Purifiers, fiber-optics lines and masks. Welcome back to school!

I was as excited to be back in school as students were, last week. Online, of course. There’s something about a new school year that lifts our spirits, and simultaneously releases those abdominal butterflies. As I stepped out the car in park, strapped on my mask, and grabbed my satchel, I could feel this new normal creep up on me, and broke out into a grin – which no one notices now.

Distance learning is something we must get our arms around, like it or not. I’ve conducted webinars, and workshops online, but this is a whole new animal. (I date myself – in 2010, I taught a series of online classes that included blogging. Well!)

Behind checkered, floral and surgical masks, we go about our business, but it’s a business in a whole new dimension. Lesson plans need to get turned into material that delivered through a Google Classroom platform. These must be ‘chunked,’ linked and  annotated for a student doing it in small time slots, with slow WiFi, on a small screen. Video and audio recordings must be edited and uploaded –not to mention scheduling these moving parts in advance, with due dates and rubrics.

Tech questions arise and get solved on the fly by my colleagues: Could videos be cropped in Screencastify? Is there enough storage capacity on the drive? Why doesn’t PowerPoint let me use audio narration in a Microsoft 365 version? Check this neat way to turn a Google form into a quiz  (and have it grade the responses as well!) These and other issues must be figured out before dozens of Google Meets light up the building.

The week before we began, maintenance crew were crawling through the ceiling adding more lines of fiber optic lines  to support our data-hungry re-launch of distance learning.  We picked up our cameras to get up to speed with video conferencing.  With Bitmojis and bottles of sanitizer we took our positions and opened for business.

Three weeks of it, and still having many aha moments, this new normal is anything but. But as the students log into my ‘Office Hours,’ I am beginning to relax and enjoy being a teacher. I used to say that if I continue to do what I’ve always done each year, the students won’t be learning much. All of us – me and you and that dog named Boo — have collectively hit the reboot button. These lessons will last us a lifetime!

Facebook employee resignation reveals dark practices

Take a look at this disturbing resignation letter from employee, Timothy Aveni.

He says that “Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence. He showed us on Friday that this was a lie” and that he finds “Facebook complicit in the propagation of weaponized hatred, is on the wrong side of history.”

He says he’s scared for the US because, “social media-fueled division that has gotten people killed in the Philippines, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.” 

A few days back I asked my friends (and posted here) if they could justify using this corrupt social network. But don’t take my word – pay attention to this FB employee!

Breaking news is broken. The replacement parts are not available.

Ok, I am being facetious here in my post headline. But what annoys me is how news organizations continue to parrot the ‘Breaking news…..” model, trying to get our attention, when the news is not actually breaking. It’s often late to the party, and the story is fractured.

Did you hear the one about the Nobel prize winner from Japan who claimed he had reason to believe Coronavirus was designed in a lab in Wuhan?  If you did,  I hope you did not share this story on WhatsApp because the story was a fake. Plausible? Yes.  But it was completely manufactured. 

Many acts of disinformation are manufactured on a grain of truth, but upon that grain are placed smooth pebbles of faulty data, and these support larger rocks, perilously balanced to form what looks like some pleasing artifact.

The person in that twisted story was Tasuku Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University who won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He and an American researcher had found a way to manipulate the body’s immune system to combat cancer. He had never worked in a lab in Wuhan China, and never said that “the Coronavirus is not natural. It did not come from bats. China manufactured it.”  (See professor Honjo’s statement here) And yet, it spread like wild fire. Or rather, like a virus. Jumping from human to human because we just don’t understand how to ‘social’ distance ourselves from social media and misinformation. 

Before today’s keyboard warriors were even born, countries including the US employed such tactics. In 1693 England a printer, William Anderton, was executed for publishing stories against the monarchy. In the US around 1898 another William, published fake stories about Spain triggering the Spanish-American war.  That was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst !

Today’s breaking news model, practiced by not just the large TV networks but by lazy cut-and-paste ‘reporters’ (repeaters, really!) simply recycles this model. And unfortunately it works. Even the president is doing it. 

 

The business model of social media is affirmation, not information!

Disturbing revelation from tech insider, Tristan Harris. More unsettling for anyone who assumes the apps we use are benign. Or that mental health issues have nothing to do with screen addiction.

Please watch this video and share it with someone. 

Tristan Harris is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. The Center has practical steps to counter the effects – at a policy level, and in our daily lives.  Of course no one wants to hear this. Everyone should.

He believes that in this attention economy the apps and the devices are not just messing with our brains. They are hijacking our behavior and how our society works. How do we get the message out to our children, and the schools? How do we model for them that there is a different way to communicate and interact?

Or is it too late to step back, as Macbeth said of his predicament:

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” 

 

Facebook scrutiny. Why everyone, not just the governments should do it

When it comes to foreign election interference, data theft, and broken promises about safeguarding privacy it’s Facebook and not just some secret government surveillance program we have to guard against. Mark Zuckerberg has become the face of a privatized Big Brother. Ironically it’s the government that’s now trying to peel back the curtain.

As Zuck faces questions on Capitol Hill this week this week, the questions about Libra, it’s cryptocurrency product have been asked. This blockchain product “could create a whole new threat to Americans and national security,” said Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York. Libra’s mission, according to the Facebook White Paper, is a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people.”

The blockchain on which it is based is Libra, and the unit of its currency is also a ‘libra.’ It’s backed by Lyft, Spotify, Uber, and Farfetch among its tech partners.  But others are not well known, such as Bison Trails and Xapo which is a very large crypto storage service.

Much of this –and the lack of trusted names that are part of this group –should give us reason to read behind the lines of what comes out this week. Worth reading the article on The Verge, that called it an attempt to build the ‘Bank of Facebook.’ Or more to the point, that this blockchain move is its secret weapon that will help Facebook “to create a quasi-nation state ruled by mostly corporate interests.” Reuters reports that France and Germany have pledged to block Libra in Europe. Do they know something we don’t?

 

Hide Your face, shield your eyes! The dark side of biometrics

The use of facial recognition is not something that only comes from totalitarian regimes. It’s being used for domestic spying, in malls and casinos. Combined with AI, biometrics can turn PI (Personal information) and PII (personally identifiable information) into a weapon. I bring this up every semester to make sure my students are aware of what they are opening themselves to, should they share information even on benign sites, or “trusted” browsers.

Biometrics involve “biological measurements” such as fingerprints, facial features, and retina scans. The Department of Homeland Security, explains that “biometrics are used to detect and prevent illegal entry into the U.S., grant and administer proper immigration benefits, vetting and credentialing, facilitating legitimate travel and trade, enforcing federal laws, and enabling verification for visa applications to the U.S.” You would think biometrics is something average citizens only need to worry about if they own a passport (the new ones have an embedded chip with biometric markers), or a smart phone with facial recognition.

But biometric detection is coming closer to us than we realize. Kaspersky, the software cybersecurity company explain how “Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill downloaded photos of 20 volunteers from social media and used them to construct 3-D models of their faces. The researchers successfully breached four of the five security systems they tested.” Rental cars may soon come with biometric analyzers. Cities may use facial recognition without our knowledge as a pre-emptive way to assist law enforcement.

More alarming is the use of ‘public domain’ images to fuel the facial recognition business. The New York Times reports that family photos scrubbed off Flicker have been used to power surveillance technology. Hiding our faces, or making sure our children’s faces don’t show up in unscrupulous social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook may become a necessity. Or is it too late for those who have uploaded hundreds of photos to these leaky sites? As I warned manhttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/11/technology/flickr-facial-recognition.htmly times here and elsewhere these sites are “free” for a reason – they trade the data and meta-data of these posts and pictures without your knowledge. Digital human trafficking, in which many of us have become unwilling accomplices.

Interesting controversy. Tiffany and Co had to withdraw an ad that had a model covering her right eye. Why? It was accused of imitating the symbol of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, where protestors routinely cover their face, or eyes with a mask or helmet so as to avoid facial recognition cameras.  In fact, the mock eye patch has itself become a symbol of the protest.

 

Facial recognition, a weapon?

File this under “Sigh! We knew this was coming.”

The story is breaking that protesters are being tracked down by facial recognition software in several cities. But more alarming is how in Hong Kong, which is erupting right now, police are seeking out protesters, then grabbing their phones, and attempting to use the facial recognition software on the phones to unlock their phones.

Hong Kong was a colony of Britain until 1997, but is now a ‘special administrative region’ of China.

“Oh, how neat!” some people thought, when Hong Kong announced that it has facial recognition software in the airport so that passengers could pass through immigration and security smoothly. Likewise so many now use door bell cameras (such as Nest and Hello) that have facial recognition, not realizing the vulnerabilities they could bring.

Facial recognition is a short stop from racial and social profiling. Why is it that few people seem to care?

Leaving Facebook after nearly 12 years

I have had it with Facebook. I’ve also grown weary of what goes on in the name of being ‘social’ on Facebook.

Today I decided to quit the first social media platform I joined in July 2007. I don’t intend to ‘send a message’ to the founder, or to question those who find that it serves a great purpose. It’s just that for me, the great conversations I once envisioned and enjoyed have ceased to be fulfilling. There is too much noise on the platform, and the opportunity cost is not worth it.

I had ceased to share pictures on Facebook, and cannot imagine why we who inhabit so many networks need Facebook to be a de facto album; why every image we run into –whether it’s the decoration on the foam of a latte, or a sunset, or a meme needs to be uploaded, shared, and commented on. All of this is very odd, because back in 2010, in a series of workshops I conducted on how to put social media to use in business and communication, one of the modules was how to use Facebook. Imagine that – we actually went through a moment when this was necessary. The higher purpose of these workshops was to empower people to use emerging social media platforms to benefit society. It was not to turn the channels we created there into our personal daily press releases.

To put it another way, bluntly, Facebook has become a PR and propaganda machine. This is just one of the many Facebook behaviors that have set in, and these are often at odds with real life. I find it amusing how some Facebook users have begun to mimic each other in vocabulary and behavior. (Notice how words such as ‘stoked,’ ‘adorable,’ and ‘Yay!’ most people don’t use in life fills their feeds?) 

The other unintended consequence of always having an audience is that many who demonstrate humility in real life have developed an alter ego punctuated by braggadocio and ranting, knowing there’s an audience for this. Speaking of the audience triggering a behavior, consider what happened in New Zealand last week. That someone might use a live feed to carry out a horrific mass murder says something how “we shape our tools and then the tools shape us“. (A quote often attributed to Marshall McLuhan.) Connected to this is the ‘PDA’ problem, something we who make up the older generation of social media users used to find annoying in young people – the Public Display of Affection. Enough said.

I have stopped reading the tweets of my friends, former colleagues, and classmates. I prefer instead to message them directly or call them, should the need arises. For those who are shocked that I am unaware of a trip they have taken or a certificate their cousin’s child has been awarded because it was posted on Facebook, my response is, “You know my number – call me or text me.”

It is almost embarrassing to have to say that I teach communications –ever since I got into communications 21 years ago– and be on Facebook. And so I am deleting my account.

Worth citing: Mark Zuckerberg on what people are expecting of Facebook:

“I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services…” More here…

Updated: Facebook’s Data policy in its Terms of Usage section.

You probably agreed to this – Have you read this?

“Weather isn’t climate.” They teach this in 5th grade science, don’t they?

“Weather isn’t climate. They teach this in 5th grade science.”

That’s one of the comebacks to Trump’s ridiculous tweet last week about the polar vortex that froze a large swath of the US. The problem isn’t only the president’s puerile, ill-informed ideas and responses. It is the method of his communicating his thoughts, with itchy fingers that want to ‘say’ something about, well, anything.

As noted many times earlier, social media has made a mockery of our modern-day communication. I wish they teach communication as a compulsory subject –Reading, Communication, Arithmetic?– in elementary school.

Or as an after-work class at the Oval Office…

Do photographs really enhance our memories?

Have you ever questioned whether taking a photograph is the only way to preserve a memory? I used to be the person who always carried a camera. Sometimes two, plus a tripod.

But over the past few years I’ve begun to wonder if preserving important moments in life on a camera –and processing these salient moments through a camera lens –is actually useful. The question resurfaced in the past few days, twice.

First Google keeps sending me albums it randomly puts together, without me as much as even asking for this feature. (Yes, Facebook users, I see a lot of that too, ad nauseam.). I find that irritating. Who does it think it is to decide what I want to remember?

Second, a student commenting on a discussion in class, mentioned that one thing that irritated was having a parent point a camera at everything. The student complained that it was terrible how adults appear to want to save every moment, but miss looking at Real Life, as is.

The discussion turned to smart phones, and how everyone today pretends to be (or yearns to be) a photojournalist, documenting history as it were. The pictures are often badly taken, have no photographic or artistic value. And yet the screens are held up. The shutters click. Those with absolutely no photographic skills, can of course use built in filters, either on the device or on platforms such as Instagram.

So my question to them was this: If you were to witness an unfortunate event, or a run into a celeb you least expected, would you process it through your God-given optical lenses, and store it in your internal memory? Or would you rather take it in through a camera lens, and store it in the Cloud – just in case?

And my question to you: Is there a  significant event seared in your memory that has absolutely no photograph to document it? If so, what was it? More important, if you had a chance to go back in time, would you  (or have someone) photograph it?