Listen to Old People About Tech

There’s an ongoing narrative that the only people who truly understand modern tech are the young. “They grew up with it,” people say. “They’re digital natives.”

They’ve been saying that for a long time now and it has been applied to every new-fangled invention, not just computers or smartphones. I mean, it was a thing with VCRs back when folks were still deciding between VHS and Betamax.

While I’m sure some kid whose mom stuck an iPad or smartphone in their hands to keep them occupied so she could have some peace and quiet is faster than I am at figuring out how new tech works, I don’t think this means they are more suited for making decisions about where tech is going.

The folks you really need to ask about digital tech are us Boomer and Gen-X types who dove into it when personal computers first showed up on the scene, plus the Millennials who came along shortly afterwards when computers were being used everywhere.

I got my first computer in 1983, which is more than 40 years ago. And I’ve been online since the mid-1990s, which is getting close to 30 years ago.

I’m not a techie and getting my Kaypro II was the last time I came anywhere close to being an early adopter. But I’ve been dealing with this stuff for more than half my life.

I watched the Internet become something back in the day when everyone was asking “but how will we make money out of it?” Then I watched the capitalists take over Silicon Valley. Now I’m watching the enshittification process.

Which is to say that I saw the genuine creative process that made the early years of the internet so exciting and now I’m seeing how that can be destroyed. Continue reading “Listen to Old People About Tech”

Urban Planning. Or Not

I jay-walk in almost any city I’ve been t0: I’m a New Yorker, I think it’s inborn. I’ve jaywalked in Paris and London and Helsinki, San Francisco and Boston and Chicago–sensibly, because I’m not a stupid New Yorker. There are the streets you dart across, and the ones you look at and think, Oh, Hell no.

But I do not jay-walk in Los Angeles. This is not just because I don’t know another city that is as car-centric as LA, but because the city isn’t physically set up for walking, let alone jay-walking. As I write this I’m in LA, visiting my aunt. Most days, unless it’s pouring down buckets, I like to get out of the house and take a walk. My aunt’s house is at the base of a hill, and about a block away from one of the ubiquitous freeways. Logically, I’d prefer to walk up the hill–except that for many blocks there are no sidewalks, and I have an unreasoning prejudice about walking in the middle of the street in a town where some drivers do not acknowledge the existence of speed limits. So even if it means strolling down Sepulveda Boulevard–a long, uninteresting road that parallels and is largely overshadowed by I-405, I choose to walk where there are sidewalks.

LA does not make this easy. Yesterday I struck out from my aunt’s house and, rather than marching determinedly down Sepulveda southbound (which is not only uninteresting, but largely unpopulated except by the people driving by) I decided to walk toward Barrington Avenue and a small shopping area a little less than a mile from the house. A nice stroll (with, as it turned out, a cup of coffee and a brownie at the end of it). To do this, I had to cross the interstate via an underpass at Church Street. Fine. The crosswalk dictated that I cross on the southern side of the street. So I crossed and kept on walking under the interstate. Unfortunately, on the other side of the underpass the sidewalk (to which I had been directed by the necessity of crossing Sepulveda on that side) stopped. There was a well-worn dirt path, but no sidewalk. And crossing to the other side of the street, where there is a sidewalk, was rendered inadvisable by the fact that the street is curved, with lousy visibility, and people tear up and down it on their way to and from the I-405 exit/onramp. So I stayed on the dirt path until I reached a traffic light (just before the aforementioned exit/onramp) when I was able to cross to the other side of Church, and a sidewalk.

At the next intersection, at Sunset, I needed to turn west. However, having had it demonstrated to me that sidewalks are not a given, I looked west on Sunset and realized that the sidewalk on my side of the street was only there for another 100 feet or so. Okay, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice? That’s curiously biased city planning. So I crossed Sunset (which is a six-lane monster–you can bet I waited patiently for the light), turned right, and continued onward until I reached South Barrington Avenue, where the shops I was heading toward beckoned.

I will note that there are many single-family dwellings–classy, multi-car, expensive houses on either side of Sunset. On the southern side, where I was walking, there was a sidewalk. On the northern side: no sidewalk. The houses all had handsome gates and fences which fronted on brief, probably very expensive expanses of lawn, then the curb, then the insanity that is Sunset Boulevard. In my imagination, if I had decided to despoil the lawns in my stroll it would have been looked on with disfavor and maybe a call to 9-1-1. Lack of sidewalk says “stay away”. I don’t know why the houses on the west side of the street have a sidewalk (which runs along the handsome gates and fences, and sometimes even briefer expanses of lawn). Perhaps the west side lost the toss. The sidewalks have accessibility cuts for wheelchairs, because they are required by Federal Law. But I don’t think anyone imagines that people are actually using them.

Waaaay back in the 1970s I spent six months in LA, and even tho’ I had a car, sometimes I opted to take a walk. In those days walking was less thought of even than now–at least twice when I took a walk someone pulled over to ask if my car had broken down. I felt like I had arrived in the Bradbury story “The Pedestrian.” I began to suspect that if I had been in the runner’s regalia of the time (which included spandex leggings and a sweatband, and Nope) I might have been comprehensible. But just walking? Too weird.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Eddie Valiant (played by the late, wonderful Bob Hoskins) says, “Who needs a car  when we got the best transportation system in the world?” The transportation system he’s talking about were the streetcars–the Red Car (regional) and Yellow Car (local) systems–which was “the most extensive urban rail transit system in America, if not the world,” according to historian Colin Marshall. My mother and my aunt, who grew up in LA, doubtless knew the streetcars well. In seeking the quote above, I found a brief history of the Pacific Electric Railway system and how it came to dwindle and die. Short answer: it wasn’t Judge Doom with a nefarious noir-ish plot to dismantle the streetcar system and profit from “Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena!” As elsewhere in America, people liked cars, liked the freedom they gave, and as soon as they could afford to, they drove rather than use the streetcars. The Red Car went out of business in the early 60s. The LA Metro System, which combines subway and buses, has come to replace some part of it, as people came to understand the ecological and economic costs of driving everywhere.

But you still need a way to get to the Metro. And until LA invests in sidewalks that exist reliably on both sides of the street, that’s going to be a challenge.

Workarounds, With Belts and Suspenders

Modern life requires workarounds. Under the principle of Murphy’s law – whatever can go wrong will – there are many situations where having more than one way to do something will save your butt.

This is also an argument for redundancy, or, as I like to put it, using both a belt and suspenders. That may be an outdated metaphor – I’m not sure anyone uses suspenders to hold up their pants these days – but I’ve always liked it.

Both workarounds and belts and suspenders are at the heart of the way I deal with tech, but they can also apply to other things. I use workarounds when I cook, for example — if we’re out of one thing, I use something else.

Earlier this week, I needed to make granola. I like an easy cold cereal for breakfast, but it’s hard to find ones made from whole grains with very little sugar and a lot of nuts, so I make my own. My preference is to make it with mixed rolled grains — wheat, barley, oats, rye — but I have been known to make it with just barley.

We can usually get one or the other in bulk at a health food store, but my backup is Bob’s Red Mill 5-Grain hot cereal. However, we haven’t been to the health food store lately and our local store’s been out of the 5-Grain for two weeks.

So this week I made it with rolled oats. (No one is ever out of rolled oats, near as I can tell.) It makes very little difference in taste, though it doesn’t give me the perfect mix of grains I want for good health (barley is very good for you). Still, it will do and it’s still way better than the commercial brands.

Workarounds are often imperfect, but in a lot of cases, perfection isn’t worth all the extra effort.

A typical workaround in tech is saving documents as rtf if you need to be able to open them in different word processing programs. Or emailing them to yourself in addition to saving them. Or even printing things out just to be on the safe side. I save my taxes on the computer, but I also keep a print copy.

Another is having multiple browsers available because one of them won’t work for some things you try to do. For some reason, I can’t pay one of my health insurance bills in Firefox, but I can in Safari. That’s the sort of thing I mean.

Making extra copies and having multiple browsers are both redundant, but that’s where the belt and suspenders point comes in. It’s a lot easier than spending hours trying to find something that should be saved online but isn’t or even more hours figuring out what’s causing the problem. Redundancy can be very useful. Continue reading “Workarounds, With Belts and Suspenders”

In Praise of Things

My aunt was in the hospital for a few days (nothing major, except when you’re pushing 98 everything is major)). To a one, the staff at the hospital were wonderful–competent, kind, empathetic, and sometimes, funny. But a lot of the time my aunt was dozing off–hospital life not being a thrill a minute, even with your favorite niece on premises–and I found myself looking at all the things.

I’ve always been fascinated by medical technology, but particularly the small stuff: the clips that hold IV bags in place but also serve to gather up the tentacles of tubing so that the patient and staff aren’t constantly tying themselves in knots; the plastic sheet with straps that slides easily over the bed, so that a patient can be moved easily and with less stress on her and her caregivers; the astonishing doohickey that the hospital uses to help move mostly-bedbound patients to a recliner or wheelchair; the contraption that helps my recuperating daughter pull her socks on without bending in medically unadvisable ways. None of these things are going to make history, but they make the lives of people who are sick or disabled, and the lives of their caregivers a little easier.

It pleases me to think that there are people out there who spend their days coming up with these gadgets. Probably some of them were invented by caregivers or people who work in hospitals. My father, who was a volunteer Emergency Medical Tech for twenty years, was one of those folks. At the time each ambulance had reusable medical-grade splint. If the splint was used during a call, they had to wait until the patient had been stabilized and the splint had been cleaned and disinfected before they could use it again. In a community with a number of ski-slopes and lots of winter sports, more than one broken limb in an afternoon was not exactly unheard of. So my father (who was an artist, industrial designer, and unstoppable tinkerer) came up with a lightweight, inexpensive disposable splint. He patented it and found a manufacturer to license it, and he split the proceeds with the ambulance squad. That was 30 years ago, and I suspect that Dad’s splint has been rendered quaint by subsequent inventions. Even so.

When I used to give platelets I was the weirdo who asked the phlebotomist all sorts of questions about the bits and pieces of tech that were used, not only to test my blood for iron before I gave lots of it away, but to make the process easier for the technician and more pleasant for the blood source (which would be me). Not least of which is that stretchy mesh bandage that comes in a rainbow array of colors. “What color would you like today? Purple? Green? Neon pink?”

There are downsides, of course. Most of these things are meant to be used once, which means that they are small, probably relatively cheap, and made of plastic. I worry about the sheer amount of plastic that is added to an already-overburdened planet in the name of doing health-related things safely and easily, without the need for sterilization and re-use. I would be a little leery of, say, compostable plastics used for things like IV tubing or test tubes. Maybe for some of the comfort- and transportation-devices? I don’t know if any of the hospital-use plastics are recycled, but it would make me very happy to know that they were. And the Big Plastic Things (like the iMove patient mover chair I linked to above) are durable equipment, meant for many uses, and at the end of their lives could be recycled.

I want–I applaud–all the clever gizmos that busy minds can devise to be used and improved and to make our lives better. I also want, because having it all is my watchword, for those things to leave as little trace as possible for the next generations. It’s only fair.

The Joys of Infrastructure

cover for How Infrastructure WorksI just finished a wonderful book that explained what it would take for everyone on Earth to live the good life. It was all about infrastructure.

Don’t stop reading! Infrastructure is far from boring, I promise you, especially when the person explaining it to you is Deb Chachra, an engineering professor who both understands how things work and how to explain them. (I’ll just note right here that she has read some science fiction and philosophy along the way.)

The book is called How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems that Shape Our World. And no, it’s not a treatise on pipes or wiring or highway construction. It’s an overview of how all those things come together to make modern life possible.

Even if you’ve thought a lot about infrastructure — most of us only think about it when ours fails — this book will give you some deep insights into just how important it is and, even more importantly, how infrastructure design sets in place all our lives.

One of the first things I got from the book is that modern infrastructure is what makes our lives comfortable and possible in the United States and other highly developed countries. We have power at the flick of a switch, water when we turn on a tap, phone service (land lines even still exist, though most of us are using mobile phones these days). The wastewater gets taken away and treated.

Further, we have roads that go everywhere. In some places, we also have other transit options besides cars.

Most of us have access to good food even if we don’t live near where food is grown. That’s due to shipping systems, which also bring us other things we need.

That’s the point: all these things make modern life possible. We don’t have to dig our own wells or fetch water from the nearest creek (if there is one). We don’t have to cut up logs and feed them into a wood burning stove to cook and keep our homes warm. We can be in touch with people all around the world without leaving home or even waiting for the mail (and of course, mail is an infrastructure).

A couple of hundred years ago, people didn’t have most of these things. There were roads and there were shops and some supply systems, but they were not nearly as convenient as they are today.

Despite the fantasy of the “freedom” of living off the grid, the truth is that living in a system with modern infrastructure gives people a great deal more freedom to do something beyond just survival. Continue reading “The Joys of Infrastructure”

Fixing the Air We Breathe Indoors

On May 15, ASHRAE — the association of engineers who work in heating, air conditioning, and ventilation — set out its Proposed Standard 241P, Control of Infectious Aerosols.

They are soliciting comments on it until May 26 from the public. Links and instructions for comments can be found here.

This standard, which was put together over six months — lightning speed for ASHRAE, which often takes years to develop new standards due to its painstaking process — was built on years of work by the organization on indoor air quality and included some input from public health experts.

According to ASHRAE:

The standard will address long-range transmission of infectious aerosols and provides minimum requirements for:

  • Equivalent outdoor air (combined effect of ventilation, filtration, and air cleaning) for use during Infection Risk Mitigation Mode
  • Room air distribution to reduce risk
  • Characterization of filter and air cleaner effectiveness and safety
  • Commissioning, including development and implementation of a Building Readiness Plan
  • System operation in Infection Risk Mitigation Mode during periods of high risk
  • Maintenance tasks and their minimum frequency
  • Residences and health care facilities

ASHRAE issued some recommendations early in the pandemic that provided guidelines for the kind of filtration that should be used in buildings to minimize transmission of airborne viruses. Those guidelines, though very good, were based on ongoing work on indoor air quality and did not include the kind of comprehensive work they brought to this new standard.

These standards, once incorporated into building codes and other regulations for buildings, will be a major step forward in making sure that the indoor air is safe to breathe. In a world in which many people spend most of their time indoors, that is a crucial element of public health.

These standards will minimize the transmission of airborne diseases including, but not limited to, Covid. Continue reading “Fixing the Air We Breathe Indoors”

An Aikido Approach to Chatbots

Tools can be useful,
but don’t count on them to think.
Use them mindfully.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that the discussion of guns for self defense all seem to start — and end — with the purchase of said gun. Perhaps a few of those who hold the view that “an armed society is a polite society” (to quote Robert Heinlein) also advocate serious training, but it’s easy to get the impression that too many people think owning the gun is all you need to protect yourself.

I wrote a story about this called “Survival Skills.” In it an Aikido sensei told the protagonist that no tool is ever ultimately the answer. The protagonist had to learn the core truth of that the hard way, though.

I bring this up because all the furor about the AI chat bots has skipped over analyzing them as a tool that has both benefits and flaws. Some people are already using them to replace humans, without paying any attention to some of their significant flaws. (A writing program that makes up facts and cites non-existent articles is not a tool to rely on.)

And the scammers are already out in full force: people are submitting chatbot written stories to magazines. The biggest problem from the magazine POV is not separating them out from real stories — that’s pretty easy — but the fact they flood the inbox, exhausting the editor who has to deal with them.

Nobody’s going to make any money sending chatbot stories to magazines, but someone’s probably making money teaching people how to do that.

My Aikido teacher used to occasionally say, “I teach philosophy,” meaning that Aikido is so much more than a physical practice. I try to apply the principles of Aikido to other aspects of life.

I just applied two Aikido principles to the discussion of chatbots: relying on a tool when you don’t understand what you’re doing with it and acting without integrity. Aikido teaches you to avoid both of those things. Continue reading “An Aikido Approach to Chatbots”

Asking the Wrong Questions

Maybe when it comes to the chat bots and art bots and other such creations, we’re asking the wrong questions.

I mean, if a chat bot can pass the bar exam, the question shouldn’t be “can a chat bot practice law” but rather “does the bar exam do a good job of determining whether someone would make a good lawyer.”

Having taken a bar exam, I can assure you it’s primarily a hazing ritual. I’m sure the chat bots do very well on the multistate multiple guess portion of the exam, which requires you to memorize vast amounts of information, much of which is not relevant to actual practice.

My experience with bar exams is out of date, but when I took it, we had to learn all the old common law (based on British law) definitions of criminal behavior. These were no longer in use in Texas (where I took the bar) or in any other state that had adopted a modern penal code.

I bet a chat bot is hell on wheels at stuff like that, but I suspect a bot lawyer would not know what to do in a situation where its client was before a judge for revocation of probation (on a felony drug charge) and the judge, in the middle of ranting at its client, gave it a huge wink.

I’m not even sure how a chat bot would know about the wink, but assuming a bot could see it, I suspect it wouldn’t know it was a signal that the judge wasn’t going to revoke probation.

The time it happened to me, I knew what it meant. In fact, I knew from the moment the judge started ranting that he wasn’t going to send my client to prison. He winked at me because I was a young lawyer and he wasn’t sure I understood yet that he was yelling at my client in lieu of revoking probation.

The real practice of law is about subtleties. I suspect algorithm-driven software fueled by large language models is very useful in plowing through reams of documents and will get better, but it’s going to be crap at the negotiating table or in the courtroom where you have to read people as well as put the right information before them at the right time.

Continue reading “Asking the Wrong Questions”

Who Counts as a Person?

Back in 2002 I wrote a story about an upper-middle-class young man who got arrested in Louisiana because his physical appearance contradicted his sex genotype: he looked male, but his genotype was XX. He ended up in a jail cell with several transwomen, some drag queens, a lesbian, and a woman who was his opposite: she appeared female but had an XY sex genotype.

This story was set in 2023.

I believed in this story, so I sent it out to every magazine and anthology I could think of. Nobody wanted it. I don’t know why they didn’t like it, but perhaps it was because it seemed too unlikely at the time. Or maybe I was just ahead of the curve in gender stories.

Fast forward to the actual 2023, where Tennessee just adopted a law restricting drag shows and many other states are in the process of following suit. My made-up Louisiana law prohibiting people from dressing or appearing in a way that contradicts their sex genotype no longer looks like science fiction.

It’s almost enough to make me send the story out again, except that these days I bet magazines would turn it down because it’s too much like the real world of today.

Thinking about it reminded me of another story of mine, one I wrote back in the 1990s. It turned on whether clones were people or property under the U.S. Constitution.

That one, called “Passing,” did get published. In fact, it won a contest sponsored by the National Law Journal. Continue reading “Who Counts as a Person?”

What’s New With Voyager 1?

 Voyager 1 is no Longer Sending Home Garbled Data!

This aging and still-valuable spacecraft has been exploring the outer parts of the solar system since its launch in 1977, along with its twin sibling, Voyager 2. They each traveled slightly different trajectories. Both went past Jupiter and Saturn, but Voyager 2 continued on to Uranus and Neptune. They’re both now outside the solar system, sending back data about the regions of space they’re exploring.

Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter in March 1979, and Saturn in November 1980. After its close approaches to those two gas giants, it started a trajectory out of the solar system and entered interstellar space in 2013. That’s when it ceased to detect the solar wind and scientists began to see an increase in particles consistent with those in interstellar space.

These days, Voyager 1 is more than 157.3 astronomical units from Earth and moving out at well over 61,000 km/hour. It’s busy collecting data about the interstellar medium and radiation from distant objects. If all goes well, the spacecraft should continue sending back data for nearly a decade. After that, it should fall silent as it travels beyond the Oort Cloud and out to the stars.

Earlier this year, however, the teams attached to the Voyager 1 mission noticed that the spacecraft was sending weird readouts about its attitude articulation and control system (called AACS, for short). Essentially, the AACS was sending telemetry data all right, but it was routing it to the wrong computer, one that had failed years ago. This corrupted the data, which led to the strangely garbled messages the ground-based crew received.

Once the engineers figured out that the old, dead computer might have been part of the problem, they had a way forward. They simply told the AACS to switch over sending to the correct computer system. The good news was that it didn’t affect science data-gathering and transmission. The best news came this week: team engineers have fixed the issue with the AACS and the data are flowing normally again.

The ongoing issue with AACS didn’t set off any fault protection systems onboard the spacecraft. If it had, Voyager 1 would have gone into “safe mode” while engineers tried to figure out what happened. During the period of garbled signals, AACS continued working, which indicated that the problem was either upstream or downstream of the unit. The fact that data were garbled provided a good clue to related computer issues.

This adapted article appeared in Universe Today. Click through for the full thing.