Monthly Archives: August 2014

The dangers of semi-autonomous cars

About six or seven years ago, I was driving on a nearly empty stretch of I-95 in Connecticut around midnight when a car cut me off. The driver slammed on his brakes, and, with no room for me to safely get around him, I braked, too. He came to a stop in the middle lane of the highway, with me a half-car length behind him, panicked out of my mind. As cars came up behind us, most heard my beeping, saw the hazards, and steered around us.

My half-baked plan to not die if I got rear-ended by a car going 65 mph was to hit the accelerator, smash into the car in front of me, and, using basic laws of physics, have the hypothetical car behind me propel both our cars forward as a unit. The dual purpose of the plan was to ensure that by the time my car was hit, I had already overcome static friction and could be pushed ahead more easily (i.e. reducing the momentum change that kills you) and, if the car in front of me is already moving, would avoid breaking my neck when slammed forward by the hypothetical rear-ending car and then slammed to a stop by the car in front.  (Thankfully, I didn’t need to use that plan; the car in front of me suddenly drove off after about a minute, which was also coincidentally a mere ten seconds before a police cruiser drove up.  Insurance scam, anyone?)

Suffice to say, the idea of a semi-autonomous car that cannot be overridden scares the crap out of me.  I’m all for avoiding fender-benders, but the gross accidents that can kill you are the ones to be scared of – and are precisely the sort that are hard to prevent via semi-autonomous (read: half-brained) software.  What could have saved my life is exactly what that software doesn’t want you to do: slam down the accelerator and go plowing into the car in front of you. Software is good at keeping itself focused on tasks like “Don’t hit the car in front of you” or “beep when there is someone in the blind spot,” but is distinctly terrible at making value judgements, e.g. it is better to rear-end the car in front of you than be frozen in place when rear-ended at 65 mph, or it’s better to swerve off the road than be killed by a tractor trailer that is spinning out of control.


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The Market Basket Saga: Thoughts

The Market Basket saga is coming to a close (hopefully): Arthur T. Demoulas will buy out the 50.5% of the company that he does not own, using financing from a private equity firm and his sisters.  Soon (if not now), he will take over as interim CEO while the deal is finalised.

Approximately five weeks after the first employees walked off the job, the massive protests succeeded.  For any aspiring activists out there, here’s why the protests succeeded where others failed:

Artie T. bought the place at a cost of almost $2 billion.  Hey, when you have a moneybags guy on your side, it’s easier to win.  But the Basketeers also won because they had a very simple, defined goal that was feasible and practical: reinstate the ousted CEO.  This wasn’t Occupy Wall Street’s “forgive all debt,” which would bring about worldwide economic ruin; this was asking to bring things back to the way they had been in June of 2014.

The nature of the protests had a very strong nexus with the demand.  “We are not going to work and we are going to encourage a boycott until you bring back our boss” is really logical: it took away the ability of the Arthur S. Demoulas side of the family to make a quick sale to a Cerberus or whomever. In fact, the chain was so crippled by boycotts that the only choice was to sell or go out of business. That is fundamentally different from Occupy Wall Street’s mantra of taking over a park until Wall Street did, um, something. The Wall Streeters didn’t care and didn’t take them seriously, but small businesses nearby were hurt and cities had to spend a bunch of money on the protestors.

That brings me to my final point: the Basketeers didn’t engage in needlessly divisive tactics.  It was the most adorable protest imaginable, with a giraffe mascot, employees who put up signs saying “Please excuse our appearance while we get our CEO back” (reminiscent of  12 year old girls who didn’t do the dishes because they were trying to find the neighbour’s dog), and strikers who took pride in being the admirable, stand-up employees that Arthur T. Demoulas taught them to be.  My friends from all over the country, who had never heard of Market Basket, were supporting the employees and the boycotting customers.


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Filed under Food, Nerdiness

Lessons from sports for adult life

Back in middle school, I played basketball.  At one summer basketball camp, I was in the one-on-one competition against one of the best girls in the camp.  I played hard, took outside shots, and really did not give her the easy win that she wanted.  She learned pretty quickly that it was going to be a tougher battle than anticipated, so she started doing things like slapping my arms every time I took a shot. It was absurd; I went to the foul line a few times, the ref stopped calling her on it when she did it, and at the end of the game (she won), my arms were red from the top of my bicep to the middle of my forearm.

It is an excellent analogy for how dirty the Market Basket Board of Directors is fighting.  A month ago, they thought they had this easy win: old CEO ousted, new co-CEOs in place, get the chain ready for sale and a huge payout.  Then about 160 of the employees in the warehouse and trucking went on strike.  The management responded by doing what you do with non-unionised workers who strike: fire the managers who organised it.  That didn’t quell the rebellion; it threw gasoline onto the fire.  The strike turned to a chain-wide protest and a two million customer boycott. Ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas offered to buy the part of the chain that his rivals own; the Board has sat on the offer for three weeks. Meanwhile, their “win” is ever more elusive: the chain is losing ten million dollars a day, no one really wants to buy the chain except for the ousted CEO, and the customer protests are only getting stronger.

The newest tactic by the desperate Board, seeing “their” victory pulled away from them, is to offer “Artie T” a non-CEO management spot (thereby rejecting his offer to return as CEO pending the sale to him) with no guarantee that the chain would be sold to him if he stabilises the company.  His spokesman rightly called the Board out on how ridiculous that is.  New England collectively cracked up and asked why Artie T. would do their own work for them.

So they have now come out with a petulant, petty statement deriding him, a non-voting shareholder with no control over the company an an offer to buy it for more than it is worth, for “holding employees and customers hostage.” When losing games that they expect to win, some people get very petty and nasty.

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Advice, defined

Advice: what you ask for when you know what you’re supposed to do but don’t want to do it.

That came to mind when reading David Brooks’ column about the value (or lack thereof) of introspection. Too much introspection leads to a lack of perspective, which is why it’s often easier to give other people advice than to give it to yourself.

We’re better at giving other people good advice than at giving ourselves good advice, so it’s smart, when trying to counsel yourself, to pretend you are somebody else. This can be done a bit even by thinking of yourself in the third person. Work by Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross finds that people who view themselves from a self-distanced perspective are better at adaptive self-reflection than people who view themselves from a self-immersed perspective.

I found that thinking of myself as a friend or colleague with a problem, then asking “What would I say to this person if she came to me for help?” opens up my thought process. For people who are grade-A stress cases, it also helps to get some emotional distance from the problem.

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Advice For College Students

Last year, I wrote some #AdviceForCollegeWomen and #AdviceForCollegeMen.  You can find it here.

I would like to think that my advice to “major in something useful, minor in something fun” is pertinent given that a lot of the pay gap is the result of a career-choice gap (i.e. the highest-paying professions are things like petroleum engineering and are often dominated by men), and that my advice to not get black-out drunk is important in an age wherein drunk people do mean things to each other.

Of course, no one gets rich – or even gets page views – off saying boring things like “Study and party, or study and don’t party, but make sure you study,” or “Don’t get pregnant and don’t get anyone pregnant.”

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Filed under Academia

Define “tech industry”

For those who know me “in real life,” I had a previous career in R&D. Most of my co-workers (in Massachusetts, no less) were centre-right, a few hard-core conservatives, and a few old-fashioned liberals.  So imagine my surprise when I saw a poll claiming that most people in the “tech industry” are liberals. (Hat tip.)

First, the Pando poll admits that it is “completely unscientific,” in that it is derived from readers of the blog.  A better description of the poll would be “readers of the Pando blog.”  Very likely, the poll shows us nothing more than those who are demographically left (young, single, with time on their hands) are more likely to read that blog than are those who are demographically right (older, usually married, often spending more time changing diapers or driving kids to soccer games than reading blogs).

But the whole thing brought to mind the issue of what is the “tech industry.”

Continue reading

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Why my blog is boring

There are times when you just realise that your blog is boring. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the name of an animal in the title. Maybe it’s because you don’t have pink hair and the lack of panache comes through in your writing.  Or maybe it’s just that you don’t write things like this about the Market Basket meltdown:

But what is this ineffectual leadership going to do? Fucking fire everyone? Yeah, no. Disaster. Not even just in a logistics sense, but from a PR standpoint, it would be a headache to attempt to hire an entirely new work force for every store. Customers are protesting along with the workers, and the fallout from such a move would be drastic. It would take months for a new workforce to get up to speed, if they could even find enough people willing to work there. Do they think robotic minions grow on trees? Not since we told Monsanto to cut the crap with the robotic minion GMOs.

Is replacing the new CEO team not an option? Don’t look at me, I have tattoos, pink hair, live in relative poverty, and I’m writing a freakin’ blog. I’m not exactly in Harvard Business School here. But with these two dipweasels at the helm, it’s not going well for Market Basket. This shitstorm may not be entirely under their control, but they’re sitting there with stupid looks on their faces just letting it happen with no real solutions.

Good one, Clamsplainer.

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Filed under Economics, Nerdiness