Our Future Lies with Robots

Robots are the only hope for “an aging country with more people who need help and fewer people to do the helping.”

The “robots are coming,” said Holman Jenkins in The Wall Street Journal. They’re the only hope, in fact, for “an aging country with more people who need help and fewer people to do the helping.” We’ve long known that aging Baby Boomers will trigger “giant unfunded long-term liabilities” for Social Security and Medicare. But a severe labor shortage could also keep those old people from getting the goods and services they want. Some businesses see opportunity here. “Following the logic of need,” an entrepreneur in Baltimore has spent seven years and $30 million developing robots that package prescription drugs for long-term patients in nursing homes and hospitals. Google is spending millions to develop a driverless car largely because it expects big demand from America’s retirees. Robots alone won’t save us, of course. We also need better incentives for people to “depend less on Uncle Sam.” And instead of “burying entrepreneurs in taxes” so we can pay for entitlements, we have to encourage “investors to bring us the robots that will make the future bearable.” The grim alternative is “a future in which older people receive Social Security checks but still go hungry.”


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Please Turn Off Your Electronic Devices

Aviation authorities are finally considering lifting the ban on passenger use of cell phones, e-readers, tablets, and other electronics. Why?

Why is there a ban in the first place?
The airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration worry that electromagnetic waves emitted by passengers’ personal electronic devices—including MP3 players, laptops, smart phones, and cell phones—could interfere with an aircraft’s electronic controls, or avionics. Commercial pilots file dozens of reports every year detailing how their radios, GPS navigation systems, and collision-avoidance boxes suddenly went haywire, but began functioning again when passengers were asked to check that all their devices were turned off. That kind of circumstantial evidence led the FAA in 1993 to urge that laptops, audio players, and other electronic distractions not be used during takeoff and landing. Once an aircraft is above 10,000 feet, aviation officials say, a flight crew would have enough time and altitude to safely react to any electronic problem. The risk in allowing passengers to use their electronics at lower altitudes is tiny, said Boeing engineer David Carson, but since a freak occurrence could end in disaster, “why take that risk?”

Is there any evidence to support this fear?
It’s mostly theoretical. Any electrical device can generate interference as electricity flows through its wiring. Even those without wireless signals, like portable CD players, can emit potentially troublesome electromagnetic radiation. Devices that intentionally transmit radio waves, like cellphones, pose even greater problems. Some engineers think that such emissions could potentially drown out weak signals from radio navigation beacons on the ground or GPS satellites in space. Wireless industry spokesman Michael Altschul says such fears are baseless, since separate radio frequencies are assigned for aviation and commercial use. “Plus,” he said, “the wiring and instruments for aircraft are shielded to protect them from interference from commercial wireless devices.” In two decades of tests, government scientists and experts at Boeing and Airbus have bombarded planes with electromagnetic radiation, but have never succeeded in replicating the problems reported by pilots, or confirmed that electronic devices caused any equipment failure.

Do some fliers ignore the ban?
A recent survey found that 40 percent of air passengers didn’t bother to turn their phones off during takeoff or landing; 7 percent left their devices’ Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active, and 2 percent surreptitiously used their phones to talk or text onboard. University of Illinois psychologist Daniel Simons estimates the odds of all 78 passengers on an average-size U.S. domestic flight powering down their phones completely as “infinitesimal: less than one in 100 quadrillion.” If personal electronics were as dangerous as the FAA rules suggest, “navigation and communication would be disrupted every day on domestic flights,” he said. “But we don’t see that.” In addition, flight crews now freely use iPads in the cockpit instead of bulky paper operating manuals. And above 10,000 feet, many U.S. airlines happily allow passengers to use the Internet via onboard Wi-Fi systems for a fee, with no reports of dangerous interference with airplane avionics.

Will the FAA ever ease up its rules?
It’s considering doing just that. As more and more people replace books and magazines with Kindles, iPads, and smartphones, pressure is growing to lift the ban. The FAA announced last year that it would conduct a thorough review of its electronic device policy—but didn’t say when that review would be completed. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D–Mo.) has warned the FAA that if it doesn’t soon relax its rules on e-readers and other portable electronics, she will introduce legislation forcing it to do so. “I’m big on getting rid of regulations that make no sense,” she said, “and I think this is one.”

When might the ban end?
Conceivably, within a year, although bureaucracies can move very slowly. Current guidelines require each airline to test every make and model of each electronic device it wants the FAA to approve for each type of aircraft in its fleet. But the FAA is now seeking to bring together airlines, aircraft manufacturers, technology firms, and the Federal Communications Commission to streamline the certification process for tablets, e-readers, and other gadgets, so entire classes of devices could be approved at one time. The ban on using cellphones to make calls or send texts in the air, however, is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

Why single out cellphones?
The trouble there is possible interference with cellular networks, not with aircraft avionics. Cell networks operate on the principle that a cellphone is only within range of one or two cellular towers. A phone that’s moving at 500 mph at 30,000 feet, however, can shower signals on any number of masts, confusing the network’s software and potentially leading to dropped calls between land-based customers. Besides, surveys show that most passengers dread the thought of some jerk in the next seat being free to conduct annoying cellphone conversations from New York to Los Angeles. “An aircraft is one of the few places left on earth where you can actually escape from mobile phones,” said aviation and travel writer Benet Wilson. “I hope it stays that way.”

P.S. Many passengers ignore the electronics ban in flight, but those who get caught—and remain defiant—can pay a serious price. Actor Alec Baldwin was booted from an American Airlines flight in 2011 after he ignored a flight attendant’s repeated requests that he stop playing a game on his smartphone. Last November, half a dozen police cars raced onto the tarmac and surrounded a plane at New York’s La Guardia Airport as if there were a terrorist onboard. They were there to arrest a 30-year-old passenger who had refused to turn off his phone during taxiing. Scofflaws on foreign flights can risk more than ejection. In 1999, oil worker Neil Whitehouse refused to switch off and hand over his phone to a British Airways flight attendant, earning a year in jail. A Saudi Arabian passenger who flouted the cellphone ban two years later received an even harsher punishment: 70 lashes.

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The Devastating Consequences of Facebook Unfriending

If you want to trim your list of Facebook contacts, think twice before hitting unfriend, says Cassandra Garrison in Metro. That person may never forgive you, according to a new academic study.

Around 40% of people would avoid seeing someone in real life that had unfriended them, with a further 10% unsure. A higher ratio of women said they would avoid contact than men. The study also found the likeliest determining factor for a decision to avoid was if the unfriending had been discussed with other people.

“People think social networks are just for fun,” said study author Christopher Sibona, a PhD student at the University of Colorado Denver Business School. “But the study makes clear that unfriending is meaningful and has important psychological consequences for those to whom it occurs.”

Social networks are especially attractive to narcissists and people with low self-esteem, but they are vulnerable. “Unfriending could damage people with anxiety and confidence issues,” Dr. Gregory Webster, psychologist and social media expert of the University of Florida, told Metro. “These networks can distort reality, particularly if you don’t have much of a social life in the real world.”

Sibona had also researched the causes of unfriending in a 2010 study. Leading factors were “frequent, unimportant posts”, such as on children or family, and controversial posts on politics or religion. But Webster believes unfriending is also for “public presentation and wanting to appear very selective about our social set.”

Given the looser ties of virtual friendships, almost every user faces being unfriended at some point. If that is too much to take, Twitter may be a better choice with the milder unfollow less likely to cause trauma. (Kieron Monks/Metro World News)




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Weekend Tidbits from the Tech Front

This weekend NetLingo presents a round-up of tidbits from the tech front, enjoy!

Apps Review
Here are some of the best apps for discouraging texting while driving:

DriveMode blocks all calls, texts, and emails, and prevents drivers from reading or typing. When you select the app, it sends out auto replies to let people know that you’re driving. (Free; AT&T only)

Textecution automatically disables texting whenever your phone is traveling at speeds exceeding 10 mph. But you can send a request to the admin to override the block if you’re just riding in a fast-moving car, not driving it. ($30; Android)

text-STAR uses the same 10 mph speed limit as Textecution, and also allows you to schedule auto-reply texts in advance, for periods when you know you’ll be on the road or otherwise occupied. (Free; Android)

DriveSafe.ly doesn’t block incoming texts; instead it reads them aloud. It allows you to respond by voice instead of with your fingers. (Free; iOS, Android, Blackberry) Source: Mashable.com

Latest Online Trend

Have you heard about Japan's new teenage fad?
In a new fad sweeping Japanese teenagers, girls are going out in public with their panties over their heads, says BuzzFeed.com. The teens are using social media to send out photos of themselves wearing panties as unusual face masks, and are even showing up at school or in clubs thus attired. The fad is apparently based on a teen comic book about a character called “the abnormal superhero,” who also wears ladies’ undergarments over his head as a mask. “I really worry about this country,” one Japanese commenter said.


Book Review
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun

Cyberbullying isn’t just a teenage phenomenon, said Emma Garman in TheDailyBeast.com. Novelist and poet James Lasdun was a married, middle-aged father of two when he suddenly became the target of a former pupil’s campaign to destroy him from afar. “Nasreen,” as he calls his tormenter, opened the assault with a flood of vicious, anti-Semitic emails before disseminating her allegations of plagiarism, philandering, and even rape via emails to his colleagues and comment sections linked to his books. Lasdun’s “stunningly well-written” account reads like a warning: “What befell him could befall anyone.”

His book “deftly evokes the chill power of cyberstalking,” said Edward Kosner in The Wall Street Journal. When Nasreen’s campaign ignited, the simple task of checking his email was, Lasdun writes, “like swallowing a cup of poison every morning.” The young Iranian-American woman had been a standout student in a 2003 fiction workshop he taught and, after the pair started a friendly correspondence, she initially responded reasonably when he rebuffed her flirtations. After the abuse began, Lasdun got little to no help from the FBI and the police—in part because his stalker was a nonviolent harasser who lived in another state. But Lasdun’s anxiety about how Nasreen might be destroying others’ trust in him was real. This was an asymmetric war, and he never does find a way to give the story a satisfactory conclusion.

That’s partly because he never accepts that Nasreen is probably mentally ill, said Jenny Turner in The Guardian (U.K.). He even admits that labeling her as simply mad would make his story, “for literary purposes, less interesting.” Yet doing otherwise makes him seem more concerned with being a victim than with getting answers. Still, you can’t fault him for refusing to blame the whole episode on a meaningless mix of chemicals in Nasreen’s brain, said Laura Miller in Salon.com. After all, “insisting that the tribulations people live through amount to more than an accident of biology” is “essentially what writers do.”
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25)

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