Blackman On Net Neutrality

 Posted by on 11 May 2015 at 12:00 pm  Government, Internet, Technology
May 112015
 

Justin Blackman on “net neutrality”:

Imagine if hard drive providers had been so heavily regulated at the start of the tech boom that only a few, government-approved companies were able to bring their products to the marketplace. We would have never witnessed the same rapid expansion of storage capacity over cost, as there would have been far less incentive to innovate in such a stifling market. Software, however, would have continued to advance in its own relatively free domain, and would have very quickly run up against the limitations imposed by artificial controls on storage media.

In that environment, some software companies would start cutting deals with hardware and OS platform providers. They might, for example, contract that a certain amount of storage space always be dedicated to their product in order to guarantee a certain level of performance for their end users.

The government would then step in and tell these companies that hard drive access must be totally equal, and that no single company should be able to contract for any privileged access to storage.

What consumer would want this situation at all? The free hardware market is clearly far superior, because hard drive space is so plentiful and expanding so rapidly that storage limitations are, at worst, simply a matter of end user preference.

Now, imagine if the telecom industry had not been so heavily regulated by government that only a few, government-approved providers were able to bring telecommunications to the marketplace.

Would we even be having this debate about net neutrality?

A damned good question.

 

Apr 082015
 

An overweight woman in an innocent moment at the gym became an object of laughter and derision on the internet. Her story — What it’s like to be laughed at on the Internet — is painful and heartbreaking and worth reading. Here’s a bit:

It’s not just the fat-bashing that hurts. Or the humiliation, the shaming, this last safe societal prejudice. All that is bad, of course. What really hurts, though, is how much the boys who took that photo of me “doing it wrong”—and the thousands of people who see it—will never know.

They’ll never know how experiences just like this began dividing me—early—from my body. That the taunts of “fatty” and “blubber” and “lardass” when I was 6 made me stand at my bedroom window and wonder if it was a long enough way down to the ground; that when the kids at lunch poked my stomach with pencils to see if I’d deflate, I honestly wished I would, with a long, satisfying “sssssss”; that by the time Ms. Gleby was leading my entire sixth grade Phys Ed class in laughing at me, I no longer had a body at all. I was a floating head, and I was determined to think of my physical form as a brick that I had to suffer the inconvenience of dragging around. My body wasn’t me. It was despicable. It was nothing.

The people who laugh at this picture won’t know that every jeer, every “mooooo,” and every “sorry, no fatties” made me more and more successful at being bodiless.

And they won’t know how scary it’s been to decide to maybe make a different choice.

They’ll never know what came before that treadmill-sitting moment: 80 minutes of aerobic exercise. They’ll never know how long it took me to feel worthy of motion, worthy of joining a gym, how long it took me to decide that moving actually felt good, and then the discovery that this was the way to reunite my floating head with the rest of me, to feel my body at its most basic, a biochemical machine that supports me. That’s what I am on a treadmill. That’s what bodies are. They are not appearance. They are purpose. It’s so hard—irrationally hard—to remember that. The world makes it hard to remember.

Hear, hear.

 

My latest Forbes piece is now out: “Why You Should Record Your Doctor Visits“.

Here is the opening:

NBC’s Brian Williams has gone from being a respected news anchor to the butt of Internet jokes after he recanted a false story about being shot down in a helicopter over Iraq. As a result of the subsequent controversy, NBC has suspended Williams without pay for 6 months — essentially costing him $5 million.

But whether or not Williams’ story was an innocent “false memory” or a deliberate lie, it is the case that false or unreliable memories are a surprisingly common phenomenon. In a health care setting, patients’ false memories of medical conversations might cost them more than money — it might even endanger their lives. Hence, patients may wish to record their doctors’ visits to protect themselves…

During my research for this piece, I learned that “40-80% of medical information provided by healthcare practitioners is forgotten immediately” and “almost half of the information that is remembered is incorrect” (!)

Fortunately, modern technology now makes it easier for patients to record these important discussions with physicians, for instance with a smartphone.

For more information on the benefits of this practice, read the full text of “Why You Should Record Your Doctor Visits“.

 

 

My latest column at PJ Media is a change of pace from the usual health care writing. It is entitled, “Should You Have to Speak with Others in a Way the Government Can Understand?

I discuss the demands by the federal government for “backdoor” access into your encrypted smartphone data and communications. Fortunately, Apple and Google are standing up to the government’s demands.  I explain why they are right to do so.

 

 

Sexism in the Tech Community

 Posted by on 18 August 2014 at 10:00 am  Business, Ethics, Feminism, Technology
Aug 182014
 

This Is What Tech’s Ugly Gender Problem Really Looks Like”. Wow, ugly is the right word. In addition to the lech who scheduled a business meeting and turned it into an attempt to get into sexual lean-in, there’s the story of the woman who struggled to be taken seriously as a coder:

When you’re a single mother, says Sheri Atwood, founder of SupportPay, it’s even tougher to be taken seriously. The child of a divorce and coming out of a divorce herself, Atwood built SupportPay, an online platform to help divorced parents manage and share child support. But almost as soon as she began pitching investors in 2011, she faced a barrage of doubt as to whether she could handle a company and kids at the same time.

Atwood says that while their concern is legitimate, it’s also a bit backward. She believes it’s because she’s a single mother—not despite it—that she’s a safe bet for investors. “I’m not doing this as a side project. I don’t have a spouse supporting me. I’m putting everything on the line, and I’m responsible for a child,” she says. “I’m going to do everything possible to make that work.”

But being a single mother wasn’t Atwood’s only problem. She’s also a coder. With all the recent efforts from Google, Square, and other organizations to get young girls interested in coding, it’s hard to imagine Atwood’s ability to code was a drawback when she was trying to get funded. And yet, she says, when she told her investors she had built SupportPay herself, they repeatedly doubted her. “No one believed me,” Atwood says.

Once, an associate at a venture capital firm even gave Atwood a bit of advice after turning her down for funding. “Hire a young guy in a hoodie,” he said. “I laughed,” Atwood remembers. “Then I said: ‘That’s a great point, but the reason why there’s no solution on the market today is because this isn’t a 21-year-old-kid-in-a-hoodie problem.’”

Luckily for Atwood, after about nine months of getting questioned on everything from her ability to run a business as a single mom to her blonde hair—one investor claimed brunettes are taken more seriously—Atwood landed $1.1 million in funding from several top angel investors, including Draper Associates, Broadway Angels, and Marc Benioff. “They got it,” she says. “They saw that my being a woman and my age was an asset.”

There’s good news in the article too, no doubt. But here’s the way forward:

Minshew says it’s been “heartening” to see men in the tech community listen to women’s stories and begin to talk about the problem themselves. That, she says, may be the first step toward real change. “Years ago, you could say really horrible, racist things, and people who didn’t agree would stay quiet because that was the time we were in. Now, we’re in a time where someone says something horribly racist, and other people say: ‘Shit, I can’t believe you just said that,’” Minshew explains. “My hope is we’re moving toward a world in which if one partner at a VC firm knows another partner is behaving inappropriately with female entrepreneurs, it’ll be the same sort of shock and outrage. It’ll be unacceptable.

People, that’s up to you!

 

My latest Forbes piece is a change of pace from the usual health policy discussion. Instead, I decided to have a bit of fun and write about, “8 Star Trek Technologies Moving From Science Fiction To Science Fact“.

Some of the 8+ technologies (or story elements) of Star Trek that I discuss include:

1) Warp Drive

2) Universal Translator

3) Handheld Computers

4) Medical Tricorder

5) Energy Weapons

6) Androids

7) Teleportation

8) Intelligent Aliens

9) Other Technologies

Although some Star Trek technologies are still clearly in the realm of science fiction (e.g., the warp drive), others like the medical tricorder are coming close to reality.  And some design elements (like the flip-style communicators of Star Trek: TOS) have already come and gone as consumer products in the real world.

For more details, read the full text of “8 Star Trek Technologies Moving From Science Fiction To Science Fact“.

I had a lot of fun working on this latest Forbes piece.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

(And I’d like to thank Ari Armstrong for his blog post on Microsoft and Skype Translator that inspired this article.)

Jun 172014
 

These confessions of an ex-TSA agent — Dear America, I Saw You Naked — are well worth reading. For example:

We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop.

Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines.

“They’re shit,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.

We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.

And:

But the only people who hated the body-scanners more than the public were TSA employees themselves. Many of my co-workers felt uncomfortable even standing next to the radiation-emitting machines we were forcing members of the public to stand inside. Several told me they submitted formal requests for dosimeters, to measure their exposure to radiation. The agency’s stance was that dosimeters were not necessary—the radiation doses from the machines were perfectly acceptable, they told us. We would just have to take their word for it. When concerned passengers—usually pregnant women—asked how much radiation the machines emitted and whether they were safe, we were instructed by our superiors to assure them everything was fine.

“Security Theater” seems like too benign of a term for these absurdities, I think. Now go read the whole article.

 

Forbes has published my latest column: “Can You Trust What’s In Your Electronic Medical Record?

I discuss how government-mandated electronic medical records are hampering doctors’ ability to practice and resulting in medical errors. I also discuss 4 concrete steps patients can take to protect themselves.

I didn’t mention this in the Forbes piece, but there was a terrific drawing in the Journal of the American Medical Association from a couple of years ago by a 7-year old girl depicting her recent doctor visit. Even young children understand the effect of electronic medical records on their care:

No one was more surprised than the physician himself. The drawing was unmistakable. It showed the artist — a 7-year-old girl — on the examining table. Her older sister was seated nearby in a chair, as was her mother, cradling her baby sister. The doctor sat staring at the computer, his back to the patient — and everyone else. All were smiling. The picture was carefully drawn with beautiful colors and details, and you couldn’t miss the message…

 

I love this brave and thoughtful Salon essay by Caitlin Seida so very much: My embarrassing picture went viral. It begins:

I logged onto my Facebook one morning to find a message from a girlfriend. “You’re internet famous!” it read. She sent a link to a very public page whose sole purpose was posting images that mock people’s appearances. There I was in full glory — a picture of me dressed as my hero Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for Halloween — but written over the image were the words “Fridge Raider.”

Initially, she wasn’t angry, but then she saw some of the comments:

“What a waste of space,” read one. Another: “Heifers like her should be put down.” Yet another said I should just kill myself “and spare everyone’s eyes.” Hundreds of hateful messages, most of them saying that I was a worthless human being and shaming me for having the audacity to go in public dressed as a sexy video game character. How dare I dress up and have a good time!

We all know the awful humiliation of a person laughing at you. But that feeling increases tenfold when it seems like everyone is laughing at you. Scrolling through the comments, the world imploded — and took my heart with it.

In addition to issuing takedown requests to various web sites — which she was able to do because the photo was hers — she also confronted people directly about their nasty comments:

…Facebook made it easy to find people who had commented on the images. By now, the picture had metastasized through reposts on Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, 9Gag, FailBlog. But looking through the Facebook “like” function, I could track down the most offensive commenters.

Most of them were women. Shocked? I wasn’t. Anyone who’s survived high school can tell you how women slice each other up to make ourselves feel better. I sent several of those women a message.

“You’re being an asshole,” the note said. “Why don’t you just do the right thing and delete the post and stop sharing it?”

The most common response was not remorse or defensiveness but surprise. They were startled that I could hear what they’d been saying. Their Facebook pages were set to private, after all. Most didn’t realize that when you post to a public page through your Facebook account, it doesn’t matter that your own content is restricted: The whole world can read your words anyway.

And of course, they hadn’t really thought of me as a person. Why should they? These images are throwaways, little bursts of amusement to get through a long workday. You look, you chuckle, you get some ridicule off your chest and move on to the next source of distraction. No one thought about the possibility that I might read those words. Far less, that I would talk back.

Read that last paragraph again. Personally, I’m going to be more careful about the funny things I share. I don’t want to be even a small part of any social media wave that makes a decent person’s life miserable.

Of particular concern, I think, are seemingly hilarious commentaries on the supposedly bad behavior of other people, such as this one by Elan Gale: This Man Is Hilariously Live-Tweeting His Flight-and-Feud With The Woman in #7A. I thought it mildly funny until I read the other side of the story: Bullying at 35 thousand feet. Of course, I have no way to determine the veracity of either story: both might be inventions. Yet the incident is instructive, I think. As I posted to Facebook:

It seems high time for everyone (including me!) to be suspicious of reports of god-awful behavior by random strangers. Perhaps the story is fabricated or embellished — or perhaps the circumstances aren’t quite what they seem — or perhaps the person who “schooled” the jerk just enjoys feeling like a self-righteous, sanctimonious prick. Surely, any truly awful person isn’t going to reform due to being the laughingstock of the internet… and it’s too likely that a good person will be unjustly vilified instead.

I love laughter, I really do… but there’s plenty of funny in the world without being unjust or malicious.

NoodleFood Authors, Now Fixed

 Posted by on 3 December 2013 at 2:00 pm  NoodleFood, Personal, Technology
Dec 032013
 

This weekend, I fixed the only major lingering headache from the process of converting NoodleFood from Blogger to WordPress. During that conversion, the author data was lost, such that “Diana Hsieh” was listed as the author of every post, even though just over 1,000 of NoodleFood’s more than 6,000 posts were written by someone else, mostly Paul.

I’d procrastinated on the task of fixing that for over a year and half because I feared that I’d have to update every post not written by me by hand. That would have been mighty, mighty unpleasant work.

However, I’m pleased to report that my technical skills — particularly my regex geekery — came in handy, such that I was able to automate the update by spending a few hours massaging the data. I had to:

  1. Extract data about posts authored by people other than me from Blogger’s exported XML file
  2. Integrate that with htaccess redirections so as to obtain a unique WordPress post ID for each of those posts
  3. Create and issue appropriate commands to SQL to update the relevant 1000 entries in the posts table with the correct author id

Much to my delight, that worked just fine, despite a few hiccups and setbacks.

I’m so grateful for my prior existence as a web programmer and sysadmin. I’ve been able to do so much with Philosophy in Action as a result of those skills. Even now, I surprise myself with what I can do! Heck, now that I’ve mucked around in SQL again for the first time in a few years, I might make use of that for some future projects and upgrades. That would make much of Philosophy in Action’s backend so much cleaner and easier to manage, I think.

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