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November 2015

What Lies Beneath

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A while ago, Fast Company published an article relating to a new study from Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, claiming that “Facebook will lose 80% of users by 2017”. This article was duly shared around the world across multiple channels, reaching millions of people. If you looked very carefully though, you’d find that the statistics are exclusively based on how many times the word ‘Facebook’ appears in Google analytics. Critically, these analytics do not include mobile usage, which accounts for the majority of Internet traffic, including a rise to over 100 million mobile Facebook users at the time. Such insight was quietly set aside to make way for the attention-grabbing headline.

We see many market reports and professional comment that, one would assume, is valid and considered. However, I see a continuous trend where hidden information resides behind colourful charts that are widely quoted and used as a basis for investment of time, energy or money. In the Black Swan, Taleb calls this ‘silent evidence’.

Are we seeing the full picture? It may be circumstance that determines the answer. After all, sub-editors often remove the subtleties that surround what is written. Obviously, our consumption of information has to be made to fit our increasingly ‘bite-size’ and ‘instant satisfaction’ personalities, but I fear this may be at the expense of real truth.

In its most basic form, silent evidence is easy to spot. For example, if I were to prove to you that sober drivers cause more accidents than drivers under the influence of alcohol, would you conclude that it is safer to drive whilst under the influence?

That seems to be presented in my argument, however what is missing is that there are a relatively small number of drivers who drive under the influence, but who account for a disproportionately high number of accidents.

This trap is actually very common. As it happens, there are a number of ways in which information can be misleading, including:

  • False data – an easy one, just plain downright lies
  • Bad sampling – often seen where a very small segment of people are asked a question and the resulting percentages are scaled across a much larger population
  • Predictive questions – a modern day media classic is “would you like adverts on your mobile device?” This is predominantly asked when the required result is a resounding ‘no’. If you want the answer to include more ‘yes’ responses, you would remove the word advertising and switch it for “useful content that would make your life better?” This leads to a major skew towards the positive. Either way, the questions have predictable answers
  • Misleading selections – commonly where a snapshot of real data is used which intentionally misses out preceding periods which would harm the impact – for instance, if you wanted to show an upturn in advertising spend, but only three months in a year had an increase, you wouldn’t show the downturn that happened before, only the growing months (which may well be making up a fraction of the previous loss)
  • Self-adjusted rankings – the editorial right to remove any justification of ranking. In whatever industry you’re in, you may have seen companies who claim to be the “World’s Number 1”. Surely there can only be one, right? But from closer inspection you find that the information not included is the part that defines exactly what ranking conditions they include. Is it in terms of revenue, profit, employee numbers or experience of the CEO? We are only shown the juicy bits and the terms and conditions are nowhere to be seen
  • Limiting qualifiers – one of my favourites and similar to self-adjusted rankings. This is where you word a statistic in a way that the result is essentially fixed. For instance: “The brown bear is the largest land predator in the world”. The word ‘predator’ rules out elephants which are bigger but aren’t predators, while the word ‘land’ rules out various whales which are predators but don’t live on land. The statement is built for the brown bear to dominate
  • Percentage accentuation – so common. Take a company making a bunch of people redundant. If the company has 100 staff and gets rid of 20, in the interests of making the statistic sexier, it would be “Company lays off 20% of entire workforce!” because 20 people doesn’t sound anywhere near as dramatic as 20%. However, in a company of 1 million, the 20% is still quite sexy but nothing sounds as big as “Company lays off 200,000 people!” The liberal insertion of exclamation marks is my own of course…

In summary, publishers have a responsibility to promote accurate and contextually detailed data to others, and viewers have an opportunity to dig deeper. As information spreads so quickly in this ultra-connected world, the misrepresentation of truth re-frames what ‘truth’ is – especially when those in a position of authority are relaying information that is believed on sight.

To quote an unknown source discussing statistics:

“86% of statistics are made up on the spot and the remaining 24% are mathematically flawed.”

Spot on.

Taken as an excerpt from ’28 Thoughts On Digital Revolution’ available from Amazon as a paperback and for kindle: http://jonathanmacdonald.com/books/

A Sect Cannot Be Destroyed By Cannonballs

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A Sect Cannot Be Destroyed By Cannonballs

This post was re-published shortly after the news of a U.S. air strike as reported here: http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/africa/2015/11/14/U-S-carried-out-airstrike-in-Libya-against-ISIS-leader-U-S-official.html and a day after the attacks in Paris: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/14/world/paris-attacks/

—–

Here are two quotes from the 1st/2nd May 2011:

“The world is a safer place, because of the death of Osama Bin Laden” President of the United States

“Is this the beginning of the end for the war on terror?” BBC News

…and one from 200 years ago:

“A sect cannot be destroyed by cannonballs” Napoleon Bonaparte

In nature and in business, the most common structure is for an organism or an organisation to be centralised. Spiders, and a traditional bank, are amongst the obvious examples. Centralised organisms and organisations feel the pain of attack on the main unit, for example, by the removal of food (in nature) or funding (in enterprise).

An alternative structure is one of decentralisation.

In these organisms and organisations, there is no main unit as the vital organs are distributed throughout the entire structure. Starfish are amongst the obvious examples in nature. Organisations such as Wikipedia, Craigslist and al Qaeda, are others.

Such decentralised structures handle attack in a totally different way from centralised ones. After all, if you chop off the head of a spider, it dies. Whereas if you chop off a leg of a starfish, it grows another leg – and the chopped leg grows into another starfish.

The news of the death of Osama Bin Laden, triggered me to refer to the work of Brafman and Beckstrom, authors of the vital transcript ‘The Starfish and the Spider’(*). In this book, they allude to moments in history that exemplify centralised versus decentralised structures. One example starts with the Aztecs.

In 1519 an explorer named Hernando Cortes stared in disbelief at the Aztec metropolis Tenochtitlan. Expecting to see savages, instead he saw an organised and civilised community. Cortes witnessed a developed system of highways, ingeniously constructed aqueducts, spectacularly ornate temples, and mystically intriguing pyramids.

He also saw gold. Everywhere.

Cortes arranged a meeting with Montezuma II, the leader of the Aztecs. His conversation was not a friendly one – it was a monologue that could be summed up with “Give me your gold, or I will destroy you”.

Montezuma believed that Cortes might be a deity and decided to yield his vast resources. Shortly after that, Cortes repaid Montezuma’s trust and submission by killing him, placing the city under siege, and cutting off its food and water supplies. Within 80 days 240,000 were dead – within 2 years, the entire civilisation had collapsed.

Less than a decade later an explorer named Francisco Pizarro captured and killed the leader of the Incas, Atahuallpa. They, too, were plundered, and within two years the society became an historical footnote.

Over a century later the conquering Spanish headed to the deserts of modern day New Mexico to force a Christian conversion upon the natives there. They would make them Catholics – they would transform them from hunters into farmers.

The primitive people were the Apaches. The Apaches had nothing – except their way of life. No highway system. No permanent towns or cities. No pyramids. No gold. All that was valued was stored under their dark skin – in their immense souls.

For two centuries the Apache battled the Spanish tooth and nail. The wild people of the deserts persevered and prevailed against the Spanish. Why? Because every one of them fought from a spiritual compulsion, rather than the command-and-control coercion of officers and strategy.

The Apache had no appointed chief or army commander, but they did have the Nant’an.

A Nant’an was a spiritual leader who led by example – not by coercion. Warriors fearlessly followed the Nant’an. Nant’ans lived, fought, and died alongside those they led. When one was killed, another seemed to incarnate the spirit of the fallen and press the fight forward. Inspired. Courageous. They resisted. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to.

The Apache have no word or concept for the phrase “you should”.

Not one of those proud Native Americans had to follow their larger-than-life leaders. Neither Geronimo nor Cochise roared “you should”, “you must” or “follow me”.

Apaches were empowered to choose against whom, and if, they would make war.

When the Spanish killed a Nant’an, a new one would take his place. Like Agent Smith in The Matrix.(**)

When they burned a village, the Apache became nomadic.

The more they were attacked, the more decentralised and resilient the Apache became.

The Apaches won because of their decentralised structure, based on deep relationships, in the absence of leadership, hierarchy and rules. This deep affinity with one another was the primary tool of this insurgency.

Then it all went wrong…

The Americans (of European descent) entered the picture. They too found it impossible to defeat the Apaches. Until, that is, they decided to give them some land and a few cattle. Within a few years the Apache society had fallen apart.

You may question why land and cattle would trigger such destruction of something so decentralised and resilient. And rightly so. In fact, I attest that these lessons are critical to humanity, not just in a political sense of rulership, but also at a sociological level of understanding. Especially in the context of recent events.

It turns out, there are three ways of destroying decentralised structures.

1. Change the participants’ ideology by showing them another, better, way

2. Centralise them by giving them constructs in which greed is built

3. Decentralise yourself

This particular piece is not intended for a full exploration of how the above three points can take shape – but evidently, the Apaches were destroyed by the second method.

In light of the Osama Bin Laden events, and without attempting some political advisory role, or religious bias, I would say this:

1. It would be wise to view the horrific, terrorist acts as manifestations of decentralised, asymmetric warfare

2. It would not be as wise to view this horror as removable, nor reconcilable, by the murder of one man

3. It would be wise to rapidly strategise, distribute, and execute a counteractive plan that takes into extreme context, the very nature of the structural elements involved in the challenge

4. It would not be as wise to celebrate a temporary passing as outright victory, with all respect to lives lost forthwith

As a pacifist and humanitarian, my personal belief is that the demise of others is not an acceptable way of promoting a singular cause. Thus, I give this free advice based on bias toward a more harmonious world, rather than one of conflict.

Nevertheless, if a country, Government or movement is setting out to truly combat acts of terror, the infrastructure of the challenge should be considered in the highest regard.

* The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom (2008) http://www.starfishandspider.com/

** Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Smith

“You simply cannot end a war with fire-power. You either use too little or too much” ~ Callum MacDonald (my 13yr old son).

Taken as an excerpt from ’28 Thoughts On Digital Revolution’ available from Amazon as a paperback and for kindle: http://jonathanmacdonald.com/books/

The Option of Civilisation

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During the year 1814 over 96,000 people visited Bethlam Royal Hospital (also known as Bedlam), to laugh at the mental patients. The visitors felt justified in doing so as the patients were considered to be “already destined for hell”.

Many clever people commented on the definitions and causes of madness. One could cast blame on the education system, the Government, family upbringing or financial security, but it came to pass that mental illness was thought ultimately to be caused by moral weakness. Due to this, photography was seen as having a use in treatment and delusional patients were confronted with the image of their real selves. It was thought that issues of morality should be addressed with methods of moral awakening and reason.

Despite the development of thought over the last 200 years, our perception of life remains a product of our understanding of life in general, at any point in time.

Every generation generally believes its wisdom to be advanced. However, this perceived advancement is purely relative to prior generations’ wisdom, so it follows that in numerous generations time our understanding of life will be far more advanced than now.

It is not that our current understanding is without merit, but instead that our current understanding is unlikely to be complete. This incompleteness is not solely horizontal across a timeline of history, but also vertical in terms of whom, at any point in time, has the most authentic, relevant and useful information to form the most complete understanding.

Let me explain.

We have challenges in society that must be addressed and in Great Britain it is the Government who has been elected to guide this. The understanding of life that they must apply can only be a combination of experience and thought (i.e. information) from the Members of Parliament, Civil Servants, and any other organisations or individuals they call upon for advice.

Thus the quality of Governmental decision is directly proportional to the authenticity, relevance and usefulness of Government’s understanding that in turn is directly proportional to the authenticity, relevance and usefulness of the information provided to Government.

Many announcements we see that relate to present issues happening in society are based, understandably, on solving real-time challenges – and to these, everyone has an opinion. Following that phase, the announcements will move towards the wider and deeper issues. Again, these will be met with opposing opinions to which we are totally granted the right to have.

We are charged with having faith that those who will guide us forward are armed with the authentic, relevant and useful information from which to form an understanding and make the best quality decisions.

There are options available if that faith isn’t within you and one of those options is to use the tools, platforms and channels we are armed with as citizens.

Maybe the collective voice of people can make a difference to how we move forward. After all, we have the ability to express ourselves more affordably than ever before.

Another option is to create or identify a political party that you do believe in, and either run for Parliament (if it is yours), or join/vote for it (if it is someone else’s).

We all have options and we all have accountability for our happiness and contentment. However, something that is not an option in a civilised society is violent, criminal destruction.

I defend anyone’s right to opinion and expression within the law, but when it manifests into ruining people’s lives and turning once safe streets into war zones, any opinion becomes invalid.

If one wants things to change, one must use the facilities available and allowed.

All else is mindless thuggish bullying that I find deeply repelling and ridiculous, primarily in its immature ineffectiveness.

“When we show our respect for other living things, they respond with respect for us.” Arapaho Proverb

Taken as an excerpt from ’28 Thoughts On Digital Revolution’ available from Amazon as a paperback and for kindle: http://jonathanmacdonald.com/books/

Public Urban Boundary Systems

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Everything is getting so augmented and virtual nowadays – soon we will be able to live much of our lives in a totally unreal place, commanding experiences at the touch of a button, viewing through walls and skin effortlessly.

It’s tremendously exciting – but sometimes I wonder what will happen next. I mean, what will happen after everything is super virtual? What will follow? In my most bizarrely darkest hours I envisage people viewing instant messages and emails as fake signs of emotion, preferring instead to seal hand-written letters with wax stamps.

I envisage people paying a premium for mechanical, cog-based processors for even the simplest of tasks such as ‘telling the time’.

I envisage a global society who communicate virtually in three or four dimensions, never needing to leave their ‘pods’ – but with the option to pay to walk down a ‘Hi Street’. These areas are named as such because that is where you can say ‘Hi’ to a real person, i.e. one with flesh and blood.

Perhaps these toll roads, these ‘Hi Streets’, are encapsulated by areas that act as holding bays for people who would otherwise be greeting strangers…?

These could be called ‘Public Urban Boundary Systems’ or ‘PUBS’ for short.

Eventually, if we push things far enough, we stand a good chance of ending up with reality.

Taken as an excerpt from ’28 Thoughts On Digital Revolution’ available from Amazon as a paperback and for kindle: http://jonathanmacdonald.com/books/