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Of Robots and Men July 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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The title is, of course, not intended to be sexist, but instead modeled loosely after the John Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men.  There may in fact be some parallels between that story, which many of us read in public school, and the question of whether robots are becoming more human-like.  Certainly the recent announcement by the European Union that it had drafted a “bill of rights” for robots as potential cyber-citizens leads some credence to this notion.

Or in the case of this article, whether humans are becoming more robot-like.  Yes, we sometimes do things robotically, and our devices are making us more consistent (read: predictable) in our response to stimuli.  In particular, the article notes that we have opened to door to almost complete objective surveillance, rather than thought and reflection.  We record, not think.

I am unsympathetic; we have opted for surveillance, by checking into the Hotel Facebook (yes, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”). I have declined that particular stay, but I am certainly potentially under surveillance through CCTV cameras in public places, license plate cameras on police cruisers, and my own mobile phone, of course.

But trying to make humans into robots has a long history in management and engineering. Frederick Taylor, he of the scientific management, created the mass production system that required thousands of workers, each doing a tiny fraction of an entire process required in order to assemble a complex machine like an automobile.  His work made human workers into the very definition of modern robots.

And the field of industrial engineering still contains coursework and careers in what is euphemistically called “time and motion studies.” What is that, you ask.  As an extension of Taylor’s scientific management, time and motion studies purport to analyze manual work in order to determine how to accomplish a specified task with the least amount of time and, well motion (despite its deep grounding in industrial engineering practice, I’m afraid my skepticism is showing).  After all, if we can engineer devices, certainly we can do the same with people (sarcasm intended).

Yet time and motion studies, and Taylor’s scientific method are explicitly geared toward repeating the same limited movements over and over again, perhaps to save a fraction of a second on each assembly. Certainly those fractions added up over time, but they also explicitly prohibited the workers themselves from experimenting to determine improvements in the process as a whole.  When we treat people like robots, they become robots.  Surprise!

I am reminded of a story from my studies in psychology, in which pigeons were trained to sort pharmaceuticals based on the color of the pills. Fortunately, the ASPCA came to their rescue, claiming animal cruelty.  The task was ultimately returned to humans, for whom apparently it did not represent cruelty.

Yes, actively turning humans into robots has a long history in engineering and management. To be fair, I think it is mostly well-meant, but incredibly demeaning and ultimately counterproductive.  But I don’t think there is any surprise here.

Those of you who have read me know that I am a runner. That is a relatively recent development; it was only the acquisition of a Fitbit that put me on the path to consistency in workouts.  I am quantitatively motivated, and the numbers become a sort of game with me.  But I don’t allow them to take over my life, as apparently we are letting happen to many, many others.

I Think the Written Word Can Take Care of Itself June 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Facebook thinks that the written word is dead, to be replaced in its entirety by videos.  It claims that videos convey more information.

Well, maybe. I am no longer willing to bet against Facebook, even as it gets even more asinine every year.  I am a mere human, while it is an unstoppable force.  And it is correct from a simple number-of-bits standpoint.

But information is more than bits and bytes. Video is art, too, but blending words in the right ways lets people use their imagination to build alternative realities.  It exercises our minds in ways that video cannot.

To be fair, I am the one that laughs at people who still cling desperately to the printed word on paper. I have heard “I just like the feel of paper in my hands,” which seems to me nonsensical.  But the written word, apart from defining in world history what is means to be human, is something that stimulates us to imagine very different things, something that video is ill-equipped to do.

We may go all the way to a video society, although I hope not. I am reminded of an old speculative fiction story by the late great Isaac Asimov that envisions a future society in which mathematics is done entirely by calculator, and pencil and paper (or mental) mathematics is a long forgotten art.  So when someone brings it back, that person is looked upon with both wonder and suspicion.

It frightens me, though, to think that Facebook actually has the wherewithal to make this happens, if it furthers the company’s business goals. We should not give up the written word just because Facebook says we should.

I don’t think this comes as any surprise to anyone, but Facebook is shallow.  Its fundamental problem is that it also promotes shallowness as communication.  If we succumb to Facebook, we fail to connect as humans.

My Response to Dell Customer Support May 19, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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This gives me no pleasure, but I simply don’t know what happened to this company over the last couple of years.

Ms Athaluri – Thank you for your email.  I have received this computer.  However, you have failed to answer a number of my questions.

  1. Why did Dell promise a response to my multiple questions within 24 hours, yet did not do so.  That written and verbal promise is almost certainly considered an enforceable contract under US law, yet Dell repeatedly failed to deliver.
  2. Why did Dell say on its website that the system shipped on May 10, when in fact it was not received by FedEx until May 17?  This once again is a broken promise.
  3. Why did Dell charge my credit card upon order, rather than upon shipment?  This is certainly against applicable US law.  The customer support rep I talked to said that it only sought authorization; AmEx tells a very different story.
  4. Why could not the telephone representative answer why my system had not shipped when Dell claimed it did?
  5. Why have you not addressed any of my questions?

I am appending this conversation to my complaint with the New Hampshire Attorney General.  And rest assured that this is absolutely the last purchase that this otherwise loyal 25 year Dell customer will be making from this company.

Thank you for nothing.

Peter Varhol

Dell is Terrible in All Parts of its PC Business May 17, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Let me begin by saying that I have bought Dells for 25 years, both for personal and business use. Regrettably, this is the last one.  I met Michael Dell once, now about 25 years ago, in Boston.  He was in his late 20s, and uncomfortably nerdy in his ill-fitting suit.

So let me start with the most recent. I currently have a message on the Dell Support page warning that I am using an outdated version of Internet Explorer, and that all features may not work.  Um, except that the browser is Chrome; in fact, Chrome 50, the most current version.  The screen capture is below.

So, first, terrible IT. Dell should fire them all, except that it probably did and these are the outsourcers.  This is simply an unconscionable embarrassment to any tech company, let alone one such as Dell.

Second, I purchased yet another computer from Dell. Dell claimed to have shipped it a week ago, and provided the tracking number, with the caveat that it likely would not appear on FedEx tracking page for 24 hours.

Okay. Except that FedEx didn’t show it received at their facility for another week.  Even though Dell said they shipped it immediately.  And charged my credit card when the order was placed, not when it seemingly shipped.

I called Dell Support. I sent multiple emails through its Support email.  In all cases, I was promised a response within 24 hours.  Nope, no response whatsoever.

Dell, who do you think you are? If you treat longtime and loyal customers like this, how are you going to treat someone who just occasionally buys a computer?

I realize that you don’t care anymore, and probably don’t want even want to really be in business anymore. But stop treating your customers like they are garbage.  And stop charging credit cards when an order is placed, rather than shipped.  That is a questionable legal and definitely awful ethical practice.  You have no right to be in business.

Dell, it's Chrome, not IE.

Dell, it’s Chrome, not IE.

Some Hard Questions About Building a Team April 23, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Technology and Culture.
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I feel a certain kinship with Pieter Hintjens.  From his blog, it sounds like his diagnosis was similar to mine, last year.  My diagnosis was wrong, and I declined surgery.  In the same universe, he had the Whipple procedure, and has had at least several years of life tacked onto the end of his existence.  And they seem to have been productive years, in a professional and personal sense, although it sounds like he may have little time left on the mortal plane.

But, reading other posts of his, I would hesitate to place myself firmly in his camp. Among his posts, on the viability of GitHub moving forward:

>> . . . a climate in which political outsiders use the weapons of gender and race against meritocracy.

So what is meritocracy? And what are the weapons of gender and race?

There was a time when I believed in strict meritocracy, like it was something that was easily definable and measureable. Age and experience have cured me of that delusion.  In fact, we can’t define meritocracy in any way that doesn’t include our own biases.

Let me explain. Certainly, we can devise a test to determine who is the best at a particular skill.  Or can we?

I spent my formative years studying psychology, which is where I was introduced to the concept of bias. We have these things called IQ tests, which purport to measure innate intelligence.  Or something like that.  But whatever we are measuring is the end product of our own biases of what comprises intelligence.  There is a question on the standard IQ Test:  What color is a banana?  Seems straightforward.  But to someone growing up with spoiled bananas, or no bananas at all, or even is color-blind, the question becomes problematic.  Irrespective of intelligence.

I would not bet on a team that had the ten best programmers. I would bet on a team that worked as a team, with strengths and weaknesses.  To compensate for the weaknesses, we need different points of view.  To get different points of view, we need team members that are different, yet are cohesive.  That is harder, and we shy away from harder.

Yes, there are people, who in their ignorance or incompetence, brandish gender and race maxims as teleology. And yes, they are wrong in a fundamental sense.  And it is unfortunate that we have to endure them.

But that doesn’t mean that there is not value here. We are lazy.  We ascribe success to intelligence, or ability.  I say no.  Success means having teams with complementary skills, not the best skills necessarily, but skills that offer the best chance of working effectively together.

How can we tell the difference between real value and political one ups-man-ship? Ah, that is the rub.  I won’t pretend to be able to do so.  But I do know that choosing the ten best pure coders is a recipe for failure.

Graduating and the Cult of Organizational Culture April 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’ll confess right at the beginning that I’ve been reading Dan Lyons, a.k.a. Fake Steve Jobs, and more recently with HubSpot. He notes that it, and other companies, promote a culture that those of us who have been around for a while may find strange.  One telling example is that when a person is fired (let go, laid off, or whatever you want to call it), they are euphemistically referred to as having “graduated”.

I’ve also been giving some thought to the simply incorrect concepts that are unquestioningly accepted in many tech companies regarding culture. Cultural fit is probably at the top of that list.  Dan cites the “culture code” that Netflix published in 2009, where Netflix views itself as a sports team, always looking to have “stars in every position”.

Um, no. That is not a sports team.  No sports team has stars at every position.  What they have are people that can contribute complimentary skills that, taken as a whole, make the team strong.  I seem to remember a professional football team from a few years ago that declared itself to be a “Dream Team” based on the quality of individual players.  That dream team went 4-12, resulting in the firing of the coach and dismantling of the team.

I feel safe in saying that Netflix is wrong, on so many levels.

As it happens, I know the Moneyball concepts fairly intimately, thanks to a series of presentations and articles I did. The Oakland Athletics didn’t consist of stars by any means.  In fact, it had no stars.  Instead, it had people who had well-defined results in specific areas that were highly correlated with winning games.

We can’t define what wins games in software, because there is a broad range of outcomes between being wildly successful and filing for bankruptcy. And that conclusion can change surprisingly fast.  It is a marathon, not a sprint with a defined winner and loser at the end of each day.  But we can build a team to thrive through good times and adversity.  And that team might have stars, but it also has journeymen, older and younger contributors, and contributors with different societal perspectives.

Organizational culture is not a unique value proposition, nor a competitive advantage. It is a filter through which the organization views and makes decisions about hiring, working conditions, benefits, and interaction with employees.  Not all filters are bad, although many are.  By filtering, we are limiting the scope (and I would argue the value) of information that the organization will consider and act on.

I think it’s pretty clear that what Lyons describes is an unhealthy work environment, mentally and likely physically. I doubt that it has anything but a negative impact on the long-term success of HubSpot.

So what are the things that make organizations unhealthy rather than healthy? The GE forced ranking and yanking system of the 1980s that was widely praised and copied is today considered stupid and counterproductive.  Accepted thinking changes, although any reasonable assessment of what GE was doing must acknowledge that it hurt more than helped.

Ultimately, it may boil down to the Potter Stewart rule of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”  Ultimately, we will build a better company, and a better culture, if we set those filters broad rather than narrow.  Disagreements in strategy and tactics can, and should, be healthy.

We Don’t Understand Our Numbers March 27, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I recently bought The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Cost Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives, by Stephen T. Ziliak and Deidre N. McCloskey.

Here’s the gist. Statistics is a great tool for demonstrating that a difference found between two sampling results is “real”.  What do I mean by real?  It means that if I measured the entire population, rather than just took samples, I would know that the results would be different.  Because I sample, I have uncertainty, and statistics provide a way to quantify the level of uncertainty.

How different? Well, that’s the rub.  We make certain assumptions about what we are measuring (normal distribution, binomial distribution), and we attempt to measure how much the data in each group differ from one another, based on the size of our sample.  If the two types of results are “different enough”, based on a combination of mean, variation, and distribution, we can claim that there is a statistically significant difference.  In other words, it there a real difference in this measure between the two groups?

But is the difference important? That’s the question we continually fail to ask.  The book Reclaiming Conversation talks about measurements not as a result, but as the beginning of a narrative.  The numbers are meaningless outside of their context.

Often a statistically significant difference becomes unimportant in a practical sense. In drug studies, for example, the study may be large enough, and the variability low enough, to confirm an improvement with an experimental drug regimen, but from a practical sense, the improvement isn’t large enough to invest to develop.

My sister Karen, a data analyst for a medical center, has pointed out to me that significance can also be in the other direction. She collects data on patient satisfaction, and points out that even minor dissatisfaction can have a large effect across both the patient population and the hospital.

That’s just one reason why the measurement is the beginning of the conversation, rather than the conclusion. The number is not the fait accompli; rather, it is the point at which we know enough about the subject to begin talking intelligently.

The Power of Talk March 15, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I have a confession (not really). While ostensibly a techie, I have two degrees in psychology.  I may have learned something in the process.  I am currently reading MIT researcher Sherry Turkle’s fascinating Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in The Digital Age.  The book is about how a flight from conversation undermines our relationships, creativity, and productivity.

It is an amazing book. It sends you in so many different directions.  Let me start with this.  We like to think that automation frees us from routine, boring tasks so that we may be creative.  Except that automation is also causing us to be automatons, dependent upon constant stimulation from the web, from Facebook, from tweeting, from texting, to prevent ourselves from feeling alone.

As we text, IM, and email to maintain connections, she believes that we have lost the ability to hold face to face conversations, with all of the spontaneity they hold. Instead, we avoid such encounters, instead wanting to edit our responses to make sure they are perfect and neutral.

All of us will recognize the behavior that she describes. For most of us, it is not pathological (I hope).  For some of us, it undoubtedly is.  Does it affect our creativity, and our authenticity?  I think it might.

If you read one serious book this year, this is the one.

I am decidedly not anti-technology. Yet any functioning adult who has spent time with themselves will intimately understand her message.  It is a sobering one.  It is not anti-technology either, but it shows, starkly, how technology may be changing us.

Homo superior? Or homo inferior?  At this point, I have more doubts than ever.


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