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We Are Seeing the World Change in Our Lifetimes May 19, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I know that sounds like hyperbole, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Let me give an example. When I was growing up, we had a milkman, who delivered milk to our doorstep in a dilapidated old truck early in the morning, twice a week (the milkman was my uncle).

Today, your smart refrigerator can monitor your milk consumption and automatically order milk to be delivered with your dinner that evening. By drone.  You have milk!

But the pace of change has accelerated immensely recently, to the point where we are talking seriously about driverless cars, autonomous vehicles in general, and robots or other AI performing both labor and professional tasks.  No one beyond a few specialists were having these discussions five years ago.

I am in awe at living in this era. The world has never seen anything like this, and we are at the dawn of, well, something.  I know it will be different; I hope it’s good.

Tens of millions of traditional lifetime jobs will disappear in the next decade (sorry, Mr. Trump), and we will never see their likes again.  I am confident that others will arise, in time, but it will be a messy at least several years.

Work in general is changing. There will still be coal miners, but they will be in office cubicles in Des Moines, manhandling joysticks to control the robots a thousand miles away and a thousand feet underground.  I especially liked this one, where London City Airport is basing its air traffic controllers 50 miles away and letting them see and respond to traffic by TV, GPS, and ground systems.

The problem is that we are lousy at predicting the future. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.  We can’t know with any certainty what will last, for the moment, and what will fall ignobly.

Many will survive and even thrive. Many will not.  The revolution has started, and I am excited to be a part of it; I simply hope that I am not the first up against the wall.

I Love Math May 12, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There, I said it. You might think that it is a natural thing for someone with a math degree (among others) to say, but let me delve a little deeper into that statement.

I was never very good at math. I completely lost it at calculus, not being able to relate it to real world concepts.  I think our minds like to relate abstract ideas into something concrete, a part of our lives, and that’s very hard with calculus and beyond.

I tried again as a college freshman. No dice, so I ended up with a degree in psychology, although I took a number of science courses as electives.

Another psychology degree later, I started to feel the math itch again. As I took graduate statistics, experimental design, and did a thesis with a mathematical model of behavior in a game theory situation, I came to realize that, despite my relative incompetence, I could no longer shrug away my math jones.

Long story short, I moved to a new job, taught myself calculus and differential equations in the evenings and weekends over the space of a summer, and enrolled in a graduate applied math curriculum in the fall. I got through it in three years (with some undergraduate course supplements), and graduated in 1985 with an M.S.

Why do I love math? I think it’s because most of our thought processes are representational.  We express ideas and emotions in words, in pictures, and increasingly today in video.  But the fundamental representation of the world around us is through mathematics.

My problem, of course, is that I came of age about 25 years too early. At that time, other than teaching, the only mathematical job available was as an insurance actuary, which sounded like the equivalent of watching paint dry.

(Well, there were a couple of other options. I turned down a GS-12 from the NSA because I didn’t want to move back to the Baltimore area.  Of course, being a cryptologist would have been very interesting the last few years.  And there were beginnings of rumblings about highly-paid “quants” on Wall Street, but I didn’t want to live in Manhattan.)

Today, of course, I can be a data scientist, although this late in my career it would be problematic to make that change. I’m back to tinkering with neural networks and machine learning, and maybe I will make a go of something there.  But 25 years ago, the options in applied mathematics were much more limited.

“listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go” May 11, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I was once again reminded of this line from an e. e. cummings poem, rather rudely, when I read that the United States was considering a laptop ban on flights from and to Europe. Having just returned from Europe last night (Stockholm), lugging not one but two laptops, I suddenly found myself thrust into an alien alternative universe that I didn’t understand.

While we are by no means perfect, the citizens of the United States have certainly enjoyed one of the highest levels of personal freedom in the history of the world. And yet I wonder.  Could it be that we really don’t want that freedom?

I was in Zurich several years ago, watching teenage boys dive off of a major street bridge into Lake Zurich. This would never be allowed to happen in the U.S.  I told my sponsor, a thoughtful and worldly person, and he replied, “I think we in Europe take more personal responsibility for our actions.  The state doesn’t protect us from ourselves.”

And I was in Stockholm this week, looking out my hotel window at the Hammarby ski slope Monday night. Shortly before 6 PM, the slope was full of runners, in groups, at its height, I estimate at least 75 people in four groups, plus individuals.  They were running up the ski slope, running down, running in circles halfway up.  I invested five minutes to walk over and talk to a few of them.  There were various groups, older, young, male, female, training for various purposes.

I am a runner, but I walked up to the top of the mountain, and walked down. These people are in such incredible physical condition.  Collectively, they looked like the bad guys (and women) in a Matt Damon movie.  No ski slope in the U.S. would allow people to come in and do this kind of unsupervised physical activity; there would be a lawsuit a week because of injury.

There are certainly significant tradeoffs in safety and freedom. When I read that we will allow laptops in checked luggage, but not in the cabin, I think we have swung too far.

And worse, any safety in this action is false safety. There can be no discernably less risk from this action.  What it does is reinforce our fears, and reinforce our isolation from others around the world.

For the most part, people are people, worldwide, with similar desires, needs, and motivations as us. We can work together to overcome physical threats.  And we should do so.

Yes, this too shall pass, in time. But it is unfortunate that we have to go through a stage of irrational and unreasonable personal fear to get there.

Please Explain to Me Why Uber Isn’t Toast May 5, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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Uber is in the process of transforming the taxi industry. In general, that’s a good thing.  Mostly (more on that in a later post).

Everything else about Uber is a very bad thing.

First, it is about professional drivers, not ride sharing. Anyone who hasn’t figured that out by now needs to go directly to jail, and not pass Go.  When was the last time you personally shared your car with strangers, seriously?  This is absolutely not about ride sharing, and you know that, despite the drivel coming out of the company.

Second, it is about treating their drivers as poorly as possible, but keeping them onboard until they can get to driverless vehicles. Its CEO has already told us all how he treats his drivers.  All drivers will be jettisoned at the moment driverless cars become viable.  And, yes again, this is about professional drivers, not ride sharing.

Third, it is about a scofflaw culture that operates illegally, then claims it is misunderstood, or that laws are simply things that get in its way, or something that makes it superior.

Last, it is an employer that celebrates the bro culture, that takes everything that it can from its employees and delivers nothing in return, especially those who are not white, male, and affluent. Especially affluent.  Except for its drivers.  Let’s keep them poor and hungry.  Until the time we cut them all loose.

I realize that none of this is a damnable business problem (sometimes business itself is damned). But it should be, and it will be, in the not-to-distant future.

For you VCs out there, I fully appreciate how Uber is upending an industry. But it is poison as a company and an investment.  Get out if you can; no, get out at any cost.

Someone is Watching Us; Do We Care? May 4, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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It’s a worthwhile question to ask. Circa 15 years ago, my software team thought about instrumenting the code in our (beta) product so that we would get usage and error data sent directly back to us, which would help us find and resolve bugs, and tell us which features were important.  We didn’t entertain the thought for long, because we believed that our customers would not tolerate having us capture and record their actions with our product, even only in beta.

Somewhere in the intervening years, these practices became acceptable, and in many cases mandatory. To be fair, many of the products today are free (Facebook, Google, Twitter), while we charged a comparative fortune (I believe we started at about 3 grand per seat).  What we don’t pay in cash dollars today we pay by having an electronic watcher looking over our shoulder.

That shift raises a lot of issues. There is nothing new here, but it is interesting to look at what was a radical shift of attitudes during this time.  Were I an economist, perhaps I would try to assign a dollar value to the loss of my insights (privacy?) into using a particular software product.

I’m not an economist, and that’s not my intent. I would like to say that we’ve made a deal with multiple devils for free software, but I don’t think I can even say that.  We’ve received something incredible – almost infinite information, true or not.  We’ve given almost infinite information about ourselves, once again, true or not.

Most, or maybe even all of us, have willingly made that deal. But nobody asked us, at least not directly, not all at once, at least.  If you ask most people, in those terms, it just happened, and they may be okay with it.  But let’s ask.

I Used to Know All of the Area Codes May 3, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Yup. All 86 of the original telephone area codes.  Give me an area code, I could tell you its geographic region.  617 – eastern Massachusetts; 412 – my home area code in southwestern Pennsylvania.  312 – LA; 415 – oh, please, give me something difficult.

There were rules. Because of the technology used, all area codes had to have a middle digit of 0 or 1.  800 (only) was reserved for toll-free numbers.

Of course, now 30+ years later, the world is a different place.  Most of the area codes added over the last 20 years have been overlays (not all; my childhood home in southwestern PA now sports 724).  An overlay is two or more area codes that share the same geographic region, which is done in Boston, New York, LA, and other metropolitan areas.  There are a variety of different toll-free area codes – 888, 866, 855, and so on.  A residential user can have one if they want family members to be able to call them without charge.

And speaking of the world, I dialed my international number when I was about 30. It was in the UK (country code 44), for tech journalism purposes.  I asked that person what was the US country code.  He chuckled and said, “You’re the United States; your country code is 1, of course.”

Now it is impossible for all but the most photographic memory (mine is close, but not that good) to know the location of a call based on its area code. It was inevitable in an era where mobile phones are ubiquitous that there would be a significant increase in numbers allotted.

From a practical standpoint, it makes it more difficult to identify the physical location of an unknown number. I used to be able to glance at my screen and immediately know where the call was coming from.  Not anymore.  But the number of area codes will only keep expanding.

What is the Liberal Arts? April 26, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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My B.A. degree is in the liberal arts. The diploma says psychology, but I also took substantial coursework in chemistry, biology, and physics.  Conversely, I took no English courses.

(To be fair, I wanted to take an English course, specifically, a writing course. My university required that I take an English placement test prior to doing so.  I did so, and placed out of the course that I wanted to take, and out of the next course, and was awarded six credits for my investment of an hour.  I never looked back.)

Today, liberal arts and humanities are on the proverbial ropes. This article in Wall Street Journal (paywall) describes how liberal arts programs in some schools are being expanded to include courses in mathematics and data analytics, in an effort to bolster the liberal arts with career learning.

Frankly, those courses, and other science topics should always have been there. In the dawn of the liberal arts education, the goal was to deliver a well-rounded individual who could opine and even work in a wide variety of different fields.  It led to a person who could be described as a “natural philosopher” who is educated and cultivated on a wide variety of topics, which relate to both social and science areas.

It’s only in more modern times that liberal arts curricula came to mean that the individual only had to study psychology, sociology, English, and political science. And that is wrong.  The liberal arts education has always been defined by a broad education without the depth of specialization.  Its intent is to drive rigor across traditional academic boundaries to enable its possessor to become a truly educated person.

But we got away from that at some point, with higher education permitted to define liberal arts as a much narrower take on a limited number of softer topics. Today’s so-called liberal arts is actually a bastardization of what it was intended to be.

The WSJ article positions the addition of math and science courses as a nod toward career training over life training. Ah, no.  Chosen well, what the math and science courses really do is round out a liberal arts education.  I understand that people need to get jobs, and such to get jobs, and such courses may help, but science and math are very much a part of life experience, no matter what field you may ultimately pursue.

About Licenses, Certifications, and Tech Jobs April 14, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Software development, Technology and Culture.
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As an academic, 25 years ago, I postulated to my students that software developers would require certifications and licenses at some point in time to pursue their craft. I was widely ridiculed at the time, so I would like to revisit that position today.

First, I want people to understand that I have no particular qualifications to write on this topic (that is ironic, based on the sentiment of this post).

We are facing two forces here. One is that innovation comes from at least partly those who have breakthrough ideas, from any field, without necessarily having formal training in that field.  While certainly true in software, I would imagine it true in other professional fields as well.

The second is that we as a society are increasingly depending upon software, and in particular software working correctly. This means we are vitally interested in having people who are working in that field are in some way qualified to do what they do.

And what does that mean? As in other professional fields, it means that we have studied formally, taken tests, and achieved a level of competence that is quantitatively identifiable and measureable.  In other words, we have a degree in the field, and we have passed one or more tests.

In the late 1980s, I worked for a defense contractor who was required to assure the DOD that its employees all had technical degrees. At that time, my MS in applied math qualified in that regard, so I passed muster.  Other long-time employees did not.  Did that make me better than them?  I don’t think so, but it made me more credentialed.

It has gotten worse since then. As we have self-driving cars, high-speed financial trading systems, fly-by-wire aircraft, and a myriad of other essential and safety-critical systems, we feel the need to have a level of confidence in the professionals behind them.  That confidence may be misplaced, but it is backed by a degree and/or certification.

In The Complacent Class, economist Tyler Cowen notes that in the 1950s, five percent of workers required a government-issued license in order to do their jobs, but by 2008, 29 percent did.  At many of the software conferences that I participate in, smart and serious professionals compare professional qualifications and job requirements.  It seems increasingly difficult to obtain employment without these certifications; in fact, I met many mid-career people who feel they need to become certified to continue their careers at a high level.

I don’t know the answer to this. I would like to think that some mixture of educated, certified professionals and unqualified-on-paper but passionate and self-educated people are essential in software.

But. Employers are increasingly looking for people who have credentials, usually those provided by a professional society (at least in software), that say they have studied and passed a test.  The problem is that such a thing may or may not have anything to do with their competence, knowledge, dedication, or ability to deliver on a project or task.

Increasingly, we as a society are not allowing for the mixture of qualified-on-paper and passionate-by-nature. I do believe that is wrong, but we are not willing to take the time and effort to identify those who can seriously contribute from those who have passed a test.