Monday, October 30, 2017

Too Many Ways to Talk

If you work in an office and want to get in touch with someone else in your organization, what is the first thing you think of?  Emailing?  Texting?  Phoning?  Walking down the hall?  For some people, the number of choices is getting to be a problem, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe.  There are chat programs like Slack, teamwork coordination programs like Trello, and don't forget Google Calendar (I usually do).  And there's the occasional oddball in a group who doesn't like online chatting, or who can't let go of Skype when the organization moves to a different platform. 

The report cites a survey that shows despite all the recent advances and new systems, three-fourths of all interoffice communication is carried on with one of three methods:  texting, email, or talking on the phone.  So despite the efforts of all the hopeful innovative software companies, systems developed fifteen to a hundred years ago are still carrying the bulk of messages between people at work.

Why is that?

One answer is that we are creatures of habit.  There is that within us which craves routine and stability in the ways we go about our daily lives.  A few of us genuinely enjoy waking up in a different place every day and having to learn entirely new ways of doing basic things.  But such people are rare exceptions, and most of us simply want to learn how to do something useful and keep doing it more or less the same way. 

Another answer is that as we age, it gets harder to learn new things.  The average age of principals in startup software companies is probably around 24, and there's a good reason for that.  Young people have flexible neurons that easily master and devise new concepts, and for such people, learning a new method of interoffice communication every six months might be an inconvenience, perhaps, but if it means staying ahead of the competition, they can do it. 

But as one ages, the joy of learning a new way to do your job turns sour, at least in some cases.  Yes, the new way may let you do some things that were hard or impossible the old way.  Skype can let you see body language in a customer that simply doesn't make it over the phone.  But at some point, the time lost in fumbling around trying to learn a new system exceeds the time saved by using the system's purported advantages.  And so for people who don't easily and quickly pick up the ins and outs of new software or hardware, the alleged advantages may never be realized.

What many people don't realize, including software developers, is the fact that introducing a novel interoffice communications tool can profoundly change the way an organization works, and not always in a good way, either.  My favorite bad example is the way the accounting-software-suite system known under the trade name of SAP was imposed on academic organizations such as MIT and my own institution, Texas State University. 

Accounting is a form of interoffice communication, broadly speaking.  But before SAP came along, the situation could be described thus:  the accountants and clerks were in charge of the computers, and the managers were in charge of the accountants and clerks.  After SAP, SAP was in charge of everything:  clerks, accountants, managers, and everybody else except the people who were hired to install SAP—and sometimes I wondered about them, too.  Far from being merely a more efficient way to do the same basic things, SAP was a revolution in disguise.  And like most revolutions, it caused many casualties:  people who were sometimes highly competent under the old system, but who simply couldn't deal with the radical changes and chose to retire or quit.  A historian and MIT administrator named Rosalind Williams wrote a book about her university's experience with this process, and it didn't go smoothly, to say the least.

So would I have us writing inter-office memos with quill pens and calling office boys to deliver them?  No, but what often gets lost in the shuffle of new communications technologies is the question of purpose.  What are the kinds of things we want to communicate?  Are the existing ways adequate to do these things?  And if not, what new technology could we use that would not merely annoy people who do not adapt easily to change, but would make us work better at the things we're supposed to be doing? 

Just to end this on a mostly positive note, there is one innovative technology that I think has made things better, at least for administrative assistants:  the meeting-scheduling software typified by such applications as Doodle. 

In the old days, I would call our department's admininstrative assistant and ask her to schedule a meeting with X number of people.  Depending on how big X was, she would either look at teaching schedules or end up phoning people with different options for the meeting time and shuffling things around until she found a time and place where at least most people could make it.

Now she doesn't have to get involved.  I just set up a Doodle poll and send it to people who I want to arrange the meeting with, and they indicate which of the candidate times they can meet.  When everyone responds, there's the whole situation right in front of me, and I can either pick a time that leaves one or two people out, or sometimes there's a time when everyone can meet, and the problem is solved then and there.

If you're a manager thinking about mandating a new or different way of communicating within the office, think about it for a while.  Will it really make things better?  Or will it just keep up the constant churn of new-software aggravation that saps energy and time that could be devoted to getting the real jobs of the organization done?

Sources:  Andy Rosen's article "E-mail. Slack. Trello. G-chat. Do we have too many office communication tools?" appeared on the Boston Globe's website on Oct. 27, 2017 at  Rosalind Williams addresses the advent of SAP at MIT and many other issues pertaining to technological change in her 2003 book published by MIT press, Retooling:  A Historian Confronts Technological Change.

Monday, October 23, 2017

What Price Medicine?

Last week I had the privilege of attending the American Physical Society Texas Section's annual regional meeting, held this year at the campus of the University of Texas at Dallas.  Among several invited speakers was a professor of radiology who spoke about the latest medical imaging techniques being developed for observing biological activity on the molecular level. 

As interesting as that was, I want to focus on an offhand remark the speaker made.  He has many friends in the medical research community, among whom is one who has been doing cancer research with rodents.  His friend has found that if rodents who have cancer are fed ordinary bicarbonate of soda (the same kind you can get in the Arm & Hammer box at the grocery store), the alkalinity it adds to the animal's body chemistry is enough to stop the cancer from metastasizing. 

That's not what I want to focus on either.  What I want to highlight is what the professor of radiology said next about his friend's discovery:  "It's too bad in a way, because, you know, there's no money in it.  But I still think he's on to something." 

Why is there no money in a cure for cancer that would use a substance that is not patented and costs a couple of dollars a pound?  Asked that way, the question almost answers itself.  On the other hand, if some exotic and patentable chemical was found to do the same thing, it would probably be in clinical trials on humans by now.

The way the pharmaceutical industry in the U. S. and most other industrialized countries works is roughly this.  The firms spend millions of dollars on research directed at finding new drugs.  So far so good.  But not just any new drug:  a new drug that will be at least moderately effective against a malady that requires the drug to be taken indefinitely.  In this way, the company can recoup its investment over the lifetime of the patient as well as the lifetime of the drug's patent. 

Because it is potentially so profitable, this mode of operation has squeezed out other ways that drug companies could work.  If a drug is found that cures a disease with one dose, or if a drug's patent expires and the company can't find a way to extend it, or if a drug turns out to be something that can't be patented in the first place (such as bicarbonate of soda), then the drug companies aren't interested.  And because the companies have become such a dominant force in the research community, drugs and treatments that don't fit their profitability pattern are increasingly ignored and neglected. 

The companies defend their ways of doing things with the claim that modern pharmaceutical research is costly, and if their markets are controlled or supervised with governmental interference, it will be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg.  All drug innovations will cease and we'll be back to using leeches and bloodletting.  That's an exaggeration of their attitudes toward regulation, but only slightly.  And they do have a point:  the business model they have adopted is indeed costly, but when it works, it's extremely profitable and attracts investment capital, without which nothing much could be done, at least in the private sector. 

That is one model of healing.  Another model is that of Mother Teresa.  The famed founder of the Missionaries of Charity dedicated her life and the lives of her nuns to the service of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India, and ultimately hundreds of other places around the world.  Their financial system, if you can call it that, would give an accountant nightmares.  They will take donations from anyone—foundations, governments, individuals, even criminals—and spend it right away on the most urgently needed items for the people they serve.  Many of the people they help are dying anyway, but to the dying they bring companionship, hope, and love. 

The work of the Missionaries of Charity has not led directly to the invention of a cure for any disease.  It has not made anyone richer financially.  But it has added to the store of human capital in the form of good works and examples of how to live.

As long as sickness and the other consequences of the Fall of Adam and Eve are with us, there is going to be a tension between these two ways of healing.  In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis portrays a contrast between two ways of approaching the world.  One way is to view nature as simply raw material to be fashioned according to our will or whim.  Another way is to learn from nature what the universe is about, and conform our actions and behavior to what Lewis calls the Tao, the set of perennial principles of right and wrong common to all times and peoples. 

Both the Missionaries of Charity and Big Pharma do good things.  Without the Missionaries, thousands of sufferers in desperate straits would live and die unloved and uncared for.  And without Big Pharma, many medical conditions ranging from the fatal to the trivial would go untreated, and many investors would have to find something else to do with their money.  In the debates about the U. S. Affordable Care Act, experts have proposed many kinds of large-scale plans and changes that would allegedly make things better somehow.  But they are all complicated, because the present way Americans deal with health care—itself a manifold topic of many facets—is complicated, and changing even one aspect of the current system is like pulling on one thread of a spiderweb—the whole thing is likely to be affected.

Historically, sick people have been cared for through a combination of love and money, Mother Teresa's nuns representing the love end of the spectrum and Big Pharma representing the money end.  When the main criterion of a potential cure for a fatal disease is the question of how much money it will earn for investors, we have gone too far toward the money end of the spectrum.  Medical care is a business, but it used to be more than a business—it was a calling.  And unless those involved at all levels of health care perceive the need for love as well as money, things won't get any better in that regard. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Story of ?????

Time for a little anthropological investigation.  You can tell a lot from a culture by finding out what its members think is funny.  In my present line of work I rarely have dealings with upwardly-mobile single women in their mid-thirties.  But just such a person, by the name of Susanna Fogel, published a short humor piece in The New Yorker recently, and in it she says more about the ramifications of what is technically known as "oocyte cryopreservation" (I had to look it up)—in other words, having your eggs frozen—than many longer works of ethics or philosophy.

The piece is entitled "Your Frozen Egg Has a Question."  The accompanying drawing shows a thirty-something gal holding open the freezer door of an ordinary refrigerator.  In the freezer there's nothing but a test tube and a sealed envelope.  So the reader is ready for the conceit that the frozen egg has written a note to its—what?  Donor?  Not mother, not yet, anyway.

It is just such ambiguities that Fogel plays with as the piece develops.  The first line is "Wait, O. K., how do I address this letter?  Who are you now, exactly, in relation to me?"  Is an egg the same substance as the woman's body?  Or different?  It's clearly special, but until it's fertilized, well, the moral status of eggs, as well as fertilized embryos, is not a clear-cut thing to everyone by any means.

Another profound question without a definite answer comes up in the next paragraph:  "Will I continue to be thirty-five until you defrost me?"  Is a piece of frozen tissue from a living human alive, strictly speaking?  Or dead?  Or is the question meaningless?  Clearly, the thread running through the pice that makes this interesting is the egg's potential for becoming a human being.  But a lot has to happen before that potential can be actualized, and a frozen egg is about as inert, action-wise, as you can get.

Why do single women have their eggs frozen?  It's an expensive procedure running upwards of several thousand dollars, with ongoing storage costs.  The Wikipedia article on oocyte cryopreservation lists three groups of women for whom the procedure is helpful:  those whose fertility may be terminated by chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer, those who are trying to have children with assisted reproductive technologies but don't want to freeze fertilized embryos, and those who may want to be able to have children in the future, for "personal or medical reasons."  I think the addressee in the humor piece is in the third category—those who want help from technology to stop their biological clock from ticking, in other words.

In the piece, somehow the egg knows about conversations with the donor's therapist, and comments on them:  ". . . you've admitted that you're not sure parenthood is right for you at all, and that you're worried you're just freezing your eggs because of societal expectations and your parents' hints about grandchildren."  The letter winds up rather poignantly, "Just circle back to me sooner rather than later if you can.  And happy Valentine's Day.  Sincerely, ?????"

The aim of much technological progress is to extend the sphere of personal control over matters that used to be regarded as given.  Human fertility is one of those matters.  With medical technologies such as in vitro fertilization and the freezing of fertilized embryos and (unfertilized) eggs, people who formerly were unable to have children have been enabled to become parents.  And those who can't make up their minds can at least have a chance of delaying their decision until after the natural time at which it would become impossible to conceive.

These matters go to the heart of what one believes about the nature of humans and the meaning of life.  If you think that the highest form of life is human beings, then we are on our own with regard to how best to use these technologies.  Other than talking to your therapist, who is only going to say something like "live your truth," (as the therapist in the article does) you are alone with your thoughts and your frozen eggs, whose fate is entirely up to you.  It is a fearful responsibility to bring a new human life into the world, and the shadow of this responsibility gives the article much of its energy and tension.

Is the situation any better for those who believe that God is the highest form of life and the designer of the universe, including human beings and the way they customarily come into the world?  At least a therapist has a name and an address, and you can make an appointment and talk with him.  But God—if you say you've heard from God that you're supposed to have a baby, well, some people will start avoiding you.  And you may not like the people who agree with you. 

Still, if God is in the picture, there is a framework of meaning given to life.  The intention to have a baby is no longer an autonomous and entirely self-determined decision.  If no human being is a surprise to God, then every pregnant woman has the most powerful Being in the universe rooting for her.  That can be a lot more encouraging than a therapist. 

Maybe all this strikes you as making an ethical mountain out of what was intended to be a humorous molehill—just a short magazine article that was intended to be funny.  But the piece struck me as sad rather than funny.  (Full disclosure:  most of the pieces that The New Yorker publishes in their humor department don't strike me as funny.  But that's no criticism of them.  I just happen to have an antiquated sense of humor that went out of fashion with Jack Benny (1894-1974).) 

Much humor is separated from tragedy only by one's point of view.  While today's society vaunts individual freedom and gives men and women the power to separate their sexual lives from the question of reproduction, it has also led to a type of alienation that divides a woman from her own eggs, as Susanna Fogel has so effectively expressed in her piece.  Reproductive technologies such as oocyte cryopreservation can be a blessing for those whose fertility might otherwise be lost.  But they can also lead to morally ambiguous situations that ordinary people may not be equipped to deal with, except by trying to laugh it off.

Sources:  Susanna Fogel's "Your Frozen Egg Has a Question" appeared on p. 39 of the print edition of The New Yorker for May 22, 2017, and is also available online at

Monday, October 09, 2017

Car Infotainment Distractions Can Be Deadly

A study just released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that many 2017-model cars have infotainment features that can dangerously distract drivers.  Such distractions may be an important reason why, after declining for years, the annual car-fatality rate in the U. S. rose in 2016.

A report in the Washington Post describes how University of Utah researcher David Strayer led a study involving about 30 different 2017-model vehicles, ranging from a Ford F250s to a Tesla Model S.  Test subjects performed infotainment-feature-related  tasks while being monitored in various ways, and while also having to push a button every time a buzzer went off.  The delay between the buzzer and the button-pushing has been found to be a good indication of how distracted the driver is.  And while all this was going on, the subjects were driving down a low-traffic residential street, so the whole experiment was conducted during real-life driving.

The findings were not encouraging.  Some tasks, such as programming a navigation system, took an average of 40 seconds to do. Some vehicles were twice as demanding as others on average, based on a rating called the "overall demand," which included a variety of visual and cognitive tasks. 

The Post article quotes AAA chief executive Marshall Doney as saying that there are some things we have no business doing while behind the wheel.  The U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued guidelines to automakers in 2012, asking them to block certain kinds of tasks involving infotainment systems unless the vehicle is parked.  But this call has gone largely unheeded.

It's interesting that the two vehicles with the most demanding electronics were the Honda Ridgeline, Honda's answer to US-brand luxury pickups, and the Volvo Inscription, another luxury passenger car.  Among the cars with the less-demanding systems were the Ford F-250 pickup and the Chevrolet Equinox.  It begins to look like this problem is a side effect of carmakers' attempts to load up their vehicles with many-featured electronics in the higher-end models especially.  The practice of piling on new software features, whether useful or not, is familiar to anyone who has used computers recently, which basically means everybody. 

It's one thing to sit at your desk and fume at Excel for burying a function you liked in an avalanche of newer features that you find largely useless.  But it's quite another thing to be driving on an LA freeway and trying to program your next real-estate appointment address into your GPS system at the same time.  As unwise as such an action is, people will do it, and get away with it too, at least for a while. 

The car manufacturers face a dilemma.  The IT features of a car are sometimes one of the main things that set a vehicle apart from the competition, so you can't expect the carmakers to stop trying to offer newer and more exciting infotainment features. 

But safety can get lost in the shuffle.  A car company can either install lock-out technology that just flat prevents the user from doing time-and-attention-intensive tasks while driving, or the firm can simply warn the consumer not to do such things while in motion.  Most companies have taken the latter course, with the excuse that if people do stupid things, well, we told them not to do that, so you can't blame us. 

In other areas of human endeavor, this approach has been tried and found wanting.  In the field of occupational health and safety, for example, workplaces in factories used to be extremely dangerous, with bare moving belts and moving parts everywhere.  Employees were simply warned to stay out of harm's way, but that wasn't always possible, and a lot of people got killed.  With the advent of workmens' compensation insurance and government supervisory agencies such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), attitudes changed.  Now employers largely accept the responsibility for building in safety in their plants with shields, safety interlocks, and procedures that approach being foolproof in many cases.  No small part of this change is due to pressure brought to bear on miscreant manufacturers by insurance companies that got tired of paying out premiums to workers injured at needlessly hazardous plants.

It may be that auto insurance companies will need to play a role in making sure that infotainment features don't distract drivers to death.  When you realize that only a certain fraction of cars on the road are replaced with new ones every year, the suspicious upward trend in car fatalities becomes even more ominous.  One wonders what would happen if everybody like me (our newest car is a dozen years old) bought a new car and started trying to use the navigation system in an injudicious way. 

I don't know whether auto insurance rates vary much from vehicle to vehicle based on the model's safety record, but if a prospective buyer learned that the bells-and-whistles luxury model he was about to buy carried a huge insurance price tag, he might hesitate.  And the carmaker might do something about installing a gentle form of lockout, making it at least inconvenient to use some of the more demanding features while actually driving, which would make the insurance companies happier.

What is generally regarded as the first fatality in an autonomous (self-driving) vehicle—the crash that killed Joshua Brown—occurred allegedly while Brown had set his Tesla Model S in self-driving mode and was watching a video.  Admittedly, this is carrying distracted "driving" to the extreme, and was against the manufacturer's instructions.  But it shows that if a system allows the driver to do a stupid thing, somebody somewhere will eventually do it, and sometimes with dire results.

No movie, song, or GPS information is worth a person's life.  Carmakers need to realize that they are undermining a decades-long trend of improved car safety with the fancy gizmos they are shipping with each new vehicle.  If the average consumer isn't smart enough to avoid the new hazards, something else needs to be done.  Voluntary compliance with the 2012 NHTSA lockout guidelines would be nice.  But if history is any guide, automakers may need the encouragement of laws and regulations to implement new electronic infotainment features that are both attractive and safe to use.

Sources:  The Washington Post carried the article by Ashley Halsey III, "New cars have more distracting technology on board than ever before," in the October 3, 2017 online edition at  I also referred to the original AAA report, "Visual and cognitive demands of using in-vehicle infotainment systems," which is available at  My blog on the Joshua Brown accident appeared at on July 4, 2016.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Internet Security Isn't Child's Play

Full disclosure:  my wife and I have never had children.  The closest we have come to full-time responsibility for someone younger than 80 was when our ten-year-old nephew came to stay with us for part of the summer of 2013.  So what I have to say about the hazards of buying smart Internet-connected toys for your kids is, from my point of view, entirely hypothetical and untouched by the seasoning of personal experience.  Nevertheless, it's a new kind of problem and those with parental responsibilities need to be aware of it.

For the last several years, one of the biggest trends on the consumer-electronics horizon has been the Internet of Things (IoT).  It's now so cheap to connect tiny, inexpensive devices to increasingly powerful cloud-computing apps on the Internet that companies are falling over each other trying to get their IoT-enabled gizmos to consumers.  And the gold-rush analogy is especially apt for the toy market, which is highly seasonal and driven by novelty even more than the rest of the consumer business. 

When IoT came along, we began to see a flock of toys that connect to the Internet for some of the same reasons devices for adults do:  message sharing, video recording, GPS-enabled location features, and so on.  But when adults use IoT-enabled equipment, there is at least a presumption that they can read instructions and take whatever precautions are needed to keep malign third parties from exploiting the window into your personal life that bringing an IoT-enabled device into your home opens. 

Not so with children.  A recent story in the Washington Post details how the FBI had issued a consumer notice about "smart toys" that connect to the Internet.  Inspired partly by recalls in Europe of a talking doll that a hacker could use as a listening device, the FBI says that parents should be very careful about purchasing or setting up any toy that can connect to the Internet. 

While I'm not aware of any crimes that have been shown to be committed by such means, it's not hard to imagine such a situation.  Organized housebreakers could take a look around your home while little Johnny is dragging his Internet-enabled megatherium through the living room, and use its GPS to find just where that priceless collection of jewels from the court of Louis XIV is kept on display.  Even creepier is the notion that a crook bent upon kidnaping or worse could start talking to your daughter through her doll:  "Yes, I want you to meet a friend of mine.  He's waiting right outside the front door.  Mommy's asleep, isn't she?  Come on outside . . . ."  Sounds like a bad horror film, but the technology is there already.

The FBI's recommendations are not surprising, for the most part:  know whether the toy you're thinking of buying has been reported for problems with security, read the disclosures and privacy policies provided with the toy (if any), monitor your child's activity with the toy, use good password hygiene, don't tell the company any more than you have to when setting up the toy to work through your wireless system, etc.  Some of this advice falls in the wouldn't-it-be-nice category, such as reading disclosure and privacy policies.  First, hire a lawyer to interpret the policy, if it's written like most boiler-plate software agreements.  And while monitoring a child's use of the toy is a good idea, parents can be only one place at a time, and one reason for buying a child toys is so they can amuse themselves and not depend on you to be there fending off boredom for them every second.  Or at least that's the impression I get from a few parents I know.

The hazards of smart toys are just one more chink in the Swiss cheese of what used to be armor that most parents erected around their children.  Here's just one example of that armor from my own childhood, back when men were men and megatheriums roamed the earth. 

My father was a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound repo man for a few years.  Repossessing cars from uncooperative borrowers is not for the faint of heart, and in a crisis I'm sure he could cuss as well as anybody.  But until I was a teenager, I never heard a swear word pass his lips, even when I drove my tricycle into the ladder he was using to hold a paint can and dumped a gallon of gray oil paint all over his head.  (Well, maybe he did cuss then and I just didn't understand what he was saying.) 

The point is that he went out of his way to create a kind of bubble of innocence or protection around us children.  There were some TV shows we couldn't watch and some magazines we couldn't look at, even back in the halcyon 1960s.  Back then, of course, electronic media had just barely started to infiltrate the home, radio and TV being the only means of entry.  Since both my parents were gone before the Internet really got going, I will never know what their reaction to it would have been.  But suffice it to say I don't think my father's impression of it would have been positive.

Some ages exalt and glorify children, and others like ours seem to treat them as kind of an optional hobby for adults, instead of the seedbed of the next fifty to hundred years of civilization.  Like it or not, children in advanced industrial societies are going to grow up in a world where the Internet of Things is as routine to them as electric lights were to people my age.  The main role of parents as parents is to prepare children to live in the world they will inhabit, and hopefully make it a better place.  But first the children have to survive into adulthood.  And while the chances of anything bad happening to your child as a result of a smart toy is remote, it's one more thing to worry about in the process of raising children.  And at least we've been alerted to this problem before anyone has been harmed, as far as we know. 

Sources:  Elisabeth Leamy's article "The danger of giving your child 'smart toys'" appeared on Sept. 29, 2017 in the online version of the Washington Post at