Saturday, 30 September 2017

Closing Time, 2017 Edition

Time for you to go out to the places you will belong
Sports has been in the news a lot recently - not because of Aaron Judge's quest to overcome a 30 year old rookie home run record (he recently eclipsed Mark McGwire's 1987 total of 49) or the start of the NFL season.

Much of the focus has been around the controversy of whether football players will stand for the national anthem, 'take a knee' on the field, or hide in the tunnel to avoid the whole thing. The decision by American President Donald Trump - never one to avoid a camera or photo-op to insert himself into the mess has had the effect of casting the debate more as a proxy fight over whether one loathes or supports the president.

The definition of something that is "polarising" is an object, question, or concept that takes a collection of disparate, even random items and focuses them into sharply contrasting ends - poles, as it were. Prior to the tweet of Trump, there were few people beyond actual football fans talking about it. Now, it seems that everyone has an opinion - friends I know who went out of their way to declare their disinterest in football and (in some cases) animus towards football players, suddenly find themselves declaring, openly, their "sincere" respect for a group of men who, until six months ago, were often the targets of attacks of being the epitome of "toxic masculinity."

Prior to the controversy, I thought of football, when I bothered to consider it at all, as a brutish, boring game played by cartoonishly hulking men. The object was nominally to advance the ball down the field, but from how friends described it, the real object was to inflict as much physical damage ("look at the HIT that got put on that guy!") as possible. 

And to sell beer.

That view hasn't changed. I've already said my piece last year about Colin Kaepernick, a fading former star (subsequently cut by his team) here, but to recap
Kaepernick is an entertainer. He's an entertainer of a particular sort - a modern day gladiator. He’s paid to throw a football (when he plays). He's paid very well to do this. His views on politics are as relevant to me as his views on the Academy Awards, the weather in Nebraska, or whether “We Built this City on Rock and Roll” really is, as Rolling Stone magazine claims, the worst song ever.
Colin Kaepernick has every right to his opinion about any of these topics. I respect his right to say what he pleases, and in a sense, the freedoms we have in this country to speech and belief are nothing if they do not protect unpopular opinions.  As I've said before, it's easy to defend speech we like; the acid test is whether we stand up (or sit down) for views that are unpopular, or indeed, are ones we personally do not like. 
We pay to see our gladiators compete on the field. Or, in the recent history of Colin Kaepernick, sit on the bench.
That is their job. They should leave the singing to the vocalists.

So no more on that.

No - I am more interested in the end of the baseball season, which for most of us will be this Sunday. My team, the Toronto Blue Jays, has blundered more or less in a sort of random walk through mediocrity all season. They started off with their worst April in the 40 year history of the franchise, rallied a bit in May, getting to within a game of even, but never quite achieving it, and then settling in to an utterly forgettable season.

They won't be truly awful - likely to settle in with a loss total of 85 or 86, avoiding the 90 loss level that seemed within reach. Their fading star, Jose Bautista, had a shot at the famous Mendoza Line (named for light hitting Mario Mendoza) - a sub .200 batting average. This is something no Blue Jay regular has ever accomplished. Joey Bats got close, but then last Sunday had a 2 for 4 day, and is likely going to have to settle for just setting the team record for poorest batting average for a regular (set some years ago by Aaron Hill, .204). He did manage to set a team record for strikeouts in a season.

It was a dismal season punctuated by one brief moment of sunshine.

Speaking of strikeouts, came across a discussion today: It seems that players today are again hitting a lot of home runs - Aaron Judge has overtaken McGwire's rookie record, and the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton has 59 total, needing just one more to become the eighth player (and third tossing out the Steroid Era) to reach 60.

They also are striking out a lot.

Why is this? Is there some fundamental reason why so many strikeouts?

Looking at the Baseball Reference book here, in 2017, there is an average of 1.26 home runs per nine inning game. If that stands, it would beat the old record of 1.17 set in 2000 (at the peak of the Juiced Era). That's a bump of less than 10 per cent, but still. It would eclipse the 2016 number of 1.16 per game that is a close third.

But strikeouts are the real eye opener:

While there has been, over the past 25 years, a general trend up in home runs per game (blue), the trend in strikeouts is even more obvious. In fact, the number of strikeouts has increased, year on year, every year for 13 straight years

Never, in the history of baseball, have people struck out as frequently as they now do. Not in Nolan Ryan's time. Not in the 1968 Year of the Pitcher. Never.


One suggestion is that pitching is just better now. The argument is that in the old days, pitchers would go whole games, which required them to "save" their best stuff for when it was really needed.

That surely is part of it – pitchers were expected to go 9 unless they got knocked out early. The idea of short, late innings relief specialists was evolving by the 1960s, but it was still not a common strategy.

Now, the bullpens not only have their big relief ace, but it's even more been a speciality to have the guy who can come in and dominate the 8th (and maybe even get an out or two in the ninth). Just look at how the Cleveland Indians got to the World Series last year. Andrew Miller (a guy making $10 million per year), pitched in 70 games last year, finishing only 15 of them. This year, he’s finished 5 of 55. Over those two seasons, he’s 14-3 cumulatively, with ERAs of 1.45 and 1.47, and in incredible 215 strikeouts in just 136 innings pitched.

I do wonder if batters are just less inclined to shorten up as well, and are taking more pitches to work counts? With the advent of so-called “SABREmetrics,” people now look at OBP as much as batting average, and working high pitch counts is part of the strategy.

Again, looking at the year on year batting stats, and sort by strikeouts per game.

13 straight years. 

The odds of that are pretty low, without some underlying, systematic change. 

But it cannot be the pitching alone: if it were true that it were simply a case of pitching being tougher, then you would expect similar data for batting averages, wouldn'y you?

It is not the case – the lowest cumulative average in professional baseball was 1968 (the “year of the pitcher”).The past 13 years – with record whiffing – has had averages between .250 and .265, which are very close to the historical averages.

Batters are still hitting at the same clip more or less (with obvious year on year variance). But they are striking out a lot more frequently.

I suspect that the players know that the fans want to see a home run, and they are swinging from the heels, even with two strikes. There's just less running and more hacking. Brute force of a sort.

So, the football mind-set has infiltrated.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Humanity on the Treadmill. Or, in the Blender

Came across an interesting "study" that is to be carried out by the founders of Y-Combinator, a self-proclaimed "start-up incubator" here in the San Francisco Bay Area.The founder of that outfit, Sam Altman (who bears no resemblance to the comical Ehrlich Bachman on the HBO show "Silicon Valley" - AVIATO!) announced about a year ago that he was interested in testing not how companies might behave, but people.

The idea on Altman's mind is to a small-scale test of the impact on people (and feasibility) of the introduction of a "Universal Basic Income."

Briefly, the UBI is a concept by which an entity (most likely, the state) provides to all of its citizens a basic, floor income. The idea is not new, and has been floated (and endorsed) by the likes of the uber-libertarian Milton Friedman. Under the scheme, every citizen would be granted a certain amount of monthly or annual stipend, irrespective of work of any sort.

It's whose appeal I find increases the more I consider:

  1. The growing role of automation in delivering goods and services
  2. The rising challenge beyond our shores in countries with wage demands and standards of living well below what is necessary to be considered "middle class"
  3. The increasing concentration of wealth at the top
  4. The ascent of near-human artificial intelligence
  5. My own empirical observation of the clash of the increase of skills needed to "make it" versus an apparent dystopian devolution in actual skills present (well educated, skilled people have fewer children at later ages while people lacking education and skills have larger families at younger ages. Think: the central premise of the movie "Idiocracy."
I think a lot - perhaps more than is healthy, about what is going to happen as the machines and the underclass grow. I've written more than once about my particular views with respect to AI. But in a nutshell:

  1. I reject that machines will ever replicate human intelligence in anything more than a simulation (good)
  2. Artificial intelligence will not be a perfect simulation (good)
  3. It doesn't have to be (uh-oh)

Steve Wozniak some years ago, in talking about the future of machines, put it this way:
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.
The erstwhile mathematical and political blogger John Derbyshire several years ago described what is happening in the workplace and beyond in a somewhat dystopian view that has stuck with me since first I read it:

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.  

The current trends are scary (a guy with graduate degrees working as a salesman at Macys). It's going to be ugly for even the educated. Worse, 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.

If you want to see a real horror movie, forget about a guy in a hockey mask. Check out this video, entitled "Humans Need Not Apply."

This is where the UBI may come in.

The EU is already looking at the future - a vote was taken this past year in Brussels to examine taxing robots as they enter the workforce as a means to take care of the human workers they will displace.

The research that Altman proposes will provide random people with $1000 per month, over five years. People given the money will not be required to do anything in return for it, and at the beginning and end of the 60 months, people will be interviewed on their behaviours and choices. Did you work? Doing what? What did you spend the money on? 

How did you pass the time?

The sociological research question implied is: without work, will our lives have purpose? Is an intrinsic part of humanity to create things? To do things other than entertain ourselves? The ultimate leaving behind of any sort of work, and what its effects on how people see themselves is a critical question.

But the question that is unasked is this: What sort of impact will it have on the tiny number of 'producers?' Producers, not in the sense that Republicans talk of "makers and takers," but of those whose job it will remain to come up with ideas and visions? That shrinking set of individuals will potentially have enormous power and control.

I'm reminded of the image of the future from HG Wells's The Time Machine. The protagonist - never actually named - goes far into the future, and encounters two creatures. One (the Eloi), look like perfectly formed, beautiful human beings. They cannot speak and lack much more than the sort of intelligence one might expect of a domesticated animal.

The horrible truth is revealed, of course.

In our real future, under a UBI, when the overwhelming majority of people don't have to actually do anything to acquire survival, will we lose as the Eloi did?

And what sort of Morlocks will tend to us? 

Steve Wozniak recommends to be extra nice to his dog. But will our future Morlocks view us with compassion?

The history of mankind is not encouraging.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Are You Prepared to Fight Back? Do You Think He Knows? Then Don't

I've been trying to avoid saying anything too political recently. Really, I have. I usually feel better at the end of the day, and I suspect, people I interact with do as well.

Wanted to write something today that was decidedly non-political. For example, Blue Jay RF Jose Bautista (Joey "Bats" (sic)) went 0-4 yesterday, lowering his batting average to .203 and in the course setting a single-season team record for striking out. He's in striking range of the Mendoza Line. Thought that looking at his chances could be fun.

Not to flog/promote it too much, but I participate from time to time on Quora, which is a question-and-answer site. There is any number of topics ranging from "Why shouldn't I go into a pub wearing Arsenal gear?" to "How do I obtain number plates for my car in California?"

I highly recommend it if you want to look for answers or get riled up over Colin Kaepernick.

Anyways, I have a couple of hundred "followers" who will sometimes submit questions directly to me. My areas of knowledge are mathematics, French language and politics, and the American right wing. 

Today, I got this peculiar question:

How do I piss off Trump supporters?

For the record, I am not a Trump supporter, but to many, "conservative" and "Republican" are synonyms, and in any case, all of us on the right are viewed monolithically as backers of the Orange One.

There is a lot of anger in the country, and too many people have given up talking to each other, and instead now simply look to irritate each other.

Not that I am against gratuitously pissing off people - just ask any one of my siblings. And I do, at times, get some guilty pleasure 'trolling' friends. So I am not above this.

But I decided to take a different approach to answering. Many of you who read my comments here might want to know how to piss off Trump supporters, so here is how:

Wake up. Spend a few extra minutes with your dog - maybe even give him an extra treat after you take him out.

Go to work. Contribute something to the company’s mission. Offer to support a colleague in some project that he or she is working on. 

On the way home, keep your eyes open looking for someone who seems to be in some distress, or looks like he needs help, or is just having a bad day. Walk up to that person and smile, say hello, and wish them a nice day. If they need help, help them.

When you get home, instead of scolding your kid, tell him something about himself that you admire or that makes you proud. 

Instead of finding a short-coming of your spouse, say that you love him or her.

Vow to do something for someone that would not directly benefit you in any way, and who cannot do anything for you. Then do it.

Go to bed.

OK. I am not sure that any one of those things will “piss off a Trump supporter.” They might. They might not. I’m not a “Trump supporter,” so I just don’t know.

But here is what they will do:

Make a positive contribution to the mission of your employer, and support someone who works with you.

May make a small difference in the day of someone who needs it. Who knows - your smile and kind word may be the only decent thing that happens for that person today.

Give your kids a sense of self-worth and confidence.

Remind your spouse of why they chose to be with you.

Improve the world in some small way

Even if you fail in your goal to irritate someone you, in all likelihood do not even know, it’s still a pretty good day.

By the way, given Bautista's batting average, If he finishes up with two hits in his final 19 ABs, he will break the Mendoza line. Given his current batting average, that's about a one in four shot.

I will be pulling for him

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Once I Was Seven Years Old...

Once I was 7 years old
My momma told me:

Go make yourself some friends or you'll be lonely
I was yesterday driving back after taking my son to his weekend Chinese school. As half of his ancestry is Chinese, I want him not to forget or lose connection with that half of his heritage, and so he spends a couple of hours each Sunday there. As a young child, he was somewhat resistant - what little boy wants to spend time at the weekend in a class room when just beyond the glass is a world of slides, swing sets, and round-a-bouts? As he's gotten a bit older, he's much more keen on the idea. But this is really a story for a different day

Among the many ads on the radio (why do the stations seem to co-ordinate the times that they will all run the same "Come to Mattress Firm for 3 years same as cash on a new Stearns and Foster" at the same time? I am sure that there are 'big data' being deployed to help), a somewhat catchy, if cheesy pop song called "Once I Was 7" appeared. I'd not heard it before; it's not a great song, but the lyrics provide some introspection, and the little chiming bell sounds bring a bit of poignancy.

The singer - Lukas Graham - describes the views of a person at seven, 11, 20, 30, and then 60. At seven, advice given from a parent to make friends. At 30, having left some of those friends behind as time passes. And then at 60, looking somewhat cynically backwards, wondering if his own children will come to visit from time to time. 

Go and make yourself some friends, or you'll be lonely

Our son this year has reached and left behind two of the mile-posts at seven and now 11. He's entered middle school, and moved to a new school in our Noe Valley neighbourhood. 

We've moved about a bit in his brief life - it's been an adventure, first in the Bay Area, then suburban New York, on to Paris, and now back in San Francisco. While providing many new experiences and opportunities, our somewhat peripatetic lifestyle has meant more than a few hellos and goodbyes for our son.

I had some thoughts last year about how at times as a parent, you catch glimpses of your own life's experiences in shadows that the dance of your child's life cast on the wall:

One cannot help see in your child flickering glimpses of the past - of the road taken, how it played out.  But also, of the choices not made. 
Some of those choices turned out well, but not all of them. And therein lies one of the most difficult challenges of being a parent. 
When you see an opportunity where a collision is (almost surely) down the road, when do you choose to act? Are some lessons worth learning (a second time), and which are best so that the learning is virtual rather than real? 
When I was younger, my own personality could have been accurately described as aloof. 
I've never been an extrovert, and have struggled virtually my entire life trying to socialise with strangers. "Making friends" was never a long suit, though I always have recognised it as an extremely valuable strength. Just not one that I have.  I'd like to think that I'm much better - more "friendly and outgoing" now than I was, but still, my wife is the gregarious one in our family. And I'm not a close second. 
As a kid, my older brother was far, far more naturally personable - many friends, homecoming king in high school. It all looked so easy from my side of the virtual window peering in. 
Being able to "fit in" is an extremely valuable life lesson; one I've tried to instill in my own son, with mixed results.
As Alastair began his school year a few weeks ago, I tried to counsel him that he is in a new school, and the move provides one of those rare opportunities in life to re-invent yourself. No one really knows you. There is no backstory. No written pages. No defined role that you have to play. He is in a sense, free to make his own story again.

(As a kid, we moved on a few occasions, and each time, I had more or less the same chance).

Marins des eaux douces

I dropped him at his school this morning, as I do most mornings, on my way to catch the train to work. A couple of his classmates greeted him, smiling. "Hi Alastair! How was your weekend?" He seems to be making friends in his own quiet way. He's not lonely.

Alastair's mother is far more gregarious than I am - someone who, growing up, easily made friends. That was never my long suit, and I guess our son is more me than her at this point. He's unlikely to ever be, like my brother was, the type to be Homecoming King and the life of the party.

And as time goes by, I think it's OK. He makes his small circle of friends, as I did. And he's happy in his place with the friends he has, and with his books and his stories.

Sailing on the sea of adolescence is difficult. Which way should I go? Are those storm clouds over there? If I get into trouble, who on my 'crew' can help? We all navigate these situations that are not, as the French say, "eaux douces." 

I worried a lot when our son was seven about making friends. At 11, I am less worried that he's going to be lonely, however.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Friday Night Jazz

Friday is here. Friday afternoon. Despite the way we feel each Monday morning, it always does arrive. 


I'm feeling a bit "random" today, so nothing too coherent or involved to add, so I thought I'd just offer some short-takes.

The Sky Already Fell

As those who read from time to time know, while I am increasingly less interested in sports, I do remain a baseball fan, and my particular team is the Toronto Blue Jays. They've made it to the playoffs in two consecutive years (after more than 20 straight years of not even pretending to contend). The've in fact twice made it to the American League championship series. And truth be told, twice embarrassed themselves with poor showings both times - going down 4-2 in 2015, and 4-1 last year.

This year, the team is almost surely going to accomplish the feat of transforming in a single season from playoffs to last place. 

Last night, the Jays lost (again) in extra innings. The team is now 5-14 in extra innings games. This is far and away the poorest showing of any major league team - no other team has even lost 10 such games.

The Sky Already Fell, Take Two

No one better exemplifies the nearly free-fall than former slugger and all-star Jose "Joey Bats" Bautista. Bautista was made famous a few years ago for leading the AL in home runs in consecutive years (a team record 54 in 2010, and then 43 more in 2011), receiving a Silver Slugger Award in each.  More recently, he is famous for being punched in the face and receiving a less prestigious Black Eye Award from Rougned Odor.

Bautista this year is battling to stay above the Mendoza Line - currently winning the battle with a .205 average (he went 0-5 last night, inching closer). 

According to data at, Baustista, the proud owner of a -0.7 "WAR" (wins above replacement - a statistical measure of how much better or worse in pure wins/loss estimated compared to a hypothetical 'replacement' player who could be plucked off the waiver list). This means that Bautista is the worst player in Major League Baseball, at least by this metric.

Another First to Worst.

Ironically, the year he hit his 54 homers, Bautista won the Blue Jays' "John Cerutti Award for displaying goodwill and character."  No joke.

Going the Other Direction

I spent my high school years living in Cleveland, Ohio. During that time, I passed many evenings (and weekend afternoons) watching the Cleveland Indians play in their massive, hulking, crumbling stadium. The team was comically awful, and the crowds so sparse you could hear individual insults being yelled at the players from the seats on the other side of the field.

Good times.

Well, Toronto decided that - in order to pay Bautista $17, $18, and $20 million for this, next, and the subsequent year, they needed to let go of their other slugger, Edwin Encarnacion. (EE was so poor in Toronto at third base, his nickname became E-5, made all the more poignant because he actually wore number five on his jersey).

Encarnacion is not having a great season in Cleveland (he's currently hitting .252 with 34 home runs after a very slow start), but it's a damned sight better than Bautista. At least EE is better than a "replacement" player (WAR is +2.2).

I wonder if the Toronto GM (Mark Shapiro) would make a different decision if he knew then what he does now? He came from Cleveland, so is it a case of divided loyalties?

Going the Other Direction, Take 2

Speaking of Cleveland, the Indians last night won their 22nd consecutive game. In dramatic fashion. The Tribe trailed 2-1 going to their last ups in the ninth. Down to their last strike, rising star Francisco Lindor looped a double over the glove of left fielder Alex Gordon, who came *this* close (hold your thumb and forefinger close together) to ending The Streak. Gordon claims that the ball glanced off the top of his glove.

That's how things go when you're winning.

I still have family back in Cleveland, and others who live elsewhere, but still follow the Indians, and they are (understandably) excited that maybe this is the year after a 70-year winter of darkness.

The playoffs are a crap-shoot (just ask last year's Red Sox, who on paper should have clobbered the Indians, but in fact, were not only sent home by Cleveland, but were sent him in a sweep) of course, and it's possible that some team will get lucky in a short series and beat the Tribe.

But 22 in a row? And during that time, the Indians not trailed their opponents in 201 of the 207 innings played. They have ended an inning behind exactly six times over three weeks. They've outscored their opponents by a 142-37 margin. Aside from last night, there has been very little drama as they've simply ground opponents into mush. Scarier still for their foes, the Pythagorean W-L formula of Bill James says that the Indians' AL-best 91-56 record actually underestimates how well they team has played. Given their runs scored and runs allowed stats, Cleveland could expect to be 99-48 right now. 

Read that again.

The Indians have only played six extra-inning games (winning four of the six), the fewest in the major leagues.

It's Cleveland still, of course. And a crushing, shocking defeat is still possible out there. Likely, perhaps even.

Lights, Camera, Scandal

Speaking of shocking results, the French this spring elected something of a fresh face to be their president; 37 year-old Emmanuel Macron, whose previous experience in politics was a very, very brief turn as the economics minister for the failed quinquennat of François Hollande, won out over a field of damaged opponents to take up residence in the Elysee Palace.

Macron is known for his florid speech, youthful handsomeness, and Mrs Robinson-esque wife.

Turns out, there may be something to how he looks so good, even for a relatively young man.

The French newspaper Le Canard Enchaîne (who broke the scandal that destroyed François Fillon - his English wife was on the public payroll for a no-work job that would be right at home in New Jersey) reported that Macron has billed the French state $10,000 per month for makeup.

Read that again.

While only his hairdresser knows for sure, that strikes me as a lot of rouge for a man.

This is not really raising many eyebrows in France, and Macron's defenders point out that this is not in fact, out of line for les présidents. For example, Hollande, spent more on his haircuts and makeup, and anyways, Macron spends a lot of time in front of a camera. Et donc, quoi?

On the one hand, Hollande is balding, so not sure why he needs to spend so much on a hairdresser. Point: Macron. On the other, Hollande has the charisma of a failed breeding experiment involving a toad and a pig, so one might argue that he needs the help.

Oh la la, c'est compliqué.

Bring it on Home

Finally, Hollande was back in the news this week, finally sitting for an interview with the French news press. Hollande is having some difficulty, apparently, coping with his ignominious rejection, at times citing ruefully how he imagined leading the state towards the glorious 2024 Olympiad.

But the interview reads as far more introspective - and reality-based - than the current book tour that his American partner in electoral failure (Hillary Clinton) shows.

Je devaits désormais se consacrer à d'autres missions. J'essaie d'être utile à la place que j'occupe.
(Going forward, I must dedicate myself to another purpose. I am going to try to be useful in whatever the future brings)

If only Mrs Clinton could just dedicate herself to something "useful" - and no; making money pushing a finger-pointing book is not really useful beyond reifying biases of her base.

Happy Friday to all.....

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Qui Enleve Son Sac a Dos...

I've been living in cities for a number of years now - in Paris, France, and now San Francisco. Each is among the most densely populated in the western world. Without adequate public transportation, life would quickly become well nigh impossible.

As I did in Paris, I ride trains to and from work virtually every morning here in San Francisco. 

While occasionally plagued by strikes, the Paris network of metro (subway), suburban (RER), and intra-city (SNCF grandes-lignes) works pretty well. Despite the general dirtiness and noise of the stations and the crush of people, I had a bit of fondness for the RATP.

Some of this was due to its whimsical mascot, Serge, Lapin du Metro, a cartoon rabbit who for a generation plus has been warning children (and bemused foreigners) not to "mets tes mains sur les portes," because in so doing, "tu risques de te faire pincer très fort.

Each year, there was a campaign in the trains, in print, and on the television to encourage riders to "remain cordial" on the trains. Warnings not to jump the turnstiles, leave food to soil the seats, or block the doors.

One of my favourites was a costumed turtle carrying a massive back-pack in a crowded train. The image (see above) recommended that those travelling with a full pack should take off their back packs so as not to block or inconvenience others with whom he had to spare space.

The tone on the SF Muni is, um, different, at times. People are more likely to jostle one another, talk loudly (AMERICA!!!!) and generally be rude or inconsiderate to one another.

Today on the train in, there was a woman - I'm guessing maybe 30 - carrying a massive, stuffed "SalesForce" backpack completely blocking access to the centre of the car. It looked like it was fuller than Marc Benioff's self-regard. She was thoughtlessly texting away to God knows whom as a bolus of people gathered in the doors.

This turtle was undeniably "chargé". 

Eventually, to find passage to the relatively empty centre of the car, I pushed pack her bursting-at-the-seams pack, which got me a dirty look from her. That was most uncivil.

I thought of the RATP ad campaign as I made my way to the pole to prepare myself for the launch of the train forward.

So to my fellow Muni (and beyond) public transit users, a plea:

PLEASE. If you must carry a backpack with all of your life's belongings on your way to your cubicle, and the train is crowded. For God's sake, put your phone in your purse or pocket, and take your damned backpack off.

Better still, if you're over 25 years old, and you are not going camping, grow up. You're not in high school anymore. No self-respecting person puts on his big boy pants and brings his shit to work in a Jansport backpack. 

No. Sorry. You don't look hip or cool. You look like you're in denial.

You're an adult. Accept it.

This is doubly true if you insist on a tech company branded pack. I get it. You work for LinkedIn. That makes you annoying, not interesting. No one likes getting LinkedIn spam, and no one likes looking at your adolescent backpack.

No. They don't. It's not worth arguing.

Get a decent case, or at least a cool leather satchel.

The comp lit mid-term was yesterday. You failed.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Tetley's Tempest

It's been a few weeks since the storm brewed up in the Google tea cup, so I suspect it's now "safe" - to a point - to weigh in.

I am a participant from time to time on the on-line Q and A site called Quora (allow this to be another pitch - it's really an excellent medium, even just to lurk). I recently was asked a question directly by one of my "followers" about the now infamous "manifesto" of former engineer Mark Damore, and his subsequent firing.

Regarding the Google “anti-diversity screed,” do the angry people asking for the author's firing believe people shouldn't be allowed to have a measured debate about the subject or the points in the letter?

The 'top' response is from an actual Google employee called Daniel Tunkelang); it is terse but ultimately water tight.

My problem is, I don't think he actually believes his own answer.

I was out of the country in Kenya for the weeks when this Tetley Tempest blew up. 

Isn’t it obvious that the answer to your question is “yes” ? 

I am not going to argue that Google, a private employer for whom people sign at-will contracts of employment, does not have the right to decide what sort of internal speech it will allow, and which it will proscribe.

Of course they do. 

Mr Tunkelang (the Googler) gives basically a mic-drop answer:

Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from consequences.

Let’s set aside whether the claims in the so-called “manifesto” are true or false (which, if we are being honest, is beside the point). I don’t *know* that the disparities in male/female engineers is due to some biological difference. I don’t *know* that they aren’t for that matter. 

And neither do you.

It’s irrelevant.

The author really should know the culture at Google (and elsewhere here in Silicon Valley) better than to be the nail that sticks out. I have many friends at other companies (e.g., Apple, Facebook, Twitter) who almost in unison tweeted, posted, and blogged their alignment that Damore (the author) not only had to go from Google, but in fact, should never work in the Valley anywhere, ever again.

The reaction was damned close to unanimous.

I find it hard to believe that Damore was unaware what a ruckus his comment would cause, and he should not have been shocked that he was fired. I would not be surprosed to find him Doxxed and later, his apartment surrounded by angry people with whatever the Left use in lieu of Wal-Mart tiki torches.

Where I part ways with Mr Tunkelang and others is, I don’t think that they actually believe what they’ve written.

Imagine the opposite - where a relatively consevative company (I dunno. Is “Hobby Lobby” still in business) had a very opinionated young  employee whom it discovered had written some sort of manifesto talking about the need to be less religious, complaining that the overtly Christian tone of many of her colleagues was backwards or off-putting or whatever.  Suppose that a couple of her very strongly pious colleagues announced that they were so offended that they stayed home from work.

The CEO got hold of it and decided that her comments were sufficiently anti-religious and hostile that she was creating a hostile environment, and fired her.

Do you imagine, for one second, that most of those who openly called for the professional defenestration of Damore would say that Hobby Lobby has the right to decide for itself what is and is not hostile, and fire her?

Be honest. Any hands up?

I do not know Mr Tunkelang at all, but I can say that of those on social media whom I do know that the answer is “no.” In fact, several were quite upset when people decided to boycott the Dixie Chicks for insulting comments about President Bush. These were people, mind you, not asking that the Dixie Chicks be “fired” (not even sure how one would do that in any case), but who condemned people for violating Nathalie Maines’s free speech rights because they said they would not buy her records.

The same people who now demand that some NFL franchise hire Colin Kaepernick - a guy who was the backup for a team that went 2–14 just a few years ago demanded that the San Francisco Giants void the contract of pitcher Mark Dewey when he refused to wear a red ribbon on his jersey in 1996.

I have lived in the Bay Area for the past 25 years, save for a period in Paris, and it is just empirically true that there are just certain opinions that one is not really allowed to voice out loud if one values his or her career. Punishment is swift, and it is unmerciful.

I understand very well that companies have a right to decide whom they will and will not employ. And I agree, completely, that freedom of speech and freedom from consequences are not the same.
But I do not think that that maxim should be so fluid and situational as some would allow it to be.

The late Bill Buckley once said, of alleged liberalism:

Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Ex Machina, In Our Image

 I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.
-- Seth Brundle, protagonist of 1986 sci-fi flick, The Fly

In the children's classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, there is perhaps no character more tragic than the Tin Woodsman (in the book, his real name is Nick Chopper). His story is glossed over in the 1939 movie that derived from the book, but shortly, Chopper was once a man of flesh and blood who came from a family that earned its living chopping trees to make lumber for the sale in Munchkinland. Alone following the death of his parents, he eventually found a love, and proposed marriage. The girl to whom he was engaged was a handmaiden to an evil woman who feared losing her services. The old woman made a deal with the Wicked Witch of the East, who cast a spell on the ax of Chopper. Each time that the ax was swung, rather than striking its targets, it chopped off an arm, a leg, which was replaced by a prosthetic one made of tin.

Eventually, Chopper came to be made entirely of tin after quite literally, cutting away every ounce of his human form.

I thought of the Tin Man as I read this article in the New York Times, which describes a current "ethos" common here in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

The term "hustle" is making its way into the local lexicon, used to describe essentially the desire of younger "entrepreneurs" to set aside family, friends, vacations - their youth - in order to be the next internet billionaire star.

From the piece:

“Hustle” is the word that tech people use to describe this nerd-commando lifestyle. You hear it everywhere. You can buy hustle-themed T-shirts and coffee mugs, with slogans like “Dream, hustle, profit, repeat” and “Outgrind, outhustle, outwork everyone.” You can go to an eight-week “start-up hustle” boot camp. (Boot camp!) You can also attend Hustle Con, a one-day conference where successful “hustlers” share their secrets. Tickets cost around $300 — or you can pay $2,000 to be a “V.I.P. hustler.” This year’s conference, in June, drew 2,800 people, including two dozen who ponied up for V.I.P. passes.

I'm decidedly outside the target demographic, of course. But to me, "hustle" is not a recipe for success. It's not a euphemism for "workaholic".

It's a con. It's a one-word synopsis of "I'm a dysfunctional human being who cannot relate to human beings in any sort of real way, so I pretend my imitation of some pointless 'app' is going to disrupt the world to salve me missing soul."

I think a lot about so-called "artificial intelligence" (AI), and have written several times about it. There is a great fear that machines, ultimately, will replace us. I cleave to the school of thought advocated by John Searle that 'real' (strong) AI is not going to happen. Not soon, anyways. Machines capable of thinking in any real sense that can perfectly copy humanity are not on the horizon.

Of course, they do not have to be.

But this is the first time I've really thought about the opposite. Not machines that copy human beings, but humans who simulate machines.

The primary character in the 1986 The Fly film accidentally melds his DNA with that of a house fly in an experiment trying to teleport himself, with catastrophic consequences. 

The Tin Man ends up a mechanical thing longing for a heart through the malice of a witch.

But in Silicon Valley, young people, eyes wide open, are voluntarily chopping away their humanity. This, I had not considered.

Machines will not copy people; but if we ourselves become machines? 

The Tin Man is said not to have a heart, and goes off to Oz to seek one from a charlatan wizard. One of his fellow travellers, the Scarecrow, is said not to have a brain.

Menlo Park's Yellow Brick Road - Sand Hill Road - may lead to an Emerald City filled with VCs. But those who voluntarily give up their humanity are going to find that it does not lead to any wizard. Those who trade away their humanity to a false wizard's promise of worldly "disruption" are, to me, equal parts Scarecrow and Tin Man.

They are giving away their hearts - and their youth - so that they can deliver a better way for you to order a pizza and track it with your mobile phone. And as a bonus, you can do it without ever having to deal with the unfortunate nuisance of human interaction. A drone will drop it at your front door.

I was once 25 years old, living in the Valley; I worked for seven years in a "start up," and at times worked ridiculous hours in the pursuit (with my colleagues) of  'disrupting' the world (we didn't use the word 'disrupt' 20 years ago, however). Like many today, I reckon part of that was because I had few friends beyond the company, and went home (when I did) to an empty, quiet house. Work filled up a void. I suspect that this has not changed. 

The road may (for some) lead to wealth; for many others, it will not. For both, they may find (when they get to my age) that what was given up is not worth what was gained. They will discover that the world that they disrupted was their own.

In the end, the real Tin Man got his heart, of sorts. But at the end of Sand Hill Road, there is no wizard, and there will be no missed youth to be returned, magically, from an otherwise empty bag.