Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Eight Years Without Net Neutrality

My whimsical contribution to the day of action for net neutrality can be found at:

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Judith Glasser, 1936-2015

For decades, comics in search of easy laughs have fallen back on the mother-in-law joke.  Apparently enough people have difficult relationships with their mothers-in-law that they're a reliable way to get a few laughs out of even the toughest crowds.

For over 40 years, however, my response to such jokes has been to thank my lucky stars.  My mother-in-law, Judith Glasser, was one of the finest people I've ever known.  Her compassion, her patience, and her willingness to do whatever it takes to help those around her have been an inspiration to me and to almost everyone lucky enough to known her.

The Talmud teaches that some of our moral obligations are absolute, but others are more contingent:  if you are walking through the woods and find a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest, you have a responsibility to try to help it if you can, but you have no responsibility to comb the woods in search of distressed birds.  In other words, as a finite being in a specific time and place, you can't do everything, and you have the greatest and deepest responsibility to those nearest you.  A refugee on the other side of the planet deserves what support and assistance you can provide, but a troubled person in your own community demands your time and attention.

Judith's patience and compassion seemed infinite to me.  Wherever she lived, she attracted people who needed her, and she would spend long hours talking through their problems, encouraging them, and often assisting them in more concrete ways.  Often these were difficult people with difficult problems, for whom few others had the patience, but Judith always did.  She never brokered a peace deal across an ocean, or otherwise drew the attention of the wider world.  She simply transformed the lives, one at a time, of the baby birds she found in her path.  And by both words and example she encouraged everyone around her to make better choices, to do the right thing, to be better people.

In recent years, Judith and Larry spent their winters in Spain, where  Judith saw something special in a shy Spanish high school girl,  beyond the constrained brightness permitted by the Spanish school system, and spent three winters tutoring and encouraging her.  This very month, she is applying to go to university in America, another life changed by Judith, this time across a gulf of culture and sixty years of age.

Alas, she was the last baby bird.  Last month Judith died suddenly, while she and Larry were in Valladolid, distant from all their relatives.  Having lost both my parents, I thought myself somwhat hardened, but have been surprised at the depth of my grief.  The world without Judith seems a harsher, less caring place.  It seems to me that the only appropriate tribute is for those of us who loved her to find a way to ourselves be more caring, compassionate, and patient.  I doubt that I can live up to her example, but in her memory I will try to come a bit closer.

[Donations in honor of Judith Glasser may be made to: Planned Parenthood, 160 Stone St., Watertown, NY 13601-3250, or to the local animal shelter in Potsdam - 17 Madrid Ave, Potsdam, NY 13676.]

Monday, January 26, 2015

Never Take Color for Granted

Chris is seeing blue & yellow in art for the first time.  At the aquarium, he saw fish and coral where he'd previously seen blurs.

It would be difficult to overstate how much my life has changed since, about 4 months ago, I took a big step away from color blindness.

People close to me have have noted changes in my personality -- they say I'm more patient, relaxed, or happy.  I suspect it's all true.

But after four months of color, today was another notable day.  For the first time in four months, I took color for granted.

I hope I never do it again.

In my defense I can say that I had just spent a grueling but exciting weekend in Chicago, filming other color blind people seeing colors for the first time, using the new AmplifEye prototype digital technology for bringing color to the color blind.

I got home from Chicago after midnight Sunday, intending to go straight to sleep, but made the fatal mistake of "peeking" at the 63 gigabytes of video from the weekend. The video shows unmistakable success in bringing color to the color blind.   I fell asleep at 5, woke up in a daze at 9, and was passably lucid in the afternoon, when I drove into town to buy groceries.

As I was getting into the car, I realized I had left my color-correcting glasses inside.  They're usually around my neck, but in my mental fog I had left them on my dresser.  I was cold, and decided that  I could do without color for a run to the grocery store.  I took color for granted.

I didn't miss color on the drive to the grocery -- pretty much everything is white this time of year.  Entering the store, I came face to face with the produce.

For 57 color blind years, I had I bought produce without much trouble.  The only real problem for me was determining whether bananas were ripe.  In my previous life, I would have stopped a friendly looking person, explained that I was color blind, and asked which bananas to buy.

I couldn't do it.  My color blindness never used to feel like a handicap, but now it did.   Rather than beg a stranger for banana help, I bought a pomegranate.

The bananas didn't matter.  What mattered was... everything else.  Surrounded by fruits and vegetables, I was perfectly qualified to transact the commercial business of buying non-banana groceries.  But I have taken a bite of the color apple, and I am no longer innocent of the knowledge of what I'm missing.  Looking at the produce was the antimatter equivalent of a "wow" moment.  In a word, it was sad.

To date we've tested 3 other color blind people using the AmplifEye technology.  Every "wow" -- and there are plenty of them -- has a tinge of regret for years lost without color.  Even 17 year old Chris spoke of the time he had lost.

I've turned my own 57-year tinge of regret into a new mission.  I want to give the gift of color to every color blind child, at the earliest age possible.  The earlier kids get treatment, the more colors they will learn to see, and the less they will ever need to regret.

As a few of you know, I'm working my way up to a crowdfunding effort to turn the AmplifEye prototype into a reality. Whether that's news to you or not, I invite your comments on this draft explanation of what we want to do:

Life is worth living without color. The color blind don't need to be pitied.  As far as handicaps go, color blindness is a pretty small one.  But everyone deserves color in their life.  In a few weeks, I'll be asking for your help spreading the word about the crowdfunding.  But in the meantime, consider this:  1 out of 12 males (and 1 in 200 women) is color blind, with half of them considered moderate to severe.  How many of the people you care about are colorblind?  Who are they?  And what would you do if you knew you could bring color into their lives?

John, seeing green in Van Gogh for the first time.   Pictures of forests also astonished him.  I, on the other hand, was gobsmacked by the red in sunsets.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Discovering Color at Age 57

I've been seeing these sunsets for 35 years... but not really.
Severely color-blind from birth, in the last few weeks I have gained the ability to see more (by no means all) colors.  I can't imagine that my writing skills are up to this task, but I feel the need to try to explain what it has been like.

I've always been interested in the possibility of treating my color-blindness, and had tried a half-dozen technologies before.  Some, like the high-tech Enchroma lenses, simply didn't do very much for me, probably because my color blindness is too severe.  Others, using tinted glassses, only worked a little bit, and only on the brightest of sunny days; I coudn't wear them in low light.  And some required contact lenses, to which I could never adjust.  In any case, all such technologies must be used nearly full time for several weeks before the brain rewires itself, and I never got that far.

Recently, however, the good folks at Harrisville Eye Care set me up with a pair of glasses that used a much lighter tint, which is apparently what I needed.  I can wear them indoors in relatively low light, which means I was finally able to wear them long enough to start to see a major effect.

That effect was just beginning to kick in, the week before last, when my wife and I went on a road trip, starting in Chicago, where my granddaughters live.  They quickly sat me down to watch The Wizard of Oz with them.  Now, I'm only red-green color-blind; I can see blues and yellows just fine.  So I knew to expect colors when Dorothy opened the door after arriving in Oz.  But really, I didn't know.  Munchkinland was a riot of unexpected beauty.  I managed to cry quietly, without (I think) the girls noticing.

I've always enjoyed movies, but now I want to rewatch any that are noted for their use of color.

Emboldened by that experience, we took a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I have largely avoided art museums all my life, because they tend to be very frustrating.  Many impressionist paintings were simply incomprehensible blurs to me.  But this time was different.  Some of them were still inscrutable, but others were a revelation.  I stood for fifteen minutes just staring at Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte."  My artist daughter gleefully guided me around, explaining colors to me, while the other three grandparents took the children to exhibits like the Thorne Rooms.

After 57 years on this planet, I suddenly like art museums.

From Chicago we drove to northern New York, where Trina's parents live.  On the drive there, Trina pointed out the trees changing color, but I was able to see only a bit of difference there.  I figured it was too subtle, and that I was still too color blind to appreciate autumn.

Trina's parents live in a cabin on a hill with a view westward over Trout Lake.  It's famous for its sunsets, of which I have seen hundreds over the years.  I've always loved sunsets, and I was eager to see what my new glasses might add.  Well before the sun began to set, I settled in on the couch, where I could simply look to the right to see the show.

Of course, I got wrapped up in working on my computer, and lost track of time as the sunset got under way.   I didn't look up until my father-in-law casually said, to no one in particular, "nice sunset."  I turned my head to the right, and my entire world changed.

I beheld a fiery sky, not just with more colors than I'd seen before, but extending far further in every direction than I'd ever imagined.  I immediately gasped so loudly that everyone in the house wanted to know what was wrong.  My jaw dropped and my hand clamped over my face, but I wasn't actually thinking anything.  The usual constant chatter of consciousness was simply gone, and for perhaps a few seconds, as the tears poured down my face, I was nothing but pure sensation, swimming in a sea of unfathomable beauty.

After seeing thousands of sunsets, I had finally seen a sunset.

Most surprising, though, was what happened after that.  My first conscious thought, emerging from that sea of bliss, was completely unexpected:  "Perhaps there really is a God."

If you know me, and my long history with religion, you know that this wasn't a casual thought.  In high school I stepped beyond my Jewish background and immersed myself in other religions -- a fundamentalist Christian prayer group, a Nichiren Buddhist sect, and the Bahai faith, for starters.  Then in college, I majored in comparative religions, with a particular interest in Zen Buddhism.  I was almost the textbook definition of an agnostic.  But over the years, cynicism and rationalism took over, and by the time Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush began demonstrating their competing visions of God's will, I was calling myself an atheist.  But in that one instant of beauty, I again became an agnostic.  I don't think I ever truly understood the concept of gratuitous beauty as evidence for the existence of God.

A few days later, we drove to Pittsburgh.  My color vision was clearly continuing to improve, because now I could see more colors in the trees.  I was beginning to learn to let go and simply experience the colors, rather than constantly trying to name them and test the limits of my perception.  I found I was much better at enjoying the colors than analyzing them, and I spent less time naming them and more time appreciating them.

In Pittsburgh, we went with our friends Tom and Cheryl to the Phipps Conservatory, where every flower with any shade of red in it was a revelation to me.  They seemed to bask in the reflected wonder as I saw things in flowers I had never seen before -- at least once being startled enough to gasp aloud once again.  Tom said he'd never seen someone so literally following his bliss.

After years of disinterest, I found myself thinking I might enjoy gardening.

I was in Pittsburgh for a celebration of the 25th anniversary of CMU's School of Computer Science, and it was there that I went next.  Even as I listened to the (very interesting) professional talks, I was aware of a growing sense of pervasive beauty all around me.  Even a pile of garbage was more interesting with my newfound color sense, but people in particular were visual miracles.

I found myself staring at people's lips.  They were vivid and defining in a way they never had been before, even without makeup.  Women wearing lipstick drew my eyes irresistably.  For that matter, I was also seeing blush and most other kinds of makeup for the first time.  (With my natural vision, I can't see much more than blue eye shadow.)  It took a concerted effort not to stare like a creep.

After years of fascination, I found women more beautiful than I had ever imagined.

And red hair!  In college, at one point, I was talking with my best friend of the last two years, and the topic of nicknames came up.  "Well, people have always called me Red, of course," he said.  "Why?" I asked.  He looked at me strangely and said, "because I have flaming red hair."  "You do?"  I asked.  But now I could identify many people as redheads, all by myself, and some of them stood out like lightbulbs from across the room.

I expected the drive home from Pittsburgh to be anticlimactic, but it wasn't.  My color vision had improved to the point where the fall colors were visible enough for me to stare at them, smiling, for hours.

I don't want to overstate what has happened to me.  I'm still very color blind, just not as bad as before.  (To be technical:  I see 11 more of the Ishahara images.)  And there are negatives, too:  the glasses only work well at a certain distance -- too close or too far and the effect is sometimes lost.  Most alarmingly, the glasses play havoc with my depth perception.  Staircases have become a real hazard, and I managed to smash myself in the face with a car door because I misread its position.  I'm not complaining, not by a long shot, simply warning anyone else who might go down this road.

Most important to me, however, is a newfound motivation.  If I, at 57, can experience this much change in my color perception, how much good could it do a color-blind preschooler?  And how might we build on glasses such as these to give an even greater boost to color perception, perhaps even for those with normal color vision?  I am determined to answer these questions if I possibly can.  But not while the sun is setting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Welcome to the Post-American Internet. Please Have Your (Virtual) Papers Ready for Inspection

The Internet, as is well known, was almost entirely an American invention.  Funded by the US Department of Defense, the early ARPAnet was three years old when the first non-US node was added in 1972.  America has dominated the Internet ever since, but less so every year.  We are fast approaching a tipping point, where no single country is dominant.  The changes this transition brings will call into question several core beliefs about the nature of the Internet itself.

When the newly-commercialized Internet exploded into public consciousness in the mid-1990's, there was no shortage of sages eager to explain the nature of the net, and how it would affect society.  The fundamental qualities of the Internet were seen largely through American eyes, with the assumption that the Internet would change global society far more than that society would change the Internet.  Although this was correct in some regards, the changes have happened in both directions.

The most common political assertion about the Internet was that it would, by its very nature, advance the cause of liberty worldwide.  As John Gilmore famously wrote (and as was later attributed to several others), "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."  This reflects a key technical aspect of the Internet's design, a distributed structure intended to survive a major nuclear war.  Libertarian prophets gleefully predicted that the Internet would enable a flowering of American-style freedom around the world, and many found libertarianism a natural fit with the Internet age.

Much of this is correct, as far as it goes; the Internet's architecture does, on balance, tend to discourage censorship and facilitate liberty.  However, there's a big difference between resilience and invulnerability.  John Gilmore would have been more accurate if he'd said that the net tries to route around censorship.  While the early Internet promoted free speech and facilitated political dissent, the enemies of those freedoms were studying the Internet, understanding its limitations, and plotting their countermeasures.  Gradually but steadily, national and economic interests are becoming more effective counterweights to the Internet's predisposition towards liberty, and those counterweights are pushing even America itself in the wrong direction.

Seen through the eyes of American ideals, optimism, and exceptionalism, the opponents of Internet freedom were simply reactionaries, fighting a doomed rearguard battle.  After all, the network was designed to survive a nuclear war by dynamically rerouting data; what hope did the censors have?  Like America's military and cultural exports, the Internet was another tool destined to turn the whole world into America, or something like it.

The first strong hint that this might not be true was China's announcement, in 1998, that it was building what would come to be known as the Great Firewall of China.  For the most part, Internet seers -- myself included -- laughed at this public commitment to an impossible goal.  But with sufficient investment -- and five years of work -- China built a remarkably effective firewall that today keeps most of the population -- all but the most motivated and sophisticated -- from accessing Internet sites the government doesn't like.  They were able to do this in large part by using the power of the government to regulate International data connections and requiring that they all go through the firewall.  The Internet interprets censorship as a bug and routes around it, but the Chinese government interprets free speech as a bug and blocks it, by forcing the Internet to use a non-standard architecture (effectively a single routing path).

Other examples abound, if you look for them.  In the 90's we believed that the Internet would create a wonderfully level playing field, allowing entrepreneurs in the most remote corner of the earth to sell things directly to first world consumers.  Instead, a few oligopolistic players such as Amazon have become ubiquitous middlemen, with market-making power.  The distributed nature of the net was supposed to open up diverse sources of connectivity, breaking up the near-monopolies of telecom companies -- also not precisely what actually happened.

Most dishearteningly, however, while the cyberlibertarians were carrying on about the inherent freedoms of the net and the need to protect user privacy -- very American ideals, to be sure -- the American government itself, in the form of the NSA, was undermining those ideals to a breathtaking degree.  Any attempt to sell non-Americans on the principle that America's ideals should rule the Internet has to face the reality of America's actions.

As China has molded the Internet to its own ideals, other countries are doing so with varying degrees of success.  Iran, for example, is unlikely to match China's Great Firewall without a great deal more control of its international connectivity, and a substantial increase in its technical expertise, but there's no reason they can't do this eventually.  (For that matter, China could sell them the technology and the service.)   I fear that we will soon see some countries making good on the oft-made threat (even in the US) to require strong proof of identity to use the Internet.  It will be hard to implement, but so was the Great Firewall; it awaits only a sufficiently motivated and sophisticated government.

My greatest fear, however, is a race to the bottom.  Now that China has walled itself off, other countries are trying to imitate it.  If a few countries manage to require ID's, others will race to follow, perhaps even the US.  The Internet surprised human society in the 1990's, bursting upon it like a tsunami, sweeping away many repressive ideals in its wake.  But that wave was a one-time phenomenon.  It is easy to imagine that over time, just as governments rebuild after a tsunami, they will "fix the damage" caused by the Internet's first wave.  In the end, we'll be lucky if the  Internet looks like America in America, let alone anywhere else.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Another Hidden Downside to Travel

Very few of us are immune from the occasional game of "what-if."  How might my life have differed had I turned right instead of left, bought a house in the city instead of the suburbs, chosen pottery over banking, or Cindy over Susie?   But of course you can't ever go back.

Psychologists say that, in most situations involving humans making choices, increasing the number of options will decrease the ultimate satisfaction of the person making the choice.  Perhaps the knowledge of alternatives makes it almost inevitable that we will be too aware of the imperfections of our choices.  In this sense, we perhaps should envy the student who attends the first college he visits, the worker who takes the first job he finds, or the bride and groom in an arranged marriage.  (Or at least the lucky ones.)

No matter how our choices work out, we ultimately play the game of "what-if."  And if we aren't happy with the answer - if it makes us miserable, melancholy, or just plain restless -- we may find ourselves imagining making major changes in our lives.  But more often than not we don't actually change careers, divorce and remarry, sell houses, or even replace large items such as cars on a whim.  Most restlessness is held in check by our attachments and our routines. We shy away from the biggest changes, and try to divert our restlessness with fads, fandom, or fashion.  We can't ever live an alternate version of our own lives.

The next best thing would appear to be travel.  But you can easily return knowing additional ways in which your life is less than perfect.

Travel takes us to alternate universes.  The home of your cousin in New York has unmistakable differences from your life in suburban Chicago, or your uncle's Iowa pig farm, and yet these differences pale in comparison to Tokyo, Beijing, or Kinshasha, let alone Yosemite Valley or Antarctica.  The more you travel, the more universes you will have seen.  But, if you believe the psychologists, you may find it increasingly difficult to be satisfied with any one of them.  You will always be aware that some things are better elsewhere, and that there's even more that you haven't seen.  Your list of destinations grows faster than your ability to visit them.

Imagine a perfect world, completely at peace, in whatever serves as your vision of Utopia.  Now imagine that you could go and live in that near-perfect universe at a small and simple price:  you could never again have your two favorite foods.  To me, this is the nightmarish "World without Pizza and Ice Cream."  Almost anyone would make that tradeoff -- world peace alone is probably worth giving up pizza -- but how many people could be completely content with that choice?  I know that for the rest of my life,  Ben and Jerry would haunt my dreams.

That's what travel does to you.  You go to new places, and you encounter new things -- new people, new attitudes, new foods, new art, and new music.  It's a wonderful experience, but when you go home there are new things to miss, new absences in your less than perfect life.  In South Africa, they sell a wonderful kind of biscuit called rusks, without which my life had previously seemed quite complete, but which I now seek, usually in vain, in imported food stores at home.

Travel expands your horizons, your knowledge of the world, your understanding of humanity and history, and your appreciation of the arts.  But it may not make you happy.  People who live all their lives in a small village are probably, on average, more content than those of us who keep forgetting what time zone we're in.  The things you miss specifically provoke a more intense desire than the more abstract knowledge of things you've never encountered.  I miss rusks far more than I am bothered by the knowledge of how many foreign foods I've never even tried.

For my part, my affinities are scattered about the globe.  When I stay too long at home, I begin to miss very specific things -- the theatre and restaurants in London and New York, the scenery in Africa and California, the museums in Washington and Paris, or the omnipresent history in Rome and Jerusalem.   But if I moved to Yosemite, I'd miss the ocean, and if I moved to Hawaii I'd miss snow.  And when I stay too long on the road, I miss the stability and comfort of home.

It isn't just that our lives are too finite to see and enjoy it all; it's that the more we see and do, the less likely we are to ever be completely satisfied anywhere.  The more you travel, the more easily you can imagine better places than wherever you are.  At least, that's how it works on Earth, but... hmmm... perhaps things might be better on some other world?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

RIP Secure Email

Last month, as you may know, two American providers of secure email services exited the business.   In announcing his company's "corporate suicide," Lavabit's founder said:
"I feel you deserve to know what's going on – the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this," Levison wrote. "Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests."
This kind of language has stimulated a wide round of hand-wringing at this latest example of the assault on privacy.  Many have suggested that a key to email privacy, in the new world order, is to avoid using service providers that have any physical ties to the United States.  But is this kind of extreme reaction justified?

I'll argue that it isn't, not because the problem isn't real but because there are no useful solutions.  I have no doubt that it's a horror show out there; in fact, I believe that the situation is far worse than the most doom-and-gloom commentators have been saying it is.  Those commentators fear that privacy is in mortal peril, but I would argue that privacy is no more endangered than a week-old roadkill carcass.  It's been dead long enough that you really should have noticed by now that it's beyond further harm, and is best spoken of only in the past tense.

For starters, email never was private to begin with.  The earliest email systems were only as secure as the administrative login on a mainframe.  Networked email was even less secure, vulnerable as it was in transit to eavesdropping and alteration.  While there have been occasional developments that seemed to move the momentum back towards privacy, such as S/MIME, PGP, and services like Hushmail, Silent Circle, and Lavabit, it must be said that these have been almost complete failures.  Their security improvements have always been offset by reduced convenience, a fatal tradeoff on today's Internet.  As I've often said, users want security at any price, so long as it's free.  And when a service like Lavabit was finally getting a bit of traction on the technical side, it was totally subverted by the hidden hand of the security state.

We can and should continue to assert the need for a secure email system, but we ought to recognize that, with few exceptions, we've never had one.  Email as we know it simply should not be used for genuinely sensitive information.  Instant messaging, when used with suitable transport encryption and no message retention, is a rather better bet for would-be conspirators, but not for anyone who wants to keep records.

It seems likely to me, however, that the essence of email service includes qualities that are fundamentally incompatible with security in today's world.  Email users are accustomed to being able to communicate easily with anyone, to retain messages for as long as they like, and to allow company monitoring of corporate email.  Each of these requirements is a significant roadblock to true privacy.

Nor should you get your hopes too high about the nationality of a provider.  It is probably true today that you could use a service in another country without the US government being able to see your data -- if you are lucky enough to choose a country that doesn't have any secret arrangements with the US.   But even then, as more people do that, how long will it take before it's made illegal to use services outside the reach of US pressure?

There are still ways to communicate secretly.  If you're planning a corporate takeover, an extramarital affair, or a heinous act of terrorism, you can find ways to use the various communication tools of the modern age to protect your plans from prying eyes.  It's just that you have to work much harder to do it, so you aren't likely to do so over small matters, which means that minor embarassments will be revealed far more often that major crimes.  (And, tragically, every evidence of strong privacy will be seen as suggestive of a possible crime.)

Email is like a crowded train station.  Most of what you say won't get noticed by anyone else, but you never know if you're standing next to a listening device or a human eavesdropper.  I'm afraid that either we shall all be living our lives in a state of constant fear, or we will have to dispense with secrets altogether.   The best response to the loss of privacy may be the growth of tolerance, so that fewer secrets will need to be kept in the first place.