Selling Revolution? Not on Google!

I’ve spent large portions of the past few weeks working with Google’s product feeds–the big data files which provide them with the various items that appear under Google Shopping.

(Fun Fact: Everything you see under both Google Shopping and Bing’s Product listings are paid ads–neither service will show items which don’t directly kick back money for the click to the search company in question. This is why the shopping results seem much more limited in their results than the corresponding web searches).

A less fun fact is that Google has extensive algorithms for blocking content that “violates their system policies”. Since I’ve been attempting to upload simple lists of all the comics for sale on Atomic Avenue, it’s been interesting to say the least to discover what title names qualify instantly for blocking (in most cases, apparently immune to any sort of human review–not that we haven’t spent numerous hours begging for just that. The repeated answer is always that we have no choice but to remove the “offensive” material”).

Google refuses to explicitly confirm their algorithms for filtering, but after hand-reconciling the banned items from the more than 1.6 million comics we are attempting to list, I can say with some confidence that these are some of the low-lights of their often ludicrously broad–I’d go so far as to say “utterly defective”) algorithm:

  • Ridiculously, Google treats as offensive any comic title containing the word “Black“. (E.g. “The Black Knight“, “Black Ops“, “Black Panther“, “Black Widow“, “Batman: Blackgate“, etc.)
  • Same story for a variety of miscellaneous “angry” nouns: “Rage“, “Malice“, etc. Several issues of The Avengers, for instance, have been rejected since they include appearances by a character named “Rage“.
  • Sword and sorcery titles may be huge, but they’ll apparently have to get by on the sorcery alone. Any title containing the word “Sword” (e.g. “Savage Sword of Conan“), “Dagger” (e.g. “Cloak & Dagger“) is denied. Same thing goes with “Gun” and “Rifle“–even “Mace” (Sorry Mace Windu!).
  • Google seems to have a fear of books or products which mention armed combat. “Revolution” is consistently banned, as is “Uprising“. (Goodbye Marvel crossover events, as well as science-fiction titles). “Frontline Combat“, the classic E.C. war series also can’t be posted.
  • Muse” and “Pandora“? They’re not just bitchin’ female comic characters–apparently they’re also now the names of prescription meds and are automatically banned from posting (although apparently you can file an appeal to have these reconsidered).
  • Mental issues seem to be a touchy subject: Bedlam is banned, as is all mention of the Watchmen character Rorshach.
  • And then there are the weird, and strangely ominous ones. for instance, “Sentinel” is an automatic disapproval, whether it refers to the Marvel robots, the English sci-fi mag, or Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty. All banned.

It’s too early to say whether Microsoft (Bing/Yahoo) shares this similar–and rather odd, to say the least–set of exclusionary rules. I’ll update the post once I know how I do going through their catalog process.

As a postscript, Google has recently floated the idea of changing search rankings of news sites based on their deemed “truthfulness”.

It’s worth noting that this proposal for filtering the world’s news sites comes from the same folks who are currently banning the word “Black” from product names.

Construction Time Again: System Upgrades for ComicBase and Atomic Avenue

We’re doing a huge set of behind-the-scenes changes to our networking here at ComicBase and Atomic Avenue central. The impetus for the changes is that AT&T fiber optic networking just became available in our building, which should allow us to more than double our network speeds, and even bring back onsite the servers that power the ComicBase.com and AtomicAvenue.com sites.

For us, it means that updates, pictures, and corrections should process more quickly. It should also spare us from an hour or two of thumb-twiddling time each week as we push the gigabytes of new data that are part of our recent updates down the wire to the production site.

If all goes well (fingers crossed), all it should mean for everyone else is that the sites work faster–with the potential to go even faster in the future due to the increased bandwidth that fiber offers us. As battle-scarred IT veterans, however, we should warn folks to expect the odd bit of downtime as we reconfigure firewalls, DNS servers, and about a million other fiddly bits in order to pull the move off.

In particular, there’s almost certain to be from a few minutes to a day of squirreliness as the internet’s  various name servers get used to the idea that we’ve changed the IP addresses of the mail, web, and database servers behind comicbase.com and AtomicAvenue.com. If so, please be patient, wait an hour, and try again. If you still have a problem, give us a call at 408-266-6883 and we’ll be all too glad to get it sorted.

No Free Lunch, Small Business Edition: The New California Paid Sick Leave Act

Last session, the California Legislature, in its infinite wisdom, decreed that all businesses–no matter how small–must now give paid sick leave to their employees. Effective July 1st, 2015, all employees now get 1 paid hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

Sounds great, no?

Unfortunately, they failed to pass a corresponding provision which automatically made California businesses 3.33% more profitable. Instead they’ve essentially decreed that labor costs for all California employers have gone up by 3.33%, provided the employees ever get sick–or simply “get sick”.

We’re a tiny business, and we’ve always played it straight with our employees, so we asked them what they’d want us to do about this one. Surprisingly, nobody was in favor of taking a 3.33% wage cut, and I think they realized that there was a distinct lack of Scrooge McDuck-style piles of gold in the office which we’d been rolling around in on our breaks. So the 3.33% cost increase wasn’t simply going to come from some our of petty cash as we wheeled gold ingots from the secret vault.

No, new legislated costs like this would have to come out of our operating capital, show up as deferments or cuts to new hiring, or get raided from my kids’ all-too-inadequate college fund. There’s no free lunch here, no matter how much our glorious betters in Sacramento might like to declare such in their great benificence.

In the end, we decided that the meager paid holidays at the company just became unpaid holidays, in approximate proportion to the number of new “sick days” that had magically been created. It sucks for everyone, and I’m a little heartbroken to have to give up on paid time off between Christmas and New Years–a perk we’d been proud to make happen since we had a single employee working out of our living room years ago. It just didn’t seem right to force folks to work over the Christmas break, and we were proud to be able to give our folks that time off. After twenty years, that tradition just ended.

Then there’s the effect on the relationship between the employees and the employers. When paid sick time isn’t part of the employment deal, wondering about motives is rarely an issue. If you called in sick, we sent wishes for your speedy recovery, and tried to juggle things at the office as best we could to keep things running without you. No work meant no pay, so we didn’t need to question your motives too much, if ever.

Now, the incentives have changed, and frankly, any employee who doesn’t take every hour they’re entitled to is the sucker.  I guess we all get to look forward to endless rounds of calls which start with “<Cough!> <Cough!> Gee, I’m feeling sick today and can’t make it in…”, along with the mutual looking the other way and trying not to wonder whether we should feel bad for the employee, or vaguely resentful they were shirking.

So let’s see: more distrust between employees and workers, less predictable work schedules, pro-forma sick-call acting sessions, and cancelled holidays.

Great law, folks. Well done. Well done indeed.

Importing thing to remember: This tech stuff is secretly fun

There’s a lie we tech folks tell ourselves–and anybody else who will listen–that what we’re doing is tough, arduous, and demanding work. It involves impossible demands, long hours, and nothing we do is ever completely perfect, or completely finished. In short, programming is hard work.

We start out telling folks this because it is difficult, demanding stuff, and we do put in crazy amounts of work at the keyboard, and stress ourselves out thinking about it all the time. We would like your admiration for all we go through, but since what we go through is largely incomprehensible and makes terrible stories at dinnertime, we’ll settle for your pity.

We tech types work marathon shifts, drink coffee by the gallon, and run ourselves ragged, all the while telling ourselves how bad we’ve got it. But here’s the truth–a truth we rarely admit to even ourselves: we’re secretly enjoying the whole thing, because it’s just about the most interesting game we’ve ever played.

Solving technical problems on computers is fascinating stuff, involving incredibly complex mental models, and elaborate systems built out of nothing but thoughts organized into code. It’s an amazingly creative pursuit, where you can think of an idea for a feature, and merely by thinking through all the angles of it in enough detail, can convert that idea into code, and thus into existence.

Even debugging is a challenge better than most mystery books, where your job is to solve the mystery of some strange occurrence, see it for what it really is, and slowly trace it back to the malformed code which perpetrated it. From there, you have to either tear up the bad code outright (risking the creation of new bugs in the process), or craft a suitable fix to restore the proper working of the system.

This stuff is downright fascinating. And on many days, we’d do it even if we didn’t get paid.

But we do get paid–and most of us fairly well at that–because it’s indeed difficult stuff, which requires ridiculous amounts of patience and knowledge, as well as a constantly replenished skill set to keep up with a technical landscape which is ever changing.

As deadlines loom and project problems pile up, it can also have an element of terror built in, as problems which would be fun to solve if there was more time to muck about with them suddenly become the narrowing jaws of a vice that threatens to crush you if they aren’t worked out by the time the ship date arrives.

At times like this, I often think back to a notable economics lecture in college where the professor demonstrated the law of diminishing returns by proposing “the Beer Game”. The  game goes as follows: He agrees to buy a string of beers for you, but whenever he buys you a beer,  you have to drink it.

“Wow!” we all thought, and on the hot autumn day he told the story, I was thinking that the first beer would taste awfully good indeed. The second would also be good–if not quite as refreshing as the first. But as the game goes on, each beer brings you less and less pleasure, and you’d eventually reach the point where you’d be willing to pay the instructor to be let out of the game.

Getting a software release out reminds me a lot of that game. As you dream up features and do the initial exploration, it’s a dream job, full of hope and creativity. As things ramp up and you have to work the technical details out, it’s still engaging, but seems more work and less fun. And then there’s always the terrible crush of deadlines at the end, where the non-stop work and pressure make you feel like the college kid trying to get out of the old econ professor’s beer-buying game. Only in this case, the only way out is through.

But then, if you don’t crumble under the pressure, you ship the product, the pressure evaporates, and in a while, a part of you starts looking forward to doing it all over again.

As I write this, I’m still catching my breath a bit and doing a little tidying up after a very major software release indeed. And yes, I’m happy to tell anyone who will listen about all the pain we went through to bring our new creation to life. We’re all incredibly proud of the new release, but there’s definitely a part of us that knows that there are far easier ways to make a living, and wonders why we keep putting ourselves through all this.

And here’s the truth: it isn’t just a way to earn a living, and it isn’t entirely about the pride we have in bringing something cool to life (although there’s a lot of that too). It’s because despite it all, it’s the most fun we’ve ever had while”working.” And despite our grousing–even to ourselves–we secretly know we’re having a blast.

VacationBlogging: Places to Go in the Southwest?

My family and I are starting to plan out a road trip from San Jose through the Southwest, going as far as Texas. I’m hoping to take son Neil on some college tours, view the Houston Space Center, hit Universal Studios and a few other things, but if any of the folks reading this have suggestions for amazing local things that we shouldn’t miss, please drop me a line at pbickford@human-computing.com.

Thanks!

-Pete

…And speaking of Music: David Byrne’s “How Music Works”

Son Neil gave me a genius Father’s Day gift: a set of audiobooks, including David Byrne’s “How Music Works”. The book, by the former Talking Heads frontman, is a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of how music and people interact, how the business of music is changing, and how technology has shaped music production and recording. He weaves his own experiences writing songs, recording, and performing with Talking Heads, as well as his myriad solo projects.

Byrne’s influences are widespread–sometimes almost bafflingly so–and his career has bounced from minimalist art-pop to afro-cuban-infused dance music to full-blown Latin salsa/cumbia band/singer albums that had to have left more than a few fans of his previous work scratching their heads. That said, he clearly knows his music, and he’s had a lot of time to think about it.

One of the things Byrne has going for him is that–though highly intellectual–he mostly avoids the trap of lecturing the audience about the correct social and political points of view, preferring to ask pointed questions instead of merely browbeating the audience into accepting his views. He’s also fairly objective about the mechanics of the recording industry’s various profit-sharing schemes–warning about the dangers of certain recording contract and advance arrangements, while acknowledging that there are trade-offs in regard to promotional budgets and marketing exposure. In short, that the record business is actually a business, with all sides needing to see advantage in an arrangement in order to succeed. It’s not solely comprised of noble musicians and greedy record company executives–a cartoon view espoused by too many others.

That said, he does allow flashes of anger to color his commentary from time to time, and clearly sees the usual suspects: Bush and Cheney, as horrific people for doing the things that he silently accepts–if a little uncomfortably–from his new hopebringer Obama. He also singles out liberal bete noir David Koch as an awful person for…contributing to the funding of an art center–to his mind, an act of expiation for the moral sins of… he never says. It must be assumed that the crime Koch must be assumed to be atoning for is that of being David Koch. Still, Byrne avoid the sort of long tirades that would turn a musical treatise into a political one, and manages to preserve for the most part, the observational tone of the book.

Byrne comes off as generally insightful, but there are a few suspect bits (were disco mixes actually specifically mixed to sound good on amyl nitrate?) and he credits the “disco sucks” feeling on anti-gay and anti-black sentiment on the part of traditional rock and pop crowds. I have a far less sinister explanation from my personal experience as a teen at the time in question. The modern racism/homophobia explanation is revisionist nonsense. None of the people I knew were the slightest bit concerned with it being “black music” and most of us didn’t really know what gay was–much less have a phobia of “gay music”.  We simply didn’t want to have to look like idiots trying to dance in front of girls.

Sure, most of us jeans-and-t-shirted young men could emphatically head-bob and even do a slow foot shuffle when we were really getting into the latest Led Zep or Van Halen tune, but the idea of having to bust out some sort of shiny clothes and play Jr. John Travolta on the dance floor was frankly terrifying to us. Girls will  happily dance to anything (and look great doing it), but competing in this brave new musical arena involved a host of new skills that few of us were equipped for, and at which we knew we were unlikely to succeed.

We welcomed disco about as much as union auto assemblers welcomed industrial robots. And the auto assemblers wouldn’t have to face the additional humiliation of having the girls they’d been oogling laughing at them, then going home with the robot. Little wonder that the idea of slam dancing or headbanging seemed infinitely preferable to many of us. There’s no need to invent a motive of racism or homophobia for male teens, when sheer terror of looking bad in front of girls was a near universal phenomenon of the times.

Politicians are Evil Bastards. Amateur Politicians are Even Worse

Facebook has become a minefield of political vitriol, where all too frequently, I have to brace myself for some random bit of highly heated (and repeated) political propaganda making the rounds whenever I want to merely stop by and see what my friends are up to.

Most of the time, there’s just no sense getting into things with friends–after a youth where I delighted with mixing it up with friends over matters politic, I’ve gradually come to recognize the wisdom that politics, sex, and religion are not topics for polite conversation.Nobody’s mind ever gets changed in an online political discussion, and the discussions that follow inevitably generate more heat than light–and risk straining friendships held together by too-delicate strands strained by time and distance.

Every so often, however, I do the foolish thing and respond to some new political meme being circulated by a friend I consider generally reasonable, in the hopes that I can point out that some “shocking new study” originated by an advocacy group is little more than lightly disguised propaganda before it gets circulated enough that it passes into group memory and morphs into common knowledge. After which point, it will be repeated endlessly, no matter how many times calmer heads point out that there’s no basis in fact for the now “unshakable fact”.

In the best case, wading into these things gets folks to slow down and consider for a moment whether 1 in 3 women on college campuses is actually raped; whether 1/2 the garbage in the world is actually generated by America, etc. etc. etc. We never run out of invented and easily disproved statistics which much of the world is absolutely certain are true, because people they trust told them so. The malevolent bastards in politics and the media invent phony “wars on women”, “attacks on the environment”, “racist conspiracies” and countless other crimes against all that is good because they know that the mere thought of someone doing such things makes us angry. Any when we’re angry, we seldom stop to think whether the attack in question is actually what they say it is.

Politicians lives are built around spreading despicable nonsense like this, and the more they can rile us up and get us mad at “those evil <members of the other party>” who apparently exist to commit every societal ill for the sheer fun of it, the more we get out to vote for them, the more we send them money, and the more we pass their crap along on Facebook.

At least (most of) the politicians–and their adjuncts in the various media outlets which act as their propaganda arms–know that the full truth is at best far more complex, and too often, completely the opposite of what is being stated. They lie for the power it brings them, and they like the fact that it pits normal folk against each other by labelling half of them as enemies. It’s called “energizing the base”. J.A. Schumpeter put it best when he famously stated, “The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie.”

But for the “civilians” who are not professional members of a political party, advocacy group, or media outlet, we’re far too uncritical when we pass along things that we’re told are true by these same outfits. We trust that the media have actually vetted the facts, so we’re outraged by the insensitivity of friends who might have managed to get a different part of the story in our increasingly partisan and one-sided media culture.

Too often, when friends say something we disagree with, we don’t ask, “What makes them say that? Have they heard a version of the story we haven’t?” but instead assume that however well we thought we knew them all these years, they must have secretly been, “one of THOSE folks” who are ignorant/evil/racist/homophobic/etc. all along. In a worst case, friendships of years have been dismissed in an instant over opinions on some political talking point. More frequently, folks simply “tribe up” with similar-minded folks and repeat each other’s never-questioned viewpoints, or learn to shut up and not say anything at all. In all of these cases, the politicians win, and normal people lose.

We shouldn’t play their game. If you hear a fact that’s “too good to check”, ask yourself how the other side would argue their point of view. In today’s world, even major media outlets will monolithically present only one side of a story, and much of what we “know” about a side’s point of view comes not from listening to that side, but by listening to what ideological opponents of that side say their point of view is.

As an example, ask a Tea Partier what he cares about, and you’ll hear a lot of talk about controlling government spending and adherence to constitutional law; Ask a member of far left what Tea Partiers stand for and you’ll hear a lot of talk about hating blacks and poor people. Similarly, ask a Democrat what they care about, and you’ll hear talk about empowering the underprivileged and controlling the abuses of business; ask a member of the far right what Democrats care about, and you’ll hear about class warfare, taxation, and using the power of government to reward special interest groups. When the news media you listen to report only stories which sound exactly like the talking points of the people standing against one group or another, you’re not likely being fed a straight story.

Over time, you’ll amass countless “facts” put out by these same media which support the narrative, and if you never do the legwork to authenticate them with either original source material or the statements of the other side, you’ll find yourself hitting the “Unfriend” button the next time an acquaintance with a different view on plastic bag bans voices a concern, since only a monster could not want to ban plastic bands when you know that a gigantic mass of plastic bags the size of Bulgaria is killing the whales After all, the Surfrider foundation had that heartrending animation of the whale beaching itself on the floating refuse island, and you’ve heard numerous media outlets confidently report that we’ll destroy everything if we don’t “Ban the Bag”. The same outlets never take down the whale animation after the scientist behind the “100 million tons of plastic garbage in a giant floating island”  theory later recants and revises his estimates down to something more like 7,000 tons…oh, and it seems the sun was breaking that up into tiny particles, much the same way it disintegrates any plastic toy left out on my back deck for a couple of summers.

My latest wade into the treacherous waters FaceBook politics ended on a happier note than some. Cooler heads kept the conversation respectful, although it was clear that our worldviews–shaped by the media we’d been fed–couldn’t have been more different. And although politicians and their media counterparts seem to exist to tear people apart, I’m reminded that there are still things: family, kids, or a shared love of Rush albums–which bring us together–even when the same folks would normally be on the opposite side of the latest political meme-war.

Politicians are evil bastards. We should always be willing to stand up for what we believe, but we lose our humanity when we let ourselves be so easily manipulated by people whose job routinely involves playing games with the facts to gain power.