Be Prepared to be Wrong

A recent Facebook video of Sr. Ken Robertson’s TED Talk struck a nerve.  “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

He opened with one of my favorite stories of a 1st grade teacher going over to a young girl and asking her what she was drawing as her idea for a picture in art class.  The girl stated she was drawing a picture of God.  The teacher blurted out a defensibly accurate statement:  “But no one knows what God looks like!”  The girl never looked up and simply stated: “They will in a minute!”

He goes on to point out how the fear of being wrong disables creativity in modern organizations.  Being wrong is punished rather than being viewed as an opportunity to learn.  Instead, we seem all too happy doing nothing creative.

Artificial Intelligence that Does Work

IBM Bet Billions That Watson Could Improve Cancer Treatment. It Hasn’t Worked.

The Wall Street Journal(USA) August 11, 2018

Big Blue spent billions on its Watson artificial intelligence product with a focus on cancer care. Sometimes, it didn’t say more than doctors already knew. In other cases, Watson was tripped up by a lack of data in rare or recurring cancers and rapidly evolving treatments.

This comes as no surprise to me.  I have spent my entire career as an engineering mathematician looking at cause and effect and how to predict things that can go wrong ahead of them failing.  First under Admiral Rickover in the nuclear navy working on avoiding a repeat of the Thresher disaster where the submarine and 129 crew were lost during sea trials, then for the New York City Hospital Association predicting for staffing purposes who will show up in the emergency room on a hot summer evening, then for Mechanical Technologies advance equipment designers predicting bearing failure to enable predictive maintenance in offshore high-speed rotating equipment, the story is always the same.

You have to start with “training data” to drive the analysis.  It is not about some big black box, or in this case a Big Blue box that somehow works a miracle, despite what the IBM ads seem to indicate in the commercials we often see on TV.  That is marketing hype and the realities do not live up to that hype.

We at Apogee have a long history of training data from our staff’s collective careers studying first-hand energy use in homes and businesses.  I have personally field audited almost every type of large US industrial plant.  We know what is hidden in bills and meter data because we have seen it operate and then seen it show up in electrical and fuel use.

That is why our analytical engine was shown by EPA, DOE, and LBL as twice as accurate as any other in the world in their year-long testing.  The idea that someone can simply throw data into a box, stir it around and get useful results is nonsense.

Thank you IBM for finally admitting it.

Recipe for Decision-Making Diversity

It seems we now celebrate diversity in our society.  We are working on cracking the glass ceiling for women in the workplace and finding new balances in the ethnic makeup of almost all elements of our society.  We have crossed a few barriers I once held sacred, like women serving on the front lines of our armed services, but I guess I am OK with most of where we are going.

Most importantly, we are embracing the idea that our past bias for who is best qualified for a job is being discussed.  We even seem to celebrate the idea that kids no longer have to recite the pledge of allegiance in schools (the latest here in Georgia) and of course the idea that it is OK for athletes to kneel rather than stand for our National Anthem at professional football games.  I am still having difficulty with that, but that is not my point in this blog.

I am not a chef by any means but I enjoy cooking.  It is therapy compared to my “thinking job” all day long and it is often social with my wife and son joining in.  My usual role is to be the primary “slicer and dicer” taking vegetables and fruit from their natural forms to something reasonably uniform to enter the recipe.

As I read and watch the recipes for many dishes it struck me that you almost never see the statement: just beat one egg or something like that.  It is very common to treat the yolk and white of the egg separately and to prepare them with extreme care (e.g., beating the egg whites to a froth) before putting them in at precisely the right time to the recipe.

Perhaps there is a bigger lesson here in our culture of diversity as we try to get people to work together to make the best decisions for our organizations. Right now, we tend to put everyone in the same bowl and turn on the mixer.  We may get a nice composite but we fail to take advantage of the differences in that diverse group.  Is it possible that the senior engineers who know the history of the business might think differently from the millennials just entering this world?  Is it possible that the men in the group might see things differently from the women?  I think so.

Then, perhaps you need to mix these ideas together at the right time in the recipe.  Perhaps it is time to recognize that the result from the group will be far different if it is approached this way rather than just taking everyone into the discussion and hoping that the average of those opinions is best.

Celebrate the diversity of your teams by honoring the unique contribution they each can make.

Wolves in Yellowstone

The recent research demonstrating that wolves, the highest animals in the Yellowstone food chain, are essential to the habitat’s balance, is stunning.  Deer seem so victimized by wolves.  We have visions of Bambi, and our softer side then wants to protect these lovely creatures.

Here at the Gilbert house, we have quite a different point of view.  Yes, deer are pretty … but they love eating our Hosta plants and their flowers.  As we walk around our garden path, we see clumps of them neatly chewed to the ground.

We’ve been told we can spray a repellent on them, but will have to do that after every big rain.  This summer, that would mean spraying them about twice a week.  I have read that you can plant things in the area that deer don’t like at all, like onions and peppers but frankly that just won’t work.  It is aggravating to watch this, but I do know it is the “rest of the story” when living in nature as we do.

We should just enjoy the fact that they are so comfortable visiting.

On the humorous side, we have a mature male turkey who polices the entry road to our neighborhood, stopping cars and pecking at their tires.  You can shout, wave your arms, and do what you will, but he holds his ground.  It is hilarious to see how he stops traffic.  It doesn’t happen every day, and it doesn’t happen at the same time every day.  But, it happens so often that he has become a talking point whenever we gather with our neighbors.  Very funny.

What this all tells me is that we do not understand our habitats as well as we should.  They are much more complex than we like to assume.  And, when we tinker with them, like trying to eliminate this or that because we think it is a problem, we are prone to find out that we simply can’t comprehend the complexity and balance of the natural world.

Wolves are wolves … part of the natural balance.  Deer eat Hostas.  Don’t plant them if you don’t want them to be eaten.  Living in a complex natural world lets us see things we don’t like along with all the beauty we enjoy.

Walk humbly in it … we are but a very small part.