Postal strikes, crankiness, and the Internet

Early in my career, what seemed to be an annual ritual was the social hysteria around a possible shutdown of the Canadian postal service?  It was probably every other year or maybe every third but it felt like an annual event.  When strikes actually happened, there were enormous disruptions to endure for businesses and individuals.  The Post Office and union would eventually agree to terms, often under government legislated binding arbitration, which would result in increased rates for stamps, some erosion of service, and just a general overall crankiness between all sides.  These events and outcomes were predictable and feared.  Not so anymore.

It may have slipped your awareness but Canada is on the cusp of another postal strike this week.  My purpose with this post is not to take sides.  I care very little about this because, frankly, the service means very little to me.  I employ the Internet for every banking transaction and for a large proportion of my magazine reading.  This is not a unique reaction; millions of people behave this way. There are still a few items that arrive in the mail but gone are the days of feeling extremely inconvenienced if inside postal workers and/or letter carriers were to strike.   If you need proof that old “technologies” like the mail service have been permanently sidelined, you can register with McKinsey & Company to read this article about the Internet’s growth dividend.  There are all kinds of examples of business disruption caused by the overwhelming human embrace of the Internet, and on balance it has been an equally overwhelming plus for our world.

Privacy should be baked in

The individual is most often the last consideration of software development.  The first consideration is achieving the goals of the business.  Oh sure, we in the industry talk endlessly, and sincerely, about the end-user experience but it’s usually in the context of how their experience affects the overall business.  Despite the simple and straightforward phrase, I’m not convinced we know what end-user experience really means.  It’s true that it means, in part, an understanding of the ease with which a user interacts with an application to get the results they need in the time they deem acceptable.  I argue that it should also mean that the software development cycle should take the approach that each end-user deserves the respect of an application designed from the beginning with their privacy as a top priority.  Ann Cavoukian, the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner, describes it best in the short videos found on her organization’s website, Privacy by Design.  

So many of the data breach issues we see ever so frequently these days could be avoided if system and application design would take more seriously basic privacy rights of the end-user from the very beginning.  A separation of business data from the personal IDs we tag to users/consumers would go a long way towards minimizing the personal exposure so many fear in today’s online business.  But it takes careful thought and deliberate intelligence from the outset.  Are businesses willing to invest in that?  Or would they rather put their brand on the line later on?

Rocks of a couple types

I recently had a conversation with a former mentor, someone who I still admire deeply.  We chatted about many things but one in particular stands out.  He said that one of the things he’s learned over his career is to try, to strive, to only associate and be around people who strive themselves for personal excellence.   It may sound like Type A but it’s not.  He means that no matter the physical, economic, or circumstantial place a person is in, if they are trying to be their best, then that’s what he finds compelling and is the energy he wants to be around.  In my opinion, there aren’t many more noble pursuits in life.

That sort of energy reminds me of what I think is the most profound scene in the movie 127 Hours.  It’s not when Aron Ralston (James Franco) snips away his dead arm, although that is both a grotesque and fascinating scene.  No, it’s the next one where he stumbles across the desert seeking help.  The entire movie is good, great actually, but that final segment of him needing to find assistance or if he fails then the entire struggle will be pointless… that made it for me.  The guy could’ve given up after 96 hours, maybe even 72.  Heck, he didn’t even give up after 127 hours when he had nothing but the brilliant beauty of multi-hued rock for miles around.

Orwell can teach us

George Orwell was more than a dark prophet whose story, 1984, made many of us fear for our future.  He was also a man who felt deep passion for clarity in the English language.  Here are a few simple rules he championed:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. 

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do. 

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. 

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active. 

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Following those rules will not in themselves make anyone a great writer (ideas are where things start) but following them will certainly make what you produce easier, and more interesting, to read.  Finally, please note the last rule.  There is something to be said for civility.  I am a member of the Globe and Mail Catalysts group and one of the most heated topics was how online newspapers should deal with uncivilized and (almost always anonymous) vicious commentary in online forums and in reaction to published articles. 

In consideration of that final rule, I never thought I would have the reason or opportunity to say this but for this specific purpose it makes sense…. I wish the world could be more Orwellian.

Seven pieces of information

The apparent deficiency of our short-term memory is a popular topic of conversation in our circle of friends.  We’ve all had moments of blankness when it comes to recalling what we did last night, or what we had for lunch today.  We blame it on aging and the general hectic pace of our world, but what if the answer simply lies in the physiology we are all born with?  What if our ability to store short-term memory has a surprisingly small limit?   A study by George A. Miller concluded just that.  It’s called, “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information”(published in the Psychological Review in March 1956) and he concluded that the human brain has the capacity for storing only seven pieces of short-term memory.  Humans are fascinating creatures but unlike computers whose capacity exponentially expands with every passing year, ours stays fixed.

Seven pieces.  No wonder Twitter is so successful.  Such small bits to store and recall.

Big data redux

If you’re a veteran of IT, you’ve possibly been thinking that data, on its own, is completely unimpressive.  We collect and store so much of it (235 terabytes collected by the Library of Congress in April alone, according to McKinsey & Co), that we’ve reached a point where we (IT folks) are only impressed when someone says they can make sense out of all that information.  Counter-intuitive, right?  Well, only for people who don’t have to manage data everyday.  Once you get past the amazing physics of the hardware and the network, and the advanced intelligence of the software programs, the data itself is simply an inert set of bits and bytes.   I’m exaggerating, but just a bit.

Making sense of impossibly complex warehouses of information is what the current Big Data rage is all about.  I’m a believer that companies, and people too, who figure out how to precisely read the tea leaves of massive amounts of data will be the true beneficiaries of the computer age.  The secrets of success are not so easy that they can simply be  collected and stored on rows and rows of disks.  Like many things in life, making sense of data and finding enduring success requires effort, the effort expended to correlate seemingly random factoids and finding larger meaning within the combination.  My bet is that the effort will be very rewarding.

Presenting: no shortcuts allowed

I just delivered a presentation over the web to a few colleagues across the continent on the company’s cloud computing strategy and the experience reinforced what I’ve believed for an awfully long time.  A person will really struggle to sound credible and authentic if they:

  1. Don’t believe in the pitch themselves 
  2. Have not done a decent amount of research into the topic
  3. Can’t summon up personal stories to illustrate their key points
  4. Have not rehearsed the flow

As usual with my presentations, I deviated quite a bit from script but the theme stayed true.  I deviated because it felt right at the moment and I think that flexibility and nimbleness is important too.  It seemed to go well.