“I stopped by the bar at 3 A.M. To seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend And I woke up with a headache like my head against a board Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before And I went in seeking clarity” — Lyrics from The Indigo Girls: Closer to Fine
If you think programming is cognitively difficult, try parallel programming. It is generally harder to design, to code, and to debug than its sequential cousin. One of the fun projects I worked on at IBM Research was on the X10 language which was designed to enable parallel programmers to be more productive. Among other things, I fostered community among X10 programmers and used analytic techniques to show that X10 “should be” more productive. Although these analytic techniques are very useful, we also wanted to get some empirical data that the language was, in actuality, more productive.
One part of those empirical studies involved comparing people doing a few parallel programming tasks in X10 to those using a popular competitor. But, like many other “chicken and egg” problems, there were no X10 programmers (other than the inventors and their colleagues). I was part of a team who travelled to Rice University in Houston. The design called for one group to spend a chunk of time learning X10 (perhaps half a day) and another chunk of time coding some problems.
Besides the three behavioral scientists like me who were there to make observations, there were also three high-powered Ph.D. computer scientists present who would teach the language. Programmers tend to be very smart. Parallel programmers tend to be very very smart. People who can invent better languages to do parallel programming? You do the math.
Anyway, after the volunteers students had arrived, one of the main designers of the language began to “teach them” X10.
But — there was a problem.
The powerpoint presentation designed to teach the students X10 was far too blurry to read!
Immediately, the three computer scientists tried to issue commands to the projector to put the images in focus. Nothing worked. The three of them began a fascinating problem solving conversation about what communication protocol(s) among the PC, the projector, and the controller was the likely source of the problem. I suppose it might not have been fascinating to everyone, but it was to me. First, it fascinated me because I was learning something about computer science and communication protocols. Second, it fascinated me because I loved to watch these people think. I suppose many of the advanced computer science students who were in this classroom to learn X10 also found it interesting. But the study had completely stalled.
After a few minutes of fascinating conversation that did nothing to focus the images, something possessed me to walk over to the projector and turn the lens by hand. The images were immediately clear and the rest of the experiment continued.
The three computer scientists had “framed” the problem as a computer science problem and I found the discussion that sprang from that framing to be fascinating. But one of the part-time jobs I had had as an undergraduate was as a “projectionist” at Case-Western, and it was that experience that allowed me to try framing the problem differently. All of us have huge reservoirs of experience outside of our professional “training” and those experiences can sometimes be important sources of alternative ways to frame a problem, issue, or situation.
In the not so distant past, people would often call directory assistance operators. These operators would find a number for you. For an additional charge, they would dial it for you. In fact, this was a very commonly used system. Phone companies would have large rooms filled with such operators who worked very hard and very politely, communicating with a hostile and irrational public.
Customer: “I have to get the number of that bowling alley right near where the A&P used to be before they moved into that new shopping center.”
Operator: “Sir, you haven’t told me what town you’re in. Anyway…”
Customer: “What town?! Why I’m right here in Woburn where I’ve always been!”
There were so many operators that the phone companies wanted their processes to be efficient. Operators were trained to be friendly and genial but not chatty. The phone companies searched for better keyboards and better screen layouts to shave a second here or there off the average time it took to handle a call.
There are some interesting stories in that attempt but that we will save for another article, but here I want to tell you what made the largest impact on the average time per call. Not a keyboard. Not a display. Not an AI system.
It was simply changing the greeting.
Operators were saying something like: “New England Telephone. How can I help you?”
After our intervention, operators instead said, “What city please?” It’s shorter and it’s takes less time to say. But the big change was not in how long the operator took to ask the question. The biggest savings was how this change in greeting impacted the customer’s behavior.
When the operator begins with “How can I help you?” the customer, or at least some fraction of them, are put into a frame of mind of a conversation. They might respond thusly:
“Oh, well, you know my niece is getting married! Yeah! In just a month, and she still hasn’t shopped for a dress! Can you believe it? So, I need the number for that — if it were up to me, I would go traditional, but my niece? She’s — she’s going avant-garde so I need the number of that dress shop on Main Street here in Arlington.”
With the “What City Please?” greeting, the customer is put into a more businesslike frame of mind and answers more succinctly. They now understand their role as proving information in a joint problem solving task with the operator. A typical answer would now be:
“In Arlington, what listing?”
“Dress shop on Main Street.”
The way in which a conversation begins signals what type of conversation it is to be. We know this intuitively. Suppose you walked up to an old friend and they begin with: “Name?” You would be taken aback. On the other hand, suppose you walk up to the line at the DMV and the clerk says, “Hey, have you seen that latest blog post by John Thomas on problem framing?” You would be equally perplexed!
Conversation can be thought of partly as a kind of mutual problem solving exercise. And, before that problem solving even begins, one party or the other will tend to “frame” the conversation. That framing can be incredibly important.
Even the very first words can cause someone to frame what kind of a conversation this is meant to be.
You have probably heard variations on this old saw, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I’ve also heard, “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” There is also this popular anecdote:
One night, I took my dog out for a walk and I noticed one of my neighbors under a nearby street lamp crawling around on his hands and knees, apparently looking for something. I walked over and asked, “What are you looking for?”
“My car keys!” He replied.
I have pretty good vision, so I helped him. I didn’t see any car keys so after a minute or so I asked, “Where exactly did you lose your keys?”
He stood up, cracked his back, and pointed back to a nearby park. “Over there.”
“Over there?! Then, why are you looking under the street lamp? Why aren’t you looking over at the park entrance?”
“Oh, that’s obvious! The light is so much better here!”
For a time, I had to very interesting and challenging job in the mid 1980’s at IBM Headquarters to try to get the company to pay more attention to the usability of their products and services. As a part of this, I visited IBM locations throughout the world. At one fabrication plant, our tour guide took us by an inspection station. This was not an inspection statement for chips. It consisted of one person whose job was to look through a microscope and make sure that two silver needles were perfectly aligned.
After we left the station, our tour guide confided that they were strongly considering replacing the person with a machine vision system. The anticipated cost would be substantial, but they hypothesized that the system would be more accurate and faster. It was, our host, insisted, just the nature of humans to be slow and inaccurate.
When I looked at the inspection station however, with my background in human factors, I had a completely different impression of the situation. The inspector sat on a fixed height stool and had to bend his neck at an absurd angle to look into the microscope. He was trying to align these silver needles against a background that had almost the same hue, brightness and saturation.
Other than blindfolding the man, I’m not sure what they could have done to make the task more unnecessarily difficult. I suggested, and eventually, they implemented, a few inexpensive ergonomic changes and time and accuracy improved.
Like other companies in the technology segment, IBM often saw problems as ones that could be solved by technology. At that time, technology systems was their main business. Since then, they have expanded more fully into software and services. In fact, those services now include experience design.
If you find yourself enamored of technology in general, or some specific class of technology such as machine vision, speech recognition, or machine learning, you might overlook much simpler and cheaper ways to solve problems or ameliorate situations. Of course, you might lose some revenue doing that, but you can also win long term customer loyalty.
Even if you are a hammer, everything is not a nail.
That applies as well to User Experience. You might design the most wonderful UX imaginable for a particular product or service. But if it is shoddily made so that it is error prone; if it lacks important functionality; if the sales force is inept; or if service is horrible, those failures can completely overwhelm all the good work you have done on the UX. Because of the nature of UX, you might learn important knowledge or suggestions for other functions as well. It often requires finesse to have such suggestions taken seriously, but with some thought you can do it.
During my second stint at IBM, I worked for a time in a field known at that time as “Knowledge Management.” One of our potential clients was a major Pharma company who felt that their researchers should do a better job of sharing knowledge across products. They wanted us to design a “knowledge management system” (by which they meant hardware and software) to improve knowledge sharing.
Simply building a “Knowledge Management System” would be looking under the streetlamp. They knew how to specify a technology solution from IBM and have it installed.
However — they were unwilling to provide any additional space, time, or incentives for their employees to share knowledge with their colleagues!
They were convinced that technology would be the silver bullet, the solution, the answer, the Holy Grail, the magic pill. They viewed technology as less disruptive than it would have been to change employee incentives, or space layout, or give them time to actually learn and use the technology system.
This reaction to “knowledge management” was not unique. It was common.
To me, this seems very similar to the notion that health problems can all be solved with a magic pill. What do you think?
This is the second in a series about the importance of correctly framing a problem. Generally, at least in formal American education, the teacher gives you a problem. Not only that, if you are in Algebra class, you know the answer will be an answer based in Algebra. If you are in art class, you’re expected to paint a picture. If you painted a picture in Algebra class, or wrote down a formula in Art Class, they would send you to the principal for punishment. But in real life, how a problem is presented may actually be far from the most elegant solution to the real problem.
Doing a google search on “problem solving” just now yielded 208 million results. Entering “problem framing” only had 182 thousand. A thousand times as much emphasis on problem solving as there was on problem framing. Yet, let’s think about that for a moment. If you have wrongly framed the problem, you not only will not have solved the real problem; what’s worse, you will have convinced yourself that you have solved the problem. This will make it much more difficult to recognize and solve the real problem even for a solitary thinker. And to make a political change required to redirect hundreds or thousands will be incalculably more difficult.
All of that brings us to today’s story. For about a decade, I worked as executive director of an AI lab for a company in the computers & communication industry. At one point, in the late 1980’s, all employees were all supposed to sign some new paperwork. An office manager called from a building several miles away asking me to have my admin work with his admin to sign up a schedule for all 45 people in my AI lab to go over to his office and sign this paperwork as soon as possible. That would be a mildly interesting logistics problem, and I might even be tempted to step in and help solve it. More likely, if I tried to solve it, some much brighter & more competent colleague would have done it much faster.
Why would I ask each of 45 people to interrupt their work; walk to their cars; drive in traffic; park in a new location; find this guy’s office; walk up there; sign some paper; walk out; find their car; drive back; park again; walk back to their office and try to remember where the heck they were? Instead, I told him that wasn’t happening but he’d be welcome to come over here and have people sign the paperwork.
You could make an argument that that was 4500% improvement in productivity, but I think that understates the case. The administrator’s work, at least in this regard, was to get this paperwork signed. He didn’t need to do mental calculations to tie these signings together. On the other hand, a lot of the work that the AI folks did was hard mental work. That means that interrupting them would be much more destructive than it would to interrupt the administrator in his watching someone sign their name. Even that understates the case because many of the people in AI worked collaboratively and (perhaps you remember those days) people were working face to face. Software tools to coordinate work were not as sophisticated as they are now. Often, having one team member disappear for a half hour would not only impact their own work, it would impact the work of everyone on the team.
Quantitatively comparing apples and oranges is always tricky. Of course, I am also biased because my colleagues were people I greatly admire. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that the way the problem was presented was a non-optimal “framing.” It may or may not have been presented that way because of a purely selfish standpoint; that is, wanting to do what’s most convenient for oneself rather than what’s best for the company as a whole. I suspect that it was more likely just the first idea that occurred to him. But in your own life, beware. Sometimes, you will mis-frame a problem because of “natural causes.” But sometimes, people may intentionally hand you a bad framing because they view it as being in their interest to lead you to solve the wrong problem.
After a long day’s work, I arrived home to a distraught wife. Not, “Hi, sweetheart” but “This doorbell is driving me crazy!”
Me: “What doorbell? What are you talking about?”
People differ in how they perceive the world around them. In my case, for instance, I’m very easily distracted by movement in my visual field. Noise can be annoying, but it rarely rises to that level. For instance, when commercials come on, I simply “tune them out” and instead tune in to my own thoughts. My high frequency hearing isn’t too great either. So, at first, I didn’t understand what my wife was referring to.
“That! That doorbell beep!”
Ah, now I understood. And, there it went again. Once I knew what to listen for, I had to agree it was annoying though much more annoying to my wife because she’s more tuned in to sound than I am and her ability to hear high frequencies is also better.
She then upped the ante. “I have to leave. I can’t stand it! You have to make it stop!”
I looked at the wall between our entryway and the kitchen. That’s where the doorbell ringer was. I unscrewed a couple of screws and removed the housing. Inside was the actual doorbell and three wires. A quick snip should at least stop the noise until we figured out a more permanent fix. I sighed. I suspected we would have to buy a new doorbell. Then, I laughed a bit as the Hollywood scenes from a hundred movies flashed before my eyes:
The Hero finds the bomb, with its conveniently placed timer, but it’s counting down 30 seconds, 29, 28. He’s cut to cut a wire! But which one!?
The consequences of my error would not be so great. Still…So, I cut the black wire.
OK. I cut the red wire.
OK. I cut the green wire, the last wire. I was having trouble understanding why it would be necessary to cut all three wires. But whatever. I had now cut all three wires.
Electrical circuits don’t work by magic. How can the doorbell be beeping when it has no power?
It wasn’t the doorbell at all.
Months earlier, my wife & I had attended a Dave Pelz “Short School” for putting, chipping, and sand shots. At that course, we received a small electronic metronome — about the size of a credit card. The metronome was to be used to help make sure you had a consistent rhythm on your putting stroke. Since the course, the metronome had sat atop our upright piano. Apparently, one of the cats had turned it on and then slapped it onto the floor behind the piano. The sounding board amplified the sound and made it harder to localize. Eventually, we tracked it down, fished out the metronome from behind the piano and clicked it off. Problem solved.
Except for the non-functional doorbell.
I had initially “solved” the wrong problem. I had solved the problem of the mis-firing doorbell by cutting all the wires. That was not the problem. I had jumped on to my wife’s formulation and framing of the problem. There are plenty of times in my life when I had solved the wrong problem without any help from someone else. This isn’t a story about assigning blame. It’s a story about the importance of correctly solving the right problem.
It is very easy to get led into solving the “wrong” problem.
In the days ahead, I will relate a few more examples.
People have debated what, precisely, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution means. But no-one to my knowledge has argued that the “right to bear arms” means that you can therefore shoot dead whomever you want. That is not a “freedom” under any reasonable definition.
What would be the consequence of simply saying that under our Constitution, you can kill whomever you want? Anarchy. Chaos. Such a state of affairs would certainly not be conducive to an economic recovery, controlling the pandemic, or “domestic tranquility.” The Second Amendment also doesn’t mean that you can go kill people provided you think you are justified. The fact that you believe you are right does not mean you are right. If you do own a gun, you have a responsibility to use it wisely. You can own a car. But that doesn’t give you the right to drive however you damned well feel like. It doesn’t give you the right to go as fast as you want and it certainly doesn’t give you the right to kill people with your car. Similarly, you can own a home. But owning your own home doesn’t mean you can set up an opium den or a crack house there. With rights come responsibilities.
So it is as well with the “Freedom of Speech.” You have the right to make arguments for your point of view, even if that view is not popular. But, as nearly everyone realizes, that does not mean you have the freedom to stand up in a crowded theater (should they ever exist again) and scream “FIRE!” at the top of your lungs. If you did, and people were trampled to death in the panicked rush to get out, you would rightly be held liable for their deaths.
That is not the only restriction on your “Freedom of Speech.” You cannot visit someone, sneak a bottle of vodka out of their liquor cabinet while they aren’t looking, pour the Absolute down the drain, and replace the contents with wood alcohol, and then sneak it back into the liquor cabinet. You cannot knowing sell horse meat as venison. You cannot lie about your age in order to register to vote or buy alcohol or firearms.
You cannot convince your neighbor that wood alcohol will prevent COVID (it won’t and it’s poison) and then let them act accordingly. It is certainly not ethical, if someone has the symptoms of an appendicitis, to tell them not to worry because doctors just perform operations to make money and that instead, they should simply take a laxative (this can easily result in a burst appendix followed by sepsis and death). It is also probably illegal to do so, even if you sincerely, but wrongly believe that taking a laxative will cure an appendicitis.
Suppose your friend has a two year old with a nasty looking wart on their hand. Suppose you convince your friend, that you can simply cut off the child’s hand with a meat cleaver and that the next day, a new hand will grow back and it will be perfect — no wart. Your friend is rather stupid to believe you, but that doesn’t mean you have no responsibility in the matter. You cannot successfully argue in court that you were “merely executing your right to free speech.”
It is not okay to simply spread lies because there are other people spreading the same lies. With Freedom of Speech comes the responsibility to check up on the veracity of what you say, write, or tweet. If your intention is to mislead people into harming or killing someone, you will be held liable.
Sometimes, deciding what is true is difficult. In the case of my convincing you that your child’s hand will grow back, you could use logic, or experience, or seek out the expertise of medical doctors. Some people have not been educated to take these steps. That is sad, but if someone is misled into committing a crime, a mentally competent adult doing the misleading and the mentally competent adult who has been misled are both liable, even if both of them have been misled by misinformation on the Internet. That is why it is so important not to spread misinformation.
Sometimes such misinformation is spread with the best of intentions. People may actually believe that people with red hair are devils in disguise and that they are all hell-bent on destroying the earth. That still doesn’t make it all right for you to kill red-haired people nor to spread lies about them that results in someone else killing red-haired people. If you spread your belief and that action harms other people, you are not somehow exonerated because you believed the lie that you spread.
There is, however, a category of misinformation still worse than spreading deadly lies without checking up on them.
That happens when people who know better, such as Ted Cruz, spread lies that they know are lies in order to gain political power. He was valedictorian in his high school class and has degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law School. He has both the knowledge and the intelligence to know that he was lying about election results. Unless someone was drugging him without his knowledge or he has a brain tumor, he knowingly and cravenly tried to overthrow the most recent Presidential election. And he did so in the most cravenly and cowardly way possible: by intentionally and cynically rousing others to violence. Everyone who died in DC as a result of the Sedition Riot has their blood on his hands.
What he did, and others of his ilk, is not the exercise of free speech any more than screaming “FIRE!!” In a crowded theater is exercising free speech. Cruz’s rabble rousing is no more free speech than my robbing a bank at gunpoint is a “free speech” demonstration of my objection to wealth inequality. Cruz knows full well that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, and by quite a bit. Cruz knows that there was no wide-spread election fraud. Cruz knew full well that the President’s lies on the subject had predisposed an angry mob to believe his lies and act on them.
This was not the first time that Ted Cruz had egregiously lied in public life. Before the Senate impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump, he swore an oath for a fair trial. Then, he joined other GOP Senators to refuse to hold a fair trail; refusing to call witnesses and refusing to subpoena documents. Leaving Trump in office has led to hundreds of thousands of needlessly dead Americans. Those deaths are on the heads of Donald J. Trump, but also on the heads of Senators who swore to hold a fair trial and then made no attempt to do so.
There are many lies that have emanated from Ted Cruz — a man who is a United States Senator. His lies meant to incite a riotous attack on our democracy were not the first of his lies. But they should be the last.
He should be ejected from the Senate and criminally prosecuted for inciting to riot and for treason.
Our founders knew that a would-be dictator, such as Donald J. Trump, would be a danger to our democracy. They provided for that eventuality. Sadly, they failed to anticipate the astounding level of cowardice that could be displayed by people such as Ted Cruz. I suppose it’s understandable. After all, these founders had just engaged in a war against the much more powerful and better trained British. And, they had won. They didn’t all agree with each other, but they were not a bunch of craven cowards who would sell their family for a moldy table scrap of a would-be dictator’s affection.
Cowardly sycophants of that ilk belong in prison; not in the United States Senate.
Happy New Year! I wish everyone has a good new year. Thank you to everyone who reads, follows, or comments on this blog! I am hoping you will find this index useful.
In 2020, we had a large family get-together planned to celebrate my birthday in late May. By early March, it was obvious that I would have to cancel. There was no-one in my family whom I loved so much that I wanted to risk their life by having them travel during a pandemic rather than wait another year to see them. I am, like most people, hoping 2021 will be a better year on many dimensions. Science has provided us with a variety of vaccines. The mere existence of those vaccines does not mean the pandemic is over. It will only be under control (not totally vanquished) when more than 75% of the people are vaccinated. Please continue to wear masks in public, stay socially distanced, and wash your hands.
Posts from 2020 can be categorized as: Poetry, Essays on America, Further Myths of the Veritas, purely fictional stories about a child sociopath, purely fictional stories about how the GRU plotted to turn part of the GOP into a death cult, and miscellaneous stories.
The GRU plans to turn the GOP into a Death Cult (This sequence of four short stories is *fiction* — but not implausible fiction — meant to illustrate and warn that death cults need not be small. In the middle ages, after the European Christians failed to conquer the Holy Lands, they mounted a crusade composed only of children under the theory that they would be more “pure” and therefore more likely to prevail. Of course, most of them died en route from starvation or disease and the remainder were easily decimated by their adult opponents).