Voices of Reason and Unreason

Peggy Noonan writes about the circus of the Kavanaugh confirmation. It’s mostly a tribute to Senator Susan Collins, who is worthy of tribute in this horrid affair.

She was one of two mostly reasonable voices in the Senate, the other being Jeff Flake, who tried to be somewhat objective. She even took the risk to explain her thinking when she announced her vote. After reviewing Judge Kavanaugh’s many legal opinions, and speaking with him at length, she judged him a well-qualified centrist. When speaking about the accusations of sexual misconduct, she had the clarity to say:

We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.

I haven’t read any of Judge Kavanaugh’s legal opinions. I am in no position to make a judgement about whether he is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. I intentionally avoided listening to the testimony of Ms. Ford and the other women who accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault. In my view this was a political circus on both sides of the aisle, and I had neither the stomach nor the emotional energy to engage.

But amid the anger, rancor, accusations, and brawling over the confirmation, I am reassured that there was one brave Senator who tried her best to be fair, no matter the personal political cost. Which is more than I can say for her other colleagues in the Senate.

The Soccer Ball That Went to Space, Twice

Tonya Malinowsky, at ESPN

In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger stunned the nation when it broke apart 73 seconds into flight. This is the story of the soccer ball that survived — and the family that sent it into space, twice.

Soccer ball in space

As a middle school kid, I sat in the cafeteria at my school and watched the country’s first national tragedy to be broadcast on live television. This story gave me all the feels.

Everyone Is Selling Data

SalesForce Chairman and CEO Mark Benioff:

…in Europe your data belongs to you, but in the United States, your data belongs to all these companies that are collecting it, and they can do with it basically whatever they want.

He makes it sound like “all these companies” are slimeballs like Uber and Facebook, who he calls out by name.

SalesForce is one of those companies. They purchased Jigsaw, which crowdsources contact info, i.e. gets people to upload their acquaintances contact information, and then resells it. Now branded as Data.com, they still have the same fundamental business model. Their privacy policy states:

….the Company may supplement the Data.com Directory with publicly available information or with information from trusted data providers who are legally authorized to provide such information

SalesForce does the same thing as Facebook: take the data they collect from their users, supplement and enhance it with data they buy, and “do with it basically whatever they want.” At least Facebook can justify their position by not requiring their users to pay. SalesForce gets their users coming and going. They charge north of a thousand bucks per user per year, and still sell their users data.

Self Checkout Doesn’t Have To Be Horrible

Many retail stores now have self-checkout stations. A store employee oversees a cluster of four stations where customers can scan the barcodes of their items and pay. The appeal to the store is clear: less labor is required to operate the store. It should be better for the customer too, they shouldn’t have to wait in line as long. Great idea, but the execution has been terrible, and self checkout is generally a horrible experience.

First of all, self-checkout treats me like I’m an idiot. I’m greeted with a “Press here to begin” button on the screen. I know the barcode reader is on all the time, why turn it off until I press a button on the screen? So I press the button, and scan my first item. The kiosk refuses to scan anything else until I have placed the item in the bagging area, and it has confirmed the weight in the bagging area has increased by what it thinks the scanned item weighs. I’m not sure what bad thing they are trying to prevent from happening, but it drives me crazy. If you have a cart full of items and have to move a bag that’s already full, some control-freak computer programmer decided that I should have to wait for the attendant to let me continue. The attendant is usually not paying attention, or is helping another customer, so I stand and wait. Finally they come and do a careful investigation of my issue, ensuring that I am not shoplifting and have scanned all the items that are in my bags. Ha! What really happens is the attendant just pushes their magic button and I can finally continue scanning. A complete waste of both my time and their time.

When I’m finished with the scanning and bagging dance I’m ready to pay and leave. I often get asked about my loyalty club number, or frequent shopper number, or whatever they have branded their enhanced consumer tracking function. I hate those things, so I always skip them. Finally I’m presented with a bewildering array of options for how to pay. I search the screen looking for the one to pay with my debit card. I finally find it and am directed to complete my transaction on the credit card terminal. I insert my card into the chip reader, and it takes 15 seconds for it to decide to ask me to enter my PIN. I do so, wait 10 more seconds for it to say the transaction has been approved, immediately followed by a repeating, annoying buzz reminding me to remove my card. I put my card back in my pocket and wait another 8 seconds for my receipt to print. Finally I’m free from self-checkout hell.

Self checkout is supposed to be more convenient and more efficient, but it rarely is. If the regular lines are not super long, I almost always would prefer to wait for a person than endure the horrible self checkout experience. In many cases it’s faster to go through the line staffed by people than the line staffed by the machines. The worker at the traditional checkout line can scan items as fast as they can move them across the barcode reader. Their throughput is many times faster than anyone can do in a self checkout line.

Today I went to the Walmart Neighborhood Market near our house to pick up some snacks for a trip. I don’t usually go to this store, and since nobody was at any of the self checkout stations, and the attendant looked unusually attentive, I decided to give it a go. It was fantastic. When I looked at the screen it told me to scan my first item. I was holding a pack of skittles in my left hand and a package of beef jerky in my right. I scanned the skittles and immediately scanned the beef jerky. No complaining about the baggage area. I put the snacks down and pulled out my credit card and inserted into the chip reader. Before I could look over at the touch screen I heard an almost pleasant ding (it wasn’t as nice as the ding from my iPhone, but it was pretty nice) and I was done. I stared in disbelief as my receipt immediately printed.

It was hands down the best self checkout experience I’ve ever had. I don’t know if Walmart has rolled this out to all of their stores, but everybody who designs or implements self service point of sale systems should go buy some snacks at their Walmart Neighborhood Market and then make their system work exactly the same way.

The Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence

For most of human history advancements in philosophy unfolded at roughly the same pace as advancements in technology. With the dawn of the Industrial Age the pace of technological advancement accelerated dramatically. We have also shifted the focus of human ingenuity from philosophy to science. The great minds of today are not thinking about reality, existence, values, reason, or equality. They are working on artificial intelligence and splicing the human genome.

Left behind are the weighty moral questions raised by scientific progress. The best philosophical thinking about artificial intelligence was codified 75 years ago by a science fiction author. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics assumed robots and artificial intelligence were the same thing. How quaint.

Carlos Bueno explores Justifiable AI at ribbonfarm:

Can an artificial intelligence break the law? Suppose one did. Would you take it to court? Would you make it testify, to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

We need more smart people thinking about philosophy.

Drivel from Windbags

Jeff Zucker, President of CNN spoke at the FT Future of News conference in New York City. He blasted Fox News: “It is really state-run TV. It is a pure propaganda machine, and I think does an incredible disservice to this country.”

Hannity retorts on Twitter: “Jeff, there is a reason crowds chant CNN Sucks.”

CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are exactly the same. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to research and validate enough newsworthy facts to fill a 24×7 TV broadcast. The smart people whose deeply reasoned opinions I value don’t work in TV. These so called news channels maybe have an hour of worthwhile content per day. Cutting the broadcast to an hour a day is not compatible with their economic sustainability.

We are stuck with drivel from windbags, whose only real talent is filling airtime.

I Deleted My Facebook Account

I haven’t used Facebook much at all over the last few years. My last post was 15 months ago and it’s been more than three years since I logged in more than once a month. I stopped using it because the value I received was not worth the huge time suck. Plus the ads were terrible (I shudder to think what the ads are like today). I also hated (and still hate) the we-will-show-you-what-we-want-you-to-see-when-we-want-you-to-see-it news feed algorithm. I remember when the news feed just a chronological list of updates from your friends, and I liked it.

This morning I did a little research on how to delete my account. It appeared to me that I had to delete Facebook and Messenger separately. So I installed the Messenger app on my phone (which I have never used before in my life), and logged in so I could delete my Messenger account, which apparently you can only do from the mobile app. I was immediately reminded why I think Facebook is creepy. Within seconds I had a handful of inbound messages.

I finally got both my Messenger account and my Facebook account deleted. I also deleted my Instagram account. I never signed up for WhatsApp. Facebook says it could be “up to 90 days” before my data is really gone. That assumes that you trust Facebook to really delete the data. I trust Facebook no more than Facebook trusted Cambridge Analytica.

Zuck’s explainer post from two days ago (no link because FB doesn’t deserve it) doesn’t contain an apology, but he does admit that there was “a breach of trust between Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook”. In 2013 Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University, created a personality quiz app which gathered data on 300,000 Facebook users, as well as a yet undisclosed number of those users friends. Since that time, Facebook has indeed made some changes to the policies third party developers must comply with. But those changes were not made to protect my privacy, they were made to ensure that Facebook was the only entity that could financially benefit from my data.

There was a time when I thought Facebook was cool. For me that mirage evaporated in 2010 when Business Insider published an IM exchange Zuckerberg had with a friend, where he boasts of having personal information on 4,000 Harvard students, and being happy to share it. When his friend asks how he got all the information, Mark boasts that people “trust me” and then calls us “dumb fucks”.

Mark’s explainers about privacy have gotten much smoother since then, but the fact remains that Facebook exists today because it sells my private information to anyone and everyone who is willing to pay. To make it worse, they claim just the opposite. If they don’t sell my data, what are those who pay Facebook buying?

Facebook is creepy and untrustworthy. I feel really good about permanently severing my association with that company.

Apple is Not Getting In To Healthcare

Gallons of virtual ink have been spilled drooling over Apple’s recent announcement about an onsite wellness clinic. The robowriters at Fortune rave that Apple Joining Amazon, Warren Buffet in Health Care Business. The fools wonder if Apple could become your primary care provider.

What really happened is Apple switched the onsite clinic provider from Crossover Health to AC Wellness, which may or may not be partially or completely owned by Apple.

Apple has 123,000 employees, and they likely spend approximately $9,000 per year per employee on healthcare premiums. Anybody who spends north of a billion dollars a year on healthcare will scrutinize that expense pretty carefully.

Apple’s primary motivator for this change is most likely a way to reduce their cost of providing an onsite clinic. When you strip away the marketing blather, the financial benefits of an onsite clinic are more about reducing absenteeism for employees who would otherwise have to drive through California traffic to get to and from the doctor. It’s the same reason there is a cafeteria in Apple Park.

Onsite clinics are neither innovative nor new. A wide range of employers from many industries have had onsite clinics for more than 25 years. Apple is not getting into the healthcare business, they are just prudently managing their expenses.