Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Competing Narratives of Silicon Valley

In his New York Times column on Sunday (2/15), Thomas Friedman lavished praise on Silicon Valley.  He’d spent 48 hours visiting some of the region’s hottest companies, including Box, Airbnb, and Google.  This left Friedman gushing, “What they all have in common is they wake up every day and ask: ‘What are the biggest trends in the world, and how do I best invent/reinvent my business to thrive from them?’ They’re fixated on creating abundance, not redividing scarcity, and they respect no limits on imagination.”
It was American innovation boosterism at its finest, and while I’m a big fan of American innovation (and Friedman, for that matter), he still had me scratching my head just a little at the histrionics.
Two days later I chanced upon a Valleywag column by Sam Biddle in which he had the same impression I had, though more strongly felt.  (See Thomas Friedman Visited Silicon Valley and Is Wrong About Everything.)

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Future Trumps the Past (Silicon Valley, Mount Vernon, our swingset. . .)

The other evening I looked out across the lawn and was startled to see that someone had removed our swing set. It was one of those big, wooden contraptions with a treehouse and slide, so you can imagine the effort it must have taken to steal it from right under our noses.

Wait. Then I remembered: About a year ago, with our three kids in junior and senior high school and nobody paying much attention to it, we had given the swing set away to a friend. All that fun, all those sunny afternoons pushing kids. Gone.

Still, if I looked closely, I could see that the grass was a slightly different color where all the wood chips had been. In a few years time, though, even that evidence will be gone.  Someday when we sell the house the next family will never know just how special that patch of ground once was.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Keeping the Human Touch in Big Data

When I was growing up, people believed that there could never be a computer smart enough to beat a human being at chess.  Now, we know there may never be a human being smart enough to beat a computer.

What nobody anticipated, however, is that the very best chess "player" happens to be a combination of man and machine, or what the chess world calls Freestyle.  Man + computer beats computer.  There are several reasons for this, one being that humans can see where different computers disagree--not unlike a weather forecaster looking at three or four storm models--and work within the variations to achieve a better result.

Of course, if chess is ever fully "solved," like checkers is today, than the machine is fine all by itself.  But then, fully-solved problems have never been things human beings spend a lot of time worrying about.

Another example where human touch applied to data improves the solution is genealogy.  In the old days before the Web, it took a Herculean effort to build a credible, well sourced family tree.  Research dead-ends could be easily encountered just three and four generations back.  Data was hard earned, sometimes involving plane trips and convincing priests and town administrators to grant access to their precious archives.

Today, Big Genealogy is moving toward a single world tree, with all seven billion of us connected globally.  Seach your name and birth date and, voila, there's your tree.  It's not hard to envision the day when the act of building a tree will be among the least important tasks a genealogist undertakes.  (Even as I write this, a 23andMe email is chirping that it's found me a "4th cousin, with likely range to 3rd or Distant cousin.)

If you're lucky enough to have a family tree, though, you know that far too many of the names and dates are just that--bits of data.  These real people lived long, full, interesting lives but are now reduced to a few dates and places.