The Big Picture: Aikido
I've told this story before in other blogs, so if you've heard it before, my apologies.
More than a decade ago, I began studying taekwondo. I stuck with it long enough to earn my third degree black belt. I began when I was unemployed, newly retired from the Navy, and undergoing the slow-motion trainwreck of my separation and divorce. I enjoyed the discipline and the physical exertion.
I'd often go to class at lunch, there were fewer students and I'd get more time one-on-one with the instructor. One particular class, I was the only student there. My instructor offered to do anything I wanted. I knew he had trained in aikido, so I asked him to offer a lesson in aikido.
So after the usual warm-ups, stretching and conditioning, we did a little aikido drill that will remain with me for as long as I live.
It seemed fairly simple. We faced each other, I raised my arms over my head and slightly forward. He grasped my arms at my wrists. He told me to keep both of my feet planted on the floor, and use my arms to try and get him to lift one of his feet off the floor. So I twisted and leaned and kind of jerked around, and nothing I did caused him to lift one of his feet off the floor. This went on for probably thirty seconds or so, it was clear I wasn't going to get him to lift his feet.
Then we swapped. I grabbed his wrists, and my mission was to keep both of my feet on the floor. Instantly, I was lifting one of my feet off the floor. Reset. Again, same result. Reset. Again, same result.
Now comes the lesson.
When I was grasping his arms, my attention was on my hands. Our hands are how we manipulate our world. They're filled with nerves to sense and manipulate, and as a result, they often have a great deal of our attention. But they had nothing to do with my objective.
My attention should have been on my center of gravity, or, more simply, my center. By placing my attention on my center, I could determine which way to move my hips, twist my shoulders, and so on, to keep my center of gravity between my two feet, and my feet both on the floor.
After instruction, we tried again, and I was much more successful at keeping both feet on the floor, though he would still eventually get me to lift one. I never managed to get him to lift one of his.
As I drove home after class, I reflected on the value of the lesson to my life. There are so many externalities that command our attention, but aren't relevant to our mission. By giving these things our attention, we often find ourselves feeling off-balance, or falling on our ass. Our attention must remain with our center; in mindfulness, the breath. In life, stillness. Equanimity.
To be balanced enough to inhabit the space between stimulus and response.
I often think of this, because I'm sad to admit that it's a lesson I often forget. I thought of it again this morning when I read a headline:
Lenovo CEO on Apple, Samsung: 'Our mission is to surpass them'
I suppose it's an example of stereotypical thinking to feel a sense of irony here. Aikido originated in Japan, but all martial arts share the same principles.
Lenovo's "mission" is to create great products. If their attention is directed toward Apple and Samsung and whatever their perceived relative "distance" behind may be, they will fail.
Apple's success is because its attention is focused on its center. That's not to say it doesn't pay attention to its surroundings, its environment, its competitors, but it knows where to focus.
Lenovo, apparently, does not.
Here endeth the lesson.
Maintenance: Second Fast
Yesterday was my second fast day in the 5-2 interval fasting plan. Again, not much difficulty, though I did seem to experience more episodes of "feeling" hungry. Each time I simply changed my activity, and the feeling went away or receded into unconsciousness. I did drink plenty of water and some Diet Mountain Dew. I went the whole period without eating anything from about 9:00 PM on Wednesday night until about 7:30 AM today.
I weighed myself on Monday when I began the first fasting day, and I weighed 201 pounds, which is where I tend to hover, 200-201. When I weighed myself on Tuesday, I weighed 198 pounds, the three pound difference being almost entirely water weight and maybe a half pound of fat. On Wednesday and Thursday mornings, I weighed 200 pounds each time. This morning my weight following the fast was 197 pounds. So tomorrow I will be interested to see if my weight is 199 pounds. That would be consistent with the loss of one pound of fat, which is entirely possible as I'm confident my calorie deficit to this point exceeds 3500 calories.
In terms of unfamiliar physical sensations, it seems the transition from fasting to eating again is where they occur for me. I've read that others feel uncomfortable at the beginning of the fast, transitioning from carbohydrate fuel to fat. I'm experiencing them right now. I had a higher protein/fat breakfast with some carbs, but I'm still feeling something akin to a feeling I formerly described as "hypoglycemic." (I have no idea if that condition corresponds to that feeling, as I've never tested my blood sugar when feeling that way. Eating a carbohydrate-rich snack always seemed to make it go away. May have been the placebo effect.) This feeling is slightly different. It's not alarmingly unpleasant, but it is different. I'll have a banana in an hour and see how I feel.
On Tuesday, I was inclined to be slightly more indulgent in my food choices, but I didn't feel inclined to binge on anything. The single serving of ice cream was consistent with my choices before I began this program, though I usually had it later in the afternoon. Wednesday was a completely normal day in terms of how I felt about my food choices. I didn't feel as though I had to "eat extra" to get ready for Thursday.
Facing the weekend, I'd say that right now my intention is to try to preserve whatever weight loss I've managed to achieve thus far, and not over-indulge on Sunday during the Super Bowl. That being said, I will also not consciously choose to deprive myself. I'll eat the things I enjoy in moderation, and have the usual (probably excessive) quantity of beer. Go Broncos!
So far, so good! In the brief time it's taken to post this update, the transitional feeling has diminished, so I'm optimistic this will be just a minor inconvenience in the process.
Maintenance: Fasting and Diet
A few weeks ago, I caught part of a Diane Rehm show that included a panel of doctors discussing the latest research on intermittent fasting. I went to her web site to listen to the entire show, and ended up buying the book The FastDiet.
In a nutshell, the "diet" that the book recommends is two non-consecutive fasting days a week. That's it.
It turns out that on fasting days, if you choose, you can consume up to 500 calories (for men, 400 for women), of low-glycemic index foods, in one or two meals. Most of the book consists of low-calorie meals for fasting days.
I'm not much of a "dieter." I try to eat healthy, but I enjoy eating and I don't enjoy deprivation. I exercise, I work to stay fit. I'm a little overweight, but all my numbers have been pretty good for the last several years. After dealing with an ongoing problem with my achilles, both of them, I seem to have finally determined a way that I can run and keep my achilles from becoming inflamed. So I've been runnning again, and paying a bit more attention to what I eat, but my weight is staying stubbornly at 200 pounds. When I trained for a marathon in 2009 (race was January 2010), I got down to 178 pounds. Some people said I looked too thin, even though that's probably fifteen pounds above my "ideal" weight.
Anyway, hearing these guys discuss this research intrigued me, so I did some more reading and it all seems to make sense.
Briefly, our physiologies have evolved highly effective mechanisms for maintaining health in times of famine. These mechanisms are only "turned on" when the body gets a signal that food is in short supply. In our contemporary lifestyle, that signal never gets sent. We're always consuming calories of one kind or another. By fasting, we send the proper signals to activate those mechanisms. The result is greater longevity.
There are a number of challenges with fasting, and various approaches to doing it. If you listen to the show, you'll hear about alternate day fasting, controlled fasting for four days or more, the "fast five" where you only eat during a five hour window every day, effectively getting nineteen hours of fast each day. Dr. Michael Mosley tried a few of these approaches, and determined that, for him, the two day a week fast was most workable for him. He lost weight, and all his numbers improved.
I'm partly interested in the weight loss, but I'm mostly interested in the longevity effects. Having said that, the aspect of longevity that I'm most interested in is not living longer, but in maintaining optimal health further into my later years, such that I'll be able to enjoy myself, or feel as though I can engage with life in a vigorous fashion.
So, I'm going to try this. If I don't encounter any unexpected problems, my intention is to make this my ongoing lifestyle. Dr. Mosley did the two-day regime until he reached his goal weight, then went to a single fasting day to maintain his weight. He indicated in the book that he will return to the two-day regime if his weight goes up or his numbers begin to show undesirable changes.
One issue researchers looked at was whether fasters would consume enough calories on the non-fasting days to make up for the calories foregone on the fasting days. It turns out that they do eat about 15% more than they normally would, but not enough to overcome the entire deficit, so weight loss is achievable and almost inevitable.
Yesterday was my first fasting day. I elected to not eat any meals, just to see if it was possible. I had a hard-boiled egg, an apple and a banana on hand in case I felt like I had to have something, but my intention was to get through the day eating nothing.
I mostly made it. About 8:30 last night, I had one remaining Magic Hat Nr. 9 left in the fridge, and recalled that Diane said she had a glass of champagne on her fasting days, so I drank it. In hindsight, I think I'd have preferred to skip it. I wanted to see what effect fasting may have on my sleep pattern (which sucks). The beer may have muddied that issue.
For most of the day, I felt fine. I started with what was to be a three mile run, but my partner has been having issues with leg cramps and we ended up walking most of it. I never felt hypoglycemic at any point during the day. I never had any severe hunger pangs. I had an appetite, and when it began to be a distraction, I changed my activity. I took Bodhi for a walk, or put an episode of a favorite TV show on, or vacuumed the floor. Then I'd drink a glass of water. I never felt any urge to eat the apple or the banana or the egg. I think the beer kind of snuck up on me, because I'd been visiting friends earlier in the evening and they were having beer and I was abstaining. When I got home, my intention was to sit down and begin watching the TV series, The Good Wife, and I recalled I did have one beer in the fridge and, recalling Diane's champagne admission, I succumbed.
I slept as badly as I usually do, so no improvement there, but it's not a valid data point. I didn't feel hungry while I slept, or as I laid there, awake.
When I got up this morning, I still didn't feel ravenously hungry. I had an appetite and I was looking forward to making and eating breakfast, but I was comfortable.
The first semi-negative experience I've had appears to be the transition from fat-burning while fasting, to carbohydrate fuel. I had a couple of slices of toast, a two-egg frittata with some cornbread in it, two squares of dark chocolate, and some pineapple chunks. That's pretty representative of the kinds of things I normally eat for breakfast, though the toast was just because I'd baked a loaf of bread on Sunday. As the morning wore on, I felt a little "jittery" inside, and later a bit irritable as I was driving around doing errands. I stopped by the grocery store and indulged myself in a small serving of Ben & Jerry's, and I feel fine now. For the record, small servings of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough are a frequent indulgence.
I'll eat just as I normally do today and tomorrow, and Thursday I'll fast, once again trying to forego any food at all. Then I'll see how Friday goes with the transition. I may want to go more toward the protein and fat early, and gradually add the carbs. The toast and cornbread may have spiked my blood sugar, and then without sufficient reserves of glycogen, triggered the jitters and irritability.
Monday and Thursday seem like the ideal days to fast, as they bookend the weekend, when I most often choose to indulge. I have a neighbor who's a former chef who enjoys cooking for his friends, and that's usually a weekend thing. Football season will be over Sunday, but there are other social events on the weekends. The key thing is, I don't have to feel as though I have to deprive myself during those very social days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Monday is a good day to atone for the weekend, and Thursday is a good day to kind of bank some good food karma ahead of the weekend!
Part of what makes this manageable is the knowledge that you can eat pretty much whatever you want the next day, coupled with the thought that you're giving your body an opportunity to do something positive for you without too much suffering.
I'll check back in here from time to time and let you know how it's going. I've got a physical coming up on the 17th of February. I don't think I'll have been doing this long enough to have a measurable effect, but it's another set of numbers. We'll see.
About the Mac
It's the Mac's 30th birthday, and a lot of folks are reminiscing about their first encounters with the machine.
I didn't own a Mac until about 1995, I think. But I'd been an Apple user since December, 1981. I'd bought an Apple ][+ from ComputerLand, where they offered financing. As I recall, it was about $2,495.00 for 48K of RAM, 40 column, upper-case only text display (sold separately), and a floppy disk drive capable of storing a whopping 143 kilobytes of data. It came with some games too, and a set of "game paddles." Apple Stellar Invaders was a popular item at the townhouse I shared with a couple of other officers. Phil McConkey, fellow USNA alum, ex-naval aviator, and ex-wide receiver for the NY Giants was on the machine as often as I was, maybe more.
Anyway, it was a platform, so once you get invested in a platform, you tend to stick with it for a while. Not sure if that's smart, but it's what happens. I upgraded the ][+ with a Videx 80 column card and did the shift-key mod so I could do upper and lower case. I had a Star Grafix printer interface card that connected to a Star Gemini dot matrix printer (Epson clone). In '83 I bought the Apple //e, for $1595.00 with 128K of (bank-switched) RAM, 80 column video, two disk drives, and an Apple Monitor /// (the kind that went with the Apple ///). I can't remember what I did with the ][+. Probably sold it, but it bugs me that I don't remember.
I was one of two "administrative discharge officers" at Fleet Combat Training Center, Dam Neck, meaning I spent most of my time processing people who weren't suited for military service out of the Navy. It involved a lot of paperwork, and typing, so I dragged my computer to work often to do my work. I think we eventually got a Yeoman to do verbatim transcripts for us, but until then I was listening to cassette tapes and typing in what people had said at the discharge boards.
Shortly after the Mac was announced, I moved over to the XO's office and became some kind of administrative assistant to the executive officer. At the time he had a female secretary, a female administrative officer, and a female public affairs officer, I think he was just looking for another y-chromosome to hang around with. It was another paper-pushing job, only this one involved planning and tracking things. I'd gotten interested in Dave Winer's ThinkTank outliner software, and was using that to manage the plan of the week, and the "tickler." So when Apple announced the //c in an "Apple II forever" event, I bought one of those to take to work with me, along with an Imagewriter II printer. I think the //c with the additional external drive (you needed two drives to run ThinkTank) and "ET" monitor (it looked like ET from the movie of the same name), was only $1295, but the Imagewriter II was a rather pricey $595, if I recall correctly. Anyway, I was happy.
I was a lieutenant at the time, and there was a commander in the same building, who was also an Apple II user, with a seemingly endless supply of bootlegged software. Oh, the shame of it all! I ended up joining the Tidewater Apple Worms user group, and have many fond memories of going to meetings, becoming editor of the newsletter, and I think I was treasurer for a while.
After Dam Neck, I went to Department Head School in Newport, Rhode Island for six months. One of my classmates there was a trained musician and enjoyed playing around with Music Construction Set from Electronic Arts on my //e, kind of the GarageBand app of the day. I had a MockingBoard sound synth installed in one of the slots. Mostly for the cooler sound effects in games like Skyfox! I managed to persuade him to buy a Mac, and so I finally got to play around with a 128K Macintosh. It was awesome, but I had too much invested in the Apple II to switch.
I got married after Department Head School, and my days of profligate spending were effectively over. While I was a geographic bachelor in the late 80s, I persuaded my roommate to buy a Mactintosh IIx, so I got to play Crystal Quest on that, which was cool. Eventually, I was able to assemble a used Apple //gs system, and my first 10MB hard drive. Life was pretty good.
Apple eventually discontinued the Apple II line, and I was able to persuade my spouse that we needed to get with the times and buy a Mac. My first Mac was the Performa 6200CD, now widely regarded as a "road apple," a consumer product barely worthy of the Mac name. But for me, it was a revelation.
Since then, I've had a Performa 630CD (bought that as a product demo while I was doing another stint as a geographic bachelor and part-time Apple Product Representative), a Powerbook 190 (my first laptop - though it was really for my wife), a PowerMac 6500, a Powerbook Duo 280 (this one was mine), an iMac DV (that I still have and still works), the "icebook" iBook G3, a sequential pair of iBook G4s, a dual-processor PowerMac G4 (867MHz, Mirror Drive Doors, aka "Wind Tunnnel" — still have that one too), the first 20" intel iMac (sold it), a 24" aluminum intel iMac (daughter has it), a 27" iMac (mine), a "BlackBook" intel MacBook (other daughter got that), a 13" aluminum MacBook Pro (same daughter has that now), and a 13" MBP Retina that I bought last year, which I'm typing this on.
I shudder to think about the cumulative opportunity cost.
I often think back to that commander at Dam Neck. He had a sign in his office that read, "With my personal computer, I can now do things much faster, that I never had to do at all before."
And that's still true.
But yeah, it's been crazy.
Happy birthday, Mac.
I hadn't seen this when it was in the theaters. An old shipmate of mine, Captain Rick Hoffman, was the military advisor on the film. He said he was really pleased with the way it turned out, so I was looking forward to seeing it.
It's a great piece of filmmaking. Despite the fact that you know how it all turns out, I found it very suspenseful and was surprised at the tension I was feeling, particularly in the lifeboat scenes.
As for the military parts, well, they didn't really take me "out of the moment." It is like that, but, no, it's not like that either. It's funny, because when I see a TV show like Battlestar Galactica, and they get some of the military vernacular and intereactions right, I'm delighted and more drawn into the story. When I see actual ships and sailors performing in a movie, I notice all the things that aren't right, and I kind of feel less invested in the story. This wasn't that bad. It's Hollywood, they have to tell a story in a way that makes sense to them and so the people seeing the film who haven't necessarily served will understand. So, kudos to them, and Cap'n Rick. There have been worse! (Ahem, Battleship. If you've seen Battleship, Cap'n Rick was the advisor on that one too, and does a bit part as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff! Got more screen time than I'd expected too.)
It is a fairly nuanced story, even as compressed as the narrative has to be. It's not all gung-ho, "Let's go kill the pirates!"
I will say that the in final scene, which is profoundly affecting, that that HMC should get an award of some kind. She was not an actor. She was a Navy Corpsman. She was great, a real Navy professional, and I have had the privilege of knowing many. It wasn't a big part, but the contrast between the characters, between the world of the lifeboat and the world of sickbay, and watching Hanks as Phillips just trying to reorient himself was a remarkable bit of acting. I think Greenglass made a great call, doing that scene. It wasn't scripted. They made it up as they went along. So you didn't have some beautiful Hollywood actress overly emoting compassion or anything. Just a professional, doing her job, helping someone.
Anyway, great movie. You should see it.
Just Another Yellow Rumped Warbler
It's a bit cold here lately. There were the usual American Robins and Cedar Waxwings, but they were skittish and high in the trees. Not much else was active. This little guy was at least a little bit cooperative.
Shot this with my old E-520, sporting the Zuiko 50-200mm and the EC14 1.4 teleconverter. Won't exactly win any awards for sharpness, but handheld at 283mm (566mm EFL), while holding Bodhi's leash, I like it. Probably could have bumped the ISO to 400 and gotten away with it.
Pogue On Cameras
David Pogue, formerly a tech columnist at the NY Times, now writing for Yahoo!, has written an article for Yahoo! Tech called How Sony is Ushering In a Golden Age of Photography. (Wow. What a mouthful.) In that remarkable missive, he writes,
In short, the single most important statistic about a camera is not the number of megapixels (which actually means very little to picture quality). It’s sensor size.
An all-encompassing assertion such as that is the foundation of today's consistently sloppy tech journalism, and the source of this irritating itch that I now feel compelled to scratch.
Pogue is typically at his best when he's debunking these kinds of myths, as he was when he let the air out of the megapixel hype. The kind of statement quoted above is just bullshit.
First, someone please tell me how one concludes that there is a "single most important statistic about a camera," let alone what it is.
And if sensor size was the "single most imporant statistic about a camera," why isn't everyone shooting medium format?
Digital cameras, like most modern devices, are assembled from a stack of technologies, the sensor is merely one of many. Aside from the sensor, there is the image processor, the computer that assembles the data collected by the sensor into an image, or a movie. There is the optical system. For fixed lens cameras, it's one thing; for interchangeable lens cameras, it's another. Typically today there is some form of image stabilization, either by sensor shift or lens stabilization. There is the user interface for composition: Optical viewfinder, electronic viewfinder, LCD screen, each with various approaches, strengths and weaknesses. Auto-focus approaches vary, contrast detection or phase detection? And how are they at maintaining focus continuously while shooting multiple frames? There's the storage system, buffer, speed, compact flash, SD, etc. Now there's built-in networking, for sharing or for full remote control of the camera. There's the physical design of the device itself, can it be used in wet and dusty conditions? Underwater? Does it fit well to the hand? Are there adequate physical controls and can they be customized? Is it easily carried, or will it break your back? There's the power system, is the battery large enough? Can an additional battery be attached via a grip or power supplied by some other mechanism?
Depending on what your requirements are as a photographer, any one of those other layers of the stack might be "the single most important statistic about a camera."
So, Pogue is full of shit about sensor size.
That said, Sony is making some wonderful sensors these days. Olympus is using them in its Pen and OM-D line of compact mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras.
Larger sensors afford some advantages when it comes to physics, both in terms of noise and depth of field; but those are emphatically not the "most important statistic(s)" about a camera. And mirrorless full-frame poses some interesting challenges in lens design if you're going to design new lenses to attach directly to a mirrorless mount and still provide a full-frame image circle. Sony appears to be solving those challenges, but don't expect remarkably smaller lenses just because the body is smaller. The sensor size, all other things being equal, drives lens size. Bigger sensor means bigger lenses.
Sunrise, January 23, 2014
It was 33ºF out there this morning, but I was ready for it this time.
I do enjoy living here.
This Afternoon's Bird (1/20)
While I was out this afternoon, looking for other birds, this guy flew right in front of me and landed on the fence. We see a lot of Egrets around here, but they're always impressive.
This Morning's Bird (1/20)
Yellow Rumped Warbler
These guys are semi-cooperative. You have to stand still for a while before they come out, but they seem curious about people. If you move, they fly away. Got this one this morning, with some patience.
I was shooting a Snowy Egret (previous "This Morning's Bird" entry), and as I was trying to get closer to the Egret, I noticed this guy perched on a limb over the pond, sort of watching what I was doing.
While cameras in phones are getting better and better, there are limitations.
In the two images above, even at this reduced size, there's a great deal of noise in the iPhone 5s image. If you look at the full size images, it's apparent that they're vastly different.
In this case, the difference is less striking, but the image from the E-PM2 is much closer in terms of color, which is probably a white balance issue. Noise is less of an issue, but the full size view shows the differences more clearly. That's Venus, by the way, which I was surprised to see in the iPhone 5s image.
Data As Resource Raw Material
There's a worthwhile piece at Co.LABS regarding Google's Nest purchase, and its role as Google's entry to the "smart grid." I think the author is correct, up to a point, but he doesn't go far enough in terms of Google's vision or intention.
In 2008, the NY Times reported that a tool from Google, analyzing search data, was able to identify areas where a flu outbreak was underway up to two weeks before the data appeared in the conventional CDC tracking. Google maintains and continues to refine the tool. You can read about it here.
Like it or not, our world is growing more resource constrained as the population increases. Using available resources more efficiently requires better data. Data is a natural resource, as the metaphor "data mining" suggests, and Google is shaping itself to be the dominant player in an extractive industry.
Raw material is one thing, but most of the real value is created by refining the raw material. Trees to lumber, crude oil to gasoline and other petroleum products, iron ore to steel, and so on. Algorithmic analysis of large data sets in giant data centers is where Google will refine raw data into valuable information.
I think that this is, in the main, an unquestionably good thing for humanity. The unfortunate history of many of the early players in these extractive industries, though, is that they rigged the game to favor themselves. The result in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was anti-trust legislation to govern the players in these markets.
The problem with Google and data as a natural resource is that the metaphor is inadequate, and doesn't contemplate all the potential abuses. While money can be used, and has been, to subvert democracy, money is at least somewhat transparent. The cliché for understanding any corruption scandal is to "follow the money." One can do that, with a fair degree of utility, because most monetary transactions are ultimately transparent. That is to say, to be useful, the fruits of corruption must become visible at some point. Which is why Swiss bank accounts, and offshore headquarters in the Cayman Islands, are so useful; they make the transactions more opaque and, given enough time, more difficult to track.
Coercing cooperation by means of threatening people with exposure of information they would prefer to remain secret relies on the lack of transparency. The victim isn't going to speak out, and the perpetrator will work very hard to keep its efforts behind a veil of secrecy.
We have no way of knowing if Google has ever engaged in this sort of activity, because there is no transparency into what goes on in their data centers. They share with us the "good news" that burnishes their reputation and ostensibly helps to create trust; but it gives us no basis to be certain they aren't using their data for more nefarious purposes.
We would never know. Unless some brave victim chose to expose them, and then the burden would be on the victim to somehow prove that Google was able to garner the information somehow through its efforts in its data centers. Pretty tough to prove, I think, and short of being able to absolutely prove it, no victim is going to fall on their sword to thwart Google. Indeed, if Google chooses to use its data to compel cooperation from its legislative or regulatory foes, it will do so through third parties, far removed from Google itself. They will simply be "anonymous sources" providing information to third party actors who will achieve the aims Google wishes.
Does this idea require the cooperation of large numbers of morally compromised Google employees to be effective? I don't think so. People can be working on one tool to do something purportedly "good," which can nevertheless be subverted to accomplish a morally objectionable result. It would only require a small number of people, believing they were working for a greater good to do something horribly wrong.
Is this paranoia on my part? I don't think so. I don't think Google is out to get me. I just think any reasonable person, looking at the facts, (enormous quantities of personal data, vast computational resources, smart people, unaccountable leadership, and an on the record aversion to governmental interference) can draw these same conclusions, and they ought to be disturbing.
But it's more than just that.
"Big data" is a natural resource, to continue with the metaphor. It is the information that is yielded as all of us go about our daily lives. For most of history, that information just vanished into increasing entropy. We've been making progress in grabbing some of it and making local entropy reductions, through oral history, the invention of writing, the invention of the printing press, film, magnetic analog, and now digital recording. The devices to gather large quantities of data have been growing more numerous and inexpensive, to the point where we are today, where nearly anything with a microprocessor and an analog-to-digital converter can be used to gather information. Connect it to the web, and it can easily be centrally collected. That's what Google does. It connects devices to the web, and collects data.
But the data belongs to all of us. We created it. It shouldn't belong to a private corporation to do with as it pleases. "Big data" will be a utility, but it should be publicly owned and operated, transparent and accountable.
If we are to have a functioning democracy in the future, I think that's where the model will ultimately go. I think we're in for some very rough times before we get there, because it seems difficult to get people to think about these things in useful ways.
If we can get there, if we can get to a place where big data can be used to more equitably distribute the constrained resources of a crowded planet, we will be much further along to a more just world.
But I don't think Google is going to get us there, self-driving cars or no.
This Morning's Bird (1/17)
The Cedar Waxwings. They've been back for a while, but their numbers are starting to go up now. I was wondering if something had happened to them, because I'd only seen a few up until recently. They seem to like to hang out with Robins, as they're back too. But I love the way these birds look.
The neighbors don't like them so much. They tend to roost in the trees along the parking lots, and then crap on the cars. A car can be covered in crap in an afternoon. It's pretty bad.
Here's a solitary, rather cold-looking Robin:
Lighting of Opportunity
Took advantage of the full moon and the basketball court lights to see if I could get an interesting shot of the palms from the other side of the retention pond. Turned out okay, I think. Oly E-PM2 and the mZuiko 17mm f1.8, mounted on the Joby Gorillapod SLR-Zoom (which is really unsuitable for a DSLR with a zoom lens, but perfect for a mirrorless compact camera like the E-PM2).
Nest and Google
I was an early adopter of the Nest Learning Thermostat. I installed mine in December 2011. By late summer it had already paid for itself. Much of the savings, if not most, came from the information it provided to me that caused me to alter my behavior. I was able to closely observe the effect of changing the temperature on my thermostat on my energy usage.
Prior to the Nest, I had an ordinary thermostat and in the summer it was set to 75 degrees. After a period of low energy usage in a mild spring, I was surprised by the amount of electricity I used to cool the condo when the heat of summer began in earnest. I tried setting the thermostat at the environmentally-friendly, recommended 78 degrees, but found that it left me very uncomfortable much of the time. So I tried 77 degrees and was surprised to discover how much of a difference one degree made, not only in comfort but in energy consumption compared to 75 degrees.
The "auto-away" feature accounted for much of the remaining savings. When I would leave for work, the thermostat would allow the temperature to rise to 81 degrees before cooling. I'm sure this was uncomfortable for Bodhi, but he mostly just slept while I was gone. In my retirement, auto-away doesn't account for nearly as much savings, as I'm home much of the time.
In hindsight, it seems to me that a "learning" thermostat would not necessarily require internet access. The feedback could be delivered either on-screen, or by Bluetooth to an app. I never felt particularly motivated by the information I received comparing my energy usage to other Nest users. We all live in different parts of the country, with different schedules, needs, etc. It seemed irrelevant to me how other people were doing.
Had I thought more about it, I would have realized that selling "smart" devices at a premium wasn't just to make a tidy profit on shiny widgets. No, the data was the object all along.
Now Google owns Nest. And I will be uninstalling my Nest Learning Thermostat, and I will not install the three Nest Protect devices I ordered and received in late November.
I posted a review of the Nest Learning Thermostat on Amazon yesterday, following news of Nest's acquisition by Google. I gave it one star. There have been a couple of comments, about what I expected.
So what's my real objection to Google?
Chiefly, it's one of accountability. Google is an unaccountable entity, with vast resources, both financial and computational, and access to extraordinary, even unprecedented amounts of data.
One could argue that Google is accountable to shareholders, but the founders hold the controlling shares. One could argue that Google is accountable to the law, but this "big data" era is new, and there is very little law governing how this information is gathered and to what ends it may be used. One could argue that Google is accountable to the public, that if they do something we find objectionable, we'd stop using their products. The problem with that is a lack of transparency. We don't know what Google is doing in its data centers.
So what's the potential threat from Google and its access to unprecedented amounts of data?
"Knowledge is power."
When we think of "powerful" people, we think of people who have great wealth, or great authority. They have the means to compel the actions of others. A "powerful" argument is persuasive. But this is an incomplete understanding of "power" and the relationship between the "powerful" and the "powerless."
If we believe all people are free, and possess free will (this is likely not the case, at least, not to the extent that we would like to pretend it to be), then all people have exactly the same amount of "power": The power to choose. All choices have consequences, and it is usually the nature of the consequences that determines the choice. In a civilized society, to be able to exist in an "orderly" fashion, free people willingly submit to "authority." They choose to follow the law, and the directions of those placed in position to uphold it.
We can make this choice freely, because we have established a framework of laws that impose responsibilities on those given authority, and mechanisms to hold them accountable for the execution of their duties and the exercise of their authority. We are not compelled to submit to the arbitrary whims of people just because they wear a uniform and a badge and carry a weapon (or call themselves "king"). Transparency is of utmost important in this — that the actions of those in authority can be observed and seen to be in compliance with the standards of the law. When transparency is missing, abuse of authority ("power") is inevitable.
Knowledge is a form of authority. Doctors know more about health and medicine than lay people, and so we often choose to submit to their authority in order to recover from illness or injury. Our society recognizes their knowledge in these matters, and gives them special authorities in the marketplace. Certain products can only be obtained with the authorization of a competent medical authority. If we choose not to submit to the authority of a doctor, they lack the authority to deny us our liberty, that authority is reserved to the state. Nevertheless, there are consequences for one who chooses not to submit to the authority of a doctor, they may not recover. So a doctor's authority is a "powerful" influence on behavior.
Google has a vast amount of information. They have a reputation for having the smartest people in the world working for them. They can solve hard problems. We don't know what kinds of problems Google is working on in its data centers.
Consider this: Perhaps Google feels that they might be able to improve the function of government by increasing the transparency of lawmakers' and lobbyists' activities. Within Google's data centers is data from many Android phones, and iPhones using Google services, nearly all of which (especially in the case of Android devices) is geo-tagged. It would seem to be a relatively easy thing to do to track the comings and goings of phone numbers between K Street lobbists' offices and the offices of Senators and Representatives. I don't know how much wifi is available in the Senate and Congressional office buildings, but it seems likely that those phone numbers could be tracked to particular parts of the buildings, even offices. Which is to say nothing of the possibility of that data being recorded on Google Calendar, either by the lobbyists, the elected officials, or their staffs. Which is also to say nothing of the data that is passed coordinating those meetings by e-mail or SMS. Not to belabor the issue, but is also to say nothing of the phone records themselves.
The point is, one can be fairly certain that Google has a very powerful microscope that it can turn to the operation of government.
Which, in a certain context, might be a good thing. If everybody knows they're doing it, and we all get to see the data and the inferences drawn from the data.
If they can track phones, they can track people. They say they don't track individuals, but we just have to take them at their word. It's not a credible denial. When you have a powerful hammer, you want to see how big a nail it can drive. Someone, somewhere in those data centers, is working to see just how much information they can derive about particular individuals. It's inconceivable to me that they simply wouldn't want to know just how much they can know, especially about people in positions to thwart their objectives.
All men have feet of clay. Women too. We all do things we're not proud of, that we don't wish to be common knowledge. People placed in high positions of authority are subjected to powerful efforts to influence them, temptations you and I don't face. All of them have things in their lives and in their professional dealings that they don't wish others to know about. Every single one of them. Nobody is a saint.
There is no reason to believe that Google cannot, if it chose to, learn things about elected officials, appointed officials, government employees, that would be personally or professionally embarrassing, perhaps even devastating, were they to become public.
That's the kind of authority Google has. For which it is accountable to no one.
Google, today, has the power to subvert democracy. Whether or not it is doing so now, we can't say. I will say that if they aren't, it's only a matter of time before they will. Elected leaders, government authorities, will be accountable not to the people, but to Google, who has the power to end their careers, disrupt their personal lives.
People worry about the NSA, but I think they're trapped in 20th century thinking: George Orwell, 1984, East Germany, the Communist Party. Totalitarian states relied on domestic surveillance to preserve the power and privilege of the politically entrenched interests. That has never been the case in America, J. Edgar Hoover's history at the FBI notwithstanding. The political class preserves its power and privilege through the use of money. Money is the most liquid form of authority.
Except for data. Information. Knowledge.
Google has the opportunity to "disrupt" the political status quo now.
Data is a natural resource. Google is an extractive industry. Unregulated. Ungoverned. Unaccountable. Unchecked.
That's a problem.
I Hated Working In a Cube Farm
One of the most compelling reasons why I "retired" last year was that I worked in a cubicle. It would be one thing to work in a cubicle in an environment where everyone was silent, or kept the talking to a minimum. But no.
Imagine that your working life existed in the comments section of a Fox News article. Spoken aloud.
How to Spend an Hour Today
So, what's "the big picture?"
It's the way you look at the world.
What you see isn't "reality." It's a picture created by your brain.
You can think of your brain as a kind of computer.
What you see isn't reality. It's a picture created by a program running in your brain.
Who wrote the program?
We'd all like to believe we're the programmers, but that's not really true. We can reprogram our brains, but most of us never do. It takes effort, and the human body (and psyche) is very conservative when it comes to effort. Efforts may include education, therapy, or a spiritual practice. But reprogramming does occur, in ways we're seldom really conscious of. It is accomplished by the social environment we're immersed in.
There are entities that care how you see the world. Their interests aren't all congruent, and therefore they compete with one another. There are lots of people working very hard every single day to influence how you see the world. To make their picture, your picture. If you watch Fox News, you're letting them reprogram your brain. Ever wonder why fewer Republicans believe in the theory of evolution today than five years ago? That's a pretty successful effort to reprogram brains, but it's a regression. It's counter-productive.
Today, in this post, I'm going to point you to a couple of videos that can help you change your picture in a productive way. This is science, it's not an ideological point of view.
Take less than an hour today, and try a little education.
Now, why should you watch these? Why should you try to change your "big picture?"
Because the kind of future our children have depends on it.
Make no mistake, if you don't make your own effort to evaluate and shape your point of view, others will do it for you.
Advertisers, religious leaders, politicians, wealthy individuals and corporations will all do it for their short-term competitive advantage, which is not where our children's interests lie. They are in the long term.
They are "the big picture."
So, is an hour too much to ask? No money, just an hour of your time.
Google and The Critical Path
I follow Horace Dediu (@asymco) on Twitter, and read his blog at asymco. He's very much an analyst, and he loves crunching numbers; much more so than I do. His work is valuable, if you're interested in the tech industry in general and mobile in particular; and as a reality check on many of the less data-driven self-described "analysts" in the tech press.
He also has a podcast called The Critical Path, which I don't listen to very often, but I have listened to the two most recent editions, and they prompted this post.
In the most recent podcast, Horace focuses almost exclusively on Google and its business model and the troubling implications that accompany them. In the preceding podcast, they began to touch on the subject and everything mentioned in that podcast is examined much more closely in the current one. The one item I was gratified to see in the preceding podcast was the comparison between Apple's business model and Google's. Apple sells you shiny widgets for a tidy profit, Google sells what they learn about you to advertisers.
If you think I'm a bit of a tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist regarding Google, Dediu is a much more sober observer.
If you've never listened to The Critical Path, it's not the casual back-and-forth conversational format of other podcasts. It's mostly just Horace talking. He sounds a bit like Carl Sagan. The podcast might benefit from a bit of editing, and a bit more back-and-forth to allow the listener's brain to "clear the buffer," so to speak. That aside, nearly everything Horace says is well-considered and accurate.
If you're interested in Google's business model, and understanding why it's so troubling, it's worth listening to the whole thing.
The Big Picture
Having exhausted my stores of social energy for the day, I decided to watch a couple of movies, something that could be done rather comfortably from the recliner. I often try to do this and end up simply surfing the catalogs of Netflix, iTunes or Hulu+, adding titles to my respective wish lists, but seldom actually watching one. Such is "the tyranny of choice."
I started down that road yesterday, but quickly decided that wasn't something I wanted to do. Instead, I went to my Netflix queue and picked something I hadn't seen before, in this case it was Citizen Kane. Orson Welles and this movie are often featured subjects in Cinephelia and Beyond, a Tumblr I follow through RSS, and I like to think of myself as something of a movie freak, so this seemed like the perfect time to correct a large gap in my cinematic history.
It was an interesting movie, mostly for historical reasons. It didn't leave any indelible impression on me as a narrative, but the second movie I chose illuminated the first in a way that simply watching it hadn't.
Back in July, 2012, I was doing that first activity, browsing the iTunes movie catalog, and I stumbled upon a Peter O'Toole movie from 1985 called Creator. The cover art leaves one with the impression it's a bit of a mid-80s farce, but the customer reviews suggested there was more there than met the eye. It was either on sale, or normally a discounted title, as it only cost $5.99. I didn't watch it immediately, and subsequently, in the very visual way that iTV presents your movie catalog to you, it never really compelled my attention, so it remained unviewed since purchase.
Well, Peter O'Toole passed away recently, and I didn't think I was up for Lawrence of Arabia, so I just took a chance and watched Creator, just to remember how good Peter O'Toole was.
Often in life, if one is paying attention, seemingly serendipitous events transpire that give one the distinct feeling that something strange is going on. I suppose one outcome of this kind of thinking might be becoming a paranoid conspiracy theorist. In my case, it gives me a warm feeling that there is some benevolent force in the universe that facilitates a kind of more intimate experience of life. Perhaps it's merely just a more attractive form of delusion, but I don't think so.
This is a strange movie. At first glance, it's a bit of a superficial comedy-melodrama. Its overall writing, direction and production values don't seem to be trying to suggest anything more profound, though a couple of scenes and a number of lines, easily missed, do. It doesn't go out of its way to be "arty" or sophisticated. In a way, it's a very sly, subtle meditation, and one can be forgiven for missing "the big picture." It gets low scores from the IMDB crowd, and doesn't fare much better with the Amazon users either.
Which, as it happens, is the central conceit of the movie.
I want to quickly mention here that, ironically (5th Fundamental Force), the movie is only available in standard definition, 4:3 screen format. Talk about not getting "the big picture!" Also, this movie is a product of its time. Some of the male fashion choices will make you cringe, it is also decidedly white, male and patriarchical. It would be a distraction if you chose to make it so, but then you'd be missing the big picture.
If you want to enjoy the experience of watching this movie, and letting it sink in and do its thing with you, then you should probably stop reading about now. I'll try not to be too spoilerish, but this may diminish some of the experience of watching this movie yourself, something I encourage everyone to do.
The protagonist, played by Peter O'Toole, is Dr. Harry Wolper, a brilliant, Nobel Prize winning, 50ish doctor at a university research hospital, a widower who is keeping cells from his deceased wife alive with the hope of cloning her one day. His antagonist is Dr. Sid Kullenbeck, played by David Ogden Stiers, who many of us recall from M*A*S*H. He is the younger, brilliant physician laboring in the shadow of Dr. Wolper and longing for his moment in the sun. His chief weakness, as described by Dr. Wolper, is that "he doesn't get the big picture"; though, as he is portrayed, he exhibits at least six of the seven deady sins and a seventh (sloth) perhaps implied by the line that "Sid may have the only biology lab in the world that has nothing alive in it."
Harry is doing research to facilitate the cloning of his deceased wife. He has appropriated university lab property to a private laboratory in his backyard assisted by another protagonist, Boris Lafkin. Played by Vincent Spano, Boris is a young university student, who reluctantly becomes Harry's lab assistant after Harry diverts him from Sid, much to Sid's outrage.
Then there are the women, Mariel Hemingway and Virginia Madsen, each a romantic foil for our two protagonists. Mariel Hemingway plays Meli, a nineteen-year-old nymphomaniac who falls in love with Harry. Harry, of course, is in love with his deceased wife. Virginia Madsen plays a university student with a housing problem, and Boris is in love with her.
If you read Roger Ebert's review (2.5 stars), you'll get the conventional sense of the movie. He writes,
It tries to do too many things. It gives us two love affairs, a professional rivalry, a goofy campus, a mad scientist's obsession and a deathbed soap opera.
It's a perfectly legitimate criticism, if you don't look a little deeper. Or bigger.
The movie is doing many things, not too many, about one thing. The entire movie is about faith.
Faith is a freighted term, and once you write it you lose three quarters of your audience. It's very sad, because it's a wonderful thing. It's "the big picture." This isn't about people in funny hats or incense or anything. It's more fundamental than that, and if you don't take the opportunity to explore it in this life, well, that's sad.
In the movie, we see that Harry has a bigger picture than everyone else, but even his picture isn't quite big enough. It takes the combined experiences of Meli and Boris to show him a bigger picture.
Many years ago I came to the conclusion that "love is faith in action." I was quite proud of this, until one day when I was reading Alan Watts who said pretty much the same thing a few decades before it came to me. I'm sure it's been said by many others as well, because at some point, it truly becomes self-evident.
The key part of that construction is "action." It's not simply enough to "have" faith, one must act in faith, and with faith. This is the difficult part, even for someone as wise and brilliant as Harry Wolper.
Sid Kullenbeck is the typical western man, who believes in science, his own ego, and little else. His actions are informed not by faith, but by fear, and ego. He is acquisitive. He is envious. He wants everything Harry has, and he wants Harry gone from the university.
That's not to say that the Sid Kullenbeck character is simply a caricature, or completely unsympathetic. He is shown to be brilliant, and when a moment comes that calls for his expertise, he shares it and does what he can to save a life.
The act of keeping faith is difficult. Sometimes it means knowing when to hang on, sometimes it means knowing when to let go. Harry and Boris are opposite sides of that coin.
Apart from the two love stories (well, three, including Lucy, Harry's dead wife), in everything else in the narrative we see that Harry always acts in faith. He is untroubled by Sid's efforts to undermine him, to get him banished to the Northwood Institute for Advanced Research, where emeritus professors go to do research without any funding. Harry acts with utter faith, his one blind spot is in his clinging to his late wife's cells. Love is faith in action, and Meli has faith in Harry.
It ends well. There are surprises. They will hurt. It turns out okay.
It's a lovely little movie to watch and to think about. Those shorts in the 80s though? Not so much. Again, very much a product of its time.
As cinéma, it's not one for the ages. It does have both Mariel Hemingway and Virginia Madsen appearing topless, though. So, you know, there's that.
New Year's After Action Report
Happy New Year! Whatever that means.
In keeping with custom, we had an informal party at the clubhouse on New Year's Eve. That simply means it wasn't sponsored by the association, just that some board members were present to open the clubhouse and lock it up again at the end of the night, and all the food, beverages (with the exception of the beer we were trying to get rid of from the Christmas party), and the usual party favors, were provided by those attending. We had a surprisingly large turnout this year.
It's a pleasant tradition. One can choose to imbibe and then simply walk, or stumble, home. So, imbibe I did, and around 0200 I crawled into bed.
Less pleasant is the traditional New Year's Day hangover. I'm afraid I'm simply getting too old for this sort of thing. ("This sort of thing" being friends with large bottles of vodka and tiny disposable shot glasses. I'm looking at you, Jerry! Can't blame the Russians this year!) Nevertheless, I'd promised a friend I would join her in another relatively new tradition, jumping into the Atlantic Ocean on New Year's Morning with about a thousand of our closest friends and local news media. So at 0630, I dragged my sorry self from bed, showered, shaved (Why? I have no idea. I'm jumping into the ocean! Auto-pilot, I think.) put on some swim trunks, flip-flops, t-shirt, sweatshirt and raincoat (it was raining, of course). I walked Bodhi and received a text from my friend telling me another friend was joining us, but I suspect she was simply checking up on me. I responded I would be on my way shortly.
The rain had stopped by the time I got to the beach, so I left the raincoat in the car and wandered over to where everyone was gathering. I looked at the t-shirts and decided $20.00 was too much for a retiree on a fixed income who was also expected to absorb a 1% decrease in his annual cost-of-living adjustment in order to reduce federal spending.
This was our third plunge together. The chill of the seawater certainly lifts the fog from the brain; and I'm always surprised how the air that felt so cold while one is standing on the beach awaiting the signal to "plunge," feels so wonderfully warm upon exiting the ocean.
I usually bring a camera to the beach and have one of our non-plunging friends hold it for me. This year I did something a little different. Olympus made a very nice compact camera, the XZ-1 and when it was discontinued in favor of the XZ-2, the price was marked down by over 50%. In October 2012, I bought one for $199.00 dollars. It's a wonderful little camera, and much easier to take along on a night out than even the E-PM2 with a pancake; though the E-PM2 is much more capable. In February of this year, B&H Photo offered the Olympus underwater enclosure for the XZ-1 for $119.00, I think it retailed for over $400.00 when it was released. Living by the ocean, it seemed like a good idea to get one as it might afford some new photographic opportunities. I certified in SCUBA a very long time ago, though I have haven't done any diving in 30 years. But, you never know.
This year, I brought along the XZ-1 in the underwater housing, intending to take the camera into the water with me. I will say that the shock of the water pretty much eliminates any thought of composition. I just kept pushing the sutter button. With the camera in the enclosure, you can't feel the "half-press" position of the shutter button, I and think it's configured to shoot without waiting for focus confirmation. I'll have to look at my manual again, and see if I can't configure the camera to wait for confirmation before making the capture. So it was an interesting experience from that standpoint. I can't say I captured any timeless images, but I have a couple I like.
My friend has a condo on the beach, where we usually get together after the plunge for a hot breakfast. She's leasing it to a football player this year, so she was staying with another friend of hers and the breakfast was off. Which was just as well, because, fog-lifting or not, I was still at about half speed, and reluctant to be working even that hard. So I went home and took my second shower of the day.
I am blessed with many friends, and Tony is both a friend and a neighbor, and a chef in another life. January 1st also happens to be his birthday, and another tradition is a New Year's Day champagne brunch at his place. He was at the party with me the night before, so there was no risk of this event being too early in the morning. He texted me about 1100 to inquire whether I'd made it into the ocean or not. I allowed that I had and he replied, "Damn, you like pain, don't you?" I agreed that it seemed to appear so. He said brunch was on for about noon. I thanked him for the additional hour in the recliner.
Tony had prepared a variation of Eggs Benedict, with crab cakes and a couple slices from a baguette. As usual, it was delicious I brought a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, also a tradition. We toasted his birthday and the new year. A few more of our neighbors joined us and we were all a bit worse for the previous night's wear, but still happy to get together and enjoy one another's company and some excellent cooking.
Tony's event has sometimes lasted all day, but not yesterday. Everyone left shortly after we ate, and he and I went down to the clubhouse to do a bit of straightening up from the party. We'd left all the trash inside in bags when I chased everyone out sometime around 0100. When we got there, it was clear that someone had been there already and taken out the trash and made some other efforts at cleaning up. I'm guessing it was our weekend clubhouse attendant and former resident. She was attending as a guest the night before, which was why I was insisting she leave and that I would take care of the trash in the morning, simply because I wanted her to enjoy the party as a guest and not feel obligated as an employee. It was very nice of her. I'll speak to the manager and get her a few hours' pay for the effort.
So, by 1400 I was back in the recliner. I took a little nap, walked the dog, then watched a couple of movies. As these things sometimes go, if one is lucky, they seemed particularly apt choices and I'll write a bit more about them in another post.
All in all, as with many things, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The larger lesson, to the extent that there is one, is that one accepts the consequences of one's choices, and then chooses to move on. I could have stayed in bed all day, feeling sorry for myself for being foolish, feeling as though I was too sick to move. Instead, I honored my commitments, my friendships, and made some more great memories.
Which was not a bad way to begin 2014.