Life, The Algorithm

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In a most remarkable product demonstration, Google unveiled their improved artificial intelligence (AI) application, Google Assistant. In the demo, the application phones up a hairdresser and, using uncannily natural-sounding speech, peppered with “uhms”, is able to book an appointment by conversing with the hairdresser. In doing so, Google Assistant appears to pass the Turing Test, developed by the British mathematician Alan Turing in 1950. This test postulates that if a person can’t tell whether they are communicating with a human or a machine, then the machine has passed the test and therefore “thinks”.

In the demo, it is a machine that (or perhaps who?) is calling the business to book the appointment, and the individual answering the phone is human. However, this could easily be reversed, so that it is a person who is calling the business, and the machine answering for the business.

This raises an interesting question: what if it there was a machine at both ends of the conversation, that is, one Google Assistant calling another? If the AI engine running both assistants is advanced enough, they could, in theory, carry on a meaningful conversation. Although this might seem like the ultimate AI prize, there’s a much simpler solution: using a website to book an appointment. Granted, it doesn’t have all the nuances of a regular conversation, but if the goal is simply to book an appointment, then the user’s computer simply has to connect with the business’s.

This use of advanced AI is part of a larger phenomena: the degree to which our daily tasks have been automated or performed by others. Up to a mere 200 years ago, people made and repaired what they needed, including clothes, tools, furniture, and machinery, and often grew their own food. The industrial and agricultural revolutions completed changed all that. Goods could be mass-manufactured more efficiently and at a lower cost. Food could be grown on a mass scale. We’ve moved away from a society in which individuals made their possessions to one in which we let others do this for us.

As recently as the 1960s, many people maintained and fixed their cars; most people today leave this to a mechanic. We have outsourced nearly everything. Although we have gained much in quality, price and selection, in the process, we have lost many practical skills.

This trend continues as more and more processes are automated or simplified. Coffee makers that use pre-packaged pods are easier to use than regular coffee makers. However, it would be a sad thing if entire generation did not know how to brew coffee the regular way. Even brewing coffee “the regular way” still involves using a machine that others have made and that we cannot fix, powered by electricity that we do not generate, using beans that we can neither grow or process ourselves, and water that is automatically pumped into our home using an infrastructure that we cannot maintain. The parts that make up the parts that make up still larger parts are designed and built by others.

At its heart, Google Assistant uses algorithms, sets of sequential rules or instructions that solve a problem. A simple example is converting Celsius to Fahrenheit: multiply by 9, divide by 5, and then add 32. The algorithms used by software applications are, of course, millions of times more complex than this example, because they use millions of lines of code.

Algorithms are incredibly omnipresent. They are used extensively by online retailers (such as Amazon) to recommend purchases for us based on our previous purchases and browsing habits. Facebook uses them to track our activity and then sell that data to others, often with dire results. Algorithms are also used in two of the most important decisions a person can make: whom they love (in dating applications) and where they work (in résumé and interview screening applications).

Algorithms have even used to determine how likely a criminal defendant is to re-offend based on attributes such as race, gender, age, neigbourhood and past criminal record. But is it ethical for a judge to use an algorithm to determine the length of a sentence? This happened in the case of Eric Loomis, who received a six year prison sentence in part due to a report the judge received based on a software algorithm.

Society is facing the same trade-off that it faced 200 years ago as it moved from personal to mass manufacturing: convenience and comfort versus knowledge and independence. As we relinquish more and more power to machines and let algorithms make more of our decisions, we achieve more comfort but less freedom. We are, bit by (computer) bit, quietly choosing to live in a massive hotel. It’s pleasant, you don’t have to do much, but it does not prepare us for life.

For in life, there is often sadness, pain and hardship. There is no algorithm that tells us how to deal with these things, nor will there ever be.

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In our image

See the source imageIs a ship which has had all its parts replaced over many years still the same ship? This question is explored in Theseus’s paradox which asks whether something remains the same even if all of its components have changed. Other examples include an axe that’s had several handles and blades and a broom that’s had several heads and handles.

Moving from things to people:

  • The rock groups Yes, Heart and Blood, Sweat & Tears do not have any of their original band members – are they the same band?
  • Canada’s landscape and population have vastly changed its founding in 1867; is it the same country as it was back then?

It all depends on how you define “the same”. If you mean “something containing all of the original components”, then these things are not the same. However, if you mean “with the same general identity or name”, then these things are the same. The paradox is that both these things can be true. Canada as an idea never changes; Canada as a thing always changes.

With human beings, the question becomes even murkier. Most of the cells in the human body are replaced every 7 to 15 years. Is someone the same person they were 15 years ago? The answer may be found in our technology.

Like human memory, computer memory is also ethereal. It is stored as a complex set of magnetic charges, which in turn represent the binary code that drives the system. The entire system is dynamic. Magnetic charges are continually moved around so that each time you use the device, the layout and order of the memory changes. However, from the user’s perspective, it is still the same device, and nothing has changed. That is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because the whole is constant regards of where and what those parts are. Therefore, even though from a material perspective the device has changed, from a perceptual perspective it has not. Perception overrides materialism.

The same is true in people. We don’t define ourselves solely as physical beings but also as spiritual ones, with a soul we are born with that never changes. Even though physically we’re not same as we were years ago, spiritually and emotionally, we know we are the same. It is this knowledge that keeps us sane. People who perceive their soul (or personality) as changing are often diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder. It is as though the hard drive in their brain is being regularly replaced with another.

It is no coincidence that the essence of our existence is also in our technology. Those of faith believe God created mankind in his own image. Mankind, in turn, inspired by this, has created machines in his. Perhaps this is why the the entire contents of a hard drive, DVD, or CD is called a disk image.

A Portable Life

“Computer” did not always mean a thing that computes; as recently as the 1960s, it actually meant a person. The US military and NASA employed human computers to perform complex mathematical calculations. As electronic computers evolved, they replaced human computers, and replaced the definition of a computer.

Image result for ENIAC

The early electronic computers were enormous. ENIAC, (pictured right) one of the earliest all-purpose computers built in the 1940s, was 1,800 square feet and weighed nearly 30 tons. (Not exactly a laptop.) It took an army of people just to keep it running.

Later computers (such as mainframes) in the 1960s also required many individuals to operate. Starting in the 1980s, the personal computer took off. Today, most people own several computers in various forms. We have therefore evolved from:

  • many people for one computer
  • one person for one computer
  • many computers for one person

The primary computer types today are desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. All of these are “personal” computers, because the owner is highly connected on a personal level to each device, as though it was a physical extension of that person.

If you think I’m exaggerating, watch the look on a young person’s face if they have misplaced or lost their smartphone; it’s not quite an amputation, but pretty close. So much of a person’s life can be on a computer it quite literally becomes a part of them.

We can categorize computers as:

  • Non-portable: desktops
  • Highly portable: smartphones
  • Semi-portable: laptops & tablets

Given how personal “personal computers” are, it’s not a huge leap to correlate the type of computer to the type of person: non-portable, highly portable and semi-portable.

The Non-Portables

Non-portable people are the stable, steady stalwarts of society. They have established homes, travel little if at all, and are consistent, reliable, dependable and trustworthy. They may not always be creative, but are able to work with creative people to get the job done. They are conservative, resistant to change and comfortable in their routines. They may be perceived as cold and uncaring, but deep down can have big hearts. They just don’t wear their heart on their sleeve, but keep it safely tucked away, just in case. Their motto is: “If it ain’t broke, why even think about fixing it?”

The Highly Portable

Highly portable people are the dreamers and drifters. They move frequently, rent but never own, love to travel, and frequently change careers. At their worst, they may be unstable and flighty, but are also very friendly, outgoing and full of new and original ideas. They are always challenging the status quo, and in doing so, get the world of its comfort zone and move it forward. Their motto is: “Everything needs fixing.”

The Semi-Portables

Semi-portable people reside between these two extremes and are therefore more difficult to define. They can be very open and creative, and at other times closed and subdued. They excel as mediators and diplomats, bringing the other two types together and bridging the gap between them. They are the middle ground, the average, the in-between. Their motto is: “Let’s look together to see if it needs fixing.”

With AI (artificial intelligence) now developing at an astonishing rate, we are approaching the age where computers will be able to think and reason as people do. In what will be one of the greatest ironies of technological history, computers may again become persons. When that happens, your smartphone will indeed be “a portable life”.

Binary Worlds

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“There are 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t.”

— Unknown

This joke is best appreciated by geeky math-lovers. 10 is actually the binary representation of the number 2. This cheeky statement is a good application of the principle that you must know your audience when developing content.

Binary code is comprised solely of zeros and ones. The performance artist Laurie Anderson muses that while no-one wants to be a zero, everyone wants to be number one, and that there’s not much range between these two for everyone else. We should therefore get rid of the value judgements associated with these numbers, especially considering that the world runs on binary code which is made up entirely of, you guessed it, zeros and ones. Almost all electronic devices, from computers, to smartphones, to TVs, ovens and cars are programmed using binary code.

Information is binary, and not just because it’s stored on a computer. It is because either the user understands the information, or they do not. If they don’t understand even one of the steps in a 7 step procedure, they don’t understand the procedure. Each step in the procedure is a link in a chain, and the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Just as a school course can be a pass/fail type (with no numeric or letter grade), every piece of information goes through a pass/fail test in the reader’s mind.

One of the most dangerous activities on earth is leaving the earth: space travel. For this endeavour, NASA takes a binary approach. Before a launch can proceed, the flight director asks each department manager (guidance, surgeon, control, and so on) their status. Each manager replies by saying go or no-go; they never say “almost go”.

Now the opposite of binary is analogue, and it is analogue that is the source of much grief.  For while binary represents certainty, analogue represents uncertainty.

Anything that works intermittently is analogue. Cars that sometimes don’t start. Computers or phones that are buggy. Locks that sometimes stick. If something works all the time, we use it. If it never works, we discard it. But if it occasionally works, this is the analogue of never-ending frustration. It occupies a special place in hell where something works just well enough to keep it, but not badly enough to discard it.

But that’s not the half of it, for binary applies not only to devices and systems but to people. A person either marries their partner or they do not; a defendant is either guilty or not guilty; a politician either wins or loses an election.

The only thing worse than a negative outcome is an unsure one. Uncertainty, with all its angst, fear and misery, has no time limit. Breaking up is better than the endless unsurety of potential marriage; guilt better than the dreaded uncertainty of guilt; losing an election better than the turmoil and chaos of an inconclusive result. A painful resolution is less painful than no resolution. Closure ranks above all; there’s no room for ajar.

As Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” This is the ultimate binary expression.

Reverse engineering

reverse-engineering-sizedReverse engineering is the process of analyzing something to understand its composition and how it works, often with the intention of copying it.

A notable example is Compaq computer’s reverse engineering of IBM’s ROM-BIOS (the chips that made IBM computers work) in the 1980s. By methodically determining how the chips functioned, Compaq was able to clone the IBM PC, and produce computers that could run IBM software.

The analysis of the human genome is a more intriguing example of reverse engineering. By determining the makeup of the entire human DNA sequence, scientists hope to someday cure diseases by creating customized medications targeted to an individual’s DNA; no two people would receive the exact same treatment.

A fascinating application of reverse engineering to communication is forensic linguistics: the science of language analysis to solve crimes. The FBI used it to identify the Unabomber, who demanded his 35,000 word manifesto be published. As a result, his own brother recognized the style of writing, leading to the Unabomber’s capture and imprisonment.

Effective communication is a form of reverse engineering. It is the process by which a communicator determines what a user is trying to achieve, then works backwards to create the information in a form that the user understands and can easily act upon. (I call this the “back-words” approach.)

All users are ultimately trying to achieve something by solving a problem. Specifically, they need to:

  • complete a task
  • understand a concept, or
  • look up something

Therefore, all documentation must solve a problem. By applying the principle of reverse engineering, we can solve these problems. In these examples, we’ll explore the problem everyone loves to hate: filing their taxes.

Problem 1: Completing a task

A user who must complete a task does not want to complete it – they want the end result. Therefore, to effectively document a task, a communicator must:

  1. Understand the end goal and the purpose behind it.
  2. Know the main steps (and any alternate steps) to achieve that goal.
  3. Document the steps as quickly and efficiently as possible using the language that the least experienced user will understand.
  4. Clearly state the end result.

Applying this to tax filing, the documentation (or the process itself) must:

  1. Recognize that the user wants to pay as little tax as possible; they don’t want or need anything else.
  2. Guide the user through the various steps, offering appropriate guidance to minimize the amount payable.
  3. Clearly indicate if the user owes an amount or will receive a refund.

Problem 2: Understanding a concept

A user may just need to understand something. For example, the tax filer may want to know about a specific tax deduction that they may be entitled to. However, even in this case, they are still trying to achieve the same goal: minimizing the amount of tax paid.

Therefore, to effectively document a concept, a communicator must:

  1. Understand the reason why the user wants to know this particular concept or idea. That is, they must understand the understanding.
  2. Describe the subject clearly and in terms familiar to the end user. There’s nothing more frustrating to a user than something that is described using terms they don’t know.
  3. Offer advice about practical steps they can take based on this knowledge, or additional resources.

Applying this to tax filing, the documentation or process itself must:

  1. Again, recognize that the user wants to pay as little tax as possible.
  2. Explain each deduction and whether the user qualifies for it.
  3. Guide the user on applying for the deduction they qualify for or explain why they don’t qualify.
  4. Offer information about additional deductions that they may qualify for.

Problem 3: Looking up something

A user may need to retrieve a specific piece of information in order to solve one of the two other problems stated, which, in turn, enables the user to achieve their goal.

To effectively enable the user to look up something, a communicator must:

  1. Organize the information to make it easy to search, using a clearly identifiable search tool.
  2. Present clear and meaningful search results, and filter out meaningless ones.
  3. Understand the ultimate reason why the user is conducting this search.

For example, if a user is claiming medical expenses, they want to know which expenses they qualify for. They would then use this information to claim these credits.

Therefore, when searching for a credit, if the user finds an applicable credit, there should be a link to the information or process that will enable them to obtain this credit. The point is that the user is not searching to find out which deductions apply; they are searching to save money.

Summing up, a user needs to:

  • complete a task: that is, DO something
  • understand a concept, that is, KNOW something
  • look up a piece of information, that is, FIND something

for the ultimate purpose of achieving a goal.

This can be further summed up as:

DO/KNOW/FIND -> ACHIEVE

Reverse engineering this, we get:

ACHIEVE -> DO/KNOW/FIND

This formula states that all users want to achieve something, by doing, knowing or finding something. From the user’s perspective, the achievement (or end goal) is the key. How they get to that goal is nowhere near as important as the goal itself.

Stated differently: millions of people own drills that they didn’t want.

What they wanted were the holes.

Tech Comm & Number Theory

Image result for mathematics

As I’ve written previously, mathematics and technical communication (tech comm) both model reality. In math, numbers do not “exist” in the literal sense of the word. You can have 3 coins, but the concept of 3 does not occupy a physical point in time or space; it transcends it. Numbers, therefore, describe the quantities or properties of a person, place or thing but are not actual people, places or things.

Similarly, tech comm is a description of reality but is not reality itself. A guide explaining how to use a smartphone is not an smartphone but a representation of it. The ideas, lesson and concepts in the guide must be interpreted and understood by a human reader; therefore these things exist only in the reader’s mind.

Now, if mathematics and tech comm are attempts to describe reality, it follows that some of the basic principles of math should apply to tech comm.

Numbers are the building blocks of all mathematics. The 10 digits which form all numbers are math’s “alphabet”, however, not all numbers are equal; they fall into various groups.

Natural numbers are all whole positive numbers: 1, 2, 3 and so on. These are the practical, real-world numbers that we use each day when counting, ordering, adding, and so on. They are precise and complete because they exclude fractions or decimals. Any simple, clear and complete positively stated information corresponds to a natural number, for example: Sales increased 7% over last year.

Negative numbers are numbers less than 0. They were first envisioned by the Chinese over 2,000 years ago. There is a theory that the idea of duality in Chinese philosophy made it easier for this culture to develop the idea of a number less than zero.

Any negative statement corresponds to a negative number, for example:

Do not turn off your computer during the installation.

Fractions have at least two parts: the top number of the fraction or numerator and the lower portion or denominator. However, fractions can have more than two parts in the form of a complex fraction, for example (2/3)/( 5/7).

Complex modern content management systems (CMS) are actually composed of fractional pieces of information which are reused as required. For example, there may be many procedures which all refer to a specific part number. If you are using are using a typical Word processor to document these procedures and the part number changes, you’d have to manually search and replace every occurrence of this number. However, in a CMS, the part number is stored once in a database as a variable, and therefore only has to be changed once. All references to that part number are then automatically updated. Any piece of information can be a “informational fraction”, from a word, to a sentence, a paragraph, and even a page.

Irrational numbers have an infinitely long series of non-repeating digits after the decimal place. You can’t write them as a fraction or ratio. Examples include the square root of 2 (1.4142135…) and pi (π) which is equal to 3.14159265…. As you continue down the line of infinite digits, you get incrementally closer and closer to the true value of the number. However, when calculating values, you have to stop a certain point; you can’t simply go on forever. NASA scientists are able to keep the space station running using only 16 digits of pi. For calculating the fundamental constants of the universe, they need 32 digits.

Irrational communication is comprised of pieces of information which each add ever-decreasing value to the information. For example, let’s say you need to write a step that instructs users how to connect to a wi-fi network. The statement you develop is:

To connect to the wi-fi network, select the ABC_Network, then enter the following password: Pass1532.

For most people, this would suffice. However, what about novice users who don’t even know how to select a wi-fi network? We’d have to add another piece of information, underlined below:

To connect to the wi-fi network, on your device, under Settings, select Wi-Fi connections, select the ABC_Network, then enter the following password: Pass1532.

This seems complete, right? But what about people who are not sure what you mean by “device”? To address this, we add even more information:

To connect to the wi-fi network, on your SmartPhone, tablet, laptop or desktop, under Settings, select Wi-Fi connections, select the ABC_Network, then enter the following password: Pass1532.

But what about people who don’t know what a wi-fi network is? We add:

You can use our wi-fi network to connect to the Internet. To connect to the wi-fi network, on your SmartPhone, tablet, laptop or desktop, under Settings, select Wi-Fi connections, select the ABC_Network, then enter the following password: Pass1532.

And what about those poor souls who don’t know what the Internet is?

The internet is the world’s largest information network. It used to send and receive information, view news items, images, videos and sound, and to connect with others. You can use our wi-fi network to connect to the Internet. To connect to the wi-fi network, on your SmartPhone, tablet, laptop or desktop, under Settings, select Wi-Fi connections, select the ABC_Network, then enter the following password: Pass1532.

One could go adding information forever but I think you get the point. Each piece of new information, just like each additional digit in an irrational number, adds a bit more value to the original piece of information. How many “decimals” of information are required depends on the knowledge level of the average user. Too much information is as bad as not enough.

Now we come to one the most challenging types of numbers: imaginary. At some point, mathematicians asked: what is the square root of a negative number? There is no clear answer, because no number multiplied by itself produces a negative number. Two negative numbers multiplied together produce a positive number. To resolve this, mathematicians invented imaginary numbers, written with the letter i. For example, the square root of -9 is 3i.

The essence of imaginary numbers is:

  • two numbers are combined together
  • combining numbers normally creates a larger number but in this case actually creates a smaller one, therefore,
  • an inherent contradiction is created

The informational equivalent of an imaginary number is a statement added to another statement that creates a conflict and therefore lowers the value of both statements.

For example:

  1. If you over 18 years old, complete Form A.
  2. If you are less than 25 years old, complete Form B.

The second statement contradicts the first, and thereby negatively impacts both statements. It is the equivalent of the mathematical i, in this case, the i standing for incomprehensible, impossible, inexcusable and, quite possibly, insane. This is actually a common problem, especially with complex policies, procedures and regulations that are riddled with contradictions.

Finally, an exponent is a number that dramatically increases the value of another number, for example, 3³ which equals 3 x 3 x 3 or 27. Conversely, a square root is a number that when multiplied by itself creates a larger number, for example, 10 is the square root of 100. In either case, we are changing a small number very rapidly to much larger one, or vice versa.

If there’s one thing that information experts agree on, it’s that the amount of information in the world has grown exponentially. How much? A quick math lesson is in order. An exabyte is one quintillion (1018) bytes, which is one billion gigabytes or one thousand million billion bytes, a byte being equivalent to about one letter. One exabyte is up to 3,000 times the size of all the content in the Library of Congress. Between the start of history and 2003, five exabytes of information in total were created. We now create five exabytes every two days. Big data, indeed.

The single informational device that has contributed to the ability to access this near-infinite amount of information is a textual object that is absurdly simple yet staggeringly complex: the hyperlink. For with a single hyperlink, a tiny piece of information directly connects to something much larger. (This small link, for example, links to something vast.) The destination of the hyperlink is the exponent of the hyperlink itself; the hyperlink, therefore, is the root of the much larger piece of information that it points to.

It’s no coincidence that the word mathematics literally means “to learn”. The primary goal of tech comm is that the user learns something, whether it is a concept or a task. The connections between mathematics and tech comm are, as with math itself, measured, complex, and infinite.

Colleges & Universities: Your Number is Up

Related imageIf you’ve ever needed a toilet fixed, a fence built, your car serviced, or any type of home repair or construction done, you’ve used a tradesperson to do it. But there’s a big problem looming: a tremendous shortage of people working in the skilled trades, namely:

  • electricians
  • plumbers
  • carpenters
  • drywallers
  • metalworkers
  • masons
  • machinists
  • glaziers (window & glass installers)
  • tilers
  • auto-mechanics
  • anything to do with home construction

(It’s interesting that these professions are called the skilled trades – is there any profession that isn’t skilled?) In any case, there is a shortage in these fields for two simple reasons:

  1. Older people currently in these professions are retiring or dying.
  2. Fewer young people are choosing to go into these professions.

The reasons that fewer people are going into the trades vary, but it’s generally due to the misconception that these jobs are not as prestigious as the so-called “professional” fields such as the arts, science, medicine, engineering, teaching, business and law.

This labour shortage alone is cause for concern. But when combined with the fact that many graduates are facing a mountain of student debt, the situation becomes near-catastrophic.

Forbes reported in 2017 that the current U.S. student debt is a staggering $1.3 trillion, or just over $36,000 per student. Adding insult to injury, many of these graduates are unable to find work in their chosen field, and therefore unable to pay this debt, which can never be written off, even if the student declares bankruptcy.

The solution to this “trilogy of terror” (lack of skilled tradespeople, high student debt and low graduate employment rates) is obvious: steer students away from programs with a low chance for career success and toward careers such as the skilled trades that have a higher success rate. The “$1.3 trillion” question is,  of course, how?

What’s desperately needed is a standard rating system of career success for all university and college programs. This must be a single number that is easy to understand and which allows a clear and fair comparison.

This number would be comprised of just three factors. The first is the percentage of students who obtain a position in their chosen field within one year after graduating. This is the Placement rate, or P.

The second number reflects the average current salary of a graduate in their chosen profession. In this case, we would add an additional year after the first year (for a total of two years) to allow sufficient time for the graduate to find and retain a job in their field. This is the Salary factor, or S.

However, salary by itself is not a meaningful number; it needs to be pro-rated to a basic amount. This amount would be the average salary of all workers within a state or province. So the formula for S is:

S = the average salary (after 2 years) of graduates successfully placed in their field divided by the average salary of the state or province

This will generate a percentage which will form part of the final number.

These two numbers alone would be very useful in revealing the relative success rate of each educational program. But a third and final number is also required. It applies to all students before they have even begun their studies: the percentage of students who successfully complete the program.

This number is important because even if a program has a high placement rate and high salary, if only a small fraction of the students can complete the program, its overall success rate is less.

This third and final number is the Completion rate or C. We’ll put this number at the beginning of the formula to keep the numbers in a somewhat chronological order.

Summing up, we have:

  • Completion rate (C): the percentage of students who complete the program
  • Placement rate (P): the percentage of students who find a position in their field within one year after graduation
  • Salary factor (S): the average salary of students who find a position in their field (within two years after graduation) relative to the average state or provincial salary

Multiply these three numbers together, we obtain an overall percentage success rate. This is the Program Success Index or PSI.

We now have the final formula:
PSI = C x P x S

To illustrate the power of this number, let’s look at two extreme examples. (Note these are sample numbers only and assume an average state or provincial salary of $50,000.)

The first is a Bachelor of Arts (BA) program, which typically has both a low placement rate and low starting salary:

  • Completion rate = 95%
  • Placement rate = 10%
  • Salary rate = ($30,000/$50,000) = 60%
  • Program Success Index = .95 x .10 x .60 = 6%

By contrast, a skilled trade such as plumbing has a higher placement rate and starting salary, but may have a lower completion rate:

  • Completion rate = 85%
  • Placement rate = 97%
  • Salary rate = ($70,000/$50,000) = 140%
  • Program Success Index= .85 x .97 x 1.40 = 115%

Summing up, we have:

  • Bachelor of Arts PSI = 6%
  • Plumbing PSI = 115%

That is, the PSI for plumbing is twenty times greater than that of a B.A.

Imagine the impact that these numbers could have a student’s choice of career. Yes, the arts and humanities are important. Yes, we should all know our history and learn how to think critically. But that is not the point.

We are facing a crisis of employment and economics that is threatening to shake our society to the core, potentially impoverishing millions with debt and an education that has little or no value. These facts are more important than whether someone has a good grasp of English literature. Without a strong economy, gainful employment and a basic level of income, few will have the money to buy literature or the means to appreciate it.

The sad fact is that as useful and life-changing as a quotient like this would be, most universities would never implement it, because it would cause enrollment to drop and hurt their profits. Technical colleges might use it because it would be an obvious selling point for their programs.

However, soon universities may not have a choice. The $1.3 trillion student debt bubble, just like the U.S. housing bubble, will eventually collapse from its own weight. There will simply not be enough people who can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a university degree program that offers no reasonable return on investment.

You don’t need a degree in economics to figure that out.

Rounding up

Related imageRounding is a mathematical process in which a complex number is replaced with a simpler one, such as 1.343 rounded to 1.3. It makes numbers easier to communicate and work with. However, rounding applies not only to math but to all aspects of our existence.

Starting with the essentials (matter, space and time ): all matter is composed of atoms, which in turn are almost 100% space. If you could remove all the space between all the atoms of all the skyscrapers in New York city, they would fit within a matchbox. Why then do we perceive matter as solid? It is because our senses are simply not acute enough to detect the spaces. If we were much smaller (or more sensitive), we would see the spaces. Instead, we “round” the spaces up, filling in the gaps and thereby perceive matter as solid or liquid.

Similarly, we round space. Again, because we cannot perceive vastly small spaces, we round up to the nearest perceptible unit, usually about 1 mm, depending on the situation.

Finally, we round time. When we say it takes 20 minutes to do a task, we generally don’t mean exactly 20 minutes but rather 20 minutes, plus or minus a few minutes. Even for events that we measure precisely, again, because of our perceptual limitations, we cannot perceive tiny amounts of time, such as one ten-thousandth of a second. We round to the nearest second, minute, hour or even day.

We also round our senses. No two people perceive colour, sound, smell, taste and texture the same way. As with matter, space and time, we perceive these things within a certain perceptible range. It would be impossible, for example, to differentiate two nearly identical colours, one .000001% brighter than the other; we round up the colours and see them as identical. You are rounding the text displayed here. Your eyes and mind fill in the pixels this text is composed of to see the letters and words.

Now, if such fundamental and seemingly objective aspects of our existence as matter, space, time and our basic senses are rounded, how much more so the less objective and more ethereal aspects.

Concepts, thoughts, ideas and feelings are constantly “rounded”. In fact, because these things are non-physical, it would be tempting to say that math does not apply and that they cannot be “rounded”. One could argue that it would be ridiculous to say that you could like someone 12% more than someone else, or that a political party is 14% better than another. That may be true, but you can measure aspects of these things. For example, like-ability by itself is not measurable, but surveys where each person rates or ranks their feelings to the other is. The moment you introduce math or statistics, you can have rounding.

Rounding therefore, is the process of taking something and replacing with something less precise but easier to understand and perceive. In that sense, it is one of the purest forms of technical communication. For it is the job of a technical communicator to take something complex and simplify it so that it can be practically understood by the reader.

It is a constant struggle to determine the degree to which content should be simplified. Simplify it too much, and you lose valuable information; simplify it too little, and the content becomes inaccessible. Because of rounding, no two technical communicators will ever document something the same way.

May all your content be well-rounded.

 

 

Embedded, etc.

1Embedded journalism is the practice of taking news reporters and placing or “embedding” them within military units so that they can report up-close on a war. In the process, they shift from being independent journalists to dependent, because the very people that the journalists are reporting on have to save them from death, dismemberment, and other career-limiting moves.

All workers are embedded. Doctors are embedded in hospitals, policeman in high-crime areas, teachers in schools, and musicians in concert halls. In our jobs and throughout our lives, we are surrounded by others, embedded among our co-workers, friends and family.

To be an outstanding technical and business communicator, you need to be embedded within a business that completely relies on your skills. Ideally, you should be embedded within a smaller company (one with less than 100 employees) where you are the only person who has these skills; where you are the entire business document development and management department, one that you have developed and nurtured. You will never have a better job than one you created.

Ideally, you will be in charge of:

  • the company’s online content including their website, LinkedIn and Indeed pages, and job postings (and if any of these don’t exist, you must create them)
  • developing and managing their internal business content including: company emails, newsletters, forms, staff lists, training requirements, job guides, signs, policies and procedures, and job descriptions
  • any other documentation or information that the company needs to properly function including: press releases, brochures, signs, online surveys, schedules, questionnaires, feedback forms, etc.

Now, did you see what I did in that last sentence? I ended it with etc., the lazy writer’s way of saying: “I can’t be bothered to properly complete this list so I will just use etc. and let the reader fill in the blanks.” If there is one term that should be banned in all writing, it is etc.

But we can admire etc. for its deeper meaning, which is that it represents the completion of the list or thought that it describes differently for each reader. That is, each person will read the same sentence ending with etc. and fill in with their minds what the etc. represents. Etc. is the ultimate split-personality multi-tasker.

A great embedded technical communicator is an etc. They anticipate your thoughts and needs, and fulfill them. They are flexible and adaptable and know what you want before you knew that you wanted it. They complete you, and document the whole process.

It’s no coincidence that the acronym of Embedded Technical Communicator is ETC.

(Those are my thoughts, etc., etc…)

6 expressions of nonsense

weasel2As an advocate of clear communication, certain phrases make my blood boil. They are weasel phrases because the speaker is trying to weasel out of what they really should say.

They often begin with the word “we”, itself a way of avoiding “I”, and therefore shifting blame and responsibility to others.

Here are 6 of my favourite weasel phrases:

Phrase: The system failed.

Example: It was no one’s fault that the child starved to death. The system simply failed to meet the child’s needs.

What the phrase really means: I don’t know or care who is at fault, or can’t be bothered to find out.


Phrase: We’ll consider…

Example: We’ll consider not raising fees.

What the phrase really means: I won’t even consider your stupid idea.


Phrase: Mistakes were made.

Example: Mistakes were made during the construction phase, causing the building to fall down and kill everyone inside.

What the phrase really means: We don’t want to tell you who messed up.


Phrase: We encourage…

Example: We encourage the Iranian government to stop torturing people.

What the phrase really means: I know you’ll ignore me completely, so I’ll just ask you to do it, with no consequences if you don’t.


Phrase: My ‘ask’ is…

Example: My ‘ask’ that we have it done in 30 days.

What the phrase really means: I’m trying to sound impressive and clever by converting a verb into a noun.


Phrase: I’m sorry if/but….

Examples: I’m sorry if you were offended;  I’m sorry but that was not my intention.

What the phrase really means: I’m not sorry.


Summing up: My ‘ask’ is that I encourage you to stop using these phrases, but if you don’t, then the system has failed, mistakes were made, and I’m sorry if that disturbs you.