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Solving a Management Problem with Automation is Just Plain Wrong January 18, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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This article is so fascinatingly wrong on so many levels that it is worth your time to read it.  On the surface, it may appear to offer some impartial logic, that we should automate because humans don’t perform consistently.

“At some point, every human being becomes unreliable.”  Well, yes.  Humans aren’t machines.  They have good days and bad days.  They have exceptional performances and poor performances.

Machines, on the other hand, are stunningly consistent, and least under most circumstances.  Certainly software bugs, power outages, and hardware breakdowns happen, and machines will fail to perform under many of those circumstances, but they are relatively rare.

But there is a problem here.  Actually, several problems.  The first is that machines will do exactly the same thing, every time, until the cows come home.  That’s what they are programmed to do, and they do it reasonably well.

Humans, on the other hand, experiment.  And through experimentation and inspiration come innovation, a better way of doing things.  Sometimes that better way is evolutionary, and sometimes it is revolutionary.  But that’s how society evolves and becomes better.  The machine will always do exactly the same thing, so there will never be better and innovative solutions.  We become static, and as a society old and tired.

Second, humans connect with other humans in a way machines cannot (the movie Robot and Frank notwithstanding).  This article starts with a story of a restaurant whose workers showed up when they felt like it.  Rather that addressing that problem directly, the owner implemented a largely automated (and hands off) assembly line of food.

What has happened here is that the restaurant owner has taken a management problem and attempted to solve it with the application of technology.  And by not acknowledging his own management failings, he will almost certainly fail in his technology solution too.

Except for probably fast food restaurants, people eat out in part for the experience.  We do not eat out only, and probably not even primarily, for sustenance, but rather to connect with our family and friends, and with random people we encounter.

If we cannot do that, we might as well just have glucose and nutrients pumped directly into our veins.


Tech Products That Should Never Have Been Conceived January 11, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I say that with some trepidation, for a number of reasons.  First, for the last 30 years I’ve made my living off of tech in some capacity or other.  Second, I’m all in favor of progress in technology.  It makes those of us who work in it wealthier, and it has the potential to significantly benefit society.

It’s the direction of progress that sometimes concerns me.  There are a number of things that can be invented, but probably should not be.  One is the Gita, from Boston-based Vespa subsidiary Piaggio Fast Forward.  Gita is a mobile item carrier that follows people carrying up to 44 pounds.  It simply rolls along behind you,

A close second is the auto-following suitcase.  A young WSJ writer covering CES (paywall) writes about her experiences with these, and likens having to pull your own carry-on through an airport as hiking the Oregon Trail.  Um.  She points out that it’s practical, in that you can have an iced latte in each hand, and not worry about losing your bag.  Right.

What’s even worse is the Modobag, a ridable piece of luggage.  And the images on the website show young people using it.  I am imagining playing bumper cars, so to speak, in a crowded airport concourse.

I recognize that there is a niche though possibly legitimate use for products like these.  Elderly or infirm might find them useful, although that represents a pretty small percentage of the traveling public.  And despite an occasional marketing word to the contrary, these products are clearly focused on an entirely different demographic.

And I recognize that at least a few of the articles are intended to be partly tongue-in-cheek.  But that’s no excuse to not conclude that these particular emperors have no clothes.

But we have reached an era where tech companies don’t particularly care about benefitting society.  They think they can make their fortunes on young people who think they are hip by spending thousands of dollars on the latest gadgets.

Gita was announced a year ago, and doesn’t even seem to be in beta yet, so perhaps it will never see daylight.  Good.  And most airlines have said that they will not embark motorized bags in which the battery cannot be removed.  As these bags will take up more space and weight than a conventional bag, I see this as only a half measure, but it is causing some rethinking among companies making them.

Folks, forget the stupid iced latte.  Stuff like this serves no purpose whatsoever except to make you look silly.

It is Time to Say that Uber Has No Clothes December 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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A few years ago, I remember hearing a lot about the sharing economy.  Specifically, you need to go somewhere, someone happens to be heading in that direction, Uber will match you up.  While we still hear Uber and sharing economy used in the same sentence, it is nonsensical.  You summon a driver, period.  Whatever happened to the sharing economy?  Oh, I know, it is not profitable.  Of course, neither is Uber.

Credit not me, but Alison Griswold of Quartz for getting it right.  And also credit the European Union for finally calling out the company.  If its users say, “I have summoned an Uber,” then yes, it must by definition be a transportation company.

I do credit Uber for shaking up and transforming the taxi industry, which really needed it.  It clearly met an unserved need.  The technology is generally good and needed, even if Uber’s intrusiveness into our private lives was grossly inappropriate.

But the way forward is not Uber.  I have railed against its antagonistic company culture, but this cuts right to the business model.  Uber will die, despite (or perhaps because of) its $68 billion valuation, which is highly questionable if it ever reaches the open market.

The company itself won’t see another ten years, and that is becoming increasingly clear.  I hope something good comes out of it, but for its successors.

Could There Have Been a World Where Social Media Behaved Responsibly? December 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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That is an enormous question that I cannot possibly answer.  Perhaps I can at least appropriately frame the problem.  Through the likes of Facebook (especially), Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn, we have enabled hate speech, grossly inappropriate comments, and in general stupidity.

So here is the question that I would like to pose to Mark Zuckerberg.  What is the value to human society of being able to connect with thousands of people that you don’t know, hundreds of people that you met once or twice in high school and college, dozens of people that you worked with in dozens of jobs, and your three most recent significant others?  Very little, I will say, and the downside is significantly greater.

I’m sure that Zuckerberg can wax poetic on connectivity, community, and interaction, and how he is bringing together the planet, but it’s all at the abstract level.  I’m pretty sure that he can’t point to more than a handful of incidents, if that, where Facebook has resulted in a win for collaboration.  It simply doesn’t exist, in real life.

And, despite my detractors in this (yes, I am talking about you, <name redacted>), it is not clear that any of this has added to our experience.  It has changed our experience, certainly, but beyond that, I call bullshit.  Some of you say that we connect with people that we are friends or colleagues with, and there is some minor convenience there, although emphatically not on Facebook, but in general, I cannot believe that we are getting the value for what we are paying.

Paying not in money, but in aggravation.  Perhaps harassment.  And certainly in time, at getting rid of those that for whatever reason, we no longer want to bother with.

Revisiting Company Culture December 17, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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It’s amusing that Silicon Valley continues to beat the drum of culture, and cultural fit, even as it becomes increasingly demonstrable that culture causes more problems than it cures.  Yet if anything, the pounding of the culture drum gets steadily louder.

I’m sorry, I call bullshit.  I have been around the block once or twice (or more), and my experience with culture is that it is a lame excuse for people to say they only want to work with people like themselves.  I understand the attraction of doing so, but there is no good business reason for that.  In fact, it likely harms the business.  Case in point, Uber, who may well be fatally flawed by its culture.

Most companies try to sell to a fairly wide swath of people.  To effectively build products for a diverse customer base, you need diverse inputs, which means from people with different ideas and points of view.  Age, gender, race, education, and ethnic background all play into getting a broad picture of the customer base.  Many companies I have worked for build products that they themselves want to use.  Excuse me, that is not a company, that is a club.

I once worked for a company that abruptly fired everyone who didn’t go to an office daily, because the CEO claimed that it was vitally important for everyone to be soaked in its unique culture.  That “unique” culture was toxic, with blame, cutthroat tactics, and nonaccountability.

So I think it is time to give us a break from the screaming of culture.  Most company leaders speaking of their culture have no idea what they are talking about, yet we nod and smile at their sagacity.  Culture can matter, but not the kind of culture these jokers are talking about.

Revisiting Net Neutrality December 14, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I wrote on this about three years ago.  As it seems that so-called net neutrality may be reaching the end of the road, at least for the near term, it is worthwhile cutting through the crap to examine what is really going on.

You know, I think that net neutrality has merits.  It certainly has marketing on its side; according to CNN, it means “to keep the internet open and fair.”

Ah, it doesn’t, and that is the problem.  It means that the streaming services such as the likes of Netflix and Amazon can hog bandwidth with impunity, and without paying a premium.  I am certain that CNN has a business reason to maintain net neutrality, and it is unfortunate that they are letting that business reason leak into their reporting.

The Internet is a finite resource.  There are some companies that use a great deal of it.  Should they pay more for doing so?  Perhaps, but the “net neutrality” supporters don’t want to have that conversation.  I say let’s talk about it, but the news establishment doesn’t want to do so.  They give it a high-sounding label, and proclaim it good.  The ones who oppose it are bad.  Case closed.

Net neutrality does (maybe) mean that the Internet is basically a utility, like electricity or water.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I am not sure it reflects reality.  Those companies, mostly the telecom folks, have invested billions of dollars, and are not at all guaranteed a profit.  It is a risk, and when individuals or companies take risks, they succeed or fail according to the market.  Yet the likes of CNN are treating them as your electric utility, guaranteed to make a set amount of money from the state Public Utilities Commission.  That doesn’t reflect their reality at all.

I think that net neutrality is ultimately the way to go.  But it supports some businesses over the expense of others.  Just like the alternative.

But I have to ask, CNN, why are you afraid to even have the conversation?  You have declared net neutrality to be The Way, and you will brook no further discussion.

Update:  And now the title of the CNN headline is this:  End of the Internet as we know it.  Can we get any more biased, CNN?

Let’s Have a Frank Discussion About Complexity December 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Strategy, Uncategorized.
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And let’s start with the human memory.  “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.  The title is rhetorical, of course; there is nothing magical about the number seven.  But the paper and associated psychological studies explicitly define the ability of the human mind to process increasingly complex information.

The short answer is that the human mind is a wonderful mechanism for some types of processing.  We can very rapidly process a large amount of sensory inputs, and draw some very quick but not terribly accurate conclusions (Kahneman’s Type 1 thinking), we can’t handle an overwhelming amount of quantitative data and expect to make any sense out of it.

In discussing machine learning systems, I often say that we as humans have too much data to reliably process ourselves.  So we set (mostly artificial) boundaries that let us ignore a large amount of data, so that we can pay attention when the data clearly signify a change in the status quo.

The point is that I don’t think there is a way for humans to deal directly with a lot of complexity.  And if we employ systems to evaluate that complexity and present it in human-understandable concepts, we are necessarily losing information in the process.

This, I think, is a corollary of Joel Spolsky’s Law of Leaky Abstractions, which says that anytime you abstract away from what is really happening with hardware and software, you lose information.  In many cases, that information is fairly trivial, but in some cases, it is critically valuable.  If we miss it, it can cause a serious problem.

While Joel was describing abstraction in a technical sense, I think that his law applies beyond that.  Any time that you add layers in order to better understand a scenario, you out of necessity lose information.  We look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a measure of the stock market, for example, rather than minutely examine every stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

That’s not a bad thing.  Abstraction makes it possible for us to better comprehend the world around us.

But it also means that we are losing information.  Most times, that’s not a disaster.  Sometimes it can lead us to disastrously bad decisions.

So what is the answer?  Well, abstract, but doubt.  And verify.

Who Will Thrive in an AI World? November 26, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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Software engineers, of course, who understand both relevant programming languages and the math behind the algorithms.  That is significantly less than the universe of software engineers in general, but I don’t see even those math-deprived programmers having a big problem, at least in the short term.

Beyond that?  Are we all toast?

Well, no.  Today someone asked me how machine learning would affect health care jobs.  I thought to where health care was going with machine learning, and to my own experiences with health care.  “The survivors will be those who can understand what the algorithms tell them, but also talk with the patients those results affect.”

I have dealt with doctors (such as my current PCP, who could be a much better doctor if she simply trusted herself) who simply look at test results and parrot them back to you.  I had a doctor who I liked and trusted, who could not find cancer but insisted it was there, based on photographs (it was not).

These are not health care professionals who will thrive in an era of AI-assisted medical evaluation and diagnosis.  They simply parrot test results, without adding value or effectively communicating with the patient.

To be fair, our system has created this kind of doctor, who is afraid of using their expertise to express an independent opinion.  I had one who did employ his expertise, during my cancer scare.  He came into my room, and said, “Where is your nose drain?  How come you’re not choking?”  Then “I looked at your MRI from six years ago, and you had indications then.  Whatever this is, it probably isn’t cancer.”  It wasn’t.

Doctors have become afraid to use their expertise, because of the fear of lawsuits and other recriminations.  That is unfortunate, and of course not entirely their fault.  But this is just the kind of doctor who will not survive the machine learning revolution.

I think that general conclusion can be extended to other fields.  Those that become overly reliant on machine results, and decline to employ their own expertise, will ultimately be left behind.  Those who are willing to use those results, yet supplement them with their own expertise, and effectively explain it to their patients, will succeed.  We are still people, after all, and need to communicate with one another.