Did Facebook Betray Our Trust?

 Posted by on 3 July 2014 at 10:00 am  Business, Internet, Rights, Science
Jul 032014

I’ve seen lots of people upset — on Facebook, of course — about Facebook’s social science experiment with people’s newsfeeds. However, I’ve yet to find an argument that’s compelling. Consider this one from Stephen Green:

Facebook has been described as an internet-within-the-internet, and the secret to making that work is it’s an internet curated for you by people you trust. To see something on your Facebook TL, it has to come from someone with a mutually-defined relationship, or from someone you trust enough to follow. Untrustworthy acts — like when somebody tags your name on something that has nothing to do with you, in order do win unearned trust and attention — are easily reported and corrected. The fact that Facebook uses this web of relationships, clicks, and behaviors to do some seriously creepy data-mining and ad sales behind the scenes doesn’t affect the strengths of the service it provides in public.

But for this to work, Facebook must remain neutral. What you see must be what your trusted friends have curated and presented to you. There can’t be any monkeying around with the Facebook timeline, any more than AT&T or Verizon can decide which phone calls you may receive, or when you may receive them.

Facebook is now essentially corrupt, and it did it to itself. First, they performed this “experiment” of altering timelines in order to assess possible mood changes they could affect on their users. Then, after the fact, they slipped new language into their Terms of Service allowing them to do more of the same in the future.

I agree with the point about the Facebook’s late change to its terms of service. That sucks. Yet the fact remains that Facebook has monkeyed around with the timeline for years in various mysterious ways. I don’t have access to the raw feed of just what my friends post; no one does. (That’s what Twitter displays, which is both refreshing and annoying.) For many years now, Facebook’s display has been extremely selective, only showing me a portion of what my friends post, based on some hocus-pocus algorithm, partly designed to increase my “engagement.”

Then, for this study, Facebook tweaked their hocus-pocus algorithm in a slightly different way… and then published the results. What’s supposed to be so new or so horrible about that?

Or, as Tom said: “I don’t get it. We’ve known all along that Facebook were manipulating the timeline for commercial purposes. They decide to do it once FOR SCIENCE! and suddenly everyone throws a hissy fit? Color me so not caring.”

Am I wrong? If so, tell me what’s so darn horrible about what Facebook did here!

Dec 032013

This article — What International Air Travel Was Like in the 1930s — fascinates me. If you just look at the pictures, like this one…

… it’s easy to think, “Oh, people had it so much better in the past! Now we’re all cramped in planes like sardines!” But once you read the text, you’ll surely change your tune.

Consider this, for example:

Imperial Airways appealed to the consumer who desired the most luxurious way to travel. But it wasn’t always very pleasant, despite the most advanced technology of the time. People would often get sick, and bowls were discreetly placed under the seats to ensure that passengers had a place to throw up. The widespread pressurization of cabins wouldn’t occur until the 1950s, so altitude sickness often meant that people needed to receive oxygen.

The temperature inside the cabin was also a major consideration, since horror stories of incredibly cold flights were common in the late 1920s.


Nearly 50,000 people would fly Imperial Airways from 1930 until 1939. But these passengers paid incredibly high prices to hop around the world. The longest flights could span over 12,000 miles and cost as much as $20,000 when adjusted for inflation.

A flight from London to Brisbane, Australia, for instance, (the longest route available in 1938) took 11 days and included over two dozen scheduled stops. Today, people can make that journey in just 22 hours, with a single layover in Hong Kong, and pay less than $2,000 for a round trip ticket.

See what I mean?

Sensory Overload in Open Offices

 Posted by on 22 November 2013 at 10:00 am  Business, Personality, Psychology, Work
Nov 222013

This — Offices for All! Why Open-Office Layouts Are Bad for Employees, Bosses, and Productivity — is a really excellent article on the evil of open office layouts. Here’s a hit that really resonated with me.

I’m now always surrounded by chatter, which means that, like every other office worker in the country, I have to wear earphones. I’m currently listening to Django Reinhardt on Pandora. His talent is timeless. But while it’s easier to think with Django in my ears, it isn’t nearly as easy as silence was. The music just adds to the clutter in my head. Back when I had an office, I left work with my mind still happy and fresh; I emailed myself ideas while walking home, as some newsy podcast told me even more useful info. Now, at the end of a day of nonstop jazz, I leave work feeling fried. I miss my podcasts, which my brain just doesn’t have room for. I walk to the subway in silence, repairing.

Being an introvert — and highly sensitive too — I could not work well under such circumstances. When I’m deep in brain-bending work, even familiar instrumental music is a distraction. Plus, headphones to cover background noise quickly makes me feel overwhelmed by sensory input. I’m able to listen to music only against a background of silence and when doing lighter work. Then, it helps prevent boredom.

These working conditions make my skin crawl. I’m so glad to work from home, where the only noises are of naughty beasts, birds, and the wind.


Tonight, I’ll interview Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Timothy Sandefur about occupational licensing — how it works, what it’s supposed to do, and what it’s real-life effects are. We’ll also talk about “Certificates of Need” (CONs) regulations that allow existing businesses to squash any newcomers. I kid you not.

If you’re not familiar with CONs, check out Sandefur’s 2011 article, CON Job: State “certificate of necessity” laws protect firms, not consumers. Here are the open paragraphs:

When St. Louis businessman Michael Munie decided to expand his moving business to operate throughout the state of Missouri, he thought it would be a simple matter of paperwork. After all, he already held a federal license allowing him to move goods across state lines. But when he filed his application, he discovered that, under a 70-year-old state law, officials in Missouri’s Department of Transportation were required to notify all of the state’s existing moving companies and allow them the opportunity to object to his application. When four of them did file objections, department officials offered Munie the choice of withdrawing his application or appearing at a public hearing where he would be required to prove that there was a “public need” for his moving business. The law is not clear on how exactly he would do this — “public need” is not defined, nor are there any rules of evidence or procedure in the statute. And even if he managed to prove a “public need,” the department would take anywhere from six months to a year to make a final decision. In the face of such complications, Munie chose to withdraw his application and ask instead for limited permission to operate within a portion of St. Louis. His competitors had no objection to that, and he was given the restricted license.

Bizarre as this law might seem, it is only one of dozens of such requirements, generally called “certificate of necessity” (CON) laws, that exist across the country, governing a variety of industries, from moving companies and taxicabs to hospitals and car lots. A legacy of the early 20th century, CON laws restrict economic opportunity and raise costs for products and services that consumers need. Unlike traditional occupational licensing rules, they are not intended to protect the public by requiring business owners to demonstrate professional expertise or education. Instead, these laws are explicitly designed to restrict competition and boost the prices that established companies can charge.

Go read the whole article.

Jul 082013

On April 18th, a gal from BlogTalkRadio emailed me without prompting to apologize for Wednesday’s disconnection during the show and to inform me that they’re aware of the problem and working hard to increase their capacity. I decided to reply with the following message the next morning:

I just wanted to say thanks for the excellent customer service.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been enduring some of the worst customer service ever from another company (my podcast host, podbean). So your up-front, pro-active email was a breath of fresh air. Thank you!

She immediately replied:

You have no idea what your note did to brighten my morning. It’s been a truly rough couple of days, and knowing that there are people like you on our platform who support us even when we stumble makes the job I love that much better. Thank you so very much for your words of kindness.

I’m so glad that I wrote her! Her original email, and then her grateful reply, is a much-needed reminder that many businesses work hard at customer service. They deserve a pat on the back!


The Tea Party Patriots left me yet another robo-call message on my iPhone on Monday… and I see that they called again this evening. I’ve never signed up for anything from them, and I have no idea how they got my mobile number. Yet for many months now, I’ve gotten periodic robo-calls from them.

Every time this happens, I make repeated requests — through all available means of communication — to be removed from their call list. They’ve never responded, and they have obviously not removed my mobile number from their call list.

I don’t have any way to block them on my iPhone (as I would on my landline), and them calling my cellphone is particularly bothersome. Any suggestions for what to do to make it stop?

Even if that’s not possible, I’m happy to spread the word that the Tea Party Patriots seems to be run by a bunch of jerkwads without the slightest clue about basic manners.

Here’s my latest email to them… not that I expect it to do any good:

You left me yet another robo-call message on my iPhone on Monday… and I see that you called again this evening. Every time this happens, I’ve contacted you through multiple channels with clear requests to be removed from your call list. You have never responded, and you have obviously not removed my mobile number from your call list.


So, for the upteeth time, I ask that you remove my cell number — [redacted] — from your call list! I am sick and tired of these intrusive and unwelcome calls from you: it’s harassment.

Until you respond, and confirm that you’ve removed my phone number, I will continue to publicly shame you for being such rude jerkwads. I’ve already posted something to Facebook, and I’m writing a blog post now.

Oh, and you owe me — and probably a whole lot of other people — a BIG FAT APOLOGY.

I’d be nicer about it… except that I’ve already written about ten such emails, all of which have been ignored. *sigh*


Back in January, the internet was agog over the report that a pastor objected to the 18% gratuity added to her bill for being part of a large party by writing on the receipt, “I give God 10% why do you get 18?”

The proper answer, of course, is provided by Grumpy Cat:

Your waitress offers you a genuine service, in exchange for your tip… God, not so much.

However, what I find particularly interesting about the story from an ethical perspective lie in the details of what happened at the restaurant and afterwards.

[Chelsea Welch's co-worker [at an Applebee's in the St. Louis area] had waited on a large party hosted by Pastor Alois Bell of the World Deliverance Ministries Church in Granite City, Ill. As is common at many restaurants, an 18 percent tip was automatically added to the bill.

Pastor Bell crossed out the automatic tip and wrote “0″ on the receipt, along with this message: “I give God 10% why do you get 18?”

Welch, who did not wait on Pastor Bell’s table took a photo of the bill and uploaded it to Reddit where it soon went viral. “I thought the note was insulting, but it was also comical,” Welch told TheConsumerist. “I posted it to Reddit because I thought other users would find it entertaining.”

Bell, who did not see the humor in this, complained to the restaurant’s manager. Bell told The Smoking Gun she did not expect her signature to be all over the Internet.

Applebee’s confirms that Welch was fired. In a statement, the company says:

“Our Guests’ personal information – including their meal check – is private, and neither Applebee’s nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly. We value our Guests’ trust above all else. Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest’s right to privacy. This individual is no longer employed by the franchisee.”

Pastor Bell told The Smoking Gun she is sorry for what happened and points out that she left a $6.29 cash tip on the table.

“My heart is really broken,” she told them. “I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and my ministry.”

As this story makes clear, the waitress didn’t intend for anyone to be able to identify the pastor in question, and she took measures to prevent that identification. Alas, the power of the internet was too great. Also, the waitress reports that the pastor “contacted her Applebee’s location, demanding that everyone be fired, from the servers involved to the managers.” (That’s a quote from the article, not from the waitress.)

On the one hand, I understand why Applebee’s fired the server who posted the receipt. The restaurant wants its customers to feel secure in their privacy while on premises, particularly in their dealings with their employees, particularly in their financial transactions.

Nonetheless, in this age of social media, people’s expectations of privacy must change… or they will get burned. If you’re in public, your antics might be broadcast far and wide across the internet for other people’s amusement. Then, if you act petulant and bossy about that, as this pastor seemed to do, you’ll be lambasted even more.

Ultimately, a person needs to be responsible for his own privacy. That requires thinking in advance about what he wishes to keep private or not. That requires attention to what he says and does in view or earshot of other people. That requires being selective about what he emails or posts online. That requires providing appropriate context for public actions if he wants to avoid being misjudged.

A rational person does not broadcast his private activities to the world, then blame others for taking notice.

Apr 022013

As I promised when answering the question on doing business with Chinese companies on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, here’s the commentary from Robert Garmong on whether trade with China with help improve China culturally and politically.

By way of context, here’s what I’d written him relevant to that:

Instead, [trade with China] seems like a prime example where trade is a means of exporting better American values, and thereby making China economically and political better than it would be otherwise. That’s a benefit to the Chinese and a benefit to Americans.

He replied:

As for your hope that trade with America encourages better values among the Chinese, that’s very limited. Most Westerners (myself included, ~2009), think that foreign trade will empower a new class of young, liberal-minded people who want reform. Unfortunately, this has proven to be mostly a naive Western bias.

The businesses that benefit from our trade are run by people who — whatever their personal predilections before going into international trade — now are among the most conservative in China. Remember that China is a culture with zero tradition of thinking in principles. So the people who’ve gotten rich on the free market are perfectly happy to continue the system of governmental control. And, since they’re mostly wealthy middle-aged men, they’re perfectly happy to perpetuate the cultural traditions that exalt rich old men. They’ve got their Audis to make them proud, they’ve got their CCP contacts to keep them safe, and they’ve got their mistresses to keep them happy.

(Here’s a fun fact for you: according to a survey reported on in People’s Daily, in 2011 the male population of China spent more on holiday gifts for their mistresses than for their wives. I may have mentioned that before, because it’s one of my favorite jaw-droppers in a country jam-packed with jaw-droppers.)

There is a rising “middle class,” though it’s only middle class in very relative terms. They are politically powerless and mostly indifferent. They care about making some money, ensuring their children’s education, buying their son an apartment so he can get married, and someday having grandchildren. (That’s sometimes discussed as “The Chinese Dream.”) They are increasingly frustrated by the corruption, and the fact that they work for $600 a month while their boss drives an Audi, but they aren’t politically active. If anything, they fear any change that might threaten the “Chinese dream.”

Recall, too, the cultural arrogance of the Chinese, which is deeply-rooted in traditional Chinese culture. (As is often noted, the Chinese word for “China” literally means “Middle Country,” in the sense of “the country in the center of the universe.”) And of course it’s reinforced in schools, on Chinese TV, and in the movies they see. For this reason, even as they benefit from their contact with the West, and even as some of them envy the freedom of the United States, the average person here is very skeptical of foreign values. This is why they’re quick to believe the negatives about America, such as that everyone carries a gun and shoots people.

The hope for change in China is not directly from trade with the West. It’s from the net-savvy twenty-somethings who populate Weibo and other microblogs. While in some broad sense their existence is made possible by foreign trade, they are only very indirectly influenced by that trade. They are influenced by *Friends* and *Desperate Housewives*, but I wouldn’t call those international trade because they’re mostly pirated copies. In their online discussions, those guys appeal directly to very basic and obvious human values, such as the aversion to corruption and theft by the government. They seldom advert to any foreign concepts such as rights, freedom, or justice. They often get these ideas from the West, but they don’t use them in their discussions.

I suspect, by the way, that this is the real reason the government is pulling away from English as a part of the curriculum. They’re smart enough to see where the dissent is coming from, and they want to discourage it. The Chinese operate in subtler ways than, say, their Soviet-era counterparts, so rather than openly crack down on the young netizens, they simply reduce their numbers, try to prevent them from reaching a critical mass by reducing English language training in the schools. This is how the government thinks, and it’s why they’ve been so much more successful than other totalitarian governments at negotiating the process of “reform and opening-up” without losing their grip on power. They may be rat-bastards, but they are very clever rat-bastards!

Fascinating, as usual! If you’ve not yet listened to my interview with Robert on Should We Fear or Embrace China?… don’t delay! It was a full hour of such insights! Also, be sure to check out his excellent blog, Professor in Dalian.

The Untimely Demise of Google Reader

 Posted by on 19 March 2013 at 10:00 am  Business, Technology
Mar 192013

Hitler finds out Google Reader is shutting down:

Like many, many people, I’m pretty upset that Google Reader is shutting down. I’ve used Google Reader for years — not just to read blogs, but also to manage The Paleo Rodeo. So I’ve got some extra work to do thanks to this unexpected demise of Google Reader, and I’m not enthused about that.

More, to shut down the most popular RSS reader seems like a really idiotic decision for Google. If they’re not making money on feeds, that’s because Google closed AdSense for Feeds back in September 2012. Plus, they shut down the sharing functions of Google Reader with the launch of the utterly useless Google Plus, thereby killing their sole social media platform that actually worked.

With the murder of Google Reader, I’m sure that Google will shut down the awesome FeedBurner soon too, which will be another huge problem for me and tons of other people. That’s even more frustrating.

Overall, Google has going downhill lately, in my view. I’ve had ever-more problems with their offerings, and I’ve heard ominous news about the exodus of the best engineers from people who work in the industry. That sucks, because I love Google.

If you’re looking for an alternative to Google Reader, check out Old Reader. You can easily download your data from Google Reader, then import everything into Old Reader. (They have a backlog of 50,000 imports right now though, so you’ll have a wait a few days.) You’ll be able to find what I share here.

Mighty Mule Gate Openers: My Experience

 Posted by on 2 March 2013 at 10:00 am  Business, Personal
Mar 022013

A few months ago, I did a major update to the fencing on our five-acre property, including adding a “Mighty Mule” automatic dual-gate opener to the driveway gates. They work great, and Paul and I enjoy just pressing a button rather than manually opening and closing the gates, particularly in inclement weather.

However, we’ve also had a major problem with these gates, namely that they’ll beep very loudly every 20 seconds all night long after a cloudy day. I kid you not. The beep can be heard clearly from a few hundred feed away, inside the house, with all the doors and windows closed. Honestly, I’m surprised that my neighbors haven’t taken a baseball bat to the device. That beeping is supposed to be the low-battery warning. However, the gates have never refused to open, even after beeping all night long. So the battery doesn’t seem to be actually low.

My fencing peopleguy has done his best to fix the problem. He returned once to add a second solar panel. (We don’t have any electric lines on that side of the property, so solar is the only option.) That lessened the problem somewhat, but not enough. So he came a second time. He tested the output of the battery, which seemed to slip just slightly low when the gate was opening, but nothing that should cause such all-night beeping. He was on the phone with Mighty Mule for quite some time, and the tech support person assured him that adding a second battery to the unit would solve the problem. I was hopeful… but disappointed yet again.

After our recent foot of snow, the gate opener was beeping loudly every 20 seconds, yet again… and I was feeling very, very stabby. So I trudged down the unplowed driveway at 10:30 pm to try to plug up the speaker hole with glue. I didn’t want to just cut the speaker wire because the gate does sometimes emit useful beeps, like as a warning before it starts to close. I was so angry that I took video, just so that others could hear just how loud and annoying the beeping is. (The beep at the end, when I’m standing near the opener, is ear-piercing.)

Unfortunately, my glue job didn’t work: I could still hear the beeping from inside the house. So I trudged down again through the snow in the middle of the cold night to tie a rag to the bottom of the device, over the speaker. That made the noise tolerable, even though still audible outside.

Yesterday, I called the tech support of “Mighty Mule” yet again. The person that I spoke to was infuriatingly unhelpful. First, he lectured me about how much sun the opener needs. Well, I live in Colorado, where we get 300 days of sunshine per year, and a single cloudy day will set the device beeping all night. That’s not normal. Plus, we’ve already added the extra solar panel, and the last tech support person assured us that an extra battery would solve the problem. Then he told me that I could ship the device back to them, and they’d check it out. I wouldn’t have to pay shipping. However, as I told him, I’d have to pay my fencing peopleguy to come out twice — once to uninstall the opener and then again reinstall the opener. So that seems like a major waste to me. Plus, after being told that the second battery would definitely solve the problem, I just don’t trust this company to actually fix the problem.

At the very least, Mighty Mule should have offered to ship me a new device, and then I’d ship them back the defective model. That way, my fencing peopleguy could come out just once, and hopefully the problem would be solved. But that wasn’t ever offered. Alas, I didn’t think to ask, but I’m pretty sure that offering such solutions isn’t the job of the frustrated customer. Moreover, I should add, the beeping is a ridiculous design flaw, and it ought to be fixed.

To add insult to injury, the tech support guy never seemed to acknowledge my problem. He just kept saying “Yes, ma’am” in a monotone voice. I’m sure that he would have said the same if I’d told him that pigs were flying past my window.

So if I can’t find a better way to block the speaker, I plan to cut the speaker wire. I hate to do that, but I don’t see that I have any better options.

As I’ve done these house repairs, I’ve been really impressed by the customer service offered by the various companies I’ve worked with. These companies know that they depend on word-of-mouth recommendations, and they’ve worked hard to go the extra mile. I wish that I could say the same about Mighty Mule and its parent company GTO.

So consider this post a word of warning… If their product goes wrong, don’t expect any useful assistance. I expected better from a product that costs a few hundred dollars. I’ve been nothing but frustrated and disappointed.

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