Technology (r)evolution

March 7th, 2019  |  Technology

There was a time, just eight short years ago, when so-called tech pundits argued, vociferously and tirelessly, that a 3.5″ size is the perfect one for all-screen phones, and anything above that is a wrong industrial design decision that can only come from throwing ideas against a wall and seeing what sticks. Thing is, the billion or so consumers of smartphones have spoken strong, and these days one would be hard-pressed to find a decent flagship that is under 5″.

Here’s another thought. It’s easy to dismiss certain explorations in consumer electronics these days, especially a few years after the fact. One can write articles after articles that disparage every single device out there (apart from those made by your favorite company, of course), and build a reputation of being a fearless, analytical mind. Every once in a while you might also throw in random concept “designs” that show your own ideal hardware assemblage, no matter how infeasible some details might be from the hardware perspective. No worries, it’s the pretty pictures that count.

And then, a few short months later you get to write another article or two after seeing the next wave of flagships that are, apparently, “disappointing” because they didn’t quite match that fairytale concept that was shared in your circles, building up the anticipation to something that was never quite promised by the companies that are right there, in the middle of actually doing things.

Every once in a while you also get to link back to what you wrote some time ago, and pride yourself on being the astute judge of a certain piece of exploration. “You see,” you humbly write to the adoring masses, “I was quite right back then when I said that it would not go anywhere“. No matter that you had no real skin in the game. No matter that you take the anecdote of your own reaction and misinterpret it as an unmistakable sign of your deep acumen. “If only they listened to me back then” you sigh contentedly, leaning in to type yet another click-baity “opinion” piece about the first iteration of a brand new thing that is not quite up to your “visionary” standards. “But what is the job that this accomplishes?” cry you, with a satisfied smirk on your face. You know that if you don’t see one, it surely must be quite pointless to bring that device to market.

Evolution of technology in general, and of devices in particular, is not a straight path. It’s not even a path per se. It’s a patchwork of exploring weird ideas that might not lead you anywhere, back-tracking to revisit what was once infeasible but may now be quite within your reach, and not being afraid to put all kinds of ideas out there for the world of consumers at large to sample, try and, ultimately, vote with their wallets on.


Being a parent in the age of social media

March 4th, 2019  |  Technology

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash.

From this broad survey of growing up when your parents are obsessed over documenting your every step on social media:

Cara and other tweens say they hope to lay down ground rules for their parents. Cara wants her mom to tell her the next time she posts about her, and the 11-year-old would like veto power over any photo before it goes up. “My friends will always text or tell me, like, ‘OMG that pic your mom posted of you is so cute,’ and I’ll get really self-conscious,” she said. Hayden, a 10-year-old, said he realized several years ago that his parents used a dedicated hashtag including his name on photos of him. He now monitors the hashtag to make sure they don’t post anything embarrassing.

Once kids have that first moment of realization that their lives are public, there’s no going back. Several teens and tweens told me this was the impetus for wanting to get their own social-media profiles, in an effort to take control of their image. But plenty of other kids become overwhelmed and retreat. Ellen said that anytime someone has a phone out around her now, she’s nervous that her photo could be taken and posted somewhere. “Everyone’s always watching, and nothing is ever forgotten. It’s never gone,” she said.

It’s a rather fascinating time that we live in. On one hand, this is the first generation of kids whose lives are being documented in public – or semi-public – ways, all without their direct involvement in these decisions. And on the other hand, this might also be the first and only generation of parents for whom the immediacy of about what is happening in their daily lives – most of which revolves around their kids – is only one step away from sharing those moments, no matter how big or small they are, on the latest hottest social platform.

There’s this observation that certain parental approaches skip a generation. If your parents were strict with you in a certain area, you may probably grow up and be quite hands off in that area with your own kids – trying, in a way, to make up for what you consider to be a “lost” part of your childhood. And then those kids take it back to the other extreme again.

Makes me wonder if today’s generation of tweens and those who will become tweens in the next five-ten years will be much more reserved about creating those public digital trails of their own kids…

Pyrrhic victory

February 22nd, 2019  |  Politics

Photo by VanveenJF on Unsplash.

This might be an unpopular opinion these days, but here goes.

In 2010 there was a huge wave of so-called “Tea Party” candidates that were elected to various legislative bodies of the government, running mostly as a more extreme and quite populist faction within the republican party. After they’ve been elected on grandiose promises, it turned out that they didn’t have a lot to contribute to the actual, tedious process of governing. It was a lot of empty words, some obstructionism, and a tendency to insist on getting everything they wanted during “negotiations”, and when they got that, moving the goal posts and wanting more and more and more.

In 2018 we’ve witnessed a huge wave of so-called social-democrat candidates that were elected to various legislative bodies of the government, running mostly as a more extreme and quite populist faction within the democratic party. After they’ve been elected on grandiose promises, it seems to be turning out that they don’t have a lot to contribute to the actual, tedious process of governing. It is a lot of empty words, some obstructionism, and a tendency to insist on getting everything they want during “negotiations”, and when they got that, moving the goal posts and wanting more and more and more.

Should a huge, multi-national behemoth of a corporation be in the business of “contributing its fair share” to improving the housing, transportation and education infrastructure of a geographical place they happen to like as their next headquarters? Should that, perhaps, be left to the legislative and the executive branches of the government – at the local and the state levels instead?

Should not the elected representatives put the hard work into convincing enough of the sitting members to revisit the local and state tax code and close those perceived loopholes so that every individual and every company pays what they (the representatives) perceive to be that mythical fair share of taxes?

Should the local or state executive branch of the government not want to attract high-paying jobs to their region? Would not one of the possible negotiation tools at their disposal be some kind of a financial “sweetener”? Should the government side of the negotiations talk insist that all new jobs involve the local pool of existing talent? And if the local pool of existing talent is not enough, should we blame that other company if some of those high-paying jobs go to people that are willing to move halfway across the continent in search of a better future for themselves and their families? Should the company – any commercial entity really – be in the business of making sure that the local population has the right training to start working in any kind of a modern business, no matter what the job requirements might be? Should not that, again, fall on the shoulders of the local and state politicians that profess such an ingrained belief that they, and only they, should be in charge of educating their children in an ever-shifting world of today?

Should the locals insist on forever preserving the “unique culture” of their city or region? What is that unique culture and what does it mean to preserve it? Do those locals still live without electricity and ride in carriages on their way to the local dentist that may, or may not, pull out the wrong tooth and send you back home with a bottle of morphine? Do they yearn for the days where every second child did not see their fifth birthday?

Makes me wonder about how long this ultra-blue wave is going to sustain itself. Or how quickly it’s going to fade away in the face of not being able to achieve anything substantial if they are not willing to learn the art of political compromise.

The most powerful man in the world

February 19th, 2019  |  General

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash.

On a good day, it would take about four hours to drive from Savannah to Atlanta. That’s what the navigation mode told me yesterday as we were about to hit the road on the way back home. In the end, it took about half an hour more, for no apparent reason.

When I was growing up, I was a voracious reader of short sci-fi stories. Some of those have stuck in my brain and seem to refuse to fade away. I have no idea who the author was, or what the name of the story might have been. But it’s the core idea that plants its root firmly in my brain. The core idea that didn’t even need multiple volumes or elaborate world building to be explored. Just a small, stubborn seed.

One of those short stories focused on the world of near future where everybody still works in a boring office, driving to and from work in their boring gas-powered car. It’s pretty much the world of 2019, if you will, with not much that has changed in the 30-odd years since I’ve read that story. And the author of that story predicted, quite correctly, how much more powerful computers are going to get, and how much more data could be collected about our everyday, mundane activities – to be fed into ever more data hungry algorithms.

The most powerful man in that world has no name. He does not live in a fancy mansion. He does not own a yacht. He does not rub shoulders with the richest of the rich. He runs a small government department whose sole task is to ruthlessly optimize traffic patterns to eliminate any and all traffic delays in this mega-city of the future.

One morning, as the computers keep on crunching the latest traffic flow data on the morning commute of the worker bees, his focus is on this downtown office tower building. The traffic is flowing seamlessly around the plaza on which this office tower building stands, but something is bothering our unnamed hero. A few minutes pass. The man types a few commands on his console. The computer crunches away for a minute or two. The man reads the output and places a phone call.

The next morning that downtown office tower building is no more. The plaza on which it stood has been paved over, and the traffic goes in a straight line where it used to slow down a bit to take that bend. The change goes unnoticed by the morning commuters. And those that used to work in a now-gone building find that their office has a new downtown address.

The next evening the man reviews a report generated by his computer systems. The overall cost of relocating all the corporate tenants, demolishing the building overnight, and paving over the plaza is projected to be reclaimed by the end of business week – in savings accumulated over the aggregated flow of traffic that flows through the newly straightened road segment. The numbers for the first day of traffic changes indicate that it might happen the day before the initial projected date.

The most powerful man in the world reclines in his seat. He takes a short break, smiling inwardly at the job well done. He is looking forward to the next morning, and the next traffic optimization challenge.

By the time we got to the “end” of the traffic jam that added half an hour to our trip back from Savannah, there was no apparent reason in sight. There were no glass or plastic debris strewn across the lanes. There was no car waiting on the shoulder for the tow truck. There was no police presence to direct the flow of traffic around a blocked lane. One second we were driving 30 mph, and the next it was back to 70 mph.

Every time I hit a traffic jam, I find myself thinking about that story. About how much information can be gleaned from large-scale analysis of real-world data. About decisions made based on properly analyzing that data, and how far-reaching those decisions can be.

Let me just leave you with one, certainly hypothetical scenario. Imagine a somewhat busy highway between a medium size port (say, Savannah), and a medium size metro area (say, Atlanta). Imagine that this highway was completed about 40 years ago, and the decision was made to have only two lanes of traffic in both directions for most of its 165-mile stretch. Imagine how many semi-trailer trucks travel the length of that highway, ferrying goods to and from the port.

And now imagine a tired driver that is distracted for a second, rear-ending a family van that braked to avoid a piece of debris, and damaging his own family car in the process. Nobody is hurt as the cars keep getting safer, but it’s going to take some time to get the traffic flowing again. It’s going to take some time to get the police on the scene of the accident to file a proper report that will then be forwarded to the insurance companies. It’s going to take some time to clear the lanes because one of the cars can’t be steered safely off to the side.

In the meanwhile, the traffic keeps on piling up. Longer and longer. Forget the families on their way back home. Let’s take a look at all those semi-trucks on their way to make their delivery. It might take an extra hour to get things going. Maybe a couple of hours. It’s the cost of being in that business, one might say. Something that shipping companies try to figure in to all their planning spreadsheets.

What would you do if you were in the position of that man in the story, if you had the power to ruthlessly optimize traffic for maximum macro efficiency? Would you direct one of the semi trailers to forcefully push the incapacitated van straight away, without waiting for a tow truck? Would the system prefer totaling a van that might have needed just replacing a part or two, and maybe a couple of cosmetic fixes to that truck that pushed the van off the road to clear the traffic? Would the system continue its optimizations further, eventually deciding that in order to minimize, or even eliminate, disruptions to the interstate flow of commercial goods it needs to remove all other traffic from the roads?

No system is perfect. It’s why I love stories that plant these seeds of ideas in my head. You start thinking of the positive aspects of it. And then you don’t stop, and start exploring the negatives. This is why I love “Black Mirror” so much. They build a world that feels to be just around the corner. And every single episode gives you so much to think about.