The State of the Internet – 2016

Self proclaimed futurist tweets an obfuscated link to an ad-encrusted pull quote that links to an article… behind a paywall.

For some the internet has moved from a means to share information and ideas to one that exists solely to generate clicks that have zero information value (well, except to them – ‘ad impressions’ and all that). And, no, I don’t want to sign up for you email-harvesting ‘newsletter’ that you never publish but benefit by selling on my contact information.

IoT and Auto-Replenishment – A Good Thing?

I guess I am taking a little more cautious/skeptical stance when it comes to the auto-replenishment feature touted by many IoT pundits and vendors. If you aren’t familiar, this would allow a device to determine that you were out of or running low on a given consumable (be it a food item, dish soap or toilet paper) and then order more of it on your behalf.

Here is the problem: the vendor and the device don’t have your best interests at heart and might tend to exaggerate the current state of consumable and (maybe) tend to order more of it more frequently that you might actually need (or want). For example, if you have ever owned an inkjet or laser printer you have probably experienced this already – persistent warnings/notifications to replace a toner or ink cartridge when, in reality, the useful life of the item is much, much longer that you are being led to believe. Heck, I have a laser printer that has been telling be for 13 months that I need to replace the toner. In that time my family and I have printed hundreds of additional pages with this ’empty’ toner cartridge.

Consider also the existing confusion over the meaning of ‘sell by’ and ‘best by’ designations on other consumables (most notably food). What if vendors add a ‘replenish by’ or ‘order by’ date into the mix? Not a great situation for consumers, especially if they have delegated this to an networked device in the name of ‘convenience’.

Creating a shopping list: Evernote vs Google Keep

evernote-v-google-keep
Evernote experience:

1) create list in desktop app
2) attempt to share it with my wife; sorry, have to upgrade to paid version for this
3) finally share with wife, she attempts to edit shared list; sorry, she has to upgrade to paid version (screw that)
4) remember a few more items on the go, add to list via mobile app
5) attempt to sync from mobile; get loads of errors – sync fails
6) only way to fix sync error is to copy note contents, delete note an paste contents into a new note
7) repeat from step 2 or just give up

Google Keep experience:
1) create list on tablet using Keep app
2) share with wife; no problem – she has access to it within seconds
3) she needs to add items to the list – no problem; she adds them and they automatically sync with me
4) edit list on mobile – no problem; list automatically syncs
5) both of us run Keep app in grocery store, ticking off items from the list; no problem – list syncs automatically
6) marvel at the superior user experience from Google Keep
7) BONUS: I can set a reminder on the list that is a location; Google Now notifies me when I am near the store.

Evernote just keeps getting worse and worse. About the only thing that keeps me using it is the web clip functionality in the browser. Come on Keep, add that and I can leave Evernote behind.

Learn How To Learn And Stop Blaming Your Education

I saw this whiny article in the Washington Post that was just begging for a response. The gist of the article is that the author got a Computer Science degree and wasn’t given his dream job out of the gate. This then becomes an indictment of the education system rather than the typical sniveling millennial i-wasn’t-given-the-world-without-having-to-work-for-it screech that it is. Let’s take a look at some quotes from the posting:

My college education left me totally unprepared to enter the real workforce. My degree was supposed to make me qualified as a programmer, but by the time I left school, all of the software and programming languages I’d learned had been obsolete for years.

The think this belies a misunderstanding of how higher education works – it is not what you are given, it is what you do with it (the whole learning how to learn thing). It is as if he expects to read a book on swimming but never gets into the pool; and ‘surprise’ he really can’t swim because he put no effort into applying the learnings. Also, if ‘all of the software and programming languages’ were obsolete, what were they teaching? FORTRAN?, RPG?, Visual Basic?

To find real work, I had to teach myself new technologies and skills outside of class, and it wasn’t easy.

Poor you. You should have been doing this all along. The Computer Science curriculum should be teaching you fundamental concepts in how computers work, programming concepts and techniques that can be applied across specific programing languages, databases and platforms. Actually, it is a bit shocking how many recent CS grads don’t have a grasp of fundamentals.

Businesses aren’t looking for college grads, they’re looking for employees who can actually do things – like build iPhone apps, manage ad campaigns and write convincing marketing copy. I wish I’d been taught how to do those things in school, but my college had something different in mind.

Businesses are indeed looking for those things, but they are looking for people who can learn and grow and apply what they have learned in the past. If you have a CS degree and can’t figure out how to write an iPhone app you either had a horrible curriculum or slept through most of your class time. The fact that you weren’t specifically trained for that is not a problem with your education. Rather it is a failure to apply what you should have learned.

At least 90 percent of my college education (and that of so many others) boiled down to pure terminology, or analysis of terminology. My success in any given class was almost wholly based on how well I could remember the definitions of countless terms – like the precise meaning of “computer science” or how to explain “project management” in paragraph form, or the all-too-subtle differences between marketing and advertising.

Wow. Ok. So, if that percentage is accurate, I can see why you can’t get a job. When I got my CS degree (many moons ago) that was maybe 1% of what we were taught.

To me, this is the root of our college problem: The average college student is paying $30,000 a year for the chance to learn valuable skills from professors who haven’t had the opportunity to learn those skills themselves. Maybe it’s a crazy idea, but if you’re going to spend all that money for a college education, shouldn’t you expect to learn real-world skills from people who know what they’re doing?

This seems excessively harsh and a bit misguided. If you want to be learning what is new and trendy, go to a conference, a user group, or actually talk with people who are doing interesting things. By the time those things get packaged up into an approved curriculum, the technology might be on the stale side. But, again, if you don’t understand the fundamentals, you are not going to be able to effectively apply new technology and concepts. No one can give that to you at any price.

Solving the issue of inexperienced teachers may be even simpler: have schools relax academic requirements for professors and focus far more on hiring effective businesspeople. With a little more leeway, academically-minded candidates will have more freedom to gain job experience, and schools may even attract more talent directly from the business world. Success in business and success in the classroom are certainly different things, but I’d wager that it’s a lot easier to show an accomplished businessperson how to teach than it is to show a teacher how to be an accomplished businessperson.

So it sounds like what you want is for all universities to be trade schools, focused on cranking out very specific skills and techniques rather than more broadly educating students and preparing them to apply a wide set of competencies to a range of problem domains. This sounds a bit like the certification trap from the 90s – go get a very narrow, often vendor specific certification but still have no practical experience in applying that knowledge. When that vendor falls out of favor, you are a bit stuck unless you can teach yourself the reasoning and abstraction skills you would have learned in college.

To steal the trite closing from the original article: But what do I know, I have been happily applying my Computer Science degree for nearly 30 years with technologies, programming languages and platforms that never even existed when I graduated.

Algorithm Maps The Most Beautiful Route To Where You’re Going

I would love to see (and use) this in more locations. Sadly, it will likely be quickly perverted to route visitors to/near shops and other unattractive locales.

If you want to find the most scenic route to get somewhere, there may soon be an app for that. Daniele Quercia and colleagues at Yahoo Labs in Barcelona have come up with a way to create a crowd-sourced measure of a city’s beauty, and made an algorithm to find the prettiest way to get from one point to another. “The goal of this work is to automatically suggest routes that are not only short but also emotionally pleasant,” the scientists told Technology Review:

Quercia and co begin by creating a database of images of various parts of the center of London taken from Google Street View and Geograph, both of which have reasonably consistent standards of images. They then crowd-sourced opinions about the beauty of each location using a website called UrbanGems.org.
Each visitor to UrbanGems sees two photographs and chooses the one which shows the more beautiful location. That gives the team a crowd-sourced opinion about the beauty of each location. They then plot each of these locations and their beauty score on a map which they use to provide directions.

Total Area of Solar Panels to Power the World

Amazingly small. But I imagine what it would take to distribute all of that power is the real trick.

This Brings New Meaning to ‘Technical Debt’

I like this because it makes the concept much more concrete: leaving excavation equipment in the ground because they didn’t have a plan for extracting it (and now it is ‘too expensive’). Sound familiar tech folks?