Foundations

What Rome is mainly built on is Rome.1

This is a view of the foundations of the Roman hotel I stayed in last night. Luckily, being a fairly modern structure, they built it in a way that exposes what lies underneath.

There’s an enterprise software architecture metaphor in there, and in fact I already wrote about it:

People, including many Italians, bemoan the lack of infrastructure around here. The problem is that as soon as you sink a shovel in the ground, you hit a priceless historical artefact. Then you have to spend months digging it out with toothbrushes and tweezers, and then you get to shovel a few more loads before there is another clunk and everything has to stop again. I shudder to think of how many times things have just been quickly reburied so as not to delay work... Here's an example from my home town: this monstrosity was built over the city amphitheatre, and it looks like the replacement will still not allow the ruins to be visited.

This is very much like what happens in established corporations. You can't just sink a shaft or dig a trench, because there are very good chances you will interfere with something that's already there. You also wind up with your brand new shiny thing still relying on thousand-year-old culverts for its drainage. You have to allow for all of these things when you plan what you want to build next.

Remember this when you bemoan how change-averse large companies are: if you don’t plan changes carefully, you risk breaking something critical somewhere else. This doesn’t mean you can’t change things, just that you have to go about it carefully.

Here is an example from London of major change, carefully planned, and done right.


  1. With apologies to Sir Pterry: "But then, practically everywhere in Ankh-Morpork had cellars that were once the first or even second or third floors of ancient buildings, built at the time of one of the city’s empires when men thought that the future was going to last for ever. And then the river had flooded and brought mud with it, and walls had gone higher and, now, what Ankh-Morpork was built on was mostly Ankh-Morpork. People said that anyone with a good sense of direction and a pickaxe could cross the city underground by simply knocking holes in walls." Excerpt from The Truth

Start to Stop

Today I had to join a call with Lync, or Skype for Business, or whatever it’s calling itself this week. As usual the process was unnecessarily painful.

In particular, this screen always trips me up:

First of all, don’t ask me whether I joined successfully! You are supposed to tell me – or better yet, don’t tell me, just do it.

At this stage, this is the only Skype for Business window that I see, so no, I have not joined successfully – so "Skype for Business Web App" asks me whether instead I would like to join using "Skype for Business Web App". You what?

Hitting that link opens up a separate Skype for Business Web App window, in which I can actually join the meeting, only lightly dazed by the force of the facepalming I endured on the way there.

This is some quality Microsoft UI, along the lines of their famous "to shut down, use the Start menu" flow.

Companies Turning Down My Money

I’m always going on about my troubles with the Italian iTunes Store, but I realise people might not know what that means in practice, so I wrote up a real-world scenario.

I wonder what movie we could watch on Sunday night – maybe that 1969 classic, The Italian Job?1

First hurdle, finding the thing. Searching for "the italian job", as any reasonable (meaning "naive and inexperienced") person might, brings no results.

As this is not my first rodeo with the Italian iTunes Store, I fall back to searching for everything Michael Caine has been in – and sure enough, after the various Batman and Kingsman films, there is… Un colpo all’italiana. Sure, why not.

But once again, this is not my first rodeo – and therefore, instead of just hitting that "Buy" button, I know to scroll down and check one more thing:

Do you see it?

Look under Language: there is only one entry, "Italian (Stereo)". No English audio.

I refuse to pay ten Euros to hear Michael Caine dubbed into Italian, thank you very much. If you won’t sell things to people, they won’t buy them.

Guess we’re watching something else, kids.


  1. We will not speak of its 21st century would-be imitators, thank you. 

Which Algorithms Will Watch The Algorithms?

This week’s AI-powered scandal is the news that Amazon scrapped a "secret" AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women.

Amazon.com Inc’s machine-learning specialists uncovered a big problem: their new recruiting engine did not like women.

The AI, of course, has no opinion about one women one way or the other. Amazon HR's recruitment tool was not “biased" in the sense that a human recruiter might be; it was simply unearthing existing bias:

That is because Amazon’s computer models were trained to vet applicants by observing patterns in resumes submitted to the company over a 10-year period. Most came from men, a reflection of male dominance across the tech industry.

If you train your neural networks with biased data, you are just re-encoding and reinforcing the bias! This was not news even in 2015 when Amazon started this experiment. However, it illustrates a general problem with AI, namely its users’ naive tendency to take the algorithms’ output at face value. As with any automated system, human experts will be needed to make intelligent evaluations of the output of the system.

Train The Guardians

The need for secondary evaluation is only going to increase as these systems proliferate. For instance, Canada now plans to use AI to decide immigration cases. If your request for a visa is rejected by an expert system, what recourse do you have? What if the basis of rejection is simply that claims like yours were usually denied in the past?

These concerns will become more and more critical as AI tools continue to become more mainstream.

"The computer says no" has always been the jobsworth’s go-to excuse. But who programmed the computer to say "no"? The fact that the computers are now programming themselves to say "no" does not absolve organisations of responsibility. The neural networks are simply reflecting the inputs they are given. It is on us to give them good inputs.

After all, we are educating our own children.

Going From Caffeine To Amphetamine

No, this is not a post about controlled substances – even though it is Friday!

In the past, I have recommended some useful apps to improve your presenter game, including a great little tool called Caffeine. Unfortunately the upgrade to macOS Mojave seems to have finally killed off Caffeine, which is fair enough really since it has not been updated in some years.

Luckily, there is a fantastic alternative called Amphetamine, which sticks to Caffeine’s attractive pricing of "free". It does the same job that Caffeine did, sitting quietly in the menu bar until you need to prevent your display from sleeping – perhaps because it is connected to an external projector and you are trying to show something other than your cool screensaver.

On top of that, though, Amphetamine offers a ton of configuration options. My favourite is that you can create triggers which will automatically prevent your Mac from sleeping in certain conditions. I created a trigger so that my Mac will automatically stay awake when I connect my presentation remote, for instance.

If you don’t want a pill icon in your menu bar, you can also change it to something else, including a version of Caffeine’s classic coffee cup.

Do check out Amphetamine and let me know how you get on.

Seriously?

So there I was scrolling innocently through Twitter, when this Tweet popped up in my timeline:

A Promoted tweet? What, are they trying to sell me fighter jets?

The account seems legit, although I am baffled as to why the F-35 needs its own Twitter account. Also, who on Earth are these SIXTY-SIX THOUSAND people who follow it?

Anyway, I still don’t get why they are paying to show tweets to me. Fortunately Twitter lets you look into that, but it just raises more questions:

Why on Earth is Lockheed Martin trying to reach adults in Italy? This seems like a gross misuse of social media marketing. Or am I missing something?

Scheduling

I live my life a half-hour meeting at a time. Nothing else matters: not the mortgage, not the store, not my team and all their bullshit. For those ten seconds or less between meetings, I'm free.

(with apologies to fans of The Fast And The Furious)


🖼️ Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Keeping The Data Lake Clean

One of the biggest problems in data analysis is making sure that your inputs are clean and sane. This holds true whatever you are using to do the analysis, whether it’s the latest fancypants machine-learning, or a roomful of expert humans doing the calculations by hand.

I think it’s useful to keep this perspective in mind when considering Apple’s recent tie-up with Salesforce.

The first example given by Salesforce is this scenario:

Imagine a sales rep saying "Hey Siri, Daily Briefing" then hearing an overview of their day.

This scenario encapsulates the dream end-state of all of these integrated CRM systems. Normally, of course, the user requesting an overview is not the sales rep but a manager, whether the person responsible for a region who needs to know whether their team of sales reps is going to hit the regional number, or a higher manager preparing a presentation for the board and hoping very much that the key dashboards are all in the green.

The problem with such dashboards is the age-old one of Garbage In, Garbage Out. The predictions are only as good as the data they are based on. Unfortunately, the data are not always good, because by and large, sales reps – and I’ve known a few, good, bad, and indifferent – do not particularly enjoy documenting everything they do for someone else. That last clause is important; the good sales reps take a lot of notes and know all sorts of details about their accounts and territories, but the notes are for their own consumption, and the way they are taken and stored make them hard to access. Sometimes this is even by design, especially among “relationship" sales people who see their value mainly in terms of the thickness of their Rolodex1: “if you fire me, I’ll walk and take all my customers with me!".

We all know how well that play worked out for Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire. Regardless, getting the input data is a very real problem. This is why I am much more interested in the second half of that example scenario from Salesforce:

They can also easily update Salesforce records after a meeting.

Updating opportunities is already pretty easy from the Salesforce mobile app, but sales managers and Sales Ops types have a tendency to over-complicate the process by adding supplementary required fields which must be filled in to save the simple text-based notes and contact info which are the most valuable parts of the process. Added friction in the data-entry stage leads to opportunity details being added in a rush at the end of the quarter, ret-conning against the ultimate outcome of the opportunity rather than documenting facts in near real time.

Adding support for other technologies on the input side has the potential to remove much of that friction. Siri would let reps have a good rant in the car on the way back from the meeting and transcribe all of that into the activity record. Location data would enter the correct office where a meeting was held. Integration with office suites and cloud storage could add the collateral used in a meeting to the opportunity. Each addition of intelligence on the input side would remove a small amount of friction from the opportunity management process, which in turn would help to ensure that the data which all the fancy analyses are based on are at least somewhat factual.

I have no doubt that most of the videos and presentations around the Apple-Salesforce joint technology developments will focus on showing magical Minority Report2 dashboards, updating in real time, and smiling managers happy with the results being displayed. However, if any of those whiz-bang dashboards are to have utility in the real world, it will be down to the input capabilities in the individual sales reps’ iPhone and Apple Watch, and the technology’s removal of as many excuses as possible not to update Salesforce records.


  1. Yes, Rolodex; that’s how dated this way of thinking is. 

  2. I think I owe Tom Cruise royalties for this article. How much is 50% of no dollars whatsoever, again? I’m sure he doesn’t mind appearing here for the exposure, though. 

How Much Trouble Is Facebook In?

Users (including me) are deleting Facebook, but FB reports no drop in active users. What gives?

It’s not just Bloomberg, either; a survey published in Forbes claims that More Than 1 in 4 Americans Have Deleted Facebook. I’m not American, nor do I play one on TV, but I deleted the FB app from all my devices a while ago. I still have my account, but I went from checking it multiple times per day to glancing at it once every couple of weeks. Informally, I speak to lots of people who have done the same thing.

Once again, what gives?

Counting And Overcounting

There is nothing surprising here: any action is enough for FB to count you as active, so they can claim with a straight face that even someone like me is still "active" for purposes of their statistics – and the rates they can charge advertisers.

Remember when Facebook inflated video viewing stats for two years? Good times, good times. Turned out, they were counting anything over three seconds as if you had viewed the whole thing. The only problem is, it might take you that long to figure out how to dismiss the annoying thing.

Unsurprisingly, advertisers who had been paying through the nose for those video ad placements were not best pleased, especially as the scale of the over-counting became clear:

Ad buying agency Publicis Media was told by Facebook that the earlier counting method likely overestimated average time spent watching videos by between 60% and 80%

On A Mission

Facebook take their mission extremely seriously. Currently it says this:

Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.

The old formulation was perhaps clearer:

To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

Either way, the Rohingya in Burma1, to cite just one example, might have preferred if people had not shared libels and built communities around hunting them down and ejecting them from their villages.

Facebook, however, in dogged pursuit of this ideal, builds and maintains so-called shadow profiles, even for users who had the foresight never to sign up for Facebook. These profiles are built up by using various tracking mechanisms that follow users around the Web – famously, the Like button, although supposedly that has now been defanged. One also suspects a certain amount of information sharing between Facebook’s various properties, notably Instagram and WhatsApp.

The AOL Of Our Century

The bottom line is, you’re not getting out of Facebook that easily, if only because of the famous truism of the ad-funded web: "if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product". With Facebook, as with all social media sites, that is true in a very literal sense. What they are selling to their advertisers is exposure to the greatest number of eyeballs, ideally filtered according to certain characteristics. If the pool starts shrinking, their opportunity to make money off advertisers shrinks commensurately. If people start seriously messing with the stats, for instance by using tools like fuzzify.me, such that the filters no longer return groupings of users that are attractive to advertisers, that will also be a problem. Any drop in Daily or Monthly Active Users (DAU and MAU) would be a much more immediate threat, though, and that is why as long as users check Facebook even occasionally, there will never be a serious drop in usage reported – right up until the day the whole thing dies unceremoniously in a corner.


  1. I refuse to call it Myanmar.