Thursday, January 28, 2016

Google High

I just Googled myself. My LinkedIN page, this blog, my IMBD page and even my personal website came up on the first page. Same thing with Bing. Deeper in were links to my former workplaces and a bunch of other people who have the same name. I guess it’s something that I come up first, and dominate the first 2 pages of results. It’s been years since I’ve searched myself mostly because it seemed rather egotistical. It actually is a prudent thing to do since the first thing most of us do these days after meeting somebody is to Google/Bing them. Business acquaintances, romantic interests, job applicants all are easily pre-screened thanks to online search engines. Of course the information that’s out there is incomplete and not always reliable, but why should that stop anybody? There is a treasure trove of data for the taking. The U.S. Government in its inimitable wisdom has opted to create its own bureaucracy to check out people it might hire. 

The White House is creating a new agency to handle background checks. There were massive breaches of personal information and alleged hacking by the Chinese Government of the Office of Personnel last year. (“Cyber Incidents" according to the Obama Administration.) To remedy those issues a new federal entity will be formed. From the Press Release:
“Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Investigative Services (FIS) currently conducts investigations for over 100 Federal agencies – approximately 95 percent of the total background investigations government-wide – including more than 600,000 security clearance investigations and 400,000 suitability investigations each year. The National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), which will assume this mission and absorb FIS.  NBIB will concentrate solely on providing effective, efficient, and secure background investigations for the Federal Government.”
The Department of Defense will run the infrastructure of the new agency, specifically providing technology solutions. There is a $95 million budget for Fiscal 2017.

With one million investigations a year and a budget of $95 million – simple math tells us that each background check costs $95. Kennect is one of the largest private agencies – and a full background check – including a seven-year criminal check, county courthouse verification and US terror watch search costs the same. Could this mean that the U.S. government is operating as efficiently as private industry?

Not so much. As Mediaite points out in their story, the Federal Government has had a difficult time hiring security experts. The difficulty in hiring individuals with cyber skills is reported by InformationWeek because of “rigid human resources policies.”

Motherboard is more succinct: “The FBI Says It Can't Find Hackers to Hire Because They All Smoke Pot.”

There’s a problem when the system for hiring people gets broken into by anybody, but especially a country like China which is not necessarily friendly to U.S. interests. To fix that problem high quality technical people are needed to remedy the situation. The United States is fortunate to have an incredible talent pool of technology geniuses. The Government can’t hire the best skilled people because the existing policies exclude individuals who fall outside of a strict code of conduct for actions that take place at home. The White House has opted instead to create a new bureaucracy and put the Defense Department in charge of it. The same department that hasn’t been able to pass an audit. Ever. In its entire existence. Remind me, who’s high? 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Marriage Schism

I enjoyed “The Tudors” when it was on Showtime a few years back. It fit well with the soap-opera story telling style of today – plenty of sex, deceit, back-stabbing and politicking to entertain for hours. Henry VIII had a voracious appetite for everything. His marriage to Anne Boleyn became the trigger that split the Church of England from the Catholic Church since the Pope would not annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The issue of marriage is therefore a founding bedrock principle of the Church of England which is the seat of Anglicanism. It’s ironic that marriage is still an issue 483 years later and may well be the undoing of the Anglican communion.

On January 14 at a meeting in Canterbury England of the 38 Primates (bishops) of the Communion the Episcopal Church was sanctioned over its acceptance of gay marriage. “For three years, the Episcopal Church will not be allowed to participate in many of the communion's internal decisions or represent Anglicans in meetings with Christians and other faith groups.”

For all practical purposes the punishment will have little effect on the day to day lives of parishioners throughout the United States. As a cradle (to eventual grave) Episcopalian who attends services weekly for much of my life I can’t remember when a decision by the primates affected my own beliefs or religious practices. That said – this decision matters and it matters a great deal.

“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” has been the motto of the American branch of the Anglican Communion for as long as I can remember. It’s not only an effective tag line – it accurately reflects the ethos of the denomination. Liturgical traditions vary widely – from a high mass with incense and bells to a low mass in the round with clapping and drums. Its no surprise that a religion that is inclusive and celebrates difference as a strength would be one that welcomes LGBTQ people. It also makes total sense that once the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage for all the Episcopal Church followed suit. It would have been hard pressed to continue banning the practice.

Newly elected Presiding Bishop Michael Curry released a video and a statement that perfectly encapsulates the “turn the other cheek” Christian philosophy through a practice of “loving your enemy.” His most powerful perspective was this:

“The truth is, it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed, where this is truly a house of prayer for all people.“
The Anglican Communion is not Catholic-lite. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not the Pope – he isn’t able to dictate policy and have it ‘be law.’ It’s set up in many ways like what’s ultimately needed in the American political system – consensus is required and getting it is messy. And those with the loudest bark seem to win. The African bishops were very clear from the get go – they would break off from the Communion if there wasn’t some penalty to those who accept gay marriage. The Uganda Primate (where homosexuals are killed for being gay) didn’t even stay for the entire meeting as he was unable to be in the same room as the Americans since it was an “insult” to his people.

The sanction comes as The Church of England reports attendance below one million on a weekly basis – a 1% dip that continues year after year. Throughout the United Kingdom only about 12% of the population is affiliated with The Church of England, a far cry from its roots when wars were fought over the role the Church was to hold in people’s lives. The majority of Anglicans come not from England or America, but instead Africa.
The African provinces represent the largest number of congregants worldwide and therefore their voices should be heard.

What would have happened if the discussion went the other way? If those provinces that advocate for excluding LGBT people from the sanctity of marriage were drowned out by those who said all are welcome and all are loved? What if the nearly 500-year history of a Church born out of permitting one to love who one wanted continued the practice to its same sex brothers and sisters? Would they prayerfully consider the issue and stay connected? Or would they break off? We’ve already seen the answer: they go their own way. Are those who stay and try to heal and work on staying connected doing the right thing? Time will tell. Our history in the faith is born of a schism.

Church services for me are as much about the community as my personal relationship with God. The primates decision won’t change who I love. The schism that’s occurring is political. My deepest held prayer is that the Anglican Communion welcome diverse voices and beliefs and not punish them. If that can’t happen, I know the Episcopal Church has the strength of its convictions to welcome all.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Polls wrong 100% of the time

The phone rang. “Would you like to answer a few questions?” [This was back in the dark ages of the 1980’s when you actually answered the phone.] It was Gallup calling. They wanted my opinion! I spent the next 45 minutes on a call with somebody who was clearly doing this for the first time – and I missed a wonderful dinner my mother had cooked. It was for the greater good, I self-justified.  I was one of those selected people who’s opinions was going to make a difference! The optimism of youth has now turned into the cynicism of someone not so young. Time isn’t solely responsible for the transition – a changing world is as well. Technology has advanced so that everybody’s opinions can be gathered and everything seems to be voted on.

In 2006 more people voted for Taylor Hicks on American Idol than voted for President. Polls have become so easy and sophisticated that anybody can do them. On any subject.

Debate-org has an entire section of “funny” polls. And Gallup continues to take its role seriously. Real Clear Politics has both a listing of all polls and an average of major polls. Republican candidates have been ‘debating’ for several months – but with so many candidates the various sponsors of the events have limited the number of people on stage. They’ve done so based on polling – determining who is a ‘tier 1’ candidate and who is a ‘lower tier’ candidate.

Several weeks from this January writing will be the first votes of the 2016 Presidential season. Shortly thereafter there will be campaigns that end. But some didn’t wait for the votes to come in before dropping out. Major candidates for the GOP nomination who have already quit:
  • Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal
  • Former New York Governor George Pataki
  • South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham
  • Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
  • Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore
  • Former Texas Governor Rick Perry
  • Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (onetime GOP but was running for Dem nom)

The lack of fundraising and media interest make the determination to quit the race a seemingly well reasoned one. These candidates also didn’t poll much above 1%, if that. Bar none each of the dropouts have referred to their standing in the polls - as if they matter more than the votes themselves. There’s something quite disconcerting and almost disturbing that polls have the level of influence that they do.

The National Council on Public Polls every few years releases a report on the accuracy of polls by election cycle. They’ve never been right. The percent that they’ve been off may seem relatively small and insignificant – but if candidates are determined to be viable based on this data, shouldn’t it be more exacting? And why is society so impatient to need to know the result of something before it happens? 

Media will report on polls more easily and completely than on the underlying issues. It easier. Who’s up and who’s down is a quick and easy narrative to tell. ("Bernie surges...") Then the questions about strategy and how to ‘get ahead’ are standard stories. Lost in the sea of coverage is that none of that data is based on anything but conjecture. It’s what somebody’s thinking in the moment and is easily changed.

In a free and open democracy people should be able to spend years running for President if they want. Citizens have an equal right to steer pollsters to crazy candidates and prove them wrong on election day. Let’s hope that’s what’s happening in 2016 when we’ll prove that 100% of all polls are wrong!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Penny for my thoughts

I’ve been writing this blog since August 2010 every week. You’re reading #287. At an average length of 750 words that’s 215,250 words. 83,389 people have read one post or another with a monthly average of about 1,000 views. Other than a handful of folks I email and a generic cross posting on Facebook and Twitter I have not done anything to generate readership. Self-promoting and marketing the blog hasn’t been its core purpose, exploring and discussing things that catch my interest has been the focus. The advertising income from Google the blog has generated in five years comes to less than $150. It’s not what you’d call the most lucrative gig out there. It’s not just that words are cheap – all content is.

Today’s digital economy has spawned an entire generation who have no expectation to pay for content. Those who grew up conditioned to pay for newspapers, books, movies and music may have adapted to internet based solutions, and they are the most likely to pay for content delivered a different way. I’ve read a daily newspaper since I was a pre-teen. Today I read two and receive both electronically – and I pay $40 a month combined for the privilege. Sure I could get the same information in other ways for free, but I find value in the layout and in the newspaper way and therefore I’m willing to pay for it rather than having to learn another way.

Journalism has been fretting about the digital era for nearly twenty years – some have adapted well, some haven’t. Big brands like The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times are able to charge for premium content. Paywalls for online content are nominal compared to the income that print continues to generate for most newspapers who then opt to give the information away for free.

People who recognize that its ordinary to buy music – those who once bought LPs, cassettes, etc. have adapted to iTunes, Amazon and other digital solutions. Technology changed music – and the economic model moved from profit coming from sales of music to live concert tours being the revenue source. Sure there’s a few bucks to be made on the per-song download, but after Apple and others take their piece of the pie there’s very little left for artists.

The movie industry is going through a similar transformation that the music industry did. Four years ago, for example, no nominees for the Golden Globes came from a ‘streaming’ service (such as Hulu, Netflix, Amazon) – and in 2016 a quarter of all television nominees come from one of those three services – nearly double the nominations for the cable industry. More people are streaming than ever before.

There’s been much written and even more hyperventilating about the devaluing of content and intellectual property. What is the best way to value content?

Apple raised the price of the iPhone and iPad in Germany to start 2016 and includes a 5 to 7 euro ($5.50 to $7.70) per device fee “in a deal designed to benefit musicians, producers and other content producers.”

Apple Insider continues: “Money gained by the levies will be meted out to creative professionals. The new levy is based on a 1965 German law granting consumers the right to make personal copies of sounds, images and text in exchange for a small fee applied to the purchase price of a new device.”

It’s an interesting assumption: if you buy a device like an iPad it is assumed that you’re going to use it to consume content. So the government collects a fee from the device maker to pass back to artists. It’s not clear how that allocation occurs and who makes that determination. It’s also not clear why providers aren’t paying royalties and residuals. 

A pure libertarian solution is to let the marketplace decide. Ultimately that makes sense philosophically: if people value something they’ll pay for it. If not, they won’t. Practically it’s a little less workable and as a content creator and protector, my perspective is skewed.

The population has been trained that there is a cost to access the information – paying a fee per month for a certain amount of data, or even unlimited – is part of life like paying for fuel, food, etc. There may be a time in the future where access to the Internet isn’t valued – like music or movies or news today – and Google and some local governments are working on providing free universal access. (The BBC has an entire section on the Cost of Free.) For now most people pay to get online.

What if content producers benefited from the content they generate? A third party (could be an existing entity, could be an industry designed group, preferably not government) can identify how much traffic a particular site has – how much data moves – whether it’s a blog, a movie, whatever. Consumers pay to access the Internet – what if an additional 1% went to content creators on a pro-rata basis of usage? So a tiny blog like Craig’s Corner that only generates 1,000 views a month may have a  pro-rata portion that is nominal compared to CNN or others (or even the Google ads I get now). Consumers spend (according to IBISWorld globally $532 billion to get to the information superhighway They do so because there’s something worth seeing when they get there. Shouldn’t there be some compensation for that that breaks away the advertising model?

This solution may be absurd and impractical. But it begins to recognize that content has value and should be paid for. There’ve been 2,120 views of Craig’s Corner in Germany. 4% of my views come from iPhone or iPads.  That’s 85 views in Germany on an Apple product. I better start seeing how to get my share of that fee. I’m sure it will be about a penny…