The Insidious Internet Business

I love Hank and John Green from the vlogbrothers YouTube channel. I don’t know how they manage to crank out so many thoughtful videos, but each time I check-in, I’m treated to another video where they somehow connect a thoughtful musing into a reflection of substance.

Feel free to check out the full video of one of Hank’s recent entries “Wrong on the Internet,” but below I have captured some of the interesting points that connected with thoughts I’ve had and resonated with me.

  • Layperson epistemology – it’s difficult for the average layperson to make sense of conflicting/contrary pieces of information when the business of the internet is motivated towards churning out content that screams for your attention.
  • Similar to the incompleteness theorem, solutions we create for problems will be temporary until we innovate new solutions based on updated information and advances in technology. This can bring about cynicism related to Kuhnian-style revolutions of our worldviews, that problems never seem to go away.
  • The internet business is not an information game, it’s a rhetoric game. Rhetoric is the prime mover of information, especially when hard data is absent. You can whinge about how “the other side” is devoid of logic and refuses to see the truth before their eyes, or you can accept this as a fact and play the game to win the rhetoric game.
  • Memes (of the information variety, not the funny pictures kind) that make you feel good smug are super dangerous for distracting the issues. Corporations might be the biggest cause of our climate or capitalist problems, but we can’t just immediately remove them and expect all our woes to be solved. The services they provide are still required for society to function.
  • Shifting blame breeds complacency. Instead, personal accountability and action at the individual level are still important.
  • A problem well-formed is half solved, but the internet business is not about forming good problems. In our smugness, we play games to win or gain prestige, and so reactions move far quicker and are easier than responses. In order to create well-formed problems, we need to place greater value on responding to solutions, articulating our values, and using tools like science, politics, and economics to optimize according to our values. (h/t to Seth Godin’s thinking that influenced me here)
  • On the topic of responding to emergencies (starting at 2:40 of the video), it’s important to remember in our smugness that we are not, in fact, rational creatures.
  • The insidious effect of the internet business: “If the tweet makes us feel good, we don’t tend to spend a lot of time doing a bunch of research to tell us whether or not it actually is good.”

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beyond the European Default

Tim Ferriss recently shared the following video in his newsletter. From the video’s description, we are treated to a short but wonderful performance “on the most traditional, classical and ancient vocal percussive art form of India; the mother of all percussive languages – Konnakkol.”

I found as I was watching the video, I was trying to discern the time signature being used (I suppose in the hope of finding the cadence to bob my head along with the rhythm). Most of the song sounds like it switches between some sort of 2/4 and 2/8 back to back rhythm, alternating one bar of each. For a brief moment, I was going to push this out to my network to see what my music theory friends would say, since I consider myself an amateur at best.

But then I realized that the folks who I thought would be better equipped to give me an answer were likely trained in classic music theory; that is to say, European music theory. But applying a European music theory framework would be wholly inappropriate for classical Indian music. I don’t mean inappropriate in a politically correct sense (quite the contrary, it would be a fun exercise to apply European music theory as an exercise to see where the similarities and differences are between the two music styles), but instead it would be inappropriate from a practical sense. The two musical styles share the common thread of using percussion and pitches to “tell a story” but the similarities end there. They are two styles with differing underlying grammar and syntax. Applying a different musical theory lens would be inadequate to capture the nuances of the performance, and possibly miss a richer historical context to give the performance more meaning.

It reminds me of a video Adam Neely put out almost a year ago that’s well worth a revisit because he raises important points about what we choose as our defaults – what “counts” as music. If we judge everything based on what’s been given primacy over the last few hundred years, we at best have an impoverished understanding of music and culture, and at worst continue to perpetuate a systemic bias (read: racist) in favour of some kinds of music to the exclusion of others that we deem inferior (coded as foreign, exotic, world, or worse).

This isn’t to say you have to like any one kind of music – let your tastes take you wherever and drink in the art of whomever speaks to you. It’s just important to remember that art extends far beyond the preferences we think of as universal, and that our taste should not be placed at the centre of culture.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Initial Assumptions

I was reflecting on Seth Godin’s musings about the number of moons in our solar system. The initial assumptions we use to make predictions about our world can sometimes be orders of magnitude off from truth.

We as humans don’t like to be wrong, but we shouldn’t be overly concerned with our initial assumptions being off the mark. After all, if we knew the truth (whatever “truth” happens to be in this case), there would be no need to start from initial assumptions. It is because we are starting from a place of ignorance that we have to start from an assumption (or hypothesis) in order to move forward.

The problem lies with whether we realize we are making assumptions, and how committed we are to holding on to them. Assumptions made about the physical world can often be value-neutral, but assumptions that intersect with the lived experiences of people always come pre-packaged with history that’s value-loaded. It’s fine to make an assumption that your experiences are shared with others, but that assumption can only be carried so far. At some point, you have to acknowledge that there will be a lot missing in your initial assumptions that need to be accounted for.

The lesson then is this: when working from an estimation or prediction, be careful with your initial assumptions. It’s fine to begin with your own experiences, but always put an asterisks beside it because your experience is likely not universal. We must guess, then check. Test, verify, then revise.

Aiming at truth is a noble goal, but we should settle for asymptotically moving closer towards it as it more likely reflects reality.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Values-based Decision Making

In a recent accreditation visit at work, a comment was made in the visiting team’s report that the college and engineering program need to better demonstrate the rationale behind program changes that are tied to something called “graduate attributes.”  I won’t bore you here with the details of how an engineering degree gets accredited since it’s a bit more complex than a short blog post would allow.  The main point is that the visiting team wanted to understand the motives we had when making updates to the courses in our continuous improvement process.

This reminded me of my KWCF experiences, specifically the Engage!KW program.  One of the activities we did was to reflect critically on our values.  We were asked to come up with a list of our values, and compare our espoused values with how we choose to spend our time in a week.  The point of the exercise is to a.) see whether you are living according to your values, and b.) to reinforce that you should make decisions based on your values – and if a decision does not align with your core values, it’s probably not something worth pursuing.

The visiting team’s comment didn’t sit well with the faculty and administration, largely because we felt that all of our decisions were made in the spirit of making graduates from the program better prepared for their careers.  The idea that we need to somehow demonstrate or explain better what we are already doing was hard to understand.

My best explanation for how this would work goes like this:

Suppose you receive feedback from your industry partners that in order for graduates to  be successful, the college needs to buy every student a pink hat.  The students must wear the pink hats at all times, and they must bring them with them into their careers after graduation.

Now, it might be the case that these pink hats are a good idea.  The idea originated from our industry partners, whom will be the very people hiring our grads.  However, buying the pink hats is an expensive endeavor.  The money we spend on pink hats means we can’t allocate those resources elsewhere to improve the program.

When the team evaluates the idea, they should look to the core values of the program and see whether the pink hats falls in line with those values.  In our engineering programs, we have twelve graduate attributes that we seek to instill in our students.  Every student who graduates from an engineering program will possess these attributes if the program is designed well.  If we look at the attributes (our values) we won’t see a connection of how pink hats are essential to making a better graduate or a better engineer, even though industry is telling us this is the case.  And so, we would make a decision to ignore industry’s suggestion, and instead allocate our money elsewhere.

Pinks hats might seem like a silly example, but the situation is the same for any piece of technology that industry wants us to teach, such as 3D printers and proprietary programming languages for manufacturing robots.  It costs a lot of money to adopt these technologies, and it takes a lot of time to teach and reinforce the skills in our students.  At each point, we have to ask ourselves whether this investment materially improves the students, or whether there is a better way we can allocate our time (such as teaching good computer modelling for 3D printers, or teaching good programming foundations so that our students can easily teach themselves any programming language used in industry).

The key lesson is that these decisions should not be made on a whim, but nor should they be made because a stakeholder tells you they are important.  Input from industry is only one point of data in a sea of information.  In order to tease out the signal from the noise, it’s important to use your values to help determine what’s worth pursuing, and what’s worth leaving behind.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan