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For-profit companies and research

Reuters published an article right before Christmas about how Google is purportedly attempting to shape the messaging in the research papers published by its staff. First, an upfront disclaimer: I have no knowledge of Google’s publication processes, and I’ve been out of academic research for years. But I find the hand-wringing in response by some academics hilarious. News flash: for-profit companies do not fund research out of the goodness of their hearts, they do it to, y’know, make profit. Even if companies don’t explicitly shape the content of papers, researchers will do it implicitly. If you were a highly paid industrial researcher, would you really want to publish a paper that made your employer look bad? When you’re thinking about your yearly evaluation and promotion path?

Frankly, if you want total intellectual freedom, you need to do your own research and fund it yourself. Want to do research in industry? Companies have agendas. Government funding? If funding decisions are made by other academics, then you’re probably going to have to focus on trendy research topics. If they’re made by a single funding manager, then that manager’s agenda is determining acceptable research topics. And academics also need to be able to interest grad students in working on a problem (trendiness again).

Research is always shaped by external factors; don’t act shocked by it.

WFH Wardrobe

For the first six months of working from home, my work from home uniform was shorts and sandals. Why not? Online meetings only show you from the waist up. The only time I work socks was when I went biking or running.

In the last few months (hard to believe we’re coming up on 10 months of WFH) I’ve had to break out warmer clothes. Way back when I was actually going to an office, I chose clothes that weren’t too warm or too nice, since I commuted by bike (one nice thing about bike commuting in the winter: when it’s in the low 40s on your ride in, you don’t get sweaty if you’re wearing something breathable). But since that’s not an issue now, warm and cozy is the order of the day. My current favorites:

  • I’ve swapped my sandals for slippers. My LL Bean Wicked Good Slippers have lasted for years and still keep my feet super comfy.
  • I bought an LL Bean Chamois shirt a few years ago as a winter layer for use when kicking back at home. For when you want a warm flannel shirt.
  • One more LL Bean shirt: on an early cold day I bought a fleece-lined flannel shirt. So warm, so toasty.
  • At the end of last winter I bought a discounted fleece from Relwen. I only used it a few times then, but I’ve gotten a ton of use out of it this fall and winter.

It’ll be interesting to see if / how office fashion changes once we can actually spend time in offices again.

The prevalence of Shopify

I knew of Shopify, but before this Christmas I’d never really encountered sites made with it. That’s largely due to my shopping habits: although I patronize smaller businesses in person, most of my online shopping is with large retailers who can afford to fully design and implement their own online store. But this Christmas I made an explicit effort to shop with small businesses, helped by an online “Christmas catalog” that Google assembled of recommended Black-owned retailers.

I ended up buying from seven of them, and they were all using Shopify to create their online store. The actual browsing experience was fairly varied, so at first I didn’t realize it. But the actual checkout and payment experiences were almost completely uniform (with only a few, small variations). The first couple of times it just struck me as coincidence; they might have been using a similar library, for example, to handle purchases. But by the third time it was stretching the bounds of coincidence, and I started actively looking at how the sites were built. Sure enough, they were using Shopify. All of them. And I have to say, the user experience was pretty good, and once I knew the pattern to look for, it actually raised my confidence in the businesses. I’d prefer a common processor handling payment details (and security) to a bunch of small businesses attempting to roll their own solutions.

Granted these sites probably aren’t representative of small businesses as a whole (they were from a list vetted by Google, after all), but Shopify is more prevalent than I realized. And now that I’m actively looking for its use, I suspect I’ll start identifying it in more places.

Google’s Needy Assistant

We have several Google home devices: a Google Home Mini that I got free from Spotify, the original Google Hub (now Nest Hub) that we bought primarily as a digital photo frame, and a Google Home Max that we bought during a 50% off sale to use as a speaker in our WFH office. All are perfectly lovely devices; I enjoy seeing old photos on the Hub, the Home Max has great sound (and it’s convenient to Cast to it from our laptops), and the Mini is useful for checking the weather when getting dressed.

But we almost never interact with the Assistant on any of those devices, and we’re clearly not alone; the Assistant team seems to be getting increasingly desperate to drive usage (disclaimer: I work for Google, but on the Android team; I have no idea what the Assistant team is up to). It started out with the Assistant tagging on “helpful” hints when I’d ask it the weather (“Did you know that…?”). That’d be fine if it happened once or twice, but the Assistant keeps doing it (at a guess there’s some inactivity threshold that I keep crossing; like I said, we don’t interact with the Assistant much). And there’s no way (at least no way I’ve found) to tell the Assistant “yes, I do know, I just don’t care, so stop bothering me”.

This week the Assistant crossed a new threshold: now when telling me yet again that it had additional capabilities I could use, it informed me that it was going to send me a notification with additional details. It’s apparently not enough to verbally nag me to interact with it more; now it’s starting to spam my other devices.

Neediness isn’t a good look for an “intelligent” assistant. Offer users suggestions and tips once or twice, then stop nagging them. Make it easy to find out how to leverage additional capabilities when users are interested. And focus on providing capabilities that offer users real value, rather than nagging them into using mediocre ones (or ones that the user just doesn’t need).

Silver linings to WFH

I had to swing by Google’s offices last week to pick up a device for prototyping. It was nice to see Google’s campus again. I miss our building; we didn’t even get to enjoy it for a full year before we had to abandon it! It was also depressing. The campus was empty and lifeless, when it used to be bustling with people and full of energy. I saw maybe three people wandering around, and one of them was a security guard. It made me miss seeing all my coworkers and having face-to-face conversations.

But hey, working from home all the time does have a few silver linings, right? It’s been over six months since I’ve worn socks (when I haven’t been running or biking). Same for pants; I’ve been in shorts since at least April. I bought a pair of hair clippers in May, and I’m pretty sure I’ll break even after my next home haircut. After that I’ll be saving money. And we’re already saving on car washes, having bought a sprayer for our hose in June. And I can wear a wider variety of my wardrobe to “work”, since I don’t have to worry about getting clothes sweaty from biking into work (we won’t talk about the exercise I’m not getting since I’m not biking to and from work).

The benefit I might be looking forward to the most is coming up. Since I prefer running in the afternoon and evening to running in the morning, I usually end up having to run in the dark with a headlamp starting in November. This year, though, I can just shift my work schedule and go running in the late afternoon and then just work a little later. So yes, I’ve been stuck at home for the last six months and for the foreseeable future. But at least I don’t have to go running in the dark this year.

Heat and smoke

The heat wave we’ve been having for the last week or so in the Bay Area finally seems to be breaking, and the cooler air off the ocean is clearing the smoke from the Glass Fire out as well (as least for now). I’m used to cooler weather in September from growing up in upstate NY; it’s just wrong to get a stretch of 90+ degree weather at the end of September and into October. And California’s wine country just can’t seem to catch a break; unless I’ve lost count (entirely possible; we’ve had so many fires this season), the Glass Fire marks the third time they’ve been hit with fires this year.

This week the forecast predicts we’ll cool down throughout the week, ending with a high near 70 on Saturday. I am seriously looking forward to some cooler weather. And there’s even a chance of rain (although not a huge chance), which I think we could all use at this point.

I’m hopeful the cooler weather will help the area finally get a break from the incessant fires, although fire season still isn’t over. It’d be nice to be able to actually close the Purple Air tab I’ve been leaving open in my browser. I think July was the last time I didn’t have Purple Air in a tab on at least one of my devices.

It’s beginning to look a lot…

… like there are a bunch of fires blowing smoke in our direction. Sadly that’s not a dusting of snow, it’s a dusting of ash. Although it’s hard not to think “nuclear winter” at the moment; this weekend instead of unseasonably hot weather and unhealthy air, we’re going to have unseasonably cool weather (due to the smoke blotting out the sun) and healthy air.

Welcome to Mars

There’s so much smoke in the air from all the fires in California that we had an orange (and dim) sky all day in the Bay Area. It felt a bit like we were on Mars. At this point 2020 must be running out of things to surprise us with, right? Right?

Today in the Bay Area

Heat wave

For a couple of days last week we had comfortable weather with clearer air; we could actually leave our windows open all the time! And then we got hit with another heatwave, and our house has been closed up since Saturday. Yesterday it hit 106, and today it hit 105. PG&E, our electrical utility, has been pleading with people to reduce usage between 9 and 3 to avoid the need to introduce rolling blackouts. And the stagnant air has been trapping smoke from the wildfires, so even when it’s cooled down at night the air quality has been poor enough that we haven’t opened the windows.

As vacation weekends go, this one hasn’t been that relaxing. Can’t go outside because it’s hot as hell. Can’t go anywhere because of Covid 19 restrictions. My wife and I often glance at the “What you get” section in the NY Times, where they show off three homes you could get for a certain dollar amount in different parts of the country. The Bay Area being as expensive as it is, the homes are either invariably much cheaper or much larger. This week, after heat, fire, and smoke, the idea of a lovely home in Maine is downright tempting.

Memories of Big Basin

When we first moved to California and our daughter was younger, we used to do a lot of camping in the summer. It was fun, inexpensive, and a way to take advantage of the great weather in the Bay Area (and when it got too hot in Silicon Valley, it was often a fair bit cooler in the mountains under the trees).

One of our favorite spots to camp was Big Basin, California’s oldest state park. It was just isolated enough to avoid it being overrun with people (you had to navigate a seriously twisty little road to get there), while remaining close enough to make it a good destination for a weekend camping trip. And with its coastal redwoods it was a different world from the valley’s more Mediterranean climate.

Big Basin camping

Unfortunately, Big Basin was hit by CZU complex fire that’s still burning, destroying the historic headquarters building and damaging much of the park’s infrastructure. According to the latest reports, it sounds like it’s going to be closed for at least a year for repairs.

Thankfully, it also sounds like most of the redwoods survived (they’re extremely hardy, and fire actually helps them reproduce (so long as the fire isn’t too intense). So future families will be able to also build memories of summer vacations together in the woods.