Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Circle

A few days ago I finished my struggle with Dave Eggers’ The Circle. I have mixed feelings about it.

The reason that I struggled was that Eggers apparently has been paying attention to part of the advice given to novelists, specifically to pile the risks and troubles on your protagonist so the reader will be eager to see how the hero can possibly get to the end of the book alive. Eggers does this in excruciating detail, creating what seems like Chinese water torture — for the reader. Mae Holland is sucked into the surveilled and broadcast realm of The Circle (the name of a company as well as the title of the book) in detail that goes on for page after page. If fifty of his 491 pages had been edited away the book would be better for it. Elmore Leonard is a good model, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

The deadly pace doesn’t change the fearful core of the novel.

The book opens with Mae starting her career at The Circle, a technology and communication maelstrom that wraps up all of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and just about anything else digital you might think of. In fact, The Circle had bought Google, Facebook, and Twitter, plus a list of fictional names. By the middle of the volume they’ve started handling myriad payments, replacing not only PayPal but Visa and MasterCard, your friendly neighborhood bank, and currency itself. By the end of the book they taking over police manhunts and are offering to take over voting. And Mae facilitates all of this, becoming one of The Circle’s most compelling public faces.

How would you feel about a biometric monitor worn on your risk, displaying your vital signs? How about if that were available on-line in real time? The Circle developed such a system, and Mae was happy to wear it.

On the face of it, this world is not as scary as Margaret Atwoods The Handmaid’s Tale or Orwell’s 1984. There are no forced medical procedures or torture. But the surveillance of society is at least as complete as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison concept and getting worse by the page. At the end of the book an existential threat to The Circle is sidestepped, the rapid (dare I say “cancerous”?) growth presumably continues.

I’m not convinced that present trends have any potential for translating into something like the world Eggers creates. But If I Were King, I’d be one of the people that The Circle would be most interested in getting their clutches on and one wonders how successfully one might resist. You should probably read this book, even if it is the rare book that would actually benefit from a Readers Digest “condensed edition” treatment. On the other hand, it’s probably best to read the original: A well-edited manuscript would give you nightmares.

Sunday, 15 December 2013


After the 2012 presidential election, I recall reading in some detail about the differences between the Obama and Romney campaigns’ digital efforts. The stories focused on the tablet applications to be used for supervising voter turnout and other details of election day, but also referred to the IT operations throughout the campaign cycle. The Obama campaign had developed all of their efforts in-house, tested with scores of volunteers, hosted with Amazon Web Services for flexibility, and had a great success. The Romney campaign had farmed out their efforts to consultants, done almost no testing at all, and found early on that Tuesday morning that they had laid a big goose egg. I will admit to an unseemly Schadenfreude at that point, but like most, came away with a great confidence that the Obama team “got it” in the digital realm. Apparently not.

In fact, one could almost think that the Romney campaign had designed the Obamacare website, healthcare.gov. The work was farmed out to multiple consultants and supervised by those who had no experience and simply didn’t comprehend the task at hand. Horror stories related by a friend who temped with the developer early this year bore this out.

Could I have done better? Well, the job was too large in scale for me to consider bidding on, but damned straight I could! Not that that’s saying too much, a properly staffed approach would have been far better.

Within hours of approval of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama should have chosen a champion to create the website for those states choosing not to create their own. That champion should have been someone with significant experience in databases, electronic marketplaces, or other-large scale networking projects. (Wikipedia and Google, among others, would know how to build a site that could be scaled from hundreds of simultaneous users to hundreds of thousands.) Most important, that champion should have been an employee of the government, reporting to an appropriate level, not an outside contractor.

A small team should have been assembled to design the flowchart for the site. Within a month the first version of the website should have been online. Not open to the public, and limited in function, but up and running.

A plan should have been established to connect to the IRS or the Social Security Administration to establish eligibility for discounts. At that point this could have covered a very limited population, say single persons in a few states, but something to test against. As the months went by, the interface could gradually include a wider range of users.

At least two insurance companies should have been recruited. One of these should have been chosen because their database was typical of other companies while the other was chosen because it wasn’t. There are several ways the databases could have been deployed. One possibility was to allow the insurance companies to access the database created in the exchange. Another would have been to establish a joint database for each insurance company and use native synchronization. Least useful would be to have a daily batch export from the exchange to the insurance companies, leading to the possibility that when a user made a change to his application the insurance company would end up with a duplicate record. Needless to say, this last approach was chosen. I doubt that this would have been the case if testing had been done at every stage of development.

Commerce sites are built using relational databases, mostly using the Structured Query Language or SQL. The nature of these systems is that the data itself is strongly structured. There are purposes for which nonstructured data is the rule, search engines frequently use tools that do not require an enforced structure. Transactions, inventory, mailing lists, and a host of other common data perfectly fit the traditional relational database. Insurance companies love them. Nonstructured databases are a relatively new development and apparently have some sex appeal or something. Those in charge of healthcare.gov chose a nonstructured database, making it much less likely that experienced developers would be available and that existing database code could be used to rapidly get the site working.

The site wouldn’t have needed to be pretty, just functional so the flow of user interaction with the site could be tested. A properly coded site can be given an entirely new appearance with a new style sheet the night before going public if need be. Because the Affordable Care Act was already law, there should have been no need to keep the site secret. The testing should have expanded as development progressed, first to key members of Congress and the administration, and their aides, then to a wide range of folks from the general public. At some point, truly expert useability experts should have been contracted, someone like Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group. Not to mention people knowledgable about access by the disabled, and not just to tick off the boxes required by law but to actually make it work.

There were things that shouldn’t have needed testing. Most notably, the question of whether or not a user needed to establish an account and verify his identity before shopping for plans. Rudimentary usability testing would have shown that this was a poor approach. On the other hand, having team members familiar with purchasing would have led to the same decision without testing. I’m not talking about complex Defense Department procurement here, merely sufficient experience and wit to go to a deli for a ham sandwich and come out with something involving bread and protein. Despite this low bar, they got this one wrong too.

The site is finally getting fixed, ever since Obama appointed a single person to take control. The vultures are circling, demanding that at least some heads roll from a great height. Before the Senate changed the filibuster rules this wasn’t likely because there was little or no chance of ever getting confirmation for a replacement if Kathleen Sibelius had gotten the axe, now this is possible. But I would say that while there are lessons to be learned and applied, no career-ending blame needs to be laid on anyone.

If I Were King, I would realize that the fault should be charged against “the system”. The structure of government made it unlikely, perhaps impossible, to assemble a staff to build this site on the understanding that most of the team would depart within weeks of the site going live. “The system” says this sort of work needs to be defined in advance so competitive bidding can be used to dole the tasks out to contractors. “The system” is wrong. If nothing else, nobody has ever defined a great website in advance, the best sites evolve over time based on lessons learned building out the initial plan. Obama and his advisors know how to do this kind of work, what they didn’t know was the importance of insisting that this site would be built the same way they built their campaign sites.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Volcker Rule

It looks like the long-awaited Volcker Rule to eliminate proprietary trading by banks will finally be agreed by the five regulatory agencies charged under the Dodd-Frank reforms with writing it. It’s a disaster. The rule itself is seventy-one pages long, the explanatory preface is over nine hundred pages. This is simply nonsense. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it is expected to go into effect in July of 2015, a year and a half from now. I can readily understand that there needs to be some time for the banks to change their software to handle new rules. I do write software, after all. But not eighteen months, and not five full years after passage of the legislation that requires it.

Other than the delay, there are two areas in which the rules will continue to allow banks to trade securities: allowable inventory or “market making” to support client purchases and sales and trades made to hedge normal operations of the bank.

If I Were King, these would be the rules:

  1. While most people think of stock brokers as the place to buy and sell securities, banks have always been able to provide this function. All of the banks with significant trading operations are able to buy or sell securities in far less than a second, even in the middle of the night. If it is more efficient to actually hold a small quantity of commonly traded stocks, the banks should be allowed to hold inventory. How much? I’d say up to thirty days’ activity in specific stocks and one weeks’ activity overall. (One hour’s worth should be enough.)
  2. All trades that are intended to serve as hedges against other ongoing activities of the bank should be flagged in such a way that the specific risk to be hedged is identified. When requested by a regulator to explain how the hedge would protect the bank and its stockholders, the bank would be required to supply satisfactory explanations within ten days, which simply means that the bank has to develop this information before they create the hedge. Sensible risk management by the banks requires nothing less, this should not represent any burden or inconvenience.
  3. IT process changes needed to put these practices in place should be installed and operating no later than 31 January 2014 with a grace period until 31 March 2014 during which violations would result in no fines or penalties. That gives the banks about fifteen weeks to get the process debugged. If the IT staffs have any sense, they should already have developed the first version anyway.

As of July 2010 the law of the land has been that banks covered by deposit insurance and borrowing relationships with the Federal Reserve were not to engage in investment for their own accounts. There is little reason why this has taken so long to write rules, no excuse for making them so complex, and no valid cause to accept further delays.