Monday, October 12, 2015

Our Overlords (Cats)

For everything that makes the internet what it is – communication, information, entertainment, and more – there is one particular thing that it is widely known for: cats. (Yes, I know what Avenue Q says about why the Internet was born.) Pictures and videos of cats dominate the communities of the internet, with bastions of admiration and/or worship appearing on a wide variety of sites, including giants like Reddit, Tumblr, and Imgur, with smaller sites and forums having at least one cat-based discussion thread. The internet’s obsession with these furry companions is notable enough that even regular old media has caught on, reporting on the cat memes of days gone by. From the captioned images of LOLcats to the rainbow animation of Nyan Cat, from the fame of cat videos featuring felines such as Maru and Nora, cats and the internet have a long, historied, and furry relationship.

While there may be a large gap between the Internet as we know it today and the older newsgroups of Usenet, the presence of cats has remained the same. Today, we share videos, images, tips, and more forms of media concerning cats, while arguing over the most trivial of details. Back then, via Usenet’s rec.pets.cats, people shared information and advice about their felines. In 1993, alt.tasteless flamed them, proving that the attitude of people between then and now…haven’t really changed. (Stay classy, Internet.) What has changed, however, is the method of delivery people use to get their cat fix. Far from newsgroups, we now have blogs, videos, and even entire websites dedicated to cats.

Even beyond the internet, people throughout history have shown their a-purr-eciation for cats. Several cultures have cats tied to their mythologies and folklores, such as Ancient Egypt. Cats appear in poems, plays, literature, and television. But why, exactly, are people obsessed with cats? Yeah, they’re cute, but that doesn’t really explain the complete obsession with them. Most dogs are considered cute as well (I really have to wonder what people were thinking with some breeds…), and they’re extremely popular to keep as pets and working animals. So why cats?

According to this article, there are several reasons. For starters, cats, with their big eyes and other “cute” features, resemble babies, prompting our instincts to protect and nurture. Another suggested reason is that cats, serving as both predator and, more importantly, prey, appear vulnerable. This ties into the previous reason, as we seek to care for them. Finally, cat owners don’t have an outlet for their affections. Dog owners have dog parks to meet and socialize in, whereas cats are not so social. Additionally, cats tend to be looked at as inferior to their canine rivals, with stereotypes such as the crazy cat lady and lonely unmarried single with a cat. This culminates in the internet being a “dog park” for cat owners to discuss, socialize, and share in.

Despite all these reasons and theories, however, cats still reign supreme. And, as history both before and during the Internet has shown, they will continue to hold people’s attentions with their antics.

And yes, this post was an excellent excuse to go look at cat pictures.

Computers and great-grandmothers

My 93 year old great-grandmother still thinks that there are little gnomes sitting inside the computer, pushing buttons to make it work. My 5 year old cousin walks around inseparable with her iPad. The past 50-70 years of steadfast scientific advancements completely changed the way humans think and operate. The computer-driven machinery that was invented during this time is absolutely amazing. Airplanes and drones, cars, trains and boats, cash registers, video games, and of course, all sorts of medical equipment!

This weekend we had a full blown medical scare with my great-grandmother because we were afraid that she was having a stroke. After a hectic ride to the emergency room, we thought we had entered a sci-fi movie set. Within less than an hour, a plethora of computer-carts were wheeled into her emergency room space: an admissions computer with online forms and signature pads, a blood sampling cart, an x-ray machine, an EKG cart to take her cardiogram, a separate cart for a heart monitor, an EEG to monitor brain activity. Meanwhile, she was hooked up to the computer that continuously took her vital signs: blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation.  Then she had to be taken to a separate room for a CAT scan. After analyzing all the data collected, the doctor was able to figure out exactly what was going on.

The controversial part of this story is that the equipment is relied upon so much that most doctors stopped making their own hypothesis of what is going on without lots of testing involved. Since the invention of all these diagnostic machines and tests, doctors listen less to what a patient has to say about their symptoms. Similarly, students nowadays don’t do any math calculations in their heads; they see no point in doing so because they have a phone in their pocket with a calculator.

Here are a few interesting rhetorical questions that I have invented to show the differences between our 2015 digital age and around 40-50 years ago when there was no internet.

Why go to the library to do any kind of research? Wikipedia or a plethora of other online resources is only a click away. Are we relying too much on the computers in this day and age? Do we see our friends often enough, or do we just know what’s going on in their lives from Facebook posts? Do we meet new friends at our favorite restaurant, community activity, or in computer chat rooms or from recommended friends on Facebook? Are we becoming too dependent on the computer for help?

My own answer to most of these questions is somewhere in between the two extremes. There is no way to fly a commercial plane or perform a CAT scan without a computer, and I am grateful to all inventors and researchers who made this a reality.  At the same time, I use my own common sense and brain power when in need to calculate the 18% tip at restaurants or when I organize a chess tournament. I love the progress that computers have given us, but live your life and don’t rely too much on computers. As for my great-grandma, she is much better. I am thinking of taking apart my old computer in front of her to absolutely terminate her idea of gnomes working inside the computer.

The Problem With Esports

    Esports have been gaining in popularity recently and some of their competitions have even been televised on ESPN.  However there is one main problem with esports, it is not a sport.  There is nothing athletic about it.  If people want to get together and see who is the best at pretending to shoot people in some game they can feel free to do that, but they should not be trying to pass it off as a sport.  A sport is something that takes actual physical ability to play.  These are more competitions to see who spent the most time indoors.  Also the fact that people would pay to watch other people play video games is mind boggling to me.  If you want to play video games as a hobby that is well and good, but to actually sit and watch someone else do this is absolutely insane.  There are too many people who waste entire days just sitting by themselves playing video games.  They should be going outside and interacting with people.  The rise of esports will only cause more kids to waste their lives playing video games because they think that one day they might be good enough to compete in these competitions.  While many kids today spend countless hours playing actual sports in the hopes of one day playing professionally, at least the vast majority who do not make it professionally are staying in shape and forming good habits for their future.  Kids who play sports are also interacting with other kids whereas kids who play video games are mainly doing so by themselves without any social interaction.  I have also found that kids who play large amounts of video games do not gain all of the social skills that are necessary in order to hold a basic conversation.  Esports can do nothing but detract from the growth of society and will lead to more socially awkward people.

The Decline and Fall of Political Polling

                With all the chaos surrounding the presidential primary season, experts, journalists, and regular voters alike are relying on political polling to gauge the ebb and flow of the candidates’ fortunes.  This season, the polls are more important than any time in the past- the Republican debates have screened entry solely by poll numbers.  Yet even as their influence increases, both practical experience and experts show that polling accuracy, and thus relevance, is on the decline.
                Reputable polling institutes rely on reaching voters via landline telephones to ensure voter geography and demographics.  As cell phone usage rises rapidly, many people are unreachable by landline as they either don’t answer their phones or they simply eliminate their phone service altogether.  Many people consider the landline phone an antiquated technology; even in the Stevens Institute dorms, most of the landlines still present are no longer operational.  Palmer hall even has a “Telephone room” which now serves as a jantors’ closet.  According to a recent Politico article, almost half of American adults are not accessible by landline.  Traditional telephone, the enabling factor of reliable political polling, is dying.  As technology marches inexorably forward, it changes the landscape of almost every field, including politics and campaigning. 
                This rapid decline is accompanied by a severe increase in the importance of early-cycle polling.  The debates’ sponsors for the sprawling Republican field are determining who participates by national polling numbers; being relegated to an undercard event has crippled the campaigns of several candidates.  Cliff Zukin, past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, recently likened this early-cycle polling to “asking a scale that can only tell pounds to measure ounces.”  The ridiculously high margin of error on these polls, caused by the small (telephone contacted) sample sizes and limited demographic reach, severely limits the grip of polling on political reality, especially at such a nebulous stage in the election cycle.  The size of the Republican field, especially, doesn’t help matters; three or four points are seen as a significant jump for a candidate to make, but the margin of error in these polls is often around five points (as in the latest poll from CBS at the time of this writing).  To top of all of these mathematically obvious weaknesses, history shows the inaccuracy of early polls: this stage in the 2012 cycle, a Gallup poll showed Herman Cain, a failed candidate whose campaign never took root, within two points of Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee.  Pollsters have repeatedly warned the debate sponsors that polling at this early stage is an imprecise endeavor at best, but with the overflow of Republican candidates, polls are the only metric the sponsors have to narrow the field.

                Polling relies on landline telephone usage, a technology that is quickly becoming obsolete.  The rise of the consumer grade cell phone has decimated the usage numbers of landlines, stilting the demographics reachable and reducing the number who can be contacted via that method at all.  And yet as they lose their grip on real voters’ leanings, companies are relying on them more this cycle than ever before.  Polling needs to evolve drastically before its inaccuracies override any residual value this system still has left.


Space the Final Frontier....of ethics?

So this weekend I went to the movies with a couple friends to see The Martian.  I've always been a fan of space and Matt Damon so why not both?  For those of you reading this who don't know what the movie is about, its about an astronaut named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who gets left on Mars because his crew mates thought he was dead. The reason I want to talk about this movie is because it brings up many questions that humanity might encounter soon in our own struggle to have a manned mission to Mars.

A couple days ago NASA released evidence that they found water on Mars.  This is a very important discovery for not just the future of NASA's space program but for how life in the universe began.  I believe that this event coinciding with release of The Martian are going to push the prospect of a manned mission to Mars to the forefront of many peoples minds.  With this prospect comes a lot of ethical questions that we might not have an answer to so we should think about them now to prepare for the future.

The technology to get humans to Mars might not be exactly ready but I do believe that I will be alive for the first manned mission.  With that being said I expect there to be some strict restrictions on what they can and can't do on this flight because of the limited technology that the first attempt will have.  For example, the flight path will be strict and going off course is pretty much a no go.  However, if something terrible happens, like Mark Watney getting stranded on Mars, there would be some ethical issues that rise when planning his rescue...if we plan a rescue.  Is it worth it to try and save Watney?  Would this endanger other astronauts?  Would the cost be too high to save a man stranded on Mars when there are people dying of starvation on Earth?

I think a lot of these questions are hard to answer because while the astronauts no that their lives are on the line, they were chosen because they are some of the smartest people on the planet.  Does that make their lives more important than others?  Is the cost of trying to go to Mars in the first place too expensive?

Personally, I think space is awesome.  I want us to continue to develop new technologies to get us in space faster but I do understand that it shouldn't be a number one priority, at least not yet.  We know that we are killing the planet and will have to go and colonize another planet but that is most likely a good amount of time away still.  Does that mean that we can drop all the problems that are happening in our world now?  Definitely not.  However, it does bring up an issue of problem management.  I think that the problems on Earth should definitely be a priority but that doesn't mean we can make better space ships on the side.  It's human nature for us to want our species to survive and that won't happen in the long run if we can only make it to the moon.

I'm glad there is a large amount of time for the brightest minds of Earth to figure out these ethical problems but I'm also glad that I'm not the one deciding the outcome.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Duolingo: Can You Really Learn A New Language From An App?

This summer I downloaded Duolingo, an app that is supposed to help you learn a new language. I didn’t have too high of hopes for my own improvement with the app, as I wasn’t planning to be that dedicated to it. But I did go into the whole thing with the naïve belief that someone could possibly perfect a second language using the app. After using Duolingo, I no longer think it is possible to sufficiently learn another language with only an app.

I downloaded Duolingo because I thought it would be a fun way to improve my Spanish. I had taken Spanish in middle school and high school, but stopped taking courses in it in college. I felt like I already knew a large amount of Spanish words and phrases, but I was nowhere near feeling like I was able to “speak Spanish.” I was hoping engaging with Spanish through the app on a regular basis would lead to me being able to speak and think more easily in the language. The app boasted that it had both typing and talking sections, and this seemed promising for improving writing as well as speaking.

In the beginning the app was really fun, and helpful. It started with a test to gauge my current Spanish level. It was fun recollecting old things I had learned and I was able to test out of many sections. When I finished all of the introductory testing, I finally got to see how Duolingo teaches new material.

I was presented with a menu that gave me a few options of what I wanted to start learning. Most of the options were just topics for vocabulary like “travel” or “sports”. The other options were grammar-related things like “the past-participle”.  I completed a few of the vocabulary sections first. These had me doing things like translating simple phrases like “basketball team” to and from Spanish, matching words to their translations, and speaking the correct pronunciation of a Spanish word. The other grammar sections were structured slightly differently. Rather than focusing on introducing new vocabulary, the exercises revolved around understanding the correct syntax of sentences. There were questions about conjugating verbs correctly, and translating simple sentences between both languages.

Some of these exercises were very fun to do. If you get a few questions wrong in a section, you have to do the section again. It was a fun challenge trying to avoid repeating the section. Also, at the end of each section, I could definitely say I learned several vocab words, or different conjugations of verbs.

Yeah, it was fun, and I learned a bit. However, I think Duolingo was missing the big picture of learning a new language.

In order to make Duolingo fun and game-like, they broke teaching a language into these cute little sections. I don’t think that this is realistic, because when you actually speak a language, you don’t think about it in sections. In reality, the different areas of the language meld together and the language is propelled by ideas. I think that to learn sufficiently learn a language, it’s impossible to learn from an app. The app has no way to prompt you for actual ideas. I think learning a language requires speaking with another person. Only through trying to communicate and connect with others, can we really learn a new language.

The adaptation of law based on self-driving cars

                After a long day of work at the office, Steve plops down in his car and says “Take me home Jarvis.”  The car pulls out of the parking lot and navigates down the road onto the highway.  Steve pulls out his phone in his left hand and starts talking to his friend about how terrible his day at work is.  While on the highway, Steve passes by a police car and uses his other hand to wave at him.  The police officer nods in response as the person with no hands on the wheel passes by… wait what?

                With the advent of self-driving cars one must now consider, how will laws regarding driving habits and driving licenses change?  My answer, I’ve found that the more I think about these issue the more questions appear.

                The first of these issues would be the driver’s license.  With the emergence of a new technology that allows a car to drive itself, will people still require a driver’s license to drive?  Will people still need to learn how to manually drive cars or will driving manual be banned?  Will our driver’s education be changed to incorporate training to operating a self-driving car or will there be a separate license for self-driving vehicles?  If it is the former, then it would require ever driver to retake some sort of driver’s test to operate one of these cars.  If it’s the latter, then the issue arises where drivers with self-driving licenses are still in cars that can be driven manually.  Our current system for determining who is eligible to “drive” a car would be very inadequate and must change in some way to accommodate this change.

                The second issue would involve driving habits that would normally get you pulled over.  If you are in a self-driving vehicle, would the person in the driver’s seat still be required to keep his or her eyes on the road or would they be free to talk on their phones or even play video games?  Would you still be pulled over for being intoxicated while in the driver’s seat of one of these cars?  Finally, how will law enforcement officers differentiate between self-driving cars and regular cars?  When a police officer sees a person who is distracted by their phone or other device while driving, they would pull that person over to give him or her a ticket, but with self-driving cars, will police officers still have the authority to pull ever one of these cars over?  One means of solving this problem could be incorporating some sort of light signal on self-driving cars to indicate if it is currently in auto-pilot mode thus giving the driver immunity to the responsibility of paying attention to the road.  Of course there are many negatives to this as well, such as creating a false signal to avoid police attention and such.

                In the end, the advent of public self-driving cars will open a Pandora’s box of moral and legal issues that must be resolved.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned in the beginning, I really don’t have any answers to these issues, only more questions.