erik lundegaard

Technology posts

Saturday May 23, 2015

You, Robot

I've been asking this question of friend and strangers for a while now: Which jobs do you think won't get digitized away in 10, 20, 30 years? 

According to Barbara Ehrenreich in her review of two books, “Rise of the Robots” by Martin Ford and “Shadow Work” by Craig Lambert, the answer is: Not many. She skips over the ones we've already lost (printer, photographer) to concentrate on the ones we're beginning to lose (secretaries, travel agents, customer service in general). She quotes an expert predicting that in 10 years, “90 percent of articles will be computer generated.” She writes about college grads floundering and the longterm unemployed giving up, and why that is:

All of this has happened by choice, though not the choice of the average citizen and worker. In the wake of the recession, Ford writes, many companies decided that “ever-advancing information technology” allows them to operate successfully without rehiring the people they had laid off. And there should be no doubt that technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment. Ford quotes the co-founder of a start-up dedicated to the automation of gourmet hamburger production: “Our device isn't meant to make employees more efficient. It's meant to completely obviate them.”

Near the end of the piece, Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed,” gets apocalyptic:

If middle-class jobs keep disappearing as wealth piles up at the top, Martin Ford predicts, economic mobility will 'become nonexistent': 'The plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.' We have seen this movie; in fact, in one form or another — from 'Elysium' to 'The Hunger Games' — we've been seeing it again and again.

As I wrote five years ago, in a review of a different movie, we're all cutters now. We just don't seem to know it. Or how bad it'll get. 

I, Robot

Step away from the job or the girl gets it. 

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Posted at 11:15 AM on May 23, 2015 in category Technology
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Friday April 10, 2015


This was my week to begin to work from home. It's been a steady increase—working from home. Ten percent of the time. Twenty percent of the time. But office space is now at a premium, particularly in downtown Bellevue, so Tuesday and Wednesday I moved the kit and kaboodle to my home office on First Hill, where I'll be working 90 percent of the time. I know: Nice if you can get it.

It necessitated making room, of course. That was something else I was doing Tuesday and Wednesday: clearing the detritutus off the bookshelves (books I'll never read, or read again), as well as cleaning and straightening up. A clean place, well-lighted or not, helps me think. There's still work to be done, but by Wednesday evening it wasn't looking bad, and Thursday morning I actually woke up with a sense of excitement. A new day!

And around 9 a.m. the internet went out. Really? I checked the router. Yellow light. I turned it off and on. I turned the whole thing off and on. I checked the cable TV—I get both through Comcast—and that was out, too. I called Comcast, and after about 10 minutes of various “press 1 for .../ press 2 for ...” hurdles, I talked to a poor customer rep—surely the lousiest job in the world. She told me there was an outage. In my building? I asked. In the neighborhood? In the world? She only knew “outage” but said it would most likely be fixed by 4 PM.

Wait, what? 4 PM? Most likely?

After this call, I went down to the basement of our condo building, where the cable-box is located, and lo and behold, a Comcast rep was already working on the problem. Nice! Except, no, he was trying to activate service for a new resident, and wasn't getting a signal. And knew less than I did. So I filled him in while he tried to reach somebody to confirm. It took a while. Apparently even Comcast technicians are put on hold forever when calling Comcast. 

Eventually he found out that a colleague of his in Southwest Seattle was running into the same issue. Eventually I found out that a friend of ours, half a mile away, was also without internet. Soon, #ComcastOutage was trending on Twitter. But it wasn't until mid-afternoon that I got the full story via The Seattle Times:

An estimated 30,000 Comcast customers in the Seattle area were affected by an extensive outage Thursday caused by a construction crew cutting through a fiber-optic line in South Lake Union.

(That headline, by the way, used to read: DAMAGE TO FIBER-OPTICS CABLE CAUSES COMCAST OUTAGE. Now it reads: COMCAST SERVICE RESTORED TO THOUSANDS OF SEATTLE-AREA CUSTOMERS. The happy-ending approach to journalism.)

Anyway, that was my first exciting day working from home. Another reason—as if I needed one—why Charlie Brown is my patron saint.

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Posted at 07:08 AM on Apr 10, 2015 in category Technology
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Saturday January 31, 2015

(But Who is Alan Turing?)

The first time Alan Turing was referenced in The New York Times was 20 years after his death, and his name was just a passing reference in an essay by Guy Davenport over the shameful obscurity of another man, the Canadian critic Hugh Kenner, whom Davenport assumed, or hoped, future generations would admire more than the rabble in 1973. Of Kenner's 1968 book of literary and cultural criticism, Davenport writes:

“The Counterfeiters” is a lesson in how to see. Not how to see surfaces but the inside of things and the astounding affinities of things which heretofore seemed to have nothing to do with each other. Vaucanson and Yeats, for instance (but who is Vaucanson?), metaphysical poetry and Babbage (but who is Babbage?), Buster Keaton and Alan Turing (but who is Alan Turing?).

Do first references get any better? A writer mocking critics for not knowing the name of a man the publication he's writing in—and which calls itself “the paper of record”—has never printed. 

At this point, even to Kenner, Turing was a genius and/or “eccentric” mathematician and no more. The story of Ultra, and the Enigma machine, didn't break until a year later, 1974, with the publication of F.W. Winterbotham's “The Ultra Secret.” That story, which makes up most of the Oscar-nominated “The Imitation Game,” was unknown but to a few. Indeed, in the mid-1960s, in a long essay on computers in The New Yorker, in which Turing is liberally mentioned, we get this puzzled query near the end:

Alan Turing before the war

Turing's story has gained traction as computers became part of everyday life and mainstream culture became more accepting of homosexuality. In the 21st century, when you first hear his background, it seems impossibly dramatic. Wait, a father of the modern computer? And gay? And builder of the machine that broke the code that brought down the Nazis and saved millions of lives and potentially all of us from speaking German—or not speaking at all? And persecuted for his homosexuality after the war? Despite saving all of those lives? Why have I not heard of this guy before?

Derek Jacobi was the first to play Turing, on a BBC-2 TV series called “Micro Live,” in 1983. He was also the second, in 1996, recreating his Tony-nominated performance from the 1987 Broadway play, “Breaking the Code.” Benedict Cumberbatch is the seventh. There will be more. 

Derek Jacobi as Alan Turing

Derek Jacobi as Alan Turing, with Claudius' stutter.

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Posted at 09:30 AM on Jan 31, 2015 in category Technology
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Monday October 20, 2014

Google Reviews ... the U.S. Supreme Court?

I came across this last week during a Google search on SCOTUS and did a double-take:

Google reviews the Supreme Court of the United States

Um ... 3.5 stars? Because? Well, because the justices have no idea about the Constitution! And they're a bunch of ring-wing religious nuts! No wait, it's because their [sic] not Christians!

America, sometimes you make me long for censorship. 

The bigger question is why Google users even have the option of reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court.

Well, it turns out, they're not reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court. They're reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court building. At least, that's what they're supposed to be reviewing.

It's via Google+/Local. You see some sight, post your thoughts. But among the Google+ review policies is this: “Reviews aren’t meant to be a forum for general political or social commentary or personal rants.” Which means no one's policing this thing. They're just placing it all prominently next to any Google search on the topic. No biggee.

Here are a few other famous sights, ranked, along with “reviews.” Basically if it's a political institution, people aren't refraining from political talk:

  • The Lincoln Memorial: 4.7 stars
  • The Empire State Building: 4.5: “Also WTF with making people climb 6 stories to reach the observation deck.”
  • The U.S. Capitol: 4.3: “Dear Congress. You suck. Re-elect NO ONE!”
  • The White House: 4.2: “I don't think I will go back since the current administration is balls.”
  • The Space Needle: 4.2
  • Experience Music Project (Seattle): 4.1
  • The Smith Tower (Seattle): 4.0
  • The Wells Fargo building (Minneapolis): 3.2

One of my favorite parts of this supreme waste of time? Finding Google's tips for writing great reviews. Apparently you're supposed to be “informative and insightful,” and you should “write with style” and “keep it real.” Sadly, nothing on “avoiding being obvious.”

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Posted at 09:49 AM on Oct 20, 2014 in category Technology
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Thursday November 21, 2013

Technology Killed the Video Store: Remembering Minneapolis' Last Blockbuster

The last video store in Minneapolis, a Blockbuster in the Uptown area, is closing. My friend Jim Walsh wrote a good article about it for MinnPost.

It's hard to get nostalgic about a Blockbuster but I went to this store a lot when I lived in Minneapolis from 2005 to 2007. It was only about six blocks from my apartment. It's where I rented some of the old Superman movies that allowed me to write this Op-Ed for The New York Times. If they hadn't had them, I wouldn't have had it.

But I only went there because Minneapolis didn't have any good video stores. I arrived searching for something approximating Scarecrow Video in Seattle, and friends steered me to a place called Discount Video a few blocks south on Hennepin, which, every year, invariably won “Best Video Store” in the local alt weekly.

The place was smaller than I'd imagined. Outside there was a sign trumpeting its 15,000 titles, a fraction of Scarecrow's, and inside it was cramped. At the time, I was writing an article about political thrillers, so I searched through their thrillers section but couldn't fathom a method. I turned to a clerk, a tall man in his 50s, who may have been one of the owners.

“Are these in alphabetical order or ... ?” I asked.

“We can’t do that.”

“You can’t ... ?”


My eyebrows shot up.

“Look, here’s what happens. Someone comes along and they’re thinking about renting a video and, oh no, they decide not to get it, so they put it back—in the wrong place. Now it’s out of order. We’ve got 15,000 titles. It would be impossible to alphabetize them all.”

I nodded and thought: Except everyone else does it. Scarecrow, with its 70,000 titles. Libraries, with their hundreds of thousands of titles. Volume, in fact, would seem to indicate a greater need for alphabetizing rather than a lesser need. But I just went back to my search.

That's when I noticed something else. Not many DVDs; mostly VHS.

“Is there a special section for DVDs?” I asked.

Oops. Another sore spot. I later learned Minneapolis hadn't adopted the DVD readily; many people, particularly video-store owners it seemed, nostaligized VHS cassettes as if they were LPs. As a result, even though it was 2005, this store was still mostly VHS. The clerk explained all this to me in a slightly impatient tone. Then he complained about the upcoming high-def format. New technologies kept swamping old ones, he said. In such a world, what was the point of keeping up?

At this point I just decided to ask outright. I was looking for ”The Kremlin Letter,“ a 1970 movie directed by John Huston. One problem: I couldn't remember the name of the movie. Second problem: it had never actually been released in any video format. But I didn't know that at the time.

“I’m looking for a political thriller,” I began.

“We’ve got those,” he said.

“It's from 1970 and directed by John Huston.”


“Uh ... I think that came out in 1974.”

“Well, that’s close to 1970.”

“Right. But Huston didn’t direct it.”

“Yes he did.”

My eyes shot up for the third time. What I was about to do, for movie buffs, was akin to correcting someone on the name of the president of the United States. “I think Roman Polanski directed 'Chinatown,'“ I said.

“Well, John Huston was in it.”

“True. He was in it.”

But I'd had enough, thanked the man, and fled. I never went back. I went to the Blockbuster instead.

Unsurprisingly, Discount Video went under in 2006. Now it's Blockbuster's turn. Eventually, it'll be Scarecrow Video in Seattle with its 70,000 titles. New technologies keep swamping old ones.

In his piece about Blockbuster, Jim writes:

When it’s all gone, something else will be in its cavernous place, and a couple generations’ ritual of going to the video store to physically pick and choose and congregate with other customers or employees will go with it.

I have no love for the ritual of the video store—even when the clerk I'm talking to knows who directed ”Chinatown." But here's to congregation in all its forms.

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Posted at 06:58 AM on Nov 21, 2013 in category Technology
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