Wise Guys on WHO Radio - April 2, 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

News Girl uses text-to-911 service to report drunk driver: Her father

This is exactly the kind of thing that technology should be doing: Creating new ways for people to be responsible for their own safety, even when circumstances might not otherwise permit it. Imagine the bravery required to turn in your father as he's driving drunk with you in the car. It's hard to imagine it happening via a voice call, but a text message provides a safe alternative. The value in technologies like this isn't how often they're used -- it's in whether they allow people to call for help in circumstances when they might not otherwise have the choice. If that's a non-zero number, then it's certainly worth further examination.

But first...

I went in for my semiannual cleaning at the dentist's office this week. They decided to surprise me by putting a blood-pressure cuff on my wrist.

I was surprised by this -- seeing as there wasn't any reason to think my molars were experiencing high blood pressure.

The hygienist explained that they had introduced the practice recently for a couple of reasons. First, it could give them early warning if a patient had either very high or very low blood pressure, which could make it dangerous for them to be given sedatives, for example.

Second, they had realized that a lot of people end up visiting the dentist more often than they see a physician to get a full checkup, and giving people a quick blood-pressure reading was a cheap and simple way to screen people who might need to be given a little extra push to go see a doctor.

Now, I'm pretty sure that the preponderance of the decision was based on the fact that it probably helps them control their liability insurance costs to screen people before sedating them. But who cares whether they were doing it out of benevolence or self-preservation? The outcome is the same: People who weren't going to have their blood pressure measured otherwise are going to have it measured now, and that's a good thing.

It got me to thinking: The blood-pressure thing was new this time around. Six months ago, they had introduced scheduling at the chair (rather than giving patients the chance to slip out the door without making their next appointment). Six months before that, they had introduced digital X-ray records. And six months before that, they had started asking patients to wear safety glasses just to add a little protection against the possibility of sharp objects or debris getting into an eye. Prior to that, it was text-message reminders of upcoming appointments.

All in all, I could come up with a pretty unbroken train of small but noticeable improvements going back through semi-annual visit for as many years as I can safely remember. Some have been low-tech -- safety goggles aren't high-end equipment, of course -- but most have involved some kind of technological angle. And I'm sure that there will be more with each subsequent visit -- I don't think it will take more than a year or two before they start offering the option to watch something via virtual-reality goggles while you wait in the chair.

I certainly don't think dental offices are unique in this, but perhaps it's the fact that my visits are spaced pretty regularly, six months apart, that causes me to notice the incremental improvements. They're just little things, but they do add up to a better, safer, and more productive experience each time I'm there.

For all of the lip service that we give to "tech companies", isn't the reality more that every company is a "tech company" if it's really trying to survive and advance in the 21st Century. Sometimes, it's very low-tech -- like those safety glasses -- but accumulated over the long run, these are real improvements that matter. We just often don't see them because they happen in tiny little increments that only add up over time.

I think there's a lesson here, not only for people in business, but for us as voters, too. Things change and get better because people cause them to. I'm sure a lot of the improvements I see at the dentist's office are driven by the insurance companies. But someone has to decide to implement them and to get everyone in the organization on-board with the new procedures.

The same goes for us as a civilization. Someone has to keep on telling all of the big institutions in life -- companies, non-profits, government, schools, and clubs -- that we expect them to keep on getting a little bit better all the time. Big revolutions will happen; the Internet is a testament to that. But for as much as I like to talk about "Dispatches from the Flying-Car Future", a lot of improvements are a whole lot more pedestrian than that.

But someone has to crack the whip once in a while to remind some of our more sluggish institutions that they, too, need to get better with time. Some of them do because they have good management -- the DOT, of all things, happens to be one of those institutions that has used technology to take on a better customer-service focus over the last decade or so.

But this also means we have to shake off the misapprehension that it's enough just to lure a big tech company to town. It's great that Facebook and Microsoft are both plowing huge investments into the Des Moines area. I think we'll continue to earn their trust and attract even more just like them. But I sometimes worry that when people talk about making us into the "Silicon Prairie", we're mistaking startups and social media for a real culture of technological literacy and enthusiasm.

It's possible to get there -- starting with our schools, but quite necessarily reaching out far beyond them. I sincerely think it's time we took up a community initiative to look at ways we can put even the little improvements to work in all of our institutions, public and private alike. If there's such a thing as the "Seattle sound" or "Southern hospitality" or even "Iowa nice", then I'd like to see us work at becoming a community of technophiles. All ages, all backgrounds, all vocations. Let's find ways that as a community we can begin exchanging notes, challenging each other, and broadly building a culture that doesn't look at the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) as things that people study at Marston Hall up at Iowa State, but as things we all value and talk about -- and in which we all take just a little more interest than the average community in this country.

If the SEC gets to be football-crazy, and Hollywood gets to make all the big TV and movie stars, and Washington is the place where name-dropping is an art form, then Des Moines (and maybe all of Iowa) ought to be the place where early adopters are a dime a dozen, where technology finds its way into conversation just as easily as chatter about the weather, and where grandparents are the ones teaching their grandchildren how to code instead of asking them to stop the microwave clock from blinking.

I don't have a great name for this initiative. I don't have a five-year roadmap to make it happen. I'm not about to go storming up to the capital to demand money from the state legislature to make it happen. But I'm going to talk with some people and run some ideas up the flagpole, and I'm going to come back to this idea again in the future...preferably sooner rather than later. And if you're on board and you'd like to engage on it, let me know. Send me an email at mail@gongol.com or hit me up on Twitter at @briangongol. We ought to get the ball rolling on this before some other "mid-major" town gets the same bright idea.

Your role in cyberwar

Computers and the Internet FBI breaks into controversial iPhone

They didn't need Apple to corrupt its own security after all. Now, will the FBI tell Apple how they did it so that Apple can fix the problem?

Computers and the Internet Marine Corps establishes cyberwarfare group

How do you say "Oorah!" in binary code? It's still unclear whether it makes more sense for each branch of the military to have its own cyberwarfare operations, or whether we should seriously consider spinning up a dedicated branch, agency, or corps dedicated to the purpose. The comparable case is probably the Coast Guard, which has a definite mission serving a specific type of territory, but which also executes its role well within the nation's borders -- something that the Army, for instance, isn't supposed to due because of the posse comitatus rule. But because cyberwarfare is often about criminal behavior rather than nation-states bearing arms against one another, cyberwarfare often (but not always) is better described as an act of law enforcement rather than martial defense. Of course, this is the kind of debate that should be dominating the Presidential race, but it's not. Not by a long shot.

Security update

Computers and the Internet "Petya" ransomware scrambles entire contents of a computer's hard drive

How to protect yourself? Don't open attachments from people you don't know. Use webmail services instead of putting an e-mail client on your desktop. Run antivirus software. Keep your computer at the lowest level of access allowed (in other words, don't log in as an administrator unless necessary). And keep backups of your data -- update the backups frequently and keep more than one backup approach in use (in other words, go ahead and use a cloud backup, but use a portable hard drive as a backup-backup).

Computers and the Internet Iowa City hospital gets hit by privacy-invasion virus

Hospital databases are natural targets for the depth and scale of the data they collect. It's been reported that 15,000 patients have been notified about the Iowa City attack alone -- that's the population of a small town.

Technically funny

Science and Technology Scientific literacy made fun

A deceptively simple and addictive game called Guess the Correlation reveals just how bad we human beings are at recognizing statistical correlation -- even when it's right in front of us

Brian's Big Picture

Science and Technology Forbes says Amazon is America's "most reputable company"

Netflix, Intel, Sony, and Samsung also make the top ten list. That likely says something not necessarily about technology-oriented companies being inherently more reputable than others, but about how high levels of consumer scrutiny and very low barriers to customer switching helps to keep these companies on their toes.

Jargon alert

Memory and storage -- see the listener question below

Listener question #1

Question from John: I have a Galaxy 10 notebook 10.2 or something like that with 16 gigs of RAM and this is over half full. And 32 gigs of flash memory that is virtually empty. The machine is starting to get slow. How do I free up the memory?

Answer: For clarification, it sounds like we're discussing a Galaxy Tab 4 - 10.1, which has a 10.1" screen and 16 Gb of storage. Many people are confused by the difference between "storage" and "memory", and it doesn't help when we start introducing units like "megabytes" and "gigabytes" and "gigahertz" to the equation.

But in this case, we're talking about 16 gigabytes of storage. If that's getting full, your options are to expand your storage space or to remove items from the memory. This is why I really like tablets with expandable storage -- like the Micro SD storage you can add to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4. Many devices (including this one) can take SD cards up to 32 or 64 gigabytes, and that takes a lot of pressure off the storage built into the device.

Things to move:

Things tend to slow down when you're challenging the amount of memory on your device -- that's the RAM, or Random Acccess Memory. This particular tablet has 1.5 gigabytes of RAM. It's usually not expandable on a tablet or smartphone, but you can shut down applications that aren't in use. Also, avoid installing excess apps -- it's too tempting to install far more than you actually need. Shut down background apps and use the Application Manager to clear caches and shut down processes you don't need.

Listener question #2

Question from Chris: Wiseguy - I got a new passport in the mail and it says there is an electronic device embedded in it know anything about this?

Answer: That's an RFID chip -- or as the State Department calls it, "a vicinity-read radio frequency identification chip". It's like the RFID tags used in stores and libraries and security cards used to gain entry into office buildings. Be sure to keep them inside a secure wallet or holder. The risk is low, but it's non-zero, that someone could try to hack your passport in a "drive-by" swiping. Take precautions.

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