9/11, 20 years after

Like Billy Joel once sung, I am in a New York state of mind this week. Thinking about where I was 20 years ago, watching the towers collapse from a vantage point in my town in Long Island. Thinking about the two friends that lost their lives that day, Mark Bingham and Tom Kelly. There are certainly plenty of TV programming to choose from this week, as Deadline summarizes.

By way of background, I have spent half of my life living in Long Island: born in Bay Shore, grew up in Levittown and Merrick, then went to college, only to return for a year to live in the pre-gentrified Brooklyn before leaving to go to grad school. Eventually I came back in my 30s to live in Port Washington, where I raised my daughter, served on the local school board, and established my own business. Port Washington lost about a dozen people on 9/11, which was less than its neighboring community Manhasset did on that day.

For most of the last 20 years, I have been living in the Midwest. Every so often, I miss the hustle and bustle of NYC. This is one of those times. This was going to be a tough anniversary. Covid, cancer, travel restrictions, floods and tornadoes in New Jersey! It does seem like End of Days.

I have been watching the NatGeo/Hulu series on what happened that particular day. It is an amazing piece of journalism, linking images of many of the heroes caught on film in 2001 with contemporary interviews. One of them is an interview with Bingham’s mother and highlights his role in thwarting the hijackers of United 93, and how proud she is of him. The series shows the level of heroism from both those who survived and those who perished. We see the firefighters trying to figure out how to save lives but losing their own. It is a hard film to watch, but it gave me hope in humanity and highlighted some of the day’s heroes.

Now, the notion of what constitutes a hero has been somewhat devalued in the past 20 years, but these were folks who put themselves in harm’s way and considered the plight of others before themselves. One guy was buried under the rubble of one of the collapsed towers with someone else. He first helped free that person, who immediately fled, leaving the first guy to fend for himself. You see him today all healthy and hale, then what he looked like back in 2001, all bloody and torn up from trying to squeeze through the pile of concrete and glass.

As many of you know, I have volunteered as a freelance journalist for my local Red Cross chapter, profiling some of the many volunteers who have given far more time and service towards helping others during many disasters. This week you can read my profile of Mickey Shell (and numerous others) when he went to NYC to help out after 9/11. It was the first time he visited the area from his home in Poplar Bluff, Mo. He is a mental health professor who gave comfort to the survivors, and learned how to navigate the complexities of the NY subway system as part of his deployment.

With 9/11, we came together as one – mostly. Sure, there was the attack on an Indian restaurant in Port Washington by some local louts. They didn’t quite get that Sikhs (who owned the place) wore turbans too and had nothing to do with the 9/11 hijackers, Arabs, or the middle east for that matter. Not much has changed today — we have attacks on various Asians that had nothing to do with transmitting Covid. There will always be haters. And now we have thousands of Afghan refugees that arrived in our airports over the past few weeks to try to assimilate, protect, and give opportunities for a new life. Let’s hope there are still some heroes to go around.

China fights inhumane 996 work practices

Last week China’s Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security issued a set of ten new legal cases (what we would normally think of as judicial rulings) about how to treat workers’ rights in labour disputes. The ten cases (documented here in Chinese) cover mostly workplace overtime disputes. Before I can describe these cases, we need to talk about what is called 996 schedules.
Chinese companies are infamous for setting very high working hours: the numbers refer to the “usual” workday running from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. As Protocol discusses, this schedule has been tacitly approved by the government for years, and even promoted by such mainstream business owners such as Jack Ma (who called 996 workers a blessing for his company Alibaba) and Richard Li, who derided those that didn’t as slackers.
Microsoft and GitHub Workers Support 996.ICUThe 996 practice got to be so well known that two years ago it got its own Github project, now supported by more than 500 contributors. Called 996icu, its name means if you work 996 hours, you will end up in a hospital’s ICU. The project has badges and banners for supporters of more reasonable working hours, lists of companies that have more balanced work rules and tips to help workers fight 996 conditions. The project’s readme file states “This is not a political movement. We firmly uphold the labor law and request employers to respect the legitimate rights and interests of their employees. We want to create an open source software license that advocates workers’ rights.”
The 996 situation changed with the cases cited by the courts last week. Given a series of high-profile deaths by overworked and overstressed employees, a growing movement among Chinese Millennials to have more of a work/life balance and a concern by the central government about a shrinking labor force (China’s population growth is slowing), it was time for some clarification and to try to stamp out 996 practices. The ten cases define a “standard” 44 hour workweek and 8 hour work day. how to resolve pay disputes, and other employment matters.
The rulings have already brought about changes for smartphone maker Vivo, which scrapped its six-day work weeks the day after the cases were published. Legal scholars predicted that worker complaints would be given more credence by the court system. Still, some social media reaction was skeptical, so we’ll see what happens. But it certainly is a step in the right direction.

NokNok blog: Next level metal credit cards

I got my first metallic credit card from Apple a few years ago. I thought it was more a curiosity than anything else. Soon after, my wife got a metallic card from Chase. American Express and Discover have both been making metal cards for years as well. Now, thanks to a partnership between NokNok and CompoSecure, you will see new types of cards that have something besides their outer skin to offer consumers: the ability to include authentication tokens and cold cryptocurrency wallets. You can read more in my blog post for NokNok here.

Wanna email your governor? Good luck!

One of the simplest methods of communication with the top executive in your state is anything but. This week I tried to find the email address for my governor, Mike Parson, but all I got was a lousy web form on the state website. Yes, I could fill out the form, but I wanted to track our correspondence (wishful thinking, I know) through my email client. Alas, it was not meant to be.

This turned into A Project. Turns out many states aren’t so transparent about their email addresses. Surely they must use email to conduct state business. But finding out these actual addresses well, that is another matter.

Yes, almost every governor’s office phone number is easily discoverable from numerous online sources. And part of me wanted to call each one and ask what the appropriate email address is, just to hear the staffer sputter or put me on hold. You can go to this document, maintained by the National Governors Association, which lists both phone numbers and postal addresses for all of them, including territories. There is a separate document that links to various social media addresses. But email? Nope. You can see the data here for the first few lines:

 

 

(NGA, you might want to spend the minutes it might take to add another column to this document and become useful to those of us who want to use email.)

A quick check of several nearby states shows Missouri isn’t alone in relegating constituent queries to a web form: the state websites of Illinois, Kentucky, Iowa and Maryland also just have these forms on their governors’ pages, with no mention of their chief executive’s actual email address. That’s annoying. I tried to decode the underlying HTML of the forms, but I wasn’t smart enough to suss it out.

This reminds me of a story that I wrote many years ago, at the dawn of the internet era. I was searching for computer tech support information, and back then we didn’t have Google and most vendors barely had FTP servers, let alone websites that had this information. But that was the 1990s. Those that had email responders didn’t really staff them for timely answers either. That article btw is notable in how many companies have gone to dust (Lycos? Compuserve? Memories.)

There is a source of governor emails, and it comes from an odd place: Rick Halperin, a history professor at Southern Methodist University. Not wanting to link to an outdated document, I emailed him and asked if he keeps the document up to date. Within minutes he replied (thanks Rick! Governor staffers, please note.), saying thanks for reminding him and yes, link away. So there you have it. To paraphrase that infamous cartoon, on the internet, everyone knows you are a dog if you work for a state government.

Now I am under no expectations that my governor — or any other — is actually going to read his or her emails. Or that anyone will actually respond with anything other than a form letter. But if you want to comment on this piece, I will take the time to write back.

Why we need girls’ STEM programs

Like many of you, I have watched the horrors unfold in Afghanistan this week. There has been some excellent reporting — particularly by Al Jazeera on their English channel — but very little said about one massive and positive change that the past 20 years has seen: hundreds of thousands of boys and girls there have received an education that was previously out of reach. I am particularly glad to see that many students have also gotten interested in STEM fields as well.

I was reminded of something that happened to me nine summers ago, when I was one of the judges in the annual Microsoft Imagine Cup collegiate software contest, held that year in Sydney. By chance, I ended up judging three teams that were all female students from Ecuador, Qatar and Oman. Just so you understand the process: each country holds its own competition, and that team goes on to the finals. That means that the women bested dozens if not hundreds of other teams in their respective countries.

My post from 2012 shows the Omani team (above) and how carefully they branded themselves with red head scarfs (their app was something dealing with blood distribution, hence the color and the logos on their shirts). The Qatari team had a somewhat different style: one woman wore sweats and sneakers, one wore a full-on burka covering everything but a screen for her eyes, and the other two had modest coverings in between those points. It was my first time seeing anyone give a talk in a burka, and it was memorable. All four of them were from the same university, which was also an important point. While none of my teams were finalists, it didn’t really matter. They all were part of the 375 students who made it to Sydney, and they all got a lot out of the experience, as did I.

The reason I was thinking about the issues for women’s STEM education was this piece that I found in the NY Times about the FIRST robotics competition and the Afghan girls team. The story was written two years ago, and pre-dates what is happening now.

The girls were able to made it out of Kabul on Tuesday to Oman, where they will continue their STEM education. But there are certainly many thousands of girls who aren’t so fortunate, and we’ll see what happens in the coming weeks and months. I think many of us are literally holding our breaths and hoping for the best.

One of the reasons for the FIRST girls team’s success was great mentorship by Roya Mahboob, an Afghan expat tech entrepreneur and the team’s founder. She — yes you might not know that Roya is a woman’s name and is Persian meaning visionary — isn’t the only one that got behind these girls — if you read some of their own stories you can see that they had the support of an older generation of women who had gotten STEM education — the “tech aunties brigade” as I would call them — who were important role models. It shows that this progress happens slowly — family by family — as the old world order and obstacles are broken down bit by bit. Think about that for a moment: these girls already had older family members who were established in their careers. In Afghanistan, there isn’t a glass ceiling, but a glass floor to just gain entry.

While there is a lot to be said about whether America and the other NATO allies should have been in Afghanistan to begin with, I think you could make an argument that our focus on education was a net positive for the country and its future. From various government sources cited in this report, “literacy among 15- to 24-year-olds increased by 28 percentage points among males and 19 points among females, primarily driven by increases in rural areas.” This is over the period from 2005 to 2017. And while I couldn’t find any STEM-specific stats, you can see that education has had a big impact. I don’t know if the mistakes of our “endless war” can be absolved by this one small but shining result, but I am glad to see more all-girls STEM teams take their message around the world, and to motivate others to try to start their own STEM careers.

The period of your life formerly known as retirement

I have known quite a few of my contemporaries who are contemplating the next phase of their lives. In April, 4M people quit their jobs.  This used to be called retirement but now we need a better word to indicate more of a transition rather than a choice.  I now think of this differently. No longer is this the time to relax, to travel, to see the grandkids, to take up new hobbies or volunteer work.

This isn’t exactly a new idea. Pablo Casals once famously said that he was motivated to continue to practice the cello in his 90s because he was making progress.

One friend of mine is hyper-organized: he has five volunteer jobs — one for each day of the week to keep himself busy. Others have a part-time job that gives them some flexibility. As to travel — well, we have the virus to change those plans.

Gary Bolles in his first book, called The Next Rules of Work, plots out a new vision for how we relate to work, to jobs, to bosses, and to our lives. You can click here for my full review of his book. My takeaway for this blog post is the changing way we need to approach retirement — no matter what is your age.

For many years now you didn’t have to be receiving Social Security payouts to retire. I know plenty of teachers and military members who began working at age 20, and were able to retire with full benefits when they turned 40, often starting new careers.

When friends ask me if I am planning on retirement, I say no. And this is because I am completely aligned with Bolles’ Next Rules. I consider myself a lifelong learner, and designed my freelance business to ensure that I would always be learning something new about the tech fields that I write about. It wasn’t too hard: I imagine if I was writing about the sporting goods or home appliances businesses I would have a lot less learning to do year-on-year. (Maybe not, but you get my point.)

No matter where you are in your life, you have to figure out how to continue to learn new stuff. When we are working every weekday, we tend to have someone else force us into this learning-as-part-of-the-normal work process. But as more of us become gig workers, we have to create these situations on our own, and that is the manual that Bolles has constructed.

You could build it in, as “if it is Tuesday I volunteer at X” how my friend does. Or you could have other mechanisms that force the learning, such as a book club (where the group actually does read the assigned books), or a travel schedule (if we can ever get back to that again), or something else that forces you out of the house so you aren’t locked into daydrinking/Netflix bingeing cycles. Of course, for some of us that just may be an intermediate goal, which is fine.

So if you aren’t happy in your current job, think about making this transition to becoming a life-long learner. Don’t wait until you reach your 60s.

How hate can fund a video streaming career

When I last checked in with Megan Squire, a computer science professor who specializes in tracking online hate trends, she was looking at the the far-right users of various messaging services. Last month she presented this paper about how this group has taken advantage of the DLive streaming video service to solicit donations and spread their horrible videos. Some of the Jan 6 Capitol rioters used DLive to broadcast their attack and exploits.

Unfortunately for these users, DLive also has a very robust and public API that allows researchers to track the flow of funds through their platform. Squire was able to examine the accounts of more than 100 different users, half of them active streamers and the other half either large-ticket donors or others of interest to her work. Some of these streamers can make $10k in a typical month in donations, providing a way to obtain regular income to these political extremists. While most of these funds comes from these donors, there is also funds that originate from lots of followers. These donations usually happen during the live broadcasts when the viewers purchase “lemons” (the built-in platform currency).

She mapped the community into this network graph shown below. You can see the pink nodes that are the streamers, and the graph shows a very fragmented audience. The streamers mostly have their own and separate fan clubs (if you analyze their donors who give them at least $120). The cluster marked B in the diagram is an affiliated Proud Boys account and the C cluster represents the activist Peter Santilli. Both Santilli and members of the B cluster are facing various criminal charges.

Now, Squire admits that finding these alt-right streamers wasn’t easy, and by no means representative of the larger DLive community, most of whom are focused on online gaming. Since the January riot, the platform has taken steps to remove these streamers and to cooperate with law enforcement on subsequent illegal usage.

Still, while they were allowed on DLive, many of her streamer subjects have made substantial incomes from their narrowcast supporters. I am sure they have found other online platforms to spew their messages of hate.

If you don’t have time to review Squire’s paper, you can watch a short 10 min. video where she walks you through her research. She hopes that by shining a light on these activities, other researchers will be encouraged to examine other online platforms that have public data.

Can AI help you get your next job?

There is an increasing number of AI-based tools that are being used in the hiring and HR process. I am not sure whether this is a benefit to job seekers and to the employment business. Certainly, there are plenty of horror stories, such as this selection from 2020’s most significant AI-based failures such as deepfake bots, biased predictions of pre-criminal intent, and so forth. (And this study by Pew is also worth reading.)

I would argue that AI has more of a PR than HR problem, with the mother lode being traced back to the Terminator movies and Minority Report, with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics thrown in for good measure. In a post that I did for Avast’s blog last fall, I examined some of the ethical and bias issues around AI. Part of the issue is that we still need to encode human judgment into some digital form. And people aren’t as consistent as machines — which sometimes is a useful thing. I will give you an example at the end of this post.

But let’s examine what is going on with HR-related AI. In a study done last year by HRExaminer, identified a dozen hiring-based AI tools, with half of them focusing on the recruiting function. I would urge you to examine this list and see if any of them are being used at your workplace, or as part of your own job search and hiring process.

One of the ones on the list is HiredScore, which offers an all-purpose HR solution using various AI methods to rank potential job candidates, recommend internal employees for open positions, and measure inclusion and diversity. That is a lot of places where the doomsday “Skynet” scenario of the machines taking over could happen, and is probably one of the few plot lines that Philip K. Dick never anticipated. Still, the company claims they have trained their machine learning algorithms with more than 25M resumes and twice as many job postings.

There are other niche products, such as Xref’s online reference checking or the testing prowess of TestGorilla. The latter offers a library of more than 135 “scientifically validated tests” for job-specific skills like coding or digital marketing, as well as more general skills like critical thinking. That one struck another nerve for me. The reason I put that phrase in quotes is because I can’t validate its claim.

As many of you who have followed my work have found out, my first job in publishing was working for PC Week when it was part of the Ziff Davis corporation. ZD had a rule that required every potential hire to submit to a personality test before getting a job offer. I have no recollection of the actual test questions all these years later, but obviously I passed and so began my writing career.

In the modern era, we now have vendors that use AI tools to help screen applicants.  I am not sure I would have passed these tests if ZD had them available back in the day. That doesn’t make me feel better about using AI to help assist in this process.

Let me give you a final example. When I went to visit my daughter last month, I was given a specific time period that I was allowed to enter Israel. Only it wasn’t specific: the approval was granted for “two weeks” but not starting from any specific time of day. I interpreted it one way. The German gate agents at Frankfort interpreted another way. Ultimately, the Israeli authorities at the airport agreed with my point of view and let me board my final flight. If a machine had screened me, I would have probably not been allowed to enter Israel.

In my post for Avast’s blog last year, I mention several issues surrounding bias: in the diversity of the programming team creating the algorithms, in understanding the difference between causation and correlation, and in interpreting the implied ethical standards of the actual algorithms themselves. These are all tricky issues, and made even more so when you are deciding on the fate of potential job applicants. Proceed with caution.

Avast blog: Fighting unpredictable existential threats

Earlier in June, CogX Festival brought together representatives from business and government to discuss innovation. I watched a panel session on dealing with unpredictable existential threats. The panelists included Robert Hercock, the Chief Research Scientist at BT Security, Clarissa Rios Rojas, a research associate at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and Avast CISO Jaya Baloo. Rojas and her colleagues spend a lot of time looking at a wide range of global risks that could lead to human extinction and other dire circumstances. You can watch the session here and can read my synopsis of the conference session on Avast’s blog here.

The role of mutual trust when you resume international travel

I recently spent two weeks in Israel visiting my daughter’s family. Making the arrangements was an interesting exercise and exposed how broken our mutual trust relationships have become in the Covid era. There are several weak points, especially under the strain of crossing international borders:

— Crossing borders (customs and immigration procedures). Before the pandemic, there were fairly well-defined rules on how one could enter another country. Some places, such as the EU, had complete trust and no actual physical barrier between countries: it was more a line drawn on a map. But that trust has broken down, and now the rules are in flux, seemingly with daily changes.

In my previous visits to Israel, I didn’t need a visa as an American citizen. But I was interrogated by a customs official as to my purpose. That in-person conversation was replaced by a pre-flight application process that was maddening. I had to provide all sorts of documents to the Israeli embassy (in Miami, which covers my part of the US). My application was questioned several times before getting approval. Once I arrived at the Tel Aviv airport, I was able to gain entry to the country by just scanning my passport, and a quick conversation with a health ministry representative that wanted to see the documentation about my negative Covid PCR test. The passport scan had previously only been available to those holding Israeli passports, and is similar to our Global Entry process.

— Proof of vaccination. The issue for any American traveling abroad is that our cardboard proof of vaccination isn’t trustworthy. I had to get a blood test in Israel that proved it: the locals have an app that is tied to their HMO’s system that used to be a condition for entering public places like shopping malls and sports stadiums. While I was there the restrictions were removed: that is what happens when sufficient folks have gotten vaccinated. But without the blood test, I would have had to stay in isolation at my daughter’s home during my entire visit.

— Passenger behavior (inflight). The news media is filled with stories about misbehaving passengers who have been arrested and removed from flights. The vast majority of these cases were from domestic US flights. The international flights that I was on saw no trouble. And when I interviewed my flight attendants, they also said that the cases were overstated by the media.

— Passenger behavior (on the ground). The five airports that I was in (St. Louis, Houston, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv and Newark) all had vastly different experiences. The most crowded airport was Houston and most of the passengers were masked and the airport shops were open and busy. In Tel Aviv’s airport, few people wore masks and donned them just before boarding their flights. Frankfurt was a ghost town and few shops and airport lounges were open, although I did find one where I could take a shower. Newark was busy, and had frequent PA announcements that any passengers without masks would be subject to a $50 fine.

I am glad that I got an opportunity to see my family. The bottom line for those of you that want to travel internationally in 2021: plan ahead and be prepared to roll with sudden and inexplicable changes.