Tech game changer
As Hurricane Harvey approached the third coast, the storm system started dumping water. Houston, the 4th largest city in the nation, saw up to 51 inches of rain which is more than the booming metropolis sees in a year.
Immediately droves of people descended upon Houston to aid the relief and rescue missions that began almost as quickly as the storm did. What was the game changer though, was technology and the ability to get information to people, fast.
A brief history
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana, more specifically New Orleans. Even though it was a Category three storm, the storm surge it produced was one of the worst in history. Katrina was responsible for more than 1,800 deaths.
Also in 2005, Twitter had not yet been invented.
As of publishing, Hurricane Harvey has claimed the lives of 40 people. Let’s break that down.
A vast majority of people have either forgotten or have just omitted that the storm tore through Texas’ coastal cities first. Corpus Christi, Rockport, Port Aransas and several others saw unprecedented destruction. Add those cities populations to Houston’s, a city with a population of more than two million people, and the fact that the death toll is not in triple or quadruple digits is astonishing.
Again, I will pose that this number is so ridiculously low due to technology. I’m from Houston, so I feel like I have been immersed in all of the rescue stories. (side bar: Don’t even entertain the idea that all 2M people should have evacuated, I’d like to remind you of 2008’s Hurricane Rita where almost one hundred people died in their cars, stuck in evacuation traffic).
The Harvey stories I keep hearing and reading are stories of 911 not being able to respond.
The 911 operators were so overwhelmed with calls that some people in need of rescue called local restaurants for help.
A former high school teacher of mine detailed her 34 hour stint as a dispatcher on Zello, a walkie talkie app that connected countless souls to the Cajun Navy and other rescuers.
Hell, two guys I grew up with saw the need for rescuers to get connected to rescuees and created an open source website that allowed those in need of rescue to upload location and other vital information so that rescuers could asses and see who was in their immediate area and save lives.
The future is now
When Katrina hit, touch screens were still a pipedream, the only people who had internet on their phones were people who had Blackberry PDAs, and snake was the only app available. Coding was as obscure as the Cubs winning a World Series and Facebook was barely a year old.
Go from that, to 92% of Americans having cell phones (two-thirds of them owning a smartphone) all with data with the ability to communicate through text, talk, and thousands of apps. In the wake of the storm people have been using Facebook to find missing loved ones, Waze to update road conditions, Twitter to organize efforts and plain ol’ texting to check in with friends.
As Hurricane Irma threatens Florida, Hurricane Katia looms just south of Texas near Mexico and Hurricane Jose makes up its mind on where it will go, it is my sincere hope that people were paying attention to Texas last week.
Houston put on a clinic on how to act in a natural disaster. Houstonians showed the country (and the world) how to rally together, regardless of religion, race, or creed, to make a difference. Houstonians also showed how putting the proper systems in place can, and will save lives.
Why robots freak us out, and what it means for the future of AI
(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Robots and humans have a long way to go before the social divide disappears, but research is giving us insight on how to cross the uncanny valley.
We hate robots. Ok, wait, back up. We at least think they are more evil than good. Try it yourself – “are robots” in Google nets you evil before good. Megatron has higher SEO than Optimus Prime, and it’s not just because he’s so much cooler. It cuz he evil, cuz. It do be like that.
It’s not even a compliment to call someone robotic; society connotes this to emotionless preprogrammed shells of hideous nothing, empty clankbags that walk and talk and not much else. So, me at a party. Or if you’re a nerd, you’re a robot. (Me at a party once again.)
Let’s start by assuming robots as human-like bipedal machines that are designed with some amount of artificial intelligence, generally designed to fulfill a job to free up humanity from drudgery. All sounds good so far. So why do they creep us out?
There’s a litany of reasons why, best summed up with the concept of the uncanny valley, first coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori (Wow he’s still alive! The robots have not yet won) in 1970. Essentially, we know what a human is and how it looks and behaves against the greater backdrop of life and physics. When this is translated to a synthetic being, we are ok with making a robot look and act like us to a point, where we then notice all the irregularities and differences.
Most of these are minor – unnaturally smooth or rigid movements, light not scattering properly on a surface, eyes that don’t sync up quite right when they blink, and several other tiny details. Lots of theories take over at this point about why this creeps us out. But a blanket way to think about it is that our expectation doesn’t match what we are seeing; the reality we’re presented with is off just enough and this makes us uncomfortable .
Ever stream a show and the audio is a half second off? Makes you really annoyed. Magnify that feeling by a thousand and you’re smack in the middle of the uncanny valley. It’s that unnerving. One possible term for this is abjection, which is what happens the moment before we begin to fear something. Our minds – sensing incompatibility with robots – know this is something else, something other , and faced with no way to categorize this, we crash.
This is why they make good villains in movies – something we don’t understand and given free will and autonomy, potentially imbued with the bias of a creator or capable of forming terrifying conclusions all on its own (humans are a virus). But they also make good heroes, especially if they are cute or funny. Who doesn’t love C3PO? That surprise that they are good delights us. Build in enough appeal to a robot, and we root for them and feel empathy when they are faced with hardships. Do robots dream of electric sheep? Do robots have binary souls? Bits and zeros and ones?
Professor Jaime Banks (Texas Tech University’s College of Media & Communication) spends a lot of time thinking about how we perceive robots. It’s a complex and multifaceted topic that covers anthropomorphism, artificial intelligence, robot roles within society, trust, inherently measuring virtue versus evil, preconceived notions from entertainment, and numerous topics that cover human-robot interactions.
The world is approaching a future where robots may become commonplace; there are already robot bears in Japan working in the healthcare field. Dressing them up with cute faces and smiles may help, but one jerky movement later and we’ve dropped all suspension.
At some point, we have to make peace with the idea that they will be all over the place. Skynet, GLaDOS in Portal, the trope of your evil twin being a robot that your significant will have to shoot in the middle of your fight, that episode of Futurama where everything was a robot and they rose up against their human masters with wargod washing machines and killer greeting cards, the other Futurama episode where they go to a planet full of human hating murderous robots… We’ve all got some good reasons to fear robots and their coded minds.
But as technology advances, it makes sense to have robots take over menial tasks, perform duties for the needy and sick, and otherwise benefit humanity at large. And so the question we face is how to build that relationship now to help us in the future.
There’s a fine line between making them too humanlike versus too mechanical. Pixar solved the issue of unnerving humanoids in their movies by designing them stylistically – we know they are human and accept that the figure would look odd in real life. We can do the same with robots – enough familiarity to develop an appeal, but not enough to erase the divide between humanity and robot. It may just be a question of time and new generations growing up with robots becoming fixtures of everyday life. I’m down for cyborgs too.
Fearing them might not even be bad, as Banks points out: “…a certain amount of fear can be a useful thing. Fear can make us think critically and carefully and be thoughtful about our interactions, and that would likely help us productively engage a world where robots are key players.”
Also, check out Robot Carnival if you get the chance – specifically the Presence episode of the anthology.
BIPOC Gen Zers are using TikTok to create cultural awareness
(OPINION / EDITORIAL) TikTok has become a platform for younger generations to share their cultures, paving the way for a more inclusive society. And they’re doing it one 15 second video at a time.
When scrolling on TikTok, you might come across this question posed by a BIPOC creator (Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color): “How old were you when you realized you weren’t ugly, you just lived in a predominantly White space?”
Growing up in predominantly White spaces myself with immigrant parents from the Middle East, I had a warped perspective of beauty. Straight light hair, fair skin, Western features, a stick-thin figure – I internalized my physical otherness as lack.
It wasn’t until I moved to a diverse city for college that I realized this. I saw others speaking different languages, eating ethnic foods and dressing however they wanted without fear of losing their proximity to Whiteness. Exposure to others who didn’t fit “the mold” was transformative for me.
As someone in their mid-twenties, I came of age with social media like Tumblr, Facebook and, ultimately, Instagram. But I’d be lying to you if I said that I didn’t wish TikTok was around when I was a kid.
For reference, most TikTok users are between 16-24, meaning that many are still in high school. While content on TikTok is really all over the place and specifically catered to your preferences (you can feel the algorithums at work as your scroll), one facet that I find integral to the app’s essence is Gen Z proudly showcasing their cultures – aka #culturecheck.
Besides the countless ethnic food tutorials (some of my favorite content on the app!), fashion has become a main way for BIPOC or immigrant TikTokers to fully express their identities and share their culture with other users on the app, regardless of physical location.
Take the #FashionEdit challenge, where creators lip sync to a mash-up of Amine’s “Caroline” and “I Just Did a Bad Thing” by Bill Wurtz as they transform from their everyday Western clothes into that of their respective culture.
In her famous video, Milan Mathew – the creator attributed to popularizing this trend – sits down in a chair. She edits the clip in such a way that as she sits, her original outfit switches to a baby-pink lehenga and she becomes adorned with traditional Indian jewelry. Denise Osei does the same, switching into tradition Ghanaian dress. If you can think of a culture or ethnicity, chances are they are represented in this TikTok trend.
This past Indigenous People’s Day, James Jones’ videos went viral across various social media platforms, as he transformed into his traditional garments and performed tribal dances.
Though the cultures and respective attire they showcase are unique in each video, the energy is all the same: proud and beautiful. Showing off what your culture wears has become a way to gain clout on the app and inspire others to do the same.
The beautiful thing about cultural/ethnic TikTok is that it isn’t just Mexicans cheering for other Mexicans, or Arabs cheering for other Arabs – the app sustains a general solidarity across racial and ethnic lines while cultivating an appreciation of world cultures.
But just how deep does that appreciation go? Some users think (and I agree) that “liking” a video of an attractive creator in traditional dress is hardly a radical move in dismantling notions of Western beauty.
While TikTok trends might not solve these issues entirely, it’s important to note that they are moving things in the right directions – I certainly never saw anything like this when I was growing up.
For whatever reason, Millennials, Gen X and Boomers seem to have a lot of shade to throw at Gen Z. But one thing is for certain – this young generation is paving the way for a more inclusive, more respectful society, which is something we should all get behind. And they’re doing it one 15 second video at a time.
This website is like Pinterest for WFH desk setups
(OPINION / EDITORIAL) If you’ve been working from home at the same, unchanged desk setup, it may be time for an upgrade. My Desk Tour has the inspiration you need.
Whether you’re sitting, standing, or reclining your way through the pandemic, you’re most likely doing it from home these days. You’re also probably contending with an uninspired desk configuration hastily cobbled together in March, which—while understandable—might be bringing you down. Fortunately, there’s an easy, personable solution to spark your creativity: My Desk Tour.
My Desk Tour is a small website started by Jonathan Cai. On this site, you will find pictures of unique and highly customized desk setups; these desk configurations range from being optimized for gamers to coders to audiophiles, so there’s arguably something for everyone—even if you’re just swinging by to drool for a bit.
Cai also implements a feature in which site users can tag products seen in desk photos with direct links to Amazon so you don’t have to poke around the Internet for an hour in search of an obscure mouse pad. This is something Cai initially encountered on Reddit and, after receiving guidance from various subreddits on the issue of which mouse to purchase, he found the inspiration to create My Desk Tour.
The service itself is pretty light—the landing page consists of a few desk setup photos and a rotating carousel of featured configurations—but it has great potential to grow into a desk-focused social experience of sorts.
It’s also a great place to drop in on if you’re missing the extra level of adoration for your desk space that a truly great setup invokes. Since most people who have been working from home since the spring didn’t receive a ton of advance notice, it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of folks have resigned themselves to a boring or inefficient desk configuration. With a bit of inspiration from My Desk Tour, that can change overnight.
Of course, some of the desk options featured on the site are a bit over the top. One configuration boasts dual ultra-wide monitors stacked atop each other, and another shows off a monitor flanked by additional vertical monitors—presumably for the sake of coding. If you’re scrambling to stay employed, such a setup might be egregious.
If you’re just looking for a new way to orient your workspace for the next few months, though, My Desk Tour is worth a visit.
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