The Study Of What Others Do.

Taran Rampersad
Courtesy Mark Lyndersay, LyndersayDigital

I hate having my picture taken. Over the years, I have found the best defense from cameras is to hold one. This has weakened in a day and age where every phone has a camera, and everyone wants to be seen with someone – but Mark Lyndersay needed a picture of me for TechNewsTT, where the majority of my writing has been published this year outside of my own websites.

In going to his studio, it was a rare glimpse for me into the world of professional photography. It was clear to me almost immediately, this amateur photographer, that it would take me at least a decade to do the editing I watched Mark do quickly, about how he managed his photos, and about why he did the things he did  – a matter of simple experience that cannot be replaced with meetings and requirements discovery.

You see, I had been thinking of writing my own photo management software in Python – something to automate a lot of things. I had briefly considered this when I had begun selling some of my prints in Florida, and it was latent in my mind as a project to ‘get to’. In conversation with Sarita Rampersad, another professional photographer (unrelated), I had asked her what she used last year and why. It was clear that it would take more than a passing effort on my part to build something more useful than the tools she was using. The visit to Mark’s studio underlined this.

The Roots.

Reflecting on this on the way home, I went back to the very core of how I started working with technology. From an early age, I was encouraged – by rote and by whip, as it were – to observe what was being done to understand how it was being done. This was the root of the family business, the now gone Rampersad’s Electrical Engineering, a company that was built on fixing industrial electro-mechanical equipment with clients ranging from the U.S. Navy to someone who just needed their water pump repaired (Even WASA).

This background served me well over the years, and understandably frustrated managers and CEOs. Knowing the context of how things were used allowed for for useful processes and code; it allowed for things to become more efficient and allowed things to be written to last instead of a constant evolution of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if?”. In a world of agile processes, the closest thing to this is the DevOps iteration of Agile which even people who practice Agile haven’t heard of (because they are soundly in the Agile Cave).

DevOps is a form of Agile where every stakeholder is directly involved. And that, to me, is also a problem because of the implicit hierarchies and office (if only office) politics is involved. It’s a bleeding mess of tissue to sew together to form a frankensystem, but at least that frankensystem is closer to what people actually need. Assuming, of course, they understand what they need.

To me, it boils down to studying what other people do.

Observe, Analyze, Communicate, Build.

When I started as an ‘apprentice’ programmer, this was drilled into me by an Uncle who was a Systems Analyst, and ‘allowed’ me to write the code for projects that he was working on. He didn’t boil it down to observe, analyze, communicate and build; I refined that myself over the course of the years.

No matter the process, it all boils down to someone able to bridge how people work/play to get something done to understand what is needed, and how to make their lives easier through automation and information structure. Observing people do their jobs is important, analyzing it secondary, but the most important part is the one thing that an AI cannot yet do: Communicate, the process of listening, speaking (or writing, or…), and then feedback. This process is most important. In priority of importance, software engineering and I believe any form of process or structural engineering is:

  1. Communication
  2. Observation
  3. Analysis
  4. Build

This is not the order in which things are done, of course, but the emphasis that is most important in understanding how present systems work and how future systems should work.

So often over the years, I’ve seen software engineers relegated to the role of code monkeys with emphasis only on ‘Build’, when the most important parts are about ‘building what is needed’. This is where business analysts got introduced somewhere along the way, but they too are put into silos. This is underlined by HR departments focusing only on the ability to ‘build’, where analysts are expected to be a different sort of role. When these roles were split, I cannot say, but to be both is something that is too large and round to fit in small square holes of the modern enterprise.

It is lost, eroded, and there is a part of me that wonders if this is a good thing. Studying what other people do has allowed me to do so many things within and without technology, and it worries me that in a future where AI will be taking over the ‘Build’ that software engineers aren’t being required to focus more on the soft skills that they will need in the coming years.

Sure, the AI can build it – but is ‘it’ what needs to be built?

Humanoid Gets Citizenship: Odd.

Sophia RobotIf you think the world couldn’t get any weirder, it just got ratcheted up. Saudi Arabia, the country where atheists are considered terrorists and  women have less rights than in other countries, has made a humanoid artificial intelligence a citizen – the first humanoid AI citizen in the world.

So, the question is, is Sophia the AI a woman who has less rights than other places in the world, or is she a ‘terrorist’ – or has she had an AI sex change and become Muslim?

A Flood of Failures: Beyond ODPM.

Trinidad flood
Image Courtesy Flickr User ‘Trinidad News’ using a Creative Commons License .

This isn’t a technology post; however, it’s a post about failed systems and tangible problems here in Trinidad and Tobago.

There’s much that has been said about the ODPM, and having seen the press conference they suffered Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the world with, I’ve decided not to throw them under the bus only because they are already under the bus. It’s not even a challenge, but I offer they are under the wrong bus and those that should be with them are not under it.

Instead, I will write perhaps what they should have said as well as what should be corrected.

We have a tendency to believe that the ODPM, like any government agency, is on it’s own. When I look to criticize constructively, as someone with a technical background it is expected of me to point out the incompatible systems, the bottlenecks, and the problems with the apps and websites. Those are painfully obvious, and I have written about them before in the context of Brett.

Instead, let’s look at the systems.

We have a few agencies that are really involved with the flooding who are not garnering the attention they should be after these incidents – the ODPM, in this way, is a red herring offered for the masses to feed on.

The real problem is deeper, and the ODPM’s failures – as real as they are – only skim the surface of the actual problem: Flooding during wet season, water retention during dry season.

Environmental Management Authority

Let’s talk about the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) a moment. Their corporate vision, from their website, is to be “Stewards of Trinidad and Tobago’s natural resources and environment meeting current and future human, ecological and economic needs.”

I’d say that avoiding flooding is a part of current and future human, ecological and economic needs.

Their mission, as they communicate it on their website, is: “We are committed to sustainably manage the natural resources and environment by providing a transparent framework to facilitate policy and decision making in development. This will be undertaken within an approved regulatory system, utilising intensive public education and a collaborative cross-sectoral approach.”

So, how is it that a large amount of rainfall has created a problem that the ODPM cannot handle on more than one occasion? How is the EMA involved in that? Is it involved in that? Should it be involved in that?

It sounds like it is a big part of their job to this layperson.

Ministry of Planning And Development, Town And Country Division
This department is one I mainly know for authorizing land development and even changing land zoning. Clearly they should be working with the EMA; what they actually do is hard to find since they have an almost random note on the Ministry of Planning and Development’s website. They clearly should be more transparent. Website, anyone?

That they are almost always ignored in land development is something that may have something to do with that, as well as what seems to be an arduous process to get anything done – so much so that illegal land development has been an underlying problem with some of the flooding.

This is such a case that the Minister of Works has said he’ll be going after illegal land developers.

And yet, legal land development is hardly something that information can be found for, and what can be found is typically through people who know how the system works and how it doesn’t. In some regards, this could be  considered corruption, in others, it could be an inefficient bureaucracy that frustrates people to the point that they just go do their own thing.

Why is the Ministry of Planning and Development, Town and Country Division, more effective in reducing the potential for flooding? You’d think that they and the EMA would be joined at the hip.

Water and Sewage Authority (WASA)

We’re told that WASA is responsible for all the water in Trinidad and Tobago. Though I have never see it in writing, all water on the ground in the country allegedly is WASA’s water – unless, of course, there is flooding, where not even WASA wants it.

I bring them up because what we see as flooding in wet season is potential water to retain during dry season. In a country where many people still wait for pipe-borne water to fill their tanks on a daily basis, where water is almost always a problem during dry season, one has to wonder how WASA’s water retention isn’t being looked at as well.

Ministry of Works and Transport Drainage Division

As I regularly pass across Mosquito Creek, as many others do, we all see the problems with drainage. Flooding along any roads?

Sure.

The Flood of Failure.

So yes, the ODPM didn’t handle the cascade of failures that creates flooding again. Sure, the Regional Corporations are also culpable at least to an extent – but with all this bureaucracy to save us from flooding, do we really want to blame the ODPM, forced to drink all this water, for wetting the bed? Clearly, the ODPM needs some work, but how much should we expect from them when much of this could be prevented?

The Introverted Network

Introvert / ExtrovertHidden in one of his posts (Measuring your real net worth) John Hagel welcomed some thoughts:

“…I would welcome advice and insight on how introverts (and others) can be more intentional about cultivating the kinds of personal networks that I’ve described above…

 

As a round peg that fits in many square holes, I do have a few things of value I can toss out there. John later mentions writing – writing has always been an asset for me. Photography came into play later on. Speaking for myself, with my own unique set of circumstances, I have certain guidelines for my networks I have created over the years that I still adapt to.

My guidelines are largely for attenuating my network, squelching noise and finding actual signal out there. In some ways, I feel like SETI.

Authentic.

My. Word.

In an age where everyone can communicate, it’s disheartening to see how many people aren’t authentic – they are showing who they want to be; these are the people who wash their cars and don’t do maintenance or have it done on their pretty little machines.

To find someone who is authentic is difficult enough…

Interesting?

I’m someone who ‘lives’ at intersections, always bridging one thing to another. I look for people who are not just specialists – in a world full of specialists – but also generalists and people who have something to offer other than something regurgitated from a newsfeed.

Thoughtful?

I appreciate a thoughtful read, particularly if it opens me up to a perspective I am unfamiliar with that is communicated in a thoughtful way – not the hollow expertise that has become rampant in even the most modern methods of communication. And when communicate back, I expect a level of thoughtfulness in the replies. If the response boils down to, “because I said so” or something similar, I’ll show my way out.

Cross-cultural?

This has become more and more important to me – and while it derives from ‘thoughtful’, it is a true gem to find. When people can communicate effectively across cultures, first they reach a larger audience with what they are saying. This, unfortunately, also means wrong information can spread across that cultural bridge – but oddly, I’ve found that most information I get from people who live at these intersections is pretty well thought out and open to discussion – even, sometimes, starved for it as someone gives voice to things and is heard.

Lines.

I draw lines.

First and foremost, if people get into my personal ‘space’ for no real good reason, I tend to squelch them. This is completely alien to some people and I understand that, but understanding that doesn’t mean I need to tolerate intrusions into my space (I call it my wa, or harmony). But what is this personal ‘space’?

The first time, people typically get a message from me that I’m not one for chit-chat; that I appreciate it all in one message. That usually does the trick. Usually.

The annoying ding of a message that just says, “Hi.” From this, I extrapolate that this will be a tiresome and largely unproductive communication that leads to multiple messages where one message alone would do. When I communicate, I lay it out all in one message.

And yes, I absolutely hate twitter for this. Absolutely. Twitter is good for sharing larger messages encapsulated in a link.

My second line is that if someone has an odd fetish that they post about all the time – for example, if they don’t ‘like Trump and post about Trump all the time – I squelch them. I learn nothing from that. The inverse is true for me as well. That is a form of intellectual masturbation I gave up a few decades ago, and while I appreciate that some have an odd predilection for it, I don’t feel like being near it.

Money

For a certain amount of money, to be negotiated, people can pay me to put up with the above. Never the other way around.

Decisiveness.

I probably could have networks exponentially larger than I have now had I not squelched things. Larger is not my goal. I view a network as something everyone in feeds, and something that feeds everyone.

My Own Counterculture

The typical SEO/social media expert will tell you that you have to put on the Disney smile for everyone. I suppose this is important for corporations who want to appear authentic and alienate as few people as possible. I have never subscribed to this thought for myself, and only over the last decade have stopped trying to make excuses for it or apologizing for it. There is only one me, I am who I am and I am no more and no less.

This is not for everyone, of course, and if you’re paying social media experts to broaden your reach, you need to understand that your reach also has to be managed – and success in this regard can result in cataclysmic failure. Speaking for myself, I deal with the world as I can, and increasingly, as I demand. I see this as a factor of having grown up before the Internet became a ‘thing’, of having dealt with it since it’s inception and having made a living off of it, through it and around it.

Lastly, social media is only that. Real connections with real people trump social media connections. Social media can offer real connections, and I’ve outlined the general rules of how I cultivate those.

Deep Learning, Information Bottlenecks – and Osmosis.

I’ve experimented in the past with deep learning in a few different ways, coming up with my own thoughts on how things work and why they work. It was apparent to me when I stopped that in 2016 that I was missing something, and that I needed some distance between myself and the topic at hand. I gave up those Pine64s, and as it happened, moved away from where I was doing it – more importantly, divorcing me from a Software Engineering world where ‘solutions right now’ always trumped ‘solutions’, the former the harbinger of problems, the latter the Holy Grail of every software engineer who dare dream in a world that, except for the minority, requires lockstep precision within an industry that spends it’s time firefighting because of solutions-right-now.

It’s disenchanting. Being disenchanted allows for little in the way of real solutions, at least for myself.

And today I read, “New Theory Cracks Open The Black Box of Deep Neural Networks“. Of course, deep learning is not that new, and the ‘Information Bottleneck’ thought stems from the original work in 1999, the Information Bottleneck Method. That works perhaps in explaining things on a surface level and on an informational level – but as I read it, I was reminded of secondary school biology: Osmosis. No one has seemed to connect the two when they are so suitably connected, and I’d wager that Osmosis scales better since the information bottlenecks, when themselves in a matrix, pretty much would mimic a tunable osmosis.

That said, I’ve found the major problem with deep learning to be that we define inputs when, quite possibly, we should be more loose in our definitions of what we put in. This aligns better with chaos theory – something that the Wired article seems to dismiss:

…When Schwab and Mehta applied the deep belief net to a model of a magnet at its “critical point,” where the system is fractal, or self-similar at every scale, they found that the network automatically used the renormalization-like procedure to discover the model’s state. It was a stunning indication that, as the biophysicist Ilya Nemenman said at the time, “extracting relevant features in the context of statistical physics and extracting relevant features in the context of deep learning are not just similar words, they are one and the same.”

The only problem is that, in general, the real world isn’t fractal. “The natural world is not ears on ears on ears on ears; it’s eyeballs on faces on people on scenes,” Cranmer said…

Pragmatically, this is what we see when we work on projects – but the problem is not what we see, it’s what we don’t see. It’s the things we don’t intuitively connect ourselves because of our own limitations; with simple deep learning we may get away with what we see, but on a much larger scale, we may be looking at the motion of wings of a butterfly on the other side of the world causing a tipping point that creates a hurricane on the other.

Of course, this is all theory, and hardly some earth shattering change in the way we look at things – but a small change in how we approach things could well be what we need to move forward at various intersections. In this, I am trying to be a simple butterfly flapping his wings.

Quick Note To Admin For mpac.gov.tt

The Drupal FiveIt’s apparent you’re running Drupal, though I’m uncertain which version. As a government website, you should probably be concerned about SEO and such matters.

I was glad to see clean urls, but by installing the PathAuto module, you’ll do better in search results and have more meaningful urls.

You might also want to check out the SEO Checklist module. Drupal’s pretty easy in many regards (and way too complicated in others – *cough* database *cough*).

Anyway, this will help the site do better, and will help you look smarter. I don’t want your job, really, but it pains me when I see things like this missed.

Kthxbai.

Bureaucratese

bureaucracy :-) #jboye14Bureaucracy has it’s own language; Bureaucratese. Over the course of my lifetime, I have learned to translate it on the fly – but apparently this skill is one very few have. In this entry, I will cover a few different words and what they actually mean.

This post will be updated as I things jar my memory.

Acronyms: The more acronyms associated with a bureaucracy, the more inefficient it is. This complexity also leads to potential corruption.

Analysis: A means of finding meaning from metrics or data which may or may not be appropriate depending on the context of the metrics and/or data, as well as what the actual point is.

Bureaucrat: Someone who takes exception to these definitions. Typically someone who has drank the Kool-Aid and is trying to be a distributor.

Capacity: The potential to do something. Unless this word is associated with a concrete way to measure things (see ‘Metric’), it’s a useless word that communicates the hopes and dreams of the Stakeholder writing it.  They might want Funding.

Committee: A group of legal entities, perhaps even Stakeholders, that attempts to do something of worth. It involves meetings, agendas, and all manner of documentation.

Data: A generic term that may or may not involve metrics; metric that comes from forms, as an example, may or may not be useful based on the questions asked and the audience.

Diversity: Diverse, but having little or no conflict that needs to be resolved by people who are actual stakeholders but have no actual say in a committee or group.

Documentation: Something that rarely reflects the reality of a situation in a bureaucracy.

e'<insert word here>’: A 1990s methodology of trying to bring the word ‘electronic’ to bear on matters that are about technology implementation of the word used. For example, ‘eBureaucracy’ would be about using technology to implement Bureaucracy.

eBusiness: What the rest of the world calls business.

eDemocracy: There’s really no such thing. It’s either a democratic process or not.

eGovernance: A reference to policies and processes that the bureaucracies wants to create to make their jobs easier. They usually create committees and have multi-stakeholder approaches to doing this (see associated definitions).

Funding: Money necessary to create more bureaucracy while making sure people who are creating the bureaucracy continue to get paid.

Human Capacity: A reference to people who do concrete things.

ICT: What the rest of the world calls ‘IT’. It stands for Information Communication Technology and assures correspondence has a character that makes people believe that it is somehow different to the popular use of “Information Technology” -‘IT’.

Leverage: A poor reference to physics; the idea is that a small amount of energy can be used to do great things with a lever. When the word ‘leverage’ is used, it’s usually associated with a notion that something will be done. This word, especially when used with ‘Synergy’, typically means you can ignore the sentence since they’re discussing hopes and dreams. Hopes and dreams have a purpose, but in bureaucratese, they are tongue in cheek since bureaucracy chokes hopes and dreams with red tape.

Metric: A way of measuring things; this can be useful if the appropriate things are measured and are simply fluff if the inappropriate things are measured. This word is typically used with the word ‘Analysis’ wandering around somewhere nearby, and thus bears scrutiny to assure that the appropriate things are being measured in the first place.

Multi-stakeholder: See ‘Stakeholder‘. When this word is used, it refers to a mix of stakeholders. Stakeholder bias, the bias implicit in the types of stakeholders involved (such as companies alone) is masked by the use of this word.

Synergy: This used to be a really impressive word that implied collaboration or integration of some sort. Now it’s sort of an empty word, where you can ignore the sentence it is in – especially if the sentence includes ‘Leverage’.

Stakeholder: A legal entity that is involved. The casual reader might think this refers to people – and sometimes it might include people. It is used in various ways in various dialects of Bureaucratese, but typically it means any legal entities involved – from a government organization to a non-government organization, to a business, to a actual human being.

When the word is used, make sure that who the stakeholder is is communicated, and why they are a stakeholder. The reason of why they are a stakeholder is typically associated with what sort of legal entity they are. A company will try to be more profitable, a government organization might wish to have more control over citizens, a non-profit might give you a nice warm and fuzzy intention underneath there is the need to get the next round of funding. Actual humans will typically be interested in opposing at least some of all of that. If there are no humans as stakeholders, members of society, then that tells you a lot.

Strategy: Typically a methodology of using bureaucracy to create more bureaucracy, typically an unconscious bait-and-switch while saying that the bureaucracy will be accomplishing other tasks. This almost always entails the need for Funding, as well as the creation of new Acronyms.

Did I miss something? Is there a word confusing you? Drop a comment and I’ll help you clear it up.