Friday, October 26, 2012

The Useless Machine is Useful!

Three years ago, the most useless machine - ever! - was introduced on YouTube.

I wondered many times how to write a coherent article about this, and I came to the conclusion that there is really no coherence to this machine.  That's the intrigue and beauty of it.

The following are simply things that came to mind. 

Playing peekaboo

I played with a friend's baby by coming close to her with my iPhone and making the requisite silly face and sounds.  She reached for my iPhone, then swung it down.  Come closer, reach for it, swing it down.  Our peekaboo game went on forever, and her delight was unending.  

Here's the video I took with said iPhone.

Maybe that's why this machine has had over 8 million views.  It harkens to a time in our lives, which we don't remember, when games were nonsense yet we played them for hours.

So it may be useless, but it's downright fun.

Reflecting on Sisyphus 

Imagine a steep hill, where you are tasked with rolling up a heavy boulder.  You get to the top, thinking it's a landing, and pause.  But that boulder rolls back down with accelerating speed.  It is your mandate to go back down, and roll it up again.  In fact, it is your fate that you undertake this labor forever, because the boulder will only roll back down again from the top.         

This is about Sisyphus, who was a king in Greek mythology, and was punished by the gods with a seemingly meaningless, unrelentingly task.  Albert Camus drew on this myth to advance his philosophy about the absurdity of life. 

This machine undoes the very thing we do.  Martin Seligman called it learned helplessness, a psychological state we come to, if our efforts repeatedly have no impact. It's a sad commentary, isn't it, if any of us is relegated to living a life like this.

So it's not only useless but also demoralizing.  

Dealing with politics

How about this?

The mind behind this calls it political machines, and adds "This is a visual metaphor of your hard-earned tax dollars at work." If this reminds you of President Obama and Governor Romney debating one another, ahead of the big elections, then it's a perfect metaphor indeed.  Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, like a filibuster.

But you see the block of wood eventually slips off.  May we conclude, then, that conflict between people inevitably breaks down and thus paves the way for resolution? 

So it's useless, but not useless indefinitely. 

Thinking about jidoka

Jidoka essentially is a feature or function that stops a manufacturing process, if something goes wrong.  It's used in the Toyota Production System, and it prevents a problem from snowballing down the line and becoming bigger and unmanageable.

For decades it has been a preoccupation of researchers, professors and consultants:  How to deal with human fallibility in manufacturing or essentially in any endeavor.  But imagine engineering like this machine.  Common mistakes can be corrected right away.  Safety risks can be prevented.  Innate flaws can be controlled for.

So it's positively useful, after all.

Making a business

His name is Brett Coulthard, and a year after that first video he incorporated a company called The Frivolous Engineering Company.  Apparently the dude's been making a variety of these puppies and selling them like a doggie couple taking fertility pills!      

Here I am, a fellow entrepreneur, laboring on my own brand of engineering, drawn from a complex theoretical framework and practical model, and praying that my stuff sells even just half as well as this dude's.   

It's a wild thing sometimes to see what really makes people tick and to see a business thrive.  It's awesome and brilliant!

So it's useless, but it makes money.  You can't knock that.  

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

Friday, October 19, 2012

Who Really Won the "Debate"?

This past Tuesday afternoon, October 16th, Jimmy Kimmel Live asked people off the street, "Who won 'last night's' debate?"

The rub?  The debate between President Obama and Governor Romney actually took place that Tuesday evening.  So, as of that afternoon, there was no debate the night before.  On the face of it, these people made for a hilarious video, commenting on a debate that hadn't taken place.  Chuckles and guffaws, all around.

Let's step back, and reflect on this.

The scientific slant

It may be easy to conclude that the average America is ignorant or dishonest, as some YouTube viewers suggested, but I say, Not so fast!  We do not know how many people the producers actually interviewed, and what proportion this handful of unfortunate souls, who made it on video, represented.   

To draw a conclusion about a group of people requires proper statistics and research methods.  There are over 300 million Americans, for example, and it is categorically impractical to interview every single one of them, in order to determine the population's characteristics, such as knowledge and honesty.  

Social scientists, then, resort to random sampling.  In brief, they may secure an enormous list of phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and randomly select, say, 1000 people to contact.  This process can be as simple and silly as putting each of their names into a large basket, shaking it well, and picking out one name at a time.  The point is, there mustn't be any bias or prejudice in the selection of these 1000 people.

The sample size itself has to be large enough to lend 'power' to the statistical analysis, and social scientists determine this figure on a study-by-study basis. 

So the producers may have kept approaching people, until they had the handful who were funny enough to air on the show.  But to conclude that Americans were ignorant or dishonest from this episode is patently unfair and wrong.  The colorful language, notwithstanding, this particular viewer had it right:
People. These are not representative. I could walk around Hollywood and ask random people if they worship Satan. I might have to go through 4-500 interviews but I'm sure I could pull a couple idiots. No one knows how many people needed to be interviewed to find these dumbasses.    
The internet slant

In general, there may be two camps regarding the accuracy or truthfulness of stuff on the internet. One is dismissive, and relies just minimally on information culled online.  The other is believing, and looks at it and reacts to it as if it were in fact, well, fact.

That said, let me mention this.  I'm working on a film project on bullying, so when I stumbled on an article about a young lady who was bullied and recently committed suicide, I took immediate notice, read it through, and clicked on a link to watch a video of her.  Needless to say, I was saddened by her story, and angered at the perpetrators.  

Then, I made myself pause, breathe, and reflect.  I have much research to do on this terrible issue, and I have to remind myself to keep a skeptical mind on what I watch, read, and hear about.  The marvel of the internet is the absolute wealth of information, accessible literally at our fingertips.  The challenge, as they say, is to separate 'the wheat from the chaff.'  It is not so easy to distinguish the real and accurate, from the fake and erroneous.

I propose a third camp, in between the dismissive and the believing camps I mentioned above, which is open but cautious to the breathtaking fare of information online.  It is always a good idea to check multiple, trustworthy sources to help us determine the accuracy of a story.  

This segment from The Jimmy Kimmel Live looks genuine, but the vast majority of us are not privy to the strategizing and planning that they go through in closed quarters.  So we don't know for sure.    

The psychological slant

We seem prone to doctor our stories, in order to make ourselves look as good as possible in the eyes of others.  This leads us to look at things and describe them in certain ways.  There is enough evidence suggesting that if we were to have 100 people witness the same, particular event, we'd come away with multiple versions of the story.  We're just not in sync on many things, it seems.

In part, this is due to the real limitations and pitfalls of the thinking machine in our head.  What we pay attention to, what we say and do, how we relate, are often narrowly determined.  Also, in part, it can be attributed to what psychologists call 'social desirability.'  That is, we fashion our outward persona, as best as we can, in ways that others expect and value and, in our parlance nowadays, simply like.

So, assuming this video is in fact genuine, we find this handful of people exposed for their baldfaced misrepresentations.  Lies, dishonesty, and foolishness, we can add.

But at the end of the day, I would like to say they represent a real part of our humanity.  The irony is that they probably speak true to many of us watching them:  we, who are selectively attentive, occasionally reactive, and often keen to impress.

So, laugh at them, but only for the sake of a genuine, harmless fun.  Let's not laugh at them harshly.  

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Can Tracking ID Solve Texas School Truancy?

The simple answer is, yes, of course.  How such technology is implemented is a more complicated issue, however.

John Jay High School in San Antonio, Texas, caused a stir recently by implementing an ID technology that tracked students’ whereabouts, according to NBC News. School officials cited truancy as a major problem, and believed that this tracking device would solve it and thereby help the school recover lost state funding due to under-reported attendance.

Is this a solution that causes more problems than it solves? 

Privacy and safety are at the heart of the issue for some students, parents, and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). After all, if administrators can track students, then so can predators intent on harming the students. Stalkers can find a way to track them well outside the school confines.

For me, this speaks to real quandaries of our society: Install freedom as if it were a birthright, and people are prone to see it as license to do what they want and secure what they need. Take that freedom away in the case of wrongdoing, however, and they have to realize there are boundaries within which they have to stay. They expect to be protected, yet rail at the stewards of freedom if they see the latter crossing those boundaries themselves.

I do not know if school officials have in fact crossed lines of civil rights. Still, these are real issues they have to answer to. In a way, technology is conceived in a moral vacuum. But operated under idealistic yet murky human affairs, technology becomes a lightning rod and the solutions it proposes raise questions.

Did a tracking solution work in similar circumstances? 

(image credit)
I used to work for a company that had a problem, and resorted to a measure, similar to John Jay High School. Many employees were coming in late, leaving early, and-or missing work altogether. New executives came on board, and in short order implemented a system that locked doors throughout the office complex and required special IDs for us to enter and exit. By end of the week, managers received tracking reports of our whereabouts and timings.

This company is outside the US, and there is no ACLU. So we cannot simply speak out to the media.  But this didn’t prevent us from communicating our displeasure.

For example, one time I was escorting a business visitor into our office, and had difficulty opening one door. A good colleague breezed in, and opened it for us. In passing, she smiled sardonically and said casually, “You see how much they trust us.” She was a manager herself, and a conscientious, hardworking one at that.

Was our truancy problem solved?

You see, in this country, local citizens have privileges that expat workers like me didn’t. That’s well and good, but expats are 80% of the population. So those local citizens are in fact the privileged few. In our case, expat managers often felt hesitant, if not outright unwilling, to discipline their local employees, for fear of reprisal coming from those privileged few.

Enter technology to the rescue.

I worked hard to build relationships with colleagues, managers, and executives at this company, and I was fortunate to have gained their respect and commendation. So, from personal observations and private conversations, I can say that employees who were prone to be ‘missing-in-action’ remained so. If their expat managers were not going to do anything about this, before Big-Brother technology, what reason or reassurance did they have to act on tracking reports?

Moreover, I can say this: Engagement is a measure of employee motivation and commitment. One time our company scores were lower than international averages, and lower still about two years later. So the solution that executives implemented apparently were not working. Why? Because they failed to get at the root of the problem. In essence, theirs was a high-tech ‘band-aid,’ applied merely to symptoms of the problem. What’s worse, it didn’t eliminate the symptoms!

Is there an alternative for John Jay High School?

Only time will tell how well their ID tracking system will work. But there must be so many ways to ‘game’ or breach this, that it’s hard for me to imagine that it will work. Moreover, the manner by which school officials communicated and implemented this looks to be, at minimum, a public relations nightmare. For civil organizations to say that this system is “dehumanizing” is serious.

I wonder how much officials probed into the root causes of the truancy problem and, more importantly, how well and how completely they’ve grasped these. In the battle on civil rights, this problem seems to have slipped out of the radar. Did they carefully scenario-plan their ID tracking system, and anticipate this media uproar and make contingency plans?

I wonder if they could’ve targeted only the problematic students, thus leaving the otherwise conscientious, high-performing students alone. Perhaps after failed efforts to redress their truancy, officials could’ve installed micro-chips in their IDs as a disciplinary measure. Within the purvey of school policy and civil rights, they fully engage and inform these students' parents, but otherwise keep communications discreet. Officials can then remove the micro-chips, once the students demonstrate responsible behavior.

The media could still catch wind of such a measure, especially if a couple of those truant students and-or their parents approach reporters. But then if they do, they’d be exposing their truancy to the public. I doubt they would do that.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD