Nothing To Concern You

If you want a glimpse of one potential future use for social media, listen to this episode of the Marketplace Tech podcast (5:10). The host and her guest discuss a plan in China that assigns a “social credit score”, based on a variety of factors including financial responsibility and “social responsibility”, to every one of their citizens.

However, the really depressing part of this story comes at the very end.

The Chinese government hopes to have a national social credit framework in place by 2020. The scheme has raised alarm bells among human rights activists, but Pak says, everyday citizens don’t seem overly concerned.

Everyday citizens not being overly concerned with a government plan to track them is exactly how people lose their rights. The same is true for companies that are track those same citizens.

And, despite all the high-profile stories about the crappy way Facebook and other companies mishandle user data, too many US citizens still don’t seem “overly concerned”.

At what point will that change?

Let’s Go Over This Again… Photography Is Not A Crime!

It seems that Homeland Security has embarked on another of those “if you see something, say something” campaigns, something that has become far too popular among police agencies at all levels.

And, this being 2018, they tweeted each of the of the “warning signs”, including this gem.

Tweet from Homeland Security regarding photography as a threat

So what’s “unusual” when it comes to photography? Many people view anyone carrying a DSLR as suspicious. Even though my six-year old Rebel makes a pretty poor spy camera.

How do you determine “prolonged interest”? A good photographer will often look for different perspectives on a good subject and wait for different light, taking multiple shots along the way. Is that considered a “covert manner”?

One of the worst parts of the campaign is the infographic featuring all the “warning signs”. Homeland Security is placing photography on the same level with activities like theft, making threats, cyberattack, and collecting weapons.

Unfortunately, attempting to restrict the right to photograph in public spaces, always in the name of security, never seems to go away, especially in the DC area. Despite court rulings, Congressional hearings on the matter, and the fact that absolutely no link has ever been established between people taking pictures and terrorist acts. Even Stephen Colbert (no, the other one) found the whole idea amusing.

But you don’t think taking pictures with a smartphone exempts you from being considered “suspicious”, do you? Now would be a good time to review your rights as a photographer, regardless of your equipment.

Attorney Bert Krages has created The Photographer’s Right, a pdf summary based on information from the ACLU. He’s also written a book on the subject that also goes into the legal rights and responsibilities if you plan to sell your images.

If you want to dive deeper into the subject without paying, the ACLU themselves have an extensive online collection of articles and posts on the subject.

Of course, this information applies to the United States. I haven’t found a lot of good resources for other countries, although many western nations provide similar rights for the art of photography. Wikimedia Commons does offer a general chart about laws regarding taking and using pictures of people in many countries. The Wikipedia article on Photography and the law, covering the UK, Canada, and other countries, is also useful.

And, as you might expect, there is a great deal of controversy and uncertainty around taking pictures of law enforcement activities. Be extra cautious when practicing journalistic photography.

Hey, Alexa. Explain Your Algorithms.

AI Cover

Lately I seem to reading a lot about artificial intelligence. Between all the self-driving car projects and many, many predictions about robots coming for our jobs (and our children), the topic is rather hard to avoid. The topic is interesting but also somewhat scary since we’re talking about creating machines that attempt to replicate, and even improve upon, the human decision making process.

One of the better assessments of why we need to be cautious about allowing artificially-intelligent systems to take over from human judgement comes from MIT’s Technology Review, whose Senior Editor for AI says “no one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do”.

If a person makes a decision, it’s possible (theoretically) to learn how they arrived at that choice by simply asking them. Of course it’s not as easy with children, but most adults are able to offer some kind of logical process explaining their actions. Even if that process is flawed and they arrive at the wrong conclusion.

It’s not so easy with machines.

There’s already an argument that being able to interrogate an AI system about how it reached its conclusions is a fundamental legal right. Starting in the summer of 2018, the European Union may require that companies be able to give users an explanation for decisions that automated systems reach. This might be impossible, even for systems that seem relatively simple on the surface, such as the apps and websites that use deep learning to serve ads or recommend songs. The computers that run those services have programmed themselves, and they have done it in ways we cannot understand. Even the engineers who build these apps cannot fully explain their behavior.

We’ve never before built machines that operate in ways their creators don’t understand. How well can we expect to communicate—and get along with—intelligent machines that could be unpredictable and inscrutable?

However, far below the level of television-ready robots and whatever Elon Musk is up to now, AI is a topic that educators should probably be watching.

More and more edtech companies are developing (and your school administrators are buying) “personalized” learning systems that include complex algorithms. These applications may fall short of being intelligent but will still collect huge amounts of data from students and then make “decisions” about the course of their educational life. 

It’s unlikely the salespeople can offer any clear explanation of how the systems work. Even the engineers who wrote the software may not have a good understanding of the whole package. Or know if there are errors in the code that could result in incorrect results.

And it’s not like you can ask the computer to explain itself.


The image is the logo from Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film AI: Artificial Intelligence, a somewhat mediocre example of the genre. And a movie would have been far different if Stanley Kubrick had lived to direct it.

The Saving Is An Illusion

First frame of Non-Sequetur comic

Please excuse me while I rant.

Part of my crankiness this morning is due to the abrupt shift forward of the clock, a misguided and arrogant attempt by our lawmakers to “save” time. Time, of course, is a very human invention. Daylight Saving Time is a very stupid, human invention.

It’s time to dump it.

I’ve seen a number of posts on Twitter and elsewhere claiming that this month is the 100th anniversary of the national application of this concept. It’s true that the Standard Time Act, the bill which made Daylight Saving Time the law everywhere in the country, was passed in March 1918.1

It was also repealed the following year because DST was universally hated.

The idea was brought back nationally during World War II, but was applied inconsistently during other periods. Which is why the transportation industry lobbied for a permanent national law.

However, instead of doing the sensible thing, telling everyone to cut out the practice altogether and let nature do it’s thing with regard to sunrise and sunset, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act in 1966.

Anyway, I’ve ranted about this several times in the past and you can read those entries for more reasons why this concept needs to die. A few years ago the Washington Post also published 5 Myths About Daylight Saving Time, which includes this little additional bit of nomenclature stupidity to add to the mix.

Guess what time we’re on for eight months of the year? Daylight saving time. In what universe is something that happens for only one-third of the time the “standard”? Even before the 2007 change, DST ran for seven months out of 12.

In fact, some opponents of DST aren’t against daylight saving time per se: They think it should be adopted as the year-round standard time. Because it basically already is.

So, there’s the solution. Next November, just leave the damn clocks where they are and forget the whole illusion of “saving” time. I don’t care whether you choose to call it “permanent daylight saving time”, which sounds stupid, or “standard” time, which it would be.

After one cycle, most people will just call it normal. Just like nature intended.

Thank you for indulging my sleep deprived rant.

Oh, and one more thing: the term is Daylight Saving, not savingS. At least get that part right.


The cartoon is the first panel from the Sunday edition of Wiley Miller’s wonderful Non Sequitur. The rest of his story makes about as much sense as any justification for DST I’ve heard. The Sunday Fox Trot take on DST is also amusing. I think using a part of the comic in this context would be considered Fair Use.

1. Wikipedia, as you might expect, has a very complete telling of Daylight Saving Time’s history in the US and the general controversy surrounding the concept.

What’s Your Attitude Towards Science?

Word cloud based on question

3M, the US-based conglomerate probably best known for their Post-It notes, recently released a report called the State of Science Index. They call it “one of the largest, most global studies” done in recent years to gain some understanding of the public attitude towards scientists and their work, surveying more than 14,000 people in 14 countries.

Overall, the general attitudes expressed were positive:

  • 87% said that their general attitude towards science was one of fascination, rather than boring.
  • The same percentage thought “the world is a better place today because of science” and were “hopeful” when they heard the word mentioned.
  • Two-thirds said they were “excited when thinking about the future impact of science on society” and that “science is very important to society in general”.

However, when you dig down into the responses, there is much to be worried about.

I don’t mind the 32% who said they were “skeptical” of science. Questioning claims made in scientific reports is a healthy approach to understanding complex ideas. Especially since most people get their science news from a TV news reader who likely doesn’t understand beyond the summary statement in their script.

Far more troubling than skeptics is the 27% of respondents who “do not see the point of needing to understand science as adults”. Plus the relatively large percentage of people who agree with statements like “If science didn’t exist, my everyday life would not be all that different.” and who fail to see a link between scientific research and “technology”.

In the US, these numbers parallel the around-30% in political poll after poll who refuse to accept basic scientific findings like the existence of climate change as major problem facing society. Or who believe that childhood vaccinations are some kind of conspiracy between doctors and drug companies.

These kinds of attitude surveys can be interesting, although they should also be read with some skepticism. But if you teach middle or high school students, you may want to give them the executive summary and ask them to reflect on the findings. How do their attitudes compare to those of the adults in this survey?

Of course, the 3M Index is looking at current opinions and only tangentially addresses the state of science education. However, how children are taught science during their years in K12 directly affects their understanding of science as adults.

There is a direct link between classroom science instruction that involves memorizing lots of facts and little direct interaction with scientific concepts and the 86% of respondents who say they know “little or nothing” about science. And the large percentage of those people who have no interest in learning more as adults.

Unfortunately, we tend to elect far too many of those people to leadership positions.


I learned of this survey through a discussion with former astronaut Scott Kelly on Marketplace Tech, a daily podcast about how technology affects our lives.

The image is from the executive summary of this report and shows the word cloud created when people were asked to complete this task: “Please fill in what you think science is in no more than two to three sentences. Science is…”.