Phillip Hughes RIP

© International Cricket Council www.icc-cricket.com 2015
© International Cricket Council www.icc-cricket.com 2014

Virtually all of the time this blog is focussed on aspects of business, technology and change; even when my writing starts out in an ostensibly different place, I habitually bring my thoughts back to one of these three areas. This post is not like my normal ones. I trust that readers will understand my motivations in deviating from my regular subject matter,

Earlier today it was announced that Australian international cricketer Phillip Hughes (ESPNcricinfo profile here) had sucumbed to injuries suffered two days earlier while playing for South Australia against New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield (Australia’s domestic First Class cricket league). Hughes was struck by the cricket ball somewhere between the top of his neck and base of his skull. He was wearing a protective helmet as most cricketers do nowadays, but these do not cover every angle from which the head can be hit. Without getting into morbid details, Hughes was very unlucky, being hit in exactly the wrong place in exactly the wrong way; cricket is a dangerous sport, but mercifully fatalities are rare.

Regular readers on these pages will know that cricket is my favourite sport. I played in some capacity – though never very well – from under the age of 10 to my mid-twenties. I have followed it ever since and cricket-related articles have appeared on this site on many occasions before. Indeed I have written here about Phil Hughes, here is part of what I had to say about him back in July 2009:

Hughes is only 20 and has burst onto the international cricketing scene in a matter of months. Before the current tour to England, he had played just three Tests (the name given to five day cricket matches between different countries). However, these were all against South Africa, one of the strongest teams in the world at present. In his six innings (a team generally bats twice in a Test Match) he had made 415 runs at the eye-catching average of 69.16 [number of runs / (number of innings – times not out)]. By way of reference, this is higher than any other player in either of the current Australian and English teams.

While to play an international sport for your country is the pinnacle of athletic success, Hughes was not able to fully establish himself at the highest level, though it is possible that – absent these tragic events – he would have had a recall to the Australian team in the near future. His playing record will now sadly show that he played just 26 Test Matches and 25 One Day Internationals. It is however arguable that his best days in cricket were ahead of him. Sometimes batsmen who bloom early, as Hughes did, have a second and more sustained later flowering based on a better understanding of their own game and greater experience.

Of course any life cut short is a tragedy, leaving questions around what the person could have done if granted more time. However, when someone with demonstrable talent, a clutch of achievements and the likelihood of more to come, has their story end too early it does lead to a special type of sadness, coupled with musings about what could have been. Having said that, and even if there is a theme of potential not being wholly fulfilled here, it is worth thinking about just how few people are good enough to represent their country at a sport. Compared to the general population, Hughes had a very special talent, even if he will now not have the opportunity to display this over a longer career.

I didn’t know Phillip Hughes, but it is part of the life of an international sportsperson that we all want a part of them; be they the “heros” who play for our team or the “villains” who represent the opposition (the quotation marks in both cases are wholly intentional). Part of the appeal of sport is its vicarious nature. Having played and watched cricket for years and having both suffered and seen injuries during my playing years, I suppose I do somehow feel close to what has happened to Phil. Perhaps this is just part of the general human need to connect, perhaps we all want to augment our own stories by borrowing from those of other people. In any case, the news of his untimely death while playing my chosen sport has touched me, touched me enough to write about it.

Seldom will associates of a departed person, have bad things to say about them, particularly when the person’s life has ended so suddenly. However it is very noticeable that, amongst the many tributes from the cricketing world, virtually everyone has taken the time to single out what a good person Phillip Hughes was off the field. While his passing is very sad, both for onlookers like me and in a much more real sense for his family and friends, these comments are testament to Hughes the man and not just the sportsman. While the ending was horrible, teammates have said that cricket was the biggest part of his life and – recognising the overused cliché – he died doing something that he loved. I hope that this fact and the kind words said about Phil by everyone who knew him bring some comfort to his family circle.

In closing I’d like to also spare a thought for another person very much affected by these awful events, up-and-coming New South Wales fast-medium bowler Sean Abottt (ESPNcircinfo profile here). It was Abbott who delivered the ball which inadvertently led to Hughes’s demise. It has been good to see the cricketing world rallying round to support Abbott as well, I suspect he will need a lot of help in coming days and months.

Ten Million Aliens – More musings on BI-ology

Introduction

Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes

This article relates to the book Ten Million Aliens – A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom by British journalist and author Simon Barnes, but is not specifically a book review. My actual review of this entertaining and informative work appears on Amazon and is as follows:

Having enjoyed Simon’s sport journalism (particularly his insightful and amusing commentary on Test Match cricket) for many years, I was interested to learn about this new book via his web-site. As an avid consumer of pop-science literature and already being aware of Simon’s considerable abilities as a writer, I was keen to read Ten Million Aliens. To be brief, I would recommend the book to anyone with an enquiring mind, an interest in the natural world and its endless variety, or just an affection for good science writing. My only sadness was that the number of phyla eventually had to come to an end. I laughed in places, I was better informed than before reading a chapter in others and the autobiographical anecdotes and other general commentary on the state of our stewardship of the planet added further dimensions. I look forward to Simon’s next book.

Instead this piece contains some general musings which came to mind while reading Ten Million Aliens and – as is customary – applies some of these to my own fields of professional endeavour.
 
 
Some Background

David Ivon Gower

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my affection for Cricket[1] and also my interest in Science[2]. Simon Barnes’s work spans both of these passions. I became familiar with Simon’s journalism when he was Chief Sports Writer for The Times[3] an organ he wrote for over 32 years. Given my own sporting interests, I first read his articles specifically about Cricket and sometimes Rugby Union, but began to appreciate his writing in general and to consume his thoughts on many other sports.

There is something about Simon’s writing which I (and no doubt many others) find very engaging. He manages to be both insightful and amusing and displays both elegance of phrase and erudition without ever seeming to show off, or to descend into the overly-florid prose of which I can sometimes (OK often) be guilty. It also helps that we seem to share a favourite cricketer in the shape of David Gower, who appears above and was the most graceful bastman to have played for England in the last forty years. However, it is not Simon’s peerless sports writing that I am going to focus on here. For several years he also penned a wildlife column for The Times and is a patron of a number of wildlife charities. He has written books on, amongst other topics, birds, horses, his safari experiences and conservation in general.

Green Finch, Great Tit, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Tawny Owl, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Jay, Jackdaw

My own interest in science merges into an appreciation of the natural world, perhaps partly also related to the amount of time I have spent in remote and wild places rock-climbing and bouldering. As I started to write this piece, some welcome November Cambridge sun threw shadows of the Green Finches and Great Tits on our feeders across the monitor. Earlier in the day, my wife and I managed to catch a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, helping itself to our peanuts. Last night we stood on our balcony listening to two Tawny Owls serenading each other. Our favourite Corvidae family are also very common around here and we have had each of the birds appearing in the bottom row of the above image on our balcony at some point. My affection for living dinosaurs also extends to their cousins, the herpetiles, but that is perhaps a topic for another day.

Ten Million Aliens has the modest objectives, revealed by its sub-title, of saying something interesting about about each of the (at the last count) thirty-five phyla of the Animal Kingdom[4] and of providing some insights in to a few of the thousands of familes and species that make these up. Simon’s boundless enthusiasm for the life he sees around him (and indeed the life that is often hidden from all bar the most intrepid of researchers), his ability to bring even what might be viewed as ostensibly dull subject matter[5] to life and a seemingly limitless trove of pertinent personal anecdotes, all combine to ensure not only that he achieves these objectives, but that he does so with some élan.
 
 
Classifications and Hierarchies

Biological- Classification

Well having said that this article wasn’t going to be a book review, I guess it has borne a striking resemblance to one so far. Now to take a different tack; one which relates to three of the words that I referenced and provided links to in the last paragraph of the previous section: phylum, family and species. These are all levels in the general classification of life. At least one version of where these three levels fit into the overall scheme of things appears in the image above[6]. Some readers may even be able to recall a related mnemonic from years gone by: Kings Play Chess on Fine Green Sand[7].

The father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, founded his original biological classification – not unreasonably – on the shared characteristics of organisms; things that look similar are probably related. Relations mean that like things can be collected together into groups and that the groups can be further consolidated into super-groups. This approach served science well for a long time. However when researchers began to find more and more examples of convergent evolution[8], Linnaeus’s rule of thumb was seen to not always apply and complementary approaches also began to be adopted.

Cladogram

One of these approaches, called Cladistics, focuses on common ancestors rather than shared physical characteristics. Breakthroughs in understanding the genetic code provided impetus to this technique. The above diagram, referred to as a cladogram, represents one school of thought about the relationship between avian dinosaurs, non-avian dinosaurs and various other reptiles that I mentioned above.

It is at this point that the Business Intelligence professional may begin to detect something somewhat familiar[9]. I am of course talking about both dimensions and organising these into hierarchies. Dimensions are the atoms of Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing[10]. In Biological Classification: H. sapiens is part of Homo , which is part of Hominidae, which is part of Primates, which is part of Mammalia, which is part of Chordata, which then gets us back up to Animalia[11]. In Business Intelligence: Individuals make up Teams, which make up Offices, which make up Countries and Regions.

Above I references different approaches to Biological Classification, one based on shared attributes, the other on homology of DNA. This also reminds me of the multiple ways to roll-up dimensions. To pick the most obvious, Day rolls up to Month, Quarter, Half-Year and Year; but also in a different manner to Week and then Year. Given that the aforementioned DNA evidence has caused a reappraisal of the connections between many groups of animals, the structures of Biological Classification are not rigid and instead can change over time[12]. Different approaches to grouping living organisms can provide a range of perspectives, each with its own benefits. In a similar way, good BI/DW design practices should account for both dimensions changing and the fact that different insights may well be provided by parallel dimension hierarchies.

In summary, I suppose what I am saying is that BI/DW practitioners, as well as studying the works of Inmon and Kimball, might want to consider expanding their horizons to include Barnes; to say nothing of Linnaeus[13]. They might find something instructive in these other taxonomical works.
 


 
Notes

 
[1]
 
Articles from this blog in which I intertwine Cricket and aspects of business, technology and change include (in chronological order):

 
[2]
 
Articles on this site which reference either Science or Mathematics are far too numerous to list in full. A short selection of the ones I enjoyed writing most would include (again in chronological order):

 
[3]
 
Or perhaps The London Times for non-British readers, despite the fact that it was the first newspaper to bear that name.
 
[4]
 
Here “Aninal Kingdom” is used in the taxonomical sense and refers to Animalia.
 
[5]
 
For an example of the transformation of initially unpromising material, perhaps check out the chapter of Ten Million Aliens devoted to Entoprocta.
 
[6]
 
With acknowledgment to The Font.
 
[7]
 
Though this elides both Domains and Johny-come-latelies like super-families, sub-genuses and hyper-orders [I may have made that last one up of course].
 
[8]
 
For example the wings of Pterosaurs, Birds and Bats.
 
[9]
 
No pun intended.
 
[10]
 
This metaphor becomes rather cumbersome when one tries to extend it to cover measures. It’s tempting to perhaps align these with fundamental forces, and thus bosons as opposed to combinations of fermions, but the analogy breaks down pretty quickly, so let’s conveniently forget that multidimensional data structures have fact tables at their hearts for now.
 
[11]
 
Here I am going to strive manfully to avoid getting embroiled in discussions about domains, superregnums, superkingdoms, empires, or regios and instead leave the interested reader to explore these areas themselves if they so desire. Ten Million Aliens itself could be one good starting point, as could the following link.
 
[12]
 
Science is yet to determine whether these slowly changing dimensions are of Type 1, 2, 3 or 4 (it has however been definitively established that they are not Type 6 / Hybrid).
 
[13]
 
Interesting fact of the day: Linnaeus’s seminal work included an entry for The Kraken, under Cephalopoda

 

 

Wager

England retain The Ashes in Australia (Jan 2011) vs India win ICC World Cup (April 2011)

Introduction

I have used this column to write about my favourite sport, cricket, on a number of occasions[1]. In general my articles that have referenced cricket have also been related to some other business-focussed issue.

For example in Accuracy I compared a lack of precision in cricket journalism with analogous concepts in both Twitter and Business Intelligence. In The Big Picture I contrasted cricket all-rounders (people who both bat and bowl) with the general tendency to pigeon-hole people as one thing or another (in particular details people or vision people – some people can do both).

There have been a number of other cricket-related postings, but each has been used to shed light on what might seem an unrelated area. This piece may well prove to be purely a cricketing one, but I suppose that the reader will have to get to the end of the article and make up their own mind.
 
 
Some background

As in earlier posts involving cricket, this margin is too narrow to contain a comprehensive overview of this most complex of sports. If you don’t know about it already, then try The Font as a place to start, or find a friendly ex-pat Brit or Indian to help you (or someone with any of the nationalities appearing below).

There are nine nations that play in the top tranche of Test Match Cricket (international matches that are played over five days – for US readers think about a team visiting a city for a series of games in baseball). In total these account for 25% of the world population; a list appears below.

Rank Team Matches Points Rating Population (m)
1 India 32 4,001 125 1,210.1
2 South Africa 21 2,469 118 50.0
3 England [2] 32 3,759 117 62.2
4 Sri Lanka 23 2,486 108 20.2
5 Australia 27 2,692 100 22.7
6 Pakistan 23 2,132 93 170.6
7 West Indies 23 2,039 89 36.3
8 New Zealand 19 1,485 78 4.4
9 Bangladesh 11 144 13 142.3
        Total 1,718.8

There are an additional 36 affiliate nations – including some surprising names such as Japan and the USA – and 60 associate nations – including Afghanistan[3] and China – so, while the top flight is mostly confined to countries previously in the British Empire, cricket is a pretty global sport.

Speaking of being global, cricket is close to religion in one of the world’s most populous countries, India. The above list is of the Test-playing nations by their current ranking (a score derived by a rather labyrinthine algorithm, with which I will not bore readers) and India is currently number one. This is after what seemed like an eternity of domination by an Australian team that contained some of the sport’s greatest ever players; but which is now laid low by the twin curses of retirements and less able replacements.

India has been a perennial underachiever in Test cricket, its performances not consistent with the vast pool of human capital available to it. However, in recent years, this performance had come more into line with both demographics and the expectations of a billion Indian cricket fans. The current team’s achievements in both the ODI and Test arenas have been built on the foundation provided by a crop of truly great players, in particular that of Sachin Tendulkar, who is viewed as a demi-god by his compatriots.

Sachin Tendulkar Rahul Dravid VVS Laxman
Sachin
Tendulkar
Rahul
Dravid
VVS
Laxman

Sachin would be in any cricket fan’s fantasy team and is arguably the greatest batsman the game has ever seen; unarguably he is in the top two[4]. The current Indian tour of England may be the last chance that people in the country have to see this legend of the game play “in the flesh”. The glowing star that is Tendulkar is however surrounded by a constellation whose members are not much less bright. It is possible that India will face the same challenges so recently experienced by Australia when Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman (all now in their late thirties and cricketing twilights) retire over the next few years, or even months.

The prolific Jonathan Trott, England ODI Captain Alastair Cook and England Test Captain Andrew Strauss

Ranged against these batting titans is what is becoming a rather formidable England batting line-up. This features the current number 4 and 5 ranked[5] batsmen (Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott sporting averages since the start of the 2010/11 season of 115.6 and 79.1 respectively). Sachin is currently above both at number 2, but India’s only other top ten batsman is the inured Virender Sehwag. England’s captain Andrew Strauss also comes into the match on the back of scoring 187 for once out against the tourists in their warm-up game.

James Anderson and Graeme Swann

But perhaps of more relevance is the fact that England also have the number 2 and 3 ranked bowlers in the world in the shape of Graeme Swann and James Anderson respectively.

England, have had a chequered history in Tests in the last few decades, but are currently on a positive trajectory. In particular they just beat the declining Australians in home and away series; something that is very dear to the hearts of all England supporters. This means that quite a lot hangs on the result of the England vs India series that kicks off on 21st July. Given that the number two team, South Africa, does not play Test cricket again until November 2011, the England / India games could have a profound impact on the ranking of Test teams; something that is illustrated in the table below[6]:

The impact of different outcomes of the England vs India series on the ranking of the top three teams

The fact the tomorrow’s first England vs India Test Match is also both the 2,000th ever Test and also the 100th between England and India adds piquancy; as does the fact that Tendulkar currently has 99 International centuries (scores of 100 or more) spread between Tests and ODIs and is poised to become the first person ever to have a century of International centuries.
 
 
The Wager

Ajay Ohri of decisionstats.com

Given the high-profile of the series that starts tomorrow, it is not surprising that it has been the subject of conversation between supporters of both teams. As well as discussing cricket with Indian friends (or friends of Indian heritage) in the UK, the debates also have a more international flavour. For me in particular, there has been some [mostly] friendly banter between myself and Ajay Ohri (@0_h_r_1) of decisionstats.com.

Ajay and I have never met – we are entirely virtual friends. I have had virtual friends before (see the preamble to New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 1: Blogging), some of who have become real-life friends as well. The non-cricket element of this article (tenuous as it may be) is that the friction associated with forging such friendships with like-minded people is now lower than ever before. Ajay may correct me, but I recall that we first came across each other via Twitter, but now are connected on LinkedIn and Facebook as well. In part due to the explosion in Social Media and the related formation of global communities coalesced around certain specialist subjects (information in all its various guises for Ajay and me), it is now not only feasible for people to have friends across many continents, it is becoming quotidian.

Anyway the result of our discussions was a small bet between the two of us. If England win the series, then Ajay has to write and publish an article extolling the virtues of the superior team. If the unthinkable occurs through some freak of nature and the outcome is reversed, I will have to post a similarly congratulatory piece, devoted to the victorious Indian team here. Social media truly reflecting life!

Let the games begin!
 

 


 
Explanatory notes

 
[1] Regular readers may wonder what happened to rock climbing, the activity in which I am currently most engaged; well I’m not sure that rock climbing really a sport, more a way of life.
 
[2] Actually England and Wales, though effectively the UK, Ireland and (or so it seems of late) South Africa as well.
 
[3] Afghanistan is currently the highest-ranked associate nation.
 
[4] Supporters of Don Bradman might argue that his record stands alone: 52 matches, 6,996 runs at an average of 99.94; compared to Tendulkar’s 177 matches, 14,692 runs at an average of 56.95 (as at the date of this article)
 
[5] A full list of world cricket rankings may be viewed at: www.relianceiccrankings.com.
 
[6] To the bafflement of many, although Test Matches are played over five days, they may still result in a draw.

 

No-fooling: A new blog-tagging meme – by Curt Monash

Software Memories - a Curt Monash blog

By way of [very necessary] explanation, this post is a response to an idea started on the blog of Curt Monash (@CurtMonash), doyen of software industry analysts. You can read the full article here. This is intended as an early April Fools celebration.

A summary:

[…] the Rules of the No-Fooling Meme are:

Rule 1: Post on your blog 1 or more surprisingly true things about you,* plus their explanations. I’m starting off with 10, but it’s OK to be a lot less wordy than I’m being. I suggest the following format:

  • A noteworthy capsule sentence. (Example: “I was not of mortal woman born.”)
  • A perfectly reasonable explanation. (Example: “I was untimely ripped from my mother’s womb. In modern parlance, she had a C-section.”)

Rule 2: Link back to this post. That explains what you’re doing.
Rule 3: Drop a link to your post into the comment thread. That will let people who check here know that you’ve contributed too.
Rule 4: Ping 1 or more other people encouraging them to join in the meme with posts of their own.

*If you want to relax the “about you” part, that’s fine too.

I won’t be as dramatic as Curt, nor will I drop any names (they have been changed to protect the guilty). I also think that my list is closer to a “things you didn’t know about me” than Curt’s original intention, but hopefully it is in the spirit of his original post. I have relaxed the “about me” part for one fact as well, but claim extenuating circumstances.

My “no-fooling” facts are, in (broadly) reverse chronological order:

  1. I have recently corrected a Physics paper in Science – and please bear in mind that I was a Mathematician not a Physicist; I’m not linking to the paper as the error was Science’s fault not the scientists’ and the lead author was very nice about it.
  2. My partner is shortly going to be working with one of last year’s Nobel Laureates at one of the world’s premier research institues – I’m proud, so sue me!
  3. My partner, my eldest son and I have all attended (or are attending) the same University – though separated by over 20 years.
  4. The same University awarded me 120% in my MSc. Number Theory exam – the irony of this appeals to me to this day; I was taught Number Theory by a Fields Medalist; by way of contrast, I got a gamma minus in second year Applied Mathematics.
  5. Not only did I used to own a fan-site for a computer game character, I co-administered a universal bulletin board (yes I am that old) dedicated to the same character – even more amazingly, there were female members!
  6. As far as I can tell, my code is still part of the core of software that is used rather widely in the UK and elsewhere – though I suspect that a high percentage of it has succumbed to evolutionary pressures.
  7. I have recorded an eagle playing golf – despite not being very good at it and not playing at all now.
  8. I have played cricket against the national teams of both Zimbabwe (in less traumatic times) and the Netherlands – Under 15s and Under 19s respectively; I have also played both with and against an England cricketer and against a West Indies cricketer (who also got me out), but I said that I wasn’t going to name drop.
  9. [Unlike Curt] I only competed in one chess tournament – I came fourth, but only after being threatened with expulsion over an argument to do with whether I had let go of a bishop for a nanosecond; I think I was 11 at the time.
  10. At least allegedly, one of my antecedents was one of the last hangmen in England – I’m not sure how you would go about substantiating this fact as they were meant to be sworn to secrecy; equally I’m not sure that I would want to substantiate it.
  11. And a bonus fact (which could also be seen as oneupmanship vis à vis Curt):

  12. One of the articles that I wrote for the UK climbing press has had substantially more unique views than any of my business-related articles on here (save for the home page itself) – sad, but true, if you don’t believe me, the proof is here.

 


 
Other Monash-related posts on this site:

 

The Big Picture

Click for a big picture!
 
 
Legitimate labels?

It has become part of the business lexicon, “he’s a big picture guy”, [by contrast] “she’s a details woman”. It is the sort of thing that you hear, file away and which maybe becomes something that colours your view of the person in question going forward.

You often hear the two things said in one breath, “Jane is great at strategy, but isn’t a details person”, “Joe can deal with the nitty gritty, but can’t grasp the big picture”. What could be more sensible to say than that? Doesn’t it chime with the old adage about not seeing the wood for the trees?

I have touched on this area a few times before. In Pigeonholing – A tragedy, I suggested that because someone is good in one area of life, it does not automatically mean that they are bad in another. In Vision vs Pragmatism I argued that both qualities were necessary for success in projects and that they could be embodied in the same person.

Jacques Kallis - Test Matches: 10,843 runs at 54.76, 261 wickets at 31.55. One Day Internationals: 10,613 runs at 45.74, 251 wickets at 32.01.

To employ a metaphor, in my favourite team sport, cricket, while most players tend to specialise in either batting or bowling (cf. pitching for baseball fans), a significant subset are called all-rounders and do both. While some all-rounders are bits and pieces cricketers, others excel at each discipline and would merit selection on either.

There have been many great all-round cricketers over the centuries, but most people would agree that Jacques Kallis of South Africa is probably the finest currently playing. At a much less lofty level, I used to be a wicket keeper (cf. catcher) and opening batsman, so people who are able to do more than one thing to a reasonable level of competence are not that uncommon in sport.
 
 
Foundations of sand?

Analysis is invaluable - particularly when dealing with the Riemann Zeta function

However, in the more business-focussed case of big picture versus details, I would go further than merely asserting that some people can be good at both. In my opinion, it is rather hard to form an accurate big picture without at least some feeling for the details. If you do not have this firm foundation, then what is there to guarantee any legitimacy for the high-level conclusions that you draw. Findings without analysis may be correct sometimes, but it is more likely that they will not be.

Does that mean that in all circumstances minute forensic scrutiny must be paid to every single detail before deciding what to do? Is my claim the enemy of crisp decision-making and an acknowledgement that analysis paralysis is inevitable? I would say no.

Based on experience, new situations may often remind us of old ones and thereby bring ideas to mind on how to best proceed. This however is also based on the understanding of details, just historical ones, coupled with a facility to make connections between current and prior scenarios. My view is that when your gut instinct tells you to do something, it is worth pausing to kick the tyres. A sensible amount of checking of the facts is probably worth while most of the time.

A gifted Mathematician or Theoretical Physicist may develop a feeling for the general shape of a solution to a problem before they attack the details. However this is thought to be based on sub-concious analysis of lower-level factors. Whatever drives this phenomenon, the general shape of a solution is not the same as a solution and the latter will normally require a lot of painstaking work to realise.

Mulling over these analogous observations, maybe some people who claim to focus exclusively on the big picture are simply covering up the fact that they don’t have the inclination to check that their perspective is valid before offering it.
 
 
Look before it leaps

Would you mind holding still while I take a blood sample in order to analyse your DNA? You can never be too careful about evolutionary convergence.

Of course there are exceptions. As a massive feline rears towards your throat, pausing to assess whether it is a leopard or lion may not be overly valuable. But in the situations we normally face, there is generally time for at least a little reflection and to dig a little deeper. To ensure accuracy without compromising speed.

The dazzling images and vibrant colours on your 55″ HD TV are there courtesy of the 2 million plus underlying pixels and the technology that controls them. If ever there was a metaphor for the big picture being based on the details, this is surely it.
 

More Cricket and Twitter

Phillip Hughes of Australia, New South Wales and Middlesex

twitter.com

In my earlier article, Accuracy, I compared the need for precision in cricket reporting to the verity of different types of breaking news on twitter.com and closed by stressing the importance of accuacy in Business Intelligence. It’s generally all in a day’s work for me to make such connections; yesterday’s piece linked rock climbing, the car market, Business Intelligence [again] and IBM’s proposed acquisition of SPSS.

I am going to lay the blame for me continuing to blog about cricket firmly at the door of @JohnFMoore, who made the fatal mistake of encouraging me. However the current article will be rather shorter in duration than my last work in this area.

Aside from John, what has moved me to write today was the news that wunderkind opening bastmen Phillip Hughes has been dropped from the Australian team for the 3rd Test Match against England which starts today in Birmingham, England (inundated pitch allowing).

Phillip Hughes attacking the South African bowling on his way to scoring 115

Hughes is only 20 and has burst onto the international cricketing scene in a matter of months. Before the current tour to England, he had played just three Tests (the name given to five day cricket matches between different countries). However, these were all against South Africa, one of the strongest teams in the world at present. In his six innings (a team generally bats twice in a Test Match) he had made 415 runs at the eye-catching average of 69.16 [number of runs / (number of innings – times not out)]. By way of reference, this is higher than any other player in either of the current Australian and English teams.

Hughes built on these achievements by spending the early part of the season playing for English cricket team Middlesex. For them he scored 574 runs at a stratospheric average of 143.50. England cricket fans were beginning to be very, very worried at this point.

However, as can happen in many sports, some one can make an initial impact and then have their performances return to average or below. This has proved to be the case with Hughes who in three innings in the current Test Match series has scored 36, 4 and 17 for a rather less stellar average of 19.0. More important than these bald figures is the fact that the England bowlers seem to have detected and then exploited a deficiency in Hughes’ technique.

England's Andrew Flintoff testing Phillip Hughes' technique against fast, short-pitched bowling

It could be argued that Hughes clearly has immense talent and potential and the Australian selectors have been overly hasty in dropping him after two poor matches. Such things can severely dent a player’s confidence and I hope that he can rebound from this set-back. However for me the real story is not the unfortunate Hughes being dropped but the manner in which it was announced.

As a 20-year-old it is not perhaps surprising that Phillip Hughes has a twitter account – @PH408. What is surprising is that he used this to announce his axing from the Australian team today as follows:

Disappointed not to be on the field with the lads today, will be supporting the guys, it's a BIG test match 4 us. Thanks 4 all the support!

The general media had been speculating about what might be Hughes’ fate for this match ever since he failed twice in the preceding game. Articles suggesting that he may have been dropped began to appear last night, but his tweet preceded any official announcement about the make up of today’s Australian team.

A case of Twitter beating “old media”, of public figures interacting with the rest of us via social media and of nothing beating getting news straight from the horse’s mouth.
 


 
The two images of actual cricket matches above are drawn from the excellent cricinfo.com web-site and are copyright Getty Images and AFP respectively.
 

Accuracy

Micropipette

As might be inferred from my last post, certain sporting matters have been on my mind of late. However, as is becoming rather a theme on this blog, these have also generated some business-related thoughts.
 
 
Introduction

On Friday evening, the Australian cricket team finished the second day of the second Test Match on a score of 152 runs for the loss of 8 (out of 10) first innings wickets. This was still 269 runs behind the England team‘s total of 425.

In scanning what I realise must have been a hastily assembled end-of-day report on the web-site of one of the UK’s leading quality newspapers, a couple are glaring errors stood out. First, the Australian number 4 batsman Michael Hussey was described as having “played-on” to a delivery from England’s shy-and-retiring Andrew Flintoff. Second, the journalist wrote that Australia’s number six batsman, Marcus North, had been “clean-bowled” by James Anderson.

I appreciate that not all readers of this blog will be cricket aficionados and also that the mysteries of this most complex of games are unlikely to be made plain by a few brief words from me. However, “played on” means that the ball has hit the batsman’s bat and deflected to break his wicket (or her wicket – as I feel I should mention as a staunch supporter of the all-conquering England Women’s team, a group that I ended up meeting at a motorway service station just recently).

By contrast, “clean-bowled” means that the ball broke the batsman’s wicket without hitting anything else. If you are interested in learning more about the arcane rules of cricket (and let’s face it, how could you not be interested) then I suggest taking a quick look here. The reason for me bothering to go into this level of detail is that, having watched the two dismissals live myself, I immediately thought that the journalist was wrong in both cases.

It may be argued that the camera sometimes lies, but the cricinfo.com caption (whence these images are drawn) hardly ever does. The following two photographs show what actually happened:

Michael Hussey leaves one and is bowled, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 2nd day, July 17, 2009
Michael Hussey leaves one and is bowled, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 2nd day, July 17, 2009
Marcus North drags James Anderson into his stumps, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 2nd day, July 17, 2009
Marcus North drags James Anderson into his stumps, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 2nd day, July 17, 2009

As hopefully many readers will be able to ascertain, Hussey raised his bat aloft, a defensive technique employed to avoid edging the ball to surrounding fielders, but misjudged its direction. It would be hard to “play on” from a position such as he adopted. The ball arced in towards him and clipped the top of his wicket. So, in fact he was the one who was “clean-bowled”; a dismissal that was qualified by him having not attempted to play a stroke.

North on the other hand had been at the wicket for some time and had already faced 13 balls without scoring. Perhaps in frustration at this, he played an overly-ambitious attacking shot (one not a million miles from a baseball swing), the ball hit the under-edge of his horizontal bat and deflected down into his wicket. So it was North, not Hussey, who “played on” on this occasion.

So, aside from saying that Hussey had been adjudged out “handled the ball” and North dismissed “obstructed the field” (two of the ten ways in which a batsman’s innings can end – see here for a full explanation), the journalist in question could not have been more wrong.

As I said, the piece was no doubt composed quickly in order to “go to press” shortly after play had stopped for the day. Maybe these are minor slips, but surely the core competency of a sports journalist is to record what happened accurately. If they can bring insights and colour to their writing, so much the better, but at a minimum they should be able to provide a correct description of events.

Everyone makes mistakes. Most of my blog articles contain at least one typographical or grammatical error. Some of them may include errors of fact, though I do my best to avoid these. Where I offer my opinions, it is possible that some of these may be erroneous, or that they may not apply in different situations. However, we tend to expect professionals in certain fields to be held to a higher standard.

Auditors

For a molecular biologist, the difference between a 0.20 micro-molar solution and a 0.19 one may be massive. For a team of experimental physicists, unbelievably small quantities may mean the difference between confirming the existence of the Higgs Boson and just some background noise.

In business, it would be unfortunate (to say the least) if auditors overlooked major assets or liabilities. One would expect that law-enforcement agents did not perjure themselves in court. Equally politicians should never dissemble, prevaricate or mislead. OK, maybe I am a little off track with the last one. But surely it is not unreasonable to expect that a cricket journalist should accurately record how a batsman got out.
 
 
Twitter and Truth

twitter.com

I made something of a leap from these sporting events to the more tragic news of Michael Jackson’s recent demise. I recall first “hearing” rumours of this on twitter.com. At this point, no news sites had much to say about the matter. As the evening progressed, the self-styled celebrity gossip site TMZ was the first to announce Jackson’s death. Other news outlets either said “Jackson taken to hospital” or (perhaps hedging their bets) “US web-site reports Jackson dead”.

By this time the twitterverse was experiencing a cosmic storm of tweets about the “fact” of Jackson’s passing. A comparably large number of comments lamented how slow “old media” was to acknowledge this “fact”. Eventually of course the dinosaurs of traditional news and reporting lumbered to the same conclusion as the more agile mammals of Twitter.

In this case social media was proved to be both quick and accurate, so why am I now going to offer a defence of the world’s news organisations? Well I’ll start with a passage from one of my all-time favourite satires, Yes Minister, together with its sequel Yes Prime Minister.

In the following brief excerpt Sir Geoffrey Hastings (the head of MI5, the British domestic intelligence service) is speaking to The Right Honourable James Hacker (the British Prime Minister). Their topic of conversation is the recently revealed news that a senior British Civil Servant had in fact been a Russian spy:

Yes Prime Minister

Hastings: Things might get out. We don’t want any more irresponsible ill-informed press speculation.
Hacker: Even if it’s accurate?
Hastings: Especially if it’s accurate. There is nothing worse than accurate irresponsible ill-informed press speculation.

Yes Prime Minister, Vol. I by J. Lynn and A. Jay

Was the twitter noise about Jackson’s death simply accurate ill-informed speculation? It is difficult to ask this question as, sadly, the tweets (and TMZ) proved to be correct. However, before we garland new media with too many wreaths, it is perhaps salutary to recall that there was a second rumour of a celebrity death circulating in the febrile atmosphere of Twitter on that day. As far as I am aware, Pittsburgh’s finest – Jeff Goldblum – is alive and well as we speak. Rumours of his death (in an accident on a New Zealand movie set) proved to be greatly exaggerated.

The difference between a reputable news outlet and hordes of twitterers is that the former has a reputation to defend. While the average tweep will simply shrug their shoulders at RTing what they later learn is inaccurate information, misrepresenting the facts is a cardinal sin for the best news organisations. Indeed reputation is the main thing that news outlets have going for them. This inevitably includes annoying and time-consuming things such as checking facts and validating sources before you publish.

With due respect to Mr Jackson, an even more tragic set of events also sparked some similar discussions; the aftermath of the Iranian election. The Economist published an interesting artilce comparing old and new media responses to this entitiled: Twitter 1, CNN 0. Their final comments on this area were:

[…]the much-ballyhooed Twitter swiftly degraded into pointlessness. By deluging threads like Iranelection with cries of support for the protesters, Americans and Britons rendered the site almost useless as a source of information—something that Iran’s government had tried and failed to do. Even at its best the site gave a partial, one-sided view of events. Both Twitter and YouTube are hobbled as sources of news by their clumsy search engines.

Much more impressive were the desk-bound bloggers. Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post, Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic and Robert Mackey of the New York Times waded into a morass of information and pulled out the most useful bits. Their websites turned into a mish-mash of tweets, psephological studies, videos and links to newspaper and television reports. It was not pretty, and some of it turned out to be inaccurate. But it was by far the most comprehensive coverage available in English. The winner of the Iranian protests was neither old media nor new media, but a hybrid of the two.

Aside from the IT person in me noticing the opportunity to increase the value of Twitter via improved text analytics (see my earlier article, Literary calculus?), these types of issues raise concerns in my mind. To balance this slightly negative perspective it is worth noting that both accurate and informed tweets have preceded several business events, notably the recent closure of BI start-up LucidEra.

Also main stream media seem to have swallowed the line that Google has developed its own operating system in Chrome OS (rather than lashing the pre-existing Linux kernel on to its browser); maybe it just makes a better story. Blogs and Twitter were far more incisive in their commentary about this development.

Considering the pros and cons, on balance the author remains something of a doubting Thomas (by name as well as nature) about placing too much reliance on Twitter for news; at least as yet.
 
 
Accuracy an Business Intelligence

A balancing act

Some business thoughts leaked into the final paragraph of the Introduction above, but I am interested more in the concept of accuracy as it pertains to one of my core areas of competence – business intelligence. Here there are different views expressed. Some authorities feel that the most important thing in BI is to be quick with information that is good-enough; the time taken to achieve undue precision being the enemy of crisp decision-making. Others insist that small changes can tip finely-balanced decisions one way or another and so precision is paramount. In a way that is undoubtedly familiar to regular readers, I straddle these two opinions. With my dislike for hard-and-fast recipes for success, I feel that circumstances should generally dictate the approach.

There are of course different types of accuracy. There is that which insists that business information reflects actual business events (often more a case for work in front-end business systems rather than BI). There is also that which dictates that BI systems reconcile to the penny to perhaps less functional, but pre-existing scorecards (e.g. the financial results of an organisation).

A number of things can impact accuracy, including, but not limited to: how data has been entered into systems; how that data is transformed by interfaces; differences between terminology and calculation methods in different data sources; misunderstandings by IT people about the meaning of business data; errors in the extract transform and load logic that builds BI solutions; and sometimes even the decisions about how information is portrayed in BI tools themselves. I cover some of these in my previous piece Using BI to drive improvements in data quality.

However, one thing that I think differentiates enterprise BI from departmental BI (or indeed predictive models or other types of analytics), is a greater emphasis on accuracy. If enterprise BI is to aspire to becoming the single version of the truth for an organisation, then much more emphasis needs to be placed on accuracy. For information that is intended to be the yardstick by which a business is measured, good enough may fall short of the mark. This is particularly the case where a series of good enough solutions are merged together; the whole may be even less than the sum of its parts.

A focus on accuracy in BI also achieves something else. It stresses an aspiration to excellence in the BI team. Such aspirations tend to be positive for groups of people in business, just as they are for sporting teams. Not everyone who dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal will do so, but trying to make such dreams a reality generally leads to improved performance. If the central goal of BI is to improve corporate performance, then raising the bar for the BI team’s own performance is a great place to start and aiming for accuracy is a great way to move forward.
 


 
A final thought: England went on to beat Australia by precisely 115 runs in the second Test at Lord’s; the final result coming today at precisely 12:42 pm British Summer Time. The accuracy of England’s bowling was a major factor. Maybe there is something to learn here.
 

Century

Century - with apologies to Paul Collingwood
100 not out!

I started writing articles for this blog back in November 2008 and this post marks the 100th one. Continuing my recent sporting theme (football [soccer] in “Big vs. Small BI” by Ann All at IT Business Edge, mountain biking in Mountain Biking and Systems Integration and rock climbing in Perseverance), this piece draws on another of my passions outside of the business, technology and change arena; cricket.

I appreciate that this pastime is a closed book to many people around the world (and some in even the UK). It can be argued that it suffers from labyrinthine rules, a pace that can be described as measured at best and being confined mostly to outposts of the old British Empire (though that in itself comprises 2.1 billion people). However, for its aficionados, like me, cricket is truly the prince of sports.

For a batsman (cf. batter in baseball[1] – as an aside, even the women are called bastmen – for more on England’s world-beating women’s cricket team, click here), a major achievement is to score 100 runs without the opposition getting you out; a feat that is called a century for obvious reasons.

Perhaps it is the influence of numerology, but scoring 100 has always been seen as somehow more worthy than merely scoring 99. Indeed a tendency to not convert high double-digit scores into triple-digits ones is often seen as a failure in a player’s mental focus. The careers of the most celebrated batsmen are always adorned by the number of centuries that they have scored. The current holder of the record for the most centuries in international matches is Sachin Tendulkar of India with an incredible 42.

A century is a major landmark, but for the best bastmen it is merely a staging post on the way to larger scores. Indeed the highest score recorded in an international cricket match currently stands at a gargantuan 400 runs by Brian Lara of the West Indies. Lara (34 centuries in case you are interested) and Tendulkar have spent the last two decades vying with each other for the accolade of greatest batsman currently playing (Lara retired in 2007, Tendulkar is still playing).

I suppose that you could make the, admittedly rather tenuous, connection that a youthful obsession with cricket statistics contributed to me working in the field of business intelligence; but maybe this is an indulgence too far, even for a 100th post.

Anyway, with these cultural influences as a context, I spent a little while considering how to commemorate my own century of blog articles, debating whether or not to write some sort of retrospective, or perhaps a more personal piece.

Instead, in the spirit of Brian Lara, I am going to wave my bat briefly to the crowd and then settle down to focus on completing my double century. I hope that you will be there to read my 200th article.
 



 
[1] For a great account of the similarities and differences between cricket and baseball, I recommend reading Ed Smith’s excellent book, Playing Hard Ball: County Cricket and Big League Baseball. Ed Smith played cricket for England and Kent and spent several seasons in Spring Training with the New York Mets. He is now a full-time author, writing about cricket and a variety other subjects.