Thursday, May 18

Patience and vigilance

Robert Mueller, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been appointed as a special counselor by US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein "to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election."

A sense of relief is sweeping throughout the country that a professional investigation will pursue the rattling claims of disruptions to US democracy.  

US intelligence officials earlier released a report concluding that Russia was behind leaks, and a stream of fake news aimed at interfering in the US presidential election, specifically to benefit Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

The interference though the spread of outlandish stories was obvious and reported before the election. Yet most analysts underestimated the power of fake news in a developed nation, assuming that citizens with a basic education - 88 percent of US adults hold a high school degree and more than half with some college education - would apply critical thinking skills and ignore bizarre and unsubstantiated reports.

But no and a prime example was Pizzagate, a false tale that Clinton and her colleagues were running a child trafficking ring in various restaurants, including the basement of Comet, a pizza shop in Washington DC. The stories inspired a Carolina man to storm the store with weapons, firing shots and announcing he was there to save the children. The young man was arrested and pled guilty, and he will be sentenced in June. Far-right conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars, who make a living by fomenting rage, pounced on the bizarre stories. Jones has since apologized. 


Since January 22, reports and concerns emerged about connections with Russia for the Trump campaign, Trump associates and Trump businesses. The Mueller investigation will pick up on the investigation already launched by the FBI, in addition to investigations from each branch of Congress. Concern intensified after reports suggested that Trump had asked former FBI director James Comey to pledge his loyalty - an affront to the constitution - and also to pull back on an investigation of his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who had failed to report payments received from Russia and work performed for Turkey. Shortly afterward, Trump fired Comey. A day later, at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump met with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. Reports suggested that highly classified information was referred to at that meeting. And today, The New York Times reports that Flynn had advised the Trump transition team that he was under investigation for failing to report his lobbying work for Turkey in early January before Trump took office

The investigation will proceed and follow complex financial trails, and in the meantime the motives of this administration are under a microscope: "An uproar has emerged with worries about politicized law enforcement, a US president installed by a hostile foreign power, who then goes on to oppose science and education initiatives that truly empower the United States while favoring the problematic coal industry over alternative energies and other policies that reduce US competitiveness. Russia supported Brexit to weaken the European Union, but failed in boosting far-right candidates in the Netherlands, Bulgaria and France. The United States may no longer be a trustworthy world leader, and even allies may doubt US motives until an independent investigation is pursued and the many disturbing questions are settled."

We must be patient and vigilant in monitoring over US politics never forgetting that voters choose these leaders to work for all of us.

Photo of Robert Mueller III, courtesy of Wikimedia.


Tuesday, April 25

Style

A frequent look for my son and his girlfriend is"in style," but they won't be pleased. Nordstrom is selling mud-splotched jeans for $425, and the Barracuda straight leg jeans are described as "Heavily distressed medium-blue denim jeans in a comfortable straight-leg fit embody rugged, Americana workwear that's seen some hard-working action with a crackled, caked-on muddy coating that shows you're not afraid to get down and dirty."

Of course, engineers and ecologists who work and camp out in the swamps of Louisiana have plenty of these jeans and pay a fraction of the cost, after heading to thrift and Goodwill stores to buy old clothing specifically for such adventures.

The Nordstrom jeans are being met with incredulity and jokes, and probably won't sell well. Because most should realize that the image of "rugged" and "hard-working" simply cannot or should not be purchased. To acquire character traits, an individual must "do" and not "buy,"  and products like the jeans become a test of character. One can only cringe, imagining Nordstrom buyers and magazine editors chuckling over the insecurity of any who might purchase these jeans.

Explaining Buyer Behavior:  Central Concepts and Philosophy of Science Issues by John O'Shaughnessy is a book that offers explanations for such products, and he reviews many theories and models, including one from 1959 by Erving Goffman. The dramaturgical model of interactions suggests that people behave as if in on a stage before an audience, and influencing the actor's behavior are expectations from the script and role, expectations from other players and expectations from the audience, real or imagined. The model describes how individuals use purchases, aiming to portray one image and reminds that onlookers perform their own assessment, agreeing or assigning a separate category: "All of us ... are concerned with 'impression management'" and  "Goffman's key distinction is between expression given and expressions given off," O'Shaughnessy writes.

He goes on to explain that Goffman's model describes a need for consistency "since any appearance of inconsistency generates doubts about the 'performance.' As in selling, consistency is important for upholding credibility. Furthermore, we must not appear to be trying to hard or not hard enough in conveying that impression."


A cardinal rule of fashion is the very opposite of that for shaping one's career: Don't try too hard.

Photo of jeans courtesy of Nordstrom's online catalog and photo of swamp, courtesy of TeamCrowbar.com.


 

Wednesday, April 19

Artificial intelligence

Each summer, the country where I grew up hied college students for the summer to fill in at offices for vacations. My grandmother arranged what was for a 19-year-old a high-paying job in a comfortable downtown government office, not far from where she had worked before retiring.

After a year of working at a bakery and then at a hospital snackshop, I was ready to work hard and pick up new office skills. Each student teamed up with two staff members, most in their 40s and 50s and who reminded me of my grandmother. The probate office filed all documents pertaining to wills. About thirty people staffed the office, and my team logged the names of the dead into a large black book as the initial paperwork arrived. No more than 50 cases were registered any day that summer - though that was when I learned the meaning of aka, also known as, for copying every possible variation of one person's name. Women had more aka's than men, sometimes thirty or more.

The task, which included listing date of birth and death, took no more than an hour, and on my first day, I finished quickly and expected another assignment. 

My teammates shook their heads, chiding me for working so fast. My writing was neat enough but they urged me to write slowly and take more frequent breaks. We could chat with our colleagues or take brief phone calls. We could not read books or take a leisurely stroll in the city. To stay busy and sane, I settled on writing long notes to my boyfriend who lived on the other side of the state. That was the summer I perfected the skill of writing backwards, forcing readers to hold the correspondence before a mirror to read the words - a technique described in a novel I had read that summer.  And because the day ended at 4 pm, I had time to find another job at a small publication in town that covered heating and cooling equipment - paid to write product summaries, working there non-stop from 5 to 7 pm five days a week. 

My speed and eagerness for extra tasks in the downtown office worried my mentors and fellow students. No one wanted to alert supervisors into examining office procedures - and risk losing their jobs. I never spoke to my grandmother about this and after my last day, I never returned to visit that office.

I went on to work with nine other employers and continued to put all my energies and ideas into every task and struggled to understand colleagues who do not do the same. Yes, my first experiences with such blatant resistance to efficiency were in a government office, but every workplace has these characters, and I remember a good friend who worked at a major bank and described similar patterns. Staff, armed each day with excuses, who arrive at 10 and leaves by 4. Employees who avoid most tasks but are quick to find fault with the completed project. Others who procrastinate for no reason at all, even when assignments are delivered early, and begin a project just before the deadline, forcing  others to wait. The managers who look on, terrible role models, either afraid to speak up or taking credit for others' work. Colleagues over the years observed how some employers encourage their staff to develop skills giving the illusion of zeal and busyness. Often, these are workers who refuse to delegate or divulge simple procedures, even passwords, so that colleagues do not discover just how little time a task might require - until new employees arrive and combat the indolence with productivity reviews and quotas, tech audits, and insistence on innovations.      

Some employees  embrace learning new skills, while others insist their duties never change. One side squirms when colleagues suggest new ideas and others start hinting about taking it slow and not working so fast. Motivation to work hard at some skill is often born in school but can also be shaped during times of desperation, rebellion, exploration or need for independence, too.

These memories of contrasting categories of work habits are reflected in two characters from Fear of Beauty.

Jahangir is much like the annoying student in the classroom, assertive and taking pride in ignorance, poking fun at anyone who relishes the hard work of learning. He criticizes the villagers for working late into the night, for listening to the ideas of village women. He cares only about the money to be made and how own power, rejecting the notion of growing crops for any other reason.  

And Sofi often toils alone, experimenting with new crops and methods. She is curious, valuing what she learns as much as the security her success brings to her family, and as the book concludes, "Beauty comes in many forms - hard work, faith, compassionate deeds and ideas - yet some fear when their senses are tested in strange, new ways." She does not allow her work to become rote and she never stops thinking about what to do next with her life, as limited as it may first seem, in big ways and small.   

Photos of  an early 20th century workplace and a woman harvesting wheat in India courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, with credit to Meena Kadri.

Friday, March 31

Internet noise

The United States is moving ahead to allow internet providers to sell customer browsing history and related data - and the savviest internet users want to thwart the sell-off and warp the product.

There are two approaches: block your provider from viewing data or overwhelm the provider with data. 

VPNs  - or virtual private networks - block some of what the provider might see, and those with access to work or school VPNs are making a point of signing in every time they start to browse. "While VPNs are an important privacy tool, they have limitations," explains Klint Finley for Wired. "The most obvious: You need to trust your VPN provider not to track you and sell your data itself."

The second approach is directing your browser to head to all kinds of bizarre internet sites. "Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to let internet service providers sell your browsing data on the open market," explains Emily Dreyfuss, also for Wired. "This decision angered a lot of people, including programmer Dan Schultz. After reading about the vote on Twitter at 1 AM, he turned off Zelda and coded this ghost currently opening tabs on my machine."

So I headed right for the little ghost machine that's called Internet Noise, clicked the button and watch a parade of nonsensical sites, one every few seconds: godmother soap, macrame basket, wood squeegee, silvar dollar blueberry, venom catamaran, the hyena, concrete option, porthole chest and on and on.

Nothing too incriminating there for insurers, financiers, advertisers, campaign organizers or other creeps who want to accumulate, categorize and sell our data. The terms are certainly not as incriminating as those used to research my murder mysteries - especially the two set in Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit.  


On the bottom of  the bare bones Internet Noise page created by Schultz are five suggestions for protecting privacy: install https, donate to the Electronic Freedom Frontier, consider Tor or using a VPN, or install Privacy Badger.

And don't forget to scream at your provider. Give them a call and find out what data they are collecting. Try to opt out - but don't trust them. More articles will be coming out about which providers offer the most privacy protections - and I doubt Comcast will make the list after donating to politicians to get this legislation passed. With luck, some providers may even discover that ensuring privacy offers a big competitive edge.

The Scream in pastel, 1895, by Edvard Munch, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. 

Wednesday, March 22

Judgment

Evil has more than one form. It's  purpose can be to control or disrupt, and emotions encompass resentment, fear and humiliation. Much depends on motivation whether greed, jealousy, envy or anger as well as methods like favoritism, arrogance, psychological or physical harm. The combinations are endless and can spread throughout a community, with many throwing up their hands and suggesting there is no way to stop the crimes. And so, evil becomes a collective force. 

Still, each evil deed - either to commit or resist evil - is an individual act. 

A restaurant has fired a waiter at Saint Marc restaurant in Huntington, California after he asked four women for proof residency, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Journalist Christine Mai-Duc describes the stunned silence of the diners for the Los Angeles Times: "'It was kind of hard to process because we’ve never experienced this,' said [Brenda] Carrillo, 23, who lives in Santa Ana and works for an organization that provides social services to families and youth... Diana Carrillo said the encounter left all of them shaken. 'I’ve never felt so judged in my life…. It sends a chill through your entire body.'"

A Guardian article ties the incident of blatant prejudice with two acts of violence committed by people opposed to undocumented migrants and take vigilante action: the shooting of two green-card holders from India in a Kansas bar and a Sikh man shot in Seattle after being told to "go back to his own country." . Pundits and politicians whip up anger about social problems, arguing that legal systems and proper authorities do not do enough. Vigilantes respond by taking the law in to their own hands to destroy what they deem as evil and, in turn, often become evil themselves. They are impatient to fix social or legal systems and, in civilized communities, are prone to error.

Fear of Beauty examines the tendencies of belligerent evil in an Afghan village and Allure of Deceit explores a more quiet form of evil linked to the urge to do good by an individual based in the United States.

Image is from Descent into Hell, circa 1530, by Domenico Beccafumi, and Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, March 16

Discrimination fears

Americans, always ready for a celebration, will don the color green and join parades and parties on March 17, to commemorate Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Many who celebrate won't realize just how much the Irish were despised a century ago, suggests "The Wearing of the Green," an exhibition at the Eli and Edyth Broad Museum of Michigan State University.

"Such eagerness to celebrate Irish cultural identity has not always existed in this country," notes the introduction. "During the pre- and post-Civil War years, Irish immigration reached unprecedented levels, and with this emerged the stereotyped image of the heavily accented, irresponsible, inebriated, quick-tempered 'redhead,' typically named Paddy or Bridget. Supported by 19th-century social-scientific theories of evolution, and embodying conventional Victorian-American ethnocentric views, cartoons and caricatures further portrayed the Irish as childlike, apelike, or even subhuman."

Old prejudices faded with time and Irish Americans also abandoned some traditions  and assimilated.

The earliest Irish immigrants were mostly Protestant who were followed by less wealthy Catholics. Ireland's population swelled in the 19th century, and by 1830, and limited land combined with unsustainable farming and tenant arrangements could not support the population. "It was the cataclysmic Potato Famine of 1845-1851, one of the most severe disasters in Irish history, that initiated the greatest departure of Irish immigrants to the United States," explains Brendan A. Rapple for Countries and their Cultures and Everyculture.com. "As many as 1.5 million individuals perished of starvation and the diverse epidemics that accompanied the famine. A great number of the survivors emigrated, many of them to the United States. From the beginning of the famine in the mid-1840s until 1860 about 1.7 million Irish immigrated to the United States..."

Rapple goes on to describe the stereotypes and cartoons of Irish as "pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages" - with widespread disdain for Catholicism, large families and a willingness to accept low wages in the face of prejudice.

Cartoons disparaging the immigrants were common in the 1800s and early 1900s. "Produced for wide public dissemination, these images can therefore be understood as social barometers, providing glimpses into the American cultural scene of their day and the often negative stereotyping of various ethnic groups," notes the introduction to "The Wearing of the Green."

Discrimination was blatant during the 19th century with "many ads for employment were accompanied by the order "NO IRISH NEED APPLY," explains Victoriana Magazine. "Nativists reacted to increased Irish immigration with violent riots and increased demands for limits on immigrants' rights.  These nativist groups considered the immigrants as a threat and regarded the Catholicism of the Irish as an alien and rebellious religion and culture."

Of course, the history of a harsh welcome for the Irish immigrants invites comparisons to receptions for modern immigrants and refugees, especially those fleeing the civil war in Syria. "In the Past Lane" recalls a time when Americans regarded some Irish immigrants as terrorists. The Given Day, a memorable novel by Dennis Lehane captures the mood about immigrant communities and anarchy in the early 20th century.

Today, more than 32 million, or 10 percent, of Americans claim Irish ancestry, according to the US Census Bureau, and despite the surname, yes, I am one. More than 35 percent have completed higher education. "The world's first St. Patrick's Day parade occurred on March 17, 1762, in New York City, featuring Irish soldiers serving in the English army," notes Sean Dunne for Irish Central. 

The United States has more than 3.6 million people with Arab ancestry, which encompasses immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Moroccan, Iraq, Jordan or Yemen and represents a little more than 1 percent of the population, reports the Arab American Institute. Like the Irish Americans, Arab Americans have a median income that is slightly higher than the nation as a whole, and 45 percent have completed higher education.

Many Americans have learned from history and protest any form of discrimination. But not all.

"We live in an era that has unleashed all manner of odious, racist rhetoric," writes Francine Prose for the Guardian. "The bar for what retains the power to shock us is being raised daily. But some comments still cut deep. 'Culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,' said Iowa Representative Steve King over the weekend."

King has since insisted that his comment was about "western civilization" and not race. He worries about a changing culture from the increasing numbers of Hispanics, Asians and other immigrants, too. A century ago, the Irish were "somebody else's babies." But the greatness of western civilization is epitomized by the regard for all humanity, regardless of where those people might live on this planet of ours. Especially here in the United States, we and our ancestors are someone else's babies.
  
Cartoon of "poor house" of Irish immigrants, courtesy of Victoriana magazine. US Marines treat an Afghan infant in Delaram, courtesy of the US Marine Corps and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, March 7

Lessons for all

Many of the more than 8,700 documents on CIA hacking tools released by WikiLeaks are technical. But not all. Among the files is a quick summary of Practices of an Agile Developer by Venkat Subramaniam and Andy Hunt, a book readily available on Amazon. The advice is timely and could be useful for any leader. 

Practice #1 – Work for Outcome

Blame does not fix bugs. "Instead of pointing fingers, point to possible solutions.  It is the positive outcome that counts."

Practice #2 – Quick Fixes Become Quicksand

Beware of land mines such as quick fixes and shallow hacks Do not code in isolation to ensure more than one person knows about a certain piece of the project...

Practice #3 – Criticize Ideas, Not People

Negativity kills innovation... Take pride in arriving at a solution rather than providing whose idea is better. "There is no absolute best, only better.  Despite the popularity of the term, there is no such thing as 'best practices,' only better practices in a particular situation."

Practice #4 – Damn the Torpedoes, Go Ahead

You definitely need to read this section for yourself - basically admit your mistakes and back up your opinions with facts (pros and cons). "Do what is right.  Be honest, and have the courage to communicate the truth.  It may be difficult at times; that is why it takes courage...."

Practice #5 – Keep Up with Change

Learn iteratively and incrementally. Get the latest buzz.... Read voraciously. "Keep up with changing technology.  You do not have to become an expert at everything, but stay aware of where the industry is headed, and plan your career and projects accordingly."

Practice #6 – Invest in Your Team

"Raise the bar for you and your team.  Use brown-bag sessions to increase everyone's knowledge and skills and help bring people together.  Get the team excited about technologies or techniques that will benefit your project."

Practice #7 – Know When to Unlearn

"One of the foundations of agility is coping with change.  Given that change is so constant and pervasive, does it make any sense to keep applying the same techniques and tools you have always used?"  Expensive mental models are not discarded lightly: "Learn the new; unlearn the old.  When learning a new technology, unlearn any old habits that might hold you back.  After all, there is much more to a car than just a horseless carriage."

Practice #8 – Question Until You Understand

 The best question to ask – Why ...? "Keep asking Why.  Do not just accept what you are told at face value.  Keep questioning until you understand the root of the issue."

Practice #9 – Feel the Rhythm

Agile projects have rhythms and cycles.... Time boxing – setting a near-term, hard deadline for an activity that cannot be extended. "Tackle tasks before they bunch up.  It's easier to tackle common recurring tasks when you maintain steady, repeatable intervals between events."

Chapter 4 – Delivering What Users Want

Quotable Quote – "In warfare, as in software development, the situation can change quickly and drastically.  Sticking to yesterday's plan despite a change in circumstances is a recipe for disaster."

Practice #10 – Let Customers Make Decisions

Decide what you should not decide: "You do not want to have to make decisions that are business critical by yourself.  After all, it is not your business."
"Let your customers decide.  Developers, managers, or business analysts should not make business-critical decisions.  Present details to business owners in a language they can understand, and let them make the decision."

Practice #11 – Let Design Guide, Not Dictate

 Design should be only as detailed as needed to implement. Strategic versus tactical design – strategic is the up-front design before requirements are known "A good design is a map; let it evolve.  Design points you in the right direction.  It is not the territory itself; it should not dictate the specific route.  Do not let the design (or the designer) hold you hostage. "'No Big Design Up Front' does not mean no design.  It just means do not get stuck in a design task without validating it with real code.  Diving into code with no idea of a design is just as dangerous.  Diving into code is fine for learning or prototyping, as long as you throw the code away afterward."

"White boards, sketches, and Post-It notes are excellent design tools.  Complicated modeling tools have a tendency to be more distracting than illuminating."

Practice #12 – Justify Technology Use
  • Blindly picking a framework is like having kids to save taxes. Pick technology and frameworks based on statements like – "It is too hard to ..." or "It takes too long to ..."
  • Does it really solve the problem?
  • Will you be tied to this technology forever?  When technology changes, will you be able to change the design to match technology?
  • What about maintenance costs?
  • Do not build what you can download – reinventing the wheel
  • "Choose technology based on need.  Determine your needs first, and then evaluate the use of technologies for those specific problems.  Ask critical questions about the use of any technology, and answer them genuinely."
Practice #13 – Keep It Releasable

  • Checked-in code is always ready for action... Check out the latest source.  Run your local tests.  Check in.
  • "Keep your project releasable at all times.  Ensure that the project is always compilable, runnable, tested, and ready to deploy at a moment's notice."

Practice #14 – Integrate Early, Integrate Often
  • Never accept big-bang integration
  • "Integrate early, integrate often.... start integration early and continue to do it regularly."
  • "Successful integration means that all the unit tests continue to pass.  As per the Hippocratic oath – first, do no harm."
  • "For prototypes and experimental code, you may want to work in isolation and not waste effort on integration.  But do not stay isolated too long; once you learn from the experience, work toward integration quickly...."
Photo of young girls learning to use computers in Eastern Afghanistan, courtesy of Todd Huffman and Wikimeda Commons.