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quantified self

With the explosion in fitness trackers and mobile apps that want to help manage everything from weight loss to pregnancy, there’s already a small panic brewing as technology critics worry that insurance companies will require you to wear devices that track your health, playing around with your premiums based on how well or how badly you take care of yourself. As the current leader of the reverse Singularitarians, Evgeny Morozov, argues, the new idea of the quantified self is a minefield being created with little thought about the consequences. Certainly there is a potential for abuse of very personal health metrics and Morozov is at his best when he explains how naive techno-utopians don’t understand how they come off, and how the reality of how their tools have been used in the wild differs drastically from their vision, so his fear is not completely unfounded or downright reflexive, like some of his latest pieces have been. But in the case of the quantified self idea being applied to our healthcare, the benefits are more likely to outweigh the risks.

One of the reasons why healthcare in the United States is so incredibly expensive is the lack of focus on preventitive medicine. Health problems are allowed to fester until they become simply too bothersome to ignore, a battery of expensive tests is ordered, and usually expensive acute treatments are administered. Had they been caught in time, the treatments would not have to be so intensive, and if there was ample, trustworthy biometric information available to the attending doctors, there wouldn’t need to be as much testing to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. As many doctors grumble about oceans of paperwork, logistics of testing, and the inability to really talk to patients in the standard 15 minute visit, why not use devices that would help with the paperwork and do a great deal of preliminary research for them before they ever see the patient? And yes, the devices would have to be able to gather data by themselves because we often tell little white lies about how active we are and how well we eat, even when both we and our doctors know that we’re lying. And this only hurts us in the end by making the doctors’ work more difficult.

That brings us full circle to health insurance premiums and requirements to wear these devices to keep our coverage. Certainly it’s kind of creepy that there would be so much data about us so readily available to insurance companies, but here’s the thing. They already have this data from your doctors and can access it whenever they want in the course of processing your claim. With biometric trackers and loggers, they could do the smart and profitable thing and instead of using a statistical model generated from a hodgepodge of claim notes, take advantage of the real time data coming in to send you to the doctor when a health problem is detected. They pay less for a less acute treatment plan, you feel healthier and have some piece of mind that you’re now less likely to be caught by surprise by some nasty disease or condition, and your premiums won’t be hiked as much since the insurers now have higher margins and stave off rebellions from big and small companies who’ll now have more coverage choices built around smart health data. And all this isn’t even mentioning the bonanza for researchers and policy experts who can now get a big picture view from what would be the most massive health study ever conducted.

How many times have you read a study purporting the health benefits of eating berries and jogs one week only to read another one that promotes eating nuts and saying that jogs are pointless with the different conclusions coming as a result of different sample sizes and subjects involved in the studies? Well, here, scientists could collect tens of millions of anonymized records and do very thorough modeling based on uniform data sets from real people, and find out what actually works and for whom when it comes to achieving their fitness and weight loss goals. Couple more data and more intelligent policy with the potential for economic gain and the gamification offered by fitness trackers, and you end up with saner healthcare costs, a new focus on preventing and maintaining rather than diagnosing and treating, fewer sick days, and longer average lifespans as the side effect of being sick less often and encouraged to stay active and fit, and you have a very compelling argument for letting insurance companies put medical trackers on you and build a new business model around them and the data they collect. It will pay off in the long run.

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my little botnet

One of the big new trends on cybersecurity blogs is to point out that people selling software for botnets and offering hosting plans that allow them to stall any attempt to shut you down enough to let you reset your operation if it’s eve caught, are really, really customer friendly and offer a quality of service that we wish most big companies tried to emulate. Somehow, we are supposed to be shocked that not only is the malware ecosystem so well organized, but that it’s so easy for people to set up botnets, spam operations, and exploit kits and that all those packages come on a digital equivalent of a silver platter, delivered by an evil cyber-Jeeves committed to making the botnets of your dreams a reality. But what else should we expect? Hacking takes some skill and you need experienced programmers and network admins to find new exploits. There aren’t that many people out there capable of building really potent malware and the demand for them is off the charts, meaning easy money to be made if they sold it to legions of criminals.

But the services are inherently illegal, some of the customers are very, very dangerous, as in a wing of the Russian mob, or the Yakuza, and the only way to effectively sell is through a happy customer who hasn’t ordered a hit on you after you sold them an exploit kit. So of course you’re going to do all you can to ensure excellent customer service. Not only does it bring in money but it boosts sales, exactly like in any other line of business. And again, it’s really important to point out that your typical angry customers have little recourse besides yelling at a manager of a call center across the world for an hour, but the people who spend tens of thousands of dollars on a brand new Zeus or BlackHole platform and thousands more per month on their malicious C&C server farm would have other means to voice their dissatisfaction. To stay in business you must a) keep them happy, b) give them what they want, and c) cover their asses as much as you can because if they’re going down, you may be going down with them. It would be more shocking if the malware industry wasn’t as polished and professionalized as it is today…

[ illustration by Aurich Lawson ]

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empty cubicles

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer received a massive heaping of criticism for her decision to revoke all employees’ ability to work from home over the last several weeks. From the tech press, most of the wired pundits groaned that Mayer just doesn’t get it. News and blog sites constantly harped on the fact that she had a nursery built onsite so she could stay in the office no matter what and that her expectations about her workers’ lives were completely unrealistic. Token contrarians did their half-hearted best in reminding us that working from home is not for everyone, Yahoo is not exactly a prison but a rather cushy place to work, and that a lot of people in Silicon Valley spend an inordinate amount of time in the office. And from all the sociological and technological bits of punditry created in response to Mayer’s decision, I’d like to declare the tech writers as those who did the best job explaining why her choice was ill advised. They’re the ones who got it.

A while ago, I tackled some pointed criticisms of telecommuting and why they usually showed a problem with the organization not understanding what telecommuting is and how to do it rather than a fundamental problem with the concept. The very same points are present in Mayer’s big decision and what they show is someone obsessed with putting in time at the office not realizing that the number of hours spent in a cube or how many cars there are in a parking lot are not an indicator of how well the company is or isn’t working. In fact, her decision was motivated by how employees came and went according to the usual tech reporter sources, and the fact that there weren’t as many cars outside at 5 pm as she’d like rather than some sort of study as to why the number of cars was so low. Are the employees no longer engaged? Are they more productive when they work from home? Herding them back into the office and keeping them there does not answer these questions. It just makes the parking lot full and the current CEO happy, and this is why she was loudly booed by the tech press which abhors the ass-in-the-chair metric.

So let’s say that you’re an executive of a tech company going through hard times and you work late nights in the office with few people around after the informal quitting time. Wouldn’t you want to see how well the telecommuting employees are doing? Did they get everything delivered? Did they get the projects working? Were they around when questions needed to be answered or call in during the big meeting? Next, since the company isn’t doing well, how about trying to find out if your workers feel trapped or like they’re on a sinking ship and looking for a way out? Is there an actual mission for them to fulfill? Are they being challenged? Do they feel like working for you is advancing their knowledge and careers? If not, of course they’re not going to stick around more than necessary. Likewise, you need to look at how productive the company is and how many of the projects it started are on schedule. More hours at the office does not mean more work and better products. Sometimes they just mean more hours behind your computer.

Of course I appreciate that there are projects which need you in the office and you have to be there until everything is done and ready to go. We’ve all been there, especially before a product launch. But when someone is spending 10 or 12 hours in the office on a routine basis and very proudly brags about running on five hours of sleep and adrenaline, one starts to wonder what it is precisely that requires this person to spend half a life at work. How much is he or she getting done and what exactly does it bring to the company’s bottom line? Is there a better use of all this time and if so, what? These are not rhetorical questions. Running a company costs money and every hour you spend in the office needs to have a reason behind it. If this reason is to show all your subordinates how dedicated you are to work, is that really a good use of a company’s time and resources? And does it mean that you’re wasting time with e-mails that shouldn’t have been written or sent, meetings that are a waste of everyone’s time, and fluffy meets and greets? And would all this cost a lot less if you just let people work from home and get things done?

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minimalist office

Generally the informal rule around Weird Things is not to persue the same topic two days in a row, but there are always exceptions, especially in the case of hard data that brings the points discussed the day before into better focus. So while yesterday we talked about the mismatch in what science advisers recommend to the government about the job prospects of STEM grads and what really happens, today we’ll peek at the other side of the debate. As noted previously, one of the reasons why companies today claim they can’t find qualified employees is because they believe that the only qualified employee is one who has done the exact job the position for which they’re hiring entails and anything other than that is an unwarranted gamble. But they’re also very down on colleges overall, with more than half saying that they have trouble finding an applicant pool worthy of their time and dinging the grads’ communication, critical thinking, and problem solving skills in a way that makes it sound as if colleges hand diplomas to anyone.

And yet, amazingly enough, some 93% say that college graduates work out well and make fair and good employees, with the good employee designation being awarded to college graduates more than twice as much as fair to boot. Likewise, more than half believe that a college degree, especially the four year kind, is just as important as it was five years ago, if not more, and about two thirds will refuse to wave any educational requirement before reading a resume. So to sum all of this up, colleges are churning out barely literate, functionally useless candidates who can’t find their way out of a paper bag and are way over their heads when applying for a job, and yet they become good employees and college education is an extremely important qualifier during the hiring process. Wow, and the companies that took this survey criticize college students for a startling inability to communicate since these results are completely contradictory when taken at face value. But you see, there’s an underlying thought that clears up these odd results.

One of the more frequently cited complaints by companies is that college graduates can’t jump into a new job and hit the ground running. Now, this would make sense since colleges teach the theory, the basics, and the science behind something, not necessarily how to do a specific job function, and argue that it’s not their job to do so and never has been. To companies who don’t want to spend money on training, internships, and long term commitments to their employees to mold their workforce over years rather than the quarterly reports, this is unacceptable. They do want college graduates and they do want the colleges to give them the basics, but they’re also looking for colleges to become high end vocational schools. The graduate they want to hire out of school doesn’t just have good grades but can plop behind a desk and use industry standard tools when shown to his or her cube. So when a newly minted computer science grad can’t get into a chair, load up, say Visual Studio, and start weaving a UI with jQuery and Knockout, they think that colleges have come up short in their duty to produce qualified workers.

We can go back and forth about all the issues in higher education today. We can talk about all the useless degree programs, the high profile terrible advice given to young students, the fact that not everybody needs to go to college, and that the current college system can actually stall your career if you don’t balance your degrees and work history just right, and we should try to address the downright predatory and unfair system of student lending in place today. But even though these discussions need to be held to fix the problems we’re facing in colleges, perhaps the most important discussions we need first and foremost are negotiations between academics and companies that hire their students. Certainly colleges do fail some graduates and I’ve seen perfectly bright and intelligent students left years behind the industry despite going to schools with good names and reputations, given unrealistic expectations of what their degrees would do in the real world. At the same time, for companies to force students and parents to pick up a big tab for specific job training and turn professors into underpaid corporate trainers is absurd.

We need to move past nebulous qualitatives and settle some real requirements for what we’re trying to expect from a college education, honestly aware that the system cannot be all things to all people and there needs to be a balance between learning the theory and learning a job. And if we can accomplish that, students will have an easier time deciding their majors, paying on the loans they took out to go to school, and then getting jobs after they’re done. Maybe companies will have more realistic expectations of what colleges can do for them and start training people, just like they did in the good old days, when employees were a lot less disposable than they are today and new hires were expected to grow with the company and expand their skill sets instead of performing the required units of work to then move elsewhere. A good way to start this sort of debates would be to think through the system from the viewpoint of a student rather than how to hit a macro metric that could easily be changed by the powers that be…

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spaceliner render

If you ever explored the pages of popular science magazines from the heady days of the Space Race, inspired by novels of the Golden Age of science fiction, you’ve no doubt seen proposed ads for space planes taking busy commuters around the world in mere hours. It sounds like the perfect solution to spending as much as a day locked inside a flying metal tube filled with stuffy recycled air. And the Noodly One forbid you have to make the trip in coach. Ugh. Unfortunately, hypersonic jets are really difficult to build and the sonic booms they would create would quickly run afoul of local noise ordinances. This is not to mention that airport runways would have to be a lot longer to help them build up speed and the air and space routes would have to be mapped in completely new and different ways. But all this we could deal with to make sure that a venture designed to shuttle people around the world in no time at all is a viable business and taking any space plane is as easy as taking a commercial jet liner today, although a lot pricier.

Yes, making suborbital flight an easy and convenient proposition is diffciult and expensive. But that doesn’t mean that a European start-up’s plan to attach a space plane to a rocket, fire it off like a space shuttle, and have it glide back down to Earth at 15,000 miles per hour is any better than having to redesign major airports to support hypersonic planes. According to the company, using proven rocket technology would mean that the plane would begin daily service in 2050. If we actually do a little research about hypersonic flight and rocket launches, it would mean that a plan resembling anything like the venture proposed is dead on arrival and should come with an obligatory DNR order. This idea effectively combines the biggest, most expensive hindrance to cost-effective suborbital, and adds a layer of regulatory issues, as well as logistical pains which would drive potential customers to simply fly on an existing aircraft because they would get there much faster. It’s in no way commercially viable or safe for the passengers since there’s a really, really high chance that the space plane will disintegrate as it glides back down to Earth.

But let’s backtrack for a moment. Consider the issue of starting a trip with a rocket launch. Last time most of us checked, rockets cost millions and get thrown away after each use. SpaceX has been working on reusable rockets, so that may bring down costs substantially, but there would only be so many flights it could make before the repeated stresses render both it and the space plane unusable. Furthermore, it means that the proposed SpaceLiner would have to launch in a small time window at a spaceport built well out of the way as not to interfere with air traffic over a major city or transport hub, precisely the places where you should be offering the flights to make it easy to get to the space plane. If you miss a window due to a mechanical issue, you could end up wasting the entire day rather than just reschedule for the next flight since the next window for the trajectory you need may not come for the next few days. By this point, if you were willing and able to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a SpaceLiner ticket, $15,000 for a typical long haul first class flight on a conventional aircraft would sound like a decent bargain.

And, of course, there’s the whole possible disintegration thing. You see, gliding at 15,000 miles an hour through the atmosphere isn’t exactly what happens when you’re going that fast. No, it’s more like plowing through miles of gas that’s exponentially increasing in density while the heat generated by air compression is trying to engulf your craft. DARPA tried the exact maneuver the SpaceLiner is expected to do with one of the most advanced hypersonic bullets ever built. It did not end well. The entry vehicle’s skin came off its body. There’s a non-zero chance that even a shielded SpaceLiner would face stresses that would either melt its skin right off, or kill whoever was on on board should the glide back down to the ground hit a rough patch somewhere. Again, the slow jet sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? Especially an advanced supersonic design that muffles the noise of its sonic boom by its shape and the angles of its flight surfaces which would let it catch on in a way that the Concorde never could due to its engines’ piercing shriek.

And if that supersonic jet could get you halfway across the world in five hours from your nearest airport with a much, much smaller chance of a fiery, explosive death as it blazes through the air during its descent, why would you want to pay about ten times the price of a first class ticket on such jets to schlep out to the middle of nowhere to try and catch a rocket and shave off three or four hours of the final leg of your trip if you do manage to launch in your window? By the time it’ll touch down at another spaceport in the middle of nowhere, you could have been relaxing in your hotel room or home half a world away for hours. Other than the novelty and complexity of going by SpaceLiner, you would’ve gotten nothing out of the trip that a supersonic plane couldn’t have given you safer, cheaper, and more efficiently. Now if you were going to the Moon or an orbital hotel room, that would be a different story. Maybe the company behind the SpaceLiner proposal would want to take aim at the Skylon concept rather than trying to challenge Virgin Galactic and every major airline with a caveat-laden offer to its potential customers 37 years from now. Then again, it’s likely that today’s space tourism companies would dominate that market by then…

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lonely teddy

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve heard about online activist and pioneer Aaron Swartz’s tragic choice to commit suicide. He was very depressed and the prosecutors who for some inexplicable reason decided it was a terrific idea to threaten him with 30 to 50 years in prison for downloading papers from JSTOR despite the fact that JSTOR declined to go after him, may well have been the final straw. But instead of wondering what this says about how justice is done or mishandled and the consequences of prosecutors who think it’s fine and dandy to bully defendants into punitive plea bargains, psychologist John Grohol decided to use this tragedy as a bully pulpit to accuse tech companies for neglecting people with depression. Aside form being rather ghoulish, Grohol ruched to paint Swartz as the stereotypical overworked, over-stressed startup founder in Silicon Valley when in fact he was working in an established company in NYC, with benefits, regular hours, and staff well aware that he was quite depressed.

But even after being pointed out that he assumed things that weren’t true, Grohol did not relent in blaming tech companies for being insensitive to those suffering from depression, suppressing startup founders from being able to freely talk about their mental health issues, and demanding that tech companies make accommodations for the depressed. The backing for his assertions? Stereotypes, generalizations, and statements made with no supporting evidence or statistics. An allusion to investor confidence in a company ran by someone dealing with depression is brought up as an indictment of the tech industry rather than discussed as an important issue, and the demand to make accommodations for those suffering from depression just as we would for those diagnosed with cancer or diabetes sounds like a nice thought, but means little because a mental health issue is very tricky to accommodate, far trickier than a common physical ailment. Grohol’s article is a textbook example of lazy drive-by punditry made worse by his scientific credentials.

Swartz was being prosecuted by someone whose handling of the legal case against him veered off into the absurd and who happily and boldly portrayed downloading a batch of documents in an electronic archive which did not prevent such batch downloads in the same way you’d detail hacking into an international financial exchange, then wiring tens of millions of ill-gotten dollars into obscure offshore accounts and arguing that Swartz should’ve faced more time in jail than a mafia capo who shot someone during a shakedown gone horribly wrong. When a government’s agents go after you with such undue force, someone with frayed nerves and battling depression could easily have chosen suicide as a form of escape, and it’s both sad and maddening that he did. However, none of this has anything to do with Grohol’s misguided crusade of turning a tech company into a therapist for their employees and challenging a culture he declared to be totally oblivious of mental illness with no proof that it’s actually oblivious or neglectful.

Depression is a very complex mental illness to address and without a clear treatment plan, with potentially years of therapy required to truly overcome it, how does he expect tech companies to accurately diagnose their workers and refer them for treatment? We can accommodate a cancer patient by giving him or her time off for surgeries and rounds of chemo. We can accommodate a diabetic by making sure he or she can test blood sugar levels often and provide alternative food in a cafeteria to help with the necessary lifestyle changes. That’s easy. Expensive, but easy. But a depressed worker isn’t necessarily going to benefit from a few weeks or an entire month off, or new food in the cafeteria, or an extra few breaks. It’s not an issue of simple logistics. The worker will need to find out why he or she is so depressed, deal with potentially very complex issues, as well as identify a new path in life. What if he or she needs to quit altogether, move to a new city, and peruse a different career? Should we help with that too?

How could we stretch ourselves to accommodate years of therapy, potentially shifting demands, and still run a viable, functional business? What are we supposed to do for someone who can’t take a pill and feel better or take some time off and return healthier and more capable? Grohol provides no answers, but then again, he doesn’t have to figure out how to deal with this issue, he’s only there to demand that something is to be done. And that’s what makes him a lazy, drive-by pundit rather than an expert trying to bring attention to an issue, and his use of Swartz’s very complicated situation as a lead further drives his intellectual sloth into the realm of sleaze. if you want someone to address a specific issue, the least you could do is provide support for why you see it as an issue and offer at least one or two concrete ways to deal with it. Simply demanding that something gets done makes it seem as if you’re not very interested in actually helping. And those afflicted with depression and struggling to keep working and face the day deserve expert advice on coping, not the expert’s delegation of his professional duties to their bosses.

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sleepy telecommuter

Long time Weird Things readers have met tech skeptic Evgeny Morozov several times over the last year, and while usually I welcome his contrarian and pragmatic take on tech evangelism, his recent article at Future Tense seems to have gone somewhat astray. While trying to list all the ways in which telecommuting made work/life balance worse for many, he ended up showing how telecommuting can fail when the bosses don’t know how to manage it and the workers don’t get the reasoning behind it. Now, this isn’t to say that working from home is for everyone and every job can be done via a computer. Some people need the discipline of the office and professional customs of certain industries demand face time. But a lot of tasks can be done in a home office and not having a daily commute saves money for both the employers and employees. With less on-site workers, companies can save on office space. With less driving, workers save on gas.

But according to Morozov, telecommuters are putting in more hours, are more likely to be single, implying they don’t have families, and their bosses end up either micromanaging or unsure what to do with remote subordinates. Therefore, he continues, rather than being the wave of a future letting us better manage work and play time, telecommuting is being abused to make us work a lot more and its results are mixed at best for employers. I would be inclined to agree with this at least in part if every example he provided for his conclusion didn’t show that those involved just lunged into telecommuting with little thought or preparation. For example, his anecdote of a big government office failing at telecommuting highlighted an interesting bit of managerial double-speak that’s quite revealing. Supervisors didn’t know how to evaluate finished work and quality was slipping. How would they know quality was slipping if they didn’t know how to evaluate the work and why were there no guidelines on how to judge the work being done remotely? Sounds like a glaring management oversight of a key issue. And it only gets worse from there.

The now telecommuting employees, used to strict workdays, punching in and out, and filling out time sheet after time sheet based on hours defined by their position didn’t know if they put in a sufficient amount of hours. But putting in the hours isn’t what telecommuting is about. It’s about getting a task done up to spec on time. If you’re done early, good job. Take five and vacuum, or watch a little TV as a reward, or go on a quick jog to get yourself amped up for the next thing on your to do list. Remote work is supposed to help get things done efficiently and keep morale up by getting workers out of that most wretched invention of the 20th century: the cubicle. It’s not a way to cram in more hours into the workday. Humans can only do so much quality work in a day so trying to make them do more is simply not going to work out. For example, programmers can typically write decent code for about six hours. After that code quality goes down because we’ve spent most of our workday staring at code, screenshots, hexadecimals, and test results. Making us write code for another four is just going to give you crappy code that needs to be fixed.

I’m sure you see where this is going. If you see telecommuting as a way to wring more hours out of the day, you are doing it wrong. If you see working from home as sitting behind a desk for X hours, you are doing it wrong. Working remotely is not having a cubicle away from the office, it’s a completely different mindset which prizes completion of projects over face time in a cube. Yes, it’s really easy for managers who started their careers when PCs were still new in the business world to use the ass-in-the-chair metric, but it’s a lousy metric for anything other than employee attendance. These managers are the ones who install spyware and micromanage telecommuters because they can’t accept that they hired grown adults who should be able to be responsible in how they use their time and get work done. It’s a very 1950s and 1960s way to run an office but it’s pervasive because frankly, it’s easy and familiar. It’s not that telecommuting’s promise failed, it’s that a whole lot of companies out there never got the hang of how to do it and end up with a lot of remote workers they don’t know how to manage and do telecommuting wrong.

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internet cat

For the last few years, we’ve all been told that ill-considered pictures on social media sites were going to come back to bite us. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter if you had a few crazy or wild pictures from your college days on Facebook because you’d just limit the access to your friends and it’s college so those days are past and should have nothing to do with your ability to do the job for which you’re applying. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Employers are judgmental and your privacy settings can be manipulated or circumvented, and lately there have been too many cases of employers doing exactly that. And without a court order and a lot of hard work, you will not be able to prove that you were rejected for a job not because you didn’t have a high enough GPA or enough years of experience, but because a picture of you having — gasp! — some fun once in a while, made a prudish HR manager purse his lips in disapproval and ditch you.

To help remedy this state of affairs, Viviane Reding, a high ranking European politician, is now trying to introduce a "right-to-forget" law which would mandate that pictures you no longer want on social media sites are removed and stay gone. Technically, social media sites already comply with takedown requests but the process can be slow and cached versions can still rear their ugly heads if someone knows how to rephrase a search. This law basically wants the image to vanish from the web as much as possible, and by doing, is asking too much. Once a picture is out on a website, it can be downloaded and reposted, cached, and distributed at a whim and any picture that goes viral can have literally thousands of different copies residing on servers around the world. Just try to track all of these copies down. You won’t be able to because the very nature of the internet today will be against you. That means that if you become internet famous for taking some very awkward body shots at a bar snapped by an amused stranger, you’ll just have to live with knowing that there’s little you can do to make sure that picture is wiped out.

So this is a bit of an issue, isn’t it? With everybody carrying around a camera linked to a social media ecosystem that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, despite its poor profitability, you will either have to watch your every step, become a homebody, or just deal with the consequences as they come. We can no longer get away with stashing embarrassing or questionable photos of ourselves in a shoe box or throwing them in the trash. How do we handle that? My suggestion is purely non-technical. We adapt our culture to deal with it and think twice before anything goes online under our names. That’s all we can really do because adding more filters, blocks, hacks, and privacy settings just tends to create new security holes and rarely deter determined sleuths with a good grasp of how social media and exploits work. And employers looking through profiles on social media sites will need to stop looking just because they can, since so many of them will already perform background checks, credit checks, employment verifications, education checks, and drug tests. Really, that should be more than enough.

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dartboard

During the heady, pre-IPO days of Facebook, the tech world was being told that because half a billion people were registered on the site, not only would it become the platform for virtually any business venture or marketplace, it would also harness the contents of its massive data farms to drive customers to the right advertisers. The concept was that mapping out the connections and likes between people and their favorite pages could target ads to precisely fit someone’s profile and served as part of a news feed or a handy sponsored link in the sidebar. This social web was supposed to be the way, the word, and the light of all social media to a viable business model. If we go by the performance of Facebook’s stock, that’s not exactly what happened, and the rather mediocre returns on investment advertisers are seeing on the site only add insult to injury. Just as many users click on blank ads as they do real ones, suggesting that when they do click on a sponsored link, it’s likely to be a mistake. So much for hypertargeting as the future of social.

Here’s the problem a lot of large social media sites trying to make money can’t seem to solve. All the millions of users they have are so used to having everything free and have gotten so adept at filtering ads screaming at them from every direction, they’re using the tool for its social benefit while treating what’s now supposed to be the site’s bread and butter as an annoyance they just have to tolerate to use the awesome free tool. This is why Facebook or Twitter can’t even joke about a paid subscription to keep using their sites. Maybe about 1% of hardcore users who do need to keep using their tools will switch over while the other 99% flock elsewhere. If people are not used to paying for something, they sure aren’t going to start unless there’s simply no way to get what they want otherwise, and even then, many will just choose to go without, figuring that a monthly or even annual fee is asking too much for how little time they spend on these sites. And this is why we were being pitched the social web as the answer to the question of how any social media site should make enough money to truly live up to its hype. Instead of selling a small and controversial monthly subscription, they’ll just sell your data to companies instead.

However, the social web concept also suffers from an underlying flaw. It doesn’t account for a lot of human behavior because the interactions on the site effectively obscure them. You might get an ad for Nike running shoes because you liked a comment by your friend about how much she loves running in her new Nikes. From a computer standpoint, it makes perfect sense. You were friends for years, you comment on each other’s’ posts on a regular basis, you must be at least a little swayed by your friend’s opinion, right? But how does Facebook know that you’re friends on the site only because your parents know her parents and it would look bad if you declined her friend request? Where do you specify that you are on a completely different part of the political spectrum than her, couldn’t care less about running or tennis shoes, and only interact with her for the sake of appearances? She could say that Nike shoes cured her guinea pig’s cancer and you still wouldn’t care, mostly because you just ignored her status update in your feed, like you do for nearly every one of her posts. In this case, the social graph delivers a dud.

Human behavior is a very complex subject and there’s a wide variety of reactions humans have to the same ideas, events, and things. Trying to reduce them into predictable formulas to build a graph designed to predict how they’ll act is a fool’s errand. It will either be too specific, or vague to the point of being utterly useless. You’ll be relying on the belief that people are exactly who they are and what they are online, a real stretch considering that we have trouble figuring out if people are who they say they are or believe what they say they do in person. Add to that all the changes we experience throughout our lives, changes shaped by hormones, big decisions and their consequences, and even small events that inspire us to do something new and different at a moment’s notice, and you may as well try to call your social web Laplace since it would have to summon a variation of its metaphorical demon to get any sort of consistent accuracy when put into action. To ignore this was either wishful thinking on Facebook’s part, or an complete lack of familiarity with how humans generally tend to work out in the wild of the internet and IRL…

[ illustration by Bogdan Suditu ]

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exchange abstract

There’s a part of the Republican economic policy that I never understood and really can’t seem to wrap my mind around because the more I think it about it, the more self-contradictory it gets, and the more it resembles an almost prayful fantasy rather than a sound plan. Now I know that the ardent disciples of the right wing will chuckle and say "well duh, you don’t get it because you must be one of those stupid liberal Obamocrats, I mean hell you’re from the former USSR," as it tends to be the level of partisan debate nowadays. But my problem with this policy doesn’t come from some sort of meditation on morality and society. It comes from my wallet since I’m not just a consultant by trade, I’m an independent consultant, so according to the Republican speeches, it’s a miracle that I haven’t been strangled out of business by the socialists in Congress and if I vote for GOP, I’d make so much money thanks to their tax cuts, I could hire a whole staff. This is, in a nutshell, their plan for nurturing the economic recovery. Give entrepreneurs and business owners tax cuts so they hire people in appreciation.

There are a few slight problems with this rosy outlook. First and foremost, have you noticed the surge in productivity as fewer and fewer people have jobs? That’s thanks to new technology. An uncomfortable truth is that a lot of jobs are being made obsolete which is why the job training for those other than master treadespeople will need to be tied to the STEM fields and into a major coalition of research and development labs for government and big corporate clients if we ever hope to make a serious, permanent dent in unemployment. So why would I want to run off and hire someone if I get a tax cut if I can just build some software to do things for me? I can write a program to look for differences in data for tens of thousands of reports and it’ll do the job in just a couple of seconds. Certainly the GOP would balk at the idea that instead of writing a program, I should’ve went out and found someone to manually sift through the reports for me for days and bill me $10 to $15 an hour. But why would they expect me to do the same thing if they give me a tax refund or a tax holiday, especially if I need the job done today, not next week?

Secondly, employees are expensive and the hiring practices of many companies to ensure that the money they spent will go to an employee they’re 100% sure should do the job make it even more expensive and tedious to hire someone. Basically, companies hire as a last resort and for every job they don’t create, they can divert more towards paying down debt, buying new tools, and paying dividends to those who invested in them. There’s nothing corrupt or evil about this. It’s really the same as you not going out for nights on the town to save some money so you can buy that new couch and pay down your credit card bill. You need the couch, your savings need some replenishing in case of a rainy day, and the bills don’t pay themselves. And when the GOP argues that you should spend money because dammit, people are counting on you to pay them so we can maintain a strong economy, I’m sure your first question is whether they’re paying any attention to what they’re saying. But that’s exactly what they’re proposing. Go out to spend your tax refunds, give them to businesses and the businesses will hire you. This view of the economy is simplistic to a fault and ignores what companies actually need to do to stay profitable.

People who are in business do it to make money. If they feel charitable, they donate and get to write off the money they donate off their taxes, which if fair since they’re using it to help those in need or to advance a project that helps educate others. What the Republican idea proposes is an unworkable merger between the two, in which people who need to make money for those who invested in them expecting a return within three to five years, are being relied on to give jobs to people who need them as a reward for their spending despite this arrangement not being in the best long term interests of the companies they run. On top of this, the Republicans play a rather bizarre blame game in which companies that don’t want to hire people because the profits they earn can be invested elsewhere, are victims of a government that’s not creating the necessary environment to get companies to hire. And when people are laid off, the government is blamed for mishandling the economy even though whether people stay or go depends on the policies of an individual company. There are businesses who lay off right and left to make the quarter look better and there are those who refuse to lay people off even in hard times.

The fact of the matter folks is that blaming the government for why you’re not doing well or why you had to lay people off is terrible management. I’ve heard conversations in which people who closed their businesses said that they were lucky they closed up shop before Obama took the oath of office and it always struck me as a handy way of excusing one’s mismanagement. If you had a successful business that brought you a lot of money and with which you paid yourself well, why would you kill this golden goose just because a certain politician came to power? What kind of savvy businessperson decides to do this sort of thing? Maybe the business wasn’t doing very well and you had no idea how to fix it, so you closed up shop and blamed Obama so it doesn’t look like you failed but that you had no choice but to get out? Companies with good models and great products and ideas almost always make money regardless of who occupies Congress and the White House. And our goal should be to give these companies the incentive to invest here, rather than in an emerging market by offering new and more innovative technologies and ways of doing things to help boost their bottom line over the long haul.

We can’t do that with a tax cut and spewing fire and brimstone about government regulations as talking points are chanted with the zeal of a cultist at the apogee of an incantation. We have to expand R&D grants to help improve industrial designs and manufacturing techniques, play up all the strong intellectual property protections American law gives and the kind of infrastructure and government protection of their international interests no emerging market can offer. A quick and easy tax cut is the lazy politician’s way of solving big problems and the effects are short term. If a lawmaker drops my rent for three years and promises to raise it on the fourth, guess what I’ll be doing when the third year is up? That’s right, moving. These inducements are like the weekend sales at the mall, there to help bring in the crowds for those three days. Investments in R&D for retooling our economy which yield tools that can help companies more profitable over the long term and prompt them to hire workers who actually understand how these tools work is what will require hard work and long term planning, but will bring the biggest bang for our buck. Though for an average politician with a two year shelf life, this is simply too big of a project to consider…

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