Technology Can Help or Hurt – Part 3: Large-Scale Deaths or History-Altering Events Enabled by Technology

Even more dangerous to individuals, America, and the whole world, are the loopholes in the processes at internet giants like Facebook and Google. Technology is evolving faster than it can be controlled by either man or machine. And since these companies make most of their money by selling ads, exciting events—whether or not correctly reported on—boost their revenues and profits.

The technology of rapid-fire firearms that are available to crazed murderers like Craig Paddock who murdered dozens and injured hundreds in Las Vegas on October 1, is the most serious recent example. That technology was not kept in check by proper rules (and their enforcement) regarding what firearms can be sold to whom. On the information side Facebook and Google allowed two known rightwing “hate news” sites to post incorrect information unfettered, for minutes in the case of Facebook and for hours in the case of Google. All the information gaps here can can ultimately be traced to errors by humans, either failures in the basic design and implementation of the laws/rules or in the software, or in the review by people. Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle, and is misusing its powers.

Beyond such “fake news”, which can be distributed widely and quickly, the very content of the ads can be hurtful. Facebook and Google (including YouTube) apparently accepted a considerable number of ads from Russia supporting Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Since those ads were paid for, which is how those companies make money, they were motivated to accept them. Apparently only in retrospect did they investigate, after which they reported on what happened, but Facebook, at least, didn’t tell the whole story.

Like the old saw “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it” (including President Trump, who refuses to recognize global warming), there doesn’t yet seem to be any consequences for these tech giants. But change may be in the offing from places like Stanford University, which has launched a new Global Digital Policy Incubator, with a speech by Hillary Clinton. We can only hope that we can get the genie back into the bottle, by getting these tech giants under control … if that is possible.

Technology Can Help or Hurt – Part 1: Apple Watch Compromises America’s Pastime

Years ago (well before the Internet or Apple watches) we read a story about a black native of Africa asking why a white explorer kept looking at his watch, and being told that it must be his God. Fast forward to the electronic age, when billions of people have electronic gadgets like cellphones that they treat with similar reverence, because they give those people helpful capabilities that they never had in the past. But that same technology can also be hurtful. If you replace “Lord” by “Technology” (which billions of people today seem to be doing), the phrase “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” sums up the benefits and dis-benefits pretty well. A couple of recent examples of the latter shows why.

Likely none of the engineers who designed the Apple Watch foresaw that it could be used for mischief like stealing the catcher’s signals to the pitcher as to which sort of pitch to throw next. Apparently the Boston Red Sox figured out how they could very quickly take a video of the New York Yankees’ catcher using an Apple Watch and very quickly communicate with hand signals to the Red Sox batter the type of next pitch, boosting his likelihood of getting a solid hit. Probably most of those Apple engineers couldn’t even name any of the possible types of pitches.

We’ve Done Our Passwords All Wrong

Passwords are one of our favorite villains. We have long advocated the use of hardware dongles. And Apple, among others, have created various technologies that scan fingers or faces. Most recently, shipments of their iPhone X are being delayed because of problems with critical components (cutely named Romeo and Juliet). There is even a novel by Scott Allan Morrison, “Terms of Use”, in which the hero invents a way to scan an eyeball.

But the conventional wisdom, originally spelled out by NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology) to make them complicated (and thus virtually impossible to remember) has been replaced by NIST itself. Now, long but simple phrases that are meaningful to the user are advised, because they are easy to remember but hard for hackers to break.

Unfortunate but Unsurprising Suboptimization in Silicon Valley

Don’t Google and Amazon Read Businessweek? At least Google has the excuse that they were born and grew up in Silicon Valley and have always lived here. So it may be instinctive for them to keep on wanting to out-Silicon-Valley Silicon Valley. As for Amazon, Jeff Bezos’ historically bare bones operating philosophy has apparently changed if he now wants to pay big bucks for the facilities and staff in Silicon Valley.

Even worse, no other than the CEO of Silicon Valley Leadership Group who was just given accolades by the San Jose Mercury News may be one of the villains. Although Carl Guardino wants to “exorcise the twin demons of housing shortages and traffic jams” he appears to be focusing only on the traffic jams part. (This, in turn, may be due to the fact that he commutes to work by bike 17 miles each way, from tony Monte Sereno to the airport. He may actually get to work faster that way than by car, but Google Maps shows one hour and twenty minutes, though there are fortunately two alternatives that are trails. The third is via an expressway, which is not cyclist-friendly.) He apparently expects somebody else to deal with the housing shortage, a poignant example of suboptimization. (Interestingly, the definer of suboptimization is a San Joe State professor, who no doubt has lots of local examples to cite.) Apparently HE thinks that having fast transportation allows people to live farther away, where housing is affordable. WE think that the proposed “Google transit village” (that puts 20,000 Google employees in offices adjacent to Diridon Station) will be a nightmare because it puts too many eggs in one basket. And if you want to know what Silicon Valley residents REALLY think, have a look at the Comments accompanying the article about Carl Guardino.

Another consideration is that past experience regarding the preferences of high-tech company employees is that managers have families and prefer to live toward the San Jose end so they can have grass to play on, whereas single guys writing code prefer to live in San Francisco so they can party. Where will the party scene shift to? Will hungover software engineers want to commute from San Francisco to Diridon Station on BART? And can their bosses afford to live in closer proximity to Diridon Station? Houses in nearby Sunnyvale are selling for nearly $800,000 over their asking prices.

What about Amazon? While those with vested interests—politicians, city planners, tax assessors, etc.—are positive, knowledgeable local residents (and newspaper columnists) are not. Maybe Amazon’s own planners and cost accountants will horrify Jeff Bezos so much that he will choose some other city on the Businessweek pictogram who will appreciate him more and charge him less. Or maybe he will get creative with a twist like the giant factory towns in China, which have dormitories and apartments and stores, and propose to build giant apartment buildings to overcome the housing and traffic challenges.

Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Web Entrepreneurs

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be web geeks,
Don’t let ’em write Java or HTML.
Let ’em be doctors and lawyers and such.
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be web geeks,
‘Cuz they’ll work all night long and they’ll never get rich.
While Google makes all the cash.
(With apologies to Ed Bruce and Willie Nelson)

Most web entrepreneurs need OTHER day jobs. Millions of them make little or no money, despite delivering informative and/or entertaining content. And they may well spend more on SEO than they make. An expensive hobby …

Can Women Write Code As Well as Men?

Anyone working in Silicon Valley (or reading local newspapers) cannot fail to be personally affected by issues of workplace diversity (at least vicariously). (Actually, anyone reading the Wall Street Journal these days could not avoid seeing the variety of prose on this topic from its chorus of reporters and columnists.) And during the last couple of weeks s/he could scarcely avoid hearing about the 10-page memo written by Google’s James Damore, his subsequent firing, and the furor both locally and nationally. There is a saying in Japanese that “the nail that sticks up is the one that gets pounded down”, and we are sure that he feels very pounded down these days. And his subsequent article published in the Wall Street Journal (in a nice touch the accompanying picture shows him wearing a T-shirt that says “Goolag”) has doubtlessly made Google management feel pounded down, too. (This appears to add insult to the injury already facing Google because the U.S. Department of Labor is already claiming that Google systematically pays women less than men.)

It is no secret that the tech industry in general employs a majority of white or Asian (mainly Indian) men, particularly in technical and leadership roles, which means that Google is no better or worse than other giant tech companies. But when one digs a bit deeper, it turns out that Damore’s belief that women are less capable at writing code than men is incorrect because Indian women CAN code too.

The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Kessler points out that there is limited proof that Google’s mandatory “Unconscious Bias” training has any merit, because of the fallibility of the numerous studies that have supported its inclusion.

Actually, it is meaningless to give OVERALL statistics about percents of male/female or race without also putting them in the context of compensation or managerial level or similar measure, as we have tried to do with the illustration above.

Will Bitcoin Replace Dollars and PayPal?

Bitcoin was generated in its early days by geeks running souped-up microcomputers for billions of cycles, consuming a lot of electricity and communications bandwidth to produce no useful result. (Does “It is the tale of an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing” seem a propos?) This is counter to the evolution of physical coins (and their paper surrogates and later trusted electronic financial institution balances) that were a convenient (easily transported) substitution for useful physical objects that had previously been bartered (e.g., cords of firewood or herds of sheep). Given its origin, it seems strange that it was not originally denominated in terms of compute cycles and actually used that way. Anyway, enough people believe in it that it it has practical value.

Many of those same geeky people are doing things like setting up proxy servers, and the sources of those proxy servers prefer to be paid in Bitcoin. So they are essentially following a path similar to PayPal, whose users did not want to use credit cards, and earlier when people used credit cards when they didn’t want to carry coins and paper money.

Crowdsourcing Companies Likely Can’t Boost YouTube Views. Can Proxy Servers?

The old adage “If it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is”. That is, it’s NOT true. Crowdsourcing companies promise a lot more than they can deliver. Our previous post proved to be way too optimistic when we tried to get a couple of those companies to actually deliver those views. What we found was that some proxy servers MIGHT do so.

However, it seems that proxy servers are as much of a bag of snakes as crowdsourcing entities. We noted during our experiments with crowdsourcing companies that some of them proposed to use proxy servers, or actually did so, but they apparently did not succeed in adding more than a handful of views. That apparently was because YouTube is too clever, and they disqualified most of the views for a variety of reasons. For example, if the crowdsource operative used a proxy server located in a country other than his/her own (which they could tell if the visiting IP was from one country in one time zone but the time of the computer to which the IP was attached was set to a different time zone), YouTube disqualified those views.

The other challenge is that most proxy server folks want to be paid in Bitcoin. While you can use dollars or credit cards or gift cards at sites like Paxful, they can be pretty expensive.

The bottom line is that many owners of YouTube channels may find it too expensive and time-consuming to boost their view counts via crowdsourcing or proxy servers.

YouTube’s New 10K Views Minimum: Triumph of Quantity Over Quality, Bonanza for Crowdsourcing Companies

YouTube makes money by putting advertisements on video channels, but advertisers are increasingly restive because some of those channels show terrorists attacks or racist rants. Ironically, the terrorists and racists could have earned money via YouTube’s AdSense program. Additionally, some YouTube channels have been stealing others’ content (and associated AdSense payments). Unfortunately, this new rule disenfranchises the millions of YouTube video creators who have not yet reached 10,000 views of their channels. According to Internet data firm Pex, 88 percent of all YouTube channels have fewer than 10,000 views.

YouTube’s new policy should create a bonanza for the numerous organizations who provide low-cost labor for doing a wide range of tasks on the Web that are more suited for humans than software, because many of sub-10K view channel owners can flock to them to boost their view counts. The most famous of these is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. When we first heard of what appeared to be slave labor, we were affronted, but when we found that people as ethical as Stanford University researchers used Mechanical Turk we were somewhat mollified. And we quickly learned that it would only cost about one cent to have one of these low-paid “slaves” watch a video for the 30 seconds that is needed to create a “view”, so it would only cost about $100.00 to rack up 10K views. This means that essentially ANY channel owner—including terrorists, racists, and plagiarists–could exceed YouTube’s 10K requirement.

Social Media, Especially Facebook, Unfortunately Hijacks Users of the Web … But “Better Web” May Reverse That

Facebook and a handful of other social media are so entrenched that few people think about life before them. But the Web was conceived 15 years before Facebooks’s founding in 2004. Facebook put a pretty face on the Web, and billions of people have flocked to it. And Google Search, YouTube, and a handful of other giants –fueled by tons of advertising revenues—exercise a lot of control over what people can see and do, so much so that there is growing sentiment about breaking up these monopolistic organizations. And delivering fake news or vicious propaganda from the likes of ISIS (ironically ISIS can even get PAID by YouTube while it disseminates its messages of hatred) adds further pressure for this breakup.

It will take more time, but help may be on the way from the original creator of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee. He is working towards a “Better Web” where users’ control their own (private) data. One group that should benefit from greater control of their data is musicians. The title of Jonathan Taplin’s new book, “Move Fast and Break Things”, may even have caused Facebook to foresightedly replace their eponymous former motto with “Move Fast With Stable Infra(structure)”.