Technology Can Help or Hurt – Part 4: Social Media Giants’ Missteps Alter History, Spur Regulation

Mark Twain’s 1897 quote had it right: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” One possible Truth in the current fracas involving Russians, Trump’s campaign team for the 2016 presidential election, and social network companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter is that this is an early example of wars that are fought by hackers and the Internet rather than soldiers and guns. Numerous semi-fiction books could be written or movies created about this craziness. One possible plot is that the Russians knew how unusual (AKA weird) Donald Trump is, and preferred him to Hillary Clinton as president because they could exploit that unusualness (AKA weirdness). A bunch of congresspeople are calling for regulation of these giant Internet-based companies. So are the media, who are far more regulated than Facebook, Google, and Twitter. These are crazy times, and the Russians and other enemy nations must be enjoying all the gyrations that the US is going through.

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)”.

The Argy-Bargy About H-1B Visas is All About Dollars … At Tech Companies AND Universities

We at Technology Bloopers are not big fans of President Trump, but his administration’s putting pressure on tech companies’ hiring software engineers from India and China to replace Americans does seem to be consonant with his pre-election promises.

But apparently it is even worse than that. We heard a couple of days ago about one local company that not only hired a bunch of Indian H1B visa-holders, fired their American staff, and replaced them with these imported folks … after they were trained by the Americans. And this noxious practice has apparently been going on for some time, according to the Stateline folks at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Three months of coder school is not much training compared with that of the better-trained—often in American universities—and more-experienced visa-holders. But why are these American universities welcoming these foreign students? It’s because those students come bearing big funds for their education. (At state universities, it is simply that the international students must pay the same (higher) prices as out-of-state American students.) We have heard that among some of these students it is said that PhD stands for “Parents have Dough”. Interestingly, those international students are more prone to cheat on their exams. Hmmm … does that mean that their future code will be less trustworthy than that of Americans?

We wonder why the big Silicon Valley tech companies have not done a better job on their own of training software engineers. Couldn’t they be hiring “junior” software engineers from the coder schools and boosting their capabilities with on-the-job training. We suspect one reason is that it is more expensive to do that than to hire foreign help. And more time-consuming. And another reason may be that they didn’t do a good job of forecasting their growth and concomitant demand for those software engineers. Maybe the current visa flap will motivate them.

But it may not be the fault of these companies. Americans may too lazy, or too afraid to be “uncool”, to study STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) courses so there is not enough local talent to fill the needs of Silicon Valley. Graduates with strong STEM knowledge are polar opposites to “art history majors” , a term used derogatorily to connote enjoyable-but-low-paying jobs.

N Y Times: “Let’s Get Back to Work”

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“The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away” is a truly flexible and useful concept. We can replace “Lord” by such notions as “Technology” or “Internet” or “Mobile Devices” or a whole host of other products and services. And those products and services can be used to teach us, to inform us, to entertain us, etc. How valuable they are depends on the objectives of the individual or group in question. We’d guess that a large fraction of the folks who read the New York Times either work pretty hard or respect others who do work pretty hard. On the other hand those who spend a lot of  time looking at or posting to Tumblr probably are at the other end of the spectrum, as Tumblr itself serves up such suggestions as “5 ways to waste the rest of the day” (by the way, you can find lots of OTHER folks using that phrase when you surf) and counsels its members that “work can wait”, presumably while you read or write posts on Tumblr.

To put this in perspective we took a look at how Americans spent their day in 2014, thanks to some detailed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Of the 24.00 hours in a day, we spend 10.75 hours taking care of basic needs (sleeping, other personal care, and eating and drinking), 3.59 hours working or doing work-related activities, a meager 0.42 hours being educated (a low average because the majority of Americans are not enrolled in educational institutions), a whopping 5.30 hours on leisure and sports (which includes 2.82 hours watching television), and a modest 0.14 hours communicating (telephone, email, and snailmail).

But even the most casual observer would likely object to the low communicating figure from the BLS because everywhere you look people are peering into their smartphones. One study found that smartphone users spend two hours each day using those devices. And what are they doing with those phones? It depends on whose statistics you believe, but it is interesting to note that it’s not all entertainment. And it is even more interesting to realize that a smartphone enables its user to seamlessly shift between work-related and personal activities, so they aren’t all just wasting the rest of the day a la Tumblr. Whew, the American economy may not be in danger!

Anything is Funny if it Didn’t Happen to You

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But though most people can recover from having their credit card data compromised (or perhaps weren’t personally affected by it), they might not recover so well from having their marriage destroyed, so perhaps the most poignant of  recent hacks was the one of the Ashley Madison extramarital affair website. Most recently Ashley Madison users filed class action lawsuits in Canada and the US, which will almost certainly destroy the company and at a minimum disgrace its parent company Avid Life Media  Ironically, the hackers had originally not tried to destroy the whole thing but to force more ethical behavior on it, and when the company stonewalled the hackers carried out their threat of disclosure. Another example of hubris … which has at a minimum forced  the CEO of Avid Life Media to resign.

Phishing for “Dead” People (or FORMER LinkedIn members)

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Like Mark Twain, reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. At least on the geni.com genealogy website. Coggshall is not a common name. Dan Coggshall confirms that he has nothing to do with Geni.com. Apparently Geni.com is just hoping to trick me into using their site. When I click on “Contact profile manager” it just dumps me back at their Home screen where they try to sign me up. Apparently there is no way to actually communicate with them unless you are playing their game. HIGHLY UNETHICAL.

Speaking of unethical, LinkedIn had been triggering regular weekly messages (exactly the same day and time each week) from an acquaintance, using as bait a handful of people who were NOT known to him but LinkedIn claimed they were. Because of this and other nasty games they played I totally quit LinkedIn. I only got a few more messages, all of which I unsubscribed, and this acquaintance’s weekly missives ceased. But a couple of days ago LinkedIn re-started the same game. Apparently the CEO’s “compassion” philosophy does not extend to members or former members of LinkedIn.

BIG Data Is Not Necessarily GOOD Data

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Social networks collect enormous amounts of data about people’s intentions and actions, but they have come into being so quickly that there hasn’t been time for much wisdom to have been gleaned from this data. The large majority of both the staffs of the social network companies and their users have little or no experience with the practical challenges of collecting and interpreting data. A just-published study by Derek Ruths of McGill University and Jürgen Pfeffer of Carnegie Mellon University in Science Daily warns of some of the pitfalls. Foremost among them is not dealing with the biases due to the composition of the sample. Technology Bloopers’ Statistics and Surveys webpage states at the outset “Be sure your sample is representative.” Different social networks attract different sorts of people, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Findings based on data from one almost certainly do not represent the U.S. population as a whole. One flagrant example, which occurred decades before most of the people designing or using today’s social networks were born, was the mistaken prediction that Dewey would beat Truman in the 1948 U.S. presidential race; this was caused by a failure to sample voters properly. There are certainly a number of similar errors that have already been made by failures to understand the underlying samples from social networks’ being used for decision-making.

Mandatory Fun of (Watching) Football … and Other (Even Electronic) Games

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The massive media coverage in recent years of poor health due to over-eating and under-exercising is no match for the even more massive advertising budget of professional sports. If you thought that the NFL were a sports league you would be wrong; it is actually a major TV channel. And the editorial side of the Wall Street Journal has been suckered in.

Hopefully games of touch football or flag football among youths are still getting them off the couch and away from their electronic devices. But it appears that they would rather play the Madden NFL electronic game on a gadget than the real thing on a green field. But this only exercises their fingers. And it’s not just the teen-aged boys who are exercising their fingers rather than their legs. Grown men are playing so much fantasy football on their laptops that it has been estimated there is an annual $13 billion productivity loss in America.

Social Media Doesn’t Care Who It Hurts

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The late Jacques Littlefield was reputedly the largest collector of military vehicles in the world. During a recent tour of the collection the docent started off with a safety warning, saying “A tank doesn’t care who it hurts.” Those words came back a bit later in the tour when he showed a video clip of an insurgent on a building top using a rocket-propelled grenade to blow up a tank on parade in the street below. Where did the video come from? YouTube! The insurgents had uploaded it to show what they could do, even during (more-or-less) peaceful moments.

The insurgents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in using social media for a variety of purposes. And they are adept at using all the hacker tricks, e.g., hijacking unrelated topics to spread their message.

NSA and Information Industry Giants: On Speaking Terms Again

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You have to admire the chutzpah of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in complaining about the NSA’s invading Facebook’s or the populace’s privacy. It seems that Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and every other social networking site is doing that in spades, and has been doing it for years. So how did he get off venting to President Obama about the abuse by the NSA? And didn’t the NSA hack into Facebook so shouldn’t he be saving some of his anger for his own IT staff who let this happen? (The CIO and CEO of Target lost their jobs over such breaches.) Anyway, during July both sides have been getting friendlier, according to an article and a video by Bloomberg Businessweek.