Category Archives: The Pursuit of Happiness

Big Data is Coming, and It’s Going to Get Ugly

Big Data

Image Credit: Camelia.boban
OK folks, in case you weren’t aware: so-called ‘Big Data’ is going to control every important aspect of our lives in relatively short order. Medical diagnosis and treatment, whether you get a loan, where you get into college, how much you pay for goods and services online, whether you get hired and when you get fired, how much you get paid, whether you get a raise or bonus, even how much water you get to use (if you live in California) will all be decided by computer. Sure, a human will be in the chain somewhere, but do you really think they’ll make a decision they’ll have to defend when they have the “…but the computer said so!” excuse as the other option? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

Why this matters, aside from the obvious, is that a (very large) subset of the US population is inevitably going to get permanently screwed. This is important, so let me say that again: a substantial number of Americans will get cut out of opportunities for work, credit, fair prices, and god knows what else, permanently, all thanks to Big Data. Why? Let me explain.

Let’s say you’re an employer who wants to spend $100,000 a year on a software developer. That’s a big chunk of change (you could buy a house for less), so you want to be careful how you invest your money. There are online services that allow you to use Big Data to identify the most productive, most reliable, and least problematic programmers in the world without even posting a job listing. Now you have a top-down list of the best developers available, and all you have to do is pry them away from your competitors with a better offer.

If you’re the poor schmo who’s only a Very Good software developer (maybe even an Excellent developer), and you haven’t already been identified by a Big Data algorithm as a Top Performer, not only won’t you get tapped for the job, you won’t even be able to apply. And you’ll have plenty of company, since about half of all people are below average on any particular skill set, pretty much by definition.

Even better: since general intelligence predicts performance on just about everything, and since (again by definition) most people have an IQ that’s just above average or lower, some folks are going to always end up toward the bottom of the list, regardless of which list it is.

What this means is that there’s a huge number of people out there who will be indefinitely hosed on everything. These people will come from all walks of life: college graduates and high-school dropouts, old and young, rich and poor, all different races and sexual orientations – None of that will matter, unless the algorithm says so. They won’t be able to get a respectable job at a decent rate of pay, an apartment lease (never mind a home loan), a credit card, a car, or even a cell phone contract, because an algorithm has rated them as a greater risk than other potential applicants. If the decision-maker does the logical thing and work from the top of the list down (which is the whole point of creating the list to begin with), these people will never get selected. For anything.

They’ll be like the kids on the playground that no one wants to pick for their team, but for games with much, much higher stakes. Sooner or later, those kids are gonna get really angry, and it’s going to get ugly. I hope we can make some good choices about Big Data before it gets that far.

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Why Socially Responsible Companies Should Have Legal Status

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to “socially responsible companies” lately. A socially responsible company (SRC) has more than a simple fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders (wall-street speak for “make as much money as possible so we can line the pockets of the owners“); it also must give due consideration to the social context in which it operates. The big idea behind SRCs is to give companies the freedom to protect not only their shareholder’s wallets, but also their stakeholder’s welfare.

If publicly-traded SRCs were certified and given official legal status as such, they would have the legal protection needed to consider options other than maximizing profits without regard to the social consequences. In other words, rather than waiting to be sued for having done something wrong, dragging it out through the courts for as long as possible, then settling for an undisclosed sum while not admitting guilt or responsibility, companies could actively pursue doing something right, even if it might cost the shareholders money.

Consider for example the gambling industry; in particular, casinos.

CasinoCasinos make money when people gamble; the more people gamble there, the more money the casino makes. But the tools now exist for a casino to identify likely gambling addicts by way of analyzing the data they collect on their customers. If a casino were a registered, legally-protected SRC, it would have the protection it needed to pursue the development and refinement of these tools, so as to get the customers who might otherwise spend themselves into financial oblivion the help they need, or at least cut them off, even if doing so resulted in financial losses for the casino. This makes an awful lot of sense to me. The way the system works now, the casinos either have to A) gamble that implementing these tools will give them a competitive advantage (“Worry-free gambling here! We’ll cut you off and kick you out if the computer says you have a problem!”), or B) hope the government or the communities in which they operate don’t protest or pass laws mandating these tools, while doing nothing and continue to screw a small percentage of their customers, who are gambling their way into bankruptcy. Guess which one they prefer? (Not sure? Read the article.)

 

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The New Sony Walkman: A Review (Part I)

Disclaimer: I received the Meb Keflezighi Special Edition NWZ-W262 Walkman as a free gift from Sony by way of Klout. As such, you should take this review with a huge grain of salt, even though I’ll do my darnedest to be fair and balanced.

There are a lot of options out there for listening to music while you exercise, most of which involve carrying around a device to which a pair of headphones are attached via a cable. If you’re made of money (and have the right device), you can get bluetooth headphones that are cable free, but you still have to carry around the device. Sony’s solution to this duality problem is its latest generation of the Walkman, the NWZ-W262, which is the subject of this two-part review. In Part I, I’ll unbox the device and give you my impressions as I run down the features and try it at my desk. In Part II, I’ll report on how well it did after I’ve used it under various conditions in the field.

Unboxing

The Walkman arrived in handsome and well-constructed retail packaging, which is pleasing, if not particularly unusual.

The Walkman in its original packaging.

The first thing I did was to flip it over and look at the description on the back. What I saw was disheartening, as I’m an Apple user, and the (ridiculously long and specific) System Requirements indicated that I’d need Windows to make it work.

System Requirements

Fortunately, this turned out not to be the case, as I’ll explain later on.

Opening the box didn’t require any special tools or cutting through plastic (huzzah!). It contained a micro-B USB cable (about 2′ long), the usual array of ear gels in various sizes, a small plastic holder, the typical safety/warranty/quick-start literature, and a separate pink sheet warning that it’s water resistant, not water proof. (The IPX5 rating that it meets is for resistance to jets of water, but not total immersion; that’s IPX7 or higher. Ergo, I wouldn’t recommend using it in the pool.) There was also a nice booklet about training for running, written by Meb Keflezighi, right on top.

InThePackage

The booklet has a lot of information and tips that sound logical to me, but I’m not a distance runner, so I can’t really cast an expert’s eye on it. If you are a runner, however, you’ll probably find it more interesting than you’d expect. (And lest you think some guy in Sony’s marketing department actually did the writing, it’s worth noting that Meb graduated from UCLA, where he majored in communications studies with a business focus.)

The headphones themselves have a bit of weight to them that gives them ‘feel’, which I liked, though it could conceivably be a distraction (I’ll let you know in Part II.) The design is handsome, though not extraordinary – Each side vaguely resembles a bluetooth headset, with a bit of decorative flair.

Headphones

The wire connecting the two halves rests the whole thing very comfortably around your neck when you take them out of your ears. This beats the dockers off of dealing with dangling earbuds and tangled cables, and I instantly appreciated why they came up with this particular product the first time I took them off.

A Note About the Systems Requirements

As I mentioned, my concerns about the system requirements specified on the box were largely unfounded. After I plugged the Walkman into my MacBook Pro, it showed up as a mass storage device in the Finder, with a folder labeled MUSIC that was pre-populated with set of mp3 files labeled “Tip1_join_a_Team”, “Tip2_Training_Routine”, and the like. (As it turns out, these files were recordings of Meb’s suggestions for being a successful runner. Having no interest in being a runner, I deleted them.) I opened iTunes, selected the songs I wanted in my library, and dragged them to the MUSIC folder in the Finder. They were automatically copied to the Walkman, and all of them played flawlessly without any further manipulation, with one exception. I did some analysis, and it turns out that one exception was copied over in Apple’s lossless ALAC format, rather than AAC, even though it was in the same type of container (MPEG-4) as some of the other songs I transferred that did play. (The box specified that the Walkman “Plays back MP3, WMA, AAC, [and] Linear PCM Audio Files”.) I used iTunes to create an mp3 version of the same song, transferred it over, and wallah! It played, though for some users, this extra step may be an annoyance. I also discovered by experimentation that I could create different playlists (also referred to as “folders” in the instructions) by creating sub-folders inside the MUSIC directory and populating them with songs.

Performance

The device has around 2GB of storage available, which strikes me as plenty for its intended purpose. I played songs from a couple of genres (rock and a capella), and the sound quality was excellent from my perspective, though I don’t consider myself to be an audiophile; i.e., your mileage may vary. The controls were very cleverly designed, with the play/pause button and a skip forward/back rocker below the right earpiece, and a playlists/shuffle button and a volume lower/higher rocker on the left.

Controls

The clever part is that the buttons are shaped differently from one side to the other, so it’s easy to distinguish by feel which is which. The rockers were also oriented in an intuitive way – Pushing the end of the rocker that’s closest to your chest increases the volume (left ear) or goes forward in the song list (right ear); pushing the end of the rocker that’s toward your back does the opposite. That’s one of those little things that makes a HUGE difference in making it easy to use, at least for me. There’s also a pre-recorded voice that tells you what’s going on when you activate some of the major features (e.g., “Shuffle on”, “Playing next folder”), which I found unobtrusive and infinitely more helpful than simple beeps.

The power button and indicator light are on the inside surface of the right ear piece; you have to remove the Walkman to turn it off entirely. (Note: the power light is off in the picture, even though the power switch is on, because the light comes on about every five seconds rather than staying on. I presume this is to conserve power.) The indicator light is supposed to change color as the batteries get low, but you won’t be able to see it when that happens without removing it from your ears, so I don’t think that’s likely to be useful; time will tell.

Power Switch

 

The USB socket is on the back of the right earpiece as well. The cover is easy to remove, and replaces snugly.

USB Port

Putting the Walkman on takes some getting used to, as the feel is completely different from popping in earbuds. I found it easiest to hang it around my neck as though I’d just taken it off, grab each side with my thumbs on the bottoms of the earpieces and put them in my ear canals, then flip the wire over the tops of my ears. I suspect putting it on will become second nature in short order. Once it’s on, it feels firm and steady; not loose at all.

That’s it for my initial impressions! If you have any questions, please post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer promptly. Look for Part II of this review after I’ve had a chance to put the Walkman through its paces in the field.

 

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Is Heading the Ball Dangerous?

There’s a new study that purports to show that heading the ball in soccer is equivalent to getting punched by an amateur boxer. The question that’s left unanswered, of course, is whether this causes a concussion, and/or does any lasting damage.

Unfortunately, a link to the original research paper isn’t yet available, so it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions about what the study results really mean. However, I play a lot of soccer, and I can tell you the following from direct personal experience:

Heading the ball can indeed cause concussions. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of ‘missing’ while heading a hard-kicked ball. In one particularly memorable instance, a cross-field zinger partly hit my left eye socket, I wasn’t positioned properly despite having plenty of time, and I was seeing stars and feeling woozy afterward. I’ve had enough concussions in my life (at least three that knocked me out entirely, as well as several others) to have a pretty good idea what they feel like, and this was it.

Good technique greatly moderates the effect of the impact. When I’ve headed the ball with proper technique, I’ve noticed a significant decrease in the ‘jarring’ sensation that inevitably accompanies heading a ball. Even under these ideal conditions, however, it’s currently impossible to know with certainty whether the brain is striking the inside of the skull. (Mythbusters – Are you paying attention?)

Good technique isn’t easy, and isn’t implemented effectively by everyone. To learn to head the ball correctly, you need to know what proper technique looks like, and practice it repeatedly under reasonably safe conditions. Most of us learned heading early in life from parent coaches, who may not know good technique, or who may not be able to teach it effectively. And some of us may not have the depth perception and sense of timing needed to head the ball well every time. (I certainly don’t.) This increases our odds of injury when we choose to head the ball.

With all that in mind, consider that…

It’s just a freakin’ game. I love soccer, and I’ve been seriously injured playing it, but unless you’re playing pro ball, it’s better to live with the dirty looks of your teammates than to take a chance on a poorly-executed header that might give you brain damage. And make sure you (and your soccer-loving kids) know proper heading technique.

Update 2013-3-8:  A new study shows even light soccer headers cause declines in cognitive function, at least in the short term. Long term effects are as yet unknown.

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I’ll Take My Self-Driving Car Now, Please

I can’t wait to own a self-driving vehicle. I wish Google (and the competition coming a bit later to the game) would hurry their asses up and get them on the market. I know some people don’t like giving up the sense of control, or are worried about being involved in a massive pile-up due to getting BoD’d, but to my way of thinking, the ability to read the paper or burn through some email on the way into work is the ultimate in luxury living.

Google_car

Consider for example the years I spent commuting to downtown DC on a train, the original self-driving car. Every day, I’d take Amtrak from the station in Laurel down to Union Station, right in the heart of the capitol, and I loved every minute of it. Wide, comfy seats with lots of legroom, and I didn’t have to worry about traffic conditions,  accidents, or getting there on time – In my experience, the trains were rarely off schedule. And the best part was being able to do a crossword, read the news, chat with the person next to me, or whatever else I felt like doing within the confines of the seat and public propriety. (I’d have done stuff on my iPad, but this was before they existed.)

As far as I’m concerned, the day I can relax and let a computer do the driving can’t come soon enough.

photo credit: MarkDoliner via photopin cc

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On Learning From Mistakes. And Successes.

Doh!They say you can learn more from your mistakes than your successes. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that this is bullshit. In my experience, if you’re motivated, you can learn as much from what you do right as from what you do wrong by deliberately thinking about what just happened. In the case of physical activities, the sooner you do so, the better.

Consider for example an athletic endeavor, say, soccer. If you kick the ball, and it falls short or curves the wrong way, you can learn by pausing and saying to yourself:

“Ok, self, what just happened? How was my body positioned? What was the angle of my foot, leg, my hips, and my chest? How much force did I apply? Where were my arms? Where was I looking? And which one of those things will I change to try making the next kick better?

On the other hand, if you kick the ball and it goes precisely where you wanted it to and with just enough power to get the job done, you can learn by pausing and saying to yourself:

“Ok, self, what just happened? How was my body positioned? What was the angle of my foot, leg, my hips, and my chest? How much force did I apply? Where were my arms? Where was I looking? And which of all those things should stay the same to make the next kick just as good?”

In other words, if you’re motivated to learn, your relative success or failure on any particular effort does not matter. What does matter is what you do with the information you’ve gained.

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Google’s Brilliant Employment Strategies

Hiring is a difficult and laborious process, generally because it’s very hard to determine which particular person will actually perform well on the job. (I spent years studying this in grad school, and have spent years implementing it in my office. Believe me – It’s very, very hard.) However, research suggests that there’s one trait that universally predicts job performance better than any other, and that’s general intelligence. Basically, the smarter you are, the better you’re likely to do on performance ratings. As such, companies that select staff based on how smart the applicants are will have employees with higher performance ratings, and if performance ratings are correlated with the marketplace performance of the company, hiring and retaining smart people should result in a stronger bottom line.

Consider for example how Google goes about getting new crew members: They hire brilliant people. Not only do they want to know where you went to school and if you graduated with a degree, they want to know what your GPA was while you were there. (Fortunately for my ego, I haven’t put in a resume.)

Picture of one of Google's self-driving cars

Credit: Google

 

Once they’re on board, Google keeps their brilliant people entertained with personal projects. “Google screws around with a lot of far out, even cockamamie projects — well, because it can and it’s fun. Two good reasons that few can fault.” It’s not hard to imagine that having one out of every five days of work to devote to your own ideas would be very intellectually stimulating for someone with the brainpower to have brilliant ideas.

Google provides services on campus so that their brilliant people don’t get distracted by the everyday minutiae like getting their oil changed or their hair cut. And they require all employees to get at least 120 hours of training and development every year, to keep them abreast of what’s going on in their field. (There’s also the unlimited sick leave and 27 days of paid vacation every year. And don’t get me started on the free gourmet lunches and dinners.) You put all these factors together, and you get a gigantic company staffed entirely by brilliant people that repeatedly gets acknowledged as one of the best companies to work for in America. ‘Nuff said.

 

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Hello Robots, Goodbye Civil Society

The TerminatorRobots can operate 24/7/365. They don’t complain about the work environment, don’t ask for raises, and don’t get paid extra for overtime. They don’t form unions, ask for promotions, require health insurance, or play office politics. They’re never late for work or inappropriately dressed, and they’re patently incapable of theft, sexual harassment, or discrimination. And they’re getting smarter, faster, and (here’s the important part) able to do very complicated things only humans could do before. It’s my prediction that, much sooner than most people realize, there will be a robot designed to do virtually any job that currently requires a high school education. And they’ll be cheap enough that leasing enough of them to replace hourly workers will be a no-brainer for business owners.

Consider for example this recent article in the WSJ about the use of robots in hospitals. They are already replacing the janitorial and housekeeping staff because they cost half as much. I’ve been reading in IEEE’s blogs about robots that can build structures (even from the air), stock warehouses,  and drive cars, and they’re working on farming robots that can identify and pick ripe fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see where this is going.

If it turns out that some jobs are just too difficult for a robot, telepresence robots will allow low-wage workers in other parts of the world to do manual labor in the U.S. from wherever they are. Will there be opportunities in robot maintenance? I’ll predict that there will even be robots that can diagnose and repair other robots in the not-to-distant future.

When you put this phenomenon together with the incredible imprisonment rate in the US, there’s going to be an awful lot of poorly-educated young people with criminal backgrounds who have nothing better to do than sit around and get pissed that they have no future. Put that together with the massive quantity of firearms in this country and the relative ease with which they can be obtained, and the only reasonable conclusion is that we’re sitting on a powder keg. We need to start thinking now about what we’re going to do about it.

UPDATE: Robots can now debone chickens, according to the Wall Street Journal.

UPDATE: Robots can now construct homes and buildings, according to Geek.com.

UPDATE: Robots are taking over manufacturing jobs in China, according to R&D Magazine.