Saturday, 11 March 2017

Making Corporate Training Easy

In the course of my career, I've had to develop and deliver a lot of training. Whether it was instructing new salespeople on how to use the till when I was in retail, teaching evaluators the ways to assess a customer contact in the world of call quality, or educating users on the software I support, I've always sought to make the training as easy to understand as possible.  The academic approaches I was taught in college focussed a lot on the need for clarity and simplicity in instructional design, and honestly it seems pretty much axiomatic that clear and easy training would facilitate the learning process.

Lately, I've begun to doubt that assumption.  Over the last few years, Derek Muller of Veritasium has posted a number of videos about his work in the area of learning and video design.  He discusses Khan Academy and, in the context of his own research, questions their effectiveness:  

You can and should watch the video.  But the key point here was that transfer of training was actually greater when the videos weren't quite as "clear, concise or easy to understand".

Now, when I saw the video, I didn't generalize it beyond the specifics of science education. But Derek's more recent videos have made me reassess that failure.  On his Veritasium channel, he recently posted "The Science of Thinking".


Again, you really should watch the video.  Here he talks about the two systems of thinking.  Having read Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow", that wasn't really news to me.  But then, on his second channel, Derek talked about some of the challenge this presents to him as a content creator.


That was when the lightbulb went off.  I've had a great deal of challenge with transfer of training.  Is part of the problem due to the clarity of my training?  Do I need to seed it with a little confusion?

This is something I'm going to need to explore.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Dissecting the US Election

So, I'm going to tell you the one thing that allowed Donald Trump to win the 2016 US Presidential election.
Image Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo / solarseven

Don't worry, I know how absurd that statement was. But in the last few days I've read and watched so many analysis pieces that try to make sense of what just happened by looking for a primary cause. And while they might find a cause that they personally like or believe, there isn't a primary cause. There are dozens of causes. Any attempt to distill the those causes down to even a small few is doomed to failure.
Furthermore, while it's possible to say certain specific groups of voters voted for a candidate because of X, that only deals with that specific group of voters. Other voters voted the the very same candidate for very different reasons. In some cases those reasons may actually have been diametrically opposed to the reasons that drove he first group.
(Note: when I say specific groups of voters, I do not mean ethnic groups or genders or even party members. Every one of those 'groups' is so broad as to be useless for any real analysis. I don't have a proper operational definition for my specific groups, but they are sub-sub-subsets, with many extra 'subs')
So having said that, what's the point of this article? Mostly it's my attempt to identify, explore, and perhaps categorize as many of those causes as I can. I don't plan to rank them, or to assign more than a broad level of impact to them (i.e. major vs minor). Basically, I'm writing this for me, and inflicting it on anyone unlucky enough to stumble across it.  However, I would say that, if things are to improve (and not just in US Elections) we can't try to fix one thing.  Any real progress will come from multiple vectors and will be more likely to involve incremental change (although I propose some dramatic change below).

Before we move on, I'm going to make a number of statements that should impact how you read and assess this article:

  1. I'm Canadian, and for all our similarities, Canadians don't approach government exactly the same way as Americans. We have different values and my values impact my thinking. 
  2. I'm a human being, so I'm horribly biased. My biases impact my thinking no matter how hard I try to be objective. 
  3. Key bias: I did not want Donald Trump to win the election. 
  4. While I do have a degree in Psychology, with a minor in Political Studies, I'm no expert in either field. I don't practice in either field. I'm just a layperson trying to figure things out. 
  5. This is a blog post. Despite its ridiculous length, there are 78520372341 things that occurred to me I didn't have time to mention, clarify, explore. 
  6. In a couple of places I have come up with a number by mashing the number pad. 
  7. I'm no genius, so there are also an order of magnitude more things I missed, misunderstood, or that I just didn't think of,


The Primary Point of Failure in Democracy
Surprisingly, I'm not going to mention the Electoral College here (but don't worry, I'll get to it).
Perhaps the biggest flaw in democracy is that it allows people to vote. In a representative democracy, the assumption is that people will vote for representatives who will enact laws and policies that benefit the voters. Underlying that assumption is another assumption that people will vote logically, or rationally. Unfortunately, people are rarely logical or rational; both in every day decisions, but even more so in the area of politics.

Emotional Voting
Child cowering in fear of a shadowy form
Image Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo / HaywireMedia

I think it's undeniable that emotions were one of the most major impacts to the election. Whether out of fear or anger or in hope and joy, people voted based on feelings. Sadly, I think fear and anger were the predominant feelings.

Fear
For years, both of the major parties have tried to instill fear in the US populace. They differ only in what the voter is supposed to fear. Fear short circuits most of our ability to think rationally. It activates much more primitive behaviour sets, driving us to either flee or fight. Neither reaction is generally driven by logic.


Anger
Anger appeared in this election in so many ways. Anger directed at the past and present actions of the candidates. Anger directed at the actions of the government. Anger drawn from the systemic problems that afflict groups and individuals. Anger at a world that isn't the world the voter wants.
Often the anger was directly stoked by the fear mongering of the parties. But I believe that just as much was endemic. It seem trite to talk about the impact of technological change, but I do truly believe the pace of change has accelerated.
Anger is a common reaction to change, because of the pain of the loss of what was, the fear of the new, and work involved to incorporate the new world. But when the change is constant, we are in a constant state of loss, and often have to start incorporating a new world before we could even come to terms with last new thing.
Regardless of the source, anger is just as bad at short-circuiting rationality. It can lead us to make choices that are not only bad, but actively self-destructive.

Hate
Okay, before my fellow geeks jump on me for allusions to the first trilogy, I honestly do have to talk about hate. Of course I'm not saying I didn't intentionally order the emotions to imply an ultimate result.
I think it's fair to say that I've actively observed nine presidential elections (I'm afraid it was only in my teens that I started to pay attention to politics.) It has only been in the last three that I truly got the sense that any sizable group truly hated a candidate. In the first two of those three, I blithely ascribed that hate to a particular motivation. While I'm still sure that my ascription was valid, I now believe it was woefully limited.
We increasingly demonize those who disagree with us. There is an innate human tendency to react negatively when someone believes something other than what we believe. Alternative viewpoints mean that we might be wrong. But lately, it seems that we react to that challenge far more negatively than is appropriate. My personal theory is that this is because being wrong has moved from being mildly embarrassing to a tragedy of epic proportions. We vilify people for errors that should not draw more than a wry grin.
Regardless of the reasons for the hate, it undeniably impacted this election. Once people start to hate something or someone, there is little likelihood of that changing, barring an event on the order of divine intervention.

Hope
As much play as the negative emotions played a part, emotions like hope also had an impact. Many people saw their own dreams realized in the platform and promises of a particular candidate. Hope for jobs, hope for progress, hope for a better tomorrow.Hope is a beautiful thing, but it can lead us astray.  Rather than go into that in detail, I'll direct you to Hannah Hart's (@harto) vlogbrother video on the topic: The Trouble with Wishful Thinking

Humans are Bad Decision Makers
Even outside of emotions (an absurd and impossible precondition), human beings are not great at making decisions.  We rarely make decisions by thinking through the options logically and choosing the best one.  There are a number of reasons for that.

Cognitive biases
I could probably write fifty articles on the different cognitive biases that skew our thinking in illogical ways.  Whether it's the Ambiguity Effect (which definitely impacts voting) to Apophenia (which I also believe impacts voting), or even the Availability Heuristic (which, given the media bubbles that I'll talk about below also impacted voting).  And I didn't even leave the "A's".
Regardless, these cognitive biases affect all of us.  We are not the logical and rational thinkers that Democracy requires.

Infinity
One of the reasons we have the biases we do is that they help us make decisions quickly.  We couldn't function if we had to fully analyze every decision we make each day.  For those of us lucky enough to live in relative affluence, just deciding on breakfast would take until lunch if we thought through every option each time (although perhaps we'd be healthier).
Image Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo / kgtoh
When you look at what we are asking our politicians to do, the number of factors we need to consider are definitely on the second half of the chessboard.  To logically and rationally decide who will best represent us, we need to decide on questions in almost every sphere of human endeavor.  I like to think of myself as a reasonably well educated person, but honestly I don't feel remotely qualified to vote.  I don't have the time required to truly assess each candidate's position on every issue, much less the expertise.  Nor do I have the time to fully vet the experts that those candidates rely on.  The best I can do is guess at a specific set of issues and approaches that form my sine qua non and see which candidate comes closest.

Bubbles, Echo Chambers and Silos, Oh My!
I don't want to spend a lot of time on the Bubble/Echo Chamber phenomenon as it also is discussed more effectively elsewhere.  The problem is that I do believe it has been steadily increasing both polarization and demonization.
We all live in informational bubbles.  Truth is what is presented to us in that bubble.  Lately that has reached the point that we don't even experience the same realities.  Have ten random voters describe today's America, and I bet you'd find at least five very different pictures (and I fear it would be ten). I suspect, stripped of any place names, you might not recognize what country was being described.
The informational bubble has always existed to some extent, whether it was based on what church you attended, which newspapers or periodicals to which one subscribed, which news anchor one preferred, or even where you lived,  Similarly, we have always tended to surround ourselves with like minded people.  We like people who think like us, and who tell us we are right.  As much as we want to believe that opposites attract, it has always been truer that birds of a feather flock together.
People clustered into niche groups
Image Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo / iqoncept
However the problem has intensified.  The digital world, in offering us so much more access to information and so many more ways to connect, has actually driven us into silos. As a cable cutter, the information I receive and the feedback I get is especially filtered:
  • Algorithms feed me news based on what articles I've already read.
  • The people I follow are people who say things I agree with (and those that follow me likely agree with much of what I say).
    • Sadly, I have unfollowed people because they've said things I don't like.  I'm not saying that's always wrong, but I can't say I've always soberly considered whether what they're saying is truly objectionable or just something that I don't want to hear.
  • The videos I see are also generally based on the channels I've chosen to follow, and the videos I've watched.
    • Even worse, I can tell YouTube to stop recommending videos based on videos I disliked.
  • Most of my other online sources of information are also ones I've selected.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure that there is a good answer here.  I like to think I'm open minded.  I'm certainly always willing to admit I'm wrong (which, based on how often I'm wrong is a darn good thing.)  
I do know that we are not going to be challenged on what we believe if we don't get outside the echo chambers that just bounce our beliefs back at us.  But where do we go?  In the digital world, if we try to express our views in a different silo, the chances of meaningful discussion seem slim.  Even the process of simply trying to understand what that silo believes and why, can bury us under waves of scorn, vituperation and even threats.
I think one place that used to be a source of that sort of external input was the workplace.  However, most workplaces these days discourage political discussions (validly seeking to avoid the sort of invective and abuse described above). 
I believe, like most problems in our past, there is a solution.  I think people from a multitude of silos will begin to resent the walls that isolate them, and I look forward to the creative solutions that they come up with to help break down those walls. I wish I had that sort of creativity.

Lies
Sadly, when it comes to politics, it seems everyone lies.  People who believe the lies choose to vote for the candidate who uttered them.
So these days, digital technology has given us better tools to detect lies.  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to matter.  Independent groups provided evidence that both candidates had lied, the only upshot of which was arguments about who lied more.  I honestly (pun intended) have no idea what to say about that.

"Isms"
To try to shorten an already long post, and allow a bit of time to cover the system itself, I'm going to bullet out a bunch of the reasons people chose to vote for a candidate (hopefully further illustrating the problems with people choosing others to represent them.)
  • Racism
  • Sexism
    • Gender was used by both sides (having a hard time being objective on this one)
  • Homophobia
  • Religion/Atheism
    • I know, lumping them together seems odd.
  • Looks
    • Both candidates were mocked for their appearance
  • Grammar
  • Party affiliation
    • I know it's often true in Canada, but I truly don't understand the "My Party, right or wrong" thinking.
  • Protest voting
  • Some people just want to watch the world burn
    • Yes, I'm differentiating that from the protest voting.  I think there's a difference.
  • 90238547 other reasons

Evil Democracy
So democracy needs logical rational voters, and as illustrated above, people can't fill that role.  What's the solution?
Unfortunately, there isn't a solution.  All I can do is side with Churchill:
Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…


A Broken System
Don't worry.  While this could be ten times as long as what I've already written, I'm not going to go into significant detail on these points.  First, I'm sure you can find much more cogent discussions of them in other spaces, and secondly, I'm talking about another countries government, so my Canadian biases are really showing.

The Electoral College
I doubt anyone is surprised that I'm starting here.  While the system makes a bit more sense in the 'Division of Powers' environment, it's time to seriously revisit how it works.  Any system that makes only a few states important, and could result in a president that a significant majority voted against really needs to be reconsidered.  If you want more detail, check out CGP Grey's videos (you should really look him up on YouTube rather than watching in the frames below):


State Set Voting Rules
I really believe that the US needs to set Federal rules for voting in national elections.  The differences in each state create confusion, and require a ridiculous amount of effort to clarify.  They also lead to significant inequality.
I recognize that my Canadian biases are showing here.  They're going to show even more clearly in my next point.

The Two Party System
Yep.  A Canadian arguing for a multi-party system.  Next thing you know the sun will rise in the east, and water will be wet.
Humour aside, I do think the only way a viable third party could reasonably arise in the US would be a centrist party formed out of 'left' leaning Republicans and 'right' leaning Democrats, driven to such drastic measures by the polarization of the existing parties.  However, I don't believe that such a party would break the two party system.  Rather it would simply marginalize one of the other parties and replace it.  Without some more significant change in the structure of the US government, and the voting methodology, the two party system is likely to persist.  Yet it doesn't seem to be meeting the needs.  What are people to do when both candidates seem like a bad idea to them (and yes, I recognize that a majority of voters were able to decide which they thought was worse, but is that really the way to go?)

Election Funding Rules
I know everyone is going to talk about how the underfunded candidate won.  Regardless, they need to curb campaign spending.  Their elected officials spend more time raising money than anything else. Setting better limits on donations and spending would likely also increase trust in the officials themselves (and yes, I also believe in the Tooth Fairy and the Soul Cake Duck).


A Final Thought
The only thing I haven't mentioned here is one of the most speculative items.  I do see Donald Trumps election reflecting a more general trend in the world.  We have seen a few other 'extreme' political events.  The Brexit vote and the election of Rodrigo Duterte immediately come to mind. I leave this till the end, and even there hesitate to mention it, because it is likely just me falling victim to Apophenia. But are we possibly seeing some sort of global risky shift in politics?

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Kiva

Just a quick note.  If you are looking for a good way to make the world a better place, consider making a microloan on Kiva.org.

You may have seen articles that imply microloans aren't as powerful as their advocates have claimed.  Those articles are likely right.  But you'll probably find, if you read them, that the dispute is one of degree rather than a true repudiation of microloans.  Microloans are not a poverty panacea.  Many recipients of microloans do still live in poverty.  Overall, studies seem to indicate minimal overall benefits from microloans (FiveThirtyEight has a good article summarizing the results of studies in the area.)

I would posit two reasons to make microloans on Kiva, despite the above study:

  1. Unlike investment based microloans, Kiva loans are made at 0% interest.
  2. While I might not eradicate poverty, even for the person to whom I am making the loan, the chance is worth the cost.
There are a dozen other reasons why I like this approach, but I'll let the reader decide his or her personal reasons why it's a worthwhile approach.  And if the reader decides it's not a worthwhile approach, the reader is wrong.

Remember, the David is always right (for given values of 'always' and 'right').

Monday, 9 December 2013

Effectiveness

For the last couple of weeks, I've been head down, fully focused, on a specific testing deliverable.  I've been starting extra early to get time when my testing doesn't impact anyone else, as well as to compensate for the impact to my efficiency that working with only one monitor has caused.

And I felt quite internally rewarded when I finished early and was able to pick up some of my peers work to help them complete their tests.  As a team we finished ahead of schedule.  That always makes me happy.

And that's where effectiveness comes in.  Because today I discovered that none of the test we completed were technically valid.  The spec was missing a key point, and the data from which we validated our results was not the correct data.  So I saw two weeks of very hard work go down the drain.

Luckily, for my tests, I had recorded all my data, which allowed me to go back and quickly validate the tests against the right data elements.  In the case of my peers tests, that wasn't an option since they hadn't saved all the data.

We are often told today that business has to seek 'good enough'.  There isn't enough time to do things right. The agile business accepts 'good enough' as the price of being agile.  Indeed there are those who laud 'good enough' as a virtue rather than a vice.

That may be true, but today was a lesson for me in the effectiveness of doing things right.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Power of Titillation

In my post entitled Clarke's Third Law, I talked about my search for a reason that people are so willing to believe in hoaxes.  In that post, I posited that the difficulty in understanding the science behind much of which we deal on a daily basis makes simpler theories easier to believe, even though they are completely wrong.

However, I realized today that there is another factor that can't be discounted.   Many of these theories posit some sort of ill intent:  the government puts fluoride in the water to control us; or vaccines are a plot by the medical establishment to dig deeper into our pockets.

Perhaps it's that ill intent that makes people want to believe.  Human beings love to judge.  We like to find moral failings in others (and I won't say why, because the reasons can be myriad.)  So we get a certain salacious delight in these theories and want to believe them.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Fearmongering - The debate on Gun Control in the US

I've been trying to not write this post for quite some time.  There are a number of reasons I've been hesitant. I'm not sure it's my place to write it.  I am not a citizen of the United States.  I am not personally affected by the situation.  My concern is entirely third party.

But with what appears to be an ever increasing number of seemingly random acts of gun violence I am simply unable to understand how a country can be so obsessed with private gun ownership.  According to the Small Arms Survey, there were 88.8 guns per 100 people in the US in 2007.  That made it number 1 in the list, followed by Yemen (54.8), Switzerland (45.7), Finland (45.3) and Serbia (37.8).  Almost 1 gun per person seems absolutely inconceivable to me.  I think Canada is absurdly high at 30.8.

More significantly, a study published in the American Journal of Medicine positively correlated the rate of gun ownership to the rate of firearm related deaths.  Now, I encourage you, as always, to assess the reliability of the source.  Check the paper itself, and validate whether the American Journal of Medicine is a reputable peer-reviewed publication.

I accept the reliability of the source, and I'm reasonably satisfied with the methodology of the paper.  And I fully understand that correlation does not imply causation.  It's entirely possible that a third factor causes both high gun ownership and high firearm fatalities.  Or perhaps the more people killed with guns, the more people buy guns.  There's a certain twisted logic there, I guess.

However, I'm going to make a scientifically indefensible leap and say that reducing gun ownership would probably reduce gun deaths.  It's a leap that is based on logic and common sense, neither of which are scientific, but both of which are the basis for most policies we adopt in the free world.

That puts me back in the position of trying to understand how people can justify private gun ownership.
I made the mistake of searching for arguments against gun control.  I call it a mistake, mostly because of the negative impact to my blood pressure.  And not because of the fact that they were offering an opposing belief, but because of some of the questionable 'proofs' offered.

Jim Fetzer, of Veterans Today, jumps rather quickly to reductio ad hitlerum in his article "Why gun control is bad for America".  In the third paragraph he cites an article by Stephen Halbrook from American Rifleman that talks about the Nazi use of firearm registration.  Fetzer does go on to provide 7 other examples where he links gun control to violent atrocities.
So I'll summarize his primary argument to be:  Private gun ownership is necessary because gun control may be used as a precursor to violent atrocities. (Please tell me if I've missed the point)
That argument falls a bit flat for me in a number of way.

  1. Private gun ownership certainly seems to have resulted in many violent atrocities (albeit with fewer victims per individual atrocity).  So haven't we just changed who commits the atrocity?
  2. There is no statistical comparison of gun control to violent atrocities.  We have 8 examples.  That's 8 out of how many governments that have instituted gun control methods?  The joy of anecdotes is that you can always find at least one that fits your theory.
  3. Finally there is no evidence provided that private gun ownership would have prevented these atrocities.  If the Nazi party had not registered firearms, would that have prevented the holocaust?  Unlikely.  The psychology behind why the Nazi party rose to power, and why Germans who did not support them, also did not oppose them, would not likely have been materially altered by private gun ownership.
I will note that there is a theme here that does flow through many of the pro-gun articles I read.  It seems (and I say seems because I have no statistical tracking) that many of these staunch advocates of private gun ownership greatly fear their government.  I even have a fair bit of sympathy with that in some regards, although my fears still don't impel me to buy a gun.  I fear that my government may go too far in the line between safety and freedom, but I fight that by voting and by supporting petitions and other campaigns.  So far these methods seem to work quite well, and I haven't endangered my family by having a gun in the house.

Penn and Teller (who I really enjoy in many ways) are firmly in the anti-gun control camp.  In an episode of their series "Penn & Teller: B******t!" they make their case for why they think private ownership is a good thing.  Along with the fear of government, they cite protection from criminals, and the fact that current gun control measures fail to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

I'm not going to truly dispute the latter two, mostly because they posit points that currently do not have unequivocal scientific evidence one way or the other (at least that I've found).  There are studies that correlate gun ownership with homicide and suicide rates, but not with crime overall.  Studying the rate at which gun control measures fail is even more grey.  And really, overall crime rates are a function of so many changing and interacting socio-economic variables that any study is questionable.  How we approach drugs, the current unemployment rates, racial issues, urbanization, gentrification of neighbourhoods, and even the sunspot cycle, seem to be factors.

I will say that, if I could decrease the homicide and suicide rates by an appreciable percentage by taking on more risk that I would be robbed, I'd make the sacrifice.  But that's a personal choice, and not one I would expect everyone to make.

The rest of the articles I've read don't seem to provide anything new.  They may use different words but really reiterate the same beliefs:
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
 The problem isn’t guns, it is people.
Disarmed people are neither free nor safe - they become the criminals' prey and the tyrants' playthings.

So it really seems to come down to three main arguments, stated in different ways by different folks. Unfortunately every one of those arguments is really a belief.  Each one has anecdotes offered as evidence of validity, but lacks any sort of scientific proof.  Instead, each one seems to provide something to fear that may occur if guns are regulated.  Beware, if guns are regulated, the government will kill people.  Beware, if guns are regulated, there will be more crime.  Beware, if guns are regulated, only criminals will have guns.

Does that really mean that we are dealing more with religion here than anything else?  Is the problem that I'm facing, the fact that I'm trying to understand someone else's religion?  Or is it simply that I'd rather be afraid that I can't go shoot the members of my government than be afraid that some random person will shoot me?

Sunday, 15 September 2013

A Copyright Troll and a Genius

Some things speak pretty much for themselves.  This letter, in response to a frivolous Cease and Desist letter is one of them.

I only wish I could be as witty.