Sunday, July 16, 2017

Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the . . . llamas of war?

First, my apologies to Shakespeare. Sweet Will's Mark Antony never actually mentions llamas in Julius Caesar. More's the pity, of course. Think what a llama or two would have added to the play!

But back to business. Or in your case, a possible loss of business. That is to say, yes, you may lose your job. Technology is disrupting many industries, and people fear that their jobs will be taken over by computers, AI, robotics, etc. I wrote about the topic in Leveling the Playing Field, and my take on the subject was mostly positive. My position was (and is) that, yes, technology will obsolete many jobs, but that those job losses will be more than made up for by new jobs required by the new technology. (I realize that this is small comfort to the suddenly unemployed grocery cashier who finds that he or she must retrain in order to qualify for one of those new jobs. More about that in a bit…)

Naturally, thinking about tech disruptions and job losses made me think of llamas.

Llamas are awesome animals. They're smart, social, and loyal, and quite popular: In the U.S. alone, there are well over 150,000 llamas roaming the countryside or penned up in pastures or corrals. (There are also another 100,000 or so alpacas, a camelid related to the llama, wandering the country.)

Moose, protecting his barnyard. He was a
good llama.
Llamas are great guard-dogs. Well, I suppose technically they would be guard-llamas. At any rate, they're very protective and not many coyotes or foxes would dare invade a chicken coop or henhouse guarded by a shaggy, angry, 400 lb. beast whose heart has sworn undying fealty to the chickens he loves. (Actually, I don't know if llamas really love chickens; I just liked writing that.) My friends Linda and Dale once owned a llama named Moose whose job it was to protect their chickens, and Moose took his job very seriously; the household dogs quickly learned to stay away from Moose and the chicken coop. Moose liked nothing better than to stomp on a barnyard interloper, so along with the household dogs, all the foxes, weasels, coyotes and sundry other murderous creatures in the area also learned to stay away. (Since they had a llama named Moose, I once suggested that Linda and Dale get a moose and name it Llama, but for some reason this was not a suggestion that appealed to them.)

Anyway, almost everyone likes llamas, and that includes the Israeli army. For years, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has used them as porters to haul equipment over rough terrain. A llama, after all, can carry more than 25% of its body weight over hills and mountains, and through ravines and gullies that would stop even the hardiest of soldiers. The IDF loves its llamas.

Or it did, anyway. Recently, the IDF has decided to phase out the "llama corps" (that would make a very interesting shoulder patch, as well as a great name for a band), replacing it with . . . you knew I was getting to this . . . a robot. The new robot's specs are classified for the moment, but observers say that the mechanical llama (which is undoubtedly NOT what it will be called) will look and act much like the Roboteam PROBOT, which can reliably carry up to 1,500 pounds over rough terrain.

It's hard to argue with their decision. A llama can carry 80 pounds or so and needs to be fed, groomed, and rested daily; replacing it with an unsleeping, tireless machine that always does exactly what it's told and can carry about 18 times what a llama can carry just seems to make sense. And of course, the robot will never spit at you, which llamas have been known to do with some regularity. (Also, it's probably important to note that a sexually aroused male llama produces a mating sound called an "orgle." I would recommend avoiding an "orgling" llama, lest you become the object of his affections. I would imagine that robots almost never "orgle.")

This is the Roboteam PROBOT, to which the company refers as an
"All-Terrain Carrier and Recon Robot." It's definitely not as cute as
Moose. Image courtesy of Roboteam.
Then again, the robot isn't perfect. Robots are not cute or fluffy. Robots do not grow wool that can be made into coats and hats and scarves. And robots cannot (for the time being) make new robots, whereas llamas, when left to their own devices, do an excellent job of making more llamas. (Also, a baby llama is called a cria, which is about the cutest name for a llama puppy ever.) Each new robot, on the other hand, must be individually machined, assembled, and programmed, at a cost of maybe $100K each. However, I would imagine that the IDF is into efficacy and efficiency, and not so much into cute and fluffy; they're apparently willing to spend this kind of money in order to equip their troops with the latest technology, even at $100K apiece.

Of course, as with other disruptive technologies, this is going to put some folks out of work. I don't know how many llama wranglers (another good name for a band, but of course it'd have to be a country band) will be prepared to make the leap from training and grooming camelids to working with the robotic versions of Moose and his friends. The jobs will be there, of course: As robots become smarter and more ubiquitous, we'll need ever more roboticists, technical illustrators, programmers, QC engineers, designers, systems analysts, assemblers, machinists, and more. (Not to mention people to design, build, and maintain the buildings in which these new devices will be created.) In the end, technology almost always adds career options, but locally, people who are not ready to relearn, rebuild, and retrain for those new careers are going to be in for a tough time. In our parents' and grandparents' day, one worked in one career (indeed, often for one company) for a lifetime; now we're transitioning into an era in which workers must always be ready to shift gears, change companies, leave jobs, and even switch careers.

As a side note, I'm pretty sure the Roboteam developers could program PROBOT to "orgle" if they wanted. In fact, knowing programmers as I do, I would be very surprised if they haven't already done so. I mean, c’mon; there's simply no way they could resist. Someday, on some battlefield in a far-off land, a PROBOT is going to suddenly become . . . amorous. Pity the poor soldier marching beside this beast when instead of beeping placidly, it suddenly begins to "orgle."

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Birdhouses & Submarines

As some may recall, I wrote a book. (Still waiting for that call from Oprah…) The book is about how technology has become democratized and how all technology eventually ends up in the hands of the masses—and when the masses get hold of it, some great (and also a few not-so-great) things tend to happen: we build and invent and innovate in ways the creators of the technology may never have considered.

Well, one of the things the book talks about is information, and how (due largely to the invention of the computer and the Internet) information has also been democratized: that is, many, many more of us have easy access to more information than ever. (We also democratized misinformation, but that's a subject for another post.) Simply put, information is now at the fingertips of many more people than ever before; for those people, laziness is the only reason for not knowing the answer to any number of factual questions. (A couple of caveats here: First, I realize that this technology—and therefore this information—is not available to everyone; there are still plenty of people without decent [or any] Internet access, and people who can't afford computers. I mean, there are people without access to decent food and safe water; a MacBook and fast Internet access is WAY down on their lists. Second, not everything can be answered via the Internet, and the very definition of "facts" can become a bit fuzzy—especially when it comes to interpreting those facts. So, I'm no Pollyanna, just so you know, and I'm not saying that this is, to quote both Voltaire and Kris Kristofferson, "the best of all possible worlds.")

My granddaughter got to meet Kris
Kristofferson at last summer’s family
reunion. Too late to meet Voltaire, I
suppose; maybe I’ll give her a copy of
But back to information access. It will help in this exercise for the reader to understand that I'm a dork. A complete klutz. A home repair disaster on a massive scale. Generally speaking, I can't build things. I can't fix things. I have built birdhouses in which no self-respecting bird would ever live. I once installed a garbage disposal in such a fashion that whenever the disposal turned on, so did the blender on the nearby counter. I have made multiple trips to Home Depot or Lowes so that I could buy materials to "fix" a wall or a sink, only to discover that my feeble attempts at repair, far from saving me money, had actually added to the final cost, because I then had to hire a pro to undo my repair attempts so that the wall or sink or whatever could be repaired the right way. (This is not merely expensive, it's embarrassing.)

Sadly, though I have many friends and several brothers-in-law who are irritatingly good at this sort of thing, I'm a bit of a hopeless case.

BUT… I now have access to information. Lots and lots of information. I have Google, I have YouTube, I have digital access to a vast network of experts of various stripes, and all of them are positively eager to tell and even show me how to do stuff. If you enter "how to" into Google's search field, you get well over 3 billion results. If you enter "how to build," you get about 244 million. "How to fix" will net you about 99 million hits or so. If you wander over to YouTube (which, not surprisingly, is owned by Google) and enter "how to adjust a carburetor," you'll see that there are some 89,000 videos on the topic. (Which is amazing, considering that cars don’t even use carburetors anymore. Must be a lot of people repairing lawnmowers, older cars, and motorcycles.)

Now, you do need to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, of course. Not all of these results are useful, accurate, helpful, or even truthful; but a great majority of them will help you get that wall built, that truck tuned, or that dishwasher fixed. (My wife once found a random part lying in our antique dishwasher. It seemed like an important part, the kind of part that a machine built to wash dishes would need. I was about to call a repair person, but by the time I got around to it, Lesley had used the Internet to track down the name and purpose of the part and read up on how to reinstall it. Result, one working dishwasher and no bill. It was a homeowner's triumph, and a serious savings, although I do occasionally have to listen to the story of how Lesley fixed the dishwasher while I dithered.) And the range of topics is incredible; there are almost 500,000 videos on building and setting up a saltwater aquarium! Are there that many people raising sharks and octopuses and such?

See this beautiful birdhouse? This is NOT the birdhouse I
built. You can tell because it’s straight and well-made and
stable, and because any bird would be proud to call this
birdhouse home. Image by Frank Vincentz,used under
the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
Anyway, we now live in Oregon with Lesley's mom, and I've made it my goal to be helpful around the house. Up to a point, this is easy. I can sweep off the deck. (We live in a forest only about 120 yards from the ocean; 8 billion pine needles fall on the house and surrounding area every time there's a puff of wind.) I can clean and organize. I can haul and move and drag stuff around.

But the other day, something awful happened. The kitchen faucet began to leak. It was terrifying. At first, I'd hoped it was a temporary thing. Maybe it would heal or something. Maybe it was simply possessed by evil spirits, and they would move on after a few days and go haunt someone else. (I made a list of people whom I thought could use a good haunting, and left it near the sink. Didn't seem to do any good.)

It kept leaking. In fact, over the next day or so, it began leaking worse; obviously something had to be done. I offered to build a birdhouse for it, but that didn't seem to help. Eventually, I knew I was going to have to try to fix it.

So, I turned to technology. First, I used Amazon's shopping app and trained my smartphone's camera on the wayward faucet. The app recognized the faucet, one of those fancy Moens with no discernible seams or protuberances, and no obvious way of taking it apart, short of smashing it with a sledgehammer or wood-splitting maul. (Which I was willing to do, but it occurred to me that Lesley's mom might not like that idea.)

But now that I knew the make and model, I went to YouTube and discovered two things: First, these things leak like crazy. Almost every one of these fancy (and expensive!) faucets eventually leaks. And second, it's easy to fix the leak! Dozens of YouTubers (I can't type that without thinking of potatoes) have made videos about how to disassemble Moen faucets. (There's a trick to it. At the very bottom of the handle is a set screw, but the opening is hidden by a small plastic cover of the same color as the faucet. If you pry that off, you can use a 3/32nd Allen wrench—yes, it has to be a 3/32nd wrench, exactly—to remove the set screw and thus the handle. Then just tighten the plastic bolt that has come lose, and which is causing the leak. Keep in mind that it's plastic; don't over-tighten it.)

 One of the dastardly faucets that caused me so much grief.
Image courtesy of Moen.
So, the Internet saved me, and all because when Vint Cerf and Sir Tim Berners-Lee and all the other Internet pioneers created what we used to call the "information superhighway," they made it possible for people to share information about their problems and, more importantly, also about solutions to those problems.

So, now I'm thinking of building a submarine. I'm sure there's a YouTube video about how to do that. (Spoiler: I was right.) 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Begun, The Agrarian Software Wars Have

First, thanks to all of you who waited patiently during my hiatus from this blog, as Lesley and I sold a house, packed up, and drove (very slowly, it seemed) to our new home in Depoe Bay, OR. A few people had asked if I had intended to get back to The Geekly Weekly, and—in spite of some freelance commitments—I have been anxious to return to blogging. (Because, frankly, it's fun. Also, my publisher says that this is a good way to sell books.)

And now, let's talk about farmers.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn't know much about farms or farmers. I figured that eggs just . . . well, showed up, somehow naturally and neatly deposited in those tidy, clean cardboard cartons. Milk was magically placed in bottles, at first, and then later on in cartons and plastic jugs. Meat was from an animal, I knew, but I liked to think of it as it came to me: clean, sanitary, packed in cellophane and Styrofoam. (And I preferred to think that nothing had died just so that I could enjoy that juicy ribeye; or that if something did have to die, it was a quick, painless death to which the animal had stoically been looking forward.) I thought of farming as something simple, elemental, and pastoral, in a Rockwellian sort of way. Farmers were close to the earth, literally and figuratively; it was, I thought, a simple, peaceful way to make a living.
A modern John Deere tractor. Image by Wikimedia user HCQ,
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
3.0 Unported license.

When I moved to Nebraska, I discovered that I was wrong about some (perhaps most) of this. I got to meet many farmers, and I worked with many men and women who had grown up on farms. They were quick to disabuse me of my naïve notions.

Farming, it turns out, is hard. It's a lot of work, and it's work that never really ends: If a farmer is not planting something, he's selling it, or tending to it, or harvesting it, or preparing the fields for the next planting. If he's not on a tractor or other piece of equipment, he's fixing or maintaining that equipment. There's almost nothing on a farm or ranch that doesn't involve some arcane set of skills and a whole lot of work. (I once accepted an invitation to go "baling hay" with a friend. It sounded like fun. It's not. It's hot, scratchy, seemingly endless work in the fields for which my puny, citified muscles were not at all prepared, and there's no rest, because the flatbed truck or trailer on which you're supposed to toss the bales—which easily weigh 870 pounds apiece—keeps moving down the field, whether you're ready or not. The woman on the trailer upon which I was attempting to toss bales of hay got a good deal of enjoyment, I'm sure, out of watching me struggle and pant. She could throw those bales around as if they were nothing; I couldn't move for days afterward.)

Farming is also expensive these days. It requires sophisticated equipment to plow, fertilize, plant, and harvest crops. (It also requires some specialized knowledge to operate such tools.) A Missouri farmer I interviewed for Leveling the Playing Field showed me a large outbuilding in which sat several large pieces of equipment: tractors, a combine, cultivators, a backhoe, etc. The farmer to whom I was speaking reckoned that he had "a few million dollars" invested in this equipment. (Of course, this is on top of the cost of land, feed, seed, fertilizer, manpower, and so on.)

The cab of a modern combine can look much like the
cockpit of a jet. Image courtesy of Challenger/Caterpillar,
So, now we know two important things about farmers: They work hard, and even the small-scale "mom and pop" farms (of which there are frighteningly few left) cost a fair amount of money to operate.

There's something else about farmers, too: They can do, fix, build, repair, or maintain just about anything. They are the ultimate in self-reliance. They have to be. If a tractor conks out, someone has to fix it, and it has to be done now, not in a few days or weeks. If a farm truck breaks down, someone needs to get it running again, and fast. If a fence is down, someone has to rebuild it. If something falls off of a piece of complicated equipment, the farmer needs to understand how the piece is supposed to work and then find a way to reattach it in such a fashion that it once again can function, at least temporarily. Trust me, if there's ever a zombie apocalypse, you want to be very good friends with a farmer. (In fact, it wouldn't hurt if you were to find a deserving farmer right now and send him a bottle of good bourbon. You know, just to pave the way before the apocalypse actually starts. Or send me the bottle, and I will see that it gets to a deserving farmer. Sooner or later.)

The bottom line is that you don't want to piss off a farmer. But that's exactly what John Deere seems intent on doing.

The issue has to do with software. (See? Technology—you knew I'd get to this.) Many of the newer machines, even the supposedly "simple" ones, like tractors, use software. Software feeds GPS signals from the cab of a tractor to its steering and determines when to turn and where to begin the next row. When fertilizing, software consults a database, downloads data, and determines how much fertilizer to use on a given piece of land, based on how much was used last season and the resultant yield: If this piece of land didn't perform as well as expected, perhaps it gets an extra blast of fertilizer; another field may get less fertilizer than it got last year, if it didn't really seem to need as much. (Fertilizer is expensive, folks. Farmers try to use it wisely.) If the machine has mechanisms through which grain or other substances flow, that output is metered by software so that the flow remains constant, efficient, and measurable.

What this means is that when a farmer buys, say, a tractor, he's also buying a lot of software.

People have been plowing for a very long time. No software here.
Image in the public domain, compilation copyright held by Zenodot
Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free
Documentation License.
Except that he's not. Not buying the software, that is. Technically, he's licensing the software, just as you and I do when we "buy" a copy of Microsoft Excel or Adobe Photoshop. We don't really own that software; we've simply licensed the right to use it under certain conditions. (A couple of those conditions being that we're not allowed to tinker with the software, say, or make copies to sell to our buddies.)

And just as we cannot look at, reverse-engineer, or otherwise fiddle with the software we've licensed, John Deere is telling its customers (read: farmers) that they cannot repair or modify—or have their local fix-it guy repair or modify—their equipment. If your John Deere tractor breaks down, you may not be allowed to fix it, even if you know how to fix it. And you may not be able to let your cousin Warren fix it, either, even though Warren has been repairing tractors all over the county for 30 or 40 years. You might have to send the machine 100 miles away or wait for an authorized technician to get out to your farm in order to get the machine repaired.

Unsurprisingly, this does not sit well with many of the farmers—the work-hardened, self-reliant men and women who A) are used to repairing equipment right there in the field, if need be and B) don't like to be told what to do in the first place.

Who could have predicted that software and farming would collide in such a manner?

It doesn't look good for John Deere, by the way. First, in a recent court case, the Supreme Court determined that if someone buys a Lexmark laser printer, Lexmark has no right to stop the buyer from refilling toner cartridges or from buying cartridges refilled by someone else. In other words, if the buyer bought the printer, he bought the whole thing, and could do with it whatever he liked. (In the Court's words: "Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that a patent does not confer unfettered control of consumer goods to the patent owner.") It's not difficult to imagine the Court reaching a similar decision about the software that makes your tractor or combine work.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, farmers are a sturdy, realistic lot, and they don't take well to being bullied. If competing heavy machinery companies are smart, they'll simply start offering equipment that does allow the farmer or rancher more freedom to tinker, repair, or modify equipment they've bought. Many of these farmers lease new machines every year; it will not bother them one bit to be seen in a combine that happens to be Case red, Caterpillar yellow, or Kubota orange, rather than one in the more traditional John Deere green.

Don’t piss off farmers, especially when they’re your best customers.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Are We Hyper-Technologized?

I love technology. After all, it's how I make a living, and I truly enjoy taking advantage of cleverly engineered, well-built tools. (And for me, "tool" could mean anything from a smartphone to a well-made crescent wrench.) I'm old enough that I still feel a bit of a thrill when I power up a computer or realize that, with modern tech, I can do things that in previous years would have been difficult, expensive, or simply impossible. Technology continues to amaze and enthrall me: drones, GPS, digital assistants, desktop publishing…. For me, all of these things bring to mind Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum (now a bit over-used, I suppose): "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Much of this stuff still seems magical to me, even though I know something about how it's done.

This is an Oregon Scientific weather station much like the
one that Lesley and I have in our home and which only
one of us has learned to use.

For example, Lesley and I have the world's most awesome weather station. Among other things, it includes an electronic rain gauge that sends a very precise rainfall measurement to a central display unit that's kept in the house. Any time we want, we can simply look at the display and know that we have received exactly 2.736" of rain over the past 24 hours. (Technically speaking, we cannot do this. Lesley can do this. I have not mastered the rigorous calculus that's apparently necessary to tell the display that we want to see the rainfall totals. So I just randomly push buttons until something happens. Sometimes Lesley comes and rescues me, but most often, I end up with a display of temperature or wind direction, or possibly a readout of my next door neighbor's teenage son's digital music collection or my pickup truck's current gas mileage. Both of the last two are kind of depressing.)

The thing is that this rain gauge doesn't even really measure rainfall—not directly, anyway. It's engineered such that a small catchment collects rainwater through a funnel arrangement. That small container is attached to an arm, and once it has collected the appropriate amount of rain, based on weight, the arm swings down and dumps the rainwater out the bottom of the device. And every time that happens, a counter is incremented. Since we know how much water weighs (if you're curious, it's about 8.3 lbs. per gallon, though rainfall in Los Angeles—being full of various poisonous particulates—tends to weigh more) and how much the catchment holds, the machine can be calibrated to convert the number of times the counter has incremented into accurate measurements of rainfall.

That's pretty damned clever, isn't it? There's a lot of math and machining and electronics and manufacturing know-how in that little rain gauge.

Mind you, we also have an old fashioned, clear plastic cylindrical rain gauge in a holder attached to the side of our deck about two feet away from the digital rain gauge. It was manufactured right here in Lincoln, Nebraska by Garner Industries, and it probably cost about $7 a few years back. If Lesley's not around to rescue me, and if I get tired of randomly pushing buttons on our fancy weather station display, I can always just glance over at the plastic "analog" rain gauge and see how much rain we got. And then . . . well, actually, that's it. I'm done. If I need to start a new countdown, I can "reset" the gauge by picking it up and turning it over so that the rainwater dumps out onto our . . . um, whatever those plants are off to the side of the deck. (Plants and weeds all look alike to me, which is how I've gotten out of weeding for the past several years.)

Or one could use a simple, inexpensive plastic rain
gauge, such as this one.
So, although I think it's kinda fun, it would be a stretch to say that we actually need a digital weather station. I like it, but I can't say there aren't other (often easier, almost always less expensive) ways to get the same information.

Sometimes we end up with technology that was created simply because it could be created or because someone thought it would be cool or because we're determined to improve on the old way of solving a problem. Much of the time, we don't really need it, and there may even be times when it's more trouble than it's worth.

Take bomb-detecting. Surely this seems like a worthwhile endeavor and something worth spending money on. So the U.S. armed services (and researchers in their employ) have spent millions on various types of metal detectors, special cameras, and chemical sniffers. This has resulted in about a 50% success rate in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of course, being able to locate half of the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) scattered along a roadside or in a field is nothing to sneeze at. But you know what's proven to be much, much more effective? A dog. When dogs are used to patrol, that 50% jumps to 80% or more. And the thing is that DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been trying to come up with something that's better than a dog since 1997. Can't do it. Apparently, there is nothing better than a dog. A well-trained dog is very, very good at detecting bombs. (Or hard drives, or dope, or people, or just about anything else you care to train a dog to detect.) There is simply nothing trainable on the planet that's better at literally sniffing things out. (Which makes sense. Consider that the typical human has about 5 million olfactory receptors in his or her nose, while a dog has more than 220 million such sensors. To be a dog is to inhabit a world much richer, more fragrant, and probably much more interesting than the drab one in which you and I live. Also, they get tummy rubs.)

Training and provisioning a dog costs money, of course. Some sources say that a trained bomb-sniffing dog can cost between $5,000 and $25,000 or more. (That's a rather large variance, of course. Perhaps a bomb-sniffing Bichon, being more . . . uh, portable, is worth more than a bomb-sniffing Doberman?) But even at the high end, that's much less than the cost of most hi-tech bomb-detection tools, and the dog is easy to operate and also serves other functions. And in the end, the dog simply works better than the hi-tech tools.

Bichons are SO cute that they look a bit like they
escaped from a comic strip. (Photo licensed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
license by user Rocktendo.)
Altogether, the Pentagon has, since 2004, spent about $19 billion on bomb-detecting gadgets and other hi-tech mechanisms meant to deal with insurgent networks and the IEDs they plant. (Even if a trained dog cost $20K, that means that our $19 billion would buy about 950,000 dogs. That's a lot of dogs. I'm pretty sure that if you simply let 950,000 trained dogs loose in Afghanistan, the war would be over in days. Although I'm not sure who will have to clean up the place afterward.) One of these hi-tech gadgets is VaDER (am I the only one who reads a certain evil malevolence into that acronym?), which DARPA would like us to believe stands for Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar, but which is obviously just an excuse to come up with a Star Wars-themed anti-insurgency device. VaDER is a $138 million aircraft-mounted sensor that tracks moving targets from an aircraft. We don't really know how well VaDER works, because a spokesperson said only that it and related tools were "enormously useful." So, that's good; wouldn't want to spend that kind of money on something that was only "mildly useful" or "somewhat useful."

I like clever stuff, but we seem to have a facility for over-engineering solutions, is what I'm saying here. Do we really need a toilet seat that automatically closes when the user (a man, one assumes) walks away? Can't the guy just put the seat down? Or couldn't the next person to use the toilet simply put the lid down? How hard is it, really? Or maybe you need a connected weight-loss fork that vibrates when you've eaten too much! Or possibly some air-conditioned shoes? (These look suspiciously like . . . well, shoes with holes in them. Say, I guess I already have some air-conditioned shoes down in the basement! I would be willing to sell those to you for, oh, $30 each. That's $48 off!) How about a mug that lights up to indicate the temperature of its contents? So you can tell if your tea is too hot, I guess. Just take a sip, dammit! If it burns, it's too hot; go take a walk in your air conditioned shoes for a few minutes while your tea cools off a bit.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Your Car May Decide to Kill You. Or Not. It Depends.

I spent some time writing software and running the development side of StudyWare, a small software company based in San Diego, CA. And after our company grew large enough that we could afford to hire programmers and analysts who actually knew what they were doing, I spent several years managing those who wrote both the software and the content to be used with that software. (I can't tell you how nice it was when we got to the point where we could afford to hire real programmers. I truly enjoyed programming, and I think I did some clever stuff; but compared to the talented, experienced developers we hired, my efforts were laughably inelegant, unsophisticated, and clumsy. But hey, at least I was also slow.)

An early StudyWare software package. The
packaging and the software eventually
became much more sophisticated.
At any rate, the point is that I have been in the trenches, and I've worked with others who've been in the trenches even longer than I. So, I have indeed ridden the software dev dragon and I have tamed (or occasionally been tamed by) the beast.

In other words, when it comes to building and delivering software, I speak from experience. Thus, I can say with some confidence that software behavior is largely about decision-making: Your code does a particular thing until something happens, at which point it does something else. It's a very strict, Boolean environment; the code always behaves according to some very exacting logic. (Not always the logic you had intended, mind you, but that's a subject for a different post.) Essentially, a huge part of the functionality of software hinges on decisions made about whether something is true or false. If X has happened (that is, if it's true), then do Y.  For example, if the system's internal clock has counted out X number of seconds or minutes, then Y should now occur. (In this case, perhaps Y is that a bell should chime to let you know that it's time to go turn off the stove, call your mother, or move your laundry into the dryer.) Or, if the user has entered a particular word into a textbox, find and highlight all occurrences of that word in a document. That sort of thing.

It's a very pragmatic and ruthlessly logical approach. There's not a lot of room for . . . well, heart. Software doesn't feel.

And yet, programmers do have hearts. They do feel. They do have consciences. (I know a programmer who once worked for a defense contractor that built missiles. After several years of doing that, he was looking for a graceful way out for a number of reasons. One of those reasons had to do with the products he was designing. He said, "If I do my job well, somebody dies. If I do my job poorly, somebody else dies.") So, while software may be said to have no heart, we can definitely see examples of software that has to have, for lack of a better term, a conscience of sorts. Or more accurately, it can sometimes come to represent the programmer's or designer's conscience.

One increasingly obvious example of this has to do with the design of autonomous cars. You wouldn't think that conscience or morality would enter into something so utilitarian, but it turns out that programmers working on such devices are having to make decisions that are essentially moral. They involve not math but ethics. (Or more accurately—and much more interestingly—a combination of math and ethics.)

The S60, an experimental autonomous car from
Volvo. The S60 is classed as a Level 3
autonomous vehicle: the driver must be prepared
to take control if/when necessary. (Image used
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share
Alike 4.0 International license.)
Part of the designer's job is to anticipate certain scenarios, and to program the automobile (in this case, it's truly an automobile) to respond appropriately to certain scenarios. Thus, the car watches for pedestrians who may step in front of the vehicle, vehicles that may run a red light and enter an intersection unexpectedly, traffic signals that are about to change, etc. It's actually very impressive that these systems can almost flawlessly respond to changes in the environment and that they usually render a decision that keeps drivers, passengers, and nearby pedestrians safe. (Of course, usually is not the same as always, so we have seen accidents, some of them fatal. This is dangerous stuff, after all, and we are on the bleeding edge of tech here.)

But imagine a scenario such as this: Bob is in an autonomous vehicle that's proceeding along a one-way, one-lane street, when suddenly a pickup truck enters from a side street on his right. Bob (well, in this scenario, Bob's car) has three options: the car can veer left, veer right, or plow straight ahead. (We'll assume for now that things are happening too quickly for braking to be effective.)

Nothing good can come from any of these options. Perhaps Bob veers left, up onto the sidewalk, where an older couple is slowly making their way over to a nearby vehicle. One possible result? Two dead elderly citizens. The car could veer right, but what if on the sidewalk to the right was a group of schoolchildren being led by a teacher at the front of the line and an adult aide at the end? Possible result? Dead or injured children, along with possible harm to the adult leaders. If the car continues straight ahead, it will T-bone the truck, and the impact will almost certainly harm or even kill the driver of the truck and his passenger; the crash might also harm or kill Bob himself.

You’re probably thinking that this is far-fetched, simplistic, and unrealistic. But it (or something like it) can occur; I would bet that this sort of thing happens at least weekly in every major city. (In 2016, there were 55,350 traffic accidents in Los Angeles, and 260 people were killed in those accidents. About 229 people died in New York City accidents that year.) Of course, when a person is driving the car, that person is responsible for the split-second decision he or she is about to make. Someone is going to get hurt, no matter what. And there often isn't time for a driver to consciously think about that decision; he simply reacts. Hopefully, no one is hurt.

But the programmers and designers and analysts who build autonomous vehicles have to consider such scenarios; they do have time to think, and they have to program into the system what they feel is an appropriate response. They must tell the vehicle, "When faced with this scenario, do this." Those programmers just made a life-or-death decision. They had no choice. They have to tell the car to do something, after all. (Keep in mind that opting not to do anything is also a decision.) They have to encode the system, the "brain" of the car, to behave in a certain fashion in response to certain inputs.

So, what should they decide? Assuming that the technology has advanced to the point that the car can tell what it's about to hit (and I think that is or soon will be the case), does Bob's autonomous vehicle veer left or right? Does it put Bob at risk, or some schoolkids? Or do we aim the car at the elderly couple? Are the schoolkids' lives worth more than the lives of the two older people? Or does the car determine that Bob must sacrifice himself?

It's interesting to talk about this kind of decision-making, of course, and I have had some enjoyable discussions (and even arguments) with students about this sort of thing. (And similar logic/ethic puzzles have been around since long before the advent of autonomous vehicles.) But for the purpose of this discussion, which decision the programmers should make isn't even the main point; the important thing is that we've reached a point at which such decisions have to be (and are being) made.

Technology and morality or ethics have always been connected, of course. After all, technology is used (and misused) by people, and people are moral animals. (Or, depending on your perspective, perhaps you feel they are amoral or even immoral animals.) So how we decide to use a technology, and for what purpose, may have always been a decision that has had an ethical component. (After all, I can use a handgun to protect my family, or I can use it to rob a bank or mug that elderly couple we were discussing a moment ago. Even a lowly hammer can be used to build a home or repair a fence, harm a person or destroy the display window of a downtown shop.)

So, having to consider an ethical component in a technology is certainly nothing new. But having to program an ethical component, having to make those sorts of decisions ahead of time and at a remove, is something that many of us have not considered until now. We (or the car's designers, at least) find ourselves in an uncomfortable position: how do we decide which lives are more valuable than other lives?

That's not a decision I would want to be forced to make.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Tennis, Pickleball, and Commas

 A few weeks ago, some very good friends of mine introduced me to something called pickleball. This is a game that's a sort of weird amalgamation of tennis and . . . well, maybe ping-pong or squash, I'm not sure, with perhaps some bastardized badminton thrown in for good measure. It's as if tennis and table tennis and squash and badminton all got together and had a particularly ugly baby. (Though I'm of the opinion that all babies are ugly. Except for mine. My babies were—and remain—beautiful.) I'm not sure I like pickleball very much, but I do like my friends quite a bit, and if I have to play such an odd game in order to spend some time with them and get a little exercise and fresh air, so be it.

A pickleball court. Oddly enough, the game was invented
in Washington state by a former state representative
named Joel Pritchard and a couple of his buddies. Mr.
Pritchard would eventually be elected to the U.S. House
of Representatives and later went on to become Lieutenant
Governor of the state of Washington. Go figure. (Image

licensed under the under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0
Universal Public Domain Dedication.)
I really prefer tennis, though, and naturally that got me thinking about commas. (Because when you're an English teacher, it doesn't take much to make you start thinking about commas.)

I was thinking about the fact that tennis is one of those "skill" games. It's not enough to be fast (I'm not), strong, (I'm definitely not), or athletic. (Hahahahah! Really?!) Those are enough to make you a somewhat decent handball or racquetball player, because even if the other guy is better than you (and almost anyone would be better than I), you might be able to simply out-athlete him. If you're in better shape and if you're quick, you might find that you can slap the ball hard enough, often enough, and quickly enough to eke out at least an occasional win. (Note: This will not work against a truly good racquetball player, but at least you'll probably avoid getting skunked. Maybe. You could always beg for mercy; once you've done it once or twice, it gets easier. Trust me, I know.)

Tennis, on the other hand,
You may be cool, but you will never
be as cool as Bill Tilden (1893 – 1953).
(Image in the public domain.)
requires serious practice before you can develop the basic skills you'll need just to keep the ball in play, never mind trying to be competitive. That's why a "tennis match" between two people who've never really learned the game quickly becomes a game of "let's hit the ball over the fence and into other people's courts and then chase it around until we get tired and then we can go have a beer." (Although that also sounds like fun.)

The key to enjoyable tennis (read: tennis that involves hitting the ball back and forth rather than over the fence and into a parking lot) is groundstrokes. You need a strong, consistent forehand and a solid backhand—those are the groundstrokes, and they’re the foundation of respectable tennis. Then you need a decent serve, which is not easy to develop. A strong, accurate overhand serve is made up of several moves, each one joined together and practiced and practiced and practiced until the whole thing becomes a seamless, smoothly choreographed ballet that ends with the server up on the toes of his left shoe (unless he's left-handed, in which case it'd be the toe of his right shoe) and a powerful downward stroke that imparts both velocity and spin to the ball and sends it careening toward your opponent. (A decent tennis player's serve could be as fast as 100 mph; some pros have been known to hit 160 mph or more. At that speed I wouldn't even be able to see the ball, but I might have a chance if I aimed my racket at the sound it made.)

To your serve and groundstrokes, add some agility and anticipation, and you have a skillset that will take a tennis player a long way. Tack on a basic understanding of strategy and court geometry, and you have what could be pretty decent tennis player—but one who will lose every match.

Why will our hypothetical player lose every match? Because, although she has some decent skills, she does not have an understanding of the rules of the game. We've taught her to hit the ball, but not when or where to hit it. She does not realize that she must serve from behind the baseline and is not allowed to step across that line until after the ball leaves the racket. (That would be a “foot fault.”) She does not know that her serve must land in the opposite forecourt. (To hit it elsewhere would be a “fault.”) She does not realize that the ball can only bounce once before she hits it, nor that she can only hit it once (no “double-taps” or “double-touches” allowed). She does not understand that when she hits the ball, it must land within the confines of the court itself, in front of the baseline and within the appropriate set of (doubles or singles) sidelines. She probably does not know that if her (first or second) serve hits the net but still lands in the appropriate forecourt, she gets to serve again, with no penalty. (That's a "let serve.") She does not understand that to fault twice (unsurprisingly, this is called a "double fault") is to lose the point. (Which wouldn't much matter to her, given that she also does not know how to keep score.)

I'm in no position to teach tennis, but I do teach writing, generally basic composition courses, and mainly to new or returning college students. (To those steeped in academe, that probably doesn't sound terribly exciting, but I must say that I enjoy it a great deal; we can't all teach Biblical Imagery in Proust or Victorian Prose & Poetry, and it's a pleasure to see students who had previously been unsuccessful in English courses discover that they actually can understand this stuff.)

You wouldn't think that someone could write an
entertaining, educational, and occasionally even
funny book about punctuation, but you would be
wrong. The title comes from, of all things, a joke
about a missing serial comma. Honestly, you
should buy this book.
I'm aware, of course, that the most important thing in a paper, essay, or article is the analysis and presentation of (and transition between) ideas and the synthesis of those ideas into something of your own. If you have no ideas or no understanding of someone else's ideas, there's no way in the world that you'll be able to craft a coherent, cohesive essay. It does no good to drill students in the intricacies of commas and semicolons if they are unable to articulate ideas—or if they simply have no ideas.

But I am after all old and curmudgeonly, so I don't like to gloss over the rules of grammar and usage. I think they're important. I'm not going to say to a student, "Oh, don't worry. It's OK that you have no idea when to capitalize or where to place a comma or how to make a subject agree with its predicate. After all, it's the ideas that are important."

Ideas are important, but as in tennis, so are those finicky little rules. It's just "custom," and customs do change, of course. But we can communicate with one another only because of those agreed-upon customs, and sometimes that stuff matters.

Take the serial comma, often called the Oxford or Harvard comma. This is the comma that, in a list of three or more items, precedes the coordinating conjunction used to connect those items. Consider the following sentence: We ate tofu, broccoli, and sauerkraut at Larry's house. (Remind me never to visit Larry at dinnertime. Remind me also to decline any offers of a sleepover.) In that sentence, "and" is the coordinating conjunction in the list, and the comma that precedes it is the serial comma.

The serial comma is sometimes considered optional, and indeed its absence often does not much matter; many sentences are perfectly clear without it. But the absence of the serial comma can occasionally lead to ambiguity, and recently that ambiguity cost a large Maine dairy company millions of dollars when a court ruled that a state law was itself ambiguous because such a comma was not present. The absence of the comma, said the Court, rendered unclear the meaning of a Maine statute relating to how overtime is calculated. In cases of ambiguity, the Court always rules in favor of the worker over the company, and thus the workers' suit prevailed, resulting in a $10 million payout to the dairy's 75 milk truck drivers. (There's a very nice write-up of the decision and its grammatical and legal ramifications in a recent issue of The New Yorker.) The absence of the comma, and the ambiguity that resulted from that absence, earned each of those drivers more than $133,000. That's a lot of money for a comma. For that much money, I would expect several commas and a semicolon, with perhaps an em dash or two thrown in for good measure.

So… As in tennis, also in writing. The rules do matter. Grammar, usage, spelling, and the rest all count because they provide clarity. Regardless of the importance of your ideas, regardless of the truth of your ideas, they will have no impact if a reader cannot make sense of the way you've presented them, simply because you've not mastered the rules that frame that presentation.