Clarity or Nothing

A distortion is a change in the form of something, usually an object, image or sound. For example, a car can become distorted after an accident. Photographs or videos can become distorted if they are blurred, pixelated, or warped. Sound can be distorted using sound mixers.

Sometimes, the distortion is desirable. To represent our three-dimensional earth as a flat two-dimensional image, the world is distorted using a global map projection. In music, distortions can reduce noise or give the music a fuller sound. Many artworks are distortions of real objects, such as Dali’s melting watches.


Note that the distortions described here apply to our two main senses: sight and sound. You don’t often see descriptions of distortions applied to our other three senses: smell, taste and touch. I’ve yet to hear someone say that a rose smells distorted, a cake tastes distorted, or a blanket feels distorted. The closest someone will come to describing these scenarios is that the object in question is “off”.

Distortions apply not only to our senses, but also our minds. Steve Jobs was notorious for his “reality distortion field”. This described his reluctance to accept the facts as they were, and often demand unrealistic deadlines or feature requests for his products. He would use his charismatic personality to cajole his workers to do the impossible. Sometimes it worked, but it pushed his staff to their mental limits.

Jobs was engaging in a type of cognitive distortion called mental filtering. A cognitive distortion is a flaw in someone’s thought processes, a form of twisted thinking. It causes the thinker to perceive reality incorrectly. Mental filtering involves focusing solely on the negative or positive aspects of something, excluding all other relevant information.

Other types of cognitive distortions include over-generalization (jumping to conclusions based on one piece of evidence) and emotional reasoning (believing that something is true simply because it feels true.)

Distortions can wreak havoc in communication. We can get into trouble when rather than speaking directly to someone about a problem, we insert an intermediary between us and the person we want to speak with. If you’ve ever played “broken telephone”, you see how disastrous this can be.

Communication and language are enormously complex. When we speak with someone, it is not just the content of our words that we are transmitting; it is the tone of those words and our body language. Most communication is nonverbal. Observe two or more people on TV with the volume off. You won’t know what they are saying, but you will know what they are feeling and thinking.

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It’s so tempting to use an intermediary when we are reluctant to speak directly with another person. The intermediary becomes a middleman or informational broker. A communication breakdown occurs because when either person talks to the intermediary, the intermediary will unconsciously distort in their minds what they have heard. There is then a further distortion when the intermediary communicates to the second person what the intermediary thinks they heard the first person say. On it goes; with every communication transmission loop, the message continues to be distorted.

The solution is to dismiss the intermediary. Always speak directly with the other person; do not engage in a communication distortion field by adding a third person. However, if both parties absolutely insist on using an intermediary, then have all three people in one room at the same time, with the intermediary acting as a negotiator between the two sides. This will not only eliminate the communication distortion (because each side will be able to hear the other); it can actually decrease the distortion because the intermediary, assuming they are fair and objective, can offer a balanced perspective, and, one hopes, bring the two sides together.

In my thirty years in the workplace, I’ve seen that the primary cause of problems is poor or distorted communication. As a business communicator, I continuously strive to reduce this distortion.

Reducing distortion is known as bringing clarity. Your method of communication, whether oral or written, should be like a glass bowl, clearly displaying the contents of your message, without the medium of the message causing it to be distorted.

To sum up: Avoid third parties. Bring clarity. Banish distortions. 

Are we clear?



Chance Connections

Quantum computing is the latest and strangest development in supercomputers – computers that perform incredibly complex tasks. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke mused that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Quantum computing is not magic, but dangerously close. It is based on two bizarre principles: superposition and entanglement.

Superposition involves probabilities. Classical computing is based on the binary system of of 0s and 1s. All computer code and electronic devices run on this system; if you go deep enough into the code, all you will see are 0s and 1s (called bits), and nothing in between. A bit therefore is the smallest unit in a computer program.

Quantum computing uses a special type of bit: a qubit. A qubit, like a bit, can have a value of 0 or 1. But it can also have both these values at the same time. This is superposition – the ability of something to be in more than one state simultaneously. We can’t know what state it is in until we observe it; until then, all we can do is assign a probability of it being in a certain state.

Entanglement is an even more bizarre aspect of quantum computing. It refers to the phenomena that if you were to measure a qubit, it changes what you see in another, no matter how far apart the two are. For example, if you see that the value of one qubit is 0, then the value of another entangled qubit billions of kilometres away becomes 1. There appears to be a mystical force connecting the two particles. Einstein called entanglement “spooky action at a distance”.

Quantum computing sounds like science fiction, but it is not. Companies including IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel have built (or are developing) quantum computers. As with early classical computers from the 1930s and 1940s, quantum computers are beastly machines, with many wires and cables protruding in all directions. Additionally, they must operate at near absolute zero, (the temperature in outer space), about -273°C.

The potential applications of quantum computing are limitless. Because of their quantum nature, they will be billions of times more powerful than the most powerful supercomputers today. They will be able to solve problems or create applications that traditional computers simply cannot, including:

  • artificial intelligence & machine learning – systems that can think, reason, and make rational judgments and recommendations, including medical diagnoses, farming and energy efficiency
  • molecular modeling in chemistry and physics
  • cryptography – creating unbreakable online security
  • financial applications including investments,stock market and economic analyses
  • weather forecasting

To recap, qubits (the building blocks of quantum computing):

  • exist in many states simultaneously (superposition)
  • are mysteriously connected together (entanglement)

Because quantum computing is attempting to discover the underlying principles of reality, it follows that these two principles should reflect reality, that is, existence should also be based on the fact that things:

  • exist in many states simultaneously
  • are mysteriously connected together (even when far apart)

At first glance, this seems absurd. Our everyday experience tells us that things exist in one state, and that if you change something, it’s not going to change something else, especially if it is far away.

But if we look closer, we can see that these are the same principles upon which the greatest and most pervasive technological innovation is based. It’s the technology that has changed the world more rapidly than almost anything else. It’s the technology that has toppled governments and powerful leaders, established friendships, solved mysteries while creating new ones and caused untold heartbreak, joy, sadness and everything in between. It’s the technology that you are using right now: the Internet. While the Internet does not represent all reality, it has come to represent and directly influence a large portion of it. It has become, quite literally, the “new reality”.

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On the Internet, the same website appears differently for each user, depending on the device they are using. On certain sites, different information appears. For example, travel sites will present different prices depending on a user’s location, computer, previous queries and so on. This is superposition: the ability of the same thing to exist in different states.

Online, we are all connected, regardless of distance. When you do anything online (make a purchase, send a message, check your banking transactions, and so on), it makes no difference where you perform this action. Cyberbullying is based on the premise that sending a hurtful email or text has the same effect whether the sender is 5 metres from the receiver or 5,000 km. An action in one area affects another area – there are are no distances online.

It’s therefore no surprise that IBM has developed an online quantum computer. That is, a computer that is based on the principles of superposition and entanglement now exists on a platform that is based on superposition and entanglement.

The answer to the age-old question what is reality appears close at hand: probabilities and connections. The question now is what will happen after we’ve built computers that are millions of times more intelligent than us?

Will it lead to a utopia where all of the world’s problems are solved by benevolent machines? Or will we end up in an Orwellian nightmare, where heartless machines enslave humanity, or, worst still, we use machines to enslave others?

Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. Place your bets…

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It’s All Relative

Related imageI left England with my family arriving in Canada at the tender age of 6. As a result, I have no English accent, but do have a Canadian one. Accents are strange things: they exist only because of their relative nature. A foreign accent is only heard when someone leaves one country for another. British people do not hear a British accent when they speak with each other; to them, their voices sound normal; it is we Canadians who have the accent.

The perception of things not as they are by themselves, but in relation to other things is ingrained into our very being. It is the foundation of fairness and equality, concepts that shape our world.

Related imageEven a monkey knows what’s fair. In an experiment, five monkeys were given different food amounts as a reward for completing the same task. When one monkey saw that she had received a smaller reward than another monkey, she became enraged and threw the food at the lab worker conducting the experiment.

You could easily conduct a similar experiment with people, but make it even simpler. In a room of ten people, walk up to each person and give the first nine of them $10 for no reason. Then give the last person $5. How do you think that person will feel? It doesn’t matter that they got free money; the person will be angry that they did not get the same as everyone else.

The striving for fairness can lead to other absurd situations. It is not uncommon for government workers in one city to demand the same salaries as workers living in other cities. For example, policemen in one city will often demand the same salary as policemen in another, even though the job requirements and cost of living are different. As a result, salaries continually spiral upward as governments acquiesce to each group.

Students at most liberal universities are extremely sensitive to the notion of fairness. They gladly participate in demonstrations railing against “the top one-percenters” who they view as a pampered class that has stolen money from the other 99%, and demand various forms of wealth distribution. While they have some valid points, any professor teaching a class of these students could crush most of their arguments with this simple question:

“Since you all believe in wealth redistribution, at the end of this course, do you agree that everyone should be assigned the same grade that will be the average grade of the entire class?”

Related imageThe idea of relative value permeates our entertainment. ‘3%’ is Netflix science fiction drama set in a divided future world. In the poorer part of town, people live in poverty and misery. However, each year, they are given a one-time chance to participate in “The Process”, a series of physical and mental challenges. The top 3% of candidates are allowed to move to The Offshore, a paradise where all their needs are met. It is the conflict between the haves and have-nots that make it a fascinating series.

The theme of fairness appears throughout literature: H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine describes the future world of the Eloi race, who live in comfort above ground, and the Morlocks, a savage race that lives underground. George Orwell’s 1984 describes an elite class ruling over impoverished masses in a future dystopia.

Class struggle is a study in relativism. The poor and oppressed struggle to be better off because they know that a “better off” exists relative to their current state. This is why totalitarian countries such as North Korea work so hard to block access to outside information. The “Dear Leader ”knows that if his oppressed citizens believe the rest of the world is the same (or worse) than their country, they will not agitate for change. “Unfair” must have a “fair” to begin with.

Ultimately, relative value is about geography. The irony is that most Westerners protesting against the 1% are actually part of the 1%. They don’t realize this because they are looking at the top 1% annual income earners in their country, which for Canada is $235,000. But why compare only to the country you live in?

According the Global Rich List, a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness of global inequality, if you make $42,000 Canadian, you are in the top 1% of the world’s income.

Because you can always change the size of the group that you are comparing yourself to, and thereby change your percentage ranking, relative value is meaningless. If people spent as much time and energy comparing themselves to those less fortunate than those more fortunate, the amount of happiness in the world would increase. Unfortunately, the number of people who perform this comparison is only about 1%.

No time for facts

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Physics strives to get it together, from the incomprehensibly tiny to the unimaginably enormous. Physicists are seeking to unify two major models of the universe: general relativity and quantum theory, in a grand quest for a Theory of Everything.

General relativity is the study of the very large: planets, solar systems and galaxies. Quantum theory is the study of the very small: subatomic particles, and particles within those particles called quarks.

The problem is that the laws for one of these areas don’t work in the other. The main conflict is that general relativity says that you can predict the behaviour of an object, whereas quantum theory says you cannot, that the best you can do is predict the probability of its behaviour. It’s as though there are two completely different civilizations within the same country, each with their own laws, yet somehow living together in harmony.

Related imageThe closest physics has come to a grand unified theory is string theory, which states that everything is made up of tiny vibrating strings of energy that exist in ten dimensions. The way that a string vibrates determines the type of particle it is, from an electron to a gravity particle. It’s a terrific theory; there’s just one little problem – there’s no way to prove it. This is because strings, if they even exist, are far too small to be detected. If an atom were enlarged to the size of our solar system, a string would be the size of a tree.

Image result for destroyed clockThere is, however, another Theory of Everything proposed by British astrophysicist Julian Barbour. He believes, incredibly, that there is no such thing as time, that instead we live in an eternal series of moments he calls “nows”. As Barbour states: “If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers. People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.” There is no past and future, just the present;  time is an illusion. Removing time from the equations allows you to unify the two theories. Like string theory, this theory of timeless physics is fascinating and impossible to prove.

The world of information faces a similar unification challenge. As with physics, there are two types of information: small and large.

Small information includes all facts such as:

  • a person’s name
  • how to fix a computer
  • where New York City is located
  • your phone number
  • when you have to go to the dentist

Large information is comprised of all philosophy and wisdom including explanations of:

  • why we exist
  • our purpose in life
  • good and evil
  • right and wrong
  • whether God exists
  • what is love
  • whether there is a soul
  • what is reality
  • what happens after we die
  • the best way to lead a happy, meaningful life

As with physics, these two worlds of information appear completely incompatible. How could knowing how to tie one’s shoes have anything to do with knowing our purpose in life?

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The solution is to apply Barbour’s view and remove the time component from information. If you could know all the facts in your life at the same time, you would gain wisdom. What converts a fact into wisdom is the point in time that you gained knowledge of the fact.

To understand this further, we know that in life, often things don’t go the way we want, for example:

  • you’re stuck in traffic and late for a job interview
  • the person you want to date is not interested in you
  • someone is keeping you waiting

These are all facts, all small pieces of information.

Other facts are:

  • you didn’t get the job, but later got a much better one
  • you weren’t able to go out with the person you wanted to, but ended up with someone else who was a better fit
  • because someone kept you waiting, you avoided a car crash

1The only difference between these two sets of facts is time. Now imagine if there was no time, and that you knew all these facts simultaneously. You would gain a much larger piece of information, which is that a negative event can actually be positive.

You may also gain the wisdom that:

  • More important than what happens to us in life is how we react to it.
  • Worrying about something does not help.
  • Everything happens for a reason, even though it may not be obvious at the time what the reason is.

People often lament: If only I had known then what I know now. A fact becomes important when we become aware of it in relation to something else. A person gains wisdom by making mistakes and learning from them, or by seeing others make mistakes and avoiding them.

Wisdom, therefore, is the knowledge and interpretation of facts outside of time. This is why certain ideas, such as love, goodness, charity, mercy, justice and fairness are considered timeless.

World on fire


Life, The Algorithm


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.

Image result for industrial revolutionThis 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 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.

See the source imageAlgorithms 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.

Image result for computer memoryLike 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.

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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.

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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.

Related imageBinary 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.

Related imageOne 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.

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Reverse engineering

Reverse 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.

Image result for UnabomberA 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.

Image result for tax returnApplying 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:


Reverse engineering this, we get:


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

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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.

See the source imageNatural 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.

Image result for FractionsFractions 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.

Image result for Irrational numbersIrrational 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.

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