Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Where's that confounded data?

Where did I put that data again?

I get data in email attachments, in PowerPoint, in Excel, in Crystal Reports.  I read data on the web.   I get data on phone calls, over IM, from the mouths of customers.  I hear about data that other people have and ask, sometimes timidly, for a copy.  Like my brother’s MP3 hording I want to have it, just in case.  There is a comfort in having all of this data.  That is, until I need to find it.

Finding data is hard.  With Draconian email quotas and the difficulties of searching archives, it always becomes lost.  I can find my music now in iTunes, but what about my data?

More and more I use two very different tools to help me survive this information-saturated world: Evernote and SAP BusinessObjects Explorer.  Think of Evernote as your external brain, where you can store your every thought for perpetual retrieval, and Explorer as your company’s external brain, where every last bit of data can be retrieved instantly.  I'll talk more about Evernote later, but this week seems to be all about BusinessObjects Explorer.

Yes, this week SAP BusinessObjects Explorer is being launched, but the technology antecedents to this powerhouse have been around a while.  It is comprised of a product previously known as BusinessObjects Polestar and some cutting-edge in-memory acceleration technology previously manifested in SAP Business Warehouse Accelerator.  Yet it is their combination is truly stunning.

I am an impatient man.  I love my Mac since I open it up and it is ready with no delay – I cannot wait for something to boot.  I have loved using Explorer over the last year since I can hit a web page and answer my questions as soon as I ask them – I don't have to wait for someone to build a report.  I just have a conversation:

You say revenues are bleak for a certain product in the United States?  Let’s look at it by city.  Whoa.  San Francisco and Washington are down, when they are up for the rest of the business.  Let’s get California sales on the phone and see what’s happening – send them the link.  Richard, what’s going on here?  Oh, we didn’t run the right campaign?  Let’s budget for that next quarter, it showed good results everywhere else.

[caption id="attachment_201" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Fun with Data"]Fun with Data[/caption]

Bingo.  In a 60 minute meeting, we can have 5 conversations like that, and have discussions based on substantive fact.  Coming from the data-desert of past jobs, this kind of knowledge oasis is intoxicating.

Yet combined with the in-memory technology the potential is breathtaking.  Terabytes are now your friend, they are not demons threatening to slow your life to a crawl.  Petabytes are an afternoon snack.  You don’t have to look at statistical samples, you can look at the truth.

So as I index the world around me, play a little for yourself online.  See what it is like to manipulate 1000 rows of Excel in this remarkable tool.  And then imagine what it would be like to manipulate the world.  That is, if you can handle the truth.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Torture is bad, everywhere.

In Torture, Plain and Simple, Suzanne points out that while it is true that torture doesn't work, it doesn't matter: it's illegal.  But let's dwell for a minute on the first point: torture doesn't work.

Elaine Scarry gave this subject a scholar's attention in The Body in Pain, where she explained that pain nullifies the world around us -- with extreme pain nothing exists but the pain.  This deconstructs the ego to a point where conversation is meaningless and information extracted in this state has one goal: to make the pain stop.  Say anything to make the pain stop.  In fact, there is a long history of torture being used to extract misinformation to support campaigns of misinformation.

While this simple fact is well established in research, it seems appallingly under communicated.  If it was well communicated, I imagine it would lead to this:
Interrogator 1: Should we do it?

Interrogator 2: Well, it doesn't work.

Interrogator 1: OK then, let's not bother.

The complex ethics simply disappear.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Art of Trust

I was about to tweet about some happy cows I saw while driving to work today, until I remembered the law and thought better of it.  The cows weren't worth a ticket.  But aside from the desire to avoid tickets and stay alive, there is another hazard of automotive texting - thumbing the wrong key and sending the wrong message, perhaps to the wrong person.

When I hired a guy last year entirely over SMS I committed a gaffe - I received a Twitter DM (direct message) and hit reply, sending the reply to all of my followers.  This is a variant of a DM Fail, when people think they are sending a message to just one person but instead broadcast it widely.  In my case I uttered something relatively harmless like "req opened this week."

Something more nefarious happened recently on Twitter: they actually sent DMs to the wrong people, detailed in TechCrunch.  Jason accurately called this a "breach of user trust," but it was resolved quickly.  Twitter is not alone here.  A colleague of mine was using an esteemed Web2 product when they one day got a trove of someone elses messages dumped on their desktop over IMAP.  Only once, but once is all it takes.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Downside of "Efficiency"

Preamble: I started this post over 3 months ago, so many of the links are a bit dated.  I decided to finish it up ad post it since this very delay illustrates the point I'm making: in a highly stressed system, where all capacity is consumed, minor additional stress can make a system collapse.  That feels a lot like work today, where budgets have been cut, and we all have to do more.  So we lose time to think, let alone blog.


Times are tough.  Buckle down.  Buck up.  Be lean.  Be efficient.  Do more with less.

Yes, Indeed.  But before we all become super-efficient pieces of a super-efficient machine let's take a moment for pause.  Because there is a downside of efficiency (or at least what the world around us often calls 'efficiency')

I think it was in graduate school when it first became clear to me that efficiency was great until there was a problem, and then it wasn't so great.  I was studying complex water systems, and how to manage them to leverage the most capacity (electrical and consumption) while preserving fish happiness and keeping the land pretty.  Once you balance all of the uses into a finely tuned system, and make it reliable, people will build complex systems around that reliable water, and if it isn't there... well complex systems start to break down.

What this amounts to is setting up systems to have the butterfly effect, since making systems more efficient generally creates more complex dependencies.

Consider George Monbiot's recent interview with Fitah Birol's, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency.  Much of the world's governments rely on assessments of the IEA regarding how long oil supplies will last, and it turns out they now think they were off, but only by a factor of 2.  They had modeled a decline in output of 3.7% per year, which they now think is 6.7% per year.  And we're using more.  So we'll be running out around 2020.  This means that "unconventional" sources of oil, like tar sands, would need to be processed into oil to keep the machine running, but don't worry: that would only amount to an environmental catastrophe.  It is similar to the phases of drilling in conventional wells, where primary, secondary and tertiary recovery start to require more resources, be worse for the environment, etc.

Or consider the minor business dispute between Russia and Ukraine that led to freezing out Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary and Romania over the past few days.  As gas flows efficiently between regions, complex systems begin to rely on it, so it better keep coming.

In other words: efficiency increases output, output begets demand, demand requires continued output, and the scenarios of Too Big to Fail, or the corollary, Too Big to Exist.

To my friends who work in software this is just obvious: we are asked to use resources "more efficiently" all of the time, which usually means very little spare capacity to handle unexpected events.  And the software business = unexpected events.

So my solution?  I endeavor to become less busy.  Take more breaks.  Chew food slowly.  Say no.  Which will of course require and enable "true efficiency," but it might not look like that on the books.  And, of course, will never happen.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Why rules often suck

I was reading the recent issue of The Economist on the plane today, and I was struck by an article titled Law v Common Sense, subtitled Will Barack Obama protect Americans from his fellow lawyers? In it was the following choice text:
The relentless piling of law upon law—the federal register has 70,000 ever-changing pages—does not make for a more just society. When even the most trivial daily interactions are subject to detailed rules, individual judgment is stifled. When rule-makers seek to eliminate small risks, perverse consequences proliferate. Bureaucrats rip up climbing frames for fear that children may fall off and break a leg. So children stay indoors and get fat.

The point of the article is that Obama's likely appointment of Cass Sunstein to the White House could help address some of these issues, perhaps even leading to real (and needed) tort reform.

That got me thinking to business in general, and a recent study that we commissioned from The Economist showing that 70% of people need to work around their company's established processes in order to effectively get their work done (Actually, when I pose that question to a group of successful people, the actual answer is 100%).

Rules are good.  Unless they suck.  When I'm confronted with rules that suck (RTS), I'm often reminded of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, which discusses when it is our individual obligation to rise above the rules of society and embrace a higher truth (yes, the subtleties of this particular example are distracting).