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The Scientific Method Needs to Be Fundamental Education for Everyone January 15, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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We have a problem today.  Actually, we have many problems, but most of them boil down to the fact that we lack disciplined thinking.  As a result, we feel justified in believing any damned thing we like, whether or not it makes logical or evidentiary sense.  A common grounding in the scientific method can address that.

I’ll give an example.  I recently advised a PhD candidate on the use of statistics for his dissertation research.  He was planning on doing about 90 t-tests, plus a collection of ANOVAs.  I warned him that his results were likely to have at least a couple of Type I errors.  He replied, “What is that?”

Where is Martin Gardner when you need him?  (Yes, I know he passed away in 2010).  We lack the understanding of basic analytical statistics and how they influence our beliefs.  This is not rocket surgery, folks.  Anyone, and I mean anyone, who is doing primary research for a doctoral degree should understand the implications of their experimental design.

But we can extend belief well beyond that intellectual exercise.  A very large part of the reason many people feel free to believe things that are quite frankly difficult to believe is that belief is often a subjective thing, rather than based on any sort of scientific discipline.

You may argue that what any person believes is legitimate to that person.  Um, no.  Without a methodology of belief, that represents a lie and a cop-out by that person.  “I believe because I feel like it?”  That doesn’t cut the mustard in serious discussion.

So my point here is that everyone’s belief system has to begin with a disciplined foundation.  We believe something to be true because we have objective evidence, and that evidence allows us to formulate a hypothesis that is testable.  The test may be explicit, or it may be supported or rejected based on additional evidence.  But we cannot believe something because we feel like it.  Life doesn’t work that way.

Few of us think this way in determining our beliefs, and that is unfortunate.

You might also argue that this is an amusing stance for me to be taking.  Decades ago, I learned, and internalized, the scientific method as an undergrad psychology student, which some may consider an odd field of study for that discipline.  But as a social science, psychology is probably the best discipline for employing the scientific method.  It meant a lot for me to begin my adult life with a foundation of the scientific method.  Others can benefit too.

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Will Self-Driving Cars Ever Be Truly So? January 7, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Architectures, Machine Learning, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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The quick answer is we will not be in self-driving cars during my lifetime.  Nor your lifetime.  Nor any combination.  Despite pronouncements by so-called pundits, entrepreneurs, reporters, and GM, there is no chance of a self-driving car being so under all conditions, let alone everyone in a self-driving car, with all that that implies.

The fact of the matter is that the Waymo CEO has come out and said that he doesn’t imagine a scenario where self-driving cars will operate under all conditions without occasional human intervention.  Ever.  “Driverless vehicles will always have constraints,” he says.  Most of his competitors now agree.

So what do we have today?  We have some high-profile demonstrations under ideal conditions, some high-profile announcements that say we are all going to be in self-driving cars within a few years.  And one completely preventable death.  That’s about it.  I will guess that we are about 70 percent of the way there, but that last 30 percent is going to be a real slog.

What are the problems?

  1. Mapping.  Today, self-driving cars operate only on routes that have been mapped in detail.  I’ll give you an example.  I was out running in my neighborhood one morning, and was stopped by someone looking for a specific street.  I realized that there was a barricaded fire road from my neighborhood leading to that street.  His GPS showed it as a through street, which was wrong (he preferred to believe his GPS rather than me).  If GPS and mapping cannot get every single street right, self-driving cars won’t work.  Period.
  2. Weather.  Rain or snow interrupts GPS signals.  As does certain terrain.  It’s unlikely that we will ever have reliable GPS, Internet, and sensor data under extreme weather condition.  Which in most of the country happens several months a year.
  3. Internet.  A highway of self-driving cars must necessarily communicate with each other.  This map (paywall) pretty much explains it all.  There are large swaths of America, especially in rural areas, that lack reliable Internet connection.
  4. AI.  Self-driving cars look toward AI to identify objects in the road.  This technology has the most potential to improve over time.  Except in bad weather.  And poorly mapped streets.

So right now we have impressive demonstrations that have no basis in reality.  I won’t discount the progress that has been made.  But we should be under no illusions that self-driving cars are right around the corner.

The good news is that we will likely see specific application in practice in a shorter period of time.  Long-haul trucking is one area that has great potential for the shorter term.  It will involve re-architecting our trucking system to create terminals around the Interstate highway system, but that seems doable, and would be a nice application of this technology.

US Higher Education Fails At Every Turn January 6, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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I am an unabashed supporter of higher education.  As a working class youth whose parents never graduated high school, I believed (and still believe) that college made me someone I could not have been otherwise.  To you it may have been inevitable, to me it was a dream that I had to wish for and work hard for.

But at the same time, I have been an unabashed foe of university proclamations, policies, and executions.  Here is an example of how our universities are lying and feeling good about it.

Today, universities are offering tiered dormitory pricing, letting students who pay more for residence have better digs, including kitchens, lounges, and private rooms.  Even maids and a chef.

Here is the problem with that.  Universities have always promoted themselves as egalitarian and non-discriminatory.  They love to yell from the highest ramparts how they bring together youth of different socioeconomic status and race, and treat them as equals.  They believe that they are fighting against a society that classifies people by their socioeconomic standing.

I strongly believe that that is a very important part of higher education.  I went to college with the children of wealthy, yet lived and slept next to them in the same dorm rooms.

Our universities are not fighting for anything but your dollar.  The schools don’t care, because they get more money.  The parents today don’t care, because they are giving their children all of the comforts of home.

I have a friend; I once told him that my applying to a backup school meant that my family probably wouldn’t eat that week.  His response: “Sucked to be you, didn’t it?”  This is what our universities are creating today.  Think about that.

As you continue to pursue a fulfilling life with American education, there is just one thing that I would like to say.  They lie.  They are as bigoted against their poor students as it seems.  All they want is your money.

Rejected! December 14, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I understand it is the college acceptance season for the high school class of 2018.  I confess I didn’t realize it, as I have no children, and my grandnephews still have a few more years in the soup that is middle/high school before they get to this point.

It was different, circa 1974-75.  Yes, Hopewell High School, 1975 (don’t laugh; my sister, six years my elder, still has an enormous amount or professional and personal energy).  Hopewell was an interesting microcosm; a decidedly blue collar environment, where most went directly into indentured servitude in the steel mill, yet some of us endeavored beyond that.

First, my sister, Hopewell class of 1969.  It was difficult to be a woman then (to be fair, not that it’s much better today).  You married at 18 to a steelworker, kept a household, and raised 3 or 4 kids.  My sister was the first of our extended family to go to college – California State Teachers’ College (now California State University of PA).  We were separated in years, so there was much I didn’t understand at the time.  Our mother told her that she had to be a teacher or a nurse; she graduated in 2.5 (Karen, correct me if I am wrong) years with a degree in French Education.

It didn’t work, she reverted to blue collar, but in her mid-life crisis, found her way to I think a successful professional career in health care.

Now, me (be patient, please).  I applied to two colleges, based on I’m not really sure what criteria.  We didn’t have that sort of world view.  I can tell you that the $25-$50 application fee at the time to yet another school might have meant the difference between our family eating for that week (up yours, James Farley), so my choices were necessarily limited.

My schools were Allegheny College, and Mansfield State.  Mansfield was on there because I met the admissions counselor as a high school junior, and he remembered me a year later.  As a teen with no discernable skills or proclivities, I gravitated toward the Air Force ROTC program at Allegheny, where should I successfully graduate, at least I had a job waiting for me.

It was slightly more convoluted than that, but I graduated in four years with a degree in psychology, from Grove City College, with a late but strong proclivity toward the life sciences.  I have three masters degrees, some work toward a PhD, and a reasonably successful professional life.

So where is all of this going?  Apparently there are teens that have their hearts set on, well, Harvard, Dartmouth, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, you name it.  They have visited these campuses and feel themselves easing into an academic lifestyle in those locations.

Quoting the Bill Murray movie Meatballs, it just doesn’t matter.  Well, on edge cases it probably does.  If you want a career in national government, particularly the State Department, you must be Ivy League. Get an East Coast law degree if you want the FBI.  Stanford or CMU in CS if you want Google.

But for the vast majority of us, it really doesn’t matter.  Get your degree.  The major doesn’t really matter.  You may do two years at Penn State Beaver (yes, that is a place) as a commuter, before moving to the main campus, or you may do four years in exile at North Adams State.  You’ll do fine.  It may not be your ideal way of starting out your journey, but it may be the best.

My Thirtieth Birthday December 12, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Was quite a long time ago.  But on my thirtieth birthday, the US President at the time, Ronald Reagan, was in Berlin, giving a speech, of which the most significant part was, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”  It happened, about two years later.  Much later, in 2016, I was there, and I got to see a part of history (hint: don’t buy the chunks of wall on sale just about everywhere).

The point is that I can in no way advocate that the US build a wall, up against its nearest neighbor, when a previous president exhorts the Russians to tear down their own.  If we build our own wall, our shame will extend into the next generations, and of course the wall will not last.

I don’t go political lightly, in public, for several reasons, but there are principles in which I strongly believe.  You may argue that the goals today are very different; I disagree.  I am a second generation immigrant, and whatever else has changed in the US, it is that immigration remains our lifeblood.  We will, and I will emphasize that, we will grow stagnant as a nation and as a people without immigration.  While some of us may be afraid, we are not threatened more now that at any time in our history.

How Do You Pay Someone When Money Isn’t the Right Standard? December 10, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Trick question, you may respond.  Money, and especially more money, is always an appropriate reward.  Well, for some people (I am looking at you, Zuckerberg), that may be true.  And every year Forbes magazine lists the top 400 richest people.  Who wouldn’t want to be on a worldwide top 400 list of just about anything?

It has been reported that Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots football team, is unlikely to make any of the monetary incentives in his contract this year.  While Tom is paid handsomely by most people’s standards, he is relatively underpaid in comparison to the universe of NFL quarterbacks.  Brady has also in the past accepted below market deals with the expectation that what he was giving up might help build a better team.

Which leads me to the question of pay in general, particularly in the tech sector.  At some Silicon Valley companies, the average pay is well into the six figures, and options and other incentives add still more to the take.  Granted, in Silicon Valley, costs have more than kept pace with income growth, so that whole microcosm might be no more than a Red Queen’s Race.  But surely in all echelons of productive society there are people who say, “My material wants are more than met.”  So how do we compensate such people?

In fact, we tend to think of money not only in compensation terms, but also in motivation terms.  Is there a point at which another ten percent raise won’t deliver a commiserate increase in motivation?  I bet there is.  So what do we do about it?

I have made some money in my career, mostly through a series of decent but unexceptional jobs, plus adjunct teaching, plus freelance writing and consulting.  I also live relatively modestly.  To be fair, I don’t deprive myself, but I only recently gave up a 19-year old daily use car; it simply started every single time, and its extraordinary maintenance needs were trivial.  My sports car days are in the past (yes, I once owned a classic Corvette), and today my choice of a ride is much more pragmatic.

So in seeking employment, I don’t feel the need to maximize my monetary take.  Recently I suggested my high water mark as a goal to a recruiter at a Silicon Valley company.  She chuckled involuntarily, and replied, “I’m sure we can do much better than that.”  (Nevertheless, I didn’t get the job).

I have created a fictional character, a minor employee in a small tech company, who foils a multi-billion dollar scam and rescues the fair maiden, both of which go a long way toward saving the company.  In the sequel, the company owner is exiting, and struggles with how to appropriately reward this character as he was being declared surplus to future needs.  I devise a cop-out, in which the character gets enough money for a sabbatical, along with a modest annuity for future material needs.

As a society, we are (somewhat) striving to provide equal pay for equal work, and I think that’s mostly a good thing.  But I think there’s a step beyond that, and that is an appropriate reward for a job well done.  That may not be money.  In some cases, it may be more vacation or sabbatical, or it may be something more creative.  The problem is that such solutions once again give those who are able to negotiate a distinct advantage over those who can’t.

Automation Can Be Dangerous December 6, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Software tools, Strategy, Uncategorized.
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Boeing has a great way to prevent aerodynamic stalls in their 737 MAX aircraft.  A set of sensors determines through airspeed and angle of attack that an aircraft is about to stall (that is, lose lift on its wings), and automatically pitch the nose down to recover.

Apparently malfunctioning sensors on Lion Air Flight 610 caused the aircraft nose to sharply pitch down absent any indication of a stall.  Preliminary analysis indicates that the pilots were unable to overcome the nose-down attitude, and the aircraft dove into the sea.  Boeing’s solution to this automation fault was explicit, even if its documentation wasn’t.  Turn off the system.

And this is what the software developers, testers, and their bosses don’t get.  Everyone thinks that automation is the silver bullet.  Automation is inherently superior to manual testing.  Automation will speed up testing, reduce costs, and increase quality.  We must have more automation engineers, and everyone not an automation engineer should just go away now.

There are many lessons here for software teams.  Automation is great when consistency in operation is required.  Automation will execute exactly the same steps until the cows come home.  That’s a great feature to have.

But many testing activities are not at all about consistency in operation.  In fact, relatively few are.  It would be good for smoke tests and regression tests to be consistent.  Synthetic testing in production also benefits from automation and consistency.

Other types of testing?  Not so much.  The purpose of regression testing, smoke testing, and testing in production is to validate the integrity of the application, and to make sure nothing bad is currently happening.  Those are valid goals, but they are only the start of testing.

Instead, testing is really about individual users and how they interact with an application.  Every person does things on a computer just a little different, so it behooves testers to do the same.  This isn’t harkening back to the days of weeks or months of testing, but rather acknowledging that the purpose of testing is to ensure an application is fit for use.  Human use.

And sometimes, whether through fault or misuse, automation breaks down, as in the case of the Lion Air 737.  And teams need to know what to do when that happens.

Now, when you are deploying software perhaps multiple times a day, it seems like it can take forever to sit down and actually use the product.  But remember the thousands more who are depending on the software and the efforts that go behind it.

In addition to knowing when and how to use automation in software testing, we also need to know when to shut it off, and use our own analytical skills to solve a problem.  Instead, all too often we shut down our own analytical skills in favor of automation.

Getting to an Era of Self-Driving Cars Will Be Messy November 30, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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In the 1970s, science fiction writer Larry Niven created a near future world where instantaneous matter transport had been invented.  People would use a “phone booth” to dial in their desired destination, and automatically appear at a vacant phone booth nearest that destination.  Cargo used specially designed phone booths to transfer large or hazardous loads.

Of course, the changes in momentum attendant upon changing positions on the planet slowed the Earth’s rotation, as do jet aircraft today, and that momentum had to be dumped somewhere.  Niven used this invention as a way of exploring social phenomena, such as flash crowds (today we call them flash mobs) and ingenious ways of committing crimes.

Michael Crichton used both space and time travel in his novel Timeline (the movie was quite good too).  His technology actually copied the body at the cellular level, destroyed it at the source, then recreated it from the copy at the desired time and place.  Crichton described it by analogy, saying that it was similar to sending a fax.

The problem with this was that replication was, well, slightly less than perfect.  Cells became misaligned, which meant that cell structure was slightly off.  If you used Timeline’s time and space traveling gadget more than about half a dozen times, your body was misaligned enough so that you went crazy and/or died.

Today, we see self-driving cars as a panacea to much that ails society.  Self-driving cars are extremely safe, and they can be coordinated en masse to relieve traffic congestion.  They will obviously be electric, and not spewing combustion gasses into the atmosphere.  What could go wrong?

But none of this is remotely true, at least today and in the foreseeable future.  Although driverless cars claim an enviable safety record for miles driven, all of these miles have been on carefully mapped streets under ideal conditions.  The fact of the matter is that GPS, even with triangulation, does not give these vehicles the needed accuracy to actually travel through traffic.

Coordinated en masse?  Just what does that mean?  Even if we had cars communicating with each other on the highway, it will be 40 years before every car can do so.  And even if they were communicating, can we trust our communications systems enough to coordinate thousands of cars on a highway, feet from each other.  Can’t wait to try that one?

Electric cars.  Yes, the industry is moving in that way.  I just bought my combustion engine car; my last one was still going strong at 19 years.  Will the government force me to buy an electric car in under 20 years?  I don’t think so.

Still, this is the end game, but the end game is a lot farther out than you think.  I’m going to say a hundred years, certainly after all of us have left the mortal plane.  Car companies are saying they will be fully electric in three years.  Um, no.  Electric car advocates are even more deluded.  Car companies are saying all cars will be autonomous by 2025.  Um, no again.  These pronouncements are stupid PR statements, not worth the bytes they take up.

Yet we lap it up.  I really don’t understand that.