Thursday, May 30, 2013

Please Pass The Mustard!

By Keith McDowell

It was a simple act. I inserted the plastic credit card with the magnetic strip purposely aligned on the top left into the card reader at my local Shell gas station pump and rapidly withdrew the card, certain that once again, I would be authorized after typing in my area code and punching credit. But alas, all I got was a message to see the attendant inside.

I tried again. Same message.

Not wishing to appear insanely stupid and knowing that my credit line was impeccable, I trudged inside muttering to myself about accidentally getting the small magnets on my clip-on sunglasses too close to the magnetic strip on my credit card. Scientists like me always have such a ready explanation for unexpected phenomena.

The busy attendant interrupted her processing of a line of paying customers, all of whom were giving me the evil eye, and informed me that I should change the speed at which I withdrew the card from the reader since that often was the problem. She was obviously processing me as a silly old man who had not joined the credit card generation.

Retreating sheepishly and somewhat embarrassed to the gas pump, I tried several more times while varying the speed of insertion and withdrawal. Same message each time. Frustrated beyond measure, I did the manly thing, got in my car, and drove off for a soothing meal at my local MacDonalds.

Like all great connoisseurs of burgerdom, I appreciate the fine distinctions between an old-fashioned ranch-style burger with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and pickle versus the synthetic Big Mac with its secret sauce. And, of course, there is the Angus burger with plenty of onion and lots of strong, spicy mustard. Sadly, Texas doesn’t have those wonderful green chili burgers found in New Mexico.

I choose the Angus burger meal and reached into my pocket to extract the misbehaving credit card when what to my wandering eye should appear but the logo on said card. Too my horror and chagrin, it wasn’t the expected overlapping red and orange circles on my MasterCard, but the blue logo of my Randal’s grocery card. I was using the wrong card! How could I have missed the obvious?

Like any typical husband, I wanted to blame my wife for shuffling my wallet full of plastic cards, but this time I was stuck with my own malfeasance. The MasterCard was located where I always keep the grocery card. So much for force of habit!

But let’s be clear about this! Exactly how many cards do I have? Let’s see. There are two credit cards, a debit card, two grocery cards – one for Colorado, three hotel chain cards, a restaurant club card, two airline cards, one international SOS card, a passport information card, a AAA auto card, a bank card, three business association cards, two health cards, several government ID cards including a driver’s license, a couple of retailer cards, an REI membership card, several partially used Washington Metro cards, a compliance HOTLINE card, and a VIP entry card. Did I miss one?

Even in retirement, I clearly need one of those Lifestyle Lifts compliments of the TV commercials featuring Debbie Boone. The sag under my chin and all those wrinkles around my eyes were clearly caused by dealing with too much plastic and the embarrassment of choosing the wrong card.

But do we really have to deal with all that plastic in the modern electronic-IT age? Actually, NO! Believe it or not, you can now replace your plastic cards with a cellphone and some wireless technology. At Verizon, it’s called the ISIS Mobile Wallet. You pay by synching your cellphone at checkout and clicking away. Hopefully, the bill is achieved through RFID tagging of the products you want to purchase. While not widely available, it’s clearly the future. So much for that fistful of plastic!

Even better, you really don’t need to leave the comfort of your home to shop … and I’m not talking about the standard web surfing experience. Real shoppers want the feel of being there and the tactile experience. Enter the 3D graphical user interface attached to a virtual reality headset complete with electronic gloves and in the future, a sniffer to provide the olfactory dimension. So much for a static 2D computer screen!

Just image going to your favorite mall anywhere in the world and entering the store of your choice. The smell and the atmosphere will be there including the ability to reach out, touch, and pick up anything of interest to you. Can I still squeeze the bread loaf to check for freshness? Merchants will go out of their way to insure a quality virtual experience, coupled with the ability to purchase their products with ease and have them arrive quickly on your doorstep. You don’t believe me? Such simulated 3D tours already exist on the Internet.

But what about my craving for a Big Mac or an Angus burger? Surely that will not be satisfied by a virtual world? I’ll still have to get into my car, purchase gas with my mobile wallet, and head to my local MacDonalds. Not so fast! The Star Trek Food Replicator is here … or kind of here.

Let’s refresh our memory on the production of “food” as a generic item. In the olden days, pioneers stored up on salt, pepper, flour, cornmeal, sugar, molasses, vinegar, fiber from the garden, protein from animals and beans, potatoes, and so forth. They used these primitive ingredients to prepare “food.” The modern food replicator will do – and does – the same thing. Starting with containers of the basic ingredients, the proper proportions are injected into a preparation vessel and microwave cooked as appropriate.

And out pops a Big Mac. Or, at least, it will “taste” like a Big Mac. With experience, some measure of “texture” and “smell” will also be achieved. To future generations, it will become the “Big Mac” experience. If you don’t believe in multiple “Big Mac” experiences, order a Big Mac in South Korea and see what you get!

Yuk is all I have to say. I like my Big Mac and I want mustard on my Angus burger. And will I have to tip electronically the virtual waiter who responds to my voice command on the food replicator?

Just imagine the TV fare fifty years from now. You’ll be able to choose between the geek chef cooking competition for the best replicator recipe or a half-hour show entitled “Replicator Review” for those desiring haute replicator cuisine. Captain Kirk, what have you done to us?

So the next time you insert that plastic credit card into the gas pump, let’s hope you don’t get the message: “see attendant.” Who knows what will happen to you after that? Just don’t forget to ask for the mustard!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Clock Is Ticking

By Keith McDowell

Okay. What can I say? I took the plunge compliments of Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno and enjoined a modern version of a medieval crusade during the past week. Like Brown’s iconic sleuth, Robert Langdon, who exposes evil while in disguise as a Harvard professor of symbolism, I raced from clue to clue using my Safari browser sans, of course, one of Langdon’s ever present and enigmatic female companions. My quest? To save myself from the ennui of retirement in the hope of enlightenment about the fate of humankind.

And you wondered what happened to my last week’s blog!

I won’t spoil the fun for those of you yet to experience the formulaic misadventures of Professor Langdon – that dude is one lucky stiff – but suffice it to say that his latest encounter with death and the powers that be involves the oldest and most sinister of all villains … ourselves!

Just in case you haven’t been paying attention to the latest news that isn’t new news, humankind is heading at an exponentially accelerating pace towards a mass extinction event that will make the Black Death or plague of the Middle Ages seem tame by comparison. At least, that’s what the bearded fellow wearing a tutu with  “The End is Near!” placard about his neck likes to tell me as I walk past him during my morning constitutional.

Is all of this talk of doomsday mere hyperbole set to capture our attention for someone’s fifteen minutes of fame? Or is it another conspiracy theory hatched by those who would keep us distracted from matters that really count? And exactly what is the nature of the latest incarnation of our impending doom?

I nervously began my quest for the truth by carefully typing the word “transhumanism” into a Google search form and awaiting a return response, certain that my computer was about to crash. To my surprise, I only got Wikipedia instead of the government hacking into my computer while causing the screen to flash in brilliant red letters, ACCESS DENIED! That seems to only happen at NCIS.

But wait! What about the blue symbol that popped up on the Wiki page? Surely “h+” must mean something! Are THEY trying to tell me that the hydrogen ion is the source of our future destruction? Nope. Wrong interpretation of the symbol.

Transhumanism has been with us for a long time and takes many forms. Quoting from Wikipedia, it “is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” Now that’s a mouthful to ingest in one gulp! And believe me, you’ll need lots of time to fully digest the transhumanist primer at Wikipedia.

For many, transhumanism is an alarm bell sounding out the demise of the human condition as we’ve always known it. For others, it signals the coming transformation of humankind into a new “posthuman” or “human plus” (the meaning of the h+ symbol) era. But for our quest, it represents the very existence of humankind versus our ability to destroy ourselves through an exploding global population and the consequences that result therefrom such as global warming and the accelerating depletion of our natural resources.

The following population chart reveals our fate:

Folks, by any stretch of the imagination, such growth is not sustainable and humankind is now exponentially approaching the tipping point, or perhaps better said, the breaking point. Will we destroy ourselves through the normal processes of war or a pandemic, or will we accidentally invent our own poison? Or will the posthuman transformation occur first thereby saving posthumanity? And what form might posthumanity take?

I personally like to divide “posthumanity” into three classes:
  • Super-humans
  • The Borg
  • Cylons

Super-humans are those beings produced by directed evolution through genetic and chemical manipulation. They will be stronger, more intelligent, disease resistant, and have a host of other positive attributes – although unintended consequences will also emerge. To the surprise of most people, we’ve long since begun this transformation by popping pills into our mouth on a daily basis and by dumping the excess into our natural environment. But in the end, super-humans will still be a biological construct, trapped in an inherently “wet-ware” machine and directed evolution takes a long, long time to occur.

We can fix the “wet-ware” condition by becoming “The Borg” from Star Trek.  In this version of the posthuman, we integrate “wet-ware” with software and hardware. Again, this transformation is already occurring at an accelerating pace, but there is a proverbial science fiction fly in the soup. The “sentient being” at the core of the Borg being is still basically residing in a “wet-ware” brain, an inherently slow and cumbersome construct for which the symbol for the hydrogen ion seems appropriate.

But our quest isn’t over! As the electric power grid once again flickers into a brownout condition due to the Texas heat and over consumption by too many air conditioners, I hastily scroll my Magic Mouse to find the answer. It’s the Cylons!

Cylons à la Battlestar Gallactica are self-aware, sentient computers housed in an autonomous robotic body that they control. They are the next step up the evolutionary ladder. Once they emerge – and I’m certain that they will before the Twenty-first century is over, they will exponentially blow past normal humans, super-humans, or the Borg. They are our future!

Will cylons arrive on the scene before the social and destructive meltdown from overpopulation? Being infinitely and rapidly adaptable, they will likely survive almost any condition thrown at them by Mother Nature or the stupidity of humankind. And therein lies the hidden truth not revealed in Brown’s Inferno. It won’t be humans who emerge from Dante’s Hell, even if we curb the growth of the global population.

And so as darkness descends on the era of humankind, we reach the end of our quest and stare into the red eye of a cylon as it pulsates back and forth while hearing the final benediction from the infamous mechanical voice: “By your leave!”

Thursday, May 9, 2013

I Ate The Bones!

By Keith McDowell

The latest marketing jingle from Kentucky Fried Chicken unwittingly expresses a condition now becoming all too well known to Americans. Under the dual rubrics of “balancing the budget” and “reducing the deficit,” right-wing, self-proclaimed conservative politicians continue to push for the now discredited austerity budgeting measures that have failed so miserably in Europe and are deprecated by almost all economists.

Their strategy is simple. Ignore the facts. Obstruct all progressive legislation. Engage in a massive and organized campaign of sloganeering and disinformation. Filibuster. Introduce and vote for absolutely worthless and stupid bills. Trash talk any and all initiatives supported by President Obama, no matter their source. Divert attention from the real issues facing America by creating phony and trumped up sideshows. And demagogue issues that play to the heart of the extreme right wing who now form the presumed base of the Republican Party. In short, just say NO!

The litany of these actions and their outcomes has grown into a cancer metastasizing all across our nation.

Take, for example, the small community of Buena Vista, Michigan. This week, the school district laid off all the teachers and closed down the schools. The children will not finish out the school year because the district ran out of money and the state is balking at further infusions of cash. How ridiculous is this? Where is the adult leadership? I’ll tell you where. They are busy pandering to their political base instead of solving the problem. Buena Vista is but a microcosm of what is happening everywhere and at all levels.

I’m especially impressed by the vote on Wednesday in the House of Representatives regarding overtime pay, namely, the notion that an employee should have the ability to defer overtime pay in preference for paid time off at a later date. As anyone who has ever supervised people in a business knows, this would be a major loophole ripe for plundering by management. Employees will be pressured to put in the overtime and somehow that promised “time off” will never appear. I should know. I’ve lost many a “comp hour” to this game.

The tragic story which unfolded this week in Cleveland reveals yet another dimension of the austerity mindset. As camera crews and reporters searched for and interviewed anyone willing to add their bit of trivia, parents and relatives of other missing children and young adults requested that their stories be broadcast in the hope of another miracle. Unbelievably in America, something like 100,000 such miracles are needed! So, exactly what resources are we providing to law enforcement to empower them to close this astonishing gap?

Sadly, the Cleveland story also revealed another aspect of life as we now experience it in America. Did you by chance notice the teeth of many of those people interviewed by CNN in their coverage? You would think that most of the people inhabited a third-world country given the condition of their dentures or lack thereof. How is it in America that so many people have come to such a condition?

And then we have the madness known as sequestration – unless, of course, one happens to be a congressman in need of a reliable flight back home to woo constituents and convince them that you really are taking care of the nation’s business. I’ve previously described the effect that sequestration, or “secastration” as I call it, will have on our innovation ecosystem, but I’m compelled to reiterate that plight.

Every scientist or engineer who has ever participated in proposal review in Washington, whether at the National Science Foundation or any other federal agency, knows that roughly a third or more of all research proposals are excellent with nothing to distinguish one from another other than possibly the identity of the organization and geographic location of the proposer or possibly the chosen funding initiatives of the agency. But in the world of secastration, only about one out of ten proposals will be funded. Folks, that’s not going to get the job done when it comes to keeping America competitive. We are dooming an entire generation of young STEM researchers who don’t have some form of tenure or stable support to a wasteland where even the bones are consumed.

And with a “Hi-Yo Silver, Away,” a masked man from Texas rides into Washington to save the day. Only this masked man doesn’t wear a white hat. His name: Congressman Lamar Smith, chairperson of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology – a committee that I had an opportunity to testify before in 2005. I once met Smith a decade ago at Texas Instruments and talked with him about nanotechnology and the future of technology commercialization. He’s an amiable person and looks the part of the Lone Ranger.

But behind that façade of being on your side, he’s just as screwed up as the rest of his counterparts on the GOP side of the science committee. He wants to politicize scientific research and the funding thereof by pushing forward a bill entitled the High Quality Research Act to require oversight of the scientific research process. He has even demanded that the NSF justify to his committee certain funded projects that were approved by panels of independent scientists. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, also from Texas and the ranking Democrat on the committee, immediately fired back a blistering letter rebuking Smith. Details of the proposed legislation and Johnson’s response are available at the Huffington Post. As one of my friends described it, Smith is attempting to lead America on “a race to the bottom.”

And then we have an example of one of the true nut jobs, otherwise known as James Porter, the new President of the NRA. As a confirmed genealogist and student of the South, I know all about the “war of northern aggression” versus “the war between the states.” Despite politically correct protestations from revisionist historians, the phrase “war of northern aggression” is an apt characterization of how Southerners viewed and named the American Civil War – the best title for that event. But going down the rat hole of debating such points is not what Porter’s comments were about. This is a man who believes that armed rebellion against THEM, presumably those of us who support the federal government and its three branches as created by the Constitution, is a likely event. What nonsense! And it all has to do with guns and the second amendment.

I believe in and support the second amendment, but I also believe in domestic tranquility through gun safety. There is no reason for individual Americans to own or possess guns or weapons capable of rapid fire with an essentially unlimited supply of bullets, although the exact limits on that can and should be debated. Furthermore, background checks are an essential part of gun safety. I personally support the registration of guns, but that’s not likely to happen. Think about it! I have to get a driver’s license to operate an automobile and I have to register my car and transfer the title when I sell it. These requirements and the attendant bureaucracy don’t stop me from owning or operating multiple cars. The same will be true for proper gun safety regulation.

I could go on describing and documenting the cancer that is spreading in America. How about the diversionary tactic of the Benghazi blame game? Or how about the senators from Oklahoma who are stoking the right-wing flames by claiming that “Obama’s” Department of Homeland Security is buying up ammunition to defeat the second amendment? Do they really want to turn on another Timothy McVeigh?

I have a message for moderate Americans. Stop whining about all this. Stop whispering that maybe Obama should drink beer with the nut jobs or maybe that he’s not getting the job done. Embrace the real F-word: fact, not fiction! Get out the vote, stand up for middle America, and remove from office using the ballot box those who espouse the nonsense. If you don’t, they’ll be licking their chops while burping “I ate the bones!”

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