Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bias of the week : So what computer should I buy

I visited a customer this morning. I have done a lot with them over the years, they provide a good service to their users and are very nice people. They wanted help in deciding which product to buy as part of an upgrade programme. I don't give advice on what to buy. I see my role is helping them understand and remove risks, in addition to technical performance analysis.

Lets take an example of a case deciding how suitable a computer systems is for a particular purpose. If you are running a web server, the right choice might be different for modeling the start of the Universe from running a low latency equities trading system. I have heard that in a different world people use computers for things like writing documents, read email and download porn, but that is not the world of computing I live in.

The risk in question is that a particular architecture won't run a particular workload well, so the customer I saw this morning quite rightly reduced that risk by calling in an expert in computer systems performance. In the end they could not find one, so they had to make do with me. There is still some of this risk left on the table as some days may have higher or different load which I did not see in my monitoring for 30 minutes at a time of normal load. They could manage this risk by setting up a test suite and load testing or doing some long term monitoring. Both of which would probably be greater than the cost of the systems they are considering buying to replace the existing systems.

I think this is a case of a bias that there is a correct choice and I don't think there is. There are just different sets of risks which may manifest themselves depending on sets of events which we can't know the probability of them happening without great effort and cost.

I think this is a case of Information Bias mixed with Need for Closure by trying to get answers to questions that are expensive or too complex to answer within their environment.

In this case they did the right thing, looked around and tried to find as impartial an expert as they could (as mentioned they did not find one, so ended up with me) and sought to ask the question "what do you recommend we buy". I very much hope I did not favor either of the 3 options, but helped them both in process and content to weight up the process and cons of each options, this risks of each option and how tolerant to each risk they are given the cost of reducing the probability or impact of that risk. At the end of the day, apart from running and interpreting commands like prstat, mpstat (No DTrace, Solaris 9), most of what I did was Rational Process and that is the bit that really added value.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Facebook no more

I added myself to Facebook a few years ago when someone else invites me to "add me as a friend".

I am a regular reader of the "Risks Forum" which has being throwing up stories like this for some time and tonight I removed myself from Facebook. I could have gone through the various security setting and screwed them down, but you don't know, based on the last 6 months, when they will change other defaults and as a IT Professional (I hate that term) I find it irresponsible of me to interact with people who may be partically IT literate on a medium that is insecure by design.

I no doubt run larger information technology related risks, but this is one I can do without and there appear to be no immediate downsides other than I need to phone my friend Catharine in Devon on a more regular basis.

Book review : John Humphrys : Lost for Words. The Mangling and Manipulation of the English Language

Mr. H. is a central part of the Today program on Radio 4 and I have a theory that if it was a legal requirement for the interview of any political figure to be proceeded by a warm up of 10 minutes of Humphrys shouting in the left ear and Paxman shouting in the right ear, to answer the bloody question, we would get either a few more loopy politicians, but at least they would answer the question that was asked, rather than an witter on about fluff from their belly button (management speak).

Lost for Words is a tour of the way the English Language can be misused by elected representatives, sales and marketing types, academics and public servants with an agenda to protect and promote. He has a very rich set of past experiences to draw on over his 35 years as a broadcaster and indeed has been quite successful at being either feared or hated in many political quarters. What an epitaph.

I am not a language pedant, not can I claim a great mastery of the written language, but I would like to do better and in my daily battle against cognitive bias understanding how other people use and abuse language and how I might be clearer myself is very valuable. I mentioned a few posts ago that this book got me thinking about self esteem and the role it presence and absence plays in my motivations.

At the end of the book, there is a section which sums up very well why this book is worth reading

The best defense against manipulators is to know what is going on. That is why we should demand that people in power use clear, simple English [or Welsh] instead of cliched, dumped-down, inflated and bogus management-speak that so often passes for English today.

I won't be writing to Radio 4 when I hear “to boldly go where no man has gone before” and its infinitive splitting, but I will be taking more of an interest in the language I hear from all quarters and rather more confrontative.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Vote B.N.P. and use Polish builders

Someone who I have known for a number of years, who has commented in the past that he would vote for the B.N.P. if they fielded a candidate, is currently having his patio rebuild by 3 very capable and pleasant gentlemen from Poland.

Laugh, I almost fell over.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Liquid Milk futures, a good thing?

I was reading today that liquid Milk futures contracts are now available on the Chicargo Mercantile exchange. However, with the level of subsidy of milk in Europe which distorts the price in effect sets a put option in favor of the processors of liquid milk, such a derivative won't be of much value inside the EU.

I did learn a few other interesting things about the milk industry, the most significant being that, no surprise, that UK farmers are much larger(3x) and more efficient than the rest of the EU. We produce the cheapest milk in Europe and are self sufficient in the stuff, but still import just under 1 billion worth of butter, cheese and yoghurt.

The upshot here is that liberalization of the EU dairy industry will greatly benefit todays UK dairy farmers (not those who have left the industry in the last 10 years because they can't make ends meet) and some of that will arrive in 2015 when quotas get phased out, though export subsidies for milk power and butter will remain.

This raises the question of who the existing subsides is there to help, the farmer or the milk processor. The answer may depend on which country you live in.

Friday, May 14, 2010

My name is Clive and I am a self esteem addict.

I was reading John Humphrys book Lost for Words while returning on the train from London last night and this bit from page 268 struck a chord.

Some days I'll spend three hours in the Today studio and go home thinking I did a reasonably good job. Other days - too many of them - I leave wondering why I ever became a journalist in the 1st place. If I am incapable, after forty five years in the business, of doing a half-way decent interview with a not-very-bright politician I really should pack it in and grow carrots.

He then goes on to talk about self-esteem and that anyone who does not experience a lack of it at some point is a smug, self satisfied moon or on some pretty powerful drugs.

I got off the train at Cosford, drove down to Church Stretton and went for a run on the Long Mynd following the course of the rather brutal Long Mynd Valleys race which is 12 miles and 4500ft of up and down as part of my Bob Graham Round training. I got round in a rather pleasing 2 hour 40 without really pushing myself hard, the last hour was in the dark. Mulling over what Mr. H has written it occurred to me that I achieve something, think well done Clive, good lad, then over the next few months my eyes get opened to what possible is beyond that and I start to look down on what I achieved previously. Some examples
  • Rock Climbing : in my 20's I ended up doing a few routes of E4 (which is quite hard). Moving up through the grades, each level would feel good for a while and then I felt the need to push myself to the next level. Harder, more sustained and technical, exposed, more necky.
  • Diving : we ended up as BSAC advanced divers and advanced instructors in pre-children days which was fun in itself. Small steps in getting more experienced, diving deeper and more adventurer and even to the point of just gaining diving knowledge as an end in itself.
  • Running : From not having run for over 10 years, can I run 10 miles, can I run 16, can I run 22, can I do the Peris Horseshoe (oops extended myself a bit far on this one at the time), 30 miles Wye Valley Ultra and the most daft to date, the 53 miles Highland Fling and now can I do the Bob Graham Round. Along the way you meet people who open your mind to what can be done and you set about closing the gap.
  • Work : 13 years at Sun as been characterized by more technical and complex customer problems and more volatile customer situations. The satisfaction of fixing a customer issue is short lived as the next one arrives and indeed it becomes a perpetual cycle of fighting cognitive bias as you jump from one issue to the next. I am not power or money motivated, but I do love the challenge of solving hard, complex technical problems
  • PhD : As one of life's late developers in school with writing and speeling problems which remain to this day finishing a PhD while working was a bit of a prize. It was a war of attrition at the time which dampened much of the satisfaction from being awarded it, but always feel you could have done better, not had re-writes, etc. Started as being a MPhil and as you see others doing a PhD, you start to aspire not believing that you can actually achieve that goal, but pushing on at your own pace.
Now don't get me wrong. I am quite content with this aspect of my character, for all the down sides and introspection it prompts, it does drive me to get things done, stretch myself and learn new things. If you are the type of person who tells me I should chill out and be content where I am, I will suggest you are lazy. While that "chill out and be content" view has a point, I get board easily so it is not for me.

Having low self esteem is clearly a problem, very much so for young people. Equally could having a high level of self-esteem, all the time, actually be a limiting factor in achieving your potential as you have nothing to prove to yourself. Without the ebbs and flows of self belief, the motivation to push yourself further and achieve something you previously though was out of your league, will remain distant and weak. You can't be serious about a long term challenge like the Bob Graham Round or a PhD to please or impress anyone else, such motivations are very internal.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bias of the week : They looked OK technically, but they seemed to be rather pushing the Oracle message.

I have been invited to present at a Industry Testing Conference in a few weeks time. I submitted my slides in good time using the Oracle approved slide template. I got this email from one of the organizers this evening.
On 10 May 2010, at 17:41, XXXX XXXXXXXX wrote:

Hi Clive

Thanks for sending your slides. They looked OK technically, but they seemed to be rather pushing the Oracle message. In our experience this often has a very negative impact on the audience, as they object to feeling that they are being “sold to” and tend to turn off. Do you think you could revise them to make them more as a case study and more neutral? We need the final version by 12 May at the latest.

Otherwise, you will be pleased to know that plans for the above event are all in place and we are looking forward to a very interesting event.

>rest deleted as not interesting<>So taking the feedback on board (if you have ever seen me talk you will know selling is not my preferred speaking style) I went through the presentation again and found the following images

  • A Sun 3/160 from 1989
  • A Cray T3E from 1997
  • A Sun E10K from 1996
  • A Sun E15k from about 2003
  • The founder of Motorhead (it is a talk on stress testing after all)
  • A lion eating a wildebeast
  • A slide which shows the workings for a guess at how many lines of code it takes to support you buying something you don't need on Ebay after getting home drunk from the pub on a saturady night
Hence my reply.


I am surprised by that observation as none of the systems in question have been on the price book for at least 2 years. Most discussed are over 10 years old, 1 is over 20 years old, one was never an Oracle (or past Sun) system and that it is the concepts that I am discussing highlight past shortcomings, you might want to have an other look at the presentation. The founder of Motorhead has yet to strike a deal promoting Oracle products as far as I am aware, but stranger things have happened.

Other than the slide template which I am required to use, you might want to take a 2nd look and if you still feel that they "push the Oracle message", then please call me
and explain which bits are "selling Oracle" to the audience and I will make the changes accordingly.

Very happy to cooperate, but for the reasons above, I don't get the "selling" bit and its not my style.

Best regards

So what is going on here. I suspect we have a reviewer who looks at the slides and see images of systems next to the Oracle logo and assumes that I am in some way promoting those systems. There was no reason from someone with no background in Computers and their history, who is just looking at the images to work out that a Sun 3/160 was 1st sold in 1989. If they had read the text next to it they might have got a clue, but they can't be expected to do this. If all your world is a Windows P.C. and you don't know what Enterprise class systems look like and which era they come from, then you can understand this mistake being made. After all, such events have to put up some reasonable defense against sly sales pitches.

The nearest bias I can find is Projection Bias, but it does not fit, so maybe it is just a bit of deletion, distortion and generalization, something we are all guilty of.

The approach I take to writing slides is provide to anchors for topics when I then discuss, so it should be quite hard to get the thread of the talk from just the slides. I do this to make the
talk itself more interesting and engaging, though as shown above there are downsides to taking this approach. Avoiding "death by Powerpoint (or OpenOffice)" is a constraint, not a goal.

Why does Wales have the lowest Gross Value Added of any region in the UK

The short answer is I don't know beyond "some region has to be the lowest", but it is an interesting question and may issues such as Welsh Independence follow from an understanding of
  • Why it is what it is
  • What is being done now to improve
  • What should Wales stop doing
  • What else needs to be done
I am no economist, so obviously I consulted Wikipedia for a definition
Gross Value Added (GVA) is a measure in economics of the value of goods and services produced in an area, industry or sector of an economy. In national accounts GVA is output minus intermediate consumption; it is a balancing item of the national accounts' production account.
A more interesting link is to the National Statistics Office which states that
The gross value added (GVA) per head of population for the UK as a whole was £20,520 in 2008. London had the highest regional GVA per head of population at £34,786, followed by the South East at £21,688. Wales had the lowest GVA per head of population at £15,237.
I would argue that many parts of Wales have higher social capital than London for example, but you don't pay for schools, hospitals and widening at A487 near Dyfi Junction with feeling part of a community, however much you value it and it adds to quality of life.

Statistics are not everything. Out of context they can be dangerous and misleading and I would like to hear the argument that GVA does not matter or a suggestion that XYZ is a better metric.

The GVA measure taken at face value shows that in Wales is a economic drag on the rest of the UK, whatever the root cause and which door blame should lie are not that interesting a set of discussions. What is more critical is asking are we undertaking the right set of activities to get to average and if not what do we need to stop doing and start doing to make progress.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dr Evan Harris (ex-MP), the Telegraph religion editor and Dogging

I view religion much like S & M, Microsoft Windows, dogging, golf or homosexuality. It is something that I am O.K. for other consenting adults to engage in, providing I don't have to be any part of it. None of the above are wrong (dogging is grey territory ) and if it fits with the individuals and they are comfortable with it, then it is nothing to do with me either way. I also have a choice not to be part of these or influenced by these life choices and that should be respected.

I have very high regard for a number of religious people. The good work that many vicars, priests, rabbi, and clerics do in the name of their god makes a huge contribution to parts of society otherwise neglected. I don't agree with a minister of religion being considered as a profession, but it very much should have a respected place in society.

I attended a Westminster Skeptics meeting a few months ago where Dr Evan Harris spoke. He was articulate, talked sense and was quite funny. He was also in touch with reality and supported science based medicine and the reform of UK libel laws which is important to an extent that would shock most people.

This article in the Telegraph about how great it was that Evan Harris, aka Dr. Death lost his seat suggests that George Pitcher is not suited for his day job. A subset of comments sum up very well where Rev George has gone astray.

I find it remarkable that an Anglican “priest” can be so uncharitable about a fellow human being.

Religion and politics are bad bed-fellows and mixing them together has caused no-end of problems around the world (not least the supposed role of neo-cons in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan).

I’ve heard Evan Harris speak passionately about issues he cares about and is far from a ‘one-trick pony’.I hope that Nicola Blackwood serves her new constituents just as well.

and on a more sarcastic angle

Yeah, what a relief – on his website it says he campaigns “for science, evidence-based policy, free speech, human rights, equality”
What a disaster it would be if people like that ever came to have any sort of influence
and the best one

Dear Mr Pitcher – I would dearly love to believe that you are a spoof written by Craig Brown, but since I fear you are genuine, I feel compelled to tell you that I found this column astonishing. Explain – what do you, as an Anglican priest, gain from publishing such a pointless, vicious and personal attack? Do you really think such a display of spite is a good advertisement for your faith?

Holding principles that differ from yours is not really the same as being without principle, is it? It would be hard to find anyone in politics with more integrity, compassion and moral courage than Evan Harris, and a great many of the weakest and most vulnerable people, as you call them, will feel the loss of his influence very keenly. Your quite extraordinarily hate-filled gloating has only done you and the church you represent a disservice.

(Just for the record, I don’t have a fascination with death, but I am quite fascinated by human rights, equality, free speech and science and many of the other issues for which Dr Harris has campaigned.)

PS – Craig, if it is you, it’s very funny but you’ve made him a bit extreme. Tone it down a bit, eh.

and last but not least

To begin, I’d like to point out that writing ‘Dr’ doesn’t negate the FACT that Dr Harris is a qualified Doctor of medicine. You know, one of those men/women of science who do good for others.

‘A stranger to principle’ you say. Really? Not a man who stands up for his convictions then, in the face of the right-wing press who seek to besmirch him, to describe him as ‘Dr Death’ because he doesn’t follow what was written in your 2000 year old handbook for life!

Dr Harris has been a dedicated local MP, an important voice for science and for civil liberties. Even you, ‘Rev’ Pitcher (see what I did there?) need men like Dr Harris. There are plenty of groups who would have had your superstition-based groups outlawed, rather than stand up for the rights of ALL.
Note the difference, equality for all, not for special interest groups.

There is a whole other thread in the comments about Iraq and Jews which escaped me.

Then in the Telegraph(same paper) we get this from Tom Chivers who appears to be the Telegraph version of Martin Robbins without the beard. The summary is "George, you were very wrong, particularly the comment of Evan Harris having no principles, they are just different from yours".

One of the big problems for any government intent on reform will face are various types of leaders who stand in the way of sorting out systemic underlying issues include
  • Trade union leaders opposing pension reform
  • Religious leaders opposing research of many kinds
  • Business leaders who allow libel tourism
and few politicians have the courage to engage in debate with these groups. Ultimately, it is us who let these minority leaders (as above) make politicians dance around the hard issues trying not to upset the special interest groups and then we complain that government does not fix the hard problems of the day.

Evidence based science should be beyond the influence of these special interest groups and that is perhaps what made Dr Evan Harris a target of these right wing groups and people like George Pitcher. Dr. Harris was a visible champion for Evidence Based Science and what George and friends are really scared of is having to provide evidence to back up a reasoned argument.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Talk of electoral reform misses the quality factor

I have taken more interest in this election than any previous and what surprised me overall was the lack of previous achievement or contribution to society of the people who were putting themselves forward to be our leaders. The majority have not shown significant leadership in any area beyond politics. The contributions in business, academia, service provision or the charity sector was thin to say the least. Candidates for parties, of course, get drawn from the pool of members with favor being given to those who have the best track record of helping the party. Not a recipe for getting societies most capable to come forward to tackle the big issues we are facing.

Lots of talk about electoral reform to give parties power which is more aligned with their proportion of the votes cast, but the net for candidates needs to be cast wider to include (and select) those with aptitude for solving the [pick your scale : Planet, UK, Wales, Ceredigion, whatever] problems, rather than those who want power.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Over the shoulder problem solving

I am not really sure that this week bias is really a bias, but it is worthwhile being aware of.

I was writing some code (C) to reproduce a customer problem while in the office near Reading this week and needed to parse an argument, so used the function atoi. I got strange results when I entered large numbers on the command line. Overflow (the size of the number was larger than the type would accommodate) entered my head, but I checked it and carried on debugging the problem as it appeared. After about 10 minutes I ambled off to ask Lee, who I work with, if he would just stand there and after I explained the problem to him, he could point out the daft error I had made.

Within 15 seconds of starting explaining the problem to Lee, I had caught the problem myself, it just jumped out while explaining the issue. He smiled and wondered off knowing that the next time it may occur in reverse.

Explaining a problem to someone else who is fresh is a very powerful problem solving technique, even if they make no direct contribution. Prehaps the bias is a tendency to carry on and not ask for someone to spend a few minutes looking over your shoulder while you explain the pathology of a problem.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Clive attacks serving Prime Minister with a door

This clip on Guido's blog I found quite worrying in principle, but he was hardly ejected by heavies.

A number of years ago on an evening out with the Sun Patch Test group I opened a door into Bertie Ahern in a pub in Dublin, in fairness he was standing behind it as I entered. It sparked from interest from some real heavies for a second or 2 until it became obvious Bertie was just standing in the way of an inward opening door. I was just opening a door rather than using it as a weapon to batter a serving Prime Minister having a pint of Bass in his local.

It seemed quiet alien to me that a serving prime minister of a country would just go for a beer down his local and mix with the real public. When I opened the door into him, I did not know who he was, but his face seemed familiar. It took about 30 seconds and a comment from Gerry Haskins for it to click who it was. Some lessons there for Gordon and his peers, but my take away was to take more care when opening an opaque door into a pub incase you hit a serving Prime Minister with it.