Because it’s Friday: “Commencement Speaker Needed” by Improv Everywhere

The team at Improv Everywhere have been having fun again. This time their set-up was to create a graduation ceremony with a problem – no commencement speaker.

So they went around the vicinity asking anyone and everyone if they would be willing to do the speech. The results are both funny and inspiring.

It got me thinking; if someone asked me to do an impromptu commencement speech what would I exhort the graduates to do? There are some great examples in the video, I’m not sure I would be that inspirational and I certainly wouldn’t sing:

Optimising on the edges – how difficult is it to take a meter reading?

Sometimes I wonder whether we have gone too far with technology and then we go one step further.

I found another example yesterday when entering the meter reading for my utility supplier.

For a few years now I’ve chosen utility suppliers who allow me to enter my own meter readings, in the UK these generally come with a slightly lower tariff or some other minor inducement. Initially the method of doing this was to use a web site. Because my memory isn’t fabulous I would go outside with a piece of paper and take down the two five-digit numbers required and enter them into the web site via my laptop.

Then along came the mobile application; I could remove the step requiring me to note down the numbers on a piece of paper. I’d walk outside with my mobile device and enter the two five-digit numbers into my iPhone. What could be simpler? Well it turns out that even that is too much effort for people.

This month when it was time to enter my utility usage figures the mobile application came up with a new feature – camera meter reading. No longer do I have to go through the laborious step of reading the meter and entering the two five-digit numbers into my phone. I can now click on a camera icon, point the phone at the reading on my meter and let it read and interpret the reading for me. How brilliant is that? Instead of reading and clicking I can now point a camera and let it do the reading. I still have to do the reading, of course, because I need to confirm that the camera has interpreted the number correctly but I don’t have to type in the numbers. It was quite an easy process and the camera got both five-digit number correct but the previous process was hardly arduous.

The most difficult part of the whole meter reading process is walking to get the key, walking outside with it and opening the cupboards. This still isn’t very arduous, but it takes significantly more effort than the difference between typing a two five-digit numbers and letting a camera do it for me. Someone in a development team, somewhere, has decided that the effort of this optimisation is worth the reward. I suspect that the reward is one of customer satisfaction rather than one of time optimisation, but I wasn’t dissatisfied with the old way of doing it. I’m more dissatisfied with one of the locks on one of the meter cupboards and it’s inability to lock first-time.

We do this type of optimisation on the edges all the time in as technologists.

There’s an old saying in the UK, I don’t know how global it is, but it goes like this:

Can’t see the wood for the trees.

In technology we are good at optimising all sorts of things on the edge, but not as great at dealing with the fundamental issues at the heart of an issue.

We have more communication technology than is healthy for us, each one promising to make communication faster/better/more social and yet we still struggle to communicate.

We have lots of ways of dealing with SPAM rather than closing down the causes of SPAM.

We make it easier to enter a five-digit number on a meter rather than getting the meter to tell the supplier what it’s reading is.

Are you asking the right questions?

Some observations from me

There’s a line in a U2 song:

We thought that we had the answers
It was the questions we had wrong

We live in a world where the answer to a huge array of questions is just a few clicks away. There’s a massive expectation that typing a few keywords into Google will give us with all the knowledge that we need on the first screen. What’s more, we have access to all sorts of expertise and option through social media channels. Post a question on Facebook and you’ll get all sorts of people trying to help you find the answer.

For any of those answers to be useful, though, we need to ask good questions. If we ask an Internet search engine we need to recognise the limitations of the answers that are going to come back. Similarly, ask a bunch of Facebook friends and we need to recognise the limitations of their knowledge and their understanding of the question.

Asking good questions has been a bit of a topic for me, so I thought I would give a few observations:

Think about the question

If there are no stupid questions, then what kind of questions do stupid people ask? Do they get smart just in time to ask questions?
Scott Adams (1957 – )

I find that most people blurt questions out without thinking about them.

Giving some thought to the question will make for a much richer answer. It might even stop you asking a stupid question.

Set the context

If you are going to ask good questions you need to understand the context in which you are asking the question and form your question appropriately. There are many searches that you can do on the internet that result in unexpected, sometimes shocking, answers. In English there are lots of words with dual meanings which lacking context produce erroneous answers – right, crane, date, foil and type to name just a few. There are numerous situations where an answer may be correct in one country, but not in another. How about situations where the answer was true previously, in 1990, but is no longer true; laws change all the time.

Search for the questions

The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

You can only ask good questions if you know that the questions exist. Knowing that the questions exist requires an inquisitive mind. For me one of the most important aspect of feeding this inquisitive mind is reading. I regard most of my reading as reading to find questions. It can be tempting to read about things you know, but reading about things that are completely outside what you know helps to find better questions. If you don’t read broadly then you have a very narrow view of what the questions are. It’s often more exciting to find a good question than to find a good answer.

Ask the second and third question – Why?

Don’t be satisfied with the first answer, enrich the first question with a second question. “Why?” is often a good second question. “Why is that the answer?” This has two effects, it makes sure that you’ve got a good answer, it also opens up the potential for another questions. There are also great second and third questions to either side of the question you started with.

Form the question in a different way

Can you ask the question in a different way? If you do, does it get a different answer? Why does a different form of the question get a different answer? It could be because the answer to the question is more complicated than you thought it was. It could be because someone was answering a different question to the one you thought you were asking.

Answer with a question

Sometimes people want a straight factual answer, but there are times when it’s better to answer a question with another question. Creating this type of question requires great care – good questions open up the discussion and allow good answers to be found, poor questions sound like you are avoiding the original question.

Does that help? I really would like to know.

“Automation has become so sophisticated that on a typical passenger flight, a human pilot holds the controls for a grand total of just…

“Automation has become so sophisticated that on a typical passenger flight, a human pilot holds the controls for a grand total of just three minutes. What pilots spend a lot of time doing is monitoring screens and keying in data. They’ve become, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say, computer operators.”

All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines | Nicholas Carr | The Atlantic

Personal “temperature bubbles” – Yes please

Like many people who sit in open plan offices one of the most contentious issues is temperature. I’m always hot; that’s who I am. Others are always cold; that’s who they are. It’s difficult to do anything about that in a place where we all share the same air.

Comfort in a working space is greatly influenced by temperature and comfort greatly influences people’s productivity.

I’ve always wondered whether there was a better, more personal, way of dealing with different people’s temperature preferences.

Design firm Carlo Ratti Associati are try a better way at the Agnelli Foundation headquarters in Torino, Italy. By combining sensors and IoT technology with the air-conditioning system they are aiming to create personal “temperature bubbles”:

It will also add an important layer of personalisation through so-called “temperature bubbles” that workers will be able to set with a smartphone app that speaks to fan units in the ceiling. “Your own personal [temperature] setting will follow you through the building,” he said.

Mashable: This high tech office will give everyone their own thermal bubble

Yes, please! That’s all I’d like to say.