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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.

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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.

Does Social Media Need to Go? October 27, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I have been in tech publishing since 1988.  Fulltime, as an editor, senior editor, executive editor, editor in chief, and editorial director has encompassed, um, perhaps nine years.  I’ve freelanced in the interim.

In that time, I’ve learned something about publishing in general.  Publishing involves a certain responsibility to its readers.  That responsibility, in a nutshell, is to curate content in an honest way, and to present that content as representative of what the publisher stands for.  They stand by what is on their platform.

Social media emphatically does not curate.  Not only that, but it praises the fact that it does not curate.  Instead, it says that it cannot possibly curate, and it requires its users to self-curate.  But, of course, it doesn’t provide a reliable means for users to report their curation.

Facebook and other social media platforms have accepted the mantle of publishers, without accepting the responsibility of being publishers.  It has made them enormously profitable.  In fact, they even use our intimate personal data, and sell it to any buyers.  We seem to be okay with that.

I am emphatically not.  Today, someone has published their murderous intentions on social media, then carried them out.  How can we be okay with this?

Unless you disavow social media right now, I will argue that you are complicit in murder and other heinous crimes.  Are you okay with that?

Statistics is (are?) For Everyone October 13, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I taught statistics, to undergrad and graduate business students for a number of years.  I typically started off the courses by explaining how statistics were real life constructs, and were far more important in understanding the world than anything else they studied.  I especially loved word problems, which I thought were the epitome of real life.  They were analytical problems expressed in ambiguous words, with incomplete information, yet required a single correct answer.

Everyone got a good laugh out of that, and for the rest of the course treated me like the crazy uncle that they kept in the attic.

But the point remains valid, and important to anyone who cares about real life data, because there is a dichotomy between how statistics are taught, and how we might use them.

Yesterday I had a meeting with someone who told me of his teenage son, who studied and knew every conceivable football player, their university, and their statistics.  He pointed out to his son that he should really enjoy his AP Statistics course, because of his interest in football statistics.

But here’s the problem.  Most traditional statistics courses don’t teach like that.  Statistics courses are designed to look at uncertainty and how to manage it.  So we discuss mean, standard deviation, t-test, Chi-Square, ANOVA, and so on, confident that students will form a mental model of how uncertainly plays a central role in any data samples that we analyze.

Let me tell you something.  Students don’t care.  I know from years of experience that most students think statistics is the most useless course they are required to take.  They largely don’t want to be there, and I considered it a success if I were actually able to get them interested enough in the topic to do homework and understand what the answers meant in real life.

Today, of course, practically every decision made revolves around analytics.  But many business professionals still have trouble relating their university statistics classes to the decisions they make on a daily basis.  For these folks, statistics as a discipline, with an innate understanding of sampling, confidence, and uncertainty is divorced from the results they are presented in their analytics engines.

What’s the solution?  Make statistics relevant.  Teach Moneyball, fantasy football statistics, weather probabilities, or anything that makes it real to people who struggle with the math and its meaning.

I’m not a gambler, and I kind of shrug at the beginning of the era of legalized sports gambling.  But statistical inference and probabilities are at the heart of sports gambling.  If the field of statistics wants to remain relevant, it should start here.

My Boss is a Computer August 11, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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Well, not really, but if you can be fired by a computer, it must be your boss.  Not my story, but one that foretells the future nonetheless.  An apparently uncorrectable software defect led to a contract employee being locked out of his computer and his building, and labeled inactive in the payroll.

It was almost comically funny that his manager and other senior managers and executives at the company, none of whom fired him, could not get this fiat reversed.  A full three weeks passed, in which he received no pay and no explanation, before they were able to determine that his employment status had never been updated in their new HR management software.  Even after he was reinstated, his colleagues treated him as someone not entitled to work there, and he eventually left.

It seems that intelligent (or otherwise) software is encroaching into the ultimate and unabashed people-oriented field – human resources.  And there’s not a darned thing we can do about it.  Software is not only conducting full interviews, but also performing the entire hiring process.  While we might hope that we aren’t actually selected (or rejected) by computer algorithms, that is the goal of these software systems.

So here’s the problem.  Or several problems.  First, software isn’t perfect, and while most software bugs in released software are no more than annoying, bugs in this kind of software can have drastic consequences on people.  Those consequences will likely spill over to the hiring company itself.

Second, these applications are usually machine learning systems that have had their algorithms trained through the application of large amounts of data.  The most immediate problem is that the use of biased data will simply perpetuate existing practices.  That’s a problem because everything about the interview and selection process is subjective and highly prone to bias.

Last, if the software doesn’t allow for human oversight and the ability to override, then in effect a company has ceded its hiring decisions to software that it most likely doesn’t understand.  That’s a recipe for disaster, as management has lost control over the reasons why management exists in the first place.

Now, there may be some that will say that’s actually a good thing.  Human management is, well, human, with human failings, and sometimes they manifest themselves in negative ways.  Bosses are dictatorial, or racist, or some combination of negative qualities, and are often capricious in dealing with others.  Computer software is at least consistent, if not necessarily fair as we might define it.

But no matter how poor the decisions that might come from human managers, we own them.  If it’s software, no one owns them.  When we are locked in to following the dictates of software, without any understanding as to who programmed it to do what, then we give up on our fellow citizens and colleagues.  Worse, we give up the control that we are paid to maintain.

Lest we face a dystopian future where computer software rules our working lives, and we are powerless to act as the humans we are, then we must control the software that is presumably helping us.

Can Amazon Replace Libraries? July 23, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I was born and raised in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.  It was a company town.  In 1905, the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation bought a tract of several thousand acres along the steep hills of the Ohio River, laid out some streets, built some houses and stores, and constructed a steel mill stretching six miles along the river.

The neighborhoods were called plans, because they were individual neighborhood plans conceived and built by the company.  My older sister grew up in the projects of Plan 11.  Football Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, two years my elder, grew up just a couple of blocks away.  We shopped in the company store, the largest building in town, until I was 13.  (Bear with me, please)

B.F. Jones, in the style of the robber barons of an earlier era, built a grand library in his name, right along Franklin Avenue, the main street, all marble and columns, called the B.F. (for Burris Frederick) Jones Memorial Library.

It was a massive marble structure that frightened off most youngsters.  The homeless guy slept at a table in one corner.  In that library, I read Don Quixote, The Far Pavilions, just about everything from James Michener, Irving Stone, and much more.  It was a dismal company town, but I escaped through the library far beyond the boundaries of the drab community.

Today, a yanked Forbes magazine op-ed written by LIU Post economist Panos Mourdoukoutas opined that libraries were obsolete, and that they should be replaced by for-profit brick-and-mortar Amazon stores selling physical books.  Libraries are no longer relevant, Mourdoukoutas and Forbes claim, and Amazon can serve the need in a for-profit way that benefits everyone.  Libraries are a waste of taxpayer funds.

Funny, today, 40 years later, my adopted town library is the hangout of middle and high school students.  Rather than the quiet place of reflection (and possibly stagnation) of the past, it is a vibrant, joyful place where parents are happy to see their children study together and socialize.  There are movies, crafts, classes, lectures, and games.  In an era where youngsters can escape to their phones, the Internet, video games, drugs, or worse, escaping to the library is a worthy goal.

There is one Starbucks in town, where Mourdoukoutas tells us that anyone can get wifi, and most people use the drive-through.  I doubt they would let the throngs of youngsters cavort for the evening like the library does.

Today I travel extensively.  I am enthralled by the amazing architectures of European cities, built when society was much poorer.  Yet today we cannot afford libraries?

I am sorry, I call bullshit.  Long and loud.  This type of trash deserves no serious discussion; in fact, no discussion whatsoever.  If we cannot afford libraries, we cannot afford imagination, we cannot afford, well, life.

To reinforce the point, please invest a few minutes to listen to Jimmy Buffett, Love in the Library.  Thank you.

Empathetic Technology is an Idea Whose Time Should Never Come June 20, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I love TED talks.  They are generally well thought out and well-presented, and offer some significant insights on things that may not have occurred to me before.

I really, really wanted to give a thumbs-up to Poppy Crum’s talk on empathetic technology, but it contradicted some of my fundamental beliefs on human behavior and growth.  She talks about how measuring and understanding the physical attributes of emotion will help draw us together, so that we don’t have to feel so alone and misunderstood.

Well, I suppose that’s one way to look at it.  I rather look at it as wearing a permanent lie detector.  Now, that may not be a bad thing, unless you are playing poker or negotiating a deal.  But exposing our innermost emotions to others is rightly a gradual thing, and should be under our control, rather than immediately available through technology.

Also, the example that she demonstrates in the audience requires data from the entire audience, rather than from a single individual.  And her example was highly contrived, and it’s not at all clear that it would work in practice.  It involved measuring changes in CO2 emissions from the audience based on reacting to something unexpected.

But in general, her thesis violates my thoughts on emotional friction.  Other people don’t understand us.  Other people do things that make us feel uncomfortable.  Guess what?  Adapting to that is how we grow as human beings.  And growth is what makes us human.  Now, granted, in a few cases where attempts at emotional growth result in psychopathologies, there seems like there could be value here.  But . . .

I recall the Isaac Asimov novel The Naked Sun, where humans who interact physically with others are considered pathologic.  So we become content to view each other electronically, rather than interact physically.  I see a significant loss of humanity there.

And despite how Poppy Crum paints it, I see a significant loss of humanity with her plan, too.  She is correct in that empathetic technology can help identify those whose psyches may break under the strain of adapting to friction, but I think the loss of our humanity in general overwhelms this single good.

Here’s Looking At You June 18, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Software tools, Technology and Culture.
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I studied a rudimentary form of image recognition when I was a grad student.  While I could (sometimes) identify simple images based on obviously distinguishing characteristics, the limitations of rule-based systems, the computing power of Lisp Machines and early Macs, facial recognition was well beyond the capabilities of the day.

Today, facial recognition has benefitted greatly from better algorithms and faster processing, and is available commercially by several different companies.  There is some question as to the reliability, but at this point it’s probably better than any manual approach to comparing photos.  And that seems to be a problem for some.

Recently the ACLU and nearly 70 groups sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, alongside the one from 20 shareholder groups, arguing Amazon should not provide surveillance systems such as facial recognition technology to the government.  Amazon has a facial recognition system called Rekognition (why would you use a spelling that is more reminiscent of evil times in our history?)

Once again, despite the Hitleresque product name, I don’t get the outrage.  We give the likes of Facebook our life history in detail, in pictures and video, and let them sell it on the open market, but the police can’t automate the search of photos?  That makes no sense.  Facebook continues to get our explicit approval for the crass but grossly profitable commercialization of our most intimate details, while our government cannot use commercial and legal software tools?

Make no mistake; I am troubled by our surveillance state, probably more than most people, but we cannot deny tools to our government that the Bad Guys can buy and use legally.  We may not like the result, but we seem happy to go along like sheep when it’s Facebook as the shepherd.

I tried for the life of me to curse our government for its intrusion in our lives, but we don’t seem to mind it when it’s Facebook, so I just can’t get excited about the whole thing.  I cannot imagine Zuckerberg running for President.  Why should he give up the most powerful position in the world to face the checks and balances of our government?

I am far more concerned about individuals using commercial facial recognition technology to identify and harass total strangers.  Imagine an attractive young lady (I am a heterosexual male, but it’s also applicable to other combinations) walking down the street.  I take her photo with my phone, and within seconds have her name, address, and life history (quite possibly from her Facebook account).  Were I that type of person (I hope I’m not), I could use that information to make her life difficult.  While I don’t think I would, there are people who would think nothing of doing so.

So my take is that if you don’t want the government to use commercial facial recognition software, demonstrate your honesty and integrity by getting the heck off of Facebook first.

Update:  Apple will automatically share your location when you call 911.  I think I’m okay with this, too.  When you call 911 for an emergency, presumably you want to be found.