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April 20, 2017

Mail from Xpeditr

Xpeditr has really overestimated the size of my wine cellar.

wine cellar

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April 19, 2017

Alien knowledge

Medium has published my long post about how our idea of knowledge is being rewritten, as machine learning is proving itself to be more accurate than we can be, in some situations, but achieves that accuracy by “thinking” in ways that we can’t follow.

This is from the opening section:

We are increasingly relying on machines that derive conclusions from models that they themselves have created, models that are often beyond human comprehension, models that “think” about the world differently than we do.

But this comes with a price. This infusion of alien intelligence is bringing into question the assumptions embedded in our long Western tradition. We thought knowledge was about finding the order hidden in the chaos. We thought it was about simplifying the world. It looks like we were wrong. Knowing the world may require giving up on understanding it.

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April 12, 2017

The CluePlane Manifesto

(An unauthorized, unapproved homage to The Cluetrain Manifesto).
bi-plane

A powerful global reaccommodation has begun. Corporations are rediscovering themselves in their muscular masculinity. For we are the makers, the takers, and above all else, we are the winners. Customers, employees, the needy, the vulnerable are, by definition, the losers. Each one of them would gladly trade their seat for one of the tufted leather chairs in our CEO’s office. Instead, make sure your pathetic seatbacks are returned to their upright position, your trays are stowed, and you’re buckled in. For this is your pilot speaking, and we’re ready to fly the friendly skies of “PUT YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM, MOTHERFUCKER!”

  1. Markets are reaccommodations.

  2. There’s the crew and there’s the screwed. Deal with it.

  3. When jack-booted thugs rough up paying passengers and drag them from your plane, it’s time for the CEO to step up and declare that there’s two sides to every story.

  4. There’s no customer need that cannot be met by a bag of off-brand peanuts.

  5. Customers of course have rights. But only once they have lawyers.

  6. Think of it like this: Boarding a airplane is like opening a shrink-wrapped product, an act that involuntarily voids all your rights. Except boarding a plane means also giving up the shreds of human dignity we didn’t already strip from you during the nudie scan, the TSA ritual ball or tit squeeze, the routine totally un-profiled examination of the darker-hued among us, the lack of sufficient seats in the boarding area, the unexplained delays, and the segregation into social strata announced over the PA. Also, I think we may have missed a spot in your rectum.

  7. Costs have gone up while fuel prices and basic services have gone down, yet more and more people are flying. Therefore, passengers must love us more than ever. You can’t argue with math!

  8. Virtually no other industry uses overbooking as a routine best practice because they don’t love their customers are much as we do.

  9. “First they came for my free crappy meal, and I said nothing. Then they came for my carry-ons, and I said nothing. Then they just said ‘Fuck it’ and came for the guy sitting next to me and dragged him off the plane by the ankles. And I said something, and I video-ed it and I posted it.” Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. I’ve got a corporate reputation to maintain.

  10. Every act of corporate brutality can be fixed by combining the power of euphemism with the audacity of neologism, catalyzed by a really expensive blue suit.

  11. It’s great to know that we’re making our employees so proud! Right, gang? Gang?

  12. Hey, it’s us against them, where “them” are the customers, right, gang? Oh, c’mon, gang, quit kidding around!

  13. You know who’s the victim here? The shareholders. How about some sympathy for them, eh?

  14. Y’know, it’d be a lot easier for us to fly empty planes and not have to deal with you all. You’re welcome. Ingrates.

  15. Hey, catch! Here’s your guitar. Sorry-not-sorry for the crushing.

  16. Have a bag of last year’s peanuts, on us.


Notes

1. No official affilliation with Cluetrain.

2. Thanks to Frank Scavo (@fscavo) and Alan Lepofsky (@alanlepo) for the prod and the idea.

3. Also posted at Medium

4. Photo posted to Pixabay by JayClark1. CC0 – Public Domain.

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April 11, 2017

There goes that paradox!

“There is nothing that has not already been said on the Internet” has zero hits at Google. Until now.

For I am the Destroyer of Paradoxes.

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April 6, 2017

Not everything broken is in beta


CC-BY Kevin Gessner https://www.flickr.com/
photos/kevingessner/3379877300

A White House official has blamed the bumpiness of the ride so far on the White House being in “beta.” This has provoked Jennifer Pahlka — the founder and Executive Director of Code for America and a US Deputy Chief Technology under President Obama — to respond with heartfelt despair, worried that the tools she and her cohort brought to the Obama White House are now being used against all that that cohort accomplished.

It pains me to think that Pahlka, who is a hero of mine, has any regrets or fears about the after-effects what she has done for this country. For the foreseeable future, I think she need not worry about how the Trump administration is using the tools and mindset her cohort introduced to the White House. “This new administration lacks the understanding, competency, and value system to use those tools.”This new administration lacks the understanding, competency, and value system to use those tools.

Here’s the passage she cites from a New Yorker article
:

But, on Friday morning, Mike Allen, Axios’s editor-in-chief, reported that one of the officials in the meeting “views the Trump White House in terms that could be applied to the iterative process of designing software. It’s a beta White House.”

Allen went on, “The senior official . . . said the White House was operating on similar principles to the Trump campaign: ‘We rode something until it didn’t work any more,’ the official said. ‘We recognized it didn’t work, we changed it, we adjusted it and then we kind of got better . . . [T]his was much more entrepreneurial.’ In the White House, he said, ‘we’re going to keep adjusting until we get it right.’ ”
— John Cassidy, “The Keystone Kops in the White House” The New Yorker

“Beta” means “We rode something until it didn’t work any more”?? No, this official is describing what happens when you wake up one day and find out that your DVD burner is no longer supported by the latest upgrade to your operating system. That’s the opposite of “beta.”

The White House isn’t in beta. It’s in freefall.

Nevertheless, this passage bothers Jen because she and her colleagues used to say the same things about making incremental improvements when they were in the White House working to fix Healthcare.gov, the student loan process, and so much more. She writes:

Trump’s team is using the language of agile development to describe how they will strand millions of Americans without healthcare and ban Muslims from entering the country….

What are agile methods without the moral core of the movement for 21st century government, a commitment to users, aka the American people? My heart hurts so much I’m not sure my head is working quite right, and I don’t know if this bizarre application of agile methodologies is a farce or frighteningly effective.

Yes, agile programming can be used for evil purposes, but I don’t think Jen’s cohort should feel they carelessly left a weapon lying around the White House. The Trump administration lacks agile programming’s implicit understanding of how the future works, its theory or change, and its implied values. That’s why, at least so far, “the Trump White House is so non-agile that it’s not even the opposite of agile”the Trump White House is so non-agile that it’s not even the opposite of agile.

Agile software development is characterized by at least two relevant ideas: First, big projects can be chopped into smaller units that can be developed independently and often simultaneously. Second, agile projects are iterative, proceeding by small steps forward, with occasional small steps backwards. Both of these points stand in opposition to the prior “waterfall” approach?—?so-called because he project diagram looks like a series of cascading waterfalls?—?in which the steps for the entire project are carefully mapped out in advance.

To paint the differences too starkly, waterfall development is about command and control. Somebody maps out the flow, dates are assigned to the major phases, and managers make sure the project is “on track.” An agile project is instead about trust and collaboration. It breaks the software product into functional units — modules — each with an owner. The owner is trusted to build a module that takes in data in an agreed-upon format, operates on it, and outputs the result in an agreed-upon format. These independent module developers have to work closely with all the others who are relying upon their work, whether a module figures out what permissions a user has, determines if an arrow has hit its target in a game, or confirms that landing gear have been fully extended.

Agile development therefore cedes control from the Big Boss to the people most directly responsible for what they’re building. It needs a team — more exactly, a collaborative community?—?in which each person:

  • Understands precisely she needs to do

  • Understands how what she produces will serve everyone else’s input and output requirements

  • Can be trusted to get the job done well?—?which means getting it right for everyone else

  • Is in close communication with everyone relying upon her module and upon which hers relies

  • Understands the overall goal of the project

As far as anyone can tell from the outside, exactly none of this applies to the current White House.

Second, agile development is iterative?—?a series of small changes because it assumes that you cannot fully predict how exactly the end product will work, or even what exact functionality it’s going to provide. That is, agile development assumes that life, the universe, and all that are so complex that precisely planning a project from beginning to end requires an act of arrogance that borders on stupidity. And measuring the success of a project by its micro-adherence to a fixed schedule in a world that is changing around it rewards stubbornness over serving end-users as well as possible.

Now, Donald Trump’s preference for deal-making over policy
aligns with iteration’s acceptance that “the future is not the next card in the deck but is what we make of our hand”the future is not the next card in the deck but is what we make of our hand. But Trump’s style of deal-making is based on the superior skill of the individual (Donald), a ruthless commitment to “winning,” and is all about one big step?—?the end result?—?not a series of small changes. Ultimatums of the sort that Trump issued once he saw he was losing the health care battle are the opposite of the incrementalism of iteration. An iterative approach is exemplified by the Democrats’ approach: Let’s tinker with Obamacare to fix what needs fixing.

So, Trump’s White House is anything but agile.

But neither is it proceeding through a waterfall approach, for that requires a commitment to an end result, a rational and realistic understanding of the steps necessary to get there, and well-coordinated managers who are all on the same page. The Trump White House does have a commitment to end results, expressed as mob-inciting campaign promises that are often at the sweet spot where delusion and heartlessness intersect on the Venn diagram of policy-making. Beyond that, this White House exhibits none of the processes, commitments, or accountability that are the hallmark of waterfall development.

Jen’s cohort left tools the White House can’t use because it lacks agile development’s understanding of how change happens and agile’s fundamental trust in its community of practitioners. In short, Jen’s cohort brought a community to a knife fight.

Posted also at Medium.

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March 29, 2017

[liveblog] Ed tech hackathon

I’m at an education technology hackathon — “Shaping the Future” — put on by MindCET, an ed tech accelerator created by the Center for Educational Technology in Israel. MindCET’s headquarters are in Yeruham in the Negev, a small-ish town that’s been growing as tech companies migrate there.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Our group created — in a demo hackathon-ish way — a tool that helps teachers create workgroups for collaborative learning based on information gleaned from machine learning about learning capabilities. The judges are four young people who are prodigiously talented computer developers. We named it Sort_ed because my team did not appreciate the sheer (shear?) genius of Zissorz. (My team was awesome.)

“Our business plan: Mexico will pay for it.”Our business plan: Mexico will pay for it.

Here are some of the projects presented at the end of the 36 hours of development. Each group has two minutes to present, ruthlessly enforced.

Interest In: A platform for students sharing their interests by learning or teaching. They can create tutorials and list them. They get badges.

Escape the classroom “Classrooms are so boring”Classrooms are so boring. Escape the Classroom uses the power of whatsApp and escape rooms (i.e., the puzzle rooms you try to get out of collaboratively, using educational clues.

Rope. Team-based learning.”Rope Team” is a course format for Moodle that implements a unique workflow for learning a set number of topics.” There are roles and responsibilities, and a workflow with automation. (The creator of Moodle, Martin Dougiamas, is on that team.)

Snippy. Every child has a passion for something. Snippy lets students create content, share it, and share the content of others. A chatbot interviews you and presents relevant materials from what other students have uploaded. You can create a multimedia object to share your passion.

Clash of Brains. No one (hardly) likes tests. This team wants to bring fun and sociality into assessments. Teachers create a quiz and the app sends a code to students. Students can “duel” other students.

Edventure — a tailor-made education adventure. In the example, a friendly monster asks for help with a question. It’s a collaborative RPG for 3-5 players.

Playful — “promoting education through play.” “They introduce RRS: Robot Rewards System.”They introduce RRS: Robot Rewards System. You get real-world rewards from a robot: perhaps art, maybe it does a dance, etc. You can also be challenged to hack the robot.

Disruptive text. “For students who hate to read.” For 7-9th graders who struggle to read long texts. The text becomes a riddle they need to decode. They use several techniques to challenge the reader: Difficult fonts. Blurred text until you click. Mirrored words that reverse when clicked.

The Words and Image Challenge. “Students from a local Bedouin school are wearing a word and a drawing of an object.”Students from a local Bedouin school (unfairly adorable) are wearing a word and a drawing of an object. They throw a ball to the person with the name of the object on her or his shirt. You have to throw the ball as quickly as you can, in “hot potato” style.

ReflectMe. A team from the Israeli army has created an app that enables students to give one another feedback. (They contrast this with top-down military structure.) It has a simple, intuitive UI. In the example, students can leave feedback on a video, tied to the time code.

Peerz. Standardization misses individual passion. The future is individualized passion-based learning. But teachers can’t scale for this. A student asks Peerz a question, with hashtags. Other students can respond. The system suggests resources, better questions, etc. The questions are rated. “Peerz monetizes talent discovery.” “Co-creative learning in your pocket.”

EdMarket. “The Amazon of Education.” It gives teachers the ability to choose the best products. EdMarket is a marketplace of learning resources, sponsored by the govt (or so their business plan says). The students and teachers can reference the market.

Owie. “An AI best friend.” It will help students talk about emotions, especially when the situation is stressful. Owie is a chatbot that lets 8-12 year olds communicate with other friends and play emotionally-supportive games.

Shape on You. A virtual reality experience that teaches geometric figures. It aims at making it easier to grasp abstract concepts. You can manipulate figures, see the dimensions, alter them, and see the results. You can share your figure with other students.

Action Learning. They show a robot (a bit Lego-like) that models a robot for delivering water in the desert. They programmed this with the Creative Learning Lab. They created a space, physical and digital, where you can meet others and learn life lessons. “Solving problems that you couldn’t solve in school.”

Who Am I?. How to encourage creation within children, and how to motivate them to be interactive and really invest in the process. Who Am I? is a mini-quest game where you try to discover who is hidden in the room. It’s a mobile app that you navigate by moving the phone. You find clues. Students can make their own puzzles.

DPlay — “Democracy Playground.” “How do you liberate learning for self-reflection.” They created a platform for debating issues and reflecting on one’s own positions. Students fill out a little survey about the opposing positions, reflecting on why they react against it. These surveys are compiled over time. Is a student changing her vote often? Is she always voting with her friends?

OwnEd. They created an app that takes away the stress from students (12-13yr old) who are unsure what subjects they should be taking. It lets them design their own learning program. How do they want to learn? When do they want to learn? An “intuitive app” visually stimulates them to say that they’re most interested in. The backend uses this to suggest areas. The app suggests a time structure for their program. “Breaking the rules around space and time.”

Imagibate.com “Free learners’ mind from the old structures by engaging them in debate.” They use imaginary worlds to make sure the issues are not personally sensitive. The debates will be put up on line. E.g., “a world of unicorns and coffee beans”a world of unicorns and coffee beans, two tribes that have gotten along until the coffee beans learn to make a scent they find pleasurable, but it makes the unicorns sick. The team models a live debate, complete with a unicorn hat.

The winner was Who Am I?. We came in second, by one vote.

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March 25, 2017

How a little bit of data ruined my morning run

Since I was 21 years old, I’ve gone through long stretches where I have “run” outside for exercise — in quotation marks because I am passed by people who are running so slowly that I feel bad for them until I remember that they passed me. I’ve gone years running infrequently, and then other years I’ll run 3-6 days a week. But three things have been consistent throughout this: I don’t like running, I always run the same set route, and I have always run for distance, not for time: I set a course and don’t care how quickly I complete it.

That’s almost true. I care enough that I time my runs, but I don’t try to run faster in order to beat yesterday’s time. It’s just a little bit of long-term quantified knowledge that gives me a rough indication of what sort of shape I’m in as a jogger.

Beyond that smidge of data, I have gone out of my way to be data-free about my route. I don’t know how long it is. I therefore don’t know how long it takes me to run a mile. I therefore don’t know where the halfway point is, or the quarter markers. (My route’s a loop, so the halfway point is not obvious.)

Until today.

My Pebble smartwatch is declining, so I looked for a running app on my phone. The one I rather randomly chose gathers info beyond the duration of the run, but I just wasn’t thinking well about it when I plugged in my my headset, picked some upbeat music, and set off this morning.

“You’ve run one mile,” said the woman’s voice in my ear when I was a block away from the pond. I cannot unhear where the first mile marker is. And because I didn’t want to stop to fiddle with the app, I also know where the second mile marker is. And I know my home is 0.03 miles short of being the third mile marker. I also know how fast I run.

I don’t want to know any of this, although the distance and my speed are both a little better than I would have guessed. So, yay for being marginally less pathetic than I’d thought?

The real problem is knowing where those mile markers are.

I’ve tried lots of other sorts of exercise, and I haven’t stuck with any of them. They’re too boring, they take too long to get to, or — this is the crucial one — they involve counting. How many laps? How many reps? Am I at the twenty minute mark yet? It’s not the numbers that bother me. It’s knowing that there’s some knowable quantity I have to complete in order to be done. Doing a countable exercise is like watching a clock tick. You want to slow down time? Pay attention to it.

Running wasn’t like that. Now it will be. I’ll know when I’m at the one-third mark, and, more to the point, I’ll know when I haven’t even reached the one-third part. This little bit of data turns the entire run into a set of tasks that must be accomplished in sequence — a set of tasks that at any moment during the run I know have not yet fully accomplished.

For the past forty-five years, I’ve managed to run with some regularity by running through space. Now I’m running through time, and that takes much longer.

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March 22, 2017

Four-pound fountain pen?

I’m thinking that this Lamy 2000 pen on Amazon

lamy 2000 pen


isn’t really a one-inch cube…

pen details

…that weighs 4.2lbs.

1 Comment »

March 18, 2017

How a thirteen-year-old interprets what's been given

“Of course what I’ve just said may not be right,” concluded the thirteen year old girl, “but what’s important is to engage in the interpretation and to participate in the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years.”

So said the bas mitzvah girl at an orthodox Jewish synagogue this afternoon. She is the daughter of friends, so I went. And because it is an orthodox synagogue, I didn’t violate the Sabbath by taking notes. Thus that quote isn’t even close enough to count as a paraphrase. But that is the thought that she ended her D’var Torah with. (I’m sure as heck violating the Sabbath now by writing this, but I am not an observant Jew.)

The D’var Torah is a talk on that week’s portion of the Torah. Presenting one before the congregation is a mark of one’s coming of age. The bas mitzvah girl (or bar mitzvah boy) labors for months on the talk, which at least in the orthodox world is a work of scholarship that shows command of the Hebrew sources, that interprets the words of the Torah to find some relevant meaning and frequently some surprising insight, and that follows the carefully worked out rules that guide this interpretation as a fundamental practice of the religion.

While the Torah’s words themselves are taken as sacred and as given by G-d, they are understood to have been given to us human beings to be interpreted and applied. Further, that interpretation requires one to consult the most revered teachers (rabbis) in the tradition. An interpretation that does not present the interpretations of revered rabbis who disagree about the topic is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that writes off prior interpretations with which one disagrees is not listening carefully enough and is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that declares that it is unequivocally the correct interpretation is wrong in that certainty and is likely to be flawed in its stance.

It seems to me — and of course I’m biased — that these principles could be very helpful regardless of one’s religion or discipline. Jewish interpretation takes the Word as the given. Secular fields take facts as the given. The given is not given unless it is taken, and taking is an act of interpretation. Always.

If that taking is assumed to be subjective and without boundaries, then we end up living in fantasy worlds, shouting at those bastards who believe different fantasies. But if there are established principles that guide the interpretations, then we can talk and learn from one another.

If we interpret without consulting prior interpretations, then we’re missing the chance to reflect on the history that has shaped our ideas. This is not just arrogance but stupidity.

If we fail to consult interpretations that disagree with one another, we not only will likely miss the truth, but we will emerge from the darkness certain that we are right.

If we consult prior interpretations that disagree but insist that we must declare one right and the other wrong, we are being so arrogant that we think we can stand in unequivocal judgment of the greatest minds in our history.

If we come out of the interpretation certain that we are right, then we are far more foolish than the thirteen year old I heard speak this morning.

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March 12, 2017

The wheels on the watch

1. This is an awesome immersion in craft knowledge.

2. It is incomprehensible without that craft knowledge.

3. It is mesmerizing, in part because of its incomprehensibility.

4. The tools — many of which he makes for this task — are as beautiful as their results.

5. How much we must have loved clocks to have done this without these tools!

6. What sort of creatures are we that our flourishing requires doing hard things?

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