Monday, November 20, 2017

The (Very) Dark Side of Technology

Just when I thought I'd captured the market on worrying, E. sent me a video that makes my anxieties seem trivial. The video was created by Stuart Russell, a professor at UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the Future of Life Institute. It was shown earlier this month in Geneva, Switzerland at a United Nations meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The video presents a grim fantasy about the unintended consequences of developing weaponized drones that use artificial intelligence. It's meant to scare the sh*t out of us and, for me at least, it worked.

Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, even nuclear war pale in comparison to the dystopian future pictured in the video. Okay, nuclear war can't really pale in comparison to anything, but this scenario is about as close as it gets.

The first drone I saw up close, during the innocent 
days when small drones were only used for things 
like real estate photography.
While technology has increased our ability to do good, some people inevitably seek to exploit it for evil ends. E. and I often speculate about the coming rise of machines and we wonder whether artificial intelligence will take over the world. Sometimes I even imagine that, given the destructive history of our species, machines would do a better job.

The video, though, pictures a world where humans are still in charge, one in which terrorists appropriate technology originally intended for fighting criminals and use it to further their malevolent goals. Professor Russell hopes the video will galvanize the world into action to prevent the scenario it depicts. But he cautions that time is running out.

Watch the video if you dare. And on Thanksgiving day, be thankful that the murderous drones depicted in it haven't been unleashed, yet.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Long before I ever imagined living in a place called Coconut Grove, I heard an unfortunate story about a coconut. It was told to me by Herb, a family friend, and it came to mind recently, as I gazed at the coconut palms still standing on my hurricane-ravaged island.

I was visiting my parents, who lived in Boca Raton. I had arrived a few days earlier from mid-winter Boston after a nasty bout with the flu. Herb, who lived nearby, had come over to say hello. I told him how wonderful Florida's warm, humid air felt and mentioned that I had been especially enjoying evening strolls under the palm trees in my parents' neighborhood.

"Be careful about the coconut palms," said Herb. "A friend of mine was taking a walk and a coconut fell on his head and killed him."

Not a reassuring story for a worrier like me. It had never occurred to me to fret about walking under palm trees. But Herb's cautionary tale stayed with me. His friend's death seemed like a particularly embarrassing way to go — one minute you're living in an earthly paradise, the next you're done in by a coconut.

*   *   *

The island where I live has many coconut palms. As I detailed in my last post, virtually all of them survived Hurricane Irma. So did the bunches of coconuts hanging from each tree, and they have continued to grow and ripen during the weeks since the hurricane. Normally, the landscape crew that takes care of the island removes the ripening fruit before it can reach the stage where a gust of wind or its own weight could bring it down, but with so much cleanup needed after the storm, coconut removal apparently hasn't been a priority. Individual coconuts have begun falling to the ground, causing me to worry that even a gentle breeze might send one flying in my direction.

At first, during my daily walks, when I approached a stand of coconut palms overhanging the path, I would lean my head back to see if anything was about to fall on me. Not a brilliant approach, since anything that did fall would then smash me in the face, an even worse fate than being beaned on the top of my head. So, for the past few days, when in the vicinity of hanging coconuts, I've taken to walking with both hands on my head. This detracts from the impression I'd like to give my fellow residents — that I'm a laidback sophisticate from up north — but I'm hoping it will diminish the impact of a fallen fruit on my skull.

A few days ago, attempting nonchalance, I mentioned the coconut situation to a neighbor and was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only one who had noticed the coconuts and worried about them. According to my neighbor, the condo's landscape committee had asked the landscape crew to remove them as soon as possible.

This morning, the crew arrived with two bucket trucks and began working on the palm trees. Inexplicably, they've chosen to start by removing dead fronds from the palm trees that line the road through the community even though those are not coconut palms and pose no threat to walkers. Still, I'm not complaining — only a few more days of walking with my hands on my head and I should be able to relax.

Note: Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Lonely Palms

Since I last posted on this blog, our country has been through a lot — winds, floods, fires, political tempests. Although I’ve agonized from afar, nothing directly affected me until Hurricane Irma made landfall on my beloved island just off the coast of Miami.

Landscaped path and our favorite
bench before the storm.
I was in New England as the storm approached. When meteorologists predicted that a category four storm might decimate Miami, I reacted philosophically. E. and I had been lucky to have a winter getaway in such a lovely spot. If our apartment were destroyed, I would be sad, but I would move on. I did worry, though, about friends who were in the path of the storm. The island was under mandatory evacuation, but many of those who left elected to stay with friends a short distance away. They were vulnerable.

Then Irma’s track veered and Miami suffered only a glancing blow from the hurricane’s outer bands. I breathed a sigh of relief. Not that those outer bands were completely insignificant. They still brought category one winds and a storm surge that covered the island as well as downtown Miami and Coconut Grove. But this year, everything is relative. Compared to the havoc Irma caused in the Caribbean and Maria later brought to Puerto Rico, Miami’s mess seemed small and reparable.

To be sure, there was damage on the island, according to friends’ reports — trees and foliage destroyed, the seawall partially collapsed, some apartments flooded. But the buildings did fine overall and our apartment was untouched. Power was restored after only one day and the AC worked fine. I breathed a sigh of relief. E. and I could return to Miami for another winter.

Trees gone as well as
our favorite bench.
We arrived a few days ago on a gorgeous afternoon. The summer humidity had eased and soft breezes blew across Biscayne Bay. At first glance, everything looked as lovely as ever. Then we took a walk around the island. Even though we knew what to expect, we were still shocked. The palm trees had survived but the beautiful old sea grape trees were gone. Flowers and shrubs — gone. Our favorite bench — gone. Most of the beach — gone, along with the wooden stairs leading leading down to it. Only the adjacent tiki (chickee) hut survived unscathed — the Seminoles and Miccosukees knew how to build to withstand hurricanes.

Seawall collapse.
On our little isle you’ll find three high-rise condominium buildings and, at one end, a small four-story hotel. The hotel is owned separately from the condominium property and the current owner has allowed it to become run-down in recent years. The part of the seawall maintained by the hotel owner had deteriorated, so when Irma hit it simply gave way. The collapsed area is now barricaded off and completely impassable, so E. and I couldn’t make our customary full circuit of the island. Instead, we had to turn around and retrace our steps.

A minor inconvenience, to put it mildly. But one whose very insignificance made me reflect on how fine the line is between normal life and total catastrophe. In an instant, the clear path of one’s life can disappear, swallowed up by illness, terrorism, natural disaster, or random accident. For today, at least, I’m grateful for what I still have — family, friends, and a spectacular view.

Note: Click on the photos to enlarge them.