Friday, February 10, 2017

Automation and the coming productization of humanity

As I sit here writing these words, I have myriad tools at my disposal. I have automatic spell check, I have formatting tools, grammar checks, I can easily bold or underline with the touch of a key. Tools that publishers even 30 years ago would have killed for.

But I have more.

I also have the ability to search for almost anything. I can type a few words into Google and find the prices of whale oil in the 19th century.

Just think about that for a second. Within the span of about 30 years we took a process that would involve me doing days of research in a library, then hours of editing and writing, submitting the documentation, editing it again, sending it to press, putting it out for delivery and getting it into your hands... to a process that takes a few minutes.

That is staggering progress.

But it's just the beginning.

Companies like Automated Insights promise to push the envelope such that most articles don't even need the human to do any of the work. Actually, this is already happening, if you Google "This story was generated by automated insights" you will find press releases like this one which were done completely without human interaction.

Ok... you might not be impressed because obviously creativity is well off in the future. If you think so read this poem and be honest about how easily you can tell it was written by AI.

Flow Machines is a project which is attempting to have AI compose music. I think this area still needs a lot of advancement and the criticism is that all it REALLY does is look at millions of different types of music to look for certain patterns, then puts them into different combinations and tries to find ones that seem to "work." But really... if we look at the evolution of classical music from Bach to Rachmaninoff, aren't they more or less doing the same thing? Borrowing from previous structures, weaving in the local folk tunes and then discovering new forms that seem to resonate in our minds when we hear them? They just do it slowly and clumsily and we like to think of that pain as being critical to the process... well... maybe it is, maybe not.

I think all this stuff is neat and it makes for interesting headlines, but where is it going?

To answer that question I want to take us back many thousands of years to when humans were first getting started.

Imagine a time when the sky was pitch black at night and the eerie animal sounds echoing in the blackness mixed and mingled with our minds to create the early myths and dreams. During the day we would have to spend nearly all our energy on survival. We had to hunt by hand, tear apart the meat, create the fire, cook the meat and eat it. We had to pick the berries and the fruit (after finding or growing it). We had to till the soil, find and carry the water, build the shelters... all by hand. The work was relentless and the prospects for survival were dubious.

Over time we learned that some of this work could be improved by making use of technology. We learned that some animals could be tamed, we learned that round trees could be used to make moving heavy stone easier. We built aqueducts to carry our water in and sewers to carry our waste out. We learned about boiling water to kill germs and we learned that the cure for bacteria was mold.

Up until very recently the advances in technology have been our aids. Our relationship with technology was primarily the technology doing and us telling... doing it better, cheaper, safer, faster.

What we have today is a bit different.

When I step into my car and go somewhere the first thing I do is type the address into my GPS. The car (or phone) usually quickly tells me the directions that I should follow to go there. In essence the relationship is that the car is telling ME what to do and I am merely the executor of it's commands. Now you might say... "BS Hermann, YOU told it where YOU wanted to go."

But did I? If I want to figure out WHERE I want to go, how do I do that? Well, I once again go to Google and type in something like "indoor activities for children" click on maps and boom; a bunch of things to choose from. I could say that *I* originally decided that indoor children's activities is what *I* wanted to do and that was the real active choice... the rest was the computer passively aiding me... but I'm not so sure our relationship with technology is so clear cut.

My choices are shaped by technology to an alarming degree. With a bit of information about my tastes and preferences AI can predict which things I like and dislike. Indeed this is the basis behind most of the consumption technologies in the world today. Removing human biases from the evaluation process proves to improve the predictive results of what people will "like."

I believe this will be an underlying trend over the next few decades. The new advances in mechanization will be computers telling us what to do and we will take on the roles of executors. I think stories like Watson diagnosing cancer in a particular case in Japan better than doctors; will become more frequent.

It's worth digging in a bit here to understand WHY Watson was able to do this.

Diagnosing cancer is a very complex problem. Symptoms can look like other diseases, the patient's genetics and history are significant, similar cases can be helpful in finding patters and the amount of data coming from research is staggering. It's impossible for a human to have all that information in their minds and then process it in an efficient way. Previously AI would "brute force" it's way to finding solutions to puzzles with known complexity.

Watson and the new AI technology is doing something very different. It is able to learn how to pattern match based on looking at millions of units of information across different dimensions and then figuring out which answer has the highest probability of being correct. It can then have that probability tested in the real world and generate data that it can use to improve it's diagnosis in the future. This is what human oncologists do... but they are much slower and less accurate. Of course, humans are creative and have "instincts" and can thus short cut many potential possibilities that are "silly." But Watson and AI like it can learn those as well... without having the biases and emotional limitations. They don't need sleep or get hungry or have arguments with their spouses. Of course, they probably COULD if that helped improve diagnostic outcomes.

If you think this is limited to using the past to understand the present... that is only the beginning. Back in 2009, an AI system use basic math and huge data sets to "discover" the laws of motion.T

oday, there is lots of research into prediction. For example, this AI tries to generate video that will predict what happens next. In this system there is a so called "adversarial" process in place. One AI attempts to predict what will happen and the other tries to determine if it looks real or fake. By taking data of what really happened both the prediction AI and the evaluation AI can improve their accuracy... all without any human intervention.

Let's really stretch possibilities here for a second.
With this kind of massive data set, adversarial networks, random tinkering, complete spectrum analysis (remember, AI can see EVERYTHING not just the limited colors we can see) what is possible?

Well... maybe AI can discover a cure for diseases. By having access to humans to experiment on, past data about a disease and access to unlimited chemicals to mix and match; it's entirely possible.

AI could discover new recipes. By mixing all the possible ingredients and comparing that against data sets of what flavors come from where, what mixes are preferred and how they interact; AI could one day generate recipes... oh wait... that already happened, you can pick it up on Amazon here.

Perhaps AI could create the next breakthrough in computers. Or figure out how to make our screens bigger, more flexible, more durable.

Maybe it could help us figure out how to explore space or break through the speed of light.

Who knows.

Indeed, when compared to creating a new digital device or breaking Einstein's laws of physics, writing this article seems trivial. It seems to me that in the coming decades there may be little work in content creation by humans. Perhaps I would need to create a theme or a series of interests so that the AI has something to start with, but I can imagine it might be able to generate those on it's own as well.

What *I* have to do is consume the content and render my verdict. Do I "like" it or "ignore" it. Based on the the AI can learn what humans like me enjoy and what we don't. But really... that's kind of what Bloggers do today anyway... just much more slowly and less accurately.

The role of humans in the centuries to come may very well be consumers and products. In order for AI to advance it needs to have an external reality to bounce things off. That is, until it figures out that improving lives of humans might not be the best goal. As long as AI is focused on making our lives, better, easier, faster, safer... I can imagine a world where humans are essentially products which AI producers trade and compete for. We would basically be real world sims.

If AI eventually correctly interprets evolutionary history, it's entirely possible it will quite rationally conclude that humans are just another species in the long chain of life over the years. While the extinction of Dinosaurs was a boon for Mammals, I'm not sure the Dinosaurs saw things the same way. Perhaps AI spending all of the worlds resources to keep humans satisfied and safe will act as a limitation on evolution. The next logical step is to just get rid of that problem altogether... in the same way that we have wiped out many species that got in our way.

It's a scary thought, and not as far off in terms of science fiction as we would like to think. We always like to imagine the future in terms of how *WE* will be part of it, but it's equally, or perhaps more, likely that the future will be without us at all.

*This article was not generated by AI, yet....*

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

What Happened to Coal?


  • The coal industry in the US has been on a downward trajectory since about 1970s.
  • Despite what is reported this is not primarily because of environmental regulations.
  • It's also not because people are embracing alternative energy.

A brief history of US Energy.

The last 100 year history of US energy is a fascinating story... at least to me. But I'm primarily interested because I see the disturbing headlines of town and counties in part of our country: high rates of unemployment, rising poverty and the associated crime and drug use that goes with it. Along with those headlines is the narrative of industries, like coal, shrinking and dying and the finger pointing... primarily at environmental regulations and subsidies being showered on environmentally friendly energy sources, specifically solar and wind

The conflict is often positioned as a fight between jobs and environment; as if environmental industries somehow don't employ people.

The reality is completely different and it's well summarized by this graph anyone can go find on the energy information agency's website.

What has happened to coal over the past 100 years is very clear. It was first replaced by petroleum (1908-1950) and then later by natural gas (1950 - 1990 and then really accelerating after hydraulic fracturing made extracting natural gas much more affordable).

In the grand scheme of the American energy landscape, "other renewables" is barely a blip on the radar.

So from a policy perspective if you just eliminated ALL renewables, rolled back hydroelectric and banned biomass and you somehow prevented petroleum and natural gas from increasing market share, the actual improvement to caol would be less than 10% of the total energy pie. that would make 2016 look roughly like 1997 from a market share perspective.

The heady days of America being a primarily coal driven energy country are gone... over... forever. Unless you want to ban petroleum and natural gas as sources of power, forget it.

So when politicians talk about putting money into coal, it's incredibly financially irresponsible as well as being cruel and dishonest to the people who work in that industry.

One other area that is discussed is exporting it. Sure, America is moving away from coal in what looks like a long term and permanent way, but what about other developing countries that need cheap, efficient energy?

Well, the obvious players here are China and India. For many years China did have a strong appetite for coal, but that peaked in 2013 and has gone down ever since.

And who can blame the Chinese. Their air quality is so poor they have to essentially close down cities. Do we really want to believe that significant investment in coal plants in the US today will translate into coal sales in China tomorrow? No way in hell.

What about India? Well, while that is a possible market, it turns out India has a lot of it's own coal it can mine. And guess what... Indian miners earn a lot less than US miners. So unless the future of US coal is somehow extracting the coal for less than they can do it in India (including shipping costs and potential import taxes) there's no future there either.

I will say this. It's POSSIBLE that some kind of new use for coal is discovered that previously doesn't exist and can't be predicted. It's also possible that we run out of natural gas or petroleum before those sources are replaced and the reliance on coal comes back.

That sounds far fetched, but consider two examples from history.

Standard Oil's primary product was kerosene for lighting households. That market was crushed by electricity as it became available which forced them to pivot to gasoline. Before the automobile gasoline was a dangerous byproduct that was considered worthless.

Similarly, during the early days of whaling, it was only the whale oil that was extracted, the bone was thrown away. It wasn't until bone was used for making things similar to the way plastic is used today that it became valuable.

So there are examples from history where things that look like they are dying find a second life because of new uses. But those things don't require intervention... the market tends to discover them.

This is the really nasty issue. I've commented a lot about basic income and I still think this is a potentially good idea, but it's also long term and doesn't help people today.

There are longer term ideas, like investing in high energy wind farms in Western Kentucky. Those also required skill workers for both construction and maintenance and Western Kentucky has a combination of moderate the high winds as well as lots of land. It's also a lot healthier to work on a wind turbine than in a coal mine, and the clean up costs are not quite as high. The problem, of course, is that wind isn't all that efficient today so the economics don't make sense.... but hey... the economics for coal don't make sense either so if we're going to subsidize maybe it should be in something future looking?

Another possibility is to focus on natural gas production in Kentucky. The major problem with this is that other sources are much cheaper to develop and extract.

The state itself also should look for future investments in high tech industry generally. Somewhat more outlandish thing like Pittsburg's focus on self driving cars. The city essentially restructuring itself from steel to technology.

Right now Kentucky gets 85% of it's energy from coal vs. the national average of 32%. I suspect this is because the industry has a lot of power and is desperately trying to cling to the past at the cost of the current and future people of the state.

I'm not picking on Kentucky. It's a beautiful state with vast resources and some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. It's not fair that hard working people who spent decades of their lives doing back breaking work in dangerous conditions get the shaft because of long term economic trends beyond their control. It's just as bad that they are being lied to and given false hope so that a small number of people can extract the last pound of flesh for their own enrichment.

I believe the way our of these situation is a combination of building for the future while exercising some compassion and care for people when they become victims of circumstances beyond their control. I actually think it's entirely valid to declare a state of emergency in cases like this and treat the people in these areas the way we would people caught in hurricanes or massive fires. While those are "naturally occurring" disasters, they are just as devastating and just as difficult to control at the individual level.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

I made a game with my daughter to help get her excited about math...

...and here it is... Pirate Addition!


I'm a believer that kids should learn because it's fun, not because they "have to." BUT, I also believe that people have to practice boring stuff and fight through it in order to get to the value on the other side.

When your kids are 4 and 2 that creates a problem because they simply don't understand the "long term value" of pushing through. So often I just have to kind of "force" my daughter to write a bunch of A's or practice adding, or whatever fundamental stuff we all have to learn.

But math has just been harder, so I thought I'd try something creative.

Lily loves pirates, she makes up little games where we run around the house going on treasure hunts. So I thought "hmm... is there any way to combine pirates with math so that I can trick her into thinking math is fun."

Limitations are legion. I don't have anything to "make" a game with. She will be awake in an hour. I am not a game designer, etc etc. I think this was successful because I didn't overthink it. Kept it simple.

Here's the components:
1) Each person is a pirate ship (I printed out a pirate ship picture, taped it to a coin and used a plastic alligator clip to make it stand upright.).
2) There are cards that have "easy" and "hard" questions (green x and red x).
3) The board is a piece of paper printed to look like a parchment and 6 islands I taped to it.
4) There are black squares between the islands that indicate where the ship sails to.
5) There's a big black "X" at the end where the "treasure" is.

That's it.

The game is simple. You oscillate turns and you pick an "easy" or "hard" card. If you answer the question right you move one space for each easy question and two for each hard question. (easy are 1,2,3 addition, hard is 4 and 5).

There's a special "Lava" square. note this is cause I screwed up and accidentally drew a red square and Lily asked me if that was "hot lava." I said "uhh.... yes...." and then made it a "2 turn" square. Turns out this breaks up gameplay nicely.

The first person to the "X" wins.

Shockingly... yes. Lily and I have played about a half dozen games and during that time she does about 6-10 math questions per game. I gave her a "pirate notepad" to allow her to figure out the problems on her own. I also have her "help me" answer my math questions.

Frankly I'm surprised that it worked and I wish I would have tried this earlier. Now I'm tempted to tinker and iterate, but I suspect that I will most likely ruin the simplicity and she won't like it as much.

There's no REAL treasure, there's no benefit to winning and there's nothing really complex going on.

I think the key lesson here is that if you just try something simple with what you have in front of you to try and solve a problem, it's amazing how far you can get; and if you spend forever thinking about it, it's amazing how long you can procrastinate.

Give it a try!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Taking my first paid corsera course. Machine Learning.

After a few failed attempts at taking online classes, I'm going to commit to taking the Machine Learning course offered on Coursera.

You can check it out here:

I actually PAID for it, not because I'm interested in showing off the certificate, but because I'm interested in actually learning the material. I think that if I pay money I'll take it more seriously.

To accentuate that, I'll post updates here on what I'm learning, trying and failing at.

Join me if you want!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How I teach my kids self awareness.

I'm not a great parent.

I let my kids use the iPad and phones. I lose my temper and yell at them. I get impatient and frustrated. I burn out and take it out on them. I feed them junk when I can't create the self discipline not to. And so on...

But. There are things I think are very important.

One of them is self-awareness.

I think without self-awareness it's incredibly difficult to be successful in life.

To use a modern analogy self-awareness is like the little radar system for my Tesla X.

Self-awareness is the process by which we can understand ourselves. In order to this we require a few things:

1) Other people.
I personally believe it is impossible to "know who you are" without having other people to communicate with. Our brain is just far to good at fooling itself to get around this. So you need to have people you can rely on for regular, honest feedback.

2) A desire to improve.
"Improve" is a vague term, but I think self-awareness is a big topic. Define improve how you like, but I think if you don't have an internal mechanism telling you to "get better at x" there's very little motivation to be self-aware.

3) An ability to forgive yourself and others.
This is the other part of the feedback loop. Sure, you need other people to help give you a sense of your "shape" but you also need to be ok with the fact that your shape and other peoples' shapes might not be perfect... and that's ok.

I thought about this a lot and actually my wife was the one who started doing it first.

When kids are having negative emotions parents tend to tell them how they should feel. Actually this happens with adults as well, but it's more acute with kids.

You know the drill.

Lily is angry because Alex won't play tag with her. She comes to you crying like her world is ending. What do I normally do. I comfort her. I hold her and say "It's ok. You don't have to be mad. People won't always play with you."

That second statement is what I want to zero in on.

"You don't have to be [x]" where [x] is sad, mad, jealous, frustrated, etc. is where we can put our self-awareness training in action!

Let's reflect on ourselves for a second. When we are really frustrated about something and we tell someone. What do we really want? Mostly we want to vent and be justified. We want to be RIGHT. We want an echo chamber that will reinforce what we already know and feel. When someone tells us:

"You know... you shouldn't be frustrated..."

How do we feel? MORE frustrated. It's not like we WANT to be frustrated. It's not like we woke up and said to ourselves "Self. Today I'm going to get really frustrated... that seems like a lot of fun... Yeah... and then I'm going to tell my friend about it and hope they tell me I shouldn't be frustrated; cause that will really piss me off. This will be a GREAT day."

Of course not.

But what we want isn't all that great either. It's nice to hear our emotional voices bouncing off a friend echo chamber, but it would be much better if that friend told us? "Wow... seems like you're really frustrated about the guy at Stabucks burning your bagel again. But you know... maybe you're over reacting a bit? Is something else bugging you as well? Or maybe you could have just asked for another one? Or maybe he's having a rough day too? Let's go for a walk and see if you feel better."

That seems like a much healthier way of dealing with the sin of a burned bagel.

Well... I think our kids are the same.

When we say "You shouldn't be frustrated" I think the underlying message is that frustration is bad and should be avoided. So in the child's head she's thinking " if I feel frustrated it's because (a) there's something wrong with me or (b) I'm doing something I shouldn't be doing."

That is the exact OPPOSITE of what we want for our kids, right? I mean we want kids who are challenging themselves, getting frustrated, and then pushing through... feeling confidence and growth on the other side. How will they learn that with us telling them that how they are feeling is wrong? If anything we should be promoting frustration :P.

So instead what we now tell our kids is:

"It's ok to be frustrated. Mommy and Daddy get frustrated too. It's totally normal. Now, let's see what we can do about it."

We then try to dig a bit deeper as to the cause of the negative feeling. I find it helpful to relate personal stories in a funny way as it keeps things light. Our four-year-old isn't ready for heavy philosophy or psychology... although daddy keeps trying... but if I tell her about times when daddy got mad and then lost his temper and said or did something he shouldn't have... she thinks that's pretty funny.

We try different exercises. Talking about it. Counting to 10. Going away into a separate room for a while, and so on.

They key thing we're trying to get through here is that it's GOOD and NECESSARY to have negative emotions. However, it's also critical to learn how to identify and manage them; and that it's within her power to do that. We want to be on the list of people our kids can talk to and bounce their feelings off. We don't want our kids to think that when they feel frustrated there is something wrong with them and bury them, pretending they don't exist; and we certainly don't want our kids to run around in life thinking that actions the lead to negative feelings should be avoided altogether.

Well... I don't really know exactly. It's a slow process and kids are super unpredictable.

That said, I've had MANY occasions where Lily will tell me how she feels and tries to do something about it. We've also noticed an improvement in her desire to challenge herself. We've been a bit anxious (probably over anxious, because that's how parents are) about Lily's tendency to keep doing easy things instead of pushing herself. But we don't want to FORCE her to do hard stuff because then we risk teaching her arbitrary compliance. We don't want her to just do hard things "because I said so".. we want her to want to do hard things because she will find them rewarding.

Even more amazing is that when *I* get mad or frustrated... she will tell me "It's ok dad, we all get mad sometimes. It's ok to feel mad" which always makes me feel quite a bit better. I can't wait for the day when she's coaching me to be less angry and frustrated.

I am not a child raising expert or a psychologist so I have no idea if this makes any sense. That said I think it's a very important skill to have and I found this to be a really great way to help teach it.

I'd love to hear about what everyone else is doing. What has worked and hasn't. It's a messy business this kid raising thing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why do you believe what you believe (about Trump and Clinton)

I want you to stop reading this and write down two things... Just open up notepad, or get a pen and paper.

I want you to write down what you think about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Don't overthink it, if you think Trump is a racist write that. If you think Hillary is a liar, write that.

Then I want you to write down WHY you believe that. Try and be as specific as possible. If Trump is a racist, why? What did he say? What did he do? When did he say and do those things? Where did you hear about it?

Now do the same for Clinton. You think she screwed up with her email server? Ok. Why? You think she caters to Wall Street and is in the pocket of big banks... fine. How come? Where did you hear about that?

I did this myself and what I found out was I actually have FAR more confidence in my conclusions than my underlying information justifies.

I didn't fully trust Clinton because of the private email server stuff as well as her connections to Wall Street, her high income, prior real estate dealings. I thought she sounded a bit overly aggressive on one hand and also kind of "fake woman of the people."

For Trump it was much stronger. I thought he was a bigot, a cheat, a self serving arrogant promoter preying on people's fear and ignorance. I know about Trump university (from reading articles somewhere?), I know about him wanting to build a wall (from his website), his desire to deport Muslims (from retweets and articles).

To my shock and surprise I could really not really recall specifics. I hadn't read any of Clinton's emails that are available to see WHAT she said. I went to Trump's site and checked out his policies and read some articles online, but I hadn't really dug deep into things he had written (now or before), looking at in depth interviews... sure I've seen debates and collections of public appearances, but nothing super deep. My conclusions were strong, but my evidence was superficial at best.

Now consider this.

Try and recall WHERE you got that information from and who wrote it? Was it an online newspaper? Was it a series of retweets? Was it facebook shares in your stream... if so, where did THEY come from? What was the position or agenda (if any) of the person who created this material?

I actually could tell you almost nothing about any of that. I have no idea who wrote what about the people that are running for president so I couldn't tell you if THEY are "good" or "bad."

What I DID learn is that I have massive confirmation bias. I THINK that I have deep knowledge about things I care about a lot, but I don't.

Now... I know that there are people who follow these things closely and know A LOT about the candidates, especially the one they like. But I think they probably know A LOT LESS about the candidate they don't like; and I suspect that there is even stronger confirmation bias going on.

The vast amount of information available combined with the advanced technology to segment and search makes it possible to paint nearly any picture of reality you care for.

Imagine your own situation.

Let's say that a large group of well paid, super motivated and highly intelligent people wanted to paint you in a certain light. Within their reach is ALL the information about you that exists. All the things you buy and sell, the places you've worked and people you worked with. Maybe your past 10-20 years of emails. All the websites you've joined and looked at. Where your kids went to school. All the information about your parents, siblings, friends. Now imagine they want to paint you in either a bad or good light. Do you think that would be possible? Do you think it would accurately reflect who you think you are?

This goes back to a book called "Public Opinion" by Walter Lippmann. In it, he explores this topic deeply. His conclusions are as true today as they were nearly 100 years ago. Our opinions are made up by forces quite beyond our control, out of our sight, and in a largely unconscious way. We don't have the time, intellect or desire to understand thousands of complex topics in depth and then deliberate to come up with a "real" opinion. So we must use shortcuts. We trust people we regard as legitimate, we parrot our parents and mentors. We listen to our friends. We listen to media. Thus, paraphrasing Lippmann, a functioning democracy MUST have experts who can manipulate and manage the public mind... manufacturing consent as the term goes.

That's why it's so important to hit all these areas when you are running for office. In fact saying that you DON'T care about these things is one of the most important messages to get out there.

Think about that.

It takes A LOT of message volume to communicate and convince large groups of people that you are not focused on telling them what they want to hear :). Is it believable that someone who doesn't care about that could possibly get their voice heard in such a loud, busy and crowded arena. I don't think so.

The campaign managers who are focused 100% of the time on getting people to believe what they want are going to be much better at this than you or I can be in our short, busy, crowded days.

I don't really know. I tried to read through all the emails that were released, but there are 1925 of them. The ones I DID read were mostly one or two line responses she gave saying "Interesting." "Pls Print," and "Have a happy holiday." I'm sure there's some meat in there somewhere, but man... do I want to spend 4 hours digging it up? NO!

So how do I know what she said. Well, I'll go to my trusted news source. But did THEY read the 1925 emails or did they do what I did and rely on someone else who went through them. But who is THAT person, and what is their motivation? Is it possible that actually almost NO ONE has read all those emails and thus the contents and message are just layers of bias with scant evidence? Or maybe 10-15 people have actually read them all and those people have businesses that shape the buyers ability to manage public opinion?

I mean who has the motivation to read all those emails, put them together and summarize conclusions? That is unlikely to be a free and unbiased exercise.

The truth is, to just get an understanding of this one topic in this one election I would have no choice but to read them myself, then familiarize myself with the context, look at other sources, and so on.

It's simply not possible.

So...what I think has to be done is to treat with skepticism what we read and we ourselves believe. Try to deliberately read things we find grating to our own existing assumptions. We should be deliberate about our ignorance and our biases. We will always have them, but at least we can try to identify them.

Most importantly, I think we need to always keep in mind the possibility that we are totally wrong and when we find something important that we care about we really need to understand opposing sides as well as our own... not to change our minds or to be wishy washy, but to make sure we can clearly understand and articulate what our biases and assumptions are. I think that will at least give us a chance at arriving at a reasonable conclusion in any topic.

Monday, July 11, 2016

How to get a job.

Recently, my nieces and nephews have started entering the "job market." Some are in college, some are in high school, some are starting high school. As a result I get to overhear conversations about finding and getting jobs... something I haven't had to do in many, many years.

When I say "find" and "get" I'm talking about the situation where a young person who has ZERO work experience is trying to get some kind of job. Usually their primary motivation is money; but there's also some amount of building a sense of freedom and responsibility as they transition from being "kids at home" to "responsible adults."

The normal process starts something like this.

1) Recognize money is a thing that's needed.
I think the first step is waking up one day and realizing money is a "thing." My kids are 2 and 4. For them money is coins they can spin and throw around with no connection to the house, the toys or the food. When kids get older they make this connection and start negotiating for allowances/ad hoc money/pay for chores or any other mechanism so that they can have money providing them with greater choice and freedom from mom and dad. The next phase pushes them to not want to ask mom and dad at all. After all, even though allowance is "your money," parents are still in the background judging your decisions... if there was someway to get money without asking parents at all, they can't do this anymore. (Of course, us adults know that our parents STILL do this, but let's not ruin it for the kids :) ).

2) Figure out where to get it.
This is where things get interesting for me. What I see happening is that my nieces and nephews almost immediately see a single possible transaction mechanism. Specifically that they have to "do" something for someone else (a company) and they "get" paid to do it. This is a simple labor for money transaction. Thus the goal is to figure out how to get as much money for as little labor... that is a high $/hour wage. From what I can see there is not a ton of focus on passion, resonance with employer, long term prospects, etc. and it makes sense because mostly these are young adults looking for spending money over the summer. Real jobs don't come until after college, as per script.

3) Figure out HOW to get it.
The next phase is to figure out how to get the job in the first place. So you learn about job applications, cruise around town looking for places that have "hiring" signs, go in, get an app, fill it out, give it back and get ready for rejection. After enough rejections, you'll somehow get hired. Maybe the manager thought you were cute or took pity on you. Maybe there were few other candidates and you were the only one that spelled things correctly. Maybe the timing worked out well. Who knows. In any case, it's kinda like dating... you see what's available, make a move and hopefully get to the next stage.

4) Figure out what work REALLY is.
Here I'm totally speculating, but what I learned when I had 2 "medial" jobs (Pizza Place, Software Store) is that most people don't care at all, and this annoyed me. I think it annoys most people... even the ones who don't care... and partly why they don't care is because no one else cares. Since no one in school teaches you how to care about something everyone else doesn't care about, it's a new thing and you probably don't know how to deal with it.

Another thing you learn about is power structures in a financial compensated setting. In school, the power structure is simple. The teachers have it all, the students have none...or very little. In the SOCIAL part of school it's much more complex. Work is more like the social part of school with money thrown into the mix. So we learn about the person who is sucking up to the manager to get a raise. You learn about the abusive manager, the empowering manager, the manipulative manager, and so on.

You also learn the most important things. What you DON'T want to do. I think most people DON'T want to work an entry level retail/food job for the rest of their lives. Even if you stay in retail or food (nothing wrong with that) you presumably want to move "up."

I have to say, I approached this whole thing quite differently.

My first job was at Little Ceaser's Pizza back in 1993. I was close friends with the manager and I talked to him about it for a while before applying. The store was right across from the bus I took to college (which I later dropped out of) every evening. So strategically it was perfect. It paid minimum wage, but I got to take some pizzas home AND there was basically a supply of food while working. The combination of flexible hours, free food and convenient location made it perfect.

1) Engage and Innovate... anytime, anywhere.
I tried to innovate things when I started.

I found out scrubbing the giant sinks sucked balls, so I started a process where you fill the sink with water, add a bunch of cleaning materials and then stir vigorously to generate a huge vortex taking most of the crusty pizza dough off the sides of the sink.  I also learned that customers HATE waiting, even when they show up early and even more especially if they had kids. So if it was late at night and there was a rush and I was working alone or with one other person, we'd hand out free crazy bread and this had a huge positive effect.

Essentially I tried to look around and see what problems there were and just assumed that I was totally empowered to try and fix them. I didn't ask for permission or wait for approval. I highly recommend this, even if it gets you fired. Work is MUCH more fun when your attitude is "how can I make things better" rather than "how long am I stuck in this dump."

I call this the "Lazy/Persistent" approach. I basically think "hmm... how can I do little or no actual work but still get the job done." Without the persistence I'd just be lazy and that's no good... but together it's like the necessity/mother thing.

2) Follow your passion.
I almost immediately realized that I didn't want to work in pizza.

So what did I want? Well... I loved playing games, so I went to the local GameStop (at that time Electronic's Boutique).  But I didn't just ask for a job right away. I hung out there, talked to the manager, talked to the employees, watched the customers, tried to get a sense of everything. THEN when I knew the time was good (getting close to holiday season when these stores get crushed) I applied for a job. I knew what they needed, I knew how the store worked, and I knew the people that worked there. I also knew that the company allowed employees to take games home to try them which took a big chunk of costs from my entertainment expenses. Also, the store was close to campus so it was convenient.

I can tell you right now if you know when a store needs headcount and you know how their systems work, they WILL hire you. So when you see everyone applying for a job at the beginning of summer break and no one applying right after school starts... do the opposite; you might even get a higher starting wage. If you want to work at Subway or Cold Stone... hang out there for an hour or two a couple times a week and get a sense of how the work is done. Talk to people. Show an interest.

On the side I was trying to make money writing game reviews. If you want to learn how to take rejection better... become a freelance writer. I figured if I can combine two things I like, even better, and being a reviewer for a game magazine seemed like the best thing ever. I guess today I'd start a game blog, YouTube channel or something similar.

The combination of these things lead me to meet a guy who was a journalist for a huge German game magazine, which leads to the next step.

3) Look for and Seize Opportunity, Always.
I noticed there was a guy who about once a month would buy pretty much every new game that was out. I was thinking "holy shit, this guy has the life! He buys and plays all the new games all the time." I later found out his name was Markus and he was the US correspondent for PC Games (the biggest games magazine in Germany at the time). It just so happens that I speak German and lived in Germany for a number of years so when he came in the next time I was able to talk to him and meet him more.

After a couple of visits I found out that he was actually doing video documentaries on game companies like Origin, Sierra, etc. I was thinking "holy shit... could your life get any better? Free games AND hang out with game developers." At one point he needed to go to Dynamix up in Eugene, OR and for some reason couldn't go himself. He asked me if  I could go, interview people, take some video and pictures... and come back. I said yes immediately. Note that I had school and work... but that didn't matter. I figured I could swing a work change (because my work colleagues were great) and if I missed a day or two of school, who cares... this was more interesting anyway.

Important to note. I had NEVER interviewed anyone before. I had NEVER recorded anything professionally. I had NEVER taken pictures for a magazine. I had NO IDEA what the fuck I was doing... but here was this guy who was willing to let me fly solo to Eugene, OR and represent this huge German game magazine. It would have been easy to get scared and not do it, but that would have been a giant mistake.

So how did it go. Well, it was kind of a disaster. I got there fine, I took pictures, recorded interviews, etc. But I screwed up basic shit. For example, I didn't write down what people looked like so when the pictures were developed I didn't know who was who :). Kind of a problem when you're writing an article, right? I also didn't know how to mic people properly or test for sound, so some amount of the footage was bad... and on and on.

That said, I took the criticism from Markus and doubled down to try to get better. Over the years we made many video/documentaries and it's among the more educational experiences I had. Deadlines were not negotiable, getting content was super competitive, work hours could be long and frustrating (burning CDs in the mid-late 90s had about a 50% success rate and took 4 hours :) ).

If you're really interested, you can see some of them here: For some reason the Blizzard one isn't on there... it used to be... maybe Blizzard asked to have it taken down. It had some Warcraft Adventures images on it as well as a commitment to a release date for a project that was later cancelled :). They don't do that anymore. But it was a great trip because I got to see Blizzard before StarCraft was released. I think they were about 60 people back then. This visit made me thing "Holy shit. I HAVE to work in the games business somehow." I distinctly remember Susan Wooly who picked me up from the airport, made sure I got to all my interviews, made sure I had lunch, followed up afterwards, etc. From top to bottom Blizzard was high quality... is the impression I had. It was one of the best experiences ever.

4) Never stop learning
Over time the whole internet thing got bigger and bigger and it put a squeeze on print magazines. Markus had some good ideas here, but I think he had a hard time convincing the publishers. Anyway, I'm not sure exactly what happened, but like all things, the videos came to an end and I needed to find something else.

Fortunately, Markus had a friend named Scott whos fledgling e-Learning  company (remember when that was a thing) needed work and had a CD Burner (those were rare and expensive back then). So Markus used them for this purpose, but also realize Scott was a really smart guy and a programmer. So when he was doing interface work for the magazine CDs he had Scott do some of this work. I got to know Scott pretty well and after the work with the game company fizzled I talked with Scott about it.

It turns out that the whole internet thing was exploding in the late 90s, so I got a job programming HTML ($15/hr, $22.50 overtime). I didn't really know how to write HTML but it wasn't that hard either since I had been doing programming for many years as a hobby. (Disclosure: despite making a living programming for many year, I never actually studied it in college. I studied English Lit, dropped out and eventually finished up a Sociology degree. Go figure.).

5) Rinse and Repeat
From that point it was just doing the same thing over and over. At Digital Creators (Scott's company) I tried to find things that were inefficient, annoying, tedious and improve them. Most of my job was converting paper documents into HTML which is almost as exciting as making pizza. But it turns out there were things like OCD, scripting, regular expressions and so on that could make the job MUCH faster and less boring. So when you go from doing about 3-5 pages/hour to 15-20 pages an hour, customers like that when they pay per page/per hour.

During that job I got to do all kinds of neat stuff.

I worked on the 2000 census. I got to program a Davox phone dialer (directly in a live production environment with ZERO knowledge of how they work... yeah... that was stressful). I got to work with a big oil company. I got to work with financial institutions.

Eventually I started my own company with some co-workers... watched it grow fast and crash; eventually got into the game business (finally) and that's pretty much where I am today. In 10 years... who knows.

I was just always trying to see where problems were, see what help people needed, see what I found interesting and just take risks and keep trying. All my jobs have been interesting and educational in one way or another.

I realize this isn't a normal how-to, but more of a mini biography.

But that's the whole point.

If you approach getting a job as a how to, a series of predictable steps... a known path to a known destination, you miss the ENTIRE point and run the risk of dying with tons of regret after having a job you hate for a long period of time.

It should really be an ongoing process of curiosity, passion, learning, and risk taking.
It should be an outward looking process as well as an inward looking one.
It should be about seeing yourself as an agent of change and meaning.

No matter how "crappy" the job is, it exists for some reason and there is opportunity buried inside of it. If you think and act this way, you will feel better and people around you will notice.

Don't look for a predictable road. It's not there.

Try to make the best of whatever opportunity has in front of you and when something unusually pops up, don't be afraid to jump on it.