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Don’t Break Things April 20, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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The mantra in tech over the last several years has been “Move fast and break things.”  That culture has been manifested by headliners Uber and Facebook, as well as by countless Silicon Valley startups eager to deliver on what they know for sure is a winning strategy.

It’s long since time that we pushed back on that misguided attitude.  First, no, you don’t have to move fast.  While we retain the myth of the first mover advantage, if you look at history it is very much a myth.  Tech history is rife with lessons of established companies moving into a new area, “validating” that space, and pushing out the pioneering startups (Oracle in SQL databases, Facebook against MySpace, Microsoft in just about every market until about 2005, to cite three well-known examples).

Second, you don’t have to break things.  This wrongheaded attitude represents only a misleading part of a larger truism, that if you are headed in the wrong strategic or product direction, it’s better to know it earlier rather than later.  The implication with “breaking things” is that you don’t know if you are headed in the wrong direction unless you break something in the process.  Um, no.  You know it because you have business acumen, and are paying attention, not because you have broken anything.

It gets worse.  Companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and Zenefits have redefined breaking things to include laws and regulations that are inconvenient to their business models.  I simply cannot conceive of how this comes about.  The arrogance and hubris of such firms must be enormous.

Certainly there are countless laws and regulations that need to be rethought and rewritten as advances change how business might be practiced.  I have always said that the (only) positive thing about Uber was that it drastically reshaped the taxi industry, I think largely for the good.

But ignoring laws and regulations that you don’t like is simply wrong, in any sense you might think of it.  Rather, you work with government entities to educate them on what it possible to advance a particular product or service, and to openly advocate for legal change.

Oh, but that takes far too long for tech companies convinced that they have to move fast.  And they simply can’t be bothered anyway.  See my first point – moving fast is rarely a competitive advantage in tech.

It’s clear that Silicon Valley startups won’t buy into what I say here.  It’s up to us, the customer and the public, to object to such an absurd business mantra.  To date, we the public have either stayed on the sidelines, or even actively supported such criminal practices as Uber’s because of the convenience afforded us by the end result.  This has got to change.

Update:  Case in point, https://qz.com/1257229/electric-scooter-startup-bird-wants-to-make-it-legal-to-ride-scooters-on-the-sidewalk/.  It’s illegal but it’s not stopping the companies.

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We Forget What We Don’t Use April 17, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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Years ago, I was a pilot.  SEL, as we said, single-engine land.  Once during my instruction, for about an hour, we spent time going over what he called recovery from unusual attitudes.  I went “under the hood”, putting on a plastic device that blocked my vision while he placed the plane in various situations.  Then he would lift the hood, to where I could only see the instruments.

I became quite good at this, focusing on two instruments – turn and bank, and airspeed.  Based on these instruments, I was able to recover to straight and level flight within seconds.

My instructor pilot realized what I was doing, and was a lot smarter than me.  The next time, it didn’t work; it made things worse, actually.  I panicked, and in a real life scenario, may well have crashed.

Today, I have a presentation I generically call “What Aircrews Can Teach IT” (the title changes based on the audience makeup).  It is focused on Crew Resource Management, a structured way of working and communicating so that responsibilities are understood and concerns are voiced.

But there is more that aircrews can teach us.  We panic when we have not seen a situation before.  Aircrews do too.  That’s why they practice, in a simulator, with a check pilot, hundreds of hours a year.  That’s why we have few commercial airline accidents today.  When we do, it is almost always because of crew error, because they are unfamiliar with their situation.

It’s the same in IT.  If we are faced with a situation we haven’t encountered before, chances are we will react emotionally and incorrectly to it.  The consequences may not be a fatal accident, but we can still do better.

I preach situational awareness in all aspects of life.  We need to understand our surroundings, pay attention to people and events that may affect us, and in general be prepared to react based on our reading of a situation.

In many professional jobs, we’ve forgotten about the value of training.  I don’t mean going to a class; I mean practicing scenarios, again and again, until they become second nature.  That’s what aircrews do.  And that’s what soldiers do.  And when we have something on the line, that is more valuable than anything else we could be doing.  And eventually it will pay off.

It’s Time to Define Just What Freedom Means April 13, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There are many ways of approaching this topic, especially in 2018.  I choose to do so through professional football.  I am troubled.  Not by actions, but by reactions.  That is kneeling at the national anthem prior to games, and the attendant responses.

Those that criticize call this inappropriate political protest.  I don’t get the political part.  Politics is where we disagree, and agree to disagree.  I cannot for the life of me imagine how anyone would disagree that black men are being disproportionally killed by police in situations where deadly force is not called for.  This is not a political problem, it is a societal one, one that we need to work together to address.

There are almost certainly elements of racism involved in those situations, but I think the main problem is a lack of training of the police.  Being a policeman (or woman) has to be one of the most difficult and stressful jobs imaginable.  They go into ambiguous situations that either start out as violent, or can turn violent at the drop of a hat.  They can find themselves in life or death situations where an immediate decision may make the difference between them getting home, or getting into a coffin.  I think many lack the rigorous and continual training needed to make the right decisions in those situations.

And I’m not sure I even get the protest part.  Unlike protests from my youth, they don’t take over campus buildings, or block streets.  They do so silently.

There are those who also say that it is inappropriate to take such a principled stand while on the job.  As with most professionals, it is difficult to know quite when football players are on the job.  Especially since they can be punished by their employer for some personal behavior, such as drug use or police altercations, that is definitely on personal time.

But here is my biggest problem, and I think one that is fueled by the fantasy football craze.  Too many fans are geared to see players as a set of numbers in any given week.  With the prospect of legalized sports betting, we could see millions of fans who bet on the outcome of individual plays, which serves only to reduce players to how often they deliver on split-second outcomes, perhaps a dozen or more times a game.  They are like inanimate toy soldiers, ours to select and manipulate for our enjoyment and perhaps profit.

But these players aren’t numbers.  They are thinking human beings, certainly on a similar plane as all of us.  They have perspectives and beliefs that are just as valid as anyone else.  I think it appropriate that we hear their voices.

Now, to freedom.  We live in a country where millions of soldiers, policemen, firemen, and others who serve have died.  I would like to think that they died for a larger ideal.  I believe strongly that that ideal is that we can express ourselves freely.  Declining to stand for the national anthem is one way of doing so.

I am a military veteran.  Not standing for the national anthem is not how I might call attention to an issue.  But I will vigorously defend the right of anyone to do so.  That is what freedom means.

Lena, Fabio, and the Mess of Computer Science April 11, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Software development, Technology and Culture.
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The book Brotopia opens with a description of Lena, the November 1972 Playboy centerfold whose photo by chance was used in early research into image processing algorithms at USC.  Over time, that singular cropped image became a technical standard to measure the output of graphics algorithms.  Even today it is used in academic research to point out details of the value of alternative algorithms.

But today this image is also controversial.  Some complain that it serves to objectify women in computer science.  Others say it is simply a technical standard in the field.  A woman mathematics professor applied similar graphics algorithms to Fabio in an attempt to bring some balance to the discussion.

In the 8th grade (around the time of Lena), my middle school (Hopewell Junior High School) partitioned off boys to Shop class, and girls to Home Ec.  Perhaps one boy a year asked for Home Ec class, but it could only be taken by boys as a free elective, and was viewed as an oddity.  During my time there, to my knowledge no girl asked to be in Shop class.

Of course, I thought nothing of it at the time, but today such a segregation is troubling.  And even in 2015, a high school computer science class used Lena to show off their work with graphics algorithms, to mixed reviews.

There are many serious problems with the cult of the young white male in tech today.  As we continue to engage this demographic with not-so-subtle inducements to their libidos, we also enable them to see themselves as the Masters of the (Tech) Universe.  That worked out so well for the financial trading firms in the market failures of the 1980s and 2000s, didn’t it?

Does the same dynamic also make it more difficult for women to be taken seriously in tech?  I think that it is part of the problem, but by no means the only part.  Women in tech are like people in any field – they want to do their jobs, and not have to have cultural and frat boy behaviors that make it that much more difficult to do so.

I’ve been fortunate to know many smart and capable women throughout my life.  I had a girlfriend in college who was simply brilliant in mathematics and chemistry (in contrast, I was not brilliant at anything at that point in my life).  She may have been one of the inspirations that led me to continue plugging away at mathematics until I managed a limited amount of success at it.  Others try to do their best under circumstances that they shouldn’t have to put up with.

So let’s give everyone the same chance, without blatant and subtle behaviors that demean them and make them feel less than what they are.  We don’t today.  Case in point, Uber, which under Travis Kalanick was the best-known but by no means the only offender.  I hope we can improve, but despair that we can’t.

One Experience of a Lifetime April 5, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Last month, I ran in a race called Gateway to Space.  It was executed on the Space Shuttle runway (known as the NASA Shuttle Landing Facility, because the Space Shuttles never took off horizontally) at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The NASA Shuttle Landing Facility is 15,000 feet long, one of the longest runways in the world (Denver International has a longer one, and there may be a couple of military ones, such as Vandenberg and Edwards, that are similar).  Technically, it is about 1400 feet short of 5K, so we started on the aircraft parking area, and ran a short taxiway out to the runway.

We were told to watch out for alligators and other wildlife on the runway.

There were close to 2000 runners, although many walked it.  We began at the southern end.  There was a Space Shuttle mockup about halfway up the runway, and multiple plaques embedded into the runway designating landing and stopping points for the last Space Shuttle landings.  I have photos of several; here is one, complete with my running shoe, which other people were doing to demonstrate their physical presence.

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The weather was very nice, although it got warm fast, the distance was good, and there were water stops.  At the end, there was plenty of juice to drink.

There may be better life experiences out there, but I will always own this one.  I have always been fascinated by flying, and by space.  I am bitterly disappointed that the US cannot send people into space.  I think our government has dropped the ball, and I hope that private companies can pick it up.

In the meantime, I run the landing facility.  Definitely cool.

About Computer Science and Responsibility March 31, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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Are we prepared to take on the responsibility of the consequences of our code?  That is clearly a loaded question.  Both individual programmers and their employers use all manner of code to gain a personal, financial, business, or wartime advantage.  I once had a programmer explain to me, “They tell me to build this menu, I build the menu.  They tell me to create these options, I create these options.  There is no thought involved.”

In one sense, yes.  By the time the project reaches the coder, there is usually little in doubt.  But while we are not the masterminds, we are the enablers.

I am not sure that all software programmers viewed their work abstractly, without acknowledging potential consequences.  Back in the 1980s, I knew many programmers who declined to work for the burgeoning defense industry in Massachusetts of the day, convinced that their code might be responsible for war and violent death (despite the state’s cultural, well, ambivalence to its defense industry to begin with).

Others are troubled by providing inaccurate information being used to make decisions, or by trying to manipulate people’s emotions to feel a particular way, to buy a particular product or service.  But that seems much less damaging or harmful than enabling the launch of a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.

Or is it?  I am pretty sure that most who work for Facebook successfully do abstract their code from the results.  How else can you explain the company’s disregard of personal reaction to their extreme intrusion into the lives of their users?  I think that might have relatively little to do with their value systems, and more to do with the culture in which they work.

To be fair, this is not about Facebook, although I could not resist the dig.  Rather, this is to point out that the implementers, yes, the enablers, tend to be divorced from the decisions and the consequences.  To be specific:  Us.

Is this a problem?  After all, those who are making the decisions are better qualified to do so, and are paid to do so, usually better than the programmers.  Shouldn’t they be the ones taking the responsibility?

Ah, but they can use the same argument in response.  They are not the ones actually creating these systems; they are not implementing the actual weapons of harm.

Here is the point.  With military systems, we are well aware that we are enabling war to be fought, the killing of people and the destruction of property.  We can rationalize by saying that we are creating defensive systems, but we have still made a conscious choice here.

With social systems, we seem to care much less that we are potentially causing harm than in war systems.  In fact, the likes of Mark Zuckerberg still continue to insist that his creation is used only for good.  That is, of course, less and less believable as time marches on.

And to be clear, I am not a pacifist.  I served in the military in my youth.  I believe that the course of human history has largely been defined by war.  And that war is the inevitable result of human needs, for security, for sustenance, or for some other need.  It is likely that humanity in general will never grow out of the need to physically dominate others (case in point, Harvey Weinstein).

But as we continue to create software systems to manipulate people, and to do things that make them do what they would not otherwise do, is this really ethically different than creating a military system?  We may be able to rationalize it on some level, but in fact we also have to acknowledge that we are doing harm to people.

So if you are a programmer, can you with this understanding and in good conscience say that you are a force for good in the world?

It Gives Me No Pleasure to Say “I Told You So” March 21, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Well, maybe it does.  It feels like this is the beginning of the end for Facebook.  More so than Facebook simply can’t keep the promises made in its users, and it’s not at all clear that it even wants to.

So Facebook lets third parties mine its data.  That should surprise no one; that is the business they are in.  If you don’t know what the product is, then you are the product.

But when that data is passed on to others, there is a problem.  And when Facebook knows that has occurred, and doesn’t do anything about it, that is a bigger problem.  And not just a PR problem, but a legal problem too.  To make no mention of already facing class action lawsuits.

In the past, users have not been troubled by information like this.  We have implicitly accepted the fact that Facebook is mining our data, and personalizing its responses, and we seem to believe that this applies to everyone but us.

This feels different.  Facebook always says “trust us”, and users have either taken that at face value or ignored the implications entirely.  Now we seem to realize that Facebook lies to us every chance that it gets.

Let there be no mistake here: Facebook is in the business of monetizing your data.  And the ways that it does that are pretty darned intrusive, if you stopped to think about it.  Personalization in advertising is sometimes nearly indistinguishable from surveillance, and Facebook has mastered surveillance.

But it is sad, in that we have let Facebook get that far.  And you might certainly say the multi-billion dollar companies simply don’t go away.  There will always be hardcore users worldwide, who let their emotions swing like leaves in a breeze at what they see on Facebook.  Even honest users who use Facebook as a shortcut for keeping in touch with people have to be horrified at the way their data is being use.

It may seem like I am obsessed with Facebook, given the things I have written.  In fact, I’m not at all.  I have never used Facebook, and have no desire to do so.  But I am offended at how it influences people’s behavior, often negatively.  And how it uses that information against people.

Update:  Zuckerberg has finally spoken.  And not only did he imply it was an engineering problem, he came right out and said it was actually fixed years ago.  I wish I had that kind of chutzpah.

About Friction and Life Relationships February 23, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’ve written about friction in these pages in the past.  In general, it references the degree of difficulty and thought required to accomplish a particular activity.  The more difficult something is to do, the more friction it entails.

Many so-called technology innovations in recent years have revolved around reducing friction in our lives.  And that’s not by itself bad.  But it does have some unintended consequences.

Take social media networks such as Facebook and to a lesser extent LinkedIn.  It has become enormously easy to connect, or to friend (since when did that become a verb?).  We think that is a great thing; we can always stay connected with the lovely young lady (or gentleman) that we had a fun conversation with at a party last week.

Do you want to know something?  It should be difficult to stay in touch with people from our past.  The friction of doing so causes us to consider carefully who is important in our lives.  If it is as easy to stay in touch with our BFF as it is to stay in touch with someone we met once at a seminar twenty years ago, then we should view that as a serious problem.  But we don’t.  Facebook gives us the curse of not having to prioritize.

Instead, we have five thousand friends, the vast majority of whom we have never met and don’t know.  I have over 900 connections on LinkedIn, and while I have a good memory, I can’t for the life of me remember over half of them.

They are not our friends.  You don’t have five thousand friends.  You may have five hundred friends, if you are especially gregarious and optimistic on how people view you.  You probably have more like twenty friends, and maybe another twenty acquaintances who you deem of enough value to stay in touch with over time (whether or not they feel the same is a different story).

So if someone is important enough to stay in touch with, they are important enough to keep a physical and virtual address.  Not a Facebook friendship; that is nothing but fake.  If they are not, then while they have added to our life experience, they will not do so again in the future.  Deal with it.