Thursday, April 10, 2014

I wish it could be April 1st every day ...


Make no bones about it, I love April Fools Day.  At Thomson Marconi, the first company I used to work at, the monthly site newsletter in April would always be looked forward to.  Departments would sneak in the occasional "fake story" which you'd start out reading, and bit by bit would lure you into believing the incredible.

Back in my 20s, I myself got cautioned at EDS for circulating a fake HR memo, which although many found hilarious, looked a little too real for some.  If you have a team like mine at Thomson Marconi, where you can share good humour, April 1st helps you to really share that important team spirit (though there's a reason it's only once a year - too much pranking can get tiresome).  Indeed the cautionary tale from me getting into a bit of hot water at EDS is that it only takes one person to complain, and then you might have to explain your prank to some higher ups!

One of my favourite activities on April 1st is looking at newsites, and this year as I did, I noticed a perculiar activity going on in my brain.  In many ways April Fools Day introduces an element of critical thinking we don't exercise as much on the other 364 days of the year.  Looking at the list of news items, I know that one of them (or maybe two) are likely to be a hoax, and so I read them, challenging the logic.

There is certain pattern to potential hoaxes - no-one would surely "hoax" a plane crash or a disaster where people were killed, would they?  I thought this years candidate might be a story about Gwyneth Paltrow, as she was talking about her childcare arrangements and going on tour with Coldplay for the benefit of her children.  However, this was a week after Gwyneth announced her "conscious uncoupling" (or separation to you and me) from her husband, Coldplays lead singer Chris Martin.  Unfortunately with celebrities, a variation of Poe's Law comes into effect, and "it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism".  Maybe not so much Poe's Law, as Paltrow's Law.

Some of the greatest pranks ever pulled (not necessarily on April Fools Day) include the hysteria some Americans experienced listening to Orson Welles War Of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 and when the UKs Panorama (a respected journalistic program) ran a story in 1957 on a Switzerland family harvesting from their spaghetti tree.  Both of these stories came from a time when there were limited radio and TV sources, and thus any information provided by them was seen as authoritative.  For The War Of The Worlds, the play was presented in the first half as a series of interrupts to a seemingly live program of "Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra".  The radio audience were used to plays that "sounded like plays", rather than what is in many ways the first mockumentary.

Media awareness helps

Back in 1993, I took a media awareness module as part of my teacher training.  During the week long module, the world watched the final tragic moments of the Waco siege being played out.  Our workshop had copies of all the UK papers that week, and so it allowed us to see the spectrum of how the story was being told.  And believe me all the accounts did not add up to quite the same tale.  Some papers were quite restrained, giving an almost clinical account of events.  The UK tabloid press typically focused on more lurid details of usually the Branch Davidians strange sexual practices, and focusing on the deaths of the children involved (which sadly I can't read about without thinking about Damien from Drop The Dead Donkey).

One quite startling non-story which was given prominence on the day in one such tabloid was Uri Geller's claim that if only the authorities had let him speak to the cult involved, he could have used his abilities to end the siege.  This did not seem a hard news story, but just a piece of opportunistic self-promotion, and I found myself not only disgusted by Uri behaving like this (but then don't psychics make a living saying they can contact your beloved lost ones?) but the paper for giving it the time of day.

The events of that week, and our focus on how media were portraying it allowed me to become much more savvy about this.  When is information being portrayed to us as information but secretly is serving a secret, self-serving agenda, such as with the Uri Geller tale?  As with the news, if you trust one source implicitly you'll never be sure if you're getting facts or an editorial take on events that serves someone's soapbox.  The only way to not be taken in is to take a critical thinking approach, to inquire, and get other sources of information to compare and contrast, and then settle for the one you feel fits best.

My son is currently working towards taking history at University in New Zealand.  He's learning at the moment that doing a report based on one set of information is amateurish at best.  Whenever possible, he's looking for multiple testimonies on modern events, and contrasting them.  Most often he's asking the question of "who is giving me this information".


The who he tells me is really important, and that was reinforced with a recent video we watched - Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon.  The film is about a monk and a woodsman trying to make sense of events - a local samurai has been killed, and his wife raped.  The problem is that everyone's story doesn't add up - everyone has given a different, completely contradictory tale, but one which claims themselves to be innocent.

Having done my piece as a juror in an actual bodily harm case, this is very much as things are in real life.  There are the victims friends who tell one tale.  The defendants friends who tell another.  And then those in the middle who to an extent cast a shadow of doubt over both sides.

So how can we ever know the truth of anything?

Scary isn't it?  How can we tell when someone in our work is selling us a tool or methodology which will serve our needs, or is selling something for their interests which will cause us to fail?

This is one of the reasons why Aprils Fools Day is to me such a special day.  It's probably the day where we look at news stories and we're deliberately expecting a lie, and so we approach it differently.  This year for April Fools, I wrote an article for Sticky Minds called QA Management: All Bark And No Bite?  The story was a tale of how an agile team was using a retired guard dog (it was going to be a police dog at first) to collect the team together for meetings, and keep developers and testers in line.  Said like that it's far fetched, but I found a way to tell the tale a piece at a time, so each piece made sense with what I'd said before.

In the office, we can see this manifesting itself in certain subtle traps.  It might be that the virtues of a methodology or tool are being oversold to us, and we hand over cash to impact on a nasty surprise.  I managed to sell a big lie through a whole lot of little ones.  Yup - kind of feeling a little bit despicable about that ...


So here are a few guidelines against falling into traps when we have things presented to us ...

Does it sound too good to be true?



Oh, c'mon, we all have one of those exercise machines at home where we fell for the advertising that "it was the one piece of equipment we'd need to get into shape".  Typically it's in the garage, under a whole heap of other unused stuff.  We've all fallen for the hype on at least one thing, and if we're lucky we learned from it that some things which sound too good to be true often aren't.

If someone isn't telling you about the cons or limitations of something they're trying to get you to use, be very afraid.  Because there are always limitations!  At the very least try a bit of a Google search before leaping, and look for people's negative stories ...

Reputation


A quick Google on someone is always useful, as is asking around.  Have other people followed this persons advice and regretted it?  I know James Bach has talked about how important within software testing a tester's reputation is, far more than any qualification.

It's true - many people have for instance favourite actors/directors.  I will typically go out of my way to watch a Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino or Tim Burton movie.  That's typically because I've enjoyed their past movies.  And based on enjoying those movies, I know their next movie is likely to be a good one, or at least I expect it to appeal to me.

Likewise from past movies, I don't really like the work of Tom Cruise, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell or Ricky Gervais.  If you ever see me at a movie that stars all of them, then it's likely the hall on the way to the movie theatre will have scratchmarks frin my fingernails, as I will have had to be dragged there by the devils minions themselves.  Or these guys ...


But seriously, ask people who've done business with this individual for their thoughts - and do it directly, not through testimonials.  Did they feel it was useful - did they have any surprises?  Did they understand the benefits?

And don't forget the reputation of the publication is important as well.  If someone is promising a brand new method of software deployment in The Onion, what do you think?

Timing

If it's on, or near 1st April, be afraid ...


And finally ...

The very topic of "how can you determine the usefulness of a source" came up at the end of my workshop on Testing Gravity at WeTest Workshops, where I presented these two videos about "gravity in space" ... we couldn't go there ourself, so we needed to rely on secondary sources,



So two clips about space, gravity and space stations.  What's the difference?

Well, while they both try and represent some accuracy about life in space (and what it can be like).  The fact is if you look into the first clip, you find it's from Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey, and whilst it's attempting to be accurate, it's not real evidence of life in space, just a theatrical mock up.  You know this because you look up and Stanley Kubrick is a director, and he filmed 2001 very much on Earth.

The second clip however contains Chris Hadfield.  And a good search online will tell you he's an actual astronaut, and that was filmed not in studio, but on the International Space Station (ISS).  So what you're seeing isn't a representation of what life should be like in space, it's the real thing.  It's valid as evidence.

Oh of course you can go further on this and say "well how do we know that he really did go into space, and the ISS, isn't just on a Hollywood studio backlot somewhere?".  Well a lot of people have testified to him going up there, people have seen rockets heading to space, you can track the ISS and view a fast moving star going over your house which moves like no airplane we've ever seen.  Now that's not concrete proof (but then again in life what is?), but it's certainly enough to suggest that the second clip is "the read deal" and has potential to be genuine.  Or of course, a really elaborate (and expensive) hoax ...

Some other fun hoaxes ...

The Large Agile Framework Appropriate For Big Lumbering Enterprises (LAFABLE)

Teach your kids to raise issues with Jira Jr

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