Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Know Where You Went Last Week...

This morning, every morning news show (at least every one that’s ever on in our house, which is most of them since my ADD afflicted husband can’t leave the tv on one station for more than 2 minutes) was screaming about the news that iPhones and 3G enabled iPads collect and record data tracking your whereabouts as you schlep them around town.  This is apparently a crisis even bigger than the narrowly averted government shut down that would have put thousands of people out of work indefinitely.  Who knew?  Ok, so your iPhone/iPad is collecting data on where you are and storing it on your device/synced computer.  Here's why this is a strange thing to panic about:  

1) It's on YOUR computer--as in the one you own-- and the little gadget you’re carrying around in your own hand.  Let’s start with the gadget.  These things are not cheap, so unless you have the common sense of cottage cheese, you’re probably pretty careful about where you leave it lying around. This necessarily limits the number of people who are going to access the information on it.  They’re also very small and light (read: MOBILE), which is likely part of the reason you bought it; meaning you’re probably keeping it pretty close to you most of the time.  As for the computer to which it syncs, you probably have way more sensitive info on there, anyway.  If you’re the kind of person who only uses your computer for word processing, you’re probably not the kind of person who buys an iPad/iPhone.  It’s much more likely that you use your computer for EVERYTHING—taxes, budgeting, personal contacts, stocks, shopping, record keeping…. Hopefully you've taken steps to secure all of your information already.  If not, you've got bigger problems than someone knowing you were at Banana Republic yesterday.  

2) Where you've been is public information by virtue of the fact that OTHER PEOPLE CAN SEE YOU!  Unless you're the Invisible Man, someone else already knows you stopped at Starbucks on your way to work.  Lots of someones.  This is the whole reason private detectives can make a living; they can see you to follow you around and report on where you’ve been.  There is no implication of privacy when you’re out in public.  The fact that you’re in public is not classified information.  Even your home address is public information in most cases, unless you’re completely off the grid…in which case, you’re almost certainly not in possession of an iPad.  Although I would certainly expect some amount of privacy in my own home, the fact that I am home is still not a state secret.  My neighbors and anyone who walks by can probably figure out that I’m home from the fact that my car is in the driveway and the lights are on.  Some of them probably saw me pull in and walk in the door.  This is especially true if you live in my mother's neighborhood.

3) If you’re the kind of person who owns an iPad, you probably also have a cell phone, and maybe even a GPS.  If you own an iPhone, well, I hate to break this to you if you didn’t already know it, but you own a cell phone.  Cell phone companies already track your whereabouts while your cell phone is on (and not to belabor the point, but if you carry an i-gizzmo, you’re not likely to be the sort of person who only turns their phone on in an emergency).  The only difference here is that they have the info, not you.

4) This is not a chip that’s been implanted in your head without your knowledge.  It’s a hand held device, with no discernible means of locomotion on its own.  In other words, you don’t have to take it with you.  You can, in theory, leave it behind.  If you don’t want it to know where you’ve been, don’t take it along.  There are no recorded cases of i-withdrawal being fatal.  I promise.

5) This is perhaps the oddest point.  Folks who use iPads and iPhones are usually the same ones using the internet.  A lot.  Otherwise, there’s not much reason for you to have one of these gadgets.  You’re probably also on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare (which, btw, is simply a means of letting other people know WHERE YOU ARE), MySpace, etc.  It seems incongruous to log the details of your fight with your son, what you had for dinner last night, where you grocery shop, which team you’re currently rooting for, and your thoughts on, well, everything, but want to keep the fact that you went to work on Thursday a secret.  I’m not sure I follow the logic there.  If you’re already sharing many of the intimate details of your life, why are you worried that your iPhone knows you went to McDonald’s last weekend?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

You Can't Get There From Here...

 I got to see a remarkable thing the other night.  A crowd of roughly 2500 people, mostly university students, give a standing ovation to an astrophysicist.  That his presentation was worthy of a standing ovation is not so remarkable; this is a brilliant, articulate, charismatic man giving a talk on things that are important and interesting to him.  What was remarkable to me was that it was the students in the crowd who were the first to jump to their feet when his presentation was over.

This is remarkable to me because I teach and advise students in a science field that is not a “basic” science or traditional science field.  Because of this, I am often meeting with students who are fleeing a traditional science curriculum or a basic science major.  Most of them are intent on going to medical school, and I have come to recognize that there are two broad types of students who come to meet with me: those who are looking for more, and those who are looking for less.

The ones who are looking for more are the ones who have discovered that their field of study is not satisfying some desire for knowledge they sense is important to where they want to go.  They feel like something is missing from what they’re studying and they’ve gone in search of another program that might fill that gap.  These are the students who intuitively get what our program is about and they are a joy to work with.  They also are, thankfully, the majority of the students I work with.  Most of my conversations with them go roughly along the same lines as the encounter I had recently with a lovely young woman who wanted out of her biology major.

Lovely young woman (dressed in pink, of course!):  I was in bio, 'cause I wanted to go to med school, but I want to change majors, but I can't get into this class which I know I need and I'm freaking out because I'm not going to get the classes I need to graduate.

Me: What semester are you?

LYW: 1st  (it's always the 1st semester students who are convinced that they won't graduate!)

Me: Ok, well, why do you want to change from Bio?

LYW: I hate plants.

Me (laughing): Fair enough.

LYW: Well, I can still take all the med school requirements in this major and not have to take the bio classes on plant cells and whatnot and I REALLY hate plants and instead I can take psych and stuff that, you know, has to do with people.  Right?

Me: yes, you can take the med school entrance requirements in any major, and yes, we're more about people than plants.

LYW: So, how can I get into this class?

Me: Well...(long uninteresting schpiel about why she really can't this semester)...but the bottom line is that if you take it in the fall, you will NOT be behind.

LYW:  Really?  Cool!  Ok, so what should I take then?

Me: Here's what I would suggest...(blah blah blah) ...Psych 212 will fulfill this requirement...

LYW: I LOVE psych!

Me: That's good; 'cause you're going to see a lot of it.  You can also take this stat class. There are still seats and it fulfills the stat requirement.

LYW:  Really?  SO cool!  Wow, you saved me!  I feel much better!
I should point out that they are not all quite this enthusiastic, but many of them are.  I should also point out that in reality I did nothing but point out information this bright young woman could easily have found on her own, but for the panic about not graduating on time.  The number of bio majors who come and tell me they hate plants is astonishing. I’m not sure where this animosity towards creatures that can neither interrupt you during conversations nor cut you off in traffic comes from.  When I point out to them that there is some basic level of knowledge and skill needed to progress to the upper level biology courses that they will need to be doctors, a few of them have responded that they appreciate that but don’t understand why that basic level of knowledge about the workings of cells can’t be taught using humans, or at least animals, as the platform.  I confess, I don’t have a good answer for them.  Or rather, I do, but my daughter has pointed out to me that my musings on the history of science and the influence of the church and its prohibition on the study of human cadavers on the field of biology is of little interest to people who aren’t me.
The students who come looking for less are far more frustrating and complicated.  These are the students who have either come to the conclusion on their own or been told by someone else, that if they change their major from a traditional premed program, it will somehow be easier to get into medical school.  Unfortunately, it isn’t the plant biology they are hoping to avoid, but usually chemistry and math.  My conversations with them typically go something more like this:
New Advisee: So, I’m thinking about changing majors from biology ‘cause I’m going to medical school and I can’t do the classes in bio.
Me: Ok, well…if you don’t like biology, you probably aren’t going to be very happy in medical school.
NA: I do ok in bio, it’s just the chem and the math I can’t do.
Me: Hmm…well, let’s think about some options for you.  Tell me why you decided you want to be a doctor.
NA: I just do.
Me: Ok, but why? What do you like about the idea of being a doctor?
NA: I just wanna, you know, help people. And do something in health.
Me: There are a lot of careers in health that would allow you to work with people and do something that would be helping them without going to medical school…
NA: I’m going to medical school.
Me: that may be true, but I think we should talk about some alternate plans for you and see if there might be a career that appeals to you that might not necessitate going to medical school.
NA: No.  I’m going to med school.
Me: Ok, well then you’re going to need to take 2 semesters of inorganic chemistry and 2 semesters of organic…
NA: See, that’s why I’m changing out of bio.  I can’t do that much chemistry.  It says on the academic plan that I don’t need all that chemistry.
Me: You don’t to graduate, but you will for medical school.
NA: I can’t take all those chemistrys.  I can’t do chemistry.

At this point, I know very well that the best thing for both of us would be for me to look her dead in the eye and respond like this:
Me: (in my fantasy conversation) Look, here’s the deal.  No one in last 90 years has gone to medical school without taking chemistry.  You will not be the first.  You have two choices here: pass chemistry or choose another option.  You’re telling me choice #1 isn’t working for you, so I’m trying to help you with choice #2.  You are welcome to continue with your degree and apply to medical school without the additional semesters of chemistry; you will only be wasting your own time and money.
It isn’t always chemistry that’s the problem; sometimes this conversation is about calculus or math in general.  I’m more sympathetic to these students who truly don’t see the connection between math and medicine, mostly because they haven’t thought much about it.  Occasionally, though, I have a student come in who has a problem with biology. These are the students who utterly mystify me.
New Advisee 2: I want to change out of biology but I still want to go to medical school.
Me: Ok, what brings you here?
NA2:  I hate biology.
Me: (brief pause while I ponder this, blinking) You do realize that you’re still going to have to take a substantial amount of biology in this major, right?
NA2: Well yeah.  I mean, I can take a few classes if I have to…
Me: Well, passing the required bio classes will get you your degree, but once you get to medical school it’s going to be a lot more bio…
NA2: Well it’ll be different in medical school.
Me: How so?
NA2: ‘Cause then it will be doing what I want to do.
Me: (fantasy conversation in my head) Exactly what magical transformation do you believe is going to take place so that, on the day you are admitted into medical school, the heavens will part and the angels will sing and suddenly biology will be more fun than playing Farmville?  I have to tell you that I have known a lot of students who have gone on to medical school and this has not been the experience of any single one of them.  You might be the first, but I’m not sure I would stake the next 8 years of your life on it.
Me: (out loud) I think if you really dislike biology, you’re going to be very unhappy in a major with bio in the title, and that’s probably going to be reflected in your GPA, so let’s talk about some options that might be better suited to you.  What classes have been your favorite so far?
NA2: I really loved my econ classes.
Me: Ok, good.  So maybe you might want to consider a major in economics…
NA2: But I’m going to medical school.

At this point I’m reminded of a quote from Steven Wright: “Anywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.”