Wise Guys on WHO Radio - March 5, 2016

Brian Gongol

The WHO Radio Wise Guys airs on WHO Radio in Des Moines, Iowa on 1040 AM or streaming online at WHORadio.com. The show airs from 1 to 2 pm Central Time on Saturday afternoons. A podcast of show highlights is also available. Leave comments and questions on the Wise Guys Facebook page or e-mail them to wiseguys@whoradio.com.

Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.

In the news this week

Scott Kelly came back to Earth after his "Year in Space" (which was actually 340 days, but let's not split hairs about it). He and a Russian cosmonaut set the new record for time spent on the International Space Station, and along the way served as the guinea pigs for NASA to figure out what happens to the human body when someone lives apart from gravity for that long. Kelly gained some notoriety for sharing his photographs on social media -- he had some real knockout shots on Instagram. While the project had scientific merit, this experiment was one of several projects in which NASA learned that reaching out to the public and sharing in real time -- like when they decided to give the Mars Curiosity Rover its own Twitter account (which still exists) -- can serve to provide the kind of hype the agency needs as a public institution funded by taxpayers.

Netflix released the fourth season of "House of Cards" yesterday, reviving the debate over whether to binge-watch or pace yourself when a new "season" of any show is released online. There's an interesting debate taking place that says binge-watching makes us think shows are better than they really are, simply because getting sucked into the vortex causes us to get lost in the experience rather than stepping back to analyze critically. Maybe it matters; maybe not. One could also argue that once you become committed to binge-watching anything, it causes you to bargain your detachment for commitment. Regardless, on-demand programming continues to define its place at the table -- Netflix also renewed "Fuller House" this week for a second season. Hulu, by the way, is putting out some of its own original programming, but doing it staged out, one episode per week with "11.22.63".

You may have noticed that Amazon raised its threshold for free shipping from $35 to $49 the other day. It's not the kind of thing they were going to announce with a press conference and skydiving Elvises, but people have obviously noticed. Just another nudge on their part to get people to sign up for Amazon Prime.

SpaceX got a satellite into orbit this week, though Elon Musk broke the news that the attempt to land the rocket failed. That makes SpaceX 0-for-5 on recovering rockets after launch, but they're at least getting payloads into orbit, which is the real objective. Re-using the rockets is just a bonus.

Your role in cyberwar

Amazon removed encryption from its devices, like Kindles and Fire phones. The Fire OS is based on Android, and as with many such crossovers, bugs can occur when translating from one thing to another -- and that's what Amazon blames for the change, saying the encryption was creating "performance issues". But it's happening at the same time as a bigger debate about data encryption and privacy, emerging around the FBI's demand that Apple help it crack the encryption on the iPhone belonging to one of the murderers at San Bernardino. Most of the big names in technology signed on with legal opposition to the FBI's move in amicus briefs this week.

Security update

ZDNet has an interesting story this week noting that the FTC's Chief Technologist thinks we're all just kidding ourselves into thinking we're creating greater security by changing passwords frequently, as many sites and services force us to do. The logic of their argument goes like this: If people know they're going to change the passwords often, they are likely to do so lazily (by changing just a letter or a number somewhere in it), to write the password down (which is often someplace close to the computer itself), and -- worst of all -- to choose a weak password in the first place.

You ought to follow...

If you use any Apple devices, you might want to follow the brand-new account @AppleSupport on Twitter. The company launched the account this week to provide tech support via Twitter for the first time. Twitter has represented a great potential platform for companies for a long time -- but also a big potential hazard. Airline travelers especially have learned to use the service to blast the carriers when things have gone wrong (which makes sense, considering Twitter's ease-of-use on mobile devices), and several of them figured out that the way to respond was by setting up separate accounts dedicated to support. It allows them to respond and look responsive without bombarding followers of the main accounts with the problems of others.

And in a case of what economists call "revealed preferences", people appear to like the Apple Support page...a lot. I don't know how many people would have asked for the account before they created it, but the questions appear to be rolling in at a pace of about one or two a minute today. That tells us people really wanted a service like this -- they were just waiting for Apple to provide it.

Back to the airlines for a second:

Dispatches from the flying-car future

Wired reports that Boeing has developed an airplane bathroom that disinfects itself with ultraviolet light. A three-second "suntan" session, and the restroom should be clear of quite nearly 100% of germs. Naturally, it doesn't help to solve the problem of people who fail to wipe things after themselves, nor does it force people to wash their own hands, but it's at least a step towards disinfecting a hotbed of microbial activity. And if it can do something to stem the transfer of bugs from one place to another, it actually serves a useful public-health purpose. We do, unfortunately, live in a time when an outbreak in one place can become the world's problem as fast as a 747 travels. UV light is especially attractive for its ability to kill both bacteria and some viruses.

DARPA is working on a new "X-plane" with vertical take-off and landing ability -- any hybrid electric propulsion. Vertical take-off is a huge military demand, and one imagines that the electric propulsion part is a combination gambit to (a) reduce the amount of maintenance required and (b) reduce the weight of the aircraft and its dependence on fossil fuels. As batteries improve, they'll carry more energy at lighter weight, which in turn can take heavy engines and fuel out of the equation for the aircraft. And, one imagines, the military would like to get away from depending on petroleum if it can. The project, called "LightningStrike", is targeted for testing by 2018.

Politics of technology

Google is trying to get Presidential campaigns to sign up for "Google Posts", which some are interpreting as an attempt to provide a next step for Google Plus. Google Plus has never really taken hold as a social network, though it's still smart for companies and people with something to sell to maintain a presence there -- if nothing else, it can't hurt your results on a Google search to have something on Plus. If Posts turns out to be what some think it will, you'll see it evolving into a tool to allow for cross-promotion on social media as well as within search results. Google has had trouble getting that done, since they've had an on-again, off-again relationship with Twitter (it got warm again back in August, but that can change in an instant and has in the past) and a tepid relationship (at best) with Facebook.

Jargon alert

"Autonomous kinetic options" -- or, more simply, robotic killing machines. The Defense Department spilled the news, reported this week by Ars Technica, that they are looking into the prospect of these tools for use on the battlefield. "Autonomous kinetic options" may be the most obfuscating jargon yet, but it comes down to this: If there are going to be battlefields in the future, there's going to be killing and dying. We would prefer that our own side do as little as possible of the latter, and depending upon the enemy, we may want to do as much as possible of the former. (Getting into a skirmish with another powerful country? Probably want to avoid a high body count. Going up against ISIS? You may want to destroy everything around.)

But of course, there are huge ethical issues to address. The military is built upon a structure of defined responsibilities and orders. Officers ultimately bear legal responsibility for many of the actions of their subordinates. If your "subordinate" is a machine, that muddies the waters of responsibility, since how it "thinks" or "takes orders" depends upon how it has been programmed. That's already a challenge for us to deal with.

But if a weapon has been remotely deployed (like a drone or a robotic-mounted gun) and it becomes cut off from a command structure, what should it do? What if it got cut off by an enemy who jams the signal? What if it's capable of stopping a much greater evil from occurring by acting on its own? What if it's in a place where the battlefield is unclear -- like a place where there are civilians around? The sooner thinking takes place on these topics, the better. The technology is moving there, and a civilized country depends on getting a legal framework in place before the technology gets there.

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