Both Sides Now — The Value of Data Exploration

Over the last several months I have authored a number of stillborn articles that just did not live up to the standards that I set for this blog site. After all, sometimes we just have nothing important to add to the conversation. In a world dominated by narcissism, it is not necessary to constantly have something to say. Some reflection and consideration are necessary, especially if one is to be as succinct as possible.

A quote ascribed to Woodrow Wilson, which may be apocryphal, though it does appear in two of his biographies, was in response to being lauded by someone for making a number of short, succinct, and informative speeches. When asked how he was able to do this, President Wilson is supposed to have replied:

“It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

An undisciplined mind has a lot to say about nothing in particular with varying degrees of fidelity to fact or truth. When in normal conversation we most often free ourselves from the discipline expected for more rigorous thinking. This is not necessarily a bad thing if we are saying nothing of consequence and there are gradations, of course. Even the most disciplined mind gets things wrong. We all need editors and fact checkers.

While I am pulling forth possibly apocryphal quotes, the one most applicable that comes to mind is the comment by Hemingway as told by his deckhand in Key West and Cuba, Arnold Samuelson. Hemingway was supposed to have given this advice to the aspiring writer:

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.”

Though it deals with fiction, Hemingway’s advice applies to any sort of writing and rhetoric. Dr. Roger Spiller, who more than anyone mentored me as a writer and historian, once told me, “Writing is one of those skills that, with greater knowledge, becomes harder rather than easier.”

As a result of some reflection, over the last few months, I had to revisit the reason for the blog. Thus, this is still its purpose: it is a way to validate ideas and hypotheses with other professionals and interested amateurs in my areas of interest. I try to keep uninformed opinion in check, as all too many blogs turn out to be rants. Thus, a great deal of research goes into each of these posts, most from primary sources and from interactions with practitioners in the field. Opinions and conclusions are my own, and my reasoning for good or bad are exposed for all the world to see and I take responsibility for them.

This being said, part of my recent silence has also been due to my workload in–well–the effort involved in my day job of running a technology company, and in my recent role, since late last summer, as the Managing Editor of the College of Performance Management’s publication known as the Measurable News. Our emphasis in the latter case has been to find new contributions to the literature regarding business analytics and to define the concept of integrated project, program, and portfolio management. Stepping slightly over the line to make a pitch, I recommend anyone interested in contributing to the publication to submit an article. The submission guidelines can be found here.

Both Sides Now: New Perspectives

That out of the way, I recently saw, again on the small screen, the largely underrated movie about Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 moon landing, “First Man”, and was struck by this scene:

Unfortunately, the first part of the interview has been edited out of this clip and I cannot find a full scene. When asked “why space” he prefaces his comments by stating that the atmosphere of the earth seems to be so large from the perspective of looking at it from the ground but that, having touched the edge of space previously in his experience as a test pilot of the X15, he learned that it is actually very thin. He then goes on to posit that looking at the earth from space will give us a new perspective. His conclusion to this observation is then provided in the clip.

Armstrong’s words were prophetic in that the space program provided a new perspective and a new way of looking at things that were in front of us the whole time. Our spaceship Earth is a blue dot in a sea of space and, at least for a time, the people of our planet came to understand both our loneliness in space and our interdependence.

Earth from Apollo 8. Photo courtesy of NASA.


The impact of the Apollo program resulted in great strides being made in environmental and planetary sciences, geology, cosmology, biology, meteorology, and in day-to-day technology. The immediate effect was to inspire the environmental and human rights movements, among others. All of these advances taken together represent a new revolution in thought equal to that during the initial Enlightenment, one that is not yet finished despite the headwinds of reaction and recidivism.

It’s Life’s Illusions I Recall: Epistemology–Looking at and Engaging with the World

In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett posited that what was “dangerous” about Darwinism is that it acts as a “universal acid” that, when touching other concepts and traditions, transforms them in ways that change our world-view. I have accepted this position by Dennett through the convincing argument he makes and the evidence in front of us, and it is true that Darwinism–the insight in the evolution of species over time through natural selection–has transformed our perspective of the world and left the old ways of looking at things both reconstructed and unrecognizable.

In his work, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, Stephen Jay Gould noted that Darwinism is part of one of the three great reconstructions of human thought that, in quoting Sigmund Freud, where “Humanity…has had to endure from the hand of science…outrages upon its naive self-love.” These outrages include the Copernican revolution that removed the Earth from the center of the universe, Darwinism and the origin of species, including the descent of humanity, and what John McPhee, coined as the concept of “deep time.”

But–and there is a “but”–I would propose that Darwinism and the other great reconstructions noted are but different ingredients of a larger and more broader, though compatible, type of innovation in the way the world is viewed and how it is approached–a more powerful universal acid. That innovation in thought is empiricism.

It is this approach to understanding that eats through the many ills of human existence that lead to self-delusion and folly. Though you may not know it, if you are in the field of information technology or any of the sciences, you are part of this way of viewing and interacting with the world. Married with rational thinking, this epistemology–coming from the perspectives of the astronomical observations of planets and other heavenly bodies by Charles Sanders Peirce, with further refinements by William James and John Dewey, and others have come down to us in what is known as Pragmatism. (Note that the word pragmatism in this context is not the same as the more generally used colloquial form of the word. For this type of reason Peirce preferred the term “pragmaticism”). For an interesting and popular reading of the development of modern thought and the development of Pragmatism written for the general reader I highly recommend the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand.

At the core of this form of empiricism is that the collection of data, that is, recording, observing, and documenting the universe and nature as it is will lead us to an understanding of things that we otherwise would not see. In our more mundane systems, such as business systems and organized efforts applying disciplined project and program management techniques and methods, we also can learn more about these complex adaptive systems through the enhanced collection and translation of data.

I Really Don’t Know Clouds At All: Data, Information, Intelligence, and Knowledge

The term “knowledge discovery in data”, or KDD for short, is an aspirational goal and so, in terms of understanding that goal, is a point of departure from the practice information management and science. I’m taking this stance because the technology industry uses terminology that, as with most language, was originally designed to accurately describe a specific phenomenon or set of methods in order to advance knowledge, only to find that that terminology has been watered down to the point where it obfuscates the issues at hand.

As I traveled to locations across the U.S. over the last three months, I found general agreement among IT professionals who are dealing with the issues of “Big Data”, data integration, and the aforementioned KDD of this state of affairs. In almost every case there is hesitation to use this terminology because it has been absconded and abused by mainstream literature, much as physicists rail against the misuse of the concept of relativity by non-scientific domains.

The impact of this confusion in terminology has caused organizations to make decisions where this terminology is employed to describe a nebulous end-state, without the initiators having an idea of the effort or scope. The danger here, of course, is that for every small innovative company out there, there is also a potential Theranos (probably several). For an in-depth understanding of the psychology and double-speak that has infiltrated our industry I highly recommend the HBO documentary, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.”

The reason why semantics are important (as they always have been despite the fact that you may have had an associate complain about “only semantics”) is that they describe the world in front of us. If we cloud the meanings of words and the use of language, it undermines the basis of common understanding and reveals the (poor) quality of our thinking. As Dr. Spiller noted, the paradox of writing and in gathering knowledge is that the more you know, the more you realize you do not know, and the harder writing and communicating knowledge becomes, though we must make the effort nonetheless.

Thus KDD is oftentimes not quite the discovery of knowledge in the sense that the term was intended to mean. It is, instead, a discovery of associations that may lead us to knowledge. Knowing this distinction is important because the corollary processes of data mining, machine learning, and the early application of AI in which we find ourselves is really the process of finding associations, correlations, trends, patterns, and probabilities in data that is approached in a manner as if all information is flat, thereby obliterating its context. This is not knowledge.

We can measure the information content of any set of data, but the real unlocked potential in that information content will come with the processing of it that leads to knowledge. To do that requires an underlying model of domain knowledge, an understanding of the different lexicons in any given set of domains, and a Rosetta Stone that provides a roadmap that identifies those elements of the lexicon that are describing the same things across them. It also requires capturing and preserving context.

For example, when I use the chat on my iPhone it attempts to anticipate what I want to write. I am given three choices of words to choose if I want to use this shortcut. In most cases, the iPhone guesses wrong, despite presenting three choices and having at its disposal (at least presumptively) a larger vocabulary than the writer. Oftentimes it seems to take control, assuming that I have misspelled or misidentified a word and chooses the wrong one for me, where my message becomes a nonsense message.

If one were to believe the hype surrounding AI, one would think that there is magic there but, as Arthur C. Clarke noted (known as Clarke’s Third Law): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Familiar with the new technologies as we are, we know that there is no magic there, and also that it is consistently wrong a good deal of the time. But many individuals come to rely upon the technology nonetheless.

Despite the gloss of something new, the long-established methods of epistemology, code-breaking, statistics, and Calculus apply–as do standards of establishing fact and truth. Despite a large set of data, the iPhone is wrong because the iPhone does not understand–does not possess knowledge–to know why it is wrong. As an aside, its dictionary is also missing a good many words.

A Segue and a Conclusion–I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For: Why Data Integration?…and a Proposed Definition of the Bigness of Data

As with the question to Neil Armstrong, so the question on data. And so the answer is the same. When we look at any set of data under a particular structure of a domain, the information we derive provides us with a manner of looking at the world. In economic systems, businesses, and projects that data provides us with a basis for interpretation, but oftentimes falls short of allowing us to effectively describe and understand what is happening.

Capturing interrelated data across domains allows us to look at the phenomena of these human systems from a different perspective, providing us with the opportunity to derive new knowledge. But in order to do this, we have to be open to this possibility. It also calls for us to, as I have hammered home in this blog, reset our definitions of what is being described.

For example, there are guides in project and program management that refer to statistical measures as “predictive analytics.” This further waters down the intent of the phrase. Measures of earned value are not predictive. They note trends and a single-point outcome. Absent further analysis and processing, the statistical fallacy of extrapolation can be baked into our analysis. The same applies to any index of performance.

Furthermore, these indices and indicators–for that is all they are–do not provide knowledge, which requires a means of not only distinguishing between correlation and causation but also applying contextualization. All systems operate in a vector space. When we measure an economic or social system we are really measuring its behavior in the vector space that it inhabits. This vector space includes the way it is manifested in space-time: the equivalent of length, width, depth (that is, its relative position, significance, and size within information space), and time.

This then provides us with a hint of a definition of what often goes by the definition of “big data.” Originally, as noted in previous blogs, big data was first used in NASA in 1997 by Cox and Ellsworth (not as credited to John Mashey on Wikipedia with the dishonest qualifier “popularized”) and was simply a statement meaning “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage, and analyze.”

This is a relative term given Moore’s Law. But we can begin to peel back a real definition of the “bigness” of data. It is important to do this because too many approaches to big data assume it is flat and then apply probabilities and pattern recognition to data that undermines both contextualization and knowledge. Thus…

The Bigness of Data (B) is a function (f ) of the entropy expended (S) to transform data into information, or to extract its information content.

Information evolves. It evolves toward greater complexity just as life evolves toward greater complexity. The universe is built on coded bits of information that, taken together and combined in almost unimaginable ways, provides different forms of life and matter. Our limited ability to decode and understand this information–and our interactions in it– are important to us both individually and collectively.

Much entropy is already expended in the creation of the data that describes the activity being performed. Its context is part of its information content. Obliterating the context inherent in that information content causes all previous entropy to be of no value. Thus, in approaching any set of data, the inherent information content must be taken into account in order to avoid the unnecessary (and erroneous) application of data interpretation.

More to follow in future posts.

Standing in the Shadow of (Deming) — How does Agile Stack Up? — Part One

I’ve read a few posts across the web over time in which Agile Cult proponents have tried to tie the Agile Manifesto as being on a continuum from Deming.  Given the #NoEstimates drive you would expect someone to cherry pick a portion of item 3 of his Fourteen Points of Management, that is, “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality,” omitting the remainder of the point: “Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.”  There are even a few that have attempted to appropriate Deming’s work by redefining the meaning of his systems approach and philosophy.  (A classic symptom of ideologues and cults, but more on that in a later post).

W. Edwards Deming was from all accounts a brilliant statistician.  In 1927 he met physicist and statistician Walter A. Shewhart of Bell Telephone Laboratories who is generally accepted as the originator of statistical quality control.  Shewhart’s work focused on processes and the related technical tool of the control chart.  One of his most important observations was his data presentation rules, which are:

1.  Data have no meaning apart from their context and,

2.  Data contain both signal and noise.  To be able to extract information, one must separate the signal from the noise within the data.

These concepts are extremely important in avoiding the fallacy of reification, in which to regard something abstract as a material or concrete thing.  This is a concept that I have come back to at various times in this blog, particularly as it relates to statistical performance measures such as EVM and risk measurement.  Shewhart’s work no doubt was influenced by the work of astronomer, statistician, mathematician, and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce in this regard.

Another important feature of Shewharts approach was the development of the Shewhart or Deming (Plan-Do-Study-Act) cycle.  This is:

  • Plan: identify what can be improved and what change is needed
  • Do: implement the design change
  • Study: measure and analyze the process or outcome
  • Act: if the results are not as hoped for

Deming’s insight and contribution came when he realized that Shewhart’s methods not only applied to equipment performance but also to both manufacturing and management practices.  He further refined his methods by applying and training U.S. war industry personnel in Statistical Process Control (SPC) during the Second World War.  After the war he served under General MacArthur during the U.S. occupation and rebuilding of Japan as a census consultant to the Japanese government.  He then made his mark in assisting Japanese industry in applying his statistical and management methods to their rebuilding efforts.

To illustrate how different Deming was from Agile and #NoEstimates, it is useful to understand that the purpose of his methods, rooted in empirical methods (the accepted definition and not the appropriated ideological Agile definition), were focused on improving quality and reducing costs.  The formula for this approach is summed up as follows:

Quality = Results of Work Efforts/Total Costs

We have seen the validation of this formula with each generation of technological development, particularly in software and hardware development.  But in order to gauge success in order to insert quality into the process we must estimate, measure, inspect, and validate.  These are elements of the feedback loop that are essential in establishing a quality improvement process.

As Dave Gordon at the Practicing IT Project Manager blog stated in his post entitled Received Knowledge, Fanaticism, and Software Consultants, in the end, for all of the attempts at special pleading and to misdirect the assessment of risk in the system through Agile methods, it still all comes down to coding–and coding quality can be measured.  “But this doesn’t drive out fear!” can be heard in the reply by mediocre Agile coders, cherry picking Deming.  No, not if you’re not creating quality code in this particular example.  Human Resources Management (HRM) for good and bad is a leadership and management responsibility, and nowhere in a full reading of Deming does he eliminate these decisions given the denominator of cost in the equation of quality.

This is one aspect of IT coding that is slightly different from our other systems: software design and coding is as much as an art as a skill.  This is what we mean by elegance when we see well written code–it coheres as a simple systemic solution to the problem at hand that maximizes performance by leveraging the internal logic of the language being used and, as such, avoids defects not only in its current version but also is written in such a way that its internal logic, simplicity, and cohesion will allow for incremental improvement, and the avoidance and elimination of defects in future builds.

My first real life experience with this concept came during my first assignment as a project manager when I was a young Navy Lieutenant in San Diego.  I had just learned how to code software and had performed at the top of my class in pursuing a degree in software engineering.  This apparently qualified me in the eyes of my superiors to take over a failing program (read to mean: above cost and behind schedule) tasked with building a standard procurement system for the Navy (later the joint procurement system).  In reviewing the reasons for failure it became apparent that the army of systems analysts, technical consultants, and software developers were pulling the effort into conflicting directions.  My first act was to narrow the field to one lead developer and one very good coder, letting the rest to find other employment.  I then pared from there in building a cohesive team (within the realistic span of control) focused on quality and project success after we had defined what success would look like.  And, yes, we used estimates.  We recovered the program in six months until it was transferred to D.C. and placed under a more senior officer–the occasional price of success.

Neither Deming’s propositions nor Agile software development methodology are received knowledge or wisdom (see my last post on Carl Sagan), though the latter makes special pleading along those lines.  Both are open to questioning, validation, and testing.  This principle is implicit in Deming’s own System of Profound Knowledge regarding what he described as the Theory of Knowledge–an approach resting firmly within the principles of the scientific method.  Manifestos are beliefs, opinions, and assertions absent proof and, as such, many of the propositions of Agile are worlds away from Deming.

Note:  Minor edits made to correct grammatical errors in the original.