New Website Hosting

For all of you out there who read this in a feed reader, apologies if you’ve just seen a whole bunch of our posts reappear: we’ve changed our hosting provider and gotten a new URL ( hobbitsabroad.com ). For everybody else, you’ll likely not notice any change, as all of the content that was hosted on Sonic is now hosted on LaughingSquid, at the new URL (well – you’ll notice that the site loads a million times faster than the old one, which is why we switched).

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Enjoy these boats, for your troubles.

-D

Technology Hiring Practices and Diversity

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I would like to talk about hiring practices in the technology field, in particular as those have an impact upon who does and does not get hired to work in technology. This is important because the tech industry talks a lot about limiting racism and sexism in their hiring processes (they’re ignoring age bias for the moment), but then the tech industry also talks about systems designed for interviewing candidates which are designed to result in high rates of false negatives. By “false negatives” they mean that more good candidates will be told that they don’t meet the needs or the requirements of the position – that they will err on the side of not hiring.

There’s fairly solid mathematical reasoning for why hiring this way does not make sense (read the extensive and geeky discussion on Hacker News). So, we have to ask, Why maintain this type of a hiring process if it results in poor organizational outcomes? And, if they’re maintaining this in the face of poor outcomes, we must further ask, What outcomes does this system actually have and are those outcomes the real reason for maintaining this type of a system?

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I believe that this type of a system is designed to allow the bias (“culture”) of the organization to perpetuate. I believe that these hiring practices are designed to systemically discriminate, while pretending to be based upon merit. [side note: People are quite attached to the idea of meritocracy even in the face of proof that meritocracy actually results in worse outcomes for the organization (here’s a paper which proves that random promotions yield better organizational outcomes than merit-based promotions).]

When you design a system which yields false negatives, what you actually accomplish is to normalize the practice of making hiring decisions based upon gut feel and bias rather than upon objective criteria such as whether the applicant is really interested in the position or whether the applicant can do the job. That’s a big statement to make, but I think it’s proved out by the psychology.

Tversky, Amos - Preference, Belief, and Similarity, ch. 24

We can evaluate this in terms of prospect theory and the framing effect, which pretty much describes the landscape of this decision. The framing effect plays a role here because the decision makers approach the interview having been told that it is better to mistakenly pass up a good candidate than it is to mistakenly hire a bad candidate. This framing puts the decision maker into the mindset of loss / risk aversion, which tends to be vastly more conservative than does a mindset of possible gains. When evaluating problems in a risk-averse or uncertain mindset, people attempt to reduce that risk or uncertainty however possible. In this mindset, hiring someone of the same general profile as oneself provides an immediate reduction in risk, so basically guarantees that candidates who are different (diverse) will be excluded.

This is not limited to the tech industry, by any means – I’m certain that these same problems are pervasive in other hiring systems. In tech, though, the big players have all made noises about diversity, and yet have maintained a system of hiring which continues to yield the same problematic hiring decisions. The tech industry is supposed to be the best and brightest – they certainly tell us that they are – yet it cannot seem to figure out how to hire women or blacks or Hispanics (or people aged over 35). This tells me that the noises made by tech are basic cover for not really wanting to solve the problem.

Tech companies are happy being pretty much white (and a few Asian) dudes and do not want to change. Tech companies want to mouth the right words about diversity, to maybe hire diversity officers, but they do not really have any interest in being diverse. They have designed hiring systems which are systematically discriminatory, but subtly so, which is problematic because it is the systemic problems which are hardest to fight.

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I’m sure some of my reasoning in here isn’t as thorough as it could be. I don’t think that my reasoning is wrong, though – I think that the hiring systems of big tech companies essentially guarantee a lack of diversity, and that the companies are either uniformly ignorant of this or are happy for it to remain this way. Before you think that they’re ignorant of this, think about where psychology graduates go if they don’t become professors (hint: big technology companies, which is why everything tech is designed to be addictive).

Don’t Open Things!

Dear Everybody: don’t open things you weren’t expecting to receive. This includes links to google docs and not just attachments. Why? There’s a particularly nasty type of attack going around that tries to pretend it’s someone you know sending you something via email. If you weren’t expecting something from that person, why don’t you pick up the phone and ask them if they sent it?

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If it’s as suspicious as the picture above, double-check before you click. Thank you.

-D

Public Service Announcement

This Public Service Announcement brought to you by incompetent web developers. Please note that putting a little sign that says “this site is secure” does not make that site secure.

insecure

When I click on the little informational icon to the left of the URL, I can plainly see that the site is NOT secured. Thus, anything entered on the page can be intercepted between my web browser and the server that’s supposed to be collecting the information. And when I try to go to an https:// version of the site, I get told exactly why the site isn’t secure:

insecure

That’s right: the site might have been secure, except that the certificates that the web developer tried to use to secure it were not registered to the website, but to some other website. Security doesn’t work that way, folks.

The PSA portion of this post, now: everybody should know to click that little icon, to the left of the URL, any time a website is asking you for information that you wouldn’t want to broadcast to every criminal in the world. And if you get told anything that seems like the site isn’t right, you should leave.

Personally, I contacted the site owner and told them to slap their web developer (literally: I told them that their web developer needs a sharp slap, for trying to play this off as secure when it’s not). In doing so I told them my name and email, but hey, that’s publicly available, so no harm. Other than that, though? Not giving them any of my information, and certainly not giving them my credit card number!

Be careful out there, folks. Just because the website looks slick doesn’t make it trustworthy.

-D

ps: I blacked out the name of the website, because this isn’t about them. I suppose it also serves to protect the incompetent, but hey, I’ve already sent them a nasty note, so there’s no need for public shaming.

Old Code Lives On

Stirling 307Occasionally I remember how old I am. Thinking about how I got into computer programming, I usually tell the story about how I was working doing data entry and got tired of the repetitive nature of the job, so automated a piece of it and ended up drawing the attention of the IT department as a result. (I still keep in contact with that guy, 20 years later.) Thinking about it, though, I realized that my start was a lot earlier than that. I realized this when reading an article on The Law of Accelerating Returns. Something in there struck me as being … well, wrong.

The movie Back to the Future came out in 1985, and “the past” took place in 1955. In the movie, when Michael J. Fox went back to 1955, he was caught off-guard by the newness of TVs, the prices of soda, the lack of love for shrill electric guitar, and the variation in slang. It was a different world, yes—but if the movie were made today and the past took place in 1985, the movie could have had much more fun with much bigger differences. The character would be in a time before personal computers, internet, or cell phones—today’s Marty McFly, a teenager born in the late 90s, would be much more out of place in 1985 than the movie’s Marty McFly was in 1955.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my first DOS-based computer resembled something like the PC3 “LunchBox” Portable Computer, and came to me in something like 1984. Of course, somewhere around the same time we were playing with the Commodore Vic-20 (came out in 1981), Commodore 64 (1982), and the Commodore 128 (1985). So, no, going back to 1985 wouldn’t be all that shocking. Yes, it’d be annoying to have to use a card catalog in order to find something, rather than asking teh interwebs. It’d also be strange not to have call waiting, or cell phones, but I can’t say that it’d be particularly troublesome overall. Nor can I really say the world was all that much different.

Stirling 308I got to thinking about how long I’ve been writing software (this time) because I’d been asked to pull together some screenshots and instructions for a database application I built back in 1998. This application is still running, 18 years later, and still the “system of record” for the company. This and a couple other systems I’ve written are still ticking over in some form or another (this one’s running on a virtual machine just to keep it alive, because nobody can get the software any more, and nobody really knows how to replace it – I had to install an older development tool just to convert it to what it would have been in 2003’s format so that I could convert it to the current format and have a look through things.).

In any event, I think it’s important to point out that yes, the rate of technological change is ever-increasing. On the other hand, there are these bedrock systems which keep on running that nobody is willing to replace because they aren’t broken – they still do their job just fine, and there really is no need to change them. (Have a look at this PCWorld article, for instance.) In parallel with these systems, old code keeps on ticking over, and continues to work (e.g., just about the entire Banking sector of the UK runs on COBOL, or the VA Hospital’s Electronic Medical Records system is .NET wrapped around Java wrapped around Delphi wrapped around a file-based storage system – so, your medical record is just a text file somewhere, when all’s said and done). Other, operating-system type foundations have also not shifted – there really are only 2 operating systems in use today, *NIX and Windows NT – and those have been around for decades – everything added to them is just window-dressing.

It’s only the surface of things which has really shifted – the core remains as it was 20 or even 40 years ago. Yes, computers are much faster. Yes, computers are way smaller, and in seemingly everything. But I just don’t see the level of technological change being all that huge even now, nor do I think it’s changing as rapidly as Kurzweil thinks. Or, rather, I don’t think that the entire ecosystem changes as rapidly as all that – it’s that the outliers are arriving faster, but their adoption depends upon their incorporation into the devices and technologies we already use, which is necessarily slowed by our very humanity.

Dolomites D 300So. Take the time to look back at all the computing you’ve done, and realize how much things haven’t changed, despite the new names and different packages. Ignore the window-dressing and really think about the technology and you may be surprised at how, really, things haven’t changed. Sure, if they implanted teh interwebs into your head you’d be hugely changed – and, yes, they’re working on that somewhere – but do we really see it happening in our lifetimes? I really don’t think so, because I really think that the rate of change is not solely governed by tech, but by the economics of the matter, and by our ability to incorporate that change.

-D

Surgical Success

Well, D. just went in and had the tubes removed a day earlier than planned, because one of them had come loose from its suture and was trying to either fall out or crawl back into his head. He’s quite happy to have them out – and to be able to smell and taste again! He’s very much looking forward to sleeping not propped up at a 45° angle!

He did take a picture or two of the nose with tubes in it … but we’ll have to wait ’til later to put those up – when all the swelling has gone all the way down, and we have a good compare / contrast for them.

-D & T

Small Pleasures

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A few weeks before D’s nose surgery, T got him this wee quadcopter. Its batteries last about 15 minutes, after which it needs to recharge for about 1/2 an hour. It is providing D with much enjoyment as he waits until Thursday for the splints to come out of his nose … after which he’ll be able to 1) smell, 2) taste, and 3) breathe better than ever.

The swelling of D’s face is mostly gone; we’ll see whether there are any changes visible to his nose when he gets the splints out, but we don’t think there will be.

-D & T

Post-Surgery

D. made it through his surgery (septoplasty and turbinate reduction) just fine, with no complications, and is now home recovering. In 5 days they’ll remove the splints inside his nose (!!!) and he should be able to breathe better than he ever has in his life. Maybe he’ll even be able to sleep on his back without snoring. And certainly he’ll be glad not to have so many sinus infections.

So, for the next week or so, it’s bland, soft food, and sleeping mostly upright.

But all is well.

-D & T

Word(less)-y Wednesday

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Famous
By Naomi Shihab Nye
The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

“Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995). Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Blog Reading (and, erm, writing)

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First off, apologies are due to all of you who follow this blog. There isn’t really any excuse for not writing to you all, except that, well, life has gotten a bit busy: D. has begun a new job (which he’s enjoying very much), we’re trying to squeeze in time to prep the garden, we’re doing choir … and, well, we’re no longer “abroad” so are struggling a bit to find things to put up here. Yes, we could do food … and we like doing food … but we’d have to have time to do some baking other than just what we make all the time.

We’ll find our balance here soon, promise!


Now, on to the crisis du jour: idiot Google has decided that they are retiring Google Reader. For some most, this isn’t an issue, because you don’t even know what it’s for. For those who read lots of online content, though, it’s been the easiest way to manage to keep up.

So, without further ado, here’s how to switch from Reader to something else (we’ll be trying Brief, in FireFox).

Step 1: Export your Reader Subscriptions This is a needlessly complex process, at this point, because idiot Google decided that they had to change the process right when most people would be using it. It now takes quite a few steps, rather than simply going to “manage subscriptions” and choosing “export.” Still, start with that:

Step 1 - Export 1

Then click “create archive” and wait for it to do its thing.

Step 1 - Export 2

When it’s complete, click “download” and save your .zip file somewhere (or just open it – we only really want one file from it).

Step 1 - Export 3

Step 1 - Export 4

All we’re interested in is the “subscriptions.xml” file, which you should save somewhere convenient (and rename to be a “.opml” file, later).

Step 1 - Export 5

Step 2: Install Brief. If you want to try Brief, download and install the Brief add-on from Mozilla. You’ll need to restart FireFox before using it.

Step 2 - Install Brief

Step 3: Set your FireFox preferences to use Live Bookmarks Brief isn’t necessary to use Live Bookmarks – they’re built into FireFox – but Brief gives you a different way of reading them.

Step 3 - FireFox Options

Step 4: Open Brief Brief gives you another little icon, to the right of your search bar. Click it to open Brief.

Step 4 - Using Brief

Step 5: Rename your .xml file from step 1 to “subscriptions.opml” and import it. The initial Brief page will have asked if you wanted to import anything, but if you missed that, click the little “tools” icon in Brief to import the .opml file you’ve obtained from the perfidious Google.

Step 5 - Import Feeds

You now have the ability to read feeds, via Brief.


This isn’t an ideal solution if you use the “Starred Items” feature in Google Reader, particularly if you rely on it as heavily as I do. I depend upon it to work up my “links” posts (more about that process here), and it’s quite laborious even with Reader in place. With Reader gone, well, I’ll be searching for another solution.

On the bright side: since I won’t be using Reader any longer, and I can’t use Google Chat from work, I now have no reason to sign into Google! Yes, they own FeedBurner, which powers the email subscriptions to our sites, but they’re gradually driving us away. I can’t say I’ll miss them, except for Reader

-D