Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

That’s Funny…

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When I need to take a few minutes away from work, I’ll jump online for a couple of games of blitz chess (five minutes to make all moves) or play backgammon against my computer. I’ve also started doing logic problems, the kind of puzzle with grids and clues such as “The orange item took 10 minutes less to print than the yellow item.” I’m not great at them, but they do provide some distraction and, as a nerd, I’m happy when I figure one out.

I’m working through the Puzzle Baron series (currently on Book 3) and have noted some of the conventions the editor follows. One of those conventions is that the puzzle’s parameters, such as the color of an object, country, or date can’t provide a contextual clue to the correct answer. As an example, you wouldn’t have a guy named Richmond who turned out to be from Virginia because Richmond is the capitol of Virginia.

When the editor changes a clue to avoid contextual clashes, it can lead to some interesting discontinuities that provide a hint to the correct answer for a clue pair. In this instance, puzzle #7 in Puzzle Baron’s Logic Puzzles: Volume 3 contains just such an edit. The puzzle asks the solver to correctly assign the birthday, name, country of origin, and profession for a set of five passport applicants. The countries are Canada, France, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden, while the birthdays fall on April 13, May 18, June 14, July 16, and August 15. It’s conventional for the days and months to occur in sequence so you can give clues such as “The applicant from Norway was born one month earlier than the applicant from Sweden.” Days are often sequentially numbered as well, but in this case the months were used as levers and the days were not, so the day numbers could be changed if desired.

The oddity that made me say “That’s funny…” is the May 18 date. The other four day numbers are in sequence from 13 to 16, which makes the May 18 date stand out. I have a number of Norwegian friends, so I happen to know that May 17 is Norwegian National Day. Based on that knowledge, I assumed that the applicant from Norway would have the May 18 birthday because, if it had fallen on May 17, there would be external context to guide the solver to the correct answer. Sure enough, that’s how the puzzle worked out.

If the editor changed the date rather than the name of the country to leave an Easter egg for solvers, it’s an excellent gesture that in no way detracted from the fun I had solving the puzzle. If the change was unintentional, it’s a reminder of how seemingly irrelevant changes can make a big difference. It could have been a total accident, of course, but it’s still a cool story.

Review of Gravity’s Kiss

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Title: Gravity’s Kiss

Author: Harry Collins

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2017

ISBN13: 978-0-262-34003-8

Length: 416

Price: $29.95

 


I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Albert Einstein predicted gravitational waves as part of his theory of general relativity, with the caveat that the waves would be so weak they would be almost impossible to detect. Harry Collins, Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science at Cardiff University, has closely observed gravitational wave science and its practitioners since 1972. In Gravity’s Kiss, he documents the first detection of gravitational waves and comments on the process from the complementary perspectives of sociology and physical science.

Years in the Making

Gravity’s Kiss starts by describing the initial mention of what turned out to be the first detection of gravitational waves. The Event, as it was soon known, occurred on September 14, 2015. Collins was at home, scanning through the subject lines of emails from the gravitational wave community, when he noticed a subject line mentioning an interesting occurrence during an engineering run of two new detectors. The devices were in Washington state and Texas, far enough apart that their readings could be compared, adjusted for the time to traverse the distance between the detectors, and examined for anomalies or glitches that could indicate an instrument fault or statistical coincidence that would invalidate the observation.

Collins’ method is to observe and report on science as it happens, so this message was his signal to more closely observe the process from his vantage as a trusted colleague with whom many practitioners willingly shared information. The author notes that, with one exception, he was the longest-tenured member of the gravitational wave community. He had observed years of work when everyone knew the odds of detection were vanishingly remote because their tools weren’t sensitive enough yet and been part of conversations when teams thought perhaps they had detected gravitational waves. (They hadn’t. The signal was a “blind injection” inserted by project managers to rehearse the procedures to be followed after a real detection.)

Secrets and Methods

Part of the ritual of science demands that experimenters maintain a measure of distance and detachment from their subject. As such, even knowledge of whether The Event came from real observations or had been injected into the data stream was kept secret from the researchers until it was time to “open the box” and determine whether the signal was real or the result of a glitch or blind injection. After each party to the analysis described their work, the team agreed all necessary due diligence was done, the seals on a few files were broken and the data compared to the signal. As it turned out, the signal was loud, clear, and free from mechanical glitches. Collins reports that the gravitational wave community celebrated the unveiling and turned almost immediately to the tasks of refining their analysis and writing the paper that would present their result to the world.

The paper, which everyone realized would be a landmark of the physics literature, brought the social side of science to the fore. Collins highlights two aspects of the paper writing and continuing analysis process that, in his opinion, hampered the community: secrecy and what he calls “relentless professionalism”. Not wanting to have their thunder stolen by scientists who were not part of the group, the consortium prohibited members from sharing anything about the detection with outsiders. While spouses and partners could be told, no one else was to know. This secrecy caused significant stresses within the group, particuarly as the analysis and writing process dragged on. Over the five months from the initial detection on September 14, 2015 to the press conference on February 11, 2016, the need to avoid disclosure strained relationships with colleagues and family even as bits of information leaked out. One rumor analyst was even able to piece together enough information from canceled conference attendance and similar tidbits to correctly predict the press conference’s date.

The process also suffered from “relentless professionalism”, where members asked increasingly fine-pointed questions regarding method, methodology, and results. The quest for statistical significance to claim a discovery, which in the physical sciences is measured by a severe five-sigma criterion, and the words used to describe a result take on deep meanings within the community. Collins describes the lengthy and occasionally fraught process with the eye of an experienced observer and with enough knowledge of the subject matter to comment on both the content of the paper and how it came to be. In practice, scientific endeavor is far from the detached process is often claims to be. Deciding whether to use the term “direct detection” in the paper’s title comes down to not wanting to hurt the feelings of previous researchers who, though not part of the consortium, are well-regarded and could lay claim to initial detection under certain interpretations of their work.

Conclusion

Collins’ contemporaenous narrative provides an enjoyable and relatable read. The first two-thirds of the book describe the process leading from initial detection to just after the paper was released, while the last third provides sociological context to flesh out his approach, observations, and recommendations. While he doesn’t shy away from wondering at the complexity of the detection apparatus and analytical techniques, his descriptions are delightfully free of hyperbole and treat the protagonists as good people doing the best they can to ensure their results are correct and share them appropriately. Gravity’s Kiss is the story of a monumental success brought about by a team of able researchers. Harry Collins was ideally positioned to relate the tale and made the most of his opportunity. Highly recommended.

Written by curtisfrye

March 23, 2017 at 10:00 am

Do You Just Talk About It or Can You Do It?

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I just finished reading Gravity’s Kiss, a new MIT Press book by Harry Collins. Professor Collins is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Cardiff. In his book, he details the process by which researchers detected and documented the presence of gravitational waves. Collins himself is a sociologist, but he has been part of the gravitational wave community for more than 42 years. He’s picked up the language and understands the principles involved in gravitational wave science quite well, but doesn’t have the knowledge and training required to advance the science himself.

Collins is the head of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science, so he can offer keen insights into his role in the scientific community. Specifically, he distinguishes between interactional expertise and contributory expertise. Interactional expertise, as the name implies, allows individuals to converse with experts in a field using specialized vocabulary and accurate knowledge at a reasonably advanced level. Contributory expertise, by contrast, entails sufficient training and experience to further the study of a field through analysis and experiment. It’s the difference between being able to talk about something intelligently and knowing what to do with that knowledge.

I’m in the iMBA program offered by the University of Illinois, which is an online master of business administration program designed for individuals who want to advance to the senior management and executive levels of industry. In that sense, the iMBA program is similar to an EMBA (Executive MBA) program than a traditional program, which I refer to as a “practitioner” MBA. For me, the difference is that students learn a variety of skills in areas such as finance, economics, organizational structure, and marketing. The goal is to provide us with the knowledge to make strategic decisions about a company’s direction and to understand enough of the basics in our focus areas to interact with subordinates in everyday charge of those functions. In other words, we gain a fair bit of practitioner expertise and a lot of interactional expertise.

As the owner of a small business, this level of interactional expertise translates to having more intelligent conversations with my accountant and investment advisers. On the practical level, my studies will help me make better decisions about the projects I take on. As a speaker and author, however, it means I will be relatively fluent in the language of business and have a credential to back it up. Now when I make contacts with individuals around the business world I will have the knowledge from my MBA, interactions with colleagues from industry, and experience as a business owner to draw on. Properly applied, those resources will serve me very well indeed in the coming years.

Unexpected Rewards

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My first lynda.com course went live on August 25, 2009. As of this writing, very early in the morning on February 17, 2017, I have 48 courses available with two more recorded and in editing. As I told a good friend last week, I’m a sucker for round numbers and milestones. For whatever reason, odometers hitting the next thousand mile mark, new decades, and reaching the next ten on my writing projects means a lot to me. I figured I’d get a card or maybe a small plaque when I hit 50 live courses on lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning, but I wouldn’t have been upset if it was just my wife and I raising a toast the night number 50 went live.

Late last month, a couple of weeks after course number 48 was released, I received a package from a company I didn’t recognize. The package contained a lovely portable game set with chess pieces that looked like real pieces, checkers, dice, and a pack of playing cards, all enclosed in a good-sized box with a two-sided chess/backgammon board that hinged in the middle and was trimmed with the finest Corinthian leather. The package also contained a card from the LinkedIn Learning crew congratulating me on reaching 50 courses.

No, they hadn’t miscounted. I’d had two other courses published, but one had been retired because the online resource it described changed drastically and the other for a combination of reasons that are both esoteric and boring. Those courses no longer appear on my author page, but they do in the LinkedIn Learning internal database. I was going for 50 live, but the team in Carpinteria cared about 50 total.

Researchers who study motivation make the point that unexpected rewards can have a positive impact on worker satisfaction. I love writing and creating online courses, particularly with the LinkedIn Learning team. Their attention to detail and counting my courses in the most favorable way possible makes their gift that much more special.

Depth of Talent

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One of the undying joys of sports is watching an underdog beat a massive favorite. The U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the USSR in the semi-finals of the 1980 Winter Olympics is one such win, as was the #15 seed University of Richmond basketball team’s win in the first round against my alma mater, the #2 seed Syracuse Orange. Even though those wins were improbable, they came in contests among reasonably well-matched teams. Richmond and Syracuse are both Division I programs, so they could recruit and offer scholarships to elite players.

Few tournaments remain where teams of all levels compete on equal terms. Even the famed Indiana state high school basketball tournament changed to four divisions based on enrollment in 1997. The exception is soccer, or football as it’s called everywhere except  in the U.S. and Canada. Most national organizations hold a tournament where teams of all levels compete. In England, that tournament is the FA (Football Association) Cup. Premier League, League Championship, and League 1 teams get byes through the early rounds, but the lower division sides advance and, on occasion, knock off one of the big boys. It’s unusual for a League 1 or League 2 side to beat a Premier League team, but it does happen.

And then there’s Lincoln. Lincoln plays in the National League, which is, in rank order, below the Premier League, League Championship, League 1, and League 2. According to the New York Times, Lincoln was 81 places below Premier League side Burnley when they played on February 18. No National League team had ever beaten a Premier League side in an FA Cup game until Lincoln pulled it off.

While the win is shocking, it’s doesn’t come against Lincoln’s run of form. They reached the Round of 16 by beating League Championship sides Ipswich and Brighton, so they were clearly playing well. And Burnley is a mid-table club, substantially behind the leaders but well above the cutoff line for relegation to the League Championship. (The bottom three Premier League teams are relegated, while the top two League Championship teams, plus the winner of a playoff between the sides that finished third through sixth, are promoted.) Burnley has the money to attract top-flight foreign talent, while Lincoln fields part-timers who work to supplement their meager football pay.

Upsets of this magnitude make for great stories, but they also point to the depth of talent available to take the field for English sides at all levels of the game. The history of the game, its cultural significance, and the pride that comes from playing well shine through Lincoln’s success. As the saying goes, “England expects.” Lincoln has exceeded those expectations.

Written by curtisfrye

February 24, 2017 at 10:00 am

Review of Driverless from MIT Press

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Title: Driverless

Authors: Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-262-03522-4

Length: 328

Price: $29.95

Rating: 94%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Research and development of driverless cars has reached the popular press over the past few years, but until now attempts to frame the debate have remained in the specialty press and academic journals. In Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman offer a valuable perspective on the technological and policy implications of autonomous vehicles.

Seven Myths

The concept of the driverless car has been around almost as long as the automobile itself, but only in the past few years has the technology underpinning the concept advanced and evolved enough to bring it close to realization. Even so, there is enough disagreement and skepticism to slow the adoption of driverless cars.

Lipson and Kurman organize their narrative around what they call the Seven Delaying Myths that slow advances in driverless car networks:

  1. Autonomous driving technology will evolve out of today’s driver-assist technology
  2. Technological progress is linear
  3. The public is resistant
  4. Driverless cars require extensive investment in infrastructure
  5. Driverless cars represent an ethical dilemma
  6. Driverless cars need to have a nearly perfect driving record to be safe enough
  7. The adoption of driverless cars will be abrupt

I can’t address each point in depth here, but I’ll make a few notes. The second myth, that technological progress is linear, is clearly false. Elementary analyses of networks show that non-linear growth occurs as the number of interconnected members increases. Those connections drive innovation through aggressive idea sharing, competition, and cooperation. The staggering growth of internet technologies and platforms puts this myth to rest easily.

The fourth point, that driverless cars require extensive investment in infrastructure, was true under the completely impractical Electronic Highway paradigm promulgated in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lane sensors and wires embedded in the road and sensors installed in the cars were prohibitively expensive and required far more computing power than was reasonably available at the time. By 2014, the U.S. government backed research into a paradigm called V2X, where cars exchanged data with other cars, the road, and roadside sensors. Even though the available technologies and processing power were exponentially better than what was available in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the V2X system used a top-down approach where the system, writ broadly, managed each car’s behavior.

One of the authors attended a 2014 U.S. Department of Transportation conference on autonomous vehicles and was astounded to see just a single session of the multi-day event devoted to Google’s self-driving cars and deep learning algorithms. Disagreeing with the DOT’s top-down approach (noted by including the phrase intelligent cars in the book’s subtitle), the authors believe that putting the smarts and sensors in the cars and using the highway’s infrastructure as a series of checkpoints and information relays is the superior solution. I find their argument persuasive. Advances in deep learning and agent-based models let individual vehicles build their skills, which they can combine with other vehicles’ experiences to develop an ever-improving ensemble model through a process the authors call fleet learning.

The Road Ahead

Driverless vehicles have started to appear on American roads, but significant objections remain. What Lipson and Kurman label as Myth #6, that driverless cars need to have a perfect driving record to be safe enough, poses two problems. The first is that it’s easy for critics to move the goal posts. Whatever safety level driverless cars have attained, it’s easy to use the specter of a runaway or hacked vehicle a passenger has no way to control to argue that the cars must be even safer. Second, humans are horrible drivers. According to World Health Organization figures updated in May 2014, 1.2 million people are killed in car accidents worldwide every year.

And yet, even though driverless cars offer the prospect of safer roads, the loss of privacy and autonomy weighs heavily in the balance. While Myth #3, that the public is resistant, is less true than it was, a significant proporation of Americans identify strongly with their car and see it as a way to maintain their freedom. Leaving the driving to a robot would deprive those individuals of an activity they cherish, which is an attitudinal barrier policy makers can’t ignore.

Conclusion

Driverless is an excellent book that offers a systematic and informative narrative on the history, state of the art, and future of driverless cars. Framing the issues through their Seven Myths offers a lens into the rhetoric supporting innovation and adoption of autonomous vehicles. There is much work to do on both the technological and policy sides—Lipson and Kurman’s work contributes meaningfully to that discussion.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

February 22, 2017 at 10:00 am

In Praise of Room Tone

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As an online course author, I record content that video editors, graphic artists, compositors, and other professionals transform into a final product. I edited two of my own courses, so I can say with certainty that there are plenty of folks out there who are much better at it than I am and deserve to be paid well for their work.

Room tone, a recording of silence in the area where the course is recorded (in my case, a sound booth manufactured by WhisperRoom), lets editors smooth out the rough transitions that result when they cut out part of a track. The team asks authors to provide 30 seconds of room tone so editors can lay it under multiple cuts without too many paste operations.

I use those 30 seconds to reflect on the course I just recorded, remembering the work it took to put the raw materials in place for the production team to work their magic. I say “magic” intentionally–if something seems effortless, you know a lot of work went into making it look that way. As I remember my own efforts, I reaffirm my appreciation for the work the rest of the team does to create, distribute, and promote the course.

Written by curtisfrye

February 16, 2017 at 4:29 pm