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I Need a Hero, Or Do I? July 13, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I am hardly a paragon of virtue. Still, this article nicely summarizes the various misdeeds and lapses of the multimillionaire entrepreneurial set that comprises the Silicon Valley elite, as they attempt to deal with other people and with society at large.

I think there are a couple of issues here. First, startups such as Uber and AirBNB are attempting to build businesses that fly in the face of established regulations concerning the type of business activity they are attempting to change. That may in fact be a good thing in general. The regulations exist for a certain public good, but they also exist to protect the status quo from change (Disclosure: I use neither service and remain wary of their value). I would venture to say that any attempt to change regulatory processes should have been attempted before, rather than after, the execution of the business. At best, the founders of these types of companies are tone-deaf to the world in which they live, though long term success may turn them into something more than they are today.

But there are also larger issues. To publicly practice sexism, ageism, intolerance, and active encouraging of frat boy behaviors is juvenile, quite possibly illegal, and at the very least stupid and insensitive. These are not stupid people, so I must believe that there is an overarching reason for acting in this manner. I can’t possibly help but think of Shanley Kane; despite her extreme and uncompromising stands, she directly lives much of the darker side that we too often gloss over, or in some cases even embrace.

The question is both broad and deep. Should we have any expectation that the leaders of technology should be leaders of character, or even be good people in general? Are we demanding they take on a role that they never asked for, and are not fit for?

On the other hand, does wealth and success convey the right to pursue ideas and policies that may fly in the face of reason? “Privacy is no longer a social norm,” says Zuckerberg, almost certainly because that position benefits him financially. I don’t recall him being appointed to define our privacy norms, but this represents more than an opinion, informed or not; it is also an expression of Facebook’s business strategy.

I think what annoys me most is his power to make that simple statement a reality, without a public debate on the matter. It’s not your call, Zuckerberg, and I can’t help but think that you believe it is. I would have thought that the likes of Eric Schmidt served as adult supervision to the baser instincts of Silicon Valley, until he meekly went along with the crowd.

To be fair, I don’t think these questions are new ones. In the 1800s, media moguls single-mindedly pursued extreme political agendas under the guise of freedom of the press. “Robber barons” single-mindedly pursued profits at the expense of respect and even lives.

Still, the Rockefellers and Carnegies ago attempted, with perhaps limited success, to atone for their baser instincts during their lives. I grew up in a town with a Carnegie Free Library, after all.  Perhaps this is like what a more mature Bill Gates is doing today. We can hope that Zuckerberg matures, although I am not holding my breath. I think that boat has long since sailed on Schmidt.

But it’s difficult to say that this era is all that much different than the latter 1800s. We as a society like to think we’ve grown, but that’s probably not true. But this cycle will end, and at its close, we will be able to see more clearly just what our tech leaders are made of.

Just What is Silicon Valley Up To These Days? July 9, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think a lot of us, both in and out of that geographical location and state of mind, wonder just the same thing. When we see fledging companies getting a million dollars or more to develop an app that lets you grab a parking space, or pay for an already-made restaurant reservation, something is clearly wrong.

The question is where is the innovation? The press seems to congregate around those startups that exploit an imaginative though trivial niche. And, to be fair, so do the venture capitalists.

Slate (I still don’t know why we pay any attention to these folks) claims that innovation is being done by established companies these days, rather than by the startups.

I seriously question large companies trying to encourage and fund true innovation. Google does moon shots; Intel throws billions of dollars at a next generation set of chips that may or may not succeed, true. But that’s what established companies do.

But there is little room for true, market-breaking innovation in Google, Intel, HP (especially!), and the rest. Established companies simply have too much invested in their existing products to enable an innovation that threatens a billion-dollar business. These companies did their innovation, and now they are just trying to hang on.

But the Slate article is completely wrong on several accounts. For example:

>> true startup companies like Apple and Microsoft, which lacked those ties to academia and government, innovated only in the consumer sector.

Um, no. That’s not how Apple and Microsoft succeeded. Both desperately pursued the business market, Apple with the LaserPrinter, and Microsoft with Office. Microsoft ultimately succeeded more, but at the expense of longer-term viability.

Academia has been irrelevant as an innovator for a long time. Those that see Xerox PARC as a part of academia are seriously mistaken; it was very much industry, without a way to commercialize. Same with AT&T (not the same AT&T today, you should be aware) Bell Labs.

I do believe that innovation occurs in waves. The fact that we see so many “me too” social interaction companies today says that we are in a period of consolidation, not innovation. Still, innovation will happen again, but the companies of today, even the leaders (are you listening, Facebook?) will not be the true innovators ten years from now.

Facebook and Foundations of Psychology Experimentation July 2, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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By now most of us are familiar with the study done by Facebook in 2012 in which about 700,000 users were unwittingly subject to more emotionally negative content in order to determine if that content had any influence on their moods (based on the published results, the answer seems to be “no”). This became public when Facebook published an academic paper on the topic, and the principal researcher expressed misgivings in a blog post.

One of the more notorious psychological experiments was conducted by Stanley Milgram, circa 1963. Milgram described it as a learning experiment in which purported subjects (actually confederates) were given fake electrical shocks by the actual subjects as punishment for incorrect answers. Under the urging of the experimenter, many of those administering the electric shock applied the maximum amount of voltage.

I would like to think I know something of psychology, with a couple of university degrees in the subject and my own (very modest) human experiments during that time. Many psychology studies use deception in order to measure aspects of behavior that the subject isn’t cognizant of. If subjects were aware of the true purpose of an experiment, that knowledge would almost certainly influence their behaviors, rendering any results useless.

But all subjects in all legitimate psychological studies are aware that they are part of an experiment with a defined beginning and end. That is truly where Facebook fell down. The catch-all Facebook terms of use is clearly inadequate in this regard; no one should expect that they can be an experimental subject at any time.

This means that at any time you are on Facebook, you are subject to being, well, a subject. Will that change how you interact with Facebook or other social media site? Well, maybe, and that could once again render any results useless.

Universities have ethics committees that evaluate prospective studies and determine whether or not they meet published ethics guidelines. While I won’t say that such committees make appropriate decisions in all cases, these processes are relatively transparent and well understood. It’s difficult to make the same case for any ethics decisions made by Facebook (my snark causes me to add “if any”).

Moreover, I have to ask what the purpose of such a study was. In academia (I was also a tenure-track academic for five years), researchers conduct experiments to generally advance the human body of knowledge (yes, and to get published, and obtain tenure, etc.). At Facebook, these studies must out of necessity be viewed with much more of a profit motive. Now there is truly an arresting thought.

Just what the heck is Facebook up to?

Google Glass My Ass June 29, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I think the onward march of wearable computers is both desirable and inevitable. And I love the idea of being able to find and research any bit of information, at any time. Almost two decades ago, Bill Gates introduced the concept of “information at your fingertips,”, but it was ultimately Google that delivered on the reality.

But, this article in Wall Street Journal describes the use of Google Glass as the essential tourist companion, able to let you research your activities ahead of time, and get information of any type as the need or desire strikes. Imagine being face to face with the Acropolis in Greece, wondering about a particular column design, and spending a minute or two on taking a photo and comparing images online to get a detailed background on the work.

But I think that the bad outweighs the good here. I caught the travel bug later in life, courtesy of my many conference speaking activities. I’ve been fortunate to mostly avoid the usual tourist hubs in favor of secondary but perhaps more colorful locales. I’ve done a few guided tours, and paid an extra few bucks once or twice for the self-guided audio tours.

The audio tours, which might be uncharitably compared to a poor man’s Google Glass, fall flat. They are mostly boring and difficult to sync up with what you are actually seeing. Guided tours are uneven; if the group is small and homogeneous, they can be fun and informative; large and diverse groups tend to be distracting.

But when you’re a tourist, what you really need to do is, well, talk to people. My collaborator Gerie Owen and I had just arrived in Tallinn, Estonia a few weeks ago, and after registering for our conference (Nordic Testing Days) went out to walk around. We happened to stumble up to Toompea Tower, adjacent to the Parliament Building, which just happened to be open to the public (35 people at a time, the old stone stairs were so narrow). While in line, we struck up a conversation with an older gentleman, who told us that he was last there on the day Estonia declared independence from the old Soviet Union. You can’t buy such an impromptu conversation for any price.

Experiencing new places involves a combination of seeing things, understanding what you are seeing, and integrating the cultural perspective. Google Glass can play a minor role in a part of that, but it also risks crowding out the actual experiences of being there. We might be too busy engaging searches for similar sites, or nearby restaurants, or just about anything other than where we are and what we are doing at the moment.

I think there is a heck of a lot of value in what Google Glass has to offer society in general. But I also think it will be far too easy to lose sight of the reason we are there.

And sorry about the title to this post; it was just too precious to pass up.

What is the Deal with Self-Driving Cars? June 23, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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Google, the media, and other interested parties are portraying self-driving cars as a panacea for drivers, traffic congestion, accidents, and other undesirable driving outcomes. I simply don’t get it, on multiple levels. I like the concept, but can’t connect it to any reasonable reality anytime in the future.

I’ve suspected that there would be issues with self-driving cars since they became a popular meme over the past year. At one level, there is the question of how you would test the technology. In normal system testing, you attempt to run tests that simulate actual use. But there are far too many possible scenarios for self-driving cars to reasonably test. Under other circumstances, it may be possible to test the most likely cases, but on a safety-critical system like a car, that’s simply not possible.

I’m reminded of my skepticism by this article on the utility of aircraft autopilot systems and their role in the operation and in some cases mis-operation of planes. One conclusion seems to be that autopilots actually make flying more complex, rather than simpler. That counterintuitive conclusion is based on the idea that the assumptions made by the autopilot are unexpected by the operators.

As a software guy, I’m okay with the idea that assumptions made by software can take people by surprise on occasion. It’s a difficult problem even for safety-critical systems, where people can die if the software makes an incorrect assumption. You can argue, probably successfully, that pilots shouldn’t be surprised by whatever a plane under their command does.

Drivers, not so much. As we look at aircraft autopilots, it is reasonable to draw a parallel between commercial aircraft and automobiles. Now, granted, aircraft operate in three dimensions. But automobiles have a greater range of operating options, in terms of speed, traffic, road types, road conditions, and so on. Commercial aircraft are already under positive control from the ground.

It’s not clear who will control driverless automobiles. It’s certainly unlikely that drivers are as attentive as pilots, yet will become at least as confused at times as they change where they want to go, and how they want to get there. And they won’t be observing the driving process any near as attentively as (I hope) pilots do.

Sigh. I’m not a Luddite. I’m excited about technology in general, and am an early adopter of many technologies (and, to be honest, a not-so-early adopter of others). But I simply don’t see self-driving automobiles taking off (pun intended) anytime in my lifetime.

Requiem for Radio Shack June 14, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Most of what I did in electronics in my youth (circa early 1970s and beyond) was what I could scrounge together and purchase for a dollar or two here and there. Much of that was purchased at Radio Shack; while I grew up in a rural environment, there was a store within riding distance on my bicycle. I used to get all the Radio Shack catalogs in the mail, and was impressed at the rate they added new stores and electronics.

I majored in the liberal arts as an undergraduate in college, and joined the Air Force, leading my life in a particular direction. Had it not been that direction, I’ve told many people over the years that I probably would have started out as an assistant manager at a Radio Shack. Radio Shack had the hobbyist reputation and technical cachet that I instinctively knew that I wanted at that early age.

Today, Radio Shack looks to be on its last legs. I confess that I haven’t been there much over the last few years, mostly a few times to purchase power adapters, and once a USB turntable (yes, I still have a significant collection of LPs which I am trying to convert to MP3).

But power adapters cost 70 percent less on Amazon, and I’m pretty sure I can get anything I need in the way of electronic components on Amazon or elsewhere. And if you browse a local Radio Shack today (yes, there is one in my town), there is little an electronic hobbyist might want to see. And there are far too many cell phones, which you can get practically anywhere. Simply put, there seems little reason for Radio Shack to exist in its current form.

I’m not a sentimental person by any means, and economically I believe in Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction. Still, I feel a loss at the decline and eventual closure of Radio Shack. I feel more for what they have become, less a distinctive destination than an accidental stopover. I realize that there may not be a viable business as a hobbyist store anymore, but they have made years of wrong decisions of what they should become.

Is Going Rogue Good? June 10, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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The June 9th Wall Street Journal included an article on the value of company staffers “going rogue” on IT. It used the usual arguments that employees will find a way to get their jobs done, with or without the help of IT. Most employees make an effort to keep to the organizational rules, which can be frustrating when the rules are slowing down or stopping progress. A few go off the reservation in order to bypass the frustration, finding their own solutions and surreptitiously installing them or using their home computers to get their work done.

But is that good for the company at large? One of the principal reasons for the existence of IT departments is to vet software for utility, quality, usability, and security, in order to protect the interests of the company. Using un-vetted software is an open invitation to compromise one or more of these goals.

But often IT goals seem to be at odds with employee productivity. I use Dropbox almost daily. I just rebuilt my personal website, using the freely-available BlueGriffon web design tool. I book travel on the airline’s website. Of course, some of these activities are for personal reasons, but I have done similar things while employed at various companies, too, as well as for my own business.

All too often, corporate IT is more in the business of making their own jobs manageable, rather than enabling those in the company who are supporting the business. IT could provide homegrown solutions like Dropbox that are within the company firewall and as secure as any other corporate software product. Or it can vet these tools as they become aware of their utility within the organization, even before users even start asking for it.

I’m sure there are proactive IT departments out there; I’ve just never encountered one. As organizational management adopts BYOD as a way to cut costs while increasing employee satisfaction, IT needs better strategies to help workers become more effective. My last employer required that I agree to have my personal phone wiped if I couldn’t remember my unlock password. Instead, I declined to use it for work email.

Employees wouldn’t have to go rogue if IT thought out a better balance between company and employee goals. Regrettably, I’m not holding my breath for that to happen.

I Am 95 Percent Confident June 9, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I spent the first six years of my higher education studying psychology, along with a smattering of biology and chemistry.  While most people don’t think of psychology as a disciplined science, I found an affinity with the scientific method, and with the analysis and interpretation of research data.  I was good enough at it so that I went from there to get a masters degree in applied math.

I didn’t practice statistics much after that, but I’ve always maintained an excellent understanding of just how to interpret statistical techniques and their results.  And we get it wrong all the time.  For example:

  • Correlation does not mean causation, even when variables are intuitively related.  There may be cause and effect, or it could be in reverse (the dependent variable actually causes the corresponding value of the independent variable, rather than visa versa).  Or both variables may be caused by another, unknown and untested variable.  Or the result may simply have occurred through random chance.  Either way, a correlation doesn’t tell me anything about whether or not two (or more) variables are related in a real world sense.
  • Related to that, the coefficient of determination (R-squared) does not “explain” anything in a human sense.  There is no explanation in our thought patterns.  Most statistics books will say that the square of the correlation coefficient explains that amount of variation in the relationship between the variables.  We interpret “explains” in a causative sense.  Wrong.  It’s simply that the movement between two variables is a mathematical relationship with that amount of variation.  When I describe this, I prefer using the term “accounts for”.
  • Last, if I’m 95 percent confident there is a statistically significant difference between two results (a common cutoff for concluding that the difference is a “real” one), our minds tend to interpret that conclusion as “I’m really pretty sure about this.”  Wrong again.  It means that if I conducted the study 100 times, I would draw the same conclusion 95 times.  And that means five times I will draw the opposite conclusion.
  • Okay, one more, related to that last one.  Statistically significant does not mean significant in a practical sense.  I may conduct a drug study that indicates that a particular drug under development significantly improves our ability to recover from a certain type of cancer.  Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?  But the sample size and definition of recovery could be such that that the drug may only really save a couple of lives a year.  Does it make sense to spend billions to continue development of the drug, especially if it might have undesirable side effects?  Maybe not.

I could go on.  Scientific experiments in the natural and social sciences are valuable, and they often incrementally advance the field in which they are conducted, even if they are set up, conducted, or interpreted incorrectly.  That’s a good thing.

But even when scientists get the explanation of the results right, it is often presented to us incorrectly, or our minds draw an incorrect conclusion.  A part of that is that a looser interpretation is often more newsworthy.  Another part is that our minds often want to relate new information to our own circumstances.  And we often don’t understand statistics well enough to draw informed conclusions.

Let us remember that Mark Twain described three types of mendacity – lies, damned lies, and statistics.  Make no mistake, that last one is the most insidious.  And we fall for it all the time.

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