Archive for the ‘Computers and Internet’ Category

Some days, I wonder if I am in the right line of business.

I’ve believed in capitalism for my entire life and that free markets are the best way to run an economy, but lately I’ve wondered how that fits in to what I do at work. I think this because of my observations about the state of the world, and what I know from behavioral psychology.

Even though I still think free markets are great, I think it’s pretty obvious that there are inefficiencies everywhere. There are plenty of poor people still around (although their standard of living is rising), but study after study shows that while capitalism is great for creating wealth, most of it goes to a small group of people. The middle class, at least in the United States, isn’t sharing in much of these wealth gains. If free markets are so good at distributing wealth, why is so much of it concentrated in 1/10 of 1% of the population?

This makes me think that my faith in free markets is maybe not the best thing it should be; they’re great, but not as great as I think, especially for a majority of the population.


How this fits into work is what I see as the Tragedy of the Commons. This is a 19th century concept where if there is a common resource that gets depleted, everyone loses. It’s in everyone’s best interest to behave in a sustainable way, yet simultaneously also in everyone’s best interest not to behave in a sustainable way.

For example, suppose there is a lake and there are 25 fishermen, and each is allowed to catch only 1000 fish per year. This is to ensure that the fish stocks don’t get depleted. So long as everyone plays along, it’s great. But, suppose one fisherman – let’s call him Frank – decides “Well, instead of my catch of 1000 per year, what if I catch 1100? It’s only about 1 extra fish every three days and no one will notice.”

And nobody does notice.

However, Frank gets to sell 100 extra fish and make just a bit more money. A little later, Joe notices Frank is catching 100 extra fish and nobody is complaining. So Joe says “Well, if Frank is catching 100 extra fish, why can’t I?” and so he, too, catches 100 extra fish. And he, too, reaps the benefits.

But soon, everyone notices that some people are catching extra fish, and soon everyone decides to catch the 100 extra. And everyone gets a little extra money.

However, one thing does eventually catch up with everyone – because everyone is now catch 100 extra fish – 1100 per year – the lake becomes depleted. In a few years time, nobody is catching any fish. Nobody reaps any benefits because now the lake is empty. People’s short term desires trumped their long term interests.

And this is common in behavioral psychology, it’s a very human trait.


I see this at work. I have friends and co-workers who come from eastern bloc nations that lived under communism, and central planning ruined their nations. And now, after moving to the US, they have a pro-capitalist view because the opposite was a complete disaster.

I used to agree with them.

Except that I think that this point of view is pervasive at the company I work for, but the ignores the Tragedy of the Commons. Acting in your own interests to maximize short-term gain causes long term pain.

In email filtering, there are ways to run a business and I always have to fight to get others to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Just as in industry, businesses can pollute the lake because it’s cheaper for them to dispose of refuse into the local lake than to transport it safely elsewhere (or treat the waste so it is neutral), email filtering systems can pollute the Internet. There are Internet rules that say “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that” because it “pollutes” the Internet.

Yet I find it is common for others to think that just because we work for a large company, if nobody complains then it is okay in order to maximize short term profit. But I think we shouldn’t be maximizing short term profit at the expense of depleting a resource; we should keep the Internet clean and do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even if it takes a little longer or is a more complicated design.

I once said “What you’re saying is that it’s okay to pollute the lake so long as the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t shut you down” and the response was “Yes.”

I understand that I am in business, and a business must make money, and this business pays me, and that customers pay us, but something about that now rubs me the wrong way.


I see a change in the Millennial generation. Mark Zuckerberg, who at 30 years old is part of that generation, has said that Facebook’s business exists to serve its social mission, not the other way around. Younger people are all about Fair Trade which costs more but is more socially equitable.

I realize that big business can exploit this feel-good-ism, but even on Shark Tank, the investors are almost all about making money because capitalism is the force that does the most good in the world, and charity is something you do voluntarily.

I agree that capitalism and free markets do a lot of good, but I also think that it doesn’t do as much good as its die-hard proponents think it does. I think that humans think about things in the short term and are hard-wired to not look out for their own long-term best interests. So, the profit motive wins even at the expense of doing the right thing since doing the right thing causes short term discomfort, but not doing the right thing is rewarded with money.

I like making money. But I don’t like making money if I think the lake is being depleted. I don’t think we should be polluting the lake just because the EPA doesn’t notice, I think we shouldn’t be polluting the lake because it’s the right thing to do.

Even as I type this, I find myself getting wound up with a mix of conflicting emotions. Am I in the right business? I like doing what I do professionally, and I know my company gives a lot to charity. Without their business generating profits, they wouldn’t do it all.

But I find myself identifying more with the Millennial generation than the profit-first goals of American business.

And I feel conflicted.

Read Full Post »

This weekend, I went shopping at random stores around the city where I live. For you see, the wife purchased a book of coupons and we decided to use some of them. We flipped through the book looking for ones we might like and found a few to stores we had never been to, nor would ever go to had we not purchased the coupon book.

We went down to a specialty coffee store and browsed around. We found a couple of coffees we might like to try. Good thing we had a discount because they cost roughly double what we normally buy at Trader Joe’s.


When we went to pay, the staff hadn’t seen the coupons before and then look them up. After confirming it was okay to use their own coupons they informed us we needed to supply an email address.

Normally, both me and the wife decline to provide an email address at any retailer. I don’t want your email notices, I just want the merchandise I can currently trying to acquire. But, this retailer informed us that “we needed to supply an email address in order to use the coupon.” The wife begrudgingly handed it over.

Why should I have to do that? Why do I need to give out an email address at all?

I just got an email from Home Depot today telling me my email address was leaked during their most recent hack this past September. Doing the math in my head, this means that I can expect more spam and probably a bunch of customized phishing attempts (i.e., some phisher impersonating Home Depot telling me that I have to take a particular action in response to the breach) going forward.


And this irks me about giving up my email address. Not only do I not want to give it out because I don’t want to sign up for advertisements from the retailer, I don’t entirely trust them to keep it secure, either. I feel like handing it over is akin to opening my front door and hoping flies and other insects stay outdoors.

I didn’t think fast enough at the time, but next time I have to hand over an email address maybe I should do one of the following:

  1. Claim I don’t have an email address

  2. Give a fake email address to domain that doesn’t resolve

  3. Give an email address to a known spam trap

  4. Give an email address that says “do_not_email_me_I_am_only_giving_this_because_I_have_to@example.com

This probably wouldn’t solve any problems or change anyone’s behavior, but it would certainly make me feel better.

Read Full Post »

A few days ago, I posted my notes on Keith Alexander’s talk at MIRcon about the NSA. Today, here’s a blog post about the opposite point of view.

Yesterday, I came across an interview with William Binney, a former NSA analyst who resigned from the agency in 2001. He is a whistleblower who, unlike Edward Snowden, did go through the proper escalation channels when he felt that he found things that the agency was doing that was against the US constitution.

The interview is on Dan Carlin’s Common Sense podcast. I listen to Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast and it is very good, but I just discovered his Common Sense podcast. You can listen to the interview here:

If you’re opposed to what the NSA is doing in terms of data collection, you will no doubt agree with Binney and his views he discussed in the interview. He is very much against what the NSA is doing.

If you’re not opposed to what the NSA is doing, you will probably disagree with what Binney says.

Finally, if you’re a fence-sitter, you probably won’t hear that much to sway your position beyond what you have already heard in the media, news outlets, and other blogs.

Read Full Post »

Last week, I attend MIRcon, Mandiant’s conference on Advanced Persistent Threats. One of the keynote addresses was given by Keith Alexander, the former head of the NSA. I enjoyed his talk, it was a good one.

What Others Are Saying

Here is Kelly Jackson Higgins’ take on his talk, from an article on DarkReading. Everything in the article is accurate:

* Former NSA Director reflects on Snowden Leaks

Higgins’ main talking point is that Alexander and the NSA were trying to bring to the public attention the fact although that the United States is under constant attack from advanced persistent threats, the Snowden leaks ended up overshadowing any of the good work that the NSA was doing. The NSA is a professional organization and 3rd party auditing showed that what they did:

  1. Was authorized by Congress
  2. Was within the law
  3. Was 100% audited
  4. Even though they were audited afterwards, no violations ever came up that were not already self-reported
  5. The NSA is highly professional

That’s all I have to say about that, go ahead and check out the article.

My Impression of Others’ Impressions of the NSA

While I was in Washington, D.C., I noticed that there was more of “pro-America” feel, that is (and I am badly paraphrasing) “we understand that the NSA had to do what they did” perspective compared to where I live. Whereas on the left coast, Microsoft’s own top lawyer identified the American government as an advanced persistent threat [1], and you can read other technical blogs that are very critical of the US government’s actions (Google, Yahoo and Apple are all moving to encrypt their data in response to this), I didn’t find any of the anti-government sentiment at MIRcon.

I see this as either the attendees at MIRcon genuinely understand that what the NSA did is more nuanced, and a position of “The government should not collect any data” is too narrow a viewpoint; OR, representatives from these companies work with government and therefore their perspective is skewed; OR, I didn’t sample enough people to get a broader perspective.

In any case, that’s what I experienced.

My raw notes of Keith Alexander’s Keynote

I don’t have time to type this up into a more nuanced blog post, but here are my raw notes from the session.


2014.10.07 – Keynote Keith Alexander

  • Keith Alexander – cyber security people are underpaid (he’s a funny guy)
  • CyberCommand was created based upon intrusion into DoD in 2008 (later believed to be the Russians), wake up call
    • Now Target, eBay, Home Depot, JPM; attributed to eastern Europe/Russia
    • Did you know 2014 (website, talks about rapid change in technology)
      • Top 10 in-demand jobs in 2013 did not exist in 2004. Half of college newbs tech knowledge will be out of date by the time they get to junior year. People being trained for a job that doesn’t exist today.
      • Talked about how using Watson, they can get cancer treatments figured out in 9 minutes rather than 30 days (important because that 30-days results in cancers metastasizing)
      • Within a decade, some diseases will be solved thanks to advances in technology
    • We created the Internet, we can secure it.
      • But what we have created, today, isn’t secure.

  • Pre-2007, Internet was used as a way of going out and exploiting (everyone was doing it)
    • Then in 2007 changed from exploitation to disruption (Estonia attacks), had to disconnect from Internet
    • Aug 2008 Georgia was hit with cyberattacks (coincided with attacks by Russia govt ground offensive), DDOS attacks
    • Tells of issue on DOD networks one Friday afternoon in 2008, some people found 1500 pieces of malware on classified network
      • Built a system to mitigate the problem at network speed.
      • NSA built the system in 22 hours (!!!)
    • In 2011, NSA took a look at DOD networks, 15,000 in all, discovered they have an indefensible architecture (opened up that bag… of fertilizer… can we give this back to the DOD? Nope.)
      • Created Cyber Command as a result. Our defense must be as good as their offense

  • Fast forward, actions in 2012 were timed to problems in the middle east
    • August: Attack on Saudi Aramco (DDOS coupled with a virus – destroyed data on 30k systems)
    • Over 350 DDOS attacks on Wall Street in the intervening one year. 2013: attacks on South Korea
    • Goes from stealing data to using the networks as an element of national power.
    • People attack cyberspace because that’s where the money and IP and secrets are

  • Cyber command
    • Joint taskforce to defend the DOD networks but when it came over decided to defend everything within the nation

      1. Need a defensible architecture – Too difficult to draw a picture of network without any situational awareness

      2. Training – Need to train at a classified threat, offense and defense need to be the same

      3. Command and control – How do we work together with govt and industry? There’s more industry by orders of magnitude, and exploitation surface is hundreds of time larger. Nothing prevents industry from working with govt for a common cause

      4. Cyber legislation – Didn’t really discuss this

      5. Signature based AV systems good for certain things but not for where we want to go. Need to have real time consumable threat intelligence; detect mitigate report at network speed; within and among networks. These are not technical challenges, it is culture and competitiveness. Just think if we were to work together. It will take several companies and a consortium to figure it out.

  • Q&A’s – Are we in a cyber war? When did it start? –> No, not yet but because of his definition
    • 22 cryptologists were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (doing some cyber stuff to change intelligence collection)
      Someone asked a question – what does the NSA collect on me? Metadata goes into business data FISA program
    • gave example (2009) of stopping an Al Qaeda operative in the Pakistan area who was talking to someone in the Colorado area (by email, gave phone number in email to FBI). FBI can take that and get the phone number from the phone and email provider. Talked about bouncing around from Colorado to New York and North Carolina, who were also in contact with other known terrorists outside (?) the US.
  • Q&A’s (Did Angela Merkel have anything interesting to say?)
    • If you talk to known high risk contacts, there is a good chance you will be flagged. But otherwise you are probably not going to be looked at. These programs help connect the dots. Everything in the program is audited 100%. Not one person was found doing anything wrong that hadn’t already been reported before.
    • ACLU did a review of the NSA (Jeff Stone), found NSA helped to thwart plots, operates a high degree of integrity and deep commitment to the rule of law
    • People who touch special data have to go through 400 hours of training (more than pilots)

Those are all of my notes.


[1] “Like many others, we are especially alarmed by recent allegations in the press of a broader and concerted effort by some governments to circumvent online security measures – and in our view, legal processes and protections – in order to surreptitiously collect private customer data.

If true, these efforts threaten to seriously undermine confidence in the security and privacy of online communications. Indeed, government snooping potentially now constitutes an “advanced persistent threat,” alongside sophisticated malware and cyber attacks.”

Brad Smith on the Official Microsoft blog

Read Full Post »

8 months ago, I wrote a blog post about how I am more concerned about being hacked by malicious spammers than I am about being spied upon by the NSA. In the year since Snowden, my views haven’t changed much. I understand that it’s a concern but I am more-or-less ambivalent about it [1].

I understand that there is a very vocal segment that protests this invasion of privacy vehemently, but I just can’t get worked up about it.

Why am I so different from this vocal segment? And why does this vocal segment care so much?

The Principle of Scarcity

To answer this, I recently read the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini. In it, psychologist Robert Cialdini describes six outlining principles about how to persuade people – principles that have proven themselves over and over again. These are not self-help theories but instead theories that have been tested by science.


One of the topics of the book is the Principle of Scarcity. People view potential losses as more impactful than potential gains. This is universally true, we are more concerned about losing something than we are about winning.

Here’s proof. What would you rather have:

  1. Option 1 – A 10% chance of winning $1 million, or
  2. Option 2 – A 100% chance of winning $90,000


If you’re like most people, you probably go with Option 2. However, if you do the math on the expected payout, you multiply the chance of winning by the amount you would win to get the expected winnings. Option 1 has an expected winning of $100,000 (10% x $1,000,000) while Option 2 is $90,000, less than Option 1.

But most of us want to go with the sure thing of Option 2 even though it is less because it is too psychologically painful for us to “lose” the sure thing of $90,000 compared to the mere possibility of $1 million, even if you know the probabilities.

Even if you personally, reading this right now, say to yourself “Well, I know the math. I would certainly go with Option 1” you still have to fight your natural instincts to do this because it feels wrong and you don’t like doing it. Thus, while you may understand the math in this case, be very sure you won’t understand the math in every case, nor in every real world circumstance with deals with the Principle of Scarcity.

The Increasing Value of Time

Another example is the phrase “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done.” This is our tendency to put things off until there is very little time left and then scrambling to complete it. This is known as “hyperbolic discounting.” What is happening is that we, as humans, are not good at anticipating the future but as a deadline becomes nearer and near – and time-to-complete becomes correspondingly more scarce – the value of the thing we are putting off becomes more urgent as the remaining time becomes much more valuable.


Scarcity is increasing value of something.

As opportunities become more scarce, we desire more freedom, and we hate losing the freedoms we already had.

This goes one step further – it is not just a matter of scarcity that makes something that is more desirable, but instead a drop from abundance to scarcity that makes it much more powerful than constant scarcity.

For example, when governments ban books, it is then that people want to read them. And to add to the intensity, if the drop in abundance is because others want the scarce resource, this increases the desirability.

How it Works in Humans

Researchers have tested this – they had volunteers come in and answer some questions and then leave, but on the way out there was a plate of cookies. When there were plenty of cookies, people rated the cookies’ taste as fine. But when there was only a couple of cookies and plenty of crumbs (indicating that there had been a lot of them previously but others had depleted the stock), people rated them even more highly.


This principle of scarcity is hard-wired into our brains.

So what does this have to do with NSA spying?

Here’s what I think – the scarce resource that we thought we had was privacy. Privacy is valuable and we believed that nobody was looking over our shoulder. Who wants the government spying on them? Nobody, that’s who.

However, when the NSA scandal broke, suddenly this resource/freedom we thought we had was virtually non-existent. And we hate losing freedoms we had before. The fact that it was previously abundant due to encryption, and is scarce now (due to government circumventing it) made it that much worse.

And making it even worse is that government wants our privacy! Thus, someone else is stealing something that was ours and that’s what makes it scarce!

And I think that’s why people are so upset – because of the Principle of Scarcity and how we’re hard wired to react to it.

The Roots of the Desire for Privacy

Okay, so maybe we’re hard-wired to react to scarcity. And maybe we’re a little upset because we lost our freedom of privacy.

But why should we even care about privacy at all?

I think it’s because we don’t like being watched. There’s a myth that says that public speaking is our number one fear. Studies are conflicted about this, but it is one of the things that people are afraid of and it ranks very highly, higher than things we should be more afraid of like disease, car accidents, or violence.

So why are we even afraid of public speaking to begin with?


I think it’s hard wired into our brains because we don’t like to be watched. For you see, for hundreds of thousands of years, even millions of years, our ancestors wandered around on the African savannah, looking for game but also just trying to survive. Our ancestors had to work in groups and we would sometimes stalk our game for days or even weeks at a time.


However, humans are not particularly good fighters against any other animal without our tools or the groups of people we hunt with (i.e., working together). While we would hunt other animals, other animals would hunt us. And when they hunted us, they would secretly stare at us first, sizing us up before pouncing.

Eventually, we developed biases in us to dislike being watched because it meant that if we were, we could soon become the prey and would fail to pass on our genetic material. Natural selection favored genes that selected for being aware of being watched and taking steps to correct for it.

We don’t like to be watched without our permission because we have genes that have selected for this personality trait.

Your Brain is not a Lawyer

We sometimes think of ourselves as rational creatures. We have a model of ourselves where our brains are basically like Prosecuting Attorneys and Judges. The prosecuting attorney presents the evidence, the judge weighs it, and then issues a decision. In this way, we are mostly logical creatures; sure, we sometimes make mistakes but for the most part we act in our own best interest.



This was the view before the 1960’s and the rise of modern psychology, and the 1990’s before the rise of behavioral psychology. Not only do we now know that we make cognitive errors all the time but that we are predictably irrational.

Your brain is not an attorney/judge combination that weighs the evidence and makes a careful decision. That happens occasionally but it is not the norm. Instead, you have a limbic system which is the system that reacts and drives your emotions, and a neo-cortex which is the thinking and reasoning part of your brain. And these two are always working together, and sometimes they are conflicting.

We like to think that the logical side wins out over the “emotional” one (the limbic system is far more complex than what I described). What happens in reality is that most of the time, our limbic system has an emotional response to a stimulus (a physical feeling, or a sound, or an idea) and then our neo-cortex brain works to rationalize why we feel the way we feel.

If you ask a person why they took the $90,000 sure thing instead of the $100,000 expected payout (10% chance of $1 million), they may say something like “I can use the $90,000 today and the chances of getting $1 million aren’t worth the risk of losing it.” And that’s close to reality; our limbic brains tell us “Don’t lose the sure thing!” and then our neo-cortexes get on with the work of making up a reason why we are doing the irrational thing.


Putting it All Together

This is why I think (some) people hate the NSA spying scandal so much. We have justified it as they are over-collecting data and it could lead to abuse. While I think that’s possible, I think the disliking of it is because we don’t like being secretly watched by someone. Not being watched by someone is called “privacy” and we hate losing the freedoms we had (or thought we had), and that includes privacy. While we have reasons for disliking it, we come up with these after the fact; we don’t weigh the pros and cons and come to a decision. Instead, we come to a decision and then weigh the pros and cons.[3]

That’s why I think some people are so vocal about NSA spying.

So what about people who don’t seem to react so strongly? I will get to that in a future post.

[1] 10 weeks ago, I had braces put onto my teeth. I’ve never had them done before, that is, I didn’t have them as a kid [2]. Let me tell you, I experience way more angst up to and during that procedure than I ever had thinking about how the NSA might be spying on me.

[2] I’ve needed this procedure for at least a decade. I finally broke down and consented to wearing them for two years.

[3] Yes, this is oversimplified. As it turns out, there are good reasons for being against government over-collection of data just as there are good reasons for there to be a government that runs society.

Read Full Post »

I have discovered podcasts.

“What?” you ask. “How could you not know about them?”

Let me clarify. I’ve known about podcasts for years but I never listened to them. Why would I? And when? I’m too busy at work, and in the evening I usually watch video.

But I discovered a great time to listen to them – when I’m walking to work. For you see, it takes me between 25 and 30 minutes to walk to work each day which means I have around 50-60 minutes of just walking. It turns out that is the perfect time to listen to a podcast.

What I did was subscribe and download a bunch of them to my phone. I plug in a pair of headphones and on the way in, I listen to an episode and on the way home I listen to the rest of the episode. It really passes the time.

I also used it when I went hiking this past weekend. It also helps to break up the fatigue of moving uphill.

Man, why did I never think of this before?

Read Full Post »

You can call me cynical but the latest digital revolution – putting your life in the cloud where you interact with it using devices – seems overrated to me.

You know what I mean; if you’re a member of the tech industry, the latest major trend is cloud computing. This is where all of your data is stored in various companies’ cloud computing database and you interact with it through devices like tablets, smart phones and PCs (laptops/desktops, not necessarily Microsoft OS’es). I am exaggerating, but the hype surrounding it makes it sound like this is going to be greatest thing in the history of the computer! Get ready for it! It’s going to be amazing!


I’m not going into a lot of detail here, but you’re smart readers. You know what I mean. I’ve saving time to get to my real point.

All this talk about life in the cloud… I have real doubts that it in real life it will live up to its greatness.

Why do I say this?

Last week, my wife and I visited her family in Taiwan. She lives here in the US and speaks English but speaks Taiwanese with her parents who can also speak English. They speak English with me, but Taiwanese with each other. Last fall, they retired and moved back to Taiwan where it is cheaper (outside of Taipei where the housing costs are worse than most of the US).

I’ve tried learning a little Taiwanese but it is very difficult. I was also learning Mandarin for a few weeks before I left (also difficult). The problem is:

  1. Unless you spend a lot of time in the country where it is the native language, you will never pick it up well enough to converse.

    They say that for English speakers, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are the hardest languages to learn and it could take around two years.


  2. There are not a lot of resources to learn it.

    This is important: Taiwanese != Mandarin. They are not the same language and they are not mutually intelligible. Even though Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan, most of the population also speaks Taiwanese. There are a lot of resources (books, learning apps on my tablets, translation sites) available for Mandarin, but not for Taiwanese. The population of Taiwanese speakers is perhaps 20 million which is why there isn’t that much.

  3. Mainland China’s writing system is Simplified Chinese which is what I was learning (I was also trying to learn Mandarin). By contrast, Taiwan uses Traditional Chinese.

    In the 1950’s, mainland China converted Traditional Chinese to Simplified Chinese in order to make it easier for the population to learn. However, Taiwan did not. While some characters are the same, many are different. Thus much of the time I spent learning Simplified Chinese did not help that much in Taiwan.

My wife, in-laws and other members of her extended family were nice enough to speak English to me, but with each other they spoke Taiwanese.

They say that communication is 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal (part body language and part tone-of-voice). Well, let me tell you, that’s completely false. I am good at observing body language and when my relatives were talking to each other I absolutely did not understand 93% of what was going on.

Perhaps if you are observing others this quote is true, but once you are part of the conversation and seated at the table, that 7% verbal communication is the most important part by far! I could follow basically nothing of what was being said. Sure, I can tell the emotions of what’s going on – sometimes funny, sometimes concern, sometimes curiosity. But that’s a far cry from taking part in a conversation. I know that most of the chatting is about regular family things – who’s working where, who’s neglecting what, who’s being irresponsible (you know, gossip – the thing we all do yet all say we revile), but I was not apart of what was being discussed. I could only sit and watch.

Out on the streets, I could tell what things were:

  • I could tell what food stores were
  • I could tell the street signs
  • I understood the food vendors

But in terms of advertisements and exact messages, I could read almost nothing. All of the symbols in Mandarin I knew already didn’t show up often except for water, 水 (that sign was everywhere and I never figured out why); fish, 魚; beef, 牛; meat, 肉; man, 男; woman, 女; and good, 好. But this amounted to 1% of all the symbols I saw. Imagine reading this blog post and understanding only 1% of all the words.


And therein lies my disconnect.

I expected to be able to understand very little conversation or read very little. Yet I had this vague hope in my mind that technology would help me. Why did I think this? Because somehow I had the idea that life in the cloud changed everything! Why would I think that? It’s not a conscious decision, it’s something I had to have picked up somewhere and it must be from advertising and the reinforced message of having lived and worked in tech for 10 years.

Yet technology was basically useless.

For one thing, my phone’s data plan works in the United States only. If I try to use data overseas, I get charged a ridiculous amount. Can I afford it? Yes. Will I pay for it? NO!

For you see, even though it’s not logical, I am psychologically averse to going through the trouble of getting additional communication devices (phones) for something I use so infrequently (going overseas). I know there are ways around this, but there are deep seated cognitive “defects” in my brain for loss-aversion that prevent me from doing it or trying to work around it.

It seems that technology’s “Life in the cloud is great” belief assumes you have Internet connectivity everywhere. Well, I don’t. And if you don’t, then what?

Secondly, even if you have a translation app like I did on my phone that works offline, it isn’t very good for east-Asian languages. Using the translator app on my phone it has Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Simplified Chinese available for download. As I explained above, Simplified Chinese != Traditional Chinese. I tried using it anyways and the result was worthless. There wasn’t a single instance of me pointing my phone at a line of text and having it translate something intelligible back to me. It was all a bunch of gobble-de-gook.

Every. Single. Time.


There was a time when I thought that the major languages like the ones that are available for offline download were the most important ones. I still think that, but the smaller languages are also still very important for two reasons:

  1. Communication – not everybody can speak the major languages.

  2. Cultural preservation – I don’t think it’s a good thing to be losing smaller languages. Cultures are important, language is one of those things that preserves it and losing them loses a cultural identity. I don’t think that people moving to the main languages of a couple dozen worldwide is a good thing.

Basically, if I want to learn a foreign language and culture, then I need to learn the language and culture. I can take a class, buy some books, learn on the web, buy software like Rosetta Stone, download some apps, and converse with native speakers. There’s really no way around it (short of having a translator). In other words, I need to do this the old fashioned way.

But here’s the point – I don’t need my life in the cloud for that. Sure, the cloud helps. I downloaded a bunch of apps onto my iPad from the Cloud. There are ways to use Skype to help practice with native speakers. I can browse Amazon book reviews to see which ones are the best ones for learning languages.

But all of that stuff existed before the “life in the cloud revolution” took place. And now that it’s being sold as the next big thing, I didn’t find that it helped me in my real life for something new. This causes me a lot of cognitive dissonance and personal conflict because I work in an industry that is trying to get everyone to move to the Cloud, and I am paid to sell that vision.

I guess that’s the disconnect I’m having a hard time articulating. It’s true that maybe I’m probably doing things wrong. Sometimes I feel like I’m too dumb to use technology the most efficient way possible.

I wonder if anyone else feels the same way?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »