Any sufficiently advanced technology…

… is indistinguishable from magic – Arthur C Clarke.

I took my car in to be serviced a few days ago. A normal 33,000 mile checkup, which I’d postponed for about 1500 miles. Not a good thing. So, I was already nervous when a fellow came out and started talking to me about “trans-axle fluid change” and “radiator back flush”. Now, I don’t know much about cars. Sure, I have some of the basic principles down–I understand in theory how internal combustion works, for example. But I really don’t know anything about the nuts and bolts of making a car work–I’ve never understood how the two front wheels in a turning car stay synchronized, even though the outer wheel goes a greater distance (or how they handle being out of synch). This is the case even though I’ve had it explained to me multiple times. Cars are complicated pieces of engineering that have taken decades of engineering to get where they are, and auto mechanics is a specialized discipline that takes years to learn.

But here’s the point. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to understand even the slightest bit of how a car converts old dinosaur bones into energy–I just want to harness that energy to go to the grocery store.

This has cost me a fair bit of money, as you can imagine, and wrecked at least one car from the inside out. I’ve learned to my cost, that you have to get the car checked out periodically, even if it makes me feel like a blithering idiot. “Sure, take care of that trans-axle fluidish stuff. You betcha.” And even if I take a car to the best shop in the world, I should still be verifying that everything is done according to the manual. Which requires me to read the manual. Which means that I have to learn something about a car. Dang it!

Now, consider computers:

Computers are complicated pieces of engineering that have taken decades of engineering to get where they are, and computer programming is a specialized discipline that takes years to learn. Learning how to interface with a computer takes time. They have their own jargon, just like automobiles. Most people (in the first world) need to use them every day.

Now I have a both a bit less and a bit more sympathy for the computer illiterate. More, because, hey, they don’t want to learn about computers–they just want to use them. I can dig that! Less, because if I can’t get
away with just driving my car, if I have to learn something about it, then they need to buck up and do the same. If they don’t, they’ll be in the same position I was at the service station–helpless before professionals.


Update 2/25/2007: Added link to Amazon.

Database Nation, by Simson Garfinkel, is a fantastic book. I admit that I’m a fan of what I like to call ‘Chicken Little’ books (I like William Greider and I even remember thinking that Revelations was the best book in the Bible as a child). My friends tell me that one of my typical greetings is ‘Have you read XXX? You should!’ I like books that challenge me and confront me with realities that I haven’t considered before.

Database Nation definitely challenges. The author approaches the burgeoning issue of personal privacy, and the coming lack thereof, in several different ways. Whether it is biometric identification, the possibility of protecting privacy via property rights, or a chapter of possible solutions, he treats the topic in a manner befitting its fundamental nature. I found his historical emphasis, where he compares the current situation to the one created in the early 1950s by the newly forming credit reporting agencies, to be especially useful. There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say. And the problems we’ve faced with privacy before have dealt with. The sky has fallen before, but it’s possible to pin it back up.

Privacy has been on my mind for a while now. I work in technology, and one of the things that is allowing this current invasion of privacy is the ability to collect, store and mine vast amounts of information. As an example of just how far it has gone, I can access 12 million business records (and 120 million US households) via my library’s
website–they’ve bought access to a database called referenceUSA. Search on business size, focus, years advertising in the Yellow Pages, location, etc. Slice and dice as you wish. As part of the usage agreement, you can’t use the database for unsolicited commercial mail, but, having found the names in Reference USA, you could look up the business in the Yellow Pageseasily enough.

While such data aggregation has been possible for years and years (ask the insurance companies), computing power and disk space have become so cheap that it’s much less work than it used to be–and collecting such information is only getting easier. See Cringely’s column for a suggested solution. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but it’s one idea for keeping the sky from falling.

I watched Enemy of the State again recently. While I enjoyed watching Will Smith and Gene Hackman avoided the satellite images and bugs of the NSA, I have no idea how much the movie made up and how much it nailed on the head (the Economist had this to say about satellite imagery in 2000). Still, this movie displays in a fundamental way what loss of privacy can mean. When folks say ‘hey, I don’t have anything to hide’ I don’t think they realize just what it means to have no privacy. There are shades and shades of ‘hiding’; there are things that I would tell my parents that I wouldn’t tell an acquaintance. Likewise, there are items I’d tell a new friend that I would rather not be published in
the daily paper. Discretion is something that all humans need–you do have things to hide since no one is perfect at all times! Having something to hide doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing something illegal–perhaps it’s just embarrassing (or would be if exposed to certain people).

Another aspect is the federal ‘do not call’ list and all the hullabaloo surrounding it. Telemarketers feel they aren’t going to be able to survive–everyone else feels they don’t want to be called unless they opt in. Even Dave Barry has chimed
. This is an issue that resonates with everyone and calls into dramatic perspective the tension between making your contact information publicly available and wanting to control what someone else does with that information. Imagine what it would be like if everything were public?

Expectation of reasonable privacy is something fundamental. I’d hate to lose it.

Link to “Database Nation” on Amazon.

Technology is not always the answer

I volunteer at the library. I put in 2-4 hours a week at the Special Services division. One of the primary missions of the Division (which consists of one part time employee and a bevy of volunteers) is to find books that homebound patrons would like and deliver the tomes to them. Of course, one wants to make sure that the same senior doesn’t get the same title twice.

The library has a large java based app (probably backed up by a mainframe) that keeps track of all the books. What’s checked out, what’s in transit, and most importantly, who owes fines. But it doesn’t keep records on what patrons have checked out (don’t tell the Feds).

What Special Services does is keep a stack of catalog cards (the old cards that I used to use to look up books on the Russian Revolution or beet production reports for school), and on the blank back of these cards, records the author and date and book title that have been picked for this particular person. These cards are all banded together and kept in a cabinet, filed under the patron’s last name.

This is a database, right? Just not a computerized one. The first day I volunteered, they showed me the system. Being the computer geek, I immediately thought of ways to computerize this database (with PDAs as the client and a java app talking to a database and delivering information to those PDAs). But, there are reasons to stick with the current system.

1. It’s cheap. The cards are being reused and the time of the volunteers is free as well. Not to be discounted in a time where branch libraries have to close one day a week to save funds. A new system would probably
cost thousands of dollars in hardware alone (even if it was built by volunteers with free software), because it would have to be mobile.

2. Mobility is built into the system. When I have to go pick the books for Mrs. Smith for this week, I can take an entire pack of cards out with me, and make sure that the mysteries I pick aren’t ones she’s read before. This is the primary purpose of the database, and it works very well.

3. The very low tech nature of this solution is a selling point. Many many folks are intimidated by new technologies. But darn near everyone is comfortable with pen and paper. There’s a very low barrier to entry. I didn’t have any trouble picking up the system in an hour, and neither has any of the other volunteers.

Not every process is amenable to being computerized. This experience has driven home the old saying–when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Even if it’s not.

A new purpose for RSS

I used to host at Dear Diary. Great service, provided for free. But now I host my own blog (thanks to the good folks at Movable Type and Dion (thanks for the tip, Dion), and I have total control over posting. I did use a simple CGI blog tool for a while, but Movable Type is quite feature rich. It generates RSS feeds from postings automatically.

I’m not sure what RSS really stands for, but it’s simple in concept. It’s an XML standard for making site content changes known to the world. It’s basically like those ‘what’s new’ announcements that appear on websites, but automatically generated and usually automatically picked up and formatted for human consumption (or aggregated). It takes over some of the functionality of those ‘sign me up to be notified of changes to this site’ email lists because, if you point your aggregator at a website’s RSS feed, you’ll be automatically
notified when there are changes–no need to clutter up your inbox. It also subsumes some of the functionality of bookmarks, because, again, you pull data you need, rather than having to visit the sites to see if content has changed.

I used to go out and check 4-5 pundits websites (Joel On Software, DaveNet, SkippingDotNet, and a few others) oh, once a week. I’d visit the sites to see if they’d put up any new articles, which I’d then read. Now, however, I rolled my own RSS aggregator, which outputs a nice listing of changes to some of those websites. It is nice to be informed of new postings, but the downside is that I hardly visit the sites that don’t provide RSS feeds.

I was chatting with some friends after seeing an author speak at a book signing at the Boulder Book Store (Neal Stephenson, promoting Quick Silver. It has pirates!). I was complaining because I am sure there are plenty of free and low cost events out there that I miss because I’m not aware of them. I thought it would be great to have a web site that aggregated all those events for a particular locality into one page that I could visit. ‘Hey, it’s Friday and the CU astronomy department is letting folks look through their telescopes!’ This would be a huge undertaking, however, if one had to screen scrape the ‘New Events’ pages of each interesting organization. If, however, they all made their schedule available as RSS, it would be trivial.

The question is, what do the organizations gain? Increased visibility. If it’s a book signing, the purpose is to draw folks in so they buy books. If it’s a library event, then the more folks one draws, the more the library is being used. If it’s the Boulder Theater, then the more people come to an event, the more beer they can sell.

Think of it as a automated version of the “What’s Happening” section of your daily paper. Wouldn’t that be sweet!

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