Facebook, an algorithm out of control. So why do you still use the platform?

Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, called it an inside joke shared by the ‘civic integrity’ group. I found the joke appalling on how it captures the scale of violence Facebook does in societies across the world.

“If you want to know what the next batch of at-risk countries was going to be, all you had to do was to look two years in the past at what the Facebook connectivity countries were.”

Basically Facebook would continue to expand its footprint, and by providing ‘more information’ it would knowingly turn on civic instability – just to make the platform more profitable.

That’s just the thumbnail. Now it’s worth listening in on the senate hearings today.

I deleted Facebook in March 2019. It never changed a thing.

What my students asked a Googler.

Yesterday I brought back our Technology Speaker series for the new semester.

What better way than to start off with a Googler, Patrick Krecker. It was timely as I had just completed teaching units on the roots in the Net. How none of what we access on the Web (or Google) would be possible if not for a man named Tim Berners-Lee.

Patrick Krecker, Google

Web history aside, Mr. Krecker responded students questions. Pointed questions that let him take on some hot-button issues that come up for discussion in my class. Such as What does Google do with our data? Why is there so much hacking these days? What’s ransomware?

Patrick talked about security holes, and the ongoing pursuit hackers and the role of ‘white hats.’ I was glad he personalized what coding in his job involves (He says has written about 200,000 lines of code) given that coding is making its way into many schools now, to get students better prepared for what lies ahead.

As for me, I learned new terms and concepts, too. Things like ‘double spend,’ ‘deprecated software‘ and something known as ‘cross-site scripting‘ which refers to the injection of malicious scripts or code into ‘trusted’ websites.

Patrick has a gift for explaining complex ideas with metaphors. If you like to listen in to his conversation with my students, here’s a link to the video, which is also on my class website.

Listen to the ‘Radio 201’ podcast of this event:

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Patrick and I used to work at Decision Theater, at ASU about 11 years ago. It’s wonderful to see how far he’s moved along into a field he was always passionate about. Thank you Patrick for this wonderful experience in my class this week.

Digital Learning Day – Flashback 2017

As Digital Learning Day came around in February I wondered if the distinction between digital and non-digital even exists.

I am old enough to remember when we actually celebrated an annual event called E-Day here in Phoenix, as part of the IABC. In the early 2000s, Business Communication then was pretty much analog, with smatterings of digital. Soon E-Day became passé.

Just seven years ago –a long time in Internet years! -at Salt River Elementary School, STEM had pushed its way through the door. Ed-Tech was a buzzword, as was digital learning. In my computer lab I was introducing students to Mars exploration, Robotics, VR and 3D Printing. With tremendous support from my colleagues at Salt River Elementary, Mrs. Decker, Mrs. Yurek, and Mr. Filhart –from Music, the Library and PE respectively – we created an entire day for this across K-6.

Today, digital learning encompasses almost every facet of what we do, whether it is in libraries or the gym. Online school has made the digital device a necessity, when it once was a nice-to-have. Platforms evolve, from Quizlet to Khan Academy; Grammarly to Google Classroom; Mindstorms to Scratch and so much more.  Students now create podcasts with a simple free AnchorFM app on a phone – intros, outros and all. Screencast-O-matic has taken the pain out of video-supported lessons for teachers like me, furiously posting them to Google Classroom. 

The VR glasses of yesterday are gathering dust on my shelf at Benjamin Franklin High school as the pace accelerates. Will Digital Learning Day become an archive of education too?

When a green screen pops up in class

Sometimes a lesson plan needs to be revised on the fly. This happened today when one of my students brought in a green screen, so they could do trial runs of their TV news scripts in a Writing & Publishing class. I had planned to use a camera on a tripod and have them simulate a studio setting. I happen to have a 60-inch screen on the opposite wall, so with a bit of tweaking, it could be made to look like a backdrop of a scene for a ‘reporter’ to deliver his/her lines.

And then this happened.

Computer lab at Benjamin Franklin High School

As quickly as it was set up, we dismantled it. But I think it gave students a real world context of what they are actually working on – a story, that is not just an academic exercise but with an audience in mind.

I have to say this is a learning experience for me. [What’s that saying, “He who teaches, learns twice?”] I grew up using what we called a ‘blue screen’ as a chroma-key technique. I practiced this during a training stint in Coventry. My fellow student and I sent up this huge camera that weighed about as much as a microwave, at Coventry cathedral – the bombed out remains from the 1940 German air raids. We then took the ‘film’ to the studio and produced a news show. Now, some 33 years later all it takes is a pop-up screen, and a $300 camera slightly larger than a computer mouse.

This week I’m teaching myself to edit the footage on DaVinci Resolve. It’s not part of the lesson plan, for sure! But who knows. These things are not writ in stone. My elective class that I teach at 6:30 am each week day could evolve. I tell my students this is what a computer and tech lab should be – a place to experiment, to take things apart, and be ready for new ideas that pop-up. It’s one year since COVID made us discover new ways of teaching. It’s a lot of work, but it’s invigorating! Notice how everyone’s wearing a mask. No one’s complaining.

A flurry of writing in schools?

Is the pandemic a catalyst for creativity?

I’ve been teaching writing for the past three years as one component in my Computer class. I teach technical skills –formatting documents, and creating presentations — while always introducing current, big-picture issues in information and communication technologies, or ICT, and social media. You know, privacy, trolls, AI, disinformation…

BUT 202O DELIVERED A SURPRISE PACKAGE, besides a micro-organism that derailed us: An explosion of student writing. Fiction, mainly. The capstone project for the past three years has been an eBook my 7th graders research, write and produce. I noticed a sudden interest in fiction writing by last December, so I invited this semester’s students to consider a Writer’s Club. This week, the club is beginning to take shape. It’s fitting: Benjamin Franklin was a prolific writer, after all!

In parallel with this, in my other class on Writing and Publishing class for high school students, writing seems to come naturally. Which is why they take this elective, after all. But what surprises me is how much of writing they have already begun. Two students are already working on a book. Reading their assignments makes me wonder where these young authors have been hiding all these years. Has COVID been a catalyst for creativity? Somewhere, in some research department, there’s probably a study going on about how lock-downs and screen-time have driven young people to books again; how young adults are discussing issues not covered by memes and Tik-Tok.

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, I INVITED JESSICA MCCANN, a Phoenix based author and freelance writer to talk to my class on Monday. Jessica writes historical fiction, and her story of how she researches her character, and crafts her story is inspiring. Her examples are what we writers could identify with such as taking on the mundane work (writing about topics such as ‘garbage’), editing work for a different kind of ‘reader’ (corporate documents), and a brush with law literature. The latter is what serendipitously led to her digging into a court case involving slavery in the late nineteenth century, which led her to a character who figures in one of her books.

Speaking of craft, Jessica talked about the need for a writer to capture and convey the sensory experiences of a scene or a character, whether it is interviewing a celebrity or an anonymous figure in history. [Her books areA Peculiar Savage Beauty” set in the 1030s Dust Bowl, and “A different Kind of Free” set in the pre-Civil War era. Having always leaned toward Sci-Fi, I’ve never read much in the historical fiction genre. I’m sold now!

My students this week are working on a blog post. In a few weeks they will create and produce a podcast, and then a newspaper. Elsewhere, and anecdotally I hear that interest in journalism is on the rise. Does that mean a return to long-form journalism, and greater value placed on writers across all genres? I hope so.

Curtail pre-teen cellphone use. Please!

“It sucks to be Asian,” was one of the many comments teenagers left on the comments section of an article in Common Sense Media. Well?

Let me respond to this as an Asian person. It’s true that we fit the tough-love stereotype. It has worked in our family. We look at cellphones as a privilege –a luxury even. Certainly not a necessity.* I find it amusing that Common Sense Media, also features an article for parents titled, “What’s the best cell phone for kids?” and it begins to answer it by saying “Honestly, the best cell phone for kids is one they use responsibly and respectfully…” Which is a safe but highly irresponsible answer. The best cell phone for ‘kids’ is no phone at all, if by kids you mean children who can barely feed themselves, or do still use a booster seat.

To put it another way, pretending that very young children need a device to initiate phone calls “for emergency purposes” is a lie many parents tell themselves. We told our two children, right up to 7th grade that if they urgently needed to make a phone call to us, they should go to the school office. Or a teacher.

In my school, students cannot use a cell phone during school hours. No ifs, no buts. Many of my students ask me if they could call a parent from my desk phone when they forget their lunch, or sports clothes. Or need to stay late for a make-up assignment. I happily oblige.

We did not ‘invest’ in a phone just to be our children’s pacifier, or a way to spend idle time. We recognized early enough –long before the cellphones-and-mental health uproar– that giving a child a multi-media device was like force feeding a child with weed. Here, take this and stop throwing a tantrum!

We often hear of many parents making excuses for giving a child a phone (for ‘research’ purposes!) only to hear that the child is suddenly turned sullen, finds hard to make friends etc.

I get the ‘correlation’ vs ‘causation’ argument. This is another dodge. Society didn’t have to wait for the ‘data’ to prove that the correlation between nicotine and cancer had turned to causation, did we? Adults are afraid to admit that smart phones are harmful for fear they may be cast as Luddites, laggards or simply out of sync with the times. If you watch the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, you will hear how the architects of the features that get young people hooked to smart phones, do not give their own children these devices. Here’s that trailer.

The Social Dilemma. Around 1 minute, you will hear from Sri Lankan born former Facebook exec, Chamath Palihapitiya whom I have featured on this blog before.

Knowing what we know that ‘dopamine feedback loops‘ are built into the apps children get addicted, the radicalization potential of many sites, the exposure to porn, and the effect of social media on social discourse, the smart phone is a loaded weapon.

Kids do not need a cell phone. Curtail their use of your device. Do not buy them a phone. Please!

*The cost of a phone is now approaching $1,500.

“One Nation Under CCTV,” waiting for the lame ducks to get back to work

Bansky, in 2008, made this simple provocative four-word statement at Westminster, London. The words, “One nation under CCTV” were painted on the side of a building. But what’s most interesting are the details.

By Banksy – One Nation Under CCTV, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3890275

Take a closer look at this picture. The two people are painted in as part of the graffiti. (Including the dog next to the policeman.)

Odd question: Why is the cop photographing this act of ‘vandalism’? He looks as if he’s carefully framing it to to post it on social media.

Another odd question: Isn’t it funny that the policeman is also being ‘watched’ by the closed circuit camera on the wall of the building?

Cameras are so ubiquitous now we seldom notice they are there. We almost expect them to be there. Have we become desensitized to being watched? Recently the Los Angeles Police Department banned the use of facial recognition using an AI platform known as Clearview. The US Congress has been slow in enacting a law that puts some guardrails around facial recognition. It’s called the “National Biometric & Information Privacy Act of 2020’’ It stipulates that “A private entity may not collect, capture, purchase, receive through trade, or otherwise obtain a person’s or a customer’s biometric identifier” unless some conditions are met. Introduced on 3rd August this year, there seems to be no traction on this.*

Clearview AI has been investigated by the media, and lawmakers and found to be engaging into some dark data mining practices connected to facial recognition. The company declares on its website that it is “not a surveillance system.” Commissions in the Australia and the UK opened investigations into this in July.

Bansky, have you been asleep recently?

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* Interesting sidebar: The way to see progress of a bill in Congress is through a website, www.govtrack.us. (Yes it sounds like ‘government track us’!) In reality we can track them – so that, in this instance, they pass a law that doesn’t track us.

In the Internet graveyard: RSS, USENET, CompuServe and GeoCities

You have to be of a certain age to remember that geeky feature known as ‘RSS” and why it was supposed to change everything.* Or to have been on a USENET group or a BBS to know that there were ‘discussion boards’ before Twitter and Discord. I still remember creating a ‘homestead’ in GeoCities, which was a precursor to, Second Life. Second what? This was a ‘massively multiplayer’ virtual hangout in which businesses spent millions of dollars creating virtual storefronts, hosting virtual conferences etc. This was all part of a frenzy to colonize cyberspace, as if real estate was about to run out. This was when we breathlessly talked about the clash between the bricks and clicks.

IBM’s meeting room in SecondLife

I have to admit I too went in for a land grab with a domain I registered called Brand Buzz. I was nearly sued by a big name ad agency that claimed I was trespassing on their ‘land’ and for awhile stood my ground. (Long story; I featured this in my book Chat Republic.) As a tech columnist for Communication World magazine I remember attending virtual conferences in Second Life, and wondering where this bizarre game-like experience was taking us. Could we be chatting with each other as (through) pixelated avatars in the future? Thankfully not.

There was also a time when we had 56K modems, and needed a CD-ROM from American Online (Who remembers ‘ROM’s and AOL?). I bring these up because we are now being submerged in new terms and new technologies claiming to be defining the future of the Internet. I occasionally broach the subject in my class to give my students some context to the tech hype they are being exposed to, as we were then. Like 5G. Here’s what the Electronic Frontier Foundation, (a thinking person’s guide to anything with or without wires and apps) had to say of 5G:

Without a comprehensive plan for fiber infrastructure, 5G will not revolutionize Internet access or speeds for rural customers. So anytime the industry is asserting that 5G will revolutionize rural broadband access, they are more than just hyping it, they are just plainly misleading people. (“Enough of the 5G Hype 2019)

We’re still drowning in hype, aren’t we?

* RSS is dead. But the protocol that it was based on to provide ‘feeds’ lives on. Second Life is still on life support.

Drone surveillance in Sri Lanka raises deep ethical questions

Worth listening to Prof. Rohan Samarajiva break down the pros and the cons of drone use – and related sticky issues around big data, anonymization and machine learning this brings up.

This month, Sri Lanka’s army set up a drone regiment. Terms such as ‘organic aerial reconnaissance’ and disaster response are being used. But are we know with any technology, they come ‘locked’ with ethical and social dilemmas which go unnoticed.

This kind of deep discussion that professor Samarajiva brings, around whether citizens approve or recognize the privacy they forfeit for convenience, should be asked all the time. Otherwise, just as how the data mining companies are allowed to exploit us, a new technology could do the same until it’s way too late.

We love our machines – until we begin to see how they conspire against us.

Googler speaks to my students

Patrick Krecker, a software engineer at Google spoke to my students last week. This was the start of a series of Technology Speakers this semester at Benjamin Franklin High School.

The goal is to give students a different way of seeing the relevance of a computer class. My hope is that speaking to someone in the real world, at a company they are acutely familiar with, could put many things in context. The previous week, we discussed search engines, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s early engine, curiously called Backrub! They also took a deep dive into Google’s Moonshot projects at GoogleX.

Hearing about the Google culture, its pioneering spirit, and the way a Google engineer approaches apps was really enlightening. Even for me. I used to work with Patrick at ASU. I was so impressed to see what he’s doing at one of the most powerful, omnipresent companies today.

Thanks, Patrick! I would certainly want to have to back on Google Meet (what else?) in the future!