Measurement, Knowledge, Management, and Science

(Another in the series of quotes to start the week.)

Nearly everyone who has studied science knows the name “Lord Kelvin,” if only for the absolute temperature scale which bears his name. William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (26 June 1824 – 17 December 1907) was a physicist and engineer from Belfast, Ireland, who did foundational work in thermodynamics and electricity at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1866 for his contributions to the transatlantic telegraph. In 1892 he was the first British scientist to receive a noble title and a seat in the House of Lords. As noted above, “Kelvin” was part of his title, rather than his actual name; it referred to a river which flows by the University of Glasgow.

In 1883, when he was still Sir William Thomson, he gave a lecture on “Electrical Units of Measurement” in which he said,

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

This quote is nicely precise, as we might expect of a 19th century man of science. As such, it contrasts with one of the pernicious lies of modern management that still traps well-meaning but poor-thinking people today: specifically, the idea that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” That quote is often (but wrongly) attributed to Peter Drucker, and it may be that no one knows who originated it. But it is, as Dr. W. Edwards Deming frequently pointed out in his seminars, a myth.

The truth is, every day we encounter situations involving variables that we cannot measure. Sometimes they are things that could be measured if we had sufficient instruments and time to devote to the effort; sometimes they are things that are ineffable, and for which devising a measurement would be folly. We still have to manage those situations and navigate our way through them; we cannot throw up our hands in despair simply because the situation did not come with a convenient set of measurements and statistics attached to it.

Sometimes the people who proclaim that measurement is necessary to management are in the business of selling measurement practices or techniques. And they may take advantage of managers who have never had to measure things in the real world. Those managers would do well to apply a little skepticism and heed the words of William Bruce Cameron, who said in the 1958 article “Tell Me Not in Mournful Numbers,”

Counting sounds easy until we actually attempt it, and then we quickly discover that often we cannot recognize what we ought to count. Numbers are no substitute for clear definitions, and not everything that can be counted counts.

In 1963, Cameron elaborated by writing, “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” How many managers would benefit from understanding that!

Often when managers decry the lack of measurements to justify the decisions they wish to make, they do so without any real appreciation for the difficulty of measuring things with accuracy and precision. Their bathroom scale works, though they may not like what it reports; the gauge in their car indicates its fuel status with some reliability; these and other experiences lead them to expect to receive similar reports of progress or status on whatever aspect of the business is under their scrutiny that day.

Which brings us back to Sir Thomson, Lord Kelvin, and his observation about measurement. He wisely allowed for the possibility of not being able to measure something — thus, that late 20th century management aphorism, whatever its source, was invalidated roughly a hundred years before it was spread! While he then said that our knowledge of a thing may be stunted by lacking measurements for it, that does not mean we have no knowledge of it at all; even “the beginning of knowledge” is knowledge of a sort. But what was Kelvin’s interest in measurement? Was it management? No! It was science.

And, though managers may like to claim otherwise, management is not science.


(Image: JPL imagery from the Jason-2 satellite, showing “Kelvin Waves” — named after Lord Kelvin, who discovered them — moving eastward along the equator.)

That’s all I have to say on the subject, at the moment, but I’d be happy to discuss it at length if you like. Meanwhile, I hope you have a good week!

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P.S. Last week I mentioned possibly ending this series, and I’m still undecided on that point. Let me know if you have feelings about that, one way or another.

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New Video: Of, By, and For the People

Have you thought much about the placement of the prepositions in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? Does their placement — “of the people, by the people, for the people” — matter much in understanding what they imply for our government?

In this video, I suggest that their placement is pertinent … and proper:

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Related:
– Video: The Verbs in the Preamble
– More videos: My YouTube channel

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It’s Summertime, But is the Living Easy?

Happy Summer Solstice!

It’s officially Summer, astronomically speaking, and as I said last week it turns out my novel was not a “Spring release” after all. C’est la vie. I wish I could tell you when it will be available, but alas I cannot. The good folks at WordFire Press last told me “end of June,” but that’s not looking too good from this vantage point — so I expect it to be a few more weeks yet.

By way of apology for not being able to give you more definite information, I present to you another excerpt from Walking On The Sea of Clouds. This excerpt introduces Van Richards, an irreverent but passionate “grunt” on the Asteroid Consortium team, during his mission to set up part of the infrastructure to support the lunar colony.

Bright sunlight bathed the lunar highlands: along rills and near rocks, it cast short but ever-lengthening abyss-dark shadows.

It was a lot better to get this job done in the daylight than the darkness, as far as Van was concerned. As sunset approached, there would be precious few sunlit swathes left. And the big lights on the front of the rig would barely penetrate the darkness.

A chime sounded from the control panel in front of him; if Oskar had taken off on time, he should be in the area soon. Van checked the frequency and keyed his microphone. “Oskar, this is Van,” he said, dispensing with all radio protocol. “You out there, Oskar?”

The radio crackled a little. In keeping with the Consortium’s low-ball approach, its electronics were nothing fancy but easy to repair. Van waited a few more minutes, then repeated the call. He was about to transmit a third time when Oskar’s voice blared from the speaker.

“Lima Victor November, this is Lima Sierra Oscar Victor, over.”

“Hey, Oskar! Been waitin’ for you to call. Where are you?”

Oskar sounded annoyed. “Roger, LVN. We’re coming up on your left, Van, about a thousand meters high. I can see you clearly. Looks like you’re right on time, over.”

“Sure we are, Oskar. Where else would we be?” Van snuck looks out the left-hand window for the suborbital vehicle. “Hey, why don’t you drop down and scout out ahead for us?”

“Negative, LVN. That’s not in the flight plan. That route hasn’t changed since the last time anyone drove it, over.”

Van chuckled. Oskar loved flying almost as much as Henry, but he was so by-the-book that he wouldn’t take a risk unless it really needed taking. If even then.

“You never know,” Van said. “Some transie could’ve burst out, right on our path. You’ll regret it if we drive right into a sinkhole.”

“Negative, LVN,” Oskar said.

Van chuckled again. No, I don’t suppose you would, Herr Hintener.

“I see you now, LSOV,” Van said, slurring the acronym into “ellessovee.” The suborbital vehicle was about sixty degrees up and not quite abeam—call it about 8:30, moving to 9:00, on an analog clock. He was surprised he could see the vehicle at all: the bright sunlight and the lights in the cab washed out just about every outside light source. The flyer was visible only because it caught a good bounce from the Sun. The hydrogen-oxygen flame propelling the flyer burned clear, and even if he was at the right angle the glowing hot exhaust bell would be practically invisible to him. As it was, the reflected light would change and he’d probably lose sight of it before long.

Van noted the suborbital vehicle’s forward progress, and frowned a little. Oskar wasn’t trying very hard at all. He had enough fuel to fly nap-of-the-moon, but he’d programmed a semi-ballistic trajectory that let him coast after the initial boost. Knowing him, he’d probably programmed it close enough that he’d barely have to light the engines to touch down right at the rendezvous point. You’re sharp, Oskar, but you’re not much fun.

“Looking good, Oskar. See you at the implant point.”

“Affirmative, LVN. Watch out for the transies, over.”

Van switched off the microphone. “Good one, Oskar.” Even if a transient lunar phenomenon had lit off recently right in the middle of their path—which he supposed they would know, since so many people back on Earth were watching the Moon these days—it wouldn’t affect them that much. Whether it was outgassing or a minor impact, all it might do is raise a brief spray of dust; the big truck would just roll along pretty as it pleased.

Van switched to intercom. “Grace, you up? We’re coming up on the setup site.”

She answered right away, but she sounded sleepy. “Yeah, I’m up. Oskar’s nearby?”

Van looked back into the sky, but as expected the LSOV was out of sight. “I had eyes-on a second ago, but not anymore. He’ll be down and cooling when we get there.”

“Roger. Do I have time to grab something to eat?”

“Oh, yeah, plenty. We’re still about twenty-five klicks out, so it’ll be over an hour.”

“Okay. I’ll start running the arrival checklist in about thirty minutes.”

“Suit yourself, Telly.”

“I will,” Grace said.

“Ha-ha. Hey, leave me a little something, okay?”

“Why? You never leave me anything.”

Van smiled. “I’m still a growing boy, don’t you know?”

Grace didn’t answer, but that was okay. And Van didn’t care too much if she left him anything or not; Grace Teliopolous lived up to her Georgia Tech reputation as a “helluvan engineer,” but she was not a cook.

An hour later, the LVN-1 crested a rise and Van looked down into a wide valley. In the distance a few large rock formations cast reaching fingers of shadow, but most of the low valley seemed almost to glow.

And in the middle of the glowing field stood a manmade rock that cast its own shadow in Van’s direction.

Van had already set the vehicle’s radio to broadcast. “I see you, Oskar.”

“Roger, LVN, we have a visual on you also. Come on down and join us.” Oskar sounded as if he was sitting in the cab next to Van. “Henry and I are getting ready to exit the LSOV, over.”

An “X” appeared in the box on the checklist screen to Van’s left, in front of the “Establish close proximity line-of-sight communications” step.

Van smiled at his reflection in the head-up display. He puffed his chest and said, “Roger that, Lima Sierra Oscar Victor. We read your last transmission five by five, and copy your checklist telemetry. Copy your intention to commence Echo Victor Alpha and begin stabilizing Lima Papa Papa November Three and the Romeo Oscar Papa Sierra.”

Van wasn’t sure if it was Oskar or Henry Crafts who laughed over the radio, but it was certainly Oskar who spoke. “Alright, Van, just get your ass down here and get to work.”

Thanks for reading along! I’ll post more details about the book’s release as I have them.

Moon Waxing Gibbous January 2012
(Image: ” Moon Waxing Gibbous,” by John Spade, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

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P.S. If you’re not already getting it, I’d be pleased if you would sign up for my newsletter. I try to make it more personal, and more conversational, than the blog — and it’s usually more timely, too. Plus, you get a free nonfiction e-book for signing up!

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In Defense of a Breadth of Knowledge

(Possibly the last in the quotes to start the week series?*)

I had this week’s quote all picked out on Sunday, but got busy and didn’t write and post this yesterday as I should have.

Why should I have posted it yesterday? Because yesterday was the birthday of Blaise Pascal (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662), whose quote I wanted to focus on (or “on whose quote I wanted to focus,” if we’re feeling more grammatically pedantic this afternoon). Pascal was a renowned mathematician, invented a series of calculating machines, and was also a prominent Catholic theologian. In his Pensees (1669; literally, “thoughts”), he wrote,

Since we cannot be universal and know all that is to be known of everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For it is far better to know something about everything than to know all about one thing. This universality is the best. If we can have both, still better; but if we must choose, we ought to choose the former.

I like that a lot. It’s one thing to develop some sort of expertise, and even to be recognized as an expert, but life is so grand and glorious that to stay cloistered in one thing — no matter how expansive and rewarding that one thing might be — would be to miss out on so much more that the universe has to offer.

At the very least, knowing a little bit about a lot of things makes it easier to converse with a wider variety of people; and that in itself can expand our personal horizons.


(Image: “Knowledge-sharing,” from Wikimedia Commons.)

So, let’s learn something new this week!

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*This series has been running a little over a year. It was fun when it started, and I’ve enjoyed finding quotes that I thought were interesting, but I’m not sure how much value it has for other folks. If it has any value for you, let me know, because I’m considering moving on to different things. Thanks! GR

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New Video: “Stand Up, If You Can” (a Public Speaking Tip)

It may seem a bit self-evident, but standing up to give your formal presentation can make a lot of difference in how your audience receives it — especially if the points you’re making are at all important.

One-on-one, or speaking only to a few people? Sitting down is often fine. But speaking to a bunch of people at once? You’re better off standing up, if you’re physically able to do so.

Unless you don’t care that much about your message, in which case go right ahead and sit on your butt to give your speech, or your presentation … or your sermon.

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Related:
– Video: Public Speaking Tip: The Value of Inflection
– More videos: My YouTube channel

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Join the Asteroid Consortium?

Or stay independent?

That’s one of the dilemmas facing the characters in my novel, Walking On The Sea of Clouds, forthcoming from WordFire Press.

If not for the Asteroid Consortium, there wouldn’t be a lunar colony for them to set up. But their dream is to be independent, and the AC causes them a lot of grief as they pursue it.


Asteroid Consortium logo courtesy of Christopher Rinehart Art & Design.

I still don’t know when the novel will be released — it won’t be a “Spring” release after all, unfortunately (since Spring ends next week). But I noted a couple of weeks ago that it’s being fairly well received, as seen in what Booklist Online had to say:

Much like The Martian, Walking on the Sea of Clouds puts you on a lifeless rock and makes you think about why we explore new frontiers even as it explains how it can be done.

I hope you agree, once you can read it.

Stay tuned, and I’ll let you know the release plans when I know them!

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P.S. If you want faster access to more details about the book release — and, really, more in-depth information and commentary — then sign up for my newsletter. You’ll get a free nonfiction e-book for signing up.

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The Inescapable Conclusion About Freedom

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, made famous by his challenge to Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev: “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Earlier in that speech, Reagan contrasted the “free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history” with “the Communist world, [where] we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind–too little food.” And he said

There stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

We could make the same observations today about the benefits of freedom. Where people are free to associate, to collaborate, and to trade, more of them prosper than do not. But where people are not free, whether they are forced to comply with others’ demands or restrained from acting in their own best interests, fewer of them thrive and more of them suffer.


President Reagan speaking in Berlin, 12 June 1987. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I hope you exercise your freedom well and wisely this week! And don’t let anyone take it from you.

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New Video: The Dickensian Duo

The beginning of June seems an odd time to hearken back to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but that’s where Dickens sets out a pair of conditions that I call “The Dickensian Duo.” In this video, I introduce them, consider the relationships between them, and discuss the importance of education in addressing them.

Let me know what you think!

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Education-Related Stuff:
– Video: The Musashi-Heinlein School
– Text: Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It

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The Author and Politics

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

This past Saturday, at the ConCarolinas science fiction and fantasy convention, I was part of a panel called “Author and Politics” which was both well-attended and well-run. We agreed on some points, we disagreed on some points, but we did so like grown-ups — respectfully and without rancor.

It was, in the end, quite refreshing.

So when it came to figuring out a good quote to start the week, I thought of this one from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which I copied out of The Gulag Archipelago many years ago.

Is it not true that professional politicians are boils on the neck of society that prevent it from turning its head and moving its arms? And why shouldn’t engineers have political views? After all, politics is not even a science, but is an empirical area not susceptible to description by any mathematical apparatus; furthermore, it is an area subject to human egotism and blind passion.

That quote has always resonated with me, mostly because of the imagery in the first sentence but also because I was trained as an engineer and still to a small degree think of myself as one. And it hasn’t lost any of its power: certainly we saw in our most recent election plenty of instances of “human egotism and blind passion.”

Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey - Icons
The parties don’t often see eye to eye, do they? (Image: “Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey – Icons,” by DonkeyHotey, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

But when I have experiences like the panel on Saturday, and I recall the adage that “all politics are local,” I am a bit more hopeful that if we conduct ourselves well we can avoid (at least in the small circles of our friends) the worst excesses of either side, and chart a course that’s mutually beneficial.

I admit that I may be hopelessly naïve about such things.

After all, I’m The Anti-Candidate, and I approved this message.

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Related Items:
– Listen to “I Think I’ll Run for Congress”, from the album Truths and Lies and Make-Believe
– Listen to “The Anti-Candidate Song”, from the album Distorted Vision

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ConCarolinas — Science Fiction, Carolina Style!

This weekend we’ll be celebrating science fiction and fantasy in Charlotte — at the Hilton Charlotte University Place, specifically — for ConCarolinas. ConCarolinas is always a fun convention, and the Guests of Honor this year are pretty amazing:

  • Music and Artist GOH, Aurelio Voltaire
  • Writer GOH, bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon
  • Science GOH, Stephanie Osborn
  • Gaming GOHs, Clint and Jodi Black

In addition, Baen Books’ Publisher Toni Weisskopf is the Literary Special Guest, and the Music Special Guests include my friends The Blibbering Humdingers, Mikey Mason, and Valentine Wolfe.

I don’t have any solo events — no concert, no reading, no signing — but I have a few panels and other fun things that will get me into trouble:

Friday:

  • 4 p.m. — The Dreaded Synopsis (panel)
  • 7 p.m. — Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow (variety show)
  • 11 p.m. — Campfire Songs (music)

Saturday:

  • 3 p.m. — Let’s Write a Filk Song (music panel)
  • 5 p.m. — Write What You Don’t Know (panel)
  • 6 p.m. — Author and Politics (panel)
  • 10 p.m. — Filking the Night Away (music)

Sunday:


(Love this badge logo from the 2010 ConCarolinas, by Bob Snare.)

It should be fun — hope to see you there!

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Related Items of Interest:
– Because it’s science fictional and filkish and fun, the “Tauntauns to Glory” music video
– Also speaking of filk, listen free to both of my albums, Distorted Vision and Truths and Lies and Make-Believe

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