Detroit Free Press – where news isn’t

I’ve got to get this off my chest … what is the point of a newspaper’s website if you can’t find the news?

Case in point — the Detroit Free Press. specifically their sports page.

I am an unabashed fan of Michigan State University and follow the Spartans’ football and basketball teams particularly. It is now time for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the MSU Spartans will be playing their first game later today. What time is the game? Well, that’s a pretty obvious question and the answer should be easy to find. Right?

Wrong, if you go to the Detroit Free Press website. Not too long ago, the website was dramatically changed from a newspaper format (stories written with words, a photo, an occasional video) into a multimedia conglomeration of pictures in motion. Looking for words to read? Not here. Want to get a detailed background on an issue? Prepare to do some trial-and-error clicking.

Want to find out what time a game starts? Hah! Fool! Why are you looking at the Free Press’ website?

What should be an obvious location — a newspaper’s sports section — turns into a hopeless waste of 15 minutes that are now lost forever. The website offers videos of people talking about the teams, background on players who used to live in their opponent’s home state, recaps of the coach’s history in the tournament. But what time is the game on?

I abandoned the Free Press’ website and turned to Google — “ncaa basketball tournament” — and on the first page of search results is a list of the whole schedule to date. Scan down the page and there’s the game — and the time of the game. Well, that was easy.

I try Yahoo! Sports — and there at the top of the page is a list of today’s upcoming games — with the time of each game.

You know … useful information, easily found, prominently displayed. Like … like … news.

So why can’t the Free Press put together a website in which news is easily found, prominently displayed?

When a website is designed, it has to be thought of in terms of why people come to the site — do they go to a newspaper website to be entertained? I don’t — I go to a news site to get news, quickly, reliably, easily, without doing an lot of research.

The Detroit Free Press — and their partner and parent sites, like USA Today, Detroit News, and others in the “family” — have badly mangled their web sites. The sites are unusable. Traipsing through them in search of news is an exercise in masochism.

The only rationale I can imagine is this — these websites are designed to drive people back to physical newspapers. But my bet is that the papers are designed by the same people.


The game is on at 12:40 pm. Thank you, Yahoo! Sports. Thank you, Google.

First, Philosophy, then Data Science

One of the most telling articles on “Data Science” appeared in the NYTimes in April[1]. We are facing a massive shortage of data scientists, it read. “There will be almost half a million jobs in five years, and a shortage of up to 190,000 qualified data scientists.”
Trouble is, the same article says, “Because data science is so new, universities are scrambling to define it and develop curriculums.”
So — we don’t know what they are, but we need 500,000 of them.

Continue reading

Surviving That First Meeting

In a recent on-line forum, someone asked for guidance on the “basic questions” a Data Modeler should ask of their business customers in the initial meetings. It’s a good question to ask, and it’s encouraging that this person should think about getting this right.
Rather than provide a list of questions — which, I think, depend very much on the circumstances of the project, the organization, the meeting invitees and your own standing in the group — I thought it better to offer some advice about preparation.
Few things are relegated to the dustbin of wasted time than a meeting with an unprepared analyst — especially the “outside consultant” who arrives expecting to be given a history of your business. When you arrive at that meeting, the chances are that there will be 4-5 people who have been with the company for years and been with each other for years, and 1 or 2 outsiders who just got off the boat. If the meeting dissolves into a history of the business, 3 people will be interested and 3-4 will be bored. That’s a waste of time.
So — advice to the consultant:

Continue reading

Immovable Objects

There are many things that we treat everyday as immovable objects. Immovable? More correctly, they are things that we believe to exist in a particular context, and to always exist in that context. We see Mount Rushmore and quickly — unconsciously — put it in the context of South Dakota, the United States, or perhaps in the movie ‘North By Northwest’. We see hula dancers, and unconsciously think of Hawaii. We see steamboats going along a river, and unconsciously think of the Mississippi, Missouri or perhaps the Ohio rivers, maybe we think of Mark Twain or ‘Showboat’.
We make these cognitive leaps because we have become accustomed to certain signals in the data — in this case, visual data — that trigger assumptions about other related things we know.
When we are dealing with data, software and even business processes, we often make these same unconscious leaps. They are unconscious because we don’t recognize that we are making the connection. And because we don’t recognize that, we don’t challenge it or demand proof of its validity, we don’t question it. We make the leap and move on.  Continue reading

What’s the best answer?

In a recent dialog on a web forum, someone asked how to find the “best” way to construct an SQL query. They had posed a problem and received many solutions, each different in syntax, in approach, and in detail. Reasonably, he asked “how do I find the ‘best’ solution?”
That’s a question we should always be asking when we craft a solution to any problem. In IT, and in SQL particularly, I use these criteria to evaluate an answer:
(1) it must return the correct answer on the target platform
(2) it should use standard syntax and construct
(3) it should be easy to understand by someone who didn’t write it
(4) it should be as fast as necessary… it needn’t be as fast as possible
(5) it should play well with others in a multi-user environment
(6) it must be ready-to-run on time and under budget
The “best” answer is the one which blends all of these. Notice that only two of these are “must”, the others are “should”.
Let’s take these one by one: Continue reading

CONFIDENTIAL (in a web forum?)

This appeared at the end of someone’s post on a discussion group in LinkedIn:

This e-mail and any attachments are confidential, intended for the addressee only and may be attorney/client privileged. If you are not the addressee, then please DO NOT read, copy or distribute the message or any attachment. Please reply to the sender that you received the message in error and delete it.
Thank you.

Now, I know that it’s not always obvious that your email system is attaching these boilerplate texts to every email you send. So I can forgive the user’s carelessness in using email to reply to a discussion group.

But isn’t there something the software developers could do to make this less obviously wrong?

I had earlier posted about “Software for Idiots“, asking software makers to allow smart users to jump quickly past the step-by-step installation. I said that “How we envision our users defines how we build our software.”

So could we understand how our helpful shortcut — to automatically attach a signature message to every email we send — can make our user seem ridiculous? And, if we understood that, could we find a way to make this more respectful of how the user presents him/herself?

Some of our software have the specific purpose of presenting our user to others. We don’t always know who the other will be, or whether they will be business-like or friend-and-family.

Yes, it would be smart of the user to pay attention to how they use the software, to take the extra care to make sure only appropriate messages are added to our emails. It’s not hard to do. But the truth is many users won’t take that extra step. More to the point — that extra step is actually several steps and easy to forget.

A thoughtful software designer might burn a few brain cycles in search of some face-saving, embarrassment-avoiding help for the users.

Why “Metaphysics”?

A very short blog entry this time : Read this article:
Data Management Is Based on Philosophy, Not Science

My field of study at the university was philosophy (after a couple years of political theory and constitutional democracy). I still keep the works of Aristotle on my shelf. I’ve always thought philosophy was the perfect way to prepare for a career in information systems. I make that recommendation to parents asking what their computer-savvy child should major in. They always look at me like I’ve grown an extra eye!

But philosophy is the study of … well, of everything, and metaphysics is the precursor to philosophy.

Hence — software metaphysics — the fundamental thinking that prepares the ground for all software.

Worth a read.

The Key is “Just Be Natural”

A questioner asked how to select a natural key in a business data model. In this case, the business is modeling client organizations across international boundaries. He wrote:

In a business data model I was wondering about something like National Registration Number (varies by country), Country, and National Registration Number Qualifier (if there could be multiple registering organizations – which raises other considerations).

A natural key (as opposed to, say, a surrogate key) has the two-fold goal of being (1) unique, and (2) “naturally” memorable. A memorable attribute of a person or an organization is their name, but — alas — that is almost never guaranteed to be unique. In a business setting, where the business has control of the organization’s name, the name is a much better candidate. However, it’s not clear from the question whether the business has control of the name.

It is important to know that the “National Registration Number” is a surrogate, and not a natural key. At least this is so in the United States, where this is the “Federal Employer Identification Number” (EIN) or the “Taxpayer Identification Number” (TIN) — a number assigned by the Federal government but not indicative of the business itself. Like any surrogate key, the number is arbitrarily assigned and usually forgotten by the business itself. (Technically, the TIN is not guaranteed to be unique either, though in practicality it is.)

My point, I guess, is that the purpose of having a natural key is to simplify look-up — and typically you are simplifying the look-up of a surrogate key. Within the data model, all relationships are by the surrogate key, a system-defined identifier that is guaranteed to be unique (though not memorable, meaningful or derivable).

So a suitable natural key could be the name of the organization or an organizational identifier, coupled with some geographic qualifier (in the US, the country is not specific enough; many business names are only unique within a state).

But it’s important, I think, to keep in mind the reason why a natural key is desired: it is memorable (naturally) and it is unique. That only matters where the user enters into the data model — it doesn’t matter, and shouldn’t be used, to navigate relationships within the model.