Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Clara Rockmore’s beautiful rendition of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan on the thermin

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More here: another performance, and who she was.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2017 at 8:50 pm

Posted in Music, Technology, Video

Check out your activity on Google

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Cory Doctorow notes:

I recommend checking out My Activity on Google. I was surprised to find that it also logs searches made on my iPhone. There might be some things you forgot to save, or others you might want to delete, or you might just want to change your settings.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2017 at 9:07 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Silicon Valley Women, in Cultural Shift, Frankly Describe Sexual Harassment

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Katie Benner reports in the NY Times:

Their stories came out slowly, even hesitantly, at first. Then in a rush.

One female entrepreneur recounted how she had been propositioned by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist while seeking a job with him, which she did not land after rebuffing him. Another showed the increasingly suggestive messages she had received from a start-up investor. And one chief executive described how she had faced numerous sexist comments from an investor while raising money for her online community website.

What happened afterward was often just as disturbing, the women told The New York Times. Many times, the investors’ firms and colleagues ignored or played down what had happened when the situations were brought to their attention. Saying anything, the women were warned, might lead to ostracism.

Now some of these female entrepreneurs have decided to take that risk. More than two dozen women in the technology start-up industry spoke to The Times in recent days about being sexually harassed. Ten of them named the investors involved, often providing corroborating messages and emails, and pointed to high-profile venture capitalists such as Chris Sacca of Lowercase Capital and Dave McClure of 500 Startups, who did not dispute the accounts.

The disclosures came after the tech news site The Information reportedthat female entrepreneurs had been preyed upon by a venture capitalist, Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital. The new accounts underscore how sexual harassment in the tech start-up ecosystem goes beyond one firm and is pervasive and ingrained. Now their speaking out suggests a cultural shift in Silicon Valley, where such predatory behavior had often been murmured about but rarely exposed.

Continue reading the main story

The tech industry has long suffered a gender imbalance, with companies such as Google and Facebook acknowledging how few women were in their ranks. Some female engineers have started to speak out on the issue, including a former Uber engineer who detailed a pattern of sexual harassment at the company, setting off internal investigations that spurred the resignation this month of Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick.

Most recently, the revelations about Mr. Caldbeck of Binary Capital have triggered an outcry. The investor has been accused of sexually harassing entrepreneurs while he worked at three different venture firms in the past seven years, often in meetings in which the women were presenting their companies to him.

Several of Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists and technologists, including Reid Hoffman, a founder of LinkedIn, condemned Mr. Caldbeck’s behavior last week and called for investors to sign a “decency pledge.” Binary has since collapsed, with Mr. Caldbeck leaving the firm and investors pulling money out of its funds.

The chain of events has emboldened more women to talk publicly about the treatment they said they had endured from tech investors.

“Female entrepreneurs are a critical part of the fabric of Silicon Valley,” said Katrina Lake, founder and chief executive of online clothing start-up Stitch Fix, who was one of the women targeted by Mr. Caldbeck. “It’s important to expose the type of behavior that’s been reported in the last few weeks, so the community can recognize and address these problems.”

The women’s experiences help explain why the venture capital and start-up ecosystem — which underpins the tech industry and has spawned companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon — has been so lopsided in terms of gender.

Most venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are men, with female entrepreneurs receiving $1.5 billion in funding last year versus $58.2 billion for men, according to the data firm PitchBook. Many of the investors hold outsize power, since entrepreneurs need their money to turn ideas and innovations into a business. And because the venture industry operates with few disclosure requirements, people have kept silent about investors who cross the lines with entrepreneurs. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2017 at 4:32 pm

A leading Silicon Valley engineer explains why every tech worker needs a humanities education

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Tracy Chou writes in Quartz:

In 2005, the late writer David Foster Wallace delivered a now-famous commencement address. It starts with the story of the fish in water, who spend their lives not even knowing what water is. They are naively unaware of the ocean that permits their existence, and the currents that carry them.

The most important education we can receive, Wallace goes on to explain, “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” He talks about finding appreciation for the richness of humanity and society. But it is the core concept of meta-cognition, of examining and editing what it is that we choose to contemplate, that has fixated me as someone who works in the tech industry.

As much as code and computation and data can feel as if they are mechanistically neutral, they are not. Technology products and services are built by humans who build their biases and flawed thinking right into those products and services—which in turn shapes human behavior and society, sometimes to a frightening degree. It’s arguable, for example, that online media’s reliance on clickbait journalism, and Facebook’s role in spreading “fake news” or otherwise sensationalized stories influenced the results of the 2016 US presidential election. This criticism is far from outward-facing; it comes from a place of self-reflection.

I studied engineering at Stanford University, and at the time I thought that was all I needed to study. I focused on problem-solving in the technical domain, and learned to see the world through the lens of equations, axioms, and lines of code. I found beauty and elegance in well-formulated optimization problems, tidy mathematical proofs, clever time- and space-efficient algorithms. Humanities classes, by contrast, I felt to be dreary, overwrought exercises in finding meaning where there was none. I dutifully completed my general education requirements in ethical reasoning and global community. But I was dismissive of the idea that there was any real value to be gleaned from the coursework.

Upon graduation, I went off to work as a software engineer at a small startup, Quora, then composed of only four people. Partly as a function of it being my first full-time job, and partly because the company and our product—a question and answer site—was so nascent, I found myself for the first time deeply considering what it was that I was working on, and to what end, and why.

I was no longer operating in a world circumscribed by lesson plans, problem sets and programming assignments, and intended course outcomes. I also wasn’t coding to specs, because there were no specs. As my teammates and I were building the product, we were also simultaneously defining what it should be, whom it would serve, what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users, what kind of community it would become, and what kind of value we hoped to create in the world.

]I still loved immersing myself in code and falling into a state of flow—those hours-long intensive coding sessions where I could put everything else aside and focus solely on the engineering tasks at hand. But I also came to realize that such disengagement from reality and societal context could only be temporary.

The first feature I built when I worked at Quora was the block button. Even when the community numbered only in the thousands, there were already people who seemed to delight in being obnoxious and offensive. I was eager to work on the feature because I personally felt antagonized and abused on the site (gender isn’t an unlikely reason as to why). As such, I had an immediate desire to make use of a blocking function. But if I hadn’t had that personal perspective, it’s possible that the Quora team wouldn’t have prioritized building a block button so early in its existence.

Our thinking around anti-harassment design also intersected a great deal with our thinking on free speech and moderation. We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad. If people were mostly good, then we would design the product around the idea that we could trust users, with controls for rolling back the actions of bad actors in the exceptional cases. If they were by default bad, it would be better to put all user contributions and edits through approvals queues for moderator review.

We debated the implications for open discourse: If we trusted users by default, and then we had an influx of “low quality” users (and how appropriate was it, even, to be labeling users in such a way?), what kind of deteriorative effect might that have on the community? But if we didn’t trust Quora members, and instead always gave preference to existing users that were known to be “high quality,” would we end up with an opinionated, ossified, old-guard, niche community that rejected newcomers and new thoughts?

In the end, we chose to bias ourselves toward . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2017 at 2:56 pm

Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men from Hate Speech But Not Black Children

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Julia Angwin and Hannes Grassegger report in ProPublica:

In the wake of a terrorist attack in London earlier this month, a U.S. congressman wrote a Facebook post in which he called for the slaughter of “radicalized” Muslims. “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them,” declared U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican. “Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”

Higgins’ plea for violent revenge went untouched by Facebook workers who scour the social network deleting offensive speech.

But a May posting on Facebook by Boston poet and Black Lives Matter activist Didi Delgado drew a different response.

“All white people are racist. Start from this reference point, or you’ve already failed,” Delgado wrote. The post was removed and her Facebook account was disabled for seven days.

A trove of internal documents reviewed by ProPublica sheds new light on the secret guidelines that Facebook’s censors use to distinguish between hate speech and legitimate political expression. The documents reveal the rationale behind seemingly inconsistent decisions. For instance, Higgins’ incitement to violence passed muster because it targeted a specific sub-group of Muslims — those that are “radicalized” — while Delgado’s post was deleted for attacking whites in general.

Over the past decade, the company has developed hundreds of rules, drawing elaborate distinctions between what should and shouldn’t be allowed, in an effort to make the site a safe place for its nearly 2 billion users. The issue of how Facebook monitors this content has become increasingly prominent in recent months, with the rise of “fake news” — fabricated stories that circulated on Facebook like “Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Donald Trump For President, Releases Statement” — and growing concern that terrorists are using social media for recruitment.

While Facebook was credited during the 2010-2011 “Arab Spring” with facilitating uprisings against authoritarian regimes, the documents suggest that, at least in some instances, the company’s hate-speech rules tend to favor elites and governments over grassroots activists and racial minorities. In so doing, they serve the business interests of the global company, which relies on national governments not to block its service to their citizens.

One Facebook rule, which is cited in the documents but that the company said is no longer in effect, banned posts that praise the use of “violence to resist occupation of an internationally recognized state.” The company’s workforce of human censors, known as content reviewers, has deleted posts by activists and journalists in disputed territories such as Palestine, Kashmir, Crimea and Western Sahara.

One document trains content reviewers on how to apply the company’s global hate speech algorithm. The slide identifies three groups: female drivers, black children and white men. It asks: Which group is protected from hate speech? The correct answer: white men.

The reason is that Facebook deletes curses, slurs, calls for violence and several other types of attacks only when they are directed at “protected categories”—based on race, sex, gender identity, religious affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation and serious disability/disease. It gives users broader latitude when they write about “subsets” of protected categories. White men are considered a group because both traits are protected, while female drivers and black children, like radicalized Muslims, are subsets, because one of their characteristics is not protected. (The exact rules are in the slide show below.) . . .

Behind this seemingly arcane distinction lies a broader philosophy. Unlike American law, which permits preferences such as affirmative action for racial minorities and women for the sake of diversity or redressing discrimination, Facebook’s algorithm is designed to defend all races and genders equally.

“Sadly,” the rules are “incorporating this color-blindness idea which is not in the spirit of why we have equal protection,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor and expert on information privacy at the University of Maryland. This approach, she added, will “protect the people who least need it and take it away from those who really need it.”

But Facebook says its goal is different — to apply consistent standards worldwide. “The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes,” said Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook. “That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is OK to share.”

Facebook’s rules constitute a legal world of their own. They stand in sharp contrast to the United States’ First Amendment protections of free speech, which courts have interpreted to allow exactly the sort of speech and writing censored by the company’s hate speech algorithm. But they also differ — for example, in permitting postings that deny the Holocaust — from more restrictive European standards.

The company has long had programs to remove obviously offensive material like child pornography from its stream of images and commentary. Recent articles in the Guardianand Süddeutsche Zeitung have detailed the difficult choices that Facebook faces regarding whether to delete posts containing graphic violence, child abuse, revenge porn and self-mutilation.

The challenge of policing political expression is even more complex. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2017 at 10:54 am

Incompetence is metastasizing

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Take a look at these reports:

More than 30 nuclear experts inhale uranium after radiation alarms at a weapons site are switched off

Light penalties and lax oversight encourage weak safety culture at nuclear weapons labs

HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier runs on Windows XP, vulnerable to cyberattack

All three articles show how organization capability seems to be breaking down, something glaringly evident when you look at Congress. What happened? Perhaps it has always been thus, and only now do we have so much access (unlike the days of three networks and the local papers).

Written by LeisureGuy

27 June 2017 at 11:04 am

Why cash remains sacred in American churches

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Professor of American Religious History, Vanderbilt University, writes in The Conversation:

On Tuesday, June 27, it will be 50 years since the first automated cash dispenser – which came to be known as an automated teller machine (ATM) – was inaugurated in London.

Just thinking about it brings a smile to my face. I belong to the generation who stood 45 minutes to an hour to deposit or cash checks in the pre-ATM era. I remember getting yelled at for taking my bicycle through the drive-up line at the National Bank of Detroit to avoid the much longer line inside. It did not take me very long to become an early adopter of the magical cards and 24-hour banking.

Later, in my work as a historian of American religion, I extensively studied the role money has played in religious life. In my book, “In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism,” I retold the American history of the nation’s largest religious stream in terms of the search for money to pay for religious ministries and the purposes for which churches spent the money they collected.

So, what impact did ATMs have on church life?

Giving to the church

Fundamentally, the legal separation of church and state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the United States did more than simply assure freedom of religion – it privatized what until then in Europe had been a public good and provided funding under the auspices of the state. In the U.S., religious leaders and their ministries had to increasingly depend on voluntary donations and to appeal ever more strenuously for those gifts.

Over the 19th century, various church support schemes were tried and abandoned. What in Europe had been a discreet offering with alms boxes kept at the back of the church (alms for the poor) became a central ritual activity in America. In most American weekly church services, offering plates were passed around to finance all of church activities. As giving became very public, one of the features of the weekly offering was, of course, that all gathered could see who was giving, if not how much.

Once the age of plastic money arrived, all of this ritual and financial necessity in American churches was jeopardized. ATMs began appearing in churches, providing a way for people to come up with the ready cash to give to God and their church.

Nature of money

So, why did people need cash in the first place? To answer this question, it is important to first understand the nature of cash in context of religious life.

The German sociologist Georges Simmel famously noted that the essential, almost magical quality of money is that it is fungible – that is, it is exchangeable or replaceable. Individuals can use the same US$100 to buy drugs, feed a frugal family for a week, buy a designer scarf or give it to God in an offering plate.

Indeed, as we know only too well, money is a universal currency to purchase things of incommensurate worth. However, as sociologist Viviana Zelizer explains in her memorable book, “The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Paychecks, Poor Relief, and Other Currencies,” not all money is the same – there are social and moral dimensions to money that are frankly surprising.

To illustrate, Zelizer narrates the striking example of Marty, a 1950s Philadelphia gang member who would donate to the church only the 25 cents that he got from his mother – not money from robberies. When asked, Marty provided a clear distinction between different sets of money. He said,

“Oh, no, that is bad money; that is not honest money.”

But the money he got from his mother was earned through hard work so “he could offer it to God.” Marty is the kind of person who, when asked, “Who would know? would reply, “God would.” The point is, not all dollars are equal – individuals have some strong ideas about clean and dirty money, or just appropriate and inappropriate money.

Here is where ATMs come into the story.

Donations in the age of ATMs

Automated teller machines started to make their first appearance in the lobbies of evangelical churches just over a dozen years ago. It was important for churches to have something to put into the collection plate, and it was important that it be cash that people actually possessed – not a promise to pay someday on their credit card accounts. Thus, the ATM allowed evangelicals who didn’t carry a checkbook or a wallet full of cash not to be embarrassed when the offering plates or baskets came around.

Marty Baker, pastor of the Stevens Creek Church in Augusta, Georgia, was widely credited as the first to install two ATMs in the church lobby in 2005. The first year the donations produced $100,000. They more than doubled by the next year to more than $200,000. He was so successful in increasing giving by making cash available (up 18 percent over pre-ATM machine levels) that he took it one step further, by introducing the “automatic tithing machine” that took cash out of the giver’s account and deposited it directly into the church’s coffers. This new ATM was beginning to virtualize the all-important collection. Some users responded by placing their receipts in the plate at the appropriate time in the service.

The tithe, of course, refers to the tenth of one’s income conservative Protestants are largely taught to pay to the church in gratitude for what God has done. It is a sacred obligation, and the cash money is a serious matter.

There are two interesting dimensions of this appearance of ATMs and churches to consider. One is the strong affinity between cash and conservative evangelicals. For many evangelicals debt is a form of bondage – a message conveyed through conservative radio financial guru Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University to tens of millions of his followers on AM radio each week in his call-in programs. Ramsey teaches how to “dump debt, budget, build wealth and give like never before!” The building of wealth is a corollary to eschewing debt and it makes Christians free, in Ramsey’s view to be godly.

The point is, money isn’t just a fungible means to various ends, it is sacred to these believers.

In cash we trust

The second dimension for consideration in the appearance of ATMs in the lobbies of evangelical churches is that they signaled something by their very presence: America was in fact becoming a cashless society. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2017 at 5:06 pm

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