Category Archives: Life Issues

When the Database Becomes god

A look into the ethics and economics of databases and algorithms. How technology has outpaced the social conscience and society needs to catch-up.

Electronic databases are necessary, and there is no way that we can revert to the days of a pen and paper society, but do we trust databases too much?

Everybody uses a database every day. The question is really how much. The answer is many times more than you think. They control how our lives are structured.

  • Need to Google the closest restaurant in your area for lunch? You enter a query and Google recalls it from their database called BigTable. Google remembers your search by placing your activity in their database and uses this data for advertisers.

  • Went to the Doctor’s and the person pulled up your digital medical file? It is likely in one of the private medical programs using the inexpensive database program called MariaDB, or if they are linked with a Provincial program in Canada, it is likely through SAP, PeopleSoft, or Oracle.

  • You go to work and you key in your ID number or swipe with a card. This will funnel its way into a database program. Who pays you? Probably no one. It is automatically set-up in a database program. Supervisors and payroll officers just check to make sure all data was entered correctly.

  • You pay by debit at a grocery store? The transaction is saved in three or more databases. The first one is in the grocer’s bank database which links to you personal bank’s database and they make a handshake. Then the records are somewhat shared by the two, and the grocer also has its own personal database for sales, inventory, transactions, taxes, and more.

  • Went to Facebook to check your status? You are seeing the results built from Facebook’s proprietary TAO database. Why is it every time you click on Facebook there are advertisements that are tailored to your likings? That is because your viewing history has been saved to the database. Facebook has developed programming to target ads based on this data. This is their source for advertising revenue.

  • If you are sourcing or entering personal information in an iPhone or Android smartphone, then you are using a SQLite database.

  • Watching a movie posted on Netflix? Netflix has moved into a newer territory of database structures called NoSQL, where they use a database program called Cassandra. You may notice that whenever you browse Netflix, it remembers every movie you watched and what your preferences are. This is because your preferences are saved in their database.

  • Travelling to the United States from Canada? Your personal information is accessed from other Canadian security sources and pooled on file with the Canadian Border Services Agency (who probably use the SAP application for this but CBSA does not publicly comment about their database structure). The relevant data is automatically transferred to the US Department of Homeland Security’s Oracle database. 1 The CBSA also keeps a diary of your travel history. Canadian privacy laws require that any history older than 3.5 years must be destroyed. As to the information transferred to the U.S. database, it is not known if it is ever destroyed.

  • Need a loan? Organizations such as Equifax have harvested your information from the banking and credit sectors. Most financial institutions have agreed to share information with this organization for credit purposes. Equifax’s data is stored in an Oracle database2. Your bank or lending agency will likely check this source, and add an entry that you have applied before approving or rejecting any request.

We all take Database architecture for granted. If it wasn’t for Relational Databases or it’s evolving children, there would be no internet, no advanced computing, smartphones, or many other conveniences.

If a Government or institution had the power to bring together all this different data, it could build a complete portrait of almost every individual. This is theoretically already happening. The United States National Security Agency has a program that can theoretically do this called Prism.3 However, I am skeptical about the effectiveness because this would require massive daily manpower to filter through the results and assess any risks. It doesn’t seem feasible to track and monitor so many people.

There are many ways to view the collection of this data and its problems. This article intends to limit its scope to the morality and economics of databases.

Canadian and most Western societies view database information as morally neutral. However, this is not true. The collection of data has been a moral problem for thousands of years. For example, the 900 BC or so story of King David in the Bible who called for a tabulated count of every man available for the military. This was considered by God a serious national sin and led to a severe judgement.4 Military statistics along with statistics on almost anything are routine today and it would be hard to argue that any database or statistics are inherently evil. However, David’s judgement provides evidence that the creation of certain types of databases creates ethical problems. A contemporary example is a concern over presidential candidate Donald Trump allegedly endorsing a plan to register all American Muslims in a special database. Whether true or not, it demonstrates a tension that society has with the ethics of databases.

Databases are an expression of the human experience and are important. They naturally occur and have to exist for life to work properly. However, what happens if the database or algorithm becomes a god?

History shows us that this can happen. The Nazis, in collaboration with IBM, had a database infrastructure for the purpose of racial targeting. If they overtook a town or city, they would hire clerks to enter local citizen information. If a person or family was identified with Jewish blood, they were then considered non-human and were exterminated.5 The clerks who entered the data or the management, to my knowledge, have never been accused of abetting the holocaust but played an important part. They simply felt that they were entering data and that this was a neutral task. Nor did they have the power or the access with those who created the database to ask why, or who the data was for. They were simply to do the work, and not to question.

The database in the situation had the power to kill. This is an extreme example that rarely occurs but demonstrates there has to be checks and balances entrenched in our social psyche to ensure this never happens again.

Paul Sperry, author of the New York Times article, Obama collecting personal data for a secret race database claims that the U.S. Government is making a powerful new database that tracks ““inequalities” between minorities and whites.” It is intended to harvest information from credit cards, home loans, workplaces, neighbourhoods and tie it into a database that calculates the level of discrimination that exists. Those municipal governments that are identified “must find ways to close the gap or forfeit federal grant money and face possible lawsuits for housing discrimination.”

No one can disagree with the aims of the database or the attempt to correct a serious imbalance. However, the idea that technology, specifically an algorithm, can solve the problems of discrimination and hatred is a social engineering project that likely will fail. An algorithm or database cannot solve the problems of lack of respect or concern for others. If it could, these problems would have been erased eons ago.

Databases and algorithms are now central to trading in most stock-exchanges. Technology has introduced a new genre of trading called high frequency trading. These are algorithms created by physicists and mathematicians for trading companies accessing the electronic trade centres around the world. As Nick Baumann explains in Mother Earth, HFTs do not involve people just triggers in the stock market – usually small fractions of a cent and selling for a slightly larger sum. For example buying at $1.00 and selling at $1.0001. Thousands of transactions are done in milliseconds and this all quickly adds up. 6 The value of company stock is irrelevant. It is the variation that the algorithm is looking for. Baumann surmises:

As technology has ushered in a brave new world on Wall Street, the nation’s watchdogs remain behind the curve, unable to effectively monitor, much less regulate, today’s markets. As in 2008, when regulators only seemed to realize after the fact the threat posed by the toxic stew of securitization, the financial whiz kids are again one step—or leap—ahead. 7

Things have changed and the Government has caught up. Matthew Philips reported in Bloomberg Business how the HFT algorithm started to plunge. Too much competition, increased charges by the stock markets themselves for speedier access, Government intervention, along with a sudden shift in market realities caused this genre to substantially decrease. The Security Exchange Commission introduced a program called Midas to identify and correct the abuses happening in the almost unregulated wild west of HFT trading.8.

The HFT problem shows that the problem of databases and algorithms is that they cannot exist independently without some external source of auditing or validation.

The power of a database caused serious questions during 2015 Canadian elections. Colin Bennett described in his article featured on website on how the three main Canadian political parties have been tracking individual Canadians political preferences. He thinks this process treads an ethical minefield.

By the people working in and reporting on Canadian federal politics, these systems are now seen as indispensible tools for the modern “data-driven” campaign. And the parties will argue that these systems help them engage and mobilize their supporters, enhancing the democratic process.

… The electorate is then profiled and scored. For instance, we know that CIMS ranks voters on a scale of plus 15 (right) to minus 15 (left). These profiles are then used to allow the party to allocate its resources more efficiently for its canvassing and get-out-the-vote operations.

The systems will also have information on a voter’s preferred contact methods. If someone does not want to be contacted, it should be recorded in the party databases.

…What they don’t talk about is how far out of mainstream democratic practice these databases really are. In most other democracies, they would be illegal.

Bennett strongly reinforces this thought with:

You have no legal right to learn what information a party database has collected about you, to remove yourself from a party database, or to restrict the collection, use and disclosure of your personal information. And for the most part, parties have no legal obligations to keep that information secure.9

The demise of Target stores in Canada can be traced to its database system which happened to be SAP. SAP shouldn’t be blamed here. This same scenario could have played out in any other competitor. SAP is a world leader in enterprise software with approximately “300,000 customers in 190 countries.”10 Target experimented by using SAP for the rollout in Canada. It was to be the starting point for a universal migration to SAP within all its US portals. However, an underlying breakdown happened that Target did not anticipate. Jose Castaldo, wrote a detailed report on its brutal death by design in Canada Business:

It didn’t take long for Target to figure out the underlying cause of the breakdown: The data contained within the company’s supply chain software, which governs the movement of inventory, was riddled with flaws.11

In short, Target could not properly move merchandise into stores and lost buyer confidence by transportation, customs and packing problems, inconsistently stocking, not having stock, and improper product placement because the data-entry into the database was not properly done. Labour was also being diverted from sales to clerical entry and validation, and those that did the data entry were not qualified to do such. They made too many errors.

Databases are to reflect a set of realities. Sometimes real world realities are not the same as outcomes of the data. It depends on how the data is filtered. This was recently shown in the child care problems in Manitoba. The Province of Manitoba had a reputation of having the highest number of children under Provincial care among all the other Provinces in Canada. What did the Manitoba Government do? They changed the database semantics on who qualified for those statistics. The change disqualified a percentage from being counted and, therefore, reduced the amount needed to be stated from their database. Consequently, Manitoba no longer negatively stands out among its counterparts.12 The moral here is that databases can be manipulated to state realities that do not exist.

Another problem of database driven companies is accountability and flexibility. Employees or middle managers cannot question or recommend changes to the business model because it may require significant and costly changes to the database system and the corporate culture. Nor are supervisors or managers in the position to speak to the small group of stakeholders who have the power to approve the changes for software engineers to reinterpret and implement.

Most changes are rudimentary and small, but a few can come across that are clearly wrong. In these situations, the middle manager or supervisor must support and enforce the strictures upon employees. By refusing, they can lose out on promotions, get demoted, or even fired.

This can lead to an amoral workforce who do not care nor agree with the objectives of the company. Rather, they see their jobs as ones that are to fulfill the data entry and validating of the database and nothing more. Upper management sees employees not as people, but as figures that either continue to fulfill the database or detract from targets. Supervisors and managers themselves also are amoral. Their role is to enforce the rules not make them and use whatever means to get the workforce to comply.

Many firms have programmed their database programs to obscure questionable practices. Cellphone carriers are especially featured in this category. Today’s cellphones are nothing more than a wireless computer that transmits data for a short distance to a physical network. The data then is served through the network and connected to the appropriate end-point. Any service whether voice, text, message, chat, surfing etc., is pure data transmitted in the TCP/IP protocol. The TCP/IP protocol is absolutely no different from what is accomplished on a home computer – a device that freely connects with other devices throughout the world without any charge for each attempted connection. However, the cellphone companies have distinguished the TCP/IP protocol into different payment categories, phone, text, call display, downloads, usage, etc., by each attempted connection. This is all monitored and stored in a database. The customer then is charged for these different usages of TCP/IP. Why the distinction between TCP/IP on a home computer and a cellphone? There shouldn’t be. It is the same data being transmitted by a similar device. It is because consumers are historically accustomed to phones and internet being completely different entities. The reality is, there is no difference on the technical side. The two have merged and have been for years. There is no reason to continue charge a per connection fee or impose a long distance charge. These are legacy words of technologies and infrastructures that have long ceased.

Another problem of the current generation is that of mercy. Databases do not forgive. One inappropriate Facebook post could potentially cost you your job, future occupation, maybe a relationship, and worse yet, even if it is removed, the posting can perpetually linger somewhere else on the internet. Your error is permanently marked and may never be forgotten. It is hard to overcome.

What can Canadians do to ensure that databases do not play god? There has to be a counter database made by a third party or Government that monitors and applies ethical standards to any database that attempts to socially engineer, economically take advantage of a target group, or govern a workplace.

Fixing Life with a Magic Wand

Imagining what life would be like with a magic wand, and dealing with life without one.

It would be used for the broken young man who had to lay down the flower on his wife’s coffin, and couldn’t, because it just wasn’t fair. I would have liked to have walked up, waved my wand, and brought her back to life.

And for the woman who randomly stopped me on the sidewalk and asked me if the mail had come yet. She needs a cheque so that she can get milk for her the crying newborn she was holding in her arms. “Yes,” I would say. “Just go inside and take out the fish you have inside the fridge and you will find inside its mouth more than enough money to cover your needs.”

It is for Robert, who lost both his parents at a young age, and wishes he would hear his mother speak to him once more. I’d wave the wand for him to not only hear her voice, but to see, and touch her again.

It would be for Jimmy to be healed and walk out of the hospital. Instead, his body is emaciated because of AIDS, and struggles to make each breath. His bed is in a corner of a dark room with no mother to pull up his sheets when he is cold, no one to read from a magazine, bring a radio, or set up a television. His family doesn’t know his plight – he doesn’t want them to know. Shame and sadness are in his eyes.

It would be for Rachel to let her know that she is loved. Fatherless all her life, and finally finding him, she phones, “Hi Dad, its me.” “That is nice,” he says, and thanks her for the call, and asks that she never call again.

I would wave it for all those whom the angel of death mercilously plays with. Cancer, it not only robs many physically, but steals thoughts, feelings, and dreams. It estranges families, and reduces many into poverty.

It would be waved to keep children safe, where some are preyed upon in night’s darkness, and told never to tell anyone.

Why do some die before their time, and others live beyond their’s? Why do some become wealthy beyond imagination without breaking a sweat, while others work day and night and the creditor knocks on their door? Why do some get to go to Disneyland with their children, while others spend all they have to keep their disabled child alive?

Why doesn’t God, when He looks down and sees man lording over man with such inhumanity, act on the cries of the oppressed? Millions displaced, killed, or deprived because they are not the right type of person. Why does He not intervene in our tragic affairs? They cry out from their graves.

I don’t know. I’d like to wave the wand to know why.

There is no answer, and God will not tell, nor will He. He knows that He can’t explain. It is something far too great for me to comprehend.

Yes, there are some hints, but there are clouds in that sky. I can see it, but it is densely shrouded.

When I do know, I’ll write about it, but I don’t think that will ever happen. Answers such as “God is in control,” or that this is part of “God’s great plan,” or “that she is in a better place now,” just don’t suffice.

As I put my imaginary wand down, and think about the realities, a feeling runs over me. Not a good, or bad feeling, but one that trusts God no matter what.

My soul is both agitated and at rest. The questions run deep, but they do not possess me.

The Lord is here, and I know Him. I can’t explain this feeling. Yes this is built from memories, feelings, and decisions influenced by both visible and invisible things. But I am referring to what I am feeling right now, not what constructed this framework or its spiritual roots. It is not required to explain or defend it here.

This state is not a closed room with no windows to the real world around me. It is a place where I can be angry at the dad ignoring his daughter and not be consumed by it. To be sad, or grieve with the young man, but not lose hope. To be scared but not run away. To see injustice and not be cynical about mankind, and have hope to make a difference. It frees me to look at these things, but not be controlled by them.

I can restlessly remain in this place.

In Search of Utopia

Burabod shoreline

Discovering what utopia means in one of the most unlikely places — a remote island in the central Philippines.

The 1982 New Year’s Eve festivity was well under preparation for the young people on a small barangay beside the city of Biliran called Burabod. The teenagers and a few young adults have dressed up for the occasion — or at least prettied what little clothing they had.

The sun was setting and it gave its effervescent goodbye across the oceanic horizon. It festooned a copper tinge above the treeline giving way to a striking blue background of the sky. The waves skipped happily, dotting occasional white blotches as they moved toward shore. The water lightly touched at Burabod’s seawall which stilted up high and ended where the basketball court started. A kerosene lamp was set-up on a pole in the middle of the court. An old vinyl record player was off to the right attached crudely to a car battery. There were only two or three records available and the songs were played over and over. The sound equipment bellowed above the capacity that the speakers could handle. The skips, cracking and feedback emitted were distracting. No one cared about this except me.

The sun quickly disappeared and the darkness set in. The kerosene lamp could only make outlines of the bodies moving around the lamppost. As the dancers danced, all that could be seen was the white gleam of their teeth from their wide smiles.

These smiles were from people whose homes were made with some basic wood frames while others were of twisted concoctions of leaves, rope and bamboo. Often the house-floors were just trampled sod and the living quarters were frequently shared with their pigs, chickens and dogs. They had no electricity, no water or indoor plumbing. One had to walk a distance to one of three community taps — an amount for a whole community which is typically the minimum for a Canadian house consisting of three or four people. These dancers had little to bank on for the future — opportunities for success or moving up the economic ladder were like winning a lottery. There were few, if any, old people in this small town because little were lucky to live that long.

The smiles gave me a certain existential crisis. The level of poverty would have devastated the bravest Canadian into silence. Yet these Filipinos defied the poor stereotype. Yes, they knew they were economically poor, but it didn’t break their spirit.

The answer was found in their spirit of community — they said we instead of I. Their whole life centered around using the plural instead of the singular and this transcended the great challenges confronting their lives.

I didn’t believe the power of this at first and searched Burabod for the same ubiquitous sadness that seems to pervade so many of my hometown places in the lower mainland of Vancouver, B.C., but rarely could find it. It caused yet more consternation. How could these people be happy when they had nothing and in my world, where everyone had almost everything, were not?

This experience profoundly effected me. It made me realize that happiness is difficult, even unachievable, when pursued in the singular. A significant part of belonging and being loved can only begin in the plural, and when this utopia is achieved, the environment does not dictate as loudly, and at times, doesn’t matter at all. ■

This article is dedicated to Nanay and the late Tatay de la Rosa, who so warmly took me into their Barangay Burabod home for four months in 1981.

Evangelicals and Health Care Ethics

How health care ethics need to be ingrained in the fabric of the evangelical mindset.

Technology has introduced great breakthroughs on issues of life and death but has also naturally brought about new ethical issues that the traditional faith has not been prepared to engage in.

Most evangelicals are left with making life or death decisions, not on the basis of religious piety, but the insistence of economics or social convenience. They are game time decisions made in hospitals and doctors offices. These decisions are not considered the role of the church or faith. It is just what has to be done. Faith comes later.

When to pull the plug, is nowhere to found in the Scriptures. Neither is in-vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, or the question, does life begin at birth, conception or when the fertilized egg implants on the uterus? Then there is the other difficult question — when is someone really dead? Families are often forced to make life decisions for their members based on statistical chances of recovery. Others are compelled by insurance or economic costs. Sometimes medical advances have allowed suffering to go beyond normal expectations. What framework are Christians to have to make the numerous and difficult decisions on the grey areas of life and death?

The contemporary dilemmas brought on by modern technology have no immediate parallel in the Scriptures. Readings from the ancients like Tertullian and Augustine could easily be used to strengthen the concept of life from beginning to end but they are moralistic more than technically descriptive.

There is no be-all-to-end-all solution to any of this either. The new technologies are always creating new ethical problems. Evangelicals feel morally strong about the equality of all human life but have little know-how in applying this in the health-care arena.

The problems confronting evangelicals on such new territories are not going away by simply ignoring them.

Evangelicals, along with everyone else, are personally confronted with ethical dilemmas on numerous occasions in their lives. For example, a Christian nurse sees a patient’s health chart has a yellow star on it, which means that the patient is not to be resuscitated if there is a health emergency. On some occasions this may be OK, on others, this could be murder. If an emergency does arise, there is no time to think about it. How does the nurse know what is the right move in God’s eyes? What if it goes against the policy and procedure of the hospital?

Or the husband being tasked a life or death decision about his very sick wife, who is hospitalized, overweight, has diabetes, and is need of open heart surgery. The hospital business administrator asks the spouse to make a life ending decision based on statistical chances of survival and advises that surgery is an unnecessary cost. A decision is required now, or within the next few days. He has to go it alone with what his conscience dictates. If he should say that he wants the treatment to continue, he has to convince a thoroughly skeptical administrator who will push hard to achieve the hospital’s objectives. What should he do?

Most evangelicals assume that conception means the fertilizing of the egg but that is no longer correct. It has changed in the last 60 years from the sperm fertilizing the egg to the successful implantation of the blastocyst into the lining of the womb. This is a very controversial subject and a primary concern from a life perspective to look into. Yet, this has never been the subject of popular scrutiny in the evangelical realm.

Evangelical belief holds surgical abortion is wrong, but the use of a chemical pill, such as misoprostol, to immediately dispel a fetus, seems to be in a grey zone. As one blog commenter noted on using it, “It was private, effective, and relatively painless. It is more “moral” (from my Christian perspective anyway).”1

Ethical problems can be found in some types of pregnancy testing. For example older women are routinely advised by doctors to get testing so that a prognosis can be made whether the fetus has down’s syndrome. It is statistically known that there is a greater chance for older women to have a child with this. If a woman is discovered to be carrying a defective child, the medical system allows the woman to choose to carry or abort. I suspect many Christian women have not considered the ethics of such a practice. They simply do the test on the doctor’s advice whom they implicitly trust.

Physician assisted suicide has recently been opened up for discussion in the Canadian political realm. I have not seen or witnessed any feedback from the grassroots Christian community. The silence and lack of action on such subjects always are concerning.

There are many more examples that could be used but this is sufficient to show that Christians are confronted with these difficult deliberations throughout life.

This is the very battlefield that is thrust upon the church; how to get the conscience of the grassroots members of the church body in tune with these issues from a Christian perspective so when the moment comes to make these life or death decisions, they are made correctly.

Prior education from a Christian perspective is required before these moments occur. It cannot be done at the moment of crisis.

Medical ethics has to be an inherent part of the church curriculum that repeatedly needs to be communicated in both public and private occasions. It cannot be simply a yearly symposium, or two sermons a year. It has to become part of the fabric of the church. This is the only way it can fully enter into the grassroots conscience. The ethics have to be viewed as temporary absolutes and has to change as new medical advances arrive.■

Ambrosiaster on the workers of miracles

The Ambrosiaster text gives a fourth century or later Latin perspective on the workers of miracles as described by St. Paul.

Paul wrote about this function in his First letter to the Corinthians (12:28).

Here is the actual Biblical citation:

“And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.” (NIV)

The key-text here is the “workers of miracles” which in the Greek text is δυνάμεις and in Ambrosiaster’s text, virtutes.

Not much is known about the fourth century writers(s) later coined Ambrosiaster. This entity wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Book of I Corinthians.

When translating this text, I got stuck on virtutes. It is not qualified in the Latin and the English translations of the Latin Vulgate seemed to have no basis to render such a translation as “worker of miracles.”

The Greek too as well seems to be ambiguous.

There may be a religious tradition that allows for the English to be worded “workers of miracles”, but I am not taking the time to figure that out. This posting will remain focused simply on the contribution by Ambrosiaster writers on this text.

The most machine-like translation of both the Latin and Greek would render “worker of miracles” as “powers”. It would be an interpolation to translate it any further.

Ambrosiaster wrote:

“In the fourth position it is to be: “Then powers, then the grace of healings”. For any who can are not to be a Bishop as having in him the gift of the power of soundness of health.”1

It is clear that whatever powers means, it is not directly attached to the ability to physically heal. This is gratiam curationum which is found earlier in his text.

The first clue to what Ambrosiaster believed powers to mean was at the end of the sentence, “the power of soundness and health.” This is a difficult line to translate. In the Latin it is “et habere in se donum virtutis sanitatum.”

The question here is what virtutis sanitatum really means.

Firstly virtutis is the genitive form of virtus, which Whitaker’s Words describes as “strength/power; courage/bravery; worth/manliness/virtue/character/excellence”. The type of power being referenced here is one is one who possesses a superior moral authority or a person of esteemed character.

The Latin Biblical text could have chosen viris instead which would have connoted power as a strong force that overcomes a weakness, or it could have used potentiae instead which emphasizes command authority over a health condition, but it didn’t.

Whitaker’s Words defines sanitatum from the root sanitas and it means, “sanity, reason; health.” It is addressing a mental condition. Lewis and Short believe it be a mental condition as well but add that bodily health can be included.

At this point, Ambrosiaster makes no reference between mental health and demons. He simply states that an office exists in the Church that deals with such problems.

However he does go on to make this correlation;

“Can it be all are powers?” This one is able to possess the power, to whom God gives to expel demons.”

This leads into greater questions of the early Christian doctrine of demonology and mental illness which is far beyond Ambrosiaster’s text and a study area I am not familiar with.

What one can easily conclude though: the Ambrosiaster writers do recognize a distinction between physical and mental illness in this commentary, which isn’t usually identified in other Church documents. It shows that some sections of the Church were beginning to make a clearer distinction between these two realms, and does recognize the validity of mental illness and the need for third party intervention.

His account also displayed an early Church dictum that anyone identified with this gift was not eligible for the office of Bishop. They must have felt that people with the gift of power could wield too much if in a position of authority. It was potentially a conflict-of-interest.