A number of factors came together in my mind this morning when I saw a comment on Farcebook. The individual was complaining about the retrograde progress being made in Ontario with the Green Energy program and the soaring price of power — the suggestion was that they were working hard to turn Ontario into a 3rd world province.

But on reflection I saw that there was some truth to this, and not just here. We are surrounded by initiatives that seek to redefine what used to be universal public services. What was once provided at a loss to some users but sustained because of the widespread public benefit derived — universal mail service, rural electrification, health care services and so forth.

And in the US it would appear that it is even worse — the civil war continues, not South vs North but 19th century values vs 21st. Social security, children’s aid, medicare, free public education (to say nothing of science and exploration) are all under attack. Socialist freeloaders and worse… what is odd is that in so many places those leading the charge claim to be religious fundamentalists — one wonders if they ever read the words of their founder about taking care of those around us?

There is this odd mantra that government services must make a profit — and if they cannot, outsource them to someone (no doubt well connected) who will. So costs go up and public services go down and the ghost is raised that if this austerity is not pursued, why in 20, 40 or more years the ‘system’ will be in trouble — so we have to act now and take things away from YOU.

In an odd sense this is all a logical extension of what used to be called the ME generation — narcissism so extensive that it has become the fabric of the culture. And all those folks being harmed by outsourcing, layoffs and soaring economic inequality — ‘tough’ seems to be the mantra. One might only point out to these people when they take a break from kicking others while they are down that these displaced people are the foundation of social instability. Ask the tsar how well that worked, or the Weimar Germans… or the rising pool of unemployed and underemployed in the US or Canada.



This morning I watched ‘Valentino’s Ghost: Framing the Arab Image’, a documentary on Al Jazeera. It covered the history of interactions between Europe and the Middle East — the invasions and conquests by Spain, France and England of different parts of the African North Coast and Middle East. The shameful history of the US and Iran. And of course Israel and Palestine. It is not pretty and it did make me wonder — what do we really know? How much of what is in the press is true and how much is just spin and illusion? And more to the point, if other countries were invading you, driving you from your homes, killing your families and taking your resources — what would you do? And how would you feel towards them?

There was a quote I heard a while back, from the first head of the CIA who remarked that if the average person in the street had any idea of what was going on then he had not done his job.

Not much to say, really. Just the thought that when situations are looked at from other perspectives sometimes it is difficult to believe our self-righteous rhetoric. And wonder how we can get beyond this state?

Statistical Evidence

The other day there was another medical announcement which indicated that perhaps fat wasn’t so bad after all — seems it is essential for brain development. My wife and I have almost stopped reading these things — whatever is bad for you this week will likely be determined to be good for you next week. We are continually amused by the foods that fall in and out of favour, almost worse than skirt lengths and hairstyles.

And following the recent US elections there has been a spate of columns arguing for or against political campaigns that were based on ‘big data’ — statistical analysis of voters, their preferences, sensitivities and associated variables. Should the candidate part their hair on the right? How many votes will this pick up or loose? Ad nausea.

And medicine argues that by associating numbers with anecdotes about patient conditions and treatment responses they have become ‘evidence-based’. And treatments based on statistics are more valid than the old anecdotal approach — even though the underlying physiological mechanisms are no more understood than before.

There are, of course, the endless streams of meta-analysis where someone has collected the results of a whole population of studies and by suitable manipulation and data filtering declared that the real results of those studies were different than previously claimed.

Recently those of us on Amherst Island were treated to another example of this approach. Health Canada, assisted by a number of wind industry folks and fellow travellers (love that phrase from the 1950’s that loosely suggests unindited co-conspirators). No peer review, no involvement in the process of the protest groups or people who were not disbelievers. The media trumpeted that there were no health issues found. The report was a bit more nuanced — they did not talk to anyone who abandoned their homes. Those who were still there having problems (which were called ‘annoyances’) and found to have elevated stress hormones were told that this was due to being annoyed. So we had a case where ‘A’ (wind turbine noise) => ‘B’ (being annoyed by it) was somehow divorced from ‘C’ (biological markers of stress) but they did find that the people who were having problems did have the biological markers. My head hurts.

The global problem with all of this is that various attributes about the real world are sampled and subject to some analytical massaging. Then the proponent announces that the samples collected allow them to declare that the world works in a certain way and based on their study they could be sure that if certain things were done there would be specific desirable results. But no biological mechanism. I guess in a way what is happening is that various markers for a path through the unknown wilderness have been identified and marked on a map. These markers are connected to form a map — then the map is declared to be the territory. And confusion results.

I guess it is just very human to look for shorthand frameworks for explaining a large and complicated world. But it troubles me that there is so little humility about the extent of our knowlege. It is as though the classic phrase ‘only fools are absolutely certain of their facts’ were a broad and general statement about humanity as a whole. I hope not but it is hard to ignore.

What is Truth?

A story in the Globe and Mail about issues with TFW (temporary foreign worker) usage brought to mind a fundamental question — what is ‘truth’? For years we have seen stories in the media about the cutbacks in actual reporting and the increased reliance on central news agencies to supply our daily fixes. My wife and I find it mildly amusing to watch how a story propagates through the various online media — somewhat like the old joke about nerve transmission rates in dinosaurs (historic and corporate).

With most issues we are besieged with opinions about things — more how we should feel about them than what they are. Climate change is a good example but there are many, many others. With a little reflection it occurs that our reading habits orbit around the style of writing and editorial slant of the news services. I read the New York Times and the Globe, not the Sun (and not because I don’t like looking at scantily dressed females…) and never Fox (or is it faux?). Sorry, my tastes are showing…

It may be that ‘truth’ is a terribly difficult thing to pin down when it comes to human affairs. Physical things are different — simple math is sufficient, for example, to calculate the amount of energy released when a big rock slams into the planet at orbital speeds. But with people — particularly how people see the world around them and their relationship to it, it is much messier.

Research tells us that the vision process is filtered through the brain regions for memory — so what we see is to some extent controlled by our experience and cultural rules. Two people of wildly different social backgrounds, perhaps, for example, a wealthy Chinese person and a marginalized Detroiter, could see the same scene and describe it very differently. Or see the same circumstances and formulate very different thoughts about what can and should be done, if anything. So it is probably not unreasonable to think that if these two individuals were writing a news story it might be very different — a third party might not even recognize the two stories as being about the same event. And I would suggest that in the end the flavor of the story would govern how we responded to it based on whether it resonated or jarred our own sensibilities. Indeed I suspect that what we chose as our sources of information about the world is likely governed by precisely those kinds of factors.

Then we need to layer onto this mess the idea that the filtering process of news generation would emphasize some items and ignore others — and likely create a few more because it seemed artistically right to do so. A cynic would refer to this as embroidering on the ‘truth’ or worse. Or perhaps improving on the ‘truthiness’ of the story. In one episode of Babylon 5, a scifi TV series, a character used the term ‘realfact’ to describe events as they actually occurred. And ‘goodfacts’ for events as supportive of the current government talking points — the ‘spin’ du jour. Corporations shovel out many of them as well, by the way.

As I have gotten older and seen more of the world and heard differing descriptions of events, I find it is harder to be judgmental about many things. Deliberately reading a multiplicity of news sources is a quick way to get there… Al Jazerra, NHK news, Pravda and the New York Times sometimes see very different worlds. What makes it harder is that sometimes one of the actors flatly refuses to explain their reasons for things in recognizable terms. Why is China seemingly working so hard to destroy the culture of the Uyghirs and Tibetans? Or the mess in Ukraine? (Though I confess that in these cases it is more for the quietness of my spirit and intellectual curiosity than anything else.) Or, closer to home, why is the Ontario government so obsessed with covering the landscape with huge wind turbines over the protests of the residents and a demonstrated inability to use the power? This one matters to me — there are five of the things across the channel and the threat of 37 more surrounding me on this little island. And as a retiree our power bill is the second largest cost, rising more rapidly than taxes [freezing in the dark is so unattractive…].

And so, being aware that I am surrounded by a shifting sea of ‘goodfacts’ and probably would not recognize a ‘realfact’ if it hit me in the nose. I suspect that in the old days peoples’ world horizons were much smaller — video from the other side of the planet really changes appearances. News stories about these distant places were much easier to mentally reframe when it was largely an act of imagination, I am sure. Some of the old reportage was probably true. Some of the current stuff is too. Damned if I know how to tell which is which if I have no personal experiences to compare it with. Did we ever? Anyhow it seems the answer if we want one to the question ‘what is truth’ is ‘a beautiful flower than smells bad’. It is truely depressing how many things that applies to.

Methodologies and Certifications

Project management, business contingency planning and I am sure many other areas are beset by certification frenzy. And each is certain that their competing methodologies are inferior. When I first moved to Canada I picked up a textbook on business accounting, having survived (with a decent grade) three terms of ‘management’ accounting in my university days in the US.  US accounting practice embraces a number of different deprecation strategies — which the Canadian book refuted and claimed that everything that disagreed with their approach was invalid as it wasn’t ‘natural’. Sputter, gasp… what is ‘natural’ about an agreement with the government to allow capital cost recovery? Its not gravity…

What I see more and more, particularly in the ‘LinkdIn’ business groups, is more of the same. Increasingly it is reminding me of religion… proponents of practice ‘x’ claim that it is the only divinely inspired approach and all others are wrong. There are just too many examples  to cite.

I see two sets of problems — methodologies are yardsticks and checklists, but one should not confuse them with reality. The yardstick is a useful measuring tool but its gradations are not the landscape being measured.  Reality does not have it wrong if there is no lump at the ‘x’th graduation… And there are always multiple ways of looking at a problem that lead to solutions. In my experience stepping off the path is sometimes the first step in finding it — but it takes courage to step into the abyss with no safety net.

To be a tad more nuanced about this… methodologies (and their close relatives ‘standards’) are conceptual frameworks that provide common sets of terminology for ideas arranged in a particular order. It is helpful, even vital, if in discussing a problem, that all participants share a common set of terms. Standard sizes and shapes facilitates interchange… if that is what one is trying to accomplish. And checklists remind us of overlooked facts — but it is up to the practitioner to evaluate what portions of the framework are relevant and what are not. It is not a paint-by-numbers canvas where one is complete only when all the blanks have been colored in.

Consulting is particularly evil in this regard… one can always do more analysis. The challenge is ‘how much is enough’ ? What is needed to solve the problem for the client and does it require deviation from the ‘proven methodology’ to be done cost-effectively? I recall a systems engineering text from many years ago about the difficulty of getting sufficient decimal places in accuracy in a particular mathematical model. But one lad was bright enough to ask where the data was coming from… turns out the process viscosity that everyone was fussing about was provided by a foreman who stuck his finger into the process stream, rubbed it against his thumb and guessed the appropriate number. No carefully calibrated viscosimeter…

Methodologies are like this… one wants to solve a problem and develops an ordered checklist of things to ask. Over time this grows — particularly if the approach is useful. Make no mistake, conceptual frameworks can be very powerful and useful.  At some point the framework turns into a named approach… ‘Prince2’ comes to mind (it’s a project management methodology — not picking in it per se, just that the name popped into my mind). A support organization grows up around it and they administer training, tests and award certifications.  The certification holders would like everyone to believe that this means they understand project management — not just that they passed a test about a particular methodology.  Mostly this works… but the map is not the territory. And the tendency for holders of ‘x’ cert to feel that holders of ‘y’ or even, gasp, ‘none of the above’ are heretics and just don’t understand the area evolves.

Methodologies are infamous for creating an alphabet soup of categorizations that are used to guide their work. The analysts couch too easily turns into a bed of Procrustes — non-conforming problems are chopped off or stretched to fit.  One must do ‘A’ and ‘B’ and ‘C’ in order to solve the problem (and bill the client)… And if one does ‘A’, then ‘C’ and perhaps ‘F’ this just isn’t right.  Rules? Or guidelines? Makes for beautiful boilerplate work that lands with a thud on the clients desk.

It all boils down to feeling a need to keep a mental separation between the real world before me and the tools I use to approach it. There are too many examples of classic tests that fail because the really check for something else — benzine comes to mind. And sometimes too much structure gets in the way of solving the problem…

[to be continued]

Growth Everlasting

Over the years the one thing that has puzzled me about business is the quest for unending growth. It is not just a matter of needing to be further in the black than last quarter, but pushing the volumes and revenue side ever further. Problem is that every market is finite — there is a classic saturation curve that described the limited capacity of the market to consume product. There was a Futurama episode, I seem to recall, that described the destruction that came from Ma’s apple pies going from a local bake shop with small unit volumes and very high quality to a megacorp producing millions of cardboard imitations. The branding became all-important while the quality vanished. But they had their volumes…

When business saturates their available markets then they look for acquisitions of related businesses and others — their journey from a successful producer to the dark side continues. Eventually, I am sure, they will dump the founding company and go off into other directions — showing that the only real product they were interested in was making money. Laudable in some circles, perhaps.

In the natural world the only thing that behaves like the ideal business is a disease called cancer. Uncontrolled growth is clearly recognized for its destructive qualities. And the arrival of cancer in ones corpus is not greeted with enthusiasm. Strange that something so feared that we work hard to ‘cure’ is the model for business conduct.

Imagine my dismay, having written this the night before, to find a Reuters article this morning that Canada’s telecoms are investing in sports teams, banking and healthcare to maintain growth and profitability. With their traditional markets saturated and cash cows like cable TV gradually losing out to other services (probably Netflix and YouTube….) they are moving into completely unrelated areas. 

Ontario, I owe, I owe

How does one distinguish between the major parties in Ontario these days? I have no idea — but the ‘red’ party seems to be very, very good at running up the (balance sheet) red; ‘orange’ appears to be just another shade of red; and ‘blue’, well, it just makes me blue. And another election, someday, to choose between ‘them’? Oh, give me strength.

With ‘red’ we have an endless stream of scandals and profligate waste of the public purse. The gas plant scandal, Orange, eHealth, Green Energy — industrial wind turbines in everyone’s backyard except theirs. The dubious achievement of doubling the Provincial debt with no sign of even slowing down. And ‘conversations’, why, oh, why… since it is all too obvious no one is listening. And who is going to pay for all their excesses since they seem dedicated to driving out business through high power prices? It all makes the folks in Greece and California look like amateurs.

‘Orange’ seems committed to propping up ‘red’ — their socialist ideals seem long gone. One wonders if that distant humming sound is Jack Layton’s ghost spinning in his grave…

‘Blue’ on the provincial level occasionally make sense — but the legacy of their cynical budget slashing by downloading services to lower levels of government without passing along the revenues and of course, forced amalgamations. These are all gifts that keep on giving.  How did anyone get the idea that there were economies of scale in human institutions? All the experience in the world shows that small is beautiful, not bigger is better.

And why are they all so opaque to the experience elsewhere in the world? Enron showed everyone that the power market is a wonderful forum for gaming the need for energy. For a few minutes they were the darlings of the business world, until their house of cards collapsed and exposed what a fraud it all was. Ontario, I remember reading somewhere, hired Enron to design a modern market-driven power system and has made multiple passes at trying to force it to work. Even now, I hear, they are quietly trying to build a futures market for power among municipalities. Some folks (well connected I am sure) will make a ton of money… the rest of us, on the other hand, will have a different experience. Let them eat cake, I guess. Or perhaps the more appropriate mangling would be ‘ask not what you can do for your country, ask rather what you can do your country for…’.

Makes me wonder what the purpose of government is? Are they there to help and support, to do things larger or more long term than private enterprise would entertain? Or are they just another vulture trying to rip their piece off the rotting corpse of the body politic before anyone else gets it?

Reminds me that my father, many years ago, said that the real choice in politics is trying to decide which folks are going to steal the least. He, and many others, have said that career politicians are really in it for the opportunities to make money — oddly echoed by Premier Wynne lately – ‘it takes money to fuel the democratic process’. One wonders just how different governments are from their espoused ideals? And how really different are places like Ontario, the US, Zimbabwe or Kyrgyzstan? Do we really want to know? And if we did, would it make any difference?