Technology Oncology: The Spreading Plague

Captain? You can stop pounding on the GPS receiver now. I don’t think it’s working.  (Photo by motorkid.com/google images)

Ayurveda teaches us: “as is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.” Stuff happens pretty much the same way whether on a very small scale, as in subatomic, or a very large one, say cosmic.

So here’s the microcosm: I have a so-called “smart” phone that, when I got it four years ago, was very smart indeed. Since then, several times a day, it has been subjected to countless improvements, otherwise known as updates — security patches, glitzy new capabilities that no one asked for or wants, repairs of really glonky mistakes that lurk in the code —  that have steadily diminished its reliability and usefulness. It now takes up to a half hour to get started, and every once in a while announces that it is tired and is going to take a nap. (Come to think of it, we are getting more and more alike.) Continue reading

On Being President Chance the Gardener

[NOTE: Promotion of this post was rejected by Facebook. No reason given.]

In his 1971 novel Being There, Jerzy Kosinski told the story of Chance the Gardener, a simple-minded laborer cloistered his whole life in the townhouse of the wealthy man for whom he worked. When, on the death of his employer, Chance is cast into the world, people insist on mistaking his profound ignorance — he can’t read or write, knows only what he has seen on TV or in the garden — as Zen-like wisdom.

In the novel, virtually everyone who encounters Chance refuses to accept that he could be as limited as he seems, and imagines for him an alternate reality of profound wisdom, which they then manage to see confirmed in the real world. Before long, Chance is advising the President of the Unites States on economic policy. This scene demonstrates how it works:: Continue reading

Clickbait, Fake News and Low-Calorie Science

A tiny drone tries to gather pollen from a lily, to show that it is just as good at it as a bee. [Photo by E.Miyako]

The hucksters of high tech are abroad in the land, proving they are the equal of Donald Trump in their ability to tell brazen lies and feel no shame. These days, that’s called leadership. Their latest whopper is that we don’t need to worry about the fact that we are killing off the bees that pollinate our food crops, we can do the job mechanically. Here’s a typical headline inspired by the latest revelations in the field: “Should pollinating drones take over for honey bees?”

Consider the technique used in the headline –it’s the craft of clickbait, not journalism. The journalistic headlines would be “Scientists have used a small drone to pollinate a flower.” Yawn. If you said, “Scientists prepare to replace bees with drones,” the lie would be so big and so obvious that scientists would have to protest and your credibility, if any, would suffer. But who could blame you for simply asking the question? (Headlines asking questions, by the way, are an indicator of fake news.) Continue reading

Distributed Energy Soars at Last

Finally, after 130 years or so, we’re thinking about a better way to handle electricity than with strings strung on sticks. (Wikimedia Photo)

For those of us who have been arguing into the wind for years about the urgent need to abandon our total reliance on the electric grid in favor of distributed energy — making it where you use it — it’s a sight for sore eyes. An enormous government program is building tens of thousands of direct-current microgrids to power homes and businesses and towns all over the country, providing people with electricity that is far less expensive and more reliable than is provided by the grid.

The program began field testing its microgrids just three years ago. For a single household it consisted of a solar array, a basic battery, and a 12-volt wiring harness. By staying in 12 volt, the microgrid avoids the expense and inefficiencies of inverting the power to 120-volt, and makes use of the increasing availability of 12-volt lights, motors, computers, TVs and appliances.  By the end of of this year, 100,000 microgrids will be up and running, with no slowdown in sight.

Another triumph of American ingenuity? Hardly. You can have America’s grid when you pry it from our cold, dead hands. This is a triumph of Indian innovation. Continue reading

The Great Recovery of America’s Infrastructure: Cancelled

Wondering what happens when you don’t maintain the Interstate Highway system? Wondering if we can get along without it? Minneapolis, 2007. (Wikipedia Photo)

Watch closely any group involved in dealing with a disaster — let’s say, a fire company battling a structure fire — and you may catch the moment when they share a glance that says, “You know what, we’re not going to win this one.” Their conduct changes almost imperceptibly from “balls to the wall, we can do this,” to “watch where you step, and back away from the walls, she’s gonna burn to the ground.”

Such a moment may well have come this week for the people who still believe — or have believed since Donald Trump was elected president — that we are going to experience a Great Recovery of this country’s rotting roads and decrepit bridges, which will in turn create millions of jobs, restore the middle class, eliminate poverty, homelessness and cancer, save the economy and make it 1958 in America once more. And Mexico is going to pay for it. (Actually, candidate Trump promised $50 billion for the purpose, double Hillary Clinton’s proposed spending. But neither of them explained where they were going to get the money.) Continue reading

Antidote to Civil War? Or Precursor?

New York attorney Gregory Locke boarded the subway last Friday night and was appalled by what he saw. Every window in the car, every advertisement and map, had been defaced with a swastika. And there were slogans, such as “Jews belong in the oven.”

“The train was silent,” he said in his Facebook post about it, “as everyone stared at each other, uncomfortable and unsure what to do. One guy got up and said, ‘Hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol.’ He found some tissues and got to work. I’ve never seen so many people simultaneously reach into their bags and pockets looking for tissues and Purel. Within about two minutes, all the Nazi symbolism was gone.

 “Nazi symbolism. On a public train. In New York City. In 2017.

 “I guess this is Trump’s America,” said one passenger. No sir, it’s not. Not tonight and not ever. Not as long as stubborn New Yorkers have anything to say about it.”

Two Americas. Using the same subway car in close succession on a Friday night in February, each leaving their mark. Each with something very important to say to us. Continue reading

That Which Kills Me Also Costs Me Money: Study

Blackout 1965: Think of it — all those people trapped in all those apartments, needing to know: how much is this going to cost?

According to a new study, if a solar storm blew out most of America’s electric grid, it would cost us $41.5 billion dollars. The worst scenario calculated in the study would affect 66 per cent of the population, as well as the nation’s manufacturing, government and finance sectors. Other countries would be affected as well, but we don’t care about that, the study simply created a seven-billion-dollar chump-change jar for the foreigners. After putting a price tag on every imaginable aspect of Apocalypse Now, one of the study’s authors said somberly, “We felt it was important.” He found it “surprising” that prior studies — yes, there are prior studies making the same calculations — lacked “transparency” and missed entirely some direct and indirect costs.

Encyclopedic as it may be, and transparent as well — you can see right through it — the study raises at least as many questions as it answers [Please disengage your fake-news sensor and engage your irony alert]: Continue reading

Driverless Cars: Their Time Will Never Come

The driverless car. An idea whose time will not come. Ever.

Can we just get real here for a minute? Our streets and highways are never going to be populated by a significant number of driverless cars. Any more than our lives are going to be enriched by attentive robots exhibiting artificial intelligence. We are no closer to deploying fleets of driverless cars now than we were to having a flying car in every garage, as the illustrated predictions in Popular Mechanics and the like insisted through the 50s and 60s. And 70s and 80s. (I should have warned you about the disorientation a sudden dose of realism can have; sit down and breath into a paper bag, it will pass.)

The deafening hype we are hearing about driverless cars is the sound of an entire industry trying to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to itself. Everything we hear about the auto industry is good (“2016 U.S.Auto Sales Set New High Record”) because everything we hear comes from the auto industry. And yet its healthy glow is beginning to take on the ghastly sheen of a dead mackerel. Continue reading

No News is Good News

An early adopter of manipulating masses with fake news.

Fake news has been with us for a very long time. Has anyone heard about (I won’t ask if you remember it, because nobody is that old) the Gulf of Tonkin attack on U.S. ships that never happened, but that caused Congress to validate the Vietnam War? Anyone remember Saddam Hussein’s fictional weapons of mass destruction? If we stop and think about it, a large proportion of all news is, and always has been, fake. But then, if we stopped and thought about it, it would be a victimless crime.

There is much less going on here than meets the eye. Continue reading

Five Days and Counting Down

trump[Dear reader: If you have just come to this website for the fiftieth time to see if I have finally got off my ass and written something, I apologize to you. I created the expectation that I would have content here for your consideration with reasonable frequency, and I have not delivered. Mea culpa. Moreover, this is the second long, unexplained, absence in less than a year. Mea culpa maxima.

I don’t know the right label for the syndrome — depression, writer’s block, burnout, Deep Ennui, aggravated laziness or what. I don’t know if, or when, or for how long, it will come for me again. But today, it has let me out of my dungeon to frolic in the sun and spread cheer and good will. Carpe diem. — Tom Lewis]

Five days into the Trump Administration and there can be no doubt about what to expect for the next four years. Any delusions we may have had that he is not delusional, any benefits of doubt we were willing to grant that he is not a thin-skinned egomaniac, any hope we had that he will not destroy what is left of our poor country, all of that was stood up against a wall and shot, by Trump himself, doing what he has always done but doing it now as President.

The most vile face of the future was shown to us all on Saturday night, when an obviously rattled Trump functionary, under orders from his furious boss, summoned the White House press corps to a tonguelashing. Looking in his ill fitting suit like a cross between Beaker the Muppet and a KGB interrogator, Press Secretary Sean Spicer harangued the press corps for daring to spread the truth — that there were fewer people at Trump’s inauguration than at Obama’s, or at the Womens’ March the next day. Never mind the objective and conclusive photographic evidence, he told them, they should instead be reporting that Trump’s ascension was watched by “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” Continue reading