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The Balance Between Promotion and Privacy June 16, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Uncategorized.
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I have a (very) minor, and I hope positive, reputation in technology.  I’ve authored many articles and spoken at dozens of tech conferences over the past decade or so.  I am occasionally called upon as a subject matter expert to advise investors, present webinars, and author opinions about various aspects of software and their accompanying systems.

At the same time, I am deeply concerned for my privacy.  Other than a seminal moment in my personal heath, several years ago, and one or two nondenominational political statements (we all must take a stand in some fashion), I comment on technology issues.  I would like to think I do so with thought and sensitivity, and I like to think that my ideas have been on the leading edge on a number of occasions.

I do a modest job of promoting myself, through my blog (this one), Twitter (https://twitter.com/pvarhol), and LinkedIn (never Facebook), because I hope it helps my career (such as it is) in some fashion.

But at the same time I am concerned that public or Internet exposure could invite violations of privacy.  You may think that I have given up any call to privacy once I participated in social media, and you may well be correct, but I think about every foray I make on the Internet and how it may affect my privacy.

I am not so stupid as to believe that I can keep much about me to myself.  Once others have access to some information, they can likely get other stuff.  With too much transparency, you are opening yourself up to data theft, financial fraud, and reputational damage.

And this is the fundamental reason I will never sign up for Facebook.  With Facebook, you are the product, and never forget that.  Despite years of promises, Facebook has sold, given to so-called partners, or simply had stolen data from tens of millions of users.  Yet we seem to be okay with that.  I talk to many people who say “I only use Facebook to keep track of old friends”, but the fact of the matter is they often do much more.  I know that despite my non-participation, I have exposure to Facebook, due to updates and photos from friends.  When asked, I beg them not to use my image or name, but they rarely comply.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who is trying to work through the compromise of visibility and privacy.  I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that an important part is to not have anything to do with Facebook.  As for the rest, I can only advise to weigh the risks versus the benefits carefully.

We are quickly headed toward a society where little if any information about ourselves will be owned and controlled by us.  Many of us try to practice “security through obscurity”, or trying to hide in the weeds of everyone else, but in an era of Big Data analytics, it will be a piece of cake to pinpoint and take advantage of us.  I try to remediate where I can, but I’m not prepared for this world.


Too Many Companies Know My Birthday June 12, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Simply by saying that, I am making my birthday known to anyone who cares to read this.  Friends and family certainly know.  Fidelity wished me a happy birthday; they schedule a financial review call to approximately correspond to the date.  They have to know my birthday (and date) in order to help me plan retirement.

But BingRock & Roll Marathon Series?  IlluminEyes Vision Care?  Canard Line, for god’s sake?  Bing says that my birthday was included in my Microsoft account.  I have two questions there.  First, why would I have given my birthday for a Microsoft account?  Second, why would/should Bing have access to that?

I suppose Rock & Roll Marathon needs to know my birthday in order to determine my age group in various races I might participate in (I’ve only done one of these, Virginia Beach).  Likewise, my eye doctor probably needs to know, as he is a doctor.

Also, I’ve never cruised on Canard, so I can only think that they bought it from a marketing clearinghouse.  That concerns me.

I’m not a privacy nut.  But when the data are about me, I have to ask myself where it came from and what it was being used for.  Wishing me a happy birthday is an easy and inexpensive way to seem more personal, and to remind me that these companies exist and are at my service (for a fee, of course).

A birthday and birth date are key ingredients of identity theft.  It’s also easy to get credit card numbers and expiration dates in any number of ways.  Identity theft is very difficult to recover from; in some cases, it has ruined people’s lives.

Companies sending me birthday greetings are not being warm and personal.  Rather, they are showing off the fact that they know a lot about me, and can use that data in very trivial ways if they desired.  Imagine if that data fell into the hands of hackers, who have shown that they are very adept at breaking into corporate data vaults and making off with our information.

Or worse, it some marketing genius at those companies could think of more creative ways of abusing our data.

The Only Investment Guide You Will Ever Need June 3, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Circa 1980, I was 22 years old (more or less) and had recently collected my first paycheck as an Air Force Second Lieutenant.  Now my parents, Pete and Ann, never graduated high school and were financial illiterates, and I had no idea what to do with that paycheck.  At the time, I lived in the Baltimore suburbs, in a row house in a blue collar neighborhood that reflected my upbringing.  Across the street was a community park where I did my first distance running, and on the other side of the park was the Brooklyn Park Public Library.

I made use of the library to check out books on personal financial planning.  I came across several books by Andrew Tobias, including The Only Investment Guide You Will Ever Need, and Getting By On $100,000 a Year (in 1976, when the book was first published, that was quite a feat).  I knew that Tobias had my blue collar heart in mind when his very first advice, before the era of Costco and Sams Club, was “buy in bulk.”

From there, Tobias led me on a journey from the most basic of cost saving exercises to some of the more sophisticated (for individuals) strategies, all with an easy to understand description and tone.  I never did options, puts, or calls, but I know what they are, thanks to Tobias.

Today, thanks in large part to reading these books, I am easily ready to retire if I choose (I choose not to).  I’ve not had a mortgage in over 20 years, and I will likely never starve unless Fidelity Investments goes out of business.

We decry the lack of personal financial training in our school systems, including college, but it’s easy enough for young people to teach themselves.  Simply, read books like this.

It Turns Out That Higher Education is On Trial May 10, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Thanks to Lori Loughlin pleading not guilty and presumably heading for trial amidst a far-reaching scam that enabled some wealthy and privileged parents to, well yes, cheat, we have to confront the system that has enabled it.

Wealthy and privileged parents claim they have the moral right and responsibility to use their substantial resources in order for their children to land at the top of society in the next generation.  Not doing so is a clear failure of parenting.  And if they break the law (mostly wire fraud, but also conspiracy), well, that’s just being a good parent.

While the universities involved are trying to distance themselves from that message, it is truly they that will be on trial here, because they (and specific employees) are the recipients of this largesse.  It’s easy to draw a line between endowing a building or an academic program and dressing your kids up as sports participants they are most decidedly not.  The latter is fraud, pure and simple.

But it was enabled by the universities.  They and their employees accepted that, usually with a bribe involved.  Universities generally look the other way, unless it is a bad look.  And this is a bad look.

So while Lori Loughlin will be in trial, our finest institutions of higher learning are on trial too.

Uber, Lyft, and Unintended Consequences April 24, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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There is a lot going on with, well, I cannot use the term ride-sharing, because it’s not, but with changing the dynamics of personal transportation, often in unforeseen ways.

So here we go.  I grew up in rural middle America (well, not so middle, but flyover country nonetheless).  I had my driver’s license the day after my sixteenth birthday (the day after I soloed in a Piper Cherokee 140), because in blue collar America, your family had one car that your father used to go to work in the mill, and otherwise you had no way of getting around.  If you were a guy, you got a beater for a hundred bucks, and you drove yourself.  And changed the oil and rigged the rust with bondo.

(I have a related story.  I was passed down my family’s 66 Chevy BelAir, a true rusting hulk.  In fact, the frame rusted through, underneath, on the driver’s side.  I drove a bolt between the frame and the crossmember, and drove it for another couple of years.)

But it was more than that.  I learned my way around my community, and the surrounding area.  I knew every single dirt road in a 25-mile radius, and the fastest way to get from the place I was at to the place that I needed to be (including driving through fields).

Uber and Lyft say several things about the future of personal transportation.  First, you have to live somewhere they are available.  You might think that is a given proposition, but in much of America it is not.  That may drive people toward more urban areas, or it may create another digital divide across our country.

But I think most important, you are not going to be able to get from one place to another on your own.  You don’t know your locality.  Now, I recognize that there are a couple of retorts to that statement.  First, I have my GPS.  Ah, but in rural America, just how accurate is that?  Even in my current East Coast suburbia, it has significant flaws.  People won’t have a mental model of their locality.

Well, it’s not my problem, you say, it’s Uber’s!  No, it’s yours too.  I have been deposited in places that the GPS has said was correct, only to find out that it wasn’t.  What do you do then?

I am a strong believer in situational awareness.  You need to know where you are at all times, and what is around you.  If you don’t, you are subject to mostly unpleasant surprises.  Don’t at all think it’s going to turn our well if you have no clue as to where you are, and where you are going.

I wonder if we are forming a geographic cocoon, unable to navigate ourselves outside of a range of a few hundred yards (less if we don’t even walk for recreation).  More so, is it necessarily a bad thing?  I think it is.  We have people who take their mobile phones on hikes in the wilderness, expecting 9-1-1 to rescue them if they don’t get home by dinner.

I wonder what my life would be like if I couldn’t navigate on my own, based on my own experiences and travels.  It would certainly be less rich, but I also wonder if it would be more, well dangerous, in the event that I found myself having to, but ill-prepared to do so.

The Problems With Seasteading April 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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It’s a new word, at least to me, and refers to establishing a residence outside of any national boundary, generally at sea.  Chad Elwartowski, a US citizen, and his Thai girlfriend, Supranee “Nadia Summergirl” Thepdet built a home on the water outside of Thailand territorial waters (but within the country’s economic zone).  Thailand wasn’t amused, revoked Elwartowski’s visa, and are towing the ‘home’ to land (the residents apparently abandoned it the previous day).

It sounds free and in a way romantic, but isn’t practical by any means.  You may think that you avoid taxes and live outside of a structured legal system, but you are giving up much more than you are gaining.

So let’s list just a few things that can go wrong.

  1. Your transportation or communication fails. The assistance you need is relatively minor but very necessary.  You may think you can pay for it, until you get the bill.  And that bill is likely far larger than any tax bill you may have gotten over the years.
  2. You are attacked and kidnapped by pirates. You may think that is foolish, but these waters are among the most pirate-infested in the world.  Absolutely no legal national entity in the world will go to bat for you.
  3. A storm renders your home unlivable. These are also among the stormiest waters in the world.  You’re hanging onto a piece of debris, hoping that rescue is on the horizon.  But because you have rejected all legal entities, there is no reason for any nation to lift a hand.
  4. You are sick or injured, and need assistance. There are humanitarian services, but if you are nationless, it becomes more difficult to call on them.
  5. You want to order takeout pizza. Just kidding, but yes, you are giving up conveniences like that too.

We may debate the value of what we get from our tax dollars, but emergency services are usually available when we need them.  If you are in dire need, you probably think that nations will help you anyway.  To which I say, “Why?”  You want freedom, such as it is, but you also want someone there to backstop you.  Ain’t gonna happen.

About Social Media, User-Generated Content, and Getting Out of This Hole April 13, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Facebook considers itself a platform for anything that its users want to post that others can see.  As we know, that was always a pipe dream, because if you open a platform to any age, race, sex, and so on, you have to be cognizant of what people feel comfortable seeing, and are legally allowed to see (and post).

You may think that anyone should be able to see anything, but long-standing laws don’t work like that.  And those laws take into account institutional hate and content for children, which Facebook actively promotes.  So these so-called platforms have to do some curation, although they are fighting it tooth and nail.  Not because it’s not right, but because it’s expensive.

Facebook has disingenuously divorced themselves from that entire discussion, saying we will remove content if you tell us about it, and will use AI otherwise (yes, they say that they have curators, but treat them like shit, and the AI is barely functional).  But it’s your job, not ours, they say.  And when they fail so miserably, as they did with New Zealand, they simply say that we’ll do better next time.  But if you’ve been paying attention, they never do.

So, much as I would like to, I can’t shut up Facebook and Zuckerberg, because you keep wanting to believe them.  Is there an answer?  I think so, but it is one that will never fly with the likes of Zuckerberg.  It’s like the network versus cable channels.  Free network TV intended for a broad audience has to meet community standards.  If you want risqué, or hate, or violence, you pay to have a much smaller (paid) circulation.

But Zuckerberg wants it all, hate, violence, and everything, because he never learned how to share.  And we are giving it to him.

You’re Magnetic Tape April 4, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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That line, from the Moody Blues ‘In the Beginning’ album (yes, album, from the early 1970s), makes us out to be less than the sum of our parts, rather than more.  So logically, writer and professional provocateur Felix Salmon asks if we can prove who we say we are.

Today in an era of high security, that question is more relevant than ever.  I have a current passport, a Real ID driver’s license, a Global Entry ID card, and even my original Social Security card, issued circa 1973 (not at birth, like they are today; I had to drive to obtain it).  Our devices include biometrics like fingerprints and facial recognition, and retina scans aren’t too far behind.

On the other hand, I have an acquaintance (well, at least one) that I’ve never met.  I was messaging her the other evening when I noted, “If you are really in Barcelona, it’s 2AM (thank you, Francisco Franco), and you really should be asleep.”  She responded, “Well, I can’t prove that I’m not a bot.”

Her response raises a host of issues.  First, identity is on the cusp of becoming a big business.  If I know for certain who you are, then I can validate you for all sorts of transactions, and charge a small fee for the validation.  If you look at companies like LogMeIn, that may their end game.

Second, as our connections become increasingly worldwide, do we really know if we are communicating with an actual human being?  With AI bots becoming increasingly sophisticated, they may be able to pass the Turing test.

Last, what will have higher value, our government-issued ID, or a private vendor ID?  I recently opined that I prefer the government, because they are far more disorganized than most private companies, but someone responded “Government can give you an ID one day, and arbitrarily take it away the next.”  I prefer government siloes and disorganization, because of security by obscurity, but is that really the best option any more?

So, what is our ID?  And how can we positively prove we are who we say we are?  More to the point, how can we prove that we exist?  Those questions are starting to intrude on our lives, and may become central to our existence before we realize it.