in which I continue to obsess about failure and organizational culture

Jerry Remy, beloved New England sportscaster and former Red Sox player, in his book Understanding Baseball, wrote something that has stuck with me hard: if your team never gets called out at home, your third base coach isn’t doing his job. That is, if he’s being so conservative about sending runners that he never sends the ones with a risk of failure, he’s also not sending a lot of guys with a risk of success, and you’re avoiding outs by passing up on a lot of runs you should have scored.

The same idea came up recently in a Slate interview with Peter Norvig, the director of research at Google:

[Having your company run by engineering rather than sales or marketing means] a very different attitude toward error. If you’re a politician, admitting you’re wrong is a weakness, but if you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.

113/365: Flippin' coins by Pauli Antero, on Flickr
(Go read the whole thing; it’s great.)

He goes on to talk about how this pervades corporate culture and operations. If you assume there are going to be errors in your code (because there always are), you build a process that can route around that. If you assume your hardware will sometimes fail (because it always, eventually, does), you buy a huge pile of cheap servers instead of a few expensive bespoke machines, and design around them (and, coincidentally, save money). And you build an organization that can minimize the consequences of failure:

We do it by trying to fail faster and smaller. The average cycle for getting something done at Google is more like three months than three years. And the average team size is small, so if we have a new idea, we don’t have to go through the political lobbying of saying, “Can we have 50 people to work on this?” Instead, it’s more done bottom up: Two or three people get together and say, “Hey, I want to work on this.” They don’t need permission from the top level to get it started because it’s just a couple of people; it’s kind of off the books.

(I debated, up there, should I write, “minimize the consequences of failure”, or “encourage innovation”? I decided, really, they’re the same thing. The greater the downside if your innovations fail, the fewer people will be brave enough to try. The more resources (time, money, staff) have to be committed — put at risk — to try anything new, the fewer new things you’ll try.)

Danger of Death By Failing by AlmazUK, on Flickr
What not to do.

Norvig admits he’s lucky in that the stakes are lower with Google than they might be elsewhere; the “best” 10th result to a search query is highly subjective and it’s OK if you don’t return the same thing each time, in a way it’s not OK if you’re casual about how many zeros go on someone’s bank account. (Though if my bank wants to add a few zeros to my savings account, I’m cool with that. Just sayin’.)

Come to think of it, it’s striking how much subjectivity comes into play in that article. Something like server failure you can attack probabilistically: you may not know which servers will fail, but you can estimate how many and create a strategy that, with a quantifiable margin of confidence, can cope. But something like “will people think ads by their email are creepy” or “will anyone care about Android” are all focus groups and crystal balls and gut checks. Engineers are awesome at Bayesian probability; I doubt they’ve got any comparative advantage with crystal balls. So I’m wondering if there isn’t a meta-level of risk tolerance here: create a culture where people can innovate and fail about things in their comfort zone, and they’ll have the confidence to innovate (fail) (sometimes succeed) about things outside it. To step off into the unknown, where all the future happens.

You almost feel like you could fly without the plane... by addicted Eyes, on Flickr

I don’t have a good title for this post but I bet Google does (?)

A quick thanks to everyone who’s tweeted about the guest posts from a techie patron (part 1, part 2), and welcome to anyone joining us from Twitter! You would make my day if you subscribed (RSS above right) or commented. Today, though, we take a break from the woes of web design and shoes, reach into my teaching background, and talk about learning…

Thank goodness: an article which critiques the notion that learning facts is no longer important because you can just look things up on the internet.

I have a special bias on this question: I am a former Latin teacher, and languages are perhaps the single subject resting most on memorization these days. (In fact, one of my major tasks in Latin I each year was to teach memorization skills to students who had generally not, up to then, had a reason to acquire them.) You can, yes, look up the endings to the five declensions every time you encounter a noun; but if you haven’t — not merely memorized — but internalized them, to the point where you instantly recognize the ending, grasp its potential syntactic roles, and connect those to semantics — you will lose the forest for the trees. You will have no hope of ever reading the sentence, much less its paragraph; it will be a set of disconnected facts of grammar, too many to hold in your head for the purpose of drawing connections.

(Those of you who took, say, at least three, four middle-school years of Latin, or equivalent, will recognize how desperately that final clause wished to be gerundive — but only, of course, if you have fully automatized the concept of “gerundive”. Those of you who have to look it up will probably not understand what I am talking about, even after you look at the definition. Of course, had I not written this parenthesis, you would’ve have known it was there to be looked up at all…)

The notion that we don’t need to learn facts because we can look them up betrays — I think — paradoxically — the belief that education is nothing but the knowledge of unconnected facts. It treats possession of these facts as the beginning, and end, of learning. I think, rather, that the possession of facts is a prequel to synthesis. I have heard the “no point in teaching facts we can look up” crowd go on to say we are thereby liberated to spend our time on higher-level thinking skills, but I have never been clear on how these skills can be taught in the absence of content.

(They are, of course, right that the particular content may be both unimportant and ephemeral toward this end, but the content must, nonetheless, be there. And as long as it is there, why not make it content that can be synthesized with other parts of an education? Why not make it mean something? I was, for instance, always disappointed that the Latin textbook I taught from gave, as Latin reading passages, made-up stories of made-up people, rather than myth or history, which could have been teaching two things for the price of one…)

what Google ethnography and research oncology have in common

Here, we have an ethnographer talking about why (outside of academic/elite contexts) Google is not widely adopted in China. (A variety of reasons: the Google name is hard to pronounce and spell in Chinese and there is not a widely accepted, Google-promoted canonical form; many, many users have their primary internet access through mobile technologies and are accustomed to an instant-messenger/Facebook-like paradigm, not an email/browser paradigm; Google is identified with a set of western values appealing to elites, but not appealing to the majority of the population, particularly in the presence of a heavily marketed, nativist alternative; Google hasn’t done a good job of outreach and market positioning vis-a-vis these difficulties.)

And here, we have an oncologist blogging about how he doesn’t (any longer) need to use particular library services, and ways proactive and tech-savvy librarians could insert themselves into his workflow, helping him while raising their profile. The thing I really liked about this post is that it’s an outside perspective on what the information workflow looks like — I think it’s too easy to just see our own parts of a workflow (and there’s a lot of information workflow in a library), but the library-external parts are where the new opportunities for relevance are. It’s a good reminder of the importance of having good relationships with your patrons and seeing things from their perspective, seeing where the needs are instead of hypothesizing about what they might be.

I read this article first, closed the tab, read a dozen more tabs (oh, eventful week, how you have destroyed my tab-reading flow), got to the one about China, and thought, hey, this is the same thing. Here, too, Google has its set of habits and expectations, and is finding itself irrelevant in a population which has a very non-complementary set of habits and expectations.

I’m looking forward to being a liaison between the library and…some outside, whatever it is. Seeing that outside’s perspective. Is this some sick, twisted aspiration — will it all just be herding cats? Still. There are reasons for the tagline Across Divided Networks.

Google Translate

In the continuing saga of our information overlords, they’ve come out with Google Translate. As a former Latin teacher, I mostly love and partly dislike this system:

+ The on-the-fly translation is pretty sweet. In particular I love seeing how it recalibrates its concept of whole phrases as it gets new input — something I would have liked to have shown my students as a good practice.

+ It supports a bunch of languages and lets you choose any pair of them for initial & target (including some helpful options for non-Latin scripts and Romanization).

– Latin is not among the languages it supports, which limits my ability to probe it.

-/+ Using a language I know less well but can hack at lower levels (Spanish), I can see there are definite (and unsurprising) weaknesses, especially as sentences get longer (and presumably as grammar gets more complex, although once that happens my ability to translate the Spanish is also hampered). So minus, it doesn’t work as well, but plus, it still won’t be supplanting anyone’s language-homework-doing any time soon ;).

-/+ It uses statistical patterns derived from really big corpora (as we might expect of Google), not computational rules. On the one hand, my inner linguistics nerd is sorta sad. On the other hand, it’s awesomely googly (and more pragmatic/scalable, I’m sure).

However! The library angle I was getting at here is that you can search web sites in other languages. Enter terms in the language you know, and it’ll translate and search. Looks like it will only search one language at a time, and I don’t know how it deals with ambiguous terms, and I’m sure the quality degrades with phrase searches, but this does increase our ability to find all relevant information on a query, and I’m sure the tools will improve with time.

discovery interfaces in the Chronicle

Chronicle of Higher Ed article on discovery layers in library catalogs. Doesn’t say much I haven’t already seen (although if you have no idea what I mean by “discovery layers” do read it; it’s a good overview). I did like this bit, though:

“It’s sort of our answer to, Why it is you need a library when you have Google?” said Ms. Gibbons [vice provost and dean of the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries]. “What this is going to do is show how much you’ve been missing.”

Positioning libraries to stay relevant is, of course, a major obsession these days, and I liked how she phrased it — not exactly as “let’s present ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users” (although I do think that matters), but “by presenting ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users, we can better showcase ways that we are already awesome.”

Comments section is kind of disheartening. I shouldn’t be surprised that the demographic that reads the Chronicle is the demographic that is conversant with old-school catalog searching ;), but so many of the comments read as “fix the user, not the catalog” and…that just never works. Even if the user is uneducated about, e.g., subject headings (and let me tell you, one semester of library school showed me it is amazing how undereducated you can be about catalogs after even a humanities MA), even if the existing technology works really well once you put in the time to learn it — fixing users just never works.

It would make me sad if discovery layers made it impossible to do the sort of precise, controlled searching library nerds get good at, but another of the lessons of Google (or, for that matter, of any number of intimidating databases) is that your clean searchbox doesn’t mean you can’t have that functionality. But if you say to users “you can’t even play until you’ve spent a couple hours learning how” — well, just like my last post — that means there will be a lot of users you never get at all.

Make it easy. Or, at least: make the first hit free.

out-of-print books

Google has rights to a gazillion out-of-print books, people freak in expected manners, Globe article here.

One of the things that came up in my library automation class is the place of database aggregators in the marketplace. There are lots of databases out there, and it’s not realistic for every library to negotiate contracts separately with every database it might want, so you get these organizations with the clout and capacity to negotiate these bulk deals and resell them to libraries, who then only have to (and only get to) negotiate with one vendor.

The case of out-of-print books seem similar: many of the people and institutions who might be interested in having access to some of them don’t have the know-how, time, money, etc. to negotiate those rights. So one of the few organizations that does have the ability to do so on a grand scale, does so — and immediately you fall into problems of monopoly.

Which raises the question of whether there’s anyone who actually *can* get those orphan books to the light of day, some entity living in a narrow slice between practicality and regulation.