Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Facebook, fake news, and the impact on our children: A hard lesson learned

Many years ago, I laughed when The Onion parodied a TV talk show discussing Facebook as if it were a CIA-devised surveillance and pacification tool.

No one is laughing anymore. In the past several years, and especially after the 2016 U.S. election, people have come to realize that Facebook is not just a tool to connect with friends, neighbors, and family members. It's one of the most powerful communication platforms ever devised, and like other platforms before it, has the ability to propogate false information on a massive scale. Unlike earlier platforms, however, Facebook's masters have handed over control to other parties, given these parties pretty much an open pass to say and share whatever they want, and "automated" account oversight and discussion.

The "Houston, we have a problem" moment came right after the election. That's when Zuckerberg let loose this gem:
"The idea that fake news on Facebook—of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content—influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea."

Until that point, I naively assumed the company knew how its platform was being used, and had safeguards in place to moderate abuse and scammy behavior ... not just in the United States, but in other countries, where the potential outcomes can be far more serious. That's clearly not the case. (Among other things, Facebook contributed to the demonization of Rohingya in Myanmar, which morphed into ethnic cleansing).

In reality, this platform -- as well as YouTube, Twitter, etc. -- are being played like fiddles. The comment revealed that he did not realize what was going on, or totally underestimated how pervasive it is.

Sometimes it even seems Zuck wants to appease those who would rather use social media as a tool for spying and information control -- surely his charm offensives in China are paired with back-room discussions with Chinese companies and the Chinese government about partnerships and acquisitions, which would require Facebook to help authorities curtain discussion of sensitive topics and turn over the identities of people who dare to speak out against widespread nepotism and corruption, Tibetan occupation, the illegal occupation of islets in the South China Sea, and other sensitive topics that supposedly "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."  

The other thing that's going on is how we personally are impacted by this platform. I've been on since 2004 and still enjoy the opportunity to see what friends and relatives are up to. But the downside of the platform has really taken a toll. It's not just fake news or political stories favoring one group or another. This platform is optimized for outrage and obsessive use. What I see in my friends' feeds makes the early waves of viral games and chain-letters seem quaint now. I really worry how technology will affect our children - something that MIT's Sherry Turkle has been warning people about for decades but has only emerged into the public conciousness in recent years.

I think it's easy to say this is little different from the wake-up calls and inevitable transformations related to earlier forms of mass media (incidents involving "yellow journalism" in the 1800s, Leni Riefenstahl and Orson Welles in the 1930s, the impact of TV on youth in the 60s and 70s, debates over video games in the 1990s and 2000s) but I really feel we as a society are crossing into new, more dangerous territory with some of the new digital platforms. We are starting to see the long-term impact, and the future doesn't look good. 

Monday, October 02, 2017

How to place a freeze on your credit reports

Sharing a PSA that may help some American readers. In the wake of the massive Equifax security breach exposing the personal information and social security numbers of most American adults, consider ordering the three main credit agencies to place a credit freeze on your information (required by state law upon request).

The contact numbers are listed below, and it takes less than 10 minutes per person, per agency. Freezes will prevent most types of credit-based identity theft, although you will need to lift the freeze when applying for loans, mortgages, or credit cards.

Note that if you do have your identity stolen, it is a mess to clean up, taking lots of time, bureaucracy, inconvenience, and costs, including potential legal problems or extra airport scrutiny. Most victims say it takes YEARS to clear up.

The process of freezing your credit takes about 20-30 minutes for one person if you use the automated online or phone systems offered by the three main credit reporting agencies (see below). DO NOT BE FOOLED by other services they offer, such as "credit monitoring" - Trans Union is particularly bad, exploiting the Equifax breach to sign people up for "True Identity" which is a paid premium service that offers limited protections.

Have your credit card number and social security number ready to use the following systems (you can also do it by mail, but it's slower and requires additional paperwork including a scan of utility bills and drivers' licenses). All services will send you a PIN to use later if you want to lift the freeze.

Please share this with friends, family, or colleagues.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Chinese as a world language?

There's an interesting article in LitHub by Tom Mullaney titled TO ABOLISH THE CHINESE LANGUAGE: ON A CENTURY OF REFORMIST RHETORIC. A couple of thoughts to share, as someone who studied Mandarin in Taiwan the 1990s, encouraged his kids to learn Mandarin here and in Taiwan, and still loves to study 4-character colloquialisms:
  • "Chinese is a world script" - The author notes the rising popularity of Chinese classes in schools all over the world. I love the challenge of learning this beautifully complex system of communication, but I think Chinese script is actually holding back Mandarin (and other Chinese dialects) from becoming more widely spoken. It's difficult to write properly, and adds another layer of complexity to remembering vocabulary. I think it's much easier for people to learn a language that has an alphabet-based script, and it's possible to go further with such a language in a given period of time. For students in the West, the prospect of gaining a little proficiency in Spanish in two or three years' time -- not to mention being able to read and write a fair amount of Spanish -- seems very appealing. I don't think that's possible with Chinese, unless the student makes a significant effort and/or endeavors to do an immersion program in Taiwan or China. (One interesting exception: Japanese students have very little trouble with written Chinese, thanks to their own use of kanji, a set of 1,000 or so Chinese characters used for place and personal names and certain vocabulary).
  •  The rise of software to write Chinese characters has really made it much easier to write. I say this as someone who learned in the dark ages before such software was widely available. If I had to write a sentence in Chinese using a pen and paper it would be painful for both myself and the reader ... but on my phone or using a laptop or desktop computer I can manage social media, email, and other lightweight uses thanks to easy pinyin input systems. It's improved my reading ability, too, because now I am interacting in Chinese on my devices using written language that's more like spoken Mandarin, whereas 20 years ago most of the printed materials I encountered tended to be written in more formal style.
  • Mandarin as a world language. The increasing importance of the Chinese economy is becoming a big driver for spoken Mandarin in other parts of the world. I've encountered Thais and Vietnamese who can speak it quite well (but not write) in order to do business or interact with Chinese tourists. A friend who recently visited Italy saw the same thing in high-end shops with young Italians behind the counters being able to speak proficient Mandarin.
  • I disagree with the idea that the lack of spaces between words are a problem. Chinese grammar is very straightforward, and once you have sentence structure and a large enough vocabulary it's not hard to figure where words start and end (even if you don't know a specific term).
  • There are interesting examples in Vietnam and Korea of societies that abandoned Chinese characters in favor of their own alphabets. It's true that cultures lose the connection with ancient literature and older historical documents ... but not their history, thanks to the spread of literacy and public education combined with a strong interest in history and famous people from centuries past.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Amazon KDP survey: the improvements I suggested

So I received an email from Amazon's KDP program, asking me to take a short survey about the program. I've been using KDP for years, but in the past few months the Amazon self-publishing program has gotten a lot of grief from participants for rampant scams, ranging from ebook box set trickery to make money and establish "bestseller" status to bogus borrows and fishy promotions  gaming rank and revenue. The scams take money from readers as well as honest authors trying to play by the rules and publish good books.

But those aren't the only problems. When I was prompted with the following question, I had five specific suggestions:

Survey question: What would you like us to work on next that would improve your KDP experience?

My response:
  1. Get rid of transmission fees. This made sense when people downloaded books to their Kindles over 3G. Now that most downloads are wifi, it's a bogus charge that cheats authors and publishers.
  2. Stop using a misleading UI that tricks people into signing up for KDP Select.
  3. Please stop constant needling to lower prices.
  4. Please do a better job of screening out bogus authors using Wikipedia, Fiverr, or illegally copied sources to "write" books.
  5. Please find and punish people who are outright ripping off readers and other authors with scams and other tricks. It's not enough to remove their ranking. Kill their account and prevent them from opening up a new account tied to the same bank account. Money spent on these scams is not fair to readers or authors who are playing by the rules.
Did I miss anything?

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Visiting Taipei with kids: 4 places to go/things to see

A friend recently asked me about places to go in Taipei during a family visit. Here are my recommendations based on my own experience living in Taipei with my kids a few summers ago:

Taipei Maokong Gondola

Maokong Gondola (貓空纜車) -This is a fun little trip, a small cable car that goes up some hills with the last stop being a place where you get tea or some refreshments. Getting tickets they have English speaking people to help. Go on a weekday as the weekend it's packed. There's also one day it is closed for maintainence every week (maybe Monday or Tuesday) so check before you go. It's located at the last stop of the Taipei Muzha line, which is also where the Taipei Zoo is located (that's better for little kids, but this zoo also has a panda which may be interesting to adults as they are so rare). An image from the inside of the cable car is shown above.

Ximending (西門町): This is kind of the outdoor shopping area that a lot of young people go to. They have shops for hats, cute tchotchkes, souvenirs from Taiwan, and other stuff. There's also a very interesting minimall in Ximending at the Wannian Building (70 Xiníng South Road), close to Exit 6 of Ximen Station. It's 5 stories tall, and it's a warren of weird little shops selling everything from puzzles to military surplus to Japanese robot toys. The top floor is an arcade which is a good place for a 12 year old to kill an hour — the games are mostly Japanese, which are seldom seen outside of Japan.

Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) - this is a fantastic dumping restaurant, world famous! They have English menus. It really deserves its reputation. There are a bunch of them in Taipei, the ones I recommend are the original on Xinyi Rd or the Nanxi branch in the basement of the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store. There's also one in the Taipei 101 building (tallest building in Taiwan). Addresses are on the Din Tai Fung website.

Traditional night market - there are a bunch of them accessible from the subway or taxi. It's a great place to try different food or get cheap clothes although I have to admit if you don't have a Chinese-speaker with you it may be tough! A small one that is easier to walk around and has a small temple to visit is Raohe Street Night Market (饒河街觀光夜市) - directions here.

My Quick Taipei video from 10 years ago, introducing people to the city and surrounding hills: