Preview of Season 4 of Games of Thrones: “A Foreshadowing”

Today’s mental health break: a behind-the-scenes featurette with the actors and directors of “Game of Thrones.”

Of dragons in a non-dragon world, and much more.

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Remembering Jean H. Hepner, beloved grandmother and Fells Point community activist

I’m still processing the death of my grandmother this weekend, on Saturday night. I haven’t shared any updates anywhere about it online. I’ve gone through several stages of grief, from disbelief to numbness to acceptance and deep sadness. You never know how long you’ll have with some one. Some times, they’re gone in an instant.

News of her death was in the Associated Press yesterday, along with local news yesterday.

The circumstances of her passing feel at once banal and extraordinary. My grandmother and her longtime partner, Ben, were driving back home from visiting his son and grandchild, just outside of DC. According to state police, around 6:30 PM he hit another vehicle on the Beltway and lost control of their car, hitting the jersey barriers on the right before veering across the road to hit another on the median and come to a stop.

Passersby pulled over and quietly committed an act of heroism, pulling them both from the car before it caught fire. I’m grateful to these good Samaritans, who may well have saved Ben’s life and tried to save my grandmother.

After the Maryland state police arrived and saw the extent of her injuries, and called in a helicopter to medevac her to the Maryland Trauma Center. Sadly, she passed in flight, despite the efforts of the paramedics and the doctors and nurses in the ER. [Virgil Ruben Carlson passed away from his injuries one week later.]

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My sister, thinking of “Mom Mom” this morning, shared an item from the “Fells Pointer,” a publication from the neighborhood that she and my grandfather, Dr. Walter Ray Hepner Jr., moved to in September 1968.

My grandmother not only renovated the 18th century townhouse that she, my grandfather, uncles and a troop of Boy Scouts rescued from ruin, in other words, but became a pillar of the early community of preservationists who moved into the then-decayed houses of Fells Point and then fought to protect the entire historic neighborhood when government officials sought to run an expressway through the area.

As my sister Susanna Brennan Buchta noted in her remembrance of her, our grandmother was both “an indomitable spirit and community activist”:

“…she and her fellow members of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point probably saved Baltimore. Without their efforts to stop the expansion of I-95 straight through our historic Inner Harbor, Baltimore could well have become another Detroit. Instead, we got our ‘second wind’ and a beautiful waterfront attracting millions of visitors and capital to invigorate vibrant neighborhoods.”

These neighborhoods are now the jewels of the Baltimore of today. While the city still has immense challenges, from poverty to crime to urban blight, the revival that began in the late 1960s and fiercely defended by men and women like my grandmother in the “expressway revolt” will endure for decades to come.

Jean Harvey Hepner had just turned 90 as 2014 rolled over. She lived a long, full life, raising 4 children, including my mother, her eldest. She leaves behind dozens of grieving family members and friends, including this eldest grandchild who is grateful for last Christmas, when Mom Mom was able to meet and connect with Allegra, her first great-grandchild, and the six weeks in the summer of 2005 when I stayed with her in Fells Point, finishing renovations that my grandfather had begun in the 1980s.

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Today, I’m remembering nearly 4 decades of my life with her, from the wonders of Boxing Day to the fun of egg hunts on Easter to halcyon summer days on the coast of Maine. I’m glad that we had the time to visit the Robert Long House in Fells Point and walk around the beautiful garden that she had painstakingly, methodically researched and planted with the flowering plants and herbs that would have been present in colonial Baltimore, when the house was originally built. My grandmother knew an enormous amount about plants, a passion and knowledge base that she passed on to her children over the decades, along with any number of other things.

One of the most precious gifts she ever gave me was a perfect Meyer lemon from the tree that resided in her sunny drawing room on Fell Street. I made one of the best lemon-butter sauces of my life with that fruit, and reserved the zest from the skin for many deserts and dishes to come to boot. My grandmother would have approved of that thorough use. As a child who came to age during the Depression, she reserved, preserved and even hoarded all kinds of things, from string to hardware to any number of baskets, button and doodads that I found fascinating as a child.

I still have an index card, somewhere, inscribed with her simple, spectacular recipe for Maryland crab cakes, although I stopped needing to consult it long ago: some skills, once your grandmother teaches you to do them, become engraved in your memory for lifetime.

I miss you so much already, Mom Mom.

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When speech becomes text, what happens to writing?

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I successfully put down the baby for her late morning nap half an a hour ago. After running quietly around in sock feet trying to do things while she was out cold, I sat down to answer email and messages. As I entered this post into WordPress, she awoke again.)

It’s not easy to respond quickly and at volume using one hand or thumb, though I’ve gotten much better at both over the past five months with a baby daughter.

Over that time, I’ve been struck by how good the voice recognition in iOS on my iPhone has become. I’ve been able to successfully dictate a rough draft of a long article into the email interface and respond to any number of inbound inquiries that way.

That said, neither the soft keyboard nor voice-to-text on the device are a substitute yet for the 15″ keyboard in my MacBook Pro when I want to write at length.

It’s mostly a matter of numbers: I can still type away at more than eighty words per minute on the full-size keyboard, far faster than I can produce accurate text through any method on my smartphone.

Capturing and sharing anything other than text on the powerful device, however, has become trivially easy, from images to video to audio recordings.

The process of “writing” has long since escaped the boundaries of tabulas, slate and papyrus, moving from pens and paper to explode onto typewriters, personal computers and tablets.

Today, I’m thinking about how the bards of today will  be able to reclaim the oldest form of storytelling — the spoken word — and apply it in a new context.

As we enter the next decade of rapidly improving gestural and tactile interfaces for connected mobile devices, I wonder how long until the generations that preceded me will be able to leave decades of experience with keyboards behind and simply speak naturally to connected devices to share what they thinking or seeing with family, friends and coworkers.

Economist Paul Krugman seemed to be thinking about something similar this morning, in a blog post on “techno-optimism”, when he commented on the differences between economic and technological stagnation:

…I know it doesn’t show in the productivity numbers yet, but anyone who tracks technology has a strong sense that something big has been happening the past few years, that seemingly intractable problems — like speech recognition, adequate translation, self-driving cars, etc. — are suddenly becoming tractable. Basically, smart machines are getting much better at interacting with the natural environment in all its complexity. And that suggests that Skynet will soon kill us all a real transformative leap is somewhere over the horizon, maybe not this decade, but this generation.

Still, what do I know? But Brynjolfsson and McAfee have a new book — not yet out, but I have a manuscript — making this point with many examples and a lot of analysis.

There remain big questions about how the benefits of this technological surge, if it’s coming, will be distributed. But I think this kind of thing has to be taken into account when we try to imagine the future; I’m a great Gordon admirer, but his techniques necessarily involve extrapolating from the past, and aren’t well suited to picking up what could be a major inflection point.

That future feels much closer this morning.

[Image Credit: Navneet Alang, "Sci-Fi Fantasies, Real-Life Disappointments"]

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Beware sexy honeybots spear phishing on social media

220px-Robin_SageIf your connected life includes access to sensitive, proprietary or confidential information, be thoughtful about who you friend, follow or connect to online.

When fake femme fatale can dupe the IT guys at a government agency, you could also be spear phished.

If this all sounds familiar, you might be thinking of “Robin Sage,” when another fictitious femme fatale fooled security analysts, defense contractors and members of the military and intelligence agencies around the DC area.

Everything is new again.

[Image Credit: Wikipedia]

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Apple releases first transparency report on government requests for user data

Apple, one of the least transparent companies in the world, has released a transparency report on government requests for user data.(PDF). Requests from the United States of America dwarf the rest of the world — and that’s without including the ones that Apple cannot tell us about, due to gag orders and National Security Letters.

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Notably, Apple has indicated that it will join other tech companies in seeking the ability to disclose such requests:

“We believe that dialogue and advocacy are the most productive way to bring about a change in these policies, rather than filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Concurrent with the release of this report, we have filed an Amicus brief at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) in support of a group of cases requesting greater transparency. Later this year, we will file a second Amicus brief at the Ninth Circuit in support of a case seeking greater transparency with respect to National Security Letters. We feel strongly that the government should lift the gag order and permit companies to disclose complete and accurate numbers regarding FISA requests and National Security Letters. We will continue to aggressively pursue our ability to be more transparent.”

Apple did break new ground with the report, as FT reporter Tim Bradshaw observed: it was the first to disclose requests for device data.

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The U.S. government leads the rest of the world in device data requests by law enforcement as well, though not by as wide a margin: Australia, the United Kingdom, Singapore and Germany have all made more than 1000 requests, according to the disclosure.

Be careful about what you put in that iCloud, folks.

Apple’s transparency report ends with an interesting footnote: “Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.”

For those unfamiliar with that part of the law, it has been the subject of intense criticism for years from privacy and civil liberties advocates, particularly since the disclosures of mass surveillance of U.S. telecomm data by the NSA entered the public sphere this past summer.

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What went wrong at Healthcare.gov?

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Folks, I’m going to be on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on Monday and need your help.

1) What are the best explanations of what went wrong at Healthcare.gov? This digest by Charles Ornstein is a start but I’d love more.

2) What are the best papers you’ve read about federal contracting? Where would you point people to understand how contracting works, why there are so many rules about how technology can be acquired and how this system needs to change/is changing?

Who do you think has best answered the question of “what went wrong at Healthcare .gov” amongst the national media and expert technologists?

In addition to the links above , I’d add:

What else should people read?

12/1/2013 Update: After two months of intense scrutiny, the tensions and troubles behind Healthcare.gov have been well-documented by investigative journalists at The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica and NPR News.

No single issue led to the Healthcare.gov’s failure at relaunch on October 1. Rather, a combination of procurement problems, poor work by a key contractor, bad management skills, insularity and political sensitivity led to a bug-laden website with a broken backend.

How well is Healthcare.gov working today? Better, at least on the front-end, as detailed in an operational progress report released on December 1st. Lost in that update on the administration’s “big fix, however, was a detail released in a December 2nd post on improved window shopping at Healthcare.gov, published on the Department of Health and Human Services blog (emphasis is mine):

Over the last several weeks, we’ve made a number of changes to improve the accuracy of the “834” messages to issuers. The team, working with issuers, determined that more than 80 percent of 834 production errors were due to a bug that prevented a Social Security number from being included in the application, which in turn caused the system not to generate an 834. That bug has been fixed. Other issues related to the remaining 834 production issues have either been fixed or are in testing so that the fixes can be deployed soon.

In other words, when the Healthcare.gov marketplace launched, a single programming error meant that enrollment data being sent to insurers was invalid. That’s not just a bug: it’s a fundamental shortfall in meeting the requirements for a functional software application of this sort.

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Twitter disables links in direct messages [Updated]

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Removing the ability to send links in direct messages is the first time Twitter has truly crippled its service for me.

UPDATE: Per TechCrunch, this appears to be temporary, caused by a technical choice to try to address an upsurge in spam, not a permanent change. Here’s hoping. I’ve updated the headline of this post.

Twitter posted this message on its DM help article:

We’re restructuring back-end elements of our direct message system. As a result, users may be unable to send some URLs in direct messages. We apologize for the inconvenience.

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