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    The Terrorist Threat of Dark Data

    Media have largely ignored an incredibly important issue – dark data.

    Dark data is not, by its nature, as ominous as the title implies. “Dark” or “dusty” data is simply a byproduct of the mass quantities companies collect from users over the web.

    Whether you realize it or not, with each click to your favorite department store’s online shop, every time you order takeout from that app on your cellphone, every time you search, every time you text, or add ebooks to the library on your tablet, someone is collecting digital bytes on your habits, your thoughts, your maladies, and more. This information, known as “big data” is rounded up in bulk and processed by companies like Trendsource, Siwell, and Rackspace. That is only to name a few. What they do is perfectly legal, and not necessarily disconcerting.

    Interestingly, companies are collecting so much information that they often forget about much of it. Sometimes over half of their curated data. On average, 52% of the data collected by companies is unprocessed and untagged.

    Dark data can be a goldmine of statistics useful to better inform companies on consumer habits.  Accessing it may enable them to better serve their customers. The data also holds intrinsic value. This information can be sold to other organizations looking for inside perspective on certain groups or demographics. Dark data can also be the key to influencing unconscious behaviors. Much like big data already has, for example, in our last election. But it might also be completely useless. One never knows until it is processed – that generally only happens when that processing can be monetized by the databank owner.

    Since companies and consumers are often unaware of this accumulated data held outside their immediate control, they might not notice it was stolen or repurposed dishonestly.

    It is indisputable that a real goldmine in dark data is found by hackers. Groups looking to advance an agenda sneak in through blind spots in data management and find what triggers certain users to action. So-called “bots” already have slipped through social media algorithms to share false news articles.

    Could these instances become more frequent, and more subtle, if the hackers behind them can micro-target users with dark data? We know that non-human traffic in the form of bots mine the Internet and siphon off billions in dollars spent by advertisers. Some say part of that money goes to terrorists.  Terrorists who may be motivating impressionable misfits to engage in unthinkable acts.

    Remember that next time you choose to share your life on the Internet.

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    Keep Politics Out of Our Schools

    Inspired by an intelligent 16-year-old named Greta Thunberg, grade school students across America were allowed to skip classes on September 20 to participate in marches and demonstrations expressing fears of climate change. The media coverage was global and no doubt helped bring about much needed discussions about climate change. The importance of those discussions cannot be overstated.

    Such discussions are often hampered by individuals on the extreme ends of the debate – left or right – generally refusing to have a constructive conversation. Those who deny climate change have their heads in the sand. Alternately, those who preach Armageddon within ten years if we don’t make drastic changes have their heads just as deeply embedded in the sand. The Washington Post reported that Al Gore “believes humanity may have only 10 years left to save the planet from turning into a total frying pan.” That was in 2006. I guess we dodged that bullet.

    Israeli astrophysicist Nir Shaviv, a scientist who has allegedly studied the issue for years, concluded in 2007, “[T]here is no concrete evidence – only speculation – that man-made greenhouse gases cause global warming.”

    Little has changed in the rhetoric of these two extremes since then. Unfortunately, those extremes get the press. Moderate views or those who simply want to understand the truth are rarely heard. That doesn’t sell papers or raise TV ratings. Whether we will ever know the reality we face is ill served by the partisan approach taken by too many.

    But letting grade school students off from school to protest or march is a huge mistake for two important reasons.

    First, we send our children to school for the purpose of learning in a calm and considerate environment. This is particularly true of our youngest, when their brains are not yet fully wired and need the kind of special nurturing only great teachers provide. That is not to say classrooms should ignore issues like climate change. Quite to the contrary. It is a teacher’s job to provide  balanced analysis and lead discussions. To teach. It is inappropriate to substitute teaching for shouting crowds who have no interest in hearing any balanced debate. Such public displays of emotion – on either side of any issue – are for adults, not children.

    There is an even more insidious mistake in this exercise in recess from school. If you adopt grade school strikes as part of the learning experience of our children, where do you draw the line on issues that warrant an official dismissal from much-needed schooling? You can’t discriminate on the choice of issues that warrant a march or demonstration. Doing so would be pure hypocrisy.

    Considering the above example, it is not farfetched to see movements wanting recess for marches on the right of choice to abort pregnancy, provided there is also one supporting the right to life. Or a march on ending gun sales, provided there is one in support of the NRA. The list is as endless as is the politics surrounding them. The truly important debate is this – do we want to foster an atmosphere that interrupts the time our children spend in school? Should grade schoolers become pawns for liberal and conservative politics? I think the answer is obvious, at least for moderates who are still capable of seeing two sides to an argument.

    I’m all for teaching our kids about these topical issues. But in a classroom, not on the streets. If parents want their kids to participate in demonstrations or marches, that’s fine. That is their choice to make. Equally, it is a parent’s choice that their children not participate in public demonstrations. Let those who want their kids to march do so on weekends or holidays. Schools are here to teach in a safe and controlled environment without being interrupted by politicians and pundits bent on advancing their partisan initiatives.

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    The North Philly Standoff

    Last week, six Philadelphia police officers were injured while serving a narcotics warrant.

    The incident later evolved into a seven-hour-long shootout that occurred in a neighborhood near Temple University. According to USA Today, Police Commissioner Richard Ross described the outcome as “nothing short of a miracle” as there were thankfully no fatalities. A tear gas barrage ultimately caused the shooter to surrender.

    Thirty-six-year-old Maurice Hill was identified as the gunman who the Philadelphia Inquirer said had “an extensive record of gun convictions and resisting arrests.”

    Officers had to navigate the narrow, tightly packed streets while Temple University’s campuses were put on lock-down. Commissioner Ross held phone negotiations to deescalate Hill. Two officers were trapped in the building protecting three prisoners—one of whom was stranded in a bathroom—and ultimately saved by SWAT (USA Today).

    President Trump took to Twitter the following day:

    “The Philadelphia shooter should haven never been allowed to be on the streets. He had a long and very dangerous criminal record. Looked like he was having a good time after his capture, and after wounding so many police. Long sentence—must get much tougher on street crime!”

    Such an event raises the question of how a convicted felon had the opportunity to commit the crime. Is there a bigger conversation that needs to be had? Research indicates that overall, violent crime in the U.S. has significantly decreased in recent years, falling 49% percent between 1993 and 2017. According to the Pew Research Center, there are large variances in crime rates depending on geographic location. Moreover, public perceptions of the crime rate tend to differ vastly from actual statistics.

    Where, then, do we place the blame when these mass acts of violence happen? President Trump’s focus on street crime might be misplaced.

    Nonetheless, a huge thank you goes out to the first responders who played vital roles in keeping everyone involved safe. We appreciate you.

     

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    The Artificially Intelligent Gatekeepers of News Broadcasting

    It is no secret that the tradition of news and broadcast is changing.

    In the Kovach and Rosenstiel book, The Elements of Journalism, the authors write that the two most essential obligations of a journalist are to tell the truth and to have an unyielding loyalty to the citizens. Regrettably, their advice has fallen by the wayside. Today, truth and loyalty have taken a back seat to speed and controversy. With the advent of technology, allegedly accurate news reporting is limited only by one “click” of a mouse, “tap” of a screen, or question to Siri, Alexa or Google. All that matters now is breaking the story before your competitors. For the sake of speed, journalists on all sides of the issues have sacrificed the core principles that make their role in society so important. Now they only care about the 24-hour-news cycle and driving headlines, tweets, and falsely described “breaking alerts.”

    Can it get worse?  Yes. In fact, the very face of broadcast journalism has recently changed, and in a major way.

    China’s government run news agency, Xinhua News, introduced the first male, artificial intelligence (AI) newscaster at 2018’s World Internet Conference in eastern Zhejiang. Powered by the agency’s stream of news and Beijing-based search engine Sogou, he delivered a short broadcast discussing the technology along with China’s plans to launch their first Mars probe in 2020. His segment ended by sending good wishes to journalists across the country (CNBC).

    Female AI broadcast journalist “Xin Xiaomeng” joined Xinhua’s team of presenters shortly after. Each has an English-speaking counterpart modelled after human anchors currently on their news team (Daily Mail).

    The goal of AI presenters is to stoke the fire of a 24-hour newsroom. Completely cutting out middleman who might research and verify the veracity of a story and its sources, artificially intelligent anchors deliver a constant stream of news text generated by China’s government. Skeptics fear that the human connection between viewers and flesh-and-blood anchor will be lost, while others feel that the robotic delivery is “very dull.” (BBC)

    The issue at hand is much more than the sentiment of a traditional news model or entertainment. We have already seen what can happen when artificially generated news stories spread and influence the minds of a target audience. The horrendous outbreak of misinformation and opportunistic propaganda about the Sri Lanka bombings in April that lead to a countrywide temporary ban on suspect social media is just one example.

    While AI newscasters may be able to provide a constant stream of information to an ever more demanding audience, they do so at the sacrifice of true journalism. Live journalists have their own moral compass to consult. As imperfect as that compass can sometimes be, it is far better than a machine with no soul or conscience. With all the fake news we have to deal with today, now is not the time to allow technology to make matters worse. Maybe it is time to embrace the older principles when stories were researched, sources were checked and verified, journalists were respected and media reporting was accurate and balanced.

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    2020 Candidate Circus

    The election may seem far away but it looks like it will be another long, nasty, convoluted fight that is certain to confuse voters to the point of giving up by the time it comes to pressing “VOTE” in the booth.

    The Democrats are visibly scrambling to become a front-runner.  This creates a confusing state of issues as they each try to distinguish themselves from one another by taking aggressive positions knowing they will never be accepted by rank and file lawmakers.  Nonetheless, they need to raise their poll numbers to qualify for the stage at a debate.  That requires headlines.   Headlines do not happen to candidates with moderate views.

    The most notable exception may be Joe Biden.  He received a lot of buzz after his announcement.  Then for several weeks, women came forward and claimed they experienced “uncomfortable interactions” with Biden in the past.  This led to a rehash of the controversial treatment Anita Hill received from Biden and others at her appearances in 1991 before the Senate Judiciary Committee discussing claims of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.  After profuse apologies from Biden, the tempest seems to have calmed.  However, it is assuredly something that other candidates and the media will raise again.  They will exploit the vulnerability.   With Biden currently viewed as the front-runner, all the other candidates must knock him off that perch if they hope to win the nomination.  Do not expect civility in that endeavor.

    Then there is the returning progressive, Bernie Sanders.  Sandbagged by the Clinton campaign, he may be again from the Biden front.  We shall see.

    Other Dems in the running are puzzling.  Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bill de Blasio — none of them have a national following and de Blasio has a hard time generating an audience at his campaign stops.  The rest of the list hails from various states and cities with disparate backgrounds and notoriety.  So far, it looks like all have earned nicknames from President Trump as he goads them into losing focus.

    My question is, do people in this country really know who these candidates are?  I bet most know only one or two.  Even more do not care.  So with twenty-three democrats running (so far), how will they all fit on stage in a debate?  They cannot all fit.  That is why the solution appears to be two nights of debates.  The first night for the candidates who poll the highest.  The second night for the rest.  An A Team and a B Team.  Look for the B Team to be the more entertaining of the two debates.  The B Team has nothing to lose if they hope to get elevated to the A Team as the debates move forward.

    In truth, is this not simply more of what we saw in 2016 when the Democrats mocked the size of the Republican list of candidates?

    That is politics as usual.  Behavior that Democrats decry one day because the Republicans commit it suddenly becomes acceptable when they later engage in the same conduct.   When that happens, the Republicans, of course, condemn the Democrats.  It is a never-ending circle of lies and hypocrisy.

    Yet we wonder why Americans have no respect for Congress or Washington.  Our politicians have no one to blame except for themselves.

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    What Has Changed with the GOP’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

    After coming out of tax season, we are entering the time where refunds are in the mail.

    Despite all the excitement surrounding the tax cuts, many of the refund checks we see might only be marginally different from last year. For some, this means a smaller refund. For others, this means that they owe more to the IRS than they have in years past.

    This has left many with questions. One of President Donald Trump’s big campaign promises was to create fairer taxation for the middle class. But there is more to taxes than we see on our refunds now in the mail. The GOP’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has been at work longer – and harder — than the many in the public realize.

    The perceived refund shrink is explainable. One reason is quite simple: lower taxes on your gross income each pay period. You might have noticed in February of last year that you had a larger paycheck each pay period than you expected in the past. This is because of tax cuts resulting in less money withheld from your pay.

    Another bright side of new tax legislation is a larger Child Tax Credit for children under 17 years old. Parents can now claim a CTC of $2,000 per qualifying child; a far cry from the $1,000 under old tax laws. This part of the GOP bill is set to be phased out by the year 2025 (Tax Act).

    Unfortunately, as with any tax-related legislation, things are complicated. How beneficial the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is to you depends on your income bracket. If you land between $9,525-$200,000 each year, you were taxed an average of 2% less. The same applies for an income of over $500,000 per year. Those that lie in the $200,000-$500,000 range saw no change to their paycheck (Tax Foundation).

    Also, if you didn’t adjust your W-4s for the amount you wanted withheld in accordance to new tax codes, you may have been impacted negatively (Time Magazine). This explains why some people might end up with an unchanged income compounded by a smaller refund.

    The GOP’s tax bill eliminated personal exemptions as well, which amounted to nearly $4,050 per filer in 2017. Personal exemptions were replaced instead by a standard deduction double what it has been in previous years. For example, a person of single filing status went from $5,650 worth of standard deduction to $12,000.

    All that said, there were also losers in the new structure. With the cap on state property taxes and elimination of the state and local tax (SALT) deductions, many who live in the New York, New Jersey, California and other highly taxed states will pay more.

    Year to year, tax codes are a daunting puzzle. Did you feel cheated or triumphant after winding through the maze of 2019’s tax season?

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    A Summary of a Summary: The Mueller Report

    A few weeks ago, Attorney General William Barr outlined what he called “principal conclusions” of Special Counsel, Robert Mueller (Washington Post). For some, the summary was a cover-up coupled with attacks on Barr’s integrity. Others greeted Barr’s summary with claims of victory citing what they concluded to be findings of no collusion or obstruction of justice. As is so often the case in today’s Washington, the reaction of both sides was wrong.

    Nonetheless, here are three basic takeaways from what Barr did say:

    1. The Russians did interfere with the 2016 election.
    2. No one can confirm or deny the fact that the Trump Campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” (Washington Post)
    3. According to Barr, there is still no conclusive evidence to support the claim that President Trump obstructed justice.

    The immediate reaction was condemnation by the left and victory marches by the right. All this before release of the full report, redacted or otherwise. Such uniformed and virulent responses, in light of the serious charges that have been filling the airwaves for more than two years, is negligent and irresponsible. Unfortunately, that is what we have come to expect from today’s politicians and biased media – on both sides of the aisle.

    After two years of speculation, leaks, false allegations, and the unjustified character assassination of some, we all need to wait for the full report before we make any conclusions. It is time for the political partisans and media pundits to shut up until we all see the full report.

    Barr also has reason to redact parts of the report.  The law requires it. Regardless, it serves no purpose to object to redactions until we see them and determine if they are appropriate legally appropriate.

    So far, no one has any evidence that Barr is anything but truthful. He is highly respected by anyone who is speculating on his integrity at this point in time is either naïve or ignorant. That does not mean he might not make mistakes – just as so many others have done, particularly those on both sides of the issues who love to attack one another. With so much at stake and in light of our growing distrust in all of Washington, now is not to time to jump to idle conclusions.

    Sadly, all of these left/right wing theatrics make me wonder if we can ever believe what our government is telling us and whether we will ever know the whole truth.

    Perhaps time will tell.

     

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    Leading Questions Amid the Nation’s Largest College Admission Scandal

    Famous actors like Felicity Hoffman and Lori Loughlin found themselves making headlines earlier this month after news broke that they, along with dozens of other elite parents, were allegedly part of a leverage scheme involving college admission cheating and bribery.

    Wealthy parents allegedly paid college admission consultant Rick Singer to help their children cheat on college entrance exams in addition to falsifying athletic records as a way of securing admission to schools like Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, UCLA, and USC, just to name a few. (Patch.com).  Some allegedly made contributions or bribes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to assure admission.  The whole story came to light after a Los Angeles parent exposed nearly everyone involved.

    Here’s my first question: How will the reputations of these famous actors, CEOs, and high-level executives change going forward?

    In Lori Loughlin’s case, her partnership with the Hallmark Channel has been severed as the network decided to cut ties with the actor after discovering the news.

    We are saddened by the news surrounding the college admissions allegations. We are no longer working with Lori Loughlin and have stopped development of all productions that air on the Crown Media Family Network channels involving Lori Loughlin,” Crown Media announced in a recent statement. (Broadway World)

    Some pundits has asked if this just.  Others opine that it is enough.  Actors in general have remained silent.  Politicians have chimed in and some have alleged this is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to corruption in the college admissions process.  Amid all of this, we cannot help but wonder what lies ahead for the children who are at the center of this scandal.  Some have been told they cannot stay in school.  Some in the media have suggested previously granted degrees should be rescinded for anyone who has graduated and who used Singer’s tactics to be admitted.  Regardless, these children are all forever scared, many on account of misguided parents.

    Let us be careful before we judge everyone allegedly involved in the scandal.  Time will tell how deep this goes.  While I agree it presents a clarion call for a full investigation in the college admissions process and the influence of tests, admissions committees, legacy, contributions, and sports, we must be cautious.  We need to be very careful that in our often emotional rush to judgement, we do not convict the innocent by association with the corrupt.

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    Just Because We Can…

    We are all familiar with the adage, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.  There are times when the status quo and the beauty around us that enriches our lives is best left alone, unchanged.

    Enter today’s computers capable of making calculations far faster than humanly possible, machine learning and artificial intelligence.  Media touts how wonderful these machines will make our lives. Others fear robots will one day replace us.  All of this is worthy of debate to allay our fears and better inform us of what we can expect.  But sometimes we need to take a step back and think about just how far technology may go if left unrestrained.

    In January, Huawei, the Chinese technology company under fire by a host of governments who fear Huawei is a tool China uses to hack into computer networks and threaten security, announced that it programmed a cell phone to complete Franz Schubert‘s Symphony No8, otherwise known as his Unfinished Symphony.  Composed nearly 200 years ago, musicians and composers have debated for decades about what the symphony might have been if Schubert had completed it.  The conversations were deep and steeped in musical history.

    Now, according to Huawei, a cell phone programmed with artificial intelligence (AI), with some assistance from a human composer, has completed Schubert’s symphony.  Huawei will unveil the results in February.  You can watch their promotional campaign on YouTube by clicking here.

    The AI completed symphony, albeit with some assistance from a human, will no doubt cause music aficionados to argue that no machine can ever replace the genius of Schubert and that Huawei’s exercise is nothing more than a parlor trick.  In some ways, it probably is and relatively harmless in its own right.

    If you watch the video, however, take particular notice of the tag line.

    “If we can do this, what else could we make humanly possible?”

    It all begs the question, “Will computer generated logic someday replace human creativity?”  Are we living on the verge of interacting with the likes of StarTrek’s Mr. Spock or Hal from Sidney Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey?  When will “humanly possible” be replaced with “robotically possible”?

    As a society, we need to think more about AI and avoid blindly advancing technology for the sake of discovery.  I know that some would see this as a naïve viewpoint from a Luddite, but the fact remains that we simply do not know or understand where this will lead.  While discovery and exploration have been part of our DNA, past efforts have always had some level of acceptable and manageable risks.  This debate is not about refraining from exploration and discovery.  It is about better understanding where this is all going.  Unlike Huawei’s parlor trick in completing Schubert’s symphony, what Huawei and many other technology giants are doing is anything but a game.

    Consider this.  We simply do not know how AI will affect our grandchildren and generations that follow.  After all, there is no question that we teach today’s children less about how to learn to read and write and more about how to use technology.  Why bother to learn if all you need to do is search Google or ask Alexa for any answer you seek?  Books may soon be doomed to the junk drawer with all of our old music CDs.

    Enjoy Schubert’s completed Symphony No. 8.

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    As Politicians Claim Victory, America Becomes the Victim

    After the longest government shutdown in history, Congress and the White House have three weeks to make a deal on immigration reform or the country faces the choice of another shutdown or a presidential proclamation that we have a national emergency that requires his unilateral action to build physical barriers on our southern border.  Three weeks to settle arguments that have failed resolution for over fifteen years.  Only a Las Vegas handicapper is capable of putting odds on any bet that the two sides will come to an agreement.  Even with odds, that is not a bet I am likely to make.

    We do have an emergency but it is not just about our southern border or immigration.  While that is certainly a crisis, the true emergency facing our nation is a failure of leadership on both sides of the aisle.  In response to President Trump’s offer this past weekend that could be a start to compromise, Nancy Pelosi immediately criticized it as “not enough” and continued her rhetoric that a wall is immortal.  Senator Chuck Schumer echoed similar sentiments.  On the right, pundits like Ann Coulter accused President Trump of caving and others said he “lost” the fight.  Everyone took sides, ignoring the issues for the sake of partisan politics.

    So once again, we watch the spectacle to which our politicians seem addicted.  A spectacle that is not about what might or might not be best for Americans, Dreamers, DACA and TPS recipients, and the border agents risking their lives as illegal immigrants continue to flood the country.   Instead, it remains a partisan fight over who wields power in Washington and who will win the White House in 2020.  Neither side appears ready to compromise as each continues to kowtow to the extreme wings of their respective bases.  As the leaders of the two parties continue their mindless bickering, no one can argue against the reality that people are suffering and dying – both Americans and illegal immigrants – throughout our country because of a failed immigration policy.

    Three weeks.  That is how long our Washington politicos have to prove to America that they can lead through reasonable debate and compromise, putting aside partisan politics at this critical time.  Whether that will happen depends on all of them and I will not blame the Democrats or the Republicans if they fail.  I will blame them both and urge anyone I know to vote every one of them out of office, from top to bottom, in 2020.

     

     

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