We Need Dumber Phones

I’m probably not the first and certainly not the only person to observe that as smartphones get smarter, the people using them seem to be getting dumber. We have all witnessed drivers weaving along as they fumble with a text or pedestrians barging into traffic with their noses glued to their screens.  Annoying, and all too often tragic; casualties among drivers and walkers are up dramatically nearly everywhere.  Also not surprising.   The draw of a palm-sized device through which one can access everything and everyone all the time is difficult to ignore, even when its use threatens our physical well-being.  But the bigger threat posed by smartphones, and the insidious marketing strategies they enable, may be to our minds rather than our bodies.

Smartphones have placed more information at our disposal than we can possibly use, and many human brains find this data avalanche perplexing, if not overwhelming.  Some form of filtration might be useful, and the clever programmers at Facebook, Amazon and a hundred more Big Media companies stand ready to help.  Their algorithms scour your browsing history and analyze your reading habits, your media consumption, even your grocery list, to compile a dossier of your personal preferences. Through ads, suggested websites and “those who looked at this also might enjoy seeing that” prompts, they turn you into a demographic of one,  a “one” that can be specifically targeted by marketers every time you log on.  In the process, you are subtly encouraged to ignore any influences that might broaden your taste in books, clothing, cars, organic produce – or news outlets.  Of course there are a thousand other sources of information out there, but the algorithms don’t want you to bother with those.  Your time is too valuable.

The unintended (perhaps) outcome of this assistance is a populace that is becoming  accustomed to letting computer programs perform its due diligence. An app may be a great way to shop for underwear, but do we really want Facebook to choose which political or economic commentary we want to absorb?  Because while some marketers only want to “help” you decide which brand of running shoes to buy, others want to “help” you decide which news stories best fit your political leanings and which ones are fake.  A few (rhymes with Prussians) may even be using your predilection for indifference to influence your vote.

The ability to sort through reams of data and separate the good stuff from the background noise is like any skillset; if you don’t use it, you will lose it, and the evidence of our disuse is pretty stark.  Something like 95% of Google searchers never make it past the first page of results.  Is Google really that good, or are we just getting too lazy to look at page two?  Most readers of newspapers – remember newspapers? – glance at a story’s headline and skim the first couple of paragraphs.  There’s a reason it’s continued on page 9, but in the Age of the Smartphone brevity is king.  And speaking of brevity, there’s Twitter.  If erudition is a sign of intelligence, what to make of a medium wherein proper spelling and capitalization are MIA, punctuation marks have facial features and the deepest exchanges are more shallow (and shorter) than a 6th grader’s book report?

Google, Twitter, Facebook, now Siri and Alexa – they are all waiting for us on our smartphones, waiting to answer questions we didn’t really ask, waiting to tell us what they want us to know.

Our personal devices may not literally be sapping our intelligence, but they are certainly making us less intellectually rigorous.  In the long run, that may amount to the same thing.

Legacy of Uranium Mining in the Southwest Falls on Navajo Nation

I recently drove through the Navajo Nation reservation in northeastern Arizona. I was on my way to view the eclipse from Idaho, hurrying along the interminable Route 191, idly watching the dry landscape go by. I’d never been there before but words on signs began to tug at my memory – Diné, Shiprock. This is the reservation featured in Tony Hillerman’s novels, by officers Leaphorn and Chee.

I only found images of large and lovely healthcare centers

I only found images of large and lovely healthcare centers

In several little towns I noticed simple store fronts with simple signs – Uranium Care or Uranium Treatment. I’m not sure which it was. They came up and passed by faster than I could grab a picture. I’m not sure now about the words on the signs. What was that about?

A google search at home immediately made it clear.

Uranium mining on the Navajo Nation helped America win World War II, but at an ongoing cost “throughout the once worthless desert landscape of the reservation.” earthisland

Mining companies blasted 4 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land between 1944 and 1986. The federal government purchased the ore to make atomic weapons. As the Cold War threat petered out the companies left, abandoning more than 500 mines. NPR

Maybe early ignorance and the press of war could excuse sloppy and dangerous practices in the 1940s. Perhaps it was fair to ask citizens to bear this burden to defeat the evil of Nazism and the Axis Powers. After all, some paid with their lives in battle. And who, besides the people living locally, were likely to take most of the mining jobs in a remote section of the Great American Desert?

We soon knew better. I myself started work in America’s Nuclear Weapons Complex in 1981. Safety was a priority, and worker health carefully monitored and studied. Today, because of my job, I have certain benefits – part of my compensation for the job I did. By my time, the hazards of exposure to radioactivity were managed and a lot of the complaints about Rocky Flats are hyperbolic. But there’s another American story.

“When they did the mining, there would be these pools that would fill up,” she says. “And all of the kids swam in them. And my dad did, too.”

Many Navajo unwittingly let their livestock drink from those pools, and their children play in mine debris piles… Cancer rates doubled in the Navajo Nation from the 1970s to the 1990s. NPR

I know the people who conscientiously worked at Rocky Flats to ensure worker and public safety. And clean-ups are underway in Arizona:

“We’re spending a lot of time making sure that the polluters pay, so it isn’t the federal taxpayer” … But one-third of the mining companies have shut down or have run out of money. The federal government knew about some of the dangers decades ago, but only started the cleanup in recent years. NPR

I also know, from my recent service as a volunteer fire fighter, that it’s easy to say the words “thank you” and easy to slap a sticker on your car’s bumper.

But who wants to pay? Not my war, not my decision, I’ve got my own problems – entirely understandable. If it weren’t that way, maybe we’d be mired down in the past instead of building a brighter future. Luck plays a huge part in anyone’s life – some draw a good hand and others don’t.

I didn’t find any pictures on the internet of the modest clinics I passed – I’m sorry I didn’t take my own. These people from a different place and – some – a different time are brothers and sisters I never knew.

Sometimes history leaves me sad.

Don’t be a Jerk – discussing politics, religion, and policy

DebatingSocThis is a repost, but I think it applies more than ever: I attended a lecture by Dr. Benjamin Cline at Western New Mexico University: How to Talk About Religion and Politics Without Being a Jerk.  The world would be a better place if we all tried.

Cline discussed why our passions run so high on these topics: religion and politics are at the core of what makes life worth living for each of us.  They underlie much of what we do.  Our ideology is tied to the meaning of life as we each see it.  It’s our basis for deciding what’s valuable and what sources of information to trust.  Cline asks us to forget the old etiquette advice to avoid these subjects.  We need to talk about them, and to succeed we need to stop being jerks. Continue reading

Gun Control – A Ghost of a Chance

After the horrendous shooting deaths of dozens of concert-goers in a Las Vegas parking lot last week, one could have hoped that the country might be allowed a few days of respectful silence to lick its emotional wounds and grieve, but that was not to be.  The sirens were hardly silent before our ongoing national gunfight took back the stage.

The skirmish lines are numbingly familiar. Anti-gunners clamor for more “common sense” gun control laws, while pro-gunners argue for more armed law-abiding citizens patrolling the streets. As the facts of this week’s tragedy begin to accumulate, they suggest that neither of these assertions holds much water.

The gun lobby’s favorite canard is “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  There were armed security guards near the concert stage when the shooter opened fire.  What good were their handguns when he let loose from a hotel window some 400 yards away?   Even seasoned SWAT teams were helpless to intervene.

On the other hand, control advocates are particularly fond of the idea of reinstating the expired ban on “assault weapons”, an indistinct descriptor generally attached to a gun’s appearance rather than its lethality.  Gun deaths actually decreased in the US in the years following the expiration of the original ban, and long guns have been involved in a tick less than 3% of all mass shootings.

A flicker of agreement between the two sides has emerged, with both calling for regulating so-called “bump stocks”, the aftermarket devices that allow semi-automatics like the AR-15 to fire several hundred rounds a minute.  Nobody needs that kind of fire rate except the military and adrenaline junkies for whom it evidently serves as a substitute for Viagra (and a more expensive one; gun shops that sell these accessories report that most buyers discard them soon after discovering that they can easily burn through a thousand bucks-worth of ammunition in a few minutes).

Banning a gun accessory that has been on the market for years is problematic.  Thousands of bump stocks are already out there, and since they are only a gun part there is no record of ownership. But the biggest obstacle to firearm regulation may be maker tech – our fast-growing capability to envision and manufacture complex gadgetry in the anonymous comfort of our home workshops.  Coming soon to a basement near you – Ghost Guns.

I received an email from a tech-savvy friend linking to a video from Wired magazine.  In the video one of the editors documents how he made an AR-15 rifle from a kit.  Gun parts are not regulated, and the kit is sold legally through the mail.  One vital component is not included – the receiver, which is the precisely machined housing that contains the trigger and firing mechanisms, the heart of the gun.  Receivers are not for sale, but maker tech to the rescue.  For around $1500 anyone can buy a tabletop computer-controlled (CNC) milling machine which will turn a chunk of aluminum into an AR-15 receiver from plans available on the internet.  Presto, your very own “assault rifle”.  The finished firearm has no serial numbers and no record of it exists in any state or Federal database.  A Ghost Gun.

Total cost for this do-it-yourself project, including the CNC mill (which is marketed under the name Ghost Gunner) is less than $3K.  As these tools and 3D printers become more capable and less expensive, virtually all the parts needed to assemble ghost guns will soon be makeable by individuals in the privacy of their own garages.

There is an old saying that government regulation is always at least 5 years behind whatever it is trying to regulate.  In the case of technology in general and maker tech in particular the time lag is much greater.  The effectiveness of gun regulations already on the books is debatable.  Imagine how much more complicated the regulatory undertaking becomes when the guns technically don’t even exist.  Can (or should) buyers of machine tools and 3D printers be forced to undergo background checks?  Is aircraft grade aluminum to be regulated because of what people might make from it?

For those policymakers trying to come up with “commom sense” ways to prevent gun deaths without turning half the country into de facto criminals, your job just became a lot harder.

No Problem, Forsooth

The tide of language sweeps ever along, and it Hamlet.svg.medcarries you with it whether you like it or not. Do not struggle foolishly against it. slate.com

English is a living language, which means words are always coming, going, and changing. Dictionaries don’t try to freeze language – they try to keep up with it. Grammar is more important to written words than it is to spoken. Because it lacks the subtle clues of tone and gesture, written language is less communicative.

This can be hard on those of us who struggled to learn the rules, and suffered under the presumptions of teachers decades behind us in modern usage. Teachers who thought I, for example, should love Shakespeare – even if I needed annotations in the text to follow the near-foreign language.

Once upon a time, “thank you” was invariably followed by “you’re welcome.” This arbitrary expression of politeness is falling from usage – it’s become common to reply “thank you” right back.

Now, apparently, the double thank-you is sliding into the past.

“Thank you” brings “no problem” as a rejoinder. Or maybe, “no worries” if you’re fond of Australian English (and who can resist?)

Does this grate on your nerves? Perhaps you never got used to the mirror thank-yous and still long to hear “you’re welcome.”

Get over it.

“Are you telling me that I, a human being with certain inalienable prerogatives, have no right to dislike this particular phrase? Must I remain silent forever? Have I no recourse to complain?”

That is exactly what we are saying… You will be nobler for it.

And stop grinding your teeth over “organic bananas,” complaining that no fruit is based on silicon chemistry.

You know who you are.

Take a Knee for America

Oakland_Raiders_National_Anthem_Kneeling_(37444579735)New readers to this blog may not know, but our contributors worked in America’s nuclear weapons complex. We love our country and are called (by Congress – honest, they wrote this into legislation) Cold War Warriors. You can’t get more patriotic than plutonium.

I’ve been conflicted over NFL players dropping to one knee during the national anthem and have struggled to decide what I think of the protests.

  • On the one hand, I personally find it upsetting. On the other, I find the bias against people of color in our justice system more upsetting.
  • I would like to see all Americans stand together for at least a moment, but I also realize that protesting discrimination will make the country better.
  • Players are employees – dressed in team uniforms – and we all relinquish some rights while on the job. That argues they should not express personal beliefs on the field. On the other hand, how many of us are required by our employer to make a specific political declaration, on national TV, by standing for the anthem? Teams want players to be role models, to inspire fans, to donate part of their salaries to charities – some of their off-field activities are contractual. How can you require them to be so public and then stop them from stating their own opinions?
  • Players say their protest is not disrespectful, and only a jerk would tell someone else what they mean when they speak. But no one gets to define symbols that belong to us all, so I seeboth sides here.
  • Money doesn’t buy a person’s soul, so I don’t accept that a well paid player (or anyone) has no right to point out injustice.
  • Coopting the military to justify a position isn’t fair – members of the military hold a range of opinions just like any other group of Americans. Pitting “our flag” against “them” places Americans in separate tribes and prevents us from discussing important problems.
  • To anyone who says this is the wrong sort of protest – how much time did we spend talking about the justice system and policing before? Maybe some energy is wasted when we argue over the form rather than substance, but at least we’re talking.

At the last Bills vs Broncos game I watched a player drop to one knee with his hand over his heart. Hand on heart for love of America. Take a knee to demand we live up to our ideals. It was beautiful.

My feelings have finally crystalized.

Take a knee for America.