Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An Immodest Proposal

Due to recent events, it has come to my attention that this State is not fulfilling the obligations of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.  We will therefore enact the following:

1.       All weapon-owning residents of this State will report once a year to a State center with all of their weapons.  At that center, they will receive training in operations as members of a State militia and in use of those weapons for militia purposes, via State-certified instructors.  If the obligation is fulfilled correctly, including following the regulations established by the instructors, those residents will receive a State certification of their ability to act as members of the State militia. This obligation will continue until the resident dies or no longer owns a weapon.

2.       The object of this training will be to protect the State against those threats to it not covered by the Federal Government.  Specifically, the training will be for call-up at any time to fight against persons in the State who seek to overturn all or part of the State by force. Such call-up and training can only be done by a State-certified or Federally-certified authority, and during training and call-up weapon-owning residents shall be deemed in violation of regulations if they attempt to use their weapons other than under the supervision of such authority and under the regulations governing the militia.

3.       Penalties for failure to act as part of the militia shall be as follows:  first, failure to rightfully gain such certification or to fulfill such call-up each year shall cause, in the first year, a fine of $100, in the second such year, a fine of $1000, in the third such year, a jail term of a minimum of one month with confiscation of all weapons for that term, in the fourth such year  a jail term of a minimum of one year with confiscation of all weapons for that term, and for the fifth and ensuing such years, a jail term of a minimum of twenty years.  If it shall be found that a resident has concealed weapons or failed to train for longer than the time period since the last training, he or she shall be liable for all such years so established.  Second, use of weapons outside of training or call-up in such a manner as to indicate inability to use them properly as a member of the militia, and specifically use in commission of a felony crime or use by the gun-owning resident or another person deemed legally improper and causing harm such as accidental death shall be deemed a crime separate from and with penalties in addition to all other related crimes, and will involve a minimum jail term of one month. Third, the State shall distinguish between weapons useful for purposes of the militia and weapons not so useful, and use outside of training or call-up as described above shall also be deemed a crime separate from and with penalties additional to all other related crimes, and will involve an additional minimum jail term of one month. Fourth, sellers of weapons who fail to verify that the resident has certification will be personally liable for the same penalties, and their corporations as people shall be liable as well, for one million dollars per felony crime committed.

4.       Failure of the State to adequately fund and staff such training shall not be a cause for voiding these requirements. Moreover, the State may not in its funding assess those who do not own guns more highly than those who own guns.

Let me add two comments on this change to our State laws.  First, there seems to be a pervasive misunderstanding of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, involving in many cases those of the legal branch.  The Second Amendment does not state that the people in general in the United States may bear arms. Rather, it states that the people as well-regulated members of States may bear arms. This is made clear in the very first words of the Preamble to the Constitution, which states not “We the people” but rather “We the people of the United States,” thus defining the word “people” for the rest of the document. I find that commentators often overlook this – a mistake comparable to saying that “I believe” (in the tooth fairy?) rather than “I believe in God[s]” is an expression of religious faith.

The implication of this is that the right “of the people” to bear arms extends no further than their rights as members of a State (and, of course, where Federal law does not intrude).  Whether they have any rights to bear arms when their State has allowed militias to wither, I leave to others – my personal opinion is that they do not, unless the State law specifically establishes such a use and its relation to the interests of the State. However, it is very clear that in the absence of such laws, establishment of such a militia, as I have done above, means that weapons may be used only for the purposes of a State militia. Moreover, registration of weapons for purposes of a State militia is in no sense a violation of individual Constitutional rights, but rather a right and proper duty of residents of a State.

Second, it should be understood that while residents of this State have a right to acquire or sell any weapon they wish, they also have an active duty once any weapon is acquired to use weapons in a manner consistent with the purposes of the State, and that neither ignorance of the law nor passive failure to comply with the militia’s regulations will serve as an excuse for failure to do so.  I believe that the net effect of this will be that, while residents and visitors may continue to use weapons for such purposes as hunting and self-protection, weapons used for killings (mass and other) will be more difficult to acquire and retain, and users far less likely to cause unintended deaths.

Finally, I view this enactment as the minimum necessary to re-establish our State’s proper fulfillment of the Constitution.  Any attempt to “water down” the necessary laws shall simply remove the rights of weapon owners altogether, since without Constitutional sanction there are no legal weapon rights.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Gnastly Climate Change: Our Revenge on Mark Twain

First off, I give credit for the word "gnastly" to Jeff Jones of IBM and Charles King, writer of Pund-IT Review.  It's not their fault I'm choosing to use the word (which I define as extremely nasty, nasty by nature, perpetually nasty) to describe climate change.

Anyway, the reason I cite Mark Twain is that he is reported to have wisecracked:  Everyone always talks about the weather; but no one actually does anything about it.

Mark Twain was wrong.  We have spent the last 45 years proving him wrong.  We have done something about it.  We've made it worse.

The figures I look at are disaster costs, and there I am amazed to find that it has reached the point where it is actually affecting GDP.  According to some sources, Hurricane Sandy took 0.2 % off US GDP in 3Q, and will have at least that effect in 4Q, because so much of the US lives in the areas affected (of course, its span of damage was 1200 miles at one point, according to Jeff Masters).  Projections were that each increase of, say, 1 degree C would increase average energy in the atmosphere to increase average storm speed by 10 mph, not to mention storm surge and precipitation amounts, which would seem to argue for at least a doubling of disaster costs; well, the average disaster costs for the US at least seem to be closer to a tenfold increase, and James Hansen cites this kind of effect as an unwelcome "surprise" of an underestimate of the effects of global warming.

Of course, at least initially, no negative trend is complete without some positive aspects.  Last winter was unusually warm in the US, as one would expect with both the North Atlantic Oscillation tilting the right way and winter temperatures warming about 5 degrees anyway from global warming.  On the other hand, that led also to baking summer heat that exacerbated the Midwest and Southern droughts that are still going on.

Last winter's mildness helped the economy. I suspect that this winter we will see alternation of cold/snowy and warm like last year, as according to a study the warmer Arctic air from summer ice melting causes oscillations up and down of the jet stream that carries the relative cold (to us temperate zones) south. Overall, I would guess, a slight plus to the economy.  On the other hand, we should anticipate more disaster costs next summer and fall ... And this is just the start of the gnastliness, folks.  Another decade or two, ten times as much in disaster costs maybe, a 1-2% hit to GDP, food prices really beginning to be impacted -- if not before then.

Oh, well, we still haven't reached the point where it's on the top of the strategic list for CEOs.  Not even close, according to recent IBM surveys.

An old Flanders and Swann describes English weather as "cold and dank and wet" and concludes:  "Freezing wet December then ... Bloody January again!"  Except for the "freezing" part, I suspect that's what may be coming up.  Happy holidays, everyone!  It's not gnastly yet!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Was Grant Agile?

As I write posts and white papers on agile software development and business agility, I find myself surprisingly often reminded of sayings by or about General Grant during the Civil War.  I am not recommending Grant as a model of agile thinking – I think we’ve had enough books about Jesus Christ being an ad man and Attilla the Hun being a master business strategist (although if you want repulsive characters who were good generals, Subodai the Mongol would be a much better choice).  I am, however, suggesting that Grant showed some interesting “agile” traits.

Let’s start with a remark by someone when Grant showed up to take over in Tennessee (I am paraphrasing): Grant didn’t come in with a lot of show and effort. And yet, when he came on the scene, everything seemed to start working like clockwork.  He seemed to have a plan and everything he did played into that plan.

The plan, by the way, was mostly not Grant’s. The idea of attacking downstream positions to free up the Union lines was General Thomas’.  The spontaneous attack on Southern positions at the end was not in anyone’s plan.  However, Grant adopted and adapted to realities on the ground and changes in plan immediately.  So, I suggest, Grant had (a) ability to reach out to a “customer” and change plans based on feedback – reactive agility – and (b) ability not just to adapt to unexpected change but also to incorporate it immediately in an overall strategy.

Now let’s reach back a little earlier, to the attack on Vicksburg.  Catton in his superbly written history states that Grant during the winter was trying various methods to get downstream, and while almost all of these didn’t pan out, the constant trying of different things had the effect of bewildering his opponent Pemberton so that Pemberton perceived himself as being under potential attack from many directions at once. As a result, when the real attack happened, Pemberton was constantly one step behind.  To me, that’s a bit like evolving the nature of a product constantly during development, compared to a competitor sticking to a fixed plan. 

However – and, to me, here’s a key point – Grant was proactive rather than reactive.  Not only was he constantly thinking about attacking; he was constantly thinking about changes in his attacks.  At Vicksburg, he had already committed to operating without a supply line once across the river; he then changed his plans in order to attack Jackson once he saw an opportunity, and then turned around once Pemberton finally came out and changed his attack plans again in order to attack and defeat Pemberton “in detail”.  So Grant could be proactively agile.

That Grant thought this way is apparently confirmed by an incident later in the war, at the Wilderness.  Lee was pressing Grant hard, and staff officers accustomed to previous Union commanders were panicked over whether Lee could destroy the Union army.  Grant blew up at them:  some of them seemed to think, he said, that Lee was going to do a giant somersault and attack the army from behind.  Instead of concentrating on what Lee was going to do to them, Grant said, they should concentrate on what they were going to do to Lee.

Now, I can’t say that Grant was completely agile – because he apparently sometimes did not spend enough time taking care of potential counter-moves by his opponents.  Thus, in Shiloh, he chose to hasten the arrival of reinforcements for an attack rather than be on the scene getting folks dug in to receive one before he had a chance to attack.

One final thought – and here I admit I’m really reaching.  An interesting characteristic of Grant’s attacks was that, given the chance, Grant would attack “up the middle”, but not to split the enemy’s lines, as Lee attempted to do with Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. Rather, the main purpose was to hold the enemy in place as he then detached an equal force to hit the enemy on or behind one end, like a jab immediately followed by a roundhouse swing. If the enemy then detached too many to deal with problems on the end, the up-the-middle attack could then succeed, as in Tennessee. There is a vague analogy here to agile new-product development, in which one “fixes the competitor in place” with a strong product in an existing market, and then “hits the competitor on the end” with major innovative features, as the iPhone did.

I conclude that Grant was not a modern agile strategist, not fully.  However, compared to others in the Civil War, and many generals since, he thought in a much more agile way.  And note that it had nothing to do with how hard he worked.  He spent less effort than most, and achieved much more.  He was not efficient, he was effective.  As Lincoln once said about Grant, I can’t spare this general, he fights.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Political Guts: Some Odd Musings

I thought that after the usual commentary on the election, I'd try something a bit different.  During this campaign, who showed political guts, and when?

My definition of political guts is, I hope, simple.  You have to stick your neck out, in a way that most others aren't, and it has to be a reasonable conclusion about something important.

I saw two instances of political guts this campaign; others may have their own lists (spare me).  One, President Obama came out for gay marriage.  Yes, the polls had been showing that support for that had finally (barely) reached majority status; but politicians also try not to anger minorities within their own party, and especially in what appeared to be an especially close election.  I think that took political guts.

Second, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of NYC flatly declared that Hurricane Sandy was about global warming, and we needed to do something about it (he then, as a Republican, endorsed President Obama because he was better for climate change, but since Bloomberg was the mayor of NYC, which strongly backed Obama, that took very little guts). In a campaign in which one side has been flatly denying that there is any such thing (or refusing to answer while advocating policies that will make it worse), while the other side is refusing to treat it as an important issue, that took political guts.

What's interesting is that in both cases, once the barrier was breached, no one attacked either Obama or Bloomberg viciously for their stances. It is as if there was this great pretense in the media and in political commentators that things were one way, and then when the opportunity for attack and innuendo came, they suddenly started rethinking things.

What's happened since?  In the case of gay marriage, one amendment against turned down, and three additional states putting it into law. In effect, gay marriage has begun to move from both coasts towards the middle of the country. In the case of climate change, not much; but at least the balance of the conversation is focused on global warming itself, not denial.

Just some thoughts ...

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

Just finished the candy-giving bit.

If I were to dress up as a monster, it would be as the Earth melting in an acid rain.

That's the most horrible thing I fear.

Trick or not!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Brief Thoughts on Data Virtualization and Master Data Management

It was nice to see, in a recent book I have been reading, some recognition of the usefulness of master data management (MDM), and how the functions included in data virtualization solutions give users a flexibility in architecture design that’s worth its weight in gold (IBM and other vendors, take note). What I have perhaps not sufficiently appreciated in the past is its usefulness in speeding MDM implementation, as duly noted by the book.

I think that this is because I have assumed that users will inevitably reinvent the wheel and replicate the functions of data virtualization in order to afford users a spectrum of choices between putting all master data in a central database and only there, and leaving the existing master data right where it is.  It now appears that they have been slow to do so.  And that, in turn, means that the “cache” of a data virtualization solution can act as that master-data central repository while preserving the farflung local data that compose it. Or, the data virtualization server can provide discovery of the components of a customer master-data record, give a sandbox to define a master data record, alert to new data types that will need to change the master record, and enforce consistency – all key functions of such a flexible MDM solution.

But the major value-add is the speedup of implementing the MDM solution in the first place, by speeding definition of master data, writing code on top of it for application interfaces, and allowing rapid but safe testing and upgrade. As the book says, abstraction gives these benefits.

Therefore, it continues to be worth it for both existing and new MDM implementations to seriously consider data virtualization.

Arctic Update

Today, it was confirmed that the Arctic sea ice area is farther below normal than ever before since record-keeping began. We are probably poised to say the same about the total global sea ice area (including the Antarctic). Meanwhile, those media who are saying anything are talking about a meaningless blip in Antarctic sea ice.

And, of course, there's the other litany of related news. Record temperatures for this date in parts of Greenland. September tied for the warmest global temperature since record-keeping began.  That kind of thing. 

Nothing to see here. This isn’t the human extinction event you aren’t looking for. You can move along.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Does Data Virtualization Cause a Performance Hit? Maybe The Opposite

In the interest of “truthiness”, consultants at Composite Software’s Data Virtualization Day last Wednesday said that the one likely tradeoff for all the virtues of a data virtualization (DV) server was a decrease in performance.  It was inevitable, they said, because DV inserts an extra layer of software between a SQL query and the engine performing that query, and that extra layer’s tasks necessarily increases response time. And, after all, these are consultants who have seen the effects of data-virtualization implementation in the real world. Moreover, it has always been one of the tricks of my analyst trade to realize that emulation (in many ways, a software technique similar to DV) must inevitably involve a performance hit – due to the additional layer of software.

And yet, I would assert that three factors difficult to discern in the heat of implementation may make data virtualization actually better-performing than the system as it was pre-implementation.  These are:
·         Querying optimization built into the data virtualization server

·         The increasingly prevalent option of cross-data-source queries

·         Data virtualization’s ability to coordinate across multiple instances of the same database.
Let’s take these one at a time.

DV Per-Database Optimization

I remember that shortly after IBM released their DV product in around 2005, they did a study in which they asked a bunch of their expert programmers to write a set of queries against an instance of IBM DB2, iirc, and then compared their product’s performance against these programmers’.  Astonishingly, their product won – and yet, seemingly, the deck was entirely stacked against it.  This was new programmer code optimized for the latest release of DB2, based on in-depth experience, and the DV product had that extra layer of software. What happened?
According to IBM, it was simply the fact that no single programmer could put together the kind of sophisticated optimization that was in the DV product. Among other things, this DV optimization considered not only the needs of the individual querying program, but also its context as part of a set of programs accessing the same database.  Now consider that in the typical implementation, the deck is not as stacked against DV: the programs being superseded may have been optimized for a previous release and never adequately upgraded, or the programmers who wrote them or kept them current with the latest release may have been inexperienced.  All in all, there is a significant chance (I wouldn't be surprised if it was better than 50%) that DV will perform better than the status quo for existing single-database-using apps “out of the box.”
Moreover, that chance increases steadily over time – and so an apparent performance hit on initial DV implementation will inevitably turn into a performance advantage 1-2 years down the line. Not only does the percentage of “older” SQL-involving code increase over time, but the need for database upgrade (as, for example, upgrading DB2 every 2 years should pay off in spades, according to my recent analyses), means that these DV performance advantages widen – and, if emulation is any guide, the performance cost from an extra layer never gets worse than 10-20%.

The Cross-Data-Source Querying Option

Suppose you had to merge two data warehouses or customer-facing apps as part of a takeover or merger.  If you used DV to do so, you might see (as in the previous section) the initial queries to either app or data warehouse be slower.  However, it seems to me that’s not the appropriate comparison.  You have to merge the two somehow.  The alternative is to physically merge the data stores and maybe the databases accessing those data stores.  If so, the comparison is with a merged data store for which neither set of querying code is optimized, and a database for which one of the two sets of querying code, at the least, is not optimized. In that case, DV should have an actual performance advantage, since it provides an ability to tap into the optimizations of both databases instead of sub-optimizing one or both.
And we haven’t even considered the physical effort and time of merging two data stores and two databases (very possibly, including the operational databases, many more than that).  DV has always sold itself on its major advantages in rapid implementation of merging – and has constantly proved its case.  It is no exaggeration to say that a year saved in merger time is a year of database performance improvement gained.
Again, as noted above, this is not obvious in the first DV implementation.  However, for those who care to look, it is definitely a real performance advantage a year down the line.
But the key point about this performance advantage of DV solutions is that this type of coordination of multiple databases/data stores instead of combining them into one or even feeding copies into one central data warehouse is becoming a major use case and strategic direction in large-enterprise shops. It was clear from DV Day that major IT shops have finally accepted that not all data can be funneled into a data warehouse, and that the trend is indeed in the opposite direction.  Thus, an increasing proportion (I would venture to say, in many cases approaching 50%) of corporate in-house data is going to involve cross-data-source querying, as in the merger case. And there, as we have seen, the performance advantages are probably on the DV side, compared to physical merging.

DV Multiple-Instance Optimization

This is perhaps a consideration more suited to abroad and to medium-sized businesses, where per-state or regional databases and/or data marts must be coordinated. However, it may well be a future direction for data warehouse and app performance optimization – see my thoughts on the Olympic database in a previous post. The idea is that these databases have multiple distributed copies of data. These copies have “grown like Topsy”, on an ad-hoc, as needed basis.  There is no overall mechanism for deciding how many copies to create in which instances, and how to load balance across copies.
That’s what a data virtualization server can provide.  It automagically decides how to optimize given today’s incidence of copies, and ensures in a distributed environment that the processing is “pushed down” to the right database instance. In other words, it is very likely that data virtualization provides a central processing software layer rather than local ones – so no performance hit in most cases – plus load balancing and visibility into the distribution of copies, which allows database administrators to achieve further optimization by changing that copy distribution. And this means that DV should, effectively implemented, deliver better performance than existing solutions in most if not all cases.
Where databases are used both operationally (including for master data management) and for a data warehouse, the same considerations may apply – even though we are now in cases where the types of operation (e.g., updates vs. querying) and the types of data (e.g., customer vs. financial) may be somewhat different. One-way replication with its attendant ETL-style data cleansing is only one way to coordinate the overall performance of multiple instances, not to mention queries spanning them.  DV’s added flexibility gives users the ability to optimize better in many cases across the entire set of use cases.
Again, this advantage may not have been perceived (a) because not many implementers are focused on the multiple-copy case and (b) because DV implementation is probably compared against performance against each individual instance instead of or as well as against the multiple-instance database as a whole. Nevertheless, at least theoretically, this performance advantage should appear – and especially because, in this case, the “extra software layer” should not typically add some DV performance cost.

The User Bottom Line:  Where’s The Pain?

It seems that, theoretically at least, we might expect to see actual performance gains over the next 1-2 years over “business as usual” from DV implementation in the majority of use cases, and that this proportion should increase, both over time after implementation and as corporations’ information architectures continue to elaborate. The key to detecting these advantages now, if the IT shop is willing to do it, is more sophisticated metrics about just what constitutes a performance hit or a performance improvement, as described above.
So maybe there isn’t such a performance tradeoff for all the undoubted benefits of DV, after all.  Or maybe there is.  After all, there is a direct analogy here with agile software development, which seems to lose by traditional metrics of cost efficiency and quality attention, and yet winds up lower-cost and higher-quality after all.  The key secret ingredient in both is ability to react or proact rapidly in response to a changing environment, and better metrics reveal that overall advantage. But the “tradeoff” for both DV and agile practices may well be the pain of embracing change instead of reducing risk.  Except that practitioners of agile software development report that embracing change is actually a lot more fun.  Could it be that DV offers a kind of support for organizational “information agility” that has the same eventual effect: gain without pain?
Impossible. Gain without pain. Perish the very thought.  How will we know we are being organizationally virtuous without the pains that accompany that virtue?  How could we possibly improve without sacrifice? 
Well, I don’t know the answer to that one.  However, I do suggest that maybe, rather than the onus being on DV to prove it won’t torch performance, the onus should perhaps be on those advocating the status quo, to prove it will.  Because it seems to me that there are plausible reasons to anticipate improvements, not decreases, in real-world performance from DV.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Data Virtualization: Users Grok What I Said 10 Years Ago

Ten years ago I put out the first EII (now data virtualization) report.  In it I said:
  • ·         The value of DV is both in its being a database veneer across disparate databases, and in its discovery and storage of enterprise-wide global metadata
  • ·         DV can be used for querying and updates
  • ·         DV is of potential value to users and developers and administrators. Users see a far wider array of data, and new data sources are added more quickly/semi-automatically. Developers have “one database API to choke.” Administrators can use it to manage multiple databases/data stores at a time, for cost savings
  • ·         DV can be great for mergers, metadata standardization, and as a complement to existing enterprise information architectures (obviously, including data warehousing)
  • ·         DV is a “Swiss army knife” that can be used in any database-related IT project
  • ·         DV is strategic, with effects not just on IT costs but also on corporate flexibility and speed to implement new products (I didn’t have the concept of business agility then)
  • ·         DV can give you better access to information outside the business.
  •  DV can serve as the “glue” of an enterprise information architecture.
I’m at DV Day 2012 (Composite Software) in NYC. Today, for the first time, I have heard not just vendors talking about implementing these things, but users actually doing them – global metadata, user self-service access to the full range of corporate data, development using SQL access, use for updating in operational databases, use for administration of at least the metadata management of multiple databases as well as archiving administrative tasks, use in mergers, use in “data standardization”, use as an equal partner with data warehousing, use in just about every database-related IT project, selling by as strategic to the business with citations of impacts on the bottom line through strategic products as well as “business agility”, use to access extra-enterprise Big Data across multiple clouds, and use as the framework of an enterprise information architecture.

I just wanted to say, on a personal note, that this is what makes being an analyst worthwhile.  Not that I was right 10 years ago. That, for once, by the efforts of everyone pulling together to make the point and elaborate the details, we have managed to get the world to implement a wonderful idea. I firmly believed that, at least in some small way, the world would be better off if we implemented DV. Now, it’s clear that that’s true, and that DV is unstoppable.

And so, I just wanted to take a moment to celebrate.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Naive Idea About the Future of Data Virtualization Technology

On a weekend, bleak and dreary, as I was pondering, weak and weary, on the present state and future of data virtualization technology, I was struck by a sudden software design thought.  I have no idea whether it’s of worth; but I put it out there for discussion.

The immediate cause was an assertion that one future use for data virtualization servers was as an appliance – in its present meaning, hardware on which, pretty much, everything was designed for maximum performance of a particular piece of software, such as an application, a database, or, in this case, a data virtualization solution.  That I question:  by its very nature, most keys to data virtualization performance lie on the servers of the databases and file management tools data virtualization servers invoke, and it seems to me likely that having dedicated data-virtualization hardware will make the architecture more complicated (thereby adding administrative and other costs) to achieve a minimal gain in overall performance.  However, it did lead to my thought, and I call it the “Olympic database.”

The Olympic Database

Terrible name, you say.  This guy will never be a marketer, you say.  That’s true. In fact, when they asked me as a programmer for a name for Prime Computer software doing a graphical user interface, I suggested Primal Screens.  For some reason, no one’s asked me to name something since then.

Anyway, the idea runs as follows.  Assemble the usual array of databases (and Hadoop, yada).  Each will specialize in handling particular types of data.  One can imagine splitting relational data between that suited for columnar and that not so suited, and then applying a columnar database to the one and a traditional relational database to the other, as Oracle Exadata appears to do. But here’s the twist:  each database will also contain a relatively small subset of the data in at least one other database – maybe of a different type.  In other words, up to 10%, say, of each database will be a duplicate of another database – typically, the data that queries will typically want in cross-database queries, or the data that in the past a database incorporates just to save time switching between databases.  In effect, each database will have a cache of data in which it does not specialize, with its own interface to it, SQL or other.

On top of that, we place a data virtualization server.  Only this server’s primary purpose is not necessarily to handle data of varying types that a particular database can’t handle.  Rather, the server’s purpose is to carry out load balancing and query optimization across the entire set of databases.  It does this by choosing the correct database for a particular type of data – any multiplexer can do that – but also by picking the right database among two or several options when all the data is found in two or more databases, as well as the right combination of databases when no one database has all the data needed.  It is, in effect, a very flexible method of sacrificing some disk space for duplicate data for the purpose of query optimization – just as the original relational databases sacrificed pure 9NF and found that duplicating data in a star or snowflake schema yielded major performance improvements in large-scale querying.

Now picture this architecture in your mind, with the data stores as rings.  Each ring will intersect in a small way with at least one other data-store “ring” of data.  Kind of like the Olympic rings.  Even if it’s a terrible name, there’s a reason I called it the Olympic database.

It seems to me that such an Olympic database would have three advantages over anything out there:  specialization in multiple-data-type processing in an era in which that’s becoming more and more common, a big jump in performance from increased ability to load balance and optimize across databases, and a big jump in the ability to change the caches and hence the load to balance dynamically – not just every time the database vendor adds a new data type.

Why Use a Data Virtualization Server?

Well, because most of the technology is already there – and that’s certainly not true for other databases or file management systems.  To optimize queries, the “super-database” has to know just which combination of specialization and non-specialization will yield better performance – say, columnar or Hadoop “delayed consistency”.  That’s definitely something a data virtualization solution and supplier knows in general, and no one else does. We can argue forever about whether incorporating XML data in relational databases is better than two specialized databases – but the answer really is, it depends; and only data virtualization servers know just how it depends.

The price for such a use of a data virtualization server would be that data virtualization would need to go pretty much whole hog in being a “database veneer”:  full admin tools, etc., just like a regular database. But here’s the thing:  we wouldn’t get rid of the old data virtualization server. It’s just as useful as it ever was, for the endless new cases of new data types that no database has yet combined with its own specialization.  All the use cases of the old data virtualization server will still be there.  And an evolution of the data virtualization will accept a fixed number of databases to support with a fixed number of data types, in exchange for doing better than any of the old databases could in those conditions.


Ta da! The Olympic database! So what do you think?  

Agile Marketing and the Concept of Customer Debt

One of the fascinating things about the agile marketing movement is its identification of leverageable similarities with agile development, as well as the necessary differences.  Recently, the Boston branch of the movement identified another possible point of similarity:  an analogy with the agile-development concept called “technical debt.” I promised myself I’d put down some thoughts on the idea of “customer debt”, so here they are.

What Is Technical Debt?

Over the last few years, there has been increasing “buzz” in agile development circles and elsewhere about the concept of “technical debt.” Very briefly, as it stands now, technical debt appears to represent the idea of calculating and assigning the costs of future repair to deferred software maintenance and bug fixes, especially those tasks set aside in the rush to finish the current release. In fact, “technical debt” can also be stretched to include those parts of legacy applications that, in the past, were never adequately taken care of. Thus, the technical debt of a given piece of software can include:

1.       Inadequacies in documentation that will make future repairs or upgrades more difficult if not impossible.

2.       Poor structuring of the software (typically because it has not been “refactored” into a more easily changeable form) that make future changes or additions to the software far more difficult.

3.       Bugs or flaws that are minor enough that the software is fully operational without them, but that, when combined with similar bugs and flaws such as those that have escaped detection or those that are likewise scanted in future releases, will make the software less and less useful over time, and bug repairs more and more likely to introduce new, equally serious bugs. It should be noted here that “the cure is worse than the disease” is a frequently reported characteristic of legacy applications from the 1970s and before – and it is also beginning to show up even in applications written in the 2000s.

For both traditional and agile development, the rubber meets the road when release time nears. At that point, the hard decisions that must be made, about what functionality goes into the release and what doesn’t, what gets fixed and what doesn’t, are needed and are far easier to make. This is the point at which technical debt is most likely to be incurred – and, therefore, presenting “technical debt” costs to the project manager and corporate to influence their decisions at this point is a praiseworthy attempt to inject added reality into those decisions. This is especially true for agile development, where corporate is desperately clinging to outdated metrics for project costs and benefits that conflict with the very culture and business case of agile development, and yet the circle must be squared. Technical debt metrics simply say at this point:  Debt must be paid. Pay me now, or pay me more later. 

I have several concerns about technical debt as it is typically used today.  However, imho, the basic concept is very sound. Can we find a similar concept in marketing?

What’s My Idea of Customer Debt?

Here I focus on product marketing – although I am assured that there are similar concepts in branding and corporate messaging, as well. Product marketing can be thought of as an endless iteration of introduction of new solutions to satisfy a target audience:  the customer (customer base, market). However, as I argue in a previous discussion of continuous delivery, there is some sense in which each solution introduction falls behind the full needs of the customer:  because it was designed for a previous time when customer needs were a subset of what they are now, or because hard decisions had to be made when release time neared about what stayed and what was “deferred.” Customer debt I see as basically both of those things: lagging behind the evolution of customer needs, and failing to live up to all of one’s “promises.” 

More abstractly, in an ongoing relationship between customer and vendor, the vendor seeks to ensure good-customer loyalty by staying as close as possible to the customer, including satisfying the customer’s needs as they change, as well as it is able. Yes, the market may take a turn like the iPhone that is very hard to react swiftly to; but within those constraints, the agile marketer should be able in both solution design and messaging to capture both customer needs and the predictable evolution of those needs.  “We just don’t have the budget” for communicating the latest and greatest to a customer effectively enough, “but we’ll do it when the product succeeds,” and “sorry, development or engineering just can’t fit it into this release, so we have to make some hard choices, but it’ll be in the next release,” are examples of this kind of customer debt. 

The problem with this kind of customer debt is that it is not as easy to measure as technical debt – and technical debt isn’t that easy to measure. However, I believe that it should be possible to find some suggestive metrics in many agile marketing efforts.  The project backlog is an obvious source of these.  There will always be stuff that doesn’t get done, no matter how many sprints you can do before the grand announcement.  There should be a way (using analytics, of course) to project the effect of not doing them on immediate sales.  However, as in the case of technical debt, costs (e.g., of lost customer loyalty and branding opportunities) should rise sharply the longer you fail to clear up the backlog. I don’t yet see a clear way of identifying the rate of growth of such costs.

The Value of the Concept of Customer Debt

To me, the key value of this concept is that up to now, in my experience, neither corporate hearing marketing’s plans nor, to some extent, marketing itself has really assessed the damage done by delaying marketing efforts, and therefore has tended to assume there is none – or, at least, none that every other vendor isn’t dealing with. I think it is very possible that once we take a closer look at customer debt, as in the case of technical debt, we will find that it causes far more damage than we assumed.  And, again as in the case of technical debt, we will have numbers to put behind that damage. 

I am reminded of my colleague David Hill’s story about the Sunday school class asked if each would like to go to Heaven. All agreed except little Johnny.  What’s the matter, Johnny, asked the teacher, don’t you want to go to Heaven?  Oh, yes, Johnny replied, but I thought you meant right now.  In the same way, those who would abstractly agree that deferring marketing dollars might hurt a customer relationship but not really mean it might have a very different reaction when confronted with figures showing that it was hurting sales right now – not to mention even worse in the immediate future.

The Marketing Bottom Line

Lest you continue to think that losses from piling up customer debt are not likely to be substantial, let me draw an example from technical debt in projects in which features are delayed or features were not added to meet new customer needs arriving over the course of the project.  It turns out that these are not losses just if we fix the problems on the next release. On the contrary – and this is an absolutely key point – by deciding not to spend on this kind of technical debt, the organization is establishing a business rule, and that means that in every other release beyond this one, the organization will be assumed to apply the same business rule – which means, dollars to donuts, that in all releases involving this software over, say, the next two years, the organization will not fix this problem either 

Wait, bleat the managers, of course we’ll fix it at some point. Sorry, you say, that is not the correct investment assessment methodology. That is wrong accounting. In every other case in your books, a business rule stays a business rule, by assumption, unless it is explicitly changed. Anything else is shoddy accounting. And you can tell them I said so. 

(If you want to go into the fine details, by the way, the reason this is so is that the organization is fixing this problem in the next release, but deferring another problem. So, instead of one problem extended over two years, you have 24 monthly problems, if you release monthly. Same effect, no matter the release frequency) 

So what does this mean? It means that, according to a very crude experience-suggested guess, on average, over those two years, perhaps an average of 2-3 added major features will be delayed by about a month. Moreover, an average of 2-3 other new major new features will have been built that depend on this software, and so, whether or not you do fix the original problem, these will be delayed by up to a month. It is no exaggeration to say that major “technical debt” in today’s terms equates to moving back the date of delivery for all releases of this particular product by a month. That is in strict accounting terms, and it is conservatively estimated (remember, we didn’t even try to figure out the costs of software maintenance, or the opportunity costs/revenue losses of product releases beyond that). 

So, to sum up, my version of technical debt is an estimation of the costs from a decrease in business agility. From my surveys, agile software new product development (NPD) appears to deliver perhaps 25% gross margin improvements, year after year, over the long term, compared to traditional NPD. 1/24th of that is still a decrease of more than 1% in gross margin – not to mention the effects on customer satisfaction (although, today, you’re probably still way ahead of the game there). Let’s see, do this on 25 large parts of a large piece of software and – oops, I guess we don’t seem to be very agile any more. Wonder what happened? 

Now, translate that to marketing terms:  an advertising venue unexploited, a product feature delayed, a misidentification of the customer from too-low analytics spending. Again, we are talking about an integral part of new product development – the marketing end. And we are talking just as directly about customer satisfaction.  Why shouldn’t the effects of customer debt be comparable to the effects of technical debt? 

So my initial thoughts on customer debt are:

·         It’s a valuable concept.

·         It can potentially be a valuable addition to agile marketing project metrics.

·         Agile marketers should think about it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Tipping Points Considered Dangerous

A while back, discussions of Arctic sea ice, methane, and other related matters seemed dominated by the idea that there was a “tipping point” involved, a point before which we could return to the halcyon equilibria of yore, and after which we were irrevocably committed to a new, unspecified, but clearly disastrous equilibrium.  Surprisingly, this idea was recently revived as the overriding theme of a British Government report assessing trends in Arctic sea ice and their likely effects on the UK itself.  It is cast as a debate between Profs. Slingo of the Met Office and Wadhams, and the report comes out in indirect but clear support of Wadham’s position that these trends are in no sense “business as usual”.  However, it casts this conclusion as the idea that there are “tipping points” in methane emissions, carbon emissions, and sea ice extent, that these are in danger of being crossed, and that once these are crossed the consequences are inevitable and dire – an idea that seems prevalent in national discussions of an emissions “target” of no more than enough tonnage to cause no more than 2 degrees Centigrade warming by 2100.

Here, I’ll pause for a bit of personal reminiscence. My late father-in-law, who was a destroyer captain in WW II, told me that once during the early days of the US’ involvement, during a storm in the North Atlantic, the destroyer heeled over by 35 degrees. Had it heeled over by 1 or 2 more degrees, it would have turned turtle and probably all lives aboard would have been lost. As it was, it righted itself with no casualties. 
That, to me, is a real “tipping point”. The idea is that up to a certain amount of deviation, the tendency is to return to the equilibrium point; beyond that, a new equilibrium results. 35 degrees or less, the ship tends to return to an upright position; beyond that, it tends to go to an upside down position, and stay there.

So what’s wrong with applying the idea of such a tipping point to what’s going on in climate change?  Superficially, at least, it’s a great way to communicate urgency, via the idea that even if it’s not obvious to all that there’s a problem, we are rapidly approaching a point of no return.

Problem One: It Ain’t True

More specifically, if there ever was a “tipping point” in Arctic sea ice, carbon emissions, and methane emissions, we are long past it.  The correct measure of Arctic sea ice trends, now validated by Cryosat, is volume. That has been on an accelerating downward trend just about since estimates began in 1979, clearly driven by global warming, which in turn is clearly driven by human-caused carbon emissions. Carbon emissions themselves have risen in an accelerated fashion from about 1 ppm/year in 1950 at the start of measurements to about 2.1-2.5 ppm/year today. Methane emissions from natural sources (a follow-on to carbon emissions’ effect on rising global temperature) were not clearly a factor until very recently, but it is becoming clear that they have risen a minimum of 20-30% over the last decade, and are accelerating. By way of context, these methane emissions are accompanied by additional carbon emissions beyond those in present models, with the methane emissions being about 3% and the carbon emissions being about 97% of added emissions from such sources as permafrost, but with the methane being 20 to 70 times as potent, for a net effect that is double or triple that of the added carbon emissions alone – an effect that adds (in a far too optimistic forecast) around 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius to previous warming forecasts by 2100.
In other words, it is extremely likely that the idea of keeping global warming to 2 degrees Celsius is toast, even if our carbon atmospheric ppm levels off at around 450.

Problem Two: We Need To Understand It Can Always Get Worse

Yet the idea that we can combat global warming deniers or make things plain to folks reasonably preoccupied with their own problems by saying “we’re on a slippery slope, we’re getting close to a disaster” is that it is all too easily obfuscated or denied, and the sayer labeled as one who “cries wolf.” Rather, we need to communicate the idea of a steadily increasing problem in which doing nothing is bad and doing the wrong thing (in this case, adapting to climate change by using more energy for air conditioning and therefore drilling for more oil and natural gas, increasing emissions) is even worse. This idea is one that all too many voters in democracies find it hard to understand, as they vote to “throw the bums out” when the economy turns bad without being clear about whether the alternative proposal is better.  How’s that working out for you, UK?

The sad fact is that even when things are dreadful, they can always get worse – as Germany found out when it went from depression and a Communist scare to Hitler. It requires that both politicians and voters somehow manage to find better solutions, not just different ones.  For example, in Greece today, it appears (yes, I may be uninformed) that one party that was briefly voted in may well have had a better solution that involved questioning austerity and renegotiating the terms of European support. Two parties committed to doing nothing, and one far right-wing party committed to unspecified changes in government that probably threatened democracy. After failing to give the “good” party enough power in one election, the voters returned power to the two do-nothing parties, with the result that the situation continues to get worse. Now, more than a fifth of voters have gravitated to the far-right party, which would manage to make things yet worse. 

And that is the message that climate change without tipping points is delivering: not that changing our ways is useless because we have failed to avoid a tipping point, but doing the right thing is becoming more urgent because if we do nothing, things will get worse in an accelerating fashion, and if we do the wrong thing, things will get even worse than that.  Tipping point?  One big effort, and it’ll be over one way or another.  Accelerating slide? You pay me now, or you pay me much more later. 

Or Is That Au Revoir?

An old British comedy skit in the revue Beyond the Fringe, a take-off on WW II movies, has one character tell another:  “Perkins, we need a futile gesture at this stage. Pop over to France. Don’t come back.” The other responds: “Then goodbye, sir. Or perhaps it’s au revoir [until we meet again]?” The officer looks at him and simply says “No, Perkins.”

The idea of a tipping point in climate change is like that hope that somehow, some way, things just might return to the good old days. But there is no au revoir.  Say goodbye to tipping points. Say hello to “it can always get worse.” 

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Horrible Quote

I found the following quote today in www.climateprogress.com:

"Responding to Rupert Murdoch’s disinformation campaign, one Australian climate scientist put it bluntly: 'The Murdoch media empire has cost humanity perhaps one or two decades of time in the battle against climate change.'"

Or, to put it another way:  perhaps 500 million murders.

I really, really, really, really hope that I am wildly exaggerating, even though the evidence suggests that maybe not. 

Because 500 million here, 500 million there, and pretty soon -- perhaps 40 years from now -- those 500 million we delay too late to save will be our own great-great-grandchildren.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Is Your Organization Suffering From Data Warehouse Disease?

I have a feeling that a fair amount of readers – especially vendors and IT BI types – are going to be upset by what I have to say in this post.  However, viewing some of the material that has passed across my desk recently, I really think it’s time to raise the question of whether too much organizational power given to data warehouse folks is beginning to cause some significant under-performance in meeting today’s key organizational information management needs.

The immediate occasion for these reflections is that I am partway through a book on a related subject that goes into some detail on data warehousing’s view of the world:  how BI should be handled, what the organizational information architecture should be, and how we got this way.  This book will remain nameless, because in many ways it’s an excellent primer.  However, over the last 22-31 years (depending on whether you count my software development days), I have had a cross-organization, cross-vendor view of the same area, and I have to say that the book redefines history and the purposes of various things in the ideal information architecture in major ways.

Usually, I find that going over history just wastes time in a blog post – but here, it helps to see how data warehouse concepts of common information management terms make them reinterpret the purposes of the underlying products, making the information architecture – and the whole information handling process – potentially (and, probably, actually) less effective in the medium and long term. So let’s combine history and exposition of my assertion.

A Data Warehousing View of the World

In brief, the book’s view of the information architecture seems to be as follows: Data of all types comes in to production systems, which immediately pass it on to the data warehouse for cleansing and aggregation. Behind the data warehouse is an optional operational data store for key data, and things like master data management operate in parallel with the data warehouse to provide a global view of multiple local ways to store customer data. On top of the data warehouse are key Business Intelligence applications, which include both repetitive, scheduled reporting and analytics.

Now, this view of the world seems reasonable if you were born yesterday, or if you’ve spent the last fifteen years entirely in data warehousing.  However, there are, in my view, some major problems with it.
In the first place, afaik, only in data warehousing are the databases at the initial entry point referred to as “production systems”.  For twenty years, I have been calling them “operational databases”. In fact, they were business-critical before data warehousing existed, and so were the apps on top of them – like ERP. 

Why does this matter? Because it allows data warehouse folks to shift the “operational data store” behind the data warehouse.  The operational data store is a later concept, and one that I (among others, I assume) wrote papers proposing around 2004 and 2005. The idea is that the data warehouse is simply too slow to react immediately to key operational data – but that operational data is scattered across multiple operational data stores, and so an “operational data store” makes sure that a subset of operational data for quick decision-making is either put in a central point for quick analysis in parallel with its arrival, or monitored by a central “virtual database.” Putting the operational data store behind the data warehouse defeats its entire purpose.

Likewise, the master data management system. I wrote papers on this in assessing IBM’s version of the concept in 2006 and 2007. Again, the notion was of combining operational data coming in to operational databases – in this case, by enforcing a common format that allowed cross-organization and cross-country leveraging of operational data by ERP and customer intelligence apps. By redefining the master data management as existing within the data warehouse or at the same remove from operational databases, data warehouse folks ensure that master data management moves no faster than the data warehouse.

And finally, there is the idea that (implicitly) analytics is entirely contained in BI, and hence is entirely dependent on the data warehouse. On the contrary, an increasing amount of analytics goes on outside of BI.  For example, analytics is part of products that analyze computer infrastructure semi-automatically to optimize performance or detect upcoming problems. Or, it is used to analyze key computer-supported business processes.  This is “intelligence” in the sense of “military intelligence” – proactively going out and finding out what’s going on – but it is not “business intelligence” in the sense of finding out what’s going on inside and outside the business on the basis of data that is handed to you, and that your reporting tools are too slow or shallow to tell you. In other words, these applications of analytics are entirely outside of a reactive data warehouse.

Why It Matters

There are two places that over-emphasis on data warehousing can impede organizational BI and other information management effectiveness:  the information architecture, and the organization’s “agility” in responding to new kinds of information from outside. As I’ve suggested in the previous section, a data warehousing view of the information architecture shifts operations that involve lots of “updates” and data just arrived from outside to the data warehouse or behind it.  That means going through the data-warehouse cleansing and aggregation process and arriving in a centralized location that is handling queries from all over the organization and is optimized for adding new data not “on the fly” but in delayed bursts. There is simply no way that is going to be as timely as performing tasks on the data as it arrives in the operational systems.

Just as troubling, the entire emphasis of the organization is now more reactive and focused farther away from the organization’s “antennae” to the outside environment. The IT organization appears to be focused on responding to new demands from business for timelier data, not actively seeking the latest new information and merging it back into existing systems. The IT organization appears to emphasize cleaning up the data and merging it and only then analyzing it at an internal “choke point”, rather than handling the information faster where it arrives. 

If you think these concerns are theoretical, think about the case of social-media Big Data. Yes, Oracle as a major vendor is emphasizing inhaling huge amounts of this data from multiple clouds into the data warehouse and then analyzing it – when the whole purpose of the NoSQL movement is to allow rapid in-cloud analysis of inconsistent, uncleansed data – but it would not do so unless there was some organizational push to avoid analytics outside the data warehouse.  I conclude that there is some strong evidence that a data warehousing focus is impeding organizational ability to process and feed to business decision makers key information in as timely a fashion as possible.

Moreover, there is some sense that this is not an organizational quirk but a tendency so embedded in the IT organization that this impediment is a symptom not of a temporary problem that is easy to fix, but rather of an organizational “disease.” In other words, simply directing the organization to pay more attention to doing social-media processing in the cloud will probably not work.

Action Strategies and Conclusion

First (although I think there is little danger of this) I must caution against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  There are very good reasons to have a data warehouse performing the core functions of querying for BI. I have, in the past, conjectured that if I were to design a new information architecture today, I might not create a data warehouse or data mart at all – instead, I might impose “data virtualization” and master data management tools over existing operational databases. However, practically speaking, in most if not all cases, the sheer experience behind today’s data warehousing products makes them far more preferable for core functions.

Rather, I would suggest that data warehousing be placed under, and be responsive to rather than dominant over, an information architecture and information strategy function aimed more at the edge of the organization than its central data center. This is not a matter of making the organization more responsive to the business; it is a matter of making the IT organization more agile (by my definition, which stresses the utility of proactive and outside-the-organization-directed agility).

Until I saw this book, which suggested that data warehouse folks had gone too far in asserting “IT information handling is all about the data warehouse”, I was not too concerned about data warehousing folks; I would get into annoying arguments with folks who thought I just didn’t “get” data warehousing, but it seemed to me that the benefits of a powerful database-related IT function outweighed the negatives of data warehouse folks’ “not invented here” blind spots.  Now, I am rethinking my position.  If the result of this type of rewriting of history is an increasingly sub-optimal information architecture, then such a “disease” is not so harmless after all.

Does your organization suffer from data warehouse disease?  If so, what do you think should be done about it?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Update to My Last 2 Posts

At this time, Arctic sea ice extent has now reached about 3.47 mkm2, about 21 % below the previous record; area has reached about 2.23 mkm2, about 23% below the previous record; and scientists report that  up to 150 miles from the Pole (as far as they investigated) ice was very thin and broken into small pieces. Apparently, this means that present measures of extent are overestimating it. For the first time since monitoring began, measures of air temperature above 80 degrees North are not decreasing towards the refreeze point.   What more can I say than I have said?

Monday, September 3, 2012

How To Tell If It's a Lie: Arctic Sea Ice

The last five or so years have provided a useful case study in lying and how to see through the lies – useful in assessing products, in assessing strategies, and in reassessing one’s national and global views that affect how we all act in business and out of it. I am referring to the fascinating case of following the ups and downs of Arctic sea ice. 

What does this have to do with lying in daily life?  We’ll see.

Setting the Stage

Starting in the late 1960s, scientists began to establish that climate – the overall patterns of temperature, wind, and precipitation at various points on the globe within which weather fluctuates – was being affected by carbon in the atmosphere, and the data began to suggest that human carbon emissions were a major if not the primary cause of this change. 

In reaction, self-called “skeptics” began to deny the role of humans in climate change. Over time, these became known as “climate change deniers” or “climate deniers” for short.

One of the key areas of focus of both climate scientists and deniers has been Arctic sea ice. Climate change science predicts that Arctic sea ice will melt due to human-caused climate change, first to almost nothing at minimum in September, and eventually year-round. Satellite and buoy data available beginning in 1979 has kept track of the area and extent (that is, area including cells with both open water and ice). A model supplemented by sampling has estimated volume (including the depth of the ice), and this year for the first time a good method of measuring volume has supplemented the model.

The reason that Arctic sea ice is of such fascination is that it is the equivalent of a “canary in a coal mine.” Like the canaries that coal miners carried with them whose sickness and death were a first warning of bad air in the mine, Arctic sea ice tells just how imminent major human-cause climate change is, and how quickly it is proceeding – and it is one of the first really visible signs of major change.

However, until very late in the process of melting, Arctic sea ice diminution is not very visible. What we see on the surface is the area and extent, and the ice is being melted on the top, bottom, and sides every year, and then in winter it is being frozen again. In essence, Arctic sea ice is more or less like a giant thin ice cube floating in the Arctic Ocean, with wind and currents constantly pushing ice out of the ocean to melt at one end and new ice forming at the other end. As a result, volume may drop steadily year after year, and only in September of one year late in the process (when the ice becomes too thin at minimum) do we see major drops in area and extent.

The Lie

The basic lie of the climate denier is that there is no such thing as human-caused global warming. Behind that lie is a psychological message:  You (the listener) need not be forced to do anything about it, or even think about it, except as an amusing hobby.  Those who insist are “them”, and they are trying to bother “us” for selfish purposes. Stand guard against “them”, and do not be fooled.

Behind that lie is an endless series of “fall-back positions.” Global climate change is not occurring. It is not human-caused, but caused by many other factors. The data on each bit of evidence is wrong, or not to be trusted, because it comes from “them.” And each argument visibly and clearly refuted simply means that the denier stops talking about that argument and focuses on the next one, while preserving the basic lie.

In politics, there is a final fall-back position, in which the politician pretends that he or she never was a proponent of the lie in the first place. However, the psychological message remains:  Yes, I agree with human-cause climate change whole-heartedly and always have (!), but it’s no big deal. Let’s do as little as possible, as slowly as possible, because the methods of dealing with it are the ones being pushed by “them,” for their own selfish purposes.

Politics is particularly relevant here, because in this case governments fund data collection. The less data collected, the less easily the lie is exposed. The corresponding case in business is the collection of customer and accounting data. The “power center” in the company has a vested interest in saying that present strategies and tactics are not wrong-headed. In many cases, it can be difficult to tell the source of failure. There is, for example, the reported case of the performance-testing team that reported a slow software product, to the point of likely major customer dissatisfaction – the person in charge simply fired the team, and blame for the resulting poor sales was passed to his successor.

So the denier alleges initially that there is no change in Arctic sea ice that is not accounted for by “natural variability.” He or she drops or alters arguments to suit over the years as data comes in. And each new or continuing listener, safe in the cocoon of the lie, moves ever further into delusion.

The Lie Exposed

Perhaps the foremost exponent of the Arctic sea ice variant of the lie is Anthony Watts of WattsUpWithThat – although Andrew Revkin of the NY Times in his blog has apparently persistently played a subtler denier role. Over the last 2-3 years I have followed at a distance the evolution of their arguments as the data on Arctic sea ice continues to come in. However, as we will see, the fallout from 30 and more years of previous lies has also affected what happens as the lie gets exposed.

Let’s start with an odd event: Al Gore a little over 2 years ago embracing some scientific predictions that Arctic sea ice would go to near zero by about 2016. Now, I know that some people reading this will immediately want to stop reading, because they have an image of Al Gore as an untrustworthy politician. Unfortunately for that preconception, there is ample testimony from climate scientists that Gore has taken great pains to understand climate science better, and is therefore to an astonishing degree reasonably close to representing fairly the scientific findings and what they mean. To put it bluntly: whatever you think of Al Gore in other areas, he is not a typical politician in this area, and therefore your mistrust is just plain wrong.

Gore’s remark was immediately seized on as yet another proof of the ludicrousness of climate change predictions in general and Arctic sea ice ones in particular. In 2007, there had been some concern among a few, as, aided by a confluence of weather factors, Arctic sea ice area and extent had fallen to a new low (since 1979) in early September. However, due to the absence of these weather factors, area and extent at minimum had rebounded somewhat in 2008 and 2009, and deniers pointed to these numbers and asked how one could possibly believe that it would all be gone in five years. Loosed by Watts and his ilk, “trolls” haunted serious or denial-countering sites jeering at those who, like Neven (see one of my previous blog posts), were attempting to follow the clear thread of the data.

A particular focus of their ire was the use of a “speculative” volume model – clearly, not in anyone’s scientific mainstream. The fact that the model had been refined and checked by physical sampling was of no relevance, nor did deniers raise the point that, if accurate, it was a better measure of what was going on.

And then, in September of 2010, area and extent turned downward again – and volume took a major plunge. None of that was reflected in Watts – it was just part of “natural variability.” By September of 2011, area and extent had reached close to their 2007 lows, and volume continued to decrease, while the only semi-troll on the Neven site tried to argue that even if other areas melted, the Central Arctic Basin would take a long time to do so, if ever.

By this time, a little sporting competition had developed, with scientific models and enthusiastic amateurs filing their predictions for this year’s minimum area and extent. In 2012, Watts finally abandoned his perennial prediction that these would move back to pre-2007 – but he was still on the high side, with a 4.7 mkm2 extent prediction. And, of course, there was no indication in his blog that he was wrong in the slightest, or that there was anything amiss.

And now here we are at the beginning of September, and all previous records have been easily shattered. Extent is at 3.67 mkm2, and probably will wind up below 3.5 mkm2. Area is already almost 20% below 2011 and 2007, and probably will wind up at 20% below. Volume is already 10% below 2011, and will probably wind up 15%-20% below. The Central Arctic Basin is already easily at a record low. And weather conditions have not been favorable for records at all.

So what has Watts said and done? At first, Watts kept pointing to the records that had not yet been broken. Then, he resorted to comparing the largest measure of extent in 2012 to one of the smallest measures in 2007. And now, apparently, he has ascribed this year to, in one commentator’s pithy phrase, “natural unnatural variability” – the argument that this is a once in heaven-knows-how-many-years occurrence. Other, that is, than not talking about it at all. Neven at one point posted a comment on Watt’s blog saying, sarcastically, “Hey, there’s nothing going on with Arctic sea ice, right?” and Watts’ only response was to dismiss him as a troll.

When a Lie Is Exposed and No One Notices

But it has been the reaction of most of the world that makes it very clear how much most of us have been affected by the lie. Since shortly after the beginning of August, the Neven web site and Joe Romm at www.climateprogress.com have been telling us this was coming and how serious it is. In fact, since at least 2010, both have been telling us how serious the situation was. And so what was the reaction of the world?

Well, in the US, I can find no major publication – or even minor one – pointing out this was coming. When the records actually fell, pretty much all in one week, a week before the end of August, no major publication reported it for until the very end of August, more than a week later than most of the record-setting.  Of those that have – Bloomberg BusinessWeek, NBC News, and US News and World Report are a reasonable sample – none has come anywhere near understanding the magnitude of the loss, nor the implications. Over the last three years, only Joe Romm among major commentators has shown an appreciation for the likelihood that this would happen. Only very recently did Paul Krugman connect the dots between his reading of Joe and the implications for climate change’s effect on the global economy. The rest of the news and commentary? Just about nothing.

Meanwhile, in politics, only www.dailykos.com, a so-called “liberal” web site (clearly, part of “them”) has paid this subject the attention it deserves, and then only in the last half-month. We continue to see the spectacle of the Republican party and the 46% of voters who support it denying that either global warming or its human cause is settled science, and pledged to do even less than is already being done to combat it. Abroad, the Australian Prime Minister is threatened with being voted out of office primarily for having pushed a clearly inadequate attempt to combat carbon emissions. Canada’s Harper has persistently been quoted as believing that in the foreseeable future, Arctic sea ice will not melt enough that shippers can bypass Canada’s Northwest Passage. The powers that ring the Arctic Ocean are busy contemplating oil drilling in the Arctic that would increase carbon emissions in future, and the first vessels from Shell, an oil company, only failed to start exploration this summer because they failed to ready themselves in time.  

In other words, some form of belief in the lie is pervasive. Either we believe that global warming isn’t happening, or that it isn’t human-caused, or that Arctic sea ice has nothing to do with it, or that we don’t need to do something about it, because it won’t happen or affect us in the near future. And even when the data becomes overwhelming and visible in Arctic sea ice, we don’t revisit or connect the dots.
How can this be? And how can we do better at detecting lies?

Doing Better

The first thing to notice about such lies is that they work only if they become embedded in some way in “history.” Often, this happens when the public notices an accusation but not its disproof, as witness the idea that Al Gore claimed he invented the Internet, or John Kerry’s “swiftboating.” Or, the lie simply becomes repeated long enough that those not paying attention assume it’s true.  To take a recent example, the so-called Simpson-Bowles commission made no majority recommendation at all – and yet, we hear politicians from both parties claiming the contrary. A couple of years ago I was shocked, when attending a graduation, to hear a prominent business/economics professor at Yale refer to 1933, “when the Great Depression was starting.” Not only did this ignore the steady unraveling since about the great stock market crash of 1929, complete with starving veteran Bonus Marchers in Washington; it also ignored the ways in which revered figures played a role, with America refusing to forgive any of its WWI loans, Winston Churchill clinging disastrously to a gold standard, Andrew Jackson’s deep-sixing of a National Bank leading to a series of severe recessions of which this was only the latest, and the failure to regulate separation of bank and investment company – hence the junking of those FDR regulations, mainly by business and Republicans, in the late 1990s. I have written about similar “false memories,” as I perceive them, in the computer industry.

And so, the work of doing better begins with combating the lack of accurate “institutional memory.” This should not be as difficult as it sounds, in business as in politics, because the particular person who has something to gain from a particular version of the lie has often moved on by five years down the line. It is therefore important, even if it seems not so, to bring back the truth if it has been distorted, and to keep the truth alive in your mind.  It is important to remember.

But that, it seems to me, is only half the task.  We may, at some times, be constantly bombarded by these lies.  Those who surround themselves by a cocoon of lies create a worldview and invite you in – and even if you do not enter, it is very hard to not always have second thoughts or to begin to think the same way. There’s a marvelous Mark Twain joke about the man who hated his neighbors and started a rumor there was gold in Hell. A little while later a friend stopped by and saw him packing to go there himself. Why? The neighbor asked. Well, the man said, I got to thinking there must be something in that rumor.

However, lies are crafted, piece by piece, as needed, and the contradictions and seams begin to show more and more as you examine them. The truth, by contrast, hangs together – the loose ends are those that have not yet been fully investigated. And this is particularly true of scientific truth – which we call scientific theory. Your job, as laymen, is to look at the information provided and ask, what’s the model? How does it cover everything? What does it predict in these situations? And only then do you ask, are those predictions near reality, as far as you can tell? For example, ask, what is a free market? And only after that do you ask, does that make sense to you? Does it really seem to capture what happens to you in your work? What more is needed?

And finally, I should add that we should be humble about connecting the virtues and vices of the person with whether something is lies or the truth. Yes, there’s a connection, as in the old joke that noted that once a person first starts in to murder, eventually even Sabbath-breaking is not beyond his capability for evil. But it’s not a simple connection. The connection is more between the person’s ability to perceive reality and the truth or between the person’s expertise and the subject at hand. Al Gore understands climate science pretty well; but given a choice between his model and that of James Hansen, I’ll start with Hansen first, even though Hansen’s politics is alien to me.

It’s Just a Flesh Wound!

We laugh at the memorable Monty Python routine in which the Black Knight, amputated in most limbs, refuses to recognize any problem and demands that our hero continue fighting – “It’s just a flesh wound!” And that is precisely what Anthony Watts, James Inhofe, and the like are saying today – and will probably continue to say, in one form or another, indefinitely.

However, I must point out that in this, at least, I and many more like me have been able, even as laymen, to see through the lie. And I did it more or less as I described above: refused to accept the false implanted memories of Al Gore, refused to buy into the assertions of “us” vs. “them”, and took some time to put together a model in layman’s terms for Arctic sea ice and global warming in general, based on reflection on scientific papers as much as or more than assurances by folks such as Neven and Joe Romm. And so, for more than two years, I have been saying that this time was coming sometime between 2012 and 2015, that volume would turn out to be the key metric, and that decline was exponential, not linear. And we’ve been in the middle of the plausible, not on the outer fringe, as denier interpretations of scientific conservatism would have you believe. So maybe it’s time for you to consider applying this either to global warming – which is about as important as it gets – or to ideas like data virtualization or agile marketing.

And one more thing:  once you’ve handled the lie, one effective way of combating it going forward is simply, whenever possible, to nail a specific version of it that’s clearly false.  Not in the denier’s cocoon; outside, in blog comments where all are welcome, or in conversations where it is permitted to say, that’s not true. It is amazing how that kind of modest but powerful statement gets across to the persuadable, where ad hominem argument obeys a kind of Gresham’s Law and makes the reader see all as indistinguishably bad.

Watts may be mortal, but lies are much more durable. It is one of our tasks, not to hope that all the big questions will not force us to do something, but to make a good effort to perceive big lies, so that the truth never quits, either. Because if the truth never quits, then there is some hope that a big lie will be only a flesh wound. Rather than the cause of a massive human disaster. Happy Labor Day.