Desert of My Real Life

{January 27, 2010}   iPad Jokes

I guess I was not the only one who thought of other types of pads when the name iPad was announced.  This is very funny:

{January 27, 2010}   TechnoHype

For weeks, we’ve been hearing rumors of the new Apple tablet computer.  There was much speculation about what Apple would call its sure-to-be-revolutionary device–I heard suggestions like iTab and iTablet but Apple went with iPad (which makes me think of sanitary pads but I’m sure that’s not what they had in mind).  The hype today has been amazing (but not unprecedented) to me.  In his announcement of the product, Steve Jobs said that it is “magical” and “at the intersection of technology and liberal arts” (whatever that means). 

The hype reminds me of what happened in 2001 when Dean Kamen announced the development of the product he was then calling “Ginger.”  I heard report after report about how this product (whatever it was going to be–no one knew) was going to revolutionize our everyday lives, allowing us to live and work in new, never before imagined, ways.  The hype continued after the product was revealed but now, several years on, we realize that it’s a cool product but our lives have remained just about exactly the same as before.  What did that product turn out to be?  The Segway.  Very cool but also very, very over-hyped.  The hype about the iPad feels very similar to me.  Only time will tell.

{January 23, 2010}   Influenza Epidemics

My grandmother will turn 92 this April.  If you do the math, you will see that she was born in 1918, a year in which hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed by an influenza epidemic.   In October, 1918,  in the midst of World War I, 195,000 Americans died of the flu, making it the deadliest month in American history.  The flu killed the most robust of people who contracted it.  Soldiers were among the hardest hit, both in Europe and in the United States. I figure that I’m lucky to have ever been born, given that my grandmother was six months old, with little immune defenses against one of the deadliest influenza epidemics in modern history, in this deadliest month.  A bunch of coincidences have brought this flu epidemic to my mind in recent days.

As I have written about in earlier blog posts, I recently bought a Kindle.  One of my favorite authors is Dennis Lehane (a Boston author who wrote Mystic River, among other great novels) and so the first work of fiction that I’ve been reading on my Kindle is The Given Day, Lehane’s novel set in 1918.  It focuses on labor and race issues set against the deadliness of the flu epidemic of that year.  I haven’t finished the novel yet, but so far, it has been informative and enjoyable. 

As I have also written about in earlier blog posts, I decided to get the flu vaccine this year.  The swine flu was predicted to have been the deadliest since 1918 although it has turned out not to be.  The reasons for its relative mildness are not yet known but perhaps one thing is that we now understand how the flu is spread.  And of course, we do have vaccines that are quite effective.

The other night, PBS showed a documentary about the 1918 influenza epidemic.  The documentary details the devastation of the flu as well as the doctors who fought against.  They developed a vaccine which didn’t work because they were focused on bacteria and the flu is viral.  Little was known about viruses in 1918.  Luckily, according to the documentary, “As mysteriously as it had come, the terror began to slip away.”  It had virtually disappeared in Boston by early November.  Armistace Day (Nov 11) brought end to war in Europe and the worst of the epidemic was passing.  It appears that the flu ran out of “fuel”–people who were susceptible.  Survivors developed immunity.  550,000 Americans had died in the 10 months of the epidemic.  At least 30 million people around the world had died.  Nearly every human being on Earth was infected with the virus and therefore developed immunity.  And that probably explains why the swine flu of 2009, although not as deadly as predicted, didn’t hit elderly people very hard.  They had developed immunity from previous exposures.

An interesting side note to this story is that I had lunch with my grandmother today.  She lives in an elderly housing building in Goffstown, NH, where she, and my father, and I, all grew up.  This was the building that she had gone to high school in, and my father had gone to junior high in, and I had gone to 5th and 6th grade in.  When it was no longer needed as a school, it was renovated into apartments for the elderly.  She noted today that she graduated from high school in 1935 (at the age of 17 since she had skipped a grade when she was the only student in her grade in her one room school house).  This is the 75th anniversary of her high school graduation, a high school that was located in the building in which she now lives.  I asked if her class was going to have a reunion.  She said probably not, since she is one of only two of the sixteen she graduated with who are still alive.  And the other woman, who is nearly two years older than my grandmother, is not in very good health.  So no, they will probably not get together to celebrate their graduation from high school 75 years ago.

Life goes on and on and on.  And I’m struck by the arbitrariness, the luck, of it all.

{January 14, 2010}   Google in China Follow-up

A new perspective, one that I hadn’t thought of yesterday when I wrote my post about cheering Google’s decision to stop censoring search results in China, comes from a Business Week article.  The article speculates about Google’s suggestion that it may pull out of China altogether because of concerns about censorship and the hacking of GMail accounts, presumably by the Chinese government.  The article suggests that Google’s withdrawal from the Chinese marketplace would be bad news for the Chinese people since Google’s search results are less heavily censored than the results provided by Baidu, Google’s main competitor in China.

This is an argument that has played out in a number of places throughout history.  Think of the US embargo of Cuba as an example.  The US forbids trade with Cuba because of the actions of its leader.  The pressure of the embargo is supposed to make the leader change his policies and yet, in the forty years since the imposition of the embargo, Castro’s policies have remained unchanged.  The result is an impoverished, isolated population.  In other words, the embargo’s impact is felt almost exclusively by the Cuban people, not by Cuba’s leaders.

I still applaud Google’s decision to stop censoring search results in China, even though Chinese leaders may force Google to shut down because of the lack of censorship.  The case for Google voluntarily pulling out of China completely is complicated.  Things are always complicated when trying to deal with dictatorships and repressive regimes.

{January 13, 2010}   Google in China

Google has received lots of criticism from human rights activists since it started to do business in China in 2006.  The criticism is focused on Google’s willingness to comply with Chinese official demands for censorship of information.  For example, when the Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008, Google censored criticism of the Chinese government from groups such as Human Rights Watch. When presenting search results, they put a disclosure statement on the search page that said something like “in compliance with local laws or regulations, some search results are missing.”  This has been a case of the lure of a huge Chinese marketplace triumphing over principles.  The lure of money can do that to even the best of companies.

Today, however, Google has decided to change its policies in China.  Apparently, the decision to change came when Google discovered their systems had been the target of hacker attacks attempting to break into the GMail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.  Although the official statement never explicitly accuses the Chinese government of being behind these attacks, the implication is there.  Imagine the disillusion in the Google front office when they realized that even though they were cooperating with the Chinese government, that cooperation was not appreciated, was not enough.  And so now, Google has said that they will stop censoring search results and may even end up pulling out of the Chinese market altogether.  If they do pull out, it could mean the loss of billions of dollars.  This is a significant decision and I hope Google benefits in other parts of the world for having made this decision.  In other words, I hope we hear as much praise for Google having made this decision as we heard criticism of their censorship concessions.

US companies continue to cooperate with the Chinese government in maintaining control of information getting into China.  The next company that should receive pressure to stop collaborating is Cisco Systems, which builds the hardware for the Great Firewall of China, run by the Chinese government to block information deemed offensive or dangerous from getting to the average Chinese Internet user.

So hooray for Google.  Let’s hope their experience is a lesson for other telecommunications companies.

et cetera