Big Brother Is Watching, and Helping, You Shop

The incessant march of technology brings not only improved convenience but also often-scary invasion of privacy. “Big Brother” can now track your in-store habits, urge you on with stuff he already knew about you, and bill you without a checkout line. According to research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Joseph Turow, the same sort of surveillance of consumers that occurs when they shop (or do anything) online is now occurring when they shop in bricks-and-mortar stores.

And Amazon, not content to sell only books and other inorganic items, is trying to expand into the giant groceries business. While some categories of products can be sold online in the same manner of non-grocery items, fresh produce and other items for which consumers want to get up close and personal with them cry out for nearby stores. One of Amazon’s innovations is to embed products with tracking devices that charge customers via their smart phones, thus eliminating the annoying wait in checkout lines and the cost of cashiers. Not all the bugs have been worked out yet, but when they are, stores like Trader Joe’s better watch out.

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.

Coding Schools Are Training Software Engineers for Both Silicon Valley and the Rust Belt

Assuming that President Trump does not otherwise solve the daunting challenge of employing all of the folks displaced by technology, he (or someone) should send a lot of the unemployed manufacturing people in the rust belt, and their offspring, to “Coding School” so they can write the software to run the robots, drive the gig economy, etc. There are lots of schools in Silicon Valley that teach coding; just search on “silicon valley schools to teach coding” to find ones for kids, for women, whatever. But there are few if you search on “rust belt (or Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, or Pennsylvania or …) schools to teach coding”. In fact there are so many coding schools (often called coding bootcamps) that it has become an industry in its own right, and that industry already has its own parasitic industry analyst, called Course Report, that lists nearly 400 such schools. The schools typically run for 3 months and cost $10,000 or more.

We at TechnologyBloopers are suspicious that a lot of them are sugar-coating the content and their graduates will not be expert enough to get software engineer jobs. And we are not the only ones. Fortunately, according to Douglas Belkin at the Wall Street Journal, some of the more-experienced coding schools have banded together and hired an outside auditor to track the how well their graduates do.

However, according to Christopher Mims at the Wall Street Journal, there is enough demand for people with SOME training, because there are a lot of companies that are computerizing their operations (medical billing seems to be one of the favorites) and are willing to let their existing coding staff spend some time bringing the new recruits up to speed.

Social Networks Need a Hippocratic Oath … And Users Need to Heed the Warning of Caveat Lector

Why are we at Technology Bloopers going back centuries to use Greek and Latin to admonish Millennials to be careful how they use social networks? Just as physicians swear that they will “First do no harm”, the likes of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Reddit are so powerful that they should also have such an oath … or risk legislation to prevent their doing harm. There are numerous examples of the harm they have already done. Most recently, the fake news posted by malevolent individuals and organizations had some impact on the U.S. presidential race, possibly to the extent that Hillary Clinton was unfairly defeated by Donald Trump. The importance of some of the harm being done is likely to result in legislation to limit their behavior, so these giant companies should police themselves before the government does so.

People are social animals, so the social networks can provide a ton of experiences that they crave. People like fatty foods and sugary drinks, but over-indulging can make them obese due to their lack of nourishing foods and drink. The same goes for social networks, which can distract them with amusing but mindless fare but deprive them of the solid information and communication they need to be productive. The web already provides effective ways to communicate with your friends, business associates, and other people organizations. Information is used to inform, educate, and entertain, but it appears that social networks overdo the entertain role and short the inform and educate roles.

All of the above goes double (or more) for teenagers, who usually have a lot of time and highly value being popular. Additionally, they haven’t yet developed a full set of values that allows them to distinguish good from bad, and avoid the bad. They might profit from a couple of pieces of homespun advice. Remember that much “Web Wisdom” is worth only what you pay for it. And “Believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see”.

Why Did Polls Predict 2016 U.S. Presidental Election Result So Badly?

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There aren’t many, or any, surveys with more respondents than the polling accompanying U.S. presidential elections. And all such polls have error, both from simple randomness and from non-response bias. This year’s inaccuracy was not the first flagrant example. In 1948 newspapers trumpeted incorrectly that Dewey had beat Truman.

The 2016 election had an important source of randomness and confusion, namely the unpredictable behavior of Donald Trump. And one of the other sources of confusion was the difference between the Electoral College (whose results are the ones used to determine the winner) and the popular vote (which is interesting but not governing). It is still not clear as of November 14 (nearly a week after Election Day), but it appears that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and any polling that dealt mainly with the popular vote could easily draw the wrong conclusion.

Additional errors can arise from the inconsistency among the states regarding mail-in ballots or voting places open as early as September 19. The 46 million early voters (prior to election day) included a large number of unaffiliated (neither Democratic nor Republican) voters, making it hard to predict voter behavior on election day. (The total voter count was 130 million.) Beyond this, voter turnout apparently wasn’t predicted accurately

Traditional telephone polling also was a source of errors. Some people intending to vote for Trump were ashamed to admit it when they were surveyed with live interviews. Automated-dialer calls with recorded voice and Internet polling gave better results. But these calls cannot be used with cellphones.

Of all the analyses of the causes of the inaccuracy of the polls, we found the ones by Sean Trende on Rear Clear Politics the most helpful. Most perceptive was his finding that the polls were OK, but the conclusions by the pundits weren’t.

YouTube Takes Bigger Slice of Overall Television Pie

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Google is certainly getting a lot out of the $1.76 billion they spent buying YouTube almost exactly 10 years ago today. As of early 2013 YouTube was experiencing one billion unique viiewes/visitors every month, nearly one out of every two people on the Internet, use it for myriad purposes. Anyone at all can upload or watch videos of cats or dancing babies, and Google benefits because it can charge advertisers to put ads adjacent to those videos.

But either Google had great vision a decade ago or they have more recently realized that they have a great medium, arguably better than conventional television. However, a recent study by Nielsen and Google shows that YouTube and conventional (“linear”) TV may be more complementary than competitive. People are watching TV on YouTube and they are watching YouTube on their TVs, so the gap between the two media is shrinking. In fact, it is shrinking so much that Google has just signed up CBS for its imminent web TV service. And, notwithstanding some folks’ criticisms of CBS, its leader seems to be pretty savvy.

Gresham’s Law Trips Up Treasured San Francisco Stores Due to Skyrocketing Land Prices

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You may believe that worldwide luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Hermes are like the GOOD money that would be driven out by the BAD money according to Gresham’s Law. But in this case these luxury brands are the bad guys. Like their always-empty stores in airports, these future ones in San Francisco’s tony Union Square are just very expensive billboards. And the independent retailers are the good guys (like Arthur Beren Shoes and Britex Fabrics). But even if it weren’t for the purchasing power of the most-valued of these luxury brands, the current craziness of Bay Area land prices would likely have raised the retailers’ rents beyond affordability, so they would have had to relocate or downsize or both. And even the luxury brands have no control over the mess being created by the new subway.

Does the Brevity of Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter, et al Reflect their Paucity of Useful Content ?

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Modern technology—especially all things enabled by the Internet—continues to produce miracles that could only be fantasized about a few short years ago. Among those miracles is a whole family of social networks, all of which offer near-instantaneously gratification. One can debate the extent of benefits offered by each of the social networks, but the billion-plus active Facebook users strongly implies that THEY believe in the benefits. And there are continuing examples where people can connect with their loved ones despite disasters, or just stay in touch simply and quickly. We wonder, however, if Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter, and their ilk are in the same league. The fact that the small amount of content (regardless of how clever it is) leaves as fast as it arrives suggests that it doesn’t have lasting value. In fact, this lack of permanance probably is a GOOD thing for many of the teenagers who are a considerable portion of the recipients. But actually, it appears that more and more teenagers are choosing to communicate in person, so it may be that they are tiring of the high volume of stuff with little lasting value.

Facebook and Google Create New Homeless People in Silicon Valley in 2016

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They may not be sleeping on park benches, but they’ll never be able to afford a house in Silicon Valley. That’s because the household-word high-tech companies (Apple, Facebook, Google, et al) in the San Francisco Bay Area are adding jobs but no one is adding commensurate numbers of housing units, and the prices of homes is skyrocketing.

The iconic independent bookstore in Menlo Park, Kepler’s Books, and Peninsula Arts & Letters, sponsored a well-attended public forum, “Housing Crisis Stories”, on August 18, 2016. The motivation for the meeting was the disconnect between the huge number of new jobs being created by the giant high-tech companies like Facebook and Google and the tiny number of new housing units being created. According to the local paper, The Almanac (which covers the tony cities of Atherton, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, and Woodside), San Mateo County added 55,000 jobs but only 2,000 housing units (homes plus apartments) between 2010 and 2014. The main source of new jobs is these high-tech companies, but other real estate development is also favoring offices at the expense of housing units.

Except for me (in my TechnologyBloopers persona), who dealt with the new jobs, everyone dealt with the housing shortage. There appeared to be NO representatives from the nearby, Menlo Park-based, Facebook. Many of the attendees were either personally the victims of the rapidly-rising home prices or apartment rents, or were recounting stories of other victims. The poster child for these victims is a Palo Alto planning commissioner—a tech lawyer with a software engineer husband—who is resigning and moving to Santa Cruz because they can’t afford to live in Palo Alto and raise a family there.

Unfortunately, individually they have no power to escape their victimhoods. They will have to band together to elect officials who DO have some power. City Councils in those cities affected will need to be very proactive in forcing the tech companies and real estate developers to deal with the housing shortage. And neighboring cities need to cooperate with each other so that jobs created in one city (which result in revenue both to that city government and to retailers in that city) do not force other cities to deal with housing those new employees.

The problem seems to be a failure to optimize the OVERALL combination of jobs and housing. The technology companies are a big part of the problem and they need to be a big part of the solution. And one way those companies, at least the ones like Facebook and Google whose principal activity is software development (which can be done most anyplace), can be a part of the solution is for them to locate large portions of their staff in regional offices in cities far away from Silicon Valley.

There were some creative solutions mentioned, which would help add housing units, IF the groups concerned would cooperate to change the rules for zoning and construction. One was to build several floors of housing above parking garages. Another was to replace single-story strip malls with multi-level buildings having the retailers at ground levels and housing at the higher levels.

There was one additional issue that seems unique to Palo Alto and Menlo Park (among the cities on the San Francisco Peninsula), namely the gentrification of (formerly) low-priced residential housing in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, and the related issues of racism because of the relatively high percentage of people of color living in those cities. Fortunately, those cities were well-represented in the meeting, and hopefully their inputs will continue to be carefully considered as solutions to the jobs/housing are implemented.

Those Who Live by Google Analytics Shall Die by Google Analytics

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We at Wild Bill Web Enterpises have been tracking the visitors (and other metrics) for our three websites–including TechnologyBloopers, WhyMenDieYoung, and Wilddancer—on a weekly basis using Google Analytics and on a monthly basis using our ISP for nearly two years, and are baffled by the helter-skelter, all-over-the-map, random-looking numbers Google Analytics is providing us. Apparently this is a common problem, with a lot of possible causes, including some possibilities that could be our fault (well, the lack of useful guidance from Google and other sources isn’t really OUR fault). And it isn’t that our visitor volume is so high that we are the victim of Google’s sampling process. But we, and probably millions of other website developers, find it highly difficult, even impossible, to make any decisions based on this data. Why don’t the Internet and the Web take advantage of the huge computing power of the hardware and software to provide reasonably accurate statistics so that we can make things easier and more productive for both us and our visitors?