target.  But back when the healthcare.gov website was a crashing, frozen embarrassment, the Administration set November 30 as the deadline.  Now we can expect the website to be the most scrutinized, evaluated website in the history of computers.  There will be a huge spike in usage today, caused in large part by hordes of journalists and bloggers and curious folks who just want to see what the fuss is all about.  You have to wonder — how many of the people on the website are actually using it for its intended purpose of trying to shop for health insurance, rather than messing around trying to see what causes an error message?

We can expect lots of stories about the website over the next few days, from all points along the political spectrum.  Progressives will rave about how much the website has improved, and conservatives will focus on its remaining failures.  The website story will be treated like a horse race, with winners and losers.  In the meantime, average Americans everywhere should be asking how this happened, and why we are spending so much money to fix a website that clearly shouldn’t have been so poorly designed at the outset.  On that latter point, the New York Times has an interesting piece about how the failure happened and how the Obama Administration reacted.  It’s not an attractive story.

Breathe In, Email Out

Modern technology has contributed to lots of new physical conditions — carpal tunnel syndrome being one example.  Could the simple process of writing an email actually cause a form of apnea similar to sleep apnea?

IMG_5427The theory is that, when people write emails, they stop breathing properly.  They hold their breath when writing a compelling sentence, or start breathing too shallowly.  Those who experience the symptoms can end up sweating heavily and feeling light-headed.

This is one of those news stories that I greet with a healthy dose of skepticism.  I’ve been writing and reading emails for decades now, and I don’t remember ever feeling light-headed.  Bored, yes.  Amazed at the inanity of some human communications, yes.  Astonished at the pathetic quality of purported fraudulent schemes that seem unlikely to fool a kindergartner, yes.

The only times I’ve ever held my breath at the computer keyboard occurred when I read an email so bizarre or ill-advised that I feared for the sanity or likely career trajectory of the sender.  It makes me wonder:  how many of the claimed “email apnea” cases are really just a reflection of an e-mailer worrying about sending a particularly risky email?  An especially ticklish message might cause you to leave puddles of sweat on the keys and forget to breathe.

Given the ludicrous amount of email Americans send and receive these days, wouldn’t we have heard about email apnea before now?  In fact, if it were any kind of significant concern, we’d be in the grips of an epidemic.  The fact that we aren’t seeing infomercials touting a combination keyboard and breathing mask tells you all you need to know.