Monday, September 16, 2019

Leaving Google

I probably should write some definitive words about why I left Google. I guess I'll do that here, on my lonely blog.

Let's start with the short version. There are lots of things you could say about what a computer really is, about the meaning and purpose of computers. My favorite one, the one I find most inspiring, comes from Steve Jobs back in the '80s: “The computer is a bicycle for the mind.” I used to believe Google made more bicycles for more minds than anyone else. I don't believe that anymore.

That's it, this is the tl;dr line, you can all go home now. What follows is more words. More words from the guy that customized his Blogger stylesheet to get wider text so his paragraphs wouldn't look so long. More words from a guy that's said a few regrettable ones already.

I put Jobs' remark in quotation marks above but it's more of a paraphrase. He said things like that at least a few different times and often phrased it in different ways. I imagine at the time he was saying it he biked places sometimes, or at least had done so in recent memory. A couple decades later he was a rich old crank that bought a new car every week or so, so that he could always be in the grace period where he didn't have to install permanent license plates.

One of the other things you could say about the meaning and purpose of computers is that computers, like a lot of other technology, make people more efficient. The people that can make the most of this efficiency reap the most gains. Often existing powerful organizations are well positioned to make the most of technological efficiency; sometimes entrenched powers are the only ones that can do things. Sometimes upstarts do very well for some reason. Whatever that reason is, they then become powerful organizations that attribute their further successes to the same myths as the early ones. Google is like that.

And that's fine. Google is full of the myth that it succeeds in 2019 because it's full of smart people that make great software. I don't know, I think most stuff Google does succeeds mostly because Google is big and has an established user base? I'm not an expert in this stuff, but... come on. A lot of people can look really smart when they have access to all the stuff Google has already built up. So it's not like they aren't full of smart people that make great software, and if they didn't they'd fall off pretty fast! That's just... whatever, it's fine, it makes people feel good about their work. Sometimes the exceptionalism is grating; that's not why I left.

One of the funniest things in Google culture is the idea that Google is “data-driven”. Ridiculous! Google has made a lot of cool things throughout its history essentially as halo projects. They could do them because they were printing money selling search ads, and any eventual benefit to the bottom line was ultra-speculative. Some of them even worked!

And that's fine. GMail was in one sense a flex: look how much storage we can just give away! We won't even put banner ads in your inbox! All you have to do is log in — and now people are logging in to Google. I don't know whether people tried to use “data” to estimate the ultimate value of that to Google but... how would they even? How could you estimate the value of something whose payoff depends on so many other unknown factors precisely enough to prioritize the work against other things you could be doing? It has to be an intuitive belief. Meanwhile Google+, with its explicit goals around driving logged-in usage, flopped famously. Another way to look at GMail is as the result of laziness, impatience, and hubris. “Webmail sucks! Configuring SMTP sucks about as much! Spam sucks so much! I could do better!” The laziness and impatience were in tune with the zeitgeist; the execution matched the hubris.

You know, it's better than fine. Being data-driven is for robots. Be vision-driven! Use data to spread your vision! Use data to hone your vision! Use data to question your vision! But never let data grab the handlebars — the computer is the bicycle, the mind is the rider.

I got to work on Google Maps for four years. I'm sort of proud of that. I think Google Maps is one of the coolest apps in software history. I'll never forget the first time I played around with it. It changed the way I saw the world! I'd already been the sort of person that was easily fascinated by studying maps because of how much you can discern about the logic of a place by studying maps. Here was one big, map of the whole world!

This is probably the right place to say: sometimes thinking of the world through the lens of one big map misleads as much as it enlightens. That isn't why I left Google, or Maps, it's just a thing that's true: Google Maps can't be the only map. No single map can be the only map. Some people think about places differently than others, even in ways that contradict others. Some places, some institutions, work differently for some people than others. Like I said, Google Maps changed the way I saw the world. I could see all the places I might go running, crossing freely between towns, on and off of campus, through parks. But I didn't always acknowledge the perspective I had. Just randomly:

  • I remember once saying that essentially every place on the continent was connected by a network of pavement. My friend Heather challenged this as depending on a particular idea of what a “place” was, and I didn't really get it, but this was a pretty important point!
  • Mercator projection! It's... a pretty bad way to draw maps of big parts of the world! It's a pretty practical way to draw city-scale maps in parts of Earth that have cities (for people that want north-up orientations)! It's definitely the worse-is-better solution (“It is slightly better to be simple than correct”). Anyway Google Maps has probably made more people look at Mercator projections of big parts of the world than any other discernible thing in the history of maps? And now there's a 3-D mode... it still enforces north-up like a globe with an invisible stand you can't break free from. That's probably a reasonable choice! I just think we shouldn't forget it is a choice.
  • In the first season of Serial the host explained the local term “strip” as a particular named place where you might go to buy or sell drugs. I bet some such strips are in more common parlance than many neighborhood designations that appear on Google Maps! I actually used this as a conversation-starter with colleagues sometimes but had a hard time getting the idea across.
  • Of course an expansive view of the world showing near-total freedom of movement across political boundaries is not a reflection of reality for many people.

Again, these aren't reasons Google Maps is bad, they're reasons it can never be enough. We'll always need more ways to think about geography. We'll always need ways that a corporation will never give us. We'll always need ways that the software world is unlikely to give us (if you have an idea for something the software world is unlikely to give us, but that yet could use some software work, I may be able to help, with the caveat that I'm pretty useless generally; hit up my DMs or whatever).

Google Maps has some “halo project” vibes, like GMail. At times it's been used to flex: way before I worked on Maps they, for a time, connected the continents in directions by instructing users to, “Swim across the ocean.” As with GMail, who could possibly compete with what Maps offered? A fast site with a cool UI and, with no need to immediately make money, no annoying ads?

I guess that's one thing that feels properly sinister. Google at its best shows the world how to build really cool and useful stuff... that you couldn't actually build without the Google-sized money printing machine. And when you graft on the Google-sized big-data machine?

I have some particular frustrations around the way Google Maps chases users and gathers data these days but it seems to be tied to a general idea that runs through the biggest companies in computing. We aren't about empowering users. Users aren't our partners. They're sources of data (as long as it's the data we want when we want it). Their attention is the battleground where we fight against the other big companies to stay at the front the longest.

One of my particular frustrations has to do with driver distraction. I've always been uncomfortable with GPS screens in cars. I sometimes drive cars with GPS screens active on mounts around relay races and I find it distressing. There's a feeling when you're merging in traffic and monitoring a situation over your shoulder, then suddenly realize you haven't been keeping track of what's in front of you; for me, driving with a GPS screen often feels like that. Apps like Waze take this to another level, making driving something between a game and a social network.

I can't stomach Google Maps following Waze down that road: actively prompting users for input on road and traffic conditions while they should be watching traffic ahead. People are, in general, deluded about their ability to multitask. That is, to divide their focus and switch between tasks without losing accuracy, and to manage distractions and prioritize the most important things. One of the reasons I did leave Google is that I was very disappointed by Google's direction on this, and by responses to my concerns about them, which relied on pure fantasies about people's ability to prioritize in the face of distraction. We supposedly had principles about distraction; they ended up as little more than footnotes when it was time to break them. That made me really angry.

That loomed large for me but of course it was just one part of an overall change in how I saw Google and other big tech companies. The change in the overall picture is why it was a moment where I didn't want to be a part of Google, rather than a moment where I wanted to fix Google. Maybe fairly little of that change is really a change in what Google is or what it does. Certainly a lot of it is position: things that seemed cool as “betas” from small companies can look more oppressive from behemoths that are already heavily entangled in our lives. Some of it is experience: I didn't anticipate some of the ways software companies would change the world and I haven't liked some of the changes I thought I'd like. And some of it is certainly a change in how I see the world. I understand the significance of politics and power more, for instance.

For now I just want to do things that are more straightforward. Maybe make some bicycles for some minds if I can.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Creation

“Ya know, as a musician sometimes you have to give up some stuff so you can do other stuff.”

“Why? Because you're playing solo? What if you had a band? Or just... some time and an eight-track recorder?”

“And a well of talent both broad and deep, and the ability to hold complexity in your mind, and to organize your thoughts so you don't have to hold all that complexity in there at once.”

“Sure, why not?”

“Some people have these things. It's not their own limitations they're up against, it's those of the audience. The audience doesn't get to listen as a band. We may talk about collective listening experiences, and sometimes there's something to them, but they aren't going to make people better at handling complexity in a consistent and sustained way. You can't get 'em in a groove and lead 'em off the beaten path at the same time.”

“I don't know... that sounds more like a bad metaphor than a real limitation.”

“I'm not saying you can't alternate between the two, just not at the same time.”

“Meh, still don't buy it. You can listen to music, dance along, turn your head in surprise and delight, and keep dancing.”

“Speak for yourself. Have you seen me dance?”

“Uh... no?”

“There's a reason for that.”

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Hydrants

“Dude, quit messing with that fire hydrant, there's a cop like right there!”

“Alright, man, chill.”

“What?!? Seriously, stop messing with it, we're gonna miss the start of the game!”

“Man, fire hydrants are yellow.”

“What?!?”

“This is green.”

“What?!?”

“It's a municipal beer tap.”

“What?!?”

“This is what you get for not following local politics.”

“What?!?”

“So I just gotta... oh, crap, did I leave my hose adapter at that block party?”

“What?!?”

“Yeah, it was funny, I just ran into it on my way home —”

“— That's not funny, dude, you should have stopped, someone could have died.”

“Ha, ha, I have this guy's phone number but I can't remember his name. Awk-ward! He was obsessed with Sound Transit. Not super for it or against it or anything, just obsessed.”

“Yeah, that's what you get for following local politics.”

“So I guess I have to text this guy but not say his name.”

“Maybe distract him with a question about mass transit governance.”

“Ugh, anyway, I'll worry about that later, we're gonna miss the start of the game.”

“So what sort of beer comes out of these things anyway?”

“They're currently rotating through some sours.”

“I guess they had to find some place for all that sour beer when 2015 ended two years ago.”

“Uh, sours are still a thing.”

“OK, sure, so the proper joke would have been, ‘What do you get when you put literally any beer in an underground tank and wait for some weirdo to come along with a beer hose?’”

“People don't talk about them like they've discovered something new anymore, which, let's be honest, by 2015 would have been shamefully late for any set of yuppies outside tech, but yeah, they're on track to blow up in the mainstream in 2018.”

“Ugh.”

“So, uh, remember that when your parents call you sloppy drunk from their vacation to Kansas City, Kansas next summer at four in the afternoon and ask if they have sour beers in Seattle, because you're somehow the coolest person they know.”

“I mean, my parents are teetotalers, but you're still the worst.”

“If you don't like sours there's a special election in March. It's the municipal beer tap selection... what color to paint the Space Needle... and the primary for City Council position ten or something.”

“Why does everything have to be the worst?”

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Why my blog posts are disappearing!

I am “archiving” (effectively deleting) all posts on this blog before some arbitrary time, maybe 2014 or so, except ones I happen to know are linked from other places. If there's something you're looking for (there probably isn't, none of this is exactly noteworthy) ask me and I'll make it visible (if I like you).

Monday, July 3, 2017

Europe Retrospective: Luxembourg

I have flown across the Atlantic six times (three times each way). Five of the six have been on the Delta flight between Seattle and Amsterdam. As of the start of this trip I had never been in Amsterdam outside the airport, which put Amsterdam, for me, in a category with Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Dallas. I would get a little time in Amsterdam later, but on the way in I was just connecting through to Luxembourg.

In Luxembourg my main purpose was visiting John and Victoria, and resting up for the marathon. I had a fun visit with them, shopping around for grills and outdoor furniture, cooking and eating, hanging out and reading in parks, etc. I didn't do as much sightseeing as I hoped due to catching a cold, but did make it out to Trier, which is just spectacular for having such a collection of historic buildings in such a compact area.

A model of the remnants of Trier's fortifications, in front of the fortifications.

The fortifications from the other side.

Various angles of the stunning main square of Trier.

A baroque palace joined to an older church — certainly a political statement, perhaps not so different from some of today's regarding the provenance and justification of great accumulated wealth. Not the sort I'm inclined to agree with.

Ruins of Trier's Roman baths.

Trier's Roman amphitheatre.

This would have to be a Gothic church, but I don't recall which exactly.

The marathon was a bust; between a fever I was still fighting off, very hot temperatures persisting through the race start, and being stuck out in the sun with no water for almost two hours before the start, I really had no chance to make the whole distance. I dropped off my goal pace about 10 kilometers in and dropped out completely before the halfway mark. At least I got to run some later parts of the course on easy runs other days. I felt like a cheater going in for the massage and spa treatment in Mondorf the day after not running a marathon (thanks, Dad!), but experiencing a sauna for the first time was worth the guilt. John ran as part of a marathon relay team, and he finished his leg, so he earned his massage and saunas properly. On the way we passed by Schengen, where the famous European open-borders agreement was worked out!

On my last day in Luxembourg John took me on a tour of Luxembourg's “Valley of the Seven Castles”. This is one of these Seattle-Luxembourg connections. People sometimes say Seattle was built on seven hills (an analogy to Rome), but however you count the hills you always wind up with more or less than seven, never seven exactly. I think the Valley of the Seven Castles is similar, though I could be wrong (I don't know Luxembourgish castles nearly as well as Seattle hills).

These are from a little old ruin near Käerch.

This one, near Septfontaines, was a little tricky to get to. It looks like it's been inhabited recently, with what appears to be a modern driveway on part of the grounds!

The castle at Ansembourg features an impressive garden.

Hollenfels' castle has a hostel next to it!

This castle in Vianden can be visited, but was closed when we showed up.

In addition to all these castles we got a peek at the current Grand-Ducal palace. John knew we were in the area and managed to find the closest accessible vantage by driving around. As when I first moved to Seattle and spent several weeks going on runs trying to find Kerry Park, looking at a map would have been cheating. The Dimonds take fair-play seriously... I think we were raised to appreciate a good challenge. Anyhow, Luxembourg is a nice place to visit if you have good hosts, and I had the best! Next stop, Prague!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The bottle says, “SPF 50,” but we have to take into account that France is a Metric country. SPF, of course, is a unit-less number. Metric unit-less scalar numbers are worth roughly 1.4 times their Imperial counterparts. Now you might be tempted to cube this number to get the conversion factor because sunscreen is a liquid, three-dimensional. But, in fact, the number refers to the light absorption properties of the skin. The skin's surface-area is a two-dimensional quantity (measured in square-meters or square-feet), but its exposure of light is measured per-unit of area, so the conversion factor is the inverse-square of 1.4, which is a little more than a half. So this sunscreen is about SPF 25, by American standards.

If you think that's bad, it gets much more confusing in Britain, which is mostly on the Metric system except for grumpy old people and in matters of alcohol. Grumpy old people don't buy a lot of sunscreen, but if you've had a couple pints (which are of course different from American pints), you might have to take this into consideration. In this case there may be a distinction based on the length of the foot of the reigning monarch. In the 19th Century, as Dickens writes in A Tale of Two Cities, the King of England had a square jaw, so the ratio of his foot size to the standard foot was introduced squared. This was a serious inconvenience when buying sunscreen in these days, when people really had a whole lot else to worry about. The resulting epidemic of sunburn precipitated the tragic plot of Dickens' great novel, which is remembered as a rallying cry in the movement to adopt the Metric system in Britain. Ironically, when this finally happened, sunscreen applied while drunk retained this annoying conversion. Fortunately the monarch from then through today, Elizabeth II, has more of a round jaw, so though her feet are shorter than a foot, they just round up to a foot and the conversion is moot. So Americans and Europeans alike can consider SPF numbers in Britain exactly as they're accustomed to in their own countries.

But if you're from Australia you have to turn the bottle upside-down before reading.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Thing(s) with Bitcoin

Alright, The Guardian! Y'all were just at Paralelní Polis in Prague! I was, too! They really will sell you coffee for Bitcoins, and only for Bitcoins!

And you got a Bitcoin wallet on a card and started scanning a QR code, printed therein, on machines in order to buy stuff! In the same room as people that walk around in facemasks in response to the combination of ubiquitous surveillance and various improvements in computing bandwidth (including, but not limited to, facial-recognition), which could otherwise allow them to be tracked literally everywhere! That's a bit ironic: ubiquitous surveillance is related to one of the reasons a Bitcoin wallet-card is not such a great idea. So here's a counterpoint to the Guardian piece: why Bitcoin isn't going to directly replace the Koruna (or Euro, or any of the various Dollars)... ever.

Bitcoin's security is rather unforgiving as regards personal security. A Bitcoin wallet-card has two QR codes (in case you don't know, a QR code is essentially a 2-D barcode) on it, each of which is used to access your wallet. One gives the necessary information for anyone (with the right software and an Internet connection) to give you Bitcoins. The other gives the necessary information for anyone to take your Bitcoins. Obviously, to buy a coffee you need to show the side that lets anyone take your Bitcoins. So you'd better trust your café! On the surface this is no worse than swiping a debit card. But there's a key difference: the ability to charge people's debit (and credit) cards is gated by payment networks that can revoke the access of scammers. Not so much with Bitcoin: the software is open-source. In order to counter fraud, institutions basically similar to the credit-card payment networks would have to form within the Bitcoin ecosystem. Anyway, once the Bitcoins are taken there's probably no way to get them back... except possibly by involving the old fuddy-duddy legal system (i.e. by convincing the state to pursue a case against your adversary, backed by the physical force of the police), in which case you're not much of a crypto-anarchist, are you? Also, the state, knowing that one of the major reasons to use crypto-currency over state-backed currency is avoiding regulations and taxes, may not be so eager to help you out.

Of course, in the age of ubiquitous surveillance, anyone operating a camera that sees your QR code could instantly empty your account! This is the ironic part of the juxtaposition of wallet-cards and facemasks; people are worried about tracking via facial recognition — QR codes are much easier to recognize and read than faces! They were literally designed to be easy for computers to recognize and read! I severely doubt that the people wearing facemasks walk around with wallet-cards, at least not ones representing wallets with any real value in them.

One apparent way around this (I just thought of this off the top of my head, so either people are already doing it or it's wrong) is to keep your savings in one wallet, with no associated card, and transfer small amounts of money to a “holding” wallet to make routine transactions. All the modes of operation I can think of would require consumers to have mobile phones with good Internet connections in order to buy anything. But then... you'd better trust the people writing these apps! Generally I don't think people are very good at figuring out what or whom to trust, and with scams being very simple to do and hard to protect against, scammers will absolutely savage the less techno-literate for years.

The next big thing I have against Bitcoin is that crypto-currency is, economically, a new form of precious-metal-based currency, and hardly anyone thinks that's a good idea anymore. There is a finite amount of Bitcoins, which is determined by hard math. Well, there's also a (practically) finite amount of gold (on Earth, in the short-term), which is determined by hard geology. The gold standard, as a basis for practical currency, was terrible. When gold appears set to appreciate in value, as when there isn't much new gold being mined but the economy is growing, people hoard it instead of investing or loaning it out. An economy where there's no better investment than holding cash is an economy in trouble. Well, Bitcoin has certainly appreciated (exemplified by the article's cited prices for coffee), and if it has any prospects as a real currency it will only appreciate more!

Of course, humanity has plenty of experience with currencies backed by geology, so we've been there before. And there's a response: try a different metal. The Free Silver movement wasn't successful, but other currency changes have been. The institutions you'd need to convince to switch to a different crypto-currency are more diffuse than governments and have different interests. And, of course, people have traded different metals, pressed directly into coins, before (names like “dollar”, “dime”, and “pound” originated with silver coins; “crown”, like the Czech Koruna, originated with gold coins). But then people ended up relying on governments to set standards. Of course, people didn't want to have to figure out which shops accepted gold, silver, or copper, but they were also bad at detecting counterfeit money, and governments were in the position to scare counterfeiters with threats of heavy punishment.

And this places a lot of power in the hands of governments, which can use it for bad things. Today some people claim that the Czech government is, under the influence of big business (and politicians with direct big-business interests), implementing regulations aimed at excessively burdening small businesses to benefit larger ones. I don't know enough to evaluate the claim, but if these regulations are onerous enough, they may exceed the difficulties of stepping outside mainstream payment systems. Therefore the possibility of everyday Bitcoin use, even if only by knowledgeable and motivated people, could act as a check on certain kinds of government overreach.

The other opportunity for Bitcoin, in some sense, is by analogy the Linux story. I didn't come up with this, I heard it on the radio somewhere. The “year of Linux on the Desktop” never really came, not as its advocates envisioned, but as the importance of “The Desktop” has receded, Linux has taken over servers and mobile devices. Similarly, Bitcoin is backed by some cool software that might be very important, in finance and elsewhere, in the near future, even if everyday Bitcoin use never takes off much. But, as with the rise of Linux, it may largely occur under the control of big businesses (including startups that become behemoths) and governments, not anarchist hackers. If this happens, it may bring about some changes to the cultures of these institutions, but I'd guess only minor, adaptive changes, not fundamental ones. That is, I don't think we're headed for the freewheeling world of Snow Crash.