Category Archives: Technology

Big Announcement

Instead of writing something that purports to be funny, I want to let you know about a website that I’ve been visiting recently. It is called The Issue Box. And you can find it by typing theissuebox.com into your browser’s URL field. Or you can Google it. Or you can follow this link.

The Issue Box allows users to post and vote on an infinite number of political and other public issues, without requiring any personal information – no names, no financial information – save for an email address that is used solely to verify that you are a human being and not a bot or toaster oven.

So, for example, you could say something like, “There are not enough restrictions on pollution,” and then vote “Agree” or “Disagree.” And then that issue, with your one vote, will be available for any other users to vote Agree or Disagree.  As the votes tally, you will be able to see a pie chart showing the split of yeas and nays, and how each voting user voted.

Now let’s say that you are a user of the site, and you didn’t create that issue, and you don’t want to vote on it either.  You think the issue misses the point.  So now you create the issue “We need to enforce the pollution restrictions we already have,” and vote Agree, and now your newly-minted issue is posted on the Home page for all to see and vote Agree or Disagree.

Now let’s talk real controversy.  What information do we require to sign up? A valid email address. That’s it. The email address is your username for logging in, but on the site you are identified only by a random assortment of words that we assign to you.   The password is a random combination of numbers, also assigned.  So your presence on the Issue Box will be totally anonymous. There is zero chance of us sharing your information with others because we don’t have any information to share.

An email address and the issues created and voted on by that email address, and that’s it.  If your email address has your name in it, and you’re not comfortable sharing it with us, then go use another email address, even one created just for the purpose of authenticating that you are a human, which is done once and never again.  But regardless of whether your email address has your name in it or not, to other users and to the public, you will be identified by only the randomly generated handle that is assigned to you at registration.  No one need ever know how you vote…unless you decide to tell them.

In case you are wondering, I have more than a passing interest in the Issue Box. I helped create it and am hoping that if enough people go on it, I will be able to sell the website for billions of dollars, and retire to a mansion with its own movie theater, where I can watch the movie they’ll make about how I screwed over my friends to take control of the company, and hope that the screenwriter is nominated for an Academy Award.

So if you get a chance today and you want to do something that’s 100% risk-free, costless, and permits – nay, encourages – you to simply say, yes or no, how you feel about an issue, and see how many people agree with you, then go to theissuebox.com and get your issues out there!

Postscript: You should know that, strictly speaking, we are still in the Beta-testing phase of the Issue Box. So if you encounter anything that looks like a glitch, please be patient and, if you have a few moments and are so inclined, send us a note about it and we’ll take care of it.

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Filed under Technology, The Issue Box

Remember When the Internet Was Anonymous?

Today marks four years since I started this blog. Seems like just yesterday. Thank you all who have read this blog and taken the time to comment. I know that I don’t post as often as I used to, but I’ve got a few big projects I’ve been working, and I’m going to share one of them with you very shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this post.

The Director was sitting in his office, enjoying a pumpkin spice latte. He did not like pumpkin flavor, but it was the law of the land that pumpkin flavor must be consumed in the fall.

There was a knock at the door and an intern entered.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you. But do you remember when we demanded that all social media websites turn over all of the personal information and preferences of their users? Well now they say they are not producing the information.”

“They’re not? I was afraid of this. All right, time for Plan B.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I do. House calls.”

The media at first was skeptical of the government’s new program, whereby they sent government agents to canvass the neighbors, door to door, asking the inhabitants for their personal information. Many pundits thought it an intrusion on people’s privacy, while others thought it a patriotic duty and a chance to expose themselves to some new germs.

Analysts on both sides, however, agreed that people would not want to reveal their personal information to an agent of the government who showed up at their doorstop uninvited and in most cases without even a bottle of wine or piece of fancy cheese wrapped up in nice paper.

So they were really surprised by the responses. People provided their names and ages, of course, and their email addresses and phone numbers, and where they like to shop, and what they think about the things that other people’s kids do, versus the things that their own kids do. They asked about music tastes and food tastes and whether they were more likely to choose a table or a booth when offered both at a diner.

The program was so successful and the responses so thorough, that the government turned it into a reality tv show.

“You know, usually I go for the booth. If I’m offered both, I go for the booth.”

“So you’d classify yourself as booth in response to question 19a?”

“Well, now, sometimes I don’t feel like a booth. I gotta be honest, I like booths. But sometimes – I don’t know – I just feel like a table.”

“So would you classify yourself as a hybrid booth/table? There’s a choice for that.”

“Well, you know,” he says with his finger in his mouth, and looking up at the ceiling. “Now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure if I ever chose a table over a booth when offered both. I think I was thinking of something that happened to my mother. Maybe I really am a booth guy after all.”

In fact, so effective was the government program that the social media websites started offering the government money for the personal data of the citizenry, in hopes of offering content that would attract more viewers. The official answer was no, but then some Congressmen and Senators got into a bit of hot water over selling of personal data to social media companies, and had to do penance by reciting the 80s pop hit single “Safety Dance” a cappella, including all of the instrumental sounds, before every session of Congress.

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Filed under Government, Social Media, Technology

Remember When People Did Not Put Pictures of Their Kids on Facebook?

The young man lounged on the psychologist’s chair, looked up at the ceiling, and exhaled.

“I just couldn’t believe my parents would have put pictures of me on Facebook.”

“And does it bother you that they did that?” the psychologist asked.

“Of course it bothers me,” the young man said. “I mean, imagine you are going through life, thinking about what you are going to have for dinner, or whether it’s time to throw out the ice cream because it has that ice beard growing all over it, and one of your parents’ friends posts a picture of you on Facebook from when you were an infant and in a diaper, with the caption, ‘Remember those days!’ And when you investigate a little to find out how this friend of your parents obtained this picture and proceeded to post it without your written consent, you are told that the picture was already posted by your mother 25 years ago! And then upon even further investigation, discover that this was not the only picture she posted, nor the most revealing.”

“And you think it was inappropriate for your mother to do that?” the psychologist asked.

“How could it be appropriate? How would you like if someone was posting pictures of you without your consent?”

“So people do not post pictures of you now without your consent?”

“Oh, of course they do. Like, when we’re all out at a party or a bar or something. People take pictures of the evening and then post the pictures on Facebook so that the world knows we have a life. If I happen to be in the picture, then I get on Facebook. But that’s totally different. I knows what’s going on. I have some control over what I’m wearing.”

“So is it the not having control over your wardrobe what bothers you about your mother posting pictures of you as an infant?”

“That’s only part of it. Because it wasn’t just the pictures. As I started to speak, there would be these little snippets of dialogue that my mother would share with the world.”

“What were these snippets like?”

“Oh, you know. These little witty things, like ‘Mommy, how come the moon doesn’t fall down?’ or ‘Mommy, why does garbage stink?’ I mean, really, why did the world have to know that?”

“And you don’t think that the ‘world’ as you put it would think it nothing more than the ordinary things that a toddler would say?”

“But that’s just the point! There’s a permanent public record of me saying ordinary things to an ordinary mother who took the ordinary step of bragging to the world about the ordinary things her toddler says and does. If she had stayed silent, the world might have thought me extraordinary!”

“I see. So you believe that by posting your childhood pictures and verbiage on Facebook, your mother removed all the mystery that would have otherwise surrounded you.”

“Exactly!”

The psychologist nodded and jotted a few final notes. Then he looked at the wall clock.

“It looks like that’s all the time we have for today,” he said. “I’m a little jammed up next week so my assistant will call you to schedule your next visit.”

After the young man left, the psychologist went on his computer, logged in to his Facebook account, and started typing a post.

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, a patient comes in with a truly extraordinary complaint….

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Remember When Virtual Reality Was More Virtual Than Reality?

Facebook’s Director of Newfangled Operations was sitting at his desk, reading reviews on Yelp for a good place to get turkey salad. An assistant knocked at his door.

“Come in, come in,” he said, facing the assistant. “So what’s the good word?”

photo of human wearing virtual reality headgear

Photo courtesy of Sensics, Inc. via Wikipedia.

“Well, sir, you know that ever since we acquired the virtual reality company Oculus VR, the, uh, upper management has been anxious to learn about the user experience.”

“Yes, yes,” the Director said. “And what is the user experience? Do the people, the salt of the earth, the great unwashed masses yearning to be free…do they like virtual reality?”

“Yes, they do, but—”

“But what? Are people displeased with the gaming?”

“No, they love it. They say the exploding bodies have never been more life like.”

“Are they able to access enough pornography?”

“Of course. We’ve enabled even individuals with visual, hearing, and tactile disabilities to enjoy it. A Congressional committee has commended us.”

“Don’t tell me they’re concerned about privacy.”

“Most people accept the theory that privacy was a myth originated by the Sumerians around the same time as the Epic of Gilgamesh.”

“Well what then?”

“Sir, the users’ concern is that when they wear the virtual reality headgear, they can’t tell if people are touching their food.”

The Director stared at the assistant for a few moments. “Touching their food?”

“Yes, you know. Like putting their hands all over a bowl of potato chips, and then watching while the virtual reality user eats the potato chips that have just been touched.”

The Director was a silent a moment. “I see how this could be quite a problem.”

“Sir, should we tell Mr. Zuckerberg? Perhaps—”

“No! Mr. Zuckerberg doesn’t like problems.” The Director chewed on a nail. “We’ve got to fix this ourselves.”

The solution was to offer virtual reality users the services of someone who would sit in the same room with them, without wearing headgear, and would stand guard over the users’ food or drink or bodily integrity. These hired individuals—called “guardians”—could also watch coats and book bags. And for a while it worked.

But then people started to worry that these guardians were doing things to them that they had been hired to prevent. What if the guardians had been bribed by someone who wanted to dip a finger in the users’ coffee and stir it around? How would the users ever know?

So then the guardians were scraped and instead the headgear was fitted with a little camera that would broadcast the user’s immediate surroundings through a little window in the corner of the headgear’s screen. So now users could watch the real world while they were immersed in virtual reality.

After a while, users found that watching their real life surroundings was more interesting than the virtual world. If they were alone, they could watch an empty room and see if anyone came in. If they were in a room with other users, they could watch a bunch of other people wearing headgear, bobbing around in their seats and waving their hands.

Users started talking to each other while they were immersed in virtual reality. Now that they could see everyone else in the room, they could talk freely, knowing that they weren’t speaking to an empty room. At first they talked about the virtual reality simulation they were using at the moment. But soon they moved on to other topics, like the weather, or upcoming weddings, or what each of them had done that day. Tech bloggers dubbed this growing practice of in-person conversation while wearing the headgear “non-virtual reality.”

Non-virtual reality became so popular that the software engineers kept enlarging the size of the window projected on the inner screen. Before long, this window took up the entire screen, so that when the users put the virtual reality headgear on, they saw a live, perfectly to-scale rendering of the same exact scene they would see if they took the headgear off.

“Sir!” the assistant said, entering the Director’s office with the headgear on. “Your program is a complete success! It is reported that 98% of the world’s population now walks around with headgear on all the time.”

“Splendid!” said the Director, wearing his own headgear. “But who are the 2% that aren’t wearing headgear? Are they from those primitive societies that walk around in loincloths and star in those movies they show at the Museum of Natural History?”

“No, sir. That was our initial theory, too. But it turns out that the 2% are hardcore techies.”

“Techies! But how can that be?”

“They say the original headset was better.”

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Remember Privacy?

The Director called a general staff meeting.  All hands on deck.  He gave everyone a few minutes to grab coffee and bring it into the conference room.

“All right, everyone,” he said.  “I know this has been a rough few months for us.  The phone tapping, computer tapping, video game tapping.  They know all our tricks, and soon they’re going to shut us down and we’ll left to gathering evidence the old fashioned way, sitting up in a tree with binoculars.  I don’t want to go back to that.  Do you?”

Everyone shook their heads.

“Good.  We need to come up with a new way of spying on people without them knowing.  Something we’ve never done before. Yes, esteemed colleagues.  It is time for nostril bugs.”

Over the next few weeks agents fanned out across the country, in search of people sleeping so that bugs could be implanted in their nostrils.  People sleeping on subways, park benches, and commuter trains were easy.  Even libraries snagged a few sleepers.  But the real difficulty was breaking into people’s homes late at night and implanting the bugs while they slept.  More than one agent tried to go down the chimney.

But before long the entire population was walking about with tiny electronic sensors in their nostrils.  Like the bugs in cell phones and computers, these nostril bugs recorded data and then transmitted it back to headquarters.  But unlike the bugs in cell phones and computers, these nostril bugs did not record communications.  These bugs recorded smell.

The Director’s dream was to map the entire country by smell.  An internal memo had once mentioned that a certain group of mischief-makers liked to eat pizza the night before a big event.  So whenever the detected that there was a cluster of nose sensors picking up the scent of pizza, agents would immediately surround the area and detain everyone for questioning.

After the fiftieth raid on a student council meeting, the Director decided to alter the strategy.

“Forget the pizza rule,” he said.  “It’s yielding too many false positives.  Let’s focus on another smell.”

Another internal memo mentioned that the groups liked to meet in basements.  So whenever they detected a cluster of musty or moldy smells, agents would surround the location and detain everyone for questioning.

After the hundredth raid on an innocent poker game, the Director knew that once again he had to change focus.

“What’s done is done.  Enough playing around.  Time to go for the jugular.”

He ordered all agents to focus just on the smell of instruments of sudden disaggregation.  It was so simple, so obvious, that he wondered why he hadn’t thought of it at the very beginning of the nostril project.

The agents waited on the edge of their seats for the smell clusters to appear on the big screen.  But the clusters never came.  They checked the parameters for incorrect calibrations.  They checked the software for glitches.  They banged the side of the big screen.  Nothing.

“Maybe there is no more mischief!” the Director exclaimed.  “Hey, we did it!” he shouted and put his palm up for someone to high five.  Then he saw the news flash.

An attack on a series of lawn ornaments had taken place.  The news footage showed bits of miniature windmill and terracotta clay gnomes littering a suburban street, with homeowners standing around in their bathrobes, crying and hugging each other.

And then they showed a picture of the group claiming responsibility for the attacks.  The members were wearing masks over their eyes, and clothes pins on their noses.

The Director looked around the room, wondering who had leaked the nostril program and endangered the welfare of the nation.  But he knew it was useless.  There was no single unwarranted invasion of privacy that could stop these kinds of activities for good.  You just had to keep coming up with something new.

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Remember When Delivery By Drones Was Not Within the Realm of the Possibile?

The assistant walked into the big office.  “Sir,” he began.  “I – ”

“Hold on.  Here, look at this screen.  Our drones cover 75% of the U.S. airspace.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

“That is wonderful, sir.  But there appears to be an issue with the drones.  People are getting upset.”

“People?  What are people?  Oh, you mean those creatures who are always eating and losing things, and walk around sniffling when it’s cold.  Ugh.  Why don’t they blow their noses?”

“I don’t know, sir.  But yes – those people are now getting upset about the drones.”

“Is this about that accident last week?”

“Well, sir, when a drone carrying a snowblower falls out of the sky into the middle of a bar mitzvah, there is usually some negative public reaction.”

“But I told them, it wasn’t our fault.  The ground-pilot was texting with his wife about what they were going to have for dinner.  Totally unforeseeable.”

“I know, sir.  But these accidents aren’t the only thing.  People just didn’t anticipate that the sky would be filled with thousands of drones at every moment, so that you couldn’t even see a clear patch.”

“Well what did they expect?  Invisible drones?  Hmm.”  He pulled out a little notebook and scribbled something.

“Sir, the point is if we don’t stop the drones soon we may find ourselves the subject of a scathing op-ed piece.”

“Whoa, whoa.  We definitely don’t want that.  But what alternatives do we have?”

“Sir, we could go back to shipping by truck and regular air mail.”

“And go back to the Dark Ages of delivery that took all night?  We may as well trade in our toilet paper for corn cobs while we’re at it.  No, if we have to stop the drones, there’s only one option.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I certainly do.  Delivery by catapult.”

It was an unusual change to the system but soon everyone got used to it.  The delivery centers were reorganized throughout the country so that every home and business was within catapulting range of at least one delivery center, and every delivery center was within catapulting range of another delivery center, so that no matter where the ordered product originated, it could be conveyed via catapult to any place in America.

Instead of the skies being filled with unstaffed aircraft, the skies were filled with packages being lobbed to the next destination.  But there was no noise, and because the calibration had to be done only once – at the point of catapult – the packages did not need constant mid-flight monitoring.  The accident rate dropped dramatically.

The catapults were also amenable to automation.  The packages would be sorted and placed on conveyor belt, but instead of being directed to a drone, the packages were directed to one of the catapults.  There were multiple catapults at each delivery center.  At first the catapults were arranged in a circle, with every point of the compass covered.  But then someone realized that by placing the catapult on a swivel chair, all compass points could be achieved with far fewer catapults.  A computer algorithm calculated the direction, angle, and force required to catapult each package to its destination, accounting for weight, drag, and wind speed.

In the middle of the delivery center was the reception zone, made of a large canvas piled up with couch cushions.  This model was copied at households and businesses across the country.  In every backyard or office parking lot was a reception zone where packages could land.  In households that didn’t have the yard space, the most athletic member of the family would run outside at the scheduled delivery time and catch the package by hand.  The increase in concussions and broken packages was more than offset by the increase in general fitness.

“Sir, I can’t believe it.  The catapult system is a success!”

“Of course it is.  The packages arrive just as quickly as with the drones, but we don’t have to hire ground-pilots.  We’ve been able to lay off so many people!  Think of all the money we’ll save on tissues.”

“Yes, sir, that’s wonderful.  But now the sky is filled with so many packages being catapulted that it’s no longer safe for airplanes.  How are people going to travel?”

“I am so glad you asked.  Let me show you.”  He got up, handed the assistant a helmet and parachute, and led him outside to an empty catapult.

Thank you all for reading this year, and have a happy and healthy 2014.  Can’t wait to see what’s in store!  -MK

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Filed under Commerce and Marketing, Current Events, Technology

Remember When Stores Couldn’t Track You Within the Store?

I met a traveler from an antique land who said, “I read an article in the New York Times about how stores are now using their unwitting customers’ cell phone signals to track their movements within the store.”sweet ride

I can picture it now.  A major retailer is having its mid-July meeting, and the Director of Sales is going over old and new business.

“All right, let’s see where we are.  Winston, are all the school supplies on the shelves?”

“Yes sir.  As of 11:59 on the night of July 4th we started putting out the pens and pencils and notebooks of every size, shape, and cover material.”

“Good.  And when is the Christmas merchandise going out?”

“We’re aiming for middle of next week, sir.”

“Excellent.  Okay.  Now, on to new business.  I believe you were going to prepare a presentation for us on the new technology that allows us to track customers through the store using their cell phone signals.”

“Yes, sir.  If you’ll direct your attention to the screen here, you’ll note the squiggly neon lines winding around the screen.”

“Yes, I see,” says the Director.  “It looks like my kid drawing with crayons on the kitchen tile.”

“That’s an excellent analogy, sir.  Now, each squiggly line represents a customer.”

“But I don’t understand.  We’ve been using cameras to monitor the customers for years.  How is this cell phone thing different?”

“Well, sir, a camera allows you watch the customer, but unless you are very attentive and don’t take any coffee or Facebook breaks you won’t know all of the products the customer looked at or for how long the customer looked.  This technology bridges the gap.  The customer’s odyssey through our aisles is tracked, and the longer a customer stays in one spot, the darker the line becomes at that point.”

“What is that customer doing over there?”

“Looking at platinum bound notebooks.”

“Oh, those are a hot new item.  Wait!  Where is the customer going now?”

“Looks like the customer is heading over to the cheaper notebooks.”

“Did he, she or it take a platinum notebook?”

“Let me check out the video camera.  No, it looks like her arms are empty.”

“We have to redirect her back to the more expensive notebooks.  Captain Riker!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Use those things we bought from The Hunger Games auction to help our customer back to the overpriced school supplies.”

Captain Riker pushes a button, and suddenly the customer is met with a wall of fireballs heading directly towards her.  She turns around and runs to the exit of the store, but then is met with a swarm of bees whose stingers dispense hallucinogenic poison.  The customer runs from aisle to aisle.  The Director watches the whole thing from a screen mounted next to the Keurig coffee dispenser.  Eventually the customer finds refuge in the aisle with the platinum notebooks.

“Ex-cel-lent,” the Director says, blowing on his coffee.  “Now she has no choice but to—wait, what is she doing?”

The screen shows the customer tying four of the notebooks together to create a platinum shield.  Holding the shield squarely in front of her, she runs right through the wall of fireballs to the notebooks bound with soft cardboard, retailing at $1.29 apiece.  She grabs a few and, still holding her shield aloft, runs to the checkout line while the fire behind her consumes erasable markers and glittered index cards and fish-shaped wastepaper baskets.

“I can’t believe she did that!” the Director screams.  “Now how are we going to control the customers?”

“Well, sir,” says Winston, “did you ever see Inception?”

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