tech fraud, innovation, and telling the difference

I admit it. I’m something of a connoisseur of fraud, particularly technology fraud.I’m  fascinated by it. That’s why I have not been able to keep my eyes off the unfolding story of Thernos. Theranos was a company formed to do blood testing with minute quantities of blood. The founder, who dropped out of Stanford to pursue her idea, imagined blood testing kiosks in every drugstore, making testing ubiquitous, cheap, safe, painless. It all sounds pretty great in concept, but it seemed to me from the very start to lack an important hallmark of seriousness: evidence of a thoughtful survey of “why hasn’t this happened already?”

There were plenty of warning signs that this would not work out, but I think what’s fascinating to me is that the very same things that set off klaxons in my brain lured in many investors. For example, the founder dropped out of school, so had “commitment,” but no technical background in the art she was promising to upend. Furthermore, there were very few medical or testing professionals among her directors. (There was one more thing that did it for me: the founder liked to ape the presentation style and even fashion style of Steve Jobs. Again, there were people with money who got lured by that … how? The mind boggles.)

Anyway, there is, today, a strange current of anti-expert philosophy floating around Silicon Valley. I don’t know what to make of it. They do have some points. It is true that expertise can blind you to new ideas. And it’s also true that a lot of people who claim to be experts are really just walking sacks of rules-of-thumb and myths accreted over unremarkable careers.

At the same time, building truly innovative technology products is especially hard. I’m not talking about applying technology to hailing a cab. I’m talking about creating new technology. The base on which you are innovating is large and complex. The odds that you can add something meaningful to it through some googling seems vanishingly small.

But it is probably non-zero, too. Which means that we will always have stories of the iconoclast going against the grain to make something great. But are those stories explanatory? Do they tell us about how innovation works? Are they about exceptions or rules? Should we mimic successful people who defy experts, by defying experts ourselves, and if we do, what are our chances of success? And should we even try to acquire expertise ourselves?

All of this brings me to one of my favorite frauds in progress: Ubeam. This is a startup that wants to charge your cell phone, while it’s in your pocket, by means of ultrasound — and it raised my eyebrows the moment I heard about it. They haven’t raised quite as much money as did Theranos, but their technology is even less likely to work. (There are a lot of reasons, but they boil down to the massive attenuation of ultrasound in air, the danger of exposing people to high levels of ultrasound, the massive energy loss from sending out sound over a wide area, only to be received over a small one [or the difficulty and danger of forming a tight beam], the difficulty of penetrating clothes, purses, and phone holders, and the very low likelihood that a phone’s ultrasound transducer will be positioned close to normally with respect to the beam source.) And if they somehow manage to make it work, it’s still a terrible idea, as it will be grotesquely inefficient.

What I find so fascinating about this startup is that the founder is ADAMANT that people who do not believe it will work are just trapped in an old paradigm. They are incapable of innovation — broken, in a way. She actively campaigns for “knowledge by Google” and against expertise.

As an engineer by training and genetic predisposition, this TEDx talk really blows my mind. I still cannot quite process it:



Technical Support that isn’t

I’ve been doing a little progr^H^H^H^H^Hsoftware engineering lately, and with it, I’ve been interacting with libraries and APIs from third parties. Using APIs can be fun, because it lets your simple program leverage somebody else’s clever work. On the other hand, I really hate learning complex APIs because the knowledge is a) too often hard-won through extended suffering and b) utterly disposable. You will not be able to use what you’ve learned next week, much less, next year.

So, when I’m learning a new API, I read the docs, but I admit to trying to avoid reading them too closely or completely, and I try not to commit any of it to memory. I’m after the bare minimum to get my job done.

That said, I sometimes get stuck and have to look closer, and a few times recently, I’ve even pulled the trigger on the last resort: writing for support. Here’s the thing: I do this when I have read the docs and am seriously stuck and/or strongly suspect that the API is broken in some way.

As it happens, I have several years’ experience as a corporate and field applications engineer (that’s old-skool Silicon Valley speak for person-who-helps-make-it-work), so I like to think I know how to approach support folks; I know how I would like to be approached.

I always present them with a single question, focused down to the most basic elements, preferably in a form that they can use to reproduce the issue themselves.

But three out of three times recently when I’ve done this in the past month (NB: a lot of web APIs are, in fact, quite broken), I have run into a support person who replied before considering my example problems or even simply running. Most annoying, they sent me the dreaded “Have you looked at the documentation?”

All of those are support sins, but I find the last the most galling. For those of you whose job it is to help others use your product, let me make this very humble suggestion: always, always, ALWAYS point the user to the precise bit of documentation that answers the question asked. (Oh, and if your docs website does not allow that, it is broken, too. Fix it.)

This has three handy benefits:

  1. It helps the user with their problem immediately. Who woodanodeit?
  2. It chastens users who are chastenable (like me), by pointing out how silly and lazy they were to write for help before carefully examining the docs.
  3. It forces you, the support engineer, to look at the documentation yourself, with a particular question in mind, and gives you the opportunity to consider whether the doc’s ability to answer this question might be improvable.


On the other hand, sending a friendly email suggesting that the user “look at the documentation” makes you look like an ass.



Lies, damn lies, and energy efficiency

This afternoon I was removing a dead CFL from a fixture in the kitchen when it broke in my hand, sending mercury-tainted glass towards my face and the floor. Our kitchen had been remodeled by the previous owner before he put the house up for sale, and he brought up to compliance with California Title 24 requirements for lighting, which at the time could only have been met with CFL fixtures that used bulb bases incompatible with the ubiquitous “edison base” used by incandescent bulbs — after all, with regular bases, what would stop someone from replacing the CFLs with awful incandescents?

I’ve never liked the setup, and part of the reason is the many compromises that come with CFLs. Though they have certainly saved energy, they’ve been a failure on several other levels. First, they are expensive, between $8-14 in my experience. (These are G24 based bulbs, not the cheap edison-compatible retrofits) Furthermore, they fail. A lot. We’ve lived in this house since 2012 and our kitchen has six overhead cans. I’ve probably replaced 7 or 8 bulbs in that time. Finally, with the fancy CFL-only bases come electrobroken_cflnic ballasts, built into the fixture. One has failed already and it can only be replaced from the attic. I hate going up there, so I haven’t done it even though it happened six months ago. The ballasts also stop me from putting in LED retrofits. I’ll have to remove them all first.

The thing is, only a few years ago, it seemed like every environmentalist and energy efficiency expert was telling us (often in pleading, patronizing tones) to switch to CFLs. They cost a bit more, but based on energy savings and longer life, they’d be cheaper in the long run. But it turns out that just wasn’t true. It was theoretically true but practically not. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in the efficiency world.

There were other drawbacks to CFLs. They did not fit lamps that many people had. The color of their light was irksome. There was flicker that some people could detect. When they broke, they released mercury into your home, that, if it fell into carpet or crevices in the floor, would be their essentially forever. Most could not dim, and those that could have laughably limited dimming range.Finally, they promised longevity, but largely failed to deliver.

Basically, for some reason, experts could not see what became plainly obvious to Joe Homeowner: CFLs kinda suck.

So, was pushing them a good idea, perhaps based on what was known at the time?

I would argue no. This was a case of promoting a product that solved a commons problem (environmental impact of energy waste) with something whose private experience was worse in almost every way possible. Even the economics, touted as a benefit, failed to materialize in most cases.

I would argue that the rejection (and even political backlash) against CFLs was entirely predictable, because 1) over promising benefits 2) downplaying drawbacks and 3) adding regulation does not make people happy. What does make people happy is a better product.

So far, it looks like LEDs are the better product we need. They actually are better than incandescent bulbs in most ways, and their cost is coming down. I’m sure their quality will come down, too, as manufacturers explore the price/performance/reliability frontier, and we may end up throwing away more LED fixtures than any environmentalist could imagine. Not so far; things are holding. They’re a lighting efficiency success, perhaps the first since incandescent bulbs replaced gas and lamp oil.

The lesson for energy efficiency advocates, I think, is:

  1. UNDERpromise and OVERdeliver
  2. do not try to convince people that an inferior experience is superior. Sure, some will drink the Kool-Aid, but most won’t. Consider what you’re asking of people.
  3. Do not push a technology before its time
  4. Do not push a technology after its time (who’s days are numbered)

Culture of Jankery

The New York Times has a new article on Nest, describing how a software glitch allowed units to discharge completely and become non-functional. We’re all used to semi-functional gadgets and Internet services, but when it comes to thermostats we expect a higher standard of performance. After all, when thermostats go wro1043px-Nest_front_officialng, people can get sick and pipes can freeze. Or take a look at the problems of Nest Protect, a famously buggy smoke detector. Nest is an important case, because these are supposed to be the closest thing we have to grownups in IoT right now!

Having worked for an Internet of Things company, I have more than a little sympathy for Nest. It’s hard to make reliable connected things. In fact, it might be impossible — at least using today’s prevailing techniques and tools, and subject to today’s prevailing expectations for features, development cost, and time to market.

First, it should go without saying that a connected thermostat is millions or even billions of times as complex as the old, bimetallic strips that it is often replacing. You are literally replacing a single moving part that doesn’t even wear out with a complex arrangement of chips, sensors, batteries, and relays, and then you are layering on software: an operating system, communications protocols, encryption, a user interface, etc. Possibility that this witch’s brew can be more reliable than a mechanical thermostat: approximately zero.

But there is also something else at work that lessens my sympathy: culture. IoT is coming from the Internet tech world’s attempt to reach into physical devices. The results can be exciting, but we should stop for a moment to consider the culture of the Internet. This is a the culture of “go fast and break things.” Are these the people you want building devices that have physical implications in your life?

My personal experience with Internet-based services is that they, work most of the time. But they change on their own schedule. Features and APIs come and go. Sometimes your Internet connection goes out. Sometimes your device becomes unresponsive for no obvious reason, or needs to be rebooted. Sometimes websites go down for maintenance at an inconvenient time. Even when the app is working normally, experience can vary. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes slow. Keypresses disappear into the ether, etc.

My experience building Internet-based services is even more sobering. Your modern, complex web or mobile app is made up of agglomeration of sub-services, all interacting asynchronously through REST APIs behind the scenes. Sometimes, those sub-services use other sub-services in their implementation, and you don’t even have a way of knowing what ones. Each of those links can fail for many reasons, and you must code very defensively to gracefully handle such failures. Or you can do what most apps do — punt. That’s fine for chat, but you’ll be sorely disappointed if your sprinkler kills your garden, or even if your alarm clock failures to wake you up before an important meeting.

And let’s not even talk of security, a full-blown disaster in the making. I’ll let James Mickens cover that territory.

Anyhoo, I still hold hope for IoT, but success is far from certain.



The great unequalizer?

This post is sloppily going to try to tie together two threads that have been in my newsfeed for years.

The first thread is about rising inequality. It is the notion, as Thomas Piketty puts it that r > g, or returns to capital are greater than the growth rate of the economy, so that ultimately wealth concentrates. I think there is some good evidence that wealth is concentrating now (stagnating middle class wages for decades) but I am certainly not economist enough to judge. So let’s just take this as a supposition for the moment. (NB: Also, haven’t read the book.)

There are many proposed mechanisms for this concentration, but one of them is that the wealthy, with both more at stake and more resources to wield, access power more successfully than most people. That is, they adjust the rules of the game constantly in their favor. (Here’s a four year old study that showed that in the Chicago area, more than 1/2 of those with wealth over $7.5M had personally contacted their congressional representatives. Have you ever gotten your Senator on the line?)

The second thread is about what technology does or does not accomplish. Is tech the great equalizer, bringing increased utility to everyone by lowering the cost of everything? Or is its role more complex?

The other day in the comments of Mark Thoma’s blog, I came across an old monograph by EW Dijkstra that described some of the belief of early computer scientists:

I have fond memories of a project of the early 70’s that postulated that we did not need programs at all! All we needed was “intelligence amplification”. If they have been able to design something that could “amplify” at all, they have probably discovered it would amplify stupidity as well…

If you think of tech as an amplifier of sorts, then one can see that there is little reason to think that it always makes life better. An amplifier can amplify intelligence as well as stupidity, but it can also amplify greed and avarice, could it not?

Combining these threads we get to my thesis, that technology, rather than lifting all boats and making us richer, can be exploited by those who own it and control its development and deployment can use it disproportionally to their benefit, resulting in a permanent wealthy class. That is, though many techno-utopians see computers as a means to allow everyone a leisure-filled life, a la Star Trek, the reality is that there is no particular reason to think that that benefits of technology and computers will accrue to the population at large. Perhaps there are good reasons to think they won’t.

In short, if the wealthy can wield government to their benefit, won’t they similarly do so with tech?

There is plenty of evidence contrary to this thesis. Tech has given us many things we could never have afforded before, like near-infinite music collections, step-by-step vehicle navigation, and near-free and instant communications (including transmission of cat pictures). In that sense, we are indeed all much richer for it. And in the past, to the degree that tech eliminated jobs, it always seemed that new demand arose as a result, creating even more work. Steam engine, electrification, etc.

But recent decades do seem a different pattern, and I can’t help but see a lot of tech’s gifts as bric-a-brac, trivial as compared to the basics of education and economic security, where it seems that so far, tech has contributed surprisingly little. Or, maybe that should not be surprising?