Sunday, April 23, 2017

Why am I writing about Juicero?

There are just so many angles to this perfect exemplar of human silliness ca. 2017 (this is where I'd find a way to insert the phrase “late capitalism” if I was1 a Marxist but I'm not a Marxist; adjust per your politics).
  • Juicero is an Internet-connected “juicer” that squeezes bags of pre-chopped ingredients (sold separately) until juice comes out. You might ask what you need the Internet connectivity for, and the answer is, “Nothing.” Yet Juicero needs Internet connectivity. Not the juicer itself but the concept of such a juicer. Juicing is a dumb, overblown fad. The health benefits are dubious, and juice you buy in bottles or frozen cans is perfectly adequate — good enough to tide you over between monthly trips to that swanky juice bar in your town, if you're into that sort of thing. Only by the power of rapid, global, peer-to-peer human connection, only by the Internet, can a bunch of sparsely-distributed juice fanatics congeal into a “community”, with fresh-pressed juice becoming such a large part of their identity that they can be convinced they need this.

    Juicero the venture-capital pitch also needs Internet connectivity for a couple reasons, which only matter to a user in that they allow Juicero to exist:

    • DRM2: ensuring that only authorized Juicero juice may be juiced by a Juicero juicer3. In order to get/stay rich Juicero's founders need to be able to profit on initial sales of the machine and on continued sales of bags of chopped fruit.
      • The DRM angle includes a thin pretense of user benefit: that the machine could warn users of expired or recalled packets. I don't know, maybe you could have an online profile where you collected badges for your impressive juicing accomplishments. Whether or not you'd actually use any of that, none of it is a feature for the user — it's all there to make the company's life better, not yours.
    • Internet connectivity makes it a “tech” product, suitable to be pitched to “tech” investors. “Tech”, economically, means that you're using technological novelty to stay ahead of competition, thereby keeping profit margins high4. So there's more silly money in “tech” than in the food and beverage sector, and it's silly-arrogant money that believes it can understand all the other sectors better than the established money already in them.

  • As much as Juicero is riffing on a dumb, overblown fad to try to become a dumb, overblown fad in its own right, hating on Juicero is also a dumb, overblown fad. There's actually a product here. It's similar to the whole Keurig coffee maker thing, which has certainly taken off. Coffee from a Keurig tastes better than instant coffee from powder or crystals; the prep and clean-up is much easier than other home-brewing methods where you have to deal with grounds. On a per-serving basis it's more expensive than other home-brewing methods but cheaper than going to a cafe. On the Juicero side there's something about some frazzled dad, you get the point.

    • So about Keurig, I guess they're having trouble dealing with competitors making “cups” compatible with their machines, undercutting them on price, and killing their profit margins. Hence Juicero's need for DRM from the outset, hence their Internet-connected concept.
    • The “easy” clean-up associated with Keurig machines has an associated environmental cost. A discarded, used Keurig cup contains plastic, aluminum, and organic matter all in a tight package, making it hard to recycle or compost, even though the materials in isolation are pretty well suited to recycling or compost. A Juicero bag must be quite similar. There's the outer material of the bag, strong enough to hold under the pressure of the machine. There's some kind of filter at the bottom of the bag, where the juice comes out — if that was built into the machine it would require regular cleaning, so it must be built into the bag. And there's the organic matter, the fibrous remains of the squeezed-out fruit.
      • When I make coffee at home I use a French press, and I can attest that coffee grounds are annoying, like any other damp organic kitchen waste. When I was renting the first floor of a house with a yard I could just walk out in my PJs and sandals and dump the grounds under some plants that the Internet said would appreciate having coffee grounds dumped on them. Now I toss them in a moldy compost bin for a couple days until the stink becomes unbearable, then take that bin down three flights of stairs to the bigger, moldier compost bin on the parking level of my building. Then I have to take a shower to wash the fruit flies out of my hair.
        • Point is, the inability to compost the coffee grounds and juice waste is, perversely, a feature.
        • “Why don't you just shave your head, Al?” I did that, once, because all my cross-country teammates did it for the state meet my senior year. My head is not shaped right. It looked ridiculous, even more ridiculous than shaved heads usually look.
    • So you can squeeze a Juicero bag with your hands. So, what? I'm sure you can strategically poke holes in a K-cup and pour hot water over it just the right way and end up with coffee. Who would actually do that? Not the “frazzled dad” on his way out to dad it up at some dad thing. Not the customers in the waiting room at the vet's office5. Not the waiter, hurrying-up-and-waiting like 10 tables, and this guy is going to regret that 3:00 PM coffee order at 3:00 AM, but the customer is always right...
      • The workout you get from squeezing the Juicero bag with your hands probably has more health benefits than the juice. The problem is that as you develop strength you can only do more reps by drinking more and more juice, confusing the question of what's really responsible for your newly buff forearms...

1 This is where I'd use the subjunctive voice if I was the sort of person that used the subjunctive voice in English...

2 DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. Like many software dorks of my age, when I was younger I ranted a lot about DRM in software because it represented extra complexity toward the end of making products less useful for users. Like many software dorks of my age I've mellowed on this subject. Anyway, computing models have shifted and more important work is done server-side (“in the cloud”), where big companies naturally have control of the data and the rights. Instead of seeing further erosion in users' rights to use data they possess, we've seen the erosion of users' possession of that data, often even what they'd call “their own” data. However the legal arrangements have or haven't changed, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” and it's also nine-tenths of practical power, power that the big companies in charge of the cloud wield mostly for their own benefit. Oh, right, the point that I should be getting to. Now there's DRM in a juicer that I'd never own, and I'm distinctly un-mellowed about it. I guess the mellowing wasn't about age, but just about what I was accustomed to. Humans are pretty good at adjusting themselves to their conditions.

3 It's really hard for me to keep typing, “Juice,” instead of, “Guice.” Just thought you should know.

4 Remember when I said I wasn't a Marxist? Well I have a very thin understanding of competition and profit margins that mostly comes from my observations of the tech industry and what I remember from the chapters of Das Kapital I managed to get through.

5 My vet's office does have a Keurig machine in the waiting area.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Humility / Audacity

I thought about making a poster for the Seattle March for Science today, then didn't, because I figured there would be lots of posters, and I'm not that good at slogans or visual art, better at long-winded explanations of stuff, so probably other posters would be more worthy of people's attention. Indeed, there were lots of clever posters there and I didn't take any pictures of them because I'm not good at remembering to take pictures. So instead I'm writing a blog post about the poster I maybe should have made. It would have had just two words: “HUMILITY” across the top and “AUDACITY” across the bottom.

I'm probably missing a lot of the words for this, having not studied history nor philosophy of science in any depth, being just some guy that does software and reads stuff... so this is going to be a pretty square and incomplete account of things... so maybe you think about science as an institution, or as a practice. It's an institution made of people, a practice performed by people. We often fail to live up to our best ideals, but they're still our ideals (cf. the USA). Humility in particular would be good to highlight at this sort of event, both to and from the crowd.

I didn't see either of my words anywhere. That's fine. I did see a “Make America Care Again” sign, which was the first MAGA riff I've ever liked.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Cold Take: Serial

I finally listened to Serial, a few years late now. One of the big things I got out of it is that I don't want to talk about “reasonable doubt” in a case where I'm not on the jury.

To talk about reasonable doubt is to implicitly question the jury's decision. It seems unfair to do that after listening to a podcast about a trial. I didn't see the whole trial! And I saw a lot of things that weren't in the trial, which were presented because they might indicate the wrong verdict was reached.

But even if I had watched a video of the whole trial and nothing else... both sides in any jury trial prepare arguments to convince the particular jury in the courtroom. In this case that meant a majority-black jury from Baltimore; the podcast audience is a global audience of NPR listeners. There's a whole episode of the podcast called The Deal with Jay, Jay being the prosecution's star witness, where host Sarah Koenig asks, “What's the deal with Jay?” She was never quite sure what to make of him, the inconsistencies in his story, or the lies and evasions he gave before admitting his role in the crime and testifying for the prosecution. So in this episode she talked with a juror, Stella Armstrong, about how she understood Jay. Stella explained, “We all have somebody in our life like that, you know, that you may know, a cousin or a relative, who, if something goes wrong, you think you can call to help you.“ The implication was that “something” was something outside the law. In this case Jay testified that Adnan, the defendant, asked him to help him cover up a murder he committed. Sarah replied that she didn't know anyone like that.

OK, I don't think I know someone like that either. Forget covering up a murder — if I commit a murder (I will try very hard not to commit a murder!) and ask you to help cover it up, don't mess around with that, slap me in the face and drag me out to face justice! But for stuff that isn't so grave... I don't really know who I'd call off the top of my head. Most of the people I'd call for advice would probably say stuff like, “Don't do anything stupid.” Some of that is a mark of privilege, that the law generally works for people like me (I've jaywalked as much as anyone...). But this trial wasn't put on for myself, Sarah Koenig, and a jury of NPR listeners. If it had been, both the prosecution and defense would have had to present somewhat different cases!

So for me, in no way am I in the position of someone asked to do what the jury is doing. I'm listening to a podcast. I just speculate about stuff.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Just because I'm tired of arguing with people about dumb things...

... I guess I have to state a moral philosophy of bad form and annoyance.

1. There are individual actions and there are collective actions. They are different.

2. Some individual actions have terrible results when performed often by many people. Often, here, these actions are the result of many individual decisions made in self-interest, and the result does not resemble what we'd choose collectively. Often the harm can be significantly reduced if those individual actions are simply done less often, by fewer people. Sometimes, here, we luck out of disaster because of physical or economic constraints. Other times we need to act collectively to avert disaster. Acting individually in self-interest is human. Acting collectively toward our collective best interest is a really good idea. Acting individually toward a collective best interest is usually futile. Acting individually in self-interest while hoping that others' individual actions toward a collective best interest will solve our collective problems is stupid and annoying.

3. Sometimes the demands of our world are such that we have to do things that wouldn't be good for everyone to do all the time (cf. Kant). Sometimes when we do we run up against constraints imposed on us by necessary collective actions taken to limit the harms caused by such behaviors. It is bad form, in this scenario, to complain about it.

4. We are all responsible for the consequences of our actions to some degree, in proportion to how much of a choice we really have (cf, I dunno, Camus?). Sometimes people with lots of reasonable choices choose to do things that cause a lot of harm relative to the alternatives, simply because these things benefit them. It is bad form, in this scenario, to disclaim responsibility. It is particularly annoying to disclaim responsibility on the basis that these actions or choices are popular.

OK. That's not comprehensive or absolute, but I think it's reasonable. Good enough to stand around as proof of my logical and moral consistency, in order to annoy the bejesus out of people. BE IT PROCLAIMED.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Apparently the OJ documentary won an Oscar?

I haven't seen the whole thing, only bits and pieces of it, and it was a while ago, and I didn't write about it then. Maybe there's some part of it that examines this and ties it in to the thesis that its title (OJ: Made in America) implies. Anyway, there's a part of it that really stuck with me. They were talking about OJ's mixture of success and struggle fitting in with the rich and mostly white world he inhabited after retirement. There was this idea that there was something off with his constant desire to charm people and present a successful image of himself. So they interviewed a bunch of his rich and mostly white friends, and one of them talked about how he was bad at golf, and how he laughingly cheated at it, and how his golf buddies just couldn't get through to him the importance of honor and sportsmanship on the golf course.

Honestly, if I had to play golf to get through my social interactions I would cheat my ass off (while laughing about it). Because, like OJ, I'm terrible at golf, and I'd just be trying to get on to the next hole and not hold up the group. Sportsmanship? This dude is here because he was a professional sportsman! A typical round of golf is just something to do to pass the time with friends. When these things involve sports or games, and one person isn't very good, you give that person a leg up or take it easy on them, if you're decent. Apparently OJ's rich friends cared more about some mythical honor code of golf than being a good friend, which probably reflects more on them than on him. If he was displaying some kind of character flaw by trying to charm his way through stuff he wasn't great at, this would be a common character flaw that doesn't hold the secret key to his becoming abusive, and then a murderer.

The “secret” key to OJ becoming abusive, and then a murderer, is that he always regarded Nicole more as property (as a symbol of his success and status) than as an actual person. This attitude was obvious from direct quotes that the documentary showed, but did not (in the parts I saw) connect to an assessment of his attitudes or character. He abused her for years, covering it up through connections to police and media, before murdering her. The documentary did cover this, but didn't (as far as I saw) connect it to familiar patterns of domestic abuse or the tacit agreements that keep abuse covered up. If there's one thing that's directly tied to his crimes, and also reflects back on American culture, it's these things.

Monday, February 20, 2017

This isn't the most important thing you'll read about sexism in tech today.

If it has been so far, try this and this maybe? Anyway, it's important for guys to speak up about this stuff, and I am (as you all know) just some guy, so...

This story, in particular

Those articles linked above were the ones that prompted me to write this, covering Susan Fowler's account of working at Uber for a year, detailing specific incidents of sexual harassment, wider failures of culture and inclusiveness, and poor HR responses to them. I work for Google. Google shares, at least, a lot of jargon with Uber, so when I read Fowler's account I had a couple double-takes, before remembering I wasn't reading something written by one of my colleagues. While accounts of both specific harassment from superiors and general sexism in the culture aren't unheard of at Google, I think our HR and leadership response has generally been better. But then there's a lot that I see from the inside here that I don't see there. When Uber's CEO responds that this sort of thing is against what Uber “stands for”, it's hard to see what Uber does stand for if it only reacts to public allegations — if it has not taken proactive steps to make sure HR and other leadership are prepared when they come up internally. Every organization needs to be ready for these sorts of things to come up internally, because they will. They always do.

Everyone, every man working in tech needs to be ready for these sorts of things to come up, with themselves personally. We will make mistakes. Even if we don't do anything that's specifically worthy of getting called out, we'll do things that contribute to a culture that's really hard on women. So we all need to be ready to respond first with humility, not defensiveness.

Our whole selves, and nothing but our selves

Again, my perspective is not the critical one here, but ya gotta write what ya know, 'eh?

Google tries to take more responsibility for its employees' well-being and happiness than other companies I've worked for. When I started there, five years ago, there was a lot of discussion about work-life balance and employee surveys asked about our ability to detach from work in off-time. With answers looking alarming, people looked into the question and found that there appeared to be a spectrum of work-life styles. Some people are “balancers”, who separate their work and personal lives, while other people are “integrators”, who choose to blur the lines, sometimes socializing and taking down-time during the work day, sometimes getting good work done at home. We have a lot of “integrators” at Google, with a lot of official support, and it didn't just start five years ago. This was, perhaps, adaptive to Silicon Valley, where tech campuses are sprawling and isolated. It made sense to eat at work because there weren't restaurants around; it made sense to go running from work, because it would be dark by the time you got home. And it made sense for companies to provide employees, especially younger ones, some built-in, almost college-like social opportunities. I moved to the South Bay just after college to work for Nvidia, hardly knowing anyone on the west coast at the time, and the difficulty I had building a social life there is the main reason why I left after a year. In any case, now the surveys explicitly emphasize “bringing your whole self to work”, more than work-life balance.

When the idea of balancers and integrators came up at Google, I was sure I was a balancer. I truly value my independence, having an identity and a life that's set apart a bit from my career — these opinions are not the opinions of my employer, that goes without saying. But I've found over the last few years that, at least at Google (where there are some really strong “integrator” draws) I'm more of an integrator that I thought. This isn't always to my great credit, but I won't get into that here; doing stuff with colleagues has rekindled my interest in competitive running and cycling, allowed me to share knowledge and learn stuff about tea, and helped me develop a personal sense of style. If that's not the most world-changing stuff, well, working with people that care about my life a bit has made work a place I look forward to going when things are tough in my personal life.

This is much, much easier for me than it is for most people. I'm a skinny white dude with middle-of-the-road interests, tastes, and politics (by tech-industry standards). I almost never have to worry about not being accepted. I don't have kids, so I have the schedule flexibility to hang out after work. I don't drive to work, so I can drink if that's going on (surprisingly often at Google, and I'm not sure it's for the best, but that's another story). Introversion makes the volume of loud social events and conversations draining sometimes, but introverts in tech are common and fairly well understood. Would it be more equal if we brought less of ourselves to work, just the “professional” parts? My current thinking: what we call “professional” is full of exclusion, conflict, and discomfort, we just don't talk about it (it wouldn't be professional). The freedom to bring one's full self seems more critical to people that aren't so privileged in the status quo. Being able to openly discuss effectiveness of various bike tires at work is cool; being able to openly discuss the challenges you have being taken seriously at work, at work, seems a little bigger.

That means when we bring our whole selves we can't be selfish about it. If we're bringing our whole selves we have a responsibility to make sure that's meaningful, and not just a new veneer over the old exclusive professionalism (bikes are the new golf, IPAs are the new scotch, etc.). It means that we have to look out for our colleagues and make a point of being welcoming.


The leather jacket thing. Considering how much discussion there has been over how thoughtful you ought to be when giving clothes as swag, and how often women are left out or made uncomfortable when that thought is lacking, this should have been avoidable! When the status quo is so male-dominated, not every avoidable thing will be avoided. That's when the response matters, a lot. The ham-handed, defensive response suggests a culture problem — it's one of the things that suggests Uber hasn't actually stood for anything.

The performance review and transfer games. Again, these seem to show an organization that is desperate to retain women and is willing to try anything except admitting it has problems and working on them.

“The HR rep began the meeting by asking me if I had noticed that *I* was the common theme in all of the reports I had been making”. Keeping in mind that what's judged reasonable is usually a matter of the status quo, all progress depends on those unreasonable people that don't accept it.

I was trying to find a few more things to link in here, and couldn't find them. There was an article that went around maybe a year ago about some true excesses in culture-fit hiring among tech startups, which ties in with the idea of a new veneer over old exclusive professionalism, but I couldn't find it.

Friday, January 27, 2017

In One

After I said I'd heard Port Townsend was “a charming town or some shit” Wes said a blog would be a good format for my ranting and that I should write a sarcastic travelogue, or rant while traveling into a blog(ue), but o, ho, Wes, I was several steps ahead of you there.

In a café in the off-hours in a tourist town in the off-season one man said that another man had called him a fascist and he wasn't the one wearing the fashy.

There's probably some tough-guy nonsense expression that you don't find out what you're about until you get punched — this whole trip happened before Richard Spencer got punched, and I'd been thinking back then that he didn't know what he was about, but then I've also been reading a couple biographies of Emil Zátopek, who repeatedly found out what he was about, and I really love self-knowledge, but even Zátopek found a lot that drove him to drink, and most of us are neither as great nor as good as he was, so maybe I should learn to smile at lack of self-knowledge.

My brother and his wife keep a non-sarcastic travelogue, which I think requires pictures, as sometimes things aren't quite what they seem in these places; particularly in the off-season you have to plan a little but not too much, you have to be open to experience, sometimes experience is learning nothing.