Category Archives: Technology

Terrorists able to hide their communications? Thanks, Edward Snowden!

This one is for those you who think Edward Snowden’s betrayal of his country (“Betrayal of his country?” What a quaint concept! How droll! This old guy is really out of it!) did no harm.

Of course, Snowden fans won’t be bothered by it, thanks to the pied piper effect he has on privacy fetishists. They’ll still think it’s a good thing. But it isn’t.

Here’s what’s going on:

Senate Intelligence Committee leaders are vowing to explore ways to grant more government access to secure communications, after intelligence outfits failed to pick up on direct chatter between the perpetrators of the Paris attacks.

Lawmakers said it was time to intensify discussions over what technology companies such as Apple and Google could do to help unscramble key information on devices such as Iphones and apps like WhatsApp, where suspected terrorists have communicated. Those companies made changes last year to their smartphone operating systems preventing the companies themselves from accessing that information…

“It is likely that encryption, end-to-end encryption, was used to communicate between those individuals in Belgium, in France and in Syria,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), following a closed-door briefing for committee members on Tuesday. “It’s a wake-up call for America and our global partners that globally, we need to begin the debate on what we do on encrypted networks, because it makes us blind to the communications and to the actions of potential adversaries.”…

Makes sense. The idea of allowing terrorists to privatize their use of public bandwidth so that they can kill innocents is an outrage, and fortunately one that is easy enough to address — technically, anyway. But there’s a rub, and you probably already know what it is:

Previously, the government could issue a warrant to force tech companies to cough up data from its users. But following the Edward Snowden leaks, and a heightened sense of privacy from the public about the government’s access to personal information, companies began clamping down….

Sure, there are other obstacles, such as Silicon Valley’s greed: As The Wall Street Journal reports,  the problem is “technology companies that sell products based on the promise that corporate data will be secure from hackers and government surveillance.” But politically, I believe that could be overcome, leaving the ridiculous attitude that Snowden has engendered in this country as the main problem.

If we can overcome that, we’ll have taken an important step back toward sanity in our security arrangements.



The robot takes a bow

Thought y’all might enjoy this…

Yesterday, one of ADCO’s clients — REI Automation, a home-grown company that provides robotics for a variety of industries — celebrated 25 years in business by cutting the ribbon on a new production facility.

And who drew the honor of cutting that ribbon — well, one of the REI robots. Which turned out to be a total ham, bowing in response to the crowd’s applause.

So we’ve arrived at the point Douglas Adams wrote of — robots with GPP, Genuine People Personalities.

Barbecue was served, along with an iced substance that, fortunately, was entirely like sweet tea…

REI horizontal

See, that’s what I dislike about the “like” button

I’ve been enjoying Alexandra Petri’s stuff since I discovered her very recently.

But I must take issue with her piece last week, “A DISLIKE button, on Facebook? DISLIKE.” I don’t disagree with her on that. I don’t like the idea of a dislike button, either. And she argues her point ably:

A badly kept secret of human beings is that we never quite have the right words for delicate situations. We love “Like” for this reason — better than “Congratulations!” by a mile — but what is awkward in Facebook is not that there is no button for framing your compassionate response to loss. It is that grief and condolences are inherently unwieldy. Even the right button would not quite be the right button. The act of pressing a button in response to that news would feel wrong no matter how compassionate the word was. “Like” feels wrong. But I’m not sure “Dislike” would be much better.FBDislike

And any negative word presents the possibility of abuse.

Look, being considerate takes work. Communication takes work. Correspondence takes work. Finding words takes work.

I always find striking the rare Facebook status that has more Comments than Likes — usually, this comes when someone has suffered a loss. And then, in our fumbling way, we struggle for words. “I’m so sorry,” we say. “Sending thoughts,” we say. These responses are never very many words, but they feel infinitely difficult.

And they always have.

But here’s where I disagree: I have the same problem with the “like” button. It’s a cheap way out from doing the hard work of expressing what you really mean: Look, being considerate takes work. Communication takes work. Correspondence takes work. Finding words takes work.

I’ll admit that the harm done by hitting a “like” button is minimal compared to being misunderstood when you hit something just as simplistic with negative connotation (and I’ll confess I’ve made use of it, when I feel the tiny urge of social pressure to say something, and the like button is a sufficiently inadequate social gesture to meet that need). Seldom will anyone angrily confront you to demand, “What do you MEAN, ‘like’?” Although some people would. OK, I might. One can only take so much unfocused affirmation.

But I have to say, I “like” her suggestion for a “MEH” button…

Sorry, governor: It wasn’t me; it was Facebook

One of the things I hate about Facebook is the way it will randomly grab an image from my blog to go with a post that has no image.

People think I spend a lot of time on Facebook every day. I don’t. When I post something on my blog, the headline and link automatically post to Twitter. All of those Tweets — plus all of the Tweets I compose directly in Twitter itself — automatically post to Facebook. It’s not me; it’s the (14)

If there was a picture in the post, that also shows up in the Facebook post (which up to a point is cool — I wish Twitter would do that, too).

But when there isn’t a picture in the post, Facebook goes and finds one. As often as not, it grabs one of the scores of header images that are generated randomly from my image library to display at the top of each page on the blog.

This makes for some picture appearing with posts that are wildly unconnected to the subject matter. Which is frustrating.

I particularly hate what it did last night — pairing the header image below, from Nikki Haley’s campaign appearance with Sarah Palin in 2010, with the headline “These are some bad guys. Some really, truly bad guys,” and the link to my post about ISIL.

Please allow me to apologize to Gov. Haley (and to ex-Gov. Palin, although you couldn’t really see her). I know I’ve been critical at times in the past, but I did NOT mean to say that about you.

And I wish to set the record straight with everyone else. I was not saying that about our governor.

The only good news in all this is that to the best of my knowledge, you could only see the governor in the phone version of Facebook (the iPhone app version, anyway). The iPad version and the browser version randomly cropped the image so that you couldn’t see anything but some of the granite steps. Which looks stupid, but at least doesn’t seem to say something I don’t mean to say.

Facebook can be such a pain…


The Golden Age of Television Overload

Good riddance to you both! Now can I have my life back for awhile? And could somebody turn up the lights?

Good riddance to you both! Now can I have my life back for awhile? And could somebody turn up the lights?

Pope Francis recently disclosed that he hasn’t watched television since 1990. Which means he’s like way behind on “Game of Thrones.” Among other things.

I’m beginning to think His Holiness is onto something. I’m feeling… a bit out of control with my own binge-watching lately. Wouldn’t I be a better person — more productive, more attuned to the needs of those around me — if I stopped watching Netflix, HBO NOW, the downstairs TV, the upstairs TV, the Roku, the Apple TV, the iPad and on very rare occasions, actual broadcast television?

The Pope has enough on his plate keeping up with matters relating to this world and the next, much less Westeros and all those other fictional universes out there.

Today, the front of the Arena section of The Wall Street Journal raises the question, “How Many TV Series Can Your Brain Take?” An excerpt:

“Game of Thrones,” which will leave multiple story lines dangling for a year with Sunday’s season finale, is notorious for befuddling even ardent fans with its many clans, lands and simmering subplots. But it’s just one of many shows taxing the memories of audiences who have been flooded with complex story lines and crowded character ensembles.

“Orange Is the New Black,” which returns Friday for a third season on Netflix, uses more than 20 characters to populate a fictional women’s prison with inmates and staff. On “Orphan Black,” finishing its third season on BBC America this month, lead actress Tatiana Maslany plays six different characters, all clones, in a sci-fi conspiracy story. New viewers have to absorb dense mythologies if they hope to jump aboard returning shows such as CBS’s summer series “Under the Dome,” which, in its coming third season, might finally explain why a bubble is encasing the town of Chester’s Mill.

The deluge of compelling shows means fans have to be good at time management to keep up with the best offerings. But they also are grappling with the limits of memory. How many shows (and knotty plots and twisting character arcs within) can we keep track of at once? In a binge-watching world, where we aren’t limited to weekly installments of network TV shows, is there a limit to the number of narratives we can keep straight?

Actually, I don’t think that frames the question correctly. Binge-watching doesn’t cause the problem of having trouble keeping up. What I find is that failing to binge-watch makes it harder to know what’s going on.

Dramatic series are written for binge-watchers, not for people who watch an episode, walk away and lead real lives, then come back in a week or more to try to pick up the thread again. That is part of what makes the new breed of shows so absorbing — they pull you into a complicated world, and if you can’t stay there until the season (at least) is over, you’re likely to be disoriented when you return.

For instance — when the third season of “House of Cards” came out several months back, I did what I had with the first two seasons. I started watching to see what everybody was talking about, then got fed up with it and quit, and then, when curiosity built up enough, came back and pushed through the rest of it.

SPOILER ALERT! Consequently, when I saw the season finale the other night, I was somewhat at a loss: Why was Claire leaving Frank? Yeah, they had been slightly weirder together the last few episodes — which means five percent more than their usual standard, which is creepy as all get-out. But what precipitated this blow-up? Surely nothing that had happened recently had showed her anything she didn’t know about her husband. Not to mention that she’s no bargain herself on the decent-person scale.

If I’d watched it all straight through, I think I might have a good feel for it. But as things stand, I don’t.

Not that it matters, right?

Last year, David Carr wrote in The New York Times about the problem of “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age.” I could really identify:

The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. I am not alone. Even as alternatives proliferate and people cut the cord, they are continuing to spend ever more time in front of the TV without a trace of embarrassment.

I was never one of those snobby people who would claim to not own a television when the subject came up, but I was generally more a reader than a watcher. That was before the explosion in quality television tipped me over into a viewing frenzy….

And what a feast. Right now, I am on the second episode of Season 2 of “House of Cards” (Netflix), have caught up on “Girls” (HBO) and am reveling in every episode of “Justified” (FX). I may be a little behind on “The Walking Dead” (AMC) and “Nashville” (ABC) and have just started “The Americans” (FX), but I am pretty much in step with comedies like “Modern Family” (ABC) and “Archer” (FX) and like everyone one else I know, dying to see how “True Detective” (HBO) ends. Oh, and the fourth season of “Game of Thrones” (HBO) starts next month.

Whew. Never mind being able to hold all these serials simultaneously in my head, how can there possibly be room for anything else? So far, the biggest losers in this fight for mind share are not my employer or loved ones, but other forms of media….

I think back to a time before all this. Say, the ’80s. In that whole decade, I can remember watching only one dramatic series on television that in any way compares to the shows I’m juggling now: “Hill Street Blues.” There was that, and maybe “Cheers” — both on the same network on the same night. I was very, very busy with a demanding job in the daytime and a family full of young children at night, and entertainment wasn’t high on my list — which made the lack of high-quality options a good match for my lifestyle. And “Hill Street” was written for people who only visited that world weekly. There were continuing story lines, but everything was episodic. One episode held you for a week.

Lately, I’m juggling, off and on:

  • Blue Bloods” — My only current show written in that old fashioned episodic form, and the only one coming from commercial broadcast television. But I’m watching it the new way. I had never seen it before a couple of months ago, when I started the first season on Netflix. It’s the perfect length for a workout on the elliptical. I’m not quite as obsessed with it as I was with “The West Wing” last year, but I do like it.
  • Foyle’s War” — Watching this on two temporal streams. We just finished the current season of new ones on PBS last night. Meanwhile, we’re almost done with the previous seasons on Netflix.
  • Game of Thrones” — ALMOST caught up. I’ve got one more episode to watch (last week’s) before this Sunday’s season finale. And I’ll be glad to be done with it for awhile. I wanted to be up on the cultural phenomenon, and now I almost am. I don’t find it very satisfying.
  • The Wire” — The best of the lot right now. I’m trying not to spend it all at once. I’m past the halfway mark in the second season.
  • Orange is the New Black” — We were really into this, but my wife and I sort of lost interest during the second season, and didn’t get more than a few episodes into it. With the new season out today, will we get back into it? I don’t know.
  • Daredevil” — Probably the best adaptation of a Marvel franchise ever to appear on television. I’ve only got one episode left in the Netflix season, still waiting to see him in the red superhero costume. The series is taking the origins thing at a stately pace.
  • True Detective” — Got started on this and got sidetracked. Want to finish the season before the new one comes out.
  • Mad Men” — Lost interest a couple of seasons back. There’s just so much moral vacancy one can take. But my wife and daughter say the last season was as good as the early ones, so I’m going to take it back up soon.
  • The Walking Dead” — Haven’t watched it in months, but I do want to get back to it and catch up. I just want to know one thing before I do: Daryl doesn’t die, does he?
  • Justified” — It’s as good as some of my friends here say, but since the only way I can see it is on DVDs from Netflix, I only get back to it periodically. I’m only up to the second or third episode in the second season.
  • Better Call Saul” — Since we don’t get AMC (the only station I miss from cutting back on cable), I bought the season on iTunes when it first came out. So since I paid for it, I really must get back to it and watch the rest of the season at some point. It’s good, but it’s not as compelling as “Breaking Bad.” I’ve just got this investment in it.

It’s over now, but for a few weeks there, we were really into “Wolf Hall” — which we’d watch on Apple TV the night after each episode’s release, because I didn’t want to stay up past 11 on Sunday night. (One good thing about this — it forced me to go ahead and finish reading Bring Up the Bodies in order to stay ahead of the show — which I shoved aside The Guns of August in order to push through.)

Meanwhile, it seems that Netflix releases a new series daily, and some of them are bound to be good. It’s just ridiculous.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to read The Guns of August, a really compelling history book, for months. But if I read a chapter in a sitting, it’s unusual. And it was interrupted first by the trip to Thailand, and then by Bring Up the Bodies. Mostly, it’s a couple of pages over dinner. And talk about losing track of characters and story lines — of course, books are supposed to be that absorbing and complex. TV never was before.

Yeah, it’s true, and it’s appalling: I’ve only finished on new book so far this year.

The Pope has the right idea. I just need to summon the self-discipline…

"Daredevil:" Matt Murdock still hasn't fully donned his superhero persona.

“Daredevil:” Matt Murdock still hasn’t fully donned his superhero persona.

Johnny on the (hot) spot

My experience with ADCO has given me some appreciation of what people go through for business development purposes, so I had to smile at a pitch I received yesterday.

For a brief time, our Internet service was down at the office. I was told that it was a regional problem, affecting central South Carolina and a swath on up to Charlotte. So, in frustration, I tweeted (via phone):

To which I got this response almost right away:

By the time I read that reply, the outage was over. I was barely inconvenienced long enough to send out my complaint.

But I admired the hustle on the part of the DirectTV guy…

Verizon-AOL deal: “You’ve got a white elephant!”

That was actually my second reaction when I heard Verizon had bought AOL for $4.4 billion. My first was that I didn’t know Verizon was into collecting retro kitsch.

What on Earth does Verizon want with AOL? Here’s what they’re saying:

The company has developed valuable technology for serving mobile video and advertising, and Verizon is billing the deal as a way for it to expand its video offerings. Already a leader in distributing mobile video through its robust national mobile phone network, Verizon is making a push to become a leader in so-called over-the-top video, shorthand for television content distributed through the Internet.

But in acquiring AOL, Verizon is buying much more than websites that host streaming content. Along with its video and online advertising technology, AOL owns The Huffington Post, a sprawling collection of international news websites with growing traffic.

It also manages a dwindling but profitable dial-up Internet business, providing online access for those who live in areas too remote to have broadband, or who never canceled their subscriptions…

Yeah, well, the WSJ is not impressed, saying the “deal suggests a crumbling empire more than it shows the power of the network:”

Neither Verizon nor AT&T is going away. But their place in the world seems ever more insecure. What is their purpose in this converged world? AT&T has taken a path into the past, agreeing to buy satellite-TV operator DirecTV for nearly $50 billion. Verizon is spending $4.4 billion on AOL, a loose confederation of advertising-technology businesses, random “content” plays, and a beguiling, money-leaking adventure called the Huffington Post.

This puts Verizon in a number of intriguing, if conflicted, new positions. It will have to be neutral arbiter in these advertising businesses, but also have to nurture and develop its offerings of online video and content. Does a phone company have the mettle and creativity to do this well? Does the prospect of a TechCrunch video show—brought to you by Verizon—captivate or horrify the average millennial?

The answer is that no one has the answers. It is a war of all against all. Platforms against platforms. Content against content….

Like “Game of Thrones.” And that analysis makes Verizon sound kind of like the Starks at the end of Season 3 (which is where I am).

Does this make sense to anybody? I mean, don’t go by me — I’m the guy who thinks Facebook is the AOL of this century. Think about it — It’s another messy, way-too-busy interface that tries to be your one and only portal to the Web. I find it hugely irritating, and more of an obstacle than a useful tool. But it’s still going strong, so, as I say, don’t go by me…

What space travelers need (hint: it’s not a towel)

A low point from our recent trip to Thailand:

This was some sort of super-duper, futuristic towel that my wife had had the foresight to buy before our trip. Small-folding, super-absorbent, and super-fast-drying so you can use it again before long. Whoever found it may not have recognized it as a towel. Its texture was like a cross between felt and rubber — hard to describe, really.

I had thought it really cool that, like a Douglas Adams character, I was a traveler who always knew where his towel was — in his backback:

Somebody who can stay in control of virtually any situation is somebody who is said to know where his or her towel is. The logic behind this statement is presented in chapter 3 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy thus:

… a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Technically, I still knew where it was — I had left it on a doorknob of a farmhouse in the countryside of Khorat. But I no longer had the use of it, which of course was the point of such knowledge. I also had most of those other things listed in the above paragraph, and more — just not my towel, which saddened me, because it made me feel less hoopy.

But now I read that in the future, a space traveler’s most critical accoutrement will not be his towel. In fact, “A 3-D printer may one day be in the carry-on luggage of every savvy solar system traveler…”

They are experimenting with a 3-D printer that would make bricks suitable for airtight buildings and radiation-proof shelters using the grit that blows across Mars’s red surface.

In Huntsville, Ala., Ms. Werkheiser, NASA’s 3-D print project manager, is starting to print curved walls and other structures using imitation Martian sand as an ink. Engineers at the European Space Agency are exploring ways to use lunar dust as an ink to print out an entire moon base. London-based architects Foster + Partners have designed a printable lunar colony.

And if astronauts ever do attempt to reach Mars, they may survive the journey by eating pizza made with a 3-D-printed food system for long duration space missions, now under development in Texas…

These printers will use materials found on the moon and on Mars as “ink.”

Frankly, on this topic I’m a little like those people who believe the moon landings were a hoax. I DO believe in the moon landings, let me be clear, but I still don’t understand how any sort of complex item — say, pizza — can be recreated so that it is functional. I see how you might print a plastic statue of the object; I just don’t understand how it could work like the original.

In other words, I can imagine having something like a low-functioning 3D PDF — like a fax that is a picture of text, but doesn’t give you text that you can work with, because the document does not know that the text is text. If you can follow me.

But the boffins say it will work. If so, I suppose, in the future you won’t need to have your towel, because you can always print another…

Is anyone watching television anymore?

The New York Post reports that televisions ratings “see double digit declines for fifth straight month“.

Commercial ratings — the viewing “currency” that determines what advertisers pay for TV time — cratered across broadcast and cable networks, marking the fifth straight month of double-digit declines for the industry.

“It’s clear the downward spiral in TV ratings continues with no end in sight,” media analyst Michael Nathanson wrote in a research note on Friday.

Overall prime-time broadcast network ratings were off 12 percent last month compared to a year ago, while cable networks dropped 11 percent, according to his report.

Other than live sports, I really don’t watch television anymore. I have a few shows that the wife and I watch together after the children are all settled, but we don’t watch them live. 99% of the time the program is usually something streaming from either Netflix or Amazon. For movies, it’s the same thing. In fact, if it wasn’t for sports, I’d probably wouldn’t have a subscription to regular television.

Also, ever since the new year, I’ve been trying to cut down on the television watching. For me, watching television is like eating junk food – it’s fun while you’re doing it, but you feel guilty afterwards. Most of the time, I feel like I’ve wasted my time just watching tv. I mean, honestly, almost anything you do is more worthy that sitting in front of the Idiot Tube and being hypnotized by the beams of light coming out of it. I kind of think the television has something to do with the shape of this country. Watching (most) television makes you dumb, disconnected, and lazy.

It also makes it easy to just waste your entire night, and by extension all your nights. Television makes it so easy to simply do nothing. And we shouldn’t do nothing. We only have a little time on this earth, and watching television isn’t the way to spend it.

Some of the best nights I have are reading books, playing with my children and actually talking to people. Unless we’re talking about having the television on in the background when you’re doing mindless work with no one around, watching television is always an inferior choice to doing anything.

Accordingly, I’m glad that cable television is going down the tubes. Unfortunately, it’s probably due to all the other ways that we now have to distract ourselves.

All y’all already know this, but I’m encouraging everyone to try and make better choices with how we spend our time. Television is never usually the right choice.

Your Virtual Front Page, Friday March 6, 2015

I’ll ease all y’all into my tenure in a nice comfortable way. We’ll start with a VPF today. (Tomorrow, the re-education camps will be open for business. On the bright side, coffee will be complimentary.)

1. POTUS comes to Columbia, SC: I drove by Benedict early this AM on my way out of town, so I missed all the hoopla. Did anyone do anything special for the Presidential trip?

2. Democrats vow to protect Boehner from Tea Party coup: I know the logic here is that the House Democrats would prefer to stay with Boehner than a more conservative Speaker who would be even less inclined to compromise, but it’s still a weird dynamic. I guess this is what passes for bipartisanship these days.

3. Iraq officials cast doubt on Spring offensive to re-take Mosul from ISIS: I guess if I were an Iraqi general, I’d be pessimistic about my military’s chances at accomplishing anything either. The Iraqi military seems to dissolve like sugar in hot water every time there’s serious fighting to be done.

4. Jenny Sanford applies for DHEC post:  She just sent them her resume. She’s a little on the thin side when it comes to experience, but she did say that while she was first lady of SC, “I spent a lot of time talking about health and wellness and disease prevention. Those are issues DHEC deals with seriously and consistently.” So she’s got that going for her.

5. Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail system might not have been very secure: I’m no tech expert, but I’m just going with the general idea that the federal government’s e-mail system is likely to be far more secure than anything that a private guy can set up for you in your home.

OK, now I’m starting to get a little interested in this net neutrality thing

On one level, I’m posting these videos purely for the enjoyment of Doug and others who think the government exists to screw things up.

On another…

Well, I’ve never really gotten into this net neutrality debate because a) honestly, I’ve never read enough about it to confidently say I fully understand it, and b) I can’t tell from what little I know which side is right, so I don’t really have a position on it.

But wow — these heavy-handed “government is stupid and malicious” videos are telling me maybe I’d better get hip to this issue. These videos are entertaining, until you realize they’re not really kidding. These folks want you to think that net neutrality is a menace.

That makes me think maybe the other side has a point, and that maybe somebody needs to stand up for it.

But I still don’t know enough to say for sure…

The REAL Star Wars teaser trailer, and the fake one

In these days of digital magic, fans don’t necessarily have to wait for the real thing:

Earlier this week, director J.J. Abrams announced via Twitter that there would be a teeny tiny sneak peek of the next “Star Wars” installment this weekend. A teaser trailer was set to screen at about 30 theaters nationwide….

But then the trailer was leaked on Thursday. Or rather a trailer was leaked. And then another popped up. And then another. None of them were the official trailer, mind you. They were made by people with fairly decent video editing software, but a lot of people didn’t realize that. And whoever is in charge of the Star Wars Twitter page ultimately had to spend Thanksgiving setting people straight.

Some of the fan-made teasers looked pretty legit. This one, for example, has gotten more than 4.3 million page views:

Pretty impressive fake trailer, huh? Personally, I enjoyed them both.

You know what would have made the real one 10 times more exciting, and enable it to crush the fakes with its authenticity? A glimpse of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher. Maybe that was impossible (as in, they haven’t shot any scenes yet), or maybe they’re being saved for the really exciting trailers later.

In any case, I look forward to seeing them…


The Way They Were

Why does Pandora get me, while Netflix doesn’t?


I had Pandora playing on my iPad while showering and getting dressed this morning, and I marveled at this sequence:

What did those tracks have to do with Radiohead? When I listen to Pandora on my laptop, there’s a place where I can click to answer the question, “Why was this track selected?” I don’t see how to do that on the iPad app, though.

After that Tweet, I continued to be mystified by Dylan’s “Temporarily Like Achilles.” What really blew my mind, though, was that it was followed by Leon Russell’s “Shootout On the Plantation.
Dylan, maybe. Beatles, OK. Even the Stones. But Leon Russell?

Even when I can check, the answer to the question doesn’t help me much. Here are songs I heard later on the same station on my laptop, together with the “explanations:”

A Salty Dog by Procol Harum
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features acoustic rock instrumentation, folk influences, mild rhythmic syncopation, thru composed melodic style and acoustic rhythm piano.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Live) by George Harrison
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features electric rock instrumentation, blues influences, gospel influences, intricate melodic phrasing and thru composed melodic style.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Leon Russell
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features basic rock song structures, blues influences, gospel influences, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation and acoustic rhythm piano.

Under The Bridge by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features a subtle use of vocal harmony, repetitive melodic phrasing, major key tonality, electric rhythm guitars and a dynamic male vocalist.

For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features acoustic rock instrumentation, folk influences, call and answer vocal harmony (antiphony), demanding instrumental part writing and repetitive melodic phrasing.

To me, these explanations are non-explanations. The commonalities are just so generic, in pop music. What matters to me, though, is that I like all the songs. Pandora is able to go, “You, Brad Warthen, like this, so we think you’ll like this other, too.” And they’re so often right.

But Netflix, which has thousands of ratings from me to go by, is still befuddled as to what I’ll really like. Almost never does it suggest something I haven’t seen before, and then when I watch it, I think, “Wow, that was awesome; I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. Thanks, Netflix!”

Almost never. And yet, it happens all the time with Pandora.

What is it — is musical taste easier to predict, because of fewer variables? I don’t know…


Maybe we should ask Toby Ziegler about the military shuttle


Today, The New York Times sort of scoffed at its own report, 25 years ago, about the National Aero-Space Plane, which was to boldly go where no man had gone before, spacecraftwise:

In his 1986 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan promised “a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low-earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.”

On Oct. 3, 1989, an article in Science Times, “Designing a Plane for the Leap of Space (and Back),” reported frenetic activity at NASA and the Defense Department.

“Scientists and engineers are making rapid progress in developing technologies needed to build a 17,000-mile-an-hour ‘space plane’ that could escape earth’s gravity and circle the globe in 90 minutes,” the article began….

But the whole project was abandoned in 1994, and experts say it remains technologically beyond our reach.

Or does it?

Just this week, the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane returned to Earth after a mission lasting almost two years.

Or, at least, they say it was unmanned. And they’re not telling us much more about it. Apparently, our government is still capable of keeping some secrets, even in the Edward Snowden era. This leads to speculation:

Theorists speculate the spacecraft is a space bomber, a spy plane against such targets as the Chinese space station, or merely an experiment as the government states, according to a Popular Mechanics story in 2012.

Maybe we could get former White House aide Toby Ziegler to tell us what he knows about it…

Some things I will NOT look at on the Web

This news

Jennifer_LawrencecroppedGoogle has removed two links to a site hosting stolen nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence after requests by the actor’s lawyers.

The takedown requests were filed under the digital millennium copyright act (DMCA), with her lawyers Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp stating that the stolen photos impinged on Lawrence’s copyright….

… reminds me of this new category of Web content that I have gradually become aware of recently.

The Internet grants us access to almost anything that can be digitized. This is both a wonderful blessing and a terrible affliction. Once, I just had to avoid the dictionary to stay on task — if I looked up one word, I’d get sidetracked by fascination, as I’d inadvertently run into one interesting word that led to another that led to another.

Now, I never wonder about anything. No matter what I’m going at the time, if the thought begins to form, “I wonder…,” I stop and look it up — which in turn is likely to lead to link after link, because scratching that itch releases something in my brain, something related to what makes addicts act the way they do… hang on… dopamine. Dang, I could have sworn it was “endorphins,” but it turns out it’s dopamine. “Endorphins” would have given me an excuse to link to that clip in which Annette Bening says, in such a sexy way, that she digs “the endolphin rush.” Which, it turns out, is not that easy to find…

See what I mean?

But there are some things I won’t look at on the Web. There’s been a rash of them lately. They include:

  • The aforementioned nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence. I still agree with Ricky Gervais when he said celebrities should make it harder for hackers to get nude pics of them from their computers by not putting nude photos of themselves on their computers. But I have a responsibility in this, too, which is not to look when celebs fail to exercise that most basic form of good judgment.
  • The ISIL videos of the beheadings of Western journalists. I hear that they’re out there if you look, but I’m just not going to cooperate with the terrorists to the point of looking. I don’t need to get whipped up by viewing these atrocities; I’m fully committed to the “degrade and destroy ISIL” agenda without it.
  • The video of that football player beating up his girlfriend. Everybody has something that turns his stomach, and one that that does that to me is the very thought of a man hitting a woman. I have a very deeply conditioned response of revulsion at such a thing. I don’t ever want to see it. Just knowing it’s out there is bad enough.

What do you pointedly avoid online?


Another year of notices about sex offenders, I guess

Just got this notice from CSID today:

We are excited to inform you that the State of South Carolina has partnered with CSID to offer an additional year of identity theft protection to you for free. Since you’ve already enrolled, your service will automatically renew for another year through October 31, 2015, and no additional action from you is necessary. We hope you are enjoying your identity monitoring service from CSID and are taking advantage of all this service has to offer.

Any of y’all get that?

I don’t know what this means, other than I suppose I’m going to get another year of alerts about sex offenders living in the area. That’s all I’ve ever gotten from this service. You? And frankly, I don’t know what that has to do with ID security.

Here’s an odd thing that I hesitate to mention, but I found it interesting. On the CSID homepage, the focus is on a very attractive young woman of what appears to be Indian extraction. And I couldn’t help wondering if that was supposed to be some sort of subliminal nod to Nikki Haley. Or something…

No, I know it isn’t, but that did pop into my head…


Other causes envy the viral success of the ice-bucket challenge

Top staff at the Sisters of Charity Foundation, accepting the challenge last week.

Top staff at the Sisters of Charity Foundation, accepting the challenge last week.

On a previous thread, Silence expressed how tired he was of “everyone’s stupid ice bucket challenge videos.”

He’s not alone in that. Even this laudatory article (“The Perfect Viral Storm“) on an advertising industry site notes the meme’s “somewhat annoying ubiquity.”

That aside, there’s no denying that this is the best thing to happen in the fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease since, well, Lou Gehrig. (Even if, as Silence also pointed out, Gehrig may not have had ALS.)

Samuel Tenenbaum, head of Palmetto Health Foundation, made that very observation to me yesterday in a breakfast meeting in which he and I and Ashley Dusenbury were discussing the promotion of this year’s Walk for Life (watch for more coming on that very soon, teammates!). The Walk has been hugely successful, and they already have some mechanisms in place to make it even more successful this year, but Samuel stands ready to have ice dumped on him if it will make it more successful yet.

Then, over in the world of political advocacy, I received this yesterday from Conservation Voters of South Carolina:

Climate Challenge

Folks, here’s a challenge that doesn’t involve ice buckets.

When local officials, citizens and natural resource managers are meeting to prepare for sea level rise, wouldn’t you think it’s time for us to pay attention?  I challenge you to learn more about the public workshopsin Bluffton and St. Helena Island sponsored by the Beaufort County Planning Dept, Sea Grant Consortium and USC’s CISA.

When veterans talk about “climate security” and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events to “critical infrastructure at home,” shouldn’t we take note? I challenge you to read Clay Middleton’s letter to the editor of The State.

When the Washington Post announces a series of climate editorials and observes that “despite ups and downs in the polling, a solid majority of Americans favors action to curb greenhouse emissions,” we are reminded of Governor Sanford’s warning in an op ed to that paper in February, 2007: “If conservatives cannot reframe, reclaim and respond to climate change with our principles intact, government will undoubtedly provide a solution, no matter how taxing it may be.”  I challenge you to ask Governor Haley to tell us where she stands on climate. Click here to send her a message

Yeah, she has a completely different point, but you can read in that lede a certain envy, a wish that her challenges might acquire the “somewhat annoying ubiquity” of the ALS phenomenon.

Success has that effect.

Frankly, THIS looks kinda like spam to me…

I’m puzzled when I get automated replies like this, generally to having sent a “reply all” to a group:

I apologize for this automatic reply to your email.

To control spam, I now allow incoming messages only from senders I have approved beforehand.

If you would like to be added to my list of approved senders, please fill out the short request form (see link below). Once I approve you, I will receive your original message in my inbox. You do not need to resend your message. I apologize for this one-time inconvenience.

First, a message like that looks a lot like spam to me — it’s something I had to call up, thinking I have a reply to my message, only to find out I’m wasting my time looking at it.

Second — I find that spam filters work pretty well these days, compared to their lame antecedents 10 years or so ago. Avoiding spam just doesn’t sound to me like good reason to slam virtual doors in people’s faces. Does it to you?

I don’t hit “reply all” on anything unless I have something legitimate to share with the group. Once or twice a month is about it. It just doesn’t seem that I should encounter things like that in the year 2014.

But thanks for the apology, anyway…

OK, now THIS is impressive technology

This is very cool, and very impressive:

Your bag of potato chips can hear what you’re saying. Now, researchers from MIT are trying to figure out a way to make that bag of chips tell them everything that you said — and apparently they have a method that works. By pointing a video camera at the bag while audio is playing or someone is speaking, researchers can detect tiny vibrations in it that are caused by the sound. When later playing back that recording, MIT says that it has figured out a way to read those vibrations and translate them back into music, speech, or seemingly any other sound….

Alexei Efros, a University of California at Berkeley researcher, says in a statement…. “This is totally out of some Hollywood thriller. You know that the killer has admitted his guilt because there’s surveillance footage of his potato chip bag vibrating.” The research is being described in a paper that will be published at the computer graphics conference Siggraph.

Although it’s only marginally more amazing than what my iPhone can do — know me by my thumbprint, not by scanning it visually (which my laptop can do), but by touch. The sensor in the Home button is so sensitive that it reads the tiny ridges in my thumb — either thumb, from any angle — and recognizes the pattern. Which just floors me. This is that kind of analysis of the tiny, the subtle, taken to another level…