Thursday, March 23, 2017

Assessing an estimate

Wow.

Can this really be true?

Addressing Detroit’s Basic Skills Crisis

Various estimates of the scale of need for basic skills services in the region convey a crisis-level order of magnitude.
  • The National Institute for Literacy estimates that 47% of adults (more than 200,000 individuals) in the City of Detroit are functionally illiterate, referring to the inability of an individual to use reading, speaking, writing, and computational skills in everyday life situations.
  • We also know that of the 200,000 adults who are functionally illiterate, approximately half have a high school diploma or GED, so this issue cannot be solely addressed by a focus on adult high-school completion.
  • The remaining 100,000 of these functionally illiterate adults (age 25 and older) lack a high school diploma or GED, another prerequisite for employment success.

I'm not sure how this institute made this estimate.

Later, the report expands somewhat on the topic:

Generally, those adults who score at Level 1 (on a scale of 1 to 5, lowest to highest) have difficulty performing such everyday tasks as locating an intersection on a street map, reading and comprehending a short newspaper article, or calculating total costs on an order form.

It isn't clear whether their estimate was that all 47% were at "Level 1", or whether those were five levels of illiteracy (versus five levels of literacy), but no matter how you slice it, those are some astonishing claims about the literacy problem in the greater Detroit region.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It's not just a game, ...

... close reading shows that it's an homage to many great works of art before it: 14 Greatest Witcher 3 Easter Eggs That Will Make You Wanna Replay It Immediately

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Fearless Girl

With so many things to talk about, somehow attention gets paid to: Wall Street Bull artist calls BS on ‘Fearless Girl’ statue

I love Matt Levine's observation:

There is something pleasing about the fact that the Charging Bull, a global symbol of rapacious financial capitalism, is a piece of guerrilla art installed without payment or permission -- while the Fearless Girl, an egalitarian symbol meant to challenge the bull's soulless greed, is a piece of corporate advertising commissioned by an asset-management company.

Up, up, and away

Looks pretty windy at the top, but at least the sun is shining! Salesforce Tower: Sneak Peek

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sapiens: a very short review

Yuval Noah Harari is the writer of the moment, having taken the world by storm with his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and having now finished his follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

I've now read Sapiens, which is both readable and thought-provoking, no easy accomplishment.

Harari is certainly ambitious. As I read Sapiens, I amused myself by pretending to be a library cataloger, faced with the task of trying to assign appropriate subject categories under which Sapiens should be listed.

The list would surely have to include: history; biology; archaeology; anthropology; economics; cosmology; evolutionary biology; linguistics; political science; ecology; globalism; religious studies; cognitive science; philosophy.

And surely more.

But that's not adequate either, for you'd want to be more precise that just saying "history", rather: world history; cultural history; ancient history; history of language; military history; world exploration; religious history; history of science; literary history; etc.

Oh, you could go on for hours and hours.

So, Sapiens is very much a book written by an intellectual omnivore, which will most likely appeal to omnivorous readers, by which I mean those who don't want to spend their time reading history books that get trapped for many pages on the individual details of precisely what happened on such-and-such a day, but instead feel like it's reasonable to try to cover the 100,000 year history of mankind on earth in, say, 400 pages or so.

It actually works out better than the previous sentence makes it sound, for Harari is a fine writer and he moves things along briskly.

I think that the strongest and most interesting argument that Sapiens makes is a linguistic one, rooted in the power of the concept of abstraction.

Discussing the evolution of language itself, Harari observes that many species of animal have languages and can communicate, typically using their language abilities to communicate information about food, danger, reproduction, and other universal topics. However:

the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, 'Careful! A lion!' Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say, 'The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.' This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.

Although, superficially, this seems to be a discussion about telling entertaining stories around the campfire, or fabricating super-natural explanations as the basis for the founding of religions, Harari quickly re-orients this discussion in a much more practical direction:

fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.

...

Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers [...] with countless numbers of strangers.

It's that "with ... strangers" part that is so important, as Harari proceeds to demonstrate how this ability to discuss hypothetical scenarios with people who aren't part of your immediate circle of family and friends is what gives rise to things like corporate finance, systems of justice, the scientific method, etc. All of these things are built on the ability to have abstractions:

In what sense can we say that Peugeot SA (the company's official name) exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear.

...

Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a 'legal fiction.' It can't be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.

Ostensibly, Sapiens is a history; that is, it is a book about the past, helping us understand what came before, and how it led us to what is now.

But, as is perhaps universally true, Harari is not actually that terribly interested in what happened in the past, often breezily sweeping whole questions aside with a sort of "it's gone; it's forgotten; we have no accurate evidence; we cannot know for sure" superficiality that is startling.

Rather, as Harari reveals near the end of his book, he is principally interested in the future, and it's here where Sapiens takes a rather unexpected turn.

I must admit, I was wholly unprepared when, just pages before the end of Sapiens, Harari suddenly introduces the topic of "Intelligent Design".

However, it turns out that Harari doesn't mean the term in the sense in which it is typically used; he is firmly in the Darwin/Russell camp.

Rather, Harari is fascinated by the idea that scientific methods may have arrived at the point where humans will soon be capable of intelligent design in the future:

After 4 billion years of natural selection, Alba stands at the dawn of a new cosmic era, in which life will be ruled by intelligent design.

...

Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

At the time of writing, the replacement of natural selection by intelligent design could happen in any of three ways: through biological engineering, cyborg engineering (cyborgs are beings who combine organic with non-organic parts) or the engineering of in-organic life.

If Harari painted with a broad brush when discussing the past, his descriptions of our near-term future are equally vague and loosely-grounded, and those final 25 pages of Sapiens are a rather bewildering peek into "what might be."

But, as Yogi Berra pointed out, "predictions are hard, especially about the future," so I can't fault Harari too much for wanting to have a go at what might come next.

I imagine that, eventually, I will read more of Harari's work, as it's clear he has a lot of interesting things to say.

And if you haven't read Sapiens yet, you probably won't regret it, it's quite good.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Bands I've been listening to recently ...

... ranked by the number of their albums I've got.

  • Band of Horses: 5
  • Blind Pilot: 3
  • Mumford & Sons: 3
  • Fleet Foxes: 3
  • Lumineers: 2
  • Lord Huron: 2
  • Of Monsters and Men: 2
  • Johnny Flynn: 2
  • Judah and the Lion: 1
  • The Revivalists: 1
  • Susto: 1

Who else should I be listening to? Gregory Alan Isakov? First Aid Kit? Nathanial Rateliff? Somebody else entirely?

And when will there be new work from The Lumineers, Lord Huron, Mumford & Sons, or Fleet Foxes?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Vee too, mom!

At my day job, we're nearing the end of an annual event which goes by the rather awkward jargon: "V2MOM".

V2MOM is a management planning tool that was invented by Marc Benioff himself, twenty years ago, and has been at use at Salesforce since it was first founded. A few years ago, Benioff described the genesis of his approach, and its motivation: How to Create Alignment Within Your Company in Order to Succeed

What I yearned for at Oracle was clarity on our vision and the goals we wanted to achieve. As I started to manage my own divisions, I found that I personally lacked the tools to spell out what we needed to do and a simple a process to communicate it. The problem only increased as the teams that I was managing increased.

...

At salesforce.com, everything we do in terms of organiza­tional management is based on our V2MOM. It is the core way we run our business; it allows us to define our goals and organize a principled way to execute them; and it takes into consideration our constant drive to evolve. The collaborative construct works especially well for a fast-paced environment.

I can greatly sympathize. It is not a great exaggeration to say that the reason I changed jobs this winter was because I realized I was no longer in alignment with my (former) company. In fact, we hadn't been aligned for nearly a year. I wanted to take the technology, and the products, and the customer base, in a certain direction, but the company had entirely different plans, and goals, and intentions.

That's fine. But what's NOT fine, is that I didn't know that at the time. Horribly, I didn't know it for nearly a year. Which is a shame, both for me, and for the company, as neither of us were well-served by that disconnect.

Famously, Parker Harris saved that original V2MOM that he and Benioff wrote, literally, on the back of an envelope

before the dinner was over, Harris walked up to Benioff and gave him a gift: a framed American Express envelope.

It was the envelope Benioff had used to scribble down Salesforce’s first-ever V2MOM — a list of management guidelines that stands for vision, values, methods, obstacles, and measures — when launching the company in 1999.

The use of V2MOM at Salesforce is fairly well-known, even though it was something I hadn't paid attention to until I joined. For example: SalesForce.com’s Greatest Secret: Art of the V2MOM

The goal of the V2MOM is create complete alignment. Immediately after writing it, share it with your top officers for input (for a startup, this is probably everyone). The brevity ensures a simplicity that is easy to digest. Clarified direction focuses collective attention on the desired outcome and eliminates anxiety in times of change. It is easy for people to connect with and scan quickly for alignment. The V2MOM is flexible enough for startups as well as public companies.
and, Growing the team and creating our very first V2MOM documents
A few months ago I had a great meeting with a good friend and one of my mentors, Mariusz, who is already running a very successful Internet company (and a lot bigger than mine). We talked about team-building and how to maintain focus and make sure the team feels like "one vehicle driving in one direction" and everyone knows they have a big role to play and depend on each other. He suggested I read the "Behind the Cloud" book by Marc Benioff and implemented the V2MOM system Marc invented. I was like "V2what?" and he explained

So, anyway, we're now nearly done with the big annual V2MOm process for this year. The process proceeds top-down:

  1. Marc writes his V2MOM, which is the V2MOM for the entire company, and publishes it
  2. Then each level down the org chart writes, and publishes, their own V2MOM, extracting, selecting, refining, and elaborating on the V2MOMs already published
  3. Eventually, we get down to people like me, and once we've published our V2MOMs, the annual publication event completes.

This is, obviously, the first time I've been through this process, so it's not clear what standing I have to comment.

But it's been interesting enough that I'd like to share a few thoughts.

EVERYONE participates. This is not an optional activity. Some people put more time into it, others less, but nobody sits out entirely. That fact, by itself, creates a curious sense of "belonging," all by itself.

This is not just an exercise for show. The company takes this process VERY seriously. People devote substantial amounts of time to drafting, discussing, revising, and editing their V2MOMs.

The plans are interesting, but much more interesting and much more important is the fact that we are PLANNING. Recall Eisenhower:

Plans are nothing; planning is everything.

At the middle levels of the organization, the V2MOMs describe, collectively, the work of teams of dozens or even hundreds of people, and they can be impressively detailed and robust. I participated in a 3 hour "readout" (a bit of business jargon which I'm told has Microsoft-heritage), in which my 50+ person team collectively reviewed a 35-page detailed description of our goals, aspirations, and worries for the year.

These are not private documents. Everyone's V2MOM is made available to the entire company (though obviously I'm not going to sit down and read 28,000 V2MOM documents).

In fact, you could say that this is perhaps the entire point, as the openness of the V2MOM process is a great example of what people mean when they talk about "transparency."

A crucial part of the V2MOM process involves ORDERING. When you choose your methods, you have to place them in a certain order, and this order conveys your priorities. Your top methods are crucial; these are the things you will fight to accomplish this year. Farther down the list, are things that you believe in, and want to do, but may not be able to achieve.

A famous cliche goes: "if everything's important, nothing's important." Placing your methods in a definite order forces you to stop and think about what REALLY matters.

And people pay attention to this order. They think about it; they arrange their own work around it; it structures the entire conversation. There is an often-retold story inside Salesforce about a very public meeting that occurred not too long after Keith Block had joined. It happened to be V2MOM time, and so Block was producing his V2MOM, and, as part of that process, it was being presented to the team, which meant that it was being presented to, more-or-less, the entire company (Block is maybe the 2nd or 3rd-most important person at the company). During this (open to all, broadcast, widely-watched) event, Block is stepping through his methods, one at a time, when a voice from the audience interrupts: Benioff himself:

Keith, here, I'm a bit puzzled: why did you prioritize this as Method 4? What makes it less important than numbers 2 and 3?

The message: this is important; this is open; nobody gets a free pass; we are all agreeing on this together.

But after all of this, I'd say that the single thing that startled me the most about the entire V2MOM process is: everybody does it!

Even in a small company, it's rare to find anything that everyone does. Corporate activities like this tend to be the sorts of thing that see 20% participation, at least in the corporate settings that I've been part of.

So the simple fact of saying that we ALL have a V2MOM is marvelously compelling.

Hey, I'm just one person out of 28,000, but I'm here! See? I'm doing something, and it's something that's actually relevant! Wanna know? Check out my V2MOM!