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Return on Investment is Not the Way to View Education March 14, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Circa 1995, my CS/Math department chair told me in no uncertain terms that we had perfected higher education, through small classes taught in person once or twice a week.  There was no need to change education at all.

He was serious.  It was laughable then, and it’s even more laughable today.  Yet, especially in our youth (I am well beyond that, of course) we still look at education as a four (or more) year residential process on a bucolic campus.

Today Quartz is asking the question of what is the better return on investment, getting a college degree or buying a house.  The real problem with that question is assuming four or more residential years on a bucolic campus.  And while that works for some, young adults today have many more options than I had.  In my experience, community colleges are fantastic, rigorous education for two years taught by dedicated professionals.  And they are no longer places to learn auto body; they teach computer programming, nursing and affiliated health care, engineering, and others that were once the exclusive preserve of four-year colleges and beyond.

MOOCs are an outstanding way of learning.  Courses from Coursera, Udacity, and others offer no-cost (for non-degree programs) or very low cost (for degree programs) courses, taught by world class instructors from world class universities.

Several residential colleges in my state have closed over the last two decades.  I’m sure they considered their circumstances unique, but the fact of the matter is that they priced themselves out of their markets.  And higher education is still raising its prices at double or triple the rate of inflation, blindly convinced that someone will pay for it for these students.

Over the last two decades education has become much more egalitarian and accessible to even those of modest means.  Yet young adults still seek that residential experience.  I think I know why; they are driven to it by their parents, who are convinced that only their own experience matters to their children.  Guess what?  You don’t need to be in residence away from home to learn.  And I don’t think parents realize that, or accept it.

But the world has changed, and for the better.  I sincerely wish that both parents and their children will look at the alternatives, because today they are good ones.

A decade ago, I was at the Supercomputing Conference, where the keynote speaker was the recently passed Clayton Christensen.  He talked about higher education, and how lower-end alternatives were chewing away at the bottom of the education hierarchy.  Except that today it’s no longer at the lower end.  Alternatives are not yet Harvard, but they are most certainly at least flagship state universities.

Higher education doesn’t have to be a tradeoff any more, but we as a society think that’s still the case.  Get over it, folks.

The Night CNN Went Off the Reservation March 5, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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First, I would like to say that I have had a lot of faith in the MSM, particularly CNN.  I truly believe that, despite the imperfections of news reporting in general, that we get as close to objective truth as possible with CNN.  That faith, however, was irrevocably shaken today (March 5) as CNN.com displayed headlines and stories from January 15 for approximately an hour, with no acknowledgement that they were doing so.  Even now, almost two hours later, only the major headline stories are current; the rest still date from January 15.

Of course, there is no explanation.  It looks like CNN is simply in denial.  And they don’t care who saw their error, and won’t bother explaining and apologizing.

So, CNN, why shouldn’t I believe Fox, or Reddit, or 4Chan (or is it 8Chan)?  Today you have failed miserably in your mission.  You can acknowledge that, and vow to do better, or you can ignore it.  You have chosen to ignore it.  You have proven yourself to be no better than any other lying source of news on the planet.

I grew up in the era of three network news broadcasts, news at 6 and 11.  They were biased in terms of what they broadcast as news, but not by a political slant in what they chose to report.  CNN, you have just showed yourself to be as grossly self-serving as the other, lessor organizations.

CNN, I am disgusted.  You have erased decades of goodwill with the decision not to come clean.

Screenshot 2020-03-05 15.47.26

An Epic Change in Health Care March 3, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Several years ago, I spent several days in the hospital at Lahey Medical Center outside of Boston, and they were just introducing the Epic Electronic Medical Records (EMR) system.  Everything you heard around the hospital, including when you were on hold on the phone, used the title of this post as an introduction to this software.  A part of the 2011 US Affordable Care Act required all hospitals and physicians to adopt an EMR system.  My own hospital and physician’s group also uses Epic.

(Disclosure: My niece is an Epic database administrator, though not at either hospital).

A couple of years ago, my sister sent me ZDogg’s (MD) podcast series, and I occasionally watch some of them.  I criticize him because he is mostly an apologist for less than stellar treatment we receive from doctors, but I have to say that he’s mostly right about what he says here about this truly puff network TV piece on Epic.

My father passed away of colon cancer, and since then I have had (at least) annual physicals.  For over ten years, I had a primary care physician that conducted them mostly by talking to me frankly about my health, and offering practical advice on my lifestyle.  Today, his replacement comes into the examining room and simply starts reading off the numbers of my blood test results.  Now, I think she’s a capable doctor and nice person, but I don’t know what half of these numbers mean, let alone whether or not I am in good health.

I believe this is what Epic and other EMRs have brought us.  We certainly need digital data collection and storage, but we need doctors asking about us, not reading off numbers about us.  I have had to complain on multiple occasions on a couple of conditions before I could get my doctor to even bother paying attention, because they weren’t numbers in the software.

As ZDogg says, it’s not really Epic’s fault.  Epic really exists for billing purposes, not recording and diagnosis purposes.  Half the time my doctor can’t even find the appropriate results.  We capture categories that have meaning mostly to our insurers.

I care about these things because my own research and understanding of my body prevented me from authorizing debilitating and unnecessary surgery at one point.  We are our own health care project managers, and have to educate ourselves and make rational decisions on what’s right for us.

I Suppose It Was Inevitable February 19, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I read this article on the development of robots for sex purposes with a certain amount of incredulity.  We probably all have deep fantasies (mine are pretty tame compared to stuff like this), and perhaps at first glance it represents a harmless (but expensive) way of acting them out.

But is it harmless?  We learn about ourselves and human nature in general through feedback from real live humans.  And they learn from us in the same way.  Certainly artificial general intelligences (AGI), even in their infancy, can learn things from human interaction and respond in perhaps unexpected ways.

But if you buy (or rent, I suppose) a sex robot, ultimately you are going to get your way.  That’s the whole purpose.  The robot may look like a child, or it may shout “Rape!”, but you will not be arrested.  How could you be?  And with that, how will you respond in other circumstances when the robot is actually a real live human being?  That is the Big Problem here.

We interact with other people, casually and intimately, for multiple reasons.  Sometimes we lack the interpersonal skills to do it well, and the relationship breaks down.  We fail, and failure is a part of life.  We learn (or not), and move on.  I hope we learn a lot.  But learning from an AGI isn’t nearly the same as learning from a real live human being.

With an AGI sex robot, we may learn that we just have to keep forcing the issue, that the entity will eventually give us what we want.  In other words, we won’t fail with the robot, no matter what our goal.  And that is the wrong lesson.

The cited article talks about legislation against AGI sex robots.  I’m not sure legislation is the answer.  How about common sense?

I have been reading over the last couple of years with some amusement about various Bills of Rights for AI entities.  Silly and stupid, I think.  Now I am questioning that stance, not for the benefit of the robot, but for the benefit of society as a whole.  I find myself upset over this, and I hope you might consider being so too.

Facebook and Zuckerberg Offend Yet Again February 3, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I admit that I criticize Mark Zuckerberg on a pretty regular basis.  My primary defense is that he deserves it.  In attempting to (yet again) redefine the scope and mission of Facebook and associated properties (Instagram, et. al.), he has said that he will use his own guiding principles.  These guiding principles are:

  1. Free expression. In other words, Facebook users will be able to say whatever they want, within the scope of applicable law, without interference from Facebook. Get ready for a Facebook that doesn’t even bother to give lip service to truth.
  2. Privacy. Ah, not private from Facebook, who wants to monetize your most intimate details, but private from outside requests for transparency, including from law enforcement agencies.

So here’s the problem.  Zuckerberg is welcome to express his personal principles, and I might even be in agreement with some of them (though I doubt it).  The problem is that principles don’t get you very far when you’re trying to define workable solutions in the real life for millions of diverse users and other stakeholders.  Real life, with multiple concerns and stakeholders, doesn’t easily lend itself to clean and obvious answers.  His pious spouting of so-called principles is really a weak justification for exploiting the billions of Facebook and Instagram users to the max.

Tellingly, as I am writing this, writer Stephen King has bailed from Facebook with the same thoughts, that there is far too much obviously false information on the site, and that he has grave doubts about their desire and ability to offer privacy.

All this brings me to conclude that Zuckerberg has just one guiding principle in life – to make as much money as possible.

Face it, Facebook is a rogue company, led by a sociopath who cares only about himself.  Yet so many people let it control so much of their lives.

Cash is Becoming a Four-Letter Word January 28, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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My parents were unbanked for much of my youth.  While my father was a skilled machinist, wages for even skilled labor were so low that having a bank account was problematic.  Perhaps more to the point, they were both children of the Depression; they lacked both knowledge and comfort in using a bank account, as well as a distrust of letting their means become managed by others.  They cashed paychecks and paid bills at local supermarket or post office (where the electric company service office was right across the street).  All accepted cash.

As a young adult, I acquired some of their predilections, but out of necessity had to bank.  This usually involved opening a checking account, depositing the check (no direct deposit in the 1980s), and they writing checks to pay bills, or to deposit to a growing array of saving vehicles.  A few years later, I used ATM cards to withdraw cash without having to go through a human teller.

Today, banking takes many forms, including mobile banking in which you can simply take a photo of a check to deposit, and automatically direct funds to different bills and accounts.  You can use credit cards of debit cards, or Bitcoin or other anonymous payment source.  Payment systems such as Apple pay let you simply tap your phone against a terminal for payment.

All of this leads up to the fact that more establishments are going cashless.  Already gas stations make it more difficult to use cash.  I fully anticipate that supermarkets will do so in the near future.  Public transit systems and other services are starting to make the transition.

All of this means that cash has become an inconvenience to some people, especially vocal proponents of a cashless society.  They make the dubious claim that the problem is not cashless stores and services, but rather the unbanked.  Let me repeat that:  Many of the proponents of a cashless society claim that not having it now is the fault of the unbanked.  That kind of arrogance is dangerous to our social fabric.  They don’t know the reasons why people are unbanked, yet they continue to insist that the unbanked are the problem, rather than their desire for everyone to be just like them.

There are a myriad of reasons why someone might be unbanked, and the arrogant fools that insist on a cashless society now are projecting their own desires on a population they don’t understand, and don’t care to understand.

Cashless will be with us in due time, and there is no good reason to rush it.

Are Cell Phones the Cause of Society’s Schisms? January 9, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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More broadly, we might ask this question of social media in general, since the phone is simply a proxy for a wide range of services.  This intriguing article in the MIT Technology Review provides an anecdotal tale of a philosophy professor who, believing that he wasn’t communicating with his students effectively, offered extra credit to those who would give up their use of cell phones for nine days, and write about the experience.

While it doesn’t have the same academic rigor as Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, it is a telling story of teens finding out that there is more to the world than is available from their phone screens.

And it’s not a new thesis, but stories like these also reinforce that there have been drastic changes in society and culture in a short period of time.

At one level, social media lets us engage many people without actually seeing them.  When you look someone in the eye, and gauge their reaction in real time, what we say can be very different.  When we don’t, negative messages seem to be magnified.

At another level, social media lets us pick and choose who we communicate with.  Generally, that means we are less likely to be exposed to different ideas, and more inclined to believe unreliable or bogus sources.  I would like to say that is our choice, except that it’s not clear we easily have any other choice.

What we have created is a massive societal experiment in which within a decade we have dramatically shifted the nature of interpersonal interactions.  Whereas the majority of interaction was face to face, today it is largely remote.  Where most interaction were one on one, we find that the remote interactions are more one on many.  And where many of our interactions were casual encounters with random people, today they are with people we already know and associate with.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook say it’s all for the good of society, and that’s what they stand for.  They are too biased to offer an honest take, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.  I will say that it’s instructive that Zuckerberg, while publicly promoting openness and sharing, has chosen to build his own personal estate behind walls.  Let him live in a walkup for a few years; he never has, and never will.  Live like your users live, Mark, is my final word to him.  You have created this world; you are not responding to it.

In the meantime, are cell phones good or bad?  I will offer that they are a tool, and it is the apps that we choose to use make them one or the other.

Will We Have Completely Autonomous Airliners? January 2, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in aviation, Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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This has been the long term trend, and two recent stories have added to the debate.  First, the new FAA appropriations bill includes a directive to study single-pilot airliners used for cargo.  Second is this story in Wall Street Journal (paywall), discussing how the Boeing 737 MAX crashes has caused the company to advocate even more for fully autonomous airliners.

I have issues with that.  First, Boeing’s reasoning is fallacious.  The 737 MAX crashes were not pilot error, but rather design and implementation errors, and inadequate information for documentation and training.  Boeing as a culture apparently still refuses to acknowledge that.

Second, as I have said many times before, automation is great when used in normal operations.  When something goes wrong, automation more often than not does the opposite of the right thing, attempting to continue normal operations in an abnormal situation.

As for a single pilot, when things go wrong, a single pilot is likely to be too focused on the most immediate, rather than carrying out a division of labor.  It seems like in an emergency situation, two experienced heads are better than one.  And there are instances, albeit rare, where a pilot becomes incapacitated, and a second person is needed.

Boeing is claiming that AI will provide the equivalent of a competent second pilot.  That’s not what AI is all about.  Despite the ability to learn, a machine learning system would have to have seen the circumstances of the failure before, and have a solution, or at least an approximation of a solution, as a part of its training.  This is not black magic, as Boeing seems to think.  It is a straightforward process of data and training.

AI does only what it is trained to do.  Boeing says that pilot error is the leading cause of airliner incidents.  They are correct, but it’s not as simple as that.  Pilot error is a catch-phrase that includes a number of different things, including wrong decisions, poor information, or inadequate training, among others.  While they can easily be traced back to the pilot, they are the result of several different causes of errors and omissions.

So I have my doubts as to whether full automation is possible or even desirable.  And the same applies to a single pilot.  Under normal operations, it might be a good approach.  But life is full of unexpected surprises.