Let Me Explain; Let Me Sum Up

There is a great quote from The Princess Bride

Westley: Who are you? Are we enemies? Why am I on this wall? Where is Buttercup?
Inigo Montoya: Let me explain.
Inigo Montoya: No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Buttercup is marry Humperdinck in little less than half an hour. So all we have to do is get in, break up the wedding, steal the princess, make our escape… after I kill Count Rugen.

It is what I thought of while reading Mike Caufield’s The Power of Explaining to Others.

I like discussions about things because in talking about it, I have to…

  1. Judge how much the other person knows.
  2. Judge how much I know.
  3. Figure out the best way to provide additional value.

In going through this, I figure out that what I know is usually less than I originally thought. Which makes me more curious, so I will seek more information. Many of my times getting lost down the rabbit hole of the Internet is trying to clean up the holes of my understanding from some recent conversation. There is an obsession to better know things, so I found it interesting that my habit of explaining books, articles, or whatever is on my mind ties to well into countering false information.

The conclusion to Gotcha Jerks Part II

Not long ago, it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling for a very conservative coworker to call me the only liberal he knows that he can discuss things. We disagree, but we respect each other enough to discuss things. I am not hurt by our disagreements. And as much as he tries to act radical, I suspect a lot of it is poker bluff acting.

My motivation in talking with him is in part understanding what I do and do not know. He provides a perspective I normally probably would not see. He uses keywords I can search for to find more about those views. And… He is not seeking to convince me (nor I him) to the “right” side. We just talk to explain what we know to better understand. So, I hope in explaining to me, he is getting the same benefit I am.


Why you think you’re right — even if you’re wrong

Motivated Reasoning aka soldier mindset:

This phenomenon in which our unconscious motivations (our desires and fears) shape the way we interpret information. So some information and ideas feel like our allies and we want them to win. We want to defend them. And other information and ideas are the enemy. We want to shoot them down.

Scout mindset shows curious, open to ideas, grounded. Willing to change one’s mind based on new information. We need to proud of having changed our mind when new data shows us to have been wrong.

If the above video does not work, then try Julia Galef: Why you think you’re right — even if you’re wrong.

Unknown Knowns

Yesterday’s post mentioned unknown unknowns. When I heard this matrix, it pained me that one of the quadrants was missing. Over the years, I have thought about that missing one and what it might mean.

Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 talking about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a year before the invasion:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

What is interesting about this matrix is the lack of an “unknown known.” This we know, but we do not know that we know them.

  • Known knowns = are evaluated risks. There is confidence in they can be handled.
  • Known unknowns = are poorly evaluated risks. There is no confidence in handling them.
  • Unknown unknowns = are unevaluated risks.

Unknown knowns, I think, are evaluated risks which are ignored. They are our blindspots. The knowledge is there, but not used. Either we disagree with the assessment. Or we think they are too trivial to matter. Or we lie to ourselves about it. In any case they are left out of the calculus or justification of a decision. Possibly a high level administrator never sees them in making the decision.

Too much information overwhelms making a decision. Too little information risks a bad decision. What information is the right information is itself a decision. 🙂

Data > Information > Knowledge > Wisdom (ITIL)

Dashboard vs Feed

John Pavlus in Ghost’s Blogging Dashboard Doesn’t Need to Exist fell hook line and sinker for Anil Dash’s All Dashboards Should Be Feeds false dichotomy. The better argument is dashboards only tell the past with all the noise where the more useful information is an accurate future. People ultimately want to know what is going to happen. The feeds would do that.

However, to accomplish that feeds take the same data, apply criteria, and report a prediction of value to the user. That’s fantastic stuff. You know… Fantasy.

Someone has to decide how to produce the signal out of all the noise. Probably that is a quant or a wannabe who teases out of the data the important predictions. So unless you are beholden to someone like Anil, you want to be able to manipulate the data by looking at something like a dashboard to build feeds.

Not everyone is like me, I get that. Simple users want a magic number or an easy indicator of what is going on. Think of an alert that a site is going to break in 15 minutes. Power users like me want to know if components of those web sites are going to break 15 minutes from now. You know, so I can go fix it. But I would not mind being able to allow others to subscribe to my feeds where appropriate.

I’ve never had a problem taking dashboard data and projecting from them trends. A good one, like Yaketystats will even graph the prediction lines for me. I often work with the data to see how this line changes in order to get a sense if the prediction has biases built into it. But then, I enjoy being hands on and manipulate the graphs to see what I want to know. Predictions are only as good as the algorithm. Any why should we trust other’s when we can build our own? I could see YS with alert feeds for directors and above letting them know about upcoming milestones. It would be great for them, but that high level view is not so interesting to me. I want the details and build the things that produce the signal from the noise.

Are We Information Junkies?

Catherine who I follow on Twitter retweeted about agreeing with this blog post:

Last night while sitting at a pub with some friends, the topic of information came up. My friend Tom, in particular, had a few interesting things to say about it. I asked him if he thought that constantly being tapped into the stream of information that the online world affords us was bad thing. Is our constant connection to blog posts, news articles, video, podcasts, Twitter, and Facebook more detrimental than positive? Are we a culture of information junkies?

His response, essentially was “no”. He basically said that in fact (and I’m paraphrasing) we have always been able to tap into information whenever we wanted to. Back in the old days, Tom said he used to scour through encyclopedias, magazines, and books all day long. He was always consuming information and learning new things. I thought back to my younger days and realized I did much the same. You probably did too. The difference is, said Tom, these days information is with us wherever we go. We carry the encyclopedia, and magazines, and book in our pockets. Information is always there, on any topic. It’s an amazing thing, said Tom, and it’s a good thing.

My reading list Back in the old days I owned more books a 9 years old than all of my close friends and their parents put together. I had read every novel more than once. Around a sixth of my books were science and history, which were often partially re-read, often as a result of looking for something specific to get proof of something. It could have been something novel that needed understanding. It could have been a claim by someone else. It probably did not help that from seven to ten years old, I spent a couple hours every week day after school at the library.

Later, as a teen when I played Dungeons and Dragons, I knew my books well enough I could open a book to within a few pages of the information I wanted. Of course, I replaced my Player’s Guide and Dungeon Master’s Handbook three times when they fell apart from overuse.

As a college student, I worked in the university library. It had a larger and much more stimulating collection of journals, books, maps, microfilm, and microfiche than the public library of my childhood. Some thought me a dedicated worker. Ha! Having unfettered access to information was the best form of entertainment.

Only working with computer systems and the Internet, so more information could tear me away from the libraries.

But am I an information junkie? Oh, yeah, absolutely. Finding that kernel of information that answers a question, solves a problem, or wins an argument causes a surge of dopamine. People get the same dopamine high from winning a game.

The delayed gratification of waiting to search my or another library or waiting until I got to a computer to search the Internet was probably a good thing. I’m learning to be better about not whipping out my phone to track down every possible query that comes across my head. Probably a good thing to wait.

Information Diet

Do we consume too much information? I might. Lately I have thought about reducing the amount of following I do. Typically I hit this point when I realize it takes me all weekend to catch up. To be fair I reach this point by getting all caught up over a long weekend and seeking out new stuff.

  • 40% the blog or news feeds (over 100),
  • 40% Facebook friends (remove over 250),
  • 40% Tumblr following, (remove 45),
  • 40% Twitter following (remove 100),

Then there are the potential stoppages:

  • Stop following tags on WordPress.com, Tumblr, Blogspot, Flickr.
  • Stop using some social media sites entirely like Google+ or Diaspora.

Given my social preferences, I have lots of time to spend online.

The Enemy’s POV

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

From the Martin Luther King, Jr. entry on wikiquote.

At brunch yesterday, the point was being made to me over and over that if climate change advocates could ask deniers, “What would it take to convince you?” and give that data or answers, then that would spark the necessary dialogue to help both sides understand each other. Running across the quote above, it struck me as quite funny and unsurprising that I would be on the wrong side of MLK.

As though proving my point, my repeated argument that ideology trumps facts according to studies fell on deaf ears. False information (such as a misleading negative campaign ad) agreeing with a person’s ideology followed by a retraction or fact checking tends to result in strengthening the false info. The recalled “facts” are those necessary to defend conclusions. It appears to work this way for both liberals and conservatives. The mechanics appear to include remembering the false information because they agree and not the correction because they disagree.

Even before I ran across this through to the present, I try to expose my self to Libertarian, Republican, Green, and Democrat information sources. I find myself dismissing some things and then armed with the ideas above feel bad about having done so. So I dig for more information and sometimes find I was wrong. Doing this is hard. It is far easier to just assume I was already correct. But then I am an information glutton.

Guard Dead Paper?

Seth said, “What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper.” Whenever, I read “mere”, “only”, or “just” as a descriptor, it makes me sad someone (even me) relies on obvious straw men.

Librarians already do more than guard dead paper. It just makes it easier to knock them down and kick them while they are down to portray them as such. Of course, the point is that Seth wants to see “… a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear…” which describes… every… librarian… I have ever known going back to age 5. Maybe growing up in and working in libraries gives me a different perspective than Seth?

The librarians I know…

  • Help patrons learn how to find information.
  • Learn quickly what the patron knows and how to connect the dots.
  • Have a master’s or doctorate in librarian (information) science but an undergraduate in something else because almost no where offers a bachelor’s in it.

How about this? “What we don’t need are mere scribes who throw words on paper. I want to see an author who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and communicate  information.” Yeah. Still just as demeaning without being at all helpful.

Another Ironic Keynote

Earlier today, Blackboard announced the keynote will be given by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U as the DevCon keynote. It continues the tradition of ironic keynote speakers in even years:

  • 2008 Michael Wesch who spoke on how the traditional one-to-many classroom model isn’t good for helping students learn. The two LMS products Blackboard makes continue the one-to-many model online. He advocated using free online Web 2.0 tools to aggregate the information students collectively relevant research and provide to the many-to-many class discussion.
  • 2006 David Weinberger who spoke on how digitalization changes how we organize information. He was previously a contributor to The Cluetrain Manifesto, whose point was corporations need to have honest conversations with customers because we do talk to each other and discover deception.

How does DIY U continue the irony in 2010? Well, the idea is to get rid of the education model where students solely look to experts (aka professor) to provide information. Students use the abundance of information available online for free such as OpenCourseWare and use the experts to give practical application experience. An LMS is designed to place the expert (the instructor role) as the provider of the information, the exact opposite of what Anya advocates.

Ideally, Blackboard arranges these to pressure themselves to adapt to the changing landscape.

If so, then based on the 2006 keynote, Blackboard should have a culture of engineers and developers willing to frankly talk to me about the products. They should be hanging out on the email lists where I seek peer solutions offering their own given their insider access. They should be on Twitter. There are a few who do this, but they are by far rare.

I’ve already argued how the LMS is Web 1.5 not 2.0.

Maybe in 2012.


This Linux tool is my new best friend. We get thousands of XML files from our clients for loading user, class, and enrollment information. Some of these clients customize our software or write their own software for generating the XML.

This means we frequently get oddities in the files which cause problems. Thankfully I am not the person who has to verify these files are good. I just get to answer the questions that person has about why a particular file failed to load.

The CE/Vista import process will stop if its validator finds invalid XML. Unfortunately, the error “An exception occurred while obtaining error messages.  See webct.log” doesn’t sound like invalid XML.

Usage is pretty simple:

xmllint –valid /path/to/file.xml | head

  1. If the file is valid, then the whole file is in the output.
  2. If there are warnings, then they precede the whole file.
  3. If there are errors, then only the errors are displayed.

I use head here because our files can be up to 15MB, so this prevents the whole file from going on the screen for the first two situations.

I discovered this in researching how to handle the first situation below. It came up again today. So this has been useful to catch errors in the client supplied files where the file failed to load.

1: parser error : XML declaration allowed only at the start of the document
 <?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>

162: parser error : EntityRef: expecting ‘;’
<long>College of Engineering &amp&#059; CIS</long>

(Bolded the errors.) The number before the colon is the line number. The carat it uses to indicate where on the line an error occurred isn’t accurate, so I ignore it.

My hope is to get this integrated into our processes to validate these files before they are loaded and save ourselves headaches the next morning.