Sunday, August 26, 2012

Vale Neil Armstrong

"I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer -- born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow." - Neil Armstrong

One of the reasons I personally take umbrage at the decline of the United States as a leader in science, engineering and just plain rational thought is that I am a child of the sixties, and like many of my generation I remember staying up late to watch those blurry black-and-white images as he descended the ladder and set foot on the moon; at that time America seemed to be a beacon, showing the world the way forward to a future in which science and technology would solve all our problems.

It didn't come to pass. Perhaps we were naive to think that way.

However, the moon landing inspired me to pursue a career in science and engineering, albeit in a very minor way. And eventually I learned to fly, too.

To me, the death of Neil Armstrong represents a punctuation mark in American history. He was a pilot and an engineer, what some call a "maker" - one of those who don't get distracted but knuckle down to solve problems, important problems, who put in long hours to master complex skills and who put their lives on the line, both in combat and in test flying. That kind of life and that set of values, I suspect, give you a very different view of what's important and what's not.

These days, our would-be-makers are giving us toys and straining to write an app as successful as Angry Birds (which I freely confess, I have never played). It all seems rather trivial, and that consumer technology has overtaken aerospace is demonstrated by NASA's plans to use Android smartphones as the computing power on a series of small satellites. Armstrong, Aldrin and Scott made it to the moon and back with less computing power than most people carry around in their pockets today.

Meanwhile, the rising tide of anti-intellectualism in the US brings us prospective leaders who don't understand enough basic science or even basic rationality to have any hope of addressing the key issues the world - or even just the US - faces today, such as anthropogenic global warming, public health issues, the biology and ethics of reproductive rights and a lot more.

I can only hope that some of those hoping to "lead the free world" will remember the emotions they felt when Neil Armstrong showed how America really led the world, and then realise that their current approach isn't working. But I expect to be disappointed.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Googling My Life Away

I'm a big advocate for privacy, but I've recently begun to understand the temptation to trade it for convenience in a digital lifestyle. My family gave me a Google Nexus 7 tablet for my birthday, and I've been seduced by its convenience.

I'd been using Google Apps for a while anyway, as part of a strategy to switch away from my own mail and calendar servers, which were becoming increasingly expensive and time-consuming to maintain; the Nexus tablet seemed to offer easy integration with that, as well as the University email, etc. However, within a couple of days, I'd become an app junkie, having installed Evernote, the Kindle app and Drop box to give me access to my work files over coffee. Next came the Wikipedia app, followed by emulations of my favourite HP calculators.

What impressed me most, though, were the mapping applications integrated into the system. Sitting at home, I can hit the microphone icon in the Google search bar and say "Navigate to Macquarie University", and within seconds, I've got comprehensive directions. If I set out following them, the Nexus 7 will provide voice prompts and a continuously-updated display, only getting into trouble if I deviate from the suggested route - being wi-fi-only, it is unable to update its maps and speech prompts, although it still seems to provide correct left/right arrow prompts on-screen. And of course, its "Local" app can provide listings for nearby caf├ęs, restaurants, pubs, ATM's, etc. - all very convenient. But to do this, Google needs to know where I am. Should I worry?

To analyse this, we have to tease apart several notions which contribute to, and partially compose, the concept of "privacy". First, there's essence of Google. I tend to the idea that my privacy is compromised when another person knows something about me which I do not want them to know. In this sense, Google is not a person - it's just a cloud of servers which are continually processing data on my behalf - email, appointments, my web searches and now my whereabouts. No person is watching, and my privacy - so far - is no more compromised than it is when anyone glances in my direction as I pass them in the street.

Of course, if someone wants to track my movements, there's now a central point where they can look. Google - the corporation - obviously is interested in directing targeted advertisements towards me; I've never been particularly concerned about that for two reasons. One, I rarely see advertisements anyway, thanks to AdBlock Plus (and I never paid much attention to them anyway when I did), and two, I used to work in the direct marketing and advertising business and actually see the benefit of targeted ads that are more likely to be of interest, compared to the shotgun blast of scattered general media advertising.

The more important question is whether anyone else can get access to 'my' 'private' data. At this point, the obvious candidates are government agencies; Google being a US corporation, it is most likely to open my kimono in response to requests under US laws like the PATRIOT Act. But then, I've always assumed that everything I send over the Internet is intercepted and processed in various ways anyway, and it's never bothered me. I do use encryption as routine - I use SSH when logging into my own servers, for example, and a VPN tunnel from my laptop back to the office - but that's to secure against independent hackers and not for privacy.

Coming back to the notion of privacy as an unauthorised disclosure of information about one person to another person - in this case, the information being disclosed is my location. To me, that's not particularly sensitive; most of the time, I'm exactly where anyone who knows me would expect me to be: sitting at one of my desks in front of a computer. If I ever do want to cloak myself in secrecy, I can just turn off GPS or turn the device off altogether.

The other seductive aspect of the Nexus 7 (and its Galaxy Nexus phone cousin) is the ability to tie together various accounts and services, such as Gmail, Google+, Google contacts, etc. I wrote the bulk of this article on the Nexus tablet, and when I post it, it will quite possibly be linked to my Google+ account, might well have my location attached, and so on. But this isn't an issue of privacy - I'm publishing the article, making it public, and I have sufficient control over what's disclosed.

So, all in all, I'm surrendering to the temptation and letting Google into my life. I don't think I'm in danger of being reduced to a carefully-monitored profile, but if I do, I'll let the world know about it.