Friday, November 28, 2014

Inside a Private Bubble with our Smart Phones

(image credit)

Recently I watched the 2004 film Wicker Park, and a posh Chicago restaurant had a payphone is a private booth.  One of the characters Lisa apparently didn't have a cellphone on hand, and had to retreat into that booth to make a couple of calls.  Similarly I've attended conferences at post venues in the city, and twice I saw those private booths.  Except there was no phone on the wall: They were evidently just private spaces for calls.  I don't know how much patrons used them, though.

Enter, two researchers from Tel Aviv University.

Drs. Tali Hatuka and Eran Toch found significantly different behaviors between those who use smart phones and regular phones, that is, as far as private and public spaces were concerned:
Smart phone users are 70 percent more likely than regular cellphone users to believe that their phones afford them a great deal of privacy, says Dr. Toch, who specializes in privacy and information systems. These users are more willing to reveal private issues in public spaces. They are also less concerned about bothering individuals who share those spaces, he says.
Reference: Smart phones are changing real world privacy settings.

I've used a wide range of smart phones - from BlackBerry, to iPhone and Galaxy Note - my grasp and use of them have increased, just as they've grown in technology sophistication.  The thing is, they can be very absorbing indeed.  When I am working, such as writing an article or thinking through a concept, I can be so absorbed that I dismiss the need to use the washroom and I cannot seem to be distracted.  But it's one thing to be so absorbed in my private office versus on the train or at a restaurant.  In particular, I have weaned myself from notepads and handwriting, and school myself instead to write on a Notes app on my smart phone.

This sort of phenomenon is what Hatuka and Toch call inside a private bubble, and the thrust of their research is what we do as we navigate public spaces.  Evidently that private bubble rolls along to keep us inside it.  It's of course not entirely safe to be so absorbed as I've been, but out in public I make a deliberate effort to ensure my safety as best as possible (e.g. looking up and around regularly, putting my shoulder bag where it cannot be easily grabbed).
While regular phone users continued to adhere to established social protocol in terms of phone use - postponing private conversations for private spaces and considering the appropriateness of cell phone use in public spaces - smart phone users adapted different social behaviors for public spaces. They were 50 percent less likely to be bothered by others using their phones in public spaces, and 20 percent less likely than regular phone users to believe that their private phone conversations were irritating to those around them, the researchers found.
I know that Hatuka and Toch focus mainly on making calls when we're out and about, and I've definitely seen many instances of people with their phones glued to their ears, while sitting on the train or even as they're walking through the metal rumble of trains at the station and once in a while in the elevator, too.  Unless they're obnoxiously loud, I am of that research group that isn't bothered by such people.  But to be sure I avoid making calls myself, and if I do, I keep the call brief and my voice low.  Over time I've become increasingly mindful of my surroundings in public and of the possible effects of my behavior on others.  So while I may be in a private bubble, I know it is far from sight- and sound-proof. 

However, some people are irritating while on their smart phones and similarly get irritated when others are on theirs.  As the TAU researchers suggest:
The design of public spaces may need to change in response to this technology, not unlike the ways in which some public areas have been designated as "smoking" and "non-smoking."
It may be time to have more of those private booths and to use them again. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

At Issue with Spy from the Sky Program

This surveillance program by the US Marshals Service began in 2007, and it is disturbing to think that it has gone on that long without the general public not knowing about it.  September 11th must've traumatized the Bush Administration into all sorts of spy activities, so it isn't surprising that this program began under their watch.  I imagine it is lawful, as the Wall Street Journal reports, but the question is about ethics and trust.

The device is nicknamed "dirtboxes," after the acronym of the company that makes them: Digital Receiver Technology:
Planes are equipped with devices... which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information.
The technology in the two-foot-square device enables investigators to scoop data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their identifying information and general location, these people said.
Reference: Americans’ Cellphones Targeted in Secret U.S. Spy Program.

It may be hard to imagine how US Marshals can get court approval, for example, for mimicry and  trickery, but apparently they have.  Maybe judges aren't savvy enough yet to grasp the full meaning and implication of technology-related requests for approval.  Regardless, this in itself is disturbing, too.  So let's step back, and look at three pressing issues:

Privacy vs Protection

Because bad guys lurk in our midst across the world, citizens and officials alike must navigate that fine line of tracking these bad guys and thereby protecting us from them and tracking these bad guys and intruding into our privacy.  Even before September 11th, I don't think there was any possible way for officials to protect us 100% and ensure our privacy 100% at the same time.  Something has to give, and the outcome is some balance of both.  That is, we have to compromise some degree of privacy, in order to gain a greater measure of protection.  What that specific balance is, exactly, must be the crux of the matter for all of us. 

Even though we are now 13 years post-September 11th, I argue that we are very much embroiled in navigating our way forward in a radically altered landscape.  Consider all the media and technology innovations, plus economic devastation, natural disasters and political upheavals, since September 11th, and we sure have an unprecedented volume of issues to work through.  The "dirtbox" program is just one.

Targeting Accuracy

We would all like to use devices and fashion algorithms that are 100% accurate: If Person A is a bad guy, we want our surveillance technology to identify him or her as such (i.e. True Positive).  Alternatively, if Person B is a good guy, we want our technology to dismiss him or her (i.e. True Negative).  But as I wrote in Type I and Type II Errors are Real Possibilities, no device or algorithm is 100% foolproof.  So there are bound to be instances where bad guy Person A is dismissed (i.e. False Negative) and where good guy Person B is nabbed (i.e. False Positive). 

To give you a firsthand sense of the inevitable flaws or shortcoming of high technology and sophisticated algorithms, track ads that you see on Gmail, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.  They are supposed to be based on information Google & Co. have gathered about us, but for a week or so assess how accurately these ads speak to our personality, interests or needs.  Some ads may be so accurate so as to be creepy, but how often are they completely (100%) accurate?

So my concern is that US Marshals committing False Positive or False Negative errors.

Cat and Mouse Game

Speaking of media and technology innovations, I imagine that US Marshals are continually assessing their methods, processes and algorithms to keep Americans safe.  Moreover, we don't know to what extent "dirt boxes" are still operational, but we can be sure that there is a host of surveillance programs at officials' disposal.  Because media and technology development rarely goes to sleep, we can also be sure that such programs have become increasingly more sophisticated and perhaps even sneakier and trickier.

Let's not forget as well that good guys and bad guys alike can, and do, participate in that media and technology development.  So perhaps people have found, or are finding, ways to trick the trickster back.  That is, maybe there are already smartphones in the market that outsmart "dirt boxes," such as sending dummy information or firewalling these airborne devices from picking up information. 

So if bad guy Person A is very tech savvy, how will US Marshals nab him or her?

Monday, November 24, 2014

YouTube: ads but free vs no ads for a fee

Pay to Play: YouTube may offer Paid Subscriptions Soon
I often think about advertisements, and why not they're as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.  I look to them for their business purpose and creative genius, and with the advent of YouTube it is easy enough to search and find commercials I love from watching TV and browsing online.  There, I can enjoy them further and even study them a bit.

However, I think about advertisements for their annoyance factor, too.  Watching NFL games is fast becoming tedious for me, because the commercials are just excessive.  In recent weeks also, I've begun to listen more regularly to The Score (AM 670) Chicago radio, for its in depth sports analysis and conversation.  Just like that, though, I find myself annoyed at how long its commercial segments are, maybe five minutes a break and overly frequent breaks an hour.  I flip channels and stations often anyway, but I find myself not even turning on the TV for Sunday or Monday Night Football, and I find myself losing interest even in checking in on The Score.

By contrast, every video I see on ESPN is preceded by a commercial.  While the same narrow set of commercials is annoyingly repeated at times, I don't feel bothered by the advertising model of my favorite sports site.  Why?  Because it is often only a matter of seconds, not minutes at a time.

Then, there is the matter of YouTube.  Besides the fact that it's an extraordinary forum for all kinds of videos that interest me, its advertising model is intriguing.  In particular, with the majority of ads I see before videos, I can opt to Skip Ad after five seconds.  Depending on what I see in those five seconds, on occasion I have actually opted to watch the entirety of it or searched the actual video and bookmarked it.  There is often an ad bar at the bottom of the screen that is present through the viewing, but I can exit out of that as well.  Otherwise it is all something that feels unobstrusive to me. 

So I'm not likely to subscribe for a fee, in exchange for an ad-free (and cost-free) experience, because relative to everything else I visit and consume, I honestly don't mind what YouTube is doing.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Google to Upend Healthcare Paradigms

Andrew Conrad's phrase is convert the paradigms of healthcare, but knowing Google and its geeky smart, underrated rebellious nature, I'd say the more apt verbs are upend, destroy (à la creative destruction), and replaceFrom reactive and episodic, to proactive to continuous is the aim for the Life Sciences business that Conrad heads.  Simple, right?

The nano-particle platform works on the notion that these tiny, tiny particles play at the nexus between biology and engineering.  Google wants to functionalize nano-particles, so these buggers do whatever Google wants them to do.  The theory and the technology behind the medical application that Conrad describes may be dizzying, but the objective is simple enough: Gather data about what is going on inside our body, in such ways and to an extent never before done.

Ray Kurzweil is a technologist, inventor and futurist, and is on board Google as Director of Engineering.  In a vision that he calls singularity, the time will come, by the end of the next decade, when technology capability will surpass human capability to keep up.  Right now, the brain, for one, is far, far more sophisticated that any artificial intelligence device.  But Kurzweil points out that scientists and developers are well under way in turning the tables and, in his words, in approaching singularity.  When asked if Google was working on death, Conrad admits that Google is on it by eradicating disease and does view death as an enemy.  He may simply be echoing what Kurzweil believes, namely, that immortality is a possibility. 

By the way, Joanna Stern, personal tech columnist for The Wall Street Journal, isn't the right interviewer for this subject.  Either she didn't prepare adequately, or she is simply way in over her head with the things Conrad talks about.  Which he has done a good job of translating into mainly non-technical language. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Expanding Ecosystem for Tim Cook & Co.

Tim Cook is more candid and informative than personally I have seen him.  The thought came to mind was that he had studied interviews Steve Jobs gave, no doubt intensively, to learn how the Apple icon carried himself and what he divulged.  In any case, I found myself encouraged about how the company is doing and more importantly how well positioned it is for the future.   

iPhone will continue to lead Apple revenues and profits, but it is not by any means the only business.  Software services is an $18 billion business, for one thing.  Also customers love the bigger screen experience: Consequently iMac has grown 21% and Apple has kept innovating there.  Its overall ecosystem is getting larger, for example, with finances (Apple Pay) health and fashion (Apple Watch) added in.

TV is an interesting space for Apple, and no doubt other firms as well.  It is a 30-year old technology, so the contrast that Cook paints is compelling:  We work at our sophisticated PCs and work our mobile devices, then we head to our living room and it is a step back in time.  He demures on offering more information, but still TV definitely has a compelling business proposition.

What Cooks says on matters of privacy is instructive: Apple doesn't read our e-mails, texts or face-time communications.  So whether it's the good guy (government) or the bad guy (hackers) calling for personal data, they cannot provide anything.  It's a pointed jab at Google, among other technology majors. Apple business model is exquisitely crafted around hardware and software, unlike others where advertising revenues are huge and our personal data is an integral business proposition. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Jack Ma on Alibaba as an Ecosystem

Jack Ma speaks with a fine blend of humility and confidence, seemingly apt to demure and diminish himself yet steely at the same time around what he has to do.  For example, he is extraordinarily wealthy, especially at the heels of a record IPO, but he has difficulty getting used to it.  He was more used to the small salary he garnered as a teacher. 

It is apparent that Alibaba is more than just a company:
Alibaba is an ecosystem, that is helping small business to grow.
Business owners can sell anything on the site, given that it draws 18 million people browsing on a daily basis.  So while WSJ interviewer Dennis Berman inquires about selling more Chinese products around the world, Ma counters that that is already happening.  Instead, he wants to import more American, Russian and Brazilian products to his formidable market.

Ma was in Hollywood to learn how American filmmakers create movies.  In Chinese movies, he says, the hero always dies.  So nobody wants to be a hero, and young people don't have people to look up to.  He adds that he learns a lot from watching the big screen, for instance, how to speak to an audience from The Bodyguard.  When asked to elaborate on his purpose for being in Hollywood, he relates that China is a huge market for movies.  Again Jack Ma is thinking import.

Because of sheer size, Alibaba has to think bigger and broader, in order to sustain itself over the next 10 years.  So, Jack Ma reasons, his company has to solve social problems.  For example, he anticipates serious health problems, because of pollution, but he envisions a China with clear air in 10 years.  What does he want to do, then?  Build more hospitals, draw more doctors, and develop more drugs.  Yet, another major opportunity for that Alibaba ecosystem.