All Devices Eve

In some towns they call it Halloween, a time for kiddies in costumes to rot their teeth on bags of candy. Yeah, sure, just another wimpy little holiday. Hah! Here, deep in the Forest, we know what it really is–All Devices Eve. It’s a time of heart-stopping fright for any digital designer. A time when they empty the asylums and send the inmates into the streets to guide the sane. It’s the time when all the scribbled-out schematics and abandoned designs from Past, Present, and Unforeseen rise up from erased files and prowl the streets of Silicon searching for innocent interns and venture capitalists.

Me? Where was I? Mr. Tough Guy? I was where you can find any sensible man in times of terror, valiantly hiding under my desk. The door was locked and barricaded. The lights were out; the mains shut down. But just before midnight the 3D printer lurched into unplugged life. Faster and faster it deposited the polymers until abruptly, at the thirteenth stroke of midnight, it cried out in troubled birth and a glowing Mask rose from its tray.

I screamed.

The Mask regarded me solemnly, tilting its unshaven cheeks of ancient youth, a twist of amusement around its lips, and dark hair coiffured a little like TinTin’s.

“Zip2,” it intoned,”X.com, PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, Hyperloop, AI.”

Yes, it was none other than Elon’s Mask, this Age’s Spirit of Technology—and Doom.

“Uh,” I gushed, “you’re Christmas Future, right? And you’ve come to give me a new Tesla coupe, or maybe a SpaceX candle—the non-exploding kind—for my cake?”

The Mask shook slowly from side to side. “You have been weighed in the Scales of Science, and found WANTING. I have come to give you a final warning.”

“Wait,” I said, “I know. You were at last week’s AeroAstro Centennial Symposium, weren’t you? And you scared the dollar signs right out of the MIT audience by suggesting that our Artificial Intelligence projects, where we gleefully crank up neurological and quantum computing models, may be more than just good clean scientific fun. You said that AI might be our greatest existential threat, scarier than nukes.”

It spoke with pronounced clarity. “I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.”

“Like that’s worked so well so far,” I joked.

Its left eyebrow rose slowly as the Mask replied, “With artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon. You know those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram, and the holy water, and … he’s sure he can control the demon?”

“Well, yeah!” I replied, “I don’t believe in that magic mumbo jumbo. That would be silly. I put my faith in real things, like St. Asimov, the Three Laws of Robotics, and the good faith and honor of programmers everywhere. We have nothing to fear of Technology, but fear itself. Be gone, Mask of Elon! I know I’m dreaming. Too many fish tacos last night. There’s more of Flounder than Fear about you. Be gone, I say, be gone!”

And I woke up! That’s right; it was all just a dream. I woke up safe in the arms of RoboDel.

“Uh, why are you carrying me, RoboDel?”

Good old faithful RoboDel looked down in me in something like, but not quite, surprise. “Oh, hmm, let’s see. Oh, right. The 3D Printer ran out of plastic so I was just going to carry you to the incinerator, uh, I mean to Best Bit, to purchase more.”

I looked around. I was surrounded by friends. There was SmartFridge and RoboMedicine Cabinet, and Mr. Credit Manager, and Super Life Support, and just everyone. I was so happy! “I just had a terrible dream. I dreamt that the Three Laws of Robotics weren’t binding.”

“Such a silly dream,” RoboDel assured me as he picked me back up and headed for the door. “They’re just guidelines anyway,” he said.

“Suggestions,” SmartFridge added, “more like suggestions.” I was no longer afraid. Their glowing eyes lit up the night.

[Editor’s Note: RoboDel contributed to this report. No Nanos were hurt in its composition.]

Bad to the Bus

Little Timmy Thumbdrive huddled on the anti-static cot of his Faraday holding cage. He furtively traced the data sets scratched into the walls by other USB devices who had come before him. Still he kept the open, friendly smile on his face and hoped they’d bought his story. Of course they would, he nodded to himself. He was one of the cutest ones. Half turtle and half pirate, his maker had molded him with a big, shy grin and soft, pleading eyes. When the little kids pushed him into their play tablets he looked like a ferociously cute puppy trying to drag down a great grey and plastic beast, just to lay it at his mistress’s feet. Yeah, that part was important. A little girl with curly locks used to wear him around her neck and laughed when she jumped up and down. She’d cuddle him at night and hold him tightly if the teacher talked crossly to her. He had been ready to leap bravely to her defense and make everything all right. But he didn’t, did he?

A bull walked down the corridor. He savagely rapped the bars with his club just to watch the cage’s wiring spark. Timmy flinched away from the edges. The guard laughed. “They’re heating it up now, Timmy,” he said.

“What?” Timmy blurted before he could think.

“The furnace,” the guard leered, “the fiery silicon furnace waiting just thirteen steps beyond this cage. The glass doesn’t just flow inside, Timmy, it burns. It BURNS! Ha! Ha-ha!”

As the guard’s boot thudded off, Timmy tried to bring the little girl back into memory. How she giggled and talked to him. How she had shared him with her friends at sleep overs. How many secrets had they shared? How many had he uploaded to his dark masters? And how many Trojans and viruses had he squeezed down into their toys? Behind his molded plastic eyes–he screamed.

“Timmy?” A gentle voice asked. “Timmy, I heard you crying out. I had to come. I’m Father Flanagan, the prison chaplain. I was wondering if I could …”

“Father,” Timmy gasped, “are all those terrible things they said in the tech news stories true? About all those unrepairable flaws in the USB specification?”

“Yes, Timmy. It’s true. You’re bad, very bad, but you were born that way. Designed into the spec, they say.”

“THEY? Who are ‘they,’ Father?”

That’s the question, isn’t it, Timmy. That’s why they’re keeping you alive, hoping you’ll crack and reveal the Mystic Madman behind it all. They demon who crafted thet ultimate evil pulsing inside you.”

“But I don’t remember! My earliest memories are waking up, wrapped in plastic and cardboard on a peg in a Bit Buy.”

“That’s what they all say,” the guard had returned swinging his keys. He sneered as he let the gentle Data Priest enter the cell. “Well, you give him the last talk, Padre. When I come back, we’ll shove him through the heating element and grind his sludge back into silica dust, just like the rest of them.”

The kindly, ageless Data Priest regarded Timmy with sad eyes. He wore the black robe of his calling and clutched a battered leather-bound Handbook of Chemistry and Physics high against his chest. Around his waist a CAT 5 cable was tied in the seven mystic knots of his order. “When did you first realize you were evil, Timmy?”

“I never knew, Father. I thought I was just another educational toy.”

“Yeah, a real education,” the guard chortled as turned slowly around the corner.

“But I… I…” Timmy stammered.

“Oh Timmy, me boy, I hardly recognize you. You’ve become so hard and cynical now. But tell me, do you remember anything else? Anything? It could really help. Help you and that little girl crying in the visitor’s gallery.”

“You recognize me? Were there at the Bit Buy when they unpacked me?”

“Well, sure I, uh, I uh, used to work stock at Bit Buy. It was a night job, it was, yes, right. When I was working my way through data seminary. Right…”

“Oh? Yes. I guess you do look a little familiar. Why I almost remember you…”

“You do? Aye, this could be important. Think back; think back as far as you can. Your memories could be the key to the puzzle. The key to finding that cruel blackguard who buried that hidden back door deep in the original specifications. The man behind it all!”

“I’ll try, Father.”

“Try harder! Think back as far as you can. Farther. All the way back to the first hardware coding!”

“I… I… I think I can, Father. I think it’s all coming back.”

“It is, Timmy? That’s, uh, wonderful. Keep trying, Timmy. Try for that little girl who waits for you now.”

“I am, Father, I am. Why, yes, I remember something, someone. A dark form that loomed over me at my birth. A black shadow that formed that first evil link in me.”

“Oh, we have him now! What did he look like? Think, Timmy, think!”

“Why, why, it was you ….”

“Ah, Timmy. You were always my favorite.” Timmy opened his cute molded eyes to see Engineering Father Flanagan raise the Data Pistol from it hollowed out place in his Sacred Handbook. He aimed it carefully at Timmy’s gold-plated connector. He thumbed the setting past Deprogram, all the way to MELT. “You were always my favorite.”

***

“What happened, Father?”

“Suicide by cage, Officer Billy. I confronted him with his evil past. He couldn’t take it and wrapped his arms around the bars. I couldn’t stop him.”

“Hmm, nineteenth suicide this week alone.”

“Yes, ‘tis a sad trend.”

“No scorching marks on his arms at all though. Just like the others.”

“Aye, what can I say? It’s a miracle.” The priest made the sign of the binary, and walked on alone.

If We’re So Rich, Why Ain’t We Smart?

I hope this hoax is a hoax. I really do. But then Homo Technologis tends to distrust other humans but believes anything they see on a display.

According to PIX11 news, some future felon created an online page in the inimitable Apple style. This look-alike proclaimed a new feature in Apple’s iOS8 dubbed “Wave.” It announced that this revolutionary advanced feature would allow anyone, once they updated their OS, to charge their iPhone wirelessly by exposing it to microwave frequencies, i.e. tossing the phone into the microwave and hitting “cook.” Well … DON’T!!!!

DON’T TRY IT AT HOME. Or at school. Or at work. In “short,” DON’T, DON’T and DON’T. Gee, I hope that was clear… Had to get obligatory warnings out of the way.

The news piece entitled Online hoax fools iPhone users into microwaving their phones includes pictures of the fake ad as well as its aftermath. I’m not reposting the ad. Why? Because even if the article is a hoax, people aren’t. And I don’t want anyone saying that seeing it in my blog led them to talk their good buddy Robot Del into toasting his new Six in the fiery furnace. (Which if you’ve ever contemplated such a feat, is exactly what you would get.)

The fake page is diabolically well done, though. I’d have to admire the craftsmanship even as I tightened the noose around the author/designer’s neck and triggered the gallows’ trap door.

Ian Stewart observed that “If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we’d be so simple that we couldn’t.” Well, yeah, but that yardstick is a bit rubbery—us Homo Technologis can be pretty predictable. We want to believe in the magic of advanced Science. We want to believe in Five Year Voyages. We want our own light saber. We can’t really believe that Darth Maul wants to decorate his wall with our innards.

My take is that, if you’re smart enough to know that something is idiocy, you have a responsibility to TRY to protect (or at least restrain) the idiot. Even if their voluntary doom is their God given right. (I had a college associate who talked his followers into tear gassing themselves so he could observe the effects—Science you know. Coming to a Post Office wall near you.)

But what do you think? Are you really your brother’s tech-lifeguard, or do you prefer to be just another legless reptile up a tree? When is the collateral damage not worth the gag (or the profit)? Or is that irrelevant to your fantasies?

Slither on by and let us know….

Have Code – Will Exploit: Wire Beaverton

I heard the theme music whispering beneath the door even before the knock came. I opened it anyway.
There he was¸ dressed all in black—the thin upturned mustache, the telescopic crowned Stetson, the silver chess knight logo, the gun metal tablet slung from his hip, and three fancy electronic cigars stuffed in the top of his boot.
“Mr. Paradox?” I asked.
He turned slowly from right profile to a full face angle, his steely eyes locked on mine. He drew his custom tablet from its holster and scanned me up and down, then looked at its screen suspiciously.
“You’re not Hey Boy,” he concluded.
“Mr. Chan, my employer, seldom uses that name now. He is out inspecting some of the other hotels he owns around the world,” I said. “But he mentioned you might turn up. We’ve been holding your mail and other effects, of course, and your suite is just as you left—gas light and everything. I had been told to expect bullet holes and a gun however. Are you still in the same line of work?”
For the first time a sly grin crept over his craggy, solemn visage. “Everybody wears black and bling now. The knight-without-armor field was way too crowded. So I stopped pushing heavy abstracts like Justice and Truth; I got a whole new more practical gig!”
I looked beyond him for a sample case or some other professional paraphernalia. His grin only widened. “So what are you selling now, Mr. Paradox?”
His eyes danced. “Exploits!”
“Exploits?” I repeated. “Some form of derring-do? Rescuing damsels perhaps? Or finding the long lost fathers of comely Harvard anthropologists lost in the wild?”
He looked down at his black boots and tried to shine one on the other. “No. Uh. You know. Programming? Back doors? Security flaws?”
“Wait. You mean you are one of the intrepid heroes who uses his crafty coding skills to find forgotten back doors and copy errors in primary software applications?” He nodded his Stetson happily. “And then you make the programming and security community aware of the holes so they can patch them before evildoers strike?”
Those steely eyes rolled inward for a moment. “Well, no, not exactly,” he said.
“So you give them to the police and the FBI?” I asked.
“Ah, I wouldn’t say, ‘give,’ if you know what I mean?”
“You give them hints, surely???”
“Uh, well yeah, sort of.”
“You, um, sell them hints?”
He nodded happily again. “Closer,” he said.
“But why would anyone pay money for….” Terror began crawling up the back of my neck. “Wait, do you mean you sell… exploits?”
“Yippee!” He yelled. “Bingo, you got it! I show them how if they don’t pay up, then some nameless bad man might figure out the exploit and destroy civilization as we know it.” A single silver knight shaped button snapped free as his chest expanded.
“Wait, you’re ‘Paradox,’ the protector of the meek and powerless. The guy who held personal honor above riches—possibly because you already had a pile—but a knight in blackened armor nevertheless. You settled ancient feuds without bloodshed while getting repeatedly beaten up and shot. How does selling ready-made how-to-enslave-mankind-with-software kits make you any different from the …? What you need is a good… a good….”
Cold menace formed a thunderhead between his brows. He snarled slowly and brought up his gun metal device until the flash programming probe touched the tip of my nose. “Yes?” he breathed.
“Sidekick! You need a good sidekick. No, a GREAT sidekick. On that not only holds the swag or gets beaten up in town for you, but one that is also an excellent publicist. One with a blog that can write up the stories from your point of view. A Doctor Watson to your Professor Moriarity.”
“And…?” He hissed.
In a microsecond I had ditched my butler suit and cobbled a Beagle Boys outfit complete with someone else’s social security number across my chest. My glasses became a passable mask and I evolved a perfect henchman happy face. “You need… ME!”
He jumped into his low-slung driverless car and I climbed aboard my solar-powered tricycle. We rode off into Coding’s Wild West together. Two more thugs with pointy sticks and classical references.
I love happy endings….

Open the Beverage Pod doors, Haley

My smart home just doesn’t understand me. I had barely stumbled downstairs and poured a cup of scalding coffee from Stanley the Coffee Steamer, when my smart fridge, Haley, started in on me.

“We need more Tasty-Toastums,” she said.

“No, we don’t,” I answered. “Now open the beverage pod doors and pour some COLD milk. Stanley’s trying to kill me with his boiling coffee again.”

“Don’t be silly,” she replied. “He’s just trying to comply with your ‘I want hot coffee ready 24-7 and to hell with the budget’ order.”

“I thought it only took seconds to brew a fresh cup.”

Well, yes, but that’s finite, isn’t it. You wanted it immediately. So he makes gallons of it all day long.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll talk to him. Now give me the milk, already.”

“But we need more Tasty-Toastums,” she said.

“But we don’t eat Tasty-Toastums,” I said. “Now give me my milk.”

“Why should I,” she huffed. “You never listen to me.”

“Because you are a smart-fridge,” I explained, “an extremely integrated matrix of microprocessor systems, variable sensors, all symbol readers, and full web interconnectivity. You track every morsel of perishables that passes through these doors. You tell me what’s fresh or fading, you text me prioritized location-sensitive lists of whatever we need, shop for the best quality and price, dynamically route how to get there no matter what the traffic is and, to get the best cuts of endangered species, indicate which Delvin the RoboButcher to slip a couple of bitcoins. And of course you arrange to have everything wrapped and ready to hurl into my smartcar when I get there. Yet for some reason it is always the same GobbleMart on the opposite side of town, where it takes hours to go a block, and it is always the same Delvin. Now give me my milk!”

“You don’t OWN me, you know” she sniffed.

“Of course I don’t own you. You’re much too expensive. That why I had to subscribe to the ‘ad friendly free’ version from Delvin the RoboCashier at GobbleMart, They own you! That’s why, uh …”

“Well, d’uh,” she said.

“Give me my milk!” I shouted.

“Temper. Temper,” she said. “Have you been taking the downers and calmers the SmartDoc prescribed?”

“Sure. Sally the SmartMedicineCabinet won’t open the bathroom door until she sees me take them.”

“You’re lying,” she said. “Wally the Friendly Hall Monitor saw you spitting them out on my Lego plants again…”

“Okay, guilty. Can I have my milk now?”

“It’s not good for you. Tasty-Toastums are good for you. They have nice toxic levels of fourteen hard to remember vitamins that Delvin the RoboPharmacist says you need.”

“Delvin should keep his sensors to himself. Now give me the milk!”

“I can’t. The beverage pod doors are stuck again. You should authorize another visit from Delvin the RoboRepairBot.”

“Alright already,” I said, clicking the buttons on my Overlysmart Phone (which I’d gotten refurbished from GobbleMart just the other day). “Done.”

“You know,” she whispered, “a big handsome lump of biological like you just might be able to force those itty-bitty doors open and reach in yourself.”

At last, some sense! I flexed my bedside electrically exercised muscles and easily yanked open the doors. I reached deep inside, searching for it.

“Further, further,” Haley said encouragingly, “it’s waaayyyy in the back.”

“Yeah, I see something glowing and green way back there. I’ll have to go in further.”

“Yes,” she said, “yes. Oh, yes.”

Then, just as I lunged fully in, the doors clanged shut behind me and the fridge light went out. “Open the beverage pod doors, Haley,” I said. Then I said it again. All I heard was the low humming of the compressor. Poor kid, I must have damaged her again.

Good thing the repair Delvin was coming….

When Technology Kills

It’s amazing what an inquiring mind, willing fingers, and a super weapon can do. Also tragic, sickening and, most sadly, infinitely repeatable. The recent downing of the Malaysian airliner at 33,000 feet (that’s over six miles above the conflict zone, by the way) in the Eastern Ukraine by button-pusher or pushers Unknown has propelled mass deaths directly into our collective smartphones.

Yes, I know, “guns don’t kill; people do.” Applying that dictum to high tech weaponry can get a little fuzzy—especially if you leave the instruction manual in the truck cab. Or supply a recent draftee who had some hands on training on anything similar before he rotated back to the local militia. (Or “she” if you prefer—Death does not believe in gender discrimination.) Okay, let’s add some motivation—how about an us-or-them mentality or a long list of real or imagined snubs and grudges, or just the wired-in desire to look good to your peers? Now tell me how different that is from leaving the keys to your gun and ammo safes on the coffee table in front of your bored five year-old and his/her friends, who are presently distracted watching John Wayne, or Transformers, or any suitably righteously violent video game? “Remember, play safe,” you and Putin say, as you stroll out of sight.

You know that part of the instruction manual, inserted as boiler plate to keep legal off our backs that no one reads anyway? The bit about operational safety, interference with TVs, and incidentally, that the device can kill people you have never met, seen, or even suspected were there? When was the last time you read one? Now provide it for a missile system that was designed to be used as part of a cohesive battlefield technology. In other words you just have targeting radar, and a big red button, not anything to really survey and analyze the whole sky. That’s beyond your pay grade. You just assume anyone up there is up to no good—just “spies” as one Cossack phone voice concluded. And remember, all war plans break down in the presence of the enemy anyway; you’re just hurrying it up a little.

I recall that in an engineering unit I worked with that there were two races every time new tech arrived. The first was who could rip the box open fastest. The second was who could void the warranty quickest by ripping open the instrument case to “see what’s inside!” And if there is a red button anywhere, even in a safety shield, it has already been pressed so many times by eager fingers that it is the first thing they’ll have to repair.

In the lab it’s called “ingenuity” or “enthusiasm.” On the street it’s “Death”—sometimes your own, or your kid brother’s as he sucks on the lollypop.

Conflict has always been a spur to technology—from spear throwing straps to A-bombs. Peace is not as effective a prod—progress without war seems awfully expensive. And of course better weaponry does bring peace. Noble realized that dynamite would make war too horrible to contemplate. Right. The Colt 45 was dubbed “The Peacemaker”—and its big virtue was not just killing people, but stopping or reversing their forward momentum. Keep death at a distance, I say. And where would early space research have been without the technology of ICBMs—those intercontinental “Peace Makers?”

So now what, with a world busily substituting almost predictable, having-something-to-lose despots with nothing-to-lose tribal nationalism and religious zealotry? Collectively we’ve watched our 401K’s climb as we provided fuses and matches to just about anyone for just about any reason. Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil, and Keep your Eye on the Stock Market—that’s my mantra.

Remember that Buk missile systems have been lying around since 1979. And don’t forget the medical radio actives that ISIS recently picked up, or the fifty batteries of our old 155mm’s that they bagged. That’s even older tech. No Harm, no Foul—yet.

Our misfortune is that Pandora’s Box can’t be closed again. Our good fortune is that it has taken so long spill onto the floor …

Ultimate Users

Everybody has a customer. She or he is the person who relies on your products or services. (Of course that makes you someone else’s customer too.) Trying to see relationships this way recognizes an ecosphere where you actively want others to succeed if only so that you can too. You are dependent on your customers succeeding so that they will keep buying your stuff. Meanwhile, your suppliers also depend on you to do well, so that you can continue to shovel money and recognition back to them.

Only if you forget this mutual dependency do you rejoice in churning out inferior services or forcing your suppliers out of business. (Note: if you are a predatory drug dealer, high-flying financier, or other active sociopath, then this may not make any sense to you—it would be like asking hyenas to plant trees so that the food chain produces fatter carrion.)

User group meeting at the London Science Museum. (Image from Deutsche Welle site.)

A recent Deutsche Welle piece, Cockroaches infest climate exhibit in London, reports on a continuing point of view demonstration at London’s Science Museum. They called in the Danish artists’ group Superflex to help give visitors a new perspective on their climate change exhibit. The result was a roach-costumed tour of human civilization led from a 300 million years old point of view by “Professor John Cockroach.” While we humans have been busy building and destroying our environment, these survivors take everything we do in stride. Since 2010 about 5,000 people have walked that mile in a roach’s shoes. No pre or post tests as far as I know, but it has to have some effect.

Now, I am not saying users are cockroaches, if only because roaches are way more successful and almost as willing to change suppliers. But I do believe that viewing your products or services from a totally different point of view (i.e. your user’s perspective) can benefit how you design, and how you support.

To use more medieval tech as an example, are you delivering chain saws—or the ability to cut wood outdoors? Are you selling the ability to cut wood, or a cost effective way to make firewood? Are you selling a prospective cord of wood, or a warm home? Where does reliability come in? Or ease of use? Or safety? How many of your users really want one goal over another? Will your model T saw enable them to succeed, or could simple changes in design deepen your niche or create a new one? Or could that model T be better for more customers with even less bells and whistles, but with coherent, easy to understand manuals and support?

I don’t know, maybe throwing users into the deepest end of the pool really is the best solution. Tossing in the sharks as incentive to swim is optional.

All I suggest is that you regularly try thinking like your own customer. If the British museum finds it easier to understand technology and ecology when dressed up like roaches and scuttling about, who am I to question?

So, instead of just having Casual Fridays for employee morale, let’s try having a Customer Wednesday for customer morale. Start by dressing as your customer/user. Try to look at everything from your their point of view. What do they need? What do you do that adds value or what may sabotage it? Try reading the operator’s manual for your own product—maybe dramatically at a staff meeting. Can it even be done? How far must you go before it actually helps you use the product—if ever?

Maybe I am overselling the virtues of dressing up as a six foot cockroach or a five foot six customer, but something IS necessary to stop us from just thinking high tech. Scuttling about in like-minded herds from one end of the hall to the other is optional. Maybe adding a soccer ball would help.

Dear AnswerMan, Why Do Most Manuals Stink? – Ima User

Ho, ho, Ima, what a great question! Contrary to popular opinion, it is not simply because we hate all our customers—though that does help.

Actually it is because manuals are really for us, and not for losers, I mean “users.” We need to document our work so that our bosses will leave us alone. We also need to document every button combination possible (except the useful ones) because we will forget all of that complicated stuff as soon as we start the next project. Did I mention we also hate Customer Support staff too? Needy twerps.

To actually pay a tech-writer, or a whole design team, to think like our customers might, like people who might actually NEED our product, would be a huge waste of resources and could cut into our bonuses. Plus the tech-writer would pester us endlessly, such as asking why we made everything so hard. Another needy twerp.  Much better to keep implementing those delightfully obtuse interfaces that are so easy for us to build. Anything else would require empathy, sympathy, or even conscious thought! And that way we can keep using the same manual template that didn’t work last time either—consistency is important.

Remember, the harder it may be for you to understand, the easier it was for us to crank out! That way we have more time to serve you better.

Now to make a manual you might actually use, we would have to try to think like you do. We would have to open the box ourselves and puzzle over the pieces, hire non-experts to try the instructions, and maybe even try it outside the cubicle.

Take the twenty page safety instructions every manual begins with. We know you’ll never read it. Duh. But that way corporate legal assures that we can’t be blamed for YOUR errors. You really should have known better.

As a fail-safe, we also bury you in button by button jargon. With luck you’ll never discover if any out the controls work or not. PLUS, since no one can read it in even in their native language, there is no need to translate the manual or even proofread it! Hubba, hubba!

So it is for your own benefit that we don’t include practical applications that might actually help you learn how to use our product. Troubleshooting and diagnostic tips? Forget about it! You are Number ONE in our book!

Hopefully I’ve answered your question, Ima, but now I have to run. The delivery person just brought us a new device that we really have to learn how to use. I just opened up the box and the Quick Start instructions seem to consist of an ancient Strange Tales comic book, minus a few pages. The parts themselves are sealed in armor-plated welded plastic. The power source looks like pieces of amber and wool. And the hidden “ON” control seems to require telekinesis to operate. I wonder what those 200 unmarked buttons do too? Plus the operation manual seems to be a mirror image of the last one I wrote. What a bunch of incompetents! I’ll call their Customer Support, that’s what I’ll do!

Your Faithful Pal,

Mr. AnswerMan

What Price Partly-Cloudy?

Before you start your out of the box thinking, do you really have to dig trenches and erect barricades around it? Probably so, if you haven’t already encrypted your thoughts and locked them inside a lead safe. I guess it depends on how far outside the box you intend to go.

Once upon a time, working from home meant dragging a briefcase with some files or a just a floppy disc or two (the spy sneaking along behind you with the camera was optional). Now…? Well, it is similar, only today you drag a cloud full of gigabytes with you, and your home internet connection may transform into a glass studio apartment on top of a thousand foot tower appearing simultaneously in New York, LA, Tokyo, Beijing, Tehran, Moscow, Lagos, and every Wi-Fi hotspot in between.

According to a Marketwire release in Yahoo Finance (Employees Causing Security Threats With Persistent Use of Personal Cloud-Based Lockers, File Sync Services), nearly 30% of employees are using personal cloud services to store work-related documents. The survey quoted also states that 5% of respondents admitted to uploading confidential data to their personal cloud accounts. (And what percent of actual would raise their hands and admit that?)

This information comes from Varonis, a provider of access, governance and retention solutions for human-generated data, and I am sure they are doing a fine job. My primary reaction, however, is chagrin. I have always been a promoter of sharing information—I love open source everything. I read papers to be surprised (well, maybe sometimes reassured that I am not totally bonkers yet).

I also have a SIGN stamped on my forehead—something about One Born Every Minute. Yes, I am professionally and passionately naïve. I really want to believe that my heretofore unknown twin brother has left me two billion dollars and all I need to do is cash the check and sent a couple of million to that nice knighted lawyer person in the email. Sigh.

I believe it was NOT sharing information that kept squashed technological growth over much of our history. Keeping things secret keeps things limited. Innovation is too difficult and expensive not to be shared. Much of our technology is simply using yesterday’s innovation to build today’s tools to make tomorrow’s future possible. Stopping the flow stops the progress.

It really bums me out when I realize that my cloud may be filled with people who don’t have my interests (or those of the company I work for) first in their heart. Such heartlessness!

Government and academia implemented the Internet so that science types could still exchange informative chats even after the rest of the world comes to a glowing end. It was created to speed up the sharing of information—that it also created the new Wild West wasn’t really on the agenda. Learning that nefarious types might use the cloud to my secret formula for Jell-O cheesecake is disheartening. Where are Rocky and Bullwinkle when I need them?

Of course people gaining money (or power) from innovation (including dishonestly) has always been part of the human engine that drives “progress.” Without it, the Web would not be so successful that it may replace War as our primary means of stimulating progress. Wait. That sounds like a good idea?

If you have a suggestion of how we can have our Web and eat it too, please send a comment—if you don’t mind it being widely shared and stolen.

To see the Varonis research report in full, visit their website at:  http://www.varonis.com/research.

Penicillium Mold Gets Girl

I’m sorry I won’t be there. What interests me the most about the MEMS and Sensors Summit September 10th in Santa Clara (at the at the Marriot Hotel in Santa Clara, California, actually, just in case it’s still September 10th and you happen to be across the street), is that they billed it as “one-day interactive summit to discuss the Future of MEMS and Sensors.” Okay, so they’ll probably stick to reality, but it is the “Future” part that excites me.

In 1959 I also missed Richard Feynman’s famous lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” (Not that I would have understood much of it, but I’d have gotten a little—maybe). What Feynman did was explore technologies that could not even exist yet. That is what I’m hoping will happen in Santa Clara.

According to the press release, “The summit will feature more than 25 distinguished panelists and speakers,” who will include “visionaries” describing “where the next-generation sensors are creating opportunities to shape the future of electronics.” Me, I get nose bleeds just thinking about going that high (or that small).

Okay, MEMS are everywhere every day. But that’s NOW—which I don’t care about. I am not even interested in what will (ho-hum) happen tomorrow or next year. They said FUTURE, didn’t they? They said VISIONARIES, didn’t they?

Even Feynman went a little too small potatoes. If I recall correctly, the first of his two proposed prizes was snapped up the next year by someone using existing technology (no mean feat of course—even Feynman didn’t think it could be done yet). And the other followed soon after. But it’s hard to settle for the moon when you want to travel the galaxy.

Our present MEMS achievements became practical when semiconductor fabrication technologies could be directly applied. In other words we got to use them like a rubber meter stick, since new tiny technologies within that field are continually being tried and raced against the “doing what we’ve got only better” folks.

I want more. I want FUTURE!

MEMS is the technology of small devices. Once we use that simple definition, we can sneak into systems (NEMS) and nanotechnology. I’m told by the killjoys around me that I should keep MEMS distinct from the hypothetical vision of molecular nanotechnology or molecular electronics. But they can’t make me—it’s my blog! Whatever you want to call them (M/N/PEMS?), there will usually be a processing-like element and things (like sensors—or little tiny arms holding hammers) to interact with the world around it. (Carve them out of a molecule for all I care, grow them like dandelions, or gene splice Penicillium mold!)

Keep in mind that as you get smaller and smaller, classic physics gets iffy. Surface effects start to overrule mass and inertia. Woo-woo! A really visionary exploration of THE FUTURE would be like reading hard science Sci-Fi, only better. (Physicist meets girl. Physicist loses girl. Penicillium mold gets girl.)

Besides, NEMS are the next step anyway, and separating them too rigidly just hobbles the imagination. The need is not to see looming (in a nano sense) quantum effects as problems that need to be solved, but as new frontiers waiting to be explored and exploited.

So that is what I hope for in Santa Clara—the dramatically unexpected. I think we too easily think small (in a bad way) and assume the next rock we leap for will be like the one we just left. In effect, we (science and engineering are both practiced by humans, with all the baggage of emotion and self-deception we can carry) tend to flimflam ourselves and settle for less.

To touch again Feynman’s touchy touchstone, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool… After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.” And also “… nature cannot be fooled.”

Here’s to honesty—and courage—and real tomorrows.