Mapping the system

1 Sep

I have started working with Systems Wiki to understand the issue of hydraulic fracturing in NY.

Watch the work in progress at


Why $5 matters

9 Aug

I received a letter from my ISP telling me that my payments are rising. This is fine, but what Time Warner did not tell me is irritating. The letter begins:

Dear Road Runner Customer,

We are writing to inform you… that we will be increasing the price… Ya da ya da ya da…

[three paragraphs later]

Keep in mind there are many packages available allowing you to…

[some other stuff saying we want your money]

We thank you for your continued business and look forward to serving you in the future.


Time Warner Cable

The missing comma is part of the original letter, and it is not the only thing left out. This is the traditional letter saying we’re doing this at this time, this will happen, we want your money so we give options, and a false form of gratitude. They left out the why they see the necessity to take more money from my earnings and my lifestyle.

Throughout the economy, which 90% of the American public thinks is terrible and hopeless courtesy the media, people wages drop, and prices keep increasing. Another trend, an obvious one, is that the average “consumer” (which is all we do right?) is more educated and aware of business realities. The old “consumer” model from economics class is changing in this way. I want to know why they are increasing their fees, if the company is brave enough to tell me their justifications. Adding a line explaining that material fees for this have increased and the unions of NY have negotiated better salaries is enough to justify the increase. To avoid controversy, such justifications are left out because the increase could be attributed to the demands of increased CEO salaries, which requires the $5 per customer and a factor of 200,000 customers. This is a real reason why a smart customer might be angry.

As 2010 moves forward, I think I, the average consumer, am going to dig into the practices of Time Warner, and see where that $5 is going and investigate other ISP service providers.

Update: One creative product put down

6 Aug

A few posts ago, I mentioned that Google Wave was the Daddy of innovative social technologies. Well, it was. I suspect a steep learning curve contributed to this product disappointment. Wave was definitely a head of its time and was recently discontinued by Google. However, we’ll see it slowly emerge in other google technologies in the future where forced adoption will occur over time.

RIP wave.

We have always pursued innovative projects because we want to drive breakthroughs in computer science that dramatically improve our users’ lives. Last year at Google I/O, when we launched our developer preview of Google Wave, a web app for real time communication and collaboration, it set a high bar for what was possible in a web browser. We showed character-by-character live typing, and the ability to drag-and-drop files from the desktop, even “playback” the history of changes—all within a browser. Developers in the audience stood and cheered. Some even waved their laptops.

We were equally jazzed about Google Wave internally, even though we weren’t quite sure how users would respond to this radically different kind of communication. The use cases we’ve seen show the power of this technology: sharing images and other media in real time; improving spell-checking by understanding not just an individual word, but also the context of each word; and enabling third-party developers to build new tools like consumer gadgets for travel, or robots to check code.

But despite these wins, and numerous loyal fans, Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked. We don’t plan to continue developing Wave as a standalone product, but we will maintain the site at least through the end of the year and extend the technology for use in other Google projects. The central parts of the code, as well as the protocols that have driven many of Wave’s innovations, like drag-and-drop and character-by-character live typing, are already available as open source, so customers and partners can continue the innovation we began. In addition, we will work on tools so that users can easily “liberate” their content from Wave.

Gratitude and Indebtedness

2 Aug

Reciprocity is at the base of most human interactions. Quid pro quo-tis for tat- the business transaction- the contract represent the role of reciprocity as a form of indebtedness, whereas being in the moment- appreciating the time of the other person as a gift- creating the moment is reciprocity in the form of gratitude.  Is there an empirical distinction between the two?

In a study conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University, Maureen Mathews and Jeff Green sought to show what makes these two forms of reciprocity different. Through a co-relational study, they identified that there was a psychological and statistically important difference between the concepts. They followed up the co-relational study with a lab experiment, where an experimental group sat in front of a mirror while recalling a time when they had received a gift from a friend or family member. The control group recalled a time when they received a gift without the mirror. Both groups completed a self survey to measure gratitude. The researchers discovered that the difference between the two phenomena was a focus on self (i.e. selfishness). The implications were identified when they found that indebtedness correlated with self-consciousness, selfishness, skewed empathy, image management, and emotional blindness, while gratitude did not have these anxiety producing relationships, was natural to the person, and built the other person’s esteem up.

You get what you ask for.

Indebtedness builds one-up relationships, while gratitude builds friendships. The importance of this study comes down to whether other people will trust your motivations and want to build a positive relationship with you. After all, other people love being able to trust another person completely.

Related posts:


Attitude and Leadership

2 Aug

Creativity has been defined as a function of attitude multiplied by knowledge, evaluation, and imagination by Ruth Noller. Noller was the world’s second computer scientist and the originator of the term bug to describe glitches in computer systems. For her, the ability for a person or an organization to generate useful and novel options for themselves or with other begins with attitude. Seems obvious doesn’t it?

1660s, via Fr. attitude (17c.), from It. attitudine “disposition, posture,” also “aptness, promptitude,” from L.L. aptitudinem (nom. aptitudo; see aptitude). Originally 17c. a technical term in art for the posture of a figure in a statue or painting; later generalized to “a posture of the body supposed to imply some mental state” (1725). Sense of “settled behavior reflecting feeling or opinion” is first recorded 1837. Connotations of “antagonistic and uncooperative” developed 1962 in slang.

As the concept, attitude initially described the interpretation a viewer has about a physical posture of a statue. Its meaning slowly creeped up to the meta physical level and nows defines a psychological phenomena that describes how a person feels towards something.

In the workplace, attitude helps to shape the workplace by directly influencing motivation and productivity. The military offers a great example of how the use of symbolic rank and perceived authority can affect an attitude. In 2001 I served as a chaplain assistant where one of my charges was to check the morale of the battalion, which consisted of 4 companies with more than 1,000 people when trainees were included. Within the 4 companies, Drill Sergeants trained future soldiers the skills of the trade and had their own way of keeping morale up which included “smoking” an insubordinate private. The Drill Instructor would dig in and command the private to engage in various exercises until mud formed when sweat and dirt caked on the soldier’s uniform. The private’s face shone red like fire when the smoking was complete. Usually, the punishment was not that harsh, but I have seen it escalate to high levels and intensity when perceived racism was involved. The tactic is to wear out the person with physical fitness to control their attitude and curb their behavior. If they have no energy, how can they resist? If they are punished, they will listen. Other trainees observed what happened to the soldier that was smoked and conversations among those closest to him were always directed avoiding getting “smoked” themselves. From fear the soldiers bonded and chose to spend their efforts avoiding the drill sergeants by shining their boots, a drill sergeant sanctioned activity. The lesson learned is that the Drill Sergeants are dangerous people with whom creativity must be tempered.  Supposing that these soldiers are really honest and hard-working people like those in most workplaces, how valuable was it for them to learn how to shine their boots as a solitary activity than work with systemic process that handled their motivation and ideas? How might an organization develop a system to allow new options to be explored?

Drop the live help?

2 Aug

Please support the cartoonists behind this comic strip by providing your patronage.Harvard Business Review recently published a report that contradicts the notion that customers want to speak with the businesses involved in their lives. Statistical analysis revealed that customers really did not care one way or another about live service or self-service options. They concluded that customers DO NOT WANT A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE COMPANY. (I wonder why?) Instead, they would rather find the solution to their own problem and in a way of their own choosing.

Seems like this is a good bullet point for open sourcing problems in virtual  forums.


Performance v. Accountability

29 Jul A now defunct effort to create an community driven performance indicator system for the city of Buffalo.

A now defunct effort to create an community driven performance indicator system for the city of Buffalo.Last year, I attempted to lead a project that would create an indicator system to go with Buffalo’s 2030 comprehensive plan. I discovered within the plan a call for a performance indicator system or a collection of data points that were used to check the city’s progress towards its 2030 vision. When compiled into a document, a person should be able to check it and know how well a community or organization is progressing towards its comprehensive plan. The best systems ask very simple questions that cover what people expect and allows them to believe that everything is alright. For example, a town in Oregon wanted to know the quality of its air. After a long and deliberative process to find the right performance indicator, the citizens decided that the big question that allowed them to know was “Can clearly we see Mount Hood?” With this question, they were able to legitimately say that their community must be doing well to curb air pollution, since macro-particulate pollution occasionally blocked the view of the city’s key tourist attraction. It can be argued that the question is not a valid measure of air quality, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that the citizens have a shared experience that tells them how well they are doing to keep their vista pristine, how well are they performing, and how well they are learning to address a shared problem.

While developing the project, I learned that Buffalo had an indicator system that was directed at accountability. As I looked into it, I learned that the program had city officials present before a council a series of self reported stats that would serve as a basis of judgment of the quality of official’s department. The unlucky official that presented an honest data set to the council would be threatened with their job (i.e. livelihood) when the data went in a direction unfavorable to their likings. So the program was either a self service of indulgence or a person presenting their own head to be chopped off. Life is never as simple as a data set, and so I became aware of the concept of accountability-based indicator systems. I examined the concepts of performance and accountability, where I learned that there is a large difference captured well in the origins of the English words, which are presented in the table below.

Concept (word) Origins
Performance 1530s, “carrying out of a promise, duty, etc.,” from perform + -ance. Meaning “a thing performed” is from 1590s; that of “action of performing a play, etc.” is from 1610s; that of “a public entertainment” is from 1709. Performance art is attested from 1971.
to perform c.1300, “carry into effect, fulfill, discharge,” via Anglo-Fr. performir, altered (by infl. of O.Fr. forme “form”) from O.Fr. parfornir “to do, carry out, finish, accomplish,” from par- “completely” + fornir “to provide” (see furnish). Theatrical/musical sense is from 1610.
Accountability “liable to be called to account,” 1580s; see account + -able. Related: Accountability; accountably.
to account c.1300, “reckoning of money received and paid;” from O.Fr. acont “account,” from à “to” + cont “count,” from L.L. computus “a calculation,” from L. computare “calculate” (see compute). Sense of “narration” is first attested 1610s. The verb meaning “to reckon for money given or received” is from late 14c.; sense of “to explain” (c.1710) is from notion of “answer for money held in trust.” Transf. sense of “value” is from late 14c. Pl. accounts used as a collective or sing. in phrases such as to give accounts (of something), mid-13c. Phrase by all accounts is attested from 1798. Accounting “reckoning of numbers” is from late 14c. Phrase no accounting for tastes (1823) translates L. de gustibus non est disputandum. Modern French differentiates compter “to count” and conter “to tell,” but they are cognates.

The distinction is the difference between using a data set (which is always a conceptual game) to learn or to be right or wrong. Performance is a process of growth and continuous improvement while accountability is Caesar’s thumb signaling a subjective judgment that condemns or redeems.

I will talk about the implications between accountability and performance in organizations and personal life in future posts.

“The ancient Romans had a tradition: when one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.” ~Michael Armstrong