Month: May 2013

Owning Your Data

I realize I’m terribly late to this party. I’m not even fashionably late, I’m “you arrived just as the caterers were cleaning up and the hostess had taken off her shoes” late. I’ve been busy (as, I think, I’ve amply covered).

However, I really must say a word or two about Reinhart and Rogoff.

For those who don’t follow economics or kinda remember they heard about it but aren’t sure what the big hullabaloo is, I recommend you google it; look for the Economist, the Guardian, and the Atlantic non-editorial resources to start. There’s a few. Then you can go off to the editorials for dessert. For those who don’t want to google, here’s the Twitter version: Two economists present a work in which they suggest that there is a deep drop off in economic performance without austerity measures. Essentially they said that when debt is high, growth slows to a grinding halt; the graph they presented roughly resembled the cliffs of Dover.

And it was wrong.

Because of an Excel spreadsheet formula error.

Normally this wouldn’t be awful. Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who has used Excel to convey data (or volumes of analysis) has made that spreadsheet error, and it can be as simple as not properly conveying a Sum formula, or as complex as messing up your Vlookup in your nested IF statement. Excel has been bastardized over the years into an analytics function (by courtesy of default in that it’s on nearly every machine) that it really can’t fully accommodate without failsafes; EVERYONE makes an Excel error.

Reinhart and Rogoff’s mistake is NOT that they made a spreadsheet formula error. And, contrary to the article above I linked to, it’s only partially that they did not peer review.

It was governments’ (plural, many, varied) mistake to use it to shape policy.

Lookit, suppose I told you that, according to my Excel spreadsheet, you were very likely to die from dehydration if you didn’t eradicate all but 0.4 grams of salt per day from your diet. For perspective, the average diet has about 5 times that. You would very rightly look to other studies, other data, other sources of information. You’d poll your neighbors. You’d check with friends. You’d do your due diligence before you used my say-so, no matter how shiny my Excel spreadsheet, or even how shiny my MD would be (this is fiction, after all).  Plenty of people are told by their doctor to lose 10lbs because it will make a difference in the long run, and plenty of people seem to blithely ignore it because they don’t have corresponding (personal, attributable, anecdotal) data.

So why, why, why did any government, financial body, fiscal institution leap on the screeching panic train when R&R’s study hit?  Why did no one look to a 2nd opinion, a different study; why didn’t they check the data for themselves before subjecting their economies to the fiscal equivalent of a rectal exam?

I have been in data now for 15 years. It’s not a long time in the scheme of things, but it’s something I’m known to be passionate about. I can go on and on about how data works, or doesn’t; what you can derive from it; how data *is* integrity if done right. Any form of analytic reporting that is worth its salt has been tested, peer-reviewed, and validated against two or three other methods before it is used in a practical space. At Expedia, at one point, I managed 500 ad-hoc requests per month, and each of those was eyeballed against existing reporting and a decent sense-check before being used to cut deals (or not).

Now, please understand: R&R screwed up. And, apart from their formula error, they insist the outcome is the same (and it is, but it’s the equivalent of saying “ok it’s not a steep drop off anymore, more of a speedbump, but still it’s a delta!!”). This is the foible of the data monkey; again, something we’ve all been prey to. But not all of us have done it to the culpability of large (and small) governments, and most of us have learned to admit when we’re wrong. That is the crux of it: if no one is perfect, no data is perfect, to pretend yours is against evidence to the contrary is specious at best and negligent at worst.

I argue though that the more egregious mistake is to *follow* that data without validation. To quote Ben Kenobi: “Who’s more foolish, the fool, or the fool that follows him?”


It’s my “me” night — the boy is with his father, the man is with his brother, and I am home watching a James Bond movie. It’s “Thunderball”, released in 1965; at this time in history my father had been in the country 1 year, I do not believe he had as yet met my mother, and I was -8 years old.

All of the women are decorative, deadly, or both. Any one of them who was competent and even remotely personable was a secretary. The only two remainders were a deadly assassin (ultimately, and inevitably, poor in her job) and the clueless, innocent heroine.

When I was in 8th grade, typing was a requirement for everyone, but you had to do it on an IBM Selectric that was only slightly quieter than a beehive. Typing had time-tests as well as visual tests — you could NOT type the volume in the time if you hesitated to look at the keyboard. I had managed to multi-task and eyeball the keyboard through the first quarter, so my second quarter C’s were not welcome at home. (In point of fact, C’s were never welcome at home, but A’s that went to C’s were very much not ok). My grades came home and my parents acted.

My stepmother grabbed a sheet of blue, circle-shaped stickers. And covered every key in the keyboard of the computer my brother and I used. It was torturous. But I learned to type.

Not to become a secretary.

Seventeen years ago I took a couple of classes at the local community college to learn how to program websites — I was a “web developer” when everybody was, it founded a slightly profitable side business. In 2000 I took classes in DB development, by 2003 I had argued my way into a dev job. In 2004 I got the dream job, at Expedia, to do development in their Reporting group. By 2010 the good jobs had moved to Geneva and I had to find other pursuit. By 2013, I had tired of “other pursuit”.

Today I find myself with two keyboards, two machines, a multitude of projects and lots of things to build. I type a lot these days. But I’m not a secretary.

Sur La Awesome

My resolution to blog more often has gone by the wayside courtesy of a new job. I started working at Sur La Table about 10 (calendar) days ago (officially) and I’m having a bit of a hard time.

I’m having a hard time separating reality from all of the awesome.

Any time you start a new job, you’re going to be in a “honeymoon” period. Everything is new, and different. It’s a bit like the 4-week rule I had when I was dating. It went something like this:

Week 1: Dating again. Ok, this is cool, this is normal, everyone dates. Cool.

Week 2: He can do no wrong! He’s going to be a Doctor or Lawyer or Artist or Trashman and this totally meets with my life plans because of X/Y/Z contrived plan.

Week 3: He has a fault. It’s not a big fault, it’s a fault; everyone has faults! I’m totally not judging!

Week 4: The fault… has spawned. It has morphed into one giant gelatinous blob of fault-ness, and I can’t stand it.

(At the end of week 4 I’d dump him. He was still on week 1.)

Fully aware that I’m in week two at my new job, I’ve been doing my damnedest to be diligently down on the novelty, and… it’s just not working.

I get to *build* things again. My professional experience with C# is very, very little and very, very old, but I’m almost done building a nifty little widget complete with error handling. I’ve reaffirmed my faith in Stack Overflow, my lack of faith in MSDN, and re-verified that “Dummies” books are anything but. Half of my day is spent “managing” (two rock stars in their field, incidentally) and the other half is spent “creating”. There are two good coffee sources (NOT including those directly in-office) nearby, two Subways, and my desk has a view of Mount Rainier.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re a small shop. There’s a lot of cross-functional, “ok-you-don’t-know-it-so-can-you-build-that-into-your-estimate” expectations, a lot of last-minute, “oh by the way”. But… I get to *build* things again.

And… there are no more 5am meetings (or 6am, or 7am, or 8am). My earliest meeting is 9, most people don’t set one past 5. People show up, they work balls out, they go home. A tremendous lot gets done and while the shortcomings of the vendor/system/funding/etc. are all publicly, and explicitly, acknowledged, this somehow does not diminish the drive of the people who are involved.

We are selling kitchen supplies for the devoted chef. We are not saving lives, we are not universally accessible. But we are providing you the very best that you can get, at the very best value you can get it, with the very best, real advice you can get it with. We are trying lots of things, and we are experimenting, and we are innovating. And yes, my first paycheck will likely be contributing to my future Le Creuset collection. The real value, however, is that I get to build things again.

Even if it means I hit Stack Overflow six times a day.