Desert of My Real Life

Media outlets of all types see April 1st of each year as a time to play with their audiences.  These stories rarely “catch” me because they typically have to be so outrageous that it’s clear from the outset that they are April Fool’s Day jokes.  This morning, however, National Public Radio ran a minute and a half long story that totally caught me.  I spent about 60 seconds planning my blog response to it.

The story is about the fact that 3D viewing technology has really exploded in the entertainment market but the technology still requires us to wear cumbersome 3D glasses.  An opthamologist claimed to have pioneered an eye surgery that would allow us to watch 3D entertainment without having to wear those glasses.  They even had one of the first people who had the surgery talk about how great it was to watch Gnomeo and Juliet in 3D without those glasses.  The line of the story that really made me want to respond was about how this surgery would allow us to live in a 3D world.  In my head, I was yelling “We already live in a 3D world!”  And that was the moment that I knew it was an April Fool’s Day joke.  The beauty of this story is that it mimicked real stories of this type, where people do crazy things to further immerse themselves in online entertainment.  I’ve been reading a bunch about how Reality is Broken and what we can do about it so this story didn’t seem particularly far-fetched to me.  Good job, NPR!

There is a huge controversy raging in NH this year involving the Northern Pass Project.  According to the project’s web site, the Northern Pass is “a transmission project designed to deliver up to 1,200 megawatts of low-carbon, renewable energy (predominantly hydropower) from Québec to New England’s power grid.”  Despite the apparent “greenness” of this project, many people in the state (including many environmentalists) are fighting this project.

I’ve been having some difficulty separating hype from truth when talking to people and reading articles in the newspaper about this topic.  So I decided to do some additional research about it to see what I think in advance of voting on a resolution about it tomorrow on election day.

Here is the proposed path of the power line.  You can see that it goes right through Groveton, Lancaster, Lincoln, Campton, Plymouth, Ashland and Bristol.  These are towns that depend heavily on tourist dollars for their economic vitality.  And much of the argument against the project focuses on the impact of the project on tourism.  According to the project’s own web site, the towers along the project’s path will stand between 80 and 135 feet in the air.  The web site compares these towers to a typical cell phone tower, which stands 180 feet tall.  This seems to me to be an irrelevant comparison since cell phone towers are typically singular whereas the criticism of the project’s towers is that there will 140 miles of them.  These towers will run through some of the most scenic areas of the state and the fear is that this will detract from the beauty of the state, meaning that tourists will not want to vacation here anymore.

Another criticism of the project is that the electricity originates in Quebec, which means that we will be purchasing this power from Canada.  I was in a local business recently where the owner was expressing his discontent about the project with an official of the project.  I overheard him say that this project represents a “wholesale invasion of New Hampshire by Canada.”  This seems a bit overblown to me but the answer to the question of why we should buy power from Canada on the FAQ of the project seems to be a non-answer.  They say that the New England states must buy renewable energy in as cost-effective a manner as possible.  There is nothing in the answer that explains why this is the most cost-effective manner possible.  The answers in the FAQ do, however, make it very clear that we are indeed buying this electricity from Hydro-Quebec.  We are still relying on foreign energy.  This is not necessarily bad but I don’t really see how it helps New Hampshire to do so.

Another of the arguments in favor of the project is that it will create jobs in the North Country of New Hampshire.  But if you read between the lines, it’s clear that these jobs are construction jobs.  Once the transmission lines are built, those jobs disappear.  So this is a very short-term benefit with a long-term negative impact.

I have just relied on the information provided by the people involved in the Northern Pass project and they really have not convinced me that this is good for the people of New Hampshire.  I haven’t even spent any time reading the web pages of the critics of the project.  They are planning to deliver this electricity to the southern part of New Hampshire and south of that (Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island), where the largest population base is.  And yet, it seems that the largest negative impact will be on the people of northern and central New Hampshire.  How is that fair?  Unless someone comments with a compelling argument, I am going to have to vote in favor of the resolution against this project.  What do you think?

{December 26, 2010}   More About Net Neutrality

This entry was inspired by Meg, who asked some great questions after I posted my last entry.  In that entry, I explained what the net neutrality debate is about and why consumers should care about the FCC’s recent ruling requiring that traditional ISPs cannot discriminate the traffic that they carry over their wires.  This is a good thing for consumers (IMHO).  Near the end of the post, I also suggested that the ruling didn’t go far enough because it didn’t apply the same rules to wireless providers.  I didn’t explain what I meant by that and so Meg asked some great questions.  So here’s a further investigation of the FCC ruling, as it applies to wireless providers.

An article from Wired summarizes the three rules that the FCC passed for wired ISPs: 1. They must be “transparent about how they handle network congestion”; cannot block any particular traffic on wired networks, and cannot “unreasonably” discriminate on those networks.  This last rule means that the speed of data transmission must be the same regardless of the source of that data.  So Time Warner (as an ISP) cannot make your connection slower to Netflix‘s online video service than the connection to Time Warner‘s own online video service (if they had one).

Despite these consumer protections, the ruling is being thrashed because it does not apply these rules to wireless providers of Internet access.  What does that mean?  It means that if you access the Internet on your phone, your phone company can charge you different rates to access different sites.  If Facebook is particularly popular, for example, your phone company can charge you more to access it than it charges to access MySpace.  Or worse, if your phone company creates their own social networking site, they can charge you more to access all competitors’ sites than they do to access the more well-known sites.  Or even worse yet, they can prevent you from using their wireless network to access the competitors’ sites at all.  This is clearly not in the best interest of consumers.  It’s also not in the best interest of innovation since most innovation does not come from the biggest companies and small companies could get squeezed out if no one is able to access their sites.

Right now, these (non)rules concerning wireless providers apply mostly to cell phone companies who provide Internet access.  Most other access is wired access.  Even when we have wireless networks in our homes and places of work, we have wired access that comes into the building and then we have a local wireless network set up.  So the ISP isn’t providing the Internet access wirelessly.  And so they would be governed by the stricter rules imposed by the FCC ruling.  But that may not always be the case.  In the future, more and more ISPs may figure out ways to effectively and efficiently provide wireless access into our homes and businesses.  And if that happens, those new networks will be governed by the softer rules.  This seems short-sighted to me.  And it seems like it happens because the folks on the FCC are not tech people and so don’t really understand what is different and what is the same about different kinds of technology.  Let’s hope that changes.

The debate about net neutrality has been around for a while.  I taught my students about it back when I was still in the Computer Science Department, during the Bush administration.  Today, finally, we’ve gotten a ruling from the Federal Communications Commission about this “controversial” subject.  But to understand the FCC ruling, we first have to understand the debate.  And that means that we have to understand what the Internet actually is.

So, what is the debate?  It’s about your access to the Internet.  The Internet was founded as a decentralized network of computers.  That’s right.  The Internet is  a network of computers.  Each of these computers provides some service.  So when you connect to the “Internet,” you are connecting to a bunch of computers.  And you ask those computers to provide you with some sort of service.  Like viewing a web page.  Or looking at your email.  Or listening to music.  Or watching a movie.  Each of these services involves sending your computer data in the form of a bunch of zeroes and ones that your computer then translates into something that you (as a human) recognize.  Some of these services involve a few zeroes and ones while others involve MANY zeroes and ones.  The Internet was founded on the idea that zeroes and ones are zeroes and ones.  That is, we should not make any distinction between THIS set of zeroes and ones and THAT set of zeroes and ones.  That’s the idea of net neutrality.

How does this relate to you and your everyday, online life?  It means that when you use your Internet Service Provider (Time Warner Cable or Netzero or Verizon or whoever) to connect to Google (or Microsoft or LL Bean or YouTube or Hulu whoever), the zeroes and ones are not discriminated.  All zeroes and ones are treated equally.  So, for example, Time Warner cannot make a deal with Microsoft to make Bing (Microsoft’s search engine) run faster than Google (Bing’s direct competitor).  And Time Warner cannot make a deal with Microsoft to charge you more to access Google than to access Bing.  AND Time Warner cannot make a deal with Microsoft to completely block your access to Google so that you MUST use Bing as a search engine.  THAT is net neutrality.

So the issue has been whether to consider the Internet to be more like a communication network or an entertainment provider.   If the Internet is about communication, then it should be regulated in the same ways that phone communication has been regulated.  Phone companies must carry all phone calls at the same rate based on distance.  In other words, they can charge you more to call California than to call the town next to you, but they can’t charge you more to call Business A than to call Business B based solely on the fact that Business A is different than Business B.   And they can’t block your call to any place.  They must carry all calls.  On the other hand, if the Internet is about entertainment, then they should be able to make deals like your cable company makes deals.  For example, my cable company, Time Warner, recently failed to come to an agreement with an ABC affiliate out of Vermont.  As a result, I no longer get that channel in my cable lineup–I cannot access that channel no matter what I do (unless I change to a cable or satellite provider that gives me that access–but, of course, most cable companies have monopoly access in the towns where they provide service).  In addition, if I want access to certain channels, my cable company may charge me more.  I have access to The Sundance Channel but I don’t have access to the Independent Film Channel because I pay at the level that gives me Sundance but I don’t pay at the level that gives me IFC.

So the question has been, is the Internet a communication network (like phones) or an entertainment network (like cable TV)?  Another way to ask this question is: should Internet service provision be regulated to prevent differential access to certain sites?   Many Republicans have argued that deregulation, allowing companies to do whatever they want, promotes competition and is therefore good for consumers.  And so they have argued that we should allow Internet Service Providers to charge different amounts for different kinds of access and to actually block access to certain sites.  I generally believe that consumers are best served by rules that promote net neutrality.  So I have argued for a long time that the FCC should make rules that prevent situations such as what happened with my ABC affiliate and my cable TV provider.

So today, the FCC ruled in favor of net neutrality.  THIS is a good thing (IMHO) for consumers–and THAT is why you should care about this.  Some Republicans have called this ruling “regulatory hubris.”  Many on the other side of the debate have also decried this ruling because it doesn’t go far enough in its regulations.  The ruling explicitly singles out cell phone operating systems, such as Android, as the reason that the FCC was softening its rules for net neutrality on wireless networks.  This is defintely something that consumers need to pay attention to.

{October 17, 2010}   News Media Not Doing Its Job

As I drove to the airport in late September, I listened, as usual, to New Hampshire Public Radio in my car.   Election season is upon us so much of the coverage that morning was about state politics.  Two candidates are running for governor in NH, the incumbent John Lynch, a Democrat, and the Republican challenger, John Stephen.  They had debated the issues the day before and the reporter, Dan Gorenstein, was covering that debate.

Early in the report, Gorenstein quoted a voter who said, “They probably don’t agree on what day it is.”  That’s not a surprise for two politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum.  Gorenstein goes on to say that the two candidates presented very different numbers during the debate concerning the budget.  Lynch claims that, under his leadership, General Fund spending has gone down 7%.  Stephen claims that under Lynch’s leadership, budget appropriations have gone up 24%.  Gorenstein then told us that both numbers are accurate “as long as you cut the numbers the right way.”

I’m writing about this report because of what happened next.  I expected Gorenstein to explain to us the differences in the way the two candidates “cut the numbers.”  But that’s not what this report was about.  Gorenstein simply told us that the numbers are confusing, that voters are right to be confused by the numbers, and that most voters will probably not take the time to figure out the differences.  How is that news?  How is that helpful to anyone listening to the report?

I spent the rest of my drive south thinking about this report, about how NHPR (my news source of choice) failed me and the other voters of New Hampshire in this report.  Why hadn’t they delved into the numbers for me?  Why didn’t they explain to me how both sets of numbers could be accurate (and, as Gorenstein also said, “arguably misleading”)?  What was the point of “covering” the debate in this manner? I was (and continue to be) significantly disappointed in NHPR.  And so I planned this blog entry in my head.

As I began to write this entry, I became even MORE disappointed in NHPR.  If you check out the link that I provided to Gorenstein’s report, you’ll see that within the transcript there is a link to an earlier, related story, also reported by Gorenstein.  On August 12, 2010, Gorenstein reported on the widely different budget numbers that were being touted by the two candidates.  And he explained why they are different and how they can both be considered accurate!  WHAT?  He had already done the research and yet made NO mention of it in his coverage of the debate.  The really surprising thing to me is that the explanation is not even very hard to understand.  Very disappointing.  And a lesson to aspiring journalists about how NOT to report the news.

So I don’t commit the same error for which I’m criticizing Gorenstein (even though it isn’t my JOB to inform the public), here’s the explanation for why the numbers are so different and can both be considered accurate.  John Lynch is correct when he says that spending from the General Fund has gone down 7% in the last two years.  But notice the words “General Fund.”  Many items have been moved to their own, separate budgets.  For example, the Liquor Commission (which runs all of the state liquor stores and deals with liquor licenses) budget is no longer part of the General Fund.  I tried to determine whether the Liquor Commission is self-sustaining, that is, takes in the amount of money (or more) in sales and fees to cover the amount that it spends.  I was unable to find that information, however.  So it isn’t clear to me what it means to these numbers to say that we’ve taken these items out of the General Fund.  John Stephen’s numbers take into account ALL of the money in the state budget, not just the General Fund.  If you do that, you’ll see that our state budget increased 24% in large part because of federal stimulus funds, money that the state received from the federal government to undertake specific projects such as bridge repair.  It isn’t clear to me that it’s helpful to include these funds when looking at whether John Lynch is a good fiscal manager.  Passing up these funds would be problematic (in my opinion).  In addition, Stephen’s number is about appropriations, rather than money actually spent.  In other words, he’s looking at how much has been budgeted to be spent, rather than how much was actually spent.  In 2009, the state budgeted 12% more in spending than it actually spent.  Lynch, on the other hand, is talking about the amount of money actually spent.  In other words, the two candidates are talking about apples and oranges.

That wasn’t so difficult to understand, was it?  I think Gorenstein could have explained this in his report.  Or, if he didn’t have time, he could have simply said that interested voters could go online and find his report about this to understand the differences between the numbers.  Then he’d be doing his job.

{August 19, 2010}   Barack Obama X?

I could not believe what I was hearing on NPR this afternoon.  

I had heard about the “Hussein” controversy when Obama was running for President of the United States, where conservative commentators tried to make a big deal of his middle name during the 2008 election.  I even changed my own middle name on Facebook to “Hussein.”  I recognized the fear-mongering in this argument, in trying to make a connection between Obama and Sadaam Hussein.  Since when is having the same name as someone else a crime?  Or a reason to not elect someone president?  

I had heard about the controversy surrounding President Obama’s birth certificate.  Because his father is Kenyan (and his mother is American), conservative commentators raised the issue of whether he is really an American citizen.  Of course, if he isn’t an American citizen, he can’t be president.  But he was born in Hawaii so he is a citizen. 

Some have argued that since he was born in Hawaii, he isn’t an American citizen because Hawaii wasn’t a state when he was born.  Of course, he was born in 1961 and Hawaii became a state in 1959.  Why didn’t these people raise the issue of his citizenship when he ran for US Senate?  Clearly, politics are at play here.

But today, I heard a story that had slipped below my radar.  Actually, I guess it’s two stories that are interrelated.  The first story is about Malcolm X, a well-known African-American activist who was a member of the controversial religious (some say terrorist) organization the Nation of Islam (but who left the organization amid disagreement  and hostility and who was assassinated by members of that organization).  Apparently, Malcolm X secretly fathered Barack Obama.  There is a resemblance between the two men.  But the evidence is non-existent.  And even if it was true, who cares?  Isn’t our country founded on the idea that each of us should be judged for who we are and not who our parents are?

The second part of the story is that Obama is a Muslim.  If his father is Malcolm X, he MUST be a Muslim, right?  What if his father isn’t Malcolm X?  Could he still be a Muslim?  Sure, he could.  But the White House adamently insists that he is a Christian and that he prays daily.  Who cares?  Can’t a Muslim be a good President of the US?  Since when is religion a criterion for whether someone should be President?  But such is our world.  He has to be a Christian AND he must pray every day.  I’m an Obama supporter (because, seriously, what are my alternatives?).  But I would prefer that he NOT pray daily.  I want a President who isn’t mystical, who uses his brain when making decision about global security.  But that isn’t the world we live in today.  Today, even the liberals disagree with a fundamental tenet of the founding of our country–the separation of church and state.  And so, the non-story of our President being the love-child of Malcolm X and therefore, a Muslim, is given enough credibility to be discussed (and dismissed) by a respected news organization like NPR.

{August 3, 2010}   Translating Between Media

One of the best books I’ve ever read is a short novel about South Africa after the end of apartheid.  The novel is the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace written by J.M. Coetzee, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.  Disgrace tells the story of David Lurie, a white South African professor of English, who loses his job and goes to the countryside to visit his daughter on a farm there.  I won’t spoil the novel by giving away plot points.  But this book is not brilliant because of its plot (although the plot is very interesting).  It is brilliant because of its portrait of a completely unlikable protagonist, whose attitudes increasingly bring him into conflict with the changes that have taken place in his country.  His attitudes towards other people, especially women and black South Africans, are reprehensible and yet, reading the book is like watching a horrible accident.  You want to look away but you’re fascinated by the horror and can’t believe that it’s unfolding as it is.  Despite Lurie’s arrogance, by the end, I felt sympathy for him as man whose world had changed so drastically in such a short amount of time that he just couldn’t keep up.  Coetzee’s skill is in making us, as readers, understand this character’s point of view without forcing us to condone it.

Ann had recommended Disgrace to me because she loved it and thought it was an interesting post-colonial novel.  We’ve had a number of interesting conversations about it.  So we were quite excited last year when we learned that the novel had been made into a movie.  I heard an interesting conversation about the movie on NPR and Wikipedia told us this: “A motion picture adaptation starring John Malkovich had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, where it won the International Critics’ Award.”  We checked various web sites and discovered that the movie played in New York and Los Angeles and nowhere else.  I wasn’t sure what to make of this–it could be that the movie was really bad or it could be that it tackles subject matter that is not particularly interesting.  We waited and waited and the movie never went into wide release in the United States.

Recently, Ann found that the movie had been released to DVD and that NetFlix had it.  So she rented it and we watched it together.  It was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  The movie is a fairly faithful recreation of the major plot points of the novel.  And so, it was interesting to both of us that the movie was so bad that we checked in with each other every 10 minutes or so to determine whether we really should keep watching.  It all made me very curious about the differences between media and why a story that was so successful in one medium can be such a huge failure in another medium.  Here’s what I came up with (and please remember that I am not a movie critic).

The first problem with the movie is John Malkovich.  He is supposed to be playing an arrogant white South African.  As Ann pointed out, the South African accent is a difficult one to master.  Malkovich completely fails in this task.  He says his lines nasally, but mostly with an American accent (he is American, after all).  When he does slip into some other accent, it is a strange British one, but it never sticks.  The American accent is too persistent.  This problem is just one of many acting issues in the movie.  The acting is all-around horrible.  From major characters to minor characters, it seems that everyone is aware that they are in a big D Drama.  It’s painful to watch.

The second, even bigger, problem is the script.  The script hits the major plot points from the novel.  But so much of the novel is about character development that I think I would have had a difficult time understanding what was going on if I hadn’t read the novel.  I think I can give an example without giving away the plot.  In the novel, Lurie goes to visit the family of one of his female students without her knowledge.  It is a scene of great suspense, as he meets the student’s young sister, worms his way into the house, and ends up having dinner with the family.  This action makes sense to us in the novel because we have access to Lurie’s inner thoughts (or at least as much as he, an unreliable narrator, is willing to allow us).  But the scene makes sense.  In the movie, Lurie goes to visit the family, encounter the student’s young sister, but the scene ends when the student’s father comes home.  There is no suspense in the scene and his motivation for visiting is completely lost on us (unless we’ve read the book).  Lurie doesn’t have dinner with the family.   But that divergence from the novel is not the main problem with the script.  The problem is that we have no sense of the character’s motivation for doing what he’s doing.

I don’t think this lack of understanding of motivation is something that is always a problem with movies.  In other words, there’s nothing inherent in the medium that disallows the understanding of character motivation.  I think the problem is that the novel contains characters who behave in surprising ways, in ways that make sense only if you are inside their world, inside their perspective.  Without that perspective, their actions seem arbitrary and baffling.  The movie doesn’t provide us with that perspective and therefore, the actions of the characters make no sense.

I am very disappointed that this particular adaptation was such a failure.  The focus on the story misses the point of the novel.  This particular story is fascinating but really only makes sense in the novel because we understand what motivates the characters.  Translating between media is more difficult than simply transcribing a story.  Maybe I’ll have to stop watching movie adaptations of the novels that I love.

And, by the way, who are these critics at the Toronto Film Festival, who gave this movie an award?  It was awful!

{May 19, 2010}   The iPod Touch

I haven’t written in a while.  The end of a semester and a sinus infection will do that to a person.  But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been thinking about technology on a daily basis.  For example, two weeks ago today was the last faculty meeting of the semester and my friend Lourdes came over after the meeting to show me her new iPad.  I’ve written about the iPad before and I have been critical of the hype surrounding the device.  I’m still critical of the hype, but I do have to say, now that I’ve seen one, it is beautiful!  The screen is so sharp and clear and responds to the slightest touch.  The apps are amazing and varied.  It speaks to the geek in me in a way that makes me want to go out and buy one.

In the meantime, I’ve had a couple of conversations with a variety of people about a variety of topics and as a result, I decided to buy myself an iPod Touch about a week ago.  I am incredibly happy with this purchase so far in a way that makes the geek in me not miss purchasing a more expensive iPad.  The iTouch is a smaller version of the iPad, similar to an iPhone but without the need for a monthly contract with AT&T.  It runs all of the apps developed for the iPhone but is not a phone.  It holds and plays music and videos, just like a classic iPod.  It’s beautiful, with a touch screen that is sharp and clear and changes orientation when you move the device from portrait to landscape.  I’ve gotten a number of free apps, including a note taking app that allows me to write with my finger on the touch screen.  The iTouch has WiFi access so I’ve used it to check my checking account balance and my email as well as to browse both the iTunes store and Amazon for Kindle books, since there’s a Kindle app for the iTouch.   I’ve purchased a number of individual songs from the iTunes store and have listened to a number of podcasts for free.   All of these applications have been easy to use and adequate for use on a single device. 

I do, however, look forward to the time when I can do all of the things that I do on my myriad of electronic devices on a single device that is optimized for all of those activities.  For example, the backlighting of the device will make reading an entire book a strain on the eyes in ways that the Kindle does not strain the eyes.  The Kindle, in other words, is optimized for the reading of text but does not allow many other uses.  The iTouch, on the other hand, is a nice step in the direction of a single, multi-purpose device but it is definitely not optimized for each of these activities.  Despite that, I’m glad that I purchased it.  It’s a nice addition to my library of electronic devices.

{April 5, 2010}   Wii Streaming

A few months ago, Liz bought a Roku so that she could stream Netflix content to her television.  She complained slightly about the $80 price tag for a device that can only do one thing.  But overall, she has been very happy with the Roku.  Netflix has been pushing its users to watch content instantly, without the need for the shipping of a DVD.  Watching instantly is really a win-win situation.  We content consumers win because we don’t have to wait for the US Mail to deliver our DVDs to us and then back to Netflix when we’re done.  It’s a big win for Netflix if we watch instantly because shipping costs have made the company the largest customer of the US Postal Service.  If we watch instantly, no DVD needs to be shipped and therefore, Netflix saves that postage cost.  I’ve watched some content directly on my laptop but I don’t find it as compelling as watching the content on my TV.  But I also didn’t want to spend money on another stand-alone electronic device.

Netflix has the answer!  They have recently sent me a DVD to put into my Wii (which I already own as those of you who have laughed at my Wii injury know) so that I can access my Netflix queue via the Wii.  I set everything up this afternoon, which was amazingly easy. Within a few minutes, Iwatched my first instant content in all its surround-sound glory.  Set up might take longer if you don’t already have your Wii connected to a wireless or wired network.  But if it’s already set up to automatically connect to your home network, the rest of the set up involves the simple insertion of the Netflix DVD into your Wii.  The content that I watched this afternoon suffered no network delays making it indistinguishable from watching on a DVD.  Actually, it might be better to watch instantly since I sometimes get DVDs from Netflix that are so scratched up and dirty that they are virtually unwatchable.  And the amount of content that is available for watching instantly is quite remarkable.

The only complaint I have about the experience so far is that navigating my Watch Instantly queue is a bit different than navigating through it on my computer.  It seems as though items should appear on the Wii in the same order that they appear on my computer but things looked different enough that I don’t think the order is the same.  But that’s a minor complaint since I haven’t really managed my Watch Instantly queue with the same attention to detail that I’ve used on my DVD queue.  Maybe that will change as I switch to using the Wii more often.

And, by the way, Happy Birthday, Liz!

One of my favorite shows on NPR is On The Media.  Each week, the hosts examine a variety of topics related to the media, mostly in the US.  I hear the show on Sunday mornings on New Hampshire Public Radio.  On February 26, 2010, the show aired a story called “The Watchers.”  It brought me back to my graduate school days and my academic roots in computer science, specifically in pattern recognition and machine learning.

The story was about the value of the massive amounts of data that each of us leave behind as we go about our daily electronic lives.  In particular, John Poindexter, convicted of numerous felonies in the early 1990’s for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal (reversed on appeal), had the idea that the US government could use computers to troll through this data, looking for patterns.  When I was in graduate school, deficit hawks were interested in this idea as a way to find people who were scamming the welfare system and credit card companies were interested using it to ferret out credit card fraud.  Then George Bush became president and 9/11 occurred.  Suddenly, Poindexter’s ideas became hot within the defense department.

In 2002, Bush appointed Poindexter as the head of the Information Awareness Office, part of DARPA, and Poindexter pushed the agenda of “total information awareness,” a plan to use software to monitor the wide variety of electronic data that we each leave behind with our purchases and web browsing and cell phone calls and all of our other modern behaviors.  The idea was that by monitoring this data, the software would be able to alert us to potential terrorist activity.  In other words, the software would be able to detect the activities of terrorists as they plan their next attack.

The On The Media story described the problems with this program, problems that we knew about way back when I was in graduate school in the early 1990’s.  The biggest problem is that the software is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data that is currently being collected.  This problem is similar to the problem of information overload in humans.  The software can’t make sense of so much data.  “Making sense” of the data is a prerequisite for being able to find patterns within the data.

Why do we care about this issue?  There are a couple of reasons.  The first is that we’re spending a lot of money on this software.  In a time when resources are scarce, it seems crazy to me that we’re wasting time and money on a program that isn’t working.  The second reason is that data about all of us is needlessly being collected and so our privacy is potentially being invaded (if anyone or any software happens to look at the data).  Poindexter’s original idea was that the data would be “scrubbed” so that identifying information was removed unless a problematic pattern was identified.  This particular requirement has been forgotten so that our identifying information is attached to each piece of data as it is collected.  But I think the main reason we should care about this wasted program is because it is another example of security theater, which I’ve written about before.  It does nothing to make us actually safer but is instead a way of pretending that we are safer.

When I was in graduate school, I would never have thought that we would still be talking about this idea all these years later.  Learning from the past isn’t something we do well.

et cetera