My Kind of Humour

I thought I’d start my stories with some funnies, just to break the ice, but then I got sidetracked into being philosophical about funnies, so you’ll have to wait a bit longer for the laugh out loud moments. I like to laugh, including at myself (it’s that, or miss one of the best jokes on Earth). In my spiritual life, humour is one of my “gods” – it’s an amazing thing that we have life, but to also have things that we can laugh at, so hard that we cry, sometimes… I’m glad we evolved this way, and I also like that we are apparently not the only species on this planet with a sense of humour. I am reminded of David Brin’s “The Uplift Trilogy” – humour was recognised as a distinct phenomena of sentient thought and expression. I read the series probably in the early 90’s, and I still form mental glyphs for “What boys do” and “Mourning for a good joke gone unappreciated”.

I love clowns and YouTube for lots of reasons, including the laughs they deliver (I have started my journey to be a clown), and I like people who make me laugh. I like watching kittens chase laser dots, and listening to children tell stories of how the world works. There are different levels of humour, that appeal to different audiences, but people who allow themselves to become jaded, and no longer able to get pleasure from or appreciate something because it’s common, or they have experienced it before, what do they gain? Is there really so much joy and pleasure in the world that we can afford to disregard and discard the known sources? Or do we become bitter, cold and haughty in our worldliness?

I’m really enjoying modern animated movies that have so much adult level humour. There’s a wicked joy in recognising a joke that goes over someone else’s head. I once saw a juggler busking in Auckland. He was doing a routine where he juggled in the style of various art movements: Cubism (very angular), Impressionism (not juggling, but it looked like he was), Romanticism (sweeping movements with soulful eyes)… Then he put one hand in his pants pocket and continued the juggling with the other: “Lonely Romanticism… It’s OK to laugh – the kids don’t get it… or if they do, that’s not MY fault.”

Wicked and amused are very complimentary feelings, at least for me and people I associate with. I don’t like comedians who get their laughs cheaply by embarrassing members of their audience, but I do like satirists who bring the powerful back to Earth. I intend to do another story on the power of clowns. I like it when everyone comes out feeling amused, but we should also respect the value of bad taste jokes. Us Westerners tell them to break the ice on otherwise hard to discuss topics. See the Darwin Awards or if you haven’t yet played Cards Against Humanity, I highly recommend it. I have seen Germans play the Auschwitz card, and black people play the Black people card (more about that later). I like this definition of Politically Correct thinking: “The idea that one can pick up a piece of sh*t by the clean end”. We have to be able to talk about these things.

This coping mechanism is cultural, not universal. When Michael Jackson died it took about five minutes before people were telling bad taste jokes in the office. Q: “When is it time to go to bed at Neverland?” A: “When the big hand touches the little hand.” My Chinese colleague was appalled. She told me how, when she was a little girl, she went to a family funeral and was excited to see so many of her favourite people. She was running around and laughing, and she was spanked until she cried because it was wrong to show any happiness when someone has died. I’m sorry if, in reading this blog, my sense of humour offends. I do not intend any disrespect.

I think many of us can actually relate a bit to the discomfort of humour found in bad circumstances – it’s not as though these bad taste laughs are guilt free. Laughing in surprise or nervousness can make good people feel terrible. The Germans have a word: “schadenfreude” – pleasure derived (by someone) from another person’s misfortune. How often do we admit to feeling this? Watch Shakespeare comedies or American romantic comedies and almost all the laughs come from people doing horrible things to each other. While I love good slapstick there is a whole entertainment industry based on the published recordings of animals and people accidentally hurting themselves, and I don’t like that, but sometimes it’s hard not to laugh when you see it. It would be comedy gold if it was deliberate and no-one was hurt, and I do appreciate it when someone puts their own pratfall forward to amuse others and as a way of laughing at themselves. I certainly do a lot of that.

Smiling is a well known technique for mood control: when you’re feeling down, deliberately put a half smile on your face. The smile will lift your mood (really), and it will soon be real. Laughing is good for your health – easy to verify on Google. I am going to dedicate a lot of my blog to funny stories, because if you’re serious about loving humanity you must spread the joy, delight and laughs of life, even if some of them are a bit wicked.


Curiosity Killed the Computer

OK – the title might be overstating it a bit, but I’m a test analyst, and we get tired of hearing about how “automated testing” replaces the need for manual testers.

I recently saw this TED talk about machine deep learning.

I was somewhat surprised about how much the process for teaching machines was so akin to one of the fastest ways to teach expertise to humans – the exposure to 200-300 excellent examples in a short time, with a small amount of expert guidance, and seen in this presentation by Kathy Sierra.

I was thinking, it might not be so long after all, before machines are doing all our observational jobs, if they can learn pattern recognition like that (and they are more accurate and much faster and never forget…)

And then I saw this wonderful talk about aliens (or maybe not aliens). Even though number crunching is one of the primary uses for computers they could still miss evidence that humans could pick up, and more significant than that, they don’t see what we don’t program them to see. That is, we can see things that are not expected, but because we don’t expect an anomaly, we don’t make our computers see it. The pattern recognition a computer uses might throw a wobbly when confronted with a 3-wheeled car, or a wrecked car, but we would still see it is a car. Computers look for recognisable or definable characteristics. Humans characteristically have 2 arms, but we recognise that there are exceptions… We might be able to teach a computer the pattern recognition to sex chicks, but it won’t cope with a hermaphroditic or mutated example (unless we thought of that possibility ourselves, first).

Humans have observational skills that cannot yet even be explained, like the amateur astronomer that Bill Bryson talks about in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. Reverend Robert Evans can see supernovas…

To understand what a feat this is, imagine a standard dining room table covered in a black tablecloth and someone throwing a handful of salt across it. The scattered grains can be thought of as a galaxy. Now imagine fifteen hundred more tables like the first one—enough to fill a Wal-Mart parking lot, say, or to make a single line two miles long—each with a random array of salt across it. Now add one grain of salt to any table and let Bob Evans walk among them. At a glance he will spot it. That grain of salt is the supernova

We may not all be exceptional, like this, but these examples show there is an argument yet to justify the inclusion of human observational skills on top of machine pattern recognition and deep learning even when the machines get good at it and are in common use. We learn new things when someone sees something they don’t expect, and says “WTF?” and follows the lead. Test wisdom says “the difference between what we know and what we need to know is why we test in the first place”. Machines might be able to take care of the things we know, but it will need a true AI before the need for complementary human analysis can be questioned.

Do You Really Want a Tester?

This essay is targeted at the managers of the digital development (IT) section of businesses that want to make or save money. It will come as a surprise to some people, that there is more than one “school” of testing. I have been exposed to two extremes, and through my 12 years of experience, and with personal integrity, have accepted one of them as supporting and representing the high standard of professionalism that I endeavour to offer my employer. This is probably not the one you are acquainted with. Allow me, please, to enlighten you.

Testing is a specialised cognitive skill. As with any such skills, from people management to oil painting, it cannot be reduced to a number of steps (and because of that it can’t be done by a machine – more about that later). A test case is not a test. At best, it is a test guide or idea. There is no way a “test case” could ever be written to represent all the analysis that a tester does, intrinsically, heuristically, and because it is impossible to do 100% testing there is no way that producing “comprehensive test cases” ever comes close to representing the test coverage or the actual analysis done. If a confirmation can be done by a machine, then it is a “check”, not a test. Testing involves mindful discerning analysis of the observations made during deliberate experimentation.

As a simplistic example of this, imagine a “test case” that confirms that Box C shows the factor of boxes A and B. If this “test case” was automated, we’d have to set the values of boxes A (6) and B (7) so we know that Box C will get the same results each time. A coded check would confirm that 42 shows in Box C: pass. A person checking would intrinsically notice if the result displays aligned properly, in the correct format, font and size and colour, in base 10, if it took a long time to display, or if Outlook crashed when the result displayed. A person testing could change Box B to 8 and see Box C does not change from 42 – turns out that was hard-coded so the auto-check would pass… There are infinite tests that could be done: even having different programs open at the same time on your computer can affect a function. A business is not going to ask a tester to test every possible combination of programs, browsers, operating systems, settings…

What would a “pass” on this test reveal? If it is done by a different tester in a slightly different way eg inputting Box B before content in Box A, or tabbing instead of mouse clicks is that a different test? It could get a different result. Also, if it fails the first 2 times, works on the third, is broken by a regression issue, fixed and is currently working at release, that usually shows as Count of Test Case = 1, Pass = 1, 100% Pass – and tells us nothing about the potential risks of the function.

At best, a passing test is a rumour of success… A failing test is an allegation of failure. – M Bolton

We should also keep in mind that “test cases” do not appear out of thin air. Since they are usually expected to be produced in advance of the tester getting access to the product, they are generally based around the testers’ other available oracles, for example the BRD. If these “test cases” are to accurately reflect the main functional requirements of the product, it means the design and requirements need to be produced to a high standard as well. It is not reasonable to expect better detail from test cases than the rest of the project documentation. Waterfall methodology is fundamentally flawed. Can any business really believe that they are going to design an entire 6 month project 100% correctly from the start? If the business is interested in making money and being at the cutting edge of digital development and consumer interests, they should be working iteratively from Minimum Viable Product and enhancing from there, and that does not support the argument for the creation of a complete suite of static “test cases” before testing even starts.

The expectation of and reliance on “test cases” and automation in many digital workplaces indicates a fundamental lack of understanding of what testing actually is. This is commonly enabled and enforced by members of the test community itself, many of whom have never questioned the inconsistencies inherent in the establishment process (which shows an indicative lack of discernment for people who should be professional sceptics). I have heard various dogma about why people think we need test cases. I say “dogma” because, if they were arguments, they would be dropped when the people who believed them were given a compelling rational counter-argument that clearly disproved the belief…

  • “We have written test cases so new testers know how to test a system.”
    • First, test cases are not designed to teach anything. They don’t explain what user need the program is supposed to address or how the user is anticipated to use it, or what the output of the various functions mean to the user, or why the designer decided to choose one function over a different one, or the business priorities with respect to the program.
    • Second, you would think that, if you’ve hired an experienced professional tester, they’d already know how to test. All they need to do is learn what the program is for and how to use it, experiment, and question to start getting a feel for the product and the project.
    • Third, if you want to teach someone to test (ie use critical thinking, structured analysis, intuitive leaps and intelligent informed reasoning supporting their reports), you have to encourage them to think far beyond learning to follow a set of mindless, repetitive steps that can in fact get in the way of analytical thinking.
  • “… so we can get test coverage and test progression metrics.”
    • It is not true that all tests are equal. A fail in one critical path is worth far more than 10 typos in page content, yet each test case is counted equally when “pass rates” are calculated.
    • Does the metric really reflect the value you want to measure? 80% of the test cases may be run, but that’s because they were easy – the remaining 20% may take 80% of the time, so this doesn’t show how close we are to completion.
    • There are many more such inconsistencies with this idea. I recommend reading this article here before considering reducing tests and test activities to numbers.
  • “… so we can prove coverage and compliance.”
    • As I pointed out above – we will never have complete coverage, and any set of documentation that says otherwise is false.
    • This also assumes that every tester follows every written step, every time they do the tests, which I don’t think is a universal truth. It seems to me far more useful to inform the test professional of the details if you feel you are somehow obliged to run specific tests on certain occasions, and allow them to determine the constraints of that requirement.
  • “…to have a set of “standardised” regression tests.”
    • No tester will ever follow a set of instructions the same way twice, and a different tester will behave significantly different with the same instructions, so the idea of standardisation is completely illogical, unless the checks are run by a machine in an otherwise closed environment.
    • Even the best testers will begin to miss things when asked to mindlessly follow the same set of checks and tests every time the program is updated. Intelligent people get bored with repetition, and rush things, to get it over with. It is not testing if your mind is not engaged.
    • A (usually) truncated set of tests such as this will obfuscate the areas of change and real risk. Instead of a wild shot-gun blast of tests in the general direction of the potentially affected areas, it is far more efficient and effective to work with the developers to understand what code was changed, and where that code is used, and then target the testing to the areas of most risk. Regression defects may appear random on the surface, but they always have a cause. Working with the devs also helps them understand how they have to think about more than just the function under work, so they write better code.
  • “…so someone knows where to pick up if your tester gets hit by a bus.”
    • This is the best reason I have seen, but still, if your tester has been giving clear and informative progress and issue reports along the way, it should be obvious what they have done, and any good tester should be able to see what yet needs to be done. Progress reports that say “Of 33 test cases, I have run 17, and 5 of these have failed” do not actually tell a replacement tester what testing has been done.

I was appalled to see, in the results of a job search, the term “Automated tester” being commonly used. Gone is the facade of testers being “test automation engineers” – they now say explicitly that testing can be done by a robot. We have cheapened our profession so much, allowing people to believe that what we do can be reduced to a series of steps, and our valuable analysis is just a number, that they now rationally but erroneously intend to replace us with machines. I’m not even particularly concerned for my job: this is disastrous for our digital future, as our increased use of, reliance on, and integration with digital solutions that have no better critical functional analysis than an automated check.

The only real thing that testers produce are reports on the state of the product under test, for the business to decide if they are happy to release the product or not. This is what I do, and I try to do it to the best of my ability. If the business requires their testers to conform to bad testing practices, they will get poorly tested products, misleading metrics and a false sense of security, and it will cost more in time and issues. If your tester is informed, professional, and has integrity, but cannot change the way things are done, they will leave you. If you want to just wave a “tester” at the product to get the rubber stamp and don’t want real information to burst your bubble, why pay professional prices? An office temp could do it. If you really want a tester, who gives you good information, so you can have justified confidence in your product, let them do their job properly.

The established process wastes significant time and money on writing and/or running symbolic ritualistic checks, gives people meaningless or misleading numbers,  and then allows people to naively believe that these prove something by which they could make reliable project decisions. This process I reject, as insufficient for good testing: wasteful, unprofessional, limiting, unethical, ignorant, dogmatic rubbish. And yet, this latter kind of testing is what the majority of potential employers look for, knowing no other way. If your organisation can afford to waste huge amounts of money on bad practices, bureaucratic rituals, shoddy products and customer dissatisfaction (eg, in my experience this means government, banks and insurance companies) and that is how your company operates, you don’t need or want a tester like me.

This essay is targeted at the managers of the digital development (IT) section of businesses that want to make or save money. A professional tester should be sceptical, especially of their own perceptions, asking questions, learning new test techniques and skills, efficiently targeting their testing to the areas of most risk, owning and learning from their mistakes, working to inform the stakeholders about risks, uncertainty, what kind of bugs they are getting, what other issues the project faces, the state of the product, and how the tester know their testing is sufficient for the needs of the business. If this is what your business wants, then you actually do want a tester. I am in awe of the people who represent this kind of testing: I am inspired, challenged, and constantly reminded that there are brilliant thinkers in the world, who work with vast integrity, and I want to be counted amongst them.

NZ Election: Repeal HSW, Revive ACC

Our country and people benefit from our fearless active and adventurous nature. As examples, we invented flying before the Wright brothers, we invented bungy jumping, a Kiwi scaled Mt Everest, the All Blacks are the greatest rugby team on Earth, and our country income and image thrives on adventure tourism. We cycle, hike, hunt, climb, play silly games, swim, explore, DIY, dance and consequently combat issues such as a greater risk of obesity and other such diseases, CO2 emissions, and institutionalised helplessness. Kiwis have always been, are, and should be brave, active, mobile, inventive, and adventurous by nature.

This is all at risk. There are two parts to this story: ACC and the Health and Safety in the Workplace Act.

ACC is (literally) a brilliant idea. Rather than having to find someone to blame and sue to cover expensive medical bills, Kiwis and visitors to NZ can live their lives and have adventures and know that the government will get them back onto their feet and into life again (as much as possible) if they get hurt in an accident. No-one wants to get injured – we don’t go out looking for it – but accidents can happen when you get off your couch, and even sometimes when you don’t, and facing your fears to accomplish something awesome is easier when it does not include both the fear of personal pain and injury and crippling financial debt that could drag down your community as well.

It all comes down to who is going to take responsibility for someone’s injury and rehab costs. If you can’t work because of an injury you can’t make the money you need to pay for it, so you have to look for someone else to foot the bill. If the government isn’t going to do it, people then have to think about who will? Insurance has exclusions for physical or perceived risky pursuits: it is not in their interest to pay out for a possible injury in an activity that has a certain level of risk. While they might pay out if someone drives into you, they most certainly would not be covering you for stock-car racing, unless you pay stupid amounts of premiums.

That leaves litigation. The consequence of America’s system is that people will not give someone CPR when they need it, because if they cause any injury (eg like a broken rib, which can happen) they fear they will be sued for the medical costs. This is a reasonable fear: given the costs of medicine in the US (because doctors have to pay so much in personal liability insurance, because they get sued too), there’s a good chance the injured party will need to find someone to blame to avoid financial disaster. Instead, you could be bankrupted just for trying to save someone’s life. If you have people who rely on your money (eg your family) you would be risking their future for a stranger. Not a good incentive to help, and even less incentive for supplying a product or service that can in any way damage someone (eg a hot coffee without a comprehensive series of warnings and legal waivers. Blame and fear tears America apart. I think you will agree with me that we don’t want this in NZ.

In my (educated) opinion, ACC has more impact on the Kiwi culture than any other government service (eg education, health and police), and this is why I am so surprised that ACC policy doesn’t even get a mention in most parties’ policies. I decide who to vote for based on their attitude to ACC. The government doesn’t really want the cost, but the alternative, allowing people to sue for personal injury like the Americans do, is far worse. How much is the brave community of NZ worth?

We don’t have the right to sue for our medical costs in NZ: we traded-off the right to have ACC. This means that ACC had better cover accidental injuries comprehensively because we commonly have no further recourse. But instead I see ACC being undermined and no rights to sue being re-introduced.

  • Businesses and sports are being levied according to their risk, which is a disincentive to start a business in anything adventurous. If ACC is a government department, created for the good of the country, paid for by taxes, and enjoyed by all equally, why are some ventures penalised by higher costs? Sure, they might have more injuries, but do we imagine they want these injuries, or get them from being more careless or stupid than people in low risk occupations? Do we imagine that we’d be better off without these occupations? Wouldn’t they already be paying more to attract employees? Wouldn’t the levy be better spent to minimise those injury risks?
  • People are now being denied ACC help when the injuries can be blamed on age and existing conditions. While it may be true that a broken limb or spinal injury might not have happened if the person was younger, or hadn’t had a similar injury in the past, or wear-and-tear, it doesn’t change the fact that the injury would not have happened except for the accident. People are living with injuries and costs from accidents because ACC is judging their claims like a commercial insurance provider, where it is in their interest to not pay out. It is not in the countries’ best interest, however. Do we really want to dis-incentivise older and previously injured people from getting off the couch and into life? Are they really that worthless to NZ?

And then the Pike River disaster happened. Somehow the people who ran the mine were not criminally negligent or otherwise legally responsible, and yet NZ (rightly or wrongly) thought they should be, for justice to be properly served. The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 was passed to law, and WorkSafe Crown Agency created to interpret the requirements to everyday life. The gist of it is, the ‘person conducting a business or an undertaking’ (PCBU) can be held criminally liable if someone is killed or injured whilst participating in the undertaking.

The law and it’s (WorkSafe and layperson) interpretation is having a serious effect on NZ culture. Here is a list of things I have been told about, as someone who does adventure activities:

  1. A kite-boarding teacher shutting up shop because, while they taught safety and had a definite positive motivation for ensuring the safety of the students, they didn’t want to be responsible for the people who didn’t learn fast enough to avoid injury. I’m sure there will be many more such stories. As above, when choosing to help a stranger, why would you do it when there is a risk they could get damaged and destroy your life? There’s a good chance that they were doing enough to satisfy WorkSafe, in the event of an injury, but many people don’t have the time, financial or cognitive resources to study and understand how the new law applies to them specifically, even if they had the inclination. It’s one thing to be willing to patch someone up as a part of your small busy business, and quite another to commit to understanding such heavy legislation and all the implications, and get all the requisite bureaucratic documentation together whenever it’s required.
  2. Schools closing playgrounds and cancelling school camping trips, to protect teachers and supervisors from the legal consequences of a kid hurting themselves. Cotton-wool parenting (Google it – too many studies to list) doesn’t work. If kids don’t have the opportunity to hurt themselves in childhood, they get to their teen lives thinking they can’t be hurt. They also lack physical literacy and resilience, self-confidence and independence, risk assessment skills and good responsible decision making, and opportunities to learn, grow, and earn the trust and respect of their family and peers.
  3. PCBU’s being so freaked out by the Damocles’ Sword of criminal liability they refuse to let risk-based performers do their job… I’ve heard of circus performers being told they cannot do a number of their acts, because of the risk (the risk is what makes it an act!) and in one case a pair of stilt walkers forced to walk half a kilometre around a water feature because the organisers did not want the risk of them walking across a bridge (as if falling off stilts elsewhere is safer). The vast majority of professional circus performers know the risks, and do what they need to to mitigate the risks themselves. Having ignorant PCBU’s dictating or (worse) helping with the safety measures just adds complexity and unknowns to something that is already tricky.
  4. Home businesses having to write up risk assessments and mitigation plans for employees that come to their home – common sense is no longer enough. It is also apparently not enough that the people you are responsible for just sign a waiver – you have to be able to demonstrate that they have been informed of and understand the risks they face and the mitigation of which they need to be aware. We’re holding the bubble-wrap on with rolls of red tape.

We should also keep in mind that there is a theory that adults, when they have reason to believe they can’t be hurt, act with less care and personal responsibility to themselves and others. Legislation that allows people to believe that, in order to protect themselves from legal consequences, a PCBU will have made the activity safe for participants will almost certainly result in the participant taking less care themselves, putting themselves, others, and the PCBU at more risk.

The law was never meant to do this! It was written to ensure that the people behind an incident like Pike River can be made accountable. It was not made to add the fear of explicit legal responsibility for other people onto our shared adventures. It was not meant to undermine the value and liberty we get from ACC by finding someone to blame for our accidents, or cost so much, because while it might incidentally reduce the annual costs to ACC, it will cost businesses around NZ real money in legal and bureaucratic fees and time. It is not supposed to cause conflict between a risk expert voluntarily accepting risk and “reasonably practicable” mitigation and a layperson’s involuntary exposure and perception bias. It is, whether it was meant to or not, destroying undertakings that represent our way of life, heritage and culture.

I will be repealing this law, for the sake of NZ, to enable us all to take responsibility for ourselves on our adventures, and believe in our government safety nets, and bring back our culture of brave, adventurous, fun-loving and caring Kiwis. It would be great if you want to help.

The Argument for Sentient Information Gathering

We cannot expect to know everything. Accumulation of knowledge requires the expenditure of limited resources; at the least, time and individual cognitive load, if not also ego depletion, and commonly money, and there is no limit to knowledge. Humans have to be able to make quick decisions with limited information to function in the world and in society. From dealing with a physical threat to deciding which brand of peanut butter to buy we will commonly not have all the information we might consider relevant, and one wrong or missing bit of info can cost us even our lives, in some cases. Therefore we have and can learn physical and mental shortcuts to allow and enable us to act, quickly when necessary, with limited information, and hope for a good-enough outcome. This is a necessary adaptation so we are not always paralysed by indecision.

We have a number of such shortcuts available to us:

  • risk analysis (reasoning)
  • heuristics (reasoning)
  • conditioning (behavioural)
  • genetic instincts or drives or reflexes (behavioural)
  • intuitions (cognitive)

The Moral Problem (by Michael Smith) describes the relationship between belief (knowledge) and action (summarised by me) like this:

  • Belief itself does not motivate action. There are plenty of people who believe smoking is bad for them, but they still smoke. Because belief is subject to reality, we can debate points of truth, to try to change someone’s belief.
  • Action is driven from a desire for something, and this desire is purely subjective, so not subject to reality.
  • Our beliefs guide the actions we will take to achieve our desires (this is what people call means-end belief). So if we desire to stay healthy, and we believe that smoking is bad for us, we would not start smoking in the first place, if we are rational.
  • If we value something, we have the belief that we would desire it, if we are rational – this is where our moral behaviour comes from, and all other actions that could require ego depletion to initiate.

Therefore, it matters what we believe, because one cannot expect to get what one desires or values if the means-end belief is wrong. This is why humans want to have good information. If you desire cigarettes and you believe they can be found in a shoe store, you will be disappointed when you act on the belief.

So do the mechanisms we use to bridge the gap, between the reality that we’ll never know everything and the needing of good information to make good decisions, actually work for us? I’m not going to explore here the differences between making quick decisions by these various mechanisms as they tend to become confused in human experience by the human ability to rationalise our actions. I’ll also leave behavioural action to psychologists. I more want to discuss the way we trust the information on which we base or explain our sentient (thinking) action decisions.

If information accuracy was predictable we’d use risk analysis to determine how much we trust it. Instead, we have to use heuristics, which are mental short-cuts or “rules of thumb”, which we accept as being a good enough solution upon which to base our decisions in an uncertain world. For example, we might trust information coming from a specific presenter, or the way a story is presented. This is our advantage on computers/AIs: they can hold all the accumulated knowledge of humanity in their storage, and can do great risk analysis with statistical algorithms, and (given the right information) come to the right answer by very fast logic. They cannot make intuitive jumps or good-enough decisions like we do. For example: humans will stop processing a problem using heuristic rules but we can still always stop too early or too late. A computer cannot stop processing without a stop clause (without it we get an infinite loop), but machine perseverance can work on complex problems long after a human gives up.

But it is important to remember the close association between heuristics and cognitive bias: “”When our heuristics fail to produce a correct judgement, it can sometimes result in a cognitive bias…”. This bias misleads us about what the world is actually like, and we can from there create new heuristics that are not working in anyone’s best interest. Here are a couple of very interesting Ted Talks showing how bias can change our view of the world, and suggesting some new heuristics. or Understanding and recognising bias is a truly sentient art, in my humble opinion.

Listening to the media or subject/teaching authorities (or our friends) is an information gathering heuristic: we want to know what’s going on, but we don’t have the resources to research it ourselves, we believe the media or subject/teaching organisations exist to inform us about important issues, and trust that it is in their best interest to be accurate, so we let the ones paid to investigate and inform give us what we need to know.

Let’s break this series of means-end beliefs down.

We want to know what’s going on

It is not always rational (i.e in your best interests) to get any news. For one thing, people can lie to us, and if they do, and we act on those lies, we can cause ourselves and our social communities significant harm. Assuming the “news” represents the truth…

It is rational to try to be informed about things that could hurt us, so we can look after ourselves and our interests. As social animals we have done well for ourselves and each other to pass on such community relevant knowledge as “there is a tiger hiding in that grass”, or “Stacey is known to steal tools” or “the Gods have indicated that there will be a drought”. We can benefit (or at least avoid harm) from news like this.

In our modern world the “news” we get comes from all parts of the globe, and most of it is not relevant to us or our community. We get stories of the evils of serial murderers delivered to our doorstep as though they are on our doorstep, and our monkey minds become alert to the danger even though we are facing no danger (there have been 154 serial killers identified worldwide since 1980 – out of 7 billion, your odds of meeting one are slim). Constant threat warnings make us scared, inclined to not trust others, react aggressively, and stress can eventually kill us. We can also start believing all threats are “crying wolf” if we get cynical enough. Threat warnings are ONLY valuable if they are relevant.

Another part of our interest is in each other, in our community. We want to know if someone is bereaved, so we can act appropriately in their presence, and when they have a success, in case we can also benefit. Community is about give and take. These are social stories. Given that we are hierarchical and it is in our community interests to ensure social behaviour we can also use these stories to socially indoctrinate, control, coerce, isolate and punish each other. We are not always right to do so, and sometimes we can be very wrong to encourage these stories. Before you listen and encourage the story, ask yourself some questions. Is the distribution of the information for necessary social reasons? Are you getting informed or gossiping? Is it really any of your business? Are you saddened or entertained by discussing someone’s misfortune?

Do you have the right means-end belief? It usually takes longer than 41 seconds or 600-1200 words to get the full story, and these “news” stories are seldom referenced or even show their sources. If you are scanning to see what you want to spend more time on, that’s one thing, but if you absorb the soundbite or clickbait like gospel without spending time on finding out all the relevant facts that is not the way you are going to get informed.

We don’t have the resources to research it ourselves

As discussed above. Because heuristics are fallible, we need to be sceptical of anything we have not proved for ourselves. It does not help that we are bombarded by so many “facts” and social stories to keep track of. We are too willing to believe what we hear from the media, our friends and our authorities, and to assume other people are social, rational, unbiased and motivated by and value the same things as ourselves, and to stake everything on those “facts”. This attitude is lazy and dangerous, as we are isolating, radicalising and misleading the people of the world with all kinds of ignorant dogma and malicious lies. We have to learn to be sceptical, especially of the views we want to believe, especially of our own “rightness”. I like the show Adam Ruins Everything – he challenges the common beliefs of Western (American) culture, including those of liberals. Of course, he could be wrong on any point. Research the info you want to keep as fundamental to your worldview, assuming you desire to base your worldview in fact and consistency.

I once met someone who claimed he believed in a flat Earth. All the “proofs” I could offer to counter that belief I had learned as dogma from my school years. I had no understanding. He, as you would suspect, had counter-proofs that I could not address. If it mattered to me to prove the Earth was in fact spheroid, I needed to learn the complete evidence for myself. That’s where I learned that some “facts” I would need to hold loosely, as I was not going to (could not) spend the time on proving every detail I believed.

We believe these organisations exist to inform us about important issues

Some definitely market themselves that way, but I suggest that, unless the organisation is provably non-profit, it exists first and foremost to make money, and if it is non-profit it could easily exist to push a specific agenda disguised as information distribution e.g religious propaganda or conventional schooling.

Money making is easy – amongst your “news” you seed paid advertising, then convince the audience to watch the “news” so they see and absorb the advertising. The best way to get the audience attention is to scare them, as above. This is why a) “news” programs commonly contain a lot of scare stories and b) why advertising slots during news programs are sold at the premium rate. The product even gains acceptability and status for being associated with such a respectable program. The next best attention grabber is entertainment, including gossip.

Social media does not exist to give you facts. It exists to facilitate the spread of social stories, and also makes money from advertising.

Remember that “important issues” are those that are immediately relevant to the well-being of your community, and unless they are addressed they will continue to be relevant. News that isn’t reported because it’s not new can drop off the community radar, but it might still be of significance e.g climate change. This does not need to be local news. Are you being told about how the fluctuations of the US dollar and issues in the US Federal Reserve are currently affecting your retirement savings (even in NZ)? How about what climate change means for your long term real estate investment decisions? Do you know Bayer and Monsanto are potentially merging and what the consequences would be for world food production, including your food production? Or does your news run with celebrity pregnancies?

We trust that it is in their best interest to be accurate

It is actually in their best interest to be believed, and humans will commonly hear what we want to hear, to self-validate our world-view (confirmation bias). We’ll even get a second opinion when a doctor gives us a diagnosis we don’t like (seriously – if the second diagnosis is different, which do you choose to believe, and why?). We have various authorities to regulate the content of most (in NZ, not all) mainstream (not fringe) “news”, but that does not eliminate media bias and unsubstantiated speculation on “live news” stories. Even if a headline news story is shown to be false, which requires someone to know and care enough to contact the authorities, what leads in one edition or broadcast is retracted in an easily missed sub-story later on that week. We’d lose our faith in the “news” and stop giving them our money if they had to publicise their retractions as loudly as they publicise the initial misleading content.

Conclusion: We let the ones paid to investigate and inform give us what we need to know.

As I have argued, we have very little reason to believe that we are actually getting what we need.

Ask yourself – if I believe this information, will I probably use it in some action to achieve something I value or desire? If the answer is yes, ask yourself would it be right to act in this way if the information is not true? If the answer is no, verify your information. Get the actual facts before you give a story the honour of supporting your dreams and representing your integrity and reputation.

For example [Mexicans; please forgive my irony, here] If you believe that Mexicans send rapists across your borders and you plan to make policies that limit the rights of Mexican immigrants in answer to these allegations, first find out how many Mexicans there are, how many are rapists, how many of those come legally across the border, and how many non-Mexicans in your country are rapists and then consider if your policy will actually solve the issue.

You no longer have to study endlessly, or rely only upon heuristics to get information from an uncertain memory or second-hand or biased sources. We can now augment our brains extraordinary reasoning power with primary facts and numbers got with perfect recall and extraordinary speed from the world wide web (which is what I’ve done for this essay) and then act with good information.

Here are some guidelines for getting valid info from the internet:

  • Is the data from a primary source? (eg government census info) or is the information referenced to a reliable source?
  • Is there a chance that the source could be biased with a vested interest in getting your belief (eg the Nazi Party, or a charity)?
  • Does the source allow debate about the veracity of the information (eg Wikipedia)?
  • Is the truth defined by recognised subject experts or the less informed vocal populace?

John Oliver of Last Week Tonight also gave a helpful list. 

A wise man I once knew said “Believe nothing, challenge everything, discover the truth for yourself”. Let’s start being sentient tool users to advance our lives and our social evolution and fix the messes caused by our intellectual laziness.


Are we making a mistake with EQ?

Compare these two perspectives:

Adam Grant Ted Talk about givers and takers and Travis Bradberry on Emotional Intelligence 

Does high EQ correlate to a giving personality or an agreeable personality? Are those with high EQ all team players, supportive and able to act in enlightened self-interest? If there is a correlation with givers, is there the same correlation of success and failure as shown in the Ted Talk? If there is more correlation with agreeableness I think we need to rethink this.

EQ is a trending topic, but I’m finding myself getting sceptical of how it is perceived and promoted:

  1. All the arguments made in the Linkedin article are for personal gain
  2. 90% of “top performers” have high EQ – to me that means they get promoted or good pay because they’re good at personal emotional control and person management skills eg networking, and convincing people to like and support them.
  3. As a woman in a male-dominated profession (tech) I find that observation painful on two levels:
    1. so much for equal pay for equal skill, and
    2. women are commonly expected to do the social roles in corporate jobs, because it is understood that we soft-heartedly look after others, and exist to make other people’s lives easier. We then we get “mum-zoned” and forgotten about. Women in top positions commonly don’t embody that feminine care characteristic, so they will get some respect, and they are trusted less as a result. What does EQ look like in that contradiction? People with high EQ show compassion and are trustworthy, but women in top positions are not trusted, and women who show compassion get side-lined.
  4. If 90% of “top performers” have high EQ, and 21% of senior professionals [are] psychopaths (from admittedly only one study) how does that work out?

EQ looks more and more like the skills of clever emotional and social manipulation, which is very different from a personality of a giver. One doesn’t have to be sociopathic to exhibit these traits, but a lot of sociopaths can and do.

I wonder what EQ looks like in armed forces top brass, or Fortune 500 businesses? These organisations tend to be more goal oriented, and success is commonly found at the expense of the lives or livelihoods of others, and those at the cutting edge have less scope to be patient and understanding with those around them. There are CEOs in the Fortune 500 said to have high EQ, so it is possible, but it certainly doesn’t look like it is necessary, since there are also a number of sociopaths.

Alternatively, maybe those bosses with high EQ just employ others to do the nasty expedient stuff. I have seen this before: a Christ-like New Age guru and his frantic bevy of female carers, throwing themselves in the way of anything that might disrupt his view of Nirvana. It’s easy to be nice when it’s someone else’s job to do the dirty work for you.

I also wonder how successful the businesses are that have a lot of people with high EQ – do they show the same success metrics as businesses that put the bottom line first, instead of a nice working relationship?

Perhaps EQ has missed some salient factor/s, as IQ measuring surely did in its infancy? Perhaps there needs to be more understanding about the EQ it takes to own up and be responsible for the pain that one can cause, willingly or not, to yourself and others, as one goes through life? What does EQ look like in someone with a genetic predisposition to more intense emotional states? Is EQ culturally biased to present the Western ideal of emotional balance or maturity? What does EQ look like in a refugee, or someone who lives in a war zone? Is it impossible for a person with a disease like depression to have a high EQ?

When I look at my own EQ, I know I exhibit a lack of management skills, mostly relationship management, but that’s not because I am not aware of how I come across. In the giver/taker parlance I am a disagreeable giver. I know how a lot of people feel, and where they are coming from, and I love the potential of humanity, and yet I learn to have no sympathy for some of them, because they are (culpably, deliberately or lazily) weak: they take resources from others, ignore their opportunities, fail to learn, and do nothing to help themselves. I will only give so much.

I know I’d do better in my career and social circles if I was “nice” (agreeable), but I don’t want to change. Firstly, I know we don’t live in an ideal world, and I work to change what I can, but while doing that through the emotional manipulation of others may be more successful, I find that option too personally distasteful. I express how I feel, and hope people care enough to help me change things. It feels dishonest, too, to be “nice” to people who I have learnt to distrust, and I find that such people don’t change, regardless how you treat them (nice or not). They are just more likely to socially isolate you when you stop giving, since you are no longer useful, and they don’t want you affecting the belief of others. These are many of the “nice” people I have met (not all – there are some I believe are genuinely kind, too) and this is why I don’t trust EQ.

[Footnote: James Bach says it very well in this blog post, in the section “On Being Nice”. I related to that.]


Why Do I Have All This Stuff?

Another one worth saving, from Facebook last year

A bit introspective today…

Yesterday I received 2 keys – one from my mum, for the bach, with orders to destroy the old one (literally), and a flat key from Vanya, which I had commissioned to avoid further incidents of slipping as I climb through my bedroom window (painful). I then did a cull of keys – I had so many, and couldn’t remember what any of them were for. Why did I keep them so long? This has got me thinking more about what I keep, and what I throw away. I’m not one inclined to connect to arbitrary or trivial things.
My past is gone: I don’t take photos (what does one do with old hard copy photos people gave me? Thanks to those who tag me on Facebook). I don’t get nostalgic, I don’t carry much baggage from the bad things, and I forget a lot.
I don’t care about money or stuff. I keep stuff (just in case: my mum taught me that), but if I didn’t have it I wouldn’t care. I have a bunch of stuff that I have lugged around from place to place that I know I’ll never really get to again… anyone want some material? (Free to good crafty home). I also have a bunch of clothes and shoes to go…
I change: I am not connected to my self image, except as a person who can always improve. All my beliefs are open to challenge. I do not require security. I am extremely distrustful of appeals to precedent and tradition.
I do get connected to people and causes, but I know that life moves on, and sometimes these go on different paths to me. I don’t fight that – maybe I should? The closest I come to regret is thinking about past connections that I don’t actively keep current. I just feel that it happens, and one must accept that. If that’s happened, and the paths cross again, I am generally delighted to re-connect to the person or cause, as they are now, but I get uneasy if I am treated like the person I was in the past. That’s why I keep old friends on Facebook: I always hope I’ll see you again (even if I forget your name and what you look like ). I hope you know you can ALWAYS ask me to help you – I might say no, but I don’t mind being asked.
And I have learnt to walk away from people and causes that I care about, but that do me no good. In such cases I don’t go back, and if we cross I don’t reconnect. Sometimes it’s good to leave things behind, and the baggage that comes with them. I think we all carry too much stuff, sometimes.