Data doesn’t lie, does it?

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

An interesting article I saw recently (well, actually I listened to podcast about it, then looked it up) about how people feel about different data visualizations.

There were a couple of outcomes that I found very interesting. First is that people are much more engaged with visualizations which speak to them in a direct in personal way (I know, not surprising, but still interesting). Whether it is through demographics, geography, or the story the visualization tells, people are drawn to visualizations that feel specific to them. One important implication of this is that the common practice of starting from an overview of the data and allowing the user to drill in to what is most relevant to them does not engage as well as a visualization which is personal to them (but then allows them to further explore the data if they want).

A second, more surprising (and a little terrifying) result was found when the sources of the visualizations were revealed (initially the sources were hidden to reduce bias). When the sources were revealed and the subjects were given the opportunity to change their rankings, the majority chose not to. Superficially, this seems like a great result – the value of a visualization is perceived as being independent of its origin.

Unfortunately, the reason the subjects gave for not changing their rankings was more surprising:

“We found that many people suggested that information has an objective quality that is immutable regardless of where that data may be showcased…”

So the majority of the subjects indicated essentially that “numbers don’t lie,” a disturbing conclusion to say the least. This obviously discounts the fact that a visualization is typically tailored to show exactly what its creator wants it to, and will often (intentionally or not) misrepresent the data in some way.

I recommend reading the full blog post, and/or listening to the podcast, in case I misrepresented anything (unintentionally, of course!)

View at Medium.com

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What Gets Me Out of Bed in the Morning?

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(obligatory cat picture)

Late last fall in a meeting with our CEO, she asked me what should have been a very simple question: “What gets you out of bed and into work in the morning?” Now, at the time I had been sick for several days (maybe weeks, I can’t remember) and my mind really wasn’t in a great place, and I didn’t have a good answer for her.

I didn’t really even have a bad answer.

Over Christmas, I became even more ill. By the new year, a major tragedy hit my family, something far worse than I ever imagined having to face. I then ended up needing surgery. All this to say, I was not feeling much better about how to answer this question.

Now, I am sure we have all been there at various times in our careers, times where we just weren’t quite sure why we work so hard. I have hit that point several times. Sometimes it is a signal that it is time to change (like when I left physics to work in the “real world”). Other times, it just means you have to remember the deeper purpose behind what you do.

As I often do when life threatens to become too much for me, I fall back on meditation as a way to cope. And as usually happens, through meditation I begin to see connections and patterns in my life.

Over the last month or so, I have been giving this question of purpose and motivation a lot of thought. In my career I have had the opportunity to work on a lot of interesting and just plain cool things, from astrophysics, to satellite operations and astrodynamics, to major military projects, to enterprise software start-ups. I am now at a point in my career, however, where working on things that matter is very important to me, more so than what is cool or just interesting.

So why does what I am doing now matter?

In conjunction with all of this introspection, at work the executive team (including me) was just finishing up on an extensive exercise to define (or at least articulate) the Vision, Mission, and Values of The Learning Bar. Very much the same “why are we here?” question I have been trying to answer personally.

As you will see if you follow the above link, our vision, mission, and values are all about helping children, specifically “giving all children the opportunity to thrive”. We do this through our values of inclusion, innovation, trustworthiness, social engagement, and leadership. We as an executive team worked very hard (and occasionally argued passionately!) to agree on these words, as these words represent who we are and why we are here.

As I meditated on life in general, it became more and more clear to me why I do what I do. It is so easy to get lost in the day-to-day details of your job, and lose site of the why. And whether you are an individual or an organization, it all has to start with why (yes, I know that is someone else’s phrase). When things are difficult, it becomes even more important to remember why.

In addition to being on the executive team and contributing in some small way to TLB’s strategy, as CTO I am of course very involved in the company’s technology (hence the title!). The problem with being on the technology side of a company like ours, is that it is easy feel somewhat removed from our end users, and even more so from the children those end users are helping. But it is important to remember the connection between what we do, and the children who are helped.

And this led me to my answer to the original question: “What gets you out of bed and in to work in the morning?” It was not until late last week (actually, driving home from Fredericton on Friday) that I was able to clearly articulate the answer in my mind, though I think it had been sort of congealing for some time. And here it is:

Any day where I do even one thing, whether it is strategy, execution, technological decision, or a casual conversation with a co-worker, that helps even one child improve their education and their life, it was worth getting out of bed that morning. And I am pretty sure that is true almost every day.

Of course, this is just for work, I have other reasons to get out of bed – first and foremost my family, but also just the fun of learning new things. But this is what gets me to the office.

So, what gets you out of bed and into work everyday?

The most popular programming languages are rapidly changing

Interesting post on Quartz:  The most popular programming languages are rapidly changing

While it is an interesting post, a number of questions came to mind on reading it:

  1. While StackOverflow is indeed a dominant system for developers seeking and sharing information, I wonder if its demographics is really representative of the entire software/technology industry.
  2. The dominance of JavaScript is hardly surprising, since if you want to do anything in the browser, you really have no choice (and choice is always a bad thing, right?).
  3. Is SQL a “programming language”? I never thought so. You cannot “build a system” in SQL – SQL may be a major part of a large number of systems, but you need a programming language to make use of it.
  4. NodeJS and AngularJS are not programming languages. They are frameworks for JavaScript. Making these two their own categories makes no sense, anymore than it would make sense to have separate categories for Python and Django and Tornado. It might make sense to have separate categories for server-side versus client-side Javascript, but not specific frameworks.
  5. Merging together the JavaScript, NodeJS and AngularJS would give a more clear indication of the use of Javascript – rather than showing a decline in JavaScript usage over the last three years.

5 Steps to Faster Mobile Web App Development

New Brunswick start-up Agora Mobile has developed a revolutionary platform for the visual development of mobile web applications.

As we move closer to launch, we are beginning a private beta targeting developers (and other forward-thinking sorts). To kick off this beta, we are beginning a series of webinars which introduce the platform and concepts. The first webinar is this Thursday (June 26).

Register for the webinar at http://developers.vizwik.com – and as a bonus you will become part of the private beta!

NFA on Gun Control: Bad Taste, Bad Timing, and Bad Logic

I actually wrote this on the evening of Thursday, June 5, 2014 after reading the press release by the National Firearms Association. However, I refrained from posting it, as I felt that the timing was in appropriate.

After reading this article, I felt that I could now post it.

I (and others, it seems) were not particularly impressed with the NFA’s decision to make a political statement regarding gun control at the height of the recent crisis in Moncton. Many felt that the press release issued by the NFA demonstrated tremendously bad taste, bad timing, and bad judgement.

However, we do have free speech in Canada (unless you are a government scientist), so the NFA is free to say what they want to on the subject.

Free speech is a good thing. I like free speech. Especially because it also permits me to point out how horrendously, absurdly bad is the logic of both the NFA’s statement and their associated position.

The fundamental argument by the NFA (beyond “laws interfere with our fun”) is that even with all or Canada’s gun control efforts, someone with a gun has killed three RCMP officers. Thus, all gun control laws should be abandoned. The basic shape of this argument is this:

  1. We do X to prevent Y
  2. Sometimes, in spite of doing X, Y still happens
  3. Therefore, we should stop doing X because it is a waste of time

Lets try this argument in a few other situations, and see how it works…

We put locks on our doors, and install security systems in order to prevent our homes and business from being robbed. Sometimes, even with locks and security systems, we do get robbed. Therefore we should stop using locks and security systems.

Hmmmmm. That doesn’t seem quite right. Lets try another one…

We put in place traffic laws in order to prevent accidents and death. Sometimes, in spite of these laws, traffic accidents and deaths still occur. Therefore we should not bother with traffic laws.

Well, that doesn’t seem quite right either. How about one from personal health…

We eat healthy in order to prevent (among other things) heart disease. Sometimes, people who eat healthy still have heart attacks and die. Therefore, we should not bother eating healthy.

Still doesn’t sound right. Could it be that problem is that the structure of the argument is fundamentally flawed?

I had planned to go into the absurdity of the fact that people view gun ownership as some sort of “fundamental human right”, or the idea that the “right to bear arms” really means “the right to bear any kind of weapon (even those not invented yet) at any time in any situation without any rules or constraints”, or the silliness of believing that owners of dangerous weapons should be subject to lower licensing and registration requirements than car owners or ham radio operators.

Instead, I will just leave it at pointing out the bad timing, bad taste and bad logic of the NFA’s press release.

6 Technologies From My First Job

I was sitting around on New Year’s Eve playing Zork, and I got to reminiscing about technologies I have used which either no longer exist or have passed into no usage. Thinking back to my first summer job where I actually got paid to program (actually, I was paid to do physics, but programming was a big part of it), here are six tools I used…

KIM-1

First, we used a KIM-1 microcomputer. This 6502-powered beast had a whole 1024 bytes of memory, and no persistent storage. We used this to control a Perturbed Angular Correlation Gamma Ray Spectroscopy experiment.

After the experiment ran for a while (collecting data in scalar registers), the KIM-1 would dump these registers out to a more “permanent” storage – in this case paper tape. This was great stuff to work with, frequently breaking, sometimes absorbing moisture and swelling.

The experiment would generally run for a couple of days, after which we would have to process the data – which meant uploading it to the mainframe. For the upload, I used a very old (even then) teletype machine, connected to a screaming 300 baud acoustic coupler.

Using this, we uploaded the data to the university mainframe, where I got to analyze it in one of my favourite languages of all time, APL!

Computing was different then!