My answers about government datamining
|An Italian journalist sent me questions the other day about the government datamining we've been learning about of late. I answered her questions. Since maybe only one of these sentences will turn up in her article, and in Italian, I figured I might as well blog our exchange:
Q: Do you believe that data mining is necessary to keep the US safe? What occured in Boston was just the last of a series of attacks and I have read that American public opinion is divided right now between the ones who favour safety and those who defend privacy.
A: Some degree of data mining is inevitable for a modern state to protect itself, not only from terrorists, but also from crime, traffic and industrial accidents and catastrophic weather. The question is not whether we sacrifice our privacy for safety, but instead how much the government can see, what the limits are and how they are enforced. Right now, it seems as though the government reserves the right to define all those limits for itself. It asks us to trust its judgment. I think the limits will have to be spelled out, and the citizens will demand and deserve some sort of oversight over these operations, perhaps by a congressional committee (even though confidence in Congress is at all-time lows).
The other important point is what the data can be used for, and what conclusions can be drawn from it. Imagine, for example, that in their hunt for terrorists dataminers find possible evidence of tax fraud, or perhaps a ring of pedophiles. Can we expect them to turn a blind eye to it? I don't think so. In that case, what begins as an invasion of privacy to protect the nation turns into a surveillance state.
Q: The Verizon and Prism scandals have definitely brought to light the fact that American citizens’ privacy cannot be taken for granted and is virtually non-existent. Do you think what is happening will help change the situation? I mean, will this monitoring of people’s private communication diminish or finish after the scandal or will it go on as usual?
A: In my book, The Numerati, I argue that data mining is pervasive, in government and industry, and will only grow. Privacy advocates are sure to put up a fight, as will a number of government regulators. But the trends favor datamining. Consider what most consumers in the world are interested in. Most of them want convenience and economic savings, a cleaner environment, less waste, and more safety. Data mining promises results in all of these areas.
I should add that the data economy is full of hype, and that many of the promises turn out to be exaggerations, or false. In my book, I argue that the most problematic area is in data mining for terrorism. Companies like Amazon and Google, after all, can study the behavior of billions of shoppers, while anti-terrorism data miners have very little behavioral data about terrorists.
Q: International web users are also involved and I myself may be under surveillance after sending these emails to you…. Some people willingly publish personal data on social networks, others do not realize the dangers. What is your advice to internet users? Will people become warier when using the web after this datagate?
I think people will grow increasingly sophisticated about their data, and how to protect the secrets that matter to them. That said, it is remarkable how careless people are. A decade ago, hotels in the United States were among the biggest purveyors of pornography. Guests paid $10 or $20 to watch pornographic channels in their rooms. Who knows how many of them stopped to wonder, or to care, whether they were sharing their choices with the management of the hotel. That business has declined sharply, because travelers now bring laptops to their rooms, and look at Web sites. So now, their Web wanderings are available not only to the hotel, which runs the Wi-fi network, but also to a host of Web sites and their partners. These people may say in surveys that they care about privacy. And perhaps they do. But their appetites and desires lead them to share intimate details about their cravings with a broad range of companies and yes, the government.
My point is that while people claim to care about privacy, they often are not willing to forego convenience, pleasure, economic savings or the promise of security for it.
Cicadas: A week in the life of a 17 year old
|The 17-year cicadas have emerged from the ground in Montclair, NJ, and they're making a racket near my house. If you're me, you pedal slowly toward the noise. You see cicada exoskeletons piling up along the roads. You see them on trees and telephone poles. The noise grows louder. When you finally reach the noise--and it often seems elusive--you look up. At first, you don't see much. Then you notice the movement. It's hundreds of cicadas flying around in the top branches, mating.
They don't have much time. It might be a couple of weeks. They have to mate, lay eggs, and then die. And then the process begins anew, 16+ years underground, a week molting and growing new wings, and then a frenzy of mating up high.
You could imagine their short above-ground life as a week in the existence of a reckless 17-year-old human. Picture it. The kid learns how to drive, uses the wheels (or wings) to engage in a mating ritual, scores in the first day or two and then, sadly, drives off a cliff.
Another perspective on Spain
|Antonio Sanz Domingo, my biking compadre and friend of 47 years, put together a slide show of our two-wheeled romp through central Spain last month. The photo of me eating (It looks as through I'm dealing with a wobbly molar) is in the parador of Sigüenza, where we had given up on riding through the rain and were consoling ourselves with a feast.
My coming novel: Boosting human cognition
|Just a few words about my novel, The Boost, which Tor Books is publishing next year. In early 2011, when I finished Final Jeopardy, I was thinking more or less obsessively about the future of cognition. As I saw it (and see it), it was going to be a joint project of the peerless human brain and the machines that we create. And dramatic change was going to come a lot faster than many people suspected.
So I wrote a story. It takes place in 2072, but some of the crucial events--the broad deployment of cognitive implants--occurs decades earlier, in a world that doesn't look that different from the one we inhabit today. I won't go into all the details, but suffice to say that the development of this technology doesn't come from Silicon Valley.
In my story, almost everyone is "enhanced." All of the information machines in our lives are run out of the chip, or Boost, we carry in our heads. TVs, computers, credit cards, cameras, in short all of the hardware, is embedded in this tiny networked supercomputer. Those who don't have this technology are regarded as "wild." They're considered dangerous, in large part because they're harder to control. They're unpredictable. (It's a condition some might call "free.")
I'm writing this now because I just came across this interview with Michael Anissimov
, a blogger at Accelerated Future
. He discusses the enhanced brain. It's worth reading. A couple notable points. The brain has been highly optimized over some 7 million years to carry out the jobs to keep us alive: finding food, mating, spotting danger, etc. Chemicals that promise to boost performance are, and are likely to remain, extremely crude (and dangerous). In the next few decades, he believes, the path toward brain augmentation will come from advances in nano-manufacturing.
One likely side-effect to brain augmentation: Insanity. Short of that, "might include seizures, information overload, and possibly feelings of egomania or extreme alienation." (That is to say, modern life marches on....)
From sunshine to rain in Spain
|A couple years ago, I biked with a lifelong friend along a stretch of Spain's pilgrimmage route to Santiago de Compostela. (slideshow) The weather in Galicia, traditionally a rainy area, was pristine. We paid for that sunshine this year, as we rode the Route of El Cid, which extends from Burgos to Valencia. For the first couple of days, out of Burgos, it was fabulous. The roads were nearly empty, scenery beautiful, food great.
|South of Burgos, en route to Covarrubias
On the third day, we climbed to the castle of Gormaz
, which went back and forth between Muslim and Christians during the 9th and 10th centuries. There were warnings of rain in the weather report, but we forgot about them as we looked down from the castle.
|In a town called Berlanga de Duero, we stopped for a mid-morning cup of coffee--one of our rituals. Coming out of the cafe, we felt the first drop of rain. I won't bore you with details, but for the rest of the day, we suffered downpours and two hail storms. And what began as a joy ride through Soria turned into an increasingly frantic hunt for shelter, food and heat. By the next day, seeing gloomy weather forecasts, we pedalled to the town of Siguenza, where there's a train line, and returned to Madrid. We later took one more ride, in the only sunny part of Spain, along the Via Verde de la Jara route, in the province of Toledo. The slideshow (below) tracks our path from sunshine, to rain, to Toledo, and then back to Madrid.
I might mention that El Cid, whose route we were following, suffered many setbacks during his military career. At least a couple of them were more devastating than ours. So, like him, we will persevere, maybe in a year or two.
Flickr asks me to stop paying money
|A few years ago, I decided that to load all my photos to Google's Picasa. That would be my cloud repository. But then Google tied Picasa into Google+, and suddenly I had to figure out which "circles" I wanted to share with. I screwed up a few times and shared photos with large crowds of strangers. So I bagged the service and decided to pay Flickr $25 for a pro account. Flickr, as Mat Honan details in a Gizmodo post, used to be a cutting-edge social site in 2005, when it was sold to Yahoo. That began its slow descent into irrelevancy. I didn't care about that, though. I just wanted a place to store my photos.
Yesterday, the same day that Yahoo agreed to buy Tumblr for $1.1 billion, I received the strangest email from Flickr. The company virtually begged me to stop paying it money and to switch to its free ad-based service with a terabyte of storage. I obediently complied.
I should mention that Flickr's service of late has been dreadful. The links between Flickr and Apple's iPhoto are a bad joke. But I do manage to store my photos there, and starting today I'll be doing it for free. As Rob Hof notes
, the Tumblr acquisition is Yahoo's bid to wrest some social media traffic from Facebook. And the change to a free, virtually limitless Flickr is no doubt part of the same strategy. I have little doubt that Yahoo will start pushing me, the way Google did, to share my photos with my circles of friends.
And I'll push back, or withdraw. It's not that I don't want to share photos. I do. But only about 1% of them. Some of my reluctance has to do with privacy. My friends and family in some of the photos haven't agreed to be posted. The other issue is quality. Most of my photos are boring to everyone but me. Actually, probably half of them bore even me. I keep them simply as historical artifacts. So I want to pick and choose which ones I post. A few might go on Facebook, or on this blog. But the rest of them ascend into this great big shoebox in the sky. For now, it's Flickr.
|One of the first photos I uploaded to Flickr, back in 2005, when Flickr was hot. This one is from Paris, in 2002, just before we moved back. I took it with my first digital camera, a Sony that actually recorded photos on a mini CD. That baby, I figure, must be about 13 by now.
Rich health care for Brazil's poor
I'm running out the door--to Spain.
But just wanted to post a link to this BusinessWeek article
about a health care initiative in Brazil. It describes research carried about by New Cities Foundation
and General Electric. Eleven health care workers climbed into the remote favela
of Santa Marta and monitored the elderly there for the most common chronic diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. As you might expect, providing these people care on site proved to be much more efficient, in saving lives and money, than waiting for them to feel sick and go to the emergency room.
One wrinkle. The medical kits these people carried into Santa Marta included high-tech equipment worth $42,000. What I'm wondering is whether the same team carrying traditional tools, perhaps costing $100 or $200, would have achieved similar results. The key, after all, is getting care to people who need it. And there have been all sorts of low-cost breakthroughs, many of them involving cell phones. Frontline SMS
, a start-up hatched at Stanford
, is a prime example.
The point is that billions of people on earth, including many in rich countries, would benefit greatly from the kind of outreach described in the BW article. It doesn't require doctors. Medics can do much of the testing, counseling and follow up. And while I'm sure G.E.'s high tech devices are cool, health workers can do fabulous work with much more basic tools. The world already spends some $6.5 trillion a year in health care--nearly $1,000 per person. It would save money and lives to devote a small share of that to help billions of chronically ill people in their homes. But it'll never happen if each worker requires a $42,000 knapsack.
Don't blame Twitter for idiocy
|An assignment: Go out with a note pad and eavesdrop. Listen to people at the coffee shop, at the bus stop, in the checkout line at the supermarket. Everytime someone says something a) dumb, b) self-promotional, c) hateful or d) petty, write it down. When your notebook is full, maybe you can write an extremely long article for The Weekly Standard exposing the idiocy of human speech.
This is essentially what Matt Labash did
, but he targeted Twitter. He came up with numerous examples of idiocy, hot air, and group think. His hunt took him from his computer screen all the way to the tweeting capital of techdom, South by Southwest, in Austin. There he expanded his focus to include the BS, jargon and self-promotion of social media insiders. Plenty of rich material.
But did Labash come across any surprising or intelligent insights on Twitter or at SxSW? I imagine he did. However, he only gave us the dumb stuff, which isn't quite fair. After all, most human communication comes across as meaningless, or worse, especially to outsiders. The challenge, whether you're sitting down at a bar or finding people to follow on Twitter, is to tune into the smart and fun stuff. There's plenty of it on Twitter. In fact, I found Labash's article through a Twitter link from Michael Dougherty
author of the baseball newsletter I subscribe to, The Slurve
Whether you're judging a technology platform like Twitter or a singer, I would argue that each should be judged by successes, not failures. If you want to pan Bob Dylan, for example, don't just pick out a few bad songs. Bring down his best. Tell us how A Hard Rain
, Like a Rolling Stone
or Visions of Johanna
fall short. Same with Twitter. I think Labash should have contacted prominent Twitter users like Jeff Jarvis
or Fred Wilson
, or newer ones like Elias Isquith
, and asked them for examples of Twitter value--insights and links they've gained from it. Who are the best people they follow?
That would have set up a stronger article with a more compelling line. The important question about Twitter and social media, which LaBash touches upon toward the end of his long story, is whether they entice us to spend too many hours in an inferior online world, one in which we sacrifice the random and chaotic richness of the analog realm for staring at screens, large and small. Do we see too little of our friends, and settle instead for their updates?
If that's the case, and I think it is, the answer is not to demonize Facebook and Twitter (and their millions of users), but to keep these tools in their place--looking at them for only a few minutes a day. Imagine, for example, that you die and then are given one more hour to come back to life on earth. Would you spend it looking at a screen? I try to keep this in mind. For me, it means paying attention to my time, remembering to keep my phone in my pocket during spare minutes (and hours), and to look around, to soak up the world of light, sound, vibrations and fellow animals.
Why I still buy albums, even on iTunes
|Very weird. I read an article in the paper version of today's Star-Ledger. I decide to blog about it and cannot find the link anywhere on the paper's site or on Google or, for that matter, Bing. Maybe if I take out my scissors and send a copy to one of you, we can start a chain.
Anyway... The article was a feature by Tris McCall on why 10 years after the emergence of iTunes (and almost 15 since Napster burst on the scene), people still buy albums. It seemed for a while that the single would prevail. Fans could pick and choose, put them into their own song lists, and skip the boring and tedious tracks on an album (Think the Beatles' Revolution #9
). But McCall argues that albums remain the organizing principal for many bands, and listeners. If I were editing his story, I would have asked for some data to back this up. Still, he interviews musicians about it, and notes that albums are the "backbone" of the Spotify
service. (I tried Spotify for about 10 minutes, until I saw that the music I clicked was showing up on Facebook...)
I find that after the celebration of playing favorites a decade ago, I'm returning to albums. I buy complete digital LPs, and I listen to them that way. Working out at the Y the other day, I listened to the NJ band Thomas Wesley Stern
, non-stop. My last purchases on iTunes are the naked version of the Beatles Let it Be
and one of my favorite Brazilian records, which I had on tape in the '80s, Milton Nascimento's live album, Ao Vivo
|Buying an album makes the most sense when you don't know it. If you know and like one song on an album, it probably won't be your favorite for long. And if it's the only song you have from the album, you'll probably get sick of it. There are others that might take longer to like. If you don't buy the album, you skip that process. Looking at it another way, singles are like a constant diet of desserts. Sometimes you want some broccoli rabe, and you might even grow to love it (especially in pasta al dente, mixed with hot peppers and parmesan...)
Which brings me back to the Nascimento album. I hadn't heard it in 20 years. I remembered the big hits, like Dos Bailes da Vida
. But there was one song I barely remembered, which I now cannot get out of my head. It's called Cuitelinho
, a secondary name for hummingbird. The first is beijaflor
, or kissflower.) Here's a vinyl version of it
on YouTube. I love its languor, its slow, disjointed melody, and the nostalgia it evokes, both as a song and a memory of my own from hearing it on my Walkman in Caracas (with tiny speakers) in the '80s. But it might take you a few dozen, or hundred, listens to learn to love it.
Into the Wild--Maine style
|It was about a week late that I came across this story about the 47-year-old hermit, Christopher Knight, who has lived in a nylon tent in western Maine since 1986, stealing food and clothing to survive. In makes great reading, and the videos have the feel of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, like Best in Show. (link from Michael Cervieri @bMunch)
This story reminds me of one of my favorite books, L'Adversaire
, by Emmanuel Carrere. It tells the story of Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman who lived an utterly fictitious life for 17 years, lying to everyone he knew--his wife, neighbors, children, parents--about how he spent his days and came by his money. The story didn't end well.
I have a theory about these decade-long dramas. It has to do with inertia. The way I imagine it, a person makes a quick decision to do something drastic. In Romand's case, he simply stayed in bed on the day of his first-year medical exam, and later told people that he had passed the test. I would imagine that he figured that one day, probably very soon, he would have some sort of reckoning, and it would be awkward. So he put it off. He lied more. Every day he was faced with a decision: Do I end this farce today, or do I wait? And every day, for 17 years, he waited, stitching together ever more complicated webs of lies to sustain the fantasy.
All I know about the Maine hermit is what I've read in the article above. But I would imagine that he took off in 1986 thinking that his stay in the woods would be brief, probably not lasting until winter. But he had to steal food to survive. And as soon as he began to do that, he adapted his life to his environment and circumstances. He went so far as to gain weight in fall, so that he wouldn't have to steal as much food in winter, when tracks in the snow might lead to his capture. It turns out, he used immense intelligence and planning to lead a solitary life of a thieving hermit. I can't wait to read the next chapter.
RT @marthagabriel: "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated."
-- Alec Bourne #quote #goodmor…
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