Year in Review: Digital Events in 2019

What happened in the world of IT? Who deserves notoriety for their behavior? It is time to review 2019, and, while we are at it, make a mockery of the most noteworthy.  After all, the world is already messed up, so at least let’s have a bit of fun.

Reminder: The awards generate no money, no distinction, and only a fleeting mention on the Google search engine. There is no appeal process or double-checking of the votes by certified public accountants. As with prior years, three criteria determine an award. The event must occur in 2019. It must have something to do with digital technology. The event must deserve at least one sassy and snarky comment.

This year the awards are nicknamed “The IMP” to honor the fifty-year anniversary of the first internet message in October of 1969.  Those pioneers used Interface Message Processors (IMPs) to achieve their login. Just trying to be, well, impish.

Enough said. Time for the awards!

 

Best actor. Every year this is a heavily contested category among entrepreneurs with grand plans to disrupt the universe. This year we have a runaway winner. The IMP goes to Adam Neumann, the ex-CEO of WeWork. Mr. Neumann portrayed a messianic CEO of a company disrupting the real estate market. His firm allegedly purchased office space, and then rented the space to other businesses – for an hour, a day, a week, or a month. Though the business plan behind this fantasy-rent-a-landlord never made any sense, Neumann’s portrayal of young dashing CEO proved that an entrepreneur with a ill-thought-out idea can get remarkably far merely by being tall. Alright, alright, alright, there was more. He also possessed a charming smile, great hair, and a modest wardrobe. Good looking genes in good looking jeans turn out to be essential for gaining $10 billion dollars in financing from Softbank, which enabled Neumann to go many years escaping adult supervision. And he pulled off the most daring trick of all adolescent startups, managing to temporarily acquire a high pre-IPO valuation ($47 billion at its height) despite losing $1 billion dollars a year. Alas, the jig finally ended when he had to explain his firm to Wall Street during WeWork’s attempted IPO. Wow, Wall Street showed some sense, and even the most gullible investors wanted none of WeWork’s make-believe. Then things got strange. The failed IPO led to Neumann’s exit, but he had signed a deal, which required a whopping buyout, north of one billion dollars. Which leaves us with one question: who will be the next firm to lose so much money a year that the investor community runs out of patience? We are looking at you, Uber.

Best romantic comedy (by a digital device). The next award recognizes that digital technologies have reshaped modern romance. More specifically, digital technology helps to detect romantic infidelity with uncommon, um, fidelity.  The IMP goes to FitBit! A little explanation: Jane Slater, a Dallas-based reporter received a Fitbit from her boyfriend. They bonded over the fitbit, and put the two of them in sync, which means they could monitor each other’s physical activity. Wow, just what every couple needs – additional insight into your sweetheart’s pulse and heart rate during intimate moments! Long story short, Jane’s boyfriend had a spike in physical activity at 4am, and she could not account for his whereabouts. It turns out he was not taking a few minutes of marathon training in the middle of the night, and that was the end of that. This story makes me miss the good old days, where lovers caught each other cheating with the help of primitive technology, such as baby monitors in the wrong bedroom, and nosy neighbors with binoculars.

 

Best original script (for purposes of fraud). While we are on the topic of cheating, the next award recognizes a sustained effort to stack online reviews with fakes. This next IMP goes to eponymously named Sunday Riley Skincare. Ms. Riley instructed all employees to enter positive reviews of the company’s products into Sephora’s web site. Even better, she told them to open three accounts with different gmail addresses and passwords, and to dislike all bad reviews of their company’s products. How do we know that? Because she left a copious email record of her requests, and all of it got quoted in her Federal Trade Commission (FTC) case again her company! Some of these quotes are just amazing. She said in her email, “After enough dislikes, it is removed. This directly translates to sales!!” In another email she said, “Make sure to NOT compare the product to other products, to not use foul language, and to be very enthusiastic without looking like a plant.” At least she had a sense of polite honor to go with her lack of honesty, instructing employees in strategy, writing, “Leave a review for a different product every day so you build up history.” Most impressive, the company sustained this cheating for several years. Got all that? Now this story just gets bizarre. The whole case came to the FTC, which has an entire division devoted to Consumer Protection. What did the FTC do? Absolutely nothing. Alright, alright, alright, that is an exaggeration. It did not fine Sunday Riley Skincare. Instead, the FTC made the firm sign a legal document that, essentially, means the firm will get in trouble if they cheat again. <Sarcasm alert> That’s it? A slap on the wrist?? Just a little, “Oh, please don’t do that again???” <End of sarcasm> Well, let’s see, how do we put lipstick on this pig? If you are a producer in cosmetics, what do you do now? You know your rival will cheat on all review systems in the future, and if they do not, then somebody else will, and they will be smart enough next time not to leave an email record of it. With no cop on the beat, every firm will have to cheat to stay alive. How is this a good outcome? Expect every beauty review site to turn very ugly.

 

Best drama. Let’s finish this string of stories about cheating by looking no further than Jeff Bezos for one of this year’s oddest soap operas, Bezos wins the IMP, but not for his affair, divorce, or legal settlement. He gets it for what came next. In case you did not follow this one, it started tragically. He and his wife of many years filed for the most valuable divorce in all of human history. It divided 137-150 Billion in Amazon stock, where the value depended on the stock market value the day they decide to split up legally. Regardless of the day, it set a world record. More importantly, it also meant control over Amazon could depend on how the stock split between the two of them. That held the potential for a major scandal, like another episode of “Empire” or “Succession” or “Dallas” or “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.” Instead, the two of them handled it like adults, and found an amicable way for Bezos to retain control of his efforts to achieve world domination. Then it got just weird. The National Enquirer published all of Bezos texts to his new paramour. Bezos then published the extortion letter from the editor at the National Enquirer, who asked for compensation for not publishing some embarrassing selfies. So, on the one hand, you might ask why a middle-aged man would take stupid selfies. On the other, it is none of my business, and none of yours as well, and a middle aged billionaire has just as much a right to act stupid during his midlife crisis as a guy with a Miata and no other assets to his name. In any event, Bezos put the National Enquirer in their place. And may I just add, “Blech, yech, and icky slimy double yech.” That disgust is not for the photos of Bezos, but the behavior at the National Enquirer. The sliminess and depravity at the National Enquirer leaves no room for anything but disgust. Some things should not be public, and no firm should take pride in profiting off the pain of another family, even a bizallionaire. Yes, that editorial is pretty harsh, but, truth be told, in spite of that,  there is one nice thing we can find to say about the Enquirer: At least they had the good sense not to use Rudy Giuliani to communicate the extortion offer.

 

Best ride off into the sunset. Speaking of the odd behavior of middle aged bazillionaires, this award goes to Larry Page and Sergey Brin for stepping back from managerial roles at Google, and with style. They do not get the IMP for the news conference in which they made the announcement. Rather, they get it for what they did a few days later. As it happens, the two of them decided to visit their original office on the Stanford campus, just to see what it looks like today. No pre-announcement. No big ceremony. Just a couple tech billionaires out on a Friday night, looking to visit the old haunts, where, a little under two and a half decades earlier, they had first begun the experiments that grew into the second-most valuable business on the planet. This is where things got interesting. Larry and Sergey knocked on their old office at 8pm. The occupant, someone named Jacob Ritchie, heard the knock, opened the door, and, to his surprise, found himself face to face with the sixth and seventh wealthiest (recently retired) entrepreneurs on the planet. He could not believe his eyes. Expecting nobody to believe his good fortune, Jacob took a picture, and (with Larry’s and Sergey’s permission) posted about it on Twitter:  Isn’t that sweet of Larry and Sergey? So here is the thing you ought to ask: What is a graduate student doing in his office on Friday night at 8pm? (Work) Is that unusual? (No) Is that the typical social life of a graduate student? (Yes). So, ya, you might think twice about getting that PhD, unless, of course, you have an idea for an experiment that might lead to a hundred billion dollar business. Just saying.

                                        

Best internet meme (division of history). The IMP for best meme is also a runaway winner. It goes to Donald Trump. You did not really think we could get through this year’s awards without mocking Trump, did you? Mocking is what the internet does best! An entirely new category of awards emerged just for Donald’s Independence Day speech, which went like this: “The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter of Valley Forge, found glory across the waters of the Delaware and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown,” he said. “Our army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do, and at Fort McHenry, under the rocket’s red glare, it had nothing but victory.” The internet erupted with imaginative memes of the US army taking over airports in 1776. It is enough to make one grateful for living in the modern world of Adobe Photoshop. In addition, just think of the possibilities? Who can forget that memorable midnight ride of Paul Revere? “The British are coming! The British are coming! One if by Landsat, two if by C-Span, three if by Brexit.”

 

Best Special Effects. This year the IMP for special effects goes to the outer reaches of the galaxy, somewhere far far away, quite literally. It goes to none other than that not-world-famous astronomer, Katie Bouman, professor at Cal Tech, who led an effort to make a picture of a black hole. It is the first black hole image. Ever. It is a great big object, 6.5 billion times as large as our sun, and 55 million light-years away from Earth. That is a big number! What an incredible scientific achievement! Look at that photo! What do we learn from it? We see that black holes come remarkably close to resembling a sliced open plain bagel with a dash of cream cheese, photographed under soft light. You might be wondering, why did this fuzzy picture win an award? Because it took more than five petabytes of data to estimate the shape and size of the black hole. Now that is a big number! The scientists at various locations (which collected data) could not send all the data over the internet.  Storing the raw data for the image was a feat itself. They had to spread tiny portions of data over multiple hard drives. The hard drives were flown to processing centers in Germany and Boston, where the data was assembled. On Reddit’s /r/datahoarder subreddit, a community dedicated to spreading the passion of hoarding vast amounts of data, the drives were bigger news than the scientific achievement itself. One last trivial fact about this event also deserves note: The image of the black hole belongs to the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and, was published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. That, however, did not deter the Visual China Group, the largest photo distribution group in China, from trying to place a copyright on the image. Think about that? It made them another Chinese company trying to make money on somebody else’s efforts without paying for the license – How many Chinese companies have done that? That is a big number too.

 

 

The award for bad-optics. Now for a swing to the sordid side of life. Let’s talk about self-dealing. Can we say, “Lost sight of the public mission?” Can we say, “Do not confuse the public and private mission?” Can we say, “Good governance involves good appearances?” No, we are not talking about the US government. This award goes to the directors of ICANN, who thought it was a good idea to sell the rights to the top level domain, ORG, and without a price cap, which had just been removed a few months earlier. Best of all, it was sold to an organization operated by former executives of ICANN, who seem to have created it solely to buy this domain name. The valuation for the sale does not make sense unless the new owner intends to raise prices on all the non-for-profits who use ORG in their web addresses. That rankles those who believe ORG has a unique public mission as the domain name for non-profits, especially among the poorest of the poor. Just to be clear, there is a debate about the merits of this sale. The sale seems perfectly fine to those who either (a) believe competition will discipline prices; and/or (b) believe ICANN needs to get on a more sound financial footing for the future; and/or (c) believe ORG was profitable anyway, and this simply monitizes what would have happened anyway. Even if technically legal, and even if the sale has merits, this sequence of events looks very shady, and, at a minimum, appears laced with insider trading and tawdry self-dealing. More recently, it has motivated a petition to stop the sale, and put up more roadblocks. In other words, legitimacy does not arise merely from making the right decision, but it also arises from appearing to be legitimate.  Somebody forgot this basic principle.

 

Award for mass surveillance. While we are the topic of bad governance, it is time for the IMP nicknamed the Kim Il Jun North Korean honorary award for repression. Each year it goes to the government who most creatively uses digital technology to inch towards the same repressive state as North Korea. As there are each year, there are many candidates. Honorable mention goes to perennial nominee, China, for installing facial recognition software to aid its repression of Uighurs, and for good measure, the government also banned Bing. Another honorable mention goes to another perennial nominee, Iran, for turning off its internet for five days during riots. Nobody had any idea how many people died until weeks later. In spite of those efforts, this year the IMP goes to the Indian government, who gains the dubious distinct as the first democracy to ever win this award! When the government removed the autonomy of Kashmir, it shut down the internet for more than two weeks. Heck, they shut down the telephone system and all broadcasting. All communications. Everything do you need to operate a modern economy was completely shut off except electricity. That completely brought life to a halt. It killed patients in emergency rooms who could not get blood. It deterred tourists, who could not make reservations. And because the government kindly combined this repression with a massive number of arrests, it left everybody in a fog. Give this government their award for demonstrating what nobody thought possible – namely, it is possible for democracies to suppress free speech in as heavy-handed a manner as authoritarian governments. Woo hoo, way to set a new precedent, Prime Minister Modi!

 

Best internet meme (division of contemporary events). While we are on the topic of governance, let’s discuss the behavior of the national weather service during the hurricane, Dorian. (You thought we were done mocking Trump? Oh, far from it!) Trump may have slept with someone named Stormy, but that still does not mean he knows anything about the weather. The IMP goes to the weather service for inspiring a terrific online meme. Let’s review events to understand why. For reasons nobody can fathom, the Donald mistakenly thought the hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama when the National Weather Service had forecast no such possibility. The forecast was online for anybody to see. But, no, the President of the United States had to double down on his mistake, and, say it again. After worried Alabama residents phoned Alabama’s hurricane warning centers, the weather service felt it necessary to reissue its broad statement, declaring again, in fact, that Alabama was not at risk. Which directly contradicted the President. Which then motivated the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, to call over to the NOAA and insist the national weather service not publically contradict the president. One must ask: Why did the weather service act this way? There are several options: (a) It’s their job to inform US citizens of real and false risks; (b) The residents of Alabama would actually have to take costly action IF THERE WAS AN ACTUAL RISK, and the weather service felt a professional obligation to give accurate information to the residents of Alabama. (c) The facts were plainly on the side of the forecast that Dorian did not threaten Alabama; (d) The Weather Service was merely repeating what they had said earlier. (e) All of the above. Of course, the answer is “Do you expect any of that to deter Donald Trump?” Then this story just got weird.  Trump had a news conference, where things went from ignoble to bizarre, which is what the internet loves most. Specifically, not content to let this comment enter the already long list of inaccurate and ignorable comments, Trump took a Sharpie pen to an official forecast, outlined additional area for the hurricane to cover, and claimed this was plausible. When 99% of the reporters in attendance pointed out that Trump drew the line, and it did not come from the weather service, Trump had no response. Yes, this is the President of the United States, not a five year old, but you might not have detected any difference. And so the internet erupted with Sharpie-doctored photos. Thus, was born a new meme. Let’s face it. At this point, Trump reminds most of us of our ridiculous crazy uncle, who shows up to family events and makes remarks about how much the world has deteriorated since fluoridation of the water supply. There is one key difference: the uncle does not have access to the nuclear codes.

 

Best original script (factional division). While we are on Trump, let’s get to impeachment. Before giving out this IMP, it is important to note that these awards must include something digital. That is the sole reason David Nunes does not win a prize for his imaginative portrayal of a defense attorney who makes up stuff. His client (the President) stands accused of extortion to influence the 2020 election. In Nunes’ imaginative defense, the president became a heroic executive aiming to root out corruption related to the 2016 election. Nunes’ maintained that fictional line despite absolutely no plausible facts or expert opinion to support it! That may earn him an Emmy, because according to the latest polls, 40% of the electorate believe Nunes. Alas, rules are rules, and to win an IMP we have to highlight something digital. Hence, something else inspires the award, the online sites that compared news coverage of the Impeachment Hearings across different broadcasters. That is why the IMP goes to Fox News, who earned it for their creative labels during the impeachment hearing! Probably their most imaginative moment came during the testimony of Bill Taylor, the US diplomat in Ukraine. See the screen shots below of Taylor during his testimony. On the right, we have the Fox News labels that appeared on television during his testimony, and on the left we have the labels that appeared on MSNBC at the same time. Give the Fox employee a raise for these uninformative and misleading labels! Consider that first bullet point.

Trump appointed Taylor, so how could he possibly be a “Never-Trumper?” And the second point? Just what, precisely, is “triple hearsay?” The third one is also amazing. How can Taylor not have “first-hand knowledge” about the aid if he is the ambassador to that country? But the best is at the very bottom. Just what precisely is the definition of “news” under “Fox News?” It goes to show that all facts are equal, but some facts are more equal than others.

 

Best original script by a dead author. Now for the final IMP. It goes to Petr Plecháč, a researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, who used machine learning to discover the author of Henry the VIII. Well, actually, we know Shakespeare wrote some it. The open question is how much did John Fletcher write? Look, you have every right to wonder why machine learning might be informative on this question.  This exercise adds to a perennial debate among scholars, and this software adds new elements to that debate, so why not? Anyway, here is a description of what Plecháč did. He coded plays written by both Shakespeare and Fletcher around the same time as his “training set.” Then he set the algorithm on Henry the VIII, a play in which scholars have long thought Fletcher played a major role. What did the algorithm say?  The algorithm attributes about half of the play to Fletcher, with much of the change in authorship occurring at new stanzas. In case it matters to you, Plecháč also tested whether another contemporary writer contributed, and his name is Philip Massinger. The algorithm concluded that Massinger has no role. To be sure, some classic language scholars have begun to object to using algorithms to determine authorship. They would prefer painstaking examination of every word, and deconstruction of every sentence. Well, me thinks you doth protest too much. This stuff is awesome.

 

And so we have finished another year. I bid you adieu. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

 

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