2017-08-16

Since we can't challenge diversity policy, how to prevent mistakes?

The James Damore affair at Google has made it very clear that discussion of companies' diversity policy is completely off the table. When I say "discussion" here, I mean "anything other than adulation". I've seen plenty of the latter in the past week. The recent 'letter from Larry Page' in The Economist was a classic example. It was in desperate need of someone tagging it with a number of [citation needed] starting from paragraph 4:

You’re wrong. Your memo was a great example of what’s called “motivated reasoning” — seeking out only the information that supports what you already believe. It was derogatory to women in our industry and elsewhere [CN]. Despite your stated support for diversity and fairness, it demonstrated profound prejudice[CN]. Your chain of reasoning had so many missing links[CN] that it hardly mattered what you based your argument on. We try to hire people who are willing to follow where the facts lead, whatever their preconceptions [CN]. In your case we clearly got it wrong.

Let's accept, for the sake of argument, that random company employees questioning diversity policy is off the table. This is not an obviously unreasonable constraint, given the firestorm from Damore's manifesto. Then here's a question for Silicon Valley diversity (and leadership) types: since we've removed the possibility of employee criticism from your diversity policy, what is your alternative mechanism for de-risking it?

In all other aspects of engineering, we allow - nay, encourage - ideas and implementations to be tested by disinterested parties. As an example, the software engineering design review pits the software design lead against senior engineers from other development and operational teams who have no vested interest in the new software launching, but a very definite interest in the software not being a scaling or operational disaster. They will challenge the design lead with "what if..." and "how have you determined capacity for metric X..." questions, and expect robust answers backed by data. If the design lead's answers fall short, the new software will not progress to implementation without the reviewer concerns being addressed.

Testing is often an adversarial relationship: the testing team tries to figure out ways that new software might break, and craft tests to exploit those avenues. When the test reveals shortcomings in the software, the developer is not expected to say "well, that probably won't happen, we shouldn't worry about it" and blow off the test. Instead they either discuss the requirements with the tester and amend the test if appropriate, or fix their code to handle the test condition.

Netflix's Chaos Monkey subjects a software service to adverse operational conditions. The software designer might assert that the service is "robust" but if Chaos Monkey creates a reasonably foreseeable environment problem (e.g. killing 10% of backend tasks) and the service starts to throw errors at 60% of its queries, it's not Chaos Monkey which is viewed as the problem.

Even checking-in code - an activity as integral to an engineer's day as operating the coffee machine - is adversarial. For any code that hits production, the developer will have to make the code pass a barrage of pre-existing functional and syntax checks, and then still be subject to review by a human who is generally the owner of that section of code. That human expects new check-ins to improve the operational and syntactic quality of the codebase, and will challenge a check-in that falls short. If the contributing engineer asserts something like "you don't appreciate the beauty of the data structure" in reply, they're unlikely to get check-in approval.

Given all this, why should diversity plans and implementations - as a critical component of a software company - be immune to challenge? If we have decided that engineer-authored manifestos are not an appropriate way to critically analyse a company's diversity system then what is the appropriate way?

Please note that there's a good reason why the testing and development teams are different, why representatives from completely different teams are mandatory attendees of design reviews, and why the reviewer of new code should in general not be someone who reports to the person checking in the code. The diversity team - or their policy implementors - should not be the sole responders to challenges about the efficacy of their own systems.

2017-08-06

"PC considered harmful" - hand grenade thrown into Valley tech

Wow. I've not seen this amount of heat, light, sound and fury directed towards a minority group since a fat man broke wind loudly over Nagasaki. [I've heard of good taste, and want no part of it.]

Anyone in Silicon Valley tech industry who hasn't been living under a rock has seen the frothing rage on Twitter about a Google employee penning an internal-shared personal doc about their perspective on the company's hiring and training priorities relating to women and "minorities" (which in Silicon Valley almost always refers to Black and 'Latinx' - apparently, very few "woke" people are really interested in the experiences of Native Americans, Koreans, Filipinos or South Americans.) My Twitter tech timeline has exploded in the past 24 hours, almost universally with people demanding the author's head - mostly metaphorically.

Tech site Gizmodo today obtained the text of the document in question. I've read through it, and assuming it's an accurate representation of the original, I can understand the furore - but it has been flagrantly misrepresented. A summary of the author's points is:

  1. Google is big on removing unconscious bias, but a lot of Google has a strong leftwards political bias;
  2. Left and right political leanings have their own biases; neither are correct, you need both to make a company work well;
  3. If you're not a leftist, expressing your opinions at work can be a severely career-limiting move;
  4. On average, men and women have behavioural differences which are (list); but these are only averages and don't tell you squat about an individual person;
  5. Given those average women's interest, you're going to struggle to get a 50% representation of women in tech, particularly in the higher career and stress levels because of (reasons based on the above list)
  6. Doing arbitrary social engineering to achieve this 50% as an end in itself is a bad idea;
  7. Google does various things to improve gender and race representation, some of which I think aren't appropriate and might lower the bar [Ed: this was the point I thought least well argued in this doc]
  8. Overcoming inbuilt biases is hard; this applies to both sides of the spectrum;
  9. The internal climate alienates and suppresses viewpoints of people of a conservative political nature, and this is a bad thing;
  10. We should have a more open discussion about what our diversity programs achieve and what do they cost (in a wide sense); make it less uncomfortable to hold and express opinions against the orthodoxy;
  11. Indoctrinating people who determine promotion about bias might not have unalloyed benefit for the firm's long-term interests.
Very little of this seems, on the face of it, obviously incorrect or sociopathic. I think the author strayed into moderately unjustified territory on point 7, but otherwise they seemed to be quite reasonable in their arguments and moderate in their conclusions.

I've particularly enjoyed reading tweets and posts from tech woman flaming the original poster for blatant sexism. Really ladies, you should read the post more carefully. He described a contrast of the average male and female behaviors, and took particular pains to point out that this did not say anything about any particular woman's (or man's) effectiveness in a tech role. The behavior biases he described seemed bang on in my experience - and I've met women matching the male biases, and men matching the female biases, but on average the skew is as he has described.

It's almost as if many of the women responding to his post have more bias towards describing their feelings about the ideas, rather than ideas themselves; looking at the "big picture" rather than carefully analysing the detail of what he said. Perish the thought that this reflects the gender biases he described...

Of course, if you challenge the Silicon Valley orthodoxy like this - even if you originally intended for it to be for an internal-only debate - you can expect a certain amount of kick-back. And oh boy, did they get it. I've seen public calls for them to be fired and beaten up, and that was from people using social media accounts associated with their real names. The prevailing theme seemed to be that anyone expressing - or even holding - opinions like this in Silicon Valley was inherently poisonous to the work environment and should be fired forthwith. For goodness' sake, this was one person's opinion, quite mildly expressed. Alphabet (Google's parent company) has 75,000 people. You'd think that an isolated instance of crimethink would not be a big deal, but apparently you'd be very wrong.

Google has just acquired a new Head of Diversity, Danielle Brown from Intel. I don't know if they had one previously, or if this is a new slot, but my goodness this is quite the baptism of fire. She's posted an internal memo which has, inevitably, leaked:

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions.
But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.
This probably wasn't a bad holding action - it would piss off the conservatives defending every point that the original poster made (because it was hinted as contradictory to equal employment), and it would piss off the outraged mob because it wasn't along the lines of "we threw this person out of the company so fast that his backside made scorch marks along Amphitheater Parkway". You could reasonably call it even-handed. The difference is that the conservatives within Google won't be calling publicly for Ms Brown to reconsider her approach or risk riots in the streets.

I asked a San Francisco based Google engineer buddy what he thought about this. "Are you [censored] kidding me? I wouldn't touch this with a ten foot pole" was a reasonable summary of his reaction. He did note that the author's name was widely known internally and that he viewed it as inevitable that their name would leak, but he'd be damned if he was going to be the one to leak it.

It's also not a little ironic that this comes on the heels of the US Department of Labor accusing Google of discriminating by gender in salaries. If the original author's claims are taken at face value - which is a big "if", to be fair - Google is actually trying to discriminate in favour of women.

For extra points, it's instructive to note the reaction to this in conjunction with President Trump's proposed ban on transgendered troops serving in the military. [Bear with me, I have a point I promise.] One of the grounds for this ban was transgender people having a much higher rate of mental instability (depression, self-harm, suicide attempts) which is not what you want in a front-line military unit where there are plenty of intrinsic causes of instability. We see one bloke in Google writes a document, and every trans blogger I know of explodes in a frenzy of rage and demands for his head - despite the fact that he didn't mention transgender issues at all in the manifesto. One can only imagine what would happen if the author had drawn attention to the relatively high proportion of male-to-female trans people among the female engineering population and ask what it meant...

The modern day lynch mob is alive and well, and it seems to be driven by dyed-in-the-wool Democratic voters against anyone daring to express an opinion contrary to today's right-think on gender and racial issues. Plus ça change, plus la même chose.

2017-07-14

Unintended consequences of the TSA regulations

You'd have to be astonishingly ill-informed to believe that you could waltz through USA airport security with any recognisable knife in your carry-on luggage. TSA regulations specify:

Knives
Carry On Bags: No
Checked Bags: Yes
Except for plastic or round bladed butter knives.
Now, I'd read that as "you can have any kind of knife in your checked baggage apart from plastic knives or round bladed butter knives" but I'm a pedant; the overall guidance is clear.

A couple of weeks ago, my pal Harry turned up to San Francisco International Airport (motto: "Fogged in by design") for a flight up to Washington state. He wasn't checking any luggage, just carrying a backpack. Shortly before security he reached into the side pocket of his pack to get his passport, and while fumbling around he came across the folding knife that he'd left in there on his last hiking trip.

Crap.

Oh well, better to discover it now than later. He could have surrendered it to the TSA contractors but it had been an expensive knife when he'd bought it, and he'd had it a long time. He was damned if a TSA-contracted monkey was going to take it from him.

Not a problem! Airport Mailers are a company that allow you to mail items to yourself from the land-side of an airport. Harry walked over to the Airport Mailers kiosk and asked them for a pouch to mail his knife back.

"Sorry, we're out of pouches." Apparently they'd been out for most of the past week, and were "optimistic" of getting a delivery in the next few days, but of course that did not help Harry. Harry starts to see why there is less than enthusiastic endorsement for this firm.

Harry realises that he could just drop the knife in the "Sin Bin" box at security, but he would lose it forever and it was an expensive knife when he bought it, and has a lot of sentimental value. Pondering the problem, his gaze alights on the plants in tubs used to decorate the hall:

"Problem solved!" Harry pulls out his folded knife, palms it, and sidles to the corner of one of the planters containing a particularly bushy plant. He casually slips his hand under the leaves and gropes around trying to dig unobtrusively a hole in the soil to fit his knife.

This admittedly ingenious strategy is sadly not original; as Harry pokes his fingers into the soil, he discovers a wooden object that is indisputably a knife handle. It seems that, as he pokes around, what feels like half of the planter is taken up with buried knives.

Harry, undissuaded, finds an undisturbed corner of the planter, furtively buries his knife, and heads off to the gate. 48 hours later he's back, coming out of Arrivals. He wheels left, locates the planter, digs his knife out from the corner, and strolls off to his car. In the process he discovers that the other knife has vanished.

No doubt the TSA would posit this as a security "win", but it's not obvious that this is true. People are stashing knives all over San Francisco airport, and seem to be able to rely on picking them up again when they return. If they can manage this in a heavily-patrolled airport departures area, how effective do you think the TSA Security Theatre is at keeping hundreds of aircraft in an "allowed" state?

2017-07-08

First man in the UK to give birth is from Gloucester

Of course they're from Gloucester.

So how did this miracle occur, such that Hayden Cross managed to pop out a baby?

Hayden was born a girl, called Paige, and plans to continue gender reassignment treatment now he has become a father.
Aha. So Hayden has a womb, at least one ovary, and presumably a vagina. I don't know about you, but when someone has those assets - and no testes, since Hayden had to find a sperm donor - I'm inclined to think that they don't actually qualify as "male".

Popping out a baby just before gender reassignment surgery seems like an odd choice. Almost a case of trying to have your cake and eat it. Not terribly committed to the whole irrevocable life-as-a-man thing. I wonder how long before Hayden will get tired of it and want to change back.

Despite the headline, this is not a miracle. This is attention-seeking behaviour if ever I saw it. That's fine if it's just you who's affected but, my goodness, I feel sorry for Hayden's daughter. How is she going to feel once she grows up enough to understand what went on?

2017-06-23

Oh Australia, don't ever change

When you read a news article heading like "Cairns man who binged on ice feared dead after attempting to have sex with crocodile" you just know that the journalist who picked up this particular story was down on their knees crying with gratitude.

According to the friend, the man - now naked - leapt at the crocodile and tried to have intercourse with it. [How? How!?] "We were still a fair distance back but I reckon he just about got it in," said the witness. "Of course, the croc wasn't having a bar of it [never heard that particular idiom before] and started thrashing around like crazy.
This of course has many of the hallmarks of an urban legend - unnamed victim or friends, too good to be true - but the source is a local newspaper in Cairns, and specifically names the beach, so dammit I'm going to believe. I want to believe, and so should you.

I know that Australia is famous for blunt public health warnings - "If you drink and drive, you're a bloody idiot!" but this case provides the material to step it up a gear:

If you smoke ice, a croc will bite yer bollocks off!

2017-06-10

Bitrex redux - DUP edition

After 24th June 2016's outpouring of bitterness I expected that it would not be equalled - or even rivalled - for quite a while. It appears I was wrong.

The avalanche of Facebook protest posts and memes about the proposed pact between the Northern Ireland DUP and the Conservatives to form a working (though small majority) has been quite something. The main themes have been appeals to sign the petition protesting against the coalition (now at half a million people!) and excoriations of the Tories for allying with the "bigoted" DUP - with a lot of links to Brighton's favourite loon, Caroline Lucas writing in the Grauniad:

This desperate Conservative government will reach out to the hardline DUP – a party that denies climate change, opposes abortion and is openly homophobic.

Since there are 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland, the DUP has 10 of them, and 7 of the others are held by the Sinn Féin, it seems a bit odd to slam 55%+ of Northern Ireland's parliamentarians as "bigots". It seems fairly clear what Ms. Lucas thinks of the Northern Ireland electorate. Does she perhaps prefer Sinn Féin, since there's no possible way they could be accused of prejudice of any kind? It also appears that their position on abortion is complex, mixed, and still far from the UK mainstream. "Bloody Irish peasants, why aren't any of them woke like we metropolitan liberals?"

Let's face it, this new wave of bitterness is entirely because Jezza didn't make it as far as an electoral majority. Heck, he couldn't even get a majority with a 3-way coalition. This is not to take away from his electoral performance which was a massive out-perform of expectations, but it took one of the most incompetent electoral campaigns in modern times from May and her advisers for him to get even that far.

2017-06-04

When seconds count, the police are minutes away

After last night's terror attack on London Bridge and Borough Market, the main lessons I took away were:

  1. Anyone who's motivated can execute this kind of attack: get 1-2 buddies who are similarly motivated - for maximum efficiency - some long knives, and a rented van are all that's needed;
  2. Civilians were reduced to throwing bottles and drinking glasses at the attackers to try to keep them away;
  3. Unarmed officers were effectively powerless during the incident, reduced to trying (extremely bravely) to distract the attackers from civilians;
  4. In the heart of the nation's capital, at near-maximum terror alert, with the densest national concentration of armed officers, the attackers had 8-10 minutes to rampage unimpeded before the armed police turned up and whacked them in short order.

Contrast this with the May 2015 attack in Garland, TX where the heavily armed gunmen just made it out of their car, managed to slightly wound a security officer, and then promptly expired in a hail of bullets. I can't help but notice the complete lack of follow-on terror attacks in Texas since then; presumably word has got around the terror community that it's a poor choice of location.(Glasgow is probably number 2 on the do-not-terrorise list after the terrifyingly vicious response of the residents.).

I can't help but think that the complete dis-arming of the UK civilian population is not working out quite as well as most of its proponents expected.

2017-06-02

Teachers vs engineers

"If we paid teachers like we paid engineers, just think how far ahead we would be!"

If we assessed teachers on the results of their work like we did for engineers, just imagine the outcry from the California Teachers Association.

"Class X results in Maths have plummeted year-on-year compared to equivalent classes Y, Z taught by other teachers; class X's Maths teacher objectively sucks and should be demoted/fired."
"How dare you! Won't you think of the children?"
I've met some great teachers in California, but The System is very clearly working against them.

Government-class service

I was chatting at the coffee machine yesterday with a buddy - let's call him Mike - who was just back from paternity leave. He was showing me many, many pictures of his baby son - we can thank Apple and Google for making death-by-mobile-photostream a thing - and mentioned in passing that he'd spent half the morning phoning around local post offices to make a passport appointment so they could go en famille to visit his brother's family in NZ.

"But you said you're not planning to go until October?" I pointed out, puzzled.

Well, it turns out that if you're applying for your first US passport, you can't just send off a few forms. The American passport application form (DS-11) isn't as bad as you might think if you've dealt with other US government forms, but first passports and passports for any under-16 child require that you appear in person at an "acceptance facility". This, in practice, means one of a small number of passport offices, some city clerk offices, or a subset of US post offices. Passport offices allow you to turn up on the day; city clerks and post offices are appointment-only. The appointments are usually only available 3-4 days per week - not weekends, natch - and only a few hours per day, e.g. midday through 4pm.

After canvassing four or five different venues to get a handle on availability, Mike had managed to find himself an appointment for Wednesday 2nd August as the earliest available - ignoring all other scheduling concerns. That's 2 months hence.

"That's a bit tight for an October flight - why not go in person?" I wondered. Unsurprisingly Mike had already done the research, and pointed me to the Yelp reviews for Willow Glen Passport Station, San Jose as a guide to what he'd be dealing with:

#1 tip is get there early - and I mean 3, 4, 5, 6 AM early (the doors open at 10 AM). There will always always be a line. I talked to so many people who just expected to walk up and have their application processed. Even if it LOOKS like there are only 2 or 3 people in front of you, it's entirely possible they are saving a spot for additional people. We thought we were 7th in line but once everyone's relatives showed up at 10, it was more like 15th in line.
[...]
Weekends have WAY more people in line and some people have been known to show up as early as 3 AM. We took off work on a weekday just for this reason. Arriving at 4:30 or 5 AM on a weekday SHOULD ensure you're near the front of the line.
[...]
Arrived at 4:30. Nine families were there already. At 5, about 20 people. At 6 about 30 people. Total 50 numbers were issued. Therefore, after 6 am chance is small. Numbers were given out by post office employee at 9:55. Got in at 10. Finished at 11:10. Staffs are nice and professional.
[...]
Got in the line at 3.20AM. There were 15 folks ahead of me. Long line formed behind me by 8AM. A post office employee came out at 8AM and said "if the applicants are in the line, please come inside, 10 at a time, and I'll validate the forms". Chaos ensued, since most of the folks in the line were holding a spot for their families. Eventually things calmed down. The employee was out again and stated that they would only process 30 passport applications (not 30 customers).
Do you think that there might be a demand signal here? (In case you think Willow Glen is a special case, read the Eastridge reviews.)

What I took away from those reviews is that the passport station staff (generally) were individually trying to do a good job and make things run smoothly, e.g. by pre-validating application forms, but were totally ham-strung by being desperately under-staffed relative to the demand. Similarly, the city clerks and post offices had no incentive at all to add staff and expand the number of face-to-face appointments. It looks like they're limited to claiming $25/person fees so there's no ability to raise fees to respond to demand, and hence no reason to hire extra staff to increase their processing capacity because that's probably below the employment cost here in Silicon Valley.

I remain completely baffled by Americans who want more Federal government involvement in their lives. This is what Federal government involvement looks like. (At the state level, they should examine the well-oiled customer-service-friendly machine that is the Department of Motor Vehicles.)

2017-05-23

Manchester

The only speech we need to hear from the UK Government is:

To those people behind Monday night's bombing in Manchester: we are going to find you and we are going to fuck you up.