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Category Archives: Technology

Eavesdropping is a nice way of saying ‘spying’.

It comes as no surprise that the Amazon Echo speaker is listening more closely than people think. Let’s be clear: It’s not listening in, it’s eavesdropping. The word has been around for more than 300 years! It describes the act of someone secretly “listening under the eaves” to another.

Alexa is supposed to be in ‘listening mode’ only when the speaker is addressed. Last week, however, Amazon confirmed that some of its employees did listen to recorded conversations. Employees! Not Amazon’s software. Are you comfortable with that? Some folks secretly listening in under the Artificial Intelligence eaves? Oh sure, for ‘quality and training purposes’?only. All in the interest of Big Data. The Atlantic reports that millions of people are using a smart speaker, and many have more than one close by. (Read it: Alexa, should we trust you?”)

In May last year, the speaker recorded a conversation of a husband and wife and sent it to a friend. I wrote about a related matter a few weeks back. I’ll never be comfortable with a piece of hardware sitting in a room just there to listen to me. The Bloomberg article reports that some employees at Amazon listen to 1,000 clips of recordings per shift. Like some privatized surveillance company, laughing at all the conversations going on behind closed doors. Beyond eavesdropping, it is audio voyeurism! Aren’t you troubled by that?

We were once alarmed by having too many cameras aimed at us. Now it’s listening devices. Does the convenience factor blunt people to the privacy they give up?

 

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Things I get to hear about Alexa and Google Home!

Sure, you often hear of fancy ‘life hacks’ about people who program their smart speaker to turn on a coffee maker or help with math homework. But the stories I get to hear from young people on the experimental edge of the home-based Internet-of-Things (IOT) phenomenon range from the hilarious to the unsettling.

I’ve been writing about IOT for some time now. What gets me is how quickly people appear to want to hand off simple tasks like opening one’s window blinds, or turning on an appliance

“Alexa, turn on the bedroom fan!”

And then there’s the not-so-funny side to having an app for everything. Just take a look at the recent lawsuits and missteps by tech companies.

The baby monitor story is scary. A mother discovered to her horror that the baby monitor “was slowly panning over across the room to where our bed was and stopped.” That’s just one of the ‘things” we want our smart homes connected to.

How about door locks? You can’t make this stuff up: A man wearing a Batman T-shirt was  locked out of his home in September last year when his Yale lock, combined with his Nest security system thought he was an intruder. The man was in a Batman T-shirt. The ‘smart’ doorbell identified the cartoon character and tried to be too smart for the man’s liking. Sound a lot like the command, “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Poor Dave was locked out with, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that!”

A side note on Facebook sneaky habit. As explained at Endgadget, “Privacy International study has determined that ‘at least’ 20 out of 34 popular Android apps are transmitting sensitive information to Facebook without asking permission, including Kayak, MyFitnessPal, Skyscanner and TripAdvisor. I don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg anymore. Neither his recent statement, nor his other numerous apologies. (Check last year’s apology!)  Which is another reason why I quit FB earlier this month.

 
 

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Leaving Facebook after nearly 12 years

I have had it with Facebook. I’ve also grown weary of what goes on in the name of being ‘social’ on Facebook.

Today I decided to quit the first social media platform I joined in July 2007. I don’t intend to ‘send a message’ to the founder, or to question those who find that it serves a great purpose. It’s just that for me, the great conversations I once envisioned and enjoyed have ceased to be fulfilling. There is too much noise on the platform, and the opportunity cost is not worth it.

I had ceased to share pictures on Facebook, and cannot imagine why we who inhabit so many networks need Facebook to be a de facto album; why every image we run into –whether it’s the decoration on the foam of a latte, or a sunset, or a meme needs to be uploaded, shared, and commented on. All of this is very odd, because back in 2010, in a series of workshops I conducted on how to put social media to use in business and communication, one of the modules was how to use Facebook. Imagine that – we actually went through a moment when this was necessary. The higher purpose of these workshops was to empower people to use emerging social media platforms to benefit society. It was not to turn the channels we created there into our personal daily press releases.

To put it another way, bluntly, Facebook has become a PR and propaganda machine. This is just one of the many Facebook behaviors that have set in, and these are often at odds with real life. I find it amusing how some Facebook users have begun to mimic each other in vocabulary and behavior. (Notice how words such as ‘stoked,’ ‘adorable,’ and ‘Yay!’ most people don’t use in life fills their feeds?) 

The other unintended consequence of always having an audience is that many who demonstrate humility in real life have developed an alter ego punctuated by braggadocio and ranting, knowing there’s an audience for this. Speaking of the audience triggering a behavior, consider what happened in New Zealand last week. That someone might use a live feed to carry out a horrific mass murder says something how “we shape our tools and then the tools shape us“. (A quote often attributed to Marshall McLuhan.) Connected to this is the ‘PDA’ problem, something we who make up the older generation of social media users used to find annoying in young people – the Public Display of Affection. Enough said.

I have stopped reading the tweets of my friends, former colleagues, and classmates. I prefer instead to message them directly or call them, should the need arises. For those who are shocked that I am unaware of a trip they have taken or a certificate their cousin’s child has been awarded because it was posted on Facebook, my response is, “You know my number – call me or text me.”

It is almost embarrassing to have to say that I teach communications –ever since I got into communications 21 years ago– and be on Facebook. And so I am deleting my account.

Worth citing: Mark Zuckerberg on what people are expecting of Facebook:

“I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services…” More here…

Updated: Facebook’s Data policy in its Terms of Usage section.

You probably agreed to this – Have you read this?

 
 

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Back to the future – Viewing the original 30-year old World Wide Web!

Want to check out what the early Web looked like? This is almost like being able to tune a transistor radio to listen to an oldies station. As the Web celebrates its 30th anniversary today, there’s a way to see what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned in March 1989. Built by CERN, the organization where Berners-Lee worked, it’s possible to look at the original web pages. Here’s how they explain it:

“The WWW Project merges the techniques of information retrieval and ‘hypertext’ to make an easy but powerful global information system.”

Berners-Lee’s  philosophy was that academic information should be freely available to anyone. This recreation includes a link to another information retrieval device that has gone the way of floppy discs and library cards –the phone book (for CERN).

As for his original brainchild, you can browse through his March 1989 proposal for the Web, and marvel at the details he outlined. His boss, who looked at his proposal, famously called it ‘vague but exciting.

[Interesting how I can ‘hyperlink’ that document above from 30 years ago, because of what he made possible. Equally interesting is that while Berners-Lee put hypertext into use, a fellow named Doug Engelbart (the inventor of the mouse) explained it –as ‘hypermedia‘.]

As we peel back the curtain and see how it all began, let’s appreciate those humble beginnings, and work toward a cleaner, more responsibly hyperlinked world. Social media has made a mockery of much of his vision, and we all have a part to play in how it evolves.

 

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Life after exiting the TV ‘bundle’ trap

Ever wondered why you are paying for some 200-plus cable channels and watching just 5?

It’s been a month since we cut the cord, and I haven’t missed anything! Now for just $55 maintaining the Internet connection and a Roku box, we get all the TV we need. That means: 3 ways to get the news channels (yes an antenna still works, and the channels are HD) and plenty of movie channels. Including a great choice of free, ad-supported movies.* And that’s not even considering the choice from Amazon Prime.

The concern I had about missing a DVR is offset by the fact that all the TV channels we watch after 9 pm are recorded, anyway. I feel bad for the cable business. Instead of listened to their marketing guys, they should’ve listened to their customers.

*  And should we really want movies, there’s Netflix for about ten bucks. For more a la carte channels, there’s Sling. The total monthly cost would with all of this would still be about 25-50 bucks cheaper than the bundle.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2019 in Technology

 

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What the Mars Rover Opportunity taught us

15 years, covering 28 miles on Mars, the Mars Rover Opportunity came to the end of its mission this week. Basically it lost contact with Earth last June; NASA had to finally call it Mission Accomplished. The gutsy little Rover was part of a tag team (Opportunity landed on Jan. 24, 2004, Spirit had arrived a few weeks earlier.)

Gutsy doesn’t even start to describe the robot that refused to quit. Here’s how Jet propulsion Lab described it in a few bullet points.

  • Set a one-day Mars driving record March 20, 2005, when it traveled 721 feet (220 meters).
  • Returned more than 217,000 images, including 15 360-degree color panoramas.
  • Exposed the surfaces of 52 rocks to reveal fresh mineral surfaces for analysis and cleared 72 additional targets with a brush to prepare them for inspection with spectrometers and a microscopic imager.
  • Found hematite, a mineral that forms in water, at its landing site.
  • Discovered strong indications at Endeavour Crater of the action of ancient water similar to the drinkable water of a pond or lake on Earth.

Opportunity and it’s cohorts explored the theory that Mars could be (or support) a “habitable environment” Its longevity, and ability to literally dust off its problems showed future explorers that this is possible. It’s very landing inspired future landing innovations to distant planets, while its photographing of blueberry-like rocks gave researchers back on Earth an idea of what hematite means to us.

This spunky robot also has a delightful design. For a few years I would borrow a wheel of (a replica of) its sister bot, Spirit, from the Mars lab at ASU, and display it in my class. It definitely inspired me to take robotics more seriously.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2019 in Education, Robotics, STEM, Technology

 

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Automation’s great – When you’re the manager, not the person turning the widget

This article, with a Phoenix, Arizona dateline sums up much of the issue we have with technology, robotics and automation.

As I teach students about the pioneers of tech, from Edison to Jobs, from Babbage to Berners-Lee, I have to temper it with discussion on what computers in general (and algorithms / automation in particular) are doing for us. Or will do for them when they enter the workforce.

The article states that Some economists have concluded that “the use of robots explains the decline in the share of national income going into workers’ paychecks over the last three decades.”

In a state where autonomous cars are quite common –at least the Waymo variety being test-driven in the Chandler & Mesa area, algorithms and jobs are on top of our minds!

 

 

 

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