Category Archives: Intellectual Curiosity

I Hate Your Bot

I dunno, something like a year ago, a guy I know started retweeting a client of his who was working on building a chatbot platform. Now, let’s be honest: in customer facing positions, a lot of interactions are going to be the same. People are way more similar than they are different, and so if one person has a problem, it’s probably true that lots of people have the same problem. So, as a customer service operator, you’re going to spend a lot of your day saying the same things over and over. It’s understandable, then, that companies want to use automated systems to handle customer requests. Why pay a human to tell customers the same thing over and over when you can pay a human to type it once and have a computer send the text a zillion times?

I get irritated by this, though. Given that I understand the motivation and the logic, why do I get cranky? Because although I am far from unique, I am still far from the 80% case and there’s never a clear path past all the B.S. to get to a real, problem-solving human being. (And even when I get to a human, empirical evidence suggests that the human in question is more likely to hit a hotkey response than to actually answer my question.)

Chatbots, artificial voice systems, call center scripts, they all bug me a LOT. Why? Because they all are trying to send the signal, “I am a human being who deserves compassion and respect and engagement,” all simultaneously with sending the signal, “I do not respect you, I do not actually care about you, I am not going to listen to you, and I am going to consume your time and energy.”

If you’re going to build a system that pretends to be human, you need to build it to feel and to empathize.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

It seems to me that I’ve been seeing lots and lots of social media posts which assert that [artist | intellectual] predicted [dystopian future that looks just like one aspect of today’s world] and did it [years ago]. I have to wonder what that’s in aid of. I mean, the second half of the 20th century was all about living with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation or environmental collapse, to say nothing of national existential threats (as the US and the USSR engaged in worldwide political destabilization and regime change) and obvious corporate misandry. The stories of my youth in the 70s and 80s were all dystopian nightmares of one kind or another, each one based on the reductio ad absurdum of some then-current phenomenon.

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I got totally burned out on social media by the U.S. election. Rather than textual posts with partisan argumentation (that’s how you spell, “civil discourse,”) Twitter and Facebook were awash in nasty memes. A month later it feels kind of like the morning after a killer party: I’m slowly looking around for cat videos and reports of my friends’ holiday plans and I wince slightly whenever I see some hate photo.

And it occurs to me, not for the first time, that this is what people do instead of slapping bumper stickers all over their cars. You can’t put a nuanced position on a bumper sticker; there’s no room for exposition or citations, nor for detailed reasoning. There’s just a conclusion. How do you argue with a conclusion? How do you point out that there’s a flaw in the logical chain, when the chain is not present? How do you engage with someone whose every pronouncement is an unsubstantiated claim?

I saw a tweet the other day about how people indulge in long tweetstorms (1/11, 2/11, 3/11…) meanwhile their blogs sit idle and not updated for years. I think people are feeling the pinch of trying to have conversations via bumper sticker, and trying to solve the problem by using more stickers. This feels like a wrong approach.

Maybe we could go back to long-form communication and just use the memeverse for advertising?


Back when Dubya was president, I read Slashdot every day. My wife worked as a journalist and then as a technical writer in the semiconductor industry and she mocked me when I told her about some cool thing I’d seen: either the “news” was like six months old or the story had misrepresented whatever the development was. Any semiconductor story along the lines of some great new manufacturing process or some cool chip or a company merger or…well, anything, it was old, wrong, or both. I eventually gave up on Slashdot and turned to more established news sites.

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How to Draw a Line

I became a bit intimidated and frustrated with my simulation framework so I set it aside for a while. I played a lot of video games and I practiced my piping. I’m bored with the video games, though, and last night I came back to the sim. I’ve got some ideas for making the problems tractable or even non-issues, and that’s the benefit of walking away for a bit. Before tackling the big structure, though, I thought I’d take a look at a small fix: how to tell what direction a link is going.

A link between two components is a directional line. It takes messages from the source end and sends them to the destination end. But if I’m drawing the link as just a blue line, how can you tell by looking which end is which? I thought I’d maybe color the line as a gradient. (First I thought maybe I’d draw little arrows on the line, but that seemed too fiddly for almost bedtime.) The documentation and tutorials around using LinearGradient are all about using gradients as fill for shapes, not about lines, so there was some experimentation along the lines of, “What happens when the source endpoint is to the right of the destination endpoint, or what if the source is below the destination?”

Anyway, this works:

Stop[] stops = new Stop[] {new Stop(source.getX() < dest.getX() ? 0 : 1, Color.BLUE),
                           new Stop(source.getX() < dest.getX() ? 1 : 0, Color.RED)};
LinearGradient linkStroke = new LinearGradient(0, 0, 1, 0, true, CycleMethod.NO_CYCLE, stops);

It’s Alive!

So, I’ve been fooling around with Java FX for the past month or so, poking at a toy project just to see how the system works. And now I’ve built a discrete event simulation environment that lets me drop graphical components down onto a workspace and let them pass messages to each other. I’m pretty jazzed about this! Maybe in another couple of months, I’ll have a trade network simulation that I can fool around with.

Ars Gratia Artis

So, I came out of retirement to work on a neato project. I’m doing a lot of programming, architecture, release management, project management, and, um, reporting. So, that’s why I’m not doing a whole lot of bagpiping or anything. Because this is fun and important.

But nobody cares about that. The interesting thing here is that when I came on board there was git and not a whole lot else in the way of engineering support. I know how horribly messy a build and release system can get, let alone a development workspace, without some good process and support tools in place. So I started thinking about continuous integration, bug tracking, and an artifact repository.

I then mentioned this in a work context and was reminded that a “team” of only three people probably didn’t need a CI system and an artifact repository, but maybe a bug tracker wasn’t a bad idea. And that made sense. I have worked with enough QA people, though, and people who were serious and thoughtful about configuration management and build/release process, to still feel like having a dedicated build machine is probably a Good Idea. I just feel kind of itchy when I think about distributing software that was built on a programmer’s laptop.

So I checked out Jenkins and Artifactory and became befuddled within an hour of crawling through their documentation. I have associated with CM folks, but I’ve never really figured out their lingo.

Time passed. I wrote a lot of code. Other folks did. We threw some stuff away, we built some stuff, and now we’ve reached a major internal milestone. I’ve released some software internally, and it was built on my laptop. By me. By opening a terminal window and typing `mvn package`. I still kind of cringe to think about that, even though when I go to the trouble of articulating why, it turns out that in this particular case it is okay. I’m distributing an early beta/late alpha dev build.

Anyway, tonight I had a bit of spare time. Did I play video games? Did I veg out to some Netflix? Or did I install Nexus and TeamCity and try them out? Yeah, you guessed it. I still don’t think that we need an artifact repository. Not yet, anyway. We don’t have enough distinct modules to need it (unlike at Netflix, where we had a score or more internally developed libraries). But I found that setting up TeamCity was really easy (well, except for the part where it doesn’t grok my local MySQL installation) and it doesn’t confuse me with a lot of words that don’t mean what I think they mean. I might actually turn our cute itty bitty Mac Mini into our build server. Won’t that be a kick?

You know. For fun.