Thursday, 21 December 2017

How did a Chemistry Graduate get into Online Testing?

When people examine my CV, they are often intrigued by how a graduate specialising in chemistry transferred into web analytics, and into online testing and optimisation.  Surely there's nothing in common between the two?

I am at a slight disadvantage - after all, I can't exactly say that I always wanted to go into website analysis when I was younger.  No; I was quite happy playing on my home computer, with its 32KB of RAM and 8-bit processor running at 1MHz, and the internet hadn't been invented yet.  You needed to buy an external interface just to connect it to a temperature gauge or control an electrical circuit - we certainly weren't talking about the 'internet of things'.  But at school, I was good at maths, and particularly good at science which was something I especially enjoyed.  I carried on my studies, specialising in maths, chemistry and physics, pursuing them further at university.  Along the way, I bought my first PC - a 286 with 640KB memory, then upgraded to a 486SX 25MHz with 2MB RAM, which was enough to support my scientific studies, and enabled me to start accessing the information superhighway.

Nearly twenty years later, I'm now an established web optimization professional, but I still have my interest in science, and in particular chemistry.  Earlier this week, I was reading through a chemistry textbook (yes, it's still that level of interest), and found this interesting passage on experimental method.  It may not seem immediately relevant, but substitute "online testing" or "online optimisation" for Chemistry, and read on.

Despite what some theoreticians would have us believe, chemistry is founded on experimental work.   An investigative sequence begins with a hypothesis which is tested by experiment and, on the basis of the observed results, is ratified, modified or discarded.   At every stage of this process, the accurate and unbiased recording of results is crucial to success.  However, whilst it is true that such rational analysis can lead the scientist towards his goal, this happy sequence of events occurs much less frequently than many would care to admit. 

I'm sure you can see how the practice and thought processes behind chemical experiments translates into care and planning for online testing.  I've been blogging about valid hypotheses and tests for years now - clearly the scientific thinking in me successfully made the journey from the lab to the website.  And the comment that the "happy sequence of experiment winners happen less frequently than many would care to admit" is particularly pertinent, and I would have to agree with it (although I wouldn't like to admit it).  After all, we're not doing experimental research purely for academic purposes - we're trying to make money, and our jobs are to get winners implemented and make money for our companies (while upholding our reputations as subject-matter experts).

The textbook continues...

Having made the all important experimental observations, transmitting this information clearly to other workers in the field is of equal importance.   The record of your observations must be made in such a manner that others as well as yourself can repeat the work at a later stage.   Omission of a small detail, such as the degree of purity of a particular reagent, can often render a procedure irreproducible, invalidating your claims and leaving you exposed to criticism.   The scientific community is rightly suspicious of results which can only be obtained in the hands of one particular worker!

The terminology is quite subject-specific here, but with a little translation, you can see how this also applies to online testing.  In the scientific world, there's a far greater emphasis on sharing results with peers - in industry, we tend to keep our major winners to ourselves, unless we're writing case studies (and ask yourself why do we read case studies anyway?) or presenting at conferences.  But when we do write or publish our results, it's important that we do explain exactly how we achieved that massive 197% lift in conversion - otherwise we'll end up  "invalidating our claims and leaving us exposed to criticism.  The scientific community [and the online community even moreso] is rightly suspicious of results which can only be obtained in the hands of one particular worker!"  Isn't that the truth?

Having faced rigorous scrutiny and peer review of my work in a laboratory, I know how to address questions about the performance of my online tests.   Working with online traffic is far safer than handling hazardous chemicals, but the effects of publishing spurious or inaccurate results are equally damaging to an online marketer or a laboratory-based chemist.  Online and offline scientists alike have to be thoughtful in their experimental practice, rigorous in their analysis and transparent in their methodology and calculations.  

Excerpts taken from Experimental Organic Chemistry: Principles and Practice by L M Harwood and C J Moody, published by Blackwell Scientific Publications in 1989 and reprinted in 1990.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Another day I haven't used Algebra

So, there's a meme floating around Facebook, which says, "Well, another day has passed, adn I didn't use algebra once."  Really?  If it's true, it's not something to be especially proud of.  And the likelihood is that it's not true anyway.

For starters, there are many things that I learned at school that I don't use on a daily basis any more.  Foreign languages, for a start (although I probably do use them more than I realise).  Do I regularly apply the map-reading skills I learned at school? We have satnavs and apps for that.  And do I refer the Stuarts and the Tudors?  I suppose I should probably proudly announce that I haven't once consulted a history book this week, and rile all the historians I know.  Somehow though, Maths - probably due to its apparent difficulty or complexity - is seen as something that we should abandon, forget or even be proud of ignoring:

"Why do they make us learn math? It's not like I'll ever use it."
"Yeah, it's not like math teaches you how to work out complex problems logically."

However, Maths (and to some extent algebra) still permeates many areas of our life.  If you want to cook a meal (and you might), then you'll need to know when to start cooking it, in order to achieve a particular mealtime.  Or you might just start cooking as soon as you get home, and eat it as soon as it's ready.  But when will that be?  How long will it take you to get home if you drive at 30 mph?  40 mph?

And then there are those delightful puzzles on Facebook.  You know the sort - if three buckets are equal to 30, and two buckets and two spades are equal to 26, and a bucket and a spade and a flag are equal to 24, what's a flag worth?  I really don't think it's possible to solve that problem without using algebra (call it what you will).

Once you assign a numerical value (or a time, or a price) to an item (or a distance), and then start doing any sort of calculation on it, you are doing algebra.  Have you ever wondered which was better value in the sales?  The Black Friday sales?  The pre- or post-Christmas sales?  3 for 2 offers? Or buy-one-get-one-free? Or buy-one-get-one-half-price?

And if you have a £10 note in your pocket, and you want to know how many widgets you can buy without overspending... you used algebra.  I think it's fair to say that so far today, I have used algebra numerous times - you might even say X times.

Image credit:

Monday, 23 October 2017

Doctor Who: Sea Devils

Starring John Pertwee (1970-74 era)

I watched this story after the Peter Davison story I reviewed recently (Warriors of the Deep) - clearly I should have watched it first in order to fully grasp the chronology of the Sea Devils and other sub-aquatic life forms (even time travellers tell their stories in chronological order most of the time).  
This story features tense atmospheric locations in contrast to the studio-driven episodes with Peter Davison, and, as the DVD notes point out, was filmed with considerable co-operation of the Royal Navy (who provided stock footage royalty-free, and whose staff provided many of the extras for the naval base scenes).  The range of footage of a submarine and helicopter included in the episodes lend the story a sense of realism and scale.

I selected this story from the DVDs on offer at my local charity shop as I've not previously seen the Master in his truly scary form.  Forgive me, but apart from one exception, I've never found John Simms' Master to be scary - he's always been too funny. Even Derek Jacobi managed more presence in his single episode than John Simms ever did - with the one exception during "The Sound of the Drums"/"The Last of the Time Lords".  The subtlety in the portrayal of his behind-the-scenes violence towards his wife and the Jones family, combined with his seemingly 
blasé approach to everything else was decidedly scary.  So, I was very interested to see how Roger Delgado played the role (I initially had him confused with a distant memory of Anthony Ainley as the Master, but I was still interested to see any previous 'classic' version of this complex character).

Anyway:  the story starts with the Doctor visiting the Master on an island prison.  I'll be honest - I very quickly guessed that the Master is in fact running the prison (the recent BBC Sherlock episode where Sherlock visits his sister in prison is a modern version of the same theme).  The Master is a charismatic, hypnotic character with a considerable degree of repressed anger - and he's not cracking jokes and twirling around like John Sims.  He comes across as a strategic thinker - being in prison isn't going to thwart his plans, he's thinking long-game, big picture.  The storyline is similar to the Master's approach - it too has a long developing time, moving the characters into position and building the tension gradually.  I like this approach - in contrast to the modern day "wrap it up in 40 minutes and then thrown in a bit of 'arc' at the end" which is now becoming frustratingly cliched.

I have to say that one of the most unfortunate parts of the episodes is the soundtrack.  It's loud, and it isn't very musical.  I guess the sound engineering and recording team were having fun trying out all the new sounds they could produce, but it's overpowering and intrusive, and it detracts significantly from the atmosphere.  One of the most tragic cases is during a fight scene between the Master and the Doctor.  The two characters duel with swords, in an old stone fortress on an isolated island; there's a sense of history and a clash of the titans.  And instead of drama and atmosphere, the soundtrack is an anachronism of burps and whistles which sound like an 8-bit computer struggling to run properly.  

As I said, the plot takes its time - there's a real sense that the Master is quietly and covertly carrying out his plot while the Doctor struggles to understand it, but pieces together clues from the other events going on.  Both are geniuses - the Master cobbles together a device for contacting the Sea Devils, while the Doctor demonstrates his ability to manufacture a radio transmitter from a few spare parts.  

The Master works with cunning and stealth to execute his plot; the Doctor has to negotiate his way past, through and around the Royal Navy - until he is imprisoned by the Master during one of his many visits to the prison.   The Doctor is released by his companion, Jo, and the two of them hurriedly escape towards the island's coastline.  The Master and the prison officers chase them down (there's an odd and almost comical scene where the prison guards use a Citroen 2CV across country), and as they reach the coastline, the Master uses his Sea-Devil-Summoning Device to call the Sea Devils onto the shore.  The sequence makes for the most dynamic action in the story, as the Doctor and Jo negotiate barbed wire (it may have been quicker to use the sonic screwdriver, setting 2428D?) and then detonate the mines in front of the advancing Sea Devils, with explosions galore.

The Sea Devils' initial invasion is unsuccessful, but the Doctor and Jo are forced to retreat to the naval base HMS Seaspite; true to his character the Doctor is determined to broker a peace deal between the humans and the Sea Devils (while the Master is proceeding to stir up trouble).  The Doctor's attempt at peaceful negotiations are thwarted, even though he's taken to the Sea Devils' base on a peaceful understanding.  A senior politician and obstinate military-minded man Robert Walker, orders a military strike on the Sea Devils (it's a recurring theme - mankind never seems to get past its own fears and reach out with truly peaceful intentions).  The Doctor flees from the base under the cover of the attack, his peaceful negotiations in tatters.  Subsequently recaptured, he again tries to persuade the military to seek a non-hostile settlement, and is again thwarted - this time by the Master and the Sea Devils who capture him and force him to help the Master complete his device to awaken all the Sea Devils' colonies globally.

When they return to the Sea Devil base, the Master completes his fiendish plot and successfully activates the device.  However, as they have now outlived their usefulness, the Sea Devils imprison both Time Lords.  In a cunning plan of his own, the Doctor has sabotaged the device, and it begins to overload.  The two Time Lords escape from the base using escape equipment from the captured submarine.  The massive power feedback from the sabotaged device destroys the Sea Devil colony before the planned military attack can begin. The Master once again evades capture - this time he fakes a heart attack and hijacks a rescue hovercraft and flees the scene to fight another day.

Overall, I enjoyed this series; I've mentioned the soundtrack and I'll say no more on that subject.  There's depth, there's slow and steady pace (which could be quickened), and there's plenty of under-the-surface tension (not just below the surface of the sea, but below the surface of the characters).  The Master's covert scheme is handled in such a way that it makes him look clever without making the Doctor look naive and simple, which is a potential pitfall in these kinds of stories.  I enjoyed this one, and moreso than the Warriors of the Deep (even despite the soundtrack). 

Next Doctor Who review will be: The Sontaran Experiment

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Quantitative and Qualitative Testing - Just tell me why!

"And so, you see, we achieved a 197% uplift in conversions with Recipe B!"
"Yes, but why?"
"Well, the page exit rate was down 14% and the click-through-rate to cart was up 12%."

"Yes, but WHY?"

If you've ever been on the receiving end of one of these conversations, you'll probably recognise it immediately.  You're presenting test results, where your new design has won, and you're sharing the good news with the boss.  Or, worse still, the test lost, and you're having to defend your choice of test recipe.  You're showing slide after slide of test metrics - all the KPIs you could think of, and all the ones in every big book you've read - and still you're just not getting to the heart of the matter.  WHY did your test lose?

No amount of numerical data will fully answer the "why" questions, and this is the significant drawback of quantitative testing.  What you need is qualitative testing.

Quantitative testing - think of "quantity" - numbers - will tell you how many, how often, how much, how expensive, or how large.  It can give you ratios, fractions and percentages.

Qualitative testing - think of "qualities" - will tell you what shape, what colour, good, bad, opinions, views and things that can't be counted.  It will tell you the answer to the question you're asking, and if you're asking why, you'll get the answer why.  It won't, however, tell you what the profitability of having a green button instead of a red one will be - it'll just tell you that people prefer green because respondents said it was more calming compared to the angry red one.

Neither is easier than the other to implement well, and neither is less important than the other.  In fact, both can easily be done badly.  Online testing and research may have placed the emphasis may be on A/B testing, and its rigid, reliable, mathematical nature, in contrast to qualitative testing where it's harder to provide concise, precise summaries, but a good research facility will require practitioners of both types of testing.

In fact, there are cases where one form of testing is more beneficial than the other.  If you're building a business case to get a new design fully developed and implemented, then A/B testing will tell you how much profit it will generate (which can then be offset against full development costs).  User testing won't give you a revenue figure like that.

Going back to my introductory conversation - quantitative testing will tell you why your new design has failed.  Why didn't people click the big green button?  Was it because they didn't see it, or because the wording was unhelpful, or because they didn't have enough information to progress?  A click-through-rate of 5% may be low, but "5%" isn't going to tell you why.  Even if you segment your data, you'll still not get a decent answer to the either-or question.  

Let's suppose that 85% of people prefer green apples to red.  
There's a difference between men and women:  95% of men prefer green apples; compared to just 75% of women.
Great.  Why?  In fact, in the 30-40 year old age group, nearly 98% of men prefer green apples; compared to just 76% of women in the age range.

See?  All this segmentation is getting us no closer to understanding the difference - is it colour; flavour or texture??

However, quantitative testing will get you the answer pretty quickly - you could just ask people directly.

You could liken it to quantitative testing being like the black and white outline of a picture, (or, if you're really good, a grey-scale picture) with qualitative being the colours that fit into the picture.  One will give you a clear outline, one will set the hues. You need both to see the full picture.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Badly-Written Maths Questions [BODMAS]

I have ranted in the past (albeit briefly) about badly written maths questions. These are the kind of question that do the rounds on Facebook, where - due to the deliberately ambiguous way that the question is written - there are at least two different answers.

The idea of these questions isn't to test people's maths skills.  It's designed to 'go viral' by generating conflict and disagreement between the know-it-alls, the qualified mathematicians and those who can't recall or don't know how to handle maths questions when there isn't enough information to easily proceed.

You know the kind of thing:

What is 3 + 4 * 5 + 6 - 7?
Only 1 out of 10 will get this right!

Firstly:  this is NOT proper Maths.  It just isn't.  Don't worry if it's confusing - it's deliberately intended to be.

Secondly:  if you don't get it 'right', then you'll probably continue feeling that maths is irrelevant, complicated, meaningless and inaccessible.  Because that's probably what you thought before, and the long list of comments that say it's 22  or 34, all equally convinced that they're right and the other person is wrong.  There'll be a few comments about showing how they've worked it out, and then a few people will say BODMAS.


BODMAS is the agreed way in which we carry out calculations like my example.  Mathematicians don't like uncertainty or ambiguity, and will go to great lengths to make their meaning perfectly clear and precise.  All scientists are the same - they show great precision in language, whether that's words or numbers.

BODMAS states that a calculation should be carried out in a particular order:

Brackets - any terms in brackets (or parentheses) should be calculated first.
Orders - any numbers which are raised to powers (squared, cubed, square root) are done next, after any calculations in brackets.  (Previously called Operators)
Division - divisions are the next priority.  Any two numbers or terms which are next to each other have to be divided, after any brackets and operators, but before anything else.

Multiplications - after you've done all the divisions, you then do all the multiplications.
Additions - any terms which are to be added together are done after the multiplications.
Subractions - finally, any remaining amounts are to be subtracted.

So, to take my example:

3 + 4 * 5 + 6 - 7  =  ?

There are no brackets or orders (powers) in my calculation, so the first calculation I will do is the Multiplication.  4 * 5 = 20.

So now, my calculation looks like this:

3 + 20 + 6 - 7 = ?

There's no dividing in my expression, so I can move on to the additions:  3 + 20 + 6 = 29

Which leaves me with:
29 - 7 = 22

And the answer is therefore 22.

While it may be possible to read the question differently, this will give a mathematically inaccurate [wrong] answer.  It may seem natural to read the question from left to right, but this will give a different and wrong answer:

3 + 4 (=7)
*5 (=35)
+6 (=41)
-7 = 34

Wrong answer = 34.

If you think that it's unfair or unrealistic to have to follow such precision, let me present some examples from written English, that show how important it is to state things clearly and in the right order:

I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola
Is Lola a man?  Are you reading from left to right, or did you go back to the middle?
He fed her cat food.
Was he looking after her cat?  Or was he making a culinary error?
John saw the man on the mountain with a telescope.
Who has the telescope?

Or how about this one, which has recently started going around Facebook, and is (almost certainly deliberately) full of mathematical and grammatical problems.

1 rabbit saw 6 elephants while going to the river.
Every elephant saw 2 monkeys going towards the river.
Every monkey holds 1 parrot in their hands.
How many Animals are going towards the river ???
Does "to the river" count as "towards the river"?
"Every elephant saw 2 monkeys" - is that each elephant saw 2 monkeys, or they all saw the same 2 monkeys?
"How many animals?" - this depends on if you include birds in your definition of animals (some do, some don't).
This is the epitome of a trick question, and this kind of uncertainty is completely unacceptable in maths - but that's what drives the apparently viral threads on Facebook.  People will argue vehemently about one answer or the other - confusing everybody else and leading to the frustration that we see (it's much easier to explain things in a five minute conversation than it is with five paragraphs of comment text on social media).

Maths has enough of a bad reputation for being confusing, inaccessible and frustrating; it doesn't need people asking "What's 5 + 6 *7 -8? Only 1 in 5 know the real answer!" to make it any worse.

(The answer is 39)
(The answer to the Albert Einstein question (which is particularly devious)  is -13
3 - (6*3) + 2 = 3 (- 18 + 2) = 3 - 16 = -13

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Doctor Who: Warriors of the Deep

Doctor Who: Warriors of the Deep, on DVD

I've recently acquired a number of classic Doctor Who episodes on DVD from my local Salvation Army charity shop, and have decided to watch and review them here - under the category of 'miscellaneous opinions'.

The first of these DVDs is "Warriors of the Deep", featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor, in a series that originally aired in January 1984.  To summarise the plot: the Doctor and his two companions, Tegan and Vislor, materialise on Sea Base 4, in the middle of a tense situation between the humans and the 'warriors of the deep'.  Sea Base 4 is deep under the sea, isolated from outside contact, and as we join the story we discover that they're  monitoring their enemies' movements.  The enemy has stealthily moved a probe to within observation range of Sea Base 4, but they've still be seen. Sea Base 4 wait, and then release a probe to investigate further.  This quiet move and counter-move is a recurring theme throughout the story, as the tension is slowly ratcheted up.

While the plot between Sea Base 4 and its alien opposition unfolds, we discover that the base's medical officer (Doctor Solar) and its controller have deliberately maneouvred an inexperienced officer into the role of the base's weapons officer.  As the pressure and stress of the outside situation increase, the rookie officer starts to crumble, and the controller and medical officer are able to manipulate the base commander into giving them a duplicate controller disk.  The purpose of this isn't immediately clear, but something is clearly awry.  Conversely, the underwater aliens have a clear purpose - to resurrect or awaken a large army of dormant warriors who've been stored in an underwater cavern for many years.

The story moves along steadily but not quickly - and with a constant sense of tension in the atmosphere.  The sets and costumes are understandably dated (filmed in 1984) but once you look past this, it's an engaging story.  The Sea Base has been conceived as part of a sterile,white and metallic future, with bright, clean lines throughout (similar to the Tardis of its day).  The main questions that the story explores are: are the aliens more dangerous than the duplicitous humans; and who are the aliens anyway?  

While moving along, the story gives a remarkably high proportion of time to the supporting cast - the Doctor and his companions barely get around 15% of the screen time in the first episode (by my estimation), and the second episode is the same.  I guess it's a reflection of the mini-series approach of the classic series, where  more time could be dedicated to building up the scenario and the various characters with their own stories and plans.  The story takes its time, but doesn't seem to dawdle, as each of the characters follows their own arc.

There are the overtones of the Cold War - mutual trust between the Doctor and the Sea Base officers, mutual distrust between the humans and the underwater aliens - as was common in 1980s' TV series.  It's genuinely difficult to decide whether to take sides with the aliens or the humans; neither side acts with complete transparency.  The aliens move first, and despite the Doctor's warning the humans fire first - to no avail.  The Silurians claim to be fighting a 'defensive war' (the Doctor claims there is no such thing) and are manipulating the humans into fighting a destructive war amongst themselves. It's a novel idea, and it certainly makes sense given the humans' duplicitous behaviour throughout this story.  The tension continues to increase as the Silurians begin their plot to initiate planetary war among the humans, and the Doctor and his companions develop a counter-plot to kill all the Silurians and Sea Devils. Who will blink?  I won't spoil the ending (having outlined the rest of the plot!) but it is entirely in keeping with the rest of the story.

Overall, I enjoyed this series - it was initially difficult to get past the dated sets and costumes (especially the aliens), and the main problems I had was how an underwater sea base could be so bright, airy and spacious (even when it's under attack and the weapons system is disabled); and how the pace of the story was much slower than modern Doctor Who.  Being spread over 100 minutes meant that there was more time spent on each aspect of the story - there were fewer quick action scenes, and significantly less running around (in contrast to modern Who, where chasing and running up and down corridors has become almost cliched).

Next: Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (which I probably should have watched first).

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Playing Games by Rolling Dice

This is a very short study of how to vary board games by changing the way you use the rolls of two dice. When playing board games with my children, we've found that just adding the dice totals together doesn't always produce the most useful result. Classically (for example in Monopoly), players use the sum of two dice to determine how many spaces to move their counter.  This leads to a very simple distribution of results (die 1 is shown vertically, die 2 is shown horizontally; the sums complete the table). 

Sum 1 2 3 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Average (mean):  7
Average (mode): 7

Now, for an alternative distribution, we can take the maximum value of the two dice (whichever is the higher of the two).  This only gives a range of 1-6, but it's skewed towards the higher end of the distribution (since there are 11 ways of scoring 6, and only one way of scoring 1).

Max 1 2 3 4 5 6
1 1 2 3 4 5 6
2 2 2 3 4 5 6
3 3 3 3 4 5 6
4 4 4 4 4 5 6
5 5 5 5 5 5 6
6 6 6 6 6 6 6

Mean 4.472222222
Mode 6

Conversely, if we take the minimum of the two values, then we have a distribution which is skewed to the lower end (there are 11 ways of scoring 1, and only one way of scoring 6).

Min 1 2 3 4 5 6
1 1 1 1 1 1 1
2 1 2 2 2 2 2
3 1 2 3 3 3 3
4 1 2 3 4 4 4
5 1 2 3 4 5 5
6 1 2 3 4 5 6

MEAN 2.527778


The straight sum gives an average of 7, with a symmetrical split
Taking the maximum (i.e. whichever of the two dice is the largest) gives a mode of 6, and a mean of 4.47.
Taking the minimum gives a mode of 1, and a mean of 2.52.

We found this useful in our games, where we introduce a special feature which allows you to either move your pieces forwards by one roll, or one of your opponents' pieces backwards by one roll.  It's not desirable to move pieces back further than forwards (there's the potential for people to make no forward progress, and extend the game excessively), so the skewed distribution of maximum or minimum is working well for us.

The distribution of totals for one die gives a mean average of 3.5
For two die, the mean is 7.
For three, I suspect the mean is 10.5, and in a future blog, I'll look at this in more detail, along with other ways of producing interesting distributions with just two dice.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

2017 New Year's Resolutions, Reviewed

At the start of 2017, I made four New Year's Resolutions.  We're now half way through 2017, so this seems like a good point to review my progress on each of them.

1.  To give more than I receive
On the surface,I think this one has been easier than the others. It's been an exciting challenge, and throughout the year I (and we as a family) have  given away all sorts of items - but we've still received many things too.  I had my 40th birthday in February and was astonished by the generosity of my friends, which made giving more than receiving a real challenge.  I was also very pleased by my friends who made charitable donations on my behalf, and a survival shelter (UNHCR) and drinking water for 10 people (Oxfam) were donated for me.   This is giving and receiving simultaneously - I love it.

However, this has also been very challenging:  who am I giving to, and is it really giving?

Matthew 5:46-47
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 

So, it's great to be able to post items on Facebook ("Free to good home...") but it's also self-filtering, since I'll only be giving to my friends ("those who love me") - so is that really rewarding? And it's hardly giving in secret if it's plastered all over social media.  And that's something else: it's difficult to say, "Oh yes, I'm doing really well at giving," without sounding like I'm boasting about it.  So I'll reiterate that it's been challenging to give to strangers, and to give without expecting reward, and I'll mention this verse, which has been a source of encouragement to me.

Proverbs 19:17
Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.

And we will continue to make regular donations to our local Salvation Army shops. 

2.  To spend less time on trivial matters

Trivial matters are things that serve absolutely no practical purpose. Except that sometimes a bit of no practical purpose is a good thing.  Sometimes, after a busy day at work and having put the children to bed, trivial matters are a welcome break.  So no, I haven't completely cut out social media, TV, DVDs and the like, but I'm spending far less time on Facebook, almost zero time on Twitter and I am being more selective about what I watch on television.  And deleting the Facebook app from my phone was a good move - I'm no longer interrupted by the latest event being promoted by someone I follow, or by "Somebody else commented on the post you commented on a couple of days ago."  I am gently nudging myself to do something else while watching TV in the evenings... like writing articles for this blog, for example.

It's also made me think about what's actually trivial.  Building a Lego model with my children:  trivial or important?

3. To produce more than I consume 

No.  I am producing more than last year, and I am consuming less (and of better quality), but I don't think I'll ever tip the balance. After all, I have only one mouth but two ears.  However, there are a number of things I've 'produced' this year (and this is just a selection I can recall off the top of my head):

- A board game to play with two of my children (we titled it "Back to Base", and it's a huge three-player game played on a triangular board, currently on its fourth version)

- Pieces to play "Back to Base" (we each need five pieces, and they've become more elaborate over the months).  This has become almost a repair-not-replace, as I've kitbashed a number of figures from other games (for example, a figure of Christophe from Frozen - as found in a charity shop - became an astronaut with a camera).

- More blog posts than last year - that's easy to measure (this will be number 13 this year, compared to 14 for the whole of last year), and now I'm aiming to improve my quality as well as quantity.

- Various VHS to DVD conversions for friends (family weddings, for example)

A couple of pieces of music (in draft)
And I am consuming 
less - yes.  Less TV, for sure.  I'm reading instead - and mostly non-fiction.

4.  Repair, not replace

This hasn't been on my mind as much as the others (I had to look it up to remember what it was); I've repaired various toys for my children, and made various fixes around the house, but I haven't consciously repaired anything I'd otherwise have thrown away.

With one exception:  one of my pairs of jeans developed a small hole, and so I decided to patch it up.  It was only a small hole that wasn't immediately obvious, so only needed sewing back together and a small patch. I completed the repair with a small patch on the inside to hold my sewing together.  I then realised that the jeans were actually too small, so they went in the charity shop bag.  Repaired, not replaced, and then given away: two for the price of one! :-)

I will provide another update around Christmas time (when I shall be able to work on my giving!).

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The General Election (Inferences from Quantitative Data)

The Election

The UK has just had a general election: all the government representatives who sit in the House of Commons have all been selected by regional votes.  The UK is split into 650 areas, called constituencies, each of which has an elected Member of Parliament (MP). Each MP has been elected by voting in their constituency, and the candidate with the highest number of votes represents that constituency in the House of Commons.

There are two main political parties in the UK - the Conservative party (pursuing centre-right capitalist policies, and represented by a blue colour), and the Labour party (which pursues more socialist policies, and represented by as red colour).  I'll skip the political history, and move directly to the data:  the Conservative party achieved 318 MPs in the election; the Labour party achieved 262; the rest were spread between smaller parties. With 650 MPs in total, the Conservative party did not achieve a majority and have had to reach out to one of the smaller parties to reach the majority they require to obtain a working majority.

Anyway:  as the results for most of the constituencies had been announced, the news reporters started their job of interviewing famous politicians of the past and present.  They asked questions about what this meant for each political party; what this said about the political feeling in the country and so on.

And the Conservative politicians put a brave face on the loss of so many seats.  And the Labour politicians contained their delight at gaining so many seats and preventing a Conservative majority.

The pressing issue of the day is Brexit (the UK's departure from the European Union).  Some politicians said, "This tells us that the electorate don't want a 'hard' Brexit [i.e. to cut all ties completely with the EU], and that they want a softer approach." - views that they held personally, and which they thought they could infer from the election result.  O
thers said, "This shows a vote against austerity,"; "This vote shows dissatisfaction with immigration." and so on.

The problem is:  the question on election day is not, "Which of these policies do you like/dislike?" The question is, "Which of these people do you want to represent you in government?"   Anything beyond that is guesswork and supposition - whether that's educated, informed, biased, or speculative.

Website Data

There's a danger in reading too much into quantitative data, and especially bringing your own bias (intentionally or unintentionally) to bear on it.  Imagine on a website that 50% of people who reach your checkout don't complete their purchase.  Can you say why?

- They found out how much you charge for shipping, and balked at it.
- They discovered that you do a three-for-two deal and went back to find another item, which they found much later (or not at all)
- They got called away from their computer and didn't get chance to complete the purchase
- Their mobile phone battery ran out
- They had trouble entering their credit card number

You can view the data, you can look at the other pages they viewed during their visit.  You can even look at the items they had in their basket.  You may be able to write hypotheses about why visitors left, but you can't say for sure.  If you can design a test to study these questions, you may be able to improve your website's performance.  For example, can you devise a way to show visitors your shipping costs before they reach checkout?  Can you provide more contextual links to special offers such as three-for-two deals to make it easier for users to spend more money with you?  Is your credit card validation working correctly?  No amount of quantitative data will truly give you qualitative answers.

A word of warning:  it doesn't always work out as you'd expect.

The UK, in its national referendum in June 2016, voted to leave the EU.  The count was taken for each constituency, and then total number of votes was counted; the overall result was that "leave" won by 52% to 48%.  

However, this varied by region, and the highest leave percentage was in Stoke-on-Trent Central, where 69% of voters opted to leave.  This was identified by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and their leader, Paul Nuttall, took the opportunity to stand as a candidate for election as an MP in the Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency in February 2017.  His working hypothesis was (I assume) that voters who wanted to leave the EU would also vote for him and his party, which puts forward policies such as zero-immigration, reduced or no funding for overseas aid, and so on - very UK-centric policies that you might imagine would be consistent with people who want to leave a multi-national group.  However, his hypothesis was disproved when the election results came in:

Labour Party - 7853
UKIP (Paul Nuttall) - 5233

Conservative Party - 5154
Liberal Democrat Party - 2083

He repeated his attempt in a different constituency in the General Election in June; he took 3,308 votes in Boston and Skegness - more than 10,000 fewer votes than the party's result in 2015.  Shortly afterwards, he stood down as the leader of UKIP.

So, beware: inferring too much from quantitative data - especially if you have a personal bias - can leave you high and dry, in politics and in website analysis.