Category: Miscellaneous

Women In STEM

Some Google engineer failed to heed the parable of Harvard President Larry Summers – suggest in any way that women and men are different, and there will be an uproar. What’s ironic is that the main jist of the guy’s monologue (available online) is that not discussing differences between men and women because doing so is insensitive yields diversity programs that are ill suited for their goal. And that companies make business decisions on how close to a 50/50 split they want to get. (If having parity in gender representation was the highest priority in hiring decisions, then a company would only interview female candidates until parity was reached.). And the general reaction online has essentially proved the guy’s point. A reasonable argument would have been challenging the research he cited. Doing so is a fairly easy task. Baron-Cohen, for instance, couldn’t even reproduce his own results. In other cases, the Google engineer conflates correlation and causation. Men don’t take paternity leave because of retribution — my husband was terminated after taking this two weeks of vacation after our daughter’s birth. That’s not even asking for paternity leave — that’s attempting to use vacation time as paternity leave. I experienced more stress as a woman entering an IT support department not because I have a female brain but because my capabilities were questioned (you’re going to fix my computer!?) and some coworkers felt entitled to make sexual advances towards me (I doubt any new male employee was asked to provide his measurements and describe his genitalia to provide a picture to accompany his coworker’s pleasuring himself to the individual’s voice on conference calls).

The mistakes people make, both in the case of Summers and this engineer, is mistaking population-wide averages for attributes of an individual and conflating ‘different’ for ‘inferior’. The engineer wasn’t wrong in one way – it is difficult to discuss gender norms and studies. Trying to divorce emotion from discussion of gender-specific behaviours and preferences isn’t a battle worth fighting. There have been too many badly formed studies designed to prove the superiority of some majority group for any new study to be approached seriously. But he could have made the same suggestions without the contentious topic of gender norms and diversity programs.

Gender aside, different people think differently and have different preferences. I don’t believe this is a contentious declaration. I have artistic friends, I have detail oriented friends, I have creative friends who are not artistic. I know people who love cats and people who love jumping out of perfectly functional aircraft. Introverts and extroverts.

Historically, computer software was not used by people. Programmers hired back in the 60’s and 70’s were not brought in as user experience designers. Text interfaces with obscure abbreviations and command line switches were perfectly acceptable code. They progressed in the field, moved up, and then hired more people like themselves. As computers were adopted, both in business and personally, computer software was slow to adopt ‘usability’ as a goal. Consider the old blue screen word processor. When I left University in 1996, I went to a temp agency in the hope of getting a paycheque that week. They had a computer competency test — figured I would ace it, I’d been running student IT support at the Uni for about eighteen months. I installed Windows 95, IRIX, and AIX and was fairly proficient using any of them. I served as a TA for intro to word processing an excel classes – knew Office 95 better than most of the instructors by year end. Then the temp agency sat me down in front of a computer with an ugly blue screen. What the hell?? I later discovered this old word processing package was common throughout businesses (Universities get grants and buy the latest cool ‘stuff’. Businesses reluctantly forked over a couple hundred grand ten years ago and are going to use that stuff until it decomposes into its component molecules.). People start out with a strip of paper over their function keys so they have a clue how to do anything beyond type on the ugly blue screen. Of course the temp agency was looking for competent computer users so didn’t have the quick ref strip. I couldn’t even start the test (open the file whatever.xtn).

Look at sendmail’s cf configuration file, or search for vim quick ref guides. Even git – sure there are GUI integrations, but the base of git is cryptic command line stuff that you commit to memory. This is not software developed by people who are people focused. Initially with the personal computer in the 80’s, usability was not a concern – “computer users” were in some way skilled and learned to work around the software. With public adoption of the Internet in the 90’s, and dramatically accelerating in the 2000’s and 2010’s — people began to use software. In mass. And new users demanded ‘easy’ to use, intuitive software. User experience engineering became a thing. Software was released to ‘regular’ users to obtain usability feedback.

But the developers behind the software are still, predominantly, the same personality types who developed code for ENIAC. This dichotomy creates an opportunity for the company’s recruitment and hiring teams to give our software an edge. As a company writing software that will be used by people, we think developers who lean toward people on the Things — People dimension, or who score as Social or Artistic on Holland’s personality types, etc provide value to the company. Since we have a lot of things / realistic or investigative types here already, we want our recruiting and hiring practices to create a balance with the other personality types. And we should look at ways to change our processes and make engineering work better align with the interests of people who are more people / cooperative and social or artistic.

Even if the argument was considered flawed, I don’t believe it would receive the widespread distribution and uproar the “it’s all about gender” version encountered. Someone could say “we’d rather make our current staff better at UX” or “we don’t think we need to change our practices to appeal to these other personality types”. Whatever. Even if he still offended his coworkers (I can too do artistic stuff!) or still managed to come off as entitled and whiny, I doubt the guy would have been fired.

Why risk management is so hard

I finally found someone who perfectly summarizes my awful experiences in risk management. Michael Lewis, in an article in Vanity Fair magazine, says “People are really good at responding to the crisis that just happened, as they naturally imagine that whatever just happened is most likely to happen again. They are less good at imagining a crisis before it happens—and taking action to prevent it”.

My experience goes farther — undertaking the academic exercise of imagining different variants of previous crises and hypothesizing unique scenarios … you get told you’re going down a rabbit hole. Wasting time. Talking about such an unlikely set of circumstances.

That’s the point! If it were a likely set of circumstances, then it would have happened already. Or there’d be mitigation in place already to prevent it. Shoving a bunch of explosives up your bum and greeting some head of state was absolutely crazy … until someone tried to do it.

Pressure Washer

We got a pressure washer a few days ago. I don’t like using herbicides on the patio (well, I don’t like using them in general), but keeping the brick free of weeds is an inundating task. We’ve got some vinyl that needs to be cleaned anyway, and found a really good deal on a 2000 psi Ryobi pressure washer.

Tested it out to see if it works well and to see how clean ‘stuff’ gets with just water. Wow! I don’t know if the patio bricks have ever been cleaned. I thought they were a darker colour, but it turns out they were just REALLY grubby. It’s a messy and time consuming process – I’m planning to wear my safety glasses when I finish it up because even low velocity sand in the eyeball … not fun. But it’s a lot of fun too (tiring and ironically dehydrating, but fun). Especially when Anya wants to play in the ricocheting water like it is a sprinkler.

Here’s the difference between clean and uncleaned brick — weeds get blasted right out, dirt is cleared off the stones and from between the bricks (certainly need to get sand, between the bricks is washed clean), and nothing was used but water. We were worried about damaging the stones, but 2000 psi didn’t break anything. There was lot of mud piling up as I moved across the patio. I ended up taking a snow shovel and moving the mud off of the patio – otherwise I’d get to a point where the splash-back was making the already cleaned bits filthy again.

Once the patio is cleaned, I want to try it out on the siding and railing vinyl. Hopefully we can clean off the green stuff without detergent too.


Amazon Acquisition Of Whole Foods

I don’t know why everyone is talking about Amazon Fresh expanding to a radius around every Whole Foods store. There’s not a lot of cost savings or synergy there. Amazon will use their own logistics solution to move thousands of orders to a Whole Foods distribution center and those orders ride on trucks already headed out to the Whole Foods stores. You will stop in after work / on the weekend and pick them up. Saves the expensive last-mile shipping bit (where Amazon currently has to pay money to Fedex or UPS to get a package from their distribution centre to your doorstep). And may increase Whole Foods grocery market share … if you are going there anyway to pick up your stuff, saves time getting your groceries too.

Witch hunts and reasonable enquiries

This morning Donald Trump twitted “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt”. The thing he’s neglecting to consider is that motivation matters in employment cases. I used to work with corporate HR, gathering data when employees were being investigated for breach of company policy. Thing is, the breach was rarely the impetus for firing the individual. It was just the easiest and most defensible reason for firing an individual. Even in an at-will work state, a company is still open to charges of discrimination when terminating an individual.

An example was a call centre rep who had no interest in being polite to customers. He was rude, sometimes vulgar, and happy to convey how little he cared about the callers problem beyond “dad made me get a job, so I’m stuck here talking to people like you for three more hours”. Sure, he could have been reviewed poorly on each quarterly cycle, placed in the performance improvement program designed to assist employees become at least average contributing members of the company, reviewed poorly another time or two, and then fired for poor performance. That’s 18 months of bad customer service to provide overly-cautious legal coverage for a possible wrongful termination suit.

Or we find some policy that he has violated — there are a lot of laws, there are a lot of company policies. Look hard enough and you can find a violation for just about anyone. Held the door for the person walking behind you? That violates security protocols. Printed a pass for a concert you’re heading to after work – misuse of corporate resources. Forwarding jokes via e-mail to coworkers, using company computer resources to surf the Internet … in this particular chap’s case, it was consistently signing back in after his break a few minutes late. I wrote a job that compared his sign-on time for the phone system with his break times and automatically alerted supervisor and HR when sign-on was late. The first day, he was verbally warned about signing in late. The next day he was written up. Day three was another write-up with a warning that the next infraction would result in termination. And the next day, he was terminated. Now this is an extreme example because the employee did absolutely nothing to change his the proximal cause of his firing (i.e. had he started signing into the phone when his break ended, they would have needed to come up with something else). But the fact remains, he violated a company policy. Termination was recommended to redress his repeatedly late return from break.

Equally possible that the call center manager could have a old dude that they want to fire because they are old. It isn’t like I was told of the guy’s failings that led to the investigation. Found that out later from office chatter. Sign into the system late, get fired … and still have a perfectly valid wrongful termination suit for age discrimination.

What does all this have to do with Trump? Well, he decides he doesn’t like Comey because the guy isn’t finding a convenient scapegoat and ending the Russia investigation. Trump asks some of his administration for their opinion of Comey’s actions regarding the Clinton investigation last year and gets honest feedback (the call center dude DID sign in late from his break). The distal cause for termination can still constitute obstruction of justice. And, yes, the very people who recommended the termination when provided the proximal cause may well consider the distal cause distressing.

Alternative Fact: Witch Hunts

Alternative Fact: “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history” — Donald Trump, on Twitter (where else).

Real Fact: Donald Trump may have been a little young at the time, but hello: Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in America!?! Now if “great” doesn’t mean widespread or terrible but rather goofy, I have to go with Christine O’Donnell.

Bonus real fact: Hyperbolic untruth is still lying.

Alternative Facts: NATO

Alternative Fact: NATO countries owe money for defence expenditures the US has made.

Real Fact: The target was for member nations to devote 2% of GDP to defence spending. A target is not a guarantee. Not meeting a target may be disappointing, but it doesn’t mean you owe someone money. If your target is to donate 5% of your net income to charity … but at the end of the year have only managed 3%, it does not mean you owe charities 2% of your net income! It means you didn’t meet your goal. Consistently missing goals can also be a clue that the goal is not realistic. Take, for instance, someone whose goal is to donate 80% of their net income to charity. But they also pay their rent/mortgage, buy some food, turn the lights on occasionally. And don’t have 80% of their net income available after covering essentials. The person can commit to the goal and evaluate their other spending (move into a smaller residence, buy cheaper food, conserve on utilities) or they can change their goal to meet the 10% of their net income that is actually discretionary.

Another real fact? NATO countries, by and large, fund their own military. One might make the argument that the US would have been able to scale back the military budget if only other partners increased their expenditures. *But* that’s disingenuous from someone seeking an enormous increase in the military budget whilst questioning the nation’s continued commitment to NATO. But even if the ‘target’ was actually a contractual obligation … it would be to NATO and not the US.

Alternative Fact: Those Who Do Not Know History Are Doomed To Sound Foolish

Alternative Fact: Trump, speaking at the US Coast Guard Academy commencement, claimed “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly“. Had he gone with ‘and’ instead of ‘or’, the assertion would be subjective. But NO politician in HISTORY has been treated WORSE?!?

Real Fact: Real assassination — literally killing a person — is worse than character assassination. Robespierre – both large numbers of politicians during his reign of terror and his eventual demise – worse. Defenestration of Prague (both 1 and 2) – worse. But let us be generous: place in scope only politicians during Trump’s adult lifetime. Anwar Sadat – worse. No one is a better friend to Israel than Trump (and with friends like this …), so how can he forget Rabin – worse. John F Kennedy – worse.