Facebook Is Defending Our Privacy (and Their Bottom Line)

Employers want your Facebook password, but Mark and Co. are here to help. Nice, but there is still no hope.

No intro for this post – we already know that Facebook is taking over our lives.

What’s more disturbing, however, is the recent trend of employers asking candidates for Facebook passwords in job interviews. Most companies already search your name in Google and Facebook to glean any public information, but requiring the disclosure of your password is tantamount to handing over a copy of your house keys in case your boss ever feels like dropping by to make sure you aren’t misbehaving. Apparently Facebook has noticed and has made it known that they are not happy.

Last Friday, Facebook issued a statement, condemning the soliciting of passwords. And then they took it to another level.

Facebook takes your privacy seriously.  We’ll take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action, including by shutting down applications that abuse their privileges.

Did you catch that? Initiating legal action! The prospects of a legal battle with Facebook makes the ACLU (who is working on the matter too) seem like a minor nuisance. Hopefully, this will discourage employers from overstepping their boundaries (now if only we could get Facebook to do so as well).

So why is Facebook so concerned with our privacy? By partnering with users to maintain strict boundaries around personal information, Facebook is ensuring that they, and only they, can have access to (and profit from) your personal information. This is the basis of their entire business model. Also, if employers had access to accounts, people would be less likely to use the site as freely as they do now. Fewer users and reduced volume translates to less information to sell.

Although Facebook has taken a stand against intrusive employers, in the long run, we may be defenseless against entities that know us better than we know ourselves. There are plenty of other companies and government authorities who are actively working to track our behavior in order to facilitate material consumption and political coercion. The irony is that we are voluntarily giving up our privacy. Complaints about corporate intrusiveness are superseded by our frantic appetite to consume more of their products. We may be safe from our employers for now, but if we are headed toward a dystopian future of conformity and control, perhaps it will be our own fault for signing up. For a more full explanation, see this important video.

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Mike Daisey Lied About Apple’s Factory in China

Journalism is part storytelling, but where do we draw the line? Well before what Mike Daisey did to This American Life and Apple. 

If you are a fan of the spoken word, you probably know that This American Life (TAL) is one of the most popular radio programs in the country and has consistently been the most downloaded podcast on iTunes for years. In early January, TAL broadcast its most popular episode ever (more than 800,000 downloads), entitled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”. The episode was based on Mike Daisey’s one-man theater play, entitled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” a critique of Apple’s pivotal role in the exploitative global manufacturing sector. The story made a big splash, particularly because it came out only a couple of months after the death of Steve Jobs, but also because we are all becoming resigned to the fact that Apple is slowly but eventually taking over our lives.

Daisey’s play is moving and sad. If only it were true though. It turns out that much of the play’s content is fiction or at the very least exaggerated. This would be fine for a theatrical production – anything less would be boring on stage. For a journalistic radio program, it is highly inappropriate, especially considering the precision with which the material targeted one particular company (Apple) and one particular factory (Foxconn in Shenzhen).

Following the broadcast, many journalists began questioning some of Daisey’s accounts. It seemed unlikely to Rob Schmitz (China-based reporter for NPR’s  Marketplace) that factory workers would hang out at Starbucks to discuss their illegal labor union. Starbucks is even more expensive in China than in the US and is not the sort of place factory workers frequent. Daisey also describes the scowling security guards with guns standing in front of the factory gates. The problem with this is that in China, only the police and military are permitted to carry firearms.

Schmitz was able to track down Daisey’s translator, a person whom Daisey repeatedly lied to TAL about in order to prevent any verification or corroboration. Daisey also lied about meeting several underage factory workers, some as young as 12, and others who had suffered hexane poisoning. Earlier this week, TAL put out its first ever retraction episode (inspiration for my previous post), devoted entirely to saying sorry and setting the record straight.

TAL has taken a lot of flack for the mistakes and is currently the unfortunate victim of false equivalence – pretending that TAL and Daisey’s points of view are equally valid in the name of impartiality. (see here, here, here, here, here and here).

Yes, TAL should have been more careful. Yes, conditions in Chinese factories are probably difficult. Yes, Mike Daisey is a theatrical performer and is entitled to a great deal of artistic licence when performing.

but…

Mike Daisey lied (we’ve got the tapes) and intentionally deceived journalists. He remains almost unapologetic and is playing the victim card now. TAL has gone out of its way to correct for errors – a remarkable action in this day and age.

The radio program made mistakes, but what the actor did was near criminal and deserves the bulk of the opprobrium. Meanwhile, Apple barely blinked.

Retraction: TED Is Awesome

I liked TED and then convinced myself that I didn’t. I was a hater. Please don’t be one too. 

Urban Dictionary defines a hater as: “A person that simply cannot be happy for another person’s success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person”. An example follows:

Susan: You know, Kevin from accounting is doing very well. He just bought a house in a very nice part of town.

Jane (hater): If he is doing so well why does he drive that ’89 Taurus?

My post from two weeks ago, Is TED Watering Down Our Minds?, is a prime example of hatertude, and for that I am sorry. I had explained how my initial love for TED had given way to boredom with the increasingly repetitive lectures. I cited Salman Khan’s education project as the last time I was genuinely impressed by a TED talk. What I failed to mention was that before Khan, there was Theo Jansen’s kinetic creatures that roam the coastline of Holland. Before that was Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir of over 2,000 voices from around the world. And Pranav Mistry’s 6th Sense technology that will revolutionize the way we interact with computers. And Hans Rosling’s data presentation that are so simple and so informative. The list goes on.

Although TED isn’t perfect, it has probably blown my mind away more than just about any other internet site. It will not save the world, but that’s OK. TED is an introduction and inspiration. TED is not comprehensive, but it’s not supposed to be. Most importantly, it is not watering down our minds.

TED may have faults with self righteousness and elitism (I’m beginning to doubt even those), but to suggest that it is watering down our minds is a red herring and a sad attempt to take a swipe at something because it enjoys mass appeal. If an organization can convince tens of millions of people to commit nearly 20 minutes of their day to sit down and think about something new, then they have succeeded and I applaud them. By today’s standards 20 minutes is quite a bit – especially on the internet.  There are so many things that are watering down our minds (stupid cat videos anyone?) and turning to a fast food approach to learning (cable news anyone?). TED is not one of them.

Is College Worth it? Part 3: Learning

We are filling colleges with too many unprepared students who don’t want to be there in pursuit of a misguided idea of prestige.

For most middle class American families, the four year undergraduate college experience has (de)generated into merely an expected step in the process – motions rather than actions. As discussed in part 1, college grads have more jobs than non college grads. So far, the remedy for this gap has been, let’s put everyone in college. Well, perhaps not everyone is meant for college (read till the end before sending hate mail).

I do not mean that certain students are not “good enough” for college. Rather, we must change our understanding of the term “good enough”. Rick Santorum recently referred to President Obama as a snob for supposedly saying that all Americans should go to college. Santorum defended those who were “gifted with their hands” implying that Obama wishes to herd everyone to the base of his ivory tower. Santorum is either a fool or a liar because he and the President actually agree on this issue. 

Germany and much of northern Europe have maintained a competitive advantage in manufacturing by supporting a system of vocational education built around developing skills necessary for a robust and productive industrial sector. Our politicians all pay lip service to the blue collar work ethic, but increasingly, parents and employers look down on those who don’t work at a desk. We enjoy watching Deadliest Catch on TV, but God forbid if one of our kids wants to catch fish for a living. How many times have we heard someone say something along the lines of “study hard, or else you’ll end up a janitor”. No wonder kids feel pressure to sign up for degrees they don’t want and can’t afford.

I learned a lot in college. I’m sure many of you have as well. But of course you did – it would be near impossible to progress through your first few years of adulthood without learning anything. The point is, how much did college instruction have to do with it, and was it worth the cost to you, your family and society?

College is no longer primarily a place for learning. A recent book, Higher Education?, argues that teaching has taken a back seat to research. Even small colleges put so much pressure on their faculty to publish that they often have no time to actually teach. College and university rankings rely heavily on the extent to which an institution’s publications are cited by other publications. But is writing an arcane article on Chaucer’s diet more important than helping students grasp the basics of English literature? We are losing our way and academic scholarship is the currency with which we are selling our souls for prestige.

Another book, Academically Adrift, argues that our colleges are caught up in a public relations arms race in which they are watering down curricula and standards so as to graduate more students and make short-term gains against their peer institutions. Professors are scared of giving bad grades. The end result is that students leave college without having acquired important skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.

Even critics feel that the US university system is still the envy of the world. But much of that is based on inherited prestige from our graduate programs, which rely heavily on being able to attract the best and the brightest from around the world. If we continue to send more kids to college than we should, it’s only a matter of time before we have yet another debt crisis and a collapse in confidence in an already overvalued product that often fails to deliver on its promises.

Is college worth it? Yes, but we should really be encouraging high school graduates to genuinely consider all their options and support them if they choose something other than a 4-year degree. By channeling students to build off of their actual interests and capabilities, we will certainly produce both better mechanics and better writers.

Is College Worth it? Part 2: Cost

College degrees may no longer get you a job, but tuition costs continue to rise and student debt continues to accumulate.

I spent 4 years at a private liberal arts American college where the cost of tuition and board was about $35,000 per  year (for the current academic year, the amount is $55,450). I then spent two years in India, pursuing a masters degree, where the total cost was $1,200 per year.

Both schools provided me with an excellent education, but one was 30 times more expensive. Sure, the facilities at my undergraduate college were much better, but was it worth more than half of my parents’ combined salary? In reality, I actually only paid about a quarter of the full tuition because of various grants made possible by the college and the Federal Government. And then there were loans. By American standards, I was fortunate to walk away from college with only about $15,000 in student debt.

Every year, the Federal Government provides more than $150 billion in post-secondary financial aid – mostly through low interest, easy to get loans. Sound familiar? Government backing makes it very easy for students, many of whom are not ready to take on such a burden, to access large amounts of credit. As of last year, Americans had more student loan debt ($867 billion) than credit card debt ($704 billion). Even more modest calculations show a huge (511%)  increase in tuition in just over a decade.

In the previous post, I described how a college degree is still the best way to get a good job, but no longer a guarantee for one. Some folks believe that the cost of tuition has finally reached a tipping point and that it is no longer worth it, even for a job. Peter Thiel, co-founded of PayPal, started the Thiel Fellowship, which pays 20 students (all under 20 years of age) $100,000 to not attend or drop out of college and pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions. Peter Thiel and I may not see eye to eye on most things political and economic (here’s why), but I think we both agree that $200,000 is too much to pay for college.

Attending a four year private college is tantamount to undertaking a mini-mortgage for most students. There are some unnerving similarities between the housing mortgage crisis and our current education system:

  • cheap government-backed credit encourages unreasonable and unsustainable increases in price.
  • if the public/market decides that a product is overvalued, then the correction for overvaluation will be painful – yet another round of defaults, bailouts and hindsight finger-pointing.
  • folks were given far too many incentives to make purchases and undertake loans that they were not able to afford. 
On this matter, even Peter Thiel and Bill Maher seem to agree.

In Part 3, we will look at whether or not our undergraduate colleges actually teach students anything.

Is College Worth it? Part 1: Jobs

A degree used to guarantee secure employment – not so any more, but the alternatives are even worse.

There was a time when the United States had so many well-paying jobs  that having a college degree wasn’t necessary, but if you did have one, you got an even better job. Adam Davidson argues in this past weekend’s New York Times that much has changed since this “golden age”, which lasted roughly from 1945 to 1973. The two main reasons for this change both have to do with competition.

More big fish in the pond: In the early 1970s, only 10% of Americans had a college degree. In 40 years, that number has tripled. On the one hand, this means that there are more skilled people and, thereby, better conditions for overall economic growth. But it also means that the level of internal competition is greater than it has ever been and that each graduate must do more to stand out. There’s a real chance that we have too many liberal arts majors (it’s not just them, but that’s the stereotype) who lack real world job skills. Now that it’s expected that you get a degree, too many kids are coming out of high school and getting a degree for the sake of getting one, i.e. not actually learning anything.

The pond is connecting to the sea: Technology has made it much easier to ship jobs overseas. It started with manufacturing and now includes virtually everything (it’s not just call centers either).

So what’s the lesson? Don’t bother getting a degree? Not quite. It’s easy to encounter high levels of unemployment in the Great Recession and think that perhaps college is not worth the investment. While it’s true that a college degree no longer guarantees you a job and a pension, not getting a a degree is increasingly becoming the best way to guarantee underemployment and low earnings.

According to the US Census, a college graduate earns, on average, more than $23,000 more per year than a high school graduate. The unemployment rate among college grads is the highest it has been since 1970, but at just over 5%, it is still only half that of high school graduates. It’s bad for grads, but worse for non-grads. College seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient aspect of full employment.

So stay in school…unless you’re brilliant, in which case, don’t waste your time with class – get good at computers, drug trafficking or money laundering. Check out the list of college dropout billionaires.

It looks like college is still the best way to land a good job. Next time, we look at whether or not it’s worth the (skyrocketing) price of tuition.

Europe’s Enlargement Fail


European leaders prove once again that they have no clue on how to proceed with enlargement, integration and overall identity.

What is America? Who is an American? These are difficult questions that demand a certain level of nuance and a willingness to listen to people with whom you disagree. We often don’t agree, but something tells me that everything will be OK in the long run. When I think of Europe, I’m not so sure. I’ve recently come across two advertisements that have been in the news, both of which capture a certain mood and cultural outlook.

The first is the Chrysler spot entitled “Halftime in America” that ran during the Super Bowl. It features Clint Eastwood (life-long Republican) arguing that even though “division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead…after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one”. The commercial, in spite of its cheesiness and aggressiveness, has been well received – some Republicans have come out against the ad, claiming that it gives credit to the Obama administration’s auto industry bailout. Also, you can’t get much cooler than Clint Eastwood. Halftime was created by the same company (Wieden+Kennedy) that made a similar and equally famous ad with Eminem for last year’s Super Bowl. 

That brings up our next ad, called “Growing Together”, which was released by the European Commission (EC). The ad was taken down almost as quick as it was put up. See if you can spot why. 

Where to begin? Did they all make up in the end? Did she defeat them? Does it matter that it’s a woman and a bunch of aggressive non-white men? Are the men foreigners or immigrants? Is the EC rallying support for an invasion of China and India? Does Quentin Tarantino know about this? Is it OK that I find it ridiculously hilarious?

My initial feeling was that it was a hoax, but according to this official statement on the EC’s website, it’s the real deal. Part of me still doesn’t believe that the ad could be real, but assuming that it is, it unintentionally captures the anxiety and awkwardness of European identity as it expands, in spite of it’s already shaky foundation. It’s halftime in America, and in Europe, it’s the halftime show – zing!

At the end of the day though, these are just two commercials. Europe’s road ahead is much more challenging than America’s because the latter is already a politically integrated entity. It’s unfair to use these commercials, or any others as exemplars of American or European culture. On the one hand, it’s easy and fun to jokingly poke across the Atlantic, but on the other, I think a bigger and more integrated Europe is in everyone’s interest – if only the EC could figure out better ways to market it.