Black Box Magic

black boxes ttv

With a black box system a person working with it sees what goes in and what comes out. The machine’s decision making process is obfuscated. Theories are made based on incomplete evidence on the behavior. More data points on more situations confirming the behavior is my way of being more comfortable the theory is correct. Sometimes we lack the time or conscientiousness or even access to ensure the theory is correct. This leads to magical thinking like labeling the software in human-like terms, especially insane or stupid or seeking revenge.

With a white box system, a person working with it can see the machine’s logic used to make decisions. Theories can be made based on more complete evidence due to investigating the code to see what it is intended to do. The evidence is far more direct than testing more.

Systems today are so complex they tend to have many parts interacting with each other. Some will be of each type.

Then there are Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) which expose vendor supported methods to interact with a black box by disclosing how they works.

Proprietary systems tend towards a black box model from the perspective of clients. This black box philosophy depends on the experts, employees of the company, design the system so it works well and resolve the issues with it. So there is no need for clients to know what it is doing. Where the idea breaks down is clients who run the systems need to understand how it works to solve problems themselves. Sure the company helps. However, the client will want to achieve expertise to manage minor and moderate issues as much as possible. They want to involve the vendor as little as reasonably possible. Communities arise because peers have solved the client issues and getting an answer out of the vendor is either formulaic, inaccurate company line, or suspect. Peers become the best way to get answers.

Open source systems tend toward a white box model from the perspective of clients. This white box philosophy depends on clients to take initiative figuring out issues and solutions to resolve them. Clients become the experts who design the system so it works well. Where the idea breaks down is some clients just want something that works and not to have to solve the problems themselves. Sure the open source community helps. Companies have arisen to take the role of the vendor for proprietary systems to give CIOs “someone to yell at about the product”. Someone else is better to blame than myself.

Cases of both the black and the white box will be present in either model. That is actually okay. Anyone can manage both. Really it is about personal preference.

I prefer open source. But that is only because I love to research how things work, engage experts, and the feel of dopamine when I get close to solving an issue. My personality is geared towards it. My career is based around running web services in higher education. Running something is going to be my preference. (Bosses should take note that when I say not to run something, this means it is so bad I would risk being obsolete than run it.)

This post came about by discussing how to help our analysts better understand how to work with our systems. It is hard to figure out how to fix something when you cannot look at the problem, the data about the problem, or do anything to fix it. So a thought was to give our analysts more access to test systems so they get these experiences solving problems.

Photo credit: black boxes ttv from Adam Graham at Flickr.

How to Pray

Included below are the steps that Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, 1897-1957, reportedly gave to a follower of the Bahá’í Faith, Ruth Moffat, who visited him in the Holy Land. His injunction speaks to us all about the dynamics of prayer and how we can use it to find solutions to even our most challenging problems.

Here are the five steps he suggests for solving problems:

First Step: Pray and meditate about it. Use the prayers of the Manifestations (Prophets of God) as they have the greatest power. Then remain in the silence of contemplation for a few minutes.

Second Step: Arrive at a decision and hold this. This decision is usually born during the contemplation. It may seem almost impossible of accomplishment but if it seems to be an answer to a prayer or a way of solving the problem, then immediately take the next step.

Third Step: Have determination to carry the decision through. Many fail here. The decision, budding into determination, is blighted and instead becomes a wish or a vague longing. When determination is born, immediately take the next step.

Fourth Step: Have faith and confidence that the power will flow through you, the right way will appear, the door will open, the right thought, the right message, the right principle or the right book will be given you. Have confidence, and the right thing will come to your need. Then, as you rise from prayer, take at once the fifth step.

Fifth Step: Then, lastly, ACT. Act as though it had all been answered. Then act with tireless, ceaseless energy. And as you act, you, yourself, will become a magnet, which will attract more power to your being, until you become an unobstructed channel for the Divine power to flow through you.

Many pray but do not remain for the last half of the first step. Some who meditate arrive at a decision, but fail to hold it. Few have the determination to carry the decision through, still fewer have the confidence that the right thing will come to their need. But how many remember to act as though it had all been answered?

“How true are those words: Greater than the prayer is the spirit in which it is uttered’ and greater than the way it is uttered is the spirit in which it is carried out.”

Another page references this plus talks about meditation.

Smart Groups

We started in a conversation about an interesting grant seeking to help students from low-income families through OpenCourseWare and providing them better information. An Open Source LMS != open coureseware. OSLMS is running students through online classes. OCW is providing the content so anyone can download and use it. The better information section sounded to me suspiciously like SHERPA, which uses preferences students have previously made to guide them to resources and classes. George pointed out in the past people predicted the death of universities in just a few more years over people being able to learn the information for any course just by downloading it. Unfortunately, only some people can just take texts and videos then naturally know how to build upon them. The more powerful method to reach students seems to be making the content relevant to solving real-life problems, especially one where the learner benefits over or with another.

Next, I diverted the conversation off on a tangent about how a book recommended managers build teams by evaluating the attitudes, habits, and personalities and then place the members so they cover each others weaknesses. This article about social cooperation skills trumping intelligence has been mulling about in my head for a couple weeks.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that collaborative groups who conversed easily with equal participation were more efficient at completing sets of given tasks — and produced better results — than groups dominated by individuals.

It occurred to me what universities should try towards solving retention is to devise methods of helping students build teams. Take something like eHarmony which is based on helping people find others with similar values, but instead have it look at traits useful for learning and solving problems and cooperation. Then make it easy for students to meet each other in classes and work together. The student who is good at locating lots of information from research but weak in logic is paired with one who is weak in research but strong in logic. Learning together, maybe they would end up better students, more engaged, and more productive.

TED Talk: Is Play More Than Fun?

In the Q&A, Stuart Brown, co-author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, rejects the idea play is a rehersal for adulthood. Stopping an animal from playing doesn’t prevent the animal from being a successful predator. REM sleep provides the rehearsal needed for learning. Play is the next evolutionary step. The video is a little too heavy on repeating the same generic idea over an over with different examples. However, they are amusing examples.

The types of play Brown references usually involves multiple individuals in a social interaction. This play teaches survival skills like socialization, adaptation, flexibility (our selfish genes at work).

The origin of this play research was in identifying the next Charles Whitmore, the University of Texas Tower sniper. In studying mass murderers, he found Charles and others like him consistently grew up in environments where play was not allowed. By not playing these children developed into dysfunctional adults.

I found a particular claim quite interesting. “The opposite of play is not work… It is depression.” That is almost word for word out of his book on page 126, which Google Books has a copy. Later he better explains the part about play and work are not in opposition:

The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both we are building our world, creating new relationships, neural connections, objects…. At their best, play and work, when integrated, make sense of our workd and ourselves. (Play, p.127)

This agrees with Adam and Jamie from the Mythbusters to Moira Gunn for the Commonwealth Cluf of California about their work. Just look at Adam’s face before triggering a test on any episode. The complete and total joy is a testament to the power of dopamine.

I think the opposition to depression involves movement which is exercise. Exercise produces serotonin which is crucial to fighting off depression. So my work, sitting in a cube all day long problem solving is good for dopamine but not a producer of serotonin. However, a good game of tag would produce both dopamine in anticipating tagging a playmate and serotonin from the movement. (Why can’t work be more like tag?)

If Dr. Brown is right, then suppressing the rough and tumble playing children enjoy is the best way to place in society malfunctioning adults who are more likely to be violent. Things like recess (just half an hour) during the day will keep our prisons less full 20 years later. <sarcasm>Maybe the No Child Left Behind meant all the children will end up in prison?</sarcasm> More likely children will fit their play in less supervised situations and get their fill.