Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Monday, November 13, 2017

Internet Addiction?



One of my simple morning pleasures is my coffee and the comics section of the PR and this
includes the Jumble and the  “Dear Annie” column. The July 7 column was from a reader who believes that she  is addicted to the Internet via her smartphone and wanted advice on how to deal with it.  My first response was, “Well, what exactly qualifies as an addiction? I absolutely must have my morning coffee, so is that an addiction?”

Glad you asked. According to the websites Wikipedia and Dictionary, an addiction is “A physical or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, such as a drug or alcohol.” Additionally it may be harmful and may require larger doses as time goes by to achieve the same effect.

Applying the above definiton to my morning coffee: Is it habit-forming:? Yes, of course. Does the habit  require increased amounts to achieve its effect?: Yes but I can control my consumption to just a cup and a half only at breakfast; Are there harmful effects? The science is still out on that one --- I remember when the consensus was that coffe was supposedly bad for you but the current theory is that coffee ingestion is OK in moderate amounts (less than 2 cups per day). So, all in all, I guess I have a mild addiction to coffee but nothing near alcohol or drugs and nothing to worry about.

Similarly, I can’t count the Jumble as an addictionfor the same reasons I gave for coffee. Brain games like the Jumble have been touted by their marketers as increasing memory retention, problem-solving skills and attention span as well as  a good way to hold off dementia. However, new research indicates these claim are false (or as some presidents might say ‘fake facts”). In fact, one of the largest markets for brain games is Lumosity which as been fined two million dollars for overly-aggressive marketing and fraudulent claims that “preyed on consumers’ fears”. (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jan/06/lumosity-fined-false-claims-brain-training-online-games-mental-health)

If we consider how much we rely on the Internet (via smartphone or personal computer), it would seem that there is a high potential for addiction. It is certainly habit forming, uses more and more of your time, and, in many cases, is harmful. There are studies that even social networking sites like Facebook are a downer.  Many reasons for this negative effect have been proposed but I favor the theory that jealousy plays a large role in the downer effect. After all, who wants to know that their bff consistently gets more likes than themselves which, like it or not, is a measure of our popularity. Surely I am at least as interesting as what’s-her-name. This can also lead to a feeling of loneliness rather than the togetherness that social neworks purportedly nurture. All you have to do is search on the phrase, “does facebook engender a feeling of loneliness or togetherness’ to see that this is real issue.


On the other hand, some researchers claim that the cause and effect actually goes the other way: lonely people tend to be attracted to Facebook and not the other way round..Either way the studies also show that Facebook and similar social sites do not alleviate the feeling of loneliness that brings many users to the site.

Also, there may be a link between loneliness and boredom: When we become bored, many use the technique touted in self-help books: “Find a creative outlet.”  While this works when the outlet is gardening or music or any activity which helps connect us back into the real world,  it does not work for the Internet because, it’s not the real world --- at best it is just a simulcrum of reality and at some level of consciousness we realize that. Then a vicious cycle begins: we spend more and more time on the Internet in a futile attempt to combat boredom which leads to more loneliness, which leads to....

So, what’s the moral of this story? I’m not sure, but I think it’s something like: Until a Time Machine is invented, be mindful of how you spend your time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cookies and Milk


I was reading Consumer Reports about how goods are marketed using algorithms. In simple terms an algortithm is like a recipe. Step-by-step, you follow the instructions and, if the recipe is correct and you have followed the intructions correctly, you will achieve the desired outcome (e.g. a German chocolate cake). Gastronomic dreams aside, I was reminded of the meme, "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product."  Or as they used to say, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"  --- a phrase that originated in the 1930s refering to the ploy used by saloons to attract customers who might be tempted to order a few drinks.

So, exactly how is this done? What is the algorithm being used by marketers to stimulate your spending behavior as well as their profits? In a word, “targeted ads” so that  when I visit a website supported by adverisements, I will see ads tailored to my browsing history  that have been selected by an algorithm.

I remember when, in the early stages of the Google mail app, there were ads on a sidebar along with the email responses which I accepted as the cost of doing business.  However, one fine day while reading the email response I had received from a friend a response to the question, “when are the Jewish Holidays this year?”  I noticed the ad was, “Learn Hebrew!”  Now there was a targeted ad that made me laugh.  Upon further reflection I wondered how Google knew the contents of my initial email so that it could search its list of advertisers for the appropriate response. Then I remembered that Google was embroiled in a controversy over the privacy of its email customers. Google had openly admitted that it had an algorithm that took your email as input, searched for key words (like Jewish) and then tailored the ads to reflect these key words.


The public reaction to this scheme was basically, “What!!! The computer is reading my emails? What happened to Privacy?” and so forth. Google’s response was to point out that while the algorithm was searching for keywords, it was not trying to analyze content; it was not really Reading because it had no understanding of what was written and furthermore, the analysis was destroyed after the ads were chosen. Well, as you may suspect, this explanation did not mollify everyone. How do we know that Google is not going to use this analysis to exploit us --- all we have is their word. It comes to down to the basic question of trust and since Google’s motto at the time was, “Do no evil” and besides, Gmail had become a necessary convenience, and so the controversy soon blew over. Unfortunately everything old is new again: Google mail is redesigned to put ads into your inbox and while they are labelled with the word “ad” in very small font, the odds are greater that you’ll open an email than read a sidebar ad.


Unfortuneately, this issue has evolved to a more insidious situation whereby your profile and preferenes are shared across websites so that ads can even more targeted. Data such as your web visitation history and what you purchased at which website as well as other personal information can be shared with other sites using a mechanism cleverly called a “cookie”. Who could be against a cookie? Who does not have fond memories of cookies and milk at bedtime? There are two kinds of cookies that every Internet user should know about: First and Third party cookies. First party cookies are useful and not dangerous if they are encrypted. They can store your password so you don’t have to type it in every time you log on as well as remember where you left off the last time you visited the site. Third party cookies, however, have the capacity to invade your privacy by constructing a list of your browsing history. You can block these cookies by searching on the phrase, “How do I disable third party cookies?”


I must admit mixed feelings about cookies and targeted ads: if I’m going to get ads as the price I have to pay for using an app then i’d rather they be based on my interests rather than some random selection. On the other hand I don’t need to be reminded that, “ Here is a product that you didn’t know you needed”.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


A Tale of Two Principles



In the January 16 issue of the New Yorker magazine is a short piece, “End of Innocence” by Tad Friend which describes how the Internet has enabled child sex trafficking in the US. The article quotes a Senate report claiming that over 80% of online sex-ads revenue is generated by the website Backpage.com. Prosecutors have alleged that more than 90 % of Backpage's revenue — millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.

According to USA Today, law enforcement officials across the country have complained for years that the adult services ads on Backpage have given pimps the ability to easily advertise and set up meetings with johns. Now, with the aid of the seamy side of the Internet, prostitutes no longer need to troll the streets for customers and pimps can collect their fees automatically when the transaction is electronic. Unfortunately these ads disguise that the children may be underage, so this system allows children to be exploited which is, of course, against the law. The issue here is to decide which right is paramount: the right to free speech as embodied in the Bill of Rights as the First Amendment to the US Constitution or the right of minors not to be exploited which is part of every state’s statute law.


The right to protect children is easy to understand so let’s examine that first. Backpage claims that they are, in fact, protecting children from sex trafficking by working with police departments to help them root out those slimey advertisers who use code words like “young, Lolita, fresh, schoolgirl” to indicate the “escort” is a child. “Backpage offered... testimonials from law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, praising the site for assisting investigations. “I know your company is vilified nationally because it is an easy target,” read one testimonial, attributed to the Denver Police Department...I have told numerous people that Backpage is law enforcement friendly and does not support human trafficking.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/

Backpage also claims that they are actually providing a service to sex workers that makes their job safer as the ads serve as a buffer between client and provider. Here is a link to a website which argues for the right of Backpage to provide sex-related ads under the protection of free speech.

https://reason.com/blog/2016/10/07/charges-against-backpage-ceo-listed/print

The case against Backpage is more complicated. Most all media, including websites are protected by the First amendment which guarantees citizens free speech and under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

CDA Section 230 provides that internet service providers and website operators can not be held liable for content originating from a third-party. So, for example, if I use a social network like Facebook to harass someone, I can be successfully sued, but Facebook could not. This precedent was established when a suit was brought against AT&T because a stalker was using their phone lines to harass a customer and AT&T successfully argued they could not be held liable for illegal acts performed by others in much the same way that gun manufacturers are protected from prosecution when their gun is used in a crime. There are, however, provisions made If the host (Backpage.com) assists the third party (the Advertiser) in breaking the law because they become an accessory and are subject fines and imprisonment. In the instance of Backpage, prosecutors are claiming that Backpage actively helped the advertisers disguise the underage of the prostitutes so Backpage would also be liable. But this would be very difficult to prove. As a result Backpage has won two lawsuits, one in California and one in the Supreme Court which denied the lower court’s decision to prosecute.

This seems like an overly-complicated big mess but there may be a happy ending to this story. The latest twist has Backpage as of Jan 9 removing the “adult” ads section of their site. They continue to claim that their first amendment rights have been violated by the mean old feds harassing them until they had no choice but to acquiesce. Poor babies.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Is this Election Rigged?


Every four years there is a topic that seems to come up during the last months of the election process: Voting Machines --- specifically, their sad state, and suggestions to fix the problems with them. Mix in one of the candidate’s claims that this election is rigged and that 30% of Trump supporters and about 20% of Clinton’s respond that they doubt the legitimacy of the president if the other party wins --- and you begin to understand why people can’t wait for this election to be over.

Given the benefits of using voting machines (they speed up the voting and tabulation process and hence encourage more citizens to vote) why are there so many scary headlines like:

“America’s Electronic Voting Machines Are Scarily Easy Targets”
“The Dismal State of America’s Decade-Old Voting Machines”
“10 Reasons Why Voting Systems Are Not Created Equal”
"Should voters be worried about aging voting machines?
“Election Day Woes: Some Question Voting Machines”

...and virtually no headlines containing the phrase “The voting machines are fine, thank you very much”? This leads me to assume that there are still some problems that need to be examined.

Let’s narrow the problem down to electronic voting machines which, like any computer system have vulnerable software and hardware. If I can hack into a voting machine and replace its programs with mine then I can make it produce any results I like. Also if the machines are on a network then my virus can travel on that network infecting more machines. And if the Internet (the ultimate network) is used to tabulate votes, fuggetaboudit. That’s the first major issue, but keep in mind that there is no evidence that this has ever happened ---- so far.

Another issue that cuts both ways is the decentralization of the voting machines. Not only the individual states but local voting districts can make decisions regarding the security provided for these machines. Since there exists about 200,000 voting precincts, it would be an overwhelming task to hack into all of them; in this case the decentralization is a benefit, not a cost.

So it’s pretty much impossible to make all the voting machines communicate via the Internet which is the greatest risk --- and that’s the good news. The real problem seems to be that many of the machines are outdated.

An extensive study by The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy and law institute, found that forty-three states will use outdated electronic voting machines when people head to the polls in 2016, potentially leaving the door open to various problems including the possibility of crashes and lost votes. Of course the results hinge on your definition of “outdated” and the assumption made by the researchers was that an outdated machine had to be at least 10 years old.

The Center discovered that 43 states have voting machines that are at least 10 years old putting them “perilously close” to most of the systems’ expected lifespan. This includes a significant percentage of machines in key swing states such as Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. The study also found that 14 states have machines that are at least 15 years old.

“No one expects a laptop to last for 10 years. How can we expect these machines, many of which were designed and engineered in the 1990s, to keep running without increased failures?” said Lawrence Norden, co-author of the study. He goes on to describe why outdated machines are a bigger problem than hacking, “If you have machines not working, or working slowly, that could create lots of problems too, preventing people from voting at all.”

Just last year, the election board of Virginia (one of the battleground states) decertified 3000 voting machines after an investigation revealed the software was hackable. When the governor proposed that the problem could be fixed by replacing the machines for $28 million the legislature turned down the request. So it’s a case of money and politics which has always been a problem --- with a dwindling state budget politicians confronted with replacing voting machine or fixing potholes will spend where the voters are complaining the most. Hopefully, after this election, our elected representatives will have the political backbone to deal with this issue.




Sunday, August 14, 2016

Technology changes Vocabulary and Productivity




A funny thing happened while I was reading the the article, “Amazon unveils cargo plane as it expands delivery network” by Phuong Le in the Sat Aug 6 2016 PR. In the last paragraph of the article is a quote from Dave Clark, Amazon’s Senior VP for worldwide operations,“Stay tuned and we’ll see what happens in the future”. It occurred to me that the phrase “stay tuned” has already become archaic in that it refers to a nondigital technology (tube radio) which had a tuner knob the user could control to find the “station” or broadcast frequency desired.

This struck me as serendipitous because just the previous day, my grandson Tommy had used the phrase, “Hang up the phone” to me referring to a cell phone. I (unpompously as possible) pointed out to him that “hang up” was an outdated phrase referring to olden times (early 20th century”) when phones looked like this:






You can see that it has a microphone on top , a dial at the bottom and a cradle on the side with which you can place the speaker to “hang up the phone” and end the conversation. I predicted that in a few years people will be saying, “Swipe off the phone” instead. To which he astutely replied, “Or ‘hang up’ will just become another phrase that we use unaware of its original meaning --- like “dialing” the number.

So I wondered how many other words of phrase have become archaic due to technological change and by searching on “outdated expressions” you can find a plethora of other examples; e.g.

http://distractify.com/humor/2015/06/17/outdated-expressions-are-the-cats-meow-1197927064


Speaking of change, the Aug 11 PBS Newshour the segment, “End of Growth”, examines technological change from two different viewpoints. Economics reporter Paul Solmon asks two economists, Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson, for their reasons for and against the prediction that the US economy is in for a long patch of slow growth. Gordon shows data that the period between 1870 and 1970 was an era of unprecedented growth and productivity fueled by such technology as the radio, the electric light, indoor plumbing, air conditioning/heating, the telephone, radio and TV, the airplane,the internal combustion engine, and last but not least, the refrigerator( which, besides convenience, kept food from spoiling and thus improved the nation’s health).

Brynjolfsson agrees pointing out that a multitude of tasks previously performed by human muscle or horsepower were replaced by machines in that century which not only raised productivity but lessened the burden and freed up time for most people. But he disagrees with Gordon’s thesis that our best days are over. He claims that we are in a “second machine age” where they now raise our productivity by supplementing our brain power using artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics. Gordon parries with the observation that this new utopia visualized by Brynjolfsson is not yet factual --- it is merely a hope.

Gordon rhapsodizes about the tremendous investment in infrastructure symbolized by the construction of the Golden Gate bridge and similar projects that led this country into a prosperity never before reached. . Further, his research indicates that during that 100 year span the US was growing three times faster than in the last 40 years. Brynjolfsson responds that while that may be so, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet and that the greatest failure of the human mind is in comprehending exponential growth (the bigger it gets, the faster it grows) because we tend to think linearly. Gordon responds that computers have been riding this wave of exponential growth for the last 50 years but it has not yet shown up in productivity. And so on and so forth.

Solmon ends the piece with the observation that no matter whose viewpoint will turn out to be correct we are certainly currently in a period of strong economic headwinds: problems in education, an aging population, a huge national debt, and growing inequality.

I believe that if anything can lift us up out of this “great recession’, it will be undergirded by technology. It is not surprising to me that technology not only changes society’s productivity but also its vocabulary.

Technology changes Vocabulary and Productivity




A funny thing happened while I was reading the the article, “Amazon unveils cargo plane as it expands delivery network” by Phuong Le in the Sat Aug 6 2016 PR. In the last paragraph of the article is a quote from Dave Clark, Amazon’s Senior VP for worldwide operations,“Stay tuned and we’ll see what happens in the future”. It occurred to me that the phrase “stay tuned” has already become archaic in that it refers to a nondigital technology (tube radio) which had a tuner knob the user could control to find the “station” or broadcast frequency desired.

This struck me as serendipitous because just the previous day, my grandson Tommy had used the phrase, “Hang up the phone” to me referring to a cell phone. I (unpompously as possible) pointed out to him that “hang up” was an outdated phrase referring to olden times (early 20th century”) when phones looked like this:




You can see that it has a microphone on top , a dial at the bottom and a cradle on the side with which you can place the speaker to “hang up the phone” and end the conversation. I predicted that in a few years people will be saying, “Swipe off the phone” instead. To which he astutely replied, “Or ‘hang up’ will just become another phrase that we use unaware of its original meaning --- like “dialing” the number.

So I wondered how many other words of phrase have become archaic due to technological change and by searching on “outdated expressions” you can find a plethora of other examples; e.g.

http://distractify.com/humor/2015/06/17/outdated-expressions-are-the-cats-meow-1197927064


Speaking of change, the Aug 11 PBS Newshour the segment, “End of Growth”, examines technological change from two different viewpoints. Economics reporter Paul Solmon asks two economists, Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson, for their reasons for and against the prediction that the US economy is in for a long patch of slow growth. Gordon shows data that the period between 1870 and 1970 was an era of unprecedented growth and productivity fueled by such technology as the radio, the electric light, indoor plumbing, air conditioning/heating, the telephone, radio and TV, the airplane,the internal combustion engine, and last but not least, the refrigerator( which, besides convenience, kept food from spoiling and thus improved the nation’s health).

Brynjolfsson agrees pointing out that a multitude of tasks previously performed by human muscle or horsepower were replaced by machines in that century which not only raised productivity but lessened the burden and freed up time for most people. But he disagrees with Gordon’s thesis that our best days are over. He claims that we are in a “second machine age” where they now raise our productivity by supplementing our brain power using artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics. Gordon parries with the observation that this new utopia visualized by Brynjolfsson is not yet factual --- it is merely a hope.

Gordon rhapsodizes about the tremendous investment in infrastructure symbolized by the construction of the Golden Gate bridge and similar projects that led this country into a prosperity never before reached. . Further, his research indicates that during that 100 year span the US was growing three times faster than in the last 40 years. Brynjolfsson responds that while that may be so, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet and that the greatest failure of the human mind is in comprehending exponential growth (the bigger it gets, the faster it grows) because we tend to think linearly. Gordon responds that computers have been riding this wave of exponential growth for the last 50 years but it has not yet shown up in productivity. And so on and so forth.

Solmon ends the piece with the observation that no matter whose viewpoint will turn out to be correct we are certainly currently in a period of strong economic headwinds: problems in education, an aging population, a huge national debt, and growing inequality.

I believe that if anything can lift us up out of this “great recession’, it will be undergirded by technology. It is not surprising to me that technology not only changes society’s productivity but also its vocabulary.

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