Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Web Secret 580: Comeback of the Century

I read a surprising Op-Ed in the New York Times by frequent contributor Timothy Egan. It was titled: "The Comeback of the Century - Why the book endures, even in an era of disposable digital culture."

I thought you should read it too, abridged as usual:
In the digital age, the printed book has experienced more than its share of obituaries. Among the most dismissive was one from Steve Jobs, who said in 2008, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

True, nearly one in four adults in this country has not read a book in the last year. But the book...is back. Defying all death notices, sales of printed books continue to rise to new highs, as do the number of independent stores stocked with these voices between covers, even as sales of electronic versions are declining.

Nearly three times as many Americans read a book of history in 2017 as watched the first episode of the final season of “Game of Thrones.”

So, even with a president who is ahistoric, borderline literate and would fail a sixth-grade reading comprehension test, something wonderful and unexpected is happening in the language arts. When the dominant culture goes low, the saviors of our senses go high.

Storytelling, Steve Jobs may have forgotten, will never die. And the best format for grand and sweeping narratives remains one of the oldest and most durable.

But also, at a time when more than a third of the people in the United States and Britain say their cellphones are having a negative effect on their health and well-being, a clunky old printed book is a welcome antidote.

When people go on a digital cleanse, detoxing from the poison of too much screen time, one of the first things they do is bury themselves in a book — that is, one to have and to hold, to remind the senses of touching “Pat the Bunny” in infancy, a book to chew on.

“I think it’s somewhat analogous to what happened with food,” said Rick Simonson, longtime buyer at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. “We came of age when the commercial messages about food were all to make it instant. Now look at how food has changed ‘back’ — the freshness, the health aspect, the various factors like community.”

While our attention span has shrunk, while extremists’ shouting in ALL-CAPS can pass for an exchange of ideas, while our president uses his bully pulpit as a bullhorn for bigotry and ignorance, the story of our times is also something else. It’s there in the quieter reaches, in pages of passion and prose of an ancient technology.
I have nothing to add.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Web Secret 579: 1994

1994 was a blur for me as I struggled to manage very premature twins on heart monitors, a 4 year old, and a full time job without losing my mind.

Recently, New York Times journalist Caity Weaver described her valiant effort to live like it was 25 years ago - before Google, before texting and before iPhones.

Great! Now I could find out what I missed. Here is a summary of what she wrote (Bear in mind she was 4 years old in 1994):
Average Americans "spent 1994 eating Dunkaroos in the back seat...They were in phone booths... They were smoking cigarettes — not on domestic flights under six hours, thanks to a then-recently-passed draconian law prohibiting this, but just about everywhere else...

My assignment was to attempt, for one week, to live, 24/7, as if it were 1994...

...I would 1994-ify everything within my purview. For instance...I would avoid catching B trains to work since they did not stop at my neighborhood subway station in 1994. To the extent possible, I would use only products invented in or before 1994. I would dine exclusively at restaurants that opened that year or earlier. My irrational need to receive constant updates on all current events and internet gossip ... would have to be satisfied by the newspaper, the radio and network news.

Aside from figuring out how to get from anywhere to anywhere (which, I eventually discovered, was sadly nearly impossible in 1994), the most taxing element was preparation. At work, my primary tools would be paper — a kind of very, very thin, stiff, dry, fragile fabric for writing on — pens, and my landline desk phone. ...I would reduce my 2019 computer to word processor functionality — no email...

1994 would extend to my personal life too....I transformed my iPhone into a landline by disabling notifications for every application except calls, and leaving it plugged into a wall outlet in my kitchen. I printed out seven pages of phone contacts because I did not know any of my friends’ phone numbers, nor indeed the phone number of the man I have been dating for four years and am engaged to marry.

I bought a genuine 1994 Radio Shack television set with a built in VCR on eBay. It arrived broken. A Radio Shack cassette tape recorder also purchased on eBay also arrived broken. 1994 was not that long ago, but everything from 1994 was broken, or seemed so. I fretted that the 1994 Sony Walkman I received was also broken because no music emanated from it when I turned it on, but then I discovered that the Walkman merely demanded headphones before it would play...

...I ordered the cheapest cookbook from 1994 I could find, which was titled “Cooking Light Cookbook 1994.” I borrowed a 1994 Zagat from a co-worker.

To help me identify buildings it was safely 1994 to go into, I acquired “New York, a Guide to the Metropolis” ... For entertainment, I bought the books “The Celestine Prophecy” and “Prozac Nation.” And for exercise, I purchased guided aerobic VHS tapes on eBay.

...For a week, [my fiance] and I would be unable to enjoy one another’s company while watching streaming and OnDemand TV programming in stunning 4K resolution... All of our social plans would have to be decided in advance, since he would be unable to reach me unless I happened to be near the kitchen, at my desk at work or already with him... Most annoyingly for both of us, Taylor (along with everyone I encountered) would be banned from using his smartphone to inform me of the time, the forecast, directions, invitations, addresses, phone numbers, recipes, news he had learned from digital sources and the easily researched answers to any of my spontaneous questions...

The first thing I noticed at midnight when the clock struck 1994 was the sudden silence in the room. The second thing was the deafening volume of my inner monologue. I was getting ready for bed, performing the half-dozen mostly mindless tasks that, because they occupy my hands, normally provide a treasured window for listening to an audiobook or podcast. As I smeared surprisingly solid and burning Noxzema cream across my cheeks, however, all I could hear were my own thoughts...

In addition to providing brief news summaries, the radio was my primary source of weather forecast information. It was incorrect every single day, but never more so than the morning I embarked on a 35-block pilgrimage to visit Manhattan’s four remaining pay phones (all on the Upper West Side) and was forced to spend 20 minutes standing under scaffolding, filthy city rainwater soaking the pages of my handwritten observations.

The most time-consuming task of my week was identifying places to go, and figuring out how to go to them with paper maps. I spent hours methodically calling restaurants listed in the Zagat...to see if they still existed. They don’t. The majority of numbers just rang forever...

In the weekly allotment of time I normally spend half-browsing the internet while half-watching TV, I read three books. I reorganized my dresser and my closet. Taylor and I went for walks. One evening, I even cracked open “Cooking Light” and prepared my sweetheart a complete meal called “Dinner for Your Sweetheart,” which was disgusting.

I should have known it would be, because while light cooking is not a radical concept, many of the dishes depicted in this book were unrecognizable to me...

While I will stop at nothing to avoid making or receiving a phone call in 2019, phone conversations in my private 1994 provided valuable lifelines to the loved ones and entertainment news from which I had been cruelly severed...

By the fourth or fifth day of 1994, I’d stopped impulsively grabbing at empty spaces on my desk for my cellphone, but my reflex to quickly Google things never deteriorated. I began compiling my questions — a list of itches to be scratched at a later time — and spent the final day of my week at the Brooklyn Public Library, to see what percentage of answers I could find in books. About 17 percent, it turned out...

...alone in my living room, I discovered the only thing about 1994 I truly enjoyed: workout videos. I loved the inane prerecorded affirmations. I loved learning individual dance routine components and putting them all together at full speed...

I left the library to head to dinner with someone I had never met at a place I had never been. On the subway, I realized I had forgotten to bring the notebook where, earlier in the week, I had written the restaurant’s address. I’m used to jotting everything down (typing it in the Notes app on my phone) because I have a terrible memory. I sat up in my seat and considered the situation.

...my mind was dead quiet for the majority of 1994. I wasn’t bored. I was just thinking in a very straightforward way about whatever I happened to be doing at that moment...

Out of this silence, out of some long-since-condemned corner of my hippocampus, the address surfaced...

I pictured my frantic brain. In 2019, it spent its days firing off repeated ALL CAPS bulletins of basic information into a nonstop podcast din. ... Maybe the quiet hadn’t replaced my thoughts. Maybe my thoughts had just relaxed into their natural hushed state. 1994 was the time before the commotion. Or that seemed plausible, anyway. I couldn’t look it up."
Is 1994 Paradise Lost?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Web Secret 578: New uses of AI in mental health

Here are examples of new uses of AI in mental health (courtesy of "The Incredible Ways Artificial Intelligence Is Now Used In Mental Health by Bernard Marr):

Researchers from the World Well-Being Project (WWBP) analyzed social media with an AI algorithm to pick out linguistic cues that might predict depression. It turns out that those suffering from depression express themselves on social media in ways that those dealing with other chronic conditions do not, such as mentions of loneliness and using words such as "feelings," "I" and "me." The team's findings were published in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

After analyzing half a million Facebook posts from people who consented to provide their Facebook status updates and medical records, they were able to identify depression-associated language markers. What the researchers found was that linguistic markers could predict depression up to three months before the person receives a formal diagnosis. Other researchers use technology to explore the way facial expressions, enunciation of words and tone and language could indicate suicide risk.

In addition to researchers, there are several companies using artificial intelligence to help tackle the mental health crisis. Quartet's platform flags possible mental conditions and can refer patients to a provider or a computerized cognitive behavioral therapy program. Ginger’s contribution is a chat application used by employers that provides direct counseling services to employees. Its algorithms analyze the words someone uses and then relies on its training from more than 2 billion behavioral data samples, 45 million chat messages and 2 million clinical assessments to provide a recommendation.

The CompanionMX system has an app that allows patients being treated with depression, bipolar disorders, and other conditions to create an audio log where they can talk about how they are feeling. The AI system analyzes the recording as well as looks for changes in behavior for proactive mental health monitoring. Bark, a parental control phone tracker app, monitors major messaging and social media platforms to look for signs of cyberbullying, depression, suicidal thoughts and sexting on a child’s phone.

I'm kind of terrified.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Web Secret 577: Preparing for a cyber attack

Open Minds is a top notch consulting firm in the health and human service space.

Last month, they published an excellent article in one of their newsletters "Preparing For A Cyberattack — In Four Steps".

Here is a summary of key points:

Cyberattacks — an attempt by hackers to damage, destroy, or hold hostage a computer network, system, or data—have come to health and human service organizations.

The field has become a prime target for hackers. Health care now has twice the number of cyberattacks per day compared to other industries.

You can’t necessarily prevent a cyberattack, but you can mitigate its effect with a few fundamental preventive measures. Here are those preventive measures:

Understand state-specific plans for protected health information (PHI)—Protected health information is the term given to health data created, received, stored, or transmitted by HIPAA-covered entities and their business associates. Protecting this information is especially important and complicated because the federal government has rules, and each state have its own set of rules (including privacy regulations) that control access and security for PHI. It’s mandatory to know what data in your possession and what rules are governing how you handle that data.

Conduct a data risk assessment This assessment helps you identify at-risk, sensitive, or classified data, and the level of risk that it may be attacked, hacked, or breached. If you can’t provide a succinct answer to the question, “How vulnerable are you to data breaches” then chances are you are extremely susceptible. Running a risk assessment means assessing all your technology (hardware and software), your organizational processes for managing data, and reviewing the staff protocols and training for those who will use and have access to the data.

Build a data security strategy A data security strategy is your plan (including procedures, policies and protocols) for how you will protect your data from being compromised, breached, hacked, or held for ransom in any way. Provider organizations need both a strategy and an action plan to leverage the security potential of data encryption, standardized processes for authentication of user identification, defined policies about appropriate data access, and regularly scheduled audits of the databases. Once you have the tools, getting the processes in place will also mean training staff to use and protect your secure system.

Develop a data breach response plan A response plan is the approach organizations take to address and manage the aftermath of a cyberattack. It’s best to have a plan, including how to stop the hacking and report the incident. Having a slow response to either of those things will only compound the problem (and possible the financial repercussions with the feds). Your data breach response plan needs a leader, a team with clearly defined goals during the hack, and an incident response plan to guide the team through response protocols.

As always, if you do not have cybersecurity expertise in house, it pays to hire a pro.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Web Secret 576: Deadwood

In a 2014 article, the chief television critic of the New York Times, (and one of my high school classmates!), argued that the 3 season HBO show "Deadwood" - which first aired in 2004 - was the prelude to the 2nd golden age of television.

With the Deadwood movie coming out as I write this, I was inclined to see what the fuss was about and watch the series for the first time.

Deadwood is demanding of its viewers. The program is set in an 1870s mining "camp" in the Dakotas, where life is filthy, violent and profane. The plot is extremely complex and the characters are multi-layered. Their motivations are often obscure, and take many episodes to fathom. The show's creator extensively researched the language of the period and the protagonists speak with a great deal of vile language and use a turn of phrase that is very different from the way we express ourselves today.

For the first 4 to 6 episodes, I almost gave up on watching the show. I couldn't understand who the principal actors where and at times I could barely understand what any of them were saying. I turned on closed captions - which helped immensely - and got used to the dialogue. I finally got a lay of the land. And then I was hooked.

Deadwood is one of the most beautifully written TV shows I have ever watched. Perhaps the most beautiful.

I constantly want to pause to write down lines I have just listened to. Viewers often quote from the speeches of Deadwood principal character Al Swearingen to illustrate this beauty. But I prefer this exchange between theater troop leader Jack Langrishe and his friend and perhaps lover, the aged and dying actor Chesterton. The two speak in the hotel room where Chesterton is bed ridden:
JL: I am your Jack, Chesterton, but your producer too.
C: A rigor we've always sustained.
JL: To carry a performer through illness where recovery is in prospect is an indulgence one can sometimes justify, but support of idleness destined for the grave that, Chesterton, the narrow economy of our art does not permit.
C: You would have me die destitute?
JL: You will purchase your keep with that voice - intrusive and incessantly opinionated - no vagary of our past has yet stilled.
If you love Shakespeare, this is the show he would have written, if he had lived in the 21st century.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Web Secret 575: I Won’t Upgrade My Phone Until It Can Turn Into a Magic Pony

I occasionally come across an article that is so on point, I publish it in its entirety - abridged.

"Why I Won’t Upgrade My Phone Until It Can Turn Into a Magic Pony," written by Jessica Powell for Medium, an online magazine, is one such gem.

Here it is:

Of all the absurd things I’ve hoarded over the years, by far the stupidest collection in my closet is a box of old mobile phones. I’ve told myself ... if there were an apocalypse, I might be able to barter one away in exchange for food or water.

But in truth, I think I’ve just held on to them because they mark the passage of time...Plus, how often do we get to document, on such a personal level, the rapid evolution of a particular piece of technology?

When mobile phones were first introduced, they were elusive status symbols.... Their huge, brick-like size announced their worth: Look at me, they screamed...My father, a doctor who was often on call at the hospital, had one of these enormous phones, and none of us was allowed to touch it...

But luxury is defined in part by scarcity. Bit by bit, phones got smaller and cheaper and into the hands of more people. Having a phone was no longer a privilege reserved for the few...

I got my first phone in 2001. While it was nothing fancy, it was a wondrous thing that fit in the palm of my hand and made phone calls. It could also — well, no, that was really all it could do: make phone calls...

...I never once thought of these early-aught phones as status symbols the way I had back when phones were scarce — they were simply pieces of plastic and wire that helped me make calls from one place to another. They seemed about as unique to me as paper towels or USB sticks.

And yet, once smartphones rolled onto the scene, everything seemed to change. Overnight, it seemed that phones had once again become major status symbols.

Beginning in 2007, it was no longer a question as to whether you had a phone, but rather what kind of phone you owned. One’s choice of device spoke volumes — it fit you into a tidy categorization of wealth and interests. Having an iPhone meant you had money. A BlackBerry? Lots of money. An Android? Not so much. A flip phone? That was just kind of embarrassing.

It wasn’t just about wealth — your phone post-2007 said something about your lifestyle. iPhone users were the creative types. Android users were into tech. BlackBerry users — while those still existed — were men in suits who fired off angry, monosyllabic emails and probably made inappropriate comments to the secretaries in the coffee room.

There were now phones for any need or purpose. Even thematic phones had a decent run in some parts of the world. On a work trip to Jakarta, I picked up a special-edition “ladies-only” phone — a pink device sparkling with white plastic crystals...

All of which is to say that 10 years ago there was a wealth of phone options and a whole lot of competition...

But today there are essentially two operating systems — Apple and Android — and our phones all basically look the same and can do the same things...

But there’s a bigger problem that has nothing to do with the relative inconspicuousness of phones: incremental innovation. ..what are we really getting in exchange beyond a slightly better camera and screen?

Sure enough, the latest numbers show that people are upgrading their phones at a much slower rate than before...

If the companies want our money, they’ll have to build far more magical devices or figure out how to add some glitz and glam on the side. Bring us a gigantic phone we can swim in. Or a phone that will whisper compliments to us as we walk down the street. A phone that populates everything around us with AR-driven dancing ponies, or one that will double as a Swiss army knife in the event of the apocalypse I keep worrying about.

In the absence of all that, I’m sticking with my current 2017 phone until it breaks. I’ll spend my money on things that really show people who I am — like drinking raw water, putting jade eggs in my hoohaw, and raising chickens in my backyard biosphere.

And when that phone finally breaks, I’ll do something really radical — go phoneless.

The ultimate status symbol, of course, being someone who is so superior to everyone that they don’t need to communicate with anyone.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Web Secret 574: People Walker

A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with my friend Rochelle Sharpe. Rochelle is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a previous staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal. So when she talks, I listen.

She told me that she is working on an article about loneliness, which scientists tell us is a very serious and epidemic problem.

Why, in an era when technology makes it so easy to connect, we should feel increasingly alone is not clearly understood.

Rochelle asked me if had heard about "The People Walker" in Los Angeles.

I had not.

So as soon as I got home, I googled it. Turns out the people walking idea was already getting press in 2016. An article in The Guardian described how an aspiring actor came up with the idea.

I also learned that People Walker is now a full fledged app, allowing lonely people to connect "with safe and reliable walking partners on-demand."

Coming soon to an urban center near you...