Monday, September 24, 2007

Friends, "Friends," and Facebook

Last week, a lady named Sal who uses the social-networking website called Facebook showed a group of older professors (including yours truly) how the system works, what her own site looks like, and answered questions about it. Someone asked her how interactions with students through Facebook compares to dealing with them live and in person. She said some students will tell her things on her "wall" or in private messages on Facebook, that they would never mention in person. She finds that these students are rather more awkward socially than otherwise, but can open up and be quite interesting online.

This experience comes on the heels of an article by Christine Rosen, a senior editor at The New Atlantis, which is a quarterly devoted to issues of technology, ethics, and society. Rosen writes that friendship, a kind of personal interaction which has not fared that well in the modern era in the first place, may be suffering further decline as people trade the risks and uncertainties of face-to-face relationships for the reliability and controllability of online connections. If you tire of a person who's sitting in your room, we have not yet gotten to the point where you can acceptably say, "Go away, I'd rather not see you right now." But if you're reading your latest wall entries or your latest statistics on how many "friends" you have on Facebook, you can quit and do something else at any time and nobody else is the wiser—or gets their feelings hurt, either.

Facebook, of course, is a for-profit enterprise, and they are doing pretty much everything they can to increase the number of users beyond the current 34 million or so worldwide reported on Wikipedia. So it's understandable that the system is biased to encourage quantity of connections rather than quality. We've all known people who seem to collect relationships as others collect stamps or matchbook covers. To such people, you count mainly as a number, not as a unique individual.

To a computer, everybody counts only as a number, and that is only one way that computer-mediated interactions tempt us to objectify other people. If I know Joe Schmo mainly as a particular bizarre emoticon with a peculiar expression, the next time I think of Joe Schmo, the first thing that is likely to come to mind is that weird emoticon, not a living, breathing human being with his own history, likes, dislikes, hopes, and fears. But it was Joe who chose that emoticon, and for all I know, he likes for me to associate it with him, just as certain dramatic personalities in the past went around wearing capes and waxed moustaches for effect. In a larger and larger marketplace of potential friends, people will adopt more and more attention-grabbing disguises in order to get any traffic at all.

So in one sense, there is nothing new going on here. The reality of social networks—the thing you can diagram by writing names on a big sheet of paper and drawing lines between any two people who know each other—has been around since before history began. For people who get charged up by social interaction, joining Facebook may be like putting wings on a wildcat. For those of us (myself included) whose main sensation after meeting a boatload of new people is usually just a headache, Facebook's attractions may be harder to grasp. But for everybody who uses it, whether they're out simply to increase their number of friends or whether they are seeking the deepest and most profound relationship possible, the fact that their interactions on it are mediated by technology set up a certain way, will slant the nature of all those relationships in a way that favors quantity over quality.

There will be some people who try to abuse the system: stalkers, con artists, and so on, though according to Sal, Facebook is notably free of most such problems so far. And there will be more people who simply overuse it, like the students who neglect their homework and crash university servers when they buzz around on Facebook for hours upon end. But like the Internet itself, Facebook does put more people in touch with each other, in some fashion, than would otherwise be the case, or at least it looks that way so far.

All the same, I wonder whether someone like C. S. Lewis would have found much of a use for Facebook. As a student at Oxford he was fond of meeting a few intimate friends, nearly always male, with whom he would go on long walks in the hills and forests, discussing anything and everything, from what kinds of clothes they were made to wear when they were boys to the meaning of life. He also wrote letters, but it is clear from the journal he kept as a young man that the heart and soul of his friendships (many of which he maintained through most of his life) was conversation: sitting in a room together and talking. In a time when telephoning was mainly local and telegrams were used only when needed, he clearly regarded letters, phone calls, and other means of communicating with those not present as secondary substitutes for the real thing. I can't help but think that there is some deep preset bias in the human being that favors in-person conversation over all other forms. These other forms can be learned, used to mutual benefit, and abused as well. But if a person begins to prefer them over being in the same room with someone else, I also can't help but think that something is awry.

Sources: Rosen's article "Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism" appears in the Summer 2007 issue of The New Atlantis, p. 15. C. S. Lewis's journal of the 1920s was edited by Walter Hooper and published as All My Road Before Me (HarperCollins, 1991).

Monday, September 17, 2007

Toying with Safety

Anybody who knows anything about the toxicity of lead paint has more sense than to put it on a kid's toy. But somehow, millions of toys painted in China carried detectable amounts of lead across the oceans and possibly into the mouths of children all over the U. S., and in other parts of the world too. Even small amounts of lead can affect a child's neurological development, and so the hue and cry over this problem is justified, by and large. I'd like to look at two questions regarding this issue: (1) how did it happen, and (2) how serious is it, really?

A complete story of the whole sequence of events is probably not available now and may not be until months or years of investigation are completed. But based on available evidence—namely, tests that show lead in paint and a knowledge of where the toys came from—I can imagine the following scenario. Government regulation in the Peoples' Republic of China is a sometime thing. About the only activity you can count on being universally suppressed everywhere in the country is political protest. But when it comes to industrial development, economic shortcuts, and evasion of taxes and other government regulations, there seems to be a kind of patchiness in effect that depends on where you are and who you know. Just to give you an idea of how strange things are over there compared to the U. S. business environment, one of the largest owners of factories and other industrial facilities is the army. A Chinese friend of mine who now lives in Hong Kong described the situation to me a few years ago as "the wild wild West."

Given such a free-wheeling environment, it isn't surprising that an ambitious toy-factory owner looking to save a few yuan on his supply costs would buy paint from a source who would either lie about its chemical makeup, or simply not know. If it looked good and stayed on the toys, the paint was fine as far as he was concerned.

Although Mattel Inc. has come across looking like the bad guy in many news reports, to their credit they appear to have taken most of the right actions, once they became aware of the problem. That does leave the question of how thorough their product safety testing was, if millions of toys slipped through it before the first lead was found. Clearly they were not testing as extensively as they are now, but now CEO Bob Eckert realizes his company is fighting for survival. In a video on the company website, he apologizes abjectly and shows laboratory scenes of people in white coats taking samples from toy trucks to test for lead content. Clearly, for a while someone was using lead on toys made in China and imported by Mattel, and nobody who could do anything about it knew. This is not an engineering problem as much as it was a management and information problem, but engineering is also about management and information. All the technical smarts in the world won't produce safe products if an organization can't use those smarts to protect consumers, and itself, from harm. Mattel's current vigilance, along with the possibility of tightened Federal regulations, will probably clear up this problem eventually, or at least make it much less likely to recur.

That being said, how serious was it? While no child should be exposed to lead in his or her environment, the paint problem itself has not caused any known fatalities. This was not the case in a parallel episode that took place in Europe in the 1800s. Around 1820, the technology of printing and paper manufacture advanced enough to make wallpaper a popular new interior decorating option. One of the most-used dyes in the new industry was something called Paris green, based on the chemical copper arsenate. Bedbugs were a big problem back then, and people who bought green wallpaper noticed a side benefit, which was that in bedrooms where they'd put up the wallpaper, you never had problems with bedbugs. Now and then, especially in damp weather, the wallpaper gave off a slight garlicky odor, but standards of sanitation back then weren't what they are now, and that might have been a selling point too compared to other things you could smell in a house around that time.

Then there began to surface some rumors that people who lived in the bedrooms with green wallpaper often got a mysterious illness and eventually died. Statistical epidemiology was in its infancy back then, but something looked fishy enough to the Prussian government that by 1838, they prohibited the use of poisonous substances in wallpaper. But most other countries shrugged off the issue and the mystery continued until 1897. In that year a chemist named Gosio showed that the starch in wallpaper pasted encouraged the growth of a mold in damp weather that turned the copper arsenate in green wallpaper into a gas which we now know as trimethylarsenate. It smells like garlic and will kill you if you breathe enough of it. That was enough to put an end to the use of Paris green in wallpaper for good, although it continued to be sold as an insecticide for years until newer organic compounds replaced it.

The moral from that little story is that ignorance of the technical principles behind a safety problem can slow down its solution for decades. We've known about the hazards of lead paint for many years, so ignorance was no excuse in this case. All the same, if you compare Mattel's problems with the green-wallpaper story, I'd say it's like comparing a fender-bender to a five-car freeway pileup that resulted in a fire and eight fatalities. No, you shouldn't even have fender-benders, but there are worse things that can happen than fender-benders.

Sources: The Mattel recall has been reported extensively at sites such as, where an AP story appeared on Aug. 14 at Mattel CEO Bob Eckert's apology can be viewed at I am indebted to a geochemistry instructor named Moore (possibly Johnnie Moore) at the University of Montana, whose course notes at contain the green-wallpaper story.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Spy Under the Hood: Friend or Foe?

Most people have heard of the "black-box" data recorders that commercial airliners carry in case of a crash. Designed to survive high impact and long immersion under water, these bulletproof devices carry a record of vital statistics about the plane's speed, altitude, and control settings up to the point of impact, and have proved invaluable in countless crash investigations. What you may not have heard is that your own car very likely carries a small-scale version of the same technology. And if you ever have a wreck, the information in your car's black box might be used against you—or in your favor.

The technical name for the device is an Event Data Recorder. It typically preserves information on vehicle velocity, throttle settings, and even steering-wheel positions for the last five seconds or so before an impact. It is an outgrowth of the sensor systems originally developed to operate air bags. As more and more of the typical automobile's operation has become digitized and mediated by computers, engineers found that it would be little added trouble to store certain data in a non-volatile format (technically called an EEPROM) that can be read out even after a wreck, with the proper equipment. Already the systems have proved useful to both prosecutors and defendants in civil and criminal cases involving car wrecks.

In Austin, Texas, evidence from Daniel Talamante's GMC pickup was used against him to prove that he was going 85 mph before he slammed into another car, killing two children. He was convicted of murder. On the other hand, the system worked in favor of a woman in Connecticut who was facing conviction for negligent homicide resulting from a collision she had one winter day after crossing a main-road center line. The data recorder showed that her vehicle's speed was well below the posted limit and suggested that she drove onto a patch of ice that caused the accident. As a result, the charges were reduced.

What is your reaction to the idea that your car could essential turn government witness against you? From one point of view, the situation is not much different than a policeman using a radar detector to clock your speed. In both cases, law enforcement uses technology to monitor aspects of your driving. But if the data recorder's evidence is used against you, there is the added little sting that you paid for it yourself.

In my very limited research into this issue, it doesn't appear that evidence from the recorders is being abused or manipulated. Rather, as with most technical evidence, both defendants and plaintiffs use it, depending on which side the data favors. And in some cases, no doubt, the data is equivocal, consistent with a variety of interpretations.

The case of the automotive event data recorder is only one example of a trend that will likely grow in the future: the prospect that more and more aspects of our lives, from what websites we view, to where we go, to what we say, will get digitized and recorded somewhere. This trend will no doubt lead to great changes, just as the advent of mechanical sound and motion-picture recordings led to a revolution (or series of revolutions) in the entertainment industry, journalism, politics, and so on.

The extreme civil libertarians among us will object to any and every encroachment on what they see as the right to privacy, and such concerns should not be ignored. Some states such as California require that purchasers of new cars be notified that the black box is inside your new car. This has probably had little effect but to add another sheet to be signed to the growing pile of paper that has to change hands every time you buy a car, but at least it is an effort to let people know.

There is something to be said to the principled objection that a person should not be compelled to pay for a gizmo that can potentially record evidence that is not in their own interest. Some people even try to disable the device, but this is not a good idea, because its function is tied in with the airbag system. In damaging the data recorder, you might disable your airbags—or even set them off, which would be quite entertaining, to say the least. I'm in favor of people at least knowing that there is such a device in most new cars, but going beyond that to a right to disable them might be a little much. And who knows?—maybe some folks drive a little more carefully knowing that every turn of the wheel could be used against them in a court of law.

On the whole, this technology looks pretty benign. In the New Testament, we read that ". . . rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil." What's said about rulers can be applied to this kind of technology as well. If you're a good driver, or even the innocent victim of adverse circumstances, your black box's evidence can only help, it seems. And if you're a drunk driver or otherwise misbehaving, it can provide one more witness against you, which most people would agree is a good thing.

Sources: A column by Ben Wear in the Sept. 10, 2007 Austin American-Statesman discussed event data recorders. The story of the woman who hit the patch of ice appears at A good technical description of the kinds of data recorded, written by an employe of a company that makes software to download the data, is at And the New Testament quotation is from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 4.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Ray Guns Revisited

Back in February, I did a two-part series on non-lethal weapons. The first piece was about a system whose formal name is the Active Denial System. Despite the fact that the name sounds more like what politicians do when they get in trouble, the system in question is a rather elegant technical achievement. It consists of a microwave generator probably similar in principle to your microwave oven. Only instead of making waves that are about five inches long (the standard microwave-oven wavelength), these waves are only about a tenth of an inch long. If you're dealing with water-bearing substances such as potroasts or people, it turns out the depth of penetration of microwaves relates to the wavelength. So while you can cook a whole potroast that's several inches thick in your microwave, these shorter microwaves used by the Active Denial System only penetrate 1/64 of an inch into human skin. But if you pack about a kilowatt or more of short-wavelength power over an area of only a few square yards, the heat generated in that thin layer of skin with only a two-second exposure goes up to 130 degrees F. And that's uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that the Air Force scientists who developed the thing believe it will be a sure-fire (so to speak) way to disperse unruly crowds. Better than tear gas, because it leaves no residue or long-lasting health effects (they believe). And better than rubber bullets or any of the other accepted non-lethal technologies in present use.

Well, that's the idea, anyway. But as with so many technical solutions that appeal to technologists, the wider world raises objections that the scientists maybe didn't consider. According to a recent Associated Press report by Richard Lardner, the Active Denial System has run afoul of bureaucratic hesitation. After the first major conflict in Fallujah between insurgents and U. S. troops in 2003, the head of the Air Force Space Command, Gene McCall, sent an urgent email to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, saying that the Active Denial System could take care of just such problems. In 2006, Marine Corps Major General Robert Neller requested procurement of eight commercialized versions of the same system, called Silent Guardians. But Col. Kirk Hymes, chief of the Defense Department's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, says that one reason the system hasn't been adopted for field use is because of fears that it might be perceived as a form of torture, raising specters of Abu Ghraib. There are also outfits such as Human Rights Watch that don't want to see the system deployed. They complain that the testing and legal reviews on which the Pentagon bases its claims that the system is legal under international law and medically harmless, are classified and can't be independently verified.

When I first heard about this system, I was tickled technically. and less thrilled from an ethical point of view. I honestly don't know if it would be a good idea to use this thing in a real battle or not. Given (a big given, in the case of many readers) that we ought to be fighting in Iraq in the first place, my suspicion is that the thing would be helpful up to a point. The point would be when the target population figures out a way to defend themselves against the device. I won't give aid and comfort to the enemy by spilling beans right here, but it turns out that an item that would provide pretty certain defense against the system is available in any U. S. supermarket. (In Iraq, it might not be so easy to come by.) And there's the expense factor, which nobody in the know wants to discuss. If it was as inexpensive as a Humvee with chrome trim, you can bet they'd be bragging about it. As I mentioned in my February column, these things are probably not cheap at all—a lot more costly than a conventional weapon of comparable size. But every new piece of hardware is expensive until you start making lots of them and get economies of scale.

Independently of the questions about the weapon's safety, cost, and so on, what bothers me more than anything about this whole episode is the organizational schizophrenia it reveals. Here one part of the Defense Department has been spending $60 million over twelve years to develop a potentially promising new weapon, and wants to see it used. And some commanders are eager to try it. But some other part of the Pentagon successfully throws roadblocks up and says, "Well, not yet, not quite, we're not sure. . . ." Now even in well-run organizations you get different parts running off in different directions, and stopping a thing that's gone on too long is sometimes the right thing to do. But it does seem to me that if there were a more unified spirit—I don't know what other word to use—in the military establishment today, either the project would have been rejected at the outset, at a savings of millions of dollars, or else everybody would have been in favor of it from the start and it would be out there today zapping terrorists and doing whatever other damage it can do. There's an adage that says something like, "husbanded bullets are no bullets at all." Meaning, roughly, if you go into a battle worried more about how many bullets you have than about winning, you're likely both to run out of bullets, and lose. The abstract ethical question about the Active Denial System is one that we simply lack enough information to decide, at least in public. But what is very plain is that the internal squabbling that the system has created, is a sign of a deeper malaise within the military that can do no good at all.

Sources: My previous blog on this subject appeared on Feb. 6, 2007. The AP story on the Active Denial System by Richard Lardner ran in the Austin American-Statesman for Sept. 2, 2007.