Has COVID-19 Reporting Caused a Bias in Public Opinion?

Recently I started putting together a presentation about how bias creeps into nearly every analysis of data out there. I maintain that the data itself cannot be biased, but the way that data is interpreted can add a conscious or unconscious bias. I also maintain that any analysis will have at least some degree of bias because the analyst is after all trying to make a point. However, it seems like the levels of bias have reached epidemic proportions since the beginning of 2020.

Of course, there has always been extremes in opinion over many issues. Typically, both sides present data to ‘prove’ they are right. That is what started me thinking, ‘Is there any way to remove/minimize bias from opinions and subsequently charts?’ Let’s first take a look at some of the differences of opinion that created some of the famous bias issues in the past.

Growing up in the 60’s, I was taught in school that continents never changed and always looked like they do today. However, I was fascinated by the then radical theory that South America sort of fit into the outline of Africa and that at one time the two were one land. Of course, today it is generally accepted that continents ‘float’ over the surface of the semi-molten mantle of Earth and in fact all of today’s land masses may have at one time been a single continent. Was this viewpoint a bias or just a lack of knowledge? I’m going to go with the latter.

Of course, who could forget the arguments about whether cigarettes caused cancer with each side creating arguments backed by charts to prove their point.

What about the moon landings in 1969 and the early 1970’s. I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step onto the surface of the moon via a live television link. Yet many today still believe the moon landings were filmed in a Hollywood sound studio along with 2001, A Space Odyssey. Yes, they pointed at the flag ‘waving’ on a moon with no atmosphere and the lack of stars in the dark black sky. While there are perfectly reasonable explanations for these observations, they dismiss them as lies.

Similarly, it did not matter that while the astronauts were going to the moon that they could see that the Earth was a big rotating ball. Many believed, and some still do today, that the Earth is flat and that the images are just special effects.

Then there are those who believe that we are the only life (perhaps intelligent life although I question that some days) in the universe. Well, at one time people believed the sun revolved around the earth and furthermore that the Earth was the center of the Universe. However, astronomy has expanded our concept of the universe’s size and our latest telescopes like Kepler have already identified thousands of potential Earth-like planets circling the closest stars in our neighborhood. Although we have no evidence of life on these planets yet, the conditions appear to be favorable. But the bigger picture (no pun intended) is that the universe contains billions of galaxies each with billions of stars with billions of planets and many may be favorable for life, so why not? My guess is that there are billions of planets that have intelligent life on them, most are likely more intelligent than us.

But even if intelligent life existed somewhere out there in the universe, they say it could never cross the vast distances to reach us. Even the nearest star, Proxima Centauri is 4.24 light years away which is trillions of miles (nearly 25 trillion miles to be exact). It is only a century ago that most people believed that we could never get to the moon, a mere 238,855 miles on average, because it was just too far, and we did not have the technology to get there. Recently, the New Horizons space probe to Pluto made it past the moon after leaving Earth orbit in a little over 8½ hours. Even at that speed, a little over 28,000 mph, it would take nearly 890 million hours or over 97 thousand years to get to Proxima. Clearly, we need a warp drive or multi-dimensional travel.

These are all weighty problems, problems that science has been able to address which brings us to today’s biggest problem. No, not politics, the elections, or how to balance the national budget although those are areas filled with bias. Picking on politics would be like shooting fish in a barrel. No, I’m talking about COVID-19. From almost the beginning, the press has bombarded us with statistics about how bad COVID is and while there is no doubt that it has resulted in many people getting sick and way too many people dying, some still ask whether the numbers were reported fairly. Both sides of the argument have dug in their heels over the past year with sometimes conflicting statements proving their opinion was the correct one. Yes, there is plenty of data, but it all comes down to how the data is interpreted, reported, and presented to the people. Why? Because most people will not dig into the details to determine when statements contain a bias. However recently, I have seen some improvements. Take the following example.

Recently in the Orlando Sentinel newspaper it was reported that the number of deaths caused by COVID has now reached the number of deaths due to the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 in the United States with over 675,000 deaths. The reporter however did recognize that while that is true, the population of the United States is now about 3 times the US population of 1918-19. Unfortunately, he did not take it one step further to emphasize that the deaths from COVID is only a third of the deaths from the Spanish Flu on a per capita basis. Yes, still serious, but at this time the comparison to the Spanish Flu is not a one-to-one comparison. Yet most people will only remember the headline that the number of COVID deaths has reached the number of Spanish Flu deaths. He also went on to state that global deaths from Spanish Flu were about 50 million while global deaths from COVID are only about 4.7 million at the time of this writing (confirmed with data from the CDC – WHO – ECDC). Let’s twist the Rubric Cube a quarter turn. Using the 675,000 U.S. deaths, the United States accounts for 14.67% of the global deaths today while the U.S. only accounted for 1.35% of the deaths globally from the Spanish Flu. That is an amazing statistic. It should lead the thinking person, like you and me, to ask why is the percent of the global deaths in the United States so much higher for COVID than it was for the Spanish Flu?

Sorry, I do not have a definitive answer, but I do have some clues. The Spanish Flu is known to have killed mostly young healthy adults. On the other hand, a large percentage of the COVID deaths come from the elderly defined as the 65+ group and people with underlying conditions. Since the rest of the world also has a growing group of elderly, it cannot be that simple. What else could it be? Could the higher percentage of deaths due to COVID in the United States indicate that Americans are basically less healthy than the rest of the world and thus more likely to get seriously ill from COVID? Or were at least some of the deaths attributed to COVID really the result of other underlying illnesses that were complicated by COVID?

In related news, according to data published on the CDC website and published by the Denver7 24/7 news channel, the number of confirmed flu cases between September 27, 2020 and May 15, 2021 was only 2,124. To put that number into perspective, the CDC reported on their website that 38 million influenza cases, 18 million medical visits, 405,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 deaths occurred in the 2019-2020 flu season, just one year prior. In fact, digging into the CDC data shows that the number of deaths due to the ‘common’ flu averages between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans each year. Again, while any number can be seen as too high, the point of this comparison is the exceptionally low number for the 2020-2021 flu season. Maybe the regular flu did not spread because people stayed home and wore masks in public.

Another interesting fact is that while the Federal government promotes vaccination in Americans, there is no mandate for vaccinations such as there was for smallpox, polio, measles, mumps, and rubella to name just a few (see the CDC for a complete list). Each state has slightly different rules especially concerning exemptions, but most states require specific vaccinations before a child can begin school. Initially the shots from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson were approved for emergency use which may have justified not imposing a public health mandate. However, as these drugs received approval, the drive to reach ‘herd’ immunity faltered yet mandatory vaccination was not implemented. Perhaps people were still afraid of a drug that had only recently received full CDC approval. In any case, President Biden apparently has enough faith in the Pfizer drug to pledge one billion doses to other nations. The Earth currently has about 7.7 billion people so two doses per person will not cover everyone. But here is another interesting twist of the Rubic Cube.

The Federal government decided recently to cut the number of Regeneron (a monoclonal antibody treatment to help reduce symptoms in people with early stage COVID infections) doses to the state of Florida. In the same time period, Florida had the 4th highest death total for COVID in the United States since the beginning in March 2020, however, it is also the third largest state in population dropping it to 11th in deaths per 1000 people. Still, it tried to order 72,000 doses per week and needs at least 36,000 doses to supply state clinics, yet the Federal government cut the number of doses to Florida to under 30,000. With a 7-day average of over 8,000 new cases per day (over 56,000 per week) and over 320 deaths per day, 30,000 doses per week do not seem to be enough. Currently, only Texas has more daily cases. Perhaps the demand is so high that doses must be rationed or perhaps it was because Florida as a state voted Republican in 2020. Who knows?

In another question of ‘who is driving the bus’, the Federal government through President Biden has mandated that all employers of 100 or more employees must be vaccinated or get a weekly negative test result. When many of the testing sites take 4-5 days to return a test result one might ask, what is the point? Yes, the Abbott Labs at-home test kit, BinaxNOW, can provide 15-minute results, but they cost a little over $10 per test that you will have to pay out of your pocket. Furthermore, they appear to be in short supply. Anyway, at the same time, there is no requirement for vaccinations of customers and furthermore, you cannot ask a customer if they are vaccinated. In fact, the Department of Health says they will fine businesses and government groups $5,000 per violation for requiring customers to show proof of COVID vaccination. How can you require vaccines for employees but not apply the same standards to customers? Seems like a bias to me or at least some confusion as to who is driving the bus.

One last point as this post has already gotten too long. Some doctors say the solution is vaccination and masks while others like the new Surgeon General for the State of Florida call vaccinations a religion and that people should just lose weight and eat more fruits and vegetables. So, if vaccinations are a religion, does the refusal to get a vaccine shot amount to a religious exemption? Going back to a prior point, is the Surgeon General trying to imply that Florida’s high death rate is because too many citizens are obese, out of shape, and eat too much fast food?

Anyway, this should give you something to think about the next time you hear the media quote numbers or percentages. Use your own common sense. Seek out the actual data. Population data and COVID case and death numbers are easily available online. Remember that the data itself is not bias. However, the way people interpret and report on the data often does insert a bias. Do your own math. It is really that simple. Remember that while bias in the presentation of data sometimes leads to a better understanding of what is going on, that is not always true. You need to educate yourself on the issues and that does not mean following social media, even this one, blindly. Even the biggest lies have some truth in them to make them believable and even honest people can sometimes interpret that unbiased data wrong.

My SQL Saturday presentation at the end of October here in Orlando will examine bias in data charting and how bias can be used to make a point or disguise reality.

By sharepointmike Posted in Opinion

Irresponsible Coronavirus Reporting?

All over the internet you see statistics about the Coronavirus. Yes, statistics are great to have, but without some basis, the numbers can be deceiving. For example, comparing the total number of cases or the total number of deaths by country and then ranking them that way is deceptive. Why? Because not every country has the same population! Duh! The real statistic that would be important to show is which country has been hit the worse, to compare the number of cases or deaths base on cases per 1000 people or any other consistent number. Of course, you may argue that we really don’t know the total number of cases or deaths because it is a given that the entire population of every country has not been tested and perhaps not all deaths have been reported as corona-related. Also, true. So, what does the statistic really tell us? Perhaps only that the coronavirus is something that needs to be addressed and that social distancing may have an effect in slowing it’s spread. It may even tell us within a country, a state, or even a county when the bell curve of new cases would indicate that the crisis is over. Of course, keep in mind that as more testing has occurred, the number of cases could grow, especially with milder cases that might not have been tested in the past because they did not have the symptoms to warrant testing. But should simple counts be used as a ranking tool? No!

I also why recovery counts are no longer typically shown. Total cases should be the sum of: Deaths + Recovery + Still Sick. To give us Total and death counts only is an incomplete picture of what is really going on.

A similar situation occurs here in the United States. Ranking states by the total number of cases or deaths is just as phony because not all states have the same population. It is entirely possible for a state with a total population smaller than another state may have a higher case or death rate. Does that make one state ‘safer’ than another and warrant earlier opening of that state? Should it be based on the state population? Again, cases per 1000 people to me is a much better way to determine your potential exposure to someone with the virus? Of course, even state number are somewhat deceptive as well as areas with greater population density are more ‘dangerous’ than areas that are sparsely populated.

I’m not going to repeat the above when it comes to comparing one county with another within a state, but you get the point by now right? Population density must be considered when determining how safe an area may be. If you are walking around in an area of low population density, you may see very few people while you are out, but if you work in one of the major metropolitan areas around the country, you might have close encounters of the contagious kind much more frequently.

As someone who is interest in Power BI, you know that statistics must be crafted carefully so as not to deceive or present an incorrect or distorted conclusion. That is something we all must be careful of when using Power BI to show statistics.

By sharepointmike Posted in Opinion

Spring Cleaning Time for SharePoint Sites

We have been deeply involved in a cleanup of our SharePoint portal plan for the last several weeks and I thought I would share with you some of our observations because I know most of you with both Internet and intranet sites that are more than a few years old probably share the same issues we do. Our Internet and intranet portals have been around for 9 and 8 years respectively and over time, a lot of ‘junk’ has accumulated. The example I like to use is that it is similar to the way your email slowly fills up with ‘junk’ over time. For example, if you received 20 emails a day, but only have time to address 19 of them, you may go home feeling pretty good about the amount of work you got done. However, that 1 email you did not get to if you consider have only 1 email that you do not get to each day over the course of a typical work year can amount to over 250 emails. Of course, if you get more than 20 emails and the number that you do not get to is greater than 1, that total can expand much more rapidly.

So how do you get a handle on the problem? You could simply delete anything older than 2 weeks old, but that might delete important email messages that you really need to see. On the other hand, the email that you received yesterday and did not get to may be a total waste of time. Clearly the age of the email is not the only deciding factor. Maybe you choose to delete all emails from people outside of your department. Unfortunately, some of those emails from other departments may be more important than the email that circulated around asking people where they wanted to go to lunch on Friday. You could delete anything that comes from outside of the company. That would certainly help keep you focused on your work, but you would also miss notifications of appropriate training or white papers relevant to your job.

Thus you can see that cleaning out your inbox can be more complex than any simple rule or a set of rules (although they may help). It is also important to perform that cleanup on a more frequent basis than once every year. One a month may not be too often and even once a week perhaps on Friday afternoon as you are winding down for the week might be a good choice.

In a similar way, if you have both an Internet and intranet portal (hey, even if you only have a collaboration site), periodic cleanup is still something you need to consider doing. If nothing else, cleaning out old obsolete content will make search run faster and return more relevant results. So here are a few tips that may help you perform your own portal cleanup.

10 Steps for site owners to consider when performing their next portal cleanup:

  1. Remove obsolete or unnecessary sites – Sites where all content pages/documents have not been updated for 2 or more years are candidates.
  2. Examine all pages for duplicate or obsolete content and update or remove – This could result in removing the page itself if all content on the page is obsolete and removed.
  3. Remove obsolete/duplicate documents/files – Multiple instances of files all get indexed and results in bloating the search results with many invalid entries that do not point to the most recent data. Delete obsolete/duplicate files.  Burn copies onto a DVD if you want to keep them.  Adding them to your intranet site or collaboration site is not a valid solution.
  4. Remove content that appears on other sites for your organization that you do not own – Copying/duplicating content that appears on other sites within your organization bloats search results and diminishes the relevance rating of the correct document if multiple occurrences exist.  Any content not ‘owned’ by the department should be removed and replaced with a link to the content on the ‘true’ owner’s site.
  5. Remove content found on sites outside your organization – Not only is this a potential copyright issue, but updates made to the content on the ‘true’ source will not be reflected in the copied content resulting in misinformation.  Just link to external content.
  6. Clean out your calendar/announcements – If your site has a calendar or an announcements list, clean out old events that are no longer relevant.  This will improve the performance of the calendar and/or announcement list.
  7. Consolidate sites – Sometimes subsites were create when all that was needed was another page on the site that owns the subsite (parent site).  Unless the subsite requires a different set of permissions (owners, content managers, approvers, etc.) you may be able to simplify your site structure by moving content/pages/documents up a level.  This will also improve navigation and reduce the number of clicks to find the content you need.
  8. Remove content that really does not need to be public – For any content item (subsite/page/document) ask yourself if anyone in the public really needs to see this content on a public web site or whether it just clutters the public facing sites with content that no one really looks at.  Perhaps all you need is a ‘Contact Us’ link for anyone in the public to request additional information if necessary.  Some current public content probably should only be internal intranet content.  If so, move it there if it does not already exist and delete the public version.
  9. Do not duplicate content between the Internet and intranet – If the content needs to be seen by both the public and organization’s employees, place the content on the Internet and only add links to that content from the intranet. Don’t place the content on both and definitely don’t place the content only on the intranet.
  10. If content is not owned, remove it – If you have current Internet content that is not officially owned consider removing it.  Content that is not owned probably is not updated.  If the content is necessary, an owner for the content must be identified.

Well, that’s it for this time. C’ya.

Dividing Up California

I just saw a news article about a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Tim Draper who has been trying to get enough signatures to put a proposal on the state ballot to split the state of California into 6 separate smaller states. Although he did not get enough signatures for the November 2015 ballot, apparently, there have been over 800,000 signatures collected for the November 2016 ballot. The following table shows the six states (along with selected counties) defined from the south to the north along with their estimated population taken from a USA Today article.

Southern California (includes San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside) 10,784,000
West California (includes Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara) 11,505,000
Central California (includes Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin) 4,197,000
Silicon Valley (includes San Francisco, Santa Clara, Monterey) 6,787,000
North California (includes Napa, Sacramento, Sonoma, Sierra) 3,811,000
Jefferson (includes Butte, Humboldt, Shasta, Trinity) 947,000

 

One argument being put forward is that because the state is so large, both in terms of land and population, that individuals would be better served by smaller states which would better represent the local population rather than being dominated by the coastal city populations around the Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego areas. I suppose that makes some sense as the people in these large densely populated areas would have greatly different needs from their state government from the needs of the sparsely populated northern part of the state or even the eastern more mountainous parts of the state.

While some people might appreciate having smaller government entities with more elected officials that are more directly responsible to the voters, the breakup would also lead to high costs overall as many efforts would have to be duplicated for each of the new states rather than consolidated within the single current state.

I could also imagine that such a change would affect the way presidential races occurred in the future as it would no longer make sense to focus on California as a single large state with about 55 electoral votes compared to Texas’ 38 or Florida and New York’s 29 each. Even within the state legislature, the dynamics of voting would change as the larger metropolis area would not have to compete for the passage of bills with the less populated portions of the state. Each state would be able to draft its own constitution as well as its own laws.

I suppose from one point of view, splitting California into separate smaller states is no more shocking than if the New England states had originally been a single state and then were split into individual states later. Wait a second, that is not as crazy as it sounds. Maine was originally carved out of Massachusetts, West Virginia was cut from Virginia as was Kentucky, and Vermont was created from land disputed between New York and New Hampshire. Furthermore, in recent years there has been talk about splitting New York into a northern and southern state, splitting Florida in to two pieces (maybe Miami should be the separate piece), dividing Maryland, Arizona and Texas.

Current polls indicate that the majority of Californians are against the breakup of their state, but the margin isn’t huge. With two years to go before the ballot is put before the people, there is plenty of time for the pro-breakup promoters to strengthen their arguments and gather converts.

On the bright side, there may even be more programming jobs as all of those applications with a fixed list of 50 states in a dropdown list need to be modified to account for the new states and their individual new state income taxes. It might also be a good time to invest in a flag company because there will be lots of new flags to buy if we have to increase the number of stars.

C’ya next time. .

 

 

By sharepointmike Posted in Opinion

Will Robots Save Us or Enslave Us?

Sounds like the lead-in to a new Hollywood movie. Like most computer people, I’m fascinated with the ability to program machines to do ‘work’ for us. The modern industrial factory could not compete with lower labor costs from oversees if not for the ability of robots who once programmed will work 24/7 without a break, sick day, or vacation. While it is true that those robots replaced the jobs of real people, it has always been argued that those people can be retrained and take new jobs in other areas. For example, some would argue that without automation, it would require more crew members to fly today’s large aircraft. Furthermore, the ‘robots’ can fly more efficiently saving fuel and time and respond to most situations faster than a human can. In fact, loss of the electrical systems on an airplane can lead to a disaster. Some of this technology is being added to automobiles to improve fuel efficiency as well as to prevent accidents.

Robots have also helped our military to enter areas that may have mines, booby traps, and enemy troops without risking lives. More recently, robot planes, drones, fly over enemy territory to locate enemy positions and to track their movements. The success of these robots led to the use of robots by police departments to assist in defusing suspicious packages by bomb squads, and even by fire departments to search for trapped survivors in a burning building.

Recently robots have been used to monitor traffic, identify traffic violations and automatically issue tickets based on the reading of the automobile’s license plate numbers. Even simple stop light cameras are a simplistic form of robot that is replacing the cop on the street or perhaps is freeing up their time to pursue more serious crimes (at least we could hope).

On the surface none of these technologies using autonomous robots or even human guided robots were initially seen as a problem. In fact, most were developed to help save lives and have performed well in that capacity. But like any technology, whatever mankind can create for good can be distorted (perverted) for bad.

Recent stories of how red light cameras were set up with shortened caution (yellow) lights just to increase the revenues needed to pay for the cameras has caused some communities to force their removal. The use of drone planes that are successfully used to monitor enemy movement is also being used by the police to find and track criminals, but the people fear they can also be used to spy on them. Some people say that if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry. However, it is the uncomfortable feeling of being watched without your knowledge that makes people’s spine tingle. Have someone sit and watch you do your normal job every day and most people would react poorly to that level of scrutiny.

To add on top of those concerns, the public recently learned that the NSA is monitoring all calls, not just the calls identified as belonging to criminals or potential criminals through the use of court issued warrants. Yes, the good part is that they are trying to identify terrorist activity before they act, but at the same time, most people again don’t like the idea of their phone calls being potentially monitored. The same can be said of monitoring email contents by providers who claim they are only doing it to provide more directed advertising based on that content. But who is really to know? Even the GPS in your phone has been shown to track your every movement and that data could be stored for years. Have you ever seen a police car along with highway with no one in it? Perhaps it is sitting there with its camera recording all of the license plates of cars passing by. Of course, it might be a good thing to identify the car of a criminal or locate a stolen car or even a silver alert vehicle. However, again people get that feeling that someone they do not know is always watching what they are doing and where they are going.

The use of cameras in stores, mall, subways, cities, etc. has increased over the last several years. But how effective is it? Images from cameras during the Boston Marathon bombing were insufficient to identify the bombers. The failure to identify the real bombers leads the rest of us to worry about false positives, identifying innocent people because they look a little like the criminal.

I suppose it all depends on how much relevance is given to these robots. After all, machines are not as good at determining the difference between the letter and the intent of the law. Take for example the stop light cameras. Do you program the cameras to record images of every car that goes through the red light even if the red light just changed a tenth of a second ago? What about two tenths of a second? Three? Similarly, for identifying speeders, how much over the speed limit warrants a ticket, 1 MPH, 2 MPH, 5 MPH, more? Does that answer make a difference if the speed limit is 20 MPH or 40 MPH or 65 MPH?

Actually researchers are currently looking into ways to program robots to interpret the intent of the law. Some purists say that anything that violates the law should be ticketed by the robots and let the courts decide. But would that put a huge burden on the already overloaded court system? Perhaps more open to interpretation is identifying erratic drivers. You know, the ones who weave from one lane to another just to pass a few cars while putting everyone else at risk. Are they in a hurry or just drunk? Does it matter? Will it identify the motorcyclist going down the freeway pulling a wheelie? Or how about that same motorcyclist squeezing between cars stopped at a red light just to get to the front of the line for when the light changes to green? How about those drivers who just don’t seem to like any shade of green and wait 5 seconds before they go at a light? Or how about the drivers making right hand turns from the left hand lane? Should they be ticketed? Can car-based biometrics along with GPS help identify drivers who are texting while they drive? What about the abuse of helicopters flying in circles around a development looking for criminals waking everyone up with their rotor noise and their blinding search lights shining through your bedroom windows in the middle of the night? (Or was that the alien abductors?) Will your ‘smart’ phone soon be monitoring everything you eat and do and report it to your doctor or your insurance carrier? If you had a bad night of sleep or if you just had an argument or received bad news, will your car refuse to start?

I could go on and on. But the point is this I suppose, when technology is used to work in dangerous areas to protect humans from entering those area or when the technology is used to provide unbiased law enforcement, most people will accept it. However, if the technology appears intrusive, is being used for hunting expeditions, not to solve a specific crime, or is viewed as being unfairly biased in any way, many people will reject it. Unfortunately for robots, the world is not black or white, but many shades of grey which for now they cannot interpret. These shades of grey will leave open the question of whether robots are good or bad as a topic for the movies for years to come.

C’ya next time.

 

By sharepointmike Posted in Opinion

Only at Participating Locations

Ever wonder about this phrase often found at the bottom of advertisements, coupons and promotions? Did you ever think about what it really means or how it can be used? Or how about the phrase, ‘Participation may vary by location.’ Just what does that mean to you and me? There was a time I assumed that any business chain with multiple locations around the country owned by a single parent company had no choice but to follow all nationally advertised promotions. I also assumed that a business that was franchised had to follow any promotions of the franchiser, or parent company so that all customers would have a common experience no matter where they went. If you live in a small town, you may not notice the difference between how one business location operates compared to another because you may not have that many locations. Furthermore, you may think that if the parent company is spending large sums of money to develop and advertise promotions to drive customers to your door that you would want to take advantage of that business hoping to convert at least a percentage of them into repeat customers.

But apparently, that is not the case. In fact, I’ve notice quite a few businesses who advertise on television and direct email but when you go to their local stores, they do not honor the promotions. Perhaps the local stores feel that people might feel guilty about just getting up and walking out when a local store manager says, ‘Sorry, we are not participating.’ But are they really sorry? If they were so concerned about our feelings they would not trick us into their store only to say that they are not participating. Maybe it is time that we walked out of their store.

Truth be told, I live in tourist town, Orlando, FL. I first notice this effect several years ago. One time when we questioned the policy we were even told that because they are a tourist location, they do not honor the advertised discounts. I suppose they figure that the tourists have no choice. Most cannot make meals in their rooms. Most do not know the area well enough to risk finding another location that may be participating. And most don’t want to take the time away from their vacation just to save a few dollars. So you might think of it as a convenience fee.

Besides food chains, this effect becomes even more obvious with the price of gasoline which seems to almost consistently go up the closer you get to the major tourist attractions or the airport and its surrounding car rental agencies. Yes there are some exceptions and the locals know where they are just like the locals know the best places to eat that are not part of nationwide chains.

But let’s get back to the main issue. I know several of the fast food chains with locations near the tourist attractions that will not honor the promotions of the nationwide chain. Several times I’ve been told point blank that the locations near the attractions can charge more because they are there just for the tourists, not the locals. Were they telling me to go away? I guess I moved to the wrong side of town.

A good example occurred recently at a nationwide chain that was offering a meal deal of an entrée with an appetizer. (I will not go further into the details here.) The promotion was sent directly to my email address because I subscribed a long time ago to their ‘club’. Granted, the promotion added the words, ‘Limited time only.’ The thing is, I received that email just last Thursday. The next day, Friday, we decided to go there for supper to take advantage of the deal. As we sat down and were given menus, I noticed that there was no reference to the ‘special’. So I asked about it thinking that maybe they only gave the promotion menu to those that asked. Instead I was told by the waiter that he had heard about that promotion, but thought that it had ended but would go ask the manager. A few minutes later he came back and told us that his manager said that the promotion indeed had ended. Fortunately I could still bring that email from the previous day up on my phone. Aren’t smartphones great? So I showed him the email and the date on the email. He went back to his manager to ask again. This time when he came back, he said that his manager said, ‘We are not participating in that promotion.’ So we got up from our seats. He asked us if we were leaving. We replied that we were not participating in bait and switch tactics and left.

Really makes you wonder though whether the promotion was only for one day (which it did not say in the email) or whether they just did not want to offer it to their other customers, the majority of whom where tourists.

In any case, I say that it is bad business to advertise any promotion and then decide not to honor it just because your location is near tourists, a more affluent part of town, or any other arbitrary reason. It may be a long while until I go back to that location. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they get enough business from the tourists. For me, I’d rather find another location where the location manager operates fairly and honors the promotions of the parent organization he is a part of. If you don’t like the promotions, become a store manager of a store that does not have promotions or start your own store if you want to do whatever you want. The bottom line for me is that unless there is a legal reason not to honor a business promotion created for the chain that is designed to send more customers to your door, you should honor the promotion and give those customers the best experience possible so that they might decide to come back again and again.

C’ya next time.

Commuter Train Hits Some Bumps in the Tracks

Two weeks ago I talked about my experience riding the Sun Rail train to work here in Orlando, FL.  I was willing to give them a pass on the overcrowded conditions on the way home at night because we all knew that many people were just ridding the train during it’s free trial period to see what it was like and they just needed to get home for supper just like the rest of us working people.

Well that minor bump proved to be true and ridership this week is far less than it was last week. In fact, a friend of mine who got on the 5:28 northbound train from downtown said that there was still plenty of room and was able to find a seat at one of the tables on the second level. That is far better than the previous week when it was standing room only as the train stopped at the downtown station. This drop off in riders was expected. Hopefully though the number of riders will sustain the operation of the train. At least for the first few years the train is being supported with government dollars. But to be successful in the long run, it has to be able to support itself through riders.

Another bump (or perhaps two) were accidents that occurred during the first two weeks of operation. The first accident occurred when a truck pulling a trailer failed to completely clear the tracks at a road crossing. As the northbound train pulled around a curve immediately before the intersection, the train engineer saw the trailer hanging over the tracks and attempted to stop the train. However, even small commuter trains can take some distance to bring to a complete stop and the train did hit the trailer. Fortunately, no one was injured, not in the truck or the train. However, it did cause delays for people getting home as the accident was investigated. Ultimately, it was released that the engineer did everything he could to bring the train to a stop, but you cannot always avoid an accident caused by people who don’t release how long their extended vehicle with trailer really is.

Then only yesterday, Monday, there was another incident on the northbound train. This time a car apparently stalled while sitting on the tracks. Fortunately the driver was able to exit the vehicle for it was totaled by the train. However, the driver was still taken to the hospital to be checked as she fainted after seeing her Lexus destroyed (or maybe she just faintly because she realized how narrowly she escaped. I don’t know why the car was stalled over the tracks but I will say one thing. I’ve often seen people stop over railroad tracks during the peak of rush hour traffic when the traffic ahead of them stops for a red light. I guess they just don’t want to leave a space between them and the car in front of them (over the tracks) because they know someone will pull around them to fill in that space. Maybe it is because many of the crossing arms have malfunctioned in the past and have come down even when there was no train that some people tend to ignore the potential danger. However, I hope these two incidents will start people thinking twice about stopping over the tracks.

Of course the timing of the gate arms is another issue. There is a YouTube video that shows the gate arm at one downtown crossing coming down just a couple of seconds before the train goes by. That may be too short a time. On the other hand, I’ve also seen a train stopped at a station which sits in a block between two downtown streets and the gates on both roads remained down for the duration of the time the train was at the station, even when it was stopped to let passengers off and on. This led to significant car backups until the gates reopened. It even caused problems with some of the bus schedules.

While the timing of the gate issues are something that will undoubtedly work themselves out over the next several months, I’m more concerned about educating people about safety around railroad crossings. It would seem like it should be a simple thing, but too many people are in a hurry. Maybe the tracks should be above ground while in the downtown area. (Florida cannot really support a subway due to its high groundwater levels.) However, the decision to go the ‘cheaper’ route of using the old freight train tracks during the day has resulted in more trains crossing intersections than before and thus more delays and more chances to ‘catch’ vehicles extended over the tracks. This will be a more difficult problem to resolve. Perhaps if the current system is successful, they will consider an elevated track the next time they plan an upgrade through downtown or when they add additional lines. This would allow the trains to run more frequently and carry more passengers while not inconveniencing drivers. More frequent trains and perhaps a few more lines like an east/west line might encourage greater usage as well. For many today, getting to one of the current train stations is almost as difficult as driving from home to work in the first place. Therefore, it may take a combination of factors to give us a transportation system that people will really want.

In any case, I hope these few bumps in the tracks do not discourage riders early on so that public transportation as a combination of better bus and train service could make getting around town without a car feasible.

C’ya next time.

Just Give Me the Steps

“Just give me the steps I need to know to get my job done. I don’t really care about why those are the steps or what else you can do with the software/tool/machine. I don’t care about your videos or your in-class training sessions. Just give me the steps in a nice neat printed list that I can use and let me get out of here.” Does that sound like one of your training classes? While I hope not, that attitude toward training has become increasingly prevalent.

We provide SharePoint training to what I sometimes call ‘reluctant’ users. These are users that were told they had to come to class because they are now responsible for their department or project sites. They never built a web site before in their lives and their only familiarity with on-line web sites is when they go to MSN to check the latest news, visit Facebook or go download their e-mail. Their approach to learning how to build web sites with web parts, content editing, approval workflows and page layout issues is a cross between fear, dread, and loathing. But now they sit in your class with arms crossed just waiting for time to pass. You can tell the ones pretty quickly. They are on their phone, not to text back what they are learning to their staff, but rather to play Candy Crush or Flappy Bird. Sometimes they are just sitting in the back of the room talking to their co-captives about where they can go eat when the class breaks for lunch.

Of course, not everyone falls into that category. Some people come to training sessions excited about what they are about to learn and anxious to implement their new skills when they leave. But those few people who really do not want to be there tend to ‘poison the well’. I tend to favor explaining the concepts behind how different aspects of the software system work so that people can adapt those concepts to new situations, often in ways that I would not have anticipated since I do not intimately know all aspects of their jobs. And these shining stars exist and it is for them that people who do training get the most job satisfaction.

However, over the years (and I have been teaching computer classes since the days of the TRS-80 and Apple II) there have always been those who want some kind of magic list of all the steps they need to do, complete with illustrations, for the very specific task they need to accomplish at the moment. Perhaps I’m a bit old-fashioned, but I consider this approach more of a one-on-one mentoring or custom training. I have even seen computer books written like cookbooks with step-by-step instructions on how to solve specific problems. However, these books do not help much when your problem falls outside of the narrow scope of the examples covered. Therefore, it is my opinion that it is not the goal of a general training class to provide a cookbook style set of instructions to using a programming language or a very generic piece of software such as Word, Excel, or even SharePoint.

I do recognize that times have change and different people learn in different ways. To that extent, I tend to encourage the use of a combination of classroom style training along with written documentation, whitepapers, websites, and videos. I also recognize that no matter what approach is used for an individual training class, those individuals that really do not want to be there will always find fault in something about the way the training was conducted. One might say the material covered was too general while the next person may say that it was too complex. Someone else may complain that the pace of covering the material was too fast for them to keep up while someone else may comment that they only got to the ‘good’ stuff by the end of the day. Some people protest when new functionality is introduced by using written documentation only because they are visual learners. Yet others at in-person class training lament that they could have gotten the same information from written instructions and would have been done in half the time and then they would have something to go back to later. We have even had people complain that videos of the training they are currently attending and can watch over and over again do not help them learn how to do their specific job.

I suppose the comment that bugs me the most is when people complement us on our training generally, but then follow that up with a ‘but’, such as, “The training was great, but it did not show me the exact steps I needed for my job.” So I sat back last night and wondered whatever happened to the need to learn fundamentals first so that the person could apply what they learned to any situation. You learn the fundamentals on how to drive so that you can drive on any road. Similarly, learning the fundamentals of how to play an instrument allows a musician to pick up any music sheet and learn to play that song. Of course, you could argue that merely knowing the fundamentals of a sport will not make you an Olympic medal winner. Simply knowing how to drive will not land you the poll position at the next Daytona 500. Nor will your ability to read sheet music make you the next pop super star. However, in all cases, a firm grasp of the fundamentals were a necessary starting point for those who do succeed.

So will I change the way I approach training software? Probably not substantially. I believe that approaching your job, if it is knowledge based, requires more than just the ability to follow a set of pre-defined steps. There typically is not enough time or infrastructure to support building the style of ‘cookbooks’ lists for each knowledge-based task that you might find in manufacturing tasks. In additional providing a combination of in-person training along with printed documentation and videos for every possible alternative is not always feasible, especially not for small organizations or teams. Maybe we need to place a greater emphasis on learning the fundamentals so we can apply that knowledge to whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. Perhaps that should also factor into our hiring practices by looking for people who show that they have been adaptable to changes and new systems in the past and have a demonstrated willingness to learn and succeed.

C’ya later.

Monitoring the Media for the Public Good?

A group named Reporters Without Borders recently ranked the United States all the way down at 46th out of 180 countries in a ranking of press freedom. Doesn’t this seem a little odd to you? Wasn’t there something in the Constitution about freedom of the press? No wait, that was in the Bill of Rights! In fact, the first amendment goes something like this:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If you just stop to think about it, there is a lot in those 44 words. I want to focus here on an even smaller portion of those 44 words related to “freedom of speech, or of the press”. It should be noted that the “press” referenced here no longer represents just newspapers or books, but has come to encompass many other types of media including more recently the Internet and blogs. But what does freedom of the press really mean? Does it mean you can say anything you want? Does it limit the opinions you can print or just guarantee the right to publish totally unbiased facts of the daily news?

A little over a third of a century ago in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Miami Herald Publishing Co v. Tornillo that the government may not force newspapers to publish that which they do not desire to publish. While it does not specifically state anything about preventing them from publishing anything that they want to (coming from the opposite direction), it might seem like a logical extension to most.

On the other hand, the government already regulates some of the content of the media through the FCC, specifically in relation to radio and television broadcasting to restrict what it deems to be “indecent” material. What is “indecent” I guess they want us to believe that they will know it when they see it. But again, some may say that the definition of “indecent” has certainly changed over the last century with content being aired today that would never have been allowed just a few decades ago.

On a more personal level, the Ninth Circuit Court has recently ruled (2014) that journalists and bloggers are one and the same when it comes to protections under the First Amendment. So where is this going and why should it be the topic of this week’s rant?

Last year the FCC quietly announced that it will be monitoring newsrooms under the guise of determining how stories are selected, how stations set priorities, and the percent of news dedicated to different topics. Now I don’t know about you, but my management training says that you cannot control something unless you can measure it. So does the ability to measure something mean that you have the intent to control it? Now to be clear, nothing was said about the FCC ‘adjusting’ the content on the media they control or what those adjustments might be. Maybe they just want to measure things for the sake of measurement. After all, everyone knows that some media outlets tend to be more right wing while others tend to more left wing in the news they present and often the way that news is presented. The fact that we can identify them by their extremes merely says to me that the system is working. It allows for multiple points of view and lets the listener make up their own mind which to believe or even how much of each point of view they want to believe. Isn’t that what we want?

If instead, we let the FCC or other government agency begin to control the media so as to force a ‘more balanced approach’, would we lose the ability to explore all points of view? Who will define this balanced approach? And even if it does start out being totally 100% balanced, can we guarantee that it will stay that way over time? If all the news you hear begins to slant to one side or the other, would our media, through government control and oversight, be guilty of guiding the thoughts of its citizens to a singular point of view? No wait! Isn’t that what we accused the press of the Soviet Union during the cold war (and maybe even a little bit today) of doing to their own people? If a person does not know what else is going on outside of the media news they are given, how would they develop a basis to decide whether their situation was good or bad? If media control was bad during the communist era why would we think that media control in any country today would be any different?

Does allowing even a little control open the door to additional controls being added later? Consider that a war on a political system does not necessarily require a shooting war if one can win over the minds of people a little at a time by shifting what they think or how they think. In fact, the changes can be so slow and subtle over time that most people are not even aware of them until it is too late. In the meantime, the changes disguise their real intent behind such grad sounding themes like ‘This new recommendation to the media will protect you and your children from hearing any news that may be offensive or might upset them.’ After all, who is going to argue against providing greater safety and protections to our children. Well, it is something to think about.

C’ya next time, …. Maybe.

When Counting the Beans Is More Important Than What the Beans Mean

It seems like today everyone wants to measure their business processes.  If it cannot be measured, it is not important.  In general that is not a bad practice because all businesses whether they are multinational corporations or Mom and Pop corner stores needs to know at least a few basics about their business to determine if they are doing well or are about to go bankrupt.  But the fact is that many newly minted MBAs focus so much on counting everything that can be counted, that they lose sight on the long term goals of the business or trends of the industry.  Often this is a lack of keeping an eye on large scale business trends and being aware of how customer tastes and purchases are changing.  Then when business drops off, they scramble to find other reasons for why the business is failing.  This is what I mean by being too concerned with counting the beans rather than what the beans mean.

Not too long ago, one of the top businesses many people tried to get into was renting movies through local brick and mortar video stores.  Demand was growing as people moved from VHS tape machines to watch their movies to DVD discs.  The number of available movies grew.  Total rentals were up.  Profits were up.  Some movies made more from DVD sales than box office sales.  What could possibly go wrong?  Then it seemed like the bottom dropped out of the market as first local Mom and Pop stores closed and then the chains began to close.  Did people stop watching movies at home.  No.  If anything people watch more movies than ever.  The difference is in the way people get their movies.  Most TV cable companies and even Satellite companies now provide movies on demand.  You can rent movies from many local libraries for free.  Some of the big online retailers like Amazon provide movies on demand.  Why get into your car to drive down to the local video store, look for a video (only to find the last copy has already been rented), bring home an alternate movie that you really did not want to see but felt you had to get to justify your drive to the store, watch the movie, and then rush back to the store just before it closes to return the movie on the last day it is due.  Stores missed the convenience factor that has taken over the market.  While counting their beans, they missed the fact that their beans were changing.

A similar argument can be made for bookstores.  At one time, the only way to reasonably get the latest best seller or a technical reference book was to go down to your local book store to buy the paper version of it.  It was not all that long ago that every mall had at least one bookstore.  Now many malls do not even have one dedicated book store.  Many small bookstores have closed shop because they could not compete with the large chains.  Then some of the large chains even started to fail.   Some tried to counter the trend by adding lounge areas where you could grab a book and read a bit of it before deciding to buy it.  Some added cafes.  Some included live music on select nights.  But sales still continued to fall.  Again the driving factor was ordering books on line could often be accomplished from the comfort of your living room chair and you could get the book delivered.  Some libraries also added home delivery of ordered books.  But I believe one of the big game changers here was the introduction of digital book readers.  Sure the early ones were bulky, heavy and limited to monochrome text and little to no graphics.  But these quickly evolved until today the quality of digital books displayed on light weight tablets and even phones rivals the quality of printed books.  Sure many people still like the feel of a real book in their hands, but as the ebook versions of popular best sellers came down in price and more technical books became available in digital form, the demand for digital books has grown.  I confess that in the past two years, I have not bought a single paper book, but I have purchased at least two dozen digital books, often at 50% of the cost of the paper versions, and I could download them to my device immediately.  Many classic books are available free and at least my public library has been ‘loaning’ digital copies of books on-line for several years now so I do not even have to go into the library anymore.

Both of these examples clearly show the demand for the end product growing yet the distribution method for these products have changed dramatically.  Some libraries understand what the change has meant and they have adapted to it.  Clearly, they understand what the beans mean.  Others who have been too busy counting the number of patrons or the average number of books borrowed or the total size of their collection have lost track of what the beans (reading books) really means to the public.

How is your business adapting.  Are they busy counting the beans in the current month, quarter, or year?  Or do they spend time trying to understand and predict where their business I going in the next year, 5 years, or even 10 years.  Are they preparing for that future or do they assume that tomorrow will be the same as today and success is simply counting their current sales, profit margin, customers, etc.  I’m sure you could look at other industries and make similar analogies.  What is happening to newspapers and magazines, professional photography, or even education?  Is the method of delivery of your product or service changing?  Do you really think you will be doing the same job in 5, 10, or 15 years?  Knowing which beans matter and which can be ignored might be a more valuable skill than merely counting those beans.  Many people have made careers counting beans or having others count their beans for them.  In the meantime, other organizations more interested in what the beans meant have surpassed them and will (if not already) threaten their existence.  Some express surprise when companies or industries fail.  Others express surprise when new companies they never heard of before succeed.  But now you know the real reason why companies succeed and fail.  After all, any simple computer (or average math student) can count your beans.  But can a computer program tell you which beans matter the most for your future or your company’s future?

Remember to come out to SQL Saturday Tampa this Saturday.  C’ya next time.