Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Social research for the chronically ignorant

One of the drawbacks of being involved in so many research projects is just how much I learn about society and people around me.  There are days when I just want to scream with frustration when yet another student comes to me with another experiment or survey that demonstrates their complete ignorance of people, relationships, privacy, grammar, manners, cultural and ethnic practices, sexuality, responsibility, liability etc etc etc.

Without even getting into the horrors of pointless research design or poorly thought out data collection methodology... lets just focus on some simple demographics questions...

Students Design

1. Age
2. Date of Birth
3. Today's Date
4. Postcode
5. Gender
6. Ethnicity
7. Religion
8. Relationship/Marital status
  • Single,never married
  • Single,previously married
  • Defacto relationship
  • Married
9. Highest level of education completed

You get the idea. There is a certain rational for very very blunt questions... but its crap.  I have lost count of the number of surveys I have prepared (got to be in the range of 60+ by now) and I also usually have the pleasure of processing the data that comes off the back end.  My point is I have seen the reaction to blunt and poorly worded questions and its BAD.

These questions are AMBIGUOUS.  The data that is collected will be similarly AMBIGUOUS, making the research CRAP. 
These questions impose ASSUMPTIONS on the participant that they may neither feel comfortable answering truthfully or make the research (and the researcher) look foolish. Preventing the participant engaging with the research truthfully is simply BIASING the research and turning the collected data into a stew of half truths and garbage. 
These questions display IGNORANCE and BIAS on the part of the researcher.  

Firsly, ask the student why they are collecting the data.  (Usual answer is ... my supervisor said it was a good idea....WRONG!... go back to the start... try again.)  The right answer is, "I need to UNDERSTAND something about my sample population".  or "I want to be able to describe my sample population clearly"  or "I think this is an important variable and need to accuratly measure it so I can identify outliers and remove participants who are unsuitable from my study" or "I need to split my sample population on this variable"  or "I have ethical clearance to study a particular population and need to clearly identify suitable participants"... etc.  There needs to be a very clear rationale for asking ANY question.  Following on from that rationale is then a clear understanding of exactly what data that question needs to collect.  Is it specific CATEGORICAL data? Is it a gently worded open ended question?

If you're splitting the sample population on a clearly defined categorical boundary then the wording of your question needs to deal quite specifically with that boundary and clarify for the participant which group they fall into.  It also needs to ensure that it does not BIAS the participants to try to put themselves in the WRONG group.  There are various reasons why someone may choose to lie about some information.  The point is to make it easy for them to answer correctly/honestly/comfortably.

1. Age
Asking for the participants age is fairly pointless.  Help the participant provide you with clean, useful data by asking them for their age in years, or years and months or whatever degree of precision you are interested in.  Let them know if you would prefer it rounded up or down, if you want really unambiguous data. (

N.B peole usually round their age down....unless they are young and want to seem older.. so if your mention a boundary of 18 years... you will find some young people will try to ... ease themselves over the line...

2. Date of Birth
Just don't. This is sensitive information. There is a great deal of conditioning going on to stop people giving their date of birth to any online form.  So you will get lies and ommisions from literate participants and accurate information from technically naive participants.  But you have no way to tell the difference.  So its pointless and unreliable data. 
In the event that your survey contains any other identifying information, this turns your data set from anonymous to containing identifying data that you are required to store securely for 7 years.  This also makes your research project higher risk and should be reviewed by a full ethics review board. 

3. Todays Date
If you are doing the research on paper... then have the courtesy to put the date in yourself.  If you are using an electronic system... it should time stamp the results automatically. 
Firstly, if you actually care about the date the research was conducted, why are you trusting the participant to get it right? Help them out. Only ask the participant for information you do not already have.

4. Postcode
Fair enough....  But which one?  What are you trying to understand by asking that question?  Remember a postcode is about location, but as people can and do move, its also implicitly a time dependant question.
Do you mean
"What is the postcode of the location you are filling in this research form now?"
"What is the postcode of your current residence? "
"What is the postcode of your home if you live away from home to study?"
"What is the postcode you have lived in for the majority of the previous year?"
"What is the postcode that you work in at your current job?" (What if they travel for work?)

"Postcode" depends on time and place.  What place do you mean and what time do you mean?

5. Gender
Oh my.... where do I start?

Having done surveys for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and "Other" groups, I have some experience of just how complex this question actually is for some sections of the population to answer and then for the resercher to do something with the data.

There are many possible dimensions to the question..if we stick to asking about the simple expression of an old fashion gender stereotype,  not counting  sexuality or sexual preferences, reproduction capacity, nurture capacity, social role etc... then the question can be expanded to...

What gender cues do you choose to publicly express?
What gender do you choose to privatly express?
What gender does your body physically express?
What gender does your choromsomes express?
How strongly do you identify as or express the gender choice publicly?
Do you always express the same gender publicly?
Do you express the same gender cues to everyone?

The spectrum of answers include, but is not limited to:

Hermaphorodite/Intersex (Physically expressing aspects of both)
Androgenous (Physcially expressing neither)
Transgender (Neither or both but not either specifically, ambiguous or electing to live as one or the other.  Various meanings... basically ambiguous)
Transexed (Assigned a gender at birth but choosing another later in life. May include social, hormonal and surgical alterations)

I have also seen scenarios where the participant answered honestly with something like this

"Male with my family, female in public and privatly with my partners I tend to play a dominant woman... until they get to know the real me".

So go and code that into a neat box... I dare you.

Here are some links to add even more detail

So the question gets back to what the student actually wants to know..... how precise the student wants the answer and how comfortable they want their participant to be answering the question.

6. Ethnicity
Seriously.... what fucking rock have you been living under for the other bit of your life?  Or series of rocks...
I have built surveys to run in a number of different countries and the answers to this question and the sensitivities surrounding it are "varied" to say the least.

Is the student asking about the participants genetic heritage? And if so, why? 
Is the student trying to understand the cultural context that the participant brings to the discussion?  If so then ask about that....
Is the student trying to collect nationanlities?
Are they asking about where the participant origionated from or their current legal status? 
Is the student just an uniformed idiot?  .... pretty obviously

In a country that is awash with migrants, immigrants, their children, other peoples children, stolen generations, the decendants of slaves, visitors, temorary residents, illegal immigrants, various long established cultural groups... you will get a very very very wide range of answers to this question.
In a country where there are very strong ethnic/cultural/national groups ( such as Malasia) asking such a question will probably only get you one of three answers (Malay, Chinese, Indian) there are a few others but this is the big three.  The problem is that these are social group "Identities" which tells you only as much as any stereotype can.... which is sweet fuck all.  Essentially, your doing "Bad Research"(tm)

7. Religion
.... ok... there is a clear patten of dumb ignorance here.... Without beating a dead horse, the best phrasing for this question I have seen is:

What religious or spirital group if any do you identify with?

However this question does not ask about "Practising" or "strength of beleif"... simply because measuring string is not what is going on... this is simply a bullshit question for trying to categories the participant group and make a nice table or graph in some really crap research report.  Even asking the question marks the researcher out as an idiot.  But I digress....

8. Relationship status
Talk about double barrel answers to a single barrel question...
Ok. The researcher is trying to figure out what the participants relationship is currently... and what it might have been before.  (But without clarifying time frames or any other contextual information)

The big problem I see is just how many descriptors are missing from the list.

My list of favorites goes something like this....

How would you describe your relationship status?
  • Single
  • Divorced
  • Widowed
  • Sole Parent
  • Shared Custody Parent
  • Abandoned
  • Grown Up
  • Independant
  • In a new relationship
  • In a Defacto relationship
  • In a Civil Union
  • In a Religious Marriage
  • In a Partnership
  • In a Committed Relationship
  • In an open Relationship
  • Getting Divorced
  • Seperated
  • OTHER.... 

9. Highest level of education completed

As we have all sorts of people showing up at University I have gotten into the habit of expecting a quite varied range of answers to this question.  I still meet mature age students who report only doing their sixth form or not really going to school at all.  I meet migrants and refugees who have had fragmentary schooling in one or more countries that just does not map to a simple list.

My current favorite list is:
  • Minimal formal education
  • Yr 10 (Or Equivalent)
  • Yr 12 (Or Equivalent)
  • Certificate/Diploma (less than 1 year of study) 
  • Apprenticeship/Trade Qualification/TAFE Diploma (More than 1 year of study) 
  • Undergraduate Degree
  • Post-graduate Qualification (Honors/Diploma/Associate Diploma)
  • Masters/Doctoral Course/PhD
  • Other

Again, all these answers are dependant on what the researcher is trying to do with the data they are trying to collect.  There are levels of precision that are useless for some purposes but never the less allow the participants to feel comfortable and happy to provide accurate answers, even when the researcher is going to homogenise the answers into some simplistic scale....

People factors..... gotta love 'em.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Slug bot

This is an interesting application of robotics with the addition of behavioural rules and a basic ecconomy model to try to generate an emergent behaviour set. 

Just got to hope that the little buggers can't learn. Otherwise they might start putting anything they like into the digester... think Cane Toads... but with wheels.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Free Trade

Woke up thinking about the concept of free trade and protectionism.  This is in light of the current debat on subsidies in the Australian car industry.

I guess like any market, there are legal mechanimsm for protectionism, tarifs, additional overt and covert taxes, regulatory mechanisms like "standards" and quality control. My favorite is warranty systems... but thats just not used effectivly. However, my brain was fiddling around with the issues of physical protectionism.  Cost of transport from supplier to market... and all the possible costs that could be imposed via the supply chain.

Think about issues such as cost of shipping, availibiliy of shipping, timely delivery, cost models (limits, ceilings, on costs, discounts etc) then think about congestion in shipping lanes, losses due to weather or poor packaging (think Cocain Cowboys for a case study)... then we get to the landing port.

In Australia we have maratime unions that hold a lot of power on the wharfs, if they are so inclined they can act as a limiting factor on freight in general or specific businesses or specific origins etc.  We also have some basic infrastructure limits... apparently there are just not enough docks and ports to import and export quickly enough.  I think this is primarily a problem for the export resources industry who can't get the volume of cheap raw materials out of the country fast enough... but thats another story.

So my point so far is that emergent protectionism could be seem to be implemented simply by placing physical limits in the way of imports. This would not stop the imports, just slow the flow.

Once you get past the border, there are other mechanisms that could be imposed... but currently are not.  Simply because all the ecconomic elements are so throughly decoupled.  We have vertically integrated business in retail that essentially own their whole supply chain from dock to shop and so are not subject to any choices that a sub-contractor might make.  But for a small business trying to get into a market, it would be possible for contractors ( such as freight haulers) to discriminate based on the origin on the product they are hauling... this is speculation because market forces and competition would simply kill that business.

Anyway, there are various points of protectionism... but the problem is that having a well developed ecconomy without much corruption and very little "Friction", lots of competition means that goods and equipment can get anywhere a customer exists to purchase them.  There are still costs... but it works.

The cost to the whole ecconomy is simply that we are being integrated into the Chinese ecconomy more and more.  However only the Australian component is heavily regulated, policed and "fair" while the rest is still a bit of a free for all as far as manufacturing/copyright/trademark etc, goes.  This is just a temporary (relativly speaking) imbalance between the two ecconomies that market forces will eventually balance out.

The question is how long will this balancing out take?  Will it be slow and gradual or quick and violent?  Its been quite destructive to the Australian ecconomy todate but thats due to the scale of the difference in the ecconomies.  Not only the size of the labour pool but the different in prices and relative cost of living levels of the players. 

I have always beleived that people and social groups can adapt (not always pleasantly) to slow change, but do not deal well with sudden shocks.  The biggest issue that I see is that this change has come within one generation.  The way our parents lived and the rhythms of their lives are significantly different to ours.  But within the Australian ecconomy the ecconomi coupling between the generations is still very stong.

The children need to pay the taxes so the elderly can live.  Houses need to be sold by the elderly and purchased by the young to transfer value for retirement, but at a rate sufficient to pay for the extended periods of retirement and standard of living that their social context dictates.

This was all systematically fine until the perfect storm of longer life spans, self funded superannuation, higher cost of living etc on the elderly end and a loss of manufacturing industry, reduced wages and casualisation across many other industries and a fungal growth in the cost of living for the young.

There are so many things in the ecconomy now that are just not viable.  For me, the cost of living and the cost of housing are just ridiculus.  Trying to look after a family and save some money is just unrealistic.  Both myself and my partner are essentially selling all our time simply to keep our heads above water while we paddle like crazy.  And whats the cost here?  Where have we take all that free time from?  Family, community and recreation.  So now all the community groups and volunteer organisations are dying off simply because they only attract the elderly who have time on their hands.  The last generation had latch-key kids who were the children of parents who worked... I think this generation will take that as far as it can go and still not find enough time to meet the demands of the system.   Looks pretty similar to the stories about manufacturing workers in China doesnt it.... work long hours and still not end up with any time or money left over...

This brings me back to protectionism.  The inequality between China and Australia has lots of geopolitical history and is not anything in particular.  You could equally look at inequality between any developed nation and emerging nation... or developed nation and completly un-developed nation.  The point is that once you join the two together with a trade infrastructure... then trade will happen.   And as that tade becomes more fluid and the "friction" on that tade is systematically reduced through better infrastructure, reduced legislative friction, better transport, labour availibility... etc (lots of little ways) then the trade will flow as fast as it can.

We can take the big picture view and see this as a good thing for humanity... but at the nation, state, region, local, neighbourhood and individual levels it means a massive amount of change and adaptation.  Niches that previously were pleasant and comfortable are drying up and being drained of resources... the value of houses and the infrastructure of life is changing quickly.  People are migrating and trying different things.  Change and uncertainty are in the air.... adapt or die.  State the obvious really.

As in any migration, its the elderly and the young who get picked off by the wolves....

Friday, March 23, 2012

hardware chart

print your construction adapters


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Kübler-Ross model and environmental change

I have been peripherally interested in this model but never followed up on it.  While the article and the origional research uses this model to explain how people deal with death and dying... I have been thinking about it in terms of "catastrophic change"  or "shocking change" in peoples lives.

I think this is just an extension of the idea.

But what about "catastrophic change" that is not sudden?  Consider situations like environmental change.  Drought is a recurrent event in Australia.  We have just come out of a decade of drought that effected huge regions very significantly.  The rate of suicide and depression and "coping mechanisms" has been reported on over the years.

My question would be... how do people deal with catastrophy when there is no "end".  Its just a slow roast.  Do they still go through a grieving process?  If you see your farm, herd, business, family ground down and finally destroyed... where do you start grieving?

While its fine to talk about the resiliance of people on the land and how hard this process makes them... it breaks more than it makes.

I guess terminal illness is similar to any enterprise (particularly dry land farming) in that you know its risky and at some point it all may fall part and end.  But is that the same as being caught in a drought and seeing everything die while you sit watching impotently?

Knowing that there is nothing you can do except walk off the farm and start again somewhere else... give everything to the bank, suck up your pride, collect the kids and dogs and start again....

On that note.... I wonder what the stages of grief are when its an even slower grind down... being in a relationship that is slowly failing.... hoping it might turn around... but not having any evidence to support that hope.... is that the denial phase?  What about being in a job with no future?  Knowing that there is no where to go except to quit and start again somewhere else.... walk away... abandon everything that you have invested in.... denial, anger, bargining, depression or acceptance? 

What about frustration, rage and self abuse?  Acting out, lying to yourself, putting on a brave face, desperation, thrashing, spinning your wheels.... has to be a few other stages. 

Must be time for yet another mid-life crisis.... but what do you do when you can't abaondon the problem and you are obliged to take it with you?  What do you do when you have to pick up the toxic element and try again, knowing that that one key seed remains and will bloom into another tree of failure.... simply because it cannot be dumped?  Do you give up?  Do you just sit and cry? Is this the human condition?  Are character flaws the things that hold us down or define us? Are they the things that we need to raise above  or is it simply a flaw in a particular circumstance?  Will it suddenly bloom into something useful and valuable in the right situation?  Maybe.... are we all just gamblers at heart?

Patent land... where the trolls live

Interesting article and comments on the current patent "system".

Emergent behaviour in the cloud

This is an interesting article hypothesising possible disater in the cloud computing systems due to the same sorts of systemic interactions that are observable in other computer or biological systems.

The scenario they illustrate is fun and plausible.  However its also a little "simple".  Its simply two coupled osscilators. (or a double pendulm in the simplest terms) with effectivly an unlimited power input which creates a growth spiral that will only stop when it hits some limit in the system... either causing a crash or some other effect on the system function or the osscilation.

Does make me wonder how many of these emergent effects are actually already going on in the software I write.  There are always weird fragments of behaviour that can be observed... but are not focused on until they show overt negative effects (bugs).  Until then they are just ... weirdness.  Some of it is the interplay of frameworks and code that is outside my control or undocumented or simply to low in the stack to bother with.

Other bits are loops and event chains that have unexplored outcomes... these however I take responsibility for.  Code coverage and unit testing are mechanisms to try to tame these. However Unit testing is really looking at the end result rather than the process.  If something bounces around wildly under the bonet but still generates the correct response... a unit test is still happy.

I think in my head atleast, I still think of the computer as a deterministic system.... which is just wrong.  Even looking at a simple little GUI app its obvious that its an infinitly dynamic system.  Its closer to a set of springs and dampers than it is to a deterministic ratchet. 

While unit tests let us sample outcomes at the interfaces ( this is a good thing), it does tend to accept the fact that whats inside the interface box is .."unknown"... The question is what can we do to systematically peer into that dark space?

Endless logging calls? 
Create manual tracing stacks?
Use a mad monkey testing engine to generate input with some sort of code coverage system to watch the results and look for some rule violations?

There are lots of possibilities for detecting "weird" behaviour in dynamic systems.  Kind of like load tuning a web app but with a lot more variables.  At some point assumptions get made and may not be upheld under different circumstances. 

The complexity guys probably have some ideas but I would guess that even they do some level of decomposition and division simply to manage the exponential effect of multiple variables and their possible intereactions.  

I think the main issue is to reduce the complexity in the system.  Intruduce buffers and dampers to regulate the flow.  Prevent race conditions and resource contention, even when it places a ceiling on performance.  Implement static limits even when they are a bit arbitrary.  At least there is a limit in place that can be tuned if it get hit.

This reminds me of the issue with the oracle databases in a previous post.  They had hard limits that made sense in the context of stand alone servers, but when they interacted in a networked environment, the synchronising mechanism had both emergent properties as well as presenting a possible exploit for inducing behaviour (crashes).

The problem there was the tight coupling of the index numbers between the database instances.  By introducing loose coupling with a buffer structure that allowed the coupling to happen but did not kill the databases if it went rogue, the tightly coupled system becomes much less fragile.  Problems cannot automatically propogate through the network of databasea and kill them all.  Obviously there would need to be some watch put on the buffers and clear exception rules in place ( which are also probably able to be attacked if a flaw is found....) which then allow the whole dynamic system to be monitored.

I guess the bigges need is to be willing to allow one toxic database to fail without the failure propogating to others in the network. This is, I think the assumption that needs to be explicitly dealt with in the case of this cloud scenario.

The problem is that if one set of servers goes down and the load shifts unpredictably, then it could cause a cascading failure as more and more load gets shifted around and more things fail. These types of cascade events are only stopped by firewalls.  The concept is that a fire can burn on one side of the wall, but cannot cross the wall.  In server terms, that may mean that a server cannot accept more load than it has capacity to handle, no matter how much load is trying to be shifted onto it.

There also needs to be a plan for graceful failure.  Servers need to go down on their knees before they go down on their faces.  (While they are on their knees, they write the load out to disk and then die gracefully....)

Anyway... enough rambling.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reduce the "sticky" effect of the web

I have figured out how to make reading webpages less... sticky.  Infact it works fine for other things, like email and all the info-crap that flows across my workspace.

Put it on a monitor that is at an uncomfortable height to read.

I have four monitors on my desktop, one large 24" in the center with two rotated 19" on each wing.  Below at desktop level is another 19" wide.  This monitor is useful for all sorts of things... but mostly I use it for browsing help and MSDN etc.  I suddenly realised that its uncomfortable to read web pages on that monitor and its much easier to ... loose focus when reading... this means I am spending less time "stuck" on pages that are irrelevant but interesting because it places a physical cost on reading that monitor.

The result... an emergent side effect is that I am spending a lot less time lost in the web through unintended consumption.

I tested this theory simply by moving the browser window to the main monitor and started dealing with some of my normal webbing... check the clock later and more time had passed than I would have wanted.  Simply put... there was too much "sticky".  I had not done any crap like visit facebook (shudder)... just followed my nose around the sites I was trying to deal with and ended up lost for a while.

Moving the browser back to the physically uncomfortable monitor resulted in me "coming up for air" alot more and thus being able to conciously re-focus on the task objectives.

Reduce the incidental "Affordance" and utility of the browser allows you to stay in control and get stuff done.... whoot.  Same idea as a "stand-up" meeting.  Add the physical fatigue effect and it reduces the time people will spend on bullshit.

Out of control sales bots

There is so much fun to be had with the content in this article. 

The fact that Amazon is now just a giant bot feeding ground, run by bots, and exploited by other bots; is just a little bit scary.
The fact that the Amazon "business" cannot be "stopped" or reset to rid it of these bots suggests that its really close to being a permanent "environment".  As long as the bots keep paying the bills... who will try to stop it?

The Matrix has you....