That’s not how religion works

[W]e have religions centered around this thing, and we have no idea how it works

Brian Hare, quoted in Detailed Footage Finally Reveals What Triggers Lightning [], published by Quanta Magazine.

Isn’t that what religion is for? Who are these lightening worshippers? And will an detailed, scientific explanation put an end to their lightning religion? Even if we were not in the midst of a neo-dark age filled with people who mistrust science, but I doubt it. That’s not how religion works.

Featured image uses screen grab from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, © Lucasfilm Ltd., and this image [] from msim1238, CC BY 2.0

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Thank You for Scrolling

Engagement is not a synonym for good mental health.

James Mickens, quoted in Facebook’s success was built on algorithms. Can they also fix it? [] on

It’s true, I checked my thesaurus (though engagement is a synonym for battle, conflict or confrontation which is maybe more relevant). Should it be? Who is responsible for ensuring good mental health? Is it the responsibility of Facebook, or other social media, to promote things that will improve, or at the least not damage, their users mental health? I don’t think so, in fact this is potentially at odds with their responsibilities.

Facebook and other social media companies do have a clear responsibility, as public companies, to make as much profit as they can which they do by selling ads. Remember, you are the product []. To sell ads they need people engaged with the platform(s) to show ads to. The higher the “engagement” i.e. how long you spend scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, the more ads a user sees. So, if doomscrolling [] is the best way to get more eyeballs on ads, Facebook (and Twitter, and other social media companies) will inevitably start to optimize for doomscrolling. Using negative or shocking content to sell is nothing new; “if it bleeds, it leads”. Like everything the scale and speed has grown exponentially thanks to tech.

And they know it is causing harm:

[Frances] Haugen revealed internal documents from Facebook that show the social network is aware that its “core product mechanics, such as virality, recommendations and optimizing for engagement, are a significant part” of why hate speech and misinformation “flourish” on its platform.

Rachel Metz, writing in Facebook’s success was built on algorithms. Can they also fix it? [] on

Facebook’s internal research agrees; in it’s current form Facebook (and by extension social media) is bad for us. Bad for us like smoking is bad for us. Bad for individuals and for society. Smoking is an informative analogy here. The tobacco industry hid their internal research that showed they were causing harm for decades. It was not in their interest to tell people “we are, literally, killing you.” So they buried their own science, and spent decades pushing back on anyone who claimed smoking was bad. Advertising the “health benefits” of smoking even when their own research that showed smoking was deadly.

The tobacco companies didn’t make any efforts to improve; they spent money to lobby the government to ensure it didn’t try to force them to improve and reduce their ability to mint money. It took decades for the government and the public to catch up with tobacco. And people still smoke, but we’ve taken (some) steps to try and reduce the impact on society as a whole and regulated who can smoke and where you can smoke.

A key difference between the tobacco industry and social media is we are seeing the internal damning research much earlier.

So, how can it be fixed? If society wants to change social media then i doubt relying on the “good intentions” of companies is going to result in any change. Apologies to activist shareholders but no mater what companies say about corporate social responsibility it’s a nice to have. They can drop, or ignore, or lie and cheat about these things the moment it affects their bottom line. What they can’t ignore is laws and regulations (at least not without en curing real penalties that they care about).

[Change] would require pressure from advertisers whose dollars support these platforms. But in her testimony, Haugen seemed to bet on a different answer: pressure from Congress.

Rachel Metz, writing in Facebook’s success was built on algorithms. Can they also fix it? [] on

By “pressure from Congress” I assume the author means laws and regulation. Regulation is a bad word for many people, especially on the right and a bit of a wonder drug for many on the left. So expect a long fight over it, even if both sides agree that “Facebook needs to be regulated” they disagree over what aspect needs to be regulated. The republicans think Facebook is censoring them, the democrats say Facebook is radicalizing the republicans.

Wikipedia’s article on Regulatory Economy [] says The ideal goal of economic regulation is to ensure the delivery of a safe and appropriate service, while not discouraging the effective functioning and development of businesses. This is why we have regulations on things like food and drugs, or more specific classes like alcohol and tobacco.

What would regulations on social media look like? Facebook and Twitter already have warning labels on some things, elections and COVID19 vaccines:

Which, back to our Tobacco analogy, is familiar. Way back in 1965 the Congress in the US passed a law requiring cigarettes to have a warning: “CAUTION: CIGARETTE SMOKING MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH.”

Didn’t stop people from smoking.

There are minimum age restrictions on who can smoke. And Facebook also has a minimum age for who can signup, set at 13. But 13 would seem to be too low if teenagers are developing mental health issues due to Instagram content and it’s easy to get around. Maybe they should require a real world ID to register…

There are also restrictions on advertising tobacco… which, I think, amounts to preventing tobacco companies from sponsoring events and from advertisements directed towards under-aged people. Not sure it’s so relevant here; when was the last time you saw an ad for Facebook?

Maybe better enforcement of the age restrictions is something that can be done. But I think the tobacco regulations can only help so much since the industries are just to different. Tobacco companies sell a standard product to people while social media sells people to advertisers and the content that brings people to the platform is user generated. Facebook and Twitter can slap warning labels on things as fast as their AIs can detect the content but it’s hard to imagine a world were it’s as accurate or efficient as labels on cigarette packages. There are too many topics and too many ways for people to work around the AI. It’s an arms race and unless we want to put all social media behind a new version of the Great Firewall [] it’s an unwinnable race.

In the end I have not seen any proposals for regulating Facebook that seems like they actual address the issue. It will be interesting to see the coming fights between the industry and congress and the public. If it gets too depressing, go watch Thank You for Smoking [], it’s hilarious and it’s relevant.

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Productivity, work-life balance and setting expectations

I came across an article in The New Yorker this week on the cult of productivity. The basic idea is that a view of increasing productivity that is based on improving processes, typically in manufacturing, has morphed into the idea that we can all, individually, be even more productive. This is a false economy, allowing companies to “do more with less [people]” which, too often, translated to longer hours for most people. This in turn burns people out, maybe you liked your job but at some point if it takes over your whole life you are going to hate it.

In classic productivity, there’s no upper limit to the amount of output you seek to produce: more is always better. When you ask individuals to optimize productivity, this more-is-more reality pits the professional part of their life against the personal. More output is possible if you’re willing to steal hours from other parts of your day—from family dinners, or relaxing bike rides—so the imperative to optimize devolves into a game of internal brinkmanship

Cal Newport, in The Frustration with Productivity Culture [] published in The New Yorker

Since my kids were born I have rejected the more-is-more drive for work. Not specifically about productivity but in general, I don’t let the company work me 24/7. I log ago blocked by calendar to show out of office between 6:30PM and 8:30AM on weekdays and all weekend. I’m more religious about it but I reserve the right to ignore all work related things during these hours.

I do work late when there is genuine need; if I have committed to something and need extra time to get it done or, more often, when customer provide unreasonable timelines to get things done —we call these RFPs and customers as assholes about the timelines, universally in my experience they expect their potential vendors to work 24/7 during the short period between release and submission of an RFP. I’ve pulled all nighters with colleagues to get things done on time. Famously a 48 hour binge session to close a major RFP and the only sleep was in the cab to home and back to take a shower halfway through. These days few people are around who were there for that, no one remembers so what did I get out of it? In the end I think only the recognition from my boss that I would do what it took to meet my commitments.

After more than a decade in the same company I have a reputation, at least among the people I work with regularly. My bosses PA asks me if I will attend a late call before scheduling it. Every time there are new VPs to work with I have to set expectations again. Because I work for a company where many of my colleagues don’t or can’t turn off. A majority of them attend calls at all hours of the day and night. Just this week I had colleagues on calls at 6AM (their time, we are a global company) and colleagues who were on calls until 3AM. Working —attending Zoom or Teams calls— until 9, 10, 11PM or later and on the weekends is the norm for many of my Australian colleagues. Here is a typical week on my calendar:

I know it’s not just my colleagues or my company, it’s a general trend of many years in IT and I think in many other industries. Anywhere people are paid to get the job done not just by the hour seems to adopted a model of “do more with less” which is actually “do more with less people”. You get paid to do a job, not work 40 hours a week, so the company just redefines your job to include more and more things, if it takes you 60 hours then so be it. If you don’t do it someone else will… it’s a vicious circle.

If it’s up to you alone to get more done, then attempts to moderate your workload can be misinterpreted as laziness.

Cal Newport, in The Frustration with Productivity Culture [] published in The New Yorker

The COVID pandemic and work from home have made all this harder on people. I used to leave my laptop at work 90% of the time. Once I shut it down I was done for the day. Maybe I would check email on my phone before bed but I broke my crackberry addiction long ago and I refuse to spent too much time typing emails on my phone late at night. They can wait until the morning for the most part. A quick email to help move things along, especially if those working on it are in other time zones so it’s still their workday is ok, but for the most part. It can wait.

My company has been running a campaign for the past year to get more people to take it easy. We have lost many people to burnout. They have been running virtual coffee breaks, encouraging people to take proper lunches —not to just eat sitting in from of the computer— to shut off in the evenings. I’m not sure how many people are taking advantage of this. Work from home seems to have but many people into a worse place with regards to shutting off. There are no more boundaries. I think many people don’t have a proper “work from home” place in their house. Just sitting at the kitchen table is a recipe for disaster, the psychological superstition between home and office, or what was left of it, is completely destroyed. Too many people where taking their computers home and working in the evening before COVID lockdowns. Many people who are burning out are looking for a new job. As if a new employer will fix this. Too much of it is endemic to modern work culture. “Different company, same shit” I expect.

I’ve spent a lot of effort proving I can get my job done and done well in a ‘normal’ work week, 40 hours. Setting expectations about the amount of work I can and will do at the professional level of quality I want to work at and that the company values me for. I expect I drive my boss crazy, pushing back on extra assignments and arguing about what should be priority. He tells me every year in annual evaluations he appreciates the work and the honesty and all that, so I guess I’m doing something right. It’s going to make changing jobs a real challenge if I ever decide to move on. I joke with my colleagues that I don’t work for the company I work for my boss at this point. Changing jobs would mean having to reset all the expectations about work-life balance.

But I was not always like this. I was on the job 24/7 from the early 2000s until the mid 2010s. I was a crackberry addict. You can find some evidence of this history on this blog. I can’t decide if this was youthful energy, or because I worked at a startup and felt we were building something, that I was contributing directly to something, or lack of family.

Whatever the cause, I remember having a conversation with another youngish colleague back in the day about a couple of co-workers who were the 9-5 type. They came in, did their job for 8 hours and when home. There were times when they would work odd hours due to project constraints or what not but they were “desk jockeys” not in it for the passion but in it for the paycheck. At least that’s the conclusion we came to over beers, in a hotel lobby on a business trip.

I’m not so sure now. These people had families and they did good work. I’ve turned into one of them. I’m determined that I can spend time with my kids after work and on the weekends. To help with homework, watch a movie or play games with them while they are young enough to want to spend time with their father. The week-in, week-out business travel and the VP titles can wait till my girls are both teenagers and don’t want to spend time with papa.

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You are not interesting

[W]here privacy is afforded, it is afforded by the grace of inefficiency

Kerry Howley in Drone Wars: Call Me a Traitor [], published by New York Magazine

This article is about the horrors of America’s drone wars, committing murder from afar of terrorists and civilians, of American war crimes maybe, I’m going to avoid commenting on that topic for now. I’m going to ignore the context of the quote and talk about the substance of it in relation to privacy in a more general sense, mostly in the first world where military and spy drones are not surveilling us but may other things are.

The quote struck me because, even for people far from the drone battlefield, our privacy is often also granted through inefficiency. But also through inconvenience, obscurity and cost.

So much data is collected about us, videos, location data, images to be mined for facial recognition, etc., etc., etc. It’s collected by spy agencies —as in this story— but also by a plethora of private companies, big tech, law enforcement and beyond. “Privacy” for most people is because there is too much data to process or the algorithms that process it are fully automated and no human actually looks unless there is an issue, or the algorithm is not interested in your sex life or your gambling habit except in so far as they can be used to sell you something.

The government, and your angry partner, might be interested in such things, and they might hire people to follow you —physically, or digitally— but for the most part even if google or amazon had the data to know you are hiding your sexual orientation, philandering or to expose what happens in Vegas, they don’t care. That apathy on the part of the data collectors is what keeps many things private today.

The computers know all, but it’s not worth people looking at the data on you most of the time, and the algorithms are looking for specific things. Sure, deep neural networks may accidentally find a correlation between something you don’t want exposed to the public and what a company is trying to sell but they don’t broadcast the correlation, only output the recommendation. (there is actually a problem in machine learning around Interpretability and Explainability —which is basically “can you explain why a decision or recommendation was made by the system”, it’s an active area of research but most complex Machine Learning or Neural Networks systems can produce results that their creators have a hard time explaining, they can’t dissect the logic, the system is a magic black box.)

I used to joke that I gave up on the NSA reading my emails because I realized that my life is just not interesting enough for anyone to look and if, on occasion, something is flagged by an algorithm and an analyst does actually look they will realize I am not a person of interest very quickly. (My life is boring, I pity my FBI agent). As an aside, I briefly worked for “the customer” [] and there was, in the early 2000’s already at least a few programs being built to automate the processing of the data that was hoovered up by the TLAs it was some advanced shit for the time but prehistoric by the standards of what is publicly available today from big tech.

I a big actual problem, given that at least where big tech is concerned we actively give them all this information, is that this data never dies… it goes into the digital archives and is there forever so if someone, for appropriate or nefarious reasons, decides to dig it up it’s there. There needs to be an expiry date for all this data collected. Like GDPR gives you a right to be forgotten. Telco companies I work with are required to keep billing data for seven years, usually available instantly for a year or two and then archived (takes longer to retrieve but often must be available in 24 hours for legal requests) for another five or six (depends of jurisdiction…) but after that they typically dump it to save on storage space. Maybe their should be a law that all the raw data collected by companies or government on people should be archived after a year or two and deleted (and dropped from any algorithm’s calculations) after a few more years. It’s no good to Google to know what I was interested in eight or nine years ago, really, to sell me things well should not take more than the most recent year or two’s data. I guess it’s more requiring that things be automatically forgotten then real privacy, but…

I remember reading about a guy one time who was shocked in an interview when the prospective employer asked him about his messy divorce. He was shocked because the divorce took place a few years before and on the other side of the country, he moved cross country after the divorce and he never spoke about it to anyone in his new home. But the prospective employer had googled him and found the divorce information in the local newspaper’s now online archive and the court documents which were also online. The thing about this is that the way the law works in the US is the court documents were always public, but prior to mass posting of such things online the only way to get them was to march down to the court house… which a local reporter might do for a messy divorce or the government might hire someone to do if there ware processing a security clearance, but you would never expect a random potential employer a thousand or more miles away to have been to the court house or have the local papers. That’s why you move, to start over. So in the pre-Internet days a lot of privacy was through inconvenience, our laws and, if you are older then the Internet, our expectations have not kept pace. A lot of what we get upset about is something that is not new in concept, but what was hard is now easy with the rise of technology.

I guess, in the end, all of this is to say, the laws need to be updated to match what people actually expect or what. The EU has made a start, California has tried something but the US as a whole and most places are , as usual, legislative way behind the technology and businesses. Time to catch up.

Wow… this was supposed to be short post for a nice quote. So let me stop here.

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Social media is a toilet stall door

I have a new piece of advice to live by, and to add to my list of sage advice, that I will dispense to my kids and (when drunk) to my friends:

Treat posts on social media the way you would treat messages scrawled on a bathroom stall.

This sums up the shithole of information that is the internet, and in particular the current manifestation of it we call “social media”. Maybe one of those “for a good time call <insert your best friend/enemy/ex’s number here>” messages in a truck-stop bathroom is actually from the person whole number is given and they actually are looking for a good time… but a large dose of skepticism will keep you free from venereal diseases, staring on a milk carton or at least the embarrassment of actually talking to someone on the other end of the line about where you got their number.

I’m paraphrasing this for Richard Geib’s post “The “Delta Variant” of COVID-19 in the United States and the Ghost of Charles Darwin” [] where he is talking about people not choosing to get vaccinated due to reading things on Facebook:

You read it on social media and automatically believed it? Much of what one reads on social media is like the scrawls on bathroom stalls — caveat emptor. Do you live in a cave and not know this?

Richard Geib

I’m sure a lot of people out there will object that they didn’t automatically believe it, that they did their research… but let me explain the issue with social media research… No, there is too much. Let me sum up:

Remember, he was trying to get off the drugs…

We can add this to the list of sage advice: