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!”