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Learn to code. And cook, perform open-heart surgery, write kanji, design efficient thermodynamics, blog…

May 16, 2012 Leave a comment

For such an interesting and useful debate, what such silly arguments are being advanced. I think the coders need to lift their heads from their screens and spend the year to learn the humanities.

Clay Johnson (@cjoh) believes that coding is like literacy: if you don’t learn it, you’re shut out of the world. Matt Galligan (@mg) suggests it is like cooking: it doesn’t matter that you can’t compete against Jamie Oliver with a whisk, simply being knowledgeable is important. (I’ll link to their tweets shortly.)

Both are deeply smart. Yet I beg to differ on two grounds.

First, we live in a resource constrained world, and one cannot peruse everything they’d like. I’ve never read Plutarch despite knowing I’d be a better person for it.

Second, there is a value to concentrating one’s efforts where there is the biggest payoff; the idea of comparative advantage. An old economics textbook — was it Samuelson? — used the example of why President Roosevelt oughtn’t type his own letters even if he is a faster typist than his secretary.

I have no principled objection to learning to code, either rudimentarily or more seriously, if that is what one wishes. But insisting that it is somehow essential to learn is ridiculous.

Surely the same arguments could be made for other things that affect us on an everyday level, such as food (learn to farm!), health (learn to sequence genomes!). We drive cars: must we learn how they work? We surf the internet: must we tinker with IPv6 header fields and the protocol stack? Where does it end?

Benjamin Franklin detested that schools in his day taught Latin and Greek as standard fare — far better to learn living languages to actually talk to people, he recommended. I’m not as narrowly practical as that. (After all, it let scholars across Europe communicate, as the term “Latin Quarter” in Paris suggests. And it opens the mind to a world of great works.) Yet there is a lot of sense to the idea that we should discriminate with our time wisely.

Yes, yes. I understand that as more facets of life are dominated by computers, with algorithms making decisions that once were done by people, it is essential that the public has a basic understanding of how software works, so that they can appreciate its limitations — and can act on that knowledge as citizens, voters, consumers, parents, etc. I get it. (I’m even writing a book on big-data that deals with this.)

Still, the principles of software, albeit useful to be familiar with, holds no sacrosanct importance that it should jump the queue of priorities; coding can hardly claim some sort of categorical imperative that elevates it to something any honorable person must know. Rather, it is like most other things in life: nice to know if you can, but one can avail oneself of the marketplace to bring in the skills when it’s needed. Typists never needed to know the innards of a mechanical typewriter. Newspapers subscribers don’t need to learn about presses, or the stylebook, or HTML5.

What may be most surprising is that people are surprised. So coders urge everyone to code. Priests want parishioners to pray. Boy scouts want us to camp. Generals ask that we be prepared to defend. When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Frogs see the universe as a pond. Lawyers want us to code too, but not in the way software engineers mean.

In the middle ages, music was the fourth of the seven liberal arts which all educated men needed to learn. Should today’s computer scientists think less of themselves if they cannot sightread a staff?

Categories: Uncategorized

Killing geo-location in the crib

May 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Is this a return of the US-EU privacy wars of the 1990s, when Brussels’ bureaucrats threatened to halt intercontinental online transactions? They may be coming back. This time it’s over location data.

An upcoming EU report will say that “geo-location data has to be considered as personal data… The rules on personal data apply,” an EU official tells the Wall Street Journal.
The implication is that data collected by cellphones, twitter, Facebook and others must be handled like names, birth dates, and other personal information: requiring user consent, deletion after a certain period, and kept anonymously.

This is absolutely preposterous. Yes, rules — better, tougher rules — are desperately needed. But to simply drop the data into a pre-existing regulatory bucket (as the EU is doing, of calling it “personal information” which has sweeping regulatory burdens) is asinine. It will hold back the amazing innovations and services that are just starting to emerge, and future ones that we can scarcely imagine today.

Calling something new (geo-location data) something old (personal identifiable information, or PII in the trade) is a far too blunt way to go about upholding legitimate public interest concerns that need to be addressed. It avoids the more humble — and probably more effective — task of trying to figure out the new properties of this type of data, and thus devise appropriate ways to balance personal privacy with innovative services. It’s harder to do this, but sounder.

This of course will happen, but over time, and probably in a different regulatory jurisdiction. Possibly America? Perhaps China? Maybe Brazil? But European geo-loco firms will suffer in the meantime, since they’ll crammed into a regulatory straitjacket. And to be clear: this is not to say that better rules aren’t needed — they definitely are. But they ought be sensible ones.

Failing to take a more cautious and reflective regulatory approach results in things like the EU’s 1998 privacy directive. It did an excellent job of getting governments into the privacy arena, but it had lots of silly parts too. For one thing, it required an international “safe-harbor” provision in order to do innocuous things like allowing a US firm in France to send its payroll data to headquarters in Detroit. The rules are already out of date, and although it boasts strong enforcement provisions, they’ve barely ever been used.

In fairness, the US has miserable privacy legislation — no country does it well — but the piecemeal approach and building up of a body of regulatory experience is looking like a better way forward. There is no “privacy kommissar” in America, but that hasn’t stopped the FTC from taking serious action often.

A far better way to proceed is the way the US is moving. Sen. Al Franken’s opening statement to hearings on May 10th on cellphone privacy was a paragon of wise policymaking: he wants to find the right balance. He was scorching in his condemnation of current practices:

“Once the maker of a mobile app, a company like Apple or Google, or even your wireless company gets your location information … these companies are free to disclose your location information and other sensitive information to almost anyone they please-without letting you know. And then the companies they share your information with can share and sell it to yet others-again, without letting you know. This is a problem. It’s a serious problem.”

But at the same time, he understood the risks of regulating too soon:

“I just want to be clear that the answer to this problem is not ending location-based services. No one up here wants to stop Apple or Google from producing their products or doing the incredible things that you do. You guys are brilliant. When people think of the word “brilliant” they think of the people that founded and run your companies.”

If this gap in regulatory approach is not settled, the result may well be another round of the privacy wars. Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and others will have to tailor their operations depending on jurisdiction, down to their very code base. The EU will argue that they have to do this any way for language and law. But this still fractures and debilitates the service. And it is hypocritical: the idea behind the EU’s common market and common currency is about the gains from harmonization.

The best way to ward off bad public policy are good case studies of excellent services. Industry basically has its head in the sand hoping this issue will go away (it won’t) or is in hiding, hoping it doesn’t need to disclose how the services work (it does). Their actions are shortsighted. Geo-location services are interesting and useful, and if people really knew what was happening, many would be fine with it, provided a backstop of basic protections exist.

The case must be made publicly. So what are the amazing new services that are emerging that show why the EU’s approach is not quite right? Share your stories here.

Categories: Uncategorized

Data; boring but…

March 6, 2011 3 comments

I had a delightful dinner with a Canadian (Tory) politician this evening. Before we got around to talking about gun-control and “the situation in Freedonia,” the conversation fell upon data. “It probably sounds like the boring-est thing in the world,” I explained, “but it’s not: it is the most exciting, and arguably the most important in your lifetime.”

As I said this, his look changed from one of polite indifference (and mild pity), to genuine curiosity. Now, I had to explain myself. What I blurted out what this:

The world is becoming data-ized as digital information and numerical measurement is being applied to all aspects of what people do, particularly things that couldn’t be measured before because it was impractical or impossible. (Think: using wireless and GPS in cars to base insurance premiums on where and when people actually drive, as has been possible since 2007.)

The impact will be as profound as the scientific method in the 18th century — which quickly moved past the sciences and left its mark on all areas of human endeavor. For instance, what is “quantitative decision making” in management, if not the scientific method applied to business…. Likewise, the BigData revolution is plowing through the sciences, and also jumped into mainstream areas, such as business and government.

My dinner companion got it.

It is not easy to describe what is happening and why it matters. But parallels with the past, albeit imperfect, are usually very useful. Hence, trotting out the scientific method to explain the here and now.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

joining the information society – finally…

August 19, 2007 Leave a comment

I have been too distracted to get a weblog. My friends Meg Grant and Mike Hambleton told me to start one back in the fall of 2000 — believe it or not — but I just couldn’t see the point. Then, I got too busy with work.

After my wife Heather chastized me for being such a technical fuddy-duddy — as well as not linking to her site (heatherhopkins.wordpress.com) I decided to take fast action. As well as secure the third-level domain. And to actually be a part of what Mike Wesch and Yochai Benkler talk about (and, um, I write about…).

So here I am. Mainly to see just how easy it is to set up. Creating this took under four minutes. Perhaps this Internet-y thing isn’t just a fad after all.

Categories: Uncategorized