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Do We Really Hate Science? February 25, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Despite the provocative title, the March cover story in National Geographic magazine, entitled The War On Science, is a well-conceived and thoughtful feature (in fairness, the website uses a much less controversial title – Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?). It points out that the making of accepted science isn’t something that happens overnight, but can take years, even decades of painstaking work by researchers in different fields around the world before it solidifies into mostly accepted theory. Even with that, there are contrary voices, even within the scientific community.

I think the explanation is slightly off-base. I learned the scientific method fairly rigorously, but in a very imprecise science – psychology. The field has entire courses on statistics and experimental design at the undergraduate level, and labs where students have to put the scientific method into practice.

Still, because psychology is an imprecise science, I was frustrated that we were usually able to interpret outcomes, especially those in real life, in ways that matched our theories and hypotheses. But our explanations had no predictive power; we could not with any degree of confidence predict an outcome to a given scenario. That failure led me away from psychology, to mathematics and ultimately computer science.

It’s true that science is messy. Researchers compete for grants. They stake out research areas that are likely to be awarded grants, and often design experiments with additional grants in mind. Results are inconclusive, and attempts at replication contradictory. Should we drink milk, for example? Yes, but no. In general, the lay public tries to do the right thing, and the science establishment makes it impossible to know what that is.

And the vast majority of scientists who purport to explain concepts to the lay public are, I’m sorry, arrogant pricks. We have lost the grand explainers, the Jacques Cousteau and the Carl Sagan of past generations. These scientists communicated first a sense of wonder and beauty, and rarely made grand statements about knowledge that brooked no discussion.

Who do we have today? Well, except for perhaps Bill Nye the Science Guy, no one, and I wouldn’t claim for a moment that Bill Nye is in anywhere near the same league as past giants.

The scientists who serve as talking heads on supposed news features and news opinions have their own agendas, which are almost invariably presented in a dour and negative manner. They are not even explaining anything, let alone predicting, and they certainly have no feel for the beauty and wonder of their work. Doom and catastrophe will be the end result, unless we do what they say we should do.

To be fair, this approach represents a grand alliance between the news agencies, which garner more attention when their message is negative, and the scientists, who promote their work as a way to gain recognition and obtain new grants.

In short, I would like to think that there is not a war upon science. Rather, there is a growing frustration that science is increasingly aloof, rather than participatory in larger society. Everything will be fine if you just listen to me, one might say. The next day, another says the opposite.

That’s not how science should be communicating to the world at large. And until science fixes that problem, it will continue to believe that there is a war on.

Who is the Bad Guy? February 21, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’m not a conspiracy person. I don’t think governments, evil corporations, or anyone else have banded together to rob, cheat, or steal from me. It’s simply too difficult to keep such things a secret from the outside world. As the old saw goes, three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead (and I’m not entirely convinced about the third one).

But stories like this, concerning US and UK agencies breaking into phone SIM cards, are eminently believable, and infinitely troubling, because we already know that bad hackers can get into servers and devices that we use in our daily lives for all manner of activities. We have had indications that governments are doing likewise, to each other, to companies, and to citizens of its own and others. Governments generally won’t admit to doing so, and don’t have to. But you have to figure that any government could afford talent equivalent to those who do it for free.

There is no question that any government can employ the some of the best hackers (other hackers are likely to avoid governments altogether). And make no mistake – there is a war out there, between nations, and within nations and, well, I’ll say it, cyber-terrorists. I’m okay with stopping the bad guys and when possible, bringing them to justice.

But the larger issue is whether it is appropriate (I would like to find a stronger word here) for any government to do so. I get the fact that the nature of law enforcement has changed dramatically over the past decade. Some crimes that are common today didn’t exist at the turn of the century. Law enforcement has always been behind the technology curve from the bad guys, and I don’t have a problem with investigation, enforcement, and the legal environment catching up.

But we’re talking something different here. We’re talking about the governments becoming the bad guys, digging into people who are not suspected criminals or terrorists. And that is just plain wrong. I understand that the difference between law enforcement and law breaking can become blurred, but from our governments, it should be very well defined and communicated.

I understand why governments and legitimate law enforcement agencies believe they need to adopt these techniques to be proactive in an increasingly dangerous world. But guess what? They don’t. They have simply become lazy, substituting the games of the criminals as a rationale for keeping people safe and protected. No. They are better than that, and we are better than that.

It’s not even the journeyman law enforcement people at fault here. They are caught in a bind. If Something Bad happens on their watch, they take all of the heat, and who can blame them for bending the game a bit for their side. It’s the leadership that has to draw sharp lines, and it is not doing so. This failure harms all of us. Let’s get back to good, solid investigative work and not break into SIM cards and plant malware on computers.

We Have to Start to Choose Our Technologies February 19, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’m not a Luddite. I grew up with The Jetsons (which is now the brand of tire on my ancient Subaru), Lost in Space, and Star Trek. I want a flying car, tricorder, and the ability to give commands to my personal robot. I have most of the toys most of us have these days, although rarely the latest models, because I have better things to spend my money on, and less an emotional need to be first on the block.

But what these optimistic visions of the future never showed were the tradeoffs inherent in these wonders. If I have a flying car, the airspace become crowded as more people try to get to farther places. Giving commands to a robot means that those commands will be stored somewhere, and have the potential for misinterpretation. The late great Isaac Asimov had a great run with his Three Laws of Robotics.

What this means is that no new technology is a clean win; there are always tradeoffs. It’s only going to accelerate in the future. We’ll have smart homes, with connected utilities, refrigerators, microwaves, and cars. We have apps that record our heart rate and other essential bodily functions, tell us precisely where we are in the world, and have shops text us with deals as we walk by them. We post on social media for the world to see, little, some, or all.

Mostly these are good things, or at least innocuous things. But as we increasingly tie ourselves to technology, we need to constantly consider the tradeoffs. What passes for news these days tells us about people losing jobs because of party photos on their Facebook page, or people scammed or worse by Craigslist ads.

But it’s more insidious than that. As our identities can be stolen for nefarious purposes, and our Web movements tracked for commercial ones, we have to understand those tradeoffs and make the right decisions for us as individuals. Your decisions are likely to be different than mine, but if you don’t understand the implications of your online actions, others will make them for you.

And the standard changes over time, often short periods of time. For years I didn’t mind online photos of me; there are several on my website. And most of the conferences I speak at require photos for their own websites. I was copasetic with that, until I realized that Google (or other) face recognition software would be able to identify me on the street in about three seconds. That genie can’t be put back into the bottle, but I would still like to have some control over my life.

So we shouldn’t consume technology without thought. Circa the 1980s, there was on TV an acclaimed police drama called Hill Street Blues. In every episode, Sergeant Phil Esterhaus concluded the morning briefing by saying, “Let’s be careful out there.”

A Road Less Taken January 26, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms.
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Among the best jobs that I had in my long and interesting career is the roles of technical evangelist. I’ve had that formal title three times, and have had related roles on other occasions.

As you might expect, a technical evangelist evangelizes, or enthusiastically promotes, a particular technology, product or solution to a wide range of people. They could be C-level executives, or industry thought leaders, managers, tech leads, or individual contributors.

This is done through a number of ways – through articles in industry publications (these days mostly websites), white papers, blog posts, webcasts, podcasts, and screencasts, as well as speaking at user groups and industry conferences.

What good is evangelism? Well, it can play a number of different but interrelated roles. In the places I was an evangelist, it was mostly about brand awareness, with some customer contact for demonstrations and consultation. In other roles, it could serve as a specialized technical resource to help customers solve difficult problems. In still others, it is primarily a technical sales function. The important thing to do is to understand what is expected of the role, and to deliver on those expectations. It sounds simple, but in reality it rarely is.

A little bit about me. I don’t consider myself to be especially outgoing, but I was a university professor for a number of years, and through interest and repetition became a very good public speaker. I learned the art of storytelling through trial and error, and found it to be an effective teaching technique.

I was fortunate enough to receive training in academic instruction through the Air Force, and found that I had a knack for relating to my audiences. I found that I loved the travel and interaction with experts, peers, and students of the field. I would like to think that I built brand awareness very well.

The downside of being an evangelist is that many technology companies are ambivalent about the role. I worked for a company that had twenty evangelists, then systematically dismantled the team in order to look attractive for an exit strategy. In doing so, they may have sacrificed long term growth for a short term balance sheet.

Yet it is an exciting and fulfilling role. I hope to be able to get back into it at some point.

The Evolution of Software Delivery January 25, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development.
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This could alternatively be titled “Is Desktop Software Dead?” I’ll start at the beginning. Circa 2000, we delivered software in 12-18 month increments. It was desktop software, intended to debug and test Windows (and Java) applications, and manufactured and delivered on CDs and DVDs (don’t laugh; back then, even Microsoft delivered its MSDN entirely on DVD).

Our customer thought we delivered new versions too quickly. It took too long to install software on individual machines, and they didn’t want to do it that often. For the most part, they wanted to upgrade when Windows changed or Visual Studio changed, not when we wanted to push out new software.

Circa 2010, I attended a talk given by Kent Beck, in which he described how software delivery was speeding up over time. He examined how software testing and delivery would change as we accelerated to quarterly, monthly, weekly, and even daily deliveries. And he delivered this entire talk without once using the word agile.

There is a key factor missing in this story. That is that the type of software we produced for desktop computers ten years ago is no longer relevant. Sure, I still run MS Office, but that’s more of a reflex action. I could be using Google Docs, or Open Office, or something like that. The relevant software today is web, or mobile, or some hybrid of either or both that may also put something on my laptop.

In other words, the nature of software had changed. When we had to physically install it on individual computers, delivery was an annoyance for the users, to be avoided (tell me about it). They ultimately didn’t want our upgrades unless they absolutely needed them.

Today, for users, whether they are businesses or consumers, delivery has to be invisible. And, as Kent Beck described, done much more rapidly, perhaps almost instantaneously.

There are some tradeoffs to this model. There may be new features that could be difficult or unintuitive to use, and require instruction and training.

And it poses challenges for software teams. Agile and DevOps addresses some of these challenges, but delivery is an entirely different ballgame. Teams have to be able to quickly assess the quality of the updates and be able to roll back if need be. There has to be communications between IT operations and dev and test in order to make this happen.

My Fitbit and I Are Headed for a Split January 7, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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My motivation for physical activity over the last half-year has been largely driven by the acquisition of a Fitbit, the simple yet effective activity tracker that is almost always fastened to my belt except when I’m taking a shower.

At 5AM this morning, it was cold (5 degrees F). There was snow on the neighborhood streets. I wore my usual hoodie and sweats, with ear muffs and gloves, and ran 5K. When I returned, I discovered that my Fitbit had inexplicably reset itself and didn’t record any of the excursion. Perhaps it was the cold, but this had never happened before (it appears that there may have been a software update overnight).

Now that raises an interesting question. If I ran the 5K and there was no record, did I actually do it? I almost made an instant decision to go back out and do it again.

The question is, of course, more than philosophical (yes, I did run it). The Fitbit has been my primary motivator in activity. I feed off of the numbers, striving to maintain or even improve upon them on a daily basis. Without those numbers, will I be able to continue to compete with myself?

So I need a greater level of reliability in my life. Once failed, I don’t think I can trust the Fitbit again.

Adding to this whole conundrum was an unpleasant experience I had with Fitbit customer support, in which an order for an additional charger cord somehow got lost in their system. It didn’t ship until I called to inquire about it, even though the website said it had shipped. I question whether Fitbit understands the concept of e-commerce, even as that is where most of its business is generated.

So I am ready to break up with my Fitbit. I’m looking at the Microsoft Band. It has a lot of features, including beyond simple activity tracking, but it’s pricey. Thoughts, anyone?

Algorithms Are Thoughtless December 30, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’m reminded of the movie I, Robot. Will Smith (as Del Spooner, but it certainly should have been Elijah Baley) distrusts advanced, human-like robots because he came to experience that while they make rational and largely correct decisions, on occasion the logically right, but humanly wrong determinations could be life or death under critical circumstances.

Of course, the late and lamented Isaac Asimov used the “I, Robot” science fiction series as a foil for logic puzzles surrounding his seemingly ironclad “Three Laws of Robotics.” Still, he was not unaware of the potential for wrong when the logic is right.

I came across this posting recently, commenting on a Facebook app that helps users build their “Year in Review.” Regrettably, this past year was not a bed of roses for this person, and the Facebook app selected images that brought back those unpleasant times.

Further, the Year in Review keeps rotating back to the person while in Facebook, serving as an unwanted reminder of events that don’t need reminders. The author called this “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” (I wonder if there could also be “intentional algorithmic cruelty?”). Apparently, Facebook made the assumption that only good and memorable information is posted. In most cases, that may be true, but it wasn’t a particularly good assumption.

There seems to be a question surrounding whether the current focus of artificial intelligence (AI) is bad for humanity. AI is, and will continue to be, based on mathematical algorithms that assign probability and make determinations that guide decisions.

Certainly, any abstract intellectual, physical, or emotional responses in robots (however you might define that term) would result in an increasingly boring world. Knowing the algorithm means knowing the response in advance. While Asimov’s logic puzzles toyed with a number of logical holes in these laws, for the most part real life experiences are unlikely to be so unpredictable. His were edge cases.

In reality, it will be a long, long time, if ever, before we see anything resembling Asimov’s positronic brains encoded with the Three Laws of Robotics. Robots, and AI in general, will continue to become more complex and capable, and will continue to nibble around the edges of jobs that can be designed and executed according to rules.

But we won’t be replicating judgment in algorithms, because judgment is an individual characteristic. We make judgments in different ways, based on our backgrounds, experiences, age, and a myriad of other factors. The judgments and results will be different. That doesn’t make some judgments wrong, but it does make them human.

Of Apps and Men December 18, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software platforms, Software tools.
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Fair warning – I am eventually going to say more about Uber. The apps business is an interesting one, and some historical context is necessary to understand just why. In the PC era, we typically paid hundreds of dollars for individual applications. As a result, we would buy only a few of them. And we would use those applications only when we were seated in front of our computers. The software business was the application, and selling it made the business.

In the smartphone/tablet era, however, apps are essentially free, or at worst cost only a few bucks. People are using more apps, and using them for longer periods of time than we ever did on the PC.

But that still doesn’t quite make the bottom line sing. I mention Uber above because of its recent valuation of $41 billion, at a time when the entire annual taxi revenue of the US is $11 billion. The standard line by the VCs is that it will transform all of surface transportation as more and more people use Uber, even rather than their own cars.

I don’t buy that argument, but that is a tale for another day. But the message, I think, is fundamentally correct. The message is that you don’t build a business on an app. You will never make money, at least not sustainable money, from the app. Rather, the app is the connection to your business. You use the app simply as another connection to your products or services, or as a connection to an entirely new type of business.

But today, you are not going to use and app to build a business that was the standard fare of the software industry only a few years ago.

The corollary, of course, is that almost every business will need its own app, sooner or later.  That represents a boon for developers.

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