Man vs. Machine – Machine Wins (All the Time?)

Or we can call this, articficial intelligence vs. human intelligence.  Depending on your perspective, this may be either good news or bad news when you hear that the machine seems to be winning all the time.  The game that is being used in this contest is something called “Go,” which I have never played.  It is a game played with round black and white stones, and two players alternately place pieces on a square grid with the goal of occupying the most territory.  So is this really a game anymore since the machine’s “intelligence” never loses?  But maybe I am overreacting, and I should join the ranks of the artificial intelligence advocates and simply admire the ingenuity of designing such a “perfect” Go player/opponent.

I hate to be a poor sport, but what is the point of playing a game when the odds clearly tell you “not a chance.”  This machine will never make a mistake, unlike you.  There are no weaknesses to be exploited, but I guess I am getting too competitive in a very human way.  Maybe I can learn from the machine (after I learn how to play Go first).  I’m sure there must be a computer program that can teach me, so I should at least be thankful for that.  

If you are really interested in all this, Alphabet (Google) will match its AlphaGo program against Leo Sedol, the current Go champion in a five-game match in March streamed live on YouTube.  There will be $1 million prize for the winner (donated to charity if AlphaGo wins).  I hope they pick a needy charity if they have to, and good luck to you too, Mr. Sedol.

Ray Myers

Make Me Fit, Fitbit

This little bit of technology has become quite the rage among the “sporterati.”  Most people wear it on their wrists so they can easily be identified as among the more health conscious.  Me, I carefully place it in my pants pocket of whatever I happen to be wearing on any given day, or in my tennis shorts when playing throughout the year.  This is not necessarily a personal preference but one that I quickly adopted to ensure that I would not keep losing it.  I am referring to the early Fitbit “miniature” that was designed to clip onto your belt so that you could display it proudly.  The wristband model now seems to be the most popular, and is available in a variety of colors which clearly makes it more of a fashion statement that the little black Fitbit that I hide in my pocket.

I can now track the number of steps I take very day, and surprisingly this has become a very important part of my day, but some people complain that it adds more stress to their daily routines.  They may just like to walk for fun, but now with Fitbit they become more focused on quantitative outcomes at the expense of their own personal enjoyment.

I think this may be good advice.   The real issue may be the extent to which your “stepping” activity involves interaction with others.  I do take walks alone on most days, but I do prefer and enjoy the companionship of others when strolling around the neighborhood.  Similarly, tennis doubles is an activity that I enjoy for the exercise and the collegiality of the players.  I have also noticed that most foursomes now have wristband Fifbits secured around their wrists.  I still keep mine in my pocket.

Ray Myers

Blizzard 2016 Snow Day!

Sorry, but I will not be posting a blog today.  I was so intent on doing one as the snow began to fall here on Saturday that I inadvertently put it online when I finished.  I was trying to back everything up in case there would be a loss of power or wi-if went down, etc.?   Overreaction I guess, but we did get a little over two feet here in northern Virginia.

The sun came out on Sunday, and we are all involved in a clean-up process, but I don’t think we will be going anywhere soon.  Look for the blog again on Wednesday.

Thanks for following.

Ray Myers

File Faster, Wait Longer – Technology and the IRS

Speedy tax refunds just got less speedy.  Looks like this is a casualty of protecting your identity while online.  Tax software providers are now requiring account holders to use stricter passwords and log-in requirements meant to reduce the chance that a criminal can access their accounts.  More effort will be dedicated to confirming taxpayer identities before refunds are paid out.  The IRS will have $290 million in additional funding that it can use to fight identity theft, bolster cyber security and improve customer service.  Ironically, the federal government will now have to spend more of the taxpayers’ money in collecting their taxes, policing a process that was originally intended to “streamline” a burdensome paper process.

It seems like the process is now being so carefully vetted that some states have passed legislation that prohibits refunds from being paid out before March 1 unless both the employer and the taxpayer have filed the necessary income forms.  So even if you are dutiful enough in collecting all your yearly income data, and completing all your tax reporting forms, and filing them as early as possible, you may still have to wait for your state to follow its mandated timeline.  Even at the federal level, tax experts concede that the “old days of fast refunds are gone.”

Unfortunately, for the “early bird” tax filers, whether online or through the mail, this is not such good news.  But if you are a procrastinator like so many of us, you will be heartened to hear that you can wait until April 18, instead of April 15,  because Emancipation Day, a holiday in D.C. falls on the traditional tax day.

Ray Myers

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?  Why Not Facebook or Instagram?

What a dilemma!  To be honest, I started tweeting before I tried Facebook or Instagram.  Now I am primarily using the latter two to “stay in touch.”  I use WordPress (TechtoExpress) to write this blog, and then have it posted to Twitter and Facebook.  Instagram is something that I like for more personal reasons of sharing photos with family and friends.  As newly developed social media platforms become available it seems that the trusty Twitter network does not have the same appeal that it used to.  Even Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has admitted that they “had lots of work to do to make the service easier for regular people.”

Now I consider myself a regular (albeit older) person interested in social media, and I largely spent the last three and a half years of my government service using Twitter to highlight the impact of technology in educational systems throughout the U.S., and in other countries.  In many ways, it was like learning a code that quickly developed its own abbreviations, acronyms, hashtags, etc., that could all be crafted into a 140 character tweet.  It was a new language, and before I retired from the Department of Education, we had a following of over 70,ooo worldwide.  I think the visual imagery that can be more easily shared on Facebook and Instagram do make them a media service “easier for regular people to use.”   Maybe social media’s use of visual imagery has more of a permanent appeal than the often confusing and changing code terms used by Twitter users?   These images also have a more universal appeal that transcends language differences.

I guess we will have to see what happens with Twitter.  The company has launched a campaign to work with developers in designing a new platform(s) that, I hope, would go beyond “0ne size fits all.”

Ray Myers

Hershey Sweetens Its Candy With Technology

Retailers clearly recognize that they must begin to harness new technologies to stay relevant  – and boost sales.   Even candy companies recognize that the market place has changed and that they need to retrofit the shopping experience for today’s customers.  Candy giant Hershey is already integrating new technology in its store displays in an effort to enhance its sales approach.   They have even incorporated facial-recognition technology in their machines dispensing free pieces of chocolate.

When shoppers smile they are dispensed a free piece of chocolate. Sorry chocolate lovers, the technology is able to recognize when you try to come back for seconds!  Hershey is also testing ways it might use technology to personalize its treats, as shoppers increasingly seem interested in one-of-a-kind products.  For example, they have rolled out machines that allow shoppers to personalize the packing of an over-sized Hershey Kiss.  The customer/consumer becomes the designer of the candy packaging itself.  Companies are using technology to make the shopping experience a more memorable experience than simply a mundane errand.

I can remember the old sales campaign slogan “This Bud’s for you!”  Arguably, beer and alcoholic beverages in general may not be the best rewards for many reasons, but who can resist a candy Kiss just made and wrapped for them!  FYI, Hershey has also been able to double the sales of associated Kiss products in stores.  And Valentine’s Day 2016 is just around the corner.

Ray Myers

Social Media Wants to Make Your Connectivity More Commercial

Remember the days when you could go to a social media site like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and not have to worry about scrolling through online sales pitches.  Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective and financial resources, you will now be seeing more “buy buttons” as you try to keep current in your social media world.  Pinterest calls them “buyable pins,” while Instagram prefers “shop now.”  What’s in a name anyway?

Social media experts estimate that one out of every five minutes spent on a mobile phone in the United States is devoted to Facebook or Instagram.  What a marketing opportunity!  But data collected so far does not support the commercial effectiveness of this social media strategy.  For this past holiday season, social channels accounted for 1.8 percent of overall online sales.  Over the same period in 2014, social media led to 1.9 percent of online sales.  One of the explanations offered by retailers is that there is a “conversion gap” on mobile devices, meaning that there has been a surge in the number of people browsing sites from mobile devices, but only a small share of them making purchases.  The biggest impediment appears to be the small screen size of the mobile device itself.  The checkout process has often been described as an inconvenient hassle.

So I guess that size really does matter when trying to make a purchasing decision digitally.  Who knows, you might even want to walk into a retail store and see the “real thing,” and have an unmediated social shopping experience?

Ray Myers

Instagram in the Art Gallery

“Every artwork is an Instagrammer’s dream come true.”  Now you can have your picture taken with you favorite work of art.  Well, at least at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.  Please have a look at #renwickgallery on your Instagram account.  Sorry, selfies are discouraged since the museum curator has declared them to be “kind of obnoxious.”  He wants you to be immersed in the work rather promoting this exhibit as a personal photo op.  

Renwick is now encouraging photography and believes that this policy is here to stay with possibly a few exceptions.  There are still museumgoers who like to see art the old-fashioned way, wanting to absorb the experience itself in real time rather than living through the camera.  They are concerned that the photographers are just cataloging the experience like “checking a box.”

So now you can choose whatever kind of museum experience you would like.  The only anecdotal data available to date suggests that when you take more detailed photos of the artwork, you actually remember more about it than if you take a more expansive zoomed-out shot.  Or you can still just look at the art and put your phone away?

Ray Myers

Dazed and Confused in Silicon Valley

It’s all about stopping terrorism.  Who’s not for that?  And I certainly believe that the individual rights we have as Americans are the envy of most citizens inhabiting this earth, but I think we are now entering an age of increased cyber security demands that may signal the end of the open Internet.  At least the free open access that we have enjoyed over the last four decades.  Ironically it appears to be our attempts at being more “social” on the Intenet that have become the most popular tools for terrorists to co-opt in pursuit of their sinister ends.

 But I may be overreacting.  I should be encouraged that this past week senior executives from our leading tech companies and high-ranking federal officials met in San Jose to try and figure this all out.  The expected participanting companies included YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Apple.  Maybe the federal government  will appoint a “Social Media Czar” who will keep an eye on all this.  I really don’t think that is going to happen, but I am not really that sure how we will be able to protect freedom of speech while establishing new rules to determine when that freedom has been abused in social media?  

We may soon learn what some of those changes may be, but we may find that we can not be as socialable on social media as we once were.  Perhaps there will be some ingenious, creative solution upon which all can agree.  Let’s hope that this “Gordian knot” of government policy and individual freedoms can  be untied.

Ray Myers

Face Time With Donald Trump!

Donald Trump has certainly brought a new dimension to our Presidential debates.  We are still a long way off, but the Donald’s performance in contrast to his Republican rivals has set him apart as he eschews the prescribed decorum for listening politely to opponents in favor of facial mimicry and animated body language.  I am not sure where he learned all these “upstaging” moves.  Maybe when he was hosting the “Apprentice” on TV, he realized the image he created there was more intriguing than the show’s predictable format: who gets to survive in the big city.  He was in charge and had the power to say “You’re fired!”

It all just seems like Donald and his fellow Republican candidates are living in an alternate reality.  A reality that technology has helped build through the emergence of popular social media platforms, and also through the application of visual imagery capable of producing a message that is worth a thousand tweets.  It’s all about the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF).  Please have a look at Trump Faces GIF on the Internet.  No need to debate, just make a face!

Maybe it’s all still on the eye of the beholder, and Trump is leading a new trend for politicians to show their true feelings using facial expressions and body language in more creative ways.  Forget about your debating coaches.  Just get a mirror and try on some new faces.

Ray Myers

Microsoft in China

So this past week and a half I have written about government intervention in the operations of Facebook in India and Egypt.  Now it looks like we have a trifecta with China’s regulators raising new questions about Microsoft’s business practices there.  Of course, we do not yet know what those questions may be, but I am sure that Bill Gates and company are not looking forward to being on the answering end.  Over the past several months Microsoft has appeared to have mounted a charm offensive, such as hosting a prominent meeting of Chinese and American tech leaders in Seattle in September.  During that meeting, Microsoft announced several partnerships including a cooperative effort with the China Electronics Technology Group (mostly in support of the Chinese military).

Interestingly, the PC maker Dell has now begun shipping more machines to China that come with a Chinese-made operating system, NeoKylin, installed on them.  Some experts have termed this Chinese strategy as “de-U.S.A” in an effort to dethrone Windows from PCs in China.  In 2004 Chinese officials with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce stormed four Microsoft offices in China, questioning executives, copying contracts and records, and downloading data from the company’s servers, including email and other internal communications.

Maybe this is all about how businesses operate in two very different economic systems, capitalism vs. communism.  No one can really be sure how this will all end, but clearly China is not ready to experiment with free enterprise, preferring to play by their own “rules?”

Ray Myers

Facebook in Egypt

Last week I posted some commentary on Facebook being shut down in India because the government is planning to require additional information from the Facebook provider there.   I didn’t actually talk so much about the shut down itself as much as I reacted to the overwhelming challenges in that country to making mobile connectivity available to the vast majority of the Indian population.  Good luck again, Mark Zuckerberg.  Now the Egyptian government is shutting down Facebook access for its citizens just prior to the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising on January 25th.  Another challenge for Facebook in a different kind of economy and cultural system.

The Free Basics Facebook program in Egypt is similar to that being offered in India.  More than three million Egyptians have signed up for the service.  It offers cell phone users free access to limited services including Facebook’s social network and messaging, news, health and job information.  As was similarly expressed by Facebook in India, they also hoped to “resolve the situation soon.”

I remember being told early in my life that nothing is ever free.  In this case it seems that this may be especially true when hearing offers of free Internet and free elections!

Ray Myers