Republicans have eliminated your online privacy

Political news is dominating our attention and the significance of the issues at stake warrant this priority. However, hidden by concerns for the legitimacy of the last election are decisions that I think should have generated a very negative reaction.

Voting along party lines, both the Senate and the House, have voted to allow your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to sell data based on how you use the Internet. The Republicans argue that this opportunity opens up new economic opportunities. While this may be the case, the ISPs already charge you for access to the Internet and it now seems likely barring a Trump veto that they will also be allowed to sell information derived from your online behavior. This and the FCC rollback of net neutrality have clearly prioritized business interests over the rights of users.

So, just to be clear, the telecommunications industry which is already very profitable can now make more money off users without improving the quality of service (quality that is below what is available in many countries).

In my opinion, the logic politicians advance to support these changes is flawed. The “free market” logic that companies should be able to do what they want and customers will move to different companies if the customers do not feel their needs are being met has been used to justify health care and online opportunities. Reality is that few customers really have the opportunity to choose among options. There is also the issue of whether or not essential services should be the focus of business. Does a profit motivation assure quality service and fair treatment?

Senator Al Franken who has been active in other addressing other important Internet issues has promised to address this problem. I wish he would have brought attention to this issue several weeks ago, but I suppose the shaky state of the country demanded that other issues receive attention.

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Net neutrality – here and then gone

Most of my recent posts have a political focus. These posts are not humorous and they are not intended to be. I am focused for the time being on serious topics without much levity because I have serious concerns.

This post addresses the topic of net neutrality. Most may have no idea what this means or why anyone would think the topic was important. Net neutrality is a simple idea. Basically, it would require that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) would not be allowed to prioritize content from one source over another. This was originally an issue because major ISPs had side interests that might make this a problem. For example, a cable provider provides both Internet and video programming (e.g., television and video). It would be a conflict should the cable company slow Netflix video in preference to the “on demand” movies it might want to sell you. The idea was that the provider should offer access and have nothing to do with how the user selected content to take advantage of the access.

Under the Obama administration, net neutrality was the position of FCC chair Tom Wheeler. Net neutrality expectations are being rolled back under new FCC chair Ajit Pai. In keeping with Republican priorities, Pai proposes that net neutrality limits business opportunities and the free market should limit abuse. I translate this as the assumption that if users are fed up with the service they receive, they will seek a different provider.

I disagree on several levels. Like certain essential services (e.g., transportation, health care), I regard reasonable online access as a right of citizenship and hence the responsibility of government and not private businesses with financial priorities. Second, I do not buy-in to the logic of free market in this area. The reality is that too few individuals have the opportunity to take advantage of the most basic definition of competition (i.e., a second option), most individuals have at best two financially reasonable options (probably one cable and one DSL), and the wealthy ISPs are politically active to limit open competition through options such as community wifi. This last issue is interesting – politicians in one case arguing for the free market and in more local situations politicans acting against a competitive option.

Some basic facts:

Access to high speed Internet and access to alternate ISPs

FCC study found that 58 percent of rural Census blocks did not have a “fixed” broadband service provider offering broadband speeds at speeds of 25 megabits per second download

The FCC reports that 36 percent of urban census blocks had two or more providers at 25 megabytes or better, but that percentage dropped to only 6 percent in rural America

Does competition work

FCC looked at the use of municipal broadband (in an order that has since been reversed by an appellate court on legal grounds), it set out evidence showing that the presence of an additional broadband provider pushes down the prices and increases the quality of both new and incumbent providers. In other words, such competition is “win-win.” It benefits those consumers who switch and even those that do not but who gain from faster download speeds resulting from the incumbent’s response to competitive pressures.

Are ISPs open to competition?

Because of the evidence that competition can be helpful, the FCC defended efforts to encourage community wifi as an option. This legal action sought to prevent communities from blocking those who wanted to develop such alternatives. This position was struck down in a court decision.

Wheeler further said that the judges’ ruling “appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.” Communities that want better broadband, he said, “should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price.”

See a similar position from Forbes

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Improving Facebook

Zuck,

I read part of your manifesto and I know you want to help people from everywhere communicate more effectively. I am with you. However, as a heavy Facebook user for the past several months, it seems to me that the most common patterns of interaction are probably not what you have in mind. People who know each other face to face probably interact as you intend. What I think is missing in your grand vision is a way to generate more meaningful interaction among those who do not already know each other.

I would describe the most common form of interaction within the general Facebook using public as throwing news stories at each other. By this I mean, with those you do not actually know face to face, you do not take the time to write a personal position on something, you pretty much just forward content created by someone else. This is a kind of “what that person says” form of communication. And, Zuck, if I understand the way your algorithms work, this content would be most likely to appear in the feed of those who already agree with the sentiments expressed. These individuals might attach a short comment of agreement or maybe reshare the post. Nothing much gets accomplished, challenged or changed by this pattern. Facebook needs to encourage something deeper.

I understand this to be a problem with both Facebook producers and consumers and in one important way the combination of the two. As long as users Friend those who think like them, I see little hope for your Facebook goals. I wonder if there is a way to suggest friends. The ideal friend would be someone with a different perspective on common issues and who interacts with others when discussing such issues in an evidence-based and nonpersonalized manner. Any algorithm to make such suggestions would need to identify individuals who take the effort to respond to the posts of others AND would have to identify the style of this interaction. The first characteristic should be easy to assess. The second would be more challenging.

I have more concrete suggestions for the problem of the frequent “what that person says” posts. I would like to be able to set filters to block the appearance of these posts in my news feed.

Filter 1 – I would like to be able to eliminate posts that contain content with no personal message. I would suggest the option of ignoring any post not containing more than 140 characters of personal commentary. Suggestions for my attention with less than 140 characters of personal content would be better submitted to Twitter.

Filter 2 – I would like the option to ignore suggested online content that has not been personally annotated. Many folks are probably unfamiliar with the annotation (highlighting, comments) of online content, but I have been exploring this opportunity for a couple of years now as an educational opportunity. Some of the same core ideas apply to the general public – what specifically about this resource do you suggest is important, in what way to do you agree or disagree with this important issue. These embedded comments are more useful than comments attached at the end of suggested resources in that the embedded comments are more specific to isolated statements or claims. Adding such components should be easy for your programmers. For a model, I would suggest the examination of hypothes.is.

Keep up the good work. The popularity of your social service comes with great responsibility.

Mark

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Academic retirement

I worked for 37 years at the University of North Dakota and a couple of years in upstate New York before that. I have been “retired” now for nearly three years. This makes me an expert on serving a single institution for most of a career and retirement.

UND (my school) is going through some extremely difficult times. The bottom falling out of the oil industry in a Republican, rural state that had assumed oil revenue would be the solution to taxing citizens created a mess. There was no escape from the need to cut programs and people. You don’t do this without long-term costs to the reputation of the institution, but I guess if you get yourself in the situation, this is what you have to do. Among the strategies to address the financial problems has been the effort to get folks to leave with what to me seems a pretty weak one-year buy-out (no fringes or medical).

The local paper carried stories of some who decided to take the money and go. One such story described a couple of people I know and the sentiment was that this is not the way they wanted to end their careers. Poor fellows. I had a somewhat different reaction to some of the details. One of the individuals, a decorated historian, was nearly 90. My reaction? This individual has taken nearly half a career away from a young academic. I don’t care how exceptional you are – others deserve a chance to work.

I think there are two problems here related to the reality that academic work for most is a life-style and not a job. I won’t take the time to explain and while this is not true for some, folks who value scholarship don’t think in terms of money or hours of work. The job is their life. This is what annoys me about some folks being proud of working 50 or 60 hours a week. There was a time when I would have asked – what is it you do with the rest of the time you were awake? I know individuals who lived that way until it was time to turn out the lights.

My two inter-related (this connection is important) proposals related to this issue:

  1. Faculty members should stop drawing a salary at a reasonable age (65).
  2. Non-salaried faculty members who are interested in continuing an affiliation with their institution should be provided opportunities suitable to the academic life – an office in proximity to their home department, the opportunity to work with students (if students are interested), the opportunity to teach (again, without compensation), respect for their contributions to the institution.

I think institutions think they are providing #2 but there is never enough space or a real commitment to involve non-salaried contributors.

I left UND to move to the big city. I must say – I have fundamental issues with North Dakota and Minnesota is better suited to my personal values. The academic work I do I can do more successfully outside of the department for which I worked. The way you get attached to a specific college and department in many institutions may not suit your evolving interests. My lack of fit had nothing to do with the individuals I worked with and who supported me as their administrator for many years. My colleagues had respect for me and I great respect for them. I now do some teaching for a program that would be my more natural home (as a lecturer which is pretty much the same as uncompensated) and I have written a second book not having to worry whether my interests in technology were appropriate for a psychologist. So, what I propose here is not about me. However, I do think what I propose would create a more positive environment for those individuals who have a deep commitment to a given institution, but really should retire for the good of all.

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Some thoughts on Facebook

So, in the run-up to the election, I decided to become more active on Facebook. My engagement with Facebook differs from nearly all of my “friends” (I hope that is the correct term. I sometimes get one social media site mixed up with another.). I did not come to Facebook to post pictures of my kids or the places I have been lucky enough to visit. I did not come to Facebook to relay news stories or pithy expressions. I did not come to Facebook to thumbs up thumbs down, happy face, angry face or whatever. I can to Facebook to interact.

Some may have been surprised by how I interact. My kids probably know that while I am immensely proud of them, I am not that good with praise. For some reason, I assume praise and acceptance are assumed. S0, just for the record – all of my kids are very cool. If I commented on Facebook, it was often to argue and to say I disagree. I was an academic and this is what we do. I suppose this style may come across as personal and perhaps sometimes it gets that way. This is not the goal. The idea of challenging each other is to work toward a better and hopefully more accurate understanding of the important issues and truths in life. I admit I do not object to having a good time and a beer or two along the way. This is what I hope is the “academic’s way”.

I also came to Facebook to express my views. The emphasis here is on MY. This goal is best approached by making the effort to use my words and not to rely on sharing the words of others. This takes some work and invites criticism. I would rather think of the effort as inviting engagement. I try to be clear and to offer what evidence I can. If others are willing to do the same, I see the process as potentially constructive.

I do have concerns with Facebook. I am a technologist by trade and I worry about algorithms that select what any one of us will see. I am a psychologist by trade and I know a little about the problems of group think and the many proven biases of personal thinking. The filter bubble only feeds these human frailties. If anything, our technologies should be working against the foolish things we are known to do on our own.

I am also concerned that we commit to any given experience rather than open ourselves up to a greater number of experiences. I think Zuckerberg has some very good ideas about human communication and the needs of humans to interact. Zuckerberg is also a businessperson. The downside of the commitment to a common source, not matter how well-intended that source might be, is quite great. I think the problems are obvious – filtered and simplified information content mixed with feel-good content about kids and friends. If 40% of adults get their news from Facebook, this is terrifying. Read a book or a dozen. Read a major newspaper – you can usually scan them for free and pick out a few stories before they expect to be paid. Why not even pay for some depth once in a while?

The type of material I have posted here may surprise some. Perhaps the kind of material I post is not what is intended for this outlet. I have no real insight into what Facebook is supposed to be about. I tend to think it became what it is without much guidance.

I began blogging in 2003 and I have written thousands of little essays like this since then. I have just decided to put some of it on Facebook recently.  I suppose some cannot imagine taking the time to write even one such comment let alone one a week or one a day. I wonder how many individuals even bother reading to the end when something like this post is encountered. I can truthfully say I care if you read what I write, but I would write what I write whether you care or not. I write what I write because it helps me put ideas together for myself. If you don’t believe this I am guessing you don’t write. This is not an ego thing (or at least not totally). I think life challenges us with serious questions – you can ignore them or you can confront them. These questions follow me around – I cannot ignore them. The reality of a blank screen has a way of smacking you in the face – what exactly do you think about a given issue, can you put it down so you and everyone else can see?

Mark Grabe really writes at http://learningaloud.com. This Facebook thing is just an experiment. I hope you will join me. Facebook does not have a character limit (like Twitter). What do you have to say about important matters?

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Digging a deeper hole is the wrong approach

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
To your hometown

Bruce Springsteen | MetroLyrics

Voters, maybe any of us – you can be misled if you are told something you want to believe. You are especially vulnerable when you are told something you want to believe combined with someone else to blame.

Climate change is a real problem and you are doing your children and grandchildren a tremendous disservice if you deny to make things easier for yourself. The world of work is changing and many who work in certain manufacturing jobs are simply not needed (see Manufacturing jobs delusion). This has nothing to do with Mexico or illegal immigrants. In this case, the culprit is technology and efficiency. Nearly any type of work including teaching is likely vulnerable. We all would like to believe new approaches that make use of technology are not as good. Educators are not unique in this regard. If the comparison was between a tutor and existing educational technology, i would agree. However, this is not reality – even now. You must use group-based instruction because there is one of you. Some kids are always ignored no matter how hard you try. The level of content you present is always too difficult or already mastered by some students. You are not functioning as a tutor. Like most jobs – all existing employees will not be gone. There will end up being fewer people and more technology. Many fields including education will move toward effectiveness and efficiency. Those who remain will be the more capable and will be paid significantly more. The numbers of this group will simply be smaller.

I have included educators here so my argument will not be assumed to be focused on those who work with their hands rather than their heads. You can ignore me if you wish, but I think the trend is obvious and inevitable. If the U.S. does not adapt, it will be left behind. Complain about iPads and iPhones being manufactured by Foxconn in China all you want. The skilled labor there was less expensive and the skilled labor there is being replaced by robots. Expensive, inexperienced American line workers against Chinese robots and supply chain advantages, not even close. Remember John Henry the steel driving man was really just wishful thinking.

Time to invest more in education and to accept that any one of us will ever finish school. The employable individual is already a moving target. I fear it is far more than this and this will really scare you. I doubt we really have meaningful work for all possible workers. We have tried to increase consumption of stuff we really don’t need, but this approach has really reached a limit and is also extremely wasteful of resources and damaging to the environment. We very likely need far earlier retirement and acceptance of a different view of a meaningful life. Significant attention to equity will be necessary in this reality and I see no way to create the necessary conditions without a greater role for government.

Less government, blame the other, tell people what they want to hear worked for now. However, these strategies have worked because of selfishness and they have only made the underlying conditions more damaging. The hole is getting deeper.

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Even conservatives are free to give it a try

There are some ideas so flawed and uninformed that they reach the threshold of ridiculously funny. I have found an example.

Some Iowa politician is concerned that the major Iowa universities are too liberal and he suggests that information should be collected when making hires to offer a more “balanced” perspective. The proposed bill is described by NBC News.

First, a full disclosure. I grew up and was educated in Iowa. I received a Ph.D. from one of the schools mentioned.

As part of my adult work as a college professor (Yes, I suppose I am a liberal.) I spent 17 years as ad administrator. I have been responsible for and participated in many hiring processes. The idea that any committee responsible for recommending to a department and college the individual that should be hired based on any consideration of political philosophy is beyond possibility.

We attempt to hire based on the job skills we are seeking. These attributes include research skills, existing academic accomplishments, teaching skills, potential as a grant author and such expectations.

WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO ASK. (a very small sample)

  • Are you married?
  • Would your husband try to move here?
  • Do you have children?
  • Do you attend church?
  • Do you smoke or drink?

The list goes on and on and whether an issue is on the list or not the directive is quite clear. You are looking for someone with THE BEST ACADEMIC qualifications – teaching, research, service.

Have I ever had to ask a faculty member whether he/she had asked a forbidden questions? Yes, there are some folks who have difficulty following the rule, but the focus on productivity is really the goal.  There are certainly disagreements over candidates and which individual would be most productive. I can honestly say in 39 years as a faculty member that a hiring process ever included even a comment related to whether a candidate was a Republican or Democrat.

Higher ed is a competitive meritocracy. We compete based on performance to get hired and to receive merit pay adjustments and promotion. Yes, we can become tenured and that might be assumed by some to allow one to just slide along. Again, a lack of understanding so often exists. Tenure assures only your present salary for acceptable performance. If you cannot generate good student ratings, publish, attract students, generate grant applications, you cannot compete. The salary of a 30-year-old professor who has already spent 8 years putting in time in an attempt to be hired is not that great. What would you like to be making when you are 50? The allocation is fixed and you compete to get your share year by year.

So, you compete to get into graduate school. You compete to be one of those who gets hired. You compete year by year for salary. There are no guarantees and many fail along the way. There are not a lot of jobs and the system is not always fair. Still, the opportunity is OPEN TO ALL willing to compete.

So, what about this system is biased? Beats me. The system over generates individuals capable of a reasonable level of success at every stage. Many students who might succeed do not get into grad school. Many capable graduate school graduates do not get jobs and certainly not university-level jobs. This is the reality.  It is hardly a soft system. The system does not really care if you are a rich kid or a church-goer. Your dad and mom’s money may increase the quality of the school you attend and whether or not you have to work while there. So, if this is the system selects or maybe generates a disproportionate number of liberals, so be it.

Anyone, you included, are free to give it a try – conservative, liberal or whatever. No one will ask your party affiliation. You have eight years to invest?

 

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The war on data

[Note – I have included some translations because I don’t want to be misunderstood or dismissed as an elitist using data.]

Most citizens have moved on beyond the issue of the election polls. If pollsters really failed in this case in contrast to their accuracy in such a high majority of previous cases, those who work in such fields really need to understand, consider, and adjust.

Here is why? Republican pundits have begun explaining away the abysmal Trump approval ratings as due to the same failed pollster performance that resulted in the inaccurate election prediction.

Were the pollsters wrong? Well, I remember the final prediction was that Hillary would win by 4%. She won by 2%. The statisticians would say this was an accurate prediction as the difference was within the margin of error [translation – this is like horse shoes and close does count]. It gets far more complicated when it comes to combining the predictions from multiple states.

Whatever. Still, the overall pollster prediction was accurate. Hence, claims that an overall assessment of Trump performance as the lowest for any new president is somehow inaccurate because the previous election prediction was inaccurate is simply not true (translate – it is a lie). Neither predicted election vote totals nor approval ratings were measured inaccurately.

Translation – The people have concluded that Trump sucks no matter how you try to spin it.

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Expectations of secondary education

I think many people have little insight into the complexity of secondary (high school) education – the diversity of students and the ever increasing expectations for what is to be accomplished on limited budgets. This recent Washington Post article indicating that quality manufacturing jobs exist, but U.S.-born workers are not available in sufficient numbers to fill them.  It was the comments made in response to this article that resulted in these comments about the unfair expectations placed on our public schools.

How many high schools would be able to offer the sophisticated curriculum and have the equipment to prepare high school students to take sophisticated welding and robotic assembly jobs. What would this cost if appropriate for high school students and how many students in a given school would be interested.

I certainly agree as a college professor teaching some freshman classes that many students are not prepared for college and maybe would never be suited to the courses we offer. However, what is it that critics expect. Students want to attend and they have certain goals in mind. It is not our role to deny them the opportunity to try. There is great pressure from parents to allow their kids the chance to try. I know the odds of success, but if the parents want to spend the money the public kind of determines that many unqualified students be allowed to give it a shot. Denying access based on high school GPA or test scores brings all kinds of criticism.  We deny access to students with a likely high failure rate and we are wrong. If a high percentage of such students do not survive the first year, we are wrong. We can’t claim students know things and can do things when they can’t. We can’t win.

My university offered an Industrial Technology program with resources that were quite sophisticated. A couple of faculty members were friends of mine. I knew their struggles and despite the rise of the oil industry in North Dakota a decision to close the program for lack of interest.

So, it annoys me when uninformed critics of education place the blame on secondary schools and higher education. Educational institutions are big on allowing students to make decisions that end up determining what their preparation for work will be. If students are not interested in certain fields (e.g., computer science, industrial technology), you need to take a look at the values that cause those who might be involved to make other decisions.

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Thanks for making America GREAT

Thank-you scientists for making American great. You seem shy and unwilling to be self-promoters so I will try to help. I suppose you are introverts by nature. Without your discoveries and the efforts of educators to bring these advances to the general public, this country would not enjoy the competitive advantage that it does. We seem to be entering a time when your discoveries are being discounted because the truth can be inconvenient to certain segments of the economy. Taking advantage of short-term benefits at the cost of future problems is shameful. Hang in there – reality has a way of making itself evident sooner or later. Let us hope this happens before efforts to recover are no longer possible.

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