IMO: Online Ads

ads

Nobody likes too much advertising, but everybody likes a great deal. Consumers often take for granted the ability of companies to target their individual interests and to expose them to relevant ads. At the same time, people tend to despise the idea that tech companies like Facebook and Google are aggregating data about us behind the scenes. I personally don’t care and I defend my position by saying that I choose to participate in online sites that aggregate information and rewards programs that can link together my purchasing activity because it often benefits me. For example, I am a frequent user of Finish Line’s website because they always have great shoes on clearance. I discovered this site because I clicked on a Facebook ad that showed a cheap pair of basketball shoes that piqued my interest.

Why are people against companies aggregating public data? Most the data mentioned in the articles was a result of public activity such as shopping, Facebook likes, and birth records. All the data is public, so why should a company be at fault for using this information to make a profit? I recently read The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver and I have become increasingly interested in data analytics ever since. Statisticians like Andrew Pole of Target have an incredible skill that brings value to large companies. I personally disagree with the argument that this aggregation of personal data is invasive because we make it public by participating in social media and signing up for rewards programs. If you do this because you are attracted to the incentives, then you can’t complain that companies track activity to enhance the effectiveness of their strategy. We often benefit from optimized strategies because random ads that are meaningless to us individually do not show up, and ads that bring value to our lives show up everywhere. If all ads annoy, then use AdBlock!

That brings us to the question – is the use of ad blockers such as AdBlock ethical? I say yes. If companies aggregate data about us constantly, then why does it matter if we choose to use an ad blocker? It’s kind of a win-win, companies still get to gather useful information about our consumer activity and we can choose to block ads if we don’t want to see them. It’s no secret that many people use ad blockers, and some companies identify this on their sites. I have visited websites that require you to turn of ad blockers, and I have also visited sites that respect the use of ad blockers and ask for donations to replace lost revenue. I favor this approach as a consumer because it makes me aware of the effects of using ad blocker while respecting my decision to remove advertising from my browsing experience.

Now what happens when companies sell this data… well, I still don’t care. Like I said earlier, most of it is public! If the companies purchasing this data had the technical ability to gather such information, then they would surely have access to it. In addition, this method of generating profit helps to cancel out the common use of ad blockers. For instance, we can choose to keep them from effectively using the data to expose us to target ads, so they can sell the information to other companies and make money that way.

The point I am trying to make here is that the information is public, so if someone develops an efficient method for aggregating such large amounts of data, then more power to ’em. I am content seeing a few ads every once in awhile especially when they are relevant to me. I am always down for a cheap new pair of basketball shoes.

ZJL

Expelliarmus

expelliarmus

I am a supporter of Apple’s decision to refuse to comply with the FBI’s request for a backdoor into iOS. If Apple were to cooperate with the FBI, our government would then wield a tool similar to Harry Potter’s Expelliarmus with the power to disarm Americans by filing some paperwork. While the intended purpose may be to protect national security, the legal precedents being employed by the Department of Justice are outdated. I see a major flaw in the government’s use of a law enacted in 1789, the All Writs Act. In 1789, cybersecurity did not even exist, so how can we justify using a legal precedent from centuries ago to discern appropriate actions regarding a modern issue. If the All Writs Act indeed provides enough power to civil magistrates, then should we start applying other 1789 laws to contemporary cases. I certainly don’t think any government officials would agree with that…

Protecting national security can be a powerful phrase when trying to garner support for a controversial decision. While I see the obvious benefits of accessing a terrorist’s means of communication, I would like to push back on the idea that forcing Apple to provide decryption capabilities to the FBI truly protects national security. Earlier this week, I read a blog by Mark Cuban and he made a good point – there is no assurance that a successful hack into Syed Rizwan Farook’s phone would provide any investigative material. If Farook used sophisticated cryptic communication with his terrorist network, the FBI could take years to crack the code. There is also the possibility that Farook used a 3rd party application with its own encryption methods which is not unusual for a terrorist. On the other hand, if Apple develops a decryption method and the software is obtained by any of the talented hackers around the world – national security is certainly at risk. My question for the government would have to be – is the potential for making all iPhone users in the United States vulnerable to the vast criminally minded hacker community worth the possibility of uncovering evidence regarding the San Bernardino shootings?

I consider myself a conservative citizen, but I am not a person who greatly mistrusts the powers of government. However, in this case I do fear the repercussions of a legal precedent that grants government agencies the ability to access any targeted individual’s communication with a search warrant. I don’t use any 3rd party apps with strong encryption and I don’t have anything to hide, but I am not comfortable with the government having the power to access any conversation I take part in, with the exception being a letter I request the recipient to burn after reading. The problem with this power isn’t singularly related to the government obtaining it, but also derived from Bruce Schneier’s argument:

Either everyone gets access or no one does.

Essentially, if the government can hack our phones, then so can anyone smart enough to mimic or illegally obtain the decryption software. Also, the potential for blackmail, spying, and invasion of privacy is too great to justify this action. If you really want to cause a fuss, you could make this a human rights issue. At what point does the government’s reach extend beyond our unalienable rights… if that point is reached we must strip the qualifier unalienable and replace it with conditionalswanson.

My last grievance towards the requested compliance of Apple relates to the coercive nature of this decision. Apple dominates the high end market by developing an impressive suite of gadgets and software which includes their robust encryption. In a free market system, the government cannot be allowed to force a company to essentially nullify one of the greatest strengths of their product. In Apple’s case, this strength is security. I made the switch to Mac from PC because I was tired of dealing with viruses slowing down my computer (admittedly, I should have stopped using LimeWire). If Apple is forced to weaken their security, how can they retain pursuit of providing the highest quality product in the market? In the words of Ron Swanson, “capitalism is the only way.”

ZJL

 

IMO: Interviews

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I can’t speak for everyone else, but I think I have a unique opinion towards interviews. My opinions really began to form when I interview for the global engineering firms at my freshman year at Notre Dame. I pretty much brought nothing to the table, and it was clear to me all of my interviewers know that. There decision to interview me was probably more of a professional courtesy to my connection in the industry who recommended me, but I appreciated it nonetheless. Experience is key to mastering interviews (not that I am a master) and that initial experience helped me moving forward.

The most important part of Matt and I’s interview advice is the notes on preparation. Our comments were very different and I think that is the most important takeaway. There is no interview preparation book that applies to everyone. Some students cracked the coding interview in their high school education, so they are way ahead of the curve and probably need to practice answering behavioral questions. Some students coded a little in high school, but succeeded as social butterflies and developed useful communication skills, so they probably need to practice answering technical questions. Some students have no experience coding at all (besides MATLAB), so they might not be able to crack the coding interview even if they tried. So what’s the answer? If you’re an engineer, use your problem solving skills to develop the best solution for interview preparation. I think that each student’s interview preparation can be viewed as a unique engineering problem. Examine yourself and determine the best guide to help you prepare for an upcoming interview.

My personal guide went roughly like this:

  1. Brush up on basic syntax/structures
  2. Have confidence you can solve weed out questions
  3. Know that technical questions above your head are worth attempting, but you can always be honest about your lack of knowledge of a topic
  4. Brainstorm memories that can apply to general behavioral memories
  5. Go to sleep on time

I think the most important part of my guide is number 3, it is completely okay to admit when you don’t know something. The first time I was flown out to a company’s offices, I did three consecutive interviews. During those interviews, I probably came across four or five questions that related to subjects I never studied. I made the interviewer aware, but still asked for a chance to solve it based on the general knowledge I had of programming. Typically, the interviewer and I ended up working through the problem together until the answer made sense to me. Flying back to ND, I assumed there was no chance they would offer me a job, but that ended up being my first internship.

I wish I would have known to be confident in my own technical skills. Naturally, I would compare myself to my peers in computer science. In retrospect, that was a useless practice because we all came from different backgrounds. Fortunately, companies are pretty good at determining a candidate’s ability to learn, not just what they already know. From my experience, what I already knew was actually less important than my strength of being able to pickup new technologies quickly. I hope that future students at Notre Dame who find themselves in my shoes will have confidence in their current skills and faith in their ability to learn.

Boisjoly’s Whistle

We all know that one mom or dad that likes to show off their impressive whistling capablities at pee-wee sports games. Unfortunately, Roger Boisjoly’s whistle wasn’t that loud, impressive, or noticeable. Had the spectators at his big league event, the Morton Thiokol and NASA pre-launch teleconference, heeded the importance of his whistle, seven lives could have been saved. I write this blog with reverence for the seven astronauts aboard the Challenger space shuttle and their families.

What really caused the Challenger disaster? Well, literally speaking it was a gas leak that occured due to a weak O-ring seal which can be attributed to the low temperatures in Cape Canaveral. How does a project that requires intense risk assessment overlook something that seems so simple? Management chooses to. The Challenger explosion was the result of a choice made by managment within NASA and its contractor, Morton Thiokol, to overlook an issue brought to their attention by engineers. As evidence has shown, NASA was not unaware of the risks they were taking by launching the Challenger on an unusually cold day in Florida. Despite the persistence of engineers, including O-ring expert Roger Boisjoly, managers made the decision to approve a launch that put the lives of seven Americans at risk. I agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s explantion of the motivation for such an irrational decision. Tyson believes the Challenger mission was more of a promotional and propaganda and military tool than a platform for science. Sadly, I also believe NASA succumbed to political pressure and societal expectations when making their decision that led to the loss of human life.

I believe Roger Boisjoly was justified in his decision to release information about Challenger to the public. Boisjoly was careful in choosing appropriate channels to release his information and it seems as though he did not embellish the information. I would not describe his actions as “pointing the finger” because he stood up for what he believed in despite managerial pressures, so he has every right to blame those who were responsible for approving the launch. As far as the sensitivity of the information, I don’t think Boisjoly threatened national security or revealed anything confidential information. In fact, I believe the families of the Challenger astronauts deserved to know the truth about the cause of the accident. In that sense, I think Boisjoly’s decision was noble and brave which makes it very unfortunate that he suffered from the ramifications of exposing powerful people.

Morton Thiokol’s reaction to Boisjoly’s whistleblowing frustrates me to the point of wishing the upper management truly responsible for Challenger were prosecuted and received prison sentences. Mistreating an employee who spoke truthfully about an unethical decision made my his superiors is unacceptable. Boisjoly’s “living hell” at work was a result of embarrassed people with power punishing an honest individual. Now that more time has passed, I hope that all of Boisjoly’s fellow employees and neighbors who treated him with contempt are ashamed of their reactions. Their reaction is one of the most devastating parts of this entire incident because it could potentially deter honest employees from revealing dangerous unethical management practices in the future. As a result, brave Americans, such as the seven astronauts aboard Challenger, could become victims of a preventable tragedy.

While Boisjoly’s story does not have a happy ending, I think his commitment to the truth will inspire honest whistleblowers who’s information could be benefical. I hope that the actions of dishonest whistleblowers who seek attention does not tarnish the value of releasing suppressed truths. I wish there existed a term without such a negative connotation to describe Roger Boisjoly, but until then, consider me a defender of the honest whistleblower.

ZJL

Think Different?

“Think Different” is one of those company slogans that may last forever… like McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ it”. However, this slogan used by Apple to market their unique products doesn’t necessarily reflect their internal structure. How can a company that promotes thinking differently employ 80% males in their tech positions? I’d like to discuss the issues women and minorities are facing in the technology industry and the impact a lack of diversity can have on the field of computer science.

I am a firm believer that early education is paramount for igniting interest in the field of computer science. I can attest to this idea because I do not think I would have chosen to major in computer engineering had I not been exposed to Java as a sophomore in high school. While efforts are being made, computer science is currently not a standard subject being taught in our public (or private) education system. Many of the schools that do teach computer science are in affluent districts which tends to favor specific demographics. Part of the reason is the weak supply of qualified computer science teachers. One way to diversify the tech industry is to expose younger children of all genders and ethnicities to qualified, passionate computer science teachers. The supply does not meet the demand right now, so it is up to us to make an effort to increase the supply or find other ways to expose a more diverse young audience.

In addition, learning computer science requires access to resources – expensive resources that many fortunate students take for granted. I think most people in the tech industry love what they do, using cutting edge technologies to create innovative software. In order to pass along this passion to a more diverse group, we must make an effort to increase the accessibility of tech resources. Whether that means creating public tech spaces for students to meet up and work on projects or raising funds to provide individual students with computers for programming… I am not sure. I do know that there are plenty of kids out there who could become talented programmers that do not have access to the resources necessary to learn about computer science. I have already began planning to volunteer as the leader of an after school computing club at my dad’s school (he is the principal of a junior high) next year. My goal is to bring together students who want to learn more about computers in a setting where they will have the resources necessary to create fun and exciting projects. Being aware of the diversity issue, I believe my dad’s school is a great place to experiment with a club because he has a diverse student body.

I also think the masculine stigma of the computer science field affects the amount of women. I was interested to read about the introduction of personal computers, and how the marketing strategies were aimed at males which essentially alienated 50% of our population. Growing up, the effects of this were very obvious to me. I often spent lunch hours discussing video games with my guy friends, but rarely around the ladies. Blabbering about your favorite video game or the success of your recent campaign definitely wasn’t the move when the cute girl you had a crush on showed up at the table. Back in the day, I thought nothing of it! Us guys would talk about our computer games and sports while the girls chatted about girl stuff. However, as a senior in college I have seen how this sociological phenomenon has affected my female peers. Bottom line, there aren’t that many girls studying that boy stuff we used to talk about out lunch. Even when I discuss my passion for computer science with my girlfriend, she often portrays me as her cute, nerdy boyfriend who likes computers. I believe the challenge of overcoming this sociological effect will be the greatest diversity obstacle the tech industry is going to face.

Some people will say – why does it even matter? I completely agree with Martin Fowler when he suggests that the lack of diversity in computer science poses a threat. Diverse groups of people often make the greatest teams and produce the most innovative ideas. This occurs because different people think differently. Individuals in a diverse group of people approach problems differently based upon their knowledge and experiences. If we can increase the diversity amongst computer scientists, than we will also increase the amount of problems that can be solved by the tech industry.

ZJL