Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Archive for the tag “Amazon”


Once upon a time (preemptive pun), there was a genius named Frederick Winslow Taylor. Equipped with a clipboard and stopwatch, he revolutionized office and manufacturing procedures in the early part of the last century. (The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911.)

I learned this as a young teen by reading Cheaper By The Dozen. The book was about applying time-study methods to life with the twelve children of the husband and wife efficiency team of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. (The 1950 movie starred Clifton Webb; the remake in 2003 starred Steve Martin.)

Fifteen years later, I learned of another goal, effectiveness, from the top management guru, Peter Drucker. Taylor preached efficiency, but effectiveness was more important. Yet, many organizations prefer efficiency over effectiveness.

In Taylor’s day, efficiency was symbolized by the stopwatch. Today’s efficiency is a quantity that can be measured more accurately by computers. Effectiveness is a quality determined by humans making value judgments.

Efficiency is easy to measure; it’s what is happening now. It’s harder to measure tomorrow’s consequences of today’s actions. Effectiveness is about judging consequences. It requires humans to make those judgments. Efficiency can be reduced to numbers churned out by computers.

Computer numbers are easy to acquire, super-fast to calculate, and can be analyzed a million different ways. The human judgments necessary for effectiveness are hard to acquire, slow to evaluate, and difficult to analyze.

In discussing the woes of modern workers, two companies are manipulative in the extreme: Walmart and Amazon. Their success is built on the diminution of human margins.

Is it any wonder that companies like these are using the computer as a modern stopwatch? In the name of efficiency, they’re pushing their workers to act like machines. To what end?

Using Taylor’s Scientific Management, companies are reshaping human jobs to better fit the robot workers of tomorrow. You could say the jobs are being tailored to suit the robots. (Begin with a pun; end with a pun.)

Life In The Cloud

Seeing the ads on TV (and every other ad-infested medium), you’d think companies like Microsoft want us to move all our computing to The Cloud. (Actually, to Their Cloud.) As if we weren’t already there.

If you spend more time streaming than downloading, you’re already living in The Cloud. If what you’re looking at on your desktop, laptop, smart phone, etc., isn’t stored on that device, then you’re already living in The Cloud.

If what you’re seeing comes from somewhere on the Internet, then you’ve bought into The Cloud. “Wait a Googley-minute,” I hear you objecting. “Where else would I find things?”

Well, once upon a time we created things ourselves and sent them to one another. That was before we had access to the Internet, and through the Internet to one another. Instead of individuals and institutions loosely connected, the Internet became another Big Medium dominated by Big Players.

“So what’s the big deal about The Cloud?” you ask. Think of it in terms of real estate. You know the mantra: location, location, location. In this case, the real estate is all that memory and storage sitting on all those personal devices we use. That’s the real estate we own.

Now look at the big Cloud players. A current list of the top 100 shows Microsoft at 23 and even the oh-so-huge Google only at number 12. While Amazon may be number one, most of the other names in this list are unrecognizable to me and you.

And they want you. OK, not so much you, as millions of you’s, to use their real estate for the things you want to do with your devices. Of course, in this game, you—even millions of you’s—are small potatoes. What the big Cloud players want is millions of organizations to put their data and computing into The Cloud.

Maybe, I’d better reword that. The big Cloud players want businesses, nonprofits, NGOs, and even governments to buy real estate in their Cloud. Amend that: buy or rent. Never ignore rentals.

Where does location come into this game? Isn’t it obvious? The more traffic coming in and out of any big Cloud player’s location, the more valuable the location. Or at least that’s the smoke they’re blowing.

As it is in real real estate, the big Cloud players don’t have to own what they’re peddling. They can be middle-men, wheeling and dealing, pushing their locations as valuable properties.

But the same questions about real real estate still apply. Does this location have sufficient infrastructure? Are the services reliable? Are you being locked in by the high cost of moving? Is the location secure? Will your stuff be safe?

Who Rules Reality?

The more we live out lives virtually, the less control we have over reality. This idea is not new. It is at least as old as the short story “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster—written in 1909!

I could rephrase the thought by substituting the word “conveniently” for “virtually.” Computers provide the convenience and do so more powerfully, and less expensively, through the virtual representation of reality.

Convenience is what we desire; virtual is just the means for achieving it. Convenience, with all kinds of promises of pleasure and power, is what the makers of glass slabs are selling.

Convenience comes in other forms, for example automated cars. These will take you from A to B and do all the work. What’s more convenient? Obviously, simply not going from A to B. That is, being able to visit B virtually, without ever leaving A.

Will virtual visits beat out automated cars? Who knows? There’s lots of money to be made selling new cars and far too many people still think cars are personal magic carpets.

On the other hand, no one has done a really good job of providing an enhanced virtual shopping experience. The software is much easier than automating cars. But who’s the client? Not malls.

Why would any chain of department stores want to obsolete its brick and mortar investment? At least not until someone figures out how to synergize virtual and real shopping. Until then, look to Amazon’s competitors to offer better virtual shopping.

If that seems unlikely, think of all the specialty stores and boutiques that could expand their potential customers by offering a more realistic virtual shopping experience. Would these combine into virtual malls?

Regardless of how much of our lives will be lived virtually, one aspect of providing that virtual access will always be real and never virtual. In word: infrastructure. This is the real world component of whatever miracles computers produce.

Whether roads for automated cars or Internet carriers for virtual experience, infrastructure must be built, maintained, and upgraded to produce real world results. Think delivery of Amazon packages.

Yet, the details of infrastructure are invisible to those of us tethered to our glass slabs. We may have convenience to the nth degree, but we don’t know who is behind the curtain, controlling the real world infrastructure that makes it all possible.

Infrastructure, being real, costs real dollars. Those costs get passed on to users of the infrastructure, to us. The rulers of reality set the prices, get government to build infrastructure, and collect from us directly and through taxation.

Debased Data

Last weekend, before going to the library, I used its catalog to find audiobooks that would be on the shelves. I made a short list (5 books) of what I was interested in—but all but one weren’t there. After some help from the librarians, I found out why.

Seems my search of the library’s database (the catalog) wasn’t accurate because every time I modified the search, it reset some of the search parameters. All the time I thought I was narrowing my search, the system was actually broadening it.

Why do I think this is worth a post? The reason is simple: the library catalog is only one of many databases I regularly use that rarely surrenders its information without a fight. Extracting data from databases is becoming more and more difficult. Why?

To provide some perspective, I constantly battle with both Amazon’s database and the MyHeathlEVet database for Veterans. (I’ve given up on the Library of Congress Talking Books database. It takes the prize for the worst I’ve ever seen.)

I’m not new to databases. Back in the 60s, I wrote a natural language retrieval package for the Standard & Poor’s database. In the 80s, I wrote a video store system in the dBbase language.

So I know a good database system when I see one. I use the excellent site once or twice a month. You clip coupons online, which are accessed with their card at checkout. It’s from the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA).

The library retrieval is so lame, you can’t sort your results by author. Of course, the library arranges its books on the shelves by author. Imagine not being able to look for fiction by author!

Yet, as lame as that is, it’s good compared to the government’s MyHealthEVet database. This monster has no clue how to update, and its output looks like it came from the 50s.

I could go on for hours about these problems, but I’m sure you’ve seen your share. I’m not writing this to bitch or point fingers. The question I’m asking is, how did things get this bad?

In the 50s and 60s, we were still learning how to efficiently create and search databases. Techniques kept improving over the decades, but not as fast as the hardware. Now the hardware is so fast, no one remembers the improved methods we learned.

It looks to me as if programmers now assume hardware speed and massive storage will solve all their problems. It’s like they’ve upgraded to a Ferrari, but removed the steering wheel.

The Dumbing of the Internet

Last Friday, by 10am, I had encountered three appalling examples of an increasingly dumb online world. They reminded me of questions a friend asked at lunch just two days earlier.

She asked, Why was everyone (and everything) getting dumber? Worse, why did it seem no one noticed or cared? (I recalled books from the 80s and 90s about this Dumbing of America.)

Friday, I had been searching for Internet alternatives and happened upon something called ComcastConnect. Was this different from the (I almost said plain ‘ole) regular Comcast?

When I entered my zip code, the site told me the service was not available in my area. Huh? Not only had I used Comcast here, they have a “store” just down the street. Here’s the web page.

Here’s the kicker. The site said what was available was Cox Internet (Essential and Preferred). Since when? These non-competing services have divided this area from the beginning.

My second example revealed dumbness elsewhere. I had been searching for an LED reading lamp on Amazon earlier in the week. After considerable effort, I gave up in disgust.

Friday, in no time at all, I found a number of viable options at the Bed, Bath, and Beyond website. How was it so easy there, and so difficult at Amazon? I could tell you, but it gets technical.

I can say Amazon is not as smart as people think. It’s one thing for Google to waste our time, distracting our searches; they serve advertisers, not us. Doesn’t Amazon want our business?

My final example goes beyond dumb to blithering idiocy. At the VA’s MyHealthEVet site, qualified veterans can reorder prescriptions, find lab results, get appointment lists, and more.

So Friday morning, I tried to get my upcoming appointments for January and February. Couldn’t. The site was unable to set a search date any further into the future than December 2013!

That’s right, they had yet to add 2014 to the year list. I checked this very carefully, but when I went online today, there was 2014. However, a last-minute fix doesn’t invalidate my premise.

These website stupidities are a clue as to the widespread dumbing down of society. I don’t know many things, but I do know websites. Since these have become such a large part of our modern world, my observation is, yes, it’s all getting dumber.

More Stupid Searches

I have said many times in this blog that search engines don’t search. What they do is browse to keep you occupied while they shovel ads in your face. Search engines are not about quickly finding. They are about slowly selling.

I have not said anything about the other searches we do on the Internet: searches on those business sites we visit to shop, even buy. But if we don’t know the exact name of the desired object, don’t know their terminology, we have a helluva time finding it.

I could give specific examples (recently, I tried to locate an affordable portable air conditioner at Amazon), but I want to address the much larger generic problem. Why are site searches so lousy when it serves neither customer nor business?

At Amazon, the problem may be the rapid expansion of their database. Maybe so, but all the more reason they need a better system for searching. And here’s the root of my puzzlement: better search systems have been around for fifty years!

No, really. The basics of how to search efficiently were solved back in the day when processors were molasses slow and memory ludicrously expensive. In fact, those limitations were the reason search had to be made efficient. Are fast computers and cheap memories making us inefficient?

Let’s face it. With all this speed and power, programmers no longer bother doing things efficiently. They believe the solution is more hardware power. Yeah, well it won’t solve stupidity. We have all this increased power yet know less than our predecessors.

Whatever the causes, it needs to be fixed. There are books (and people) out there with answers if anyone’s willing to look. Until someone does, you and I will continue to waste much of our time doing searches that end in frustration.

However, what baffles me—deeply—is why businesses allow this inefficiency. Do they think we’re going to buy something we didn’t want? Are they trying to drive us back to driving to the brick and mortar stores? (Did last week for a special cable.) Honestly, I don’t get it.

Big Business Is Watching You

Remember 1984? Not the year, the book. Remember its famous phrase: “big brother is watching you”? Well, Big Brother—let’s call it government—is indeed watching you, but not as much as Big Business. The Internet is how Big Business watches you.

Simply put, Big Businesses know more about you than you do about them. Not only do they know more, you have no idea what they know—or how they know it. In Who Owns The Future? Jaron Lanier calls this “information asymmetry.”

Some people think of the Internet as a two-way street. Some even think they have an advantage because download speeds (to you) are many times faster than upload speeds (to them). True, but irrelevant. Instead, measure your information vulnerabilities.

Look at the connection in terms of computing power. At one end is your device: smart phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. At the other end are giants like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft—and all their attendant computing power. See the asymmetry now?

While you browse and shop at some Big Business on the Internet, they can be looking at everything you look at—even how long you look. They know all your past choices and can probably predict what you’ll do next.

That’s what they can see at their end. While you’re connected, they can also see things at your end: other sites open on your browser, other programs connected to the Internet, even other programs on your computer. Not to mention your hardware.

Now think about this: if Big Business knows so much about every customer, how do you know the price you see is the same price others see? Where is it written they must sell to everyone at the same price? There’s a dirty word for this: profiling.

The fear in 1984 came from television sets watching the viewers. Farfetched, but that was old technology. Take a look at the camera on your device. How do you know it’s not watching you right now?

Vampires To Overlords, Part Three

In the beginning, electricity-sucking vampires were a good thing. Although standby power was promoted as “instant on,” the “on” wasn’t “instant,” but it was quick. More important than quicker startups of ancient televisions, continuous electricity extended the life of those big cathode ray tubes. How? By shrinking the temperature gap between warm up and cool down.

Vampires use a lot (10%) of power. Today’s digital devices don’t really need standby power, but all our modern solid-state hardware gain longevity from smaller temperature variations. They last longer using vampire juice. My computer gets power from a wall switch, but I let it warm up for 10-15 minutes before turning it on.

With the expanding world of digital choices, we must learn to be more judicious. For example, there is no vampire-like advantage in continuous connection to the Internet. Yet we do, whether online or off, whether our devices are on or off. It’s merely a habit born of convenience.

It’s why a device’s camera is always at the ready. Anyone in the world with permission (overloads) or know-how (hackers) can take a snapshot of you and where you are. They can even use your GPS (or WiFi triangulation) to get a fix on your location—and verify it with a quick wink of your camera.

The last post asked “. . . a machine couldn’t turn itself on, could it?” Actually, it can—and so can other machines (used by other people). While writing this post, Amazon updated my Kindle without asking if it was convenient. (It wasn’t.) If updates fail (and they can), why aren’t we offered cloud-based restoration?

We are captives of our habits and conveniences. Vampires may take a cut, but they extend the life of our devices. Overlords offer more but take more. They want control of our devices to manipulate our digital lives. I only wish this was an April Fool’s joke.

Keyboards For The Rest Of You

In writing last week’s post about the QWERTY problem, I discovered a completely different keyboard dilemma. Despite many years investigating special devices for various disabilities, I was unaware of this major, and common, keyboard problem—and I’ll bet you were, too.

The QWERTY problem is about how badly the alphabet is arranged on keyboards. That’s bad enough, but for hundreds of millions of people the order of these keys is only part of the problem. For them it’s the other keys on the keyboard—the non-alphabet keys.

These keys include a number pad (duplicating the numbers of the QWERTY keys), arrow and direction keys (Page Up, Page Down, Home and End)—also duplicated on most keyboards, and additional special keys such as Insert, Delete, Backspace, and the ever popular and usually duplicated Enter key. Then there are the twelve function keys. My keyboard also duplicates keys for Control, Alt, Shift, and Windows. There are eight more keys on this keyboard. Can you guess what they are?

The point of this inventory is that most of these keys reside to the right of the letter keys. Clearly, the manufacturers expect our right hands to use these keys. Further to the right, beyond the keyboard, sits the mouse, also intended for the right hand. All of this looks like a perfectly reasonable arrangement until you consider that roughly ten percent of the population is left-handed.

Probably many of you are aware that five out of the last seven U.S. Presidents were left-handed. But how many know that over the past hundred years, seven out of our seventeen Presidents were left-handed? That’s 41 percent. How many of society’s highest achievers are being hindered by right-handed keyboard layouts?

Since using a keyboard is a very intimate act, I suppose many lefties are reluctant to shop online. (Does Ned Flanders carry these keyboards?) And I’m sure many southpaws resent paying extra for their “special” keyboards. But they must remember: this is America, and being different has a price.

The price, in this case, also includes your time. But don’t waste it at Dell or Best Buy—they can’t help you. Just search the Internet for “left-handed keyboard” and you’ll have plenty of options, even Amazon.

Too Much Is Not Enough

This past Thursday, I went online to buy replacement color cartridges (C, M, Y) for my Brother color laser printer (HL-3040CN). Didn’t think this would be a big deal, timewise, because I’d bought the black cartridge (BK) online two months ago. My plan was simple: Try Amazon first and compare to Walmart (where I’d bought the black).

On Amazon, I quickly found my way to Brother color laser cartridges. Scrolled past a bunch of stuff (that did not have my requested “TN-210” in their descriptions), and found the first cartridge. But why did I have to scroll past items that didn’t match my search?

When you know exactly what you want, and specify it exactly in the search, Amazon (among many others) shows you unrelated items. Why? Do they think I don’t know what I want? Do they think I’m just browsing? If their answer to any of these questions is Yes, then they should offer more help with the search, e.g., do you mean, etc.

But they (all of them) don’t. As a result I—and most likely you and everyone else—have to wade through extraneous crap. (If it isn’t what I’m looking for, it’s crap to me.) I found the other two cartridges a few rows down. Why? If these are similar items from the same source, why aren’t they all together?

Anyway. When I checked at Walmart they didn’t have any color cartridges, just the black. Huh? Well, never mind. Went back to Amazon for options. Mistake. I found a few compatible cartridges (especially a full set of four for the price of one factory cartridge). Sadly, all of them had too many iffy reviews.

Another option: In all this searching, I’d seen what appeared to be a set of four (apparently factory) cartridges for the price of three individual cartridges. Pretty Good Deal? Not yet. First, I confirmed my three factory cartridges were from the same source (one had a different picture). Then I went looking for the four-for-three deal. Mistake. COULD NOT FIND IT AGAIN!

How was this possible? Easy. There’s just too much information—most of it irrelevant—and if it’s not irrelevant then it’s poorly organized. Given the way they control how we search this information, it’s too hard to find what you want easily—even if it’s known and fully-described. All this information, presented as it is, is just not enough to get the job done without far too much wasted time.

Information is like ice cream: Too much of a good thing just isn’t.

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