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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Social Media: Still no such thing as a free lunch

    I recently had a friend, who also uses one of the same Social Media sources that I do, complain about the way their contacts list was being used to send out advertisements to her friends under their name. For them, this was an item that made them consider dropping use of that Social Media source (I am deliberately not naming it because the problem is not really specific to that particular source -- call it YYY.) I responded to their message with a brief note about how all of the Social Media sources had to find ways to fund themselves and that if they chose to drop usage that was certainly their right but to recognize that the source had to be able to fund themselves.
    During the past 50 years, we have had a true technical revolution -- meaning that the ways that things interact have dramatically shifted. All change causes discomfort and the need to adapt new methods to work with them. However, as I have talked about in some earlier blogs, money -- which is the representation of labor and other resources -- still needs to be able to be moved around so that people can pay for their needs to live.
     It may be difficult for many people to remember so far back but, once upon a time, everything was paid for in cash of the local economy -- or, possibly, private representations of cash such as personal checks or money orders/traveller's checks. My younger children have never written a check -- and it is quite possible they never will (they also may not learn cursive handwriting to be able to sign a check or contracts -- but that is a different story). The first credit card (or what we would call a credit card) was invented around 1950. For the first couple of decades, a credit card was used more as a guarantee against payment with the card's numbers (sometimes imprinted from a raised surface) associated with an account which was then printed with the purchase/fee amount and sent to the local bank or credit repository. The money was then authorized to be given to the merchant and a bill was later created for the person using the credit card. It was not until the 1980s that the landline phone system began to be used to connect directly to the credit card issuer's accounting system -- an "electronic" credit card. Of late, it is becoming popular to embed "smart chips" to increase security.
     With use of electronic credit cards, the user, the merchants, and the credit system became part of the "big data" pool of information. Privacy was greatly diminished -- laws were created to help protect privacy but certain information could now be accessed unless directly forbidden. If you buy a specific product at a specific store, you may get (in the mail -- or via email) a coupon for a competing product at a competing store (or the same product but at a different store). They know WHAT you get and WHERE get it -- and the purchase is specifically connected to YOU. The advent of even more abstract methods to transfer money such as Paypal means that all info within the capital stream can be matched against each other.
     So, with that general background, here comes the Internet. Others are better qualified to talk about how it evolved than I am -- but it basically started as a network interconnected by the Defense Department to help its contractors better communicate with each other. That expanded into a general connection of universities, colleges, and scientists which then expanded into connections between businesses as well as all the former connections and then the leap occurred for virtually everyone to connect with everyone else. This global interconnection used to be via voice phone, or physical letters and telegrams, or long personal trips.
    The old, physical, methods had a set of costs to provide services and a set of fees and charges to make sure all the people involved could continue to provide the services. The old pre-Internet was paid for by the Defense Department, and then divided between the Defense Department and the various businesses and then private companies started to be formed which helped with interconnection for a fee -- with transmission fees to the private companies paid directly by the end user. That is the way that the fee structure is largely set up now. People pay for connection (cable, DSL, analog phone, broadband ethernet, whatever) and usually have an Internet Service Provider (ISP) -- many times these are now provided by the same company. In some manner, the full amount of fees/charges must pay for the needs of all the people/resources needed to provide the service.
    We (finally, you say) now get to the Social Media. Social Media is a destination -- just like going online to shop is a destination -- or online to get information is a destination. Each destination has an interest in having you go there. But every destination has its own costs needed to provide the services that are attracting you to go there. Online shopping sites are a straight-forward equivalent of a "brick and mortar" store. Their costs are paid for via the profits on items that they sell. Online information access is usually paid for by the people who want you to have the information -- tourist destinations or government entities (taxpayer funded) or whatever. Private information destinations may be paid for by advertisements which exist to redirect you to businesses which have use an online shop finance model.
     But what about the Social Media? Every destination has to get you to decide to visit. Many of the major Social Media (and major "search" groups) decided that the services would be "free" to the user. In other words, people could work with the destination's services without paying any additional money directly. A "free" site can then entice people to come there by providing the services that they want to use without having to precisely decide on a fee structure for the services (which, if they give many types of services, could end up being very complicated). BUT, the Social Media still has people and other resources that are needed to provide the service -- and these people have their own needs to be able to live. So, every destination -- including Social Media -- must eventually bring in money to pay for those services.
     Once a service is provided as "free" it is very difficult to start charging up-front fees without having a mass departure of people from using the service. So, the fees must be charged in a manner that is "optional" -- you are not required to pay/use them in order to get the general services -- but enough people are expected to want to use them such that the money brought in is enough to pay for costs. The first, easiest, avenue is advertisements -- this has a long-time association with use of services and people expect it (even if the service initially starts with no advertisement). It is even a way to get initially "free" services changed to a fee-service without getting rid of users -- ("free" with advertisements but, if you don't want ads, you can pay a fee to get rid of them). The next step is to provide access to other services which, once again, may be "free" but have added inclusions that do cost money (for example games that allow you to purchase "extras"). A following step is to "sell the client list" to other fee-based advertisers (such as my friend complained about).
     There are various methods used to bring in the revenue needed to provide the services and resources -- some are very ingenious. The goal is to make you WANT to pay -- something that you have been persuaded that you NEED -- without ever making you doubt the reasons for which you initially went to the destination. It is a "tightrope" for some companies and they often sway back and forth between not making enough money to starting to lose people because they are unhappy.
     What other methods of bringing in money do you encounter? How do you feel about them?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Troll attack: the new playground bully of the Internet

    The more that a person uses social media, the more likely it is that you will be the subject of a troll attack. Like most situations of being attacked, the most direct way of avoiding such an attack is to not be present. Within social media, this means do not post -- do not show any indication that you exist. For some people, this works pretty well -- they "lurk" in the background and notice what is happening in other people's lives and what are the topics that others are interested in discussing.
     There is nothing wrong with passive use of social media -- unless there is something important going on about which you want to give your opinion. Or some event is occurring of which you are particularly proud -- maybe an anniversary or an award that your child has won. Or you keep encountering situations where you say to yourself -- "yes, that is possibly true -- but this other point, which I think is much more important, keeps being missed". Perhaps they keep talking about point B and they don't talk about point A which is related but not the same.
     Pride, knowledge, a desire to contribute all may add to the reasons why you may want to actively participate. But, once you are visible, you can (and probably will) be attacked.
     You may have heard about flame wars -- which are related to troll attacks. In both cases, the person attacking is primarily making personal attacks -- the messages have little, if any, relation to what was actually said. Many times, there is no way to tell from the attack whether the original message was read at all. However, the sneakiest (and most hurtful) troll attacks occur when they DO mention something that is somewhat relevant to what you have said -- because it can seem like the personal attack is based on some part of your message. It isn't.
     Why would a person conduct a troll attack? It truly is the same situation as a "playground" (or workplace, or other locale) bully. First, they are angry. You don't know why but they are angry. Perhaps they lost their job or were refused a promotion in a job or their child was struck by an unlicensed (and uninsured) driver or they dropped a bowling ball on their foot or they were just screamed at by their mother or cousin. You just plain do not know. The only thing you know is that they are angry.
     Second, they want to hurt others. Why do they want to hurt others? Why do they want to hurt you? Unfortunately, many people seem to feel that if others are feeling badly, or are being treated badly, then they -- in comparison to the others -- are doing better. This happens with various prejudices as well as in the arena of bullying.
     Why are they attacking you? Well, it is possible that your message mentioned a keyword -- or "hot button" -- something about which they have an entire set of preset ideas and emotions. Am I saying that they ARE addressing your message? No -- not at all. They are still creating a personal attack based on anger. They are not listening (reading), analyzing, researching, thinking, or anything that really is concerned with the topic. They are reacting in anger because they are angry.
     Why else might they choose you to attack? It might be because your message shows some indication that you may be vulnerable to attack -- it indicates insecurity or that you are hurting -- and there are also "-ist" attacks based on peripheral things like religion or pigmentation or ethnic origin or such. They attack because you seem to be a person who can be attacked.
     What do you do if you are attacked? Personally, I suggest to do nothing. Like other bullies, if they do not get anything back to feed their anger, they will choose a different target. (It is conceivable, but unlikely, that they will even reconsider what they have said and try a different response -- at which point in time it is up to you whether to respond.) It may be useful for you to create a reply -- but never, never send it -- in order to allow emotional responses to find a form.
     It is possible that others will come to your defence -- which may have some effectiveness unless they also start attacking from anger rather than addressing the contents of the messages.
     Disagreements occur in life -- and they occur on the Internet. When the contents of messages are addressed, researched, explained, expanded upon, and treated as a bit of information within a much larger pool of information, those disagreements can lead to growth, change, and continued exchanges of ideas. When people attack the person who writes the message then there is no route to constructive response. It is an emotion not a thought and they may have reasons to be angry -- but they do not have the right to address that anger upon you.
     How do you deal with flames and troll attacks? Do you have any methods that work to decrease them?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Value Equation: A formula with no fixed parameters

    People are always searching for a "good value". But what does value mean? Value is certainly a subjective matter -- the value for one person will differ from the value for another person. Still, even though it is variable, there are certain things that make up value. I call this "the Value Equation". Real economists may very well have a better formula for this concept -- but I like mine for general simplicity and use.
    My Value Equation is Quality * Quantity * (1 / Cost) = Value. I would love to have Cost not be used as a reciprocal (divided into 1) but that is really how it relates to value. The lower the Cost the greater the Value -- a reciprocal situation. There is one other factor that indirectly affects the Value Equation. That is Affordability. It interacts with Cost in some manner but I don't know how to directly put it into the equation. Let's just say that if you have more money available then cost becomes less important.
    Quality is the most subjective part of the equation. If one person really loves something then their perception of quality increases. In a similar way, if another person really hates something then the quality becomes less. It is even possible for it to become negative. A negative quality would indicate that the thing being evaluated goes against moral values. If you hate internal combustion engines then a more powerful engine has less quality for you because it uses more gasoline and probably emits more pollution. If you don't mind internal combustion engines then a more powerful engine has things about it that you love and will increase the quality for you.
    Quantity is the only part of the equation that is mostly fixed. I say "mostly" because it is not always true that "more is better' for some people. A huge drink ("big gulp") sounds great until one evaluates the health consequences of drinking too much sugar or artificial sweeteners. A huge sandwich that is more than one should eat either becomes "wasted" (thrown out) or "waisted" (accumulated as fat into your body).
    Even cost is a variable factor. First, the price that is charged is not fixed. Often, wealthy people (or celebrities) are charged less for things because they can "take it or leave it" and because their possession and use of it provide a return advertising value for the supplier. Second, in most instances cost does not reflect "total cost". Total cost is the price of all events that exist from harvesting the raw materials to manufacture to distribution to reclamation of the object and the environment from which the raw materials were harvested. Total cost is rarely used -- a good portion of the cost is absorbed by the general population and subsidized by the taxpayers.
    Even with the subjective variability of the parts of the equation, it is still easy to see how it is used. Something that is of high quality, in the desired quantity, at a low cost will give the greatest value. If the quality goes down, the value goes down. If the cost goes up the value decreases (but may not be so important if it is very affordable).
    How would you define quality? Do you see a limit on quantity that provides value or is "the more the merrier"? Do you consciously take into account "total cost" when you buy something. Do you "waste" or "waist" or do you try to always get just the correct quantity?
    Although the Value Equation can be used as a framework -- the final answer is still up to you.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Solidified Memory: How do we make sure we remember what we experienced?

    If memories are so unreliable (and they truly are) then what can we do to make them more reliable? How do we convert them from transient to permanent? Well, on a technical basis, that process is called moving them from short-term to long-term memory. But, as we have discussed, that still doesn't make the memories any more "true" just because we remember them longer.
    First off, it is good to acknowledge that almost any "evidence" can now be forged -- with enough money spent, it can be forged to the point that it is impossible to detect that it was not from reality. Technology has moved along a lot since the movie "Rising Sun" was made with Sean Connery. Photos, and video, can be created pixel by pixel. Cursive writing can be reformed from templates into any combination of letters, words, and sentences that may be desired. Audio is still, currently, the hardest to forge as it is a representation of analog (continuously changing) information -- but it is still possible to create something that would be very hard to distinguish from "real".
    The only real protection individuals have from data forging is that most of us are NOT "worth the trouble". Even though it is easier and easier, with more easily used tools, to manipulate and fake data it still takes time, knowledge, experience, money (for equipment and software) and (for the second mention) time.
    So, how to create a record for oneself that we can use to keep our memories "solid"? We have already inferred a number of methods. Photos. We can take photographs (preferably with notes associated with them). We do have to be careful to not infer about what we do NOT see. If we take that photo of a person in a red hat -- we do not know the color of the other side of the hat. We do not know who hid behind a tree. However, if we are taking these photos for ourselves, we can include notes to help get the information correct.
    Audio is a great way to note things down -- but audio of what we experience is more useful than our taking an audio note of what we noticed or experienced. (That is just as easily misled as any other account of events.) If we can record someone saying something then we can refer back to it as what they said. Content, sequencing, and who said what can be noted and solidified.
    Video combines the two of image and sound. The more the merrier. We just have to make sure that we recognize that what is not recorded may be as important, or more important, as what IS recorded. Do not take the "evidence" further than what is really there.
    A final method of solidifying memory is just that -- physical reconstructions and recordings. Statues and sculptures, writing, models, and so forth can capture events and the emotions of events.
    Do these methods make memories more reliable? No, not really -- although they can record details that we can forget ("Did I wear a green shirt that day or the plaid one?"). But they do help them to stop changing.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A divergent possibility : Reuse or Recycle is a fork in the road

    The three "R"s include the areas of Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling (with the addition of the preliminary "Rethink" of the Houseboat philosophy). But how is a decision made whether to resuse an article or to recycle it?

    Generally, this is a matter of how easy is it to do one or another. To reuse, it must be able to be used -- it must be in working order. A book is presumably able to be reused easily unless it is damaged. An old sofa might be moderately damaged -- needing a hole to be repaired or a leg put back on. A piece of electronic equipment may require a diagnosis followed by repair. There is a sliding scale of ease of reuse. No work is needed up to potentially quite a bit of work (perhaps as much as creating the item originally).

    Sometimes, repair can become part of a hobby or enterprise. People may take great pleasure in the work needed to repair a vintage car -- and the parts and labor can be considered an investment. The same can be true for people who buy a house in need of repair and succeed in renovating it such that it can be lived in, or resold, in a much better condition (and higher price).

    But, what about a toaster? There are some "vintage" toasters that can rise in value -- but most of them are "commodities" -- able to be replaced easily or replaced with "improved" characteristics. Is it worthwhile to repair? Is it a part of an internal enjoyment to repair? Possibly for some but for most it is not worthwhile. So, we hit an economic tradeoff which is very dependent on the local cost of merchandise and the local cost of labor.

    Let's say that a new working toaster is priced at $30. A used working toaster can bring $5 at a flea market or local swapmeet. If the cost of labor to repair toasters is $20/hour and it takes two hours to repair it, then making a non-working toaster able to be sold would cost $40 and only sell for $5 giving a net loss of $35. Who would decide to do that? Hopefully, the person would find a good place to recycle the toaster.

    However, if we are in another place where a new working toaster is priced at $20 and a used working toaster can bring $7, we may have a different situation. What if labor costs are only $2/hour? A non-working toaster can be repaired for $4 and sold for $7 -- giving a total profit of $3. We can see that the local prices and local labor costs make a big difference as to whether something is reused.

    Another factor that comes into play for reuse versus recycling is convenience. If I have a paperbook that is not severely damaged I have a choice for reuse by taking it to a used bookstore or recycling it via a curbside pick up. If it takes me 40 minutes (roundtrip) to take that book to the bookstore then recycling becomes an attractive option. If I have a box of books, however, the time needed to take them to the used bookstore becomes less of an overhead. Convenience and net savings come into play -- plus the value one gives to their own time.

    As an umbrella over the choices is the priority one gives to the environment. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle are the three rules but they only apply to people who care about the effects of NOT doing these things. Some may care because of the money involved with not doing it -- some may care because of the environmental costs -- and some may not care at all. What is my time worth in choices needed to help maintain a good environment? Do I care about the state of my surroundings when the next generation is growing up? These are underlying questions with individual answers.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Malleable Memory : What you remember isn't necessarily what occurred

     Memories are that special something that make us who we are. Twins may have the same genetics but, even if raised in the same environment, they cannot have the same memories. You would think that, if this is the case, memory must be the most reliable of attributes of the human condition.

     But this is NOT the case. Memories can be formed in ways that they are inaccurate at the very beginning -- and change over the years to fit in better with other attitudes and stories concerning the subject matter.

     Jodeph Campbell related a local tale of a village that had a mischievous god who visited. There were two rice fields on different sides of a small dirt road. This god put on a big woven hat -- one side was bright red and the other side was bright blue. He put it on his head such that the people working in the field on the right saw the red and the people working in the field on the left saw the blue. He reached the end of the road and turned around -- but, while turning around, he also reversed his hat such that now (going the opposite direction) the people on the right saw the blue side and the people on the left saw the red. Thus, for both walks down the road, people in the field saw the same color.

     When the villagers finished their work for the day, they met in the village and talked about this strange man who walked through the fields wearing a bright red hat. "NO" said others he was wearing a bright blue hat. So, they argued and fought and the god laughed. This is one of the first ways that memory is shaky -- no one can observe everything that there is to be observed and different people will observe different things.

    A second area that changes the formation of memories is that of expectations. These expectations are based on personal histories, biases, and even current events.  During a classroom experiment, two people (without forewarning of the class) entered a classroom -- male and female and of different ethnic backgrounds. They loudly started to argue, fight, and then leave the room. After they left, within five minutes of their arrival and before the students could discuss among themselves, the instructor had the students write down an account of what happened.

     When the instructor read through the accounts, she found that there were not two accounts that read the same. Some of the things that the actors did were reversed -- things that the female did were recounted as things that the male did and so forth. The interpretation of who did what first and which one was justified in their reaction also changed. In general, if a history book was to be written from these first-person accounts there would have to be one per person.

     The third area of moving early memories is that of peer influence. Once a situation is discussed, many people will start changing their memories to that of what the most popular people remember -- or will allow for change based on arguments presented by others of more vocal temperament..

     Within a few days, the people no longer remember any different account. These are some of the many aspects of how initial memory can be altered. In the next blog, we will talk about longer-term memory and how it changes with time and can be altered.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Driving and Physics : the laws of the road that cannot be broken

   There are two sets of laws involved with driving a car. The first set is made from the human-made laws which are a set of etiquette laws of how people can share the roads and passageways while driving 700+ kilogram vehicles. The other, underlying, laws are associated with the laws of physics. The first set can make interacting with other vehicles, and their drivers, more predictable -- and generate income for the various cities in which you drive. The second set -- unlike the situation for the Coyote or Bugs Bunny in Looney Tunes -- cannot be broken and determine what will happen when your car interacts with other physical objects.

   The first topic that I'll mention is that of relative velocities. If you are driving 30 mph (or 50 kph, if you prefer) and you run into a wall, there is 30 mph (times your mass) amount of force with which you hit the wall. This is called kinetic energy. If you run into something coming towards you (such as another car) at 30 mph, the amount of energy is doubled and it is as if you hit a wall at 60 mph. (Note that hitting a wall at 60 mph does more than twice the amount of damage as 30 mph.)

   If two cars are going in the same direction then the collision energy is subtracted. If you are driving at 60 mph along a road and someone driving at 65 mph bumps into you then it is the same as if they drove into a wall at 5 mph. Not very noticeable unless that bump makes you lose control and you use your 60 mph kinetic energy to run into a tree.

   This is the principle behind merging. The idea is that you drive your car such that you are driving at approximately the same speed as other cars by the time you leave the on-ramp to the highway. You speed up a little and safely merge ahead of a car. You slow down a little and safely merge behind a car (preferable). If you are going 30 mph while all the other cars are going 60 mph it makes it much difficult for you, and for all the other cars, to merge safely.

   This leads to the next topic -- "tailgating". This is where you are traveling at a speed such that it is not possible to stop without colliding into the car ahead of you if they abruptly stop. My old traffic books indicated one car length per 10 mph -- so, around 90 feet for travelling at 60 mph. I routinely see people driving with a single car length between cars while driving 60 mph. This situation is very dangerous for two reasons -- if the car ahead abruptly stops, you have converted a 5 mph bump into a 60 mph crash into a wall. The second reason is that it makes it very difficult to merge. The merging car cannot safely go ahead, or behind, other cars on the highway if there is no room.

   Tailgating is directly involved with another law of Physics called inertia. This is Isaac Newton's "First Law of Motion". It says that if something is at rest it will want to stay at rest (difficult to start moving) and if it is in motion it will be difficult to stop and will continue at the same speed and direction unless outside forces change it.

   So, let's apply this law of inertia to tailgating. Stopping distance involves the factors of "reaction time" and physical stopping time. Reaction time varies between people. In general, women have better reaction times than men and, in general, younger people have better reaction times than older people. However, reaction time can never be zero as it takes time for the outside signal to reach your eye (you see a brake light) and your brain to process the signal to start a reaction (stepping on the brake).

   This is why it is impossible to stop if you are tailgating someone and they abruptly stop no matter how good are your reflexes. IF you both started stopping at exactly the same time AND both had the same tires and same braking systems on your cars THEN tailgating could be safe. Those factors are not true.

   This leads into the final topic for this blog. Driving in weather. Weather affects a lot of factors. It can make visibility easier or harder -- which affects reaction time. It can make the traction of the tires on the road better or worse -- which affects physical stopping time. Results from relative velocities remain the same but the outside aspects which makes a difference in how, when, and why have changed.

   So, if you drive on a snowy, icy road you have increased reaction time, physical stopping time and the principles of inertia make it more difficult for you to either turn or stop without the car wanting to continue in the same direction and speed.

   In the end, the laws of physics will exist and they won't change so merge properly, don't tailgate, and allow for changes in road conditions for judging safe driving.