Tag Archives: technology

Drones are Scary

New Orleans    For their Scorpio birthdays, mi companera and mi hija both got robots.  They aren’t really robots in the “Star Wars” sense.  The name of this thing though is Shark-Ion Robot, although the generic name I gather is “roomba,” and Shark is just what this one in my house is called.  In the way that we think of devices as labor-saving, this thing qualifies.  It regularly runs around the floor of our house from room to room doing something that I guess we should call vacuuming.

Supposedly, it can also find its way back to its charging station, because it is powered by a battery.  It does all of this somewhat on its own.  I can hear it bumping into things now in another room.  I’m glad it’s there, because minutes ago it was bumping into the chair where I am sitting as I type this on my non-robotic computer.  Sometimes, it gets stuck and beeps, which is the equivalent of a robot whine.  I had to get up just then to unwedge it between the couch and a chair leg.  It was crying both “clean” and “dock.”  I’m not knocking it.  My people love the little thing.  On the other hand, my daughter made an excellent point when they were comparing notes, when she noted, “it’s not as smart as you’d think it would be.”  That’s the point, I’m getting at.

It’s basically a ground-drone with no one controlling it.  Flying drones are in the news, and I’m finding them creepy on one hand and scary on the other.  Ranchers and farmers in Nebraska and eastern Colorado made the news scratching their heads because they were hearing drones during the night all over the place, and no one knew whose they were or what they were up to.  Some thought that they might be owned by oil companies doing topographical maps or something.  The FAA recently announced that over the next two years it wants to force drone owners to radio tag and register their devices.  From time to time you read that someone was fined or arrested for flying these buggers near airports or doing some other crazy thing. In short, now no one knows who owns drones, no one is regulating them, but oil companies and others own them for purposes unknown, and that adds up to very creepy, very scary, and a danger to us all.

To top this all off, drones are killing machines.  Or, at least, they can be.  Earlier this winter we watched a couple of episodes of “Jack Ryan” on Amazon Prime.  Some of the soldiers who try to control these drones and pull the trigger to kill people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and god knows where else were having existential crises about killing civilians and children.  One showed up in Syria to give some money to the father of a man he killed, anonymously, from 10,000 miles away and 25,000 feet about the ground.  He had killed hundreds with the flick of a finger.

Now the news on the front pages of all of the papers is the story that Trump gave the OK, and someone pulled the trigger on a remote-controlled drone, that killed a big time general and spymaster from Iran and others that were with him outside of the Baghdad airport in Iraq.  He was no big fan of the USA or Americans.  He was a big shot in Iran. President Trump and his spinners claim he was responsible for giving the orders that killed hundreds of Americans over the years.  They claim he was in Iraq and up to no good.  Maybe so?

Bret Stephens, a columnist for the New York Times, even goes so far as to claim that he was such a bad dude that this is somehow “justice.”  How can that be?  We aren’t at war with Iran in any official way.  All of this was originally in retaliation for an American contractor being killed, so it certainly wasn’t proportional either in the way a Clinton, Bush, or Obama might have ordered a missile strike at a refinery or whatever to send a message.

Is this a thing where justice is only in the “eye of the beholder?”  Is justice something that one and all get to decide for themselves?  Sort of a multi-national, everything goes, free-for-all?  Was the strike on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center justice in killing innocent civilians in the USA, because some people somewhere else thought we had done wrong collectively in Afghanistan and elsewhere as a country?

Justice can’t be something that anyone determines by themselves in such a situation just because they have the power or wherewithal to order death to be done.  Someone has to pull the trigger just like we have to put the rug robot back on the docking station when it runs into a chair it can’t get around.  For there to be justice rather than vigilantes at a hanging tree, there has to be a process, serious consideration, and accountability where and when the orders are given.  None of these drones are smart enough to kill on their own and no one should be powerful enough to decide justice on their own, whether there or here.


Apps for SNAP with Both Green and Yellow Lights Flashing

New Orleans   An internet application that would allow food stamp recipients participating in SNAP, or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program as the government calls it now, seems like a great idea.  A Brooklyn-based startup called Propel created an app that allows recipients to check on their smartphones and see how much of their benefits they have spent and how much they have left.  The app also has coupons for food stores, supposedly offering more nutritional products, and in some states has job postings.   Sounds like a winner for lower income families at first blush, so green light and go for it.

There’s no question we need the techies to start thinking of the best ways to provide better access and information to people receiving services, especially low-and-moderate income families.  The food stamp program is a great place to start. Over forty-four million people participate in the program now so this is a big-time operation.  Of those recipients about 44% or twenty million are children so the potential pool for smartphones giving access to such information is about twenty-four million.  Maybe half that number actually have smartphones, although that may be a kind estimate given the persistence of the digital divide, but being liberal that would mean perhaps twelve million have smartphones now.

Propel claims it has one-million users.  In a study with Duke University, Propel found that on average SNAP recipients spent more than 80 percent of their SNAP benefits within the first nine days, completely exhausting the sum by day 21. But when given an in-app tool that showed them a weekly budget instead of the entire balance, users stretched their monthly balance by two days—about six meals a month.

An article in The New York Times paints them as the good guys and a Xerox $6 billion spinoff named Conduent as the bad guy bullies.  The Propel app is a “skin” that is built on top of platforms provided by Conduent and other governmental subcontractors of state governments that provide Electronic Benefit Transfers to benefit recipients.   Most of the food stamp delivery systems are provided by two companies, Conduent and Fidelity National Information Systems known as FIS, a $9 billion company.  Conduent has contracts with twenty-two states that I could identify from governmental information.  FIS has most of the rest of them.  Propel tells the Times that FIS is no problem, but Conduent is.  Additionally, Conduent has rolled out a competing app that gives basic information in South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah with more information coming.

Looking at the state contract specifics for Conduent, I found that in several states their web design allowed access to a wide range of benefits from TANF to energy assistance and more, which many of us for years have felt is the Holy Grail necessary to get increased maximum feasible participation in benefit access.   Because Conduent has state contracts it is also regulated, which Propel and its competitors are not.  As much as my kneejerk response was to root for the little guy versus the big boys, a yellow light is slowing me down even as I was flooring the car on green.

Partially, it’s the business model.  Propel can’t sell data obviously since food stamp recipients are protected by an array of confidentiality laws at the federal level, so they deserve no special applause that is inferred in the Times’ piece, since none of these primary contractors can either.  The Propel business model is advertising, coupons from the food stores, and job postings.  I find none of that reassuring. Frankly, the income sources for the company need to be regulated as well when the potential to exploit these vulnerable populations lies behind every one of these sources.  Equally obvious is that state governments should be insisting that its contractors like Conduent and FIS should be providing the kinds of features that Propel is promoting to recipients free and clear now that Propel has shown their value.  Propel may not like other businesses playing hardball, but I don’t like government not stepping up to its full responsibilities to serve their citizens, especially lower income families.