Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Egg Man Fell Down off His Shelf.


All The Good King's Men, With all Their Help

They struggled to the end for a shell they couldn't mend.

With apologies to Nathalie Merchant, I read with interest this week-end of a recent lawsuit launched by sixty-four (count 'em) Asian and Asian-American civil rights groups against Harvard University.  The basis for the suit is the presumed discrimination that that august institution engages in against applicants.

In the brief, the coalition "alleges that Harvard,  as well as other Ivy League colleges, deny Asian-American applicants with “almost perfect” SAT scores, “top 1% GPAs,” and “significant awards or leadership positions” in extracurricular activities, while similar applicants of other races have been admitted."

Given the data that are widely available - in the complaint, for example, it is stated "admits" of Asian descent score on average 140 points higher than white "admits," 270 points higher than the average score achieved by Latino students, and 450 points (!!) higher than the average black student admitted -  it would seem that the claim that Harvard's admissions standards are separate and truly unequal deserves at the least the scrutiny of the AG and the department of education, both of whom have been asked to investigate.

At least part of the argument here is mathematical - if one presumes that the quality of Asian high school students in the US has remained more or less the same as it was 25 years ago, you would expect that the percentage of Asian students enrolled in the top universities in the US would have gone up significantly over that period, as the sheer number of students of Asian heritage in the US has climbed.

Curiously, with a couple of exceptions (Cal Tech among them), the numbers have been strangely constant.

Good luck to them, but Harvard is a private institution, and one that admits 2,000 or so students from a pool of nearly 30,000.  Thus, it's entirely plausible that Harvard could admit an entire class of white or black or Latino students and have all them be "qualified," as the choice to submit an application to a school like Harvard is not random, and thus applicants to a high degree are already self-selected.

Harvard has an out-sized impact on government (the president himself is a Harvard law graduate), and thus I suspect that their legal team will likely beat the rap on this one.  And more to the point, the admissions policy of an extremely selective, elite school like Harvard have little to no impact on the lives of the overwhelming majority of Americans.  Directly, at least.

But what struck me as a more important culture artefact of the cracks in the coaliton that makes up the 'base' of the Democratic party.

Much has been made (correctly, in my estimation) of the future political trends in the US - demographics, as some say, is destiny.  Recently, the Republican party has been painted, with no small success, as a party of aging, white men.  Much of the painting of course has been done by the party itself, as it seems to go out of its way to pick losing arguments in the infamous culture wars.  

As the country becomes less white, more urban, and concentrated in places like California, the argument goes that the Republicans will eventually find it impossible to win national elections, if they have not already so done.  Democrats have won pluralities in presidential elections in every election since 1992, save for 2008.  As the electoral maths stack up, it looks extremely difficult that in 2016, any of the current crop of GOP contenders can topple the Democratic candidate (presumed at this point to be Hilary Clinton).

But is the conventional wisdom true, in the long run?

The problem for the Democrats, as I see it, is that it is a coalition of many smaller groups who, outside of a theoretical desire to wrestle "control" from the perceived domination of middle-aged and older white men, lack much common interest.

White voters are still a sizeable majority in the US, and thus to control more than highly and scrupulously gerrymandered or large elections, the Democrats need to win in all of the constituencies, and by big numbers.

Thus far, they've been able to do so.  Blacks voted for Obama by more than 10-1 in 2012.  Latinos at about 3-1.  Asian-Americans split out at about the same.  

Democrats enjoy the support as well of Jewish, female, and many 'cause' voters (e.g., the environment, unions).

But what, beyond antipathy to suggested patriarchal, white, male, cis-gendered power structure actually unifies these divergent groups?  

Are labour unions really aligned with environmental groups, whose public face takes positions that are strongly negative to manufacturing?  Are advocates for the poor going to align with groups looking to pass carbon taxes that will either heavily fall on poorer people or be ultimately useless?  Recently, as I wrote here, Jewish students have been shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of the Social Justice Warrior agenda.

Are Asian-Americans a natural coalition with black and Hispanic advocacy groups who demand affirmative action?

We've to some degree crossed a cultural Rubicon here in California, in that no group is an outright majority any longer.  At some point, the US itself may reach a similar point, and many other large states will get there sooner rather than later.

Lee Kwan Yew, the brilliant but enigmatic father of Singapore once observed that, ultimately, in a multicultural democracy, we all will vote our tribal loyalties.  I have no idea if his vision in Asia will play out similarly in the US, but I expect that the Democratic party is going to find out how tough it is to keep its Humpty Dumpty together.

The lawsuit at Harvard may be the first gust of wind that causes the egg man to fall.


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Counting, Counting. Always Counting


Cartoon (c)The Atlantic, May 2012

The French philosopher and polymath Descartes summed existence in saying, "cogito ergo sum." (I think; and thus, I am).  Presuming that one accepts this definition of humanity, it seems naturally to follow that one would ask, "OK; I am.  But what, exactly, am I?"

There has been an enormous amount of noise recently about exactly how people see and sort themselves.  I've been living in France for a couple of years, but I am not French.  I have crossed from young adulthood into middle age.  I was once a sports fan, but I don't pay much attention any more.  I've been a student and single.  I'm now a married and the parent of a little boy.

What I am changes.  What you are does as well.

But if I look in the mirror, there is a couple of things that do not: I am undeniably "white" and male.  And whether I define myself this way, the world around me apparently does.  Reductive or not, those are the little boxes I reside in.

Recently, here in California there has been an awful lot of shouting about 'micro-aggressions' and 'privilege,' two terms that were not in the vernacular 10 years ago; at least not in the way that they are used now.  At Stanford, one of the schools from which I was graduated, and before that, UCLA, much of the yelling is in part driven by what is being called the B-D-S movement (boycott, divest, sanction) against Israel for imagined and actual transgressions.  And it's revealing fault lines that I suspect have existed for some time, but have been ignored or papered-over.

Jewish students at the two universities, vying to be members of their respective student governments, have been asked if they could be objective judges on so prickly a topic.  Unsurprisingly, the subjects of the interrogations take great offense, and there are increasing cries of anti-semitism.  

I suspect that, hidden behind much of the aggressive questioning, and indeed, the anti-Israel sentiments on campus and more broadly are motivated by anti-semitism.  Anti-semitism is not a particularly new virus.

But what's different this time is those engaging are not right-wing nuts, but people along the same ideological spectrum as those they attack.  Stanford and UCLA are not particularly conservative institutions.

From the debate at Stanford, comes the core issue here:

Jews are not treated like other minority groups. The New York Times recently published an article titled “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities”. Though I did not know Jews were no longer a minority, this distinction contains a certain logic. Jews sometimes claim to be a marginalized minority, expecting the support of the Left, but often find themselves spurned, even though 70% of American Jews vote Democrat. Instead, the Right, which often lambastes other minority groups’ claims of victimhood, embraces our cause. 
The Left vitriolically defends female, black, and Latino college students from the smallest microaggressions, ensuring that no one feels appropriated, excluded, or unsafe, but Jews are not given the same benefit of the doubt in similar circumstances. When allegations involve ‘anti-semitism’ instead of ‘racism,’ the Left suddenly rejects students’ subjective experiences. Maybe the Left, like the New York Times reporter, subconsciously does not identify Jews as minorities but instead as paragons of privilege who do not need protection. In the eyes of the Left, Jews became a part of the dominant power structure, and thus forfeited their status as a victimized class.
It seems the classic "who, whom" conundrum posited by Karl Marx.

In California, there is no longer a single, majority ethnic group, so what defines a "minority" is very much in flux.  And with the spoils associated with being in the right status, and with the march of complaints descending further into an argument about fractals, each group is trying to solidify its position as, in the words of the Stanford writer above, Elliot Kaufmann, a "victimized class," the endgame is a sort of turf war of grievances, 

No one wants to be "white" these days.

It's in a sense reached it sort of logical apogee where Apple CEO Tim Cook seeks to carve out a space for himself as a put-upon, bullied victim despite millions (billions?) in wealth, fame, and power associated with running perhaps the world's most well-known company.

It hits a sort of personal sore spot for me.  No; I accept that I am a white, cisgendered (whatever that means) man, and am in a position of 'power' (unlike Tim Cook, Barak Obama, or Sheryl Sandberg, I guess).  I swear, I will use my powers as a middle-manager in a small company most of you have never heard of for good. 

No; the issue is, as we divide further into ever smaller affinity groups, I am curious where that will leave my son, who doesn't really "fit" into the boxes society defines.

My nine year old is of mixed ancestry.  

I read today an article in New York magazine about an ultra-liberal private school in New York City that has for decades been ahead of the social justice curve, and its attempts to combat racism in the face of micro and macroagressions (discussions of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and the Baltimore riots are sprinkled, well, liberally in the piece) by creating groups for the students, and then forcing each kid into one of them for segregated discussions about 'difference.'  'Privilege' also gets tossed in, with no apparent sense of irony in a school- Fieldston - whose tuition is north of $40,000 per year.

There is a telling comment from one of the school's Asian students:
“It’s so fricking boring,” said a fifth-grader in the Asian group. “We do the same thing every week. The conversations we have are mostly about the tensions between whites and blacks, and never about Asians or Hispanic people. It annoys me sometimes that people are like, ‘Oh my God, people are so segregated.’ But we are never mentioned. It’s just frustrating, I would say.”
For better or for worse, in America, ca 2015, 'diversity' almost universally boils down to black and white.  If you stretch, "hispanic" might get mixed in, particularly here in California.

The comedy of another Jewish parent arguing with a black woman that Jewish people aren't really "white" adds to the melange of political correctness that is rapidly approaching parody.

One of the families in the article profiled is of mixed ancestry - the father is half Jewish and half Irish (is he "white?"  In 1910 he would not have been), and the mother is from Colombia, and hence Latino (itself an ad-mixture of European and native American ancestry).  The two children discuss their discomfort at being forced to choose which peg to be hammered into.

When I was a little child, the discussions were of a hopeful future where these sorts of exercises would vanish away as we became more integrated and aware/accepting of others.  "E pluribus unum" meant something, even if Al Gore botched the Latin.

How did we get here?  Where we are unwinding in the other direction?

For those of us who have families that do not fit the mold, it's a source of some anxiety.  If my own son were asked, "What are you," or worse, through these sorts of machinations forced to ask himself "What am I," I'm not sure what the answer would ultimately be.

For him, and for us, that's a painful discussion.

But for the society as a whole, the question itself is a tragedy.

Table for One



As I have noted on multiple occasions, I took the name for this micro-blog ("S J Refugee") as a sort of play on the fact that, following the birth of our son, we accepted a corporate relocation away from my adopted home in San Jose, California.  Various factors, some economic, had led to our decision to move first across country, and then out of the US entirely for a sojourn in Paris, France.  We had always planned to return to the Bay Area at some point, and the most likely timing was after our son had finished his education.

As the motto of my writing (the quote from the late John Lennon that life is what happens when you're making other plans) would have it, later has become sooner.

I've been living back in the San Francisco Bay area for a bit more than a month now, having accepted a job offer with a growing and dynamic company located about 20 km south of the city of San Francisco.

It's a tremendous and exciting opportunity, and one that was hard to pass up.  Leaving Paris was a difficult decision; we've enjoyed the particular French lifestyle enormously.  The food, the relatively relaxed approach to living.  Not operating a motor vehicle for two years.

More on that later, of course.

But the hardest thing is that our son still has time left before his school is finished.  He is enrolled in a school that follows the French calendar and curriculum, and that means many holidays during the year, but does not release its children until July.  To try to keep the disruption in his young life to a minimum, he and his mom will remain in Paris until the school year ends.

So, the most difficult part of the transition is not saying "adieu" to the Bordeaux reds, or evening walks along the Seine, or pains au chocolats for breakfast.

For three and a half months, I am living as a nouveau célibataire. 

It's of course tough - very tough - to return to a life of solo dinners, going to sleep in alone, and waking to an empty, one-bedroom apartment in Pressboard Estates.  Made more difficult, of course, by the fact that, as California is nine hours behind central European time, each morning I am greeted by social media photos of the goings-on of wife and child in a glorious Parisian spring.


Recently, I was on a business trip down to Southern California.  The first evening in L.A., I made a dinner reservation at Lawry's The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills.  It's just about my favourite restaurant in the world, and surely, tops in this country.  The perfect prime rib, a classic, Art Deco building packed with history (the two teams squaring off in the Rose Bowl in nearby Pasadena have shared dinner a couple of nights before for more than half a century in the infamous "Beef Bowl"), and a quite nice wine list.  I was introduced to Lawry's by my wife shortly after we married, and I've been back many times.

I had never dined there alone before - dining alone is usually awkward, but an experience I've had many times during business travel.  But it was really different.  The service was, as always, outstanding.  The prime rib of course, delicious.  My hotel was a couple of blocks up La Cienaga Blvd, so I was able to enjoy several glasses of good, red wine plus a 20 year old tawny to top off the evening.

The elements of the meal were terrific.  But again, it was not the same.

I suppose that this is the difference between eating and dining.  Eating is what we do to take in the calories to live, whilst dining is a social experience.

I've had a few such experiences in the time since I've returned "home" to California.  And would say that these weeks are in a sense providing me with a sort of valuable lessons.  Being an ersatz bachelor is giving me a glimpse of what my life could have been like if my wife and I had not met.  The sort of "It's a Wonderful Life" if you will.

I lived alone for 10 years following college, and at times reckoned I might remain single.  Most of the time, I didn't think much of it, which I guess is human nature.  People tend to be solipsistic, and we tend to accept the screenplay of our lives as more or less "normal."  Without benefit of a comparator, this is not an irrational conclusion.

The song "Que Sera, Sera" says that the future is not ours to see, which is partially true.  The future is going to come one way or the other, and thus all of us will see our ultimate destiny.  This time gives me a quite frank appreciation for the road that was taken, unlike Robert Frost's paen to the one not chosen.

Paul Simon was wrong; I'm not a rock, and we are not meant to live as islands.

All things considered, I'm very happy to happy to be just where I am.


Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Race to the Bottom to Accelerate?WE



Who Will "Win" this Race in the Valley?

I've recently returned "home" to the San Francisco Bay Area after a couple of years living in Paris, France.  During my exile, I kept a very loose eye on the news and developments, which, as Eliza Doolittle ("My Fair Lady") summed correctly -"without much ado, we will all muddle through without you" - carried on in my absence.

It seems that the "culture" of the Valley has become more widely and acutely discussed.  Picking apart the ins and outs has become almost a sport.  The "bro" culture. The rush to make huge sums of money.  The rise (in the past) and triumph (in the present) of the "nerds."  Some of the analyses have been more accurate than others.  In particular, the most aggressively ignorant meme is that companies in Silicon Valley are "too white and male," a claim that is plainly belied by even a high-school level knowledge of statistics.  For example, the hot tech companies - e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Google, have workforces that are approximately 50% white, in a country where more than two of three people are.  But then, it's not 'sexy' to publish the more truthful headline that "Tech Companies Are Too Asian."

Now, I do not subscribe to these sort of phony claims that a successful company is "too" anything - if the best minds overselect for Asians, then it stands to reason that the successful company would overselect for Asian employees.  You fish in the lake where the fish are.

The rhetoric has gotten more shrill and the volume louder about why the tech world is insufficiently welcoming to women.  "Gender" bias is a the hottest topic (aside: the abuse of the word "gender" is just one more surrender in the steady retreat of linguistic standards. Why people are squeamish to use the real world, "sex," escapes me.)  

The recent case of Ellen Pao, a former employee at the archetypical venture capital (VC) firm of Kleiner, Perkins, as roiled the valley.  Pao was enmeshed in a nasty battle with her former employer, ostensibly because she failed to be made a partner in the firm, complained about it, and eventually got fired.  Pao sued Kleiner in a multi-million dollar "gender" (sic) discrimination suit, which she eventually lost.

Setting aside the inherent sense of self-worth of a 30-something who had delusions of grandeur, the discussion has touched off many arguments in the Land of Lean In.

Pao made news today as the CEO of Reddit, a social media site headquartered up the peninsula in San Francisco.  Pao, under the rubric of looking to level the pay gap between male and female employees at Reddit, announced that Reddit will not engage in salary negotiations as part of its hiring process.  Citing data that men are more likely to negotiate pay, and to be more aggressive (and successful) than women when they do, the practice will not continue.
Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate. So as part of our recruiting process we don’t negotiate with candidates. We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.
At first blush, this strategy seems like a blow for equality.  

But is it?  

As I see it, the end-game here is to depress salaries stealthily.  Pao and Reddit appear to be championing equality (which in a sense, is existentially true), and they will likely draw kudos for the effort.  But this equality is likely to come not because women are going to see more money, but because male employees are going to see less.

If one thinks about the issue for more than three seconds, it's obvious, isn't it?  What sort of employee has more leverage to demand higher pay, the entry or mid-level engineer, or the candidate being sought for upper management?  Did Pao herself accept the first offer from Reddit, or did she negotiate her pay and equity? 

The de facto outcome of this move, if duplicated, will almost surely shift more of the income away from the middle (who will no longer be able to negotiate for more pay) and towards the top (who have far more leverage to expect/demand more pay, or worse, to C-suite employees whose pay is set by boards of puppets controlled by their friends). 

Women are being used here as part of a long-term strategy, either consciously or unconsciously, to undermine wages.  It's a trend that is not new.  I've long believed that, if proper analyses were conducted on the wage structure in the developed world, the entry of women in large numbers into the workforce would almost surely be a significant factor in wage stagnation/suppression.  



We hear often about how real wages have been flat since 1980 - a date conveniently chosen because of the election of Ronald Reagan.  In fact, wages began flattening about a decade earlier.  Just after women becan to move in larger numbers into the US economy.  


As the chart above shows, real wages closely paralleled productivity right up until the early 1970s, and then split.  Household income has continue to grow - slowly - but real hourly wages actually fell.  How is it possible that household income ticked up, but wages fell?  

I haven't done the modelling, but I would be highly curious to see the results of anyone who has.  

The laws of supply and demand cannot be repealed - if the supply of workers is increased significantly, what effect is that likely to have on wages?  

Pao's efforts are just the latest salvo.  And make no mistake; it's not stochastic.

A year ago, the big tech employers in the Bay Area (Apple, Google) settled a lawsuit surrounding collusion in hiring and recruiting from each other's workforce with effect that depressed wages for tech workers.  

Negotiation over pay relies on leverage - if you're a highly valuable candidate, you always have the option to say, "No.  I don't accept this offer" and walk out the door.  But if the company has a gentleman's agreement that competitors also will not negotiate or "poach" employees, that leverage is gone.

The leaders of these companies are not stupid - Pao is not stupid, with degrees from Princeton and Harvard - so they surely must see where this is going.  

In this case, to more money for people like Ellen Pao, who rather than being called out as the rapacious businesswoman that she actually is, will be championed as a fierce feminist fighter.

Brava.





Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A Future So Bright, You Have to Wear Shades?

When the End Comes, All That Will Be Left Is Us

Today, I came across this interview given by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.  IMHO, Wozniak was the real brains behind The Fruit Factory, whereas Steve Jobs was the guy who understood what the market wanted, or perhaps more accurately put, telling the market what it should want.  

The Woz was being interviewed by an Australian journal after a recent announcement that he had applied for and received permanent residency in that country.  His son lives in Sydney, and Woz has apparently long fostered a desire to "live and be buried" in the Land Down Under.

Among the topics Wozniak held forth on was his increasingly dim view of the future of mankind in a world of artificial intelligence.  He joins an increasing list of impressive minds (Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk) warning us of the risk of summoning the demon, as they say.

The basic idea is quite simple and familiar to anyone who has seen one of the various films in the catalogue of dystopic futures (The Terminator franchise, Logan's Run).  Humanity create computers and/or robots with true AI, the machines, not being subject to the same biologic limits as human beings, quickly become "smarter" and faster than their creators, and subsequently become our overlords.

With catastrophic consequences:
Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they'll think faster than us and they'll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently,
Woz imagines a few alternatives for human beings:
Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on? I don't know about that … But when I got that thinking in my head about if I'm going to be treated in the future as a pet to these smart machines … well I'm going to treat my own pet dog really nice.
Aside from the fact that one ought to treat one's pets "really nice" irrespective of how our future turns out, I remain unconvinced of the proposition of real "AI."  I've written before about how I view the threat of AI, but suffice it to say that I am an adherent to John Searle's argument against "strong AI,"  Essentially, machines will never really be thinking or understanding in the sense that people commonly describe them; rather, they will be made to simulate these processes.

But Wozniak, and Musk, and certainly Hawking are to be listened to when they warn of these risks, Of course, machines do not need to do more than simulate intelligence with reasonable effect.  The problem here is what responsibilities we abdicate to machines.  How much autonomy we give them rather than how "smart" they are.

A more pressing question I would pose to Woniak et al is the immediate future of a workforce where machines can simulate the jobs we do.  A couple of recent publications, including the book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Harvard researcher Robert Putnam examine the reality that the ability to win and maintain life in the great American middle class has become increasingly challenging.  It's well-reported that wages have been more or less stagnating since about 1972, and that the trend is accelerating and for larger cohorts of Americans.  

Many reasons are offered - the usual suspects about racism, corporate rapacity, educational deficiencies.  But what to make of the reality that machines that can simulate human beings with greater skill can plainly replace us?  The argument since the rise of machines is that automation is part of creative destruction - the automobile put the buggy whip maker out of business, but created jobs for the mechanic.  The ATM reduces our need for bank tellers, but requires people who can make, program, and maintain the devices.

The central problem with this argument is the assumption that there is no upper limit to human abilities; that we will forever be able to create new occupations.  That does not seem to me a sustainable view.  

John Derbyshire wrote in a book entitled (without irony) We're Doomed:
The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about from economic geeks, like dirt farmers migrating to factory jobs, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the cube people of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But… what? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps, but collectively and generationally.
What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office…? There isn't one. The evolution of work has come to an end point, and the human race knows this in its bones. Actually in its reproductive organs: the farmer of 1800 had six or seven kids, the factory worker of 1900 three or four, the cube jockey of 2000 one or two. The superfluous humans of 2100, if there are any, will hold at zero. What would be the point of doing otherwise? [emphasis mine]
Machines that can function as lawyers or doctors - they will need people to make, train, and maintain them.  But I suspect not on a 1:1 basis.  Likely not on a 10:1 or 100:1 basis.  That's an awful lot of smart, educated people who are going to have to find something to do.  

If the current trends (e.g., the guy with graduate degrees working as a salesman at Macys) hold, as bad as such a future will be for the educated, it's going to be cataclysmic for those lower down the education scale.  Someone perhaps capable of graduating high school or perhaps completing a couple of years of community college is going to find that he is competing for jobs with men and women who are much smarter than they.  

The "solutions" (universal pre-school, 'free' community college) are going to bump into biological realities.  And fast.

More from Woz, who spent a few years as a teacher after he became independently wealthy:
Computers in schools were very new when I was teaching, and they didn't really succeed. They didn't change how smart we'd come out thinking; we're just more powerful at getting answers and knowing things by using the internet
The idea that methods or tools will make people "smarter" is not grounded in reality.  These tools increase the reach of our existing abilities.  They extend them.  But they do not change their nature.  Much like the fact that better running shoes allow human beings to run faster, they cannot make us fly.

And in this case, the machines will always be able to carry out "mental" tasks faster than we can.

So I am not terribly concerned about the threat of AI to humanity.  The economic challenges posed by "smart" machines are going to be nasty, and they are going to arrive much sooner,  Some argue that they've arrived already.

I suggest that people like Wozniak and Musk should be much more concerned about the immediate future of human beings rather than the ultimate fate of humanity.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Days of Future Past



Who says "you can't go back?"  

We are about to find out if the old adage is true or not, as recently, I changed jobs - and companies - to take an exciting new position.  The plus side: more responsibilities, more opportunities, more visibility.  More money.

But there is a price to everything, and in this case, that price means giving up the final few months I had living in Paris.  

It was a very tough choice. 

Needless to say, Paris is a fabulous place to live; we've enjoyed just about everything from the food, the history, the culture, and the architecture to the perks of living in the centre of Europe, a location that has allowed us to visit a dozen countries in Europe and Africa.

However, life forces choices, and being a grown-up means, sometimes, making decisions that you'd rather avoid.  As the sub-text of this blog paraphrases John Lennon, life is what happens when you're making plans.

Thus, I've had to say "adieu" to ma vie en rose dans la ville de lumière after a couple of years as an adopted Parisian.  (My wife and son get a temporary stay, as they will be coming along at the end of his school year this summer).

The fall will be difficult, but it will not be fatal.  We're coming back to the US, and in a twist of fate, it is a real homecoming of sorts.  We are moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area, where our son was born and where both my wife and I lived nearly all of our adult lives.

We are no longer going to be, as the title of this blog states, San Jose Refugees.

It is going to be an interesting transition - we've been gone from central California for nearly a decade now.  Just about everything has changed.  I'm no longer young, but decidedly middle-aged, a fact my son reminds me of with frequency and glee.  For a chunk of the previous time, I was single, and for virtually all of it, childless.  I have responsibilities that I hadn't, interests that I didn't, and aches in places I was unawares of.  The BMW convertible is gone.  No; a Honda Odyssey is not on the cards.  A sensible sedan likely is, however.

I visited my old neighbourhood this weekend - it looks very different of course.  Nothing is more constant in the Bay Area than change.  There are many new, fancy high-rise apartments in San Jose that were one and two-storey, mid-century eyesores.  

Today, a shipment of personal items arrived at my temporary, corporate apartment from Paris after some delays at the customs office.  The foreman of the delivery crew asked me if in the past, I had lived on 11th St in San Jose, which of course I had.

Turns out, the guy lived next door to me 20 years ago.  

He was 11 at the time. Now grown, he has three children of his own.  

The world is, indeed, small, even if it's not as "flat" as Tom Friedman would have you believe.

Can you go back?  We are about to find out.



Back to the What?

It's Now 2015, and STILL No "Mr Fusion"


One of the fun things about being a parent is getting to re-live certain moments of your youth with neither guilt (due to unabashed indulgence in some of the less-than-adult pursuits) nor nostalgia.  (NB: recall that the root of the word "nostalgia" is Greek meaning a pain - 'algia' - one feels when remembering one's home - "nostos").  

Had a trip down the guilt-free memory lane recently watching the 1985 movie (I hesitate to call it a classic) Back to the Future with my nine-year old.  Some of the jokes are not as funny as I remember them being, some of the plot twists (Libyan terrorists?) seem terribly dated, and the special effects often seem at a level of cheesiness that they make Kraft Dinner look downright healthy.

One thing struck me, though, and that is, it is now 2015.  The movie was released in the summer of 1985 - nearly exactly 30 years ago.  

One of the chuckle-inducing themes of the story is that the protagonist goes back 30 years to 1955, and we all get to laugh at how primitive, corny, and backwards the people in the 1950s seemed.  Gee, my parents were square, huh?  Glad that I'm not like that.  

Did The Men of Texaco really come running out to service the Chevy when it pulled in?  Did the kids really say things like "swell" and "dreamboat?"

Well, the laugh is on me, as it is now my turn.  

I am sure my own folks had the same feeling, but wow.  Was 1985 really that long ago?  It hardly seems possible.  

As I think about all the "modern" items in the 1985-era McFly household (boom boxes, Sony Walkmen, touch-tone telephones, floppy disk drives, and cassette tapes), it does in many ways seem a different world.  Who could have imagined then the iPhone or wireless internet.  Or the internet, for that matter, which in those days was still a figment of Al Gore's imagination.

I am pretty sure my son - who has lived his entire life in an era where CD technology is largely in the rear-view mirror - regards the artefacts of my youth as Indiana Jones-worthy antiquities.  He's not yet weighed in on feathered hairstyles, parachute pants, or "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," but he does at least show some appreciation for Pac Man.

At the end of the movie, Professor Emmett Brown returns from the future in a flying car powered by trash converted to energy in "Mr Fusion."  Despite all the advances of the 30 years in between Hill Valley circa 1985 and today, we still have not achieved flying cars.

Peter Thiell was, in this respect, correct.

Party on, Garth.




Monday, 9 February 2015

Whose "Boyhood" Is It?


I don't watch the Academy Awards each year, and in fact, most of the time, I have not seen even one of the movies nominated.

This year, however, I had a chance to see one of the critics' top picks, the work of Texas film-maker Richard Linklater entitled "Boyhood."  It's the story told over 12 years of the life of a young boy growing up in quasi-rural Texas.

The "angle" of the movie, and it is a clever one in my view, is that it was shot in sort-of real time.  Each year, the crew and cast would get together for a few days and shoot various scenes to capture the life of the lead character, Mason.

You almost literally see the kid grow up.

The life of little (and not-so-little) Mason - divorced parents, a mother who goes through several serial marriages, a dash of alcoholism, and despite all of that, relative calm - is unlike my own, but the movie to me was fascinating.  And as the father of a kid who is about 10 per cent of the way along the journey shown on film, captivating.

And excellent.

Linklater and the crew have, for the efforts, been nominated for many awards, and even the US President Obama has noted that the film is his favourite of 2014.

Oddly, it has come under attack from various quarters.

The Atlantic attacked "Boyhood" because it too narrowly focused on the youth of a white American kid, noting that the experiences of Mason are non-universal.

It's an odd criticism, really.  As someone who was, himself, once a young, white American, the film doesn't reflect my youth, either.

But do we expect, or even ask, movies to speak to the experiences of us all?  Last years' "12 Months a Slave" touched not a single of my life's experiences, either, and in fact, slavery has been outlawed in the US for 150 years.

A second criticism, from the Wall St Journal, focuses on the crypto-sexism of the movie's point-of-view.  Apparently, as Mason goes through his life, that of his older sister fades into the background.  The movie becomes, for two feminist writers at Columbia University, a sort of Millenial Ophelia cri de cœur -  a way of showing how society discourages women's voices.

The reality, as I see it, is that it would be odd for a movie called "Boyhood" to focus on the older sister, who about half-way through the film is off to college anyways. The authors make a number of other errors, but again, I don't see why a film Linklater made about - ostensibly - his own experiences needs to be a vehicle for universal expression.

It's been said, more than once, that the average colour of a rainbow is white.  The current need to ensure that everyone and everything is represented risks turning unique works like "Boyhood" into a Kraft Dinner of bland, pointless pap.

Finally, from some corners, the film is attacked because there is no central crisis nor conflict.

But in a film about the life of a young kid, isn't that the point?  John Lennon said, once, that life is what happens when you're making plans.  Here, Mason is remarkable not because he discovers a comet or invents the internet or overcomes, with his own bare hands and the pluck of a teacher who left a lucrative corporate career to 'save' disadvantaged youths.

In other words, there is no Mihkei Pfieffer.

What we get instead is not melodrama or Karate Kid show-downs, but a real life of a sort.

I suppose that is what really, in the end, made the film so excellent for me.  It doesn't need a "Lifetime" hero waiting to swoop in and save the day.  As the story closes, as Mason heads off to the next stage of his life, in fact, one is left to ask if the day has been "saved," and "from what?"  One doesn't know what will become of Mason.  One only sees from where he has come.

Just like the rest of us.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Bang the Drum, Ringo



One of the things I enjoy in my leisure time is running, something I've been up to for 20 years now.  I try to mix up my routines a bit to add a little variety, but also attempt to have some day-to-day reproducibility to allow me to do some benchmarking.

I'm a mathematician by trade, and thus a significant chunk of my waking (and even some of my non-waking) mental energy is devoted to numbers.  To paraphrase Pooh-Ba from The Mikado:  "I cannot help it; I was born sneering."

Living as I have for the past couple of years in Paris, my courses are around some familiar icons, but a significant piece is around the nearby Parc Monceau.  It's a pleasant, English-style garden with a fake pyramid, Roman colonnade, huge, Palatine trees, and a loop course.  It works well, as one loop around the park is almost exactly one kilometre, and thus, I can run up to the park, a few laps around it, and then home to complete my 10k.

Parisians have taken to jogging - a surprising thing to say for someone who just a few years ago was laughing when Nicolas Sarkozy's running routine was derided as too Anglo-Saxon.

The French, despite being seen as avant-garde and progressive, in fact are quite a socially conservative, conformist lot.  I wrote last summer my observations that virtually everyone running in Parc Monceau ran the same direction, circling the park in an anti-clockwise sense.  When I headed the opposite direction, I was greeted with stares that ranged from bewilderment to shock to in some cases, disapproving angst.

It was almost like the scene from Midnight Express where Brad Davis decides to march against the direction of the other prisoners.

WELLL.... it turns out that there is. in fact, a method to the madness.

In the local Direct Matin this morning, the daily "Savez-Vous..." question and answer section asked about why in track and field, the runners always circle the track anti-clockwise.

According to the article, the direction is not par hasard, but instead, is rooted in brain physiology.  When the modern olympic games were revived in the late 19th century, the tracks ran clock-wise.  The athletes complained.

In the article, the brain's centre of balance resides in the left hemispheres, and thus the right side of the body for most dominates.  When running clock-wise, the eyes, legs, and balancing mechanism is thus turned opposite of where our internal gyroscopes are needed.

The article went on to note that, in events where people run clock-wise vs. anti-clock-wise, the body feels more stress, and times are slower by two seconds on average per 400 metres.  For a race like the "metric mile," (1600 m) this is a significant obstacle.

It also explains, I think, why open skate among other things also require skaters to circle anti-clock-wise.

So here, the French desire for conformity has science to back it up.

Now, if we could only answer why they always wear black and continue to see smoking as glamourous...


Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Silicon Valley Under the Dome (Again)



I have been living away from the so-called Silicon Valley for almost a decade now; I live in Paris, and thus I don't miss life back there terribly, but do try to keep up with the scuttlebutt.  Over the years, I've written several posts about the Bay Area, where I spent most of my adult life.  For a blogger, the Bay Area provides a steady fodder for discussions about innovation (or lack of it), demographics and the impact they have, the evolution of the word "entrepreneur", and social issues like privilege and gentrification.  

One of the hot topics right now in the Valley - aside from how 'hot' (and difficult) the housing and jobs markets are (really, issues with nearly predictable cycles - you could cut and paste San Jose Mercury News articles from 1997, 2005, and now 2014 almost verbatim) are issues of what "makes" a startup/tech company successful, and why the rewards seem to be going to a statistcally skewed group.

Further militating for the maxim that to err is human, but to really muck up an analysis requires a human from Harvard.  One from the Harvard Business School is a daily double,

To wit, this article in the recent Harvard Business Review (motto: "Mis-measuring the social sciences since 1922").  The click-bait title of the article "The Myth of the Tech Whiz Who Quits College to Start a Company" poses itself as a sort of myth-busting piece in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell.  The article sets up as its pins that there are three 'common myths' about tech founders: that they are young, that they are technically trained, and that they were graduated from a prestigious, local university.

One is confronted immediately with the inherent contradiction that the title (that tech founders are drop-outs) contrasts with popular myth three.  But let's set that to the side.

Unsurprisingly, HBR notes that "the data tell a different story." Unsurprising, because if the data from the analysis supported the story, I reckon that the article would not have been published.

The mythos is summarised un-succinctly in the following narrative form:
The verdict follows a familiar line: for better or worse, successful tech sectors are products of young entrepreneurs, who disrupt whole industries without ever having worked in them. 
These founders, in turn, are invariably portrayed technical experts. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is now at the center of entrepreneurship policy, and cultivating technical talent has become an important goal of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
Where better to get that technical education than at a great local university? Stanford is the classic example, with hundreds of future Silicon Valley entrepreneurs passing through its Palo Alto campus. A university of this caliber not only creates great talent, the theory goes, but also helps a region to retain it. It makes sense, then, to assume that without a world-class university nearby, a city’s tech sector cannot thrive.
The authors of the story, who work for a consulting company called Endeavor Insight, turn to data in the New York tech sector that are available on public data sites such as LinkedIn, AngelList, and Crunchbase in an attempt to analyse the veracity of the myths. A sample of 1600 "tech founders" in New York city forms the analysis cohort.

The first item to fall, it turns out, is the straw-man about being a college drop-out - noting that dropout founders are "the exception, not the rule."  No numbers are given, but any sort of reasonable analysis would have to look at the numbers in comparison to some sort of control.  Of course, it's unlikely that the majority of founders would be college dropouts (despite the fantasies of, e.g., Peter Thiel), but how does the distribution of dropouts vs degreed founders of tech compare to the tech workforce in general?  To the population of founders of non-tech companies?  Any sort of reference?
This conclusion is an example of the sound of one hand clapping.

The next item under the microscope is the question of whether are particularly young.  The conclusion: yes; they are young, but 'seldom fresh out of school' (whether dropping out or not - whoops).  The data are presented as a histogram below:


There is a handful of problems with this analysis.

First, the authors offer no objective definition of what "young" means.  Myth Number Two is states as "they are young."  In fact, they are young, so HBR have failed to knock over their own straw-man.  But what defines "young?"  A post hoc definition of "fresh out of school" is offered.

Second, from a statistical point of view, the authors use average, when plainly, the distribution is pretty skewed.  That average (31 years) is being pulled to the right by a group of people clearly at least a standard deviation and a half over the mode of the distribution.  When talking about the myth of the "typical" tech founder, does it make sense to you to look at the average age of a skewed distribution, or to where the bulk of the data are?

Put another way, the average colour of a rainbow is white.  It's an inappropriate measure here.

The median of this distribution is around 27 or so.  That's about the age of median player in professional baseball (28.8)  It's a bit older than the median age, which is 25.5.  The 'typical' founder of a tech company is younger than the 'typical' professional baseball player, and a bit older than the 'typical' NFL athlete.

And third, there is no comparator.  How, for example, do the tech founders stack up against similar, non-tech company leaders?

The whole "analysis" is incredibly sloppy, and fails even to support the claims made by the authors.

The next "myth" attacked is that tech founders are heavily STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  Surprisingly, only 36% majored in one of the STEM fields;


Tech founders are also much less technical than conventional wisdom leads us to believe. We divided New York City tech founders’ college majors into two categories: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and non-STEM, and found that just 35% studied STEM fields, while 65% majored in something else. In fact, these founders were more likely to study political science than electrical engineering or math.
Is this a reasonable analysis?

According to the data published recently by NPR, about 2.5% of US graduates in 2010 took their major in CS.  1% were maths majors.  Engineering was 5%.

By comparison, business and economics degrees were held by 25% of college graduates  History and humanities were 5%.

It's obvious that the founders of successful tech companies are far, far more likely to derive from scientific disciplines, when one controls for the sample pool, than from business or psychology,

Worse, the examples given to illustrate the point call into serious doubt the definition of "tech" used by HBR.  In making their case, the authors cite Alexandra Wilson (MBA founder of Gilte Group, an "e-commerce business") and Neil Blumenthal, founder of on-line eyeglass retailer Warby Parker.

It's worth pointing out that neither Gilte Group nor Warby Parker is a "tech" company.  They are essentially marketing companies.  Gilte provides an on-line platform for consumers to purchase luxury brands; Wilson (in fact, not the founder, but rather, one of four co-founders) brought to the company her experience with brands like Bulgari.  One of the other co-founders is a man named Dwight Merriman, who provided the code and oversaw the actual TECH.

Both Warby Parker and Gilte Group may be highly successful companies, but calling them 'tech' is a stretch at best.  Fed Ex deliver eye glasses and clothes; I would not call them an ophthalmologist nor a design house.

As an aside, as I have written many times before, including most recently here, Silicon Valley has changed from a place where real new ideas and technology were created, into a place that is largely slick marketing masquerading as innovation.  It used to be made of companies like HP or Intel; it's now Yo dot Com and Twitter.  I asked then, and still ask, is the Valley out of big ideas?

As Peter Their famously said, on the way that actual innovation is slowing, "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters."

One place where HBR get it 'right' is that they are moving the discussion of what an "entrepreneur" is away from the false idea one gets in reading the self-congratulatory press releases out of Palo Alto and back to what a real entrepreneur really is.  Living in France and speaking French, it's clear that an actual entrepreneur is a person who is in the middle of bringing together ideas, marketing, funding, and the operations to produce the product.  It's not, despite what Stanford undergraduates think, a guy with a brilliant idea with the technical chops to realise it.

And ultimately, what the failed "analysis" that HBR offers reveals is not that the founders of tech companies are not young, not technical, and not tied to a university, but rather, that today - perhaps as yesterday - there is an enormous gulf between an idea and a successful business.  And this is where the MBA comes in.  That is the actual role of the entrepreneur.

Tech companies - even Gilte and Warby Parker - need to have a tech head to survive (in both cases, at least one of the co-founders was, in fact, a young STEM graduate).  There is also always going to be a guy with an MBA talking about synergies, share of voice, and channels.