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Randy Smith
Worked at Google
Attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Lives in Arlington, MA
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Computer Programmer
  • Google
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Arlington, MA
Chicago, Ill - Frederick, MD - Cambridge, MA - Jamaica Plain, MA - Piermont, NY
Boston area computer hacker, ex-graduate student in Neuroscience, dancer and biker (the non-motorized kind :-})
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Neuroscience, 1989 - 1992
  • University of Chicago
    Chemistry, 1982 - 1986
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Randy Smith

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My apologies for re-sharing a somewhat defensive post, but there are many members of my social circle who regularly abuse Google, and while they/you are absolutely welcome to feel and believe that way, I at least want to make my own feelings clear.  This.  Completely this.  

We do make mistakes.  I see it all the time.  I see it internally, and I see it externally.  And there's a special kind of mistake that comes from operating at scale and hence not noticing running over some particular use case because it's just a blip that happens as we become a much larger company doing many more things for people all over the world :-{. 

But I also see the "Yes, this was a mistake, here is how it happened, here is what we're doing to fix it"s (probably more internally than externally for legal reasons, but it's there.)  And I continue to believe that the company's decisions are are driven primarily by trying to do the right things for our users, not by profit or similar.

For those who knee-jerk say "Public companies are always run for profit, you're being incredibly naive" I say a) Larry and Sergey have kept a death grip on 51% of the voting stock, and if they want to do things that aren't for profit, they can, b) they've warned the investors that they're not always going to do things for profit (see, and c) company culture matters a lot (maybe more than a majority stake in shares), and, as this article says, you've got a lot of rabid idealists inside of Google jumping up and down and frothing at the mouth about privacy, security, and providing value for our users. 

And to address the opening line: Yes, there is an exchange of value in showing ads for free products.  Yes, people using those free products should  evaluate that exchange to make sure it's right for them.  No, that doesn't mean those people are being corralled and herded for slaughter, just that the value exchange is different than the usual money<->goods.  "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product" is a useful tagline to the extent it makes you think about the value exchange, but I consider it a very harmful tagline to the extent it makes you pre-judge that value exchange as one way and uniformly negative.  There's the potential for a massive positive sum game here, for many people, and possibly you're one. 

Whew.  Thanks for reading.  Sorry for the rant; I appeared to need to get something off my chest :-}.
If you're not paying for the product, you are the product.

I have to admit, this is a catchy line.  It appeals to the inner cynic in us all and makes a certain amount of sense in a core, "what can you do for me," type of thinking.

But it's hog-wash.

I work for Google so I follow the news about the company and I'm really tired of seeing that first line, or some variation of it, spouted by people who really don't care enough to want to think it through.  It does not work that way!

Yes, Google is a company.  And yes, Google is a reasonably large company (though not that large compared to the likes of IBM, GE, etc.).  But though a company is a single entity in the eyes of the law, it is not run like that.  Google is full of many thousands of individuals, many of whom are more rabid about user privacy than the privacy watchdogs that complain.  I've watched them take Larry and Sergey to task on stage about the smallest things.  I've done it twice myself.  If the leaders of the company purposely violated our users' trust, there would be open revolt and the founders would be lucky to not find themselves strung up by their toes.

Everything Google does is done for our users.  Your happiness is always the first priority, even above Ads.  (I've seen this in both policy and various practical implementations.)  You are not product; you are our customers!  That's simply the way we view it and it permeates the company from bottom to top.  Everything is done to make a better service for you.

Even Ads is viewed as a service to our users.  Random ads are garbage.  Useful ads are a benefit.  Yes, it's also a benefit to our publishers and yes, it's also a benefit to our shareholders.  Since when did win-win-win arrangements become a bad thing?

I won't claim that Google always gets it exactly right or that we haven't made mistakes.  We don't and we have.  And we admit it.  And it will happen again.  Sorry.  But everything is done with the right intent even if it doesn't always work out as hoped.  Hindsight is perfect.

Google is the most moral company in which I have ever worked.  But guarding our users' privacy doesn't just make moral sense, it makes business sense.  If we purposefully violated our users' privacy, we wouldn't have a business at all before very long.
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(I was, in fact, agreeing with you; just adding some observations to the phenomenon.)

Yeah, I don't have a good answer to that question either.  Regulation is good for things like reporting financials in a consistent and reliable way, but not so much about specific business operations.  When it tries that, it either becomes bulky and complicated and inflexible; or worse, politicians try to make it "flexible" by creating agencies which set policy by waiver, which is subject to all kinds of risks like revolving door appointments and bribery.

One thing Google is definitely doing right to mitigate some risks to users (such as proprietary platform lock-in) is the Takeout service.  That is a huge, huge thing that almost nobody else ever even tries to offer.
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First day of spring!  Meaning my first bike commute of the season :-}.

(Partial bike commute--I bike to Alewife and take the T in.  Still, it ups both my sunlight and regular exercise.)
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I did the reverse: drove to Alewife (because this evening I'll need to get home during the dreaded Fitchburg Line Train Gap) and then biked the rest of the way in to work. Yay! 
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Randy Smith

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Interesting writeup by +Yonatan Zunger  on what objectification actually means, and when and how it produces negative results.  I suspect the concepts in this article won't be new to most folks on my friends list, but I found it the clearest exploration of the word I've seen, and I think it's likely I'll refer back to it when I need to discuss the issue with people who aren't familiar with it.
Your random word of the day: Objectification

If you ever hear people talking about women’s role in movies, or video games, or the like, you may have come across the word “objectification.” I spent years being confused about what this meant, because nobody ever explained it very well, and thought it meant something crazy when actually it turns out to be something really interesting and important. A few years ago I finally got a better explanation, so today I’m going to share it. (And side note: if you’re going to comment here, read what I have to say carefully. If you comment and it’s obvious that you didn’t read what I said and are instead having a rant about your own thing, I’ll just delete the comment. K?)

So let me tell you what it isn’t, because you may have heard that, too. I had a teacher (way) back in high school who was very well-intentioned but absolutely terrible at explaining things, who somehow managed to communicate that “objectification” meant “treating people like things,” that any ad that “didn’t show the entire woman” -- e.g., had part of a woman’s body cropped -- was objectifying, and (via some lecture by Naomi Wolf) that such ads would therefore cause men to rape, murder, and dump women’s bodies in dumpsters. By the end of the week, the entire class thought she must be high as a kite, and that objectification was some kind of crazy nonsense.

What I finally figured out a few years ago was that the word “objectification” doesn’t come from the word “object” as-opposed-to-person: it comes from the word “object” as-opposed-to-subject. 

Here’s what it means: Say I’m telling a story. It can be a book, a movie, a video game, even the implicit “story” in a billboard, doesn’t matter. A character has a “subject perspective” if we see the story through their eyes: we get a sense of what they’re thinking, what the problems in the story mean to them, what choices they feel that they have and how they pick between them. A character has “object perspective” if they’re simply the thing that’s acted upon: we only really see them as they affect our main, subject, characters. 

Every story is going to have plenty of characters in object perspective: if you tried to tell a story where the reader ended up knowing the detailed thoughts of every single person, down to the guy who sells the protagonist a bottle of water and whose only line is “One fifty, please,” or the mook whose job it is to get gunned down on the way to the enemy base and whose only line is “urk!,” the story would be a total mess. Object perspective just means that the character isn’t ultimately important except as an obstacle: it’s not a bad thing.

Objectification is what happens when you have not only a single story, but a whole swath of stories -- something as wide as “the category of all spy movies” -- and you suddenly notice that there’s a pattern, for example “every single woman has an object perspective.” (It doesn’t have to be every woman for this to be the case, but if it’s happening a good 98% of the time then this is what we’re talking about)

And here’s the problem when this happens: if you’re reading a lot of these stories, and you don’t notice that it’s a pattern, it starts to just have this regular drumbeat that gets into your head without you noticing, where women (or whoever’s being steadily treated as objects -- this isn’t just about women, that’s just the common example) are “the thing you deal with to get to your real goal.” 

Just to understand this, remember the subtle way that stories can mess with your head. Have you ever watched a really good spy movie and then for the next day looked at every building around you as something you might want to infiltrate? Or played GTA5 for a couple of hours too many, and the next time you passed a police car had to remind yourself that no, the correct course of action is probably not to ram it? You’re not crazy: the whole point of fiction is to get you into other people’s heads, to show you what it’s like to think about the world from that perspective. And the way your head works is that you see the stuff, and for a little while your head mirrors it, until you’ve had time to really process through the story and it becomes part of your repertoire of ways to look at the world. 

That’s why objectification isn’t an issue so much about any one book or movie or whatever: after you process one thing, it goes away and you’re not in its headspace anymore. But if you start seeing the same pattern in a bunch of the things you’re reading and watching and playing, if every couple of days you find yourself in a headspace that sees the world like X, then X -- whatever it is -- becomes more and more a part of the way you look at the world. 

So why is this a problem?

So if you have a bunch of stories where women only show up in an object perspective, the pattern you’re getting in your head is that women’s thoughts ultimately don’t matter that much -- what’s really important in the story is the men’s thoughts. And you can imagine how that would mess with your head: if you’re male, the pattern is “yeah, whatever, the women will sort themselves out -- we should just do what’s important”, and if you’re female, the pattern is “what goes on with me isn’t really important, what’s really important is what happens to the guy.” That’s a subtle sort of thing, but it can really mess you up either way, especially if you don’t notice it’s happening.

So how can objectification mess you up in life? There are all sorts of ways, but they all have to do with turning your life (and other people’s lives) into a kind of script where you’re the star and they’re supporting characters, whether they like it or not -- or, even screwier, where they’re the star and you’re never anything but a supporting character.

Just as an example, consider what this can mean in a relationship. On the one end, you end up trying to script the lines, and pushing the other person into acting out the roles that you need them to act out. Maybe into being the one who takes care of you, or the one who nags you and so you get angry at them, or the perfect one who can do no wrong. (And therefore can never be allowed to screw up) Or on the other end, you can end up objectifying yourself, and not even thinking too hard anymore about what’s important to you -- you’re too busy fitting yourself into some role for the other person. And either way, you both end up play-acting scripts instead of paying attention to what would actually make you happy. Needless to say, this will not end well.

So it’s not that any one movie or book or whatever is making things bad. It’s that seeing a bunch of them, so many that it starts to seem normal, where all the people of one category are in object perspective gets you used to thinking of them that way, and then you start doing that the rest of the time without noticing it. And that screws up your life and generally makes you and everyone else miserable.

Some things that objectification isn’t

Something that objectification isn’t: It doesn’t have to do with whether the women are strong or weak characters. It’s just as true if all the women in the stories are super-powered killers that our hero has to fight through as it is if they’re all slaves of the evil Wombat Lord that the hero is rescuing. Of course, if you’ve got a bunch of stories where all the women are weak and powerless, you’ve got another pattern going which is going to be a problem in a similar way. 

And another thing it isn’t: It’s not really about any single book. Lots of conversations go totally off the rails when people start saying “but that book is different!” or “but that character is different!,” because that’s actually not the point -- a single story gets out of your head after a few days. Objectification is a phenomenon that matters when you’re talking about an entire corpus: you can talk about objectification in, say, action movies as a whole, or first-person shooters, or romance novels, and how a single story contributes to that.

And it’s not just about women, even though that’s the example you see most often. There are whole swaths of literature (e.g., what the marketers call “chick lit”) in which the men, for example, are all objects who exist solely to be problems or goals for the women. It’s not as big a problem because someone who’s reading those stories is also probably being exposed to a lot of other stories (via TV, movies, ads, etc) where the men are all subjects, so the pattern gets broken. That’s why people don’t spend as much time worrying about the objectification of men -- even though it certainly happens.

Fortunately, you can do something about it (not just for writers)

What’s great about objectification as a problem is that it’s actually relatively easy to solve when you’re telling stories. You don’t have to make all your protagonists and antagonists women, you don’t have to make all the female characters “strong” for some definition of “strong.” Even one little thing can make a big difference: look across the swath of characters that you’re writing about, and make sure that the reader is seeing the story from more than one perspective. The woman that James Bond seduces in Act I scene II? Don’t just tell me that she falls in love with his incredible manliness and they have great sex. Give me, the reader, a sense of how she’s weighing him in her mind -- the choices she’s thinking about, maybe what it is in her past and her life that makes this guy seem so damned interesting. When he vanishes the next day, let me see that from her side: is she glad? Upset? Does she feel betrayed? Relieved? Looking forward to telling her friends? To subtly hinting about it to her boyfriend? 

You don’t need to do this to every female character, any more than you need to do it to that water seller -- just let me know, as a reader, that all of the characters that I’m reading about have rich internal worlds and that there’s something interesting going on there. That their thoughts and feelings have value, even if that value isn’t the main point of the story.

If you tell a story like that -- and not just if you’re writing a book, but even when you’re telling me the story of what you did last week, or when you’re telling yourself the story of what happened on your trip -- you’re going to tell a much better story. And your readers, or listeners, or watchers, or you yourself, will come out of it feeling like they’ve seen more of the world.

Side note: If you’re interested in the telling of stories, +Mary Anne Mohanraj once wrote a great article a  few years ago ( that talked about very similar things in the context of writing about characters of color. All the same sorts of ideas apply, and ever since I read this essay I’ve looked at stories differently: you realize how crappy writing feels when a character is “just vaguely a white guy, instead of being a Polish-American second-generation teenage boy whose restaurant-owning father died in the Nazi camps and who now works as a line cook in a grimy diner on the north side of Chicago. It is the specificity, the detail of our lives that makes our characters live and breathe, creating the illusion that the people we write about are real.”
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Part of this article is the reminder that "On the one end, you end up trying to script the lines, and pushing the other person into acting out the roles that you need them to act out... Or on the other end, you can end up objectifying yourself, and not even thinking too hard anymore about what’s important to you -- you’re too busy fitting yourself into some role for the other person." 

Very clearly, this allows for an "object" protagonist.  As, for example, in "The Story of O."
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Randy Smith

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Excerpt from my article:

Recent reports in the Washington Post and the Guardian claimed a classified program called PRISM grants "intelligence services direct access to the companies' servers" and that "from inside a company's data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes."
Those reports are incorrect and appear to be based on a misreading of a leaked Powerpoint document, according to a former government official who is intimately familiar with this process of data acquisition and spoke today on condition of anonymity.
"It's not as described in the histrionics in the Washington Post or the Guardian," the person said. "None of it's true. It's a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do."
That former official's account -- that the process was created by Congress six years ago and includes judicial oversight -- was independently confirmed by another person with direct knowledge of how this data collection happens at multiple companies.
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I've heard an earlier version of this talk, enjoyed it, and learned a lot from it.  My bias is clear and strong, but FWIW Lori's one of the best people I've ever met for researching a topic in depth and presenting it clearly without sacrificing important nuance.
I am going to give a talk on "Understanding Islamism" at 7 p.m. this Thursday, April 25, at the Arlington High School.  I didn't know when this was arranged that the topic would be back in the news for such painful reasons, but having a framework for understanding the history and context of Islamism seems all the more important under the circumstances.  

This event is open to all, so please spread the word.  It is hosted by Arlington Community Education, and costs $10, but I will happily subsidize the fee for anyone who wants to attend but finds the cost an impediment.  Preregistration is appreciated, so we have some idea how many people are coming, but not required.  For more information or to preregister, click below.
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Randy Smith

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Warning: This post isn't just about politics, but it's about anger-fueled revenge politics :-}.  Feel free to skip.

As many of you who are local to Boston may remember, during the search for the Boston Marathon bombers, there was a shelter-in-place order/request for many towns.  In response to that, Nate Bell, a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, tweeted:

"I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?"  

This quote caught my attention, and I made a note to remember him when he came up for re-election.  Now is that time.  He appears to be running unopposed in the Republican primary, but he's got a Democratic challenger (who's running unopposed in the democratic primary).  I'm not sure what the odds are of ousting him--Bell won his last election against a different Democrat at 65% to 35%--but, for me, in this race, that's not the point.  (See why you shouldn't do anger-fueled revenge politics?)

His Democratic opponent is Chase Busch, whose website is  His positions are outlined at; the short description is that he favors investing in education, economic development, and infrastructure. If you'd like to donate to him, go to

If for some reason you'd like to donate to Nate Bell (it only seems fair to raise the possibility) you should check out his facebook page at  If you'd like to look at all candidates positions and make up your mind that way, I'd suggest looking at

I've contributed to Chase Busch's campaign.
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Your grandfather also might have something to say about the "friendly fire" the poorly-coordinated out-of-town police officers created and endured. I'm glad we didn't have any more guns in the mix.
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I re-share this just because of the pain I feel at well-intentioned, misinformed people taking actions that cause illness and death.  The article claims that the problem is people's venality, but I don't agree--I think the problem is more basic to how people think: a distrust of other's motives, a skepticism about things that are "good for you", and a lack of ability to evaluate statistics (e.g. about the relative chances and cost of a vaccine side-effect versus the chances and cost of getting the disease later in life).
'As the WSJ article points out and many others have frequently noted, measles is an extremely contagious respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing. Most people do recover from it, but it can cause deafness and pneumonia, and it can be fatal. The prevention is simple, extremely low risk, and so effective that back when vaccine uptake was high, both the US and the UK  categorized it as “eliminated” because it basically had ceased to circulate in populations in either country.'
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Wow.  I finally read through this piece.  I had been turned off by the title, which didn't strike me as being able to have  very much to do with the subject of the recent NSA revelations.  I was wrong.  This is a fascinating read, looking at what the outrage over the NSA programs really say about America (liberal America specifically).  And I think he's convinced me of his point: The problem is not what the NSA's actually doing--that's a tool that might be reasonable to use, depending on the need and the situation.  The problem is the lack of oversight, because the program is so secret, so that we can't have the debate about where we draw the line between liberty and security.  

+Lori Kenschaft I'd also recommend this for you, not because it's specifically about the NSA issues, but because of what it says about how people think about civil liberties, and the relationships between that and the drug war.  He claims, convincingly, that the people getting most upset about the NSA situation are getting upset because they might be in the crosshairs, not because the government is abusing civil liberties.  That level of abuse of civil liberties has been going on for a long time, with no offense.

IMO, a disturbing, valuable read.
Maciej Ceglowski and David Simon have what I think is the essential dialog on NSA, PRISM, secret courts, civil liberties, and the drug war.  Long, but very worth it on both sides.

Maciej Ceglowski:
"Whether the data should exist, and for how long, is exactly the question. The answer is not a technological inevitability, but a political choice.
"I believe a world in which everything is recorded and persists forever carries the seeds of something monstrous. It is in the nature of computer systems to remember things indefinitely, but there's nothing difficult about programming machines to forget. It just requires laws to do it. We can't treat it as a technical problem. And to get the laws passed, we need to politicize the issue."

David Simon:
"The FISA process and its court are so completely shrouded in unaccountable secrecy that it is an unworkable apparatus for democracy.  Independent review and oversight, with teeth, are the necessity here. ...  This is the where the barricade ought to be.  This is the fight to have."
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Will definitely read.  Thanks.
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Our chief legal officer, +David Drummond, sent a letter to the Attorney General and the Director of the FBI today, asking the government to lift its restrictions on what we can say. As he says, we have nothing to hide -- and I personally welcome as much openness as possible.

Simultaneously, a bipartisan group of eight senators has proposed a bill to declassify FISA court rulings:

I'm entirely in favor of all of this. The scandal in this case is not that the NSA may have broken the law -- it's that they very likely did not. It's that the law of the land has gradually mutated into something that allows us to be watched 24/7, at the whims of people unknown, subject to safeguards unknown, for reasons unknown -- but keeping a log, so that if anyone ever becomes suspicious of us in the future, they can easily go back and see a full record of everything we've ever done. 

The government has argued that this is necessary in order to protect the country. But we can't have that argument -- the talk about what freedoms we're losing, what security we're gaining, and what's worth it -- if both the things we're losing and the things we're gaining are kept secret. This isn't a small, obscure corner of policy which can be governed safely by small groups of specially-cleared senators. It goes right to the heart of what we are as a country.

I've heard a lot of arguments in the past day or so that this surveillance is perfectly legal, so we shouldn't worry about it. That's backwards: it's legal because Congress hasn't passed laws about it, and Congress can't pass laws about something they themselves don't know about. Much less things the people don't know to demand they pass laws about.

I've also heard the argument that, if this surveillance has saved so much as a single American life, it's worth it. That's even more backwards. How often do people say that the people of Iran should rise up against their government, or that no sacrifice was too great against Communism? Not every bit of security is worth arbitrarily much freedom. We have to make the choice ourselves, and we have to make it knowingly. I'll take the dangers of living in a free country over the safety of living in prison.
This morning we sent the following letter to the offices of the Attorney General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Read the full text below. -Ed. Dear Attorney General Holder and Director Mueller Google has worked trem...
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Also note that the bottom of the range of affected users in the NSL table isn't 0.
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Randy Smith

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What I assumed, but hearing it in an official blog post makes me feel better.
Dear Google users— You may be aware of press reports alleging that Internet companies have joined a secret U.S. government program called PRISM to give the National Security Agency direct access to our servers. As Google’s CE...
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+Neil Williams I agree with you that not hearing of PRISM doesn't matter.  But I believe the the denial in both its letter and spirit; to me the key lines are "Until this week’s reports, we had never heard of the broad type of order that Verizon received" and "Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false. "

I'm admittedly biased (see employment).  OTOH, I have more data than average about the trustworthiness of Google executives (ditto :-}).  Make of it what you will.

Links to other posts from Google employees with broader perspectives than I have:
* Liz Fong-Jones:
* Yonatan Zunger:
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Randy Smith

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Status: Home, shell-shocked, following the news, not going anywhere.  Hope everyone's staying safe.
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