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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.

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.

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.

Really, CNN.com? March 31, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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I recognize that the mainstream media, or MSM, has been under fire lately. And has been under financial and relevancy pressure for at least two decades, as falling ad rates for digital media has cut still further into its advertiser-driven business model.  That one is a difficult one to solve, but that doesn’t absolve CNN from actually trying to solve it.

But giving advertising content the same placement and appearance as your news content is simply so far over the top that I am beside myself. Here is a screen capture of CNN Money that shows “sponsored content” (advertising) presented in the same manner as news.

This is wrong on so many levels I can’t even count them. That CNN.com would lower itself to this is unconscionable.  There are plenty of people who still respect and appreciate actual news, and they are (or can be if you care) your biggest defenders.

And really, CNN.com. It is purported news stories like this one on the move of the Oakland Raiders that make even reasonable people doubt your veracity.  I have never read such a one-sided, biased, and inflammatory article on a major news site.  You never even bothered to seek out and question Raiders owner Mark Davis, or to say that the Raiders and A’s are the last teams to be playing in the same stadium, by a long shot, or that Davis is relatively cash-poor and would likely have to give up ownership in order to remain in Oakland.  I live nowhere near Oakland, and have no dog in this hunt, but this does not even begin to pass the smell test.  Sometimes you are just too stupid for your own good.

Journalism is more interesting when it has a point of view. You may not always (or ever) agree with that point of view, but it is important to absorb and consider it.  But this is presented as objective news, yet is neither.

CNN, I know that it’s not easy, but it’s time to grow up and figure out your path without continuing to resort to cheap tricks like these.

Decisions, Decisions – There’s an Algorithm for That March 20, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I remember shoveling sh** against the tide. Yes, I taught statistics and decision analysis to university business majors for about 15 years.  It wasn’t so much that they didn’t care as they didn’t want to know.

I had more than one student tell me that it was the job of a manager to make decisions, and numbers didn’t make any difference. Others said, “I make decisions the way they are supposed to be made, by my experience and intuition.  That’s what I’m paid for.”

Well, maybe not too much longer. After a couple of decades of robots performing “pick-and-place” and other manufacturing processes, now machine learning is in the early stages of transforming management.  It will help select job candidates, determine which employees are performing at a high level, and allocate resources between projects, among many other things.

So what’s a manager to do? Well, first, embrace the technology.  Simply, you are not going to win if you fight it.  It is inevitable.

Second, make a real effort to understand it. While computers and calculators were available, I always made my students “do it by hand” the first time around, so they could follow what the calculations were telling them.  You need to know what you are turning your decisions over to.

Third, integrate it into your work processes. By using machine learning to complement your own abilities.  Don’t ignore it, but don’t treat it as gospel either.

There are many philosophical questions at work here. Which is better, your experience or the numbers?  Kahneman says they are about the same, which does not bode well for human decision-making.  And the analysis of the numbers will only get better; can we say the same thing about human decision-making?

Of course, this has implications to the future of management. I’ll explore my thoughts there in a future post.

Health Care is Institutionally Resistant to Technology March 9, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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That is an overarching and controversial statement, and is probably not true under all circumstances. I will only touch on a few points, based on this article in WSJ (paywall) and my own recent experiences.

The WSJ article notes a pretty complete failure of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to leverage IBM Watson AI technology to help diagnose and treat cancer.

Of course my own recent experiences include a referral to what is purportedly one of the leading cardio institutes in the country, which asked me to fill out forms using a Number 2 pencil. Like I did when I was in elementary school.  When I went to the website, there were obvious misspellings and bad grammar, including in their bragging about being a leading institution.

My doctor objected to my objection. “They don’t do their own website!”  My response:  “And they can’t even be troubled to read it, either.  If you can’t get the easy things right, it leaves a lot of doubt that you can get the hard things right.”

I see a couple of forces at work here. First, health care remains incredibly complex.  Every patient is different, and has to be treated with individuality.  (To be fair, that is not how many human practitioners treat their patients, but that is a tale for another day).  This approach may not be amenable to current machine learning endeavors.

That being said, however, it is clear that health care practitioners and institutions are rooted in routine and learned practice, and passively or actively resist new approaches. In a sense, it is sad that otherwise highly intelligent and educated people are so steeply rooted in their routines that they cannot adapt to changes for the better.

But the institutions and bureaucracies themselves force this attitude on many. It’s simply less friction to do things the way you always have, as opposed to trying something new.  And that, more than anything, is where health care needs to change.

Who Is the Data For? March 1, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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Andreas Weigend recently published an intriguing book called Data For the People, in which he argues that we are not going to stop the proliferation of personal data that is used to categorize and market to us, so we should embrace this change and find ways to use collected data to our advantage.

He cites many of the data points that I do in my blog posts, but comes to different conclusions. In particular, my own thoughts are to limit my use of personal data on a case-by-case basis.  His own conclusion is that we need to accept the proliferation of personal data as inevitable, and embrace it in a way that makes it valuable to us.

He makes a lot of sense, from an alternative point of view from mine, and I won’t dismiss it out of hand.

However, I would like to contrast that with another article, one that points out that when we choose our friends through shared data, we lose our ability to connect with our physical neighbors.

So, here is what I think. I think Andreas is correct, strategically.  But I am simply not sure how we get from where we are to where he wants to be.  I don’t think it will be clean and neat.  And it certainly won’t be convenient, especially for those of us who are at least part way through our lives.

I’ve used this quote before, but it remains apropos.  From Crosby, Stills, and Nash: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

I Am Disgusted with Tech February 23, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Well, no, not really, especially since it pays me well to do what I do. But I seem to be surprised and amazed (in a negative sense) daily with their behavior, both on the public stage and behind the scenes.

But Uber seems to be bound and determined to support its bro culture and its combative approach to opening new markets. “We’re hurting.”  Seriously?  This is about as juvenile as it gets, and for a company that’s purportedly worth north of $60 billion, is completely uncalled for.  And oh by the way, let’s attack by name the woman who had the courage, and the evidence, to speak out against that culture.

And getting former assistant attorney general (and current revolving door ambulance chaser) Eric Holder to investigate them is like getting the fox to investigate why chickens have disappeared. I can write his report right now:  “This company is the paragon of virtue, although it does have random pockets of sexism and racism.  They don’t really have to do anything about that, because they are so good otherwise.”  If Uber pays Holder enough money, CEO Travis Kalanick won’t even be required to do a public mea culpa.

Uber has done some good, upending an industry that needed to be upended. But it has done so in a way that has created an entirely new class of working poor drivers, and a class of upper-income users who sadly don’t actually have to talk to anyone to get a ride.  Or tip anyone (I am sorry, the Uber drivers work for a living, and deserve courteous treatment.  Instead, Uber continues to not include a tip function on their app.)

Sadly, I don’t think that Facebook has done any good whatsoever. It has created a mass worldwide addiction that can never be satiated.  I see no innovation or value there.  And Zuckerberg?  He continues to deny what Facebook is and has become, all the while bringing in billions in market value for himself.  And uses it to buy his privacy, which he denies Facebook users.

Uber and Facebook, if you are looked upon as the adult supervision of Silicon Valley, then I can’t imagine what is happening elsewhere. It does not have to be like this, but this is what you wanted, and it is so very wrong.