A Tale of Two Attitudes

I have been eagerly watching the Occupy Wall Street movement from Seoul. At this distance, I am insulated from the action and much of the media coverage, yet I am dismayed and disgusted by the conservative response to the protestors and events. Specifically, the message that if you don’t know exactly what you’re asking for, then you should shut up and go home. This is a message of complacence and denial, and the wrong way to think about what’s going on. It reminds me of the attitude I saw at Microsoft in 2006, back when Microsoft was still the undisputed top dog of technology. I contrast this with the attitude of personal accountability that Steve Jobs took when he returned as Apple CEO in 1997, beginning the turnaround that would lead Apple from the brink of destruction to the most valuable company on the planet.

Microsoft: Complacence and Denial

In 2006, Microsoft was at a crucial point in its history. It was the most profitable technology company on the planet, with its two cash cows, Windows and Office, enjoying a monopoly firm grip on their respective markets. Yet the company was in danger, with minor competitive threats coming from every direction – Apple OS X, Linux, Google Apps, etc. Moreover, in addition to these external threats, Microsoft’s own worst enemy was itself. The company was filled with politics, infighting, and bureaucracy. The successful products were stagnating, with minimal improvements rolling out at long, multi-year intervals. New projects were under-delivering. The writing was on the wall: if things continued this way, the company would eventually get knocked off its perch.

At the time I was a research scientist at Microsoft and happened to attend a talk given by a brand/PR consultant, apparently fishing for work. The talk began with a simple experiment, which was to query Google for the phrases “love Microsoft”, “hate Microsoft”, “love Apple”, and “hate Apple”. Hardly scientific, but the results at the time indicated a striking difference between the two companies, with lots of love for Apple and lots of hate for Microsoft. The message of the talk was roughly:

You have a monopoly but your users hate you. As soon as there is a credible alternative to the monopoly, users will abandon you in droves. You need to fix your products, but there are also lots of low-hanging fruit to simply make your users like you more, independent of your products.  (So hire me to help you figure it out.)

The talk contained a lot of unproven assumptions, but it more or less matched my gut feelings about the state of the company and its market at that time.

More interesting than the talk, however, was the reaction to the talk. There were about 100 people in the room, and my sense was that the many of us were stunned, thinking “wow, that made a lot of sense”, but not really knowing what to do about it.

Most of the audience responses, however, were attacks at the speaker. Some of the attacks involved the validity of the claims – contesting the idea that a Google search was a useful proxy for anything. Many of the attacks were of a “haters gonna hate” variety – that people only hate Microsoft because of its incredible success, and despite that hate, Microsoft was still and would continue to be the best software company on earth. Both of these responses were forms of complacence and denial: “there’s nothing wrong with the status quo, and time will prove us right.”

Apple: Personal Accountability

After hitting an all-time low in the mid-1990’s, Apple began to turn around with the return of Steve Jobs. Here’s a quote from Jobs at the 1997 MacWorld Expo, after receiving a $150M lifeline from archi-rival Microsoft (full video at the end of this post):

If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose. We have to embrace a notion that for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job. And if others are going to help us that’s great, because we need all the help we can get, and if we screw up and we don’t do a good job, it’s not somebody else’s fault, it’s our fault. So I think that is a very important perspective. If we want Microsoft Office on the Mac, we better treat the company that puts it out with a little bit of gratitude; we like their software.

So, the era of setting this up as a competition between Apple and Microsoft is over as far as I’m concerned. This is about getting Apple healthy, this is about Apple being able to make incredibly great contributions to the industry and to get healthy and prosper again.

After the history of bitter rivalry between the two companies, this must have been a tremendously difficult speech to give, and an even more difficult realization to have come to in the first place. Even after the speech was over, in the video you can see audience members shaking their heads.

But difficult or not, it was a pivotal moment for the company and one which led to a renaissance of innovation and impact that has changed the industry and the world. The following twelve years of growth were the product of massive numbers of people, and countless acts of hard work brilliance, at all levels of strategy and execution. But I believe they all came from this basic attitude of personal accountability and a quest for excellence.

Occupy Wall Street

Like the personal computing industry, the globalized world is more dynamic and ultra-competitive than ever. Like Microsoft in 2006, the USA is still the world’s dominant superpower. Over the past century, we have built up an economic and infrastructural lead over the rest of the world. Recently, the USA is squandering that lead and failing its people. If there’s ever a time to question what’s going on in our country, it’s now.

Yesterday, while I was writing this, Occupy Wall Street issued its first official declaration. It is a series of grievances about corporate forces that “place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, [and] run our governments.” Each grievance is of the form “They have X” where X ranges from illegal foreclosure to privacy violation to animal torture and cruelty. It’s all over the place. I don’t agree with every statement, and I don’t believe in the use of “they”. I think that these are problems that “we” all have to address. But I think these are the right questions to be asking.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs (deceased between the time I started writing this and its completion, may he rest in peace.):

This is about getting America healthy, this is about America being able to make incredibly great contributions to the world and to get healthy and prosper again.

We should accept that there are huge problems that need to be addressed now, while, in some respects we’re still on top, rather than waiting until we hit rock bottom. Some of the people occupying Wall Street may already be at rock bottom, or feel like it. Some of them may simply be angry, or crazy, or there for a good time. But they are raising great questions.

Furthermore, in addition to questioning what’s going on, we should take a personally accountable attitude about how to address those questions. Again, paraphrasing:

We have to embrace a notion that for America to win, America has to do a really good job.

If our people are sick, oppressed, under-educated, and disenfranchised, it is a problem for all of us. And it is the responsibility of the government, the industry, the protesters, and the rest of us to do what we can to do a really good job and fix it.

Jobs’ full 1997 MacWorld speech:




Let’s Just Give Up and Go Home

I just read this post (via Lucas), in which an economist argues that the following graph does not prove much either way about the efficacy of the economic stimulus:

The nature of the argument, as I understood it, is that the actual unemployment rate being much higher than the predicted rate (even higher than the predicted rate without a recovery plan), is evidence that the stimulus did not work. However, the strength of this evidence is related to the strength of the model, and because the model’s predictive power is so poor, the strength of the evidence is also poor. What this also could suggest is that even if the actual employment rate tracked the prediction, it might not be much evidence that the prediction worked anyway. I didn’t look into the original model, but knowing a bit about statistics and that there are numerous factors that affect unemployment rate, the argument sounds plausible.

This is really frustrating as a proponent and sometimes-practitioner of mathematical modeling, who is starting to dabble in economics. If these macro real-world problems are so difficult to model that the best modelers are not able to say anything useful about their work, what hope is there for the rest of us? Why don’t we all just pack it in and stock up on gold, guns, and supplies? Depressing.

Ian Bogost, Edward Tufte, and Gamejunk

When I had lunch with Ian Bogost a couple weeks ago in Seoul, he railed venomously against gamification, startups, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and pretty much anything with a pulse. Having never read any of his work, I charitably attributed his attitude to a raging case of jetlag. When I later read his scathing takedowns “Gamification is Bullshit” and “Shit Crayons”, I realized that he is even more cantankerous on a full night’s sleep. I subscribed to his RSS feed hoping something constructive would come down the pipe. Today I got my reward.

Ian’s latest post, “Notes on Loyalty”, is wonderful. He contrasts two types of interactions as a frequent flyer of Delta Airlines. In the negative interactions, the airline tries to placate or manipulate him by awarding loyalty points as meaningless, generic, and asymmetric gestures. In the positive example, the customer service representative understands his problem, helps him solve it, and thoughtfully reimburses him for the inconvenience.

During our lunch, Ian was vocal about things that he thought were unfair, dishonest, or otherwise in poor taste, but much less forthcoming on what he saw as “good”, and I appreciate that Loyalty contains such an example. The first thing that came to mind as I read is the old adage that “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Writing incendiary posts overflowing with bile (intellectualized trolling?) might garner pageviews, but does little to convince people. Focusing on a positive example does wonders for persuasive power.

Loyalty‘s message made me think of information visualization guru Edward Tufte. Like Bogost, despite being a proponent of information visualization in general, Tufte spends tremendous effort railing against poorly-executed visualizations, and against Powerpoint in particular.

Tufte also advances his own principles of what makes for good visualizations. Among these, my favorite are the notions of chartjunk and data-ink as introduced in the 1983 classic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information:

The interior decoration of graphics generates a lot of ink that does not tell the viewer anything new. The purpose of decoration varies — to make the graphic appear more scientific and precise, to enliven the display, to give the designer an opportunity to exercise artistic skills. Regardless of its cause, it is all non-data-ink or redundant data-ink, and it is often chartjunk.

Above all else show the data.

To make the principle concrete, Tufte proposes the data-ink ratio, which is the ratio of ink used to convey the information in a graphic to the total ink in the graphic. As an illustrative example, he conducts a sequential redesign of an information graphic in which ink is removed in steps until there are no more removals possible without eliminating data from the graphic:

A visualization redesign example from Tufte's Visual Display of Quantitative Information, in which he successively removes ink from an original diagram on the left until all that is left is data ink on the right.

I wonder whether, at some level, Ian is trying to make a Tufte-esque point about game-like interactions in business systems, which is that user interactions which don’t contribute to the core purpose of the task – in this case, serving the customer – are wasteful at best and dishonest at worst. In the spirit of Tufte’s chartjunk, I wonder whether he would approve of the term gamejunk for systems interactions that distract from or obscure the underlying transactions. Or whether he would blast it for trivializing something that is complex and nuanced. Either way, I appreciate his sharp perspective.

Lowering the Bar on Language Understanding

As a developer of language understanding software, it can be frustrating to tackle problems that are not completely solvable using today’s technologies, and it’s always a challenge to evaluate the software in meaningful ways. Concepts like precision and recall are useful to compare two different approaches to the same problem, but they don’t necessarily map well to a person’s experience using the software, which may require extremely high accuracy for some tasks but not for others, and which may have as much to do with the way the results are presented than with the quality. I have struggled with meaningful evaluation on every project I’ve ever worked on.

As a novice Korean speaker, living in Seoul with a Korean wife, Korean in-laws, and Korean friends, I am also a frequent user of Google Translate, which attempts to solve language translation, one of the thorniest language problems around. I’m often pasting in an email or Facebook comment to get the gist of what was said, so I don’t have to bother somebody for a full translation unless it’s important. Sometimes the results are complete nonsense, sometimes they are really funny, but mostly they are far from perfect but still completely useful for my needs. (And as an atypical user who appreciates how difficult the problem is, perhaps my expectations are a lot lower.)

At any rate, I was delighted to see feedback drop-down (helpful | not helpful | offensive) on the latest Translate user interface. It seems like an obvious question to ask, but it’s the first time I’ve seen this feedback mechanism on an intelligent system like this. I really like that it doesn’t ask about the degree of correctness of the answer, but rather whether the (probably not completely accurate) results were good enough to help the user with whatever they were trying to do.  I’m sure they are collecting a ton of really great data to improve their tool in a variety of ways, and I can imagine applying this to a lot of other artificially intelligent systems.

Finally, if anybody from the Google Translate team is reading this post, I’d like to make a request. I often share humorously poor translations with my wife, but I’d bet they are quite tame and mundane compared to the stuff you’re collecting with the offensive button. I’d bet that you even have an internal “hall of shame” for this kind of thing. If you can share any of these without violating your privacy terms, I’m sure all your diehard users would appreciate a peak at the worst of the worst. At least I would. 🙂

Image courtesy Google Translate UI.