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Learning Online Ain’t Easy

Online Learning

At this point we have universities, K12 schools, and even entire school districts that have closed in the face of the COVID-19 virus, with many shifting instruction to “online”, whatever that may mean. Many others are drawing up contingency plans for shutting down.

Which is where we find our overly-large school district. Monday the kids get a holiday while schools will have “an opportunity for staff to prepare for the possibility of distance learning in the event of a school(s) closure”. But we can’t forget the important stuff: “All after-school extracurricular activities on March 16, including interscholastic contests and team practices, will proceed as scheduled.”.

The Chaos of Facebook

Screen Shot 2019 04 24 at 5 44 54 PM

It’s probably an understatement to say that Facebook has been in the news a lot in the past three or four years, and not in a good way. In the US, we’ve seen a long parade of issues just regarding Facebook and it’s part in the 2016 elections.

But Facebook is a global company. We are not alone in the their executives putting profits before the welfare of their “members”.

For part of that international perspective regarding Facebook’s impact on elections and democracy, watch this talk from the recently completed TED Conference. It’s presented by a UK reporter who went back to her hometown in the southern part of Wales to learn how Facebook had impacted the 2016 Brexit vote.

And this entire referendum took place in darkness, because it took place on Facebook. And what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook, because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it’s impossible to research anything. So we have no idea who saw what ads or what impact they had, or what data was used to target these people. Or even who placed the ads, or how much money was spent, or even what nationality they were.

But Facebook does. Facebook has these answers, and it’s refused to give them to us. Our parliament has asked Mark Zuckerberg multiple times to come to Britain and to give us these answers. And every single time, he’s refused. And you have to wonder why. Because what I and other journalists have uncovered is that multiple crimes took place during the referendum. And they took place on Facebook.

She ends her talk with a passionate challenge to the “gods of Silicon Valley”, many of whom were likely in that TED audience.

Because what the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken. And you broke it. This is not democracy — spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where. It’s subversion, and you are accessories to it.

And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you. And it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right or “Leave” or “Remain” or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. Because as it stands, I don’t think it is.

I would argue that our own 2016 election also demonstrates that broken democracy.

If you can stand a deeper dive behind the more recent problems at Facebook, read the long but excellent cover story in the May issue of Wired.1 The reporter covers what they call “15 months of fresh hell” inside the company, based on interviews with “65 current and former employees”.

It’s ultimately a story about the biggest shifts ever to take place inside the world’s biggest social network. But it’s also about a company trapped by its own pathologies and, perversely, by the inexorable logic of its own recipe for success.

As I said, the story is long and is difficult to summarize in one post. But the TL;DR is that the leadership of Facebook either don’t think they’ve done anything wrong or they’re afraid to make substantial changes that will hurt growth and profits.

It’s excellent reporting and worth an hour of your time to read the whole thing.


The graphic is from the animated header of the Wired story. Seems an appropriate illustration given the chaos being sown by Facebook.

1. Wired Magazine offers some of the smartest reporting available on tech and its impact on society. It’s worth a few bucks to subscribe.

Can You Really Escape?

Escape

Over the past couple of years, much has been written about the downside from immersing ourselves in technology. From the far too many data breeches to warnings about too much screen time to predictions of artificial intelligence taking over the world, it’s pretty hard to escape.

But suppose you really did want to escape.

A writer for Gizmodo decided to test that premise and find out what happens if she said goodbye to the big five: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Or if it was even possible.

People have done thought experiments before about which of the “frightful five” it would be hardest to live without, but I thought it would be more illuminating, if painful, to do an actual experiment: I would try to block a tech giant each week, to tell the tale of life without it. At the end of those five weeks, I’d try to block all of them at once. God help me.

She found out very quickly that her experiment would require some special tech expertise, including a custom VPN that the average person wouldn’t have access to.1

Each of the six parts to this story are a little long and can sometimes get somewhat geeky, but I think it’s all worth your time. If you teach high school kids, this would be some good stuff to have them explore as well. I doubt they have any idea how far the threads from even one of these companies are woven into their lives.

For myself, I already know that there’s no way I can extract myself from Apple. Not without replacing lots of expensive devices I use every day. Plus Apple Music, iCloud, and who knows what else.

Google is another tech giant that would also be hard to leave completely. Even if I switched to Duck Duck Go for search, stopped using the Chrome browser, and relied on Apple Maps for directions,2 their code is still in the background of practically every site on the web. They’ve become very good at tracking me.

The same is true for Amazon. Even if you never bought anything from the company (or any of the many companies they’ve bought), their Amazon Web Services hosts tens of thousands of other websites. Even some of their retail competitors. They’re also very good at tracking people, even into the real world.

The segment on Microsoft surprised me a little. I thought I had cut the cord with them when I left the overly-large school district that employed me. Kill my Outlook account and delete Office. Done. I didn’t realize their software was behind the screen in my car.

And then there’s Facebook. I have an account that I open infrequently, usually to see photos from friends and family, and to catch up with the latest strips from Bloom County. Despite never posting anything original,3 I still see evidence of Facebook lurking all over the web.

Anyway, as I said, take some time to read this series. Even if you have no interest in escaping from any of these tech behemoths, everyone needs to understand how they are collecting and using our data.


Image: Escape by d76, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. I suspect that the average person doesn’t even know what at VPN, virtual private network, is.

2. Apple Maps is actually excellent, certainly much better today than it was when introduced almost seven years ago. Google’s Street View, however, is still the most compelling reason to stick with their mapping service.

3. I have a few images on Instagram, posted before Facebook bought them, and I regularly open that app because that’s where some photographer friends post their images.

Breaking News: Teachers are Using Google!

Free for all forever
In the world of click-bait, Business Insider is a master.1 Consider their widely twittered about story with the excessively long title “Teachers love Google’s education products but are suspicious. Why is a megacorporation giving them a perfect tool for free?”.

I’m pretty sure Google’s products are not “perfect”. I don’t know many teachers who express much suspicion about them. And “free” depends on how the bill is being paid.

But at least this site usually provides a nice bulleted “executive” summary summarizing the main points at the top of their posts.

Like this:

Google for Education tools have taken off “like grass on fire,” industry analysts say.

I suspect the writer is reading “industry analysts” from 2015 since the current name is G Suite for Education and has been very popular in American K12 schools for at least three years, maybe more.

The writer also wants us the know about the “Google-powered devices [that] made up almost 60% of computing devices purchased for US classrooms in 2017”.

As for the laptops, they’re deeply discounted. Institutional pricing for an iPad, once the standby education hardware nationwide, is $299 while Microsoft devices start at $189. Google said a single Chromebook starts at $149 per unit for classrooms.

First, a Chromebook is not the same as a laptop. It’s a device using a browser window into the web, mostly Google’s web. Google also collects a royalty for each one sold as well as a fee from schools for each one being managed through their administrative panel. I think “deeply discounted” is also a euphemism for “cheap” but that’s a discussion for another post.

Throughout the article, the writer emphasizes that the G Suite products are free. However, he ignores or glosses over the fact that there is a cost being paid, even if teachers don’t pay it directly.

As I’ve ranted about in previous posts, Google and other companies giving away their products, still extract their payment through other means. All that data being collected may not be used for advertising, as it is in their regular products, but it’s still valuable to Google’s research departments. Very likely they find ways to track students into the real world, based on the data they contribute during the school day.

Then there remains the persistent issue of depending on free. While Google is not likely to disappear in the near term (like those in Audrey Watters’ EdTech Startup Deadpool), it doesn’t mean their current offerings won’t change or that a service valuable to you won’t be summarily killed off with little notice.2

Anyway, I’m not trying to tell anyone not to use Google, or any other software, app, or service. This is just one of my regular nags about being careful out there on the internets. Be doubly careful when guiding your students (or your own kids) through the same maze.


Image: Free for all forever by Howard Lake. Published to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Yes, I’m very aware that linking to the article is contributing to the success of their click-baiting efforts. Moving on…

2. Looking at you Google Reader. Yep, still bitter. :-)

Another Reminder of the Downside of Free

View From The Dugout

To the marketing departments of the photographic industry, I am classified as an “enthusiast”. Someone who buys a DSLR camera, a couple of steps above a point-and-shoot, without trying to make money with it. If you’ve seen the occasional Photo Posts on this site, you’ll understand why I’m in that “not making any money” category.

In addition to posting images here, I’ve also been a member of the photo sharing site Flickr since 2005, an eternity in Internet time. Once the king of photo sharing, they have been eclipsed in recent times by Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat, and other services.

It is from these two perspectives that I’ve been very interested in reactions to recent announcements from Flickr’s new owners about how they plan to change things.

Spoiler alert: people get very upset when a company cuts back on the features of their “free” product in order to make a sustainable business.

The company that bought Flickr1 plans to limit free accounts to storage and display of only 1000 images. Which is a substantial drop from the one terabyte of storage Flickr began offering five years ago. Pro users, those of us who pay $50 a year for the service (up from the grandfathered rate of $25 for old-timers), will get “unlimited”2 storage, plus no ads and other benefits.

In the age of everyone carrying a smartphone with a lot of memory, one thousand photos is not a lot. You probably have at least half that many on your device right now. Your kids are likely storing many more. But how many of those pictures are worth displaying? Be honest. How many are actually good enough to show the world, not just your relatives and friends?3

Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens to Flickr going forward. More than anything I would like to see more and better activity in their communities. There are a couple worth an occasional visit but most I’ve seen have been inactive or full of spam for years.

However, even if you don’t use or care about Flickr, this should serve as another of your increasingly frequent reminders that free is not a valid business model. Someone has to pay for the bandwidth, lots of equipment, and all the people supporting it (and you).

Almost always, at the “free” level of any web service, your cost is going to be limited functionality and a whole lot of uncertainty.


Image is one of my more than one thousand images in my Flickr account, a view of Nationals Park in DC from the home team’s dugout.

1. Who bought it from Verizon, which obtained it as part of buying the remains of Yahoo. Both owners largely neglected both the site and its community.

2. I’m always a little suspicious of anyone offering unlimited anything. Just read the fine print on your phone company’s “unlimited” data plan to see the limits on unlimited.

3. Who probably don’t want to see them either but are too polite to tell you. :)

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