Newsmax Columns

Lee is the science & technology columnist for Newsmax.com, the fourth largest news & politics site in the world. His pieces appear irregularly, i.e., whenever he has something interesting to say.

“Consumer education” is all too often a broad brush, reasonable-sounding abrogation of responsibility, music to the ears of corrupt or inattentive corporations and cybercriminals, shorthand for “We don’t have the time or the money or the inclination to protect you, so here’s a handful of brochures we printed to make everybody think we’re doing something, and you’re on your own.”

"The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command."— George Orwell, "1984"

The term “fake news” in its current, popular incarnation means “News that says bad things about me,” and does not deal with whether or not the news is factually correct. But what happens when the facts themselves are legitimately called into question? What happens when we can no longer trust what’s right in front of our eyes and ears?

Last week in Part 1 we talked about the threat from “deepfakes,” which are pictures, audio recordings or video footage showing real people saying and doing things they didn’t actually do or say.

The problem is real, the threat serious, so what can be done about it?

A new “optical lattice” clock is so accurate it makes the conventional atomic clock look like a sundial in comparison. This machine will allows us to do experimental physics that wasn’t possible before, because there were no devices capable of measuring things precisely enough.

Since I began writing this column I’ve talked about such lofty topics as Internet privacy, the Facebook scandal, a new definition for the kilogram, and why we should all care about net neutrality. I always get a lot of nice emails when pieces like these appear. But those few times when I’ve written about little-known but immensely useful features on iPhones and iPads, a tsunami hits my inbox.

Accordingly, I’m going to tell you about something that will make you want to name your children after me.

As everyone who still believes that facts matter probably knows by now, one of the most important, if not the most important, sites on the Internet is Snopes.com. As a straightforward fact-checker, Snopes.com is unbeatable. But for in-depth examination of more complex subjects, there is an equally critical online resource, and it’s called Skeptoid.com..

As much as I try to wax wise and philosophical in these pages, the most popular columns are always the ones where I offer useful tips and tricks. So why fight the natural order of things?

You’ve probably been reading or hearing about the new communications technology called 5G, and you probably think it’s going to massively increase the speed and quantity of data going to and from your smart phone or tablet.

That’s true, but there’s much more to it than that.

Last week we talked about what 5G is, and how it’s different from the 4G cellular technology we’ve become used to. This week, a few more details.

Information may be power, but information about you is money. A lot of it. And it’s being sold around the globe in ways that nobody can stop because you handed it over willingly, even if unknowingly.

n PART I we talked about exactly what happened that not only got Facebook into hot water but brought to the fore some deep truths about what “data companies” like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are really all about. In PART II, we’ll talk about what it means to you.

If you have any dealings in the financial or technology worlds, odds are that you’ve heard the word "blockchain." You might also think that it’s synonymous with Bitcoin.

It isn’t, but it’s a very big deal and you’re going to be hearing more about it, so it’s worth having a basic understanding.

Several years ago I wrote — under the pseudonym “Troon McAllister” — a series of golf novels about a legendary hustler named Eddie Caminetti. One of those books, "Scratch," concerned a near-mythical golf ball (called “Scratch”) that possessed some eerie properties that had golfers everywhere going crazy trying to get their hands on some.

Imagine my world-weary yawn upon receiving a letter from a CEO claiming that he’d invented the real “Scratch.”

Only the Grinch would tell you to take away one of your kid’s great new toys and return it, right? But in this case, the Grinch might have a point.

If you think only consumers are confused by the dizzying and exponentially multiplying array of products, protocols, features, functions and incompatibilities in the connected world, you should see what’s going on among enterprises interested in entering the field.

I’ve got good news and bad news.
The good news is, you don’t have to use whacky characters in your passwords anymore.
The bad news is, you wasted a lot of time using them for the past fourteen years.

The primary focus of my consulting practice is helping technology companies help their customers, a process traditionally referred to as “tech support.” Along the way we’ve learned a couple of important things you might find useful.

No, that’s not the start to one of those idiot jokes you used to tell in grade school. It’s actually a very serious question. Believe it or not, something weighs a kilogram if it weighs the same as a chunk of metal that’s been sitting in a box in a basement in Paris for the last 128 years.

I’m not making this up.

The tenth anniversary of the iPhone’s debut seems like a good time to resurrect a fond memory of mine: the three days I spent with Steve Jobs about two years after he was ousted from Apple.

Every once in a while I like to descend from the lofty heights of technical philosophizing and give readers something they can actually use (painful as that kind of simpering pedestrianism is for me). So here’s something that will change your computing life.

You’re probably already aware of this massive ransomware attack, so let me get right to it and save the explanations for the end. (If you’ve been held captive in Outer Mongolia for the past few days and don’t know what WannaCry is, you might want to start at "The Basics" further down.)

Last week I wrote about the latest malicious virus to hurtle its way around the globe. The dangers were thankfully largely contained, albeit by no means over, but considerable damage was wrought in the few days the beast was in full-throated roar.

Let me warn you up front: Despite politicians and interested parties attempting to reduce this topic to a handful of "us versus them" sound bites, net neutrality is not easy to grasp, there is no simpler answer, and there probably aren’t any real bad guys either.

In the first part of this two-part series, we described what is meant by "net neutrality" and why it’s important. As is so often the case these days (think ballot propositions, political elections and homeowners associations meetings), the controversy has devolved into contentious and mean-spirited left-right polarization being played out with bumper-sticker sloganeering intended to obscure rather than illuminate. The other side isn’t just wrong: It’s evil and will kill your pets if left unchecked.

As anybody who’s finally decided to climb out of the "Upgrade my smartphone every time a new model comes out" abyss knows, "innovation" is often just another term for the mad scramble to keep coming out with new stuff, regardless of whether there’s any actual benefit.

Did you know that last Friday was World Backup Day? Me, neither. But I heartily applaud the idea because anything that helps make people aware of the need to back up their data is a good thing.

Try to imagine what a general purpose voice recognition system would do with this: “So, I’m like, is it totally, like, gonna, you know, rain or whatever? Know’m sayin?” We think it's genius if it figures that out, but why would we want to enforce such awful speech?

Let me tell you something you already know: There are a lot of bad people out there.
Like viruses, bad people will exploit any opportunity and wave off any pangs of conscience if they smell a victim. And if there’s one thing the Internet of Things (IoT) can supply in abundance, it’s opportunity and victims.

Last week I set out the problem of securing the Internet of Things (IoT). I painted a pretty bleak picture. All is not lost, but it isn't going to be because of consumer education, which is about the dumbest strategy imaginable for securing the IoT (read more here), a losing proposition that’s guaranteed to fail.

Earlier this week, technology writer Daniel Newman decried the proliferation of incompatible Internet of Things technologies (IoT). Writing in Forbes, Newman said “…all of these companies are building their strategies with a wide range of different platforms, creating a complex and messy web of tech that is already tripping over itself. That problem will only increase as we move toward greater IoT adoption.” He then made a powerful, articulate, persuasive case for standardizing IoT worldwide.

I disagree with all of it.

I normally like to provide dizzying insight about technology, delivered with rapier wit and a certain insouciant éclat, but once in a while something prosaic but irresistible comes my way, necessitating a downshift in stylistic gears. This time, it’s a hack of prima facie absurdity that I promise you is the legitimate goods. So stay with me here and be amazed.

The conversation about whether computers are catching up to humans in terms of intelligence is an old one, but it’s constantly being updated. The skyrocketing use of voice interfaces instead of keyboards and screens is leading to new speculation in this area, because great advances in artificial intelligence are required to make voice feasible and they’re happening much faster than anyone would have predicted just ten years ago.

But computers will never think like we do. Artificial intelligence will become very intelligent, but it will always be artificial.

I emailed some readers of this column and asked if they had any ideas for new rules of etiquette they’d like to see their fellow citizens follow when it comes to mobile phone use. I was hoping I might get one or two dozen suggestions.

Boy, was I stupid.

My little invitation unleashed a veritable tsunami of suggestions buried beneath a landslide of vitriol concerning the inconsiderate, sickening, self-centered behavior of just about everybody who’s ever put a cell phone to an ear.

I was privileged to sit on a panel at an Internet of Things conference with representatives of such luminary brands as Verizon, GE, and Amazon.com. The issue at hand was home automation security, and there was much lamentation and gnashing of teeth among the many vendors in the room concerning consumer apprehension over getting hacked, spied on, or otherwise digitally manhandled.

A few weeks later the Federal Trade COmmission filed a lawsuit against a major player alleging truly egregious practices that threatened consumer confidence across the entire Internet of Things.

A machine that can beat human chess players is impressive. But a machine that can beat human poker players is astounding.

What makes poker fundamentally different from most other A.I. challenges is "hidden information." In chess, everything is known; in poker, hardly anything is.

A lot of people are afraid of the cloud. Will they revolt against the software engineers who seem to be taking over the world?

They might, but the revolt will be limp, short-lived and doomed. It might not even be noticeable, except in isolated pockets where Luddites meet to drink malteds and spin vintage 45s.

The reasons are twofold. First, people can get used to anything. Second, the cloud has already been around for hundreds of years, in a far more scary form, and we hardly even notice anymore.

There are very few sure things in the tech world, but the self-driving car is a slam-dunk certainty.

Before I give you my take on the 2017 edition of the world’s biggest consumer electronics extravaganza, let me aver emphatically that I am not a techno-cynic given to autonomic eye-rolling at gee-whiz product announcements. To the contrary, I’m a techno-freak of the first order, in love with all (or at least most) things digital.

I say that so you don’t too quickly dismiss my assessment of CES 2017 as a crashing bore.