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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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January 23, 2017

Trump's conspirators

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have bore the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed.

So said Pres. Trump in his inaugural address, identifying the perpetrators of the Bladerunner-esque hellscape he depicted.

It’s not clear who he means. That’s worrisome.

The “rewards of government” Trump has in mind seem to be monetary, since in the next sentence he talks about wealth, and in the one after that he contrasts prospering politicians with factory workers who have lost their jobs.

So, who does Trump thinks is this shadowy group that has controlled our nation for their own personal monetary profit? Obama and his administration? Especially in terms of personal enrichment, the Obama years were the cleanest in my lifetime. And, of course, Trump’s poised to be the most corrupt in terms of self-enrichment.

It makes me nervous when politicians blame a small unnamed group that controls the country and does so for personal monetary benefit. Sounds like a dogwhistle to me, especially when an anti-Semitic white racist is the president’s chief strategic adviser.

I’m struggling to make sense of this particular paranoid conspiracy theory. I’m only coming up with one answer.

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January 20, 2017

Maybe we’re not such an awful species

Wired has a post about http://astronaut.io/, a site that shows snippets of recently uploaded YouTubes that have had no views and that have a generic title.

In just a few minutes, I saw scenes from around the world of what matters to people.

Maybe I was just lucky, but what I saw is what peace is about.

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January 16, 2017

The maximalist approach to removing Trump

The list of ways Trump’s term might be cut short ranges from impeachment, to the invocation of the 25th Amendment, to personal blackmail, to a Fact Ex Machina that is so awful and indisputable that it picks him up by his ill-fitting suit and kicks him into the Loser’s Suite of his new DC hotel.

But if this past year has taught us anything — and I’m open to the possibility that it has not — it’s that we are very bad at making predictions about specific events that result from complex circumstances. We can’t know if and how Trump’s term might come to early end. For all we know, he might exeunt chased by a bear. (Hint: The bear is Russia.)

Which suggests that the most effective action ordinary janes and joes like us can take is to create the conditions under which several paths are easier to be trod.

For example:

  • Demonstrate the depth and breadth of the opposition by loyal, patriotic US citizens, to embolden Congress to oppose and remove him.

  • Extend and deepen the bonds among his opponents — emotional as well as political bonds

  • Expose as many of his lies as we can

  • Call him on his bullshit and attacks on the Constitution

  • Make heroes of his opponents, no matter what party they’re in

  • Frame him as an outsider to the American tradition and to both political parties

  • Do what we can as citizens, techies, parents, businesspeople, creators, activists, mimes — whatever is our excellence and our joy — to pursue a particular path towards Trump’s removal…and, not incidentally, to repair the damage his administration causes to our neighbors and communities.

When the future is so unknowable, we have no choice but to make it more possible.

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January 13, 2017

My conspiracy theory

My conspiracy theory: The purported dossier on Trump says the Russians have been cultivating him for five years. Suppose they were pressuring him to run. As a true patriot, Trump knew how disastrous it would be to have a Russian puppet as President. So, Trump did everything he could as a candidate to make himself unelectable: in his announcement speech he called Mexicans rapists, he made fun of the disabled, he called McCain a loser for being captured. He just kept upping the ante. And then we elected him.

Put differently, let me pitch a movie idea to you. It’s The Manchurian Candidate meets The Producers.

The Manchurian Producers
No Puppet. No Puppet. You’re the Puppet.

Starring Seth Rogen.
with James Franco as “The Toup”

Opening nationwide on Jan 20.

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January 8, 2017

Make policies, not deals

We can argue about whether president-elect Trump’s deal to save 800 jobs at Carrier?—?ten years of tax breaks and other incentives worth $7 million to the company?—?was a good one or not. We can get riled up about Trump taking credit for keeping open a Ford plant that wasn’t closing. But our real concern should be about deals substituting for policy.

A deal results from a negotiation between the contesting parties. Policies result from decision-making processes by an institution that does not directly benefit or suffer from the outcome; those who do are supposed to recuse themselves.

Deals differ depending on those negotiating them. Policies are the same for all concerned.

Deals are therefore unpredictable. It is usually a good practice not to state honestly what your expectations or limits are. That’s why deal-making can be called an “art.” Policies aim at predictability. They announce their intent and the mechanisms for achieving that intent.

Deals are negotiated using techniques that play upon the personality quirks of the negotiators.”Deals are negotiated using techniques that play upon the personality quirks of the negotiators. Because policies apply more broadly, they are not predicated on individual weaknesses, although the tactics used for achieving policy objectives might.

Deals can fail. One side or both can walk away from the table. The conflict of interests then continues, often without a fallback for how to resolve it. Policies can fail to achieve their goals, but they survive particular failures. They may even be amended and improved based on cases where they proved themselves inadequate.

Deals are done by individuals. Policies are created by institutions.

Donald Trump fancies himself a deal-maker. He has exhibited no interest in or aptitude for policy.

This is dangerous.

On the positive side, because deals deal with particulars, they can hew more closely to the precise needs of both sides. Policies can steamroller the particularities of a case the way a law can be applied evenly but unjustly if there are extenuating circumstances. That’s why we amend policies, and hand their implementation to dedicated career professionals?—?people candidate Trump has disdained as stupid and corrupt.

But even that positive attribute of deals does not scale. As others have pointed out, president-elect Trump has gotten widespread praise for intervening to save 800 jobs, while President Obama has gotten little credit for policies that have contributed to the creation of 15 million jobs. If President Trump made one 800-job deal a day, he would have to be president for 51 years to equal President Obama’s achievement.

Most dangerous of all, a government that works by making deals is a government in the pocket of a strongman who thinks that he alone can save us. “A deal-driven government is all exceptions all the time.”A deal-driven government is all exceptions all the time.

President Trump’s experience in office is unlikely to teach him the weakness of governance by deal-making, for he is going to spend his time making deals and repeatedly exulting in his successes, while excusing his failures by excoriating those who did not accept his terms.

We can only hope that the American public sees through this. The Art of the Deal is in this case indistinguishable from the Ego of the Despot.



I’ve posted this also at Medium.

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December 21, 2016

Pushing back against Trump: The techie meetup

I’m at an open meeting held by Maciej Ceglowski, co-hosted by Heather Gold, for techies to get together to think about how we can ameliorate the Trump Effect. It’s being held under the Chatham House Rule. It’s a packed house of 100+ people. Most are programmers. Probably under 15% are women. Almost all are white. We know from a show of hands that a healthy number were not born in this country. Few thought Trump would win. I seem to be the oldest person in the room. As usual.

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.

Maciej says that we have a month before the inauguration and we shouldn’t waste it. “…hear from people from outside of our community who know how to organize”He characterizes the recent meeting of Silicon Valley CEOs with Trump as a knuckling under by the participants. We should be pushing from below, he says. Maciej says we are here tonight also to hear from people from outside of our community who know how to organize and have an effect.

The first speaker is Bruce Schneier, who gave me permission to name him; no Chatham House Rule was harmed with this entry. (Bruce’s comments are drawn from a recent post.) The election was so close that you can’t draw conclusions, but the outcome sure changed the narrative, he says. Bruce talks about four things to do in the Trump years: 1. Fight the fights. That means playing whack-a-mole. We’re going to lose a lot of those battles, but our goal should be to lose as few and as little as possible. 2. Prepare for the fight. “The more we can convince corporate America to disarm, the safer we’ll be.” 3. Prepare the groundwork for the future. 4. Solve the actual problems — the ones that are coming despite or because of Trump. “If things go really bad really fast, a lot of this becomes irrelevant.,” he notes. “The hardest thing is to not fall into despair…The election exposed some really deep problems in society.” We need to address those problems now. “Treat this as if the nation caught cowpox, not smallpox”“Treat this [Trump’s presidency] as if the nation caught cowpox, not smallpox,” i.e. a disease that inoculates us against the fatal version.

The second speaker is a refugee advocate. There are about 400 sanctuary cities/towns/states. “Not Massachusetts. Not yet.” Sanctuaries limit police collaboration with ICE. The fight is at the state level, and many states are ahead of Massachusetts in this. It now becomes more important to provide tuition to any student who graduates from HS no matter their immigration status. Mass. Gov. Baker in June aligned himself with Pres. Obama’s massive deportation policy. There’s a Boston initiative to provide public defenders for people in immigration court. People should contact their local legislators and ask them to support the TRUST act.

The third speaker is a civil liberties activist. S/he agrees with the first two speakers that the action is going to be in the states. Her/His TL;DR: “We’re fucked.” The Mass. legislature is Democratic but conservative. S/he urges us to send messages to our legislators. Especially important: Call them on the phone. “Pick one thing that matters to you a lot. Get people in your neighborhood together, and have a meeting” with your legislator. S/he suggests we support the CCOPS
(“Community Control Over Police Surveillance”) bill that Cambridge is considering. She ends by saying that while federal action will primarily be defensive, we can still build power. Also, support the ACLU.

The fourth speaker is from a domestic workers activist group. S/he has us say as one that we’re ready to fight. “It’s good to remember how mopey privileged people like me allow ourselves to be.”(It’s good to remember how mopey privileged people like me allow ourselves to be. Of course, as a stalwart introvert I could not bring myself to join the chant. But anyway.) S/he works on building alliances between labor and tech. “This is a moment when we can really come together.” Massachusetts has the most advanced bill supporting domestic workers. S/he wants to know how many of us have friends, actual friends, who are undocumented. If so, we should understand the forces that cause people to uproot themselves. “The day after the election, everyone was crying, because hope had been taken away from them.” Over 60% of undocumented workers pay income taxes on their own, with no help from their employers. “We need your help because tech is everything. Also, you’re white.” [Laughter] “It’s really important for tech to lead, and to represent Mass as a kind of liberation zone across the nation. We have to build an alternative to the tech CEOs who normalized Trump. We need to be building alternative leaders and reps and not cede the ground of who is speaking for tech. We need distributed resistance across the country, and where’s the infrastructure for that? “We need you guys to do that.” E.g., How do we make our membership lists and databases secure?“ Should we be talking about sanctuary companies where people feel safe when they come to work?” Should we be talking about sanctuary companies where people feel safe when they come to work?

Maciej: How do we build tools that let people organize without being weapons that can be used against them?

The fifth is a labor lawyer. Three pieces of good news: 1. The national labor laws will survive Trump. 2. Because Trump says he’s a champion of the working class, it will be hard for him to attack unions. 3. Tech workers have more knowledge and power than most workers; it’s harder to replace them. S/he explains how you can form a union. You should be able to have an election within a month of filing. S/he also talks about whistleblowing: If you can find a statute being violated, you can assert that and refuse to do it. “This is a good time for people to start joining unions.”

Now there are lightning talks, introduced by Heather Gold (See TummelVision). I’m not going to try to capture them with any completeness. Some points made:

  • A union organizer says that the only way forward is to have in-person conversations. “We’re motivated by emotions…It’s about the relationships.”

  • “Make sure that the people working on tech in govt are in part of this conversation.”

  • The rubber hits the road with the local immigrant worker groups

  • “Rally to the defense of workers.”

  • Support SURJ
    : Showing Up for Racial Justice. From the site: “SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice.”

  • “A lot of work gets hindered by well-meaning white people who want to help but don’t know how to do it.”

  • Support ActSecure, helping activists learn how to secure their information and communication.

  • “Run for town meeting. Run for town clerk.”

  • Before you build the great idea you have, engage with tech activist communities to learn what they’ve done already. When you don’t, “honestly, it hurts.”

  • Onion Browser
    for iPhone and VPN for iPhone are on the way.

  • Most of the progress in Trans* rights have been done through executive actions and can thus be rolled back. Much of Trump’s cabinet comes from “what I call anti-LGBTQ hate groups.”

  • Most computer systems were designed by people who weren’t thinking about trans people, and it shows in profile choices, etc.

  • Go to a monthly CryptoParty

  • Engineering Activism: Tech training for organizers, and organizing training for techies.

Now there’s open conversation, ably and actively moderated by Heather, which I will not record.

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December 4, 2016

Trump, Taiwan, and peace through fiction

I have a friend whom I cherish who loathes Donald Trump, but who thinks that Trump’s missteps with Taiwan were actually a good thing. My friend’s sole hope for Trump is that he will follow through with some of his campaign rhetoric and address China’s predatory trade practices. For my friend, Trump’s blunder — and he calls it that — has burst the bubble of “disingenuous and silly” lies that the Chinese have taken advantage of for thirty years.

I don’t know nearly enough about our economic relationship with China to be entitled to have an opinion about it, but even if it was good to pierce the mutual fiction about the relationship of the two Chinas (I’d put scare quotes around one of those two words, but I can’t figure out which), it’s not good to do so with no plan or strategy. Trump sent a strong, consequential signal to China that is only de-stabilizing. In fact, Trump then denied that it was a signal at all when, in the face of criticism, he tweeted that Taiwan “called ME!”. So, the phone call was merely ignorant, pointless destabilization that Trump then destabilized.

My friend likes the idea that the phone call destroyed a fictitious international relationship. But blowing up a relationship simply because it is disingenuous and silly is not necessarily a good thing in itself. The world’s constituencies are so different in their interests and understandings that we often can only maintain a difficult peace by finding language structurally ambiguous enough — each side knows that the other means something different by it — that we are not forced to bring an irresolvable disagreement to an unambiguous resolution.

None of this touches my friend’s larger and more important point about the possibility that Trump could address China’s predatory economic practices. Even Cheeto Hitler might get something right. But not this time or in this way.

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November 11, 2016

Life will, uh, find a way

Mike Ananny [twitter: ananny] had to guest-lecture a class about media, communications and news on Nov. 9. He recounts the session with an implicit sense of wonder that we can lift our head up from the dirt after that giant Monty Python jackboot dropped on us.

monty pyton foot

It’s a reminder that step by step, we’ll make some progress back to where we were and then beyond.

No, I don’t really believe that. Not yet.

But I will.

Thanks to you.

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October 13, 2016

Michelle Obama speaking truth

These are words we need to hear.

I will so miss her voice. I hope she will stay where we can hear her.

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