Drone surveillance in Sri Lanka raises deep ethical questions

Worth listening to Prof. Rohan Samarajiva break down the pros and the cons of drone use – and related sticky issues around big data, anonymization and machine learning this brings up.

This month, Sri Lanka’s army set up a drone regiment. Terms such as ‘organic aerial reconnaissance’ and disaster response are being used. But are we know with any technology, they come ‘locked’ with ethical and social dilemmas which go unnoticed.

This kind of deep discussion that professor Samarajiva brings, around whether citizens approve or recognize the privacy they forfeit for convenience, should be asked all the time. Otherwise, just as how the data mining companies are allowed to exploit us, a new technology could do the same until it’s way too late.

We love our machines – until we begin to see how they conspire against us.

Could we ‘Cancel’ these unfortunate words?

Weaponize? Trendjacking? Chillax? What cave did these words crawl out from? (This is an update to a post last month on Vocabularitis.)

I cringe when I hear someone say ‘weaponize,’ which once belonged to the military industry, but had been twitterized to a pulp just because it’s easy to add an ize to a word. I found this hilarious analogy at Dictionary.com. “If you start pelting your brother with grapes, he might accuse you of weaponizing your fruit salad,” it says. If we had our way, we would update Macbeth’s imagination running riot as he approaches a sleeping Duncan.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me weaponize thee.

Consider, too the sudden emergence of the word ‘Cancel.’ What’s wrong with boycott? Oppose? Ignore? Deny? Or (to dredge up a non-word) Unfollow? Speaking of which unfollow was thrust upon us about ten years ago, and has become headline worthy. As in “Billie Eilish Unfollows Everyone on Instagram.” For heaven’s sakes!

And then there’s that abomination the media repeats – mansplain. The Wikipedia entry for it says it is a pejorative term, and could be a form or ‘misandry.’ Meaning, it’s a weaponized word.

No point getting all blustered (OK, cancel that word and replace it with ‘huffed up.’) Just chillax, will you?

Exciting docking of crew with Space Station

Watching the live feed of NASA’s historic mission to the International Space Station gives us pause to consider what science is capable of. At 9:45 pm, this was the scene as the 4-person capsule, the ‘Crew Dragon’ parallel parked with the ISSS. They switched the cameras to an external view while the crew changed their gear into the space station uniforms.

The crew included Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi. Lift-off of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was on Sunday night. So in all, it took about 24 hours to get there.

The spacecraft Crew Dragon is called ‘Resilience’ -a fitting name for all that must go on in the name of science, despite the existential threat we face as a planet. Or perhaps, because of it.

On this 30th anniversary of the Web, some teachers still send lessons on WhatsApp

It’s easy to be so enamored by the shiny objects around us –smart speakers, wi-fi door locks, wireless earbuds– and assume that the whole world is connected.

Yesterday, November 12th was a big anniversary of the World Wide Web. 30 years ago to this day Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist suggested in a very academic scientific paper “…a space in which everything could be linked to everything.” This was his third proposal – the original was in 1989. It outlined the concept of hyperlinks, and how browsers, servers and terminals could possibly connect everyone.

But there are many parts of the world, including here in the US, where dead zones exist and the web is almost inaccessible. I remind my students of this often, as they sit in a computer lab and sometimes get impatient when the Wifi drops, or a website doesn’t load.

This morning, I was taking them to Pixabay, and open-source website for copyright-free images, but also for music. The site was blocked. No worries, I said. There are worse things that could happen to you. There are schools where students have to depend on lessons sent to them on thumb drives. In Sri Lanka, I know of teachers who send students lessons on WhatsApp, because the homes don’t have Internet (but a serviceable smart phone with a monthly data plan.) See Hakiem Hanif’s story how a 53 year old teacher is doing it.

So while some of you may be contemplating buying a fancy 5G phone for about the price of a plane ticket to Australia, remember that there are parts of the world where being online is still a luxury.

Twitter makes Diplomatic doublespeak so easy to spot.

It was not too long ago (Jan 2019) that the Trump administration expressed its shock that the newly elected Juan Guaido in Venezuela was being blocked by incumbent president. In a flurry of tweets (what else?) President Trump threatened Nicolas Maduro, and telegraphed that troops, a naval blockade and embargoes were in the works. He tweeted that its citizens had suffered enough and Guaido would be recognized as the interim president of Venezuela by the US. The State Department too put out this statement. “The United States recognizes Juan Guaido as the new interim President of Venezuela, and strongly supports his courageous decision to assume that role pursuant to Article 233…”

Against such a backdrop of pro-democracy talk that the US hectors the rest the world, what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this today, sounds incongruent (the current term ‘janky‘ comes to mind.) Double standards.

The rest of the world recognizes such doublespeak.

Googler speaks to my students

Patrick Krecker, a software engineer at Google spoke to my students last week. This was the start of a series of Technology Speakers this semester at Benjamin Franklin High School.

The goal is to give students a different way of seeing the relevance of a computer class. My hope is that speaking to someone in the real world, at a company they are acutely familiar with, could put many things in context. The previous week, we discussed search engines, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s early engine, curiously called Backrub! They also took a deep dive into Google’s Moonshot projects at GoogleX.

Hearing about the Google culture, its pioneering spirit, and the way a Google engineer approaches apps was really enlightening. Even for me. I used to work with Patrick at ASU. I was so impressed to see what he’s doing at one of the most powerful, omnipresent companies today.

Thanks, Patrick! I would certainly want to have to back on Google Meet (what else?) in the future!

Hacks that make you long for un-smart devices again!

Have you heard of the hack that could make your smart watch expose your ATM PIN? Of how a guy with a laptop could hack into a vehicle and turn off the engine on the highway?

This demo of a Jeep’s system being hacked was in 2015. Imagine what’s possible today!

There’s a reason I will never wear a smart watch. Or install a Nest thermostat. Or a Ring smart doorbell.

Indeed 2FA, or two-factor authentication can protect us. But this could mean cyber-security manager would be yet another task we take on in managing and maintaining our appliances, our wearable devices and our vehicles. You probably know that your TV is watching you, right?

Next week, my students are going to talk to a someone who works in cyber-security compliance at Microsoft. I showed them this Jeep-hack video to get them thinking. They got quite spooked! I don’t think they’re going to sleep well. It’s Halloween, too!

Top 5 podcasts teachers should listen to

Why limit yourself to education podcasters? By all means start with one. We teachers can learn a lot about how to present content from journalists, poets, historians and entrepreneurs. Otherwise we risk living in the bubble!

  1. Google Teacher Podcast – Hosted by Matt Miller and Kasey Bell, this seasonal podcast is a huge asset for educators who like to stay aboard the high-speed Google express.

2. Grammar Girl – A fantastic podcast about language hosted by Mignon Fogarty, a former journalism instructor. Even if you’re not an English teacher, her take on how we communicate applies to any field. It was one of the earliest podcasts I listened to about eight years ago.

3. This American Life – One of the most listened to podcasts, hosted by Ira Glass, a radio guy. He chronicles the gritty, real life of average people who just might happen to be our students. Ira won a Pulitzer this year for his show – a first for podcasters! If there is only one podcast you should listen to its’s this one!

4. Invisibilia – A relative new podcast begun in 2015. Extremely well researched, it mines “the intangible forces that shape human behavior.” The true life stories probe the unspoken and unseen forces that shape much around us – a sort of professional Development class that you never signed up for but wish you had!

5. Revisionist History – Remember Malcolm Gladwell? Yes, that guy whose books gave us terms such as ‘Tipping Point’ and ‘Outliers.’ Gladwell’s take on events whether they are related to Hamlet or the FBI, to make your head spin!

Vocabularitis outbreak! Take cover

Twindemic? Janky? Doomsday scrolling? When did these words jump out of the dark shadows and infect us?

I am compiling a list of words that have emerged and are showing up in everyday language, as an experiment on how language changes with circumstance. Also, the hypothesis is that many of these words will become more or less extinct by this time next year. Some of them show up in school, violating the dress code. Others, stick to my rubber earbuds when listening to a podcast.

  • Coronahobby – Means exactly what it describes but, absent the hyphen
  • Doomsscrolling – Obsessive scrolling through bad news
  • Janky – When something is broken or a technology is not working to plan
  • Twindemic – A terrible coined word repeated by the media, ad nauseam
  • Covidiot – Someone who ignores COVID warnings, to his/her misfortune
  • Intubation – When you want to show you know a lot about ventilator use
  • Zoombombing – Uninvited guests during a Zoom call

Not so long ago we had to get used to these words. Remember these?:

  • Deepfake
  • Gig Economy
  • Influencers
  • OK Boomer
  • TextNeck

Voters aren’t that stupid

Dear Political campaign manager,

If there’s one certain way to get a voter to disbelieve your candidate, it is the inane, silly postcards like these you send out. Having dumped hundreds of these in the recycling bin without so much as glancing at them, I would like you to know that I will most certainly vote for the person you vilify because (a) Your communication skills and your morals probably line up with your candidate, and (b) If the only thing you want me to remember are the ‘dark secrets’ of others then you do not seem to have a leg to stand on.

Are you in marketing? Or did you just learn Photoshop over the weekend? You do not deserve to represent anyone but the scorpions that occasionally show up during this time of year.

That is why I wanted to shine a black light on your work so that when your candidate loses, you will at least know why.

We voters aren’t that stupid. Grow up and go back to marketing school.