Joho the Blog » decisions

February 15, 2013

[2b2] Data, facts, and the comfort of decisions

Just a quick note updating my post yesterday about the musky Tesla-Times affair. [('m in an airport with just a few minutes before boarding.)

Times Man John Broder has posted his step-by-step rebuttal-explanation-apologia of Elon Musk's data-driven accusations that Broder purposefully drove a Tesla S into a full stop. Looked at purely as a drama of argument, it just gets more and more fascinating. But it is of course not merely a drama or an example; reputations of people are at stake, and reputations determine careers and livelihoods.

Broder's overall defense is that he was on the phone with Tesla support at most of the turning points, and followed instructions scrupulously. As a result, just about every dimension of this story is now in play and in question: Were the data accurate or did Broder misremember turning on cruise control? Were the initial conditions accounted for (e.g., different size wheels)? Were the calculations based on that data accurate, or are the Tesla algorithms off when the weather is cold? Does being a first-time driver count as a normal instance? Does being 100% reliant on the judgment of support technicians make a test optimal or atypical? Should Broder have relied on what the instruments in the car said or what Support told him? If a charging pump is in a service area but no one sees it, does it exist?

And then there's the next level. We humans live with this sort of uncertainty — multi-certainty? — all the time. It's mainly what we talk about when given a chance. For most of us, it's idle chatter — you get to rail against the NY Times, I get to write about data and knowledge, and Tesla car owners get to pronounce in high dudgeon. Fun for all. But John Broder's boss is going to have to decide how to respond. It's quite likely that that decision is going to reflect the murky epistemology of the situation. Evidence will be weighed and announced to be probabilistic. Policy guidelines will be consulted. Ultimately the decision is likely to be pegged to a single point of policy, phrased as something like, "In order to maintain the NYT's reputation against even unlikely accusations, we have decided to ..." or "Because our reviewer followed every instruction given him by Tesla..." Or some such; I'm not trying to predict the actual decision, but only that it will prioritize one principle from among dozens of possibilities.

Thus, as is usually the case, the decision will force a false sense of closure. It will pick one principle, and over time, the decision will push an even grosser simplification, for people will remember which way the bit flipped — fired, suspended, backed fully, whatever — but not the principle, not the doubt, not the unredeemable uncertainty. This case will become yet one more example of something simple &mdash masking the fathomless complexity revealed even by a single review of a car.

That complexity is now permanently captured in the web of blue underlined text. We can always revisit it. But, we won't, because the matter was decided, and decisions betray complexity.

[Damn. Wish I had time to re-read this before posting! Forgive typos, thinkos, etc.?]

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September 16, 2012

[2b2k] Decisions and character

I just read Michael Lewis’ tag-along look at President Obama. It shows aspects of Obama not readily on display. But mainly it’s about being the President as Decider.

The article makes it clear to me that the presidency is not a possible job. No one cannot be adequately prepared to deal with the range of issues the president faces, most of which have significant effects on very real people. The president therefore needs processes that enable him (so far it’s been hims, kids) to make good decisions, the personality that will let him embrace those processes, and the character to continue making decisions while fully appreciating the consequences of his actions.

Mothers, don’t let you kids grow up to be presidents. Holy cow.

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October 9, 2010

[2b2k] Once again, my writing lacks integrity

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article I don’t know what to do with about why integrity has become the main characteristic of business leadership. Read just about any of the business memoirs or books about leadership, and they all put integrity at the top of the list of what makes a person a leader. And they don’t mean “integrity” in the “I don’t take bribes” sense. Rather, they’re talking about a type of humble authenticity: Know who you are, don’t put on airs, don’t believe the butt-kissers who work for you.

Obviously integrity is a desirable characteristic, but it’s weird to put it at the pinnacle of leadership. It used to be about courage, resolution, and worlds like that. “Integrity” is like saying that what made Richard the Lion-Hearted a great leader was that he felt good about himself, or Churchill was a great leader because he was a generous tipper. So, I wondered how that happened, and came up with an hypothesis:

You read a book like Jack Welch’s memoirs and you feel bad for the guy. He’s a chemical engineer who becomes CEO of General Electric, and feels completely out of his depth. (That’s not what he says. It’s how I’m reading him.) He has to make decisions about everything from nuclear reactors to whether Leno or Letterman should get the Tonight Show. He can’t possibly know enough — modern corporations are too big to know — so he sees in himself an uncanny ability to pierce through the old assumptions and the BS. Integrity lets him see the truth. It also lets him eat the Hegelian cake Americans require of their leaders: A leader has to be someone special, but has to be just like us. Integrity lets you be special by seeing just how limited and ordinary you are. Perfect!

I keep trying to find places to put this idea. It comes with an entertaining reading of the Welch book. So, I opened Chapter 8, on decisions, with it. And then came back to it toward the end. Chapter 8 is supposed to be a second proof-of-the-pudding chapter (the first is on science) that asks if all the previous blather about ambiguous knowledge falls away when you have to make a hard yes-or-no decision. Or, is decision-making taking on network properties? After three weeks of writing, I thought maybe it worked. Its joints were wrapped in rhetorical duct tape, but maybe no one would notice.

I put the chapter aside for a week after finishing it, and then re-read it. Nope. It sucks.

I’ve spent the past 48 hours compulsively re-writing it, over and over, each time thinking that I see how I can make it work. I’ve outlined what I think it should say and I’ve outlined what it does say, and none of them are right.

So, I just went through it and tore out all of the integrity stuff. I’m left with a clearer argument with fewer problem areas. But I still don’t know if it works.

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October 2, 2010

Gladwell discovers it takes more than 140 characters to overturn a government

It seems to me that Malcolm Gladwell’s debunking of the claim that the Net will empower political revolutions is right about one big thing, but wrong about a whole lot more.

Because of Gladwell’s often-emulated twisty way into a topic, here is my take at an outline of of the article, so that we can see its argument better.

In 1960, four college students staged a sit-in in NC. Within a week, sit-ins had started to spread like “a fever.”

Gladwell now states the claim he is going debunk: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.” He then points to world events that have been claimed to support that view.

But, (he continues) those events were not really brought about by social media. Why would we think they were? It’s not due just to over-enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.” It is really our understanding of activism that is at issue.

Now, back to the sit-ins. They were dangerous. Civil rights activism took courage. That courage required strong ties to other activists. This was true not just of the civil rights movement in the US, but is a general characteristic of activism.

But, “The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all.” Social media (Twitter, Facebook) are all about weak ties. Weak ties are “in many ways a wonderful thing…But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Social media activism works when little is asked of people.

Activism requires not just strong ties, but also strong, centralized, hierarchical organization. Not networks. You need a hierarchy “if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment…”

As an example, Gladwell ridicules the opening story in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, about how “the crowd” got a smart phone returned to its rightful owner. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

Gladwell is right, in my view, to debunk the over-enthusiastic belief that the Net would sweep away all traditional institutions that stand in the way of the great populist uprising.

He is also right to debunk the notion that the Net would replace all traditional forms of governance and organization.

At this point, however, those are strawpeople. Find me someone who believes that these days.

The more plausible belief is that the Net affects the most entrenched of institutions by changing the ecology around them. So, citizen journalism has not obviated the need for professional journalism and traditional news media. Rather, a new symbiotic ecology (hmm, mixing metaphors) has arisen. Likewise, amateur scientists have not replaced professional scientists and their institutions, but the new ecology allows for the interaction of everyone with an interest, and this is changing how science is done, how it is evaluated, and how it has an effect. Likewise, the Dean campaign — and every national campaign after it — understood that it was not enough to have a social network, but that that network must be moved to take action out in the real streets of America.

Likewise, I venture that few believe that Facebook or Twitter on their own are going to bring about revolutionary political change. But that doesn’t mean that political change is unaffected by them. As the Tea Party looks like it’s rolling to victory in 2010, try to imagine that it could exist much less succeed without social media. It also needed money from Big Interests, the attention of mainstream media, and non-Net communication channels. But, who is arguing otherwise? The ecology has changed.

Further, Gladwell misses the point about strong and weak ties. He’s right that committed activism requires strong ties. But it doesn’t require many: Three like-minded friends can be enough to embolden a college student to risk sitting-in at a segregated lunch counter. Social networking services facilitate strong ties because strong ties come from weak ones, and because casual interactions among people with strong ties can strengthen those ties. Further, having lots of weak ties can encourage political action by making that action a common cause: Wow, everyone I know is going to the protest march!

Further, the effect of courageous activists (enabled through their strong ties to other activists) is magnified insofar as it emboldens and affects a far wider swath of the population. Networks of weak ties spread ideas, information, and enthusiasm faster and more effectively than letter-writing campaigns or newspaper ads. From these networks of loose ties come the new activists, the supporters of activists, and an engaged citizenry that can vote (or throw) the bums out. Courageous activists succeed within a population that is not as engaged or courageous.

Gladwell also, in my opinion, is mistaken to treat networks and hierarchies as if they were mutually exclusive. He points to the massive organizational effort it took to sustain the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. They created a large, efficient carpool service, and had a hundred full-time staffers. So, what exactly was the hierarchy required for? “Discipline and strategy,” Gladwell says, although his example also stresses organization. To this I have three reactions.

First, hierarchies are indeed good at some things. But hierarchies can work with networks. That’s how national political campaigns work in this country, for example. Hierarchies and networks are not exclusive. And networks can be powerful tools for hierarchies. Likewise, networks are never entirely flat. They can have a local center that makes decisions and organizes actions.

Second, Gladwell dismisses the contribution networks could have made to the bus boycott by pointing to the shallowness of tweets (vs. ML King’s messages from jail), the messiness of Wikipedia, and some unexplained problem with communicating through Facebook. This is sloppy from the likes of Gladwell. No one thinks MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech really would have been better if whittled down to 140 characters. But, tweets are a good way to drive people to read a longer work, and tweets are a good way of alerting a crowd when action is required. Gladwell is also wrong to say that Wikipedia is mired in a “ceaseless pattern of correction and revision.” And Facebook messaging is great for communicating among those with strong and weak ties. Three misses out of three, by my way of thinking.

Third, the strengths of hierarchies that Gladwell points to are not totally absent from networks:

Networks have their own way of making strategy: Someone puts it forward, and it catches on (including via networks of weak ties) or it doesn’t.

As far as organizing goes, there is a reason that every movement for political change now uses the Internet: it is superb for organizing. Think how much easier it would have been to set up the carpool system with its “forty-eight dispatchers and forty-two pickup stations”? An online, on-demand system would have freed up the forty-eight dispatchers, and would have made a “pickup station” out of wherever you are. Further, it would have been written overnight, for free, and open-sourced so it could be replicated in town after town and country after country.

So, Gladwell is right that the Net by itself doesn’t cause tyrannies to fall. He’s right that activism requires courage and determination. He’s right that we — not all of us, but a group of us that includes me — over-sold the Net in this regard. But he’s picking on what’s now a strawperson, and, more important, his argument pays no heed to the truly important question: How the Net, in a real world in which old institutions aren’t going away so fast, is altering the context within which brave activism occurs, spreads, and has effect.

 


[The next day:] R.A on the Economist site reminds us that hierarchies are fragile while networks are robust and resilient. Good point. Gladwell’s model of political upheaval seems to assume a relatively open society that will tolerate a movement with identifiable leaders. In more repressive regimes, hierarchies are too easy to disrupt.

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September 26, 2010

[2b2k] Decisions, decisions

About two minutes ago I discovered that I was at the end of an EXTREMELY rough first draft of the chapter on decisions. If forced to lay odds, I’d say it’s about 12:1 that I will be doing a major rewrite of it, since I went through it with only a provisional idea of what I was going to say and how I was going to structure it. For example, I believe I may have the structure exactly backwards, and that the long first sections should be dropped or turned into a paragraph or maybe into a cute line drawing of a kitten.

This is the last chapter before the Grand Summation, of which we shall not speak, mainly because it causes formication over all areas of my exposed skin. In the current chapter I am writing about decision making because it is one of two proof points. The previous chapter is about science. Both that one and this one are intended to see if all the jibber jabber about networked knowledge that the reader has slogged through so far actually holds up in areas where we really really have to know what’s right and wrong. So, when we make a decision, does networked knowledge help? What happens when the rubber hits the node, so to speak?

The chapter as it stands begins by spending way too much time on the nature of distributed leadership. I spend page after page talking about Jack Welch as a counterexample (this will almost surely be cut drastically) to make the argument that modern business leaders take integrity as the chief attribute of leaders because organizations are Too Big to Be Led. Since you can’t be sufficiently competent in everything you would need to be, you claim that simply being a truthful, authentic person is enough. Yeah, sure. The fact that the memoirs of successful business leaders are often among the most inauthentic, squirmtastic writings around is just icing on the cake.

Anyway, I then argue that leadership, too, is becoming a property of networks, albeit it unevenly and certainly not in every case. I have a brief case study of the Army’s leadership center at West Point, based mainly on an interview with Lt. Col. Anthony Burgess. (The link is to a piece he wrote up after the interview.) I just don’t know if I’ve successfully sold the reader that an extended discussion of leadership is directly relevant to the topic of networked decision making.

I then make the point that I think I should begin the section with: If you look at decision-making as the isolated moment in which the bit is flipped, then you miss the networking of decision-making that goes on before and after that, even if the organization has no networked decision-making structures in place. Even when the decisions are made by the person at the top, they are made within a network that takes on many of the tasks and properties decision makers shouldered alone. So, the decision may still be a flicking of an leader’s thumb up or down, but that gesture may now occur within a network that has helped inform it, will carry it out, and will support it.

The final section takes a surprising turn for the practical. I was not expecting to end up there, but, when I checked my original outline, sure enough, that was exactly where I thought I’d be. I suppose that’s a good sign. Anyway, this final section’s premise is that to make smart decisions, we need smart networks (not in David Isenberg’s sense!). So, I quickly look at a bunch of properties of networks and loosely tie them to practices that will help make the network smarter than the smartest individuals in them. Nothing you haven’t heard before, which is, of course, a problem.

So, a very very very rough first draft that I may throw out tomorrow. Yay?

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March 13, 2010

[2b2k] Distributed decision-making at Valve

The title of this post is the subtitle of an article in Game Developer (March 2010) by Matthew S. Burns about the production methods used by various leading game developers. (I have no idea why I’ve started receiving copies of this magazine for software engineers in the video game industry, which I’m enjoying despite — because — it’s over my head.) According to the article, Valve — the source of some of the greatest games ever, including Half-life, Portal, and Left4Dead — “works in a cooperative, adaptable way that is difficult to explain to people who are used to the top-down, hierarchical management at most other large game developers.” Valve trusts its employees to make good decisions, but it is not a free-for-all. Decisions are made in consultation with others (“relevant parties”) because, as Erik Johnson says, “…we know you’re going to be wrong more often than if you made decisions together.” In addition, what Matthew calls “a kind of decision market” develops because people who design a system also build it, so you “‘vote’ by spending time on the features most important” to you. Vote with your code.

Valve also believes in making incremental decisions. Week by week. But what does that do to long-term planning? Robin Walker says that one of the ways she (he?) judges how far they are from shipping by “how may pages of notes I’m taking from each session.” That means Valve “can’t plan more than three months out,” but planning out further than that increases the chances of being wrong.

Interesting approach. Interesting article. Great games.

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