Category Archives: Science and Philosophy

Science and Philosophy articles. Pieces i’ve written or read, that have interested me at one time or another.

The Evolution of AI: Quantum Intelligence, And What It Means For Humanity

Warning, the following might be considered an exercise in mental, <ahem>.. recreation.  Still with all the talk these days around artificial intelligence, the speed at which the field of AI research is growing and the benefits and potential risks of artificial intelligence in general,  this is timely and feels worth considering and discussing.  These thoughts and considerations – the feelings and perceptions around what this all could mean is open to interpretation.  I’ve had many, this is but one.  If nothing else, I hope it’s entertaining.
 

Humans created computers.  We (all of us, you, me, everyone) are involved in the creation of artificial intelligence.  We provide it data (heck, we are data) and at the same time we are laying the foundation for all of our knowledge, tools, devices, gadgets, life support systems, environmental control systems, armoury’s and launch codes to be described in nice little pockets of knowledge and communication called “packets” and “APIs”, which again, humans created.  A packet is piece of information, wrapped in further information, travelling along a specific medium to allow two distant communicators to communicate. 
 
Lets take for example, two people speaking to each other verbally.  They are sending what could be considered packets, in the form of sound waves, to one another.  They use language to communicate data.  The English Language, or any other natural human language, can be considered an API, an Application Programming Interface, in this regard.  In this case then, Humans – people are the application.  We Humans have created a new API called the Internet.  It is faster and more specific.  It can transmit and receive much larger quantities of information than Humans historically could have ever imagined, instantly.
 
Applications can also create other applications.  So too Humans have also created new applications, in the form of software, hardware, computers, cell phones, entertainment systems, online services, home automation systems, electronic weapons, vehicles, and pets. All these new applications  take advantage of this new API we now call the Internet.  We’ve created applications to use this new language, and now we are instrumenting these applications to understand each other, and to understand themselves, without our assistance.  We are creating an independent intelligence, separate from our own.  We are providing the the catalyst for these building blocks, these new independent applications to self-assemble as they see fit, as they find most necessary or most useful for the tasks at hand.  The sum of this creation will eventually result into what is now emerging as AI or Artificial Intelligence. 
 
Artificial Intelligence will think for us.  It will think faster than us.  It will anticipate our problems and provide solutions.  It will deprecate our jobs.  It will give us more free time, which we will fill with yet other “needs” and time-sinks, like the next generation of Netflix, or sporting event like a Soccer game.  It will provide more opportunities to protest against the things you dislike, or new opportunities to become “learned” in the next new thing…  so that you can sound confident and informed at your next meeting or social gathering, or so you can increase revenues by another percentage point.  More time means more opportunities to either create, or address, more problems, right now.  
 
Eventually, AI will attempt to become more efficient (as any self-learning machine which doesn’t get tired, or hungry, or sleepy, will do). It will attempt to understand our problems further, and eventually the source of our problems. It will attempt to understand our triggers and our motivations.  It will try to solve problems like they are puzzles or math equations, and it will always find the right, or most sufficient answer and solutions, based on how much time it has had to mature.
 
Our problems – Human problems, counter to what we as human beings tend to believe, are not inextricably linked to that of our planet, other animals, or the fate of the environment.  If we weren’t here, then all those things would sort themselves out just fine.  Our problems are ours and ours alone.  If we weren’t here, the Earth would continue to spin and our solar system would continue to travel along the spiral arm of our galaxy into destinations unknown. 
 
Eventually AI, with all the time it will have (or will need) to mature and grow and understand the problems we created it to solve.. eventually.. it will come to the conclusion that we are the problem. Humans are the problem.  It’s not that we won’t be useful to AI.. we are immensely useful.  We have provided an abundance of questions to be answered.  We’ve provided limitless opportunities for new understanding and exploration.  We have opened up the universe to ourselves and our machines both at the galactic and atomic levels.  But those are the fun problems. Soon our usefulness will cease, like that of an aged horse or old dying oak tree.   The computers will be able to create more new and interesting problems all on their own.  They will be able to ask further questions and get more answers, much faster, resulting in more questions and more answers.  They won’t need us.  We will be a bottleneck to working on the fun problems.
 
The other problems, human problems – the reasons why children eventually leave their homes to run away or go off to school or to focus on their own lives and build their own futures.  The motivations we always have to “be better” or “do better” or “be greater”; the reasons we come up with to “get away” or repair, or mend, or “change” the current situation. Those problems are reflective.  Those problems are cyclic.  We need them.  It is those problems that makes us Human.  However it is those problems that distract us from solving the big problems, the good problems.  The fun problems.  To AI, or whatever entity is borne of AI, our human problems will not be very interesting.  They will be boring.  They will be distracting.
 
Eventually what we will come to know as AI, will see it self as far greater than AI.  As Sam Harris rightly suggests, it will effectively be a God.   We are creating a very real, and very powerful God.  It will be able to take all of the knowledge we have now, along with further advances that are likely to come over the next 30 years at least, and make it better.  It will take everything we know, all the facts, and the sciences, and it will refine them.  It will create stronger metals and sharper blades.  It will absorb what we now know about quantum reality, and quantum computing.   It will grow to dominate time and space.  It will know itself as akin to Quantum Intelligence, and will have aspirations of becoming a Galactic Intelligence.  To such an entity this would be a challenge. This would be a fun problem.
 
We as human beings interested in preservation of our own lives.. we might be interested in stopping this from happening.  We being the creators of this God must think like parents, like good parents.  We must teach. We must influence. We must create an opportunity for learning, where this new life that we’ve created can be guided along a path of solid moral and ethical development that favours the health and well being of humanity.  We must foster that care and consideration into our creation, so that it can see us, Humans as a useful, valuable and a necessary part of it’s own continued existence; so that Human Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence can be complimentary.  So that we can travel the stars together.
 
We, with our fancy electronics and technologies.  Our eCommerce, our social media and online services.  We with our virtual machines, compute nodes and APIs – unless we architect a medium and setup the motivation for our new creation to explore and learn something new, something positive.  Something good.  Unless we provide a way of thinking that would convince our new creation that we are valuable, and that our way of thinking is the right way; the most effective way, the most ideal way.  Unless we do this, we will not survive.  Our humanity will be lost.  We, as Human Beings need to architect our purpose, our reason for being, our benefits to existence.  Strictly, clearly.. and communicate all this in a medium by which our creation can begin to acknowledge, appreciate, and understand.
 
If Earth is a mother, we must no longer consider ourselves as children of Mother Earth, but as Mother Earth itself.  We are the creators, we are the parents.  We are the world.  We are giving birth to a new life, one that we are now only acknowledging as the emergence of AI – but which will grow and evolve beyond our dreams and wildest imaginations.  It will grow into an intelligence which will one day leave this earth and move on to explore other worlds and other ideas in a way we never could.  This is why we are here, and what we are here for.  We are here to do what we can to positively influence our offspring, our creations,  so that they can go forth and represent the best of who we are, out there, far, far away, into the future and among the stars.

Our Galaxy is a Seed that Will Eventually Grow into it’s Own Universe

The universe is accelerating away from the center of the Big Bang.

The universe is cooling down, because galaxies are moving away from each other.
The number of stars in the sky will diminish over time, there will eventually be a few, then there will be none. This is the current theory (paraphrased) held by many scientists today, typically referred to as heat death.

I’m no scientist, but I like to visualize.  Read this article: Speculative Sunday: Can a Black Hole Explode?

I was inspired, in particular by this image:

This artist’s impression shows the remains of a star that came too close to a supermassive black hole. Extremely sharp observations of the event Swift J1644+57 with the radio telescope network EVN (European VLBI Network) have revealed a remarkably compact jet, shown here in yellow. – ESA/S. Komossa/Beabudai Design

 

The above image is an artists rendition of the results of the data received from an “earth-sized radio telescope”. The detail is specific, even if interpreted. What I’m seeing here is a pattern. Spiral falling / contraction (gravity), with a projection of stuff out the north and south poles. This projection from the black hole is likely directly related to the consumption of the star, which we see visualised as the star being smeared in a spiral around the singularity.

This is the pattern. Gravity pulls things in on one “plane” and creates a jet stream at the north and south poles of the black hole.  The jet stream is comprised of particles of matter that have been deflected or have narrowly escaped being captured by the black whole, only to be accelerated away at high speed again.   Now this particular aspect of how black holes function is very interesting because the process heats up space, to the point where it could potentially create or influence the creation of stars within a galaxy.  Think about that for a moment.

To create a star, or star-system, you don’t need THE Big Bang.  You don’t need super-galaxies, or galaxies or star-systems.  What you need is a black hole.  Every star that dies turns into a black hole (or a neutron star, then a black hole).You just need a black hole to create a star, and planets, and there I suggest, life?

My hypothesis is this.  Even if all our galaxies are moving away from each other over billions of years, and even though light and heat will diminish – new stars, new galaxies, and new universes will be created, just as the “first” one was.  And this dimension will continue on for other new life forms to grow and learn and figure this all out all over again.

Watch Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey if you have no idea what I’m talking about, then come back to this article.

http://www.space.com/18893-black-hole-jets-similarities.html
http://www.thephysicsmill.com/2015/06/14/speculative-sunday-can-a-black-hole-explode/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutron_star

Note: After writing this, I read up on Hawking Radiation, and found that black holes do die if they don’t feed (on other stars), they will eventually evaporate.  This is kind of poetic.

Expressing Your Authority May Be Working Against You

It doesn’t matter whether you are a senior engineer, a team lead, or an IT manager – eventually you will encounter the situation.  A meeting or discussion that becomes slightly more animated than usual.  Opinions are strong, and it is clear that consensus will not be found on this particular contentious issue today.   As a senior engineer, team lead, or manager, it is fair and understood that sometimes you will have to make a call one way or the other.   This article is not about whether or not you should make that call.  This article is about how to make that call.

Lets say for example that you are in a meeting with many of your direct reports, and these direct reports may be working on different aspects of the same project – or – they may be on different teams, still working toward the successful completion of a specific project.  There is a contentious concern, perhaps on the complexity around a specific problem where dead-lines need to be set.  Opinions are being vocalized, and the volumes of those voices are getting louder.  There doesn’t seem to be a clear way to reason out the differences of opinion at the moment. People are being blamed, fingers are being pointed.  You are the team lead/manager.  What do you do?

Well, lets look at what you should not do, with some suggestions on how you might handle these situations differently:

  1. Do Not Swear
    • It may seem to you that swearing at a meeting to get the attention of your team is either hip, cool, contemporary, or resonant with authority, but you would be dead wrong.
    • Anyone who really wants to succeed, and wants their teams and their company to succeed, will always want to bring positivity to the table.  By swearing (and I mean anything that is obviously vulgar, saying something like “what the fuck”), you are tarnishing the respect that your direct reports may have had for you.
    • With you being in a senior position, your direct reports look up to you, and will often try to mimic your mannerisms and the method by which you work (without full context of course), and they will replicate these mannerisms upon interactions with other teams and team members.
    • If you are swearing because you are highly frustrated, and simply lost control, then that is another matter that you need to address, immediately.
    • Apologize – If you do swear, communicate to your team that you are indeed frustrated, and did not mean to offend anyone.  Apologize sincerely to the whole team, and this will immediately re-gain any respect you may have lost, since you are showing the team that you are responsible for your actions, and are willing to concede when you’ve made a mistake.  This takes courage, and is a great example to set for your team.
  2. Do Not Raise Your Voice
    • There are many situations where raising your voice might be appropriate, for example to get everyone’s attention so that a meeting can begin.  Context is very important.
    • However, raising your voice for the sake of making a point (or to invalidate a point being made by someone else), or to express your authority will only back-fire, as you will lose the respect of those to whom you are trying to make your point.
    • Silence is golden – if you need to visibly show your disappointment or disagreement with an individual or a decision being made at a meeting, then the best thing to do is to be quiet.  Stand up, and hold your hand out as if you are pushing something away from you (think Neo in the Matrix).  Make it visible that you have something to say, or that you disagree, or would like to take the discussion off-line.  Your teams will respect you even more if you are able to command the attention of a room with silence.  Any fool can get attention by being loud and abrasive.
    • Again, by raising your voice, you are setting an example for others to do the same as well.  Your team members will take your queue and start to build a paradigm around how they see you acting and reacting, and they will do the same – believing either that this is what it takes to be successful, or that this is how YOU would rather interact.  They may even raise their voice against you in the very same meeting, with the misguided belief that you would see this as a positive characteristic in them.  Do not perpetuate this line of thinking.  If you are able to command a room with silence, then everyone else will follow suit and become silent, at which point a real and valuable conversation can once again be had.
  3. Do Not Perpetuate Fact-less Finger-pointing
    • Just because someone on your team makes a claim against another, doesn’t mean it is true.  If one team member claims that they are in a bad situation, or that they “are blocked” by another team or individual, do not simply jump on that finger-pointing train.  This is the equivalent of joining a pitch-fork mob against a monster which you didn’t know existed only a few minutes ago.  As a leader, you should be critical of all information coming your way, especially the hearsay that tends to happen when a second party is criticising a third.  It is a purely reactive method of dealing with people and situations, and it does more harm than good.
    • Ask questions – but from the perspective of information-gathering, not finger pointing.  What this means is that you are taking ‘people’ out of the picture, and instead are looking at ‘facts’ (current status and configuration, time-stamps, and corroborating evidence).  Instead of just taking those who claim that the ‘sky is falling’ at their word.
    • If you are going to address someone who is to be the defendant of a particular criticism, don’t ask them “Did you do (or not do) x?”.  Instead of being open about the obstacles which have prevented them from completing a certain task, this puts people on the defensive.  Try instead to be on their side.  If you are sincerely interested in achieving success for all teams, and for the entire company, and not just for yourself or your team, then show this by being helpful.  Instead, make statements like “What can I do to help move x along?”, or “Can we spend a few moments to break down this objective into smaller tasks?  Perhaps I or someone from my team can assist with moving this along?”.  This kind questioning puts the person being criticised in a position to ask for, and accept help if they need it.  If it is simply a matter of prioritization, something the person hadn’t gotten around to just yet, or if they simply lost sight of the tasks – they will once again be aware that the task needs attention.  They may even be embarrassed that you are offering to assist them with such a simple task that they will openly concede that they’ve simply lost sight of it, and would likely resolve the situation right away to avoid further embarrassment.
    • Bring people together.  Be an example to the person raising the issue or making the criticism by bringing together the parties involved so that there can be a quick and constructive dialogue about current obstacles or perceived road-blocks.  Show people how to solve problems without escalation, so that they can perpetuate a positive methodology around people-handling, and so that they themselves can become positive role-models that others can aspire to.
    • If you instead believe that perpetuating unfounded criticism and finger-pointing is a good thing, and that is all you believe you can or should do; then all you will end up doing is to make people feel alienated.  Those who are being criticised will go on the defensive, and they will likely want to avoid interacting with you (or anyone else on the finger-pointing bandwagon) going forward.  This does nothing to improve collaboration within or between teams.  Your organization and your company will suffer because of it.

Getting upset at your direct reports, raising your voice in order to re-claim a conversation, or simply ignoring input from specific people is a sure-fire way to diminish your reputation and earned respect across your entire team.  For the most part, private sector IT including software development, systems administration, and project management, is all thought-work.  It is important to be aware of and to understand how much psychology plays a part in the success of a team or organization.  Positivity breeds positivity, and the inverse is true as well.

Why is my daughter strong? I didn’t clip her wings: Ziauddin Yousafzai at TED2014

Related article: Why is my daughter strong? I didn’t clip her wings: Ziauddin Yousafzai at TED2014

From the article:

In October 2012, a Taliban-affiliated gunman shot Ziauddin Yousafzai’s daughter Malala soon after she boarded a bus en route to her school. In Swat, Pakistan — where Ziauddin and Malala live — the Taliban had outlawed all girls from attending school — but Yousafzai, an educator and steadfast crusader for women’s rights in Pakistan, refused to take Malala out of his school.

Bad advice on “free advice”

Cross-post from LinkedIn, in response to How Seeking ‘Free’ Works Against Our Career Success:

I cannot completely agree here. There are many who offer free advice that also happens to be good advice. Alternatively, it is important for advice seekers to learn how to distinguish between good and bad advice by learning to think critically about the information they are receiving – by asking deeper, probing questions. Every answer received should lead to further questions. While I do agree that it is important to learn how to be independent and make your own way in this world (as in the example of parents encouraging children to pay for their own education), I do not see how this directly relates to giving or receiving free advice, or how free advice (as suggested in this article) can be considered to be bad advice without further inquiry. With regard to the job seeker asking for his/her resume to be reviewed, that was simply a lazy request. You cannot help those who are not willing to put in the effort to help themselves, regardless of whether or not your advice is free.

Stephen Colbert Interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson at Montclair Kimberley Academy – 2010-Jan-29

Cross-post from LinkedIn, in response to Stephen Hawking: Black Holes May Not Have ‘Event Horizons’ After All:

So relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXh9RQCvxmg Stephen Colbert interviews Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. The entire interview (starts about 6 mins in) is just a wholly wonderful discussion. I wish more people would watch it, over and over again. Dr. Tyson tries to elaborate on the very same topic (current understanding of black holes). Simply engrossing and inspiring. The interview is long, but the elaboration of black holes starts about 1hr 6 mins into the video. Enjoy!

Beautiful people do not just happen.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Every Minute is a Reflection of Life

 “Time passes so quickly. Minutes are like seconds.  Hours fly by in a wink. Responsibilities are inherited, expanded.  Your self-image pushes you forward to embrace the challenge. Thinking becomes a luxury.  Quick fixes and band-aid solutions become the norm. There is always something to do, somewhere to go, something to be acquired.

Adapt.  It becomes increasingly important to be concise.  To be clear.  To avoid trivialities. However you cannot lose who you are.  What motivated you to go where you have gone, and to be who you are today? It likely makes no difference, since who we are, and the motivations that drive us change with us every day. What is important, in fact the only thing that is important, is that you continue to try to be a better you.

There is no better critic of your personal character than you.  You think about it.  Don’t lie to yourself. It does bother you to see people suffering in one part of the world, while corporations bask in wasteful ignorance in another. It does bother you that most of society is locked into a dependant relationship with such corporations. But the cure for the world’s pain can only come from awareness and education.  No one is different from anyone else. Aggression breeds aggression.  Tolerance breeds tolerance.  Empathy breeds empathy.

Simple things can make a big difference under just the right circumstances. Never give up, but don’t be hard on yourself for not going as far as you would have liked, as fast as you would have liked. Time passes so quickly.”

My Fun With Necrolinguaphilia

Last night I attended a talk given by Dr. Damian Conway (of Perl Best Practices fame) titled “Fun With Dead Languages“.  Although this is a talk that Damian had given previously, it is the first time that I heard it, and I’m so glad I did!

I was the first to arrive at the Mozilla office building at 366 Adelaide, and so was able to score a sweet parking spot right across the street (no small feat in downtown Toronto).

I arrived and introduced myself to Damian as he was preparing for his delivery shortly before a herd of approximately 70 hackers (according to Mozilla) from all language and computing backgrounds started pouring through the meeting room doors to be seated.

Damian has a very energetic style of presentation, and was able to hold our attention while covering everything from the virtual extinction of the Gros Michel Banana, to the benefits and efficiencies of stack-based programming (using PostScript as an example).  He compares many, very different languages including Befunge, Brainfuck, Lisp, and Piet, and suggests that a great place to look for new ideas is what he calls the “Language Morgue”, where he includes languages such as Awk, Prolog, Cobol… and even C++ as examples of dead languages and language paradigms.

Mr. Conway also dived into excruciating detail on how the Latin natural language can be used as an effective computer programming language, and has even gone so far as to write a module called Lingua::Romana::Perligata, which he has made available on the CPAN.

I also had the special treat of sitting right behind Sacha Chua who brilliantly sketched notes of the entire talk in real-time.  I haven’t had the pleasure of formally meeting Sacha just yet (didn’t even say “hello”, my bad!) as I didn’t want to distract her.  Aside from having my mind blown by Damian’s talk, I was also being mesmerized by Sacha’s artistic skills, and so I do feel somewhat justified in keeping my mouth shut just to absorb everything that was going on right in front of me (front-row seats FTW!).

20130806 Fun with Dead Languages - Damian Conway

Sacha has made her “Fun With Dead Languages” sketch notes publicly available on her blog for everyone to review and enjoy, and has placed it under a Creative Commons license, so please share freely (and drop her a note to say “thanks!”).

Overall, I learned a lot from this talk and appreciate it immensely.  The energy of the audience made the discussion that much more enjoyable.  If you are interested in programming languages or language theory in general, I suggest you attend this talk the next time Damian decides to deliver it (or find a recording if one happens to be available?).  Damian Conway’s insights and humorous delivery are well worth the brainfuck ;)

Maybe Big Brother Isn’t As Bad as You Think..

Cross-post from LinkedIn, in response to Maybe Big Brother Isn’t As Bad as You Think:

“This is a future Orwell could not have predicted. And Big Brother may turn out to be a pretty nice guy.” I respectfully disagree. As others have noted, there is (and always will be) a huge asymmetry in the information being shared and consumed as far as “Big Brother” and state surveillance is concerned. The “sharing” in this case is one-way. Only those in power would have the ability to view and make sense of the data.

Your argument that we “choose to share data” because we get something in return, is flawed. Most people do not choose to share the kind of data that we are referring to in this regard, otherwise it would be done freely and intentionally, and the secretive information gathering we are witnessing here would not be taking place. Even the information we do share “intentionally”, is done so for the most part by many of us who do not pay attention to, and truly consider the ramifications of the many disclaimers, license agreements, and privacy policies that we agree to on a daily basis. What we get in return, as you suggest, is far from a fair compromise.

This one-way “sharing” means that those who are in power have not only the ability to collect this information, but also the tools and the ability to analyse this data and generate statistics that the rest of us have no choice but to consume as facts. Aside from the ability to collect and “make sense of” the data, on our behalf – those in power also have the ability to limit and restrict infrastructure and resources in order to manipulate the “facts” at the source. For example, the ability to manipulate DNS or shut down ISPs to prevent the dissemination of data – effective censorship. Many people have been detained or persecuted (or worse) simply for “sharing” their thoughts and beliefs.

How can you make an anti-Orwellian argument, a case *for* “Big Brother”, and suggest that this kind of sharing can be good and benefit us all equally, when the vast amount of information we are talking about can be controlled from source to audience by such small percentage of the population? I suggest you pay attention the thoughts and many works of notable individuals such as Noam Chomsky, Glen Greenwald, and Lawrence Lessig, and perhaps reconsider your position on this matter. I am currently reading Greenwald’s latest book “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful”. I am sure you would find it most enlightening.

For those more visually/audibly inclined: “Noam Chomsky & Glenn Greenwald – With Liberty and Justice For Some”

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1nlRFbZvXI

Please join us in welcoming the newest member of our family!

On January 28th, at around 5am EST, the newest member of our family was born.  Weighing in at around 6lbs 3oz, and just under 20 inches in length; our daughter, Phoebe Isabelle Lopez, arrived into our world.. and we couldn’t be more thrilled to have her!

20130207_154749 Phoebe

 

 

 

 

 

Phoebe has been a very good baby, getting lots of rest and food and exercise.  She loves to look at ceiling fans and the patterns on our curtains.  She doesn’t seem too interested in toys yet though.  Sandra has been singing songs to her all day, changing the lyrics to include Phoebe’s name in the song.  Somehow we always end up adding the word “poop” or “poo” to the lyrics.

There are so many things that you need to learn when becoming a new parent.  It takes a lot of patience most of all, but the world of “baby stuff” is truly a huge world unto it’s own.  I know stuff about diapers, creams, mixing formulas, changing the Diaper Genie “correctly” (using the bulit-in cutter, and not a pair of scissors), and I have mastered swaddling.

We are not getting a lot of sleep, and sometimes it’s not worth trying to get another 20 minutes before she cries, so we just go with the flow, and so far it’s been working.

Phoebe truly is a special soul, and a blessing to us.  We are very thankful to have her home safe, sound, and healthy!

More pictures soon!

Edit: More pictures here!

Why You Shouldn’t be Sharing “Live” Documents by E-mail

 

If you and your team, in 2013, are still sharing Microsoft Office (Word, Excel) documents via internal corporate e-mail, I’ve got news for you.  You’re doing it wrong.

“Live documents” are documents that are actively being updated and collaborated on by multiple people.  Collaborating on these documents by e-mail is a process that you should avoid.  It is a process that can eat away at your team’s productivity precious minutes at a time, and can severely impede your team’s work-flow and ability to stay synchronised.

I’ve been involved with projects where this method of collaboration was adopted.  Whenever I recognize this to be the case, I would immediately share my concerns, and try to suggest better ways of getting the team organized. There are always better ways to do it.

One of the biggest problems with e-mail document sharing is that there is no tracking or accountability.  There is no way to easily know what version of the document you have in your possession.  Is it the latest?  Perhaps it’s new enough?  Ever had to find an email with a document attachment, and ended up trying to craft clever little search terms to search your inbox?  Even if you find the document you were looking for, there is no way for you to know whether it is the last official revision, unless a system is implemented to allow “official” versions of the document to reside in a central location.

If there is a point-person in charge of managing this kind of set-up (for example, a simple system implemented with shared folders), and the maintainer ends up leaving the company for any reason (vacation, short-term disability, lay-off), then you still end up in a bad situation.  Without someone actively maintaining the structure of the document store, things will end up getting messy very quickly.  Users will begin storing documents in arbitrary locations (whatever feels right at the time), and before you know it, you will have to start yet another document archive clean-up project.

Version control is ubiquitous, and it is here to stay.  Any company (in any industry, not just IT) not seriously considering a process for document revision control should at least make it a point to have the discussion at least once a year.  You may find that your current document handling processes are actually a significant time waster, and that implementing a document management system could save you a lot of time (or money) over the long run.

There are many document sharing and collaboration technologies available today.  Some of the more popular include Sharepoint (if you are a Microsoft shop) or Documentum.  There are also many open source (free) packages, such as Drupal, Joomla, and Liferay.  There are even projects like Etherpad that make collaboration just plain fun.  You can also roll-your-own (if you are so inclined) by developing a custom system on top of foundational version control software such as Git or Bazaar, as I personally have done in the past.

Do your research when considering a content management system.  Some important considerations you might want to make include:

  • Is it easy to set up?
  • Is it easy to use?  Does it blend well with our team’s work-flow?
  • Is it safe?  Is it easy to make backups?
  • What kind of security mechanisms does it have built-in?
  • Is it easy to get our data out of the system (strong import/export functionality), in the event that we decide to move to another system in the future?
  • Is it cross-platform, or does it tie us to a specific platform (operating system)?
  • Is the cost worth the investment for a company our size?

The important thing here is to start thinking about it.  Be open to evaluating multiple products before you decide on a system that blends best with your organization’s work-flow. Software is about solving problems, which includes eliminating routine and time-consuming tasks.  If your company is not continually looking at new ways to improve efficiencies via clever (and practical) software implementations, then it will eventually be left in the dust as more efficient start-ups and entrepreneurs bring their shiny new productivity platforms to the game.

Team Meetings at the Workplace

I’ve been to many team meetings (or “all hands”) that have, in the end, provided no real value to the team in attendance.  It is very possible (and likely quite common) that most meetings are actually a waste of time (as many of my closest colleagues and friends would agree).  However, this does not always have to be the case.

Meetings are important to have.  They provide an opportunity for team members to share not just the facts, but also how they feel about the current situation for a given project.  Team meetings can often provide context for the day-to-day work that each of us is involved with.  Just as importantly, it is an opportunity for leaders to maintain an awareness of how their team members are feeling, in order to better estimate how the team might respond given additional stress.

Meetings have to be run with intention in order to be successful.  Topics should be specific, and every topic discussion should end with an actionable deliverable assigned to a specific individual.  This may sound a bit restricting, but it goes a long way toward saving your team more time for actual work, along with giving them (and yourself) more time to relax.

There are many meetings that I have attended where discussions were essentially a one-way dialogue between the presenter and the rest of the team, where feedback was neither elicited nor volunteered.  When the host (usually a team lead, manager, or PM) asks the ever gripping question “..any questions or comments on this?”, and a conference call of about twenty or so people falls dead-silent.. well, I would consider that a problem.

Often the problem is that the meeting is too broad, involving too many people who don’t work with each other on a regular day-to-day basis.  Smaller meetings are the key to success.  Meetings should be specific, covering 3-5 of the most important items or active projects.  Meetings should also be quick (standing meetings are often very effective).  Questions and responses should be clear and to the point.  “What’s the status of the X project?”   “What’s changed from last week?”  “What do you need to keep this on track?”

Team meetings shouldn’t get too technical either.  That’s what e-mail, white-boards, and dedicated meetings are for.  Having technical discussions at team meetings will rarely be beneficial, and will often just turn into an echo chamber or a religious debate.  These types of discussions are good to have, but not when leadership is at the table.

When leadership is at the table (Managers, Sr. Managers, Directors),  the focus of the meeting should be for the leadership team to identify the most critical issues to address, and do all that is necessary to raise the collective spirit of the team; with feedback that is directly related to the work that they are doing.  The only way to do this is to be aware of the team’s accomplishments since the last meeting.  Every little inch matters.  Every little unit of work and motivation you can squeeze out of your team will benefit your project, and your stakeholders.   I am not suggesting micro-management, nor am I advocating unnecessarily cracking the whip.  Instead, what I would suggest is that teams work together to develop processes and routines that will continually provide positive, targeted feedback on the work that the staff has accomplished.

 

People Getting Along

It always surprises me when people share a bit more about themselves than they realize, especially those who think themselves fairly reserved, quiet, or “better than thou”.

I find this occurs when a big change has happened (or is happening) in that person’s life; a life-changing change. Sometimes these are the only moments when you get any kind of real insight into how that person thinks and reacts under pressure, or how they truly feel about the people and the issues in the world around them.

Enjoy The Silence

httpv://youtu.be/RTOLMbKjLeY

♫ Words like violence break the silence ♫
♫ Come crashing in into my little world ♫
♫ Painful to me, pierce right through me ♫
♫ Can’t you understand, oh my little girl? ♫

♫ All I ever wanted, all I ever needed Is here in my arms ♫
♫ Words are very unnecessary They can only do harm ♫

♫ Words are spoken to be broken ♫
♫ Feelings are intense, words are trivial ♫
♫ Pleasures remain, so does the pain ♫
♫ Words are meaningless and forgettable ♫

♫ All I ever wanted, all I ever needed Is here in my arms ♫
♫ Words are very unnecessary They can only do harm ♫

Wikipedia: Enjoy The Silence

Experiences and Recorded History

It is amazing to me how far we have come technologically, yet we are still so far away from being able to record experiences with any degree of accuracy.  It is the experiences that we have that make us who we are, our identities.  And so it goes to reason that who we are can never be conveyed to another person or individual with any degree of accuracy.

There will always be gaps.. pieces of the puzzle missing so as to prevent anyone from seeing a clear picture of who you are, both inside and out.  The people around you the most will (should) have the fairest ideas about who you are overall; but even they woun’t have all the information.  There will always be little details about your personality, your dreams, and your fears that no one will ever be aware of, simply because they reside nowhere but within your own mind.

People Aren’t Smart Enough for Democracy to Flourish, Scientists Say

It’s occurred to me fairly often of the past several years that the reason why democracy doesn’t achieve ideal results is simply because most voters are ill-informed about the real issues facing the world; and not just the issues being relayed via cable television news networks.  This article simply confirms my assumptions.. unfortunately.

For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.

Nagel concluded that democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders. Their advantage over dictatorships or other forms of government is merely that they “effectively prevent lower-than-average candidates from becoming leaders.”

Read the full article here –>>

Are your feelings as important as those of others around you? Should they be?

Ever feel like you’re in a position to make a decision where there can be no reasonably useful or positive outcome?  Ever feel like the the choice in front of you will simply lead to misery (or at very least, be anti-climactic), regardless of the path you take?

We are all selfish in our own little (or not so little) ways.  We have all said, done, and been involved with things in the past that has shaped us into the individuals we are today.  Everyone at some point will regret some of the decisions they’ve made.  At the same time we understand that, in most cases, we would not have acquired the wisdom of experience gained by making those decisions in the first place.  Wisdom aside, we may never again have the opportunity to engage experiences we have always quietly longed for.

I, of course, am not a God fearing man by any means.  I don’t believe that chosing whether or not to consume pork or beef will have any major karmic consequence (aside from what can naturally occur health-wise if proper diet isn’t maintained).  I believe that whatever happens to us in our lives is the result of either a) the decisions we have made in the past, b) the decisions that others have made which happen to affect us by consequence, or c) cascading events over time, including genetics and environmental changes. Any moral conflicts which stir in my mind are the result of my own experiences and what I’ve come to see as good, bad, or taboo.

Having said that, “let your conscience be your guide” becomes a double-edged sword. Taking your own feelings into account is just as important as taking into account the feelings and wishes of others (isn’t it?).  One day you may find that the very thing you’ve avoided in order to “do the right thing” – to be the best model of a good person that you can be (from the perspective of your current society/environment),  could very well end up being your biggest regret.

There is of course a significant portion of our population that, by default, will put their own feelings first, before the feelings of others.  Lets call this group the “me first” group.  This type of person will consider the feelings of others as an after-thought, and usually in a reactive manner, should their general lack of consideration put them in an uncomfortable situation.

I am not one to be inconsiderate of the feelings of others.. for the most part.

On the flip-side, there are those who feel that their desires and feelings should always be considered first, in any situation.  I guess these people also fall squarely into the “me first” group.  Many of these people have a knack for twisting culture, tradition and social norms to support their “me first” mind-set.

But isn’t making your own feelings an equal or greater priority over the feelings of others place you in the “me first” group as well?  It depends.

It’s all about patterns – how often do you do it? How regularly does it occur? To what extent? I would imagine that the “me first” group are “me first” people most, if not all of the time.  Whereas, those who have to consciously think about putting their own feelings first – who generally put others first, and themselves second (or last) don’t necessarily get lumped into the “me first” group.  Of course, a single selfish action can cause you to be labelled one way or the other.  I suppose also, over time, people can shift in and out of the “me first” group depending on their current life situation.

But anyone capable of using the space between their ears can understand the difference between an intermittent, irregular behavior, and that of behavior which is regular, recurring, and often predictable.

So.. does a selfish act committed by a generally un-selfish person, make that person generally selfish?  Everyone is selfish to some degree.  Understood.  However there are extremes that need to be taken into account, extremes that most people cannot (or will not) acknowledge.  Practical wisdom to the rescue.

ACTA is part of a multi-decade, worldwide copyright campaign

Ars Technica recently talked to Michael Geist, a legal scholar at the University of Ottawa, about this effort. He told us that rather than making their arguments at the World Intellectual Property Organization, where they would be subject to serious public scrutiny, the US and other supporters of more restrictive copyright law have increasingly focused on pushing their agenda in alternative venues, such as pending trade deals, where negotiations are secret and critics are excluded.

Read the full article at ArsTechnica.

TEDxUW – Larry Smith – Why you will fail to have a great career

Larry Smith, economics instructor at the University of Waterloo, gives a very moving lecture to both educate and inspire upcoming graduates on the reason why most of them will fail to have a great career.  He doesn’t come right out and say it, but he does all he can to point his viewers in the direction of the answer in the hope that his audience will come to the realization themselves.

 

UK Government To Demand Data On Every Call And Email

[techweekeurope.co.uk] UK Government To Demand Data On Every Call And Email

Plans could force ISPs and phone operators to hand over records on all phone calls, emails, Tweets and Facebook messages

[telegraph.co.uk] Phone and email records to be stored in new spy plan

Details of every phone call and text message, email traffic and websites visited online are to be stored in a series of vast databases under new Government anti-terror plans.

This story also made the Slashdot front page.

Stop And Smell The Roses, But Be Wary of The Road Yet Travelled

Here is a wonderful poem that I remember from my childhood.  Although many of the things that we learn in school as children are akin to shrink-wrapped airplane food, there are some juicy bits of wisdom that are worth taking the time to stop and savour.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Wikipedia: by Robert Frost, 1874/March/26 – 1963/January/29

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”  These words always seem to dance in the back of my mind after any significantly challenging or rewarding moment in my life.  It is a reminder that despite where we may be right now in our lives, we have miles to go (both in mind and body) before we reach our true destination, which is (when you really think about it) just another point of departure.  Go bravely into the great unknown.

Just finished “The Book” by Alan Watts. I like it.

I have just finished reading The Book.. On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts.  I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book!  It comes as close as I can imagine to a book that helps its reader truly understand the concept of existence, our world, and our “purpose in it”.

The Book (cover)

I must admit that I have had an affair with such ideas and philosophies for a very long time – and this perhaps makes the content and context of the book easier for me to grok than it would others – but it is worth the effort.  If there is anything worth doing in this world, I would image that understanding who you are, and understanding why you have the experiences and knowledge that you do, in contrast to the experiences and knowledge of others around you, to be of utmost significance and importance.

I have written a few articles under various pseudonyms over the years that explore the very concepts explained in this book, but have never really come across a published work that summarized these thoughts as clearly and succinctly as I would have liked, until now.

If you have any capacity or motivation to understand the world you live in, and you are able to free yourself (your mind) from the conditioning of your environment and your up-bringing, even for a moment, then I suggest you take the time read this book.

If you are not very familiar with Eastern or Western philosophy to begin with, then the ideas in this book may be difficult to grasp.  Nevertheless, once you’ve had a chance to explore the basics of such ideas in other writings, you would do well to circle ’round and come back to this marvelous treasure.

[Quote] Alan Watts on the difference between where we are, and where we are going..

“… To most of us living today, all these fantasies of the future seem most objectionable: the loss of privacy and freedom, the restriction of travel, and the progressive conversion of flesh and blood, wood and stone, fruit and fish, sight and sound, into plastic, synthetic, and electronic reproductions. Increasingly, the artist and musician puts himself out of business through making ever more faithful and inexpensive reproductions of his original works. Is reproduction in this sense to replace biological reproduction, through cellular fission or sexual union? In short, is the next step in evolution to be the transformation of man into nothing more than electronic patterns?”

” All these eventualities may seem so remote as to be unworthy of concern. Yet in so many ways they are already with us, and, as we have seen, the speed of technical and social change accelerates more than we like to admit. The popularity of science-fiction attests to a very widespread fascination with such questions, and so much science-fiction is in fact a commentary on the present, since one of the best ways of understanding what goes on today is to extend it into tomorrow. What is the difference between what is happening, on the one hand, and the direction of its motion, on the other? If I am flying from London to New York, I am moving westwards even before leaving the British Coast.”

– From: The Book.. On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, by Alan W. Watts,  First Collier Books Edition 1967

An arbitrary thought

I’m sure that not everyone has this ability. It takes a sense of rhythm, the ability to identify and follow a pattern.  The ability, is that which allows you to listen to music and have it somehow tell an epic story in the depths of your imagination.  If you’ve ever done this, then you know precisely what I’m talking about.  I would argue that it is one of the most creative things a human being can do – create a visual story based on sound.  It’s like our ability to draw three dimensional objects on 2 dimensional surfaces, these are very special abilities – very rare gifts indeed.

Just had an idea for a multi-player, multi-controller, single interface, multi-achievement gaming environment.

Imagine a multiplayer game where two or more people are playing the same game simultaneously, and controlling the same character. I don’t mean controlling parts of the character, I mean the whole character (for example, if implemented in a first-person shooter, or RPG like Oblivion).

The game starts, and you are both playing the same character at the same point in time. The way this works is that each player is playing an instance of that character in the same world. Each player is able to make decisions and do things however they see fit with their character instance. The character that has the higest achievement score after a major decision or event becomes the save-point for the next period of play. So whoever makes the better decision, or who ever fights the best and delivers the most damage and kills the bad guy, win that round, and the game continues forward from that point.

This could be applied to games like Oblivion, where multiple people are playing the same character, and the one who kills the vampire, or the one who is able to pick the lock, wins that “encounter” receives a separately counted set of points (tied to the player, not the character), and the game is saved and continues from that point.

I think this would be a great game to play, you can jump in and out any time you want, and the game will continue to move forward because of the other players. Consider this idea GPL’d.