Monthly Archives: February 2016

Shreveporting Redux

I’ve probably mentioned “Shreveporting” in the past.

 

About twenty years ago, my job took me to Shreveport, LA on a periodic basis. I tended to stay at a clean but modest hotel that had a reasonable restaurant. However, after dinner, when I returned to my room and turned on the television, there were only about a dozen channels of which four were shopping channels and five were ESPN (and I don’t follow sports). I found that I’d lean on the remote, hoping that some new and interesting channel would suddenly appear. It never did. I called this futile search, “Shreveporting.”

 

Today, at home with about 900 cable channels, I don’t actually sample each channel since there’s a guide available; I Shreveport the guide, but I have no more luck today then I did twenty years ago.

 

With the presidential political season in full swing (our primary is tomorrow), I have moved my Shreveporting to the computer. I keep checking different sites, hoping to see a different selection of politicians. So far, no luck.

 

I never thought I’d hear myself say, “Except for that Vietnam thing, maybe Johnson wasn’t so bad after all. Sure, Nixon had his flaws, but who doesn’t?”

 

Hmmmm, I wonder what Buchanan was like.

Good Enough

We often hear the expression, “Good enough for government work,” which today is translated as, “It barely meets the requirements.” Originally, the specifications for products purchased by the government were higher than for similar products aimed at the general public, so it meant that it was top quality. Obviously, the meaning has changed quite a bit. I’m not sure if it is just a grammatical change or if it somehow reflects changing attitudes toward “government.”

 

Of course we should strive for perfection, or at least perfection as we perceive it. While thinking about this, at first I thought that this might apply mostly to the arts, but then I thought about the many artists whose work was not appreciated until after they are dead and buried: Nikola Tesla, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, and even Johannes Gutenberg. Maybe not perfection, but head and shoulders above the crowd.

 

However, is perfection worth waiting for? Was Sir Edmund Hillary the best mountain climber? We don’t know, but we do know he was good enough to be the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. We don’t know if Neil Armstrong was the greatest astronaut, but we do know that he was skilled enough to land the Lunar Module even though the intended landing site was unsafe. Likewise, we don’t know if William Shakespeare was the greatest playwright, or if Socrates was the greatest philosopher. However, each was good enough to make a major contribution to the betterment of humankind.

 

The Pareto principle tells us that generally we can achieve 80 percent of a goal with 20 percent of the available resources; the last 20 percent will consume the remaining 80 percent. The 80 percent level of achievement is often “good enough.” At the least, the cost benefit ratio of achieving the first 80 percent (a bird in the hand) is much better than the final 20 percent a bird in the bush).

 

Yes, we should strive for perfection. However, don’t miss an opportunity because you’re not perfect; you just might be good enough.

 

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The media try to help everyone avoid facts that might interfere with their willingness to accept, without question, the latest sound bite. Combine these efforts with an overall lack of critical thinking skills and a lack of understanding of mathematics among the population and it’s little wonder that we are in the position we are today. With the possible exception of big pharmaceutical companies, no one understands this better than politicians.

Take the debate swirling around firearms, for example. It is rife with anecdotal stories and inaccurate generalizations that lead you to the conclusion that murder most foul is rampant. However, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, gun deaths grew from 6.6 per 100,000 people in 1981 to a high of 7.0 per 100,000 in 1993, then dropped to 3.6 per 100,000 people in 2010. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on the other hand, reported 10.6 per 100,000 people in 2010, which then dropped to 3.5 per 100,000 people in 2013. Although each group gathers their data differently, the conclusion is the same—deaths due to firearms are lower than 35 years ago. Interestingly, they’re at about the same level as deaths due to automobile accidents.

Then there’s the brouhaha over photo identification in order to vote. The purpose, to prevent voter fraud seems reasonable, as does the statement that you need a photo ID card to get a library card, etc. However, is voter fraud really a problem, and if so, how much of one? Figures are difficult to find, but according to NBC in 2012, “A new nationwide analysis of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 shows that while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.” That’s quite a crime wave—about 172 alleged cases throughout the country, every single year. I’m not certain what other crime occurs at a similar rate—attempts to steal the Statue of Liberty?

Then there’s the arguments between Pro-Choice and Pro-Life (arranged in alphabetical order). The emotional issue that always comes to the forefront is that it would be wrong to deny abortions to victims of rape or incest. Is that a significant group? Needless to say, accurate statistics are difficult to find, but the most frequent numbers buried in the fine print are either “one percent” or “less than two percent.”

I am not attempting to sway your opinion or your vote. I am merely demonstrating how so many issues are presented in a manner so as to elicit an emotional response rather than a rational one. As Jethro Tull sang, “I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think.”

Think back to school when your math teacher deducted points from a test because, even though you had the correct answer, you didn’t show your work. The media has mastered the technique of not showing its work (and some might claim it’s on purpose). In many cases the media loves to report a percent, but rarely do they share the denominator. The number upon which the statistics are based.

What is a 50 percent increase? If you start with 100,000 a 50 percent increase leads to 150,000. Of course, if you start with two, you can claim a fifty percent increase if you get to three.

As the political ad barrage season begins, ask yourself:

  • Is this a significant issue?
  • Is this an issue that can be resolved, or is it an emotional issue?
  • Are those making claims telling “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

You may have to do a little research (Isn’t Google Wonderful?) to determine what the real facts are, but trust me—it’s worth it.

Apple Kerfuffle—Part II

Just a few further thoughts on Apple’s refusal to unlock the San Bernardino terrorists’ iPhone . . .

Years ago, Apple decided that although the infrastructure of the United States made the development of the computer possible, it would be cheaper to manufacture them in China. The Chinese manufacturing facility was quite similar to a slave labor camp. Workers slept in barracks, and when Steve Jobs had a bright idea, the workers would be assigned to long hours to implement the new feature or whatever. Conditions were so bad that they drove some workers to commit suicide. In the meantime, iPhones have been copied and/or reverse engineered so that counterfeit copies are available.

But the manufacturing costs are cheaper, so Apple continues to manufacture in China.

However, Chinese products do not necessarily meet US quality standards. They have no compunction with using lead based paint for children’s toys or adding cadmium to products, even though it’s toxic. Some software shipped with their products has been found to be loaded with malware; even some memory sticks have software installed and hidden that would allow someone to bypass security measures to read the contents. There have even been reliable claims that Lenovo computers (formerly IBM computers before being purchased by the Chinese) have malware built into the firmware so it cannot be removed. Then, of course, many believe that the Chinese have hacked into the US Government computer systems to access personnel information, as well as hacking all information on various credit card holders.

Consider:

  1. If the Chinese Government wanted information stored in an iPhone in China, would they acknowledge, much less accept Apple’s arguments?
  2. Given their track record, and the fact that the iPhones are manufactured in China, what are the odds that there is already a built-in system for retrieving any information they might want.

Just something to think about.

Solution to the Apple Kerfuffle

Syed Farook and Tasheen Malik killed fourteen people in San Bernadino, California. They apparently tried to dump their Apple iPhone, which actually belonged to his employer, the San Bernadino Health Department. Now, the FBI wants to see what’s in the phone and if it provides information to prevent future violent actions. The problem is that after ten attempts to enter the password, the phone erases its memory. The FBI wants Apple to unlock the phone’s memory and have a court order demanding to do so. Apple is refusing.

There are complex issues with the court order for Apple to unlock the iPhone used by the terrorists in California. Apple—and others—point out that if a “back door” is built into the software, somebody else will figure out how to crack into the phones. It is likely that these will be bad guys of one flavor or another. On the other hand, the phone may contain information that is critical to protect us from future attacks. Given that ISIS now has a quantity of Iridium 192, such an attack could be a dirty bomb, with hundreds or thousands of people exposed to radioactive material.

I propose a different approach.

If the solution is software, then it can be hacked. However, if a hardware hack is used, it would be more limited. It seems to me that Apple could physically remove the memory chip from the phone and make copies of its contents. Years ago there were programs that copied data bit-by-bit. This means that every 1 and 0 (the way that computers store all their data) would be copied exactly as they exist in the original.

This “master” could then be bit-by bit copied as many times as necessary; the FBI would have an infinite number of copies of the data to try to crack the password. After 10 failed attempts, the copy would erase, and the FBI could go to the next copy.

The advantage of using an approach that is hardware based means that it could be stipulated that breaking into a smartphone would require the legal physical possession of the phone and an appropriate court order to access the data. Since smartphones are radio devices and regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, this should be a federal judge so the Podunkville (population 15) judge couldn’t issue such an order.

It just might work.

To Our Friends Down South

To Our American Friends:

As you know, we share a rather long border (8891 kilometers), but so far, no one has threatened to build a wall. Perhaps it is because we have a lot in common. Much of our population is just north of the border and has been used to American entertainment for the better part of a century. However, as much as we love our neighbor, we also like to think that we’ve managed to remain a bit more civilized and courteous. Perhaps it’s that Commonwealth bond that we’ve maintained with Great Britain. Mind you, we’re not stuffy—we like our back bacon and beer, and we’re not above adding “‘ay” to the end of a sentence.

In any case, given our commonality of entertainment, for nearly fifty years, we’ve been exporting actors and comedians to see if some of our more genteel habits might rub off. Here’s a partial list; please note that I did not include our younger contributions—you probably wouldn’t recognize them anyway. Here, therefore, is a sampling:

Michael J. Fox
Jim Carrey
Pamela Anderson (Not our best. Sorry.)
Rick Moranis
Martin Short
Mike Myers,
Dan Aykroyd
Eugene Levy
William Shatner
Donald Sutherland
Catherine O’Hara

So far it hasn’t helped.

Put another way, if you wish to get New Yorkers out of a swimming pool, you shout, “Everyone into the pool!” If you wish to get Californians out of the pool, shout, “Chemicals have been added to this water to kill harmful micro-organisms!” On the other hand, if you wish to get Canadians out of the pool you speak just loud enough so as to be heard, “Will everyone please leave the pool. Thank you.”

Sincerely,

Your friends in Canada

P.S. We are in no way responsible for Ted Cruz. We had no control over the actions of his parents. If you noticed, we handled the paperwork denouncing his Canadian citizenship with all do haste; we certainly did not wish for him to attempt to run for office up here.

Content vs. Quantity

brown

 

There’s a famous quotation attributed to various people, but the supposed authoritative sources credit to Blaise Pascal:

I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.

When I first started writing this blog I thought that my goal should be to write and post something every day. Of course, at the time, I had plenty of ideas—some worth sharing, some not. Good, bad, or indifferent, I posted them. Like the codfish, I laid 10,000 eggs hoping a few would hatch. Now, I try to limit myself to thoughts worth sharing. Iay—or may not—be succeeding.

I’m a science junkie. If it were 1955 or 1985 (or for that matter, 1895) I could have been Doc Brown in Back to the Future. The biggest difference is that he had a family fortune to support him while he experimented, while I’ve got a steady job (just as valuable, but less conducive to experimentation). Nevertheless, as kindred spirits, he in fiction and I in reality, we try to see what the next step might be. Which brings me to today’s issue.

Today there is a huge emphasis on STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math in the education biz, today—but there is no real commitment. It’s a lot of talk, but no real action. I’m not blaming the educators. God knows that I understand that there’s only so much you can do in guiding a teenager. However, among today’s teenagers, any interest in science is ridiculed. A student interested in STEM requires the commitment of the Maquis (that was the French Resistance in World War II); one must be willing to maintain a low—if not invisible—profile, only confide in a few trusted souls, and be willing to die a thousand deaths (of embarrassment) if discovered.

Kids today don’t realize that the person they call “nerd” today, will probably be called “boss” tomorrow.

In our effort to be politically correct and not impact anyone’s self-esteem we dare not put scientists, engineers, or mathematicians above athletes, gangstas, or “celebrities” who are famous for being famous. Personally, if I’m going to get my brain scrambled, I’d rather it happen in an experimental space craft rather than having repeated concussions playing football or via cocaine, meth, or whatever is the celebrity drug du jour.

Whatever happened to science fairs? High school science clubs? Achievement awards? When did it become shameful to be interested in science beyond the specific items included on the standardized test?

Think about it. To paraphrase Doc Brown, “Our future depends upon it.”

Wordthropology

[I really had a graphic to go right here. Really! But they keep “improving” WordPress so I can’t do the things I used to. I tried, changed its format, tried again, etc. Sorry!]

We accept that humans evolve, it seems like anything humans are involved with evolve as well. Look at tools and for that matter, breathable air. Such is the case with words.

What’s cool is now hot, or is it the other way around?

The most obvious change for a word is the meaning of “gay.” No sense exploring that any further.

“Homely” is an interesting word. It used to mean homie as in comforting and safe. A homely woman would make a good wife; now—I’ll stay out of that discussion.

Once upon a time we referred to fishermen as “anglers.” The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton was an important book that was the first something or other (according to the Dominican Nuns at my grade school). However, no one that I know grabs a rod, reel and a bucket of worms to go angling.

A young man might once have been referred to as “strapping”—that is, as Merriam Webster says, “having a vigorously strong constitution.” You or I might characterize such a person as, “Don’t p!$$ him off!”

The younger readers, if I have any, might now quote Katie Perry with “You’re up when you’re down.” We older folks might prefer the Beatles, “You say yes, I say No.”

In any case, words change their meanings over time. Might be a good thing to remember.