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Google Blew It August 12, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I don’t think that statement surprises anyone.  Google had the opportunity to make a definitive statement about the technology industry, competence, inclusion, ability, and teamwork, and instead blew it as only a big, bureaucratic company could.  Here is why I think so.

First, Google enabled and apparently supported a culture in which views colored by politics are freely promoted.  That was simply stupid.  No one wins at the politics game (and mostly everyone loses).  We believe what we believe.  If we are thoughtful human beings with a growth mindset, our beliefs are likely to change, but over a period of years, not overnight.

Second, Google let the debate be framed as a liberal versus conservative one.  It is most emphatically not.  I hate those labels.  I am sure I have significant elements of each in my psyche, along with perhaps a touch of libertarianism.  To throw about such labels is insulting and ludicrous, and Google as a company and a culture enabled it.

Okay, then what is it, you may ask.  It is about mutual respect, across jobs, roles, product lines, and level of responsibility.  It is working with the person, regardless of gender, race, age, orientation, or whatever.  You don’t know their circumstances, you may not even know what they have been assigned to do.  Your goal is to achieve a robust and fruitful working relationship.  If you can’t, at least some of that may well be on you.

The fact that you work together at Google gives you more in common with each other than almost anyone else in the world.  There are so many shared values there that have nothing to do with political beliefs, reflexive or well-considered.  Share those common goals; all else can be discussed and bridged.  It’s only where you work, after all.

You may think poorly of a colleague.  God knows I have in the past, whether it be for perceived competence, poor work habits, skimpy hours, or seeming uninspired output (to be fair, over the years a few of my colleagues may have thought something similar about me).  They are there for a reason.  Someone thought they had business value.  Let’s expend a little more effort trying to find it.  Please.

So what would I have done, if I were Sundar Pichai?  Um, first, how about removing politics from the situation?  Get politics out of office discussions in general, and out of this topic in particular.  All too often, doctrinaire people (on both sides of the aisle) simply assume that everyone thinks their ideas are inevitably right.  Try listening more and assuming less.  If you can’t, Sundar, it is time to move aside and let an adult take over.

Second, Google needs everyone to understand what it stands for.  And I hope it does not stand for liberal or conservative.  I hope it wants everyone to grow, professionally, emotionally, and in their mindsets.  We can have an honest exchange of ideas without everyone going ballistic.

Get a grip, folks!  There is not a war on, despite Google’s ham-handed attempts to make it one.  We have more in common than we are different, and let’s work on that for a while.

I can’t fix Google’s monumental screw-up.  But I really hope I can move the dial ever so slightly toward respect and rational discourse.

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The Incorrect Assumptions Surrounding Diversity in Tech August 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There was a time in my life when I believed that the tech industry was a strict meritocracy, that the best would out.  At this stage of my life, I now realize that is a pipe dream.

Can we define the best software engineers?  We can perhaps define good ones, and perhaps also define poor ones, in a general sense.  “I know it when I see it,” said former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, speaking of pornography.  Which may not be that different from speaking of code.

The problem is that those are very subjective and biased measures.  The person who writes fast code may not write the best code.  The person who write the best code may be slow as molasses.  Which is better?  There are certainly people who write the best code fast, but are they writing code that will make the company and product successful?

There are a thousand tech startups born every year.  They think they have a great idea, but all ideas are flawed.  A few are flawed technically, but most are flawed in terms of understanding the need or the market.  Those ideas have blind spots that others outside of that creative process can also certainly readily recognize.

The ultimate question for companies is what do you want to be when you grow up.  Companies build applications that reflect its market focus.  But they also build applications that reflect its teams.  When we build products, we do so for people like us.

In tech companies, we are building a product.  I have built products before.  Software engineers make hundreds of tactical decisions on how to implement product every day.  Product managers make dozens of strategic decisions on what products to build, what it runs on, and what features to include.

I have made those decisions.  I am painfully aware that every single decision I make has an accompanying bias.  I dislike that, because I know that decisions I have made can foil the larger goals of being successful and profitable.

I want a diverse team participating in those decisions.  Because I don’t trust that my own biases will let me make decisions that will build the best product, for widest customer base.  I mean gender, race, economic status, orientation, age, everything I can include.  Many tech companies use the term “cultural fit” to eliminate any diversity from their teams.  Diverse teams may have more tension, because you have different experiences and think differently, but you end up making better decisions in the end.  I’m pretty sure that’s demonstrable in practice.

You may believe that you know everything, and are the best at any endeavor you pursue.  Let me let you in on something: you are not.  We would all be amazed at what everyone around us can contribute.  If we just let them.

The Internet is After Me August 4, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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The Internet is after me.  It’s trying to grab my attention, for a few seconds, so I can dote on cute little kittens scurrying across my dinner, in exchange for my unconscious watching an ad for Tidy Bowl for half a minute.

Hey, I’m old.  Did I tell you that?  I must have forgotten.  Kittens are the only thing I recognize on the Internet, but boy, are they cute.  I have cats, and they sure are cute, but the ones on the Internet are so highly trained in the art and science of cuteness that I simply can’t stop looking at them.  But there is a problem.

I walk down the street, looking at my kittens on a screen that my eyes can barely discern, and I see random ads popping up on the screen.  In fact, the ads are covering up the kittens!  I stop abruptly, causing a little boy to crash right into my backside, and look around me.

Yes!  There is the Hamburger Haven, right across the street.  I look back down and my screen, and yes, the kittens were chasing hamburgers!  And when a kitten caught one, it polished it off with a lick of its lips and a smirk on its face.  What a cute kitten!

It made me hungry just watching.  I looked up again at the Hamburger Haven, then started crossing the street.  I didn’t get far before I got clipped by a car.  I spun around and fell, but was still focused on getting to that hamburger.  Double meat, double cheese, bacon, oh yes bacon, lettuce, and ketchup.  A tomato would not be overkill, would it?

I wasn’t hurt, more startled, but the car screeched to a stop, and a young guy got out.  He was looking at his phone as he rushed to my side, but I don’t think he was calling 9-1-1.  No, he showed me the screen, and said, “Let’s go get a hamburger.”  Damn.

So we had a hamburger.  And super fries.  And a drink.  But as I licked my lips, I realized an essential truth.

They not only know who I am, they know where I am.  And they want to sell me hamburgers.  Maybe panty hose, though I hope not.  But kittens?  Oh yes, show me more kittens.

Can We Level Set? June 6, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am reading some incredible things about self-driving cars, machine learning (which I know something about), and a broad variety of other fanciful technologies.  To be fair, self-driving cars are a ways away, for a variety of reasons, Uber self-flying aircraft are a pipe dream, and intelligent machines taking over jobs are largely still off in an indeterminate future.

So, just where is the world on technology?  I am not entirely sure, but I would like to offer some opinions.  First, I am fairly technology savvy, although I am rarely a first adopter.  I am certainly not a last adopter.

My Subaru is going on 19 years old, and still starts reliably.  It will be replaced this year, I promise.  But I will not have a self-driving car in my lifetime.  And if you are middle age or beyond, neither will you, despite what we are fed for what passes for news these days.

My new Dell, all four cores and 8GB of RAM, still hangs on web browsing.  If you think your car is going to seamlessly communicate with the Internet and other cars in real time (do you even know what real time means?), you are very wrong.  Your NetFlix movie streaming probably doesn’t even give you a high-def video reliably.  Be honest here.  I am told I get 30Mbps, and it is slow because of what we are sending.

Speaking of which, I have a TV that is about 20 years old.  It has a tube; does anyone remember what that is?  But I get the stuff I need from Xfinity.

We are constantly fed a farce of new and even better.  A few of us buy the latest and greatest, and think that is where the world is.  If you are a constant first adopter, more power to you.  You spend money on things that you don’t need, and probably don’t even use to their potential.  But hey, it’s your money.

My point is that what you spend on being a first adopter today is pretty much wasted.  In 30 years, we may see a completely controlled highway system filled with self-driving cars.  It won’t happen tomorrow in a way that will alleviate the pain of driving or the traffic issues of today.  Personal aircraft won’t happen in anyone’s lifetime, despite Uber’s big conference on the topic.  Facebook will not dominate our lives.

If we think otherwise, we are deluding ourselves.  I am a big believer in technology.  I think we are making the world better.  And I think that many of the things that are going on are really great.

But they are not right around the corner.

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.

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.