Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Divide

In my checkered career I´ve worked in industry for a decade then in academe for almost as long and now back again to industry. This wayward living has given me insights to both worlds and up until last week I thought I had them figured out. Then a couple of encounters made me realize that the divide between the two was far deeper than I thought.

Wednesday last week, I was invited to a convocation of the Council of Deans for IT Education (CDITE) and representatives of the Davao software industry. I was a member of CDITE during my ill-fated stint as assistant dean of Ateneo’s Computer Studies program so I knew many there. This time, though, I was sitting on the other side of the table, with industry.

Key on the agenda was a presentation of latest CHED Memorandum Order, outlining the new minimum mandated curriculum for computer science and information technology programs. Academe wanted some feedback from Industry on this curriculum, or so they said. But as I’ve had to be reminded in this meeting, these discussions usually turn into a list of lamentations from Academe.

What cut to the heart of this Industry-Academe divide was the last question posed to us. “Let me ask you in Industry a ‘Miss Universe’ question,” the Venerable Educator said. “In the past year, what have you done for Academe?”

I’ve been friends with Venerable Educator for quite a while now so I can take what he said none-too-seriously. My own answer I calibrated with a bit of snark. “My first responsibility is to my company. To the extent that our interests meet, we can help each other. But if it doesn’t make sense to us, well...sorry.”

I was fairly satisfied with my answer. A friend from another software company, also asked the same question, took the more diplomatic route and so fell victim to l’esprit de l’escalier. When we met the following day at another event, he grumbled: “What kind of question was that? I should have said something more definitive.”

“What have you done for Academe?” That’s the sort of passive-aggressive stance that Academic thinking falls prey to when talking to Industry. Academe is a morass of conflicting emotions when dealing with Industry and with itself. Academe wants guidance from Industry for its programs. Academe wants Industry to provide on-the-job training for its students. Academe wants to produce graduates that Industry will hire.

But Industry’s needs are too narrow for the breadth of what Academe teaches its students. Academe values most professors with higher degrees (conferred, of course, by Academe, not Industry.) Yet Academe also wants its professors to have industry experience. Oh, yes, research output and grants would be nice, too. Please, throw in some community extension, too. At the very least, Academe wants compliance with government regulations that will allow it to continue to operate. “Oy, Industry! What have you done for Academe?!”

If we liken Academe and Industry to two people in a relationship, Academe is the partner who doesn’t know what they want, the one who wants to be everything and who wants the best of everything. Academe is the complicated one.

Industry on the other hand? We want to meet our commitments to our customers. We want to get paid on time. We want to go home at the end of the day to enjoy our family life and our hobbies. Industry is the straightforward one.

I think that secretly Academe envies us for what it perceives to be Industry's compensation, freedom, and influence, but at the same time, Academe detests Industry for our lack of accomplishment and vision beyond those same. But they’re too frazzled from all the things that they want to be and from all the things they’ve set out to do, that they cry out to us, half in reproach and half in frustration: “What have you done for Academe?”

So, is that Miss Universe enough? (Hay, sige na nga. "...and World Peace.")

Friday, January 13, 2017

Delusion is the Ultimate Weapon

No sooner had I sent out my piece on fake news when a friend, with all sombriety, told me: "They've filed plunder charges against Aquino and Roxas."

"Really now?" I said, one eyebrow raised, or so I imagined it.

"Yes! They smuggled in some gold bars. Mother and I heard it on the radio while we were driving home."

"Hmm," I said. Surreptitiously, I checked my sources for mentions of the incident. A couple of links later, I confirmed my suspicions and decided this was a story that did not deserve credence. All the same, mainstream papers like the Philippine Star already published the news as I suppose did broadcast media. "Hmm," I said again to my friend, this time with a hint of smirk, or so I imagined it.

So here we are a few days later and that story has been pretty much debunked. When I tried to piece it together, it appeared that the whole thing was wrapped in labrythine legalese of BSP Circulars and Republic Acts, which upon closer examination were either non-existent or unrelated. Apparently the case was also brought forward by, of all people, lawyers whom we presume should know better. The story lives on, however, in fake news sites and in Facebook.

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes, so the saying goes. That seems to be the principle in operation here. In some parts, truth never even stood a chance. The Philippine Star, for instance, has three stories on the subject but no definitive retraction. Clearly a correction does not carry the same weight as a lie designed to provoke outrage.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder what mental illness afflicts the people who concoct these stories and the people who gleefully spread them. (Are you one of them, by the way?) The prevailing posture is one of persistent paranoia and persecution, finding monsters in every nook and cranny. There's a pathological need to imagine enemies to fight against, with plots brewing in every corner. They seem so desperate to bolster their own beliefs, even at the price of a lie. (And if uncovered? Why, no matter, just move on to the next lie.) I don't know, maybe they all should take a chill pill, some Fentanyl, perhaps?

Ever since my own run-in with fake news, mild as it was, I've been far more careful with what I believe and more importantly with what I relay. Now I become especially dubious if it is news seems one designed to titillate. I'll leave it alone for a few days, focus on my work, read a novel and drink some wine instead of getting unnecessarily worked up.

"Hmm," I will say, and I will say again, "Hmm" with the hint of a smirk.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Fake News

Ever since Donald Trump's upset in last November's US presidential elections, there's been an inordinate amount of analysis on the problem of 'fake news'.  The takeaway is that fake news was prevalent in the campaign and even instrumental in Trump's victory (much as it was in our own presidential election last year and even now as an instrument to stifle dissent.)  In this narrative, social media is both the medium and the culprit, particular mention of Facebook, being the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the Internet.

This past week I've had ample cause to reflect on the 'fake news' problem, one that stems from first-hand experience.  I've always thought of myself as a savvy media consumer and a critical thinker -- but! -- not once but twice this week I fell victim to 'fake news'. My 'fake news' encounter fell outside of the usual political slant.  Now that I realize my error for what it was, it gave me a different angle of looking at the issue.

My first encounter was with news of METHOD-2, purportedly a 13-foot 1.5-ton bipedal robot of South Korean manufacture, taking its first steps.  I first saw the story on Weburbanist, a web site for architecture and industrial design.  There was a fairly long and detailed writeup with several accompanying pictures.  It got me excited!  It was controlled by a human pilot!  All my mecha dreams were starting to come true!

Now I'm a regular reader of Weburbanist so when it comes to matters of design I use them as source and inspiration.  Coming from a site that I consider reputable implicitly judged the METHOD-2 news as true.  This was a story that I simply had to share on my own social media network.  But I also knew that Weburbanist was an aggregator, meaning it sourced its stories from other sites.  Instead of sharing the story with a link to Weburbanist, I went to its source, Phys.org, an aggregator for all things concerning science and technology.  For all intents and purposes, Phys.org looked to be legitimate.

With two corroborating web sites, the story had to be true, right?  So I went ahead and shared the story.  It wasn't until a while later that someone commented on the link I submitted, casting doubt on METHOD-2 as a hoax.  A counter-story from LiveScience, another science aggregator and news site, pointed to METHOD-2's creator, a visual effects specialist who had worked in science fiction movies.

Is METHOD-2 a hoax?  Reviewing the pictures and the footage, it's hard to tell.  If it's a fake, then the computer graphics and the post production are really top notch.  But that's the problem, isn't it?  Special effects have now come to the point where they can simulate reality very closely on the screen.  It's certainly plausible.  The only way to confirm METHOD-2's existence would be an objective third party.

Whether METHOD-2 is real or not, that's really only one part of the 'fake news' problem.  Another part is that even mainstream news sources -- those we trust implicitly -- have not been able to categorically say whether it was or wasn't.  As I write this some three days after I shared the story...I still don't know.  A number of other sites have picked up and rebroadcast the news, among them CNN.  Granted, CNN did take note of the criticisms but it also fielded responses from METHOD-2's designer.  What the news sites haven't done, though, is to actually send a reporter to validate the project.

Finally: me.  I realized that I, too, was part of the problem.  Here was a story that I was only too ready to share to my own network.  I thought I did enough due diligence when, reflecting in hindsight, I did not.  My critical thinking faculties shut down because this was a story I wanted to believe in.  And I was eager to share because (1) it was very easy to do and (2) I felt there was some reputation to be gained in being among the first to share it.