Writing 09: IP

Should intellectual property be afforded the same, more, or less protections than physical property? In today’s world, do IP laws encourage or prevent innovation?

Intellectual property is, inherently, a good concept. In theory, it should provide an incentive for innovation by allowing those who have invested in innovation to make a profit off of it. In practice however, the implementation of IP rules and regulations is tricky, and can do more harm than good.

First, before anything else, we need to decide to what extent IP protections should extend to, namely in whether or not IP and physical property should receive the same treatment. From a shallow glance, the answer seems to be “yes”. After all, property is property, regardless of whether it is physical or intangible. Thus, all property should be treated the same. But there is a key difference between physical property and intellectual property. Physical property, by nature of being physical, means that only one person can own it at any time. Take a car for example. Only one person can be driving the car at any given time. Thus, it makes sense that only one person should “own” this car. Intellectual property on the other hand is more fluid, as many people could be using this same property at the same time, as we could simply make an electronic copy of it. Movies for example can be watched by hundreds of people at the same time. Even though there is only one “movie”, more than one person can enjoy it.

This makes the handling of intellectual property tricky because with physical property, if you illegally obtain the property, you had to have “stolen” it from someone which prevents that someone from using it, thus adversely harming the other person’s right to enjoy the property they own. With IP however, one can “take” from the other without hurting the other’s ability to enjoy their property. Thus, the only person at harm would be the original creator, who isn’t even a consideration with physical property. Thus, when defining IP rights, we must apply a different set of rules and considerations than with physical property.

One question then is whether we should give more or less protection to IP than to physical property, and I believe the answer is “more”. For example, IP needs protection against sharing, i.e. making a duplication of the IP for someone else to use, though the specifics are tricky because it sharing is possible even with physical property, such as taking turns using a car. Additionally, IP might need more protection because with physical property, once the maker sells it to the buyer, the buyer has complete control, but with IP, once the maker sells it, the maker often still has some stake in the sold product and so any future actions by the buyer needs to also consider the impact to the maker. In general, because IP has more considerations and its use impacts more parties, IP needs to have more protections

It is possible however to give IP too many protections, which is currently the case with patents. Current patents last a long time, relatively speaking, of about 20 years. While this was fine in the past, granting an IP a patent of 20 years in the current environment hurts innovation because of how quickly technology moves. A crucial IP needed to advance technology then could be patented and its use restricted for twenty years, thus slowing technological advancement. Additionally, longer patent periods also encourages patent trolls, as they are more likely to profit off of their “trolling”. In this way, IP patents need to expire earlier, as they are inherently technology related and technology is moving at a much faster pace now than ever before.

To conclude, I would like to briefly talk about a couple of other topics. The first is open source vs proprietary licenses, and also related “free software”. While similar in some aspects, the three are inherently different as they have different considerations. Open source for example is a collaboration, and it is tricky to assign blame when something goes wrong. Thus, those who use open source must also take sole responsibility for any problems that arise. Conversely, with free software, even if it is free the distributor can still be held responsible for bugs and potential issues as it is the distributor’s responsibility to create a good product. The same goes with proprietary licenses. Thus, no option is superior to the other, but rather users have to consider whether they are willing to pay others to not have to take responsibility for a product.

Lastly, I would like to talk about copyrighted material, particularly with regards to dvd’s and streaming. Companies should be allowed to use DRM to protect their copyrights, as companies technically own their copyrights and should be allowed to protect them. Conversely, people shouldn’t be pirating movie’s and IP, but until there are stricter laws in place nothing will change. Lastly, Netflix and Spotify are logical progressions of modern technology. Online services like these are the future, and laws need to change to accommodate this future.

Writing 08: Artificial Intelligence

There’s been a lot of hype in recent years over the buzzwords “AI” and “automation”, but while the two are often used synonymously, they refer to two entirely different concepts. AI, in short, is automated intelligence, and is the broader of the two categories as it generically refers to any “artificial” being, most commonly computers programs, possessing “intelligence”, i.e. having the ability to think like a human. Automation, on the other hand, refers to the replacing of manual/human tasks and jobs with automated systems. Thus, while AI can be applied to automation, it refers to a far broader category. When we talk about whether to embrace or fear AI then, we have consider its impacts in a variety of fields, not just automation, though AI  in automation is an extremely important talking point and where we will begin.

With regards to automation, whether you are against or for it, there is an air of inevitability. In the US, the most expensive component of production is human capital. Since automation in the long run will likely be cheaper then human labor, businesses will (if they are smart and want to remain competitive) invest in automation. Thus, at some point certain jobs, particularly low-skill jobs, will be replaced with automation whether we like it or not. I would argue then that we should just embrace it instead of futilely fighting against it, which would only serve to prolong and complicate the transition process. We need to embrace automation and accept its impacts so that we can properly compensate (such as Andrew Yang’s freedom dividend idea) those who will lose their jobs. AI in automation then is at least something we should embrace.

Now to consider AI in other aspects. First, we need to decide what counts. Consider AlphaGO (the go-playing super AI) or Watson. Are either “AI” or are they just software who can do a s,pecific subset of things very well? Watson, for example, is essentially a search engine with enhanced language interpretation abilities. Thus, even though Watson may be able to “understand” a sentence, it doesn’t necessary have “knowledge” to answer. Just because Watson can search up solutions to questions that can interpret doesn’t necessarily make it capable of “thinking”, which would logically seem to be a basic requirement for “AI.” It is somewhat clear then that proper AI needs to think at a higher level, but what exactly does that constitute and is a non-living being capable of achieving that level of thought? Regardless, let us consider a theoretical situation where we create a software “AI” that can think like a human does. Since this AI is a software, we could theoretically create near-infinite copies, thus creating infinitely many “humans”. Who is responsible for these humans? What can we “do” with these humans? Is it ethical to force them into slave labor to accomplish certain tasks? AI at that level then has so many ethical dilemmas that depend on the specifics of the implementation that it becomes difficult to understand how best to manage and regulate an AI future. Of course, this is all hypothetical, as it may be impossible to create software capable of actual “thinking” but I think that we need to treat AI with a healthy combination of excitement and fear. AI has a lot of potential, but lots of danger as well, and in some ways is inevitable. We should accept that AI is coming, and prepare appropriately for that future.

Writing 07: Censorship

After going through all the discussions and readings on censorship, the only thing that is clear is that there is no easy answer. There are too many questions regarding what forms censorship, if we are to censor at all, should take. Where should we censor? Who should be in charge of deciding what to censor? To what extent should we censor and how can we ensure that censorship does not become too authoritarian? How do we ensure that we protect freedom of speech while also protecting society against online threats?

Before tackling some of the more nuanced questions, it is worth discussing what exactly freedom of speech is and where it should and can be applied. It is clear that the idea of freedom of speech, which in simplified terms means the freedom to say whatever you want, applies to both spoken and written language, be it human speech or newspaper publications. Thus it makes sense to also apply “freedom of speech” to the internet. However, the state and reach of the internet is far different from that of normal speech and writing. Because everyone has access to the internet, ideas spread much more quickly then they used to in the past. While this can be a very good things as it facilitates productive discourse online, it also means that really bad ideas get spread quite easily as well. Consider the anti-vaccination movement, which utilizes private facebook groups online to spread misleading information, which can force families into dangerous situations, or consider false political ads on facebook that everyone can easily see, which has led to increased “mudslinging” among political candidates. It is important I think to recognize the dangers of free speech on the internet and to recognize that free speech requires special rules that other forms of speech do not need. Normal speaking, for example, only affects people in the vicinity, and relying on speaking face to face is 1) more difficult to arrange, and 2) requires the association of a face with an idea, which by nature suppresses many of the more outrageous opinions. Written speech, on the other hand, in the form of newspapers and publications either are vetted by editors and come from more professional sources which can be held accountable for misleading statements, or come from sources that people have to actively seek out, instead of simply seeing it everywhere you go like it is on the internet. Freedom of speech on the internet then could warrant greater regulation and censorship, as scary as the latter term sounds.

Aside from the spread of misleading ideas, there is are other benefits from online censorship. One big one is that we can potentially detect terrorist threats before they happen, which can help save lives. Another is to prevent the spread of dangerous ideas, such as the El Paso shooter’s Manifesto. Thus online censorship and regulation is more important than people often give it credit for, I think.

There are many dangers however to online censorship, particularly as we dive into the details. The first detail is who should be censoring and who has the right to censor? There are two primary answers to this. One obvious answer is the government, but another idea is that companies should be self-regulating and restrict their platforms. The government, I think, is the more natural answer to this problem, but at the end of the day not everyone trusts the government enough to properly censor the internet. Additionally, there is the danger of giving the government too much power, which can lead to a more authoritarian regime that threatens the spirit of democracy. The government, for example, could limit speech coming from the opposite party, thus allowing one party to win elections year after year and limit the spread of dissenting ideas. Thus, the government may be a simpler, more logical answer than companies, but the government is ultimately not 100% objective.

Conversely, it is not clear that companies should be in charge of censorship either because companies ultimately are private entities. It is weird then to give companies the power to dictate how society should think. More importantly is that without a central body dictating what can and can’t be said, different platforms will take different stances. Twitter, for example, completely bans political ads, preferring not to mess at all with the problem of fact-checking political statements. Facebook, on the other hand, chooses to not mess with the problem at all either by taking the opposite stance: they allow any political ad on their site and will not remove misleading ads. It is clear then that putting the decision of internet censorship into the hands of private entities will just lead to a complex mess of differing standards and will only muddle what is or isn’t considered a misuse of free speech. On the other hand, one of the tenets of american society is “voting with the dollar.” Theoretically, if a company like facebook takes a “bad” stance on censorship that the public disagrees with, the company should take a negative financial hit from boycotts or negative press. While this may or may not work in practice, it is at least some limitation on what companies can do.

Online censorship then is a necessary evil. It is fairly evident that some sort of regulation is needed, but there are too many questions that need to be resolved before we can properly implement it. Still, it is better to do a little bit of something, then nothing at all, and the government should be stepping in and implementing some sort of regulations which will at least give us a starting point to either pull back from or moving forwards with. It is a slippery slope, but a necessary step in order to keep society safe.


Writing 06: Corporate Conscience

One of the primary purposes of a government and its laws is to protect and promote the individual, but the reason why we protect the individual is because we believe in the ability of an individual to do good. Let’s consider free speech for example. Free speech, in every shape in form is fine until it becomes used for nefarious purposes, such as lying in the court of law or words that incite violence, because even if we may disagree with what a person is saying, we still believe that they have the right to express their opinions. This is important because what a person says reflects their moral values and believes, and the preservation of free speech is to allow individuals to speak out according to their moral guidelines. Thus, free speech is inherently tied to morality and ethics, as we protect free speech as a way of protecting and respecting different moral values and systems.

The protection of corporate free speech then is a bit of a strange idea. Corporations also receive many of the free speech protections that individuals do, but it seems strange to expect a corporation to have the same moral considerations an individual would. After all, a corporation ultimately is about making money, and if there is money to be made, the morality and ethics associated are a secondary consideration, as exemplified by IBM and Coca Cola working with Nazi Germany or Apple’s conflicting application of privacy values in China vs America. Why then should we be protecting corporations as individuals if we do not hold them to the same moral standards and have them face the same punishments as an individual would? Consider the Sony rootfile which essentially behaved like a virus that was extremely possible to remove and had dangerous access to any computer it was installed on. An individual would likely face jail time or fines in the hundreds of thousands for the damage they’ve done. To an individual, a fine of a couple hundred thousand is at least 2 or 3 years worth of salary, usually more once you consider taxes and the likes, while jail time also leads to loss salary, hardship while in jail, and a black mark on the individual’s record. Thus, the punishment for an individual hacker is extremely harsh, consisting of both jail time and large fines. When Sony essentially infected millions of computers with their rootfile, on the other hand, the only punishment they received was a promise to replace the cd’s, a small fine (small relative to the size of the company), and free “digital downloads” for each customer, something that essentially costed them nothing while also promoting one of their other products. Essentially, Sony got fined close to nothing, while also using the “opportunity” to advertise. How does that make sense? Why should the individual face harsh punishments from law when Sony, who has similar protections under the law, can get away with a small slap on the wrist? If we are to give Sony a similar punishment, if we are to treat corporations like individuals, we should fine them at least a year’s revenue, which would replicate the financial blow an individual would face, while also having those responsible for the decision face jail time.

It is up to the government to begin taking these steps towards equitable treatment, in particular the FTC who’s job it is to protect individual consumers from the larger, more powerful, corporations. If the government is going to give companies personhood, then they should also be responsible for enforcing the punishments a corporate person should receive. Until that happens, companies can get away with gray practices, and are less likely to credit moral and ethical issues in their business, which leads to damaging practices that ultimately will hurt the consumer.

Writing 05: Privacy vs Security

It’s funny how the tv series Black Mirror is supposed to be dystopian, yet some of the technologies described are already becoming a reality. In particular, one episode details a social rating system where participants can give each other ratings which ultimately will affect other areas of life, such as getting apartment applications or job opportunities. While such an idea is scary, it also seems somewhat far off, yet in place like China such a technology is becoming a reality, and China is able to look into the private lives of individuals.

Where then should technology draw the line? How far is too far when it comes to individuals? In recent times, privacy has become an important topic, particularly when it comes to social media and online technology that can gather information from its users. An important legal example however is that of the Apple vs FBI case, where the FBI attempted to compel Apple to install a “backdoor” of sorts to ease the breaking into of Iphones. Apple appealed, and ultimately the FBI dropped the case, but this case is worth looking into as it raises interesting points on the balance of privacy and national security.

Consider the arguments from both sides. First, the FBI, who argues that they should be able to have relatively easy access to data stored in an iphone owned by a shooter in San Bernardino. The FBI wanted an OS to be installed that is easier to break into such that the new OS could be side loaded into an Iphone and thus the information stored inside could be accessed. The argument is that having such a way of entering would increase national security, and would allow the FBI to more effectively track down potential security threats, as well as locate threats at large.

On the other hand, Apple stood up and said “no”, as they felt the existence of such a “backdoor” is a danger in itself, as it may fall into the wrong hands. They argued that if such software existed, the privacy of all iphone users would be threatened, and so they stood up for their customers’ privacy. From the surface, it may seem that Apple was in the right, as they appealed to the ideas of privacy as a right.

If we look deeper however, there are some interesting points to gleam. First of all, the FBI backdoor was arguably sensationalized. What the government really wanted was an easier way to brute force through the possible combinations of an iphone lock. While it is true that such technology could fall into the wrong hands, it is hardly an easy backdoor to take advantage of, and if such software existed, there are ways for Apple to keep the software under wraps and in check. Thus, the backdoor may not be as dangerous as it was made out to be.

Additionally, it is interesting to see how Apple “benefitted” from this case, as they constantly put out advertisement citing their willingness to defend privacy, in contrast perhaps to other tech firms like google or facebook. Yet, if we look at Apple in other areas of the world, the values they cite hardly seem to hold true. Consider Apple in China, who actively works with the Chinese government to maintain a database of all iphone users. That, quite frankly, is the opposite of privacy.

In this light then, it may seem that Apple was mainly using this case as a PR boost, as defending privacy would enhance consumer opinion. In a way, this reflects how sensitive the privacy topic is nowadays, and perhaps how oversensationalized it has become. People are more willing to defend privacy at any cost, even to the point where iphones lock and become completely unusable, as in the case with more recent iphones.

It is important to acknowledge though that having such strong privacy measures threatens national security. After all, there may in fact be important info stored on an iphone, such as a password to defuse a bomb. If there was no way to open it, then lives may be lost. It is justifiable then to defend privacy in the face of human lives lost? That is why I believe it is irresponsible to create a lock without a key, as in the case with newer iphones. Apple should be able to unlock any iphone, which is important because there may be cases where unlocking an iphone would contribute important information in solving a case or saving a life. Now granted, it is important to keep such unlock methods under wraps, but Apple could put together a series of checks and preventive measures to reduce the chance of such methods leaking. As a company who sells in the US and appeals to US values, it is important to be able to help the government solve crimes in reasonable situations, and to create a way for potential threats to securely protect information runs counter to that duty.

Writing 04: Whistleblowing

Whistleblowing is a contentious subject. Some would say that whistleblowing is akin to being a “traitor,” or even in some cases equivalent to being a “spy,” while others will say that whistleblowers are heroes who make sacrifices for the common good. I believe the question is more nuanced than that, because we have to weigh the potential dangers of whistleblowing and the potential benefits.

First, to highlight the benefits, and why whistleblowing is often an important thing to do. Whistleblowing is sometimes the only way important information can come to light and helps us keep groups accountable for actions that are not reviewable by the public. In fact, whistleblowers are important for that reason, as the act of whistleblowing sparks discussions about what is really going on in an organization. Even if the organization is not sanctioned in any way, there is at least pressure to change for the better, which is inherently a good thing.

On the other hand, whistleblowing has its dangers. For example, the leaking of government secrets is often a a dangerous act due to the complicated nature of politics. Additionally, it is possible that revealing dangerous facts might be misleading, or that people may draw incorrect conclusions due to not knowing the full story. Thus, a whistleblower also has the responsibility of making sure the information revealed will lead to more benefit than harm, especially as the whistleblower is in a better position than the general public is to interpret the released data.

The latter point still has its dangers however. Consider the question: should a whistleblower have an agenda, or should the released facts stand for itself? There is some appeal to the objective idea of “facts stand for themselves,” but in reality it is often impractical. On the other hand, whistleblowing with a strong agenda may cause a strong bias towards inaccurate representations, which may cause unjust harm to the reputation of the organization, or perhaps harm to other groups.

Another point that should be made on the subject of whistleblowing is the way information is released. I am of the opinion that it is never proper to go directly to the media, and that the media is a source of last resort. There are proper channels for which whistleblowing can go through, and by going through these channels first, we may be able to reduce the harm that whistleblowing may cause, as well as provide better context for the interpretation of information. Going straight to the media opens up the information to the general public, and the general public is not always the best group to interpret information, especially in an objective manner.

As can be seen, there are many many nuances to what justifies “proper” whistleblowing. To provide an example of how these nuances may play out, let us consider the subject of Chelsea Manning. First, let’s weigh the benefits and negatives of the case. First, Chelsea released a video allegedly showing an Apache Helicopter opening fire on and killing potentially innocent citizens, which sparked debate on what our military is doing in the Middle East and how the military makes decisions. This can be considered a benefit, as the debate sparked could help educate citizens, while also putting pressure on the military to review decisions made. On the other hand, the video was very shocking to citizens who are unused to seeing combat, and so the reaction may have been more emotionally charged than objective, which may have caused more harm than good.

Additionally, what is less known perhaps is that Chelsea had also released a bulk of other information, including some diplomatic cables, and the manner in which she released information was haphazard at best: she simply released as much info as she could. This is an extremely irresponsible way of whistleblowing, as the information released could potentially endanger political relationships without having a positive benefit as the released cables did not spark any meaningful discussion as the attention was focused on the video.

As another consideration, Chelsea did not seem to have a good reason to release the files she did, judging from her haphazard nature. In fact, from a documentary on Chelsea, it appeared she may in fact have released the files out of spite, which is certainly not a good reason. All in all, while her whistleblowing did create some solid discussions, her haphazard methodology and lack of a clear intent would make me question whether or not the action was justified, and to me Chelsea Manning is not the hero that others may think.

Writing 03: Diversity, Codes of Conduct

The conversation around diversity is a complicated one and is often charged with emotions and sometimes accusation. While there are some issues that we have yet to fully agree on, I do believe that we can at least acknowledge that there is a problem with the lack of diversity in the Tech industry, particularly in engineering and computer science. Before I delve into potential solutions and where these problems stem from, I will first talk about the necessity of diversity.

Diversity is important in several ways. The biggest is that having “diversity” also means having a variety of different backgrounds, cultures, ideas, and opinions, which in turn sparks healthy debate and a generally more inclusive work culture that is more open to change. Workplaces that lack diversity are in danger of developing an “echo chamber” of ideas, or perhaps developing ideas that would make it difficult for new members to feel comfortable in the culture. Additionally, having diversity also allows better representation from different components of society. Ultimately, for a company, this is a good thing as a company ultimately needs to be in touch with society to be successful. Thus, having a diversity, I believe it can be agreed on, is at least a good thing, and something to be desired.

The question then becomes how necessary is diversity? Is it a moral imperative?  This I think depends on individual opinion and understanding of what is moral. I for one believe that having diversity is a moral issue, as having diversity is inherently “good” in the sense that it allows for better working conditions and helps a company be a responsible component of society. Others though may argue that diversity, while good to have is not absolutely necessary and issues with diversity that we hear about in the media are overblown.

Regardless of how “necessary” diversity is, we can at least agree I hope that it is good to have, and so the next question is how do we achieve and promote diversity? This is tricky, and we shall analyze this issue in terms of the tech and computing industry. It is clear that right now there is a severe gender imbalance in the tech industry and there is a similar issue with minority groups in computing. If we look first at the gender issue, there has been intense debate as to where this divide ultimately starts from. Some will argue, such as the google memo that circulated recently, that there are “inherent biological differences” between men and women that cause men to be more interested in computing and women less so. This idea in particular has sparked intense debate, and I think ultimately we do not have conclusive evidence that there are or are not such relevant differences.

Something we do have strong evidence for, and something that we can do more as a society to change now, is the gender stereotypes, and to a lesser extent the cultural stereotypes, that still persist in our society. These stereotypes have been shown to manifest even in extremely young children and push people to certain roles based on factors completely outside of their control. For example, there is this idea that boys are the ones who take apart computers, who like legos and scifi, while it’s girls who like animals and the color pink and are more emotionally receptive. Thus, it is unsurprising that more males choose to go into engineering and computer science, while more women go into teaching and nursing. This issue also exists in a racial context. For example, there’s the stereotype that “asians” are good at math or just strong academically, and so we (speaking from personal experience) are expected to do well in science and math classes. It is no wonder then that so many asians go into engineering and computer science, so much so that “asian” is no longer considered a “minority” in some contexts.

I believe is the biggest reason for why we have gender imbalances and imbalances as a whole in certain areas of society. If from childhood people are told to follow certain paths, they are less likely to deviate from norms dictated by society. This is an injustice in society, as people are essentially forced into certain roles because of a factor they cannot control. Thus, while we cannot control or yet understand how differences in biology may impact the roles men/women choose, we can at least see that there are inherent societal issues that are causing harm.

This is something, I will add, that does more than “oppress” one group. Men also face such stereotypes, such as the idea of toxic masculinity that has become a topic of conversation recently or that men have to be “providing” in a relationship. At the end of the day, we will have to address all such issues, but there are some issues that should take priority in the current context.

It is based on this idea that I am supportive of efforts to provide certain groups more resources. For example, take the Grace Hopper conference, which is an extremely powerful resources for women seeking to go into the tech industry. There has been some jealousy or discontentment from other groups over how effective this conference is, and this highlights an important point: so long as we distinguish between different groups, there will always be feelings of “injustice” or “unfairness”. In this case however, I view the conference as absolutely necessary and its long-term benefits outweigh any divides it may create in the short-term. After all, putting more women in the tech industry helps to break up male dominated work cultures that currently exist. Women who are entering the tech industry now are warriors who will hopefully become role models for younger generations of women engineers, and who as a result will help encourage more women to enter the industry. While we may not ever reach a perfect gender balance, this is at least a good and necessary step to bring in underrepresented groups and push for change in society.

Writing 02: Employment

First of all, I have to say that it has been very interesting hearing people’s experiences in the tech industry, especially as an “outsider.” At a general level, tech companies seem to expect more technical skills out of their applicants, and in some ways care less about personality or their actual character. Perhaps that’s a bad way of phrasing it. Perhaps you could spin it as “tech companies do not care less about a person’s traits, they simply care MORE about technical skills than in other industries.” At the end of the day though, it becomes more possible in the tech industry to outweigh bad personality traits with sheer technical skills, so it seems.

I’ll talk about insurance and the actuarial world, which is where I am going to find myself in. On the whole, I generally approve of the hiring process, as though actuaries require strong technical skills, they are still “business” people at the end of the day, and thus require strong interpersonal skills. It’s less important what skills you actually have, and more important what mindset you have, as skills can be taught but creating the right mindset takes time (so do interpersonal skills). I believe that this is a good approach to have in hiring, and so I consider hiring in the actuarial field to be efficient, effective, and generally ethical.

It’s interesting though to compare hiring in the actuarial field vs in the computer science field. Let me first highlight some key differences and similarities, and then I will share some thoughts on these. The first: coding interviews are fairly common in CS (which is reasonable given the value placed on technical skills) whereas in the actuarial field they are non-existent. The second: actuarial interviews are almost entirely behavioral, with any more “technical questions” being of a case study nature where there really isn’t a right answer and is more meant to showcase how one thinks, which is in contrast to CS interviews, which seem to require greater knowledge of actual algorithms and data structures (technical knowledge, in other words). The third, a similarity: the gender balance in both fields is skewed towards men, and as such there have been recent pushes to bring greater equality (which has some interesting dilemmas). Before I proceed to my thoughts, I will admit a couple of things. One, that I haven’t really had to interview in the last couple of years, as my last interview was back in sophomore year and I am not planning on entering recruiting this semester, and two, I have not had a CS-related interview, and so this is only based on my understanding given what others have said.

First, the subject of coding interviews. In CS-related fields, coding interviews seem to make sense. After all, employers want the best of the best, and the best must be able to code well. But I don’t think coding interviews are as simple as that, for a couple of reasons. First, skills used in the coding interview are not necessarily used in the job. For example, an algorithm you may need for the interview might never turn up in your actual job, so what’s the point of testing for this algorithm specifically? Second, knowledge is highly teachable, and very googlable. For example, if a person could not recall an algorithm, he/she could simply google and then copy/paste, and any information needed for a specific project can be learned on the job from more experienced people. If coding interviews then test skills that may not be needed, and could easily be learned on the job, what is the point then? It may not be just a knowledge test. What is more likely I think is that these challenges are meant to be a barometer for a person’s traits. For example, knowing a specific algorithm is not important, but a person knowing it means that he/she is more likely to have a better understanding of the algorithm, and other ones as well. He/she is also more likely to be a hard worker, as preparing algorithms for interviews is a time-consuming and difficult task. That’s why I think coding interviews where an interviewer is actually watching (as opposed to a task that is simply timed and done on the interviewee’s own time) are better for all parties, as the interviewer can delve into a person’s mindset, and an interviewee can demonstrate that he/she is a good fit, even if the coding task was not successfully completed. Thus, coding tasks I believe are not simply used as “tests” of knowledge, but rather barometer of a person’s mindset and diligence.

The second difference is very related to the first, but in Actuarial science, interviews are primarily behavioral, conversational, or at “worst” case studies. Actual technical skills are not tested. This is likely due to what is expected of people who are actually working. At tech firms, a person’s ability to code is likely more important than one’s ability to make a presentation or be personable, not to say that it’s not important, just less important compared to other fields. Actuarial science however is very focused on communication and “debating” with statistics, and as such requires a more communicative personality.

The last point is that of gender, which is a problem in both fields due to both being highly technical, which tends to attract more males than females. As such, there has been a push to recruit more females, and as a result in some ways a girl in CS or actuarial science has an advantage over their peers (think Grace Hopper, as an example). The question though is: is that fair? This brings up the issues of equality, justice, and meritocracy and the interactions within. In CS, there is an idea that the “best code” should win, thus perpetuating a meritocracy. A meritocracy though is only fair when all participants start from the same playing field. Thus, if women are actually disadvantaged in their field, they deserve to have some benefit to help them out, which would be “just” and would contribute to proper “equality”, and judging from Silicon Valley’s rumored “bro culture,” I think women are actually disadvantaged, and so the “help” they receive is justified, though ultimately it could be argued both ways.



Writing 01: Identity

Who am I? This is a classic question that is also extremely difficult to answer. After all, people are complex beings, ever changing and constantly growing. There are ways however to break down an identity by recognizing smaller influences, and I shall exemplify this by breaking down my own identity in reference to the following aspects: Computing, Notre Dame, and privilege.

The first aspect, computing, is an obvious influence given my major (Computer Science), and in some ways I exemplify some stereotypical behaviors. Let us first consider a couple of stereotypical examples. The first is the kind of person you see in the media, the “hacker” who sits in his dark room and types furiously to hack into some sort of mainframe. The hacker is usually unkempt, messy, and generally not self-aware, a person who prefers to focus on his work/computer more than other people. The second is the more realistic “hacker”, which embodies a stubborn spirit that allows a person to break down more complex problems into manageable chunks and who learns best by doing. The last, the “engineer” who is held to standards and attempts to build a better future. In a way, I feel I embody aspects of all 3. Of the first, at times I do become a “recluse” of sorts, as once I enter the “flow” of programming, I could easily go 2 or 3 hours without doing anything else. Of the second, I am extremely stubborn when it comes to my work, and I will repeatedly hack away at a problem until I solve it, no matter how difficult. The last, though programmers are in many ways not engineers as there is less certification in such fields, I do still hope to “build” something with my skills, and to sharpen my own abilities to build meaningful and useful projects. That doesn’t mean however that I fully embody any of these three stereotypes, as doing so would be impossible because there seems to be some conflicts in the divisions, but that is how identity is I suppose: a conglomeration of other identities.

The second aspect is Notre Dame, and I believe this idea ties closely with the idea of privilege. In recent years, the idea of “white privilege” has become a very touchy subject, but privilege itself is not inherently tied to one race. Privilege is simply having a better starting point than other people, and that can manifest either in a caring family, wealth, area where you grew up in, or in many other ways. I say privilege is tied to my ND identity, because the majority of people at ND are privileged as well, and being “privileged” definitely helped me get to ND in the first place. Thus, during this time at ND, I think it is important to recognize the privilege that helped bring us here. It is not to say that we didn’t work hard to get where we are now, but simply that we had a better starting point and we have to keep in mind that there are others less fortunate than us that could have been here with us ND if they were born into more fortunate circumstances.

That is why the idea of meritocracy, a concept that I’d like to touch on for a little bit, is problematic. Meritocracy is fair only when everyone competing starts at the same level. If someone has a head start, then the quality of work he/she produces is based partially on luck. Not to say that those who have succeeded with privilege have only done so because of it, but having privilege will certainly make it easier, and it’s something we have to recognize. It’s important too not to fall into the trap of thinking that you have earned everything you have, and thinking that it is a pure meritocracy.

At any rate, having detailed some of my identity, hopefully we can see where some of my views are coming from. I like to see the world as malleable and changeable (to an extent_, and that is probably because of my stubborn mindset (why should I change when I can change the world). Additionally, having privilege likely contributes to that, as I have been put into more situations where I have more control. I also am a fan of the idea of a meritocracy, because at the end of the day it is a competitive world and the best work should win, but on the other hand I am fine when opportunities are given to the less fortunate as I know that I too have relied on luck to an extent to get where I am now. I also believe that where society needs to invest is in the needy areas, and that more aid proportionally should be given to those who really need it.

I’d like to believe that the world would perceive me and my identity in a positive light, but sometimes stereotypes prevail. There’s always the idea that being a programmer makes you an awkward nerd who only stares at computers all day, or that being from Notre Dame might make you a “rich kid” or “elite” who doesn’t understand what other people are going through, and so it is important I feel to make an extra effort in those areas so that I do not fall into those traps.

Writing 00

What does it mean to be an ethically responsible person and is that something you strive for?

If we break this question down, there are 2 main components. The first, what does it mean to be “ethically responsible” and the second, should we strive to be so. While it makes sense logically to answer the former before the latter, it is easier in this case to answer the latter first. The question is essentially “are we responsible for behaving ethically,” which most people would answer with a yes. After all, “with great power comes great responsibility,” or so to speak and I would argue that the very foundation of society is the ethical behavior of individuals, as it is only through following common principles can we build a network of people. While there are dissidents who would argue against ethical responsibility, I believe that these people are less against the idea itself, and more against components of what being ethically responsible would entail, which brings me to the former part of the question.

This question is much harder to answer. To break it down, we have a“responsibility” to behave “ethically”, but this does nothing to define what “responsibility” or “ethically” means. Beginning with “ethically”, there are several frameworks for deciding what is ethical. As a brief summary, there are three categories: consequentialist, concerned with consequences of actions, Non-consequentialist, concerned more generally with a person’s intent, and agent-centered, concerned more with the ethical nature of a person than of specific decisions. As an example of a consequentialist framework, killing is generally considered a bad thing to do (“thou shalt not kill”) but what if you killed a terrorist before he could cause damage? Would that be unethical? If the consequence is that the terrorist is dead, but 50 lives are saved, can we consider that an unethical action? This theory is appealing, because it gives us flexibility to justify different actions and intents in different situations, but it is not foolproof. Consider this: a person intends to do some good for the community, but in the process makes a mistake and instead causes some sort of damage. The negative consequence would make this “unethical,” but can we call the person unethical if he had good intent?

This brings us to the second broad framework, which deals more with intent rather than the consequence or action itself. Under these theories, an action is ethical if it ticks off one of several boxes (depending on the theory) such as whether it follows a universal moral law, protects human rights, or follows a “divine command.” These might provide some comfort to the unfortunate person who just wanted to help his community, but these theories have their own issues. The first is that these theories supposed that there are some universal laws we should follow, but it is not like these laws are written in the stars somewhere. These “laws” must be debated and argued for/against, and thus could change over time, which begs the question of should what is considered “ethical” be able to change over time? Even the “divine command” theory is fallible to this issue, as the biblical law is open to interpretation, and it is entirely possible (and even very likely given the age of biblical texts and commands) that humans will misinterpret a “divine command.”

The last set of frameworks is fairly different from the other two, as it passes over the question of whether an action is ethical or not, and instead focuses the person who commits the action. A person then may make “unethical actions” but the person may still be of good character if they have attained certain “virtues.”

Each framework individually has its flaws, and so perhaps the best way to define what is ethical is to combine them in some way. The consequentialist approach can be thought of a “social” perspective of ethicality, as it is more easily judged by society as society can measure the impacts of an action and judge the action accordingly. The non-consequentialist perspective is more individual, as only a person truly knows his or her own intent. From the outside, an action may be deemed ethical depending on the consequences, but only the person will know whether the consequence was intended for or not, and thus society has no real say to an action’s ethicality. Perhaps judging an action should take both factors into account on a scale, where the societal judgement and individual are given a weight, and if the result is net positive, the action is ethical. The weights then would depend on a person’s individual beliefs. I have no clue what approach is correct, and likely no one will, but at the very least we can apply these frameworks in understanding our actions.

Now, I will quickly touch on responsibility. In class, we discussed how we may have a responsibility to use what we have to better society. It seems to be generally accepted that this is true, and that the rule that the more power you have, the more responsibility you have to do good is true as well. But does either truly hold? Do we truly have a responsibility as individuals to behave ethically?

Consider the case of superman who has massive power. With so much power, does he have a “responsibility” to the world? If the amount of responsibility scales with power, is superman essentially a slave of society? How does individual happiness factor in? There is a danger to in responsibility, as it may encourage people to behave in ways they do not believe in. For example, supposed someone feels responsible to help out at a nursing home. They, however, may not be helping out because they want to, but because they feel a responsibility to. Does that make the action ethical? Does the inclusion of responsibility diminish intent? Or perhaps intent doesn’t matter anyways. At the end of the day, it is up to the individual to determine their own ethical framework and shoulder their own version of responsibility.