Discovering Joni

A few weeks after my father died, I recall finding a stash of CDs he listened to. I also discovered a typed sheet of song lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Though he wasn’t around to ask, I imagined he did that because he wanted to learn them. My true discovery of Joni Mitchell started then. It became a way for me to continue connecting with my father posthumously. And to keep learning about him in his younger years.

Since then I’ve noticed Joni, as I’m fond of calling her, seems to pop up at key moments. For example, this past weekend she gave her first live concert in about twenty years. Coincidentally, my father’s birthday recently passed, father’s day is approaching along with his twentieth deathday. It feels like a sign from Dad to lean on Joni to get me through this month of milestones. Along the way, I may make some new memories crooning along to Joni, or using her music to process the emotions.

I grew up hearing the occasional song by Joni, without really understanding the significance of what I was hearing. Or without realizing who was singing it. Nor did I know she was Canadian until I moved to Canada, almost twenty years ago!

A couple years ago, in the dark days of the pandemic and lock downs, I stumbled across Blue, one of Joni’s finest albums. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the tracks as a way to pass the time in the long periods of physical, social isolation. Another joy is introducing the songs to the younger people in my life, who weren’t exposed to Joni growing up. One of them screams to hear “My Old Man” from the Blue album. Then she needs me to interpret the meaning of the lyrics.

Even if Joni hadn’t recently given a concert, I feel she would have appeared in another way. A silent hug from Dad. Always so much to continue learning, both about my father and Joni, the amazing singer-songwriter.

Purging Paper

I’m always amazed at how many piles of papers I seem to have laying around. Admittedly, some of them are historic. Papers created during an earlier time. A time when all (or most business) happened on paper. Or sometimes I have papers because I forgot to select an option for electronic delivery. Now I have an option to scan older documents or manage them physically until I can purge.

For example, when I set up my new electricity provider in 2020, I never selected electronic statements only. I’m still puzzled why electronic statements weren’t the default option. Producing and mailing paper statements all comes with a cost easily avoided. Even switching to electronic statements was not as easy as I would have liked. I first had to create an account on the My Account portal, different from the account I created to set up a pre-authorized payment. All unnecessarily complicated, but that’s a topic for a future blog post.

Consequently, I have paper statements. Normally I would’ve shredded them instantly except the service provider only maintains them for two years electronically. Since I need to retain some of them for longer than two years, I now have the option of scanning them and junking up my computer, plus spending time on that. Or spend time organizing them physically.

My other challenge is having everything set up so I can only touch everything once. Otherwise I end up resorting and reshuffling all the papers, moving them from one place to another. It’s all very inefficient. I first start by setting up bags or boxes for SHRED, RECYCLING, and TRASH. I also like to have some file folders, pens, and labels ready to go.

Going through the piles is fairly fast to make a determination. Honestly, by the time I work up the motivation for these types of tasks, some documents are too old to be valuable. This makes some of the work easier. The challenging part, however, is figuring out where to store the papers I’m going to keep. Or if I need to scan them, which can be a time consuming task. Sometimes when I store physical papers (e.g., tax receipts when I used to be a small business owner), I include a destruction date right on the folder or envelope. This makes is easier to purge in the future, but still requires effort in the setup.

Ownership Issues with ChatBot Technology

Recently, Meta (formerly Facebook) decided to release their chatbot coding as an open source. This means that software developers anywhere can take the code and use it for their own purposes. In essence, this will be hugely beneficial for some developers. Typically, code used to power something similar to a ChatGPT-quality chatbot, requires enormous resources to develop. This is something that smaller companies, or individuals, wouldn’t have the resources to produce.

This decision has many benefits and downsides. On the plus side, enabling all kinds of developers to use, play, and experiment with the code for free can enhance innovation. It means new discoveries can be made faster, and sometimes, more efficiently than if they were just being done by one company. The directions in which the code can be explored are infinite and unrestricted. Whereas if only one company, or a handful of them, developed the technology, there would be less options. As consumers, we would have to accept whatever these few companies developed as the “appropriate” uses.

However, this unrestricted freedom can also be one of the biggest downsides. While offering the code as open source allows for independent and innovative development, we can’t always predict in which direction the code will evolve. For example, somebody could use the code to create an underground app for deepfakes. Or to disseminate misinformation and disinformation broadly. Others may use the code to advance medical techniques, evaluate and discover gender bias in job descriptions, or help people craft resumes. The point is, without any regulation, oversight, or accountability, we can’t know the end result. Nor can we anticipate how far the technology will go or how fast. Once the code is out there, it’s probably unfeasible to rein it back in.

It’s hard to know which path is the right one to take. Innovation and discovery is important. It’s something that happens more easily when people don’t face restrictions. Or when regulations and governance are not slowing down progress. Yet, at the same time, this new technology has the potential to be dangerous. With so much freedom, it will be impossible to control it, if it isn’t already too late.

The Ethics of Big Data

Whenever I hear about people using big data to make decisions, I always wonder about the sources. I want to understand more about the data being used and how it was gathered. More importantly, who supplied the data? Equally important is to have insight into who designed the algorithms analyzing all the data. The reason why it matters is because each one of these points, and several others, can contain bias. And in most cases, they probably do.

For example, consider what we understand to be the most common symptoms of a heart attack. My first guesses would be symptoms such as pain in the left arm, feeling faint or dizzy, sweaty, etc. These symptoms form the basis for assessment and triage protocols. However, they’re also based on symptoms typically documented for men, not women. From what I understand, women generally don’t experience the tell-tale pain in the left arm. When all of this data surrounding heart attack patients supports decision making, shouldn’t we be considering the bias built into that? How does the data account for differences in men and women? How do these differences translate into decisions and protocols?

Another important aspect are the ownership issues of the data. I always feel leery about letting websites or apps track my movements. Over the years, the tracking has been steadily improving. For instance, if I shop online and maybe decide not to purchase things in my cart, I almost always get a reminder email (or several) about it. But shouldn’t this be my private decision whether or not I purchase something online?

Somehow, somewhere, someone is aggregating and analyzing this data about my purchasing habits. However, the gathering, analysis, and outcome of this process is a mystery to me. At any given time, the data collected about me and my online habits is out of my control. Even though this data about me, and others, likely increases profits for companies, I’m not seeing these benefits.

To me the collection and ownership aspects of data are overdue for a long discussion about ethics. Is it ethical for companies to collect and use so much data about us? Is it ethical for companies to use data about our online habits as currency to keep us using their products and services? Protecting our personal data will come at a high price, one that has yet to be established.

Snapchat’s My AI Companion

I first heard about Snapchat’s “My AI” companion on a podcast. Essentially it’s an AI (artificial intelligence) chatbot automatically rolled out to everybody’s Snapchat account. According to the Snapchat help pages, My AI “can answer a burning trivia question, offer advice on the perfect gift for your BFF’s birthday, help plan a hiking trip for a long weekend, or suggest what to make for dinner.” It’s based on ChatGPT’s technology. My impression is that it’s there to be an assistant and helpful.

Admittedly, I haven’t tried experimenting with ChatGPT yet, but I felt conflicted hearing about this new roll out. It feels revolutionary and at the same time, poorly thought out. For starters, mostly younger people use Snapchat. It’s possible that younger people using powerful technologies like this may not fully grasp the consequences or dangerous implications yet. It’s equally possible that they will push the technology in new directions, some of which may be undesirable.

As I continued to read through the help pages to learn more, some of my fears felt founded. Woven into the Q&A’s about using My AI are warning statements. Some answers caution users about the quality of the My AI responses. My AI could produce biased, discriminatory, or inflammatory content. It might also produce content that is inaccurate. Snapchat advises users to verify My AI responses.

While I’m not totally dismissing the idea, or inherent usefulness of having an AI chatbot readily available, the amount of effort felt questionable. On the one hand Snapchat is advertising My AI as a way to answer a burning trivia question. Then a few sentences later suggests users verify answers with another source, given that My AI may not always be accurate. So why not go straight to the source the first time?

I also had to wonder about privacy when using My AI. One article I read discussed adding My AI to the chat as another participant. When discussing innocent things like where to meet for dinner, I can see the advantages of including a chatbot in the conversation. However, what if the messaging took a turn towards discussing other kids in the school, how to stalk someone, or be destructive. Would My AI blindly offer suggestions for things like that?

This technology is so big, powerful, and popular, we’ll have to wait to see what happens. Hopefully it won’t be too late to correct.

Tax Time: Tips to Make it Easy

It might seem strange to write about tax time right after it passes. Once taxes are filed and settled, most people push them out of their head until April of the following year. Who could blame them? However, now is the prime time to think about them for next year.

Put simply, while all the challenges and frustrations are still fresh in one’s mind, it’s the best time to be proactive about next year’s filings. While I don’t enjoy preparing my taxes to file in two countries, I’ve learned a few tricks. After going through some rather complicated adjustments, and a month-long stomach ache from the stress a few years ago, I devised a two-part system. My system eliminates delays and stress from searching for what you need.

Step 1: Identify what you need to prepare your taxes.

For some, this may be straightforward and involve only a few documents. For others, such as sole proprietors or Americans living over seas, a bit more may be required. Every year, for example, I need to fill out an FBAR (Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts) for my US taxes. Basically I have to report the maximum balance for each bank account. It’s not hard, but it’s really, really tedious. And I know I need all my bank statements for my tax prep. If you have extra documents like this, create a checklist. Eliminate the guesswork and know what you need for next year.

Step 2: Designate a place to save the documents you need.

This works for paper and electronic records. When I had my own business, I set up a box with a pen and small stapler to collect paper receipts. That way I could label and staple receipts when I dumped them in.

For electronic records, I designate dumping areas. In every email account I have a folder (or label) called “Taxes.” Throughout the year I move anything tax-related to this folder. Or label it as “Taxes” for easy searching later. When I sit down to prepare my taxes, I can find everything I need, even if it takes me time to download. I also maintain a Tax folder on my laptop by year so I can file as I receive documents.

My two-part strategy won’t eliminate all the bad feelings associated with taxes, but it does make the process of filing easier and less stressful.