Why I Fear AI

You’ve seen Terminator. War Games. 2001. iRobot. Westworld. It’s all over the news. AI is coming and you should be frightened. I know I am. Not of super learning machines that will take over the world and destroy humankind with plasma energy waves that will destroy all organic matter. No, I’m frightened that I may go postal one day after dealing with aggravating user interfaces. wopr

Take YouTube. I’ve been watching too much of it lately and I’ve noticed you need to be very careful about what you watch. This morning a recommended video popped up about how a tankless water heater works. Thinking that might be interesting I clicked on it. About a minute in (my average attention span) I decided life was too short to keep learning about water heaters. Go back and refresh my YouTube home page and… Boom! Approximately 37 recommended channels of home building, plumbing, and do it yourself videos. Thank god I didn’t click on the figure skating video.

Seriously, we’re not smart enough yet to do some sort of statistical averaging in our recommendation engines yet? Same with most ad engines these days. One innocent search forchia the latest innovations in chia pets and you’ll get some seriously odd ads served up for the next month.

And don’t get me started on the Facebook’s drunken monkey top post/most recent sort methodology. Silly me thinking most recent meant everything in chronological order. Or the Outlook mobile app deciding that I no longer need to see a month at a time on my calendar. Three days should be enough for any man. Or WordPress and/or Facebook randomly deciding what picture to display on a post. I’ll have three or four images in a post and Facebook seemingly randomly decides which one to pick to display.

No, I’m not worried that AI will destroy mankind. I’m worried that society will suddenly abandon badly crafted software, causing massive portions of the tech world to collapse. The economy will implode and hoards of unemployed tech workers will wander the streets with no discernable life skills. The craft coffee industry will die, the Tesla market will dry up, and millions of hipster skinny jeans will end up in the landfill.

Ok, that may be a bit pessimistic. Maybe Netflix will finally figure out how recommend movies based on something other than genre. Maybe Google maps will figure out how to make their walking directions useful. I’m pretty sure giant media organizations and massive corporations won’t be influencing the content we consume any time soon. It’s not like we’re going to have automated bots infiltrating social media. Oh, wait…




I’ve decided to completely unplug. To stop feeding the evil corporations and their bottom lines. To no longer be a pawn to the latest must-have advertising push. I am officially no longer carrying a cell phone. Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last!

No? Ok, so in reality the laws of physics got me. A weight which shall not be mentioned, traveling at a velocity of v * some meters per second²… or was it divided by? At any rate, it was a large amount of force hitting the ground. My cell phone, in my back pocket, was the unlucky buffer for that force. Physics always wins. Energy has to go somewhere.

Rest in peace Samsung S6. You served well. Enjoy the eternal nap.

Cool! Mourning period over. A new phone, what should I get!?!?

Paradoxically, for a former tech guy I’m not very into “tech”. Clearly evidenced by a cell phone multi-generations behind. I didn’t think that I was that reliant upon a phone. I despise talking on the thing. I’ve purchased exactly one app in my life. I would have told you that I don’t need a phone right away.

It’s not until it’s gone that you realize just how dependent upon these things we are. It’s how I communicate with the outside world. I use it daily for work – communication, setting timers, the flashlight, looking up reference material, and the translator (why oh why didn’t I take Spanish in high school?). I didn’t realize how often I was checking the social webs. I can’t take pictures. It has my stored notes for music I’ll never download and books I’ll forget to read. It has my (free) list making app that I’ve used exactly once. It’s my alarm clock and nighttime bedside clock. Calendars, maps, contacts, the entirety of human knowledge instantly available at all times.

And now I’m without. I actually felt briefly vulnerable driving. What if something happened? What if I broke down? How would I get help? What if I went to the store and couldn’t remember if we had milk – how would I contact Mrs Troutdog? Do I buy a gallon and potentially end up wasting it? Do I skip the cow juice and risk a second trip?

* side note, we purchase milk EVERY single time we go to the store. We do not drink milk. We don’t put it in coffee. We don’t cook with it. We don’t eat cereal. It sits in fridge, quietly going bad, week in and week out. When it goes bad, we dutifully buy a new one. I don’t understand our compulsion to buy milk.

Anyway, I lost track of my point. I’m a little frightened at how dependent we are on these ridiculously expensive devices and how it happened in such a short period of time. It’s only been around about ten years in its modern form. Suddenly we’re all chained to a life long service contract.

Meanwhile I’ll be in a dark hole for two more days. Out of contact. Unable to summon help. Unable to snap that picture of bigfoot or a UFO. A barren, lonely existence, indeed.

* Google Pixel 2 XL is the replacement for those interested.

Gigahertz And The Abacus

I’ve been shopping for a new modem. The tin cans and string we’re currently using simply aren’t fast enough anymore to keep up with our home data demands. I want my Darwin awards videos instantly. Anyway, I figure the prudent thing to do would be to check in with our current service provider and figure out what modems are on their “approved” list.

I asked the support person if they have a modem that supports 5 GHz wireless channels as well as the standard 2.4 GHz. That didn’t seem like a difficult question for someone who answers the support line for a telecommunications company. Her first reply was “The website has a list of modems”. I informed her that I knew that, but the list doesn’t include specs so I was trying to avoid spending hours individually looking up each modem and finding data sheets. Silence. Crickets. I asked her if, she didn’t know, could she possibly go ask someone else? After being on hold for long enough to write the next great American novel, she came back with one of the best technical answers I’ve heard. “Sir, our modems have speeds.” Uh, what? “I checked and they said all our modems have speeds.”

We’re doomed. Technology is advancing at a frightening rate. We rely upon complete connectedness and data infrastructure in every aspect of our daily lives. Unfortunately we’re busy creating a front-line service sector that probably has trouble operating the TV remote. This does not bode well for the future. Kids, do you have facial tattoos, ear gages, or a degree in art history? Then you’re a perfect fit for the exciting world of telecommunications technical support! No experience needed!

Which reminds me of a news item that came out this morning. Per testimony being given for Clinton scandal number 1,234 it turns out that the former Secretary of State did not have a computer in her office. Why? Because she did not know how to “do email” on a computer, only on her Blackberry. The head of a department that employed tens of thousands of people and had a budget of $65+ billion dollars can’t figure out how to “do email” on a computer? I’m flabbergasted that in today’s technology centric world such dinosaurs still exist. For gods sake, Facebook became uncool because it’s user base became 90% grandmothers and aging soccer moms. Its been a year or two since these new fangled computer things were invented. Claiming technological illiteracy no longer flies.

Why on earth would we keep putting people like this in charge? This is not an indictment memo(no pun intended) of Clinton – I’m sure there are swaths of pointy-haired managers across government with the same lack of qualifications. Could you imagine any corporate board today voting to hire a new CEO who isn’t capable of using an email program? I’m fairly certain the days of the abacus and having your secretary “take a memo” are over.

I’m starting to think it’s time to just unplug and enjoy the simpler things. A bike ride. Reading a book. But then I realize I’d miss watching crazy ass wingsuit flyers. And, at guaranteed ludicrous download speeds! (ludicrous speed is theoretical. your speed may vary. ludicrous speed only available with 8 year contract extension)

Colonel Sandurz: Prepare ship for light speed.
Dark Helmet: No, no, no, light speed is too slow.
Colonel Sandurz: Light speed, too slow?
Dark Helmet: Yes, we’re gonna have to go right to ludicrous speed.

On Star Trek, And Tricorder Repairmen

We are at a crossroads in America. We no longer have a middle class. It’s disappeared. Poof, gone. You can work in the retail or service sector for low wages, or you can try and get an advanced degree and work in the tech world. There’s almost nothing in between. We cannot compete with the global economy when it comes to manufacturing. Period, game over, it isn’t coming back.

Of course there will be niches here and there we succeed at and offshoring isn’t quite as cheap as it once was. At the end of the day though, you cannot compete against a country whos workers are paid pennies on the dollar compared to the U.S. The sooner we come to grips with that the better off we’ll be.

I was listening to Department of Commerce Secretary Pritzker on a morning show today and she made an astounding comment. When asked what U.S. sectors are doing well right now her answer was “construction, housing, and consumer retail”. That’s it. That’s our economy in a nutshell. Sectors that are based upon low skilled labor and are volatile and bubble-prone. That oughta scare the holly bejeezus out of you. I don’t know about you, but I’m not all that comfortable banking our economic underpinnings on the hope that Americans will continue to embrace the iPhone 9s with a screen size .02 cm larger or the resurgence of the hover board craze (guaranteed fire resistant!). It’s ok though, ’cause you’re going to need a bigger home to store all that stuff – and boy, do we have some exciting new mortgage options for you!

So what will be the economic engine for the middle class in the future? I’m certainly not smart enough to figure that out or I’d already be investing in it. It clearly won’t be the manufacturing of “things”. It has to be a commodity that can’t be easily shipped from overseas. Something that takes development of an actual skill or expertise, yet doesn’t necessarily require years of schooling and advanced degrees. A job that is valued and recession-proof enough that the average Joe/Jane can support a family and, with some prudent saving, can afford to go drink fruity adult beverages with tiny umbrellas on a beach occasionally.

While I don’t know what that sector will be, if I had kids or if you’re just starting out in the job world, I’d make damn sure I was comfortable with data, information management, and device connectivity. Learn how to create a website beyond just using a canned template. Can you connect a device to a network and troubleshoot problems? Can you write simple scripts to connect various programs and do something with their output? Can you take data from a program and do something with it to present it in a compelling way? None of these things take years of advanced math or electrical engineering to understand. These are skills anyone who applies themselves can master.

What is clear about the future is that we will be driven by data. Billions of cheaply manufactured devices will all be connected to various networks and attempting to communicate with each other. Yes, eventually your refrigerator will be not only ordering your weekly groceries, but will be preparing nutritional summaries for your health care provider. My report will be exclusively cheese, beer, and hummus. Beef and pork will be too damn expensive for anyone but the evil one percenters.
I’ve  gone the route of helping sick people. There will always be sick people, right? Meanwhile I’ll probably be replaced by an $11 an hour, 17 year old medical assistant wielding a Star Trek medical tricorder. I should have been training to be a tricorder repairman. Or an Obamacare v.12 website administrator.



Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Recently I’ve had to deal with telephone customer support. This of course is an activity that most rational human beings avoid like the plague. Generally speaking I’d rather endure toenail surgery without anesthesia than spend time dealing with “customer service”. Unfortunately the problem was that I was unable to watch the latest Game of Thrones on HBO and that is a DEFCON ONE crisis. All of a sudden I started receiving the following message on the HBO channels: “Your TV does not support this programs content protection. Replace the HDMI cable with component cables.” Since there may be children in the room, “WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT!!!”

HDMI is the highest-end cable available for HD video. HBO and/or Direct TV are requiring a (slightly) lower-end cable? Makes no sense. Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen were waiting for me, so off to Direct TV support I went. Menu after menu, repeated account number inputs, depression, a new gray hair, and I finally got a live person on the line.

Complaint number one: If you have a fancy voice input system that asks repeatedly to provide your account number, name, hair color, and soft drink preference, why is the first thing a live person asks is to provide the same information? I think the strategy is to induce a state of depression so deep you simply give up and watch infomercials instead.

Complaint number two: When I was finally asked what the problem was I replied “I’m receiving an error message”. Without waiting to hear what it was, her response was, “let’s go ahead and reset the box”. Now if you’re unfamiliar with a satellite STB box reset it takes about 7 minutes of sitting through on-screen messages cheerfully informing you “almost there!”.  I’d actually already tried that before calling, so there was no way in hell I was going to do it again. I’m not a particularly chatty person, so seven minutes of small-talk with a support rep to do something I’d already tried just wasn’t going to happen. Naturally I spent longer than that arguing that I wasn’t going to do it, than it would have taken to just meekly follow along with her troubleshooting script.

Here’s where my brains began leaking out my ears.  I finally convinced her to let me tell her the error message and then asked, “Are you or HBO no longer supporting HDMI cables?” Her answer – “Sir, I’m not familiar with what this HDMI is. Have you checked our on-line forums?” I’ll spare the rest of the gory details, but after multiple escalations the best answer I was able to get was that this was a change HBO just made and it’s out of Direct TV’s control. Sigh… Fortunately I have access to Al Gore’s INTERNETS (side note, I’m wondering if I should switch from AOL? I have all those free CD’s).

I spent some time on a few AV forums. Fair warning, it’s important to severely limit your time there – that’s a level of geekdom that results in a strong desire to play D&D. What I did figure out is that HBO started implementing HDCP several years ago. WARNING, technical content to follow! Any fairly recent (~5 years) HDMI implementation includes HDCP which is a content protection protocol. The host device queries connections and, upon discovering an HDCP compliant port, establishes a sink and provides a key for decryption. This enables content providers to encrypt video with the master key and for your device to decrypt it. Turns out some clever folks have been able to pirate (gasp!) content via non-HDCP HDMI cables. HBO (and most content providers) either have already, or will begin going this route shortly.

For anyone left reading, here’s the “can we all just get along” part. My TV (Samsung) is brand-new and the specs indicate HDCP compliance. Direct TV claims their HD STB correctly implements HDMI/HDCP and it’s not their problem if Samsung doesn’t correctly respond to the HDCP handshake. The Direct TV support rep doesn’t know what HDMI is. The Direct TV technical escalation engineer claims HBO “just” implemented this a few weeks ago. HBO reportedly implemented this several years ago. HBO provides no way of contacting them other than carrier pigeon or via email that thier web site states “due to volume of mail received we can’t respond to all inquires”.

I love technology. Seriously. But the more technical the advances the more complicated the interactions become. Supporting them becomes a massive finger-pointing exercise in futility. If you were making minimum wage as a support rep, would you be interested in discovering HDMI/HDCP handshake sequences? As Mr. King once said (no, not that Mr. King) “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle”. He also reportedly said “Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is, never try”.

Small chance that last one might have been Homer Simpson, I’m not sure.