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Blockchain for a Windy Afternoon In the town where I grew up, the wind whips itself up over Lake Ontario and tears across the neighborhoods built on flat, former farmland. If a sudden gust catches you at the wrong moment hats, notebooks, and scarves will fly away and get stuck in the trees. One afternoon when I was ten years old, I passed a tree festooned with official-looking papers. Being pathologically curious, I sat under the tree and looked at pages from an elderly man’s medical file. If memory serves, he had some serious issues. Back in the day, medical files were just that – files. They were thick bunches of paper kept in a manilla folder with color coded tabs for reference. If an older man happened to be bringing his file to a specialist on a windy day, there was a chance his medical history could fly away into the blue sky. This was a less than ideal way to protect patient privacy. The digitization of medical files has upsides and downsides. On the one hand, it makes the sharing of medical records between healthcare professionals much easier. On the other hand, digitized information can be hacked pretty easily. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has this problem on steroids. Cases need to be monitored and shared with authorities at a massive scale. Small wonder that the CDC has been actively testing the blockchain. Using the blockchain, data can be shared on a peer-to-peer basis using powerful encryption. Since all transfers of data are part of the ledger, HIPAA protections of patient privacy can be guaranteed. The CDC’s use of the blockchain is still in the early, experimental stages. No word yet on how it stands up to strong winds and curious ten year olds. Why does this matter? Peter Thiel has expressed many opinions I find somewhat objectionable. Among others, his assertion that innovation in the United States is “somewhere between dire straits and dead” is absurd. Leaving aside the possibility that he is attempting to inspire American inventors like J. K. Simmons in Whiplash, we are between two and twenty years from realizing the potential of (in no particular order) augmented reality, quantum computing, neural networks, neural chips, autonomous vehicles, CRISPR, and the blockchain. That list is far from exhaustive. Perhaps Mr. Thiel has forgotten that we spent the first eight years of the commercial Internet posting gifs of dancing babies and sharing our Friends fan fiction. (How you doin?) Regardless, there is a time delay between initial discovery of new technologies and their optimal commercial application. In that interval, other technologies are discovered which must, in turn, wait to be properly applied. I’m aware that this is a seller’s market for dubiously-sourced jeremiads. But Mr. Thiel surely knows better. In a nutshell: The blockchain is pretty cool technology that we’re not really using to best effect yet. Read More Is Convenience an Addiction? Elizabeth Stinson writing in this month’s Wired bemoans her addiction to scrolling through her social feeds on her mobile phone. As an experiment, she deleted the apps to see what effect their absence would have on their lives. Not surprisingly, she found that eliminating her access to the long scroll of her social feeds opened up time to read articles and listen to podcasts. Still she finds herself drawn back to the siren song of filtered vacation pictures and 140/280 character tweets. Adam Alter, a professor at NYU and the author of Irresistible assures her that the simple swipe gesture of the long feed offers a dangerous convenience that can become addictive to some. Social media on mobile devices, Ms. Stinson informs us is “addictive by design.” Why does this matter? In my bathroom there is the most ingenious invention. It is called a toilet paper holder. It’s simple really. A circular pin is placed through the center of the roll of toilet paper and the toilet paper simply sloughs off in a spinning motion. I can’t imagine how I ever survived without this great convenience. And yet, I very much doubt I am addicted to toilet paper holders. If I sat in front of the toilet paper holder all day and all night, pulling endless ribbons of toilet paper into my lap, I could not and would not accuse “Big Toilet Paper” of addicting me to their wonderful invention by design. My compulsion would not be evidence of their malfeasance. In a nutshell: Heroin is addictive. Scrolling social media apps can become a compulsion. Not the same thing. Different. Read More Banner Ads as a Vocation Facebook agrees that mistakes were made. Suspected agents of the Russian government placed thousands of dollars worth of political ads on the Facebook platform in an attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election. Crazy thing too – it worked. Facebook has cautiously acknowledged that perhaps letting a hostile foreign power influence democratic elections was inadvisable. As a result, they are hiring approximately 1,000 new employees to review ads and flag “subtle expressions of violence” and “shocking content.” In addition, they are instituting policies to require companies to provide more thorough documentation when they buy ads on the platform. Bad news all round for red-blooded, all-American companies like Fancy Bear, LLC. Why does this matter? First the good news: Social media-based advertising is effective. With all the bad news coming out about digital media, it’s worth pointing out that a group of scrappy Russians with $100,000 in paid media managed to convince American voters to back an orange-tinted reality TV star for president. I hope the Effies take notice. But there is some bad news here. In the coming months, one thousand people will be forced to look at banner ads for a living. Day after day, they will sit in poorly lit cubicle farms starring with dead eyes at an endless stream of 728 by 90 pixel ads. Surely the Geneva Convention has something to say about this. In a nutshell: Facebook hasn’t figured out programmatic review of ads yet. Read More

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