Tag Archives: Communication

Post-Privacy America

Imagine, if you will, that the police in Ferguson had been wearing cameras. Instead of conflicting stories about what happened, we would have video evidence making the facts clear. Now imagine that instead of sitting on a Ferguson hard drive, the video was automatically uploaded to the Internet. Everything that Ferguson cops do is on display for the whole world at all times. That would make it more difficult for a cop to do something he’s not supposed to do now, don’t you think? Ok, now let’s say all the cops in the country are constantly monitored at all times when on duty. Now what say we monitor them off duty? What if we monitor all state employees, including politicians. You know what? Let’s make everything everyone does known to everyone else.

At first, it’s chaos. Your neighbor now knows about your unusual taste pornography and is too horrified and ashamed to speak with you again. His wife, though, now knows about his taste in other women, and you take out your popcorn and watch on your computer screen the clip of that holier-than-thou jerk getting kicked out of his house, which it turns out is in the name of his soon to be ex-wife. Your children learn a whole lot very quickly about how the world really is. Not only do they discover a wealth of bad words and your unusual taste in pornography, which is very difficult to explain to them, they use the new surveillance program to find santa-claus and discover that it’s just you. You’re not even wearing a santa suit – just your ratty old “Jingle Bell Rock” sweater. Amid all the crying, no one gets much sleep that night. Spending much of the night trying to explain your unusual taste in pornography to your wife, you’re beginning to get a pretty solid opinion that you don’t like this program of radical honesty.

But by the next day the news reports start coming in. You thought the news would be dead, but it turns out they’re more active than ever – somebody’s got to sort through all this information. Three quarters of the scandals attributed to the president turn out to be unequivocally true, but scandals are streaming in from all over the country so quickly that before you’ve finished your breakfast the president is old news – more than half the state and local politicians in the country are getting attacked on both sides for rampant corruption. It seems like almost everyone in power is using that power against rather than for the American people. Talk begins wondering how we can get rid of all this corruption without the country collapsing. Others wonder how this country hadn’t collapsed already. Already overcrowded jails fill even more as the crimes of those not in power show up on the universal recordings. Suffering upon suffering is shown in vivid color to horrified Americans around the country. Poverty, starvation, homelessness,violence, and myriad other social problems are abruptly impossible to ignore. It is a crisis, but we are a nation of crises, and we respond.

As a nation we decide just to use our existing voting system – with our newly educated voting body – to weed out corruption. Our new politicians know that they will be judged based on their actions rather than their rhetoric and politics becomes much more mature as a result. With advanced video analysis, complete information allows for unambiguous statistics that settle what used to be areas of political contention. Does increased government spending help the economy? How many people who are very poor really need help and how many are just lazy? What actions that people and government have taken really help to reduce the demand for abortions? These questions are now answered by facts instead of stump speeches.

Over time, your children learn to live in the world that is rather than the world that they imagined in their ignorance. Your wife stays with you and, while she never really understands your tastes, decides that they aren’t any worse than any other quirk in your personality and the two of you end up closer than ever in the presence of unprecedented mutual understanding. Your friends that remain with you are true friends. Many of them have lost friends when their own secrets became public or when they discovered the horrible things their friends did and still do. Some mourn the passing of these shallow relationships, some are pleased to know who they can and can’t trust.

As your children grow up in the new society, you notice they have no interest in idle chatter. With no secrets, they grew up on harsh realities and important distinctions and they take interest in improving the world rather than hiding behind the fictions that defined previous generations. Their children grow up thinking of privacy and secrets as an antiquated notion – a bizarre artifact of the past that as hard as they try they can’t quite wrap their minds around why it was valued so highly. As your grandchildren come of age, they ask you why people, even people who were not doing bad things, were so obsessed with keeping secrets. “I don’t know,” you admit, “I guess… I guess we were just afraid.”

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My Written Qualifier

Sam Qualifier

Well, I’m qualified. I’m not a masters, yet. I still need to dot some “i”s and cross some “t”s for that. Boy, was it a ride, though. Let me give you some of the highlights.

I started writing my qualifier maybe a year ago, and turned it in six months ago. For four months, my advisor was so busy that he was not able to look at it at all, then when he did he effectively said “hey, wow, this looks pretty good as-is!”

I prepared for my presentation for weeks. I practiced maybe five times leading up to my qualifying exam. When I arranged to get my committee, both of my committee members were pregnant. One a woman directly pregnant, another a man part of a pregnant couple. The man, it turned out, was unable to attend when his wife delivered early, so I was informed he would be replaced by another professor. This professor was well-known for asking very hard, technical questions only tangentially related to one’s presentation matter.

What’s more, I had a bad cold. The day before the exam my cold got so bad that I was worried that I might not be able to think/speak for what I expected to be the hardest presentation of my life thus far.  I hesitantly contacted the director of graduate programs, who shrugged and said “just reschedule, It’s fine.”

A week later, I finally did take my exam. By this time I had recovered and practiced five more times, roping in my girlfriend to be my presentation as well as exercise coach. I gave her a couple pages of tangential questions to ask at inopportune times, and after the first few times watching my presentations she came up with her own confusing, irrelevant questions. Just kidding, honey, they were good questions.

The morning of I donned my blazer and dress pants – conveniently matching to look like a suit – and my orange creamsicle undershirt –  and walked to my presentation room. The first thing we noticed when my advisor and the committee member who had nearly been replaced with the scary committee member arrived was that the other member was not there yet. Her still being very pregnant, we all wondered if we would need to reschedule again. Fortunately she arrived.

After so much build-up, my presentation was smooth, and none of the questions gave me any trouble. At the end, one committee member apologized ahead of time for asking a very “mean question,” and then posed  one that would certainly have thrown me. Fortunately, I had been asked that same question in one of my dozen practice presentations, and I rattled the answer off like it was nothing.

Afterwards, my advisor said the committee members were very impressed, then he said it again an hour later. The next day he brought it up in front of some other folks in my lab. He said that I prepared one standard deviation more than the average PhD student, and it showed.

The Meeting

<- Continued from 54 Degrees

Upon Nate’s return, our house assumed an internal temperature of a balmy 63 degrees. One day, I came home to find it turned up to 65, which was too high. I asked Nate about the situation, and he told me that he was dreadfully ill, and needed the heat turned up or he, Nate paused for effect,  would certainly die.

I carefully weighed the cost of the extra two degrees against my roommate’s untimely demise and grudgingly agreed to let the temperature stay at 65 until J came home. That evening, true to his word, Nate lay curled on his bed in the fetal position, repeatedly calling my phone and leaving messages of him retching and hacking up his lungs and various other vital organs.

The next day I checked my messages and was duly satisfied that Nate had not been bluffing about his illness. I was particularly impressed when he demonstrated his delirium by leaving a message of six minutes of silence followed by “Hello, hello? Who is this?” and hanging up. Eventually, J told me, Nate had given up trying to get in touch with me and called him instead. J had gotten Nate’s medicine from CVS and rescued him from death’s icy clutches.

The next day, the temperature was back down to fifty-four degrees. Evidently there had been a meeting (with a quorum of two out of three household members). Nate would heat his room with a space heater, and to make up the electricity difference we would go below mine-strike level again in the rest of the house.

I put up with it for three days. Eventually when I was worried my fingers might snap off from being allowed to get so cold, I went to have a conversation with Nate, who was now feeling much better.

“Nate,” I said, somewhat reluctantly, “I think… I think it’s too cold.”

“You’ll get no argument from me,” said Nate.

“Yeah, I think we should have a meeting and decide the right temperature once and for all,” I said.

“Just turn it up,” Nate replied, rubbing his hands together to keep them from getting frostbite and making no attempt to hide that he was wondering when I would let him go back into his warm little room.

“No, no, no,” I insisted. “This thermostat has been changed without the input of the whole house too many times. This time we all agree.”

“Ok,” said Nate, “go get J, then.”

So I went and knocked on J’s door. When I told him I wanted to have a meeting about the temperature, J came down to the thermostat and said “What temperature do you want it at?”

This caught me off guard, so I said, “63, I guess.”

“Ok, ” J said. Without missing a beat he punched the thermostat back up to 63 and returned to his room. Nate, satisfied that the issue had been resolved, also left. “Good meeting, everyone!” I called after them both.

On my way up the stairs I remained baffled at J’s mysterious ability to be comfortable at any temperature. As I climbed the stairs and reached the landing, a blast of hot air from his room answered my question. Looking through a crack in J’s door, I saw a rack of open-air processors covering his entire desk. An enormous box fan distributed the heat from this collection around the room. Upon returning from the restroom, J explained that an enormous process running on those processors had been heating his room for the last few weeks. I remain convinced that J knows how to handle cold temperatures, but evidently it wasn’t what he was doing this time.

Now that Nate has his personal heater, and J has his superheated processors, we cover up the vents in their rooms and use the HVAC to heat the kitchen and my room. It seems to have ended the conflicts and confusion, at least.

Whatever I Say

I often get mixed feedback when I attempt to discuss my work on this blog. Sometimes someone will praise my knowledge and communication skills, but other times people will say something along the lines of “this post was incomprehensible jargon, but nevertheless surprisingly pleasant to read.” Notice how nice my commenters have been thus far. That’s because they’ve pretty much all been relatives and close friends. WordPress on the other hand automatically recommends my blog to strangers based on automatic guesses of similar interests. I’ve already gotten a follower whom I’ve never met. Hi, “Opinionated Man!”

This changes the game. I figure with just one post a week I should be able to make them consistently interesting and comprehensible, at least to the people who self-select to be in my audience. As the most interesting thing I do these days is my research (It really is very interesting if I can get anyone to understand it), I may begin to discuss more technical topics. I could also discuss more food topics, since that’s another sometimes relatively interesting thing I do and could write about. While food is more inherently relatable, the communication of science to non-scientists is something I find particularly inspiring.

Not making any promises. This blog, as I like to say, is about whatever I say it’s about, so maybe next week it’ll be a description of my proliferation of ways to eat a single batch of bean soup, maybe it’ll be an approachable explanation of neural networks, or maybe I’ll just say something about my grandmother’s eightieth birthday and relate an anecdote from my Thanksgiving trip to Maine. It’ll have to be an interesting anecdote, though.