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August 24, 2017

The greatest show on Earth

"Oh, yeah, I'm going down Broadway."
"Working. I'm going to try to get a peek at it out the window."
"I'm going up to Centennial Park. I want to be real quiet and meditative."
"Our hotel's having a viewing party on the roof."
"Just going out in my backyard."
"I've seen one befo-er. They happen all the time. If it wasn't for my grandkids, I'd just stay home."

The question, posed to random strangers around Nashville, was, "Do you have plans to see the eclipse?"

The last speaker, a woman at a bus stop, is of course right. Eclipses do happen all the time. But the Great American Eclipse of 2017 was the first total solar eclipse to hit Nashville since 1478, and it's 99 years since one cut such a long and wide swath across the US - a path 70 miles wide and 2,500 miles long, stretching from the west coast of Oregon to the east coast of South Carolina.
solar-eclipse-t-shirts-tiedye.jpgThis is the also the first one with 24-hour channels to provide major event packaging. I don't remember hearing a thing about the eclipse of February 1979, even though totality covered almost the entire giant state of Montana. The Weather Channel unearthed the ABC News report, which newscaster Frank Reynolds concluded by hoping that in 38 years, "May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace". (Ouch.) For hundreds of small towns, the path provided a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza of visitors. T-shirts for all! (A few places, like Carbondale, Illinois, will get a second bite in 2024.

An estimated 1 million people descended on Nashville. Kids got a day off school. Opryland hosted three days of special events. The baseball team invited 10,000 people into the stadium for a viewing party, then kicked everyone out to readmit ticket holders for the (big? hah!) game. The many, many rooftop viewing parties included one at the famed music bar Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, which reportedly charged $500 per person (including free drinks). The even more famous Bluebird café seemed unimpressed; for Monday's open mic night you still had to reserve online at noon. (As if.) They had nonetheless sold out at 2:30pm.

900px-SolarEclipseDiamondRing-corvallisOR-2017-08-21.jpgAfterwards, everyone had seen at least some part of "it". The most frustrated folks were the 8,000 people who had assembled at the Science Center. After clear skies all through the partial phases, a big, dark cloud occluded the show right before totality. "We didn't see the diamond ring, we didn't see the corona, we didn't see Baily's Beads," the on-site Weather Channel reporter lamented.

The bus stop woman was right - but she was also wrong. She'd probably only seen a partial eclipse. I now know that hardly anyone who has experienced totality - the seconds or minutes when the moon fully covers the sun - says "They happen all the time." They say, "Where and when?"

solar-eclipse-discarding-images.jpgIn 1999, when totality passed over Cornwall on its way to northern Europe, I was surprised to hear the astronomy writer Ian Ridpath say he'd been awaiting it since childhood. But in southwest London, even at 90ish% the dimming light had a glassy, almost sepia tone, and the atavistic thought, "What if it doesn't come back?" was unavoidable. Seeing just that much created an immediate sense of direct emotional connection to our ancestors, from medieval peasants to the ancient Sumerians, and their terror at not knowing what was happening. Legends from the earliest recorded solar eclipse, in China around 2000 B.C., have the emperor ordering the astronomers executed.

Here in 2017, we know. In Centennial Park, I recruited Pete, a passing retired Ohio journalist, to watch with me because I liked his eclipse T-shirt. He noted the absurdity of newscasters who cautiously said "expected at", as if the eclipse were a murder suspect whose mention required "alleged". Totality would arrive at 13:27. Were they suggesting there was mathematical doubt about this?

A few minutes after noon a cheer went up: the first chip in the sun was visible.

pete-shirt-cropped.jpgThe changes in the light are slow and subtle at first, as is the temperature drop, later reported as 6 degrees (Fahrenheit). In modern life, the first clear signs are often street lights coming on, as did those behind the Parthenon's columns. Having seen it once, the 90% level was instantly recognizable. The final phases happen fast. We saw all the things the Science Center folks missed, despite the late-arriving distraction of four people with a small dog who set up nearby with 15 minutes to go. They lit incense, and produced a large, native-looking drum, and proceeded to beat it throughout totality. Did they think their activity was crucial in ensuring that the sun re-emerged at full strength? Neither moon nor sun nor annoyance intervened to prevent the sun's return to normal, on time and under budget.

The agnostics, atheists, and skeptics among us may see all this as a persuasive display of science: it happened when and where scientists predicted, with flawless accuracy. But...

"Did you see it?" Replied one last accosted stranger: "It's amazing what God can do."

Illustrations: The waiting audience by the Nashville Parthenon; Solar eclipse (Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, France ca. 1290; Valenciennes, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 320, fol. 196v, via Discarding Images); eclipse T-shirts; the diamond ring effect (via Wikimedia from Tuanna2010 in Corvallis, Oregon; Nashville eclipse T-shirt.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

August 18, 2017

Cage match

RUR-robots.jpg"The robot", a friend used to call his telephone answering machine. "The robot", another friend calls his automated tea-maker. For its 2017 robot exhibition London's Science Museum elected to focus on robots that "take a human form or behave in a human-like way", in the catalogue's phrasing - The Verge has pictures. Focusing on form rather than intelligence helpfully avoids the mundane and the formless: the Roomba, search engines, and those petty, bureaucratic automatic faucets. It also eliminates pets like the Aibo, drones and other unmanned autonomous vehicles, and the factory-worker industrial robots that populated a prior Science Museum robot exhibition - 1995, I think.

Two points stick in my mind from 1995. The robots were large, impressive, and Japanese, and performed their jobs on a schedule. One, designed to paint automobiles, wore an artist's beret. Second, they were all behind glass. In Japan, these same robots were out in the open. Here in the UK, the authorities panicked: what if one got loose and hurt people? So they were confined inside big glass boxes and visitors were kept well back, as if the robots were giant scorpions poised to attack.

R-shadow-walker.jpgWhat the 2017 definition does embrace is movie stars: the T-800 from the Terminator movies and Maria from Fritz Lang's 1927 spawned-a-million-sf-movies classic, Metropolis. The limitations of this approach are subtle: Cynthia Breazeal, featured on video explaining her work at the MIT Media Lab, has has said that her inspiration to go into robotics was falling in love with R2D2 when she was eight. Not at all humanoid, designed for comedy over function, yet stole the show from its cranky bipedal companion. A few years ago, at We Robot 2015, R2D2 creator Tony Dyson commented that after hundreds of similar stories from robotics engineers, "No one ever fell in love with C3PO." But: not qualified for inclusion. I was also sorry to see that Shadow Robot got so little notice. Its founder, Richard Greenhill is your classic English eccentric, pouring his mind, heart, and life into trying to build a general-purpose robot in an attic.

oldest-robot-athens-2015-smaller.jpgThe goal, however, was trying to get at the human response to robots and our millennia-old desire for artificial companions. As far back as the third century BC, the ancient Greeks, whose power sources were limited to sun, wind, water, and gravity, were trying both to automate function and copy human form. It's from their work that the medieval clockwork automata in this exhibition logically descend. There's a second tributary in the Jewish mythology surrounding the Golem, as seen in last November's exhibition at Berlin's Jewish Museum. A humanoid being formed from inanimate matter such as clay and unable to speak, in some versions the Golem was created to protect the Jewish community. Movie robots are still recognizable as descendants.

The Science Museum skipped the Golem; arguably better befitting our times, it focused on mechanical antecedents. The body as machine section strikes a reminiscent chord: as a child I had a Visible Man, an 18-inch-tall rendering of the human body and its organs inside a transparent skin; you assembled it from bags of plastic parts. I read now that the Visible Man and (later) Visible Woman toys were anatomically correct, a detail I don't recall; what I remember is that their 3D puzzle quality made them a great way to learn human anatomy.

kodomoroid-cropped.jpgMost of the completed robots on display - there are also prototypes-in-development - were designed either to be watched and admired, like the T-800 or Fritz Lang's Maria, or for a particular function, like the Baxter industrial robot. A few are both, like the Kodomoroid Japanese TV newsreader, a rendering of a young woman in a white dress befitting a first communion. This particular robot bothers me, not because it's so humanoid but because some people will tend to call it "she", a genderizing issue the exhibition touches on elsewhere. People feminize boats and fiddles, too, but there's no chance that these will be taken as models whose form actual women should aspire to emulate. As technical wizards perfect their renderings, that risk exists for all genders. Even with a white dress, folded hands, and a projection-ready expression, it's still a fancy hammer.

It's definitely a pity that more interaction isn't possible. The Telenoid, for example, is a telepresence device; sitting on a couch in a glass cage makes its qualities hard to appreciate. However, small children may notice that they can interact with the little boy-styled Zeno R25. Even through glass, when you look it in the eye it twitches, then mimics your head movements. Supposedly, it reads stories and tells jokes (it'll be here all week!).

This is where the 2017 and 1995 exhibitions merged: most of the robots were still behind glass or displayed out of reach. A rare exception was Aldebaran's emotion-recognizing Pepper, which was noticeably a little-kid magnet - close enough to their size and one whose shiny white surface they were able to touch. The biggest, most notable difference in those 20-plus years, therefore, is this: then, the robots were put behind glass to protect *us* (or at least, the Science Museum from legal action); now, they're behind glass to protect *them*. Still alien, after all these years.

The exhibition ends September 3, so you still have time.

Illustrations:: Robots at the Science Museum; the earliest known humanoid robot;

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

August 11, 2017

The lost generation

jean-m-twenge-pr.png"I have young children at home. I have to be in touch." The woman next to me in the stalls at The Book of Mormon in 2013 was defensive and a little angry when I commented blandly during the intermission that her texting during the last third of the first act (!) was distracting. I'm old enough that when my parents went out they told the babysitter where they were going, and that was it.

"Somehow," I muttered to my companion, "*we* lived to grow up."

But time has moved on, and today's teen panic is about smartphones. Jean M. Twenge, writing in The Atlantic, asks, "Have smartphones destroyed a generation?" and predicts that today's teenagers are all on the verge of a mental health crisis. She has charts - how much they date, sleep, hang out with friends, feel lonely, have sex. All, she says, trending downward since 2007, when the iPhone was released. Cause! Or just correlation?

In a non-expert view, I think that this generation, too, will find their way. Some of these things aren't necessarily bad: less driving, given climate change, for example. It's also kind of hilarious to see someone concerned that teens are less sexually active; how can a dropping teen pregnancy rate be a bad thing?

But, Twenge says, teens are increasingly unhappy, and she does find a correlation with phone, or at least, *screen* use: based on annual Monitoring the Future surveys from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, she writes, "Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy."

misschildimage-milk_cartons_sm.gifThe 2016 MTF survey finds that teen drug use is also dropping, even marijuana, despite legalization (if you don't go out, where do you get your drugs?). In the results presentation, NIDA spokespeople suggest that social media, cellphone use, and videogaming might be providing substitute activities, which they thought is worth investigating. I can't find the questions about relative happiness that Twenge refers to. However, it's notable that on most of her charts - driving, dating, and hanging out - the trend line was already heading downwards years before the iPhone. Sex plateaued long before 2007, and turned downward only around 2013, as did sleeping less. So the only chart that really matches Twenge's claim is loneliness, which hit bottom in 2007 and has climbed ever since, passing 1991 levels in about 2012-2013. What did it look like before 1991? We don't know. How much of that loneliness can be traced to economic issues following the 2007 financial crisis? Ditto.

Nor do we know for sure if there is a cause-and-effect relationship - or, if there is, whether teens are more depressed because they're spending more time using screens or are screen-bound because they're depressed. At the Parenting,digital blog, Sonia Livingston raises exactly this point regarding new research from ParentZone that finds school principals attributing increasing levels of mental health problems among their students to...the internet. In this case, too, we don't, as Livingston writes, really know. What we do know, from many, many sources, is that people with mental illness struggle desperately to find help.

In the midst of all this angst, it's cheering to read William Vaughan's blog posting Trusting Our Kids and the World, in which he discusses the theme I began with: kids have far less physical independence than in any previous generation. The pictures of missing kids on milk cartons, the ads on TV when I was 20 asking, "It's 10 pm. Do you know where your child is?", and a load of other media-fanned fears about abduction, child abuse, and other dangers have all served to gradually enclose teens in their bedrooms. The screens may be the only thing that makes that enclosure tolerable. Say you limit screen time, as so many advisories recommend. Then what?

geico-gecko.jpgAt the Guardian, Emma Brockes ponders the right way to handle a reader's two-year-old's obsessive interest in her phone. Brockes notes her own toddlers' alarmingly addict-like behaviour when she tries to reclaim her phone, and hilariously frets over discovering that one of them spent 12 minutes watching Geico ads back to back. I surmise said child liked the *animated talking lizard*.

Brockes, however, hits the main point with absolute clarity: she worries more about her own screen time than her children's, because, like most people, when she's on her phone she's utterly absent from the world around her. It's patently unfair to load extra burdens on parents who are working two jobs and wondering if they can make rent, or get out of debt. But walking in my neighborhood in any direction you'll find parents engrossed in their phone while shepherding their kids somewhere. Now, I know that a one-year-old isn't always the best of company, but interacting with them is your investment in your mutual future. In her 2016 book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle found many children who wished their parents would stop Googling and talk to them. We should, she wrote, listen and obey. Maybe start there.

Illustrations: Jean M. Twenge; National Child Safety Council milk cartons; the Geico gecko.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

August 4, 2017

Imaginary creatures

virginmary-devil.jpgI learned something new this week: I may not be a real person.

"Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security."

So spake the UK's Home Secretary Amber Rudd on August 1, and of course what she was really saying was, We need a back door in all encryption so we can read anything we deem necessary, and anyone who opposes this perfectly sensible idea is part of a highly vocal geek minority who can safely be ignored.

The way I know I'm not a real person is that around the time she was saying that I was emailing my accountant a strongly-worded request that they adopt some form of secured communications for emailing tax returns and accounts back and forth. To my astonishment, their IT people said they could do PGP. Oh, frabjous day. Is PGP-encrypted email more of a pain in the ass than ordinary email? You betcha. Conclusion: I am an imaginary number.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Amber_Rudd_2016.jpgAccording to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing's potted history of this sort of pronouncement, Rudd is at a typical first stage. At some point in the future, Doctorow predicts, she will admit that people want encryption but say they shouldn't have it, nonetheless.

I've been trying to think of analogies that make clear how absurd her claim is. Try food safety: >>Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, healthy food.>> Well, that's actually true. People grab fast food, they buy pre-prepared meals, and we all know why: a lot of people lack the time, expertise, kitchen facilities, sometimes even basic access to good-quality ingredients to do their own cooking, which overall would save them money and probably keep them in better health (if they do it right). But they can choose this convenience in part because they know - or hope - that food safety regulations and inspections mean the convenient, feature-rich food they choose is safe to eat. A government could take the view that part of its role is to ensure that when companies promise their encryption is robust it actually is.

But the real issue is that it's an utterly false tradeoff. Why shouldn't "real people" want both? Why shouldn't we *have* both? Why should anyone have to justify why they want end-to-end encryption? "I'm sorry, officer. I had to lock my car because I was afraid someone might steal it." Does anyone query that logic on the basis that the policeman might want to search the car?

The second-phase argument (the first being in the 1990s) about planting back doors has been recurring for so long now that it's become like a chronic illness with erupting cycles. In response, so much good stuff has been written to point out the technical problems with that proposal that there isn't really much more to say about it. Go forth and read that link.

There is a much more interesting question we should be thinking about. The 1990s public debate about back doors in the form of key escrow ended with the passage in the UK of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) and in the US with the gradual loosening of the export controls. We all thought that common sense and ecommerce had prevailed. Instead, we now know, the security services ignored these public results and proceeded to go their own way. As we now know, they secretly spent a decade working to undermine security standards. They installed vulnerabilities, and generally borked public trust in the infrastructure.

So: it seems reasonable to assume that the present we-must-have-back-doors noise is merely Plan A. What's Plan B ? What other approaches would you be planning if you ran the NSA or GCHQ? I'm not enough of a technical expert to guess at what clever solutions they might find, but historically a lot of access has been gained by leveraging relationships with appropriate companies such as BT (in the UK) and AT&T (in the US). Today's global tech companies have so far seemed to be more resistant to this approach than a prior generation's national companies were.

Tim_Cook_2009_cropped.jpgThis week's news that Apple began removing censorship-bypassing VPNs from its app store in China probably doesn't contradict this. The company says it complies with national laws; in the FBI case it fought an order in court. However, Britain's national laws unfortunately include 2016's Investigatory Powers Act (2016), which makes it legal for security services to hack everyone's computers ("bulk equipment interference" by any other name...) and has many other powers that have barely been invoked publicly yet. A government that's rational on this sort of topic might point this out, and say, let's give these new powers a chance to bed down for a year or two and *then* see what additional access we might need.

Instead, we seem doomed to keep having this same conversation on an endless loop. Those of us wanting to argue for the importance of securing national infrastructure, particularly as many more billions of points of vulnerability are added to it, can't afford to exit the argument. But, like decoding a magician's trick, we should remember to look in all those other directions. That may be where the main action is, for those of us who aren't real enough to count.

Illustrations: The Virgin Mary punching the devil in the face (book of hours ('The De Brailes Hours'), Oxford ca. 1240 (BL, Add 49999, fol. 40v), via Discarding Images); Amber Rudd; Tim Cook (Valery Marchive).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.