962 – curmudgeoning ourselves to poverty

I got proper cross at the Today programme yesterday morning.

John Humphrys was interviewing experts on maths learning, pointing out that we need to get better at thinking mathematically.

17 million adults have primary-school levels of maths. John was almost proudly adding himself to the 17 million. “Does everyone need to be a mathematician? I don’t have any problems, I can get along” he says.

He’s then presented with OECD data – good numeracy is best protection against unemployment, low wages and poor health; numeracy has a 26% premium on salary, and is a good indicator of lower mortgage default.

And yet he carries on being a contrary bugger. (God bless Mishal Hussein for pointing out all the statistical stories they have to work their way through).

Unemployment is as much about skills shortage and skills fit, and while software carries on eating the jobs of yesteryear it’s just irresponsible to carry on acting as though this doesn’t matter. The media genuinely is talking down the economy here, and it doesn’t even understand it’s doing so.

Have a listen – fifty minutes in.

963 – belatedly learning

So I didn’t post last night. I just got in too late after too many glasses of wine a bit too tired and – well, sod it it’s only a blog.

I was feeling full of thinks though.

There’s a wonderful mini-conference series called ProductTank, and I try to go whenever I can. Sometimes it’s to see friends, sometimes it’s to refresh what I know, sometimes it’s to be reminded how far I’ve come in my adopted career. My latest adopted career.

Last night there was a session on AI and machine learning. Which I genuinely know nothing about. Well nothing recent. I watched some Horizons on the subject in the 80s and 90s and know what Wired can tell you about Google’s latest statistical magic – the latter of which will be about 50% dubious anyway. So I thought it was about time I learned.

I’ve recently become a subscriber to New Scientist, and it’s made me realise how much I’d started to slip into the mindset that the world was largely fixed and most of what could be solved had been solved. There is a continual trickle of crazy amazing near-magic happening all the time, redefining the world for our children, and we don’t hear enough about it because the media don’t really do science and lots of this work will eventually just be one cog in someone else’s product.

So yes, machine learning and AI. That should be good.

The talks were amazing. Azeem Azhar (ironically even his name turns into a veritable battle with autocorrect) framed the work going on around the world, and talked of some of the ethical concerns in this area – particularly reminding us that a) all of our assumptions and features are inherently political, b) beware of your machine learning “normal” from early users who will be ‘a sea of dudes’. I’ve followed him on twitter for ages, and we’ve been one degree of separation from each other for probably sixteen years, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him speaking in the flesh.

Shaona Ghosh was amazing on the techniques behind machine learning and I think everyone came away realising that there are no quick and easy solutions here. Not one. It’s a long time since there’s been a ProductTank talk where the slides contained sigma signs – and I bloody loved it. Little long-unused corners of my brain started fizzing slightly – I think it’s an area to carry on looking at, although I also know enough to understand I’ll be forever an amateur.

Finally Chris Auer-Welsbach from IBM Watson talked about interface, and on the idea that AI should be part of serving the user (and I think a there was some stuff about GPUs in there too).

But these three talks together all gave me a slight sense of unease. This is a really hard area with ethical troubles even if you are acting in good faith. But, and this is my big worry, I don’t think most startups truly want to serve their users. I think the temptation to abuse and exploit users is far too strong. I was reminded of the early days of interactive drama when one of my pleas when I gave talks was “for all of our sakes, if any of you do get that massive commission, please don’t take the easy route. Don’t blow it. This medium only has so many chances, and every failed project is another of the nine lives lost. Try to remember the greater good!”

And this is my worry about AI and machine learning – that it only takes a tiny number of bad actors to completely discredit the whole movement, for government to introduce legislation “for the good of consumers” that cuts off whole avenues of potential benefit forever.

And, while I’m often an optimist and believe the best of people, on this occasion I’ve got a feeling of dull inevitability. Someone somewhere Just Won’t Be Able To Help Themselves. Or there will be boardroom pressure and a few shortcuts will be taken.

But please don’t let it be you.

965 – take ten minutes

Tomorrow I know I’m going to be slightly useless at work. Well, not useless, more…silent. As a reluctant extrovert, over the course of four meetings I rather used all of my words up today.

So tomorrow will be largely spent with headphones on, avoiding speaking to people, so that I can – well – avoid speaking.

I didn’t much fancy heading to the piano this evening, but knew I needed to do something. Similarly, turning on that big music computer just to do payroll for our chold minder felt like a wasted opportunity. That I really wouldn’t have been that bothered about wasting.

Rather surprised then to have got an unexpectedly nice evolving melodic chord sequence out of the piano and a viciously nice sync lead out of G-Force Oddity.

I then quit – while I was still ahead.

966 – sticking to (one of) my (many) guns

Today was another day of wearing very many hats. Delivery manager, product manager, crap DBA, salesman, user researcher, copywriter, reluctant show off.

With a bigger team, as we are starting to be, this is better than being paralysed and unable to move, but there’s a lot to do. And a lot to get myself and the whole team better at on every front. The context switching comes at a cost.

Tonight that cost is “everything else”.

Sod payroll, music, social media, ironing, even sod the brand new PlayStation VR. Tomorrow is a new day, and I want to be up and awake to enjoy it.

I’m in bed with a small glass of red and a copy of New Scientist. While my eyes very very slowly close. Creation can happen tomorrow.

967 – self preservation

Short one tonight.

In all the pressure to be great at work and be amazing parents – either will take all the energy they can get from you – I can’t stress how important it is to take some time away from both.

There will be guilt.

There will be things undone.

But there’s also perspective. And renewal. The chance to do the things that you only do when you’re not doing those other things.

We’ve just finished a trip to Sheffield and back, where Vicky and I could

  • talk about things we were interested in without having to make space for those sitting just behind us
  • listen to the music we liked, without having a faint grumble of “when can we put something else on”
  • eat what we wanted without having to worry about coordinating the meals and entertainment for anyone else.

And as a result, the next time we have to do…well…the second half of those sentences, we’ll have more energy, ideas, patience. We’ll just be more interested, and more interesting.

In work and at home, you can only run so long on empty.

[Thanks again to mum for making it possible]

968 – homage

Tonight Vicky and I were in Sheffield. We were here to see this person doing his stuff.

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Neil Hannon (as Divine Comedy or Duckworth Lewis Method) has been part of my musical canon for the best part of twenty years (thank you Phil for the original intro), and I’ve even had the pleasure of playing in a band with him (thank you Des). Photographic evidence of the two of us together at Abbey Road together exists, and sadly it only confirms the height discrepancy you’re already imagining.

But Neil and his band played a blinder tonight.

Tragically we found out too late that it wasn’t seated, so Vicky mainly had a view of other people’s backs. This has led to a very different experience of the evening. For example, tracks where Neil’s charm was an essential part (Complete Banker) didn’t do so well for her. But ‘Bad Ambassador’ remains far better as a live performance than the original record – we could both agree on that.

Must admit I’m daunted, given my own hobby-level ambitions.

But hopefully it’ll pass…

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969 – keep it simple

Today was one of those ones where I was many roles – product manager, delivery manager, comms/engagement person, occasionally even a (very very outdated) developer. At the end of it I think we all felt like we’d had a good week – but I’m bloody exhausted from wearing so many hats. I’m incredibly lucky that I can, and I suspect my project wouldn’t be where it is if I hadn’t had A Varied Career until now, but it’s not sustainable long term and I’m aware I’ve been running on empty.

So tonight was all about Fish/Pie and chips across the generations, chatting with my mum and daughter over a bottle of wine. (Pepp Gruner Veltliner from the Wine Society – heartily recommended btw. But only for you and mums, not daughters.)

[One highlight of the chat was being able to admit that, being honest, we weren’t very good at keeping up with eachother’s blogs. And that’s just fine. I started this being full of grand ambitions, and watching google analytics. Thirty posts in, I’m more of the opinion that if this is read by ten people who enjoy it that’s nice. Presumably that’s you. Hello!]

So that was today. Tomorrow?

Tomorrow is a trip to Sheffield for just Vicky and I, to see the Divine Comedy. On our own. Staying away overnight. On our own. Trying to have conversations. On our own.

Bloody marvellous.

 

PS any recommendations for good places to have dinner or breakfast near Peace Gardens/Arundel Gate? For this weekend only, food, music and sleep are all that matter.

970 – Vrrrrrrrr

So the PlayStation VR turned up today. Nearly didn’t – somehow I’d ended up in Game’s “second wave”, and so the day booked out for working at home was technically somewhat premature.

Fixing the situation was a tad frustrating. About 40 minutes on hold to Game’s customer service without success; slowly watching myself count down from 15th to 1st in the we chat queue, only to crash and lose the session. Twitter discussions degenerating into “call the local store” far too rapidly. Said store not opening. And me being cross.

But, as it turns out, when you need a fairly expensive and slightly exploratory gaming accessory in a hurry, the Argos in Leytonstone has one in stock. So that was all right.

First thoughts:

  • You’ll get quite hot installing it because there’s a *lot* of cabling, front and back. Putting the headset on triumphantly after that will lead to a lot of steaming up.
  • The connection mechanics involve so many separate cables – it’s charmingly hacky that you can see how it all works
  • You’ll need to put on your glasses if you wear them. Two slightly fuzzy stereoscopic images moving fast at speed rather drills your visual context after a bit.
  • It’s pretty light considering
  • A shame the two screens aren’t each full HD, but they definitely aren’t standard def. And the OLED displays are just beautiful.

Of the games I tried

  • Worlds is very pretty, but there’s no “play” and no “story”. Feels like the sort of educational CD Rom schools would buy
  • Headmaster has a silly Stanley Parable style commentary which is quite funny, but still can’t disguise that it’s just a football-heading game
  • Allumette feels like a VR version of a Pixar short. It’s a film, not a game. As in, it’s actually not remotely designed to be played. But it is interesting that you can/should use the VR to see scenes or action you wouldn’t have otherwise. Peering inside one of the flying boats was excellent. Look forward to finding out how long it is and how it ends.
  • Tumble VR is rather fun – jenga meets boom blox. Tone of the commentating robot is slightly annoying, but I’ll probably buy full version of that.
  • The Playroom VR had some really nice games but they were a little buggy – I particularly liked smashing my way through a city with my head, like Godzilla on the rampage
  • Driveclub – felt like it needed a little more polish sadly. The graphics were pretty good, but the aliasing seemed a bit off for the little screen. Or perhaps there’s just too much going on and my brain cells were fried. Wonder if this would give you motion sickness, but really I need to have a proper go at this with my glasses on
  • Bound – beautiful. I have no idea what is going on, and it’s clearly An Indie Game. But as they kill bugs and other issues will be interested to see what that turns into.
  • Battlezone – the one I was really looking forward to. It’s great fun and looks amazing, but only one level on the demo disc and the real game is fifty quid. FIFTY! For BATTLEZONE?
  • I’m really really looking forward to properly using “Keep talking and nobody explodes” – it’s almost designed for this platform. You’re a bomb disposal expert, trying to defuse a very complicated bomb that you can see on your VR heldest. Without instructions. Other people out in the room can’t see the bomb, but they do have the instructions. So you have to talk to each other to solve the puzzle within five minutes. I love this kind of thing – asymmetry of skill and information, props for sociability etc

But the oddest thing is that when you’ve got a VR headset on and get sucked into a game, you can genuinely find that you stop only to find that all the timeswitches around you have already triggered and you’ve spent the last fifteen minutes unwittingly playing a game in complete darkness.

If’s probably ‘flow’. Not stupidity. ‘Flow’.

971 – (null)

Busy night tonight. Some bullets from the rambles:

  • people who have retired are living longer
  • software is eating more and more and more jobs
  • there is apparently “more valuable work” for those people to do
  • this is someone else’s problem
  • all of which probably isn’t sustainable