Tag Archives: News

The Future of Newspapers in 1995

My wife wanted to take a nap on Sunday, and since she said she didn’t care what was on the TV as long as it wasn’t Anime, I took the opportunity to watch some Season 2 episodes of Babylon 5. Estimations of future technology have always been kind of a tricky subject in science fiction. Some things it gets right, like the tablets, cell phones and laptop computers in Star Trek, and some things it gets hilariously wrong.

This one I’m not too sure about.

In episode 19 of Season 2, “Divided Loyalties” Ambassador Delenn and Captain Sheridan are standing in front of an unusual dispenser:

Instead of USA Today, Babylon 5 dispenses “Universe Today”. Subscribers deposit their previous day’s issue into the slot which is recycled with a flash, select their preferences, and are issued a new paper edition customized to their needs.

Now the logic of this is a little questionable. In the same episode Sheridan and Garibaldi have an extensive discussion about the lack of trees on the station (except for those in the orchard), and yet there is an ample supply of paper being shipped to the station for a newspaper. Presumably recycling the issues cuts down on the amount of stuff that would need to be shipped in, but paper can only be recycled so many times, and relies on everyone depositing their previous issue to get the new one.

Leaving this aside there are some things about the concept that are brilliant. I think a lot of us have a cycle of 5-10 sites we check every morning for news, media and whatever strikes our fancy. There are RSS feeds and news aggregators and even apps that deliver magazine like content from different to our tablets. The Universe Today concept takes news from what must be hundreds of sources and condenses it down to a particular user’s interests, like Delenn’s “Eye on Minbari” section. And it delivers it cleanly, in an easy to digest format.

Today, a lot of local papers are using news writing software to deliver personalized content about sports and financial stories. Technical journals with a very narrow audience are being automatically created using software as well, producing analysis and reports for very specialized needs.

The idea of the paper newspaper surviving until the 23rd century, let alone the end of the 21st century, may seem far-fetched. But personalized, customized, and even echo-chambered news is already here.

Now if only someone can make a White Star I’ll be all set.

White_star_fires

1 Comment

Filed under Trube On Tech

Is Software Ethical?

CORRECTION: This was a WOSU (my home station) story, not an NPR story. I will direct my complaints in the appropriate direction. Here’s a link to the WOSU audio. Original post follows.

I heard a comment on WOSU this morning that really kinda pissed me off.

* GETS ON SOAPBOX *

* PUTS ON NERD GLASSES *

The comment was the button at the end of a story about software being used to write articles for the Associated Press and other news organizations (mostly for sports and financial stories and other statistics heavy articles). The question was asked: Can robots have morals or ethics in writing news stories?

Answer. No. Robots cannot have any ethics or morals. Morals are a human thing.

Here’s what annoyed me about this answer.

1) Robots: The term robot or “bot” has been colloquially used to refer to any automated process, whether it was ChatBots from the old IM days, or algorithms like this one. As an engineer “robot” has always seemed like a misleading term because it conjures a lot of images in people that have nothing to do with what you’re talking about. Robots are hardware, we’re really talking about software, and if we want to get technical, we’re talking about intelligent systems.

Intelligent systems are not AI or at least not in the sense that the general public would think of AI. Intelligent systems take a lot of forms, but basically they take in data and respond with a diagnosis, a solution, or a news story. What distinguishes Intelligent Systems from AI is that they’re not generalized. An Intelligent System can be complex, but it is essentially a bunch of algorithms designed to tackle one kind of problem, in this case, how to write informative, brief, and factually accurate news stories.

2) Ethics: To say that software doesn’t have ethics is like saying that a book doesn’t. Software is another form of human expression. It is written by a human (hey, like me), the requirements for what the software should do are all determined by humans, and it is evaluated by humans.

What are ethics anyway? Well in this case our interviewee was referring to a code of journalistic conduct, where the important morals are objectivity, lack of prejudice, and a basic understanding of what humans find important or insensitive.

The specific example discussed was a baseball game in which a pitcher pitched the first no-hitter game for a team in over a decade. The software wrote an article that had this information in the second paragraph. To me, that just sounds like a bad case statement, not an unethical or insensitive piece of software. The human writing the software needs to write code to look for instances we find significant (no-hitters) and what increases their significance (time since last no-hitter). If it crosses a certain threshold, it goes in paragraph one. Easy.

robot

Image Source: Yahoo Sports

 

How are ethics and morals implemented in software? Complex mathematical algorithms and/or a bunch of if-then statements.

Good intelligent systems are able to start from a set of rules, and modify (learn) new rules by doing. If there’s human feedback on the articles produced (or if there’s some other acceptable metric that can be tracked through a website: traffic, comments) software can determine what outputs worked better than others.

It’s an old joke among software engineers that “software can do anything”. It’s not true, except everybody thinks it is and so we have to figure out a way to make it true. But to me, a code of journalistic ethics sounds a lot like a requirements document. A good engineer will figure out a way to take that code, and write those evaluations into decisions the software makes. He or she has ethics, therefore the software does, or at least has morals implemented.

One last thing: Software might actually be better at getting rid of institutional prejudice based on age, gender, skin-color, etc. Even the best of us as humans have to get over how we thought about things before. We have to decide we’re not going make decisions about what we write based on any of those factors and we still might have underlying prejudices we can’t even acknowledge. In software, you just take those evaluations out. They’re gone forever. Software can be truly impartial.

Next time you’re doing a story like this one, get an engineer in the discussion. Don’t just ask a writer. We’re easily frightened.

And lose the term “robots”.

Leave a comment

Filed under Trube On Tech

Pull Your Pants Up, Or Else

Ocala, FL has enacted a law imposing a $500 fine or up to six months in jail for anyone wearing (or barely wearing) saggy pants on their streets*. As you might suspect, this is a law that disproportionately affects young people, and men of a certain racial persuasion. NPR’s Code Switch does a great survey of the potential racial motivations and consequences involved, and the history of clothing discrimination throughout American history.

Not being able to speak with great authority on this side of the issue, I’ve chosen instead to suggest new laws that might counterbalance any perceived racial motivation, and target items of clothing that are no less a threat to our fashion decency. Feel free to contribute any suggestions of your own.

Tiny Fedoras – Unless you’re this guy, or living in the 30s.

Justin-Timberlake-Fedora

Endless Scarves – You’re just hurting the economy. We need scarf turnover so we can keep the garment industry afloat. Scarves were meant to have a beginning and an end.

red-polyester-boston-solid-red-infinity-scarf-236169-95-1600-0

Hipster Glasses – Unless you need them to see, are this guy again, or are a girl (which admittedly is pretty cute). This picture actually contains two violations.

504b14bce7251-194x

I would have mentioned Crocs, but wearing them is punishment enough, as my co-worker who sliced his foot on a rock whilst wearing a pair of these can attest.

I’d love to hear your suggestions. And seriously, check out the NPR post. This stuff is kind of nuts.

*In case it wasn’t abundantly clear from the tone of the post, I find this law ridiculous and potentially harmful to whole groups of young people. I might yell at a guy to pull up his pants (and often they’re white in my area), but I’d never throw him in jail.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Current Events Blogging Criteria

There are a lot of current events issues going on right now that I will probably never write about. It’s not that I don’t have opinions, because like every American I usually do, it’s just that they’re not particularly worth sharing, or expounding on for 500 words.

When thinking about whether or not to write on a topic I use a variant of something I heard from Craig Ferguson:

1) Does this need to be said?

2) Does this need to be said by me?

3) Does this need to be said by me now?

For me these three statements boil down to three criteria: redundancy, authority and stakes.

Redundancy or “Am I adding anything to the conversation?”

I don’t expect to have a 100% unique opinion on anything. In fact I’m hoping there’s a segment of the population that thinks like I do, or can be convinced to do so with enough coaxing. That said I don’t want to be an echo chamber. If I’m basically regurgitating someone else’s argument without putting forth my own idea, then I’m better off saying nothing. That way, when I have something I actually want to say, it isn’t lost in a whole lot of rambling about things people have heard a million times.

Authority or “Do I know enough to comment intelligently?”

I think there are two kinds of authority: inherent and learned. Inherent authority is when I write knowledgeably about something that is part of my everyday life. I’m engaged professionally in Writing and Programming (Technology) so I feel comfortable writing on these topics frequently. Similarly, if there’s a subject I’ve done a lot of reading about, or have been following in the news, then I might be able to summarize what I’ve learned intelligently. But there are definitely gaps in my knowledge. For a while I was kind of avoiding the situation in Syria, and only in the last couple of months have I made more of an effort to at least be conversationally aware of what’s been going on for two years now. I think we all have these gaps, and when we’re thinking of what to write about, we need to be aware of them.

Stakes or “Do I sound like an outsider?”

I’ve been reading a lot about “Common Core” and STEM emphasis in education lately. As a technical professional, and as a writer I do have an opinion that’s forming in my brain on these topics, but I would feel a little disingenuous writing about them, since they are issues that largely pertain to parents of children in school. Kids might be in my future, but I need a little practical experience on the parent side of school before I will write on the subject. It’s not that I couldn’t put together a good argument, but there’s an intangible quality to actually being invested in the topic. Writing about the NSA leaks has stakes for me, as I work in this industry and I use the internet like just about everybody else. The border dispute between Georgia and Tennessee has no stakes for me, though it is a bit funny to think about changing state lines at this point.

What standards do you use to decide on what posts to write?

2 Comments

Filed under Writing

Take a beat

I’ve been sitting on the sidelines of this one for a few days.

The tragedy in Sandy Hook has elicited every kind of response from the supportive and caring, to the vitriolic and callous. All of us want to find a way to express our anger, our frustration, our grief, and our love. Many of us want to do so publicly, but I’d ask us to reflect for a moment on what’s helpful and thoughtful, and what’s not.

As I’ve stated before, I’m not a fan of sound-byte sized opinions. But if I was to have one on this situation it would be; Take a beat. Think before you speak and especially before you write something permanent.

There’s a time and a place for the gun control debate, but both sides seem a little late to the party during a tragedy such as this. There’s a time for thinking about the violence in our culture, from video games to TV, but with an understanding that no two things are the same, and a whole genre or medium can’t be judged by a few bad apples. Both video games and guns are like alcohol, most of us know how to drink and use responsibly, and some of us are drunks, or maniacs. That doesn’t mean we should ban any of these things. We tried it with alcohol and it didn’t go so well.

And specifically to those of you using Israel as an example for why we should have guns in schools, I’d ask that you think for a moment about how their situation is just a little bit different than ours. Perspective is something sorely needed by people sharing this view. The daily threats of destruction and violence in Israel are something America has no experience with, and we’re arrogant if we think we have the same thing here.

During times of tragedy like this we often accuse our politicians of exploiting the situation for political gain. Democrats enact tougher gun control and Republicans fight back. But what do the rest of us actually have to gain? What do we gain by reaching into the deepest, darkest recesses of ourselves, and showing our true nature to the world? Or worse, what do we gain by having a knee-jerk reaction, of jumping on a sharing, liking, tweeting bandwagon, without a thought as to why, associating our names, our reputations permanently.

Frankly, I’m disappointed in some of my Facebook friends, my friends. These are people I know who think deeply, and who care deeply, allowing themselves to distill it all to putrid sludge. You’re better than this! Maybe rather than typing something five seconds after you hear it, go to sleep, reflect, pray, think for God’s sake. Discuss it with family, with friends, on the phone or in person where you have time to make a real argument, and where your words can be forgotten if they weren’t worth speaking.

It’s free speech, but can we all agree that all that is permissible is not all good? We all want to help those in grief, and to make this a better nation, but we accomplish more by faith, and prayer, and thought, than we do by a lack of thinking. Rather than saying we need guns in the schools, talk to your friends, your neighbors, and your PTA about how you can make your school safer. We can use this tragedy to make things better. Unspeakable evil can be countered, can be used for good.

Let’s remember a little old wisdom, think before you speak. And tweet, and meme, and like, and share. And let’s take the time to make real change, in our nation  and in ourselves.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

If you bought an iPhone 5, please consider returning it

I think we’ve all gone a little insane. Or at least five million of us.

Let’s start with 2000 and work our way up. By now you’ve probably heard about the 2000 worker riot at a Foxconn plant in Taiyuan. While the initial findings seemed to indicate that the riot started as a dispute between workers from different provinces, it seems more likely that the riot broke out as a result of workers having enough of distrust and beatings from the guards. 5000 police had to be sent in to stop the riot, and the 79000 person factory shut down as they picked up the broken glass and the 40 injured.

This plant may have made the iPhone, and if they didn’t, another one just like it did. Apple sold five million of those phones this weekend, and if these workers had been pushed just a bit harder, they might have sold another two million.

But make no mistake, we bought them, this $800 phone that may be as much as a year behind its competitors. Many of this five million will likely replace this new phone with the latest model next year.

I didn’t buy one, but that’s not terribly surprising. Apple hasn’t been selling to me for a while. I particularly like the Mac Book Pro, priced at $1399 for the basic 64GB model. The computer on which I am writing this blog post has 160GB (+32 GB in an expansion SD card slot),  and cost $185 dollars. I could literally buy seven of them for the same money, one for each day of the week.

I’m solidly middle middle class. Maybe lower middle middle. I have gadgets certainly, but an $800 phone makes no sense. I was mad when my $800 HP laptop only lasted two years, and most people who buy the iPhone don’t even keep it that long.

This is insanity, this economy that requires a constant influx of new things while we throw out the old. And I think we know that. We also know the “hidden” costs of this constant influx of new things, environmental damage, distracted driving, and thousands of workers in China working criminally long hours, being searched to make sure they aren’t stealing the products they make, and being beaten by guards at the slimmest provocation.

We don’t need these things, and we know it. I’m a cube dweller. There is not a single function for my job that requires, or even would be helped by an iPhone (or any smartphone). There are thousands like me in my company and in every company. Even managers who might have more of a legitimate business use more often then not seem to use these devices for little else than being rude in meetings.

I’m not saying give up your gadgets. To pull out an old chestnut from my dear friend Brian “pot to kettle, damn your blackness.” I’m saying keep them and use them until they don’t work anymore. Make deliberate decisions about what you buy and decide if its really something that’s right for you and that you will use. Take your time before bringing this thing into your home. And consider the source, the people who made this magic device you are holding.

Apple’s not alone in the crazy department (though a patent on rounded rectangles is just silly and Michael Okuda should be counter-suing you any day now Apple), but lately they may be a little more insane than most. Even the little decisions, like cutting Google Maps from the phones and then not knowing where Mt. Rushmore is just seems sad. It’s sad that Apple prices itself out of the middle class, and doesn’t seem to share its wealth with the people making its products, be it through more humane working conditions or better pay.

We know what’s right, what’s sensible, what reasonable. So do it already!

1 Comment

Filed under CFML, Trube On Tech

Did We Win? Maybe.

According to last month’s report from the Fair Labor Association, one of the biggest problems at Foxconn is the amount of overtime worked by each employee. The average worker can put in as much as 80 hours of overtime a month, or a 60 hour work week. Chinese law states that overtime is limited to 36 hours a month, or 9 hours a week on average. FLA also found that many were not being compensated at the overtime rate of “time and a half” or 150% of hourly salary.

As a result Foxconn has pledged to increase salaries by 16 to 25% by Mid 2013, and to comply with Chinese law and reduce overtime to 9 hours a week. Some Foxconn employees think the reduction in overtime is too drastic, saying they’d be willing to work 60 hours of overtime a month, or 15 hours a week.

Given the numbers flying around I thought it would be helpful to provide some context. Like any good math student I’ve shown my work, and I’ll state my assumptions:

  • I’m defining X to be the average hourly salary of a Foxconn employee.
  • I’m assuming the 16-25% pay increase is to the base salary (i.e. the amount paid for 40 hours of work per week).
  • I have calculated figures for Foxconn previously complying with Chinese overtime (150%) as well as if they did not. It’s important to remember that if Foxconn did not compensate for overtime then that is money they legally owe their employees.
  • I’m showing the figures here for 9 hours overtime pay, I did calculations for 15 hours which you can see here.

If Foxconn did not pay overtime before, then the average worker should experience a 3.4% – 11.5% gain in earnings under a 9 hour overtime policy. However, they would experience a 4.5% – 11.3% loss in earnings if they had been paid what they were owed for the illegal overtime.

If overtime was previously compensated then the average hourly pay for a worker working 60 hours a week would be 1.17X (or 1.17 times base hourly salary). If they were not paid for overtime then their hourly rate would be 1X. Under the new system workers can earn anywhere from 1.27X to 1.36X for 9 hours compensated overtime.

If Foxconn had previously paid overtime, then the cost of their 1.2 million person workforce would be 84 million * X. Otherwise it would be 72 million * X. If Foxconn’s budget for workers remains unchanged they can hire as many as 135.6 thousand new workers if they had previously paid overtime. Otherwise they would need to lay off almost as many or increase their salary budget.

Bottom line is this:

  • If Foxconn had been paying what they owed employees, then employees will earn less than they could before. If, however, they were not compensated, then they will be bringing home more money.
  • Average hourly salaries have increased significantly under the new system, even with reduced overtime.
  • Foxconn will have to raise its budget for employee compensation if they had not previously been paying overtime. Otherwise they can afford to hire the “tens of thousands” of new employees without increasing the budget.
  • If Foxconn did not compensate workers for overtime, then I think punitive damages for unpaid overtime should also be leveled against them.

Leave a comment

Filed under CFML