28 June 2017

Google and Grothendieck

There is a piece of open source software that we use occasionally.  Its primary author is a single Google employee, whose work on it is (as far as we can tell) a large part of his employment.  I was reading part of the source today, and remarked that it was surprisingly bad code stylistically - enormous functions, enormous files, many global variables, and so forth - but tremendously functional.  A coworker replied:

You can really tell who at Google is good enough that they're left alone to do their own thing.

And it reminded me of this, something that Alexander Grothendieck supposedly said:

In those critical years I learned how to be alone. [But even] this formulation doesn't really capture my meaning. I didn't, in any literal sense learn to be alone, for the simple reason that this knowledge had never been unlearned during my childhood. It is a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth. However these three years of work in isolation [1945–1948], when I was thrown onto my own resources, following guidelines which I myself had spontaneously invented, instilled in me a strong degree of confidence, unassuming yet enduring, in my ability to do mathematics, which owes nothing to any consensus or to the fashions which pass as law....By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member, or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority. This silent consensus had informed me, both at the lycĂ©e and at the university, that one shouldn't bother worrying about what was really meant when using a term like "volume," which was "obviously self-evident," "generally known," "unproblematic," etc....It is in this gesture of "going beyond," to be something in oneself rather than the pawn of a consensus, the refusal to stay within a rigid circle that others have drawn around one—it is in this solitary act that one finds true creativity. All others things follow as a matter of course.

Since then I've had the chance, in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my "elders" and among young people in my general age group, who were much more brilliant, much more "gifted" than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle—while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things that I had to learn (so I was assured), things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates, almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.

In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still, from the perspective of thirty or thirty-five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They've all done things, often beautiful things, in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they've remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have had to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: the capacity to be alone.
And it lines up - I'm pretty sure this developer of ours wrote his magnum opus in solitude first, and then was hired by Google to develop it after it had shaken up the field.  No concern for "best practices", no design by committee, just wrestling with the hard problems and solving them by whatever means necessary, in the time required to do it correctly and efficiently, releasing when it's good and ready.

O!  To program like that!

...  Well, what're you doing this weekend?

(I am in turn reminded of something Hamming said in "You and Your Research": you'll get the resources to do the job after you've proven you can do it without them, on your own time)

25 June 2017

Linkpost, 19-25 June 2017

Some things I read this week:


Give the FSB your source code, they said.  It'll be fun, they said.

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists analyzes feasibility of North Korean chemical bombardment of Seoul - a highly improbable scenario, but an interesting (if pessimistic) analysis nonetheless.

Blogs / Culture War:

SSC: To understand polarization, undersand conservatism's failures

Samzdat: The meridian of her greatness - sounds to me like Polyani had an accurate view of the world (but coming from reading a bunch of James C. Scott in the last year, I would say that).  Reminds me somewhat of this.

SSC: Against murderism

David Brin: The Jefferson Rifle - came up at work because a coworker claimed that no compromise on gun control was possible.  Which may be correct, but part of his argument was an unavailability heuristic - he had never even heard of a good-faith proposal for compromise (granted: young, very work-focused engineer).

David Brin: A Time for Colonels, Part 3 - I think he takes Lakoff entirely too seriously.  Might work in the short term, but I suspect there's a good reason for that norm that even retired officers mostly stay out of tribal politics.  Potential "guilt by association" backfire failure mode of "the officer corps is now publicly aligned with the Blue Tribe, ergo the officer corps is no longer to be trusted."

Speeches / Lectures:

Alan Kay: [pdf warning] The Power of the Context

Marvin Minsky: Turing Award address - a bit dated, but a novel perspective on education:
– To help people learn is to help them build, in their heads, various kinds of computational models.
– This can best be done by a teacher who has, in his head, a reasonable model of what is in the pupil's head.
– For the same reason the student, when debugging his own models and procedures, should have a model of what he is doing, and must know good debugging techniques, such as how to formulate simple but critical test cases.
– It will help the student to know something about computational models and programming. The idea of debugging itself, for example, is a very powerful concept-in contrast to the helplessness promoted by our cultural heritage about gifts, talents, and aptitudes. The latter encourages "I'm not good at this" instead of "How can I make myself better at it?"
The child needs models: to understand the city he may use the organism model: it must eat, breathe, excrete, defend itself, etc. Not a very good model, but useful enough. The metabolism of a real organism he can understand, in turn, by comparison with an engine. But to model his own self he cannot use the engine or the organism or the city or the telephone switchboard; nothing will serve at all but the computer with its programs and their bugs. Eventually, programming itself will become more important even than mathematics in early education.
Richard Hamming: n-dimensional spaces - impressively fast derivations, and man my calc is rusty.  Not my favorite Hamming lecture.  Interesting notes on testing at the very end

Tensorflow without a PhD


Not a great week for books.  Read a little of Generatingfunctionology after an epiphany in the shower, started Barabasi's Network Science, stalled on The Strategy of Technology and The Mind Illuminated.  

09 June 2017

Vignettes from a "Tech Happy Hour"

Demographics: ~30 attendees total, relatively large fraction of non-technical folks (management, marketing, MBA students, ...).  Almost all white, Indian, middle-eastern; only two asians (one of whom was definitely nontechnical) and one black dude teaching himself to program, but not sure what language to use.  Surprisingly high fraction of women, maybe 20%, including at least one female engineer.  Also a relatively senior crowd for startuppy software; looked like mostly late-20s early-30s, with one or two late-30s or early-40s.  Free beer and awkward swag tshirts provided by beer company representative.

Inebriated man who works in the oil and gas industry is looking for someone to build a website to track company finances, because the finance thing they currently use was written by a friend of the founder, isn't very good, feels like borderline-corruption.  Nobody's interested.

Javascript developer wants to learn Haskell.

Woman: "Why are these fries so delicious?"
Man: "Salt.  Also a reasonable level of Maillard browning."
Woman: "..."
Man: "What?"

Lawyer-in-training tells startup people that lawyers are most clutch at the beginning, and by the time the money is coming in it's already too late.  Attendees immediately and in parallel posit "legal debt" analogous to technical debt.

Man is working on a website to get beer delivered to your house despite $STATE's arcane alcohol laws.  Most of the work he does is talking to lawyers; he's outsourced all of his development to India, because he "doesn't have $50k to drop on the project, you know?"

Sad, quiet Indian man has been working on industrial control systems for six years, looking for new job; declines free beer because "I've been drinking a lot lately."

"So what do you do?"
"I'm a developer for a security company."
"But like...  is that all?  Do you have a side hustle?  Do you invest?"
"Not really; they keep me pretty busy."
"Ah, don't give me that.  We're all slaves here.  What are you doing for your freedom?"
"I have no hope for freedom; I am planning to work until I die."
"Strong attitude, but augh!  With a little change of direction, you could be working for yourself.  Gotta look out for #1.  That's you!  You're #1!"

UX designer laments the difficulty of finding remote work, speculates that IBM's recent "move or you're fired" termination of remote-work policy was actually just an excuse for staffing cuts without severance.

Man is working on a system for providing free Subway sandwiches and gift cards and things to people who volunteer for charitable causes.  But is it really volunteering if you're getting stuff for it?  Seems to me like it's low-cost feel-good advertising for Subway.

"I hope I won't offend any of you, but you know Brietbart, right?  All they do is take other peoples' content, slap a caption and a paragraph of text on it, and republish it.  It's super low-cost, and that's part of why they can put out the volume that they do.  And it's super-effective.  Sure, they have "writers", but they don't really write, you know?"

A man is working on a system to add a feedback form into wifi captive portals at hotels and restaurants, so that owners can get feedback and fix issues before they turn into negative reviews, each of which "costs a restaurant 30 customers".  His company is at a local startup incubator, making him a popular fellow.

A singularitarian who works for a startup that makes house-calls via phone camera.  He's convinced strong/general AI is coming in the next decade, and talks about Bostrom's Superintelligence, Calico's life extension work, and China's use of CRISPR on humans.  Missed my chance to ask him if he reads LessWrong.

A designer talks about the time her startup found a dead rat in their coworking space five minutes before a big client meeting, so she had to move a couch to cover it.  Symbolic of the whole startup experience, really.

Overall I found the whole thing darkly comedic.  I recall reading an incisive observation of a tech conference once, that "everyone is selling new ways of selling to each other", and it held some recognizable truth here.