Monday, 9 December 2013


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.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Clarke's Third Law

The scientist and science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, proposed three "laws" of scientific prophecy:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Sadly, only the third of these ever made it into popular culture.  I say sadly because I think the entertainment possibilities of the first are quite possibly limitless, and because I think the second is a truly insightful comment on the value of speculative fiction to science.

Of course, having bemoaned the lack of emphasis placed on the first two of Clarke's laws, I'm about to contribute by talking about the third law.

As you may note in a previous post, I'm a bit mystified by some of the anti-science hoaxes that seem to be proliferating.  Fluoride in the water supposedly causes cancer, arthritis, and the downfall of western civilization.  Vaccines supposedly cause cancer, autism, and the downfall of western civilization.  Fire supposedly causes cancer, cream shortages, and the downfall of western civilization.

Ok, I made that last one up.  Although give it time, I'm sure there will be a 'movement' to ban it.

Now I've already pondered why the people who promulgate these hoaxes do so.  But what makes people so willing to believe them in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary?  

Faced with competing claims, I generally try to check out the evidence and arguments for each.  I then select the claim that is borne out by the majority of rigorous scientific study.  I certainly don't believe that scientists are always right.  But I do believe that the preponderance of properly conducted scientific experiment and study is the best source of truth I can find on an issue.

I'm not always emotionless in this search for truth.  I'm afraid I am prone to reject a claim that relies on invective rather than argument.  If a side dismisses every study that disagrees with it by impugning the authors (keywords like 'corporate shills' are a red flag), I tune out rather quickly.  Likewise, as soon as I see arguments about 'conspiracies' my patience grows thin.

Still, if there are opposing scientific studies I try to get a sense of their validity.  I confess I generally seek out Literature reviews (a meta-article that summarizes the work) rather than looking at the individual studies. Generally that will give me a good sense of which studies were published in reputable journals and which studies have been replicated.  With that knowledge I can make my decision.

Not everyone is like me (and for the most part, I thank God that it's so).  In fact there are some people who appear to actually prefer to believe the unfounded, or the outright wrong.  Scientific American had an article on Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories earlier this year.  They don't really come to any conclusions, but they do raise the link between belief in conspiracy theories and feelings of powerlessness.  Conspiracy theories help combat that by assigning meaning to events, even if that meaning has no basis.

I propose a slightly different take.  Knowing a number of people who blindly accept some of these theories, yet don't seem to evince these feelings of powerlessness, I'm going to go with Clarke's Third Law.  In many ways, scientific fields have progressed to the point that anyone not in the field is not advanced enough to distinguish it from magic.  The rejection of science is really a rejection of magic - a rejection of what we don't understand.  We prefer a theory that seems simpler to us, or at least a theory that we own.

Now I may actually be positing a distinction without a difference.  Perhaps powerlessness and lack of understanding are the same thing in different words.  I also recognize that there are many other possibilities. People are complex, and the reasons that person A is wearing a tinfoil hat may differ from the reasons why person B doesn't vaccinate their child.

But my theory helps me hold the magic at bay for a bit.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Demontivation and the Unwritten Duties of Every Employee

Sometimes, other duties as needed defines 90% of my job.

Currently, I'm supposed to spend my time ensuring that the processes for the applications I support are effective and efficient.  I liaise between our users and our IT team to match functions to needs, and then document exactly how to use those functions to meet those needs.

But the majority of my actual work falls well outside that job description.  A lot of the work is due to the usual suspects: scope creep, SEP, etc.  But an appreciable portion comes from duties that underlie every employee's job description.

I spend a fair amount of time ensuring that the applications I support, and the processes I document, conform to our company's values, to our corporate policies, to legal requirements, to ethical principles, and even to good business sense.  It goes even further though.  I spend considerable time ensuring that any actions with which I'm involved, or sometimes simply of which I'm aware conform in those areas as well.

These are my unwritten job duties:

  1. Above all, ensure my work and the work with which I'm involved conforms to the highest ethical and legal standards.
  2. Ensure my work and the work with which I'm involved is beneficial to the business.
  3. Be a good steward with all company resources, including my time and my abilities.
I think those are unwritten duties which every employer has the right to expect of it's employees.

What brought this all to mind is a recent decision in British Colombia.  A couple of Elevator companies were taken to the privacy commissioner for tracking employee travel via company issued cellphones, when those cellphones were in 'on duty mode'.  The BC privacy commissioner found that this was a reasonable step to ensure that employees were working their expected hours.

My first thought was that this was a good decision.  Immediately on the heels of that, I started to wonder:  "How could an employer handle this more effectively."  This kind of tracking leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those tracked, because it implies that the employer must 'crack the whip' on its employees.  It's fear based motivation, which simply can't build a positive working relationship between employer and employee.

These companies tried to explicitly write one of those unwritten rules (Be a good steward) into the job.  They obviously felt that there was a need to enforce that stewardship of time that should simply be part of their work culture.  In doing so, they actually tell their employees that stewardship is not something intrinsic, but rather an extrinsic behaviour forced upon them.

What an employer has to want, and should strive to build, is a culture where employees govern themselves to follow those unwritten job duties.  Every employee should be working to benefit his or her employer.  If they aren't or don't feel they should, its time for them to seek a different employer.

Unfortunately, I recognize that's a bit Pollyannaish of me.  No matter how good an employer's hiring practices, and no matter how hard they strive to build a culture of trust, ethics, and respect, there will be employees who will not work to benefit the company.

Ultimately, I think the answer is not to try to hold employee accountable for the behaviour (working 8 hours per day) but to hold them accountable for results.  Now I know nothing about elevators, other than how to push the button to get me to my floor. So I don't know how to manage to those results.  But I do know that most industries that I've had any experience in could implement results based performance management.

The problem is that results based performance management runs counter to some of our cherished business principles.  One of the most cherished is that people should work x hours per day or week.  Employers often treat employees like pieces of equipment that they rent for a certain amount of time per day, and must get maximum use out of.  The idea that results are what matter, not hours per day or days per week, sends shivers down the spine of traditional management.

But I posit that goals and results to aim for will create much more effective, efficient and profitable companies than will a culture that metaphorically chains people to their desks for 40 hours per week.

Now I know nothing about the specific companies involved, and I cannot comment on the business need that they felt required this tracking.  I can't say whether this was a measure that indicates a breakdown in relationship, or simply was something that was implemented for a number of reasons that seemed like a good idea at the time.

What I can say is that, while I would never deny my employer the right to track my work and productivity, Big Brother methods like this would quickly prompt me to look for other, more motivating, environs.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

The Gatekeeper Mentality

It's interesting how things can come at you suddenly from different directions.  You discover something exists and then suddenly everyone is talking about it as if it's been around forever.

Fandom (Geekdom?) Gatekeepers just appeared on my radar.  Apparently there are people out there who feel it is their duty to decide who is, and is not a fan.  Or perhaps even who may be and may not be a fan.  In the course of the last couple of weeks my webward wanderings have taken me to a number of different articles on the topic ( is a good example, as is

Now don't get me wrong.  I've known people like this, in many many areas.  Growing up in the Christian church is amazingly instructive on Gatekeepers.  I'm quite damned to hell because I believe in infant baptism, am not a pacifist, think dancing is ok (although God should grant me points for not inflicting my dancing on the world).  I don't believe what these Christian Gatekeepers believe, so I'm not one of them.

I've met similar types in fandom, but I simply wasn't really aware of the impact they've had on others.  Of course I'm not a 'True Fan' of anything.  I've been to one SF convention as an attendee.  David Weber was the Guest of Honor and I'm closest to being a 'True Fan' there than anywhere else.  I've helped with a couple of gaming conventions, and of course I've been to a few conventions as part of Castle Games.  So while I'm not a big convention goer, I do circulate in the community.

In addition to all that, I spent a few years running a team of young gentlemen and one or two ladies who provided technical support.  While they weren't all geeks, there was a disproportionate representation (Sorry guys... and Sally).

Which means I have a fair bit of contact with fandom.  I consider myself part of it.  I certainly have run into some 'True Fans' in my time.  But I guess always dismissed them in the same way I dismissed someone ranting about how the hymnbook had to be blue, not red.  They were passionate in their beliefs, but it wasn't something that truly concerned me.  I never realized how much they might drive others away.  Reading stories of the kind of harassment people face from them stunned me (see the comments in for some rather egregious examples (note that Mr. Scalzi's article makes more colourful use of language than is my wont)).

So why am I stunned.  Why does this surprise me?

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that there are 'True Fans' out there trying to build walls around their fandom. It's actually a very natural human trait.  We've been defining ourselves as 'we' and 'they' since Paleolithic times (oops, damned again because I don't believe that Genesis is a literal history).  Human beings form groups and discriminate against all who are not part of that group (Look at the work of Henri Tajfel if you doubt that).

Yet, when I think of fandom in the area of speculative fiction, I've always had a fairly optimistic view regarding tolerance and inclusion.  Sure, some fans can be a bit exclusionary when it comes to soap and water, and overly inclusionary when recounting how their half-elf wizard/assassin slew the dragon single handed.  But I've always thought that embracing the breadth of thought inherent in speculative fiction should drive people to accept rather than reject.

The true triumph of humanity has been our ability to live above our base instincts.  We have achieved works in the physical, social and spiritual realms that transcend our Paleolithic roots.  We are far more than the near primates huddling together in fear of the dark 'other'.

If anyone should see that, if there are any people who should be driving that ascension of humanity, it is those who embrace the expansiveness of speculative fiction.  I suspect (hope?) these 'True Fans' would be aghast if someone was denied entrance to their clique for being a Christian.  They would never dare say "You're not a true fan, you're Japanese!"  I suspect they'd vehemently oppose such discrimination.  But then I also suspected they'd embrace any hint of curiousity about their interests rather than pushing people away.

Maybe my suspicion is more of that optimism.

I hope not.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Office 2013 - Harbinger of doom

So, as anyone who knows me is aware, I've been testing Office 2013 for our compnay.  And, as everyone who knows that is aware, I'm very disappointed with it.

It seems that the entire design of Office 2013 was tablet focused (yet many of the changes would make using on a tablet more difficult).  I was bemoaning this (among many other Office 2013 flaws) to one of my fellow testers, noting that people aren't going to be able to do serious work on a tablet.  I'm never going to be able to type 60 to 70 words per minute on a tablet keyboard.  I'm never going to be able to design analysis on a 7 or 10 inch screen (heck I need all 3 of my 24" widescreens).

I was stunned when he indicated that he did not share my belief (and it is a 'belief' as I have no proof of what the future will hold).  He noted how he already does about 15% of his work on a tablet.

That gave me pause.  It takes me 3 minutes to type a simple tweet on my 7" Android tablet, and that's with an upgraded 'Smart' keyboard.  That's 9 words per minute.  On my 10" Windows tablet I'm even slower.  And at my age, I'm not going to get much faster.  My fingers aren't going to shrink and my dexterity isn't going to improve.  I'm just never going to be a 10th as productive on a tablet as I am on a desktop.

Which brought me to an uncomfortable thought.  Is Office 2013 a sign that I am rapidly becoming irrelevant?  If I can't work effectively using tools that are designed for a mobile medium, in what other ways am I falling behind the tech curve.  Am I on my way to the same place as many workers from a couple generations ago?  As computers became ubiquitous, and they were unable to adapt, they could not keep pace.  Does the same fate await me?  Is Office 2013 the light in the sky the dinosaurs saw just before the big boom?

At the moment, I don't believe so.

I believe Microsoft has oversolved their problem.  They weren't relevant in the mobile market, so they are literally trying to sink their ship in hopes that it might become a submarine.  Hopefully someone will realize that they are sinking a perfectly good ship, plug up the holes, and continue to service their enterprise customers.  Making their product significantly less effective on the desktop, with the idea that desktops are going away, is the same sort of lunacy that produced Windows 8.  It's like New Coke for computers.

I believe that tablets and smartphones are useful adjuncts to the professional workspace.  At my most forgiving, they provide useful ways for workers away from their workspace to stay connected and complete light work. At my most cynical, they're great for business as they double the amount of worktime that those businesses can now expect from employees:  "Here's your tablet.  Now you are expected to check your email every hour on the hour, 24/7/365."

I believe that no one can match my productivity using current tablets.  You aren't going to write technical documents, map processes, analyse data, and develop reports as fast on a 7 inch touchscreen device as I will on a desktop with multiple monitors, a mechanical keyboard, and a mouse.

And I believe, that the evolution of the tablet in the enterprise will ultimately result in it simply being part of a linked system, where my tablet, my desktop, and other devices, simply become parts of an integrated whole.

But, I know those are beliefs, not facts.

Is that a meteor in the shape of the Office Logo?

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Why do you take the 'Sucker' nowhere?

P.T. Barnum is often quoted (albeit incorrectly) as saying "There's a sucker born every minute, and two to take him."

Regardless of the quote's attribution, it touches on a chain of thought that I haven't been able to fully explore.  Hence my need to write it out so I can come to an understanding of what I really thing.

I'm not particularly concerned with the first part of the quote.  I think it's undeniable that there are many people who are overly credulous, and at some point, we're all suckers (stupid P.J. with his stupid gullible joke).

But I've been thinking about the 'two to take him' part.  I completely understand why someone would become a con man.  Easy money has a powerful allure for some (again I'm unconcerned with the accuracy of the perceptions).  If someone decides to set up a Ponzi scheme, or tries the Nigerian Bank con, I can understand their motivation.

The motivation that eludes me is what drives people to put immense time and effort into frauds and hoaxes where they obtain no material, mental, or spiritual benefit.

A number of different interactions and events have prompted this question.   From friends falling for the usual internet hoaxes (Fake Virus Warnings and other scarelore) to the recent petition to have the City of Winnipeg stop putting fluoride in the city's water, I've really begun to wonder what motivates people to do this sort of thing.

If these hoaxes caused people to take action that would benefit the perpetrators, I could understand.  If they caused people to take actions of which the perpetrators would be aware (fulfilling some aberrant  psychological need), I could understand.  But these actions are shots in the dark.

And in cases like the City of Winnipeg fluoride issue, where the perpetrators could conceivably be aware of the results of their hoax, the amount of work, time, and effort involved seem wholly disproportionate to any reward.

I know that there has always been a great deal of irrational fear surrounding fluoridation of drinking water.  From the conspiracy theories of the 50's (fluoridation was a Communist plot), to the cancer/dementia/SIDS scares of today, it certainly seems to be fodder for scaremongers.

But this is more than simple scaremongering.  Entire organizations have sprung up to fight a practice that has proven benefits with only one minimal side effect (dental fluorosis).  These organizations create websites, hold meeting and actively proselytize.  They spend a great deal of time and effort manufacturing materials to support their 'cause'.

And if they were true believers, I guess I could simply categorize it as a religion.  I understand the human need for faith, and perhaps these people simply choose to put their faith in the anti-fluoride movement.  But that just doesn't track for me.

Creating the materials to support their cause involves a degree of intellectual dishonesty that, to my mind, precludes the true believer thesis.  These materials will quote a study that fully supports the safety of fluoridation, yet say that it demonstrates significant risks.  The Fluoride Action Network indicates that the US Department of Health and Human Services links fluoride to arthritis"

Joint pain and stiffness are well known symptoms of excessive fluoride intake. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, too much fluoride causes “chronic joint pain” and “arthritic symptoms.” (DHHS 1991).
 Yet when you read the DHHS report, arthritis isn't even mentioned.  Now it's possible I'm missing something, but I doubt it.

Which brings me back to the question.  What do people get out of this?  Is it simply a practical joke on a scale that I'm unable to appreciate?  Perhaps I'm simply too materialistic to appreciate the esoteric rewards of such behaviour.