Hammering nails, my sweet cable repair robot, privacy concerns, and some flower pictures

by Rob Tiller

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On Friday afternoon the Red Hat legal department in Raleigh worked on a Habitat for Humanity house in Apex. We met the owner to be, who sounded like he might have originally been from west Africa, and who said this was his dream house. I watched a group of colleagues get trained in installing windows, and then got drafted to do some work in the rafters, including repairing some mistakes of a previous crew.
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Hammering nails is not something I’m particularly good at, and I learned that this was even more true when standing on a ladder, reaching upward, and swinging within limited space. My wrist and arm got tired. But, though slow, I got quite a few nails well in, and avoided serious injury. I do not think the next crew will need to re-do them.
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Speaking of repair work, I had an interesting experience on the frontiers of automation this week with my cable service, Time Warner. Our on-demand movie service didn’t work properly last week. When I called TW, my call was answered by an automated female voice of the sort that usually reads service options (press 2 for billing inquiries, etc.).

It (she) asked me to describe the problem. She then correctly paraphrased it, and said she’d be right back. Then she said that she’d checked and my cable box needed to be re-set. She said she would do that. She did it! This was the first fully automated repair encounter I’ve ever had, and it was excellent! When the automated repair entity told me I could hang up, I couldn’t help myself: I thanked her.
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On Saturday morning I got up with the plan of being at Raulston Arboretum when it opened at 8:00 a.m. to walk about and take some pictures with early light. I got slowed down by some interesting stories in the Times — market reactions to the Fed’s new strategy, dysfunctional courts in the Bronx, arms for Syrian rebels, protests in Brazil and Turkey, China’s and Russia’s economic policies. And particularly by the latest on Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance program.

I’m still trying to figure out what I think about Snowden and the NSA data collectors. Clearly, it’s wrong to break your oath and betray your employer. Clearly, it’s wrong for the government to invade our privacy without due process. Clearly, it would be a mistake to acquiesce in terrorist plotting.

These conflicting imperatives make this a tough one. I tend to focus on the high risk of governmental abuse of power. Curiously, though, for some reason I’ve felt less fear and outrage over the data mining than I would have expected. I don’t think I’m alone on this. Possibly, as my colleague David said, we exhausted our outrage muscles over the Patriot Act, and the NSA intrusions are not such a big surprise.

We may have already passed an inflection point in the history of privacy. Most of us understand that Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others are using our data in ways we wouldn’t necessarily approve, but which don’t do any noticeable harm. Is the NSA program a bigger threat to civil liberties?

Well, the government is awesomely powerful, so the risk is plainly greater. But for most of us, the harm is abstract — an automated intrusion into our personal space that we never directly perceive. Will we eventually come to accept this diminution of private space as the new normal? Probably yes. Will that change our thinking and behavior? Probably yes.

A more immediate by-product of this affair is a new round of erosion of trust between government and the governed. Privacy’s cousin, honesty, has also been compromised. Can we ever be sure that any government explanation of the project is true?
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When I finally got to the arboretum, it was cloudy, but pleasantly mild, and many flowers were blooming. It smelled wonderful! I took many deep breaths. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could record those smells?

In the meantime, we’ve got digital photography, which is itself pretty amazing. I was looking for dramatic colors and shapes, and interesting textures. I was also thinking about the complex patterns that nature made, and others that the gardeners made, and others that only I could make on that particular morning with those particular blooms. I generally focused on the flowers that were at their resplendent peaks, but I also caught a few that were well into the process of dying, and beautiful in sadder way.
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