Misleading Analogies

In the first issues of Wired UK (May 2009), there is an article by Baroness Susan Greenfield ‘What are we expecting from consciousness?’ It might have been better titled ‘Why technologists should butt out of my playground’ 🙂 but that’s not quite the focus here.

There is no doubting that Baroness Greenfield is a highly intelligent person. The trouble with some highly intelligent people is their habit of dumbing down statements in an attempt to explain ‘their stuff’ to mere mortals like me. And the worst habits involve misleading analogies. Baroness Greenfield dismisses the need to attempt to model consciousness:

“The idea of a model is that you focus on the salient features and jettison the extraneous ones. A model for flight, as exemplified by an aeroplane, would simply be the defying of gravity. We can leave out the feathers and beak.”

“So if we are to model consciousness, then we would have to know what the salient physical brain/body process(es) was/were and what bits of the brain and body we could ignore. The thing is, if we knew that, than we would have already solved the problem and there would be no need to bother with a model at all.”

The analogy fails. If you compare an aeroplane with a bird, then actually it does have comparible features (those required for flight). The beak is the hole where you insert the hose from the fuel tanker (birds eat worms, a beak is not an effective design for consuming gasoline). The feathers are required by the bird for lift, speed and direction. (A bird with just the skeleton of their wings is going nowhere). Aeroplanes have man-made wings with flaps instead of organic wings made up of skeleton, muscle and feather.

And the argument for not needing a model fails too. Models can serve two purposes – prove a theory or prove a concept based on a theory. The former is used to learn, the latter to apply. With Baroness Greenfield’s argument, we would have never invented aeroplanes at all, we would have just understood how birds fly (‘problem solved’). Progress comes from applying what we know, not just knowing.

That all said, I actually agree with her rebuttal of technologists like Ray Kurzeil claiming computers will surpass human consciousness within the next few decades. Advances in current technology alone are unlikely to achieve such a goal. Even if we could model consciousness, the application will almost certainly be very different to what humans do, just as aeroplanes fly in a very different manner and for a different purpose to what birds do…

Related posts: Do books matter? (Don’t think Baroness Greenfield is a fan of technology)

Delicious tags: brain mind

Imaginary monsters

…are less scary than real ones.

JK Rowling delivered this year’s Harvard Commencement Speech. And a brilliant speech it was too! Thanks to the joy that is YouTube, you don’t have to be at Harvard to have seen it.

“I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction…”

“Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something. Unless you live so cautiously you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you’ve failed by default.”

Link to Part 1 on YouTube

Link to Part 2 on YouTube

“I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.”

And the closing comment quotes Seneca:

“As is a tale, so is life. Not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters”

Life, Death and Twitter in Africa

A quick note. I tend not to blog about news unless it is something worth munching over (and preferably not being bounced around the Techmeme echo chamber). Instead, I share links through Twitter and FriendFeed (most come via Google Reader) and roll them up into a weekly post. If you want real-time updates, join in the fun on Twitter and/or FriendFeed

But this link on Wired deserves a post all to itself – Life, Death and Twitter on the African Savannah – talking about how social media is being used to raise awareness about and donations for a wildlife park in Kenya. Funds have dropped due to the recent political turmoil affecting tourism. Some sound bites here, but I recommend reading the full article.

…the blog raised $40,000 from donations in March. Kimojino’s Facebook page drew about $2,000; and a handful of safari companies bought advertising on the blog in exchange for sponsoring rangers. “All the rest has been from single donations from individuals around the world, from donations as small as $5 to our biggest, which was $5,000,”

The man who helped set the blog up was discovered in the wilds of… Rotherham, a town up North here in the UK. Thanks to his blog attracting attention, he switched life as an office temp for life Stood in the Congo. I am truly envious 🙂

Beyond blogging:

On a game drive one morning, the ranger stops his car in front of a herd of antelopes and whips out a camera. “I have never had a Coke’s Hartebeest on Flickr,” he says, taking a picture.

(If a certain fizzy drinks company had any sense, they’d donate some of their advertising revenue and sponsor that picture.)

What is most amazing – big companies reluctant to change should take note – is how traditions are adapting to blogging:

Getting online has not been without its risks for Kimojino. He explains that for him to be speaking about the park to the public, instead of his boss, breaks traditional Kenyan decorum and was at first difficult for him.

And balancing needs for digital and physical life:

…after a few months of this online activity, Kimojino went to the optometrist – he was worried the computer would damage his eyesight, hindering him from spotting, for example, a leopard in a tree two kilometers away.


Beautiful Adverts

There are only two forms of advert I like:

  1. Very short pieces of text – just enough info to decide if the source is the desired destination
  2. Visual beauties – and that doesn’t mean adverts involving women as objects

We have Google to thank for the former. And it’s a great example where amateurs trump experts when it comes to innovation – it took a technology company to change the advertising market. No advertising exec would ever have dared suggest using simple plain text adverts. What did the media experts come up with? Think banners, pop-ups, dynamic pop-ups that follow you around the page blocking the content you are trying to read, ‘welcome screens’ where you have to locate the small print offering ‘click here to skip this screen’… And in that playground also goes the latest annoying fad – mini pop-ups that appear when you accidentally move your mouse over a live link in a web page. Depressingly popular with some blogs and enough of a distraction to make you just want to leave the page. It’s like going into a shop and walking straight back out of the door when you realise trying to look at or buy anything is just going to be more effort than its worth.

Some companies invest in the second approach – create an advert that gets people wanting to watch it. The likes of Guiness, Levi’s, Playstation and Jaguar have been good at doing this. Now Sony has joined the party:

Hat tip to Steve Clayton for pointing this one out on his blog. (Spotted via Twitter).

Hat tip to Sony for sharing direct, rather than leaving it to the YouTube hacks. (See related post: Why not share the ads?)

Final comment on ad formats to love and hate. I don’t mind the new ‘postage stamp’ boxes that are starting to appear instead of the simple text ad. Fixed size, no flashy graphics to send your eyeballs into a frenzy, parked over on the side out of the way of the page content but the colour and image can help build and maintain the brand in a way that is impossible with plain text.

Filed in Library under: Beautiful Ads; Marketing

Technorati tags: Advertising; Marketing

IM the cloud

Interesting blog post talking about XMPP and the need for web services to switch from one-way polling mechanisms to two-way synchronisation to achieve scalability – XMPP (aka Jabber) is the future for cloud services (Jive Talks blog).

The common way to communicate on the Internet is one-way polling. If you are waiting for the post to arrive on your doorstep, polling would be the equivalent of you going to the front door every few minutes to see if anything had arrived yet. All trips to the front door are a complete waste of time except for the one that yields success – a pile of post waiting to be opened. Most email systems do actually work like this – regular checks to the server to see if any new email has arrived. It was a good idea when network connectivity was scarce and expensive (and hence is still true for picking up email on your mobile phone, unless you are on an all-inclusive data contract)

The trouble with polling is all those wasted trips when there is nothing to discover. When you’ve got lots of users, say 68 million (the number of active users on Facebook), lots of polling = lots of wasted use of resources. XMPP appears to be one possible alternative. It is based on instant messaging principles – presence information traded between two computers. When one has something to share, they ‘IM’ it to their friend. It’s the equivalent of the postman knowing that some houses prefer it if he yells (or rings the doorbell) to let them know the post has arrived.

I’m grossly over-simplifying and only just delving into this area. But I think it could be a technology to keep an eye on for all sorts of uses. I kept harping on about when will IM come of age. Never saw this coming. Perhaps IM’s age will be the era of cloud computing…


Filed under: Cloud Computing (new library topic)

Twitter For Sales

That’s the plural. This is not a post announcing that Twitter is for sale. 🙂

If Google can help your CRM, then so can Twitter. If you haven’t yet stumbled upon Twitter, the concept is beautifully simple. If you’ve ever sent a ‘Happy New Year’ text individually to multiple different contacts on your mobile phone, how about sending it once to everyone, whether they choose to read it on their phone or in a web browser on any device with an Internet connection? Like a Chumby (that one is waiting for whole other post). That’s what Twitter does. Restricts texts to no more than 140 characters but enables you to send one text to anyone who subscribes to your Twitter feed.

So, imagine this. Your sales people need to keep track of news that can affect your company or the likelihood of a prospective customer buying something from your company. How about using a Twitter feed to send out regular updates, in real-time.

For example: A Microsoftie travelling to a customer hoping to sell them a search solution based on SharePoint. Would be better to know that an announcement has just been made to acquire FAST than to hear it from the customer. A sales rep travelling to meet a prospect, receives a Tweet that the prospect has just announced their quarterly results. How about using Twitter in your call centre? Send out updates that can help keep everyone informed when making/answering calls. A support engineer discovers a new method for repairing a fault, takes half the time and resources – a tweet goes out and is picked up by all other engineers currently on call. You don’t need war and peace on each subject, just a short announcement that will either tell you what you need or alert you to find out more asap.

It’s a simple concept, the equivalent of that snail mail approach in the 1990s – distribution lists for sending out bulk emails. And yes, you could indeed use that approach instead. But Twitter keeps it short and helps prevent announcements from being buried under everything else that swamps your inbox.

If anything, Twitter is the reincarnation of those little stock tickers and ‘breaking news’ feeds that you could install on your desktop a few years ago. But this time, you don’t need to download any specialist software and you can view the updates in real-time on any device that can view the Twitter feed.

Take it a step further – use Twitter to feed breaking news to your customers. Why restrict the information to only those customers who your sales people are about to see or speak to? Drop in announcements about new products, short term pricing deals, any kind of buzz that might turn a prospect into a sale.

To find out more about Twitter, check it out – http://www.twitter.com/.

Related Blog Posts

[Note: if this post crops up in an odd place, it was half written back on 4th Jan and got lost]

Blogging tips for business

I always try to add commentary to links here rather than simply link to what others are writing about, but there’s not much I can add to the following. Euan Semple highlighted a great post written by Matt Moore – how to do corporate blogging. The closing comment is included here but go read the full list:

Blogging allows you to:

  • Talk to customers and partners at all levels
  • Scan the environment for change
  • Identify potential thought leaders

All for very little cost

Good advice.

Found via Euan Semple’s The Obvious blog – Corporate Blogging 101

Unmonitored email addresses…

…are stupid!

I appreciate the reasons for using an unmonitored email address for sending out bulk messages. And I still think they are stupid.

What do they really say? Beyond the message they deliver. They say that whoever sent the message isn’t listening and doesn’t care about your response. Given the majority of these messages are usually an attempt to generate sales, often from existing customers (otherwise it would be spam), it seems a bit crazy to not want to try and help your customers buy something. Sometimes the purchase decision requires information beyond what is provided in the message.

For example, one of the sites that I use to try/purchase software has a habit of sending such an email after you download, with a link to buy the software you’ve just downloaded to try. If they had given me an email address I could reply to, I would have let them know that I just bought it from a different site that was offering a discount. I might even have given them the chance to match the discount before switching suppliers. Since that happened (I may have already ranted about this subject before) I’ve continued to use the supplier I switched to because they consistently offer better prices…

Another example – I just received an email from the supplier I use for business cards, offering an apology for downtime on their site and a discount on their products. Now a) I just bought some business cards and don’t need any more just yet, and b) I didn’t visit the site in the past few days so never noticed the issue. (Not even convinced there was any issue, wondering if the ‘apology’ is just another sales tactic.) However, now I’m feeling a bit miffed that I paid full price for my cards when a discount has been offered just a few days later. If they provided an email address I could reply to, I’d tell them this. If they had any sense, they’d offer a discount for the next time I purchase busines cards. Instead, an email they chose to send, that I didn’t ask for, now leaves me feeling annoyed. Am I the only person who thinks this is a daft approach to customer service?

How hard would it be to add a simple sentence after the blurb about ‘please do not reply, this is an unmonitored alias…’? Something along the lines ‘If you do have a query regarding this email, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us here: (insert email, phone, whatever contact details).

Joel Spolsky has an excellent post on the subject of customer service, and hits the nail firmly on the head as to why most call centres lower profit margins – Seven steps to remarkable customer service


And just to prove there are some companies out there who have figured this out, the very next email I receive happens to start with the following:

Please do not respond to this e-mail. This mailbox is not monitored. If you have
questions about this message, please contact us at…

The sender – Microsoft. See, they do get some stuff right before others 😉

Evolving IM

(IM as in Instant Messaging)

Microsoft has recently announced the latest developments in its unified communications strategy with lots of focus on improving the ability to avoid telephone tag and bring all the different communication formats together in one place (email, phone, IM etc.). Whilst it is popular to talk about how technology can assist with people-to-people communication, particularly instant messaging and presence information, there are also some less well-known but equally interesting developments in using tools like IM to improve communication between people and non-organic systems.

If you use Microsoft’s consumer instant messaging service, Windows Live Messenger (formerly known as MSN Messenger), you can add Microsoft’s Encarta as a contact (simply add encarta@conversagent.com) and ask Encarta questions. The screenshot below shows me asking what is the population of London:

It was a fairly simple question with a fairly straightforward answer (not sure how current, but let’s not nit pick just yet). But what’s really interesting is that Encarta also then invites me to start the online Encarta service where I can dive into more details if I want to. Imagine if this method was applied to business systems. For example, I might have an upset customer on the end of the phone demanding to know how to extract little Tommy’s fingers from their new HD-DVD without breaking the new toy (hey, priorities! :-)) I can quickly send an instant message to the product database and receive an answer plus an invitation to open the online manual for the device in question, complete with diagrams. The system could even go a stage further. If plugged into a people profile database, it could discover who knows all about removing alien objects from DVD players, check their online presence status and automatically invite an engineer into the conversation to help resolve the issue without requiring finger amputation… To pinch the line from a UK advert on waste recycling, ‘the possibilities are endless’. I could ask the system about a customer’s account profile and receive their current order and credit status in the reply with the option to view their full account details online, the name of their account manager and the option to invite the account manager into the conversation (email, phone, or IM depending on their availability, thanks to unified communications).

It appears the Encarta service has recently been expanded further. I came back to my computer screen the other day to see a message had popped up from, none other than, Encarta.

Now, I can’t say I care too much about who Georgio Armani has designed uniforms for, but again imagine the possibilities. Whilst I was still at Microsoft, the internal IT department had already started using IM to push out systems alerts, such as virus warnings and updates about the status of messaging servers. As business intelligence tools become more widely adopted, the results of data mining and analysis could be used to proactively push business information out through IM. Hook analysis tools to your email, calendar and ‘to do’ list, and your IM client could become your virtual PA throughout the day. (Even more so as we start to see IM clients on mobile devices.)

You could argue many of these features are already possible, sitting in the domain of portals. (Indeed, the ever-maturing SharePoint would like to claim ownership of the unified applications space) But an IM client offers a number of advantages over the portal, particularly when you want quick answers. #1: It is clean and simple. I ask a message and don’t get distracted by any other clutter. The response includes additional options if I need more detail. I don’t have to go find and navigate a menu structure to get those options – it does the searching for me. #2: It is fast. The instant messaging client is a small application that is always running in the background, it is usually far quicker and easier to chat on IM than send/receive email. #3: It is conversational. IM feels more human, even when you are talking to a system. And we humans are suckers for adopting systems that we can relate to far better than sterile unsociable applications.


Related posts:

When will IM come of age?

Instant messaging (IM) has been a popular consumer tool for several years now but has yet to become accepted within the business world. Fear of misuse seems to be a key argument against adoption, with comments such as “people will just waste time chatting” being one of the common excuses. There are two key reasons why I believe organisations simply cannot ignore the potential of IM:

1. The shift towards real-time business

The connected world we now live in is increasing the pace of business, and the successful organisations will be those who are able to react in real-time to changes in their markets. Instant messaging is just that – instant. In a real-time environment, instant communication is a good thing.

2. “Generation Tech

The generation coming through college has grown up with the Internet. They don’t understand the issue us ‘oldies’ have with information overload. They crave information or, rather, they crave instant answers and are used to getting them. Will they want to work for dinosaur relics who make it difficult to get stuff done?

Let’s return to that common excuse, ‘people will just waste time chatting’. Why is this a good reason for not using IM? If people want to gossip, they’ll gossip. Be it on the telephone, by the coffee machine, outside in the smoker’s area… where ever. Risk of people taking too much is a poor reason for not adopting technology. Talking gets business done.

(For an explanation of the following diagrams, please review ‘causal loop diagrams‘. The short version: an arrow is used to denote a relationship between two entities. An ‘S’ means that an increase in one leads to an increase in the other. An ‘O’ means an increase in one leads to a decrease in the other.)

According to Gartner (“The Knowledge Worker Investment Paradox”, July 2002), employees get 50 – 75% of their information directly from other people. So, the easier it is to contact someone, the more likely you are to receive the answer to a question, and answers (should) lead to satisfied customers:

Also according to Gartner, 7 out of 10 phone calls go direct to voicemail. This one isn’t difficult: the more likely you go direct to voice mail, the less likely you are able to contact someone, the less likely you will receive an answer, and customer satisfaction goes down:

The Guardian quantified this issue in an article published April 2005: “Telephone tag costs British companies £20 billion per year.” Surely any system that makes it easier for people to talk to each other will improve productivity? Sooooo, what can be done to reduce the likelihood of being sent direct to voicemail?

By being able to see someone’s presence as online, you have an immediate indication that the person is available to answer a question. Presence information increases the ability to contact someone and reduces the likelihood you will be sent directly to voicemail. The better able you are to contact someone, the more likely you are to get the answer you seek and customer satisfaction goes up.

So what’s the deal with not adopting IM?

There are corporate versions of IM designed for business use. These versions typically support standard protocols (making it easier to integrate with other applications) and include additional features such as encryption and auditing for improved security and compliance requirements. Surely it’s better to give this technology a try than come up with untested excuses for not reducing your telephone tag bill…

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