Non-Proliferation of Robotic Weapons

Yesterday Boston Dynamics posted a video of their humanoid robot Atlas jumping before doing a backflip.

This made me think of the next generation of weapons of mass destruction.

While Uranium is hard to acquire, transport, and enrich, the new weapons of mass destruction will be made of silicon.

Their software will be available on GitHub for any nation or terrorism group to fork their own. The defense against them will be remote people trying to hack into them.

This will also minize the gap between nations. Instead of having to build your own arsenal of robots, it will be easier to just hack into your adversaries’ robots and make them attack their makers.

Interesting times ahead.

The new echo chambers

This morning I saw those tweets by Patrick. They made me think a lot about the answers. The last question was the most interesting one.

Thinking about it, I would argue we never had “great, open to all” online communities.

The early adopters of every new social platform were like minded people. Because they were early adopters, it is expected they come from the most open minded percentiles of the society. The content they created early on attracted similar minded people to the conversation.

The communities were not great, open to all. They were in their early stages.

As the platforms grew, the social cohesion of the network started decaying. Facebook tried solving this by the news feed algorithm. The news feed created an algorithmic echo chamber. The algorithmic echo chamber made people stick to the platform while the conversation was still interesting.

After a while, the networks became saturated. Everyone is now on Facebook, twitter, and Quora. This resulted in two things

1) Conversation regression to the mean. It is no longer interesting, thought provoking as the early days. It is average.

2) Public scrutiny, and abuse towards contrarian opinions – regardless of the side – became much bigger.

This led people to try finding a new safe echo chamber. The easiest solution is private groups. Handpicked similar minded people who share the same interests. They can discuss whatever they want without feeling threatened by the public.

Back to Patrick’s questions. I think we need new echo chambers that can maintain their social cohesion, while giving the opportunity for new people to join the conversation. Until then, private groups are the new echo chambers.

I contacted 300+ hotels in Berlin asking about handicapped rooms, it is not what I thought

What every one is missing.

tl;dr I launched www.mostafita.com a directory of wheelchair accessible hotels with detailed room information. You can find accessible rooms with single, double, triple beds, and even shared beds in accessible hostels.

Travel is one of my peak anxiety drivers. Normally I am relaxed until it comes to physical threats. It makes sense for someone who can get fractured easily.

Travel is also one of my peak enjoyment drivers, but I am anxious until I get safely to the destination. The main reason is not being sure if my accommodation fits my needs. Even with all the current modern technology, you don’t know what to expect in a hotel room until you get there.

My process to book a room goes like this

  • I go to booking.com or Expedia, search for hotels that have “Facilities for disabled guests”, or “Wheelchair Accessible”. Those are self reported labels that could only be used to refine the search. No guarantees.
  • I call the hotel to ask if they have wheelchair accessible rooms. Some say they have it. Some don’t know what I am talking about although they list themselves as accessible. I ask about the availability of those rooms for the dates I am traveling.
  • I go to booking/Expedia and book the room, writing in the notes I need the accessible one.
  • I call the hotel again to confirm they will reserve the accessible room for me. Sometimes they tell me “oh, you booked the wrong room, the accessible rooms are of that category which is more expensive, you have to change the room and pay the difference”.

This process only covers the simple use case, finding a double/twin room. Finding information about single, triple, family, or four bed accessible rooms is wishful thinking. You can’t find this anywhere.

I finally manage to set everything, and go.

Then comes the surprise

I was in Prague, I verified the hotel’s accessibility in advance. I got there to find 5 steps I have to climb to be able to get in. There was no bell to call for assistance. Luckily, I had a friend with me. He went inside and called the receptionist. It turned out there was a handicapped lift through the delivery garage. I needed someone every time I wanted to get in or out of the hotel to help me. The handicapped lift was small, someone with a bigger wheelchair wouldn’t fit in it.

In Oslo, the hotel bathroom didn’t have a way to block the water from getting into the room. Every time I took a shower, the water leaked all over the carpet inside room. I had to get the room service every morning to dry the mess.

Most recently in Hamburg, they told me they have an accessible room with a shower chair and everything. I went there to find the shower has a large step that needs some acrobats from my side to be able to get in. The bathroom was too narrow. The bathroom door opened to the inside, making it hard to close the door with the wheelchair inside.

Those are just examples from my experience. I won’t talk about heavy doors, rooms far away from the elevator, unapproachable wardrobes, and more.

What every one is missing

20% of Europe population is above 65 years old[1]. That’s 125+ million people. Those are the ones with the most disposable income, and the highest chances of having mobility related issues.

There are 5 million wheelchair users in Europe. This number will likely grow in the coming years given the aging population.

Based on this Skift podcast[2], “ according to a study commissioned in 2015 by the Open Doors Organization, adults with disabilities in the U.S. spend $17.3 billion a year on leisure and business travel. Over the two years before the study, 26 million adults with disabilities took 73 million trips.”. Those are US stats, I wonder what are the numbers for Europe, the biggest travel market in the world.

Even millennials, with the current state of travel Permanxiety[3] as Skift coined it. I am sure there are many people who are just like me, not knowing what to expect in their hotel room. This just adds an extra level of anxiety that could’ve been avoided.

So…

I contacted 300+ hotels in Berlin. I emailed all of them, phoned most of them, and visited the rest. I started collecting room specific information on wheelchair accessible rooms. This is what I found.

Accessibility is there, it is just unevenly distributed

There is no correlation between how big a hotel is and the number of wheelchair accessible rooms.

The biggest hotel in Berlin is “Park-Inn Alexanderplatz”. They brag about having 1112 rooms, making them the biggest hotel in Berlin. Only two rooms are accessible. A small boutique hotel like “38 Hotels” with ~40 rooms also have two accessible rooms.

The vast majority of hotels have less than 5 accessible rooms. The most frequent numbers are 1, and 2.

Accessibility is undefined

Handicapped room? Disabled people room? Wheelchair accessible room? Every hotel has a different name. I had to change the question multiple times before getting an answer.

This is not the only problem, when hotels think they are accessible, sometimes they are really not.

 

An “accessible” hotel room in Berlin, there is no space next to the bed for a wheelchair to fit, on both sides.
In all the hotels I visited, few had a wardrobe with a hanger that could get low enough for someone in a wheelchair to access. Normally the receptionist got surprised when I started highlighting inaccessible parts.

Accessibility is inaccessible

You can easily find information about pets on hotel websites. Try finding information about accessible rooms, good luck with that. I visited all the websites of the hotels I had to call/visit. Some even refused to email me photos of the rooms before booking it saying we are not allowed to do this.

we have 2 rooms in our hotel that are wheelchair accessible.

The rooms follow industrialized standards.

We cannot provide photos.

This hotel chain with “The rooms follow industrialized standards” is the same one in the first photo with no space next to the beds.

I can only remember one hotel allowing booking the accessible room(s) directly on their website. Nobody does this.

The bright side

I created Mostafita.com a directory with Berlin hotels accessible rooms information.

So far I verified 120 hotels, 90 of them have photos. I only put photos of the accessible rooms, not generic photos that tell you nothing.

I didn’t only cover the simple case of double/twin rooms. You can filter by hotels with accessible Double, Twin, Triple, or Four beds. You can also filter by hostels with accessible shared dormitories and accessible shared bathrooms.

This is just the beginning. I will keep adding more hotels, more rooms, and more information. My goal is to map every accessible room in every hotel starting with Berlin. You can follow the progress by subscribing here.

Summary

  • There is now a directory with ~100 wheelchair accessible/elderly adapted hotels in Berlin. You can find all the info you need for anxiety free travel.
  • If Google street view maps every street and building, why can’t we see the inside of every hotel room and be able to book that exact room? When I book an Airbnb I can see exactly where I am going to sleep, but I pay more for a hotel and I don’t know what to expect.
  • Hotels are missing up-selling opportunities by treating all rooms as equal. Two rooms overlooking the noisy street, one on the first, and one on the 5th floor shouldn’t be sold at the same price. An accessible room isn’t the same as a non-accessible one.

If I can read all the details, and see the photos of my Airbnb before booking it, why can’t I have the same level of details for my hotel room where I am mostly paying more?
Resources

www.mostafita.com

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Population_structure_and_ageing

[2] https://skift.com/2017/02/02/skift-podcast-the-evolution-of-accessible-travel/

[3] https://skift.com/2017/09/25/travel-in-an-age-of-permanxiety/

Berlin Contrast

When I walk in Berlin, it is easy to see the contrast between the soviet and the American parts. This contrast gets more mixed in areas in the middle like Alexanderplatz. There you can see a soviet style building right next to a modern, American style one.

There is a list of buildings in Leipziger str that I used to call “عمارات العبور” due to their striking resemblance to a group of buildings built by the Egyptian army in Cairo. I later discovered they fall into the soviet part and were built by the soviets.

This shows how Egypt picked up the military communism mentality in the fifties and never left it. While Berlin managed to do the transition, and joined the west.

German Catchup

The topic of organizing a society is a big one. I am mostly a capitalist, but I believe having a social net for those who need it is equally important.

The topic gets more tricky as soon as you get into things like healthcare, and how universal it should be. Should it be funded by taxes and controlled by government, fully private, or something in between?

The way of organizing a society really gets to me when I start thinking about technology. Why America is dominating the world while Germany isn’t?

There is tons of literature on why silicon valley works, it is mostly abstracted to three main factors: A high density of well educated nerds, high density of risk capital aka VC, and a competitive culture of survival to the fittest with high tolerance for failure.

When I look at Germany I see the high density of nerds, I see the capital, but I don’t see the culture.

I am not going into the typical discussions of risk aversion and Germans vs Americans. I don’t see this as a big challenge because humans are normally risk averse, and Germany has good immigration policies. From blue cards to refugees, the country is welcoming for immigrants from all over the world. We can debate why are they doing this, or how welcoming it is, but the fact is, there are a lot of immigrants, and more are coming.

Immigrants are less risk averse, more motivated to build things, and they add a lot to the economy. This leads to motivating non-immigrants as well, and then you have a fusion of businesses starting, both from immigrants and non-immigrants.

What I am more interested in is the role of government in fostering a culture of innovation, this is where I see Germany’s biggest barrier to dominate the world technologically in the age of software.

I think big part of the solution to foster innovation as government, is to have less government. I will mention the two biggest areas where I think Germany needs less government.

  • Taxes, and Insurance: Starting a company involves leaving the full-time job. With so much stress, and having to worry about “Compulsory insurance”, “TV and Radio Taxes”, and god knows what else, this discourages many entrepreneurs from starting since being unemployed will result in paying much more money than they can afford. At the same time, you can get two years of unemployment benefits, receiving 60% of your last salary, and do nothing. What deserves more encouragement?
  • Workers and their rights: There is no Uber in Germany to protect yellow cabs (imagine if Uber started in Germany instead of US). You have to pay minimum wage to employ someone. It is hard to fire people after a 6 months probation. You can’t have temporary contracts for longer than specific period, after that they have to be permanent ones. Employee rights make it hard to start companies that are volatile by nature.

These are my observations on top of my head. The problem is with less government you get back to the topic of organizing a society, because the result of relaxing these policies is having a smaller social net, and therefore more people falling into poverty, debt…etc

Is it worth it to allow big breakthroughs to relax rules and regulations? or is it better to see what works, and artificially try to create an environment to make it work here?

Is humanity’s technological progress worth sacrificing some people’s well being? Or it is better for everyone to live a relaxed life and have slower progress. And where do we draw the line?

I don’t know.

Startups and restaurants

I was having lunch at a small café in Berlin city center.

While none of the cues indicated, the owner, and all of the staff turned to be Arabs.

When he found out I work in tech, he told me this area has changed completely in the past three years.

Now most of the offices around his place host startups.

These startups either grow and leave to bigger offices, or die and close.

This poses a challenge to his business, since his customers are rapidly changing.

Another challenge he faces is those startups are not making money, which makes the spending power of the people working there not that high.

A long way to go, Berlin.

Getting out of Egypt for non techies

A friend who works in HR asked for my advice on how to get out of Egypt (better late than never). She was asking about Germany specifically, and how to find English speaking jobs. I am publishing our conversation so that everyone can benefit with some edits to make it fit the blog.

Finding English Speaking Jobs

“So, about the possibility of finding an English speaking job here, YES. There is very high possibility of finding an English speaking job. There are many tech companies in Berlin and they use English as the main language.

The challenge will be in finding companies that sponsor visas for non-Europeans. This is easy for tech people such as myself, but I don’t know if they would do it for non-tech functions like HR.

For example I see many HR people who are not from Germany, and don’t speak German, but I never met someone who isn’t from within EU.

I also don’t know how hard it is to sponsor a visa for a non-tech worker. Tech, medicine, and engineering are considered “rare skills” and that’s why the government makes the visa process fast and easy for them.

That being said, I believe you should try, it will be hard and takes time. The first job outside Egypt always takes time, the average of me and my friends was 1 year of continuous applications, studying, interviewing..etc.”

How to search?
1- LinkedIn: Set your job seeking status as ON. This will tell recruiters that you are looking for a new job.

Also set location filter to Berlin, so you always get the notifications and the job board filtered by Berlin jobs.

2- Indeed.de: Open indeed everyday, and apply for the latest jobs posted there. Make sure if you are using Google chrome it doesn’t translate the job descriptions, or you will be applying to German speaking jobs 🙂

3- Xing: Sounds Chinese, but it is actually German. It is the LinkedIn of Germany. Many times, you will find English speaking jobs on Xing.

4- There is a 4th way, it is non-scalable, but if you decided to leave you should give it some effort, search for companies based in Berlin, or companies that have offices here, open their website, and apply directly.

There are different ways to find companies based here, first you start with the big ones Zalando, Delivery Hero, Amazon, and the list of Rocket Internet companies (Rocket internet is the owner of Jumia, easy taxi…etc, they are based in Germany and have so many companies here).

Another way I used to do is to follow european tech news like Tech.eu, this is the TechCrunch of Europe. I follow companies news, and if any is based where I want to go, I open their website and check their jobs.

You can also, once you found a company with a position you are interested in, do what I call “recruiter hunt”. Go to LinkedIn, connect with the recruiter hiring for this position in that company, and start a conversation telling them why you are interested in the position and if you could get a chance to interview.

5- Use everyone you know abroad. Referrals, referrals, referrals.

Final remarks

It is not easy, but if you put your heart in it, it is doable in a year. I used to apply literally every day, and spend my weekends searching and applying. Also you have to accept rejections, they are part of life.

Office wheelchair accessibility

Someone asked me, what makes an office wheelchair accessible?

While there are many articles on the topic, I think most of them are very technical and target contractors, and designers. Here is my version for hiring managers, office managers, and non-technical people.

  1. Is the building accessible with no steps? It doesn’t have to be from the main door, there just needs to be a way that’s flat, and not so steep.
  2. Are there areas of the building that are not accessible? What are they? Sometimes they are not that critical like one cafeteria or few meeting rooms.
  3. Is there a wheelchair accessible bathroom? This means it is spacious enough to have someone with a wheelchair inside with door closed, and it is preferable if it has grab rails next to the toilet, and other facilities such as the sink, the dryer, the napkins box are low enough for the reach of a wheelchair user.

Mostly the best person to know this is the office manager. They should be able to answer the previous questions.

Cultural anthropology in technology

Sometimes I think anthropology, and sociology could be extended to include the study of cultural differences in tech designs.

For me this is most obvious between American & European websites. I feel I can blindly differentiate if a website is American or European.

American websites emphasize on negative spacing, visuals, and typography.

European websites are more information dense, and bulkier.

This is most obvious when you compare specific verticals with almost identical functionality like travel and food delivery.

The connection I see is in European focus on efficiency (being blunt and direct), while the American focus on aesthetics and perception.

There are some exceptions here and there, like Deliveroo, and Zalando in Europe looking American, and Amazon in US looking European.

The connection is obvious if you give enough attention.