Friday, July 31, 2015

This Week in EID - Episode 65

This Week in EID

All of the EID articles this week were technology related.  We ran the gamut from smart cars, web sites, user interface design, and big data.

In a very rare situation, there was just a minimal reference to self-delusion. We trust the medical recommendations we read on hospital web sites because we want to have faith in their honesty. Otherwise, how would you handle actually going to one for care?  If you had to second guess their motives for every treatment, it would drive you nuts.  Of course, when you see the bill at the end, even if it goes to your insurance company (the so–called Explanation of Benefits), it is amazing how much and how many things they charge for.

The other article I want to specifically point out is the one on adding human curation to big data recommendations.  Many people put all of their trust in technology.  Others put all of their trust in people.  But as usual, the middle path works best.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Too many issues came up in the last day or two that individually drove me crazy and collectively could keep me there.  I could easily rant for pages on each one, citing chapter and verse of supporting evidence.  But to save my sanity, I will limit myself to describing the issue. If you want the evidence feel free to ask – just don’t expect an immediate answer.

1. Trophy hunting in Zimbabwe.

I agree with the majority of people here – the trophy hunting at the center of the Cecil the Lion story is unethical and should be regulated much more strictly than it is.  But here is the rub.  If the dentist was not aware that the guides had lured a protected lion out of a reserve, what he did was totally legal. It is not against Zimbabwe law or international law.  Law enforcement is looking into what he knew and when he knew it.  But until then, I think there is something called “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” to consider.  Boycotts and protests are fine – that is free speech. But criminal prosecution requires illegal behavior, not just unethical behavior. 

This drives me crazy because it seems to be just one more in a long line of stories where people want to put people in jail for unethical, stupid, rude, or bigoted behavior that is not illegal. We have clearly lost our understanding of what the rule of law is all about, why it is important, and why our society will devolve into utter chaos unless we remember the difference.

2. Deflategate.

Here is another story where we seem to have forgotten how the legal system works. Again, the critical phrase is “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Personally, I think Brady knew that the footballs were being deflated. Even being a diehard Patriots fan, I am pretty sure. But that is not the legal threshold for evidence. If there is not enough definitive evidence, we can’t convict him or the Patriots. Destroying a cell phone is circumstantial at best.

Imagine if you were convicted of crimes just because a police officer was pretty sure you did something?  For example, look at all the police shootings we are up in arms about this year. In every case, the white police officer involved was pretty sure that some crime was committed by the black person he shot.  If that was all it took . . . .

Then we have to look at the penalty. Let’s say that evidence is found and that he is legitimately convicted. The current penalty is four game suspension and loss of salary for Brady. The team loses $1 million and two draft picks. Compare that to the child beating, spousal abuse, assault and battery, and other cases in the past two years that have resulted in smaller penalties.  Forgive me if that doesn’t make much sense. Let the punishment fit the crime, right?

3. Malaysia airplane wing found

Oh no, here we go again. A Boeing 777 wing is found and the search is about to get restarted in earnest.  When the plane first went missing, hundreds of MILLIONS of dollars were spent on the search. Now that the wing has appeared, we are going to do that all over again.  To what end? The idea of giving “closure” to the families is a pretty weak argument. Their loved one died. Knowing the latitude and longitude is not going to make that go away. The absolute best we can get at this point is to learn more about how ocean currents pull plane parts.

I can think of thousands of lives that can be saved with this same expense. Can you say malaria nets? Improved sanitation?

4. Autonomous Robot Weapons

With all due respect to the brilliant people who signed on to this (Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Noam Chomsky), they are missing an important point. What makes weapons systems like this autonomous is the software. Who wrote the software?  Humans.  So they are still governed by whatever rules and limitations we give them. In fact, I would suspect that advanced software systems would be easier to control than humans who get caught up in the heat of the moment, succumb to peer pressure, are subject to cognitive biases, etc.  There is a reason why many computer hacks are the result of human gullibility. People click on the virus in their email or reveal their password over the phone to a complete stranger.  Was automation at fault in Abu Ghraib?

They make a valid argument that even if the good guys integrate strong ethical principles into the code, the bad guys won’t.  But that will happen anyway. Do you think the Chinese military team that hacked OPM will hold back because of a UN resolution? Will the North Korean team that hacked Sony? The Russian team that is selling your credit card numbers as we speak?

5.  Boston 2024

I already posted about why I am glad that we (the Boston taxpayer) refused the Olympics bid. While it would be great to have the Olympics here, I am a strong believer that taxpayers should not pay for these things.

No, my rant today is about the framing of the story today. Everyone from the local, state and national media, politicians, and other public figures have spent that last two days asking who is “to blame” for “losing” the Olympics. Whose “fault” is it?  We are suffering here from a really bad case of messaging.

Why aren’t we looking for who to “credit” for “saving” us from the potential $ billions of taxpayer debt?

6. Insomnia

I haven’t slept much in the past three days. I don’t know why.  It sucks.  I’m just saying.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Boston Olympics

I am proud of my city today. 

I am a huge sports fan. I want the Boston teams to have fantastic facilities.  But I still would never want public funding for them. These are total boondoggles. The team and their private backers get guaranteed revenue streams and the public (the taxpayer) is on the hook for the inevitable cost overruns.

Same thing for the Olympics.  Economist Andrew Zimbalist has done extensive research on this and found that the final cost is 2.5 to 3 times the budget. Local cities get creamed.  Even Barcelona, which claims to be happy with the results, cost 4 times the original budget. Their happiness was mostly because they went from a backwater to a great tourist destination.  Boston is this already.

The Boston 2024 committee, made up of some serious movers and shakers in the Boston business community won the original competition and got Boston names the USOC choice for the 2024 bid.  They put together proposals and budgets and even promised to buy insurance to cover cost overruns so the taxpayers wouldn’t have to.  Gotta respect that.  But there is no guarantee that the insurance would cover all of the overruns. Certainly not billions. 

This leads to why I am proud today.  The USOC gave the Boston mayor and the Mass governor ultimatums that they had to sign on to covering overruns. The Boston taxpayer was not up for this. And the mayor and governor put their feet down and said no.  No more Boston 2024.

Don’t get me wrong – I would love to have the Olympics here. I would buy tickets and wave the flag. But not at taxpayer expense.  So unlike most of the cities that bid for the Olympics, we followed through on that and just said “No”.  I left Miami in the middle of the boondoggle otherwise known as the new Miami Marlins stadium. What a freakin’ mess. Not for the team – for the Miami taxpayer.  That still leaves a lump in my throat.

PS - Donald Trump criticized us for it.  So we must have done something right.