Friday, January 20, 2017

Technology and Democracy - 2016

A new president has been inaugurated. The 2016 presidential campaign showed us just how vulnerable our country is to the misuse of our now-ubiquitous internet and communications technologies. Consider some of the abuses we have seen: 

  • The Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee servers.
  • They fed those documents to Wikileaks with the deliberate intent to undermine confidence in our electoral integrity and perhaps to help Donald Trump win.
  • Fake news stories circulated on Facebook and Twitter to misinform and incite higher levels of partisan anger.
  • Google search results were compromised by partisan groups to bring up negative stories first when searching for information. 
  • The media provided virtually nonstop coverage of Donald Trump and his campaign across both television and mobile platforms.
  • Twitter became Mr. Trump’s platform of choice to lead a cyber-bullying campaign against anyone who criticized him. And every Tweet became a news story.
  • Smartphone videos and photos provided instant “evidence” at campaign events and rallies supporting partisan views that were shared on social media platforms. 

We live in a world where the technology that was promoted to bring us together has instead driven us apart. Instead of connection we ended up with polarization. We live in our own social media worlds listening to those we agree with. We are beginning to doubt almost everything else we hear, see or read. We are living in a “post-fact” world.

The campaign we have just witnessed could not have happened even as recently as fifteen years ago. We simply did not have the connectivity and bandwidth that allowed this digital assault to be shared instantly. The iPhone is only ten years old. Same for Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The connecting of the cellular network, the internet, and smartphones was the link that permitted this political monster to be born. 

On May 24, 1844, the first message that was transmitted on the newly-invented telegraph was, “What hath God wrought?” We should be asking the same question now. We have created a superb, virtually real-time, global information network. It can be used for great good or it can do great harm. We have not lived with this technology long enough yet to know how to manage it or to manage ourselves when using it. The average time between checking our smartphones is now about six minutes. Ten times an hour we can get a jolt, a fix. When it comes to politics, it almost always zaps our nervous system. Like lab animals in some Skinner Box, we learn which buttons to push to get our hit.  It makes us a feel crazy and we pay the price through our inability to focus, sleep, or think clearly. 

In my view, smartphones are much more like television than they are like telephones. They are a screen that we seem powerless to ignore. We watch that small screen constantly, even while driving!  And all of these hundreds of millions of screens demand new content which Facebook, Twitter and hundreds of other social media sites are happy to provide. This can be problematic at any time but it becomes a real worry when it disrupts our political systems. Behind all this low-cost access and seemingly free content is money - eyeballs on advertising. While there is legitimate discussion regarding the corrupting influence of money in politics, no one talks much about the corrupting influence of the money being made off of political postings on social media platforms.

We have come to a juncture in our connected world. The questions we should be asking ourselves now are: how do we protect ourselves from the inherent vulnerabilities of this information network? How can we differentiate real news from fake news? How do we make our systems less vulnerable to being hacked? How do we reign in the urge to be isolate ourselves in our like-minded camps?  The challenges presented by our desire to be constantly connected will only grow. We can only hope to manage it better than we did in 2016.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Persistence of Form

Like most everyone else, I was blown away by the European Space Agency's recent successful mission to land a vehicle on a comet. After a ten year, four billion mile journey, the tiny Philae spacecraft landed on a three-mile long piece of rock moving through space at forty-thousand miles per hour. Incredible is an understatement! There was well-deserved jubilation in ESA's control center.

ESA circa 2014
When I looked at the pictures of the ESA's mission control room, I was struck by how little had changed in fifty years since the images of NASA's Mission Control in the Apollo moon project became so familiar to us.

NASA circa 1970

The computational power behind the NASA control room was less than what you can find today in an ordinary laptop computer. Yet, the design of Mission Control has not changed much despite the incredible leap forward in technology. You see the same consoles with screens and buttons. The same rows of positions facing the large screens on the wall displaying statistics and parameters. You see the same low level of light giving the room a hushed, monastic presence. I remember the sci-fi movie, Minority Report, from 2002 that had Tom Cruise standing at a large glass panel where he moved and manipulated data with his special gloves.  Certainly, that theatrical image was intended to convey advanced technological control capability. And yet, here we are fifty years after Apollo and both the ESA and NASA rooms look virtually the same. Why?

Tom Cruise, Minority Report, 2002

The control rooms are a great example of the old adage, "form follows function." The rooms look the same because they provide the best way to fulfill the function. Nothing too deep about that. But what might change it? What would make this form no longer the best way to answer the functional need? Would everyone be wearing Google Glasses and hence no longer need to see a screen on the wall? Would the mission controllers be able to work from home in their bathrobes during the critical phases of the mission? I doubt it.

Think of business conference rooms. They have changed hardly a hair in over a century. Of course there has been the introduction of new technology. First it was the old overhead transparency projector which was replaced by a cable connection to allow a laptop to project an image on the screen. But the room, the long table with chairs on either side and the chairperson seated at the end, remains the same. It is the best way to allow everyone to have a "seat at the table", to fully participate in the meeting. Today we can have remote meeting via Skype but it never works quite as well as the conference room with everyone present. I wonder if those rooms will ever be replaced entirely?

Maybe it is because as people working towards a common objective, we need to be together. Our physical presence allows the non-verbal cues to be easily perceived. Silence can say as much as words. Actions can be decided upon quickly when necessary. More than that, we have a feeling of shared responsibility and shared reward that comes from being physically together to do the job.  We are, after all, tribal in our primal essence and we want to belong to the tribe. The conference room replaced the campfire circle.

So will mission control centers or conference rooms (or a thousand other forms in our lives) change? I suppose they will but our need for community will never go away. As we move into an increasingly virtual world, we will have to find a way for our online avatars to be able to not only speak but feel for us. I don't think it will happen soon.

[For a great tour of NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center Mission Control, read the blog by Lee Hutchinson on Ars Technica.]

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Legends and Reality: The Wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call Gitchee Gummee.
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy."
- Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

November 10th marks the 39th anniversary of the sinking of the Great Lakes ore carrier, SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Ships have been sinking on the Great Lakes for as long as mariners have plied the waters of the big lakes. Some ships sink with only a passing mention in the news. Others become legends.

My great-grandfather, John McPherson, sailed on many small vessels on Lake Superior while working for the Booth Fishing Company which sold the abundant Lake Superior whitefish to restaurants all over the country. In 1922, he was returning to his home port in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (also my home town) on a wooden tugboat named - ironically - Reliance. The tug had taken shelter in a protected bay on the north (Canadian) shore of Lake Superior to wait out a December storm.  They had no radio or radar. They did have a wireless telegraph to keep in touch with the home office. But in stormy weather, they were on their own. They waited days while food supplies dwindled and finally decided to make a run for it when the storm abated somewhat.  The Reliance had not gone more than twenty miles when the gale-force west winds pushed them onto the rocky shoals of Lizard Islands, a mile from the Canadian shore.
The propellor sheared off on the rocks.  The captain, crew and passengers of about twenty men and one woman decided to abandon what seemed to be their foundering ship and try to use the two lifeboats to get to Lizard Island. My great-grandfather went up to the top deck to help release the life boat davits (booms that hold the lifeboat). Just as they unlashed the davits, the Reliance was hit by a particularly strong wave and lurched violently sideways. The davit that John McPherson was working pivoted around and crashed into his back throwing him off the tilted deck and into the icy water. He was most likely unconscious immediately after he was hit in the back because he never reached for the life ring that was thrown to him. He disappeared under the waves. Two other men were also lost while trying to get to the island. But to the surprise of those still on board, the Reliance did not sink. The sturdy little tug was slowly pushed by the waves towards the Lizard Islands. Finally, the remaining crew and passengers were able to escape to the island and then get to the mainland another mile beyond. All survived despite a harrowing overland journey through waist-deep snows. 

The wreck of the Reliance made headlines in newspapers both locally and nationally - perhaps as much for the dramatic survival story that followed the wreck. And then it was another footnote in the history of Lake Superior shipwrecks. 

Unlike the Reliance, The Edmund Fitzgerald would not become another sad, but brief, part of Great Lakes lore. The reason, of course, was Gordon Lightfoot's hit song celebrating the "crew and good captain well-seasoned." It is a powerful ballad that pits the great ship manned with experienced seamen against the pitiless brunt of a November gale. It makes for good music. But it isn't quite true. 

There were other ships of comparable size and age on Lake Superior that day. None of those sank. Bad luck for "The Fitz"? Multiple inquests were held by authorities including the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.  Their findings pointed to many mistakes and deficiencies that contributed to the disaster. 

The Fitzgerald and her sister ship, the SS Arthur B. Homer, had welded (rather than riveted) steel joints and both ships had reported structural failures in some of those joints. The Fitzgerald's scheduled repairs to the weld problems were canceled earlier in the year because, like the Homer, she was going to have her hull lengthened to carry more cargo. The repairs could be made at that time.

The captain of the Fitzgerald, Ernest M. McSorley, was known in Great Lakes maritime circles as a "heavy weather" captain, meaning that he would bull his way through storms rather than take shelter when he encountered severe weather. The captain of another large ship (the Wilfred Sykes) on Lake Superior that night sought shelter in Thunder Bay. Upon learning that the Fitzgerald had just been lost, The Sykes captain commented to lawyers who went on his ship that night to inform him of the sinking, that it was due to McSorley's negligence. McSorley was not held in high regard by some of his peers. 

There was plenty of blame to go around. The Coast Guard had inadequate standards for the amount of freeboard (the distance from the deck to the water) that a ship could safely maintain. There were no instrumentation or sensors for the crew to know if the cargo holds were flooding with water except that the ship would sit lower. The lower it sat, the more vulnerable it became to the thirty-five foot waves. The Coast Guard had no lifesaving personnel within any reasonable distance of the wreck site to help, even if there had been survivors. Watertight compartments were not required on Great Lakes ships prior to the sinking. Nor was relatively straightforward instrumentation such as a fathometer (to determine the depth of the water) installed on the Fitzgerald. The only way the crew could know the depth was to throw a lead line overboard (a rope with a weight on one end and knots at regular intervals to measure depth). Such readings were not going to happen in a raging storm. The nautical charts in the area of the wreck were found to be in error.   One of the shoals extended a mile further than was recorded on the charts. 

Overall, the Marine Board found that there was an attitude of complacency in the operators of Great Lakes vessels. The smaller size of the Great Lakes, as compared to the ocean, gave a false sense of security that in times of trouble, safety was never far away. Their concluding remarks begged to differ:

The nature of Great Lakes shipping, with short voyages, much of the time in very protected waters, frequently with the same routine from trip to trip, leads to complacency and an overly optimistic attitude concerning the extreme weather conditions that can and do exist. The Marine Board feels that this attitude reflects itself at times in deferral of maintenance and repairs, in failure to prepare properly for heavy weather, and in the conviction that since refuges are near, safety is possible by "running for it." While it is true that sailing conditions are good during the summer season, changes can occur abruptly, with severe storms and extreme weather and sea conditions arising rapidly. This tragic accident points out the need for all persons involved in Great Lakes shipping to foster increased awareness of the hazards which exist.

But "the legend lives on..." thanks to the power of Lightfoot's song. (It's funny that no one writes songs about airplane accidents. Maybe they are still too new in our pantheon of technology to take on the mantle of myth.) The gales of November will once again be blowing this week across Lake Superior as the first superstorm of the winter makes it way east. Let's hope that this time the "good ship[s] and crew" know enough to take shelter.

Reference from Wikipedia here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Ultimate Container Ship

How big can they build a container ship? Big enough so it can't dock in any U.S. port. Check out the video from the New York Times below. The Mary Maersk requires only 27 crewmen to operate the 1300-foot behemoth.  The automation on the bridge and in the engine room is a key part of why so there are so few crew. I can imagine a lot more unemployed seamen as ships of this size become more common. But as consumers, we love the low prices we get from cheap transportation of goods from the manufacturer to the market.

Video: Behemoth at Sea

Friday, January 10, 2014

Futures Past

Isaac Asimov
Recently, I came across a post at Open Culture that referred to an article Isaac Asimov had written for the New York Times in 1964. Asimov, a prolific writer (he published over 500 books and 90,000 letters) is best remembered for his science-fiction. His Times article was motivated by his visit to General Electric's pavilion at the New York's World Fair. If we had made so much progress in the last fifty years, what would the world be like in fifty more - in 2014? So how well did Dr. Asimov predict our lives today?

Some highlights from his article:

  • We should be living mostly underground to both stabilize our living environment and leave the surface mostly available to feed the exploding population which has grown to 6.5 billion people (our current population is actually 7.1 billion people).  (Score: Close on the population, off on the root cellars.)
  • Further population growth is being controlled mostly by limiting births (Score: Check, see link above.)
  • We are living with more gadgetry to do our mundane tasks (Score: Check).
  • We are still waiting for the robots that will simplify our lives (Score: Check). 
  • Some needs, like language translation by machine, are now commonplace (Check).
  • Our appliances are cordless and run on atomic power (Score: Only partly right. Some cordless gear but nada to atomic power).
  • Conventional highway transportation is past its peak and new levitation roads are making an appearance (Score: no points for this one).
  • Some vehicles can now get to their destinations without a driver at the controls (Score: Check. Think Google's autonomous driving vehicles).
  • We can now talk on our phones and see the person at the same time (Score: Check. Think Skype, FaceTime.)
  • Unmanned exploration vehicles have landed on Mars (Score: Check. Curiosity anyone?).
  • Our televisions are now flat screens hung on our walls (Score: Check).
  • Our routine jobs are now done better by a machine in almost every case. We are now mostly a race of machine tenders. (Score: Check. Think ATMs, scanners at checkouts).
  • All high school students are being taught computer languages and binary arithmetic. (Score: Only partly right. Certainly, students know their smart phones and Google).
  • We are suffering from a gigantic case of boredom and psychiatry is the largest medical specialty. (Score: Partial credit for this one. Most people are probably more anxious than bored. Psychiatrists are busy but no more than usual).  

Asimov concludes his article by stating:

"The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they will do more than serve a machine. Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!"

My spin might be that he was partially right about the Creative Class. Some of the most creative activity has been financial - mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations to name just two.  Unfortunately, this type of creativity managed to create a Great Recession which almost brought the world's economy to the brink of collapse.

As for the world of leisure, as he was thinking of the people of 2014 who no longer worked, perhaps he mistook enforced leisure for long-term unemployment? Work is a glorious word for those who have been able to find it after being laid off for six months or more.

I suspect that if Asimov were alive today, he would be reticent to prognosticate about 2064. The rate of technical change continues to accelerate. Predictions of our future just ten years down the road are getting more difficult.  But for all the technical change, the real drivers of our future will be the social and political issues which will reshape our landscape.  And not all change is for the better.