Tuesday/ the Facebook dilemma

I just watched the two episodes on the public television channel called ‘The Facebook Dilemma*’ – and did not find it reassuring.  Facebook has a long history of being too late to address disastrous uses of their platform: for hate speech, for spreading lies, for sowing distrust and division. Should anyone trust them again, ever?

*Facebook should be reinvented (run with different functionality & algorithms) or even be shut down, but it has become too big and powerful.

Congress – and the citizenry – have a responsibility as well. Do we care enough? Here’s former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos: “We’ve had two years since the main part of the Russian attack against the 2016 election, and very little has been done as a country, as a government, to protect ourselves,” Stamos told FRONTLINE. “We have signaled to the rest of the world that interfering in our elections is something that we won’t really punish or react to.”

Is Facebook ready for the 2018 Midterm elections? The answer: Nobody really knows – nor does Facebook. Here’s the Facebook ‘War Room’ with the Facebook election team. The team will do real-time monitoring on election day, to monitor fake news stories and delete fake accounts. [Picture from Frontline at https://www.pbs.org]

Wednesday/ gas pipeline explosion

There was a big gas transmission pipeline explosion in Prince George, BC, Canada, on Tuesday.  Even though it is 500 miles away, it is impacting us here in Seattle as well, since we get some of our natural gas from Canada.

Our local gas utility company is requesting that everyone to turn down their thermostats, and limit the use of hot water and electricity for a day or two. (Natural gas is used for some electricity generation).

Here’s the results of a few online searches I did .. these gas transmission pipelines are typically 36 in (0.92 m) in diameter, and pressurized to 50 times atmospheric pressure.
Interesting map of gas transmission pipelines in the United States. Check out the Gulf of Mexico coastline in Texas & Louisiana – whoah. That’s where all the refineries are, that produce natural gas and other products from crude oil.

Wednesday/ got my ‘Presidential Alert’

‘No, Trump didn’t write it’, soothed CNN’s notification about the Presidential Alert. This ability was actually requested by Congress in 2006, and has been many years in the making.

Everyone in the United States with a smartphone got a ‘Presidential Alert’ this morning – a test by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Man! Does that mean Trump can spam everyone with a stupid message from his phone? Mercifully, not. These messages are generated & sent from a special FEMA notebook computer, and by law, must be for true emergencies only.

One shudders to think what significant national crises would justify every American to be alerted. I can think of a few. Nuclear war (‘Hey everyone: Kim Jong-un & I are no longer in love, so just so you know, I sent him some ICBMs’). A meteor hit from outer space. A massive electromagnetic pulse from a sun flare (that may very well wipe out FEMA’s ability to send the alert altogether).


Friday/ where the iPhones are

Checking out the newest iPhone Xs in the store. The phone is about as wide, and a half-inch longer, than my iPhone 6s, which is acceptable. The enormous Xs Max is too big for me.

I finally went down to University Village mall to go check out Apple’s new store (and new iPhones*). There used to be a perfectly fine Apple store inside the mall, but I guess it was just not cool enough, and so they built a new stand-alone store, just steps away from where the old one was.

*I should probably upgrade my 2015 iPhone 6s at some point soon! The new camera lenses on the iPhone Xs, and the bezel-to-bezel OLED screen would be very welcome.

The style of Apple’s new store in University Village is minimalist with large glass panels and 14-ft high ceilings inside. (I took the picture in panorama mode; the roof is flat with a straight edge).
Work tables and seating near the large screen form the center focus point of the store. The large screen is used for art, and for product displays (of course), but also for coding classes for kids. (Picture by Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Thursday/ Trump’s Space Force

Vice President & Trump Pleaser Mike Pence talked about Trump’s proposed Space Force today.  Trump wants the new proposed branch of the military (the 6th, after Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard) in operation by 2020. Um. It’s a moon shot alright.
1. The new Space Force would have to be authorized by Congress.
2. How about a Cyber Force first, to shore up our cybersecurity?
3. Where will the money come from? The United States is 20 big Apples (trillions) in debt, and will now add another every year (Trump tax cuts).
4. Impeachment proceedings may very well start in 2019.

The Washington Post’s concept of a cheesy new gold Space Force One for Trump (note the ‘100% coal powered’, and ‘Make Space Great Again’ lettering).

Monday/ save the rainwater

Residents of Cape Town recorded a record low water usage of 505 million litres (133 million US gals) for the city per day for last week. Still, the target is 450 million litres per day (50 litres/ 13 US gallons per person per day).

Day Zero (no water for faucets) continues to be pushed out, and the winter rainy season has started – but it is still uncertain how much rain it will bring.

Dam Levels in the Western Cape on May 7. The big red boxes at the top says This Week 16.5% | Last Week 16.6% | Last Year 20%. If only that giant Theewaterskloof dam could come up to the 47.6% level of the little Wemmershoek dam! [Graphic by Grafika24, from Die Burger newspaper]
Here’s a sign I saw yesterday for a new apartment building here in Seattle, called Stack House. I think these big rainwater tanks should become part of the building code for big buildings – and hey, for houses, as well.

Saturday/ Jeff Bezo’s (very) long view

Check out this interview that Mathias Döpfner had with Jeff Bezos in Berlin. They cover a lot of ground, and towards the end (skip ahead to 38:00), Jeff reveals why it is so important that humans (eventually) colonize other planets.

Picture tweeted on Sunday by Bezos, after another successful New Shepard reusable launch system. It uses a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing (VTVL), suborbital crewed rocket that is being developed by Blue Origin as a commercial system for suborbital space tourism.

In a nutshell: as the animals that we are, our bodies burn energy at a rate of a 100W (of which 60W is for our brains). So: we need 100 W just to be alive. But a modern, civilized human – living in a climate-controlled house, and traveling, and working – easily burns 10 times that 100W, in terms of his or her energy usage. On Earth, the number of humans will keep increasing, as will their energy needs, as civilization progresses. We have become more efficient at harnessing resources from Earth and our sun for energy, but it will not be enough. We have to find extraterrestrial resources to harness, and to generate energy from, to ensure that humans can survive another 1,000 years and more.

Still from businessinsider.com, from the interview that Mathias Döpfner had with Jeff Bezos in Berlin.

Saturday/ Earth Day

Tomorrow is Earth Day.  Let’s all pledge to 1. make more use of public transport where possible, and 2. to make our next car an electric one. Electric cars still make up less than 1% of global sales. Yikes.

Here’s a red Tesla Model 3 on display at the Bellevue Square shopping mall today. The sales rep says the wait is 12 months. Business Insider reports that Tesla is now nearing 2,500 in weekly Model 3 production: a BIG improvement over the low ‘production hell’ numbers at the end of last year.

Wednesday/ robot in the parking lot

I spotted a Knightscope security robot today, in a shopping mall parking lot in Bellevue. These are autonomous 6-ft high, 400-lb machines, filled with sensors.  The robot scans the environment around it to create 3D images, and to check for unusual situations. I am sure they can already capture car registration numbers. Hmm .. and eventually, recognize the ‘FBI’s Most Wanted’ humans through face recognition?

It appeared to me this Knightscope robot in a Bellevue parking lot was doing a test run. They can upload their data to the cloud, but this one was tethered to the car behind it (thin blue cable). The Microsoft campus nearby is said to have a few of these roaming around already. 

Friday/ do not trust Facebook

Recent cover of German magazine Der Spiegel: ‘Die Falle Facebook’ – the Trap that is Facebook. Be careful. Do not be this guileless user, that just divulges everything/ clicks on everything/ believes everything, on Facebook.

I am not deleting my Facebook account, but they have lost my trust. Facebook will do almost anything for money. A sample: they enabled Russians to buy fake news ads (and pay in rubles) for the 2016 US Presidential election scandal, they enabled hate speechers to find target audiences on Facebook; allowed third parties to extract personal data, and then failed to follow up to make sure the data is deleted (the Cambridge Analytica scandal); scanned  images and links sent from Messenger.

So now I go in every other day into my Facebook settings, and I am systematically deleting anything that they can use to sell me stuff.  No more favorite movies or books, deleting my interests, do not enable just anyone to view my profile, do not enable face recognition in my photos, delete all connections to other apps. Sending money with Facebook? (yes, it can be done). Never.

Saturday/ Tesla Model 3 spotting

We spotted a Tesla Model 3 across the street while we were having a beer and a bite at Elysian Capitol Hill Brewery on Saturday night.  It’s amazing how much smaller in size,  just 11 inches in length can make a car look (185″ long vs. 196″ for the Model S).  I liked the styling and the lines on the Model 3 a lot.

Check it out! (That’s me, standing in the rain). This brand new Tesla Model 3 is a dark metallic grey. Its owner ponied up at least $50k for it. Only about 1,500 of these cars were produced in the last quarter in 2017. Tesla hopes to get production volumes up to 5,000 Model 3s per week by June.

Friday/ what a tangled web we weave

Bloomberg Businessweek calls the Spectre and Meltdown security vulnerabilities in billions of Intel & Apple computers all over the world, that became public early this January, ‘staggering security flaws’. (Intel is getting most of the flak. Ninety percent of the world’s computers, and 99% of servers, run on Intel chips).

So ..  is there a somewhat straightforward explanation of these two types of  attacks? And what is a poor sap such as me to do with his computers and devices (besides taking up a life in the woods and refrain from using them)?

It turns out almost all the big tech companies (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others) have worked together since June 2017 to create software patches so that hackers would not exploit the flaws.  But fixing the problem for all platform and hardware combinations still has a long way to go.

As always, users should update their Linux, Windows, Apple MacOS or Apple iOS device operating systems, as soon as upgrades and fixes become available. Use proper passwords (and change them from time to time). Never click on links in suspicious e-mails (or: ‘don’t run someone else’s code on your machine’). Consider installing a Java script blocker such as uBlock Origin for browsers.

The problem is that the patches are causing PCs to freeze up or slow down, among other issues. Linux inventor Linus Torvalds called Intel out and says some of the proposed fixes are ‘complete and utter garbage’.

Highly simplified descriptions of the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities. They have even been given their own ‘logos’ by the teams that identified the flaws, and that are working on solutions for fixing it.

Wednesday/ too much of a good (morning) thing

There was a cute report in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal about millions of Indian smartphone newbies. They just love to use WhatsApp to send sappy ‘Good Morning’ pictures to all their family and friends.  And so after a year or so, many users would find their phone storage completely clogged up with ‘Good Morning’ pictures.

Google researchers half a world away, thought at first that there might be a problem with the Android operating system (making the phones freeze up).  But when they found the cause was simply a phone filled to the brim with pictures, they posted an Android App that would search for, and clear out, these ‘Good Morning’ pictures by the thousand.  Since December there were more than 10 million downloads of the app, and the problem is solved for now.

Left: The Wall Street Journal article shows a typical ‘Good Morning’ picture, popular in India. Right: May I offer my snappier, ‘philosoraptor’ meme picture instead?

Monday/ Amazon Go, is a go

The Amazon Go store here in downtown Seattle opened today to the public (required for entry: an Amazon account and a phone with the Amazon Go app). I still have to go and check it out.

The main store concept is that there are no check-out lines. There are hundreds of cameras in the ceiling, sensors on the shelves, and bluetooth beacons in the store, to track and update what is taken as the shopper goes through the store.  As far as I can tell there are no physical carts that one pushes through the store (I don’t see any in pictures from inside the store). The shopper brings a carry bag/ shoulder bag to put items directly into. So this is smaller volume and higher-end grocery shopping than at say, one’s traditional grocery store.

Here’s the little tutorial from the Amazon Go app.
And these are pictures I grabbed from Twitter, from local TV stations KOMO4 (top) and King5 (bottom). Ironically, the store with no check-out line, had a line to get in at the door this morning. Later on the line disappeared, though.


Wednesday/ a freebie for my phone

I decided I’m still not ready to spring for a new iPhone 8 or iPhone X. So I went to the Apple store here in Seattle, to inquire about a replacement battery for my old iPhone 6s. (Apple has a special offer of $29 for battery replacements for certain older phones. Normally they charge $79).

Well – it turned out that I’m going to get the battery for free.  The analysis they ran at the store showed that the battery in my phone has gone through 533 charging cycles, and its capacity is now down to 80%.  It is also from a batch of batteries that had since been marked as slightly flawed – hence its free replacement.

Here’s how a typical modern mobile phone Li-ion battery works, highly simplified. The positive electrodes (cathodes) are typically lithium-doped cobalt oxide; the negative electrodes (anodes) are graphite, with a separator in between. There is also an electrolyte, lithium salts in an organic solvent. A large number of these electrode layers are ‘jelly-rolled’ into the pouch to increase the current that the battery can discharge during its use. Lithium ions migrate back and forth depending if the phone is used, or charged. The electrolyte and electrodes degrade over time, though.  Some researchers are working hard to find a solid-state solution (a battery with no electrolyte).  They believe these solid-state batteries would last tens of thousands of cycles instead of a few hundred.  [Picture: Infographic for Galaxy 7 Note phone, by Samsung]

Saturday/ the disaster alert is itself a disaster

The emergency alert that was sent out to cell phones, radio broadcasts, and TV transmissions.

At 8.10 am on Saturday, more than a million Hawaiians were jolted with an ominous text message: ‘Ballistic missile threat inbound, seek immediate shelter’.

The message was generated by accident by someone during the shift change-over at the Hawaii Emergency Response Management Agency.   It took 38 minutes to send a correction text.   Governor David Ige announced later that the early warning system was suspended ‘until further notice’, and that the procedure will be changed to require two people to activate the alert*.  The White House shrugged.  ‘Merely a state exercise’ said deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters, and that President Trump had been informed.

*It’s just mind-boggling that this was not done to start with – and quite incredulous that the designers of the system’s messaging had created no follow-up options of ‘Cancel Alert’ or ‘Threat Over’ or ‘Safe Now’.

Sunday morning: Front Page of the Honolulu Star Advertiser.


Wednesday/ cooler Christmas lights

I replaced just about all the light bulbs inside my house with light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs this year.  It’s amazing: a tungsten-filament bulb that used to run at 60 Watt, can now be replaced with one that run only at 9 W!  This is much better still, than the 13 W for compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs.  General Electric is now stopping production of domestic CFL lamps in favor of LEDs.

So for Christmas lights, many home-owners can now install strings of LED lights as well. Yes, these cost more to purchase, but a lot less to operate. (Every year we see reports of home-owners that set up displays with 100,000 bulbs or more, and that ‘borrow’ electricity from their neighbors to power it all up). LEDs also last longer than traditional incandescent glass lights, and are a safer light source since the bulbs do not get as hot, and are made of epoxy, not glass.

The Christmas lights on my neighbors’ homes across the street brightens up the winter darkness.  Alas, I do not  offer them the same view in return.  I did put up ‘icicle lights’ on my front gutter one year, and maybe I should do that again – next year.
This Seahawk-themed Christmas-light display of a Kirkland resident (east of Seattle) drew complaints by some neighbors last year about traffic, noise and flashing lights — 175,000 of them — from Thanksgiving through Christmas. So the house went dark last year. This year, the home-owner worked with the city to diminish the impact of visitors to his neighborhood, and the ‘Hawk’ house is back!  [Picture from Seattle Times]

Wednesday/ a rough start!

Here is a self-driving shuttle bus from German railway operator Deutsche Bahn. They plan to deploy a number of these in 2018 to shuttle passengers to and from train stations.

A self-driving shuttle got into an accident on its first day of service in Las Vegas.  Aw – but it was a human driver’s fault, actually (or – of course? Can I take the side of the machine even though I am a human?).  A large delivery truck operated by its human driver, pulled out into the street from a loading bay.  The shuttle came to an abrupt stop, but the truck grazed the front of the shuttle bus.  Fortunately,  none of the eight passengers, nor the truck driver, were injured.

The self-driving shuttle bus, is made by French startup Navya. It is owned and operated by French private transportation company Keolis, on a 0.6-mile loop around downtown Las Vegas. The rides are free.

Wednesday/ Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam was constructed shortly after the Great Depression, and provided jobs to thousands. At first feared to be a white elephant of sorts (it produced lots of electric power with not quite enough demand for it), it was put to good use during World War II. It provided power to Boeing Company in Seattle, to shipbuilders in Portland, Oregon, and to an aluminum smelter in Spokane on the border with Montana.

A coulee is a kind of valley or drainage zone. The Grand Coulee is an ancient river bed in north-central Washington State. And the Grand Coulee Dam is a massive concrete gravity dam on the Columbia River, built to produce hydroelectric power and to provide irrigation water. Only the Three Gorges dam in the Yangtze River in Hubei province, China, is a bigger dam in terms of concrete used for the dam wall and construction.

The original dam was constructed from 1933 to 1940 at a cost of $300 million. The Third Power Plant, constructed from 1967 to 1980, cost $700 million.  If the dam were constructed today, it would cost $8.26 billion.  The dam today generates some 20 billion kW-hrs of electricity every year, distributed to 11 states.

Clockwise from the top: Inside the visitors center; the dam wall with the eleven spillways and several 230 kV transmission lines strung out in front of the wall; looking vertically down from the dam wall (a little water is spilling from spill tubes in the dam wall); on top of the dam wall during a tour of the dam.
On top is a picture from inside the Pump-Generating Plant, during our tour. The green silos are huge: 5 stories tall and housing enormous pumps that pump water uphill to a man-made irrigation lake called Banks Lake. At the far end are units that look very similar, but that can act as generators as well (when water from Banks Lake flow back through it), as shown in the diagram in the bottom.

Tuesday/ the iPhone X has landed

The three new iPhones that were announced today: the 8, 8 Plus and the X.

I watched Apple’s webcast today, of its annual product announcement, beamed from the new Apple ‘spaceship’ headquarters in Cupertino. It’s been ten years since the iPhone took the world by storm in 2007, and today the ‘one more thing’ (as Steve Jobs used to say) was the iPhone X (say ‘ten’, not ‘X’).

Apple ‘haters’ (they hate the ‘fanboys’) were quick to point out that many of the ‘new’ features have been available in Android phones for some time. (Yes .. but it’s new in an iPhone).

I don’t think of myself as an Apple ‘fanboy’! – but I will probably upgrade my iPhone 6 to the iPhone X early next year.  It’s all about the camera for me, and the new 12 MP cameras come with nifty software settings and photo options. The new phone can take beautiful portrait pictures with the background filtered out to black, for example.  I’d better start putting my money aside: $999 for the 64 GB model and $1,150 for the 256 GB model. That’s the price of a full-blown new notebook computer, since that’s what these phones are: super-mini-tablet computer-cameras-in-our-pockets.

Graphic from Bloomberg: The iPhone catapulted Apple into the No 1 valuation position over the last 10 years .. with the other technology companies not too far behind. It used to be that oil companies dominated the top 10.