Category Archives: Intellectual Curiosity

Greatness Abides

Okay, so when I looked at Google news this morning, this story was in the “For you…based on your interests” section: Gremlin Brings Chaos Monkey Testing to Spinnaker CD Platform. Now, I’m a respecter of Dev Ops, but I’m not really a practitioner of Dev Ops. So I think this is cool, but the coolest thing about it is that my amazing wife invented Chaos Monkey. And now Dev Ops people all over the place are using it and excited about it and it’s really quite valuable. This, right here, is another reason that tech needs women.

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It Could Be Better

A long time ago, my housemate (who is one of the only people who reads this – Hi, Kurt!) had this great explanation for why his homework wouldn’t compile: “It was perfect, so I fixed it.” Man, that so describes every programmer I’ve ever worked with. (Incidentally and orthogonal to the point of this post, I suspect that this attribute of programmers coupled with the increase in the global number of active programmers accounts for so much of the frustration I experience with software nowadays.)

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Book Recommendations

My friend Matt Maxwell wrote The Queen of No Tomorrows and it got published by Broken Eye Books. It is totally worth buying and installing on your phone so you can read it in line at the grocery store, while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office, and any other time you have five seconds to spare. I did and my only regret is that I didn’t have more seconds in a row to slurp that creepy goodness in.

Ben Aaronovitch recently tweeted his approval of a book by Aliette de Bodard, so I ran off like a good fanboi and bought The House of Shattered Wings. Yup, I liked the book, despite really, really being irritated by the way the fallen monk behaves. So, yeah, check that one out.

Now I’m listening to Surveillance Valley on the recommendation of Patrick Reilly, and it’s got me thinking about network externalities, privacy, store-and-forward, dead letter drops, and other groovy communication behaviors. Totally interesting read.

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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Engage

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?

Distortion

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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