The GUIey Middle of Artificial Intelligence

The basic premise of artificial intelligence, to use enormous amounts of data to find out new things, is easy to grasp. If any one of us had the time and stamina to study a million photos or stories about a thing, I’m sure we’d come up with insights about it too. 

Business products emerging from current applications of artificial intelligence are also logical and simple to get your head around. Smart thermostats sell because they are convenient and deliver energy savings. Marketing approaches that analyze shopping patterns to suggest items people are likely to buy are winners in retail for their potential to increase sales.

How does AI get from data analysis to creating desirable products? In diagram version, this seems to me:

A few hypothetical1examples:

1. Using AI to improve diagnosis of medical images. Input: One hundred thousand pathology slides of renal cancer and one hundred thousand slides of normal kidney tissue. Outcome: Improved differentiation between normal and malignant kidney biopsies. Doctors win because the accuracy of diagnosis increases, saving healthcare costs by prescribing the right treatment for patients. Patients win because they are either can carry on their lives disease-free or have greater certainty in the treatment they need.

Mysterious GUIey2inside: What is the AI looking at to distinguish between normal and cancerous cells in pathology slides?

2. Using AI to improve traffic flow. Input: Every car in the city communicates its starting point, destination, and real time location to a central database. The goal is to send a uniform volume of traffic via every available route so that none are over-used or under-used. The outcome is a clear win – optimum travel efficiency for everyone, saving time, auto costs and impact to the environment by decreasing energy consumption.

Mysterious inside: What is AI doing to manage all the permutations and combinations to direct even traffic flow?

The two examples are different. In the first one, the criteria AI uses to distinguish between normal and malignant cells are the mystery. Pathologists could list the traits they use to make a decision when looking down a microscope, but is AI using the same ones? In the second, it’s the speed and capacity to deal with volumes of users that’s amazing. It’s not difficult to suggest the best route for your mother to take home, based on knowledge of traffic patterns at the time of day in your home town, but who could do that for 3 million occupants of a city simultaneously?

I’ve read that we are unlikely to be able to extract the GUIey middle3from AI supported processes, due to the iterative nature of the learning. When a person really understands what they are doing, they can explain it. If a chef tells you their sumptuous meal resulted from ‘a little of this, a little of that’, they likely know exactly what went into the dish, but aren’t telling to protect their trade secrets. If my mechanic tells me they are basing the diagnosis of what’s wrong with my car on some data from other cars but doesn’t know which models or what kind of data, I’m looking for another mechanic.

Is not knowing how AI works any different than not knowing the detailed working of automobiles, or any other complex object or process in modern life – elevators, mortgage documents, dental implants? The fundamentals of the car I get – the energy of exploding fossil fuel is converted into angular momentum that torques the axels and moves me, in my steel and plastic carriage, to where I want to go. The business model is also easy – the speed and convenience of reaching destinations in relative comfort with the added efficiency of carting a group of people, sheets of drywall, or my dogs with me. There is someone who can explain ABS brakes, how the muffler is connected to the engine, and all the other components that make a car function. With AI, either by design or trade secret, the explanation is hidden.

We need to know the mysterious processes that AI systems use to derive new knowledge from the volumes of data consumed. Forget proprietary algorithms. This is brave new territory we are entering and transparency is important so we can be sure we are operating safely and ethically.4

History is full of examples of embracing new things without a full understanding of the implications5. From that, a machine would learn that we need to know how things work before we can use them safely.

——

1Both of my examples are likely to be real enterprises but staying hypothetical is better for this discussion.

2This is a pun on GUI type computer interfaces, which use icons, rather than typed commands, to tell computers what to do. GUIs make programming simpler. I’m suggesting by making things simpler with AI, we are making them less transparent, dissectable or amendable to understanding how the parts work together to create the whole. Less concrete. More gooey. Gooey-er. Soft and flowing, changing shape easily.

3I do know that the process AI uses is a very large series of logic functions, of the sort: if X does Y, then A is the outcome. If X, K and J, do B, then L is likely to happen. If X does Y but K does something else, and it’s Tuesday, then Blue is the right answer. Etc. Oh, and the AI may start with a bunch of logic statements but change them on the fly as more data comes in or if in testing a hypothesis, it doesn’t deliver satisfactory answers.

4For many examples, read ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ by Cathy O’Neil

5A few examples that spring to mind – nuclear weapons, cigarettes, social media, plastic, many types of home insulation, lead paint, breeding of dogs, trans-fats, mortgage backed securities.

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Destructive Creative Destruction


You know the list. The technologies, labelled creative destruction, that changed life as we humans knew it: Fire. Pasteurization. The assembly line. Washing machines. Email. Mobile Phones. 

Each of these had a dramatic impact on society, generally decreasing the effort required to do a vital human activity and allowing us to do other, more interesting things1.

Should plastic be added to the list?2 When introduced, it was a major new technology and found broad applications3. The ability to engineer polymers so they are flexible, solid, durable, the right colour and shape, mass-producible, light-weight and low cost lead to the introduction of many new products. Products like plastic bags, straws, packaging. The coating on electrical wires. Cheaper just about anything: shoes, suitcases, light fixtures, flooring, automobile components, toys, machine parts, human body part implants. The list goes on forever.

What has been disrupted by plastic?

Most things plastic are affordable, leading to increased consumption of each item. They tend to be single use, by which I mean two things: disposable or non-repairable. Disposable comes from the low cost – “I’m tossing this out because I can get another one for 3 cents”. Non-repairable because of the process used to create plastic widgets. Stuff made out of other substances known to humans can be engineered and modified. Wood, metal, cement, kryptonite4, plaster can all be fiddled with and/or repaired. Plastic, not so much. To be fair, this is what makes plastic appealing – the ability to spin or mold or extrude it into different shapes. The consequence is that it can’t be fixed because it’s all one piece.

Back to disruption. Here’s some of the ways plastic has changed in our lives:

  • Eating on the run. Plastic containers, plates and utensils made it possible to grab a meal from the takeout window or mall kiosk and eat it anywhere, rather than tethering dining to a venue that could manage ceramic plates and metal forks. 
  • Because plastic changed packaging, it facilitated transportation of goods to distant locations. Thus, more competition in many markets. Lower prices. More choice for consumers.
  • Plastics made many things affordable to more people. Furniture. Cars. Etc. A new social order of ownership emerged.
  • Not coincidentally, with the rise of plastic goods came the era of consumption. Affordable stuff enabled (and required – see above about repairing plastic items) frequent replacement of the items.

Many substitutes, such as plastic bags for paper bags, plastic bumpers on cars, plasticized paper cartons for milk rather than glass bottles, may seem disruptive, especially to the producers of paper bags, metal bumpers and glass milk bottles, but don’t actually result in a new social order.

From my list, plastic has disrupted: sit-down meals, local sourcing of goods, possessions as symbols of wealth, and the need for expertise in repairing many things. Based on fundamental values of community and social connectedness, as well as environmental stewardship, I’d say three of the four of these aren’t good. It could be argued that disrupting possessions as symbols of wealth, is social advancement. Otherwise, plastic disruption has not been good to us, even thought there are plenty of benefits to the use of plastic.

This disruptive technology (generally considered a good thing as it ushers in a new approach to old problems, makes life easier and richer) had negative consequences.

The earth has a problem with plastic. It doesn’t decay, ever. Even kryptonite decays. Plastic was celebrated for its disposableness, while ironically its permanence has clogging up the landfill, oceans, and microcirculation of the earth’s creatures. Oops, we created a monster. Vacuous consumerism snowballs the problem of overflowing landfill, making the monster multi-headed, with enormous tentacles and an awful smell.

Sometimes, what seems like a good idea at the time isn’t. Plastic isn’t the first time the true impact of a novel product wasn’t realized until time and mass consumption had gone by. Cigarette smoking. Fossil fuel emissions. Drugs with fatal side effects in one-in-a-million patients.

Fortunately, the plastic pollution crisis presents all kinds of opportunities for new creative destruction. Constructive creative destruction, please.

——-

1Fire allowed us to cook food and stay warm, increasing survival. Pasteurization was a process that made milk and other foods safer and allowed them to be transported further, increasing both the availability of food and the livelihood of producer. After the invention of the assembly line, cars became more accessible to different socio-economic groups and then expanded their horizons. Washing machines and other appliances are credited with allowing women the ability to lead a life outside the house, as it became possible to spend less than all of their time doing household chores. I don’t have to explain how email and mobile phones have changed the way we communicate, but future generations will need to be told.

2It piqued my interest when I saw it on a list of disruptive technologies in ‘Prediction Machines. The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence’ by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb, so thanks to them for making me think.

3For a great summary of the history of plastic, I recommend this https://www.sciencehistory.org/the-history-and-future-of-plastics

4Kidding, kryptonite isn’t on the list, it isn’t real.

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Ask What AI Could Do for You

Embrace new technology. Change life.

Who wouldn’t want that? Me, sometimes.

AI is the next big thing in disruptive creation. Errr, creative destruction. It’s not so new. Forms of AI have been embedded in commonly used products for decades: auto-correct typing, suggested products you may like, search results. Now, it’s becoming ubiquitous. The projected capacity of AI to make life easier is celebrated in investor conference calls, with services such as arranging for transportation to the airport when the AI knows you’ve bought a plane ticket, or ordering another box of laundry detergent when the one you have is about to run out. 

This makes me ask (and you can too), what would I love AI to do for me? Would it be great if AI ordered all my household consumables? Not really. I’m proud of my system for keeping a sufficient supply of life’s necessities (food, drugs, cleaning and pet supplies) on hand. It isn’t a big deal. If it is for you, or you just hate doing it, ok, I’d invest in that AI, if there were enough of a market to justify it.

Great new business models remove the pain of a current task, solve an existing problem. What do I see as really annoying, inefficient situations I would pay handsomely to change?

Here’s a starting1list:

  • the awkwardness of software updates – stop making me have to stop and think about something I’ve learned to do intuitively, like find the weather app on my phone screen.
  • the uncertainty of hiring competent contractors, plumbers, landscapers, auto mechanics. 
  • knowing when something I do regularly is going to change and how my life should adapt. When the bus schedule changes, I want to know if I need to get out of bed earlier, not just that the schedule has changed.
  • gardening solutions. Random bugs eat my leaves and buds. Critters steal my veg. Anticipating this, as preventative measures are likely the most effective, would be awesome.
  • interpreting what my cat says, translating to english. Seriously, why don’t we really know what ‘meow’ means, after domesticating cats thousands of years ago?

I happened on an application for AI that I didn’t know I needed until I needed it in a hurry. It required getting information from a series of government and corporate entities, late on a Friday afternoon, before a long weekend. And I got it. Because it was information that each entity stored electronically. So emails were generated to use the info to answer my questions. In 10 minutes! Huzzah!

There are probably many more services I consume irregularly that AI could speed up. From what I’ve read, the sorts of process AI is expected to be used in first are industrial/business applications. This means that many of the best uses of AI won’t be noticable to us consumers except in declining prices, faster delivery or a better selection of options.

Why my cautious approach to AI? There are many AI applications that I imagine would take the fun out of life. Anything that requires creativity. Or some combination of serendipity and knowledge. Interior decorating. Discovering new restaurants, clothing lines, bands, books to read. The whole point to discovery is that it’s random. If something tells you where to find it, that’s ok if all you wanted was to get the thingy asap. Roofing shingles, a new muffler, parts for your appliances, or shoe laces for your winter boots are like that. For other items, there’s the thrill of the hunt, randomly happening on the perfect wastebasket for the downstairs bathroom, shoes to go with your suit, or a gift for your three year old.

I strive to challenging myself to achieve more, learn more, do more, in physical, intellectual, and economic realms. If AI made it all easier, I’d cease to grow, learn or improve. Proponents of AI might say the technology would allow me to stop wasting my time on parts of life that don’t challenge, so focus is on improving in important areas. AI might even lead me to the next, more enriching challenge.

What do I wish AI would do for me? Take care of the annoying things and leave me the interesting ones. Bearing in mind that what I find annoying, you may find interesting, the key is to make everything more efficient but make the high efficiency version elective. A mundane example of this is that grocery stores sell loaves of bread, but also all the ingredients to make bread from scratch.

That’s real intelligence, delivering what each customer wants.

——

1I’m writing as an individual consumer. I may be in a demographic of one, which doesn’t make for a good business model, unless the product costs millions of dollars, which I don’t have, so forget that. However, more than likely I am in a demographic of significantly more than one, as most of us are.

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The Entrepreneur as Customer

“I’m going to live to be 1401,” I often say. 

People laugh, which is fine. I am serious.

“But I’m going to need replacement parts,” I usually add.

Thus begins my adventure as a customer in an emerging industry: regenerative medicine. Interesting to experience entrepreneurship from the buy-side. In IT entrepreneurial circles, this happens all the time. Early adopters of new technology come from within the industry, as they are in a position to understand the need and the benefits of innovations before a broader population.

I understand first-hand (pun intended) the basic human need for tissue regeneration – it literally relieves the pain caused by degeneration. After years of wear and tear, the cartilage my CMC joint2is almost gone and won’t heal. Delicate grasping is painful – I drop things. This inability to hold a piece of paper may impede my journey to the 22ndcentury3.

I’m faced with the intractable. Modern medicine has no restorative solutions. There are pain killers. Supportive braces. Electric can openers. It’s a problem that should be remedied, not compensated for.

There is an experimental approach: Stem cells. The scientist in me understands the theory, knows it could be the ultimate answer. Soft tissue replacement parts could be made – by installing a biological factory that regenerates the lost bits. But it’s new technology with limited testing, testing that might provide surprises not covered by the theory.

I leapt at the opportunity to undergo a cell transplant procedure with a full understanding of the risks, uncertainty and cost.

The trigger event for the this new technology were findings4that fat cells, from the abdomen, are a source of stem cells – cells that have the potential to multiply and form various types of tissue. This source is appealing (competitive advantage), compared to alternatives, that are uncomfortable for the patient (bone marrow harvest), or carry risks of rejection (if the stem cells are from a third party donor, rather than the recipient) or selection of unwanted features (culturing the cells in between harvest and injection may amplify unwanted traits). Hip and knee joint replacement is common with metal, plastic or ceramic parts. While generally successful, it is major surgery, costs $10,000’s, and requires months for the patient to fully recover. Replacement joints are less common in the hands.

I am an early adopter. Perhaps a consumer of an early stage prototype or minimum viable product, provider of input to get to product/market fit. Maybe even an investor, although I want to know if this is a scalable product. Currently, it needs a surgeon for administration, and a bunch of surgical equipment. However, this is indeed what puts the technology at the stage of product/market fit. It isn’t clear that the current approach can meet mass market demand, for technical reasons as much as anything else.

There is a great opportunity here. Clear unresolved pain, competitive advantage, timeliness, and a massive market for an effective treatment of osteoarthritis. The Arthritis Foundation states that 31 million Americans have osteoarthritis, and the expectation is that this will reach 78 million by 2040.5That’s a 5% year/year growth rate sustained for 20 years in a whomping big market. 

I’m excited to see the outcome of my treatment. Will there be regeneration and healing, so I can do mundane things like open a chip bag or put on socks without pain? There are no guarantees. As an emerging technology, there is knowledge to accumulate to optimize the product, possibly making it more effective and reliable. I’ll take the risk. I’m thrilled to be part of the development of this technology, the possibility to make a difference. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about.

——–

1I came up with this number after reading a theoretical paper many years ago about the limits of the human life span. Current estimates range from just over 100 to no limit. 

2Where the thumb bone connects to the wrist bone.

3This may seem melodramatic but there are studies that link an inability to do minor tasks with increases in depression, obesity and other chronic illness. 

4This paper summarizes the findings of a number of studies: Miana, V. V., & González, E. (2018). Adipose tissue stem cells in regenerative medicine. Ecancermedicalscience12, 822. doi:10.3332/ecancer.2018.822

5https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/arthritis-statistics-facts.php

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A Scientific Approach in Entrepreneurship and Strategy

Thinking like a scientist. This may not be new, especially for scientists. And not so much for entrepreneurs who subscribe to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup method1. But it was a hot topic at the recent Academy of Management (AOM) conference.2

I’m a scientist who has lived in the business world for decades. So, I’m excited to see the scientific method embraced at a business-centred conference. The AOM is an organization of business scholars, or people who study business. However, like every business school I’ve been part of, AOM aims to share knowledge with the practicing community.

First observation: Transparent Logic. The term immediately resonated – I knew exactly what it meant and why it was important in entrepreneurship. Transparent logic is part of a model for teaching social entrepreneurship3 and requires a clear link between the proposed activities and the social problem a venture is tackling. For example, providing water purification devices will decrease the incidence of dysentery, leading to fewer hours of lost labour and therefore people earning a better wage, however, it needs to be clear how people who need the device will get them and continue to use them. For many scientists, cause and effect is utopia. Transparent logic in a social venture seeks this holy grail of cause and effect.

At a session on entrepreneurial strategy4, we heard it was less about SWOT analysis and more about observation leading to hypothesis generation. An entrepreneur sees an unsolved problem and hypothesizes they can solve it with a certain product. The term causal logic came up, followed rapidly by notions of testing. Establishing value, after recognizing opportunities, can have its roots in the scientific method. The entrepreneurial process is scientific.

In the same session, a trial to evaluate the impact of the scientific method on startups was presented. Entrepreneurs were randomized into two groups. One was mentored traditionally – entrepreneurs were guided in business methods, product development and organizational development. The other group was tutored in a scientific method, using hypothesis generation, controlled testing and analytical methods to learn from test outcomes. Those using the scientific method pivoted more frequently, acquired and activated more customers and had more revenue generation. From this: the scientific method works for entrepreneurs.

On to a plenary session on strategy.5 There, too, causal identification was presented as a frontier in strategy research. My head started to spin with so many scientific references. I was brought back to objectivity, reminded that physics with its fundamental, timeless certainties such as gravity, was more reliable for test outcomes. The fundamental forces that shape business shift more often. However, like evolution of species, changes in strategic theme occur in leaps and bounds, rather than continuously. An example is the upheaval in retail, with the onset of online shopping. A discrete change in how we shop. It left survivors (Amazon) and the less fortunate (Sears Canada).

The hotness of the scientific method in business strategy looks to me like the mid-point stage on the S-curve6 of adoption of new things (technology, products, buzz-words, sports teams). Following this trajectory, soon it won’t be the new thing, but the common thing.

When I ventured out of the lab many years ago to join an investment bank, I was a foreigner. Welcomed, but in a world of people who thought in different ways. They had vision. Visions of logical explanations. Maybe it’s me that’s catching up, learning that shrewd entrepreneurs see value where other’s don’t.

The scientific method can make sense and compelling arguments out of ideas. It makes it easy to answer hard questions about why you think this new idea you have will make a great business. A great tool for any entrepreneurial business strategist.

——–

1http://theleanstartup.com

2This is a huge conference, attended by thousands of faculty members from business schools all over the world. With two days of symposia, plenary sessions and papers, each with 7 time slots, and an average of 15 sessions to choose from per time slot, this means there are (15) 14 = 2.9 x 1016 different individual selections of talks to attend. Or maybe it should be 15! which is only 1.3x 1012 I’m not exactly sure how to calculate the number of different permutations of the program but any way you do, the number is really big. So my experience may not be typical.

6Not surprisingly, the S curve is S shaped.

In the beginning, a handful people embrace a new thing. The adventurers, the risk-takers, perhaps those in the field who understand the new thing better than most. This is the first stage, the flattish bottom to the S curve.

Then word starts to get around. The new thing is good. It does exciting things. It’s better than the old thing. People jump on board, start adopting the new thing like it’s the best thing since the last new thing. This is the part of the curve that swings up so rapidly that if it was an airplane, everyone on board would pass out.

As time goes on, people remain excited about the new thing, but many people have the new thing, so the adoption curve starts to lessen its assent – the plateauing phase of the vertical rise.

Finally, just about everyone who will ever want the new thing, which isn’t so new any more, has it. The S curve flattens. No additional adoption because everyone loves and appreciates the new thing.

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What’s New in Innovation?

How cool is a conference that opens with a humanoid robot (Sophia) and a hologram of her creator (Dr. David Hanson) discussing artificial intelligence?

They were okay, but the real revelation I got from this year’s OCE Discovery wasn’t flashy, revolutionary or disruptive. I wasn’t transported to a new reality. Instead, I looked around and realized: we’re here. Here, at a place where innovation has few limits.

Technology is not limiting.

Data is not limiting.

Knowledge is not limiting.

Being an entrepreneur is not limiting.

What’s left is to ask the right questions, choose the problems to tackle, the needs to fulfill.

Let me explain. First though, let me say this post tumbled out of my brain1 after listening to many inspiring presentations by David Hanson, Megan Smith, speakers in the Keynote panel on Transformative Technologies, and panels on Artificial Intelligence and Smart Cities at the 2018 OCE Discovery, an annual, award-winning innovation-commercialization conference.

Technology. There are several waves breaking onto the beach of everyday life: Artificial intelligence. Machine learning. Big data. The internet of things. Robotics. The capacity to use information is immense, because of increased transfer rates (5G), increased availability (social media, GPS) or increased monitoring (sensors on everything). It goes beyond what humans are capable of by combining the storage power of machines with the processing power of machines. Sure, there are still technical challenges, but there is capacity to write algorithms, apply principles, reduce to practice. We are on the cusp of autonomous cars, SMART homes, apps to help us do everything from planting vegetables to grocery shopping to putting out the garbage.

Data. We have reams of data. We have reams of accessible data. Accessible both because it’s been collected and because some of it is public. Our phones and search engines probably know more about us than we do ourselves. Watson, the super-intelligent computer, knows more about medical studies than doctors2. Is Shakespeare is available in Klingon or which of his plays have been performed most often? This data3 is available.

Knowledge. Don’t know how to do something you want to do? Search. If that doesn’t work, ask. See above for accessibility of technology and data. Seriously, you can learn how to do just about anything on the internet, or at least find someone to teach you. The sharing economy has not only brought us cheaper rides and accommodation, it has shifting thinking to collaboration and partnerships so people are willing to share their expertise.

Entrepreneurship is best defined by what it no longer is. Entrepreneurship is an acceptable career choice. Starting your own business is cool now, although there was a time it was considered nasty capitalism by some. While starting your own business isn’t trivial, it’s better supported in Canada than it ever has been, with incubators, accelerators, educational programs, and accessible resources. What works and what doesn’t in entrepreneurship is understood better than it was 10 years ago. Due to the technology, data availability, and knowledge sharing, developing an idea into a business has never been easier. The challenge now is how to encourage and support people to do it.

That’s what struck me. We can do any number of things. We only have to decide what we want to do. Do we need to curate traffic so here are no more jams? Should we understand weather patterns to predict umbrella demand? Can we make a difference by diagnosing a disease before it is symptomatic? How do we reduce energy consumption? Waste less. Care for more.

From the miraculous to the mundane4, we have the technology, data and knowledge. We can build it, better, stronger, faster, for less than millions of dollars.

Combining creative risk-taking (entrepreneurship) and utilization of available resources (technology, data and knowledge), we can solve an enormous number of problems.

All we need is to just do it5.

——-

1Being inspired by interesting people was even better than not realizing David Hanson was a hologram until his talk was almost over.

4 Which is which may depend on your perspective – consider bringing entire populations out of poverty with microloans or being able to recharge your phone anywhere.

5 There are barriers and challenges to developing any idea into a tangible solution but I hate to be pessimistic. The Discovery conference was uplifting. We have so much potential. In my next post, I’ll take a critical look at common barriers to solving problems.

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The Internet of Work Life Balance

Where does the internet fit into the equation of work-life balance1? What is the equation on work-life balance, anyway? Is it:

work + life = 24 hours/day

Better add sleep:

8 hours sleep + work + life = 24 hours/day

Are meals work or life? Sometimes we eat lunch at our desk, but then have a dinner date. If your company provides free food while you socialize with your coworkers and talk about sports, is that life? Is it work if you take a client to a sumptuous restaurant you couldn’t otherwise afford? There are times when it feels like work to have dinner with your in-laws, or your significant other’s friends.

To be on the safe side, I’ll make meals a neutral category. The use of ‘balance’ implies some kind of sameness, so:

24 hrs - 8 hours sleep - 1.5 hours of meals = 
          equal parts work and life

Ha! Not many of us achieve this, unless you consider commuting, showering etc. part of life. Oh, but I forgot weekends, which means I need to do the equation for a week:

7*(24 hours - 8 hours sleep -1.5 hours meals) 
- 5*(2 hrs commuting + 0.5 hours showering) 

= equal parts work and life 

= 89/2 hours 

= 44.5 hrs/week work and 44.5 hrs/week life

That looks ok. Granted 14.5 hrs on each of Saturday and Sunday are the life balance part, which leaves only 15.5/5 or slightly over 3 hours each work day for the life part.

Does the Internet go on the work side, or the life side, of the equation?

Most of us can answer if any given website, or app, is related to work or life. Can’t we? Facebook is usually friends, which must be life unless you’ve friended your boss and coworkers. Which sometimes you have. And sometimes not. Most businesses have a Facebook page, so when your friend starts a business, you get an invitation to like their page, which of course you do, because you’re friends. It can get a little awkward. I have friends who run businesses that I don’t buy from. And friends who run businesses that I frequent. They are all still my friends because I keep my mouth shut and put on my business-person pants, enabling me to appreciate there is a market for what my friends are selling, even if it isn’t me.

Well, that got as far as Facebook being a minefield of business-like bombs that could explode in your life.

A complicating factor: What do people mean when they say they are ‘on the Internet’? Do they mean anything digitally connected? When I say I’m on the Internet, I mean, I’m surfing. Using Google to find interesting stuff. When I’m using the Internet to post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc, I consider I’m on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn etc. Similarly, if I’m sending email, I’m emailing, although that often is included in ‘using the Internet’. And technically, if using an app, whether it’s Uber to get a ride or your insurance company’s app to file a claim, you are using the app, which happens to run over the Internet.

Is the Internet ruining work/life balance? The premise is that with phone in hand we can always see work-related stuff. If I pick up my phone at 11:30 pm to answer a text from a friend about where we are going dancing the next night, and see a work-relate email which I answer in a few words, do I have a work-related imbalance in my life?

A good juxtaposition is studies that show how much time people spend on personal stuff ‘at work’. On the Internet. Assuming Netflicks is part of ‘being on the Internet’, 37% of people admit to watching Netflix at work2. Many companies block social media sites to increase employee productivity, which implies personal use of the Internet distracts from work. Does this help to balance work and life – that we use the Internet for work when we are at home and for life when we are at work?

The Internet has made this time-sharing easier. In days gone by, when you left work, the only way you could be contacted was via a landline, and only if you were at home and someone else wasn’t on the family phone. It was only done in dire emergencies. Similarly, the pre-Internet equivalent of watching Netflicks at your desk was reading a book. A very conspicuous not-doing-my-job activity.

I think balance is about choice. Sometimes I dedicate myself to work, but other times it’s okay to spend time on whatever personal thing is a priority3. And there’s inbetween times when even if I’m off work but find something of value to my job, I note it, or I’m at work and deal with a personal issue.

So the work/life balance equation looks like this for me:

Sleeping and eating 
      + doing a good job 
           + being friend, family and citizen

= using the internet to get these things done

QED4

3 as long as it’s legal and I’m not using the company name

4 which, despite what 1st year engineering students believe, does not mean Quite Easily Done

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No More Them.

I don’t like Them.

“It’s a time for choosing sides,” a wise person said to me recently. Not for staying neutral but for taking action. I agree. I’m going to get rid of Them.

How do I plan to remove Them from society, silence their voices and abolish their very existence? Non-violently. My goal is to exterminate the concept of Them.

Them are the Others. Could be Them are big business. Bad government. Men. Women. The Management. Some other group identified culturally, spiritually, by physical features, or an attitude or life choices or just about anything, like having big dogs, a certain model of car or coat.

Them are a group we build an imaginary fence around to distinguish them from Us. Them are often unsavoury because they have an agenda that’s different from ours, hard to understand, out of our control, oppressive, and we feel powerless to act against it. What’s not to fear and loathe?

That is definitely the Them I want to eliminate. No one needs Them.

We all have our ‘Them’s – groups we don’t understand who say or do things we disagree with. It is human nature to seek out those we connect with easily. Those who are Us. How do we get rid of our Thems?

The trick is to accept there is no Them. They are a group of people, like Us, but the differences stand out, rather than the similarities. Probably to both them and us. The fundamental premise for eradicating Them is that people are mostly the same. The key is seeing them as individuals that you have something in common with. Maybe it’s raising young children, an illness, a fear of flying, or love of Renaissance paintings. We’re all connected somehow.

How to see the connection?

This is a triskele, a symbol used by various cultures and groups over thousands of years. This version is celtic and said to represent unity of three disparate things: land, sea, and sky. As different and incompatible as these elements are, together they create the richness of the earth, flowers and trees and food for all of us.

For me, the triskele reflects what I do, bringing together groups or individuals that suspect they are different from each other but need each other. In my professional life, I’ve united investment bankers and scientists,1 academics and administrators, lawyers and inventors, investors and entrepreneurs, capitalists and socialists, scientists and the general public.

You’ll notice these are groups of two. But the triskele has three arms. What does the third arm represent? Someone who understands both sides of the situation and can explain it to the others in terms that make sense to them. There’s no Them when you realize what you share with the other people.

Any two people, or groups of people, regardless of how they want to group themselves, can find common ground if they understand each other’s motives and interests. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to agree on everything, or buy into all that everyone else thinks. If our lives intersect, there’s a way we can work together. The third arm, the connection, is key.

Join me. Help stomp out Them. Be a connector for two groups to understand each other. Make it personal. It won’t always end happily ever after, some times there will be agreement to disagree. But understanding where people are coming from is different from disliking a faceless group with incomprehensible ideas2.

If we’re all connected, there’s no Them.

I’ve chosen a side. I choose to side with Everyone. I’m living for the fundamental interconnectedness of Us.

—–

1 A simplified, hypothetical example: when the investment bankers see that an abstract invention, like say an internal combustion engine, has value because it can create a whole new, oat-free means of transportation that people will love for the convenience, scientists love it because their invention is useful, appreciated, and makes them some money so they can go on inventing new things, like self-driving cars.

2  Sort of like the difference between disagreeing with your sister over home schooling vs. disliking government policy on grade 3 curriculum. While you probably understand your sister, They definitely make the rules about public schools. But there are people who have made and institute the rules, people who are trying to deliver an educational system that balances costs, modern theories of education, keeping their jobs, and get the best for everyone’s kids. Disagree with the outcome if you must, not the people who are involved.

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Stop Helping, It’s not Helpful.

There is a fine art to understanding how, if, and when a customer wants to be helped. We’ve all experienced it: the difference between the poorly timed, inane, nagging questions and a salesperson who comes to your side just as a question about a product forms in your mind, adds insight to your shopping quest, and has you smiling at the check-out desk. Or the professional who distinguishes between when you’re in a hurry to find one, specific thing, vs. a leisurely browse that might see you buy an entire cartload of items.

The internet has taken the challenge of good customer service to a whole new level. It’s making me crazy. Why? Because pop-ups. There are many fine examples of using the internet to deliver better information about products, and ways to make products more accessible, both financially and physically. However, more thought could go into the implementation of some web browser popups.

Here’s a list of various pop-ups that miss the mark, at least for me:

  • Offering your newsletter before the site has even fully loaded. I don’t know who you are, what you do, or if I’ve clicked on a link by accident. So no, I don’t want your newsletter. Ditto alerts, updates and notifications. If you waited a bit, I’d be more likely to say yes. So wait a bit. In person, this would equate to a person with a clip board, standing at the store entrance, demanding ‘Do you like our store?’
  • Trigger happy sidebar ads, especially ones that scroll down the page with you. If I I’m interested in what you are selling, I’ll click on it. If I click by accident because of poor page design, I will hate your company for the rest of my life. It’s like a sales person holding up jackets when you’re browsing shoes and repeating: “How about this?” “How ’bout this?” “How bout this?” “How ’bout tis?”
  • Chat with an associate before I’ve even read a sentence. Put the dialog box away until an appropriate time to suggest it. Yes, it’s great you have people or bots to answer questions, but why do you have a website in the first place? So people can read about your company/product. This is especially true for logging into email and being offered chat with my friends. If I wanted to chat, I’d open a chat app. I’ve opened an email app, so guess what I want to do?
  • Why are the only two choices for getting rid of an ad that I don’t want to see: it covers the page1, or, it’s offensive? I have reasons for not wanting to see the ad. Maybe it reminds me of my ex-husband or dearly departed pet. Do you really want to push that negative association on me, so I can forever be repulsed by whatever is being promoted?
  • I don’t want extra windows to pop open with suggestions for helpful things like saving my passwords, adding people to my contacts, creating events in my calendar, or downloading an app to make what I’m doing easier2. It would be easier if I wasn’t constantly interrupted with popups trying to do things other than the one I’m trying to do. This is like trying to buy milk and bread while an over-zealous salesperson offers to determine my shoe size, the colour of my aura, or what my family history reveals about the perfect pet for me.
  • Requiring sign-in three screens into a site. There should be a flag (maybe like the toxic waste symbol) for sites that require creating an account to access the info they’re offering. Spending time on a landing page to get excited enough about the content to ‘click here to download’, only to find out that you need to surrender enough personal information for military clearance, is poor communication. Facebook and LinkedIn landing pages make it very clear that you are going nowhere without an account. It’s like getting to the check out at a store with some fabulous finds and discovering that the marked prices are only available to members. Who have signed up. With their personal information.
  • There should be a special place in hell for ads with a hard to find, or absent, close window ‘X’. This is the equivalent of a salesperson who doesn’t understand ‘I’m just looking’ as the signal to GO AWAY but instead follows you around the store, quipping useless information with each item you look at, oblivious to each new sneer.

Maybe everyone except me else loves pop-ups because they provide useful information. Most of us have things to do and don’t want extraneous pop-ups filling out lives with the need to swath though screens, like an explorer with a scythe in the jungle, to see what we came to see.

I might like pop-ups better if they added value. I am curious to know what conclusions fancy algorithms draw from my various searches and posts, akin to the fascination my rational self has with having my fortune read. A clever observer of people can conjure an accurate reading by observing and responding to their subject’s cues.

Know your client. In the modern era, that has to be done without invading privacy, which is how any good human salesperson has always done it – respecting the client’s preferences. The challenge is doing the same online. I’m sure someone or something will figure it out. Soon. Please.

——

1I’m probably being too honest because I won’t click on ‘it covers the page’ unless it covers the page. It only covers a third or a quarter of the page, so I don’t click.

2I realize this may not be the fault of the designer of the website I’m perusing. It’s the helpful operating system on my device. Still, back off.

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Evolving with Technology, or Is Fresh Air Good for You?

The perfect house: energy efficient, climate-controlled, with sweet filtered air inside. Want one? I don’t. To me, healthy living means opening a window to change the temperature in the house and rejoice in what the environment presents1.

I’m an environmental pig, living in a house designed over a century ago, lacking in the latest energy efficient technology. Instead, I have trees. Trees that shade my home and prevent the sun from beating extra kilojoules of energy, as heat, into my rooms. I have primitive geothermal cooling – an unfinished basement that breathes coolness into my main floor. My grandmother had something called a ‘root cellar’. A root cellar is on the cool side of the house (NE), in an area of the basement surrounded on four of its six sides by earth (top, bottom, north and east walls), and provides sufficient refridgeration to preserve carrots, potatoes and turnips.

Today’s ultimate ergonomic home, controlled with energy saving algorithms, has constant temperature regulation, purified air, and is tightly sealed from the outdoors. This provides cost effective heating and cooling2, and optimum air flow to prevent the growth of moulds and the like, with filters to cleanse contaminant particles from the air.

treesSounds great, but I don’t like it. Imagine instead opening a window to the heavenly smell of a summer rain, or when the roses are in bloom, or if the grass has just been cut. Wake in the morning to the sounds of the birds peeping and trilling through your open windows. Feel the caress of a breeze, floating in with the rhythimic chirp of the crickets on a hot summer night. Man, it’s good.

Which is better: the ecological, economical, sealed house, separating us from the nasty environment bent on messing with our equilibrium, or fresh air? Long ago, doctors prescribed fresh air to cure all kinds of ailments, obtained by sitting seaside as ocean gales hurled past. Today, we have polluted air and climate change that superheats and supercools our environment. We also seem to have heighened levels of environmental sensitivity, making many of us retreat into our climate-controlled isolation units.

I think there’s an instinctive attraction to fresh air, perhaps the converse of our repulsion for things that smell of bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms associated with death, disease and decay. When we smell clean water, or air scented with healthy growing things, we know there’s sustaining substances for us. The reek of animal waste makes us recoil, which is surely a good survival instinct, allowing us to avoid traipsing into the bear’s or lion’s den.

Ancient history? Do our instincts lag behind what’s useful in the modern world? I went looking to see if fresh air is still good for us. The first web search turned up organizations confirming fresh air was good for the soul. It cleanses, reduces stress, improves digestion, boosts the immune system and a number of general statements of limited substance. People believe that fresh air is good for us, perhaps based on how good it feels, but how about proof?

Science, where are you? Science says there are benefits to feeling as good as fresh air can make us feel. Fair enough.

One interesting study3 measured ventillation in 28 grade schools in California and compared it to sick days taken by students. It found the higher the rate of removal of CO2, the fewer sick days. This cleansing of the air, associated with less illness, was higher in classrooms with open windows than air conditioning. But that might just mean that traditional air conditioning isn’t very good at air exchange.

What is fresh air, exactly? Anyone who’s familiar with farm country, a bastion of wholesomeness, knows it often smells unpleasantly of manure. Different people might define fresh air as air that’s:

  • scented with pleasant things, like apple pie, or the sea,
  • has less CO2 and more O2,
  • low in irritants, or infectious agents, or
  • a comfortable temperature.

Googling ‘allergen free air’ is amusing. The first nine hits are businesses offering sources of air treatment, and the last one is for chimney cleaning4.

On Google Scholar, I found specific, detailed studies, such as:

  • dust-free pillow covers reduce allergic symptoms in a group of 30 kids,
  • Hepa filters decreased cat dander but did nothing for asthma symptoms in a handful of people,
  • fungus is higher inside than out in the winter in the US midwest.

This, of course, is the point. Science is very specific because sometimes it matters very much if you take one acetaminophen capsule today or one acetaminophen capsule per day, so we shouldn’t expect it to provide pronouncements on something as general as fresh air.

The US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) defines six things5 as hazardous to human health in air (at sufficient concentrations), all based on full arsenals of scientific research. Some of these harmful things are not smellable when you open the window after a summer rain. But I can’t accept that it’s better for people to stay inside a sealed building, even if it has perfect air quality.

Are my instincts betraying me, telling me outside is good? Are they antiquated notions, left over from a time when there was no pollution, climate change or crazy, invisible things in the environment that could harm me?

If my fresh air instincts give me a survival advantage, turning my yearning to spend time outside to increased health and longevity, then they are good instincts. But if those who stay inside are better off, don’t contract as many diseases because they are protected by their controlled environment, then my instincts will fade from the human repetoire. My line will die out while the earth is populated by the people who stay inside.

I don’t know the answer to who will win this evolutionary battle of survival strategies and it will take centuries or longer before anyone knows. The question is whether they will be living in a sealed, plastic dome or in the forest alongside the deer, mushrooms, and snails.

——

1 At least for half of the year, not when central heating is doing it’s best to keep the indoor temperature above 65oF/18oC, then I’m all about man-made heat.

2 I am told that it’s most efficient to control the temperature 7×24, rather than adjust it at will, as keeping the temperature constant is less energy intensive than sudden changes.

3 Mendell, M. J., Eliseeva, E. A., Davies, M. M., Spears, M., Lobscheid, A., Fisk, W. J., Apte, M. G. (2103) Association of classroom ventilation with reduced illness absence: a prospective study in California elementary schools. Indoor Air v23(6) doi10.1111/ina.12042 retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ina.12042/abstract

4 Probably because I have a wood burning fireplace and was looking for someone to clean it recently, but an admirable example of how sweet the smell of something (burning hardwood) can be but how unsure I am that it’s healthy

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