Digital Year in Review

It is time for the digital awards of 2022! This year deserves some sass and snark. Crypto crashed, Musk mauled Twitter, and Messi made a deep fake mess. Every one of them deserves an award and ridicule.

Reminder. The ground rules. To win an award, the awardee must meet three criteria:

  • The focal action or event must take place in 2022.
  • It must involve something digital.
  • It must generate at least one snarky observation.

No statue, gift certificate, or prize is associated with this award. No final spin of the wheel comes to the contestants. No blue Twitter account will be provided. The sole benefit of winning is the fleeting 15 seconds of fame on a blog post that has no chance of going viral.

Come on, people, it is far better meet our fate as boiled frogs with cheerful irreverence! No moping allowed! Following tradition, the awards begin with the best-supporting roles and special effects. Then it moves to some of the special award categories. One dozen in total, so let’s get to it!

Best supporting actor.

Who had the best digital supporting cast? This year’s award goes to Lionel Messi at age 22, Lionel Messi at age 29, and again to Lionel Messi at age 35! A mess of deep fake Messi. He played a multipart role in an Adidas commercial that used deep fake technology to embed different profiles of Messi from different ages; each has a different haircut, uniform, and facial hair. It makes it appear as if Messi can play soccer with his avatar from different eras. Look for yourself by clicking here.

How did Adidas do that? The filmmakers found old videos of Messi at different ages, then imposed the faces on actors who possessed physical builds similar to Messi dressed in vintage Messi uniforms. In other words, it uses deep fake in the service of brilliant art and commerce.

That raises the question: which Messi would you prefer take a penalty kick? Is it Messi at 22 or 35? Methinks the French team would rather face some other guy.

Special Effects award

You already knew Elon Musk would win several awards this year, didn’t you? In addition to special effects, he also wins the award for most original script, best drama, and best comedy. To be sure, the last award requires a macabre taste in humor. Musk got those awards without any nomination for best director, producer, or editor.

Musk wins the special effects award because he put on spectacular fireworks and bonfire shows each day, week after week, month after month, with sparks flying in every direction. He fanned more flames than a book burning in a Tennessee school district. Perhaps the most expensive bonfire ever, he used $44 billion to create more self-inflicted wounds in two months than an entire Russian garrison could inflict on itself in a spring invasion during the Rasputitsa.

But, oh, what a bonfire for all those who despise excessive worshipping of the one percent. One does not become the wealthiest man by acting like an idiot. Yet, only an idiot would exultantly bid 75% over the actual stock price, reluctantly attempt to back out a month later, and then go through with it.

After that, then the real drama started. Only days after becoming owner, Musk simultaneously terrorized his employees, users, and advertisers by firing half the employees and setting the operations on a long-term deteriorating path. Off with their heads! It was a spectacular industrial-scale recreation of the Queen from Alice in Wonderland.

In the midst of all this, the New York Times published an article claiming that Silicon Valley CEOs admire Musk’s regal ways. Message to CEOs: If you are one of those, please tell me in advance, so I do not invest my money in your startup.

Best Short Video

Speaking of social media, this next award goes to the short film that raised the most ruckus. In this case, the hubbub arose in Finland, a country not known for producing many online uproars. To reinforce the point, the same film also won best foreign film!  

You might have missed this two-minute video (click here to view), so here is a brief recap of what you will see: A thirty-six-year-old good-looking married female in Finland attended a private party and danced with friends. Some of them made faces for the camera. They also sang some Finnish songs, and most of them sounded off-tune. Here is a picture of this lady:

Does anything about this occurrence sound uncommon to you? No, I do not see anything unusual here either. That video looks like hundreds of millions of millennials’ videos. It is the virtual heartbeat of the Internet. Nothing unusual about this video at all. Except said female has a day job as the Prime Minister of Finland. Somebody in the opposition made a big tempest about the indignity of it.

Methinks somebody doth protest too much. This video is another life-affirming and vibrant online expression of the human spirit. It is the runaway winner for a tempest in a teapot. The PM is full of verve. So what is the opposition trying to do? Appeal to Finnish voters with no sense of rhythm?

All Finns should be grateful she still has so much life in her. But, more to the point, sigh, don’t you wish we had a president who could still move like that?

The Doctor Doolittle Award

It is time for my favorite award, which celebrates the clever use of information technology in the service of animal science. There are three nominees this year. All three offer clear signs to future readers that our generation fiddled while the planet sank into the end times.

The first near-winner uses machine learning to translate the sounds of animals into human language. I am not making this up. What animal sound did they seek to decipher? Mole rat signals! That is not a typo—a mole rat, as in a rodent. See here.

I, for one, would have preferred a typo. How about an effort to understand mall rats instead of mole rats? The teenage versions are equally difficult to comprehend.

The second near winner simulates the sound of a long-dead bug. That might seem unremarkable until you realize the bug has been dead for one hundred million years. Yes, eight zeros, before the invention of bug spray.

The researchers were able to figure out the sound frequencies of the modern relative and, using a form of machine learning that simulates music, figure out what the ancestor must have sounded like. Want to hear the lonely cry of a 100 million-year-old bug? It turns out bugs a hundred million years ago sounded much like bugs today.

Now that we know this, would it change anything in the Jurassic Park movies? Could they bring back 100-year-old mosquitos to find out if it makes a noise before they bite?

Now for the big winner! These researchers used ultrasound technology to inspect the anatomy of an abalone.

No, again, I am not making this up. Abalone is a large gastropod mollusk that inhabits the cold waters of California, and, poor dears, they are having sexual problems. The researchers are trying to identify the right moment to encourage one lonely abalone to cuddle with another.

You might (reasonably) ask why this one wins. All three are ridiculous and fascinating at the same time. Well, because it leads to a good tongue twister. The anatomy of abalone. Say that five times quickly.

The Mr. Lincoln Prize

Moving beyond just science for its own sake, now comes history for its own sake. More precisely, this is the award for using digital technology for a quirky historical purpose. This researcher won because he figured out the location of the Gettysburg Address.

Duh, everybody knows the Gettysburg Address took place in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, so what’s to learn? The open question concerns where Lincoln stood. This is a mystery because Lincoln’s address did not receive much attention in its own time, and contemporaries did not think to preserve details for posterity. Only a few photographs were taken of the day. Later, historians did not have enough evidence to accurately recreate the event. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the battlefield every year. The public wants to know every detail.  

The mystery was resolved by a professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, who is (formerly) a full-time animator and (partly) a civil war buff. His name is Christopher Oakley. Using quite a bit of math, careful examination of the angles on all available photographs, simulation software that surveyors use to mark precise boundaries, and some triangulation of all the tips, he deduced exactly where the stage had to be and precisely where Lincoln had to be standing on that stage. He won the award because he learned these methods from years of working on computer-generated films and animation.

Wow. That took some excellent technical skills and synthetic thinking. It also required an inhuman amount of persistence bordering on excessive obsession. That is precisely the personality we find frequently among academics. Keep up the good work, Professor Oakley!


Planes fall out of the sky! Takeoffs interrupted in mid-acceleration! Landings are delayed until snow ploys clear the runway! Joey, do you like movies about gladiators? If you need help understanding that last question, perhaps you have never seen the absurdist movie comedy, Airplane.

That movie provides the inspiration for this award, which celebrates an absurd policy debate about digital technology. This year the award goes to the FAA and the FCC, who wasted everybody’s time by airing their argument in public.

In case you missed it, here is a brief recap… The FAA disagreed with an FCC decision to sell spectrum for 5G that was adjacent to spectrum used in old altimeters to navigate in bad weather. The FCC disagreed because because there is a guard band between the two uses and years of testing showed there was no interference. The FAA disagreed. Got that?

No, really, what lies in the substance of the dispute? The FCC is compelled by law to determine whether one use of spectrum interfered with another. It did its job and concluded it was safe to authorize the spectrum deployment for 5G, which it auctioned off last year. But, for reasons I am at a loss to explain, the FAA did not believe them, openly worried that old airplane altimeters would lose their functionality, and requested the carriers not deploy any towers using this spectrum close to airports. The carriers agreed to all this, but they were understandably upset that they could not use the spectrum they won in the auction around airports, where, it must be noted, people like to use their phones.

It only got better from there. The two agencies sniped at each other with anonymous quotes in the newspapers and then more publicly at Congressional hearings, like an old married couple second-guessing each other’s judgment. 

Yours Truly heard from his adult professional friends in government that they all were a wee bit exacerbated by the whole spat, which could have been worked out years ago. Replacing a few old altimeters is a hassle, but not super expensive with enough notice. Translation: That is what polite adult professionals in DC say when they shift blame to a dysfunctional prior administration.  

It’s a wonderful life

Speaking of crashing, nobody has said much about bank runs since a panic outside of Baileys Savings and Loan. But now we have FTX, previously the second-largest cryptocurrency exchange, to thank for something special, an old fashion bank run in an unregulated financial space!  That is worthy of an award.

Bank runs in retail banking have not occurred for a long time. Here is what happened. Nobody asked questions when the going was good. Still, recent declines in cryptocurrency values led somebody to start poking around, which was enough to motivate somebody to ask questions, and rumors began to circulate about issues. That motivates somebody to withdraw their digital deposit. Then another, and then another. In a couple days, FTX ran out of digital reserves.

It sure looked like they could learn a thing or two from FDIC. To be fair, even the FDIC could not have saved FTX. Its customers needed some old fashioned auditing and oversight mandated by regulation to prevent executive recklessness, unchecked indulgence, and heavy doses of self-dealing.

We now know FTX played fast and loose with billions of dollars of “other people’s money,” and Bankman-Fried appears to have been a somewhat charming frontman for an organization with no internal guardrails. The story contains much more detail than that, but do you care? It is just another example to suggest stiff transparency requirements could have prevented problems. FTX joins the undistinguished list, including Lehman Brothers, Bernier Madoff, and a many Savings and Loans in the 1980s, who were tempted and could not resist.

To close, we note that this year’s Nobel Prize in economics was awarded a month before FTX’s crash. It went to Ben Bernanke, Phillip Dybvig, and Doug Diamond for their research about – wait for it! – the causes and prevention of bank runs. Somebody in the Swedish committee possesses both prescience and a wicked sense of humor.

Award for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

While we are focusing on financial losses, let’s give the award for having the most miserable day in the digital commercial universe. The runaway winner is Meta. (What’s a Meta? I don’t know. What’s a Meta with you?) They deserve this award for their stock’s performance on February 3. The previous day the stock price was over $326, and on February 3, it ended just above $237, dropping almost 26% in one day!

How did that happen? Methinks the performance reflected increasing market clarity that Apple’s no-tracking privacy policies directly impede Facebook’s ability to exploit said information for their ad network.

Or, to put it in more concrete terms, my most recent searches on my phone for flowers for my spouse no longer generate flower ads on the home computer, which she could see, ruining the surprise. I do not know about you, but that seems like an improvement.

The slide did not stop there. As of this writing, Meta’s stock hovers around $117, which is another drop of 50% over the last ten months. Why? Pick your favorite theory. Mine is simple. The CEO got bored with the core business, spent all the R&D money chasing global digital currencies and the Metaverse and countless other big pet projects, and these delivered whatever.

Let’s summarize. Zuckerberg’s wealth declined by almost $30 billion in less than 24 hours in February, and an equal amount over the next ten months. Ouch.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Time to change the mood. The next award goes to NASA for the pictures taken by the James Webb Telescope. NASA wins the award for putting the awe back in awesome by using some excellent digital visualization tools. Just look at those pictures. Just wow.

Nothing snarky about those pics. Apologies. Click here for some more.

Field of dreams award

This next award celebrates the most interesting use of digital technology in sports.

The winner is Major League Baseball for its efforts to enter the digital age with PitchCom. That’s right, the most tradition-bound sport in the US finally sought to modernize itself with a bit of digital technology aimed at sign stealing. Not only is this long overdue, but, IMHO, it is necessary. After the sign-stealing scandal at the Houston Astros, MLB has to do something to make sure cheaters do not win another World Series.

In the 2022 season, PitchCom enabled catchers to communicate balls and strikes by hitting an electronic pad on their wrists. This triggers a verbal rendition of the pitch in the pitcher’s cap and potentially the caps for the second basemen and shortstop. As the season progressed, more teams began to use it.

News reports indicated MLB hoped the technology might reduce the amount of back-and-forth communication between pitchers and catchers and speed up the game. However, available data suggest that this has yet to occur, with the average game taking more than three hours.

Alright, wake me up when it gets somewhere. Yawn.

The James Bond Award

Speaking of stealing and cheating, it is time for the James Bond Award, an award recognizing the most shameful episodes of cyber criminality. More than most awards, this one acknowledges the additional steps taken toward developing a dystopian internet. North Korean, Russian, and Chinese hackers have competed for this dishonor in the last few years.

This year the runaway winner is (once again!) the Russian government for using state employees to attempt to turn off the Internet in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Wow, that was especially brazen. But, of course, most of you probably have not heard about this because you were distracted by the Ukrainian invasion, which was even more brazen violation of international world order.

None of this is good news. A combination of stateless and loosely organized actors face few natural deterrents and find a good company with many state-sponsored actors. The era of honor among cyber-thieves seems to have ended, and we are on the first step towards open cyber warfare.

We owe thanks the Ukrainians for acting as the testing ground for many new cyber defenses.

Back to the Future Award

One more to go! That previous award was a downer, so let’s try to change the tone. It is always better to end on an upbeat note.

The back-to-the-future award goes to the Web site that best represents all that was good about the old-fashioned internet. That is, before it became overrun with manipulative social media memes, trolls, sex addicts, cyber-thieves, con artists selling cryptocurrencies, bots, and Meta’s mismanagement. In other words, this award is unlike all the others. It is an award for festive wholesome whacky online fun.

This year the award goes to the Instagram account called “Depths of Wikipedia.” Operated by Annie Rauwerda, the site highlights quirky and odd pages on Wikipedia. Her efforts represent a throwback to all that was cheerfully eccentric and playfully odd about the internet.

No description can do it justice. If you want to read something that might make you smile, check it out.

That is all we have this year! Best of luck in the coming year.

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