Tuesday, July 29, 2014

No, It’s Not OK Cupid

Popular dating Website OkCupid revealed today it has been perpetrating a fraud on its users. Until now, OkCupid stood apart from its rivals because of its unique matching algorithm based on users’ answers to questions posed by other users. The seemingly innocuous questions actually revealed a great deal about the individual, depending on how he or she answered them. The answers were weighted, based on their importance to the user reviewing them. They were then scored into percentiles, and users were categorized by percentage as “matches”, “friends”, and “enemies”. Thus, two individuals with a high match percentage would likely share similar values, while someone with a high enemy percentage had probably given the wrong answer to questions the user considered important. The algorithm served to weed out incompatible potential dates.

Or so OkCupid users thought. Christian Rudder, OkCupid’s president, publicly bragged that the dating Website had been experimenting on its users. Apparently, Rudder believes his paying customers are little more than lab rats who exists only for his amusement. He proudly boasted the OkCupid staff hides some of its users’ profile text and photos, and tells some users they have scored highly, when in reality, the opposite is true. Rudder wrote: “But guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how Websites work.”

Um, no Christian. That’s not how Websites work. Nor is it how legitimate businesses work. That’s how lying, fraudulent, unethical scumbags work. It’s called deception, as in the sort of unlawful practices that the Federal Trade Commission, under Section 5 of the FTC Act, declares to be unfair or deceptive acts or practices. Also, by changing users’ personal information on their profiles, OkCupid has raised some data protection issues. I predict a class-action lawsuit in the offing. As an attorney, my first question would be, Does OkCupid employ any lawyers on its staff?

I’m not sure which amazes me more: Rudder’s betrayal of his customers or his utter chutzpah (shameless audacity) in blogging about what he’s done. “We told users something that wasn’t true. I’m definitely not hiding from that fact,” The New York Times quoted Rudder. From a business standpoint, it’s mind-boggling. He has taken his company’s main selling point – the proprietary compatibility algorithm – and destroyed its credibility. It’s like expecting customers to go to a gas station after it has bragged about filling half its tanks with water instead of gasoline. How likely are you to go back to fill up your tank at that station? Not only has OkCupid killed the goose that laid the golden egg, but it also has risked, or jettisoned, the trust its users had placed in it. Business is about a relationship between a seller of a good or service and a customer, and the crux of that relationship is mutual trust. That’s Business 101. As an MBA, my first question would be, Does anyone on OkCupid’s staff have a business degree? Or did they all major in monkey business?

In his blog post, entitled “We Experiments on Human Beings,” Rudder wrote, “OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing.” That may be the first honest thing he’s said. But Rudder goes on in an attempt to justify his actions; he contends experimenting on humans without their consent is necessary for scientific advancement. Didn’t Dr. Josef Mengele make that same argument 60 years ago?

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Letter to the NSA

Social commentary mixed with a dash of humor: here's another excerpt from my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:

To: National Security Agency
    Fort Meade, Maryland, USA

Date: Classified

To Whom It May Concern:

My computer crashed last night and I lost all my e-mails. Would you please send me a copy of my e-mails, going back to 1993? Also, some of my e-mails concerned my upcoming book tour for my new novel, The Witches’ Cauldron, and I am uncertain which venues I have spoken with, so if you could check my phone records and let me know, that would be great.

Very truly yours,

Keith B. Darrell

Dear Mr. Darrell,

We have uploaded directly to your computer all of your e-mails as far back as 1993, as you requested. We noticed several viruses on your computer and we deleted them for you, and replaced one with our own Trojan that will copy your keystrokes and send back to us everything you type. Just think of us as devoted fans who want to get an early peek at your upcoming books.

One of our NSA staffers came across an e-mail from a dating site you had visited last Friday, at 7:42 p.m. The e-mail had been relegated to your spam folder, but after reviewing it, the NSA staffer thought the young lady might be a good match for you, based on the profile of you we have developed from tracking your Web surfing and purchase history, as well as from listening to hours of audio recordings of your many  phone conversations with your ex-girlfriend. The NSA staffer conducted a thorough review of the young lady’s profile and is certain you would be compatible, so we have moved the e-mail to your in-box.

Please rest assured, we at the NSA are here to serve and protect you. We value your privacy. In fact, we mine it like gold.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Pandora Chronicles

After four years – and four annual volumes – the first arc of the Halos & Horns fantasy saga has come to a close. Halos & Horns followed the story of an angel and a demon on the lam from their respective realms (Heaven and Hell) who take human guise and settle in Las Vegas as private eyes. Their tale has ended… but along the way, they crossed paths with a wide array of unusual and interesting supernatural characters. Among them, were two vampires: Sharon Mordecai, an 18-year-old runaway and her slightly older BFF, Pandora.

Sharon shared a mysterious psychic bond with Pandora, but that wasn't the only mystery surrounding the carefree party girl with a penchant for getting into trouble whom she had befriended. In fact, Sharon realized she knew nothing about the strawberry blonde vampire’s past, not even her true age. And although readers came to know Sharon and Pandora through their adventures, how they met was never revealed… nor was how Sharon or Pandora became vampires. Until now.

This preview of the upcoming Fangs & Fur fantasy series reveals the poignant yet humorous origin of the happy-go-lucky, trouble-prone vampire Pandora, from the four-book Halos & Horns fantasy saga. The Pandora Chronicles is a 9,800-word novelette that serves both as a perfect jumping-on point for new readers in advance of the forthcoming Fangs & Fur series, and to whet the appetites of readers of Halos & Horns asking "What comes next?" Join Pandora for a tale of vampires, gangsters, and speakeasies; the Blitz and wartime sunken ships; and disco fever. See how Pandora met her BFF Sharon Mordecai and learn the secret of the psychic bond they share, in this new eBook novelette. All this, and get change back from your dollar!

Click below to start reading The Pandora Chronicles right now. Then, in six months, learn the origins and further adventures of the other vampires and werewolves from Halos & Horns in Flashbacks, the first book of the three-book Fangs & Fur fantasy arc.
The Pandora Chronicles

US  readers.       UK  readers.       German readers    

Friday, July 4, 2014

An Independence Day excerpt from My New Book

And now, on this Fourth of July, an appropriate excerpt from my new book, Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger:

On this day commemorating the founding of our republic, it is appropriate to take a moment from our barbecues and fireworks displays and reflect on the state of our country and our society. Recently, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts backing political campaigns and spurred the development of superPACs, effectively ruled money equivalent to speech. But speech can take many forms, and depending on the nature of that speech, past courts have found it necessary and indeed advisable to place certain limits on it. There is a distinction between information and political propaganda (misinformation and lies). When massive amounts of money are spent to distribute misinformation to an uneducated, and frankly, ignorant populace, the result is not democracy but aristocracy. Our society had devolved into a citizenry so poorly educated that when surveyed, 40 percent thought the Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War. Americans knows more about the Kardashians than the Kennedys. American society is composed of "low information voters" who make decisions based on snippets and soundbites instead of researching and learning about the important issues of the day. The plutocrats are now spending untold millions on such snippets and soundbites to misinform and misguide poorly informed voters.

There has been an enormous transfer of wealth in American society, from the middle and upper-middle classes to the highest stratum of the upper class, on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age. But what the plutocratic billionaires have yet to realize is, once they have filled their coffers to the brim by draining the financial blood from the rest of society, there will be no one left to afford to purchase their goods and services, and their financial empires will crumble. They seek a return to 19th century economics, when the plutocracy grew rich through a cheap labor supply and a growing nation of consumers to purchase the goods they manufactured. But long before America outsourced its jobs, it had outsourced its manufacturing base to Japan,  Korea, and China. America is no longer a manufacturing nation; it is a consumer-based nation, and the consumers - whose jobs have been shipped overseas or made obsolete by technology we embraced too rapidly without regard to consequence, whose wages have fallen, whose benefits have been cut, and whose incomes have failed to keep pace with greed-driven inflation - can no longer afford to consume.

The plutocrats distract the masses with high tech toys, reality TV shows, and political kabuki theater. The Romans had a name for that: bread and circuses. Give the peons enough food and entertainment and they will shift their attention from what goes on behind the curtain by those who govern them.

Did you know that the gulf state of Qatar provides each of its 250,000 citizens with free cradle-to-grave healthcare and public education? All without taxing its citizens. Of course, they can afford to do this because they are an oil-rich nation and they have made trillions of dollars selling that oil to America. We Americans are subsidizing free healthcare and education, not for ourselves, but for the Arabs. Why? Because we continue to cling to an outmoded mode of transportation - the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine, devised in 1806. We could put a man on the moon, but not devise a better transportation system (for example, like the high-speed rail systems of Europe and Japan)? Of course we could. But there are plutocrats whose fortunes are maintained through the oil and automotive industries, providing them a strong disincentive to change the status quo. We need to replace the automobile industry, which is based on a centuries-old technology, pollutes, has created massive sprawl, and ties us to oil, a commodity controlled by our enemies. The only ones benefiting from it are the oil companies and the car manufacturers.

The same is true of pharmaceutical companies, who have the same strong disincentive to devote their research and development budgets to curing diseases, when it is far more lucrative for them to create pills that merely treat diseases. Better to have a perpetual market for their product than to harness their collective scientific brainpower to eradicate disease and eliminate the need for their wares.

Our country is in trouble and needs leaders. Instead, we are presented with buffoons: Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry... the list goes on, ad nauseam. Where are the men of the caliber of Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, LBJ, FDR, Hubert Humphrey, let alone men like Lincoln, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, or John Jay. The current contenders have made a mockery of the presidency, just as jurists like Clarence Thomas sitting on the court where John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Brennan once sat is farcical. Need I comment on the pathetic state of Congress, with its 9% public approval rating, as it fills its chambers with Tea Party nutcases like Rand Paul and Allen West? When Chris Wallace, of partisan Fox News, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell one simple question: "You insist on repealing Obamacare - if you repeal it, what will you and the Republicans do to insure the 30 million uninsured Americans who will get insurance under Obamacare?" He answered: "That is not the issue." Wrong answer, Senator Bozo. That's precisely the issue. You've shown you and your clown party don't have answers, just partisan lies and attacks.

The only solution is to work to replace these people, who have slipped into leadership positions of our government, with qualified, responsible, progressive reformers. This entails recruiting such individuals and financially backing them so they can be elected. It also requires those of us who are educated to speak out - publicly, loudly, and often - to debunk the misinformation and lies spread by the plutocrats and their lackeys.

JFK summed it up best in his inaugural address (condensed): "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe: the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God...Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. ...We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do, for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder...If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich... So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us... And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The world is very different from the one into which we were born. We have the means to abolish human poverty, yet instead allow our country's great wealth to sit in the hands of less than 1% of its population. Perhaps the new generation of Americans, born in this 21st century can reverse this trend, provide our country with world class health care, education, and public transportation, and restore the liberties stolen from us by the Bush Administration under the guise of protecting us. Perhaps they will produce leaders who, unlike our current congressmen and candidates, realize civility is not a sign of weakness and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise are far from anathema to the proper functioning of government. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As Lincoln said, "A house divided cannot stand." I have been amazed to see so many of my poorer friends reach out to help others in need, while many of my wealthiest friends are quick to adopt an Ayn Rand attitude of every man for himself. The solution to our nation's ills will only come when the plutocrats and those still reasonably well-off join with their less fortunate brethren and ask, as did JFK, not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country and their fellow citizens.

Happy Birthday, America. Enjoy your Fourth of July fireworks and barbecues. They fiddled while Rome burned, too.