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Facebook and the Cult of Secrecy June 5, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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I recall the worldwide controversy in 2013 surrounding National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who published secret (and above) information about the NSA listening programs to the world at large.  These revelations prompted some worldwide protests against the data collection by the NSA (and by extension GCHQ in the UK and others).

I gave the entire Snowden mess a shrug of my shoulders.  I am not a big fan of secrets, personal or institutional.  I do think that there are things in life that we justifiably attempt to keep secret, for a variety of reasons.  However, I also believe that any attempt to keep something a secret for any significant period of time is ultimately futile.  “Three people can keep a secret, if two are dead” represents my belief in the longevity of secrets.

However, I can’t help but marvel at people protesting against government data collection, yet those same people, and many more, willingly giving far more personal data to Facebook.  I simply don’t get why Facebook, which is undeniably more effective than the NSA, gets a pass on their deeper intrusions in our lives.

Facebook should have taught us that there are no secrets.  I don’t think that we’ve learned that lesson, and I certainly don’t think Facebook has.  This article notes the company’s duplicitous behavior regarding what it says and what it actually does.  In this case, it was Zuckerberg himself who told Congress that they no longer shared user and friend information with third parties.

It turns out that Facebook deliberately decided not to classify 60 (yes, 60) phone manufacturers as third parties.  Zuckerberg’s excuse: they needed to provide them with real user data in order to test the integration with the app on their devices.  Un, no.

Now, I am a tester by temperament, and know darn well that the normal practice is to munge data used for testing.  Facebook providing 60 vendors with real data is not testing, it is yet another violation of their terms of service.  Oh, but Facebook is allowed to do that as long as someone (the janitor, perhaps) apologizes and says it won’t happen again.

So here you have it – Facebook lies, and will continue lying as long as they can get away with it.  And who lets them get away with it?  You do.

Update: Facebook bug set 14 million users’ sharing settings to public.  I really don’t at all understand why people put up with this.

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Lena, Fabio, and the Mess of Computer Science April 11, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Software development, Technology and Culture.
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The book Brotopia opens with a description of Lena, the November 1972 Playboy centerfold whose photo by chance was used in early research into image processing algorithms at USC.  Over time, that singular cropped image became a technical standard to measure the output of graphics algorithms.  Even today it is used in academic research to point out details of the value of alternative algorithms.

But today this image is also controversial.  Some complain that it serves to objectify women in computer science.  Others say it is simply a technical standard in the field.  A woman mathematics professor applied similar graphics algorithms to Fabio in an attempt to bring some balance to the discussion.

In the 8th grade (around the time of Lena), my middle school (Hopewell Junior High School) partitioned off boys to Shop class, and girls to Home Ec.  Perhaps one boy a year asked for Home Ec class, but it could only be taken by boys as a free elective, and was viewed as an oddity.  During my time there, to my knowledge no girl asked to be in Shop class.

Of course, I thought nothing of it at the time, but today such a segregation is troubling.  And even in 2015, a high school computer science class used Lena to show off their work with graphics algorithms, to mixed reviews.

There are many serious problems with the cult of the young white male in tech today.  As we continue to engage this demographic with not-so-subtle inducements to their libidos, we also enable them to see themselves as the Masters of the (Tech) Universe.  That worked out so well for the financial trading firms in the market failures of the 1980s and 2000s, didn’t it?

Does the same dynamic also make it more difficult for women to be taken seriously in tech?  I think that it is part of the problem, but by no means the only part.  Women in tech are like people in any field – they want to do their jobs, and not have to have cultural and frat boy behaviors that make it that much more difficult to do so.

I’ve been fortunate to know many smart and capable women throughout my life.  I had a girlfriend in college who was simply brilliant in mathematics and chemistry (in contrast, I was not brilliant at anything at that point in my life).  She may have been one of the inspirations that led me to continue plugging away at mathematics until I managed a limited amount of success at it.  Others try to do their best under circumstances that they shouldn’t have to put up with.

So let’s give everyone the same chance, without blatant and subtle behaviors that demean them and make them feel less than what they are.  We don’t today.  Case in point, Uber, which under Travis Kalanick was the best-known but by no means the only offender.  I hope we can improve, but despair that we can’t.

Has Moneyball Killed Baseball? June 20, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Publishing, Strategy.
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Moneyball was a revelation to me.  It taught me that the experts could not effectively evaluate talent, and opened my own mind to the biases found in software development, testing, and team building.  Some of my best conference presentations and articles have been in this area.

But while Moneyball helped the Oakland Athletics, and eventually some other teams, it seems to be well on its way to killing the sport.  I’ve never been a big sports fan, but there were few other activities that could command the attention of a 12-year old in the late 1960s.

I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, and while I was too young to see the dramatic Bill Mazeroski home run in the 1960 World Series, I did see the heroics of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell in the 1971 World Series (my sister was administrative assistant at the church in Wilmington NC where Stargell had his funeral).  I lived in Baltimore where the Pirates won a Game 7 in dramatic fashion in 1979 (Steve Blass at the helm for his third game of the series, with Dave Guisti in relief).

But baseball has changed, and not in a good way.  Today, Moneyball has produced teams that focus on dramatic encounters like strikeouts, walks, and home runs.  I doubt this was what Billy Beane wanted to happen.  That makes baseball boring.  It is currently lacking in any of the strategy that it was best at.

As we move toward a world where we are increasingly using analytics to evaluate data and make decisions, we may be leaving the interesting parts of our problem domain behind.  I would like to think that machine learning and analytics are generally good for us, but perhaps they provide a crutch that ultimately makes our world less than it could be.  I hope we find a way to have the best of both.

Really, CNN.com? March 31, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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I recognize that the mainstream media, or MSM, has been under fire lately. And has been under financial and relevancy pressure for at least two decades, as falling ad rates for digital media has cut still further into its advertiser-driven business model.  That one is a difficult one to solve, but that doesn’t absolve CNN from actually trying to solve it.

But giving advertising content the same placement and appearance as your news content is simply so far over the top that I am beside myself. Here is a screen capture of CNN Money that shows “sponsored content” (advertising) presented in the same manner as news.

This is wrong on so many levels I can’t even count them. That CNN.com would lower itself to this is unconscionable.  There are plenty of people who still respect and appreciate actual news, and they are (or can be if you care) your biggest defenders.

And really, CNN.com. It is purported news stories like this one on the move of the Oakland Raiders that make even reasonable people doubt your veracity.  I have never read such a one-sided, biased, and inflammatory article on a major news site.  You never even bothered to seek out and question Raiders owner Mark Davis, or to say that the Raiders and A’s are the last teams to be playing in the same stadium, by a long shot, or that Davis is relatively cash-poor and would likely have to give up ownership in order to remain in Oakland.  I live nowhere near Oakland, and have no dog in this hunt, but this does not even begin to pass the smell test.  Sometimes you are just too stupid for your own good.

Journalism is more interesting when it has a point of view. You may not always (or ever) agree with that point of view, but it is important to absorb and consider it.  But this is presented as objective news, yet is neither.

CNN, I know that it’s not easy, but it’s time to grow up and figure out your path without continuing to resort to cheap tricks like these.

Who Is the Data For? March 1, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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Andreas Weigend recently published an intriguing book called Data For the People, in which he argues that we are not going to stop the proliferation of personal data that is used to categorize and market to us, so we should embrace this change and find ways to use collected data to our advantage.

He cites many of the data points that I do in my blog posts, but comes to different conclusions. In particular, my own thoughts are to limit my use of personal data on a case-by-case basis.  His own conclusion is that we need to accept the proliferation of personal data as inevitable, and embrace it in a way that makes it valuable to us.

He makes a lot of sense, from an alternative point of view from mine, and I won’t dismiss it out of hand.

However, I would like to contrast that with another article, one that points out that when we choose our friends through shared data, we lose our ability to connect with our physical neighbors.

So, here is what I think. I think Andreas is correct, strategically.  But I am simply not sure how we get from where we are to where he wants to be.  I don’t think it will be clean and neat.  And it certainly won’t be convenient, especially for those of us who are at least part way through our lives.

I’ve used this quote before, but it remains apropos.  From Crosby, Stills, and Nash: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

What We Lose in Reading Digitally October 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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I have almost never picked up a physical book in the last three years. Virtually everything I have read (and I am a voracious reader) has been digital, first on my Nook, and over the last year on my phone.  I prefer it that way.  I carry my library with me, and can read anything I want, whenever I want.  And I don’t have to fill my backpack with a bunch of paperbacks.

I discovered something today. I discovered that I could not, at least not conveniently, give the gift of a book in a digital format.  It used to be if I wanted to gift a book, I would go to a bookstore, buy the book, and give it to you.  I may end up doing that here (the Barnes and Noble superstore is only five minutes away, although I have no idea if they stock this particular book), but buying a digital book as a gift is almost impossible.  My accounts at Barnes and Noble, and at Amazon, are tied to my reading software and my devices.

I’m not even sure how I would gift a digital book. The reader often tells me if it’s possible to loan a book (sometimes it’s not, apparently), but doesn’t say anything about buying a book for someone else.  From the standpoint of the book economy, this doesn’t seem to make any sense.

It troubles me that I cannot easily gift a book in the digital era. This doesn’t seem to be a use case with either Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and that is to their detriment.  I have spent some time looking into this, and don’t see any good way of doing it.  And I have never had to spend any time doing it with physical books.  This is odd.  Books have often been one of the most popular of gifts, and we don’t easily allow that any more.

The fact of the matter is that while we’ve made it easier to buy (digital) books, we have made it more difficult to gift them. That’s simply wrong, and we have taken a step back in that regard.  Book sellers, are you listening?  I think not.

Once Again, Zuckerberg Demonstrates That He is Evil September 9, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Those of you who know me also know that I have made it a point to never join Facebook. A large part of that is driven by an instinctive need to keep my professional side separate and distinct from my personal side.  You may know who I am, but it’s likely you know little about me (to be fair, it’s probably not like you care all that much, either).

But further, I disagree strongly with the arbitrary power that Facebook wields, in advertising, in shaping societal mores, and in editorial. This latter was never more evident than this week, where Facebook peremptorily and unilaterally, without any semblance of discussion or debate, removed a world-renown, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (and accompanying article) of the Vietnam War from a newspaper’s Facebook page.

The Norwegian newspaper that published the article and photo, and even the Norwegian Prime Minister, raged publicly about the action. To its (miniscule) credit, several hours after the story became public, Facebook agreed to repost the photo and article “sometime in the coming days.”  Until then, Facebook insisted that the iconic photo violated its user standards.  Facebook claims that it is a technology company, not a publisher, but when it can decide what a billion or more people can see, it is by far the largest publisher in the world.

In a larger sense, it bothers me because Zuckerberg’s actions, even (or especially) the stupid ones, cause increasing harm as Facebook becomes still more ubiquitous. And because Zuckerberg, still in his early 30s, is set to do harm for several decades ahead.

Over half a century ago, US Secretary of Defense and former CEO of General Motors Charles Wilson was quoted as saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”  (That quote, while well-known, is slightly bastardized; it is really the slightly less offensive “I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.  There was no difference.”)

I fear that Zuckerberg has taken this false maxim several steps further. I think that Zuckerberg feels strongly that whatever Facebook does is leading the world into a better place.  Thanks to business success, Zuckerberg and Facebook wield enormous power, and bear an equally enormous responsibility to use that power wisely.  Instead, we get gross stupidity.

I know he is wrong in the most fundamental way. And I refuse to be a party to it.

What Do We Want in Our News Media? July 15, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Well, there is a loaded question if I ever heard one, especially during this interminably dragging election season in the US. News has changed greatly since my youth, I think somewhat for the better.  I am old enough to remember Walter Cronkite (barely), and was a young adult with the likes of Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw.  My newspapers consisted of the Beaver County Times and Pittsburgh Press.  Print, of course, either picked up at the pharmacy or delivered in the vicinity of the door.

I am certainly familiar with all of the downsides of our current news delivery. A variety of delivery sources means that we can choose one that represents our point of view, reaffirming our world view and stunting our knowledge growth.  And the proliferation of news outlets means that there is no time or money (and sometimes no inclination) for copy editing or fact checking, so we are engaged in a real-life rendition of “Believe It or Not”.

And the so-called newsrooms! At times it seems like the protagonists are more interested in bantering with each other rather than conveying information to their audience.  Of course, that is largely the fault of their employers, who today view news delivery as a source of entertainment.

But let’s not forget the positives. We can get news as it is breaking, not on a network or newspaper schedule.  I think that has awakened more people to their connection with the larger world around them.  News is less filtered; let me explain that one.  When half an hour at 6 or 11, or a daily newspaper, was our only way of getting news.  Out of necessity, news was rationed; and we never knew who did the rationing.  Who gave us our world view?  I didn’t know it at the time, but of course it had to be.

The ability to select from multiple news sources gives us the ability to see the same event from different perspectives, giving us a more complete picture of events. I’ve appreciated the reporting of Al Jazeera, for example, because of the complete different take on a lot of Middle Eastern news.  Not that one or the other is correct or incorrect, but rather it’s what they emphasize or downplay that is interesting.

I can’t speak for others, of course, but over the years perusing the Internet I’ve determined what I look for in news. For my needs, I have Felix Salmon to thank, for the period in which he blogged for Reuters.  To be clear, I rarely agreed with anything Felix said.  But his range of interests, and his ability to explain, meant that almost every day I learned something new.  I don’t have to agree with his point of view in order to discover new things.

In the same vein, I would add Justin Fox and Barbara Kiviat, former Curious Capitalist columnists at Time magazine.  Barbara in particular had a penchant for objectively looking at data, and could weave a story out of statistics like few others.  The web publication Quartz also enthralls me, for its ability to go in depth in an incredibly wide variety of topics.