Living Data

May 2018 DellVille AZ.

Faint musical notes rose from a pale strip of material spread across a corner table of a backyard deck. Nearby stood a silent figure watching the last rays of sun set over the proud hump of Arrowhead Mountain. Tonight’s rays outlined a pink cloud of otherwise invisible vapor on the opposite horizon. Below the deck, an unruly covey of quail clucked toward their nightly roost.

Cassandra Hawk, a lithe graying woman, sighed. This parade of avian parenting always racked her sense of childlessness. She’d once substituted influence over generations of young software engineers. Like many retired designers of early software validation methods, she felt a wave of guilt about her profession. Treating people as data had up-ended society. Algorithmic-based models had become “weapons of math destruction”. Their beloved Internet had forged the chain of events known as the “Great Trickster”election. Was this society her generation’s legacy?

That electronic textile device, called a Whisperer, was the latest stage in social media. Its first public trial would be at her upcoming OMG (50th) reunion. She lacked an ethical framework for evaluating the potential harm versus benefits of this conversation-altering wearable computer. If only she could dive into its programming system, she might predict the consequences of the design decisions promulgated from the mind-controlled youngsters at CumuLinker’s Silicon Valley campus.

This cool evening of calming quail clucks and changing sky colors carried — Casey’s thoughts back to her idol, Ada Augusta Byron Lovelace, the originator of computational thinking.

As adjunct professor, Casey often paused her lectures to display a portrait of that Victorian mathematician initialing the memo dubbed “Ada’s Algorithm”. While Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage were constrained to the technology of weaving looms, Ada recognized that the ‘data’ for their woven patterns could be not only numbers, but also music and symbols.

stroking her CumuLinker Whisperer, Casey pondered how her idol would understand today’s surveillance -based business models. Their rules captured and organized data by patterns of ‘links’ ‘ that symbolized friendship, ‘likes’, emotions, and authorities. Could that prophetic Ada have imagined the powerful effects when packets of data represented a person? Could she foresee algorithms and data as arrows into a person’s emotions? No, and neither did generations of computing professionals understand that power until the arrival of The Great Trickster.

Practicality tugged Casey back to her next adventure. Always a last-minute packer, Casey ran a mental list of clothes appropriate for her OMG College Reunion, starting the next day. Remembering how slacks were banned on the 1960s campus, she appreciated her mixed collection of pastel blouses, jackets, and slacks, plus low-heeled and flat sandals. Comfort rules, she’d select tonight, pack tomorrow. A more intriguing personality makeover beckoned.

Her reunion invitation stated “Come prepared for a social media extravaganza!”. She unfurled the Whisperer device she’d decorated for the Reunion Fashionista contest. This gimmick came straight from the technology behemoth CumuLinker, which now managed all the social graphs of all the little people-data who had ever signed up for Google, FaceBook, and the gaggle of Silicon Valley photo sharing startups. With so many $billions wealth, the social media founding fathers were bored by search engine rankings and fake news. They out-source to CumuLinker so they could save rain forests, explore asteroids, extend life, revamp schools, and operate their Singularity University. Casey was guessing that CumuLinker needed to expand its social data universe into more moments of ordinary daily communication.

Whisperers were enclosed sheets of electronics meant to be worn as scarves, neck ties, whatever matched one’s garb. Wireless ear-fitting ‘hearables’ spoke synthetic speech conversation managed by the Whisperer’s code. Unable to resist her urge to probe the Whisperer programming heritage, Casey planned her own experiments at the reunion.

Casey guessed CumuLinker would be exchanging Reunion attendee’s social profiles like 3rd party introductions and updates. That could avoid embarrassing name lapses, divorce questions, sorority sniping, or political revelations. There might also be opportunities for unfulfilled longings, friendship mending, and casual plans. Of course, there would be pedigree wars of name-dropping books, honorary degrees, job titles, patents, vacation homes, and friends in high places.

Casey’s Fashionista decoration was a no-brainer. She’d arrived on campus to major in math, then taken over the IBM 1620 making its way into academic computing. In addition to programming all her calculus assignments, that young Cassy guided tours of the computing facility’s console, card reader, and printer, each the size of a VW bug. A window from the hall often drew a crowd on their way up to the Chapel. With no graphics in those days, the line printer was the only active device in the room. Playful programs printed out nonsense in rhythms. “Would you like to hear the computer play ‘Anchors Away’?” highlighted the tour, sometimes competing with organ music above.

Casey’s Whisperer draped over her shoulder to show a picture of a very young woman at the console, presumably debugging a program. With a slight tap, the Whisperer would play the college song. Casey wondered if Ada had messaged her an image of looms, printers, music, rhythms, patterns,and computation rattling waves through a sanctuary toward a heaven-pointing spire.

The OMB reunion would be held in a dormitory dining room where she’d once served tables in a black dress and white apron. The Hall was now remodeled into apartments. She’d be sharing with two widows from the snootiest sorority, without much to say to a nerdy math major. No, bad thought, she swept that chip off her shoulder.

Casey most wanted to catch up with lifelong friends, Alice and Patrick. Patrick had been a class clown in her science labs. They’d mocked their professors in robes at chapel events. He often called her Sunday morning for homework help when he knew she’d be sleeping in or, more likely, programming at her personal IBM 1620. A year after graduation, she’d introduced Patrick to Alice, a grad school acquaintance, dead serious about neural nets before that subject drifted into AI. The clown-gown couple, she, and an occasional partner, had visited each others’ homes, shared job woes, watched parents decline, and never reformed Patrick’s clowning. These were her closest, longest friends, picking up where they left off after any indeterminate amount of time.

The last year had been hard on their friendship. The OMG Reunion was their first meeting after the Alice-Patrick family trauma. Casey didn’t know how to comfort them, her childlessness making their loss incomprehensible. For the first time in 50 years, she feared teasing Patrick, hugging Alice, speaking her deep nerdy plans to support the WWW founder’s re-invention or her budding relationship with snowbird Gavin. She hesitated filling her phone slide show with pictures of the niece and nephew she doted upon as they began their own families and careers. She wanted to hear once again the Alice-Patrick gentle teasing, “Casey,, do you still adore programming in Prolog? Did your algorithms ever catch that murderer?”.

*-*- *-*- *-*-

The next day, showering after her long travel to Rolling Hills OH, Casey was ready to party. Her Whisperer was charging on the room’s desktop.

“It’s drink time! Come on down.” texted her long-time friends. Texting back their private emoji, she donned her Whisperer and waved to the widows as she exited the suite. Party sounds drifted up a broad marble stairway. With a jolt and a ding the elevator door opened to view The modern ugly carpet that had replaced earlier ugly carpet outside the dining room.

A boisterous greeter projected a video of Casey’s decorated Whisperer for entry into the design contest. The acquaintances waved and silently compared each other’s aging features.
Their Whisperers interlocked. Casey listened to the greeter’s alumni magazine article about a recent Panama Canal cruise while her own profile listed her recent peer learning courses. CumuLinker asserted the pair had taken art together from the sexy sculptor professor, but Casey couldn’t recall.

Glancing nervously around with a geek’s disdain for clothing fashion, Casey felt relieved she’d hit the dress theme with scoop-necked blouse, flowing slacks, and SAS sandals. Not that it mattered, but she knew she had the competition in the bag.

Soon into the evening her Whisperer had caught her up on many classmates life events. CumuLinker felt like a comfortable conversation guide, filling out its Universal Social Graph, as Casey had predicted. It handily named and pointed out all the surviving math and science majors she might want to converse with during the evening. Donation opportunities played the role of advertising during Whisperer conversations. High-ranking donors received effusive introductions. The Whisperer was a dream communicator for both introverts and fund raisers.

Her trio snagged a corner table. She’d clasped shoulders with Alice and poked Patrick’s muscular arms from senior softball pitching. The couple’s Whisperer patches were black. For these old friends, small talk and a little professional gossip about the exodus of government scientists brought them together again.

Meantime, on one wall a timeline of dates and life events flowed from their college days into a bright blue sky over the campus spire icon.

Casey nudged Alice, “This is CumuLinker’s extravaganza, dubbed ‘Life Replayed’!. Everyone gets a timeline video to take home to replay on their Whisperer.”

The timelines seemed friendly, affirming, and factually correct. “Well, duh,” Casey thought, “CumuLinker had our college yearbooks and annual updates. These combined with all national newspaper and corporate news libraries, every social media post, glimpses of our email, genetic histories, publications, and, soon, , conversations recorded right here through Whisperers.”

Florida homes lost to sea rise were pictured in their original, happier conditions. Most replayed lives included sound tracks of favorite rock artists and folk singers, often bringing out tears. The peak was CumuLinker’s measurement from their best moment of the past year.

A spotlight swept over their table then onto the wall screen. Patrick’s life replayed through his clowning stage, business enterprises, well into senior baseball. Alice’s parallel timeline showed off her academic and stellar government career which took them to international sabbaticals, conferences, even Antarctica.

Casey clutched her drink while Alice and Patrick glanced warily at each other. As with other timelines, up came the message: “the most momentous event of your past year!!!”.

“Oh, no”, all three muttered, as the room brightened with the birthday party featuring grandchild, eight-year-old Joshua, playing with his cousins, wearing a turban around his cancer-stricken brain. Facebook friends who believed the disease was conquered had collected so many good wishes, prayers, and practical suggestions. Casey wished she’d never taught that Data Structures course. Algorithms know a great moment when they count the ‘links’ and ‘likes’ in friends’ news feeds.

Casey cringed. How could CumuLinker technologists have no ethical framework for performing this monumental act of “Algorithmic Cruelty”? Hadn’t CumuLinker learned from Facebook’s 2014 debacle?

Nobody spoke. Alice and Patrick rose from the table and left the room. At the door, they looked back at Casey, who knew and loved algorithms, taught and practiced the principles of software engineering, and barely mentioned ethics in her courses.

Young, deceased, beloved Joshua smiled down at the room of data formerly known as people.

Seeing Things Differently

May 2018, after the OMG Reunion, Rolling Hills OH.

Casey dodged the lawn sprinklers along the path to the central campus parking lot. The 6 a.m. shuttle had its motor running as the driver took her $20. She wheeled her suitcase to the back seat, hoping to avoid conversation after last evening’s fiasco at the OMG Reunion.

Her iPhone and the Whisperer curled in her suitcase beeped simultaneously. The message confirmed that she’d won the Whisperer decoration contest prize: five personalized versions of ‘Life Replayed’. CumuLinker’s prototype social media timeline wouldn’t let her forget her most memorable moments in her professional, romantic, community, and recreational life. Or, as the monster showed last night, CumuLinker’s idea of a best moment could be one of the worst to her. She feared her Whisperer might pile up a new line of chips on her shoulder if its replayed moments triggered unpleasant emotions or revealed secrets.

She looked up to see Patrick and Alice seating themselves near the front door. Patrick poked the driver to get moving. Alice mouthed in her direction, “Talk later”. Then she leaned her head on Patrick’s shoulder. Casey kicked the empty seat in anger as she reminded herself of missed opportunities to lecture students about “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty”. She’d use this episode for a blog post on “Tombstone, not Capstone, projects required for BS in CS degrees!”.

Leaving the reunion after only a few hours sleep forced decisions about her weekend. She was booked Monday into a hotel in DC for what she expected, and hoped, would be her last panel reviewing proposals for the National Science Foundation. Maybe this weekend could leave more time to renew a friendship with a long-time colleague still working on interesting projects. It wasn’t too early to text Sally Rhodes.

The return text stated that Casey would be welcome to stay at Sally’s condo in Arlington. Sally suggested meeting at the Ballston exit from the Metro where she’d be having coffee and catching up on her podcasts. “It will be good to see you again, kiddo, I’ve got a new project to show off!”

Transfer from the shuttle to the train went smoothly as Casey sleepily slumped into a seat in the quiet car. One pass through the tweets on her Twitter app after the usual Friday night news dump would likely bore her into a deep snooze, hopefully without drooling. She fumbled in her jacket pockets for tissues and ear buds and found a note from her reunion suite mates: “Sorry your nerdy experiment got out of control. Have a nice rest-of-life.”.

Casey cringed. Her profession, bringing into existence the Internet, then turning it over to nerds who thought a few ads wouldn’t be a problem, had screwed up society in so many ways she couldn’t count. And not done yet, as the “Great Trickster” continued to spread election snark while the economy adjusted to international competition.

She clicked on an unfamiliar Twitter hash tag #PinkPageFlu. Up came a series of messy screen shots with snarky remarks. She pulled down the window blind to better explore this pink weirdness. Stretching over a few months were reports of web sites turning into unusable, irregular, glossy, low contrast pages. Different browsers displayed variations of ugliness, especially if one dislike pink. A click on the Reader button customized readable stripped-down pages. ‘Like’s and other silly social media conventions were often slathered across the page as images.

“Hello, Pink New World!”, Casey muttered. Happy moments from her decades as an early netizen popped into her memory. She wished she could turn back the clock to the Dawn of Web Time,” “, continuing Usenet, Altavista, and her very first web page.

Casey shared the view that the WWW was really sick. But, she wondered why so few asked when this new disease started. Fake News, bots, and sheer nastiness had already driven many people back to TV or simply not caring any more. The WWW inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, had warned about increasing ugliness and awkwardness in his invention. The World Wide Web had started as hyperlinks then bloomed into graphics with browsers. Linking together the world’s information wasn’t a worthy enough goal, there had to be beauty and animation and brain ticklers. When the public could afford expensive phones, they wanted all web content for free, giving rise to surveillance capitalism and the Silicon Valley oligarchies. Nevertheless, Casey admitted, that Whisperer and its life-shaking ‘Life Replayed’ projection were a real kick!

This train ride had given Casey a bundle of blog post topics. Now, she was ready to enter another person’s, very different world in daily operations but sharing some professional outlooks and some interesting adventures back in the days of the Japanese Fifth Generation project. Casey’s friend Sally had decided to retire in the Capitol area to maintain proximity to government consulting as well as access to public transportation.

*-*- *-*- *-*-

Arriving in DC, then transferring to the Red Line to Virginia, wrestling her suitcase up the long escalator, out of breath, Casey spotted Sally at the coffee/pastry shop,as promised. Their Whisperers attempted an interlock until Casey’s realized it was not being worn, wrapped into the suitcase. Casey suspected Sally had some use cases for her personal Whisperer due to her limited vision.

Sally paid her bill, then waved Casey out the door. She flashed a pamphlet showing a famous 80-year-old actress. Then she picked up her cane and stepped into the shopping arcade. “Are you up for a play at the Kennedy Center tonight?”, Sally asked. “Enjoy city life, forget social media, let’s catch up on culture.”

Casey stopped her. “Hey, Sally, I’m rusty about walking with a visually impaired person. You sent me your ‘Disability 101 guide’, but I’m confused. Do I walk to your right or left? Hold your arm or vice versa? ”

Sally laughed. “Relax! Walk your suitcase to your left, stay a bit in front of me, and I’ll follow. Is that crazy hat left over from the Trickster Election?”

Casey nodded, “Yes, I don’t get to symbolize often. Let’s stop at the wine bar across the plaza. I’m hungry!”

Seated at a window table with a white tablecloth, Casey pulled out a menu and looked at Sally. “I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m here early.”.

Sally said, “Not really. I read about a Whisperer fiasco at a college reunion yesterday. It sounded like a nasty moment, and definitely not a promo for CumuLinker, not that they care.”

Casey scanned the menu. “What would you like? Should I read the menu to you or do you have a Braille version?”

Sally drabbed her iPhone. “Braille, nah? I could look up the restaurant and read the PDF, but I’m not picky. How about we share appetizers. I really like things that come on sticks. And a carafe of Chablis, too.”

Casey turned to Sally. “Ok, are you friend or foe of CumuLinker?”

Sally said, “Both. I’ve given up on privacy. I had to do that new Facebook to keep in touch with my family members in New Mexico. I joined the phony CumuLinker Accessibility advisory panel. When the Whisperer came along, I realized for the first time, I’d know who I was speaking with at a meetup.”

Casey smiled. “Interesting use case! I never thought about a Whisperer as assistive technology.”

“Actually, Casey, I’ve become a Whisperer voice coach. When the device speaks a partner’s profile into their ear, many people freeze up with what I call Synthetic Voice Shock. We Vision Losers listen to these voices all the time, even speed them up, and can eat and drink at the same time. Amazing, huh?”

Casey nodded, “Cool! I found Whisperer usable enough. I got my voices and earables tuned to my brain speed and capacity. Sally, you live in a different world! I envy your skills.”

Sally asked, “What else happened at the reunion?”

Casey shrugged. “Geez, I was only there for 3 hours, barely caught up with my friends Alice and Patrick. Hey, I won the Whisperer Adornment contest! I’m a techno-fashionista now.”

Sally raised her wine glass for a clink. “An what’s the prize?”

“Casey laughed, “I get five versions of ‘Life Replayed’. Professional, geographical, hobbies, romantic, I forget the other. I really don’t want to go back over so many life episodes, most out of context, some happy, some sad.”

Casey looked away and sipped her wine. “It’s life CumuLinker at the Pearley Gates. I’ll manage my own memories, don’t need no stinking algorithms or big data. How would you like your own life replayed?”

Sally flashed a book cover on the back of her phone. “I blogged my memoirs, ‘As Your World Changes’. But I’d be interested in comparing the result with Know-it-all CumuLinker. Which way is the restroom”.

Casey pointed her finger, then laughed at herself. “Three tables forward, one to the right, ladies on the left. Beware the hustling waiters.”

Casey ordered more wine. She scrolled through Sally’s blog to gather new information about her long-ago colleague. Sally was weaving her way back to their table as if she’d memorized the path. “Sally, I admire how you control your life. Changing the subject, do you know anything about that Pink Page Rampage showing up on Twitter?”

Sally chuckled. “Pink Page analysis is my new hobby. There’s a systemic vulnerability in the Web that makes it easy to deface web pages, well at least for insiders. Anybody mad at a company or person can mess up a website with just a few keystrokes.”

She sipped her wine. ” I’ve heard there’s a Silicon Valley female who got screwed over, or maybe a group of over-40 old folks. These experts use Tor to secretly channel advice to attackers. Actually, it’s not even clear there’s a crime since the page content is intact, just unreadable. Well, except for us with the skills and tools to sneak under the style stuff.”

Casey sputtered, “but, it costs to fix…”.

Sally continued, “Yes, defacing a website is ‘denial of service’, but only for companies not on top of their maintenance and recovery practices. Pink Page Flu might cure the Web of some unhealthy designs and clutter habits.”

Casey threw down her napkin. “No, we algorithm designers and data scientists have already messed up the world. Literally, like electing the “Great Trickster”. I did enjoy that a disgruntled employee snipped his Twitter feed for all of 11 minutes. I’ve been thinking about forming a posse to catch those Pink Page marauders and teach them a lesson. What do you think?”

Risky Speaking

Dellville, Arizona.

Back home from D.C., Casey sipped her coffee while watching her neighborhood quail on their early morning migration. Bending over her deck railing, she counted nine remaining fledglings bordered by echoing parents. These familiar noisy parades marked hourly breakpoints of shared existence around her home. Those well organized and cheery quail neighbors always reminded her to nurture younger counterparts.

Today meant listing catch-up items on an old-fashioned Steno notepad. Item #1: “Meet with young “syster” Brittany to work on her science project, “The Victorian era loom industry, Ada Lovelace, and symbolic computing”.” Item #2: “Get coffee creamer!”, as she winced at her bitter drink.

Inside the French doors off the broad deck, her iPhone Marimba ring-tone alerted a surprise call from Detective Gordon Swank, the police IT cyber guy. As she mastered computational snooping over the past 3 months, he’d become her contact with the National Terrorist Fusion centers. The local force was upgrading its IT skills. However bumbling detectives had failed to stick any further accusations onto that despicable stockbroker wife murderer.

Pressing the speaker button and dropping the Steno pad on the kitchen counter, Casey expected changes in today’s plans. His conversations always began formally.

“Ms. Hawk, we have a baffling problem that requires high tech advice. Are you available for some consulting?”

This underpaid civil servant often recounted how much he enjoyed scouting her earlier tips at lavish local country club golf events. His High Tech Detective career was beginning to depend on her regular assistance. And, she was intrigued with his different world view.

Her early morning voice quivered. “Of course, and call me Cassandra, Detective. It’s good to be in contact again. What’s up?”

Detective Swank’s teasing attitude took over. “Ditto, I’m learning a lot of tech stuff from our Geek Goddess, as we call you, ha! You know we have these Neighborhood Watch and drug tip lines, right?”

Casey stuck her cooling coffee in the microwave. “Yes, that’s how we citizens keep you busy. I do my part!”

He chuckled. “Indeed, you do. Strictly speaking, we should respect caller anonymity. But what the heck is this new tip stream? The caller uses a dark phone, one of those disposable jobs, and roams around our massive county. But what’s weird is the voices he or I or they or it, whatever, use.”

Casey thought she knew where this was going.

“For a while we were hearing a muffled tone, common when people are shakily scared to speak to us. Sometimes the caller sounded male, other times female, occasionally very young. One speaker was even vaguely ethnic, which is quite unusual here in Whitey-World. Then a staff assistant noted the resemblance to that iPhone Siri speaker, and we realized the caller was using a fake voice.”

Raising her fist to celebrate her premonition, Casey cheered, “Wow, Detective, that must have been really baffling.”

The detective gulped, “Those vocal sayings were more pleasant and natural than my annoying GPS. It scolds my wrong turn by saying ‘Recalculating, turn right in.3 miles’. I hate that!”

He paused. “Actually the voices are very understandable after we replay a few times. Dammit, there’s always something new.”

Casey needed to hurry him up so she could go to the bathroom. “Are the callers saying something important?”

The detective groaned, “Definitely! Our drug squad is intrigued. Those daily tip drops are about 50% on target when it comes to chemical creations, you know, often called ‘bath salts’. Sleazy shops and the usual dealers have made a comeback selling such disguised substances, even after we passed so many laws and busted dozens a year ago. Nobody cares about this lowlife informant’s identity, but, wow, how does that S O B gets so much good information?”

Casey was tired. “Come on, Gordon, I explained to you how Whisperers let me snoop so easily. Other folks have similar tricks.”

He said, “Yep, I forgot how you work. Anyway, The same person, probably, is even more interesting when it comes to that long term, never ending murder case. Certain tips are fingering some important community people, like city council members and charity heads and a sporty lawyer. Knowing how this person ties into the community might break open the case. We still believe the guy in jail is the murderer, though.”

Wearily, he sighed, “So many tips, so little time. This informant must be younger to fit with the drug user age group, while the murder case tipster is AARP age, like you. Oops, sorry. It’s all very confusing and new to us.”

Casey prodded, “So, what’s the problem if you’re getting good information, even if the information is spoken in an unusual way?”

The detective lowered his voice. “Actually, our commanding officers think this foretells what the intelligence agencies warned about back in 2007. The British called it ‘vocal terrorism’. Voices that could fool professionals like us might be used for false public announcements or in delicate negotiations.”

He ruffled some pages. “Here’s what really worries us. One local middle school is a hotbed of bored rich kids. Imitating the school principal in an emergency situation could fool the staff and security officers and cause public panic.” He sighed, “Or, maybe, a killer might round up students for slaughter. In the midst of chaos, a familiar sounding speaker would command action.”

His voice distanced as if he’d set his phone on the table. “Dammit, I just spilled coffee on an important case. I hate paper. So, anyway, this is like a national emergency test to build profiles for people who could or would use these synth voices, whatever you call them.”

Casey chuckled to herself. “Really, Gordon, do you think our government could be behind this? Could it be the Russians? OMG!”

The Detective resumed his unofficial attitude. “Yes, maybe good old Homeland Security is testing us cops before awarding a grant or just to see how we react. With our department reputation for mishandling physical murder evidence, maybe we can do better with data. Who knows how to do this voice thing? how hard is it? does it cost a lot?”

Casey was intrigued. “Are you also interested in these callers’ demographics? Like is this a kid gamer thing? Do you really need to identify your informant? Or are you just getting experience with a new possible attack vector?”

Detective Swank put her on hold then resumed, breathlessly. “Cassandra, you’re brilliant. Yes, we want to be prepared to defend our fair city. Please spend a few hours gathering examples to tutor me to set up my own speaking imitator. If this weren’t like terrorist thinking it would be fun and games. How about I come over in two days to take the voices out for a spin? Gotta go, we have another fast food restaurant robbery in progress!”

Later that morning, travel letdown hit Casey hard. The OMG Reunion wasn’t just a bust, it shook her belief in the contributions of her computing profession. Her weekend’s companionship with Sally had explored the good and bad sides of web site design affecting people with vision loss. She feared that a rampage of Pink Page attacks could accelerate the downfall of the WWW. Having worked on the early ArpaNet in the 1970s, enjoyed Usenet in the 1980s, researched hypertext argumentation as the Internet commercialization metastasized into surveillance capitalism, she couldn’t imagine life without Twitter for news and myriad website’s for information, no matter how rickety their design. Tweeting off those advertising distraction, mis-informants, and privacy intruders was a game she played in her hours of personal isolation.

The CumuLinker Whisperer offered her new social channels and a means to replenish her retirement funds. Detective Swank’s call nudged her toward private investigator gigs. Her specialty could be computational snooping using her power over Whisperer programming. Society was stumbling into sinister use cases for the Whisperer’s synthetic speech.

She’d been seeking a technology challenge throughout her retirement years. Could her professional niche using Consequential Reasoning supplement her own intuition and predictive tendencies? She wasn’t just any “Cassandra namesake” archetype, she was “Casey, the oracle” who knew how to select valid and reliable test cases to probe software qualities.

Names and nicknames distracted her travel-tired brain. She’d forgotten until the reunion about her former college nickname, “Cassy”, which she’d changed to “Casey” in her mid-career return to graduate school. Modern search engines didn’t track her identity from “CHawk@ISI’ in the 1970s, through “CsHawk” on Usenet, bypassing the intermittent “ClassyCassy”, into her modern “moniker “Casey”. Only a dip into public records could reveal her complete identity and occasional financial and legal misadventures. Colleague Sally Rhodes had encountered the British saying, and comic strip, “Sally Forth”. They’d compared nicknames with identity over their wine and appetizers in Washington.

Then they challenged each other to name the “gang of X” which they’d imagined would take on those Pink Page marauders. The two differently experienced computing elders agreed to disagree whether Pink Page attacks were sexist, let alone healthy for the Web in the long run. Both were fans of TimBL, the Web’s creator, who now railed at his ugly, nasty progeny.

Both wanted a joint project. Casey would pursue attackers identities and explore their motives. Sally would develop defenses against the attackers which could also improve the quality of the victim website’s. Sally had already grabbed the domain name for their envisioned gallery of before-during-after screen shots with their critiques.They were

She opened her Steno pad and started a mind map to sort out her questions, doubts, and opportunities.

And then, Casey’s Internet connection dropped. She fixed lunch, waiting for at least one connection to revive, suspecting a two-hour Cyber Squirrel electrical repair job. She yelled at her iPhone, “Come on, Internet, I have work to do!”

Internet Down!

DellVille AZ May 2018.

“OMG!”, Casey thought, “Has one of my predictions come to pass?”.

Her mind ran through the questions she’d dumped on Detective Swank and their last weekly coffee meeting. She’d wondered how well prepared the city was for a full-fledge communication outage. So far, the national electrical grid seemed able to repel foreign and domestic attackers. But, what were the local vulnerabilities? The Detective made a note to scout other comparable city plans and check out the county alert system, dubbed “Code Red”. That early 2018 Hawaii false missile attack announcement was a warning to all state and regional authorities.

Now Detective Swank could be dealing with impending vocal terrorism. Many citizens and in-store entertainment systems relied on local radio, which could easily turn a hijacked microphone over to another speaker. Casey predicted a simulated or real attack within a month, perhaps at the annual rodeo.

She had her own immediate problems. Of course, the Internet goes out just when you have bills to pay and messages to return, not to mention catching up on the latest civil unrest over Congressional elections.

Casey reviewed her prior experience. Was this outage due to her flaky home router again? A call to the cable company information site would tell her if the network was down in her part of town. She couldn’t believe what was happening at that moment. “What’s this busy signal? Ok, I’ll call a friend. Amazing, there’s more buzz-buzz-buzz. The cell towers must be congested while land and cable phone systems are down.”

A quick trip to the bank ATM was high priority after her little vacation. She drove into chaos in her bank’s parking lots. The ATM station was cordoned off. Then, she was horrified to find that the building was under Lock Down! Other patrons were banging on the bank’s doors and windows. “WTF is going on?”, shouted a woman taking a selfie of her credit card before the “Temporarily Closed” sign.

Returning to her car, Casey saw her occasional taxi driver, Red, picking up an elderly lady, a town gadfly. Rapping on his window, she could tell he was agitated. In his gruff New Jersey accent, he told her what he knew.

“Phones are down all around town, both cell and land lines. Most commercial payment systems are wacky. Nobody knows what’s going on. Even calling the non-emergency police line gets buzz-buzz. Nobody has received that emergency alert call promised months ago.”

Rolling up his window and backing up, Red saluted Casey. “We taxi drivers are rallying to pick up stranded passengers. You can bet on Red to the Rescue! Gotta go.”

Now she had a trustworthy report from an observer of the town’s minute-to-minute activities. With too little cash and a non-operational debit card, her coffee creamer and refrigerator food refresh would have to wait.

Back home, her cell phone still made no calls and had no Internet connections, ditto for the cable Internet and phone. Going on 3 hours incommunicado was getting nerve-wracking. Could this big outage be related to the “vocal terrorism” attack she’d just discussed with Detective Swank, who might have more information? First she tried a text out of town to let her brother know she was OK, but incommunicado.

On a whim, she dropped by to see detective Swank at the local police station, hand carrying a thumb drive as an excuse for interrupting his work. In their cluttered office, one staffer was monitoring the emergency channels in other states. The youthful-looking police chief was muttering that outages had been occurring sporadic across the country. She showed them a graph of normal daily down-times for a few minutes versus a pattern of several hours in medium-sized rural cities across several states. The Chief didn’t want to start any rumors, but she’d alerted the tribal community members they were likely embroiled in a real attack, not another test. Detective Swank waved Casey out the door so official business could take place. She knew he’d update her at their next Tuesday morning coffee get-together where she could share expert reports from the venerable Computing Risks Digest.

Casey returned home freaked out from the news about a wave of outages. After two more hours, with her humble radio recharged, — she received reports about a vandalized trunk line, now repaired. But the repair work destroyed criminal evidence at the damage site deep in the desert.

She reviewed the situation. “Our attacker might be a lone wolf or group observing our pattern of disrupted services. Certainly, this couldn’t be a single point of infrastructure failure? Was this an original, or a copycat, crime? There could be a case study project to interest National Academe infrastructure researchers.”

Slowly, the Internet came back on for both smart phone and laptop. Her Twitter timeline showed no national warnings of attacks elsewhere. The long-awaited local message finally announced “Emergency services are experiencing intermittent interruptions. Keep trying if you need 911!”.

What a day! She had helped define a new terrorism threat defense in the morning and experienced a possible terrorist attack in the afternoon. As the shadow of a towering monsoon thunder storm passed through, weather alerts rang out on her phone and radio. She realized the usual Internet and Web information sources weren’t worthy of trust. Did this Cassandra-aka-Cassy-aka-Casey really have predictive powers?

Now that her search engines were back in action, she could start her “vocal terrorism”assignment for Detective Swank. Her recent weekend in “Sally World” would pay off. That well-adjusted, visually impaired colleague had showed her the VoiceDream app on her iPhone. They played with voices that sounded bi-coastal or like newscasters weaned from fly-over Country. Simulated ethnic vocal characteristics didn’t fit the vocabularies of articles they were asked to speak.

Older, raspier voices were non-existent. Sally resurrected “ATT Claire” on her decade-old desktop. However, the first major synthetic voice producer, ATT, was no longer competitive with NeoSpeech, Nuance, Accapella, and Microsoft Mobile. TalkBack and VoiceOver had energized the text-to-speech market. Foreign accents were available incase a terrorist wanted to stir up immigration issues. Casey was amazed that the Apple Voice Store was so rich in files that each cost less than an iced mocha with whipped cream.

A little research on forensic speech recognition suggested that it would be easy to distinguish human-spoken from synthetic-read recorded passages. Humans breathed!Casey noted that the point wasn’t whether a calm person or an algorithm could identify a synthetic terrorist command but rather how inattentive crowds react to commands heard from a disembodied entity. The commercial success of synthetic voices had de-sensitized listeners to tone and focused them on important content that might not be repeated.

But what about those country and generational accents? Would an attacker need to clone a specific voice?

“No problem,” Sally texted back, “algorithms do that! people losing their voices to illness record themselves for researchers to capture their speech traits. There’s a T.E.D talk and an Economist podcast on vocal cloning. Maybe it’s yet another an AI claim, but I personally would trust the Scottish and US labs that define the speech slices to be catenated into smooth wordings.”

Sally pointed out another possible clue to distinguish synthetic from human voices. Print disabled people using text-to-speech over the past four decades had reported a type of error known as a “Speak-o”. Multi-syllable words like “Pakistanis” were mis-pronounced as “Pa-kis’-tan-is”. Synthetic speech generators didn’t know parts of speech or tense for words like “read”. Sally claimed that her years of print-disabled listening enabled her to tell real from synthetic voices, but she doubted most people had that skill. Alas, her wonderful assistive technology could turn into yet another weapon for gun-fueled disturbed citizens.

To complete this easy assignment, Casey recorded some threatening tweets, transcripts from past terrorists, offenders from the “Me Too” lineup of 2017, and nuggets from the press conferences of The Great Trickster and his spokesperson du jour.

She finished her report by noting that Pink Page attackers could easily replace a link to a recorded message with an MP3 of synthetic speech sounding like the declared speaker. Everybody could be listening to “Take news” in yet another trick of technology and another gift of The Great Trickster to society.

Casey jotted down a list of the top five most likely targets for vocal terrorism. The events weren’t far off in time or place.

Wearables Take A Hike (A Spoof)

Here is Casey’s homework for her lifelong learning writing class. Enjoy!


July 13, 2018 Dellville, AZ.

Post by (pseudonym) Jill Tricker on her blog “Living Longer Through Learning”.

Today was the annual LLoL hike up the iconic Big Toe Butte, led by Jack Fast and me. Last year’s hike had bad troubles. Jack’s headlong stumble into a boulder sent him home early. His visiting mother took him to Urgent Care. Ironically, I, too, tumbled and broke my right ankle. Crossing paths in the Emergency Room, we guessed that both our accidents were due to dehydration, having failed to reach the well at the top of the hill. We vowed to be better equipped for future trips, thanks to the wonderful world of wearable computing devices.

We gathered early, 9 a.m. with the temperature 80 degrees, and daily humidity likely to rise as the afternoon storms gathered. Our group met at the picnic tables below the trail, which looked like it headed 30 degrees toward a sheer cliff peeking into a hazy sky. Among many stands of healthy trees were sections of scraggly trunks after the recent pine beetle attack. A mile off toward the Little Heel mesa was a blackened hulk from a long ago monsoon lightning storm. Printed signs alerted us not to disturb nesting Peregrine falcons.

Jack had gone whole hog and bought Google glasses, now selling for under $100. He also received a special deal on Hearables, enough for all 10 hikers. His GG, as he fondly calls them, loaded Whisperer social media profiles to better acquaint all trip members. Our profiles included mundane facts like hometowns, pedigrees, horoscope signs, last job title, and favorite LLOL courses. Two Sporty hikers reprised the Buckeye-Wolverine rivalry. Our companionship had begun, thanks to CumuLinker’s careful pair wise introductions.

Doctor Bob is our Health Gadget guy. He equipped us with blood pressure measuring bracelets that transmitted to our smart phone app and then off to Quantified Central. He wanted to assure nobody’s heart gave out on the steep uphill climb.

We were all curious about our physiological changes, as we learn to live in the new world of continuous body monitoring. For several days we had entered our calorie and liquid intake. However, our different apps yielded inconsistent calculations. Predictions on our hydration management, i.e. fluid input/output, varied from p=5 to p=15. We knew this hike would last at least 2 hours.

Hiker Ted, unfamiliar with wearing a bracelet, got his arm entangled in a vine-crusted cactus. Eventually we got him unpricked but it took 15 minutes of haggling to figure out which first aid cream to apply. Someone forgot to bring the emergency kit instructions.

Jack’s family history worried him so much he had installed a Dementia Detector app to filter social media profiles. The last thing a trip leader wants is a hike member wandering off. Jack explained to me that the Dementia Detector was good at predicting based on Facebook posts that change vocabulary mid-rant. This seems creepy to me, but may have helped when Max’s Hearable alerted us that he was rambling and occasionally turning around on the trail.

My ankle was recovered from last year’s injury. I’d purchased blister-resistant hiking boots. This smart liner fabric detects skin changes even before a blister appears. However, I couldn’t figure out how to adjust the skin texture setting. That formula attracted ants and I was under creepy crawly attack every time I stopped walking.

Speaking of crawling things, Alice had a snake warning detector module for her hearable. A hiss or rattle could cause immediate alerts which she had set to “tingle and yell”. This gadget goes back to the vendor, with a big #fail warning on Twitter. It appears that Ted’s bird identification app emitted noisy signals as he leafed through bird-call demonstrations. Some sound effects tricked Alice’s earable into warning “Possible rattler to your left at 10 o’clock”. She was a nervous wreck most of the hike.

“Mushroom Max”, as he is known, was deliriously happy to find his favorite morsel near last year’s location. The moist spot had been stomped on by geocatchers but several delicate fungi survived. Dreaming of a juicy fresh mushroom omelet when he got home, he texted his refrigerator to check for eggs.

MyFrig app texted back: “Max, you have 2 eggs. Do you want to upgrade your Amazon Instant for delivery by the next drone?”

Max (via Siri): “No. Please retrieve ‘Deliriously Delicious Omelet’ recipe to my iPhone.”

Delaying one minute, MyFrig announced, “Max, Google Now observes that last year you suffered a 3 day diarrhea bout using that recipe. Would you like a tutorial on mushroom identification sent to your iWatch or that nearby Google Glass user?”

Max via Siri: “Cancel recipe!”

Siri mis-understood him. His iWatch rapidly scrolled the illustrated mushroom tutorial which then appears on Jack’s glass screen. All devices in the Nearby connectivity region displayed the voluminous text. Everybody halted their uphill climb to reboot.

MyFrig texted again with a sad face emoji: “Sorry, Max, your home Control system crashed. ‘Feature Interaction error’ message has been sent to Wired Please repeat, what was it you wanted from the refrigerator?”.

Max was so annoyed he was about to stuff a mushroom down his throat. We calmed him, and good thing too. His blood pressure bracelet LED lights were flashing.

One more home communication snafu occurred. Carol remembered mid-hike that she forgot to fill her dog’s water bowl. For safety and reassurance, she messaged her home water system but could not remember the pet bowl spigot identifier. With too much light on the mobile screen, she was virtually blind and could not find the right location button to push. I explained Apple VoiceOver which would read off an iPhone screen. However, she was equipped with a half-vast Google Sprinkles operating system. Defaulting, she three times turned on all the spigots for 30 seconds, expecting Snuffy to be running around the house in great anxiety due to the strange cascading noises. Carol texted me after the hike that Snuffy was fine and the messes were all cleaned up.

Reaching the top of the hill, we took a break. Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice all ran out of battery juice. Jack and I lost our cell connectivity. Max stuffed all his gadgetry into his backpack and stopped talking. The ever-quiet Sue was listening to a book on local Native American history with flute songs wafting outside her ear buds. She seemed so at peace.

Jack and I led the group to the shade of a boulder where we expected to find the well. I was looking forward to splashing myself with cold water then taking a long drink from the pure liquid. Instead, we found a granite-colored tube dangling from a thin line swinging under a tree limb.

Jack lost his cool. “Dammit! Someone have moved the well faucet. Look here, some geocachers left us a logic puzzle to solve to find the new well location. Is anybody good at these games?”.

The puzzle began: “Four friends, Bill, Tom, Connie and Alison, live in Glendale, Eagle Rock, Pasadena and Arcadia. They work as accountant, physician, engineer, or teacher. …more clues…”

Nobody had any paper or pencils to work out the answer. Sue volunteered, pulling out her small solar keyboard that attached wirelessly to her Whisperer. The rest of us watched as she glanced at the puzzle, typed a line of something, continuing until her earables spoke the coordinates.

“Oh, great,” Bob shouted, “these coordinates say the well is half-way back down the hill!”

Sue explained that she had studied such puzzles to enter law school, and that it was easy to adapt her Whisperer Logic App to follow heuristics recommended by an LSAT study guide. We’d just trained CumuLinkr to connect lawyers, geo-cachers, and logic puzzle solvers.

After a quiet downhill sprint, our gadgets all came alive with the annoying LLoL survey. Jack and I assessed our hike’s success. Great, nobody went to the Emergency Room! Some products will be return for money back. We learned about using our gadgets in bright sunlight, dry heat, and encroaching vegetation. Nobody believed that their gadgets protected them or made the hike more pleasant. Several comments expressed a desire to learn Sue’s puzzle solving methods.

“Well, see you next version,” shouted Jack, as he wobbled off on his Segway. Turning around, he waved to show off the Segway’s Autopilot. Unfortunately, the Segway’s feature recognition system wasn’t yet trained for mountain lions!