Older columns

Here you find the columns that appeared on my website before with their title, sorted according to date. Click one of the links below to read the column of your choice.

Facts and Knowledge workers

The following really happened. And it actually saddened me a bit to see, how an IT-department could create something that was so far away from … the facts!

"A model is a schematic representation of reality." That is what you find, when you look for the word "model" on Wikipedia. That is to say, apart from an explanation about a totally different type of models, which I leave omitted here for the sake of convenience.

Recently I was asked to review a model for an organization of physicians I was not familiar with. The goal of the logical data model that was presented to me was to provide the basis for an enterprise wide business intelligence application, in which "all relevant data" of the enterprise were stored.

When I saw this model, a few trivial things caught my attention. Form errors as ambiguities regarding the notation used, unclear semantics of attributes, entities and relations, questions about cardinalities… ‘the usual stuff’.

When I had reported my first findings, I experienced an unpleasant feeling that "something else" was wrong with the model as well. And suddenly I realized what it was. The model had entities such as "Invoice", "Invoice line", "Service", "Department". All seemingly normal, but something was missing. If it is an organisation for health care, you would expect something like "Patient" or "Person", or perhaps "Client", wouldn't you? Nothing of the kind! The grammatical direct object was missing completely. Well, some fields in invoice address might eventually lead towards such direct objects, but then only in a very implicit way.

The sad truth was that the model wasn't based on their own vision of their reality, but rather on the financial package which was already used for years within the organisation to their full dissatisfaction. Thus the model had become a reflection of the administrative reality of the organisation ‘imposed from the outside world’, but it showed no insight at all on the mission, vision and strategy of the organisation. A peek on the website of the organisation learned that patients ought to be central in the health-care process. This was not reflected in the model at all.

Instead of finishing the review, I assembled the modelers. In a joint session we went through the annual report and the website of their own organisation. Subsequently, we investigated in a workshop to what extent their own model matched this (external) communications. The word invoice was literally not present in their annual report nor on their website, while both were full of terms like "health service", "treatment", and of course "patient". It became a very fruitful workshop that led to a lot of enthousiasm with the modelers, because the model now fully reflected their way of talking about reality!

The next version of the model that was offered to me for review, did a lot more justice to the vision of the knowledge workers in the organisation, and so to the definitions in Wikipedia and Van Daele as well.

- Rob Arntz, April 2018  ¿

Facts and Things that passed

- Lili Marleen

Vor der Kaserne vor dem großen Tor
Stand eine Laterne. Und steht sie noch davor
So woll'n wir uns da wiederseh'n
Bei der Laterne woll'n wir steh'n
Wie einst, Lili Marleen.

Uns're beiden Schatten sah'n wie einer aus
Daß wir so lieb uns hatten. Das sah man gleich daraus
Und alle Leute soll'n es seh'n
Wenn wir bei der Laterne steh'n
Wie einst, Lili Marleen.

Schon rief der Posten: Sie bliesen Zapfenstreich
Es kann drei Tage kosten! - Kam'rad, Ich komm ja gleich
Da sagten wir auf Wiederseh'n
Wie gerne würd' ich mit dir geh'n
Mit dir, Lili Marleen.

Deine Schritte kennt sie. Deinen Zieren Gang
Alle Abend brennt sie. Mich vergaß sie lang
Und sollte mir ein Leid gescheh'n
Wer wird bei der Laterne steh'n
Mit dir, Lili Marleen?

Aus dem stillen Raume
Aus der Erde Grund
Hebt mich wie im Traume dein verliebter Mund
Wenn sich die späten Nebel dreh'n
Werd' ich bei der Laterne steh'n
Wie einst, Lili Marleen.

-- Hans Leip/Norbert Schultze/Lale Andersen

In the dark days of Christmas, when the family comes together for a delightful Christmas diner, it is customary with us to make quizzes for one another. The same last Christmas, and while looking for nice questions on the internet, I stumbled over the following one: Which German soldier's song became very popular during the Second World War much against the will of the Nazi regime? No one with us knew the answer, but of course you can guess it right now from the text above. It is the song 'Lili Marleen'.

When seeing an old war movie in my younger years, something of the story about this song was already revealed to me. But when browsing the internet a little further it became clear to me how remarkable this story actually is. Here is a reproduction of it from various internet sources.

In 1915, a young soldier in the First World War, Hans Leip, wrote a poem expressing his agony caused by being separated from his girlfriend named Lili. On sentry duty at night, he occasionally received a friendly wave from a nurse going off duty. Her name was Marleen.

In 1937, when the threat of another war was stretching out over Europe, Leip released his full collection of poems, which included 'The Song of a Young Sentry'. He hoped that the people who had not lived through the First World War might be alerted to the anguish and horrors of wars especially for young soldiers sent into battle.

At that time, the German composer Norbert Schultze was intrigued by the mood of Leip's poems. He wrote a melody for the young sentry poem, which after some modifications became the song Lili Marleen. A successful singer, Lale Andersen, was asked for recording the song just before the outbreak of the Second World War. With only 700 copies sold in those days the song was not exactly a raging success.

Then it appeared that Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda of the Nazi regime, hated the song for not showing 'the right German military spirit' and for being anti-war, hence 'close to treason'. When Lale Andersen also appeared to have a relationship with a Swiss Jew, the song was formally forbidden and both Andersen and Schultze were charged with 'moral sabotage' and placed under arrest.

By 1941, the Germans were broadcasting to their troops in North Africa from a radio station in Belgrade. When the station was shelled, most of its records were destroyed and the station had no music to play. In the remnants, the station's military director, Karl-Heinz Reintgen, found a dusty box with a few records that had survived. One of those was Lili Marleen. And since they had little else to play, Lili Marleen was broadcast.

This became a turning point. Both the German troops and non-military people asked for the recording over and over again, in particular Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the Afrika Korps, who apparently liked the song very much. And so Goebbels was forced to lift his ban on the song and pretend that the Nazis welcomed it. Andersen and Schultze were released and sent around Germany to perform the song. Soon enough the song also crossed enemy lines and became a favorite with the Eighth Army, who sang it with its original German words, soon followed by the American troops. An English version of the song was produced and recorded by Anne Shelton, and the BBC made it popular in all of England. By 1943, Marlene Dietrich was singing the song throughout Europe, and continued to sing it for the rest of her career, as did Vera Lynn. Eventually, Lale Andersen was awarded a gold disc for over one million sales.

Hans Leip, Lale Andersen, and Norbert Schultze all survived the war. Hans Leip died in 1983, and Norbert Schultze in 2002. When Lale Andersen was asked in 1972, shortly before she died, if she could explain the popularity of Lili Marleen, she replied, "Can the wind explain why it became a storm?"

When I read this story, I was struck by its resemblance to the tale by Gandalf about the Ring in Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings'. In the first part he concludes his account to Frodo about the history of the Ring with the following words:

"There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur's hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him.... ....So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thoughts from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire. Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought."

It seems to me that the story about 'Lili Marleen' can be seen as an equivalent of this story from 'The Lord of the Rings' in the real world. It's a story built out of true facts. About things that passed, but need not to be forgotten.

- Peter Alons, February 2017  ¿

Facts and Value judgements

"Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder"
- Plato

The thought to write a column on this theme was already in my head for quite some time, but for some reason I was held back time and again. Recently, the verdict in the trial of Geert Wilders gave me the feeling that writing it became necessary. Why? Let me first give you the generally accepted interpretation of the statement above, which is actually a paraphrase of a broader statement by Plato.

The person who looks at someone is the "beholder." The person who is being looked at is the "beheld." So the saying "beauty lies in the eye of the beholder" suggests that people aren't beautiful or ugly in themselves; rather their beauty or ugliness is all in the head of the person looking at them, that is beholding them. It is a common expression, used to indicate that the question whether a person or any object of interest deserves any value judgement like beautiful, intrinsically or extrinsically, actually boils down to the personal interpretation of the person looking at it.

A funny extension of the statement was given by Miss Piggy (i.e. Jim Henson): "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye."

In older days when the wisdom of people was shaped by the true harshness of life, and the considerably shorter length of the average lifespan made it easier to distinguish between significant and insignificant things than nowadays, people taught their children "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

In primary school I had a little friend in my class with vivid red hair who was often approached with the words "hey, lighthouse…" (in Dutch "fire tower"). Never did I meet anyone in those days who because of this suggested that all lighthouses in The Netherlands should be dismantled to spare the aggrieved spirit of this poor lad. Even his parents didn't do that. And by the way, he grew up to a fine fellow.

In view of this, I leave it entirely to you to determine whether in various comparable cases nowadays the "Old Maid (in Dutch: Black Pete)" is not pushed in the wrong direction. And where and by whom discrimination begins and where and by whom discrimination ends.

And then there is the verdict in the trial of Geert Wilders. It is not my intention to put the whole verdict into question. The very essence of the verdict seems to be, that the statement of Geert Wilders about Moroccans was insulting and so an incitement to discrimination (see first slide, top-right corner). And in view of the paraphrase of Plato above one may ask whether a court of law is appropriate and should want to pass a judgement on that. After all, the qualification 'insulting' is actually based on a value judgement and one particular politician is now convicted for a statement on the basis of what others think of it. It seems more prudent to me to leave the judgement on such a statements entirely to 'the eye of the beholder' rather than taking it to court. Because the Public Prosecution Service has brought Geert Wilders to trial and apparently wants to continue doing that, judges are forced to meddle selectively in politics, while in The Netherlands we want politics and jurisdiction to be strictly separated.

In view of the coming elections this course of affairs is definitely regrettable. The outcome of these elections may now also be determined by the question whether the trial of Geert Wilders and the verdict made in it are justified or not rather than pure individual assessment of the contents of statements of Wilders and other politicians and of party manifestos.

- Peter Alons, January 2017  ¿

Facts and Visions

The Times They Are A-changin' Lyrics’:

Come gather 'round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don't criticize what you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one, if you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now, will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

- Bob Dylan, 1963

Two things amidst all events of the past month have struck me in special way: The first is what happened on Thursday, October 13. The Swedish Academy announced in Stockholm that the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". That was in a period that I myself, as so many, thought that Hillary Clinton would easily win the US presidential elections.

The second thing was the actual outcome of the US presidential elections last Tuesday, November 8. That night I woke up somewhere around five o'clock from a dream, in which Donald Trump was elected by the American people as the next American President. When I woke up again a few hours later, that dream with its improbable outcome appeared to have become reality.

This fact drew as if by itself my attention to its relation with that former event. This is illustrated best by the above-cited text from the hand of Bob Dylan, which I recommend here once again heartily to read it closely.

In my younger days at the end of the 1960s, when I was a student at the Free University in Amsterdam, there were various people around me who looked upon Bob Dylan as a prophet, who in splendid phrase revealed what the future would look like. I was intuitively very much opposed to this view. Fortunately, this vision was also contradicted by Bob Dylan himself. In interviews with him he stated that he definitely didn't want to be seen as a prophet. He rather considered himself simply a songwriter, who with his own songs described the reality of the world around him. And that gives a captivating overtone to the text that I cited above.

Often, texts like this are used one-sidedly by people with a given social view to use as evidence for how the world will end up, if it does not quickly adopt their social vision as a general truth. In doing so, they overlook the fact that this same text may just as easily be considered valid for whatever social vision in whatever situation. Let us take two examples to illustrate this.

...don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'...

In the talk show of Pauw on the evening before the elections many people were talking about the outcome of the elections with complete disregard for this wise advice, and hence were lost for words the next evening.

...For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it is ragin'...

It is very easy to see this text only as an announcement of some necessary social revolution. But obviously, it is just as valid to explain the electoral defeat of Hillary Clinton. "For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled" is valid for all situations like this, regardless of the political direction that is held responsible for the pain felt and with that has no regard for it as well. In the talk show of Pauw on the evening after the elections people went into a heated debate exactly on this issue without really understanding each other. Obviously and justified, statements of Donald Trump about Mexicans and other remarks of that sort were depicted as abject. But the words of Hillary Clinton about the 'deplorables' voting for Trump were by some of the very same people glossed over. And with that they overlooked the fact, that the people insulted in the case of Donald Trump represent a negligible minority of the American voters, whereas in the case of Hillary they count up to almost half of them.

Seen this way, the text of Bob Dylan has a lot in common with other writings (and is perhaps partly taken from these), of which the contents are all too easily seen as a vision of the future for how world history will take place someday in the future. While it is better to see those texts as a description of how history is already developing continuously, repeating itself in a never ending succession of cycles. This way, texts like these can be seen as being valid for every political tendency, whether it is left, right or in the middle of the political spectrum, and yes, even for every line of thought in life.

So that they can all learn something from it beforehand, when the next occasion reveals itself, rather than afterwards. And they who are deeply shocked by the outcome of the US elections may extract some comfort from them.

- Peter Alons, November 2016  ¿

Facts and Management

In my recent research into Data Governance principles I came across a presentation of the late dr. Marcel Nieuwenhuis about 'Management Fundamentals'. Herein, he discussed a number of management models such as the INK-management model, the 7-S Model of McKinsey, the KPMG-model, and the Balanced Scorecard. The essence of his story was that all these models can be compared with each other in a matrix of reference models against building blocks.

These building blocks are: Strategy, Structure, Culture, People, Means, and Results. He then showed that for a successful approach of all serious organizational problems a good implementation for each of these building blocks is needed. Suppose for instance, that in the approach of a problem a good strategy is lacking. Then there is no vision and coherence in the other building blocks, which leads to confusion.

Likewise, if a good structure is lacking, there is no steering and control in the other building blocks, resulting in chaos. If the people that become involved are not carefully informed and prepared, the result is a lack of binding and skills leading inevitably to resistance and anxiety. If the means are not taken care of sufficiently and in time, there are no adequate facilities resulting in frustration. And finally, if no acceptable results are offered in advance or to be expected, there is no prospect of added value, which will be perceived as futility. To put it briefly, in a good management approach - leading to a desired growth and change - a good, coherent implementation for all six of the building blocks is ensured.

And how could it be any different than that I was assailed by perplexity when reading this presentation. And this, all because of the approach to the refugee problem by the government in our country and elsewhere within Europe. After all, the fact that virtually all governments and Brussels were apparently taken unawares by the flood of refugees from the Middle East has led to an approach of the problem in almost all countries in Europe, in which a good implementation for all six of the building blocks is lacking. How about the consequences thereof? Have we seen any of these around us? Just let me run through them with you.

No a priori thought-out, sensible strategy and therefore complete Confusion? Check. No clear, well thought-out organizational structure, hence quite some Chaos? Check. No to-the-point and timely briefing and preparation of the people involved in villages like for instance Oranje, and so a lot of Resistance and Anxiety? Check. No timely provision of adequate means and as a consequence general Frustration? Check. And finally, no prospect of acceptable results and so a widespread feeling of Futility? Check.

It is not my intention to tire you with a personal view on the refugee problem. That is beside the point here. My perplexity is due here once again to the general state in which we find our politicians in this matter. There is every reason to believe that they have not anticipated the full size of this problem at all and therefore have not developed any sensible vision and strategy, before the problem urged itself upon us. And my question is then: How is this possible? Where were the so highly needed Mission, Vision, Goals, and Strategy from the Strategy Pyramid? As citizen of a country, can one expect from people who consider themselves eligible to govern a country, that they have at least some knowledge of good management approaches? Definitely!


- Peter Alons, October 2015  ¿

Facts and Context

In his essay "Op het Vinkentouw" Godfried Bomans wrote about his visit to an exhibition named "Painted Easter Eggs over the Centuries". This exposition would – according to an announcement in "De Groene Amsterdammer" – be opened on 1 April. Bomans describes what a great day he had in a virtually empty hall of the "Stedelijk Museum" in Amsterdam, because almost everyone had assumed that this was nothing but an April Fool's joke. Admittedly, this was indeed the case, but the joke was to be found in the fact that the exposition was actually there. "The museum attendants were therefore laughing their ears off." I highly recommend reading this story of Godfried Bomans.

In this time of 1 April just before Easter the memory of this story came back to me together with a few memories of 1 April experiences of my own. First of all there is my period in America, where I had the following experiences in two consecutive years.

In my first year as a physicist at the "Indiana University Cyclotron Facility" the board of the physics faculty asked all employees to help with a spring-cleaning of the cyclotron building and to appear on the premises for that purpose on Saturday morning at 10:00 AM sharp armed with their own brooms and mops. Unfortunately for them, it was 1 April that Saturday and as a consequence no one showed up. When the next Monday morning they expressed their dissatisfaction about that, they were told gently but decidedly about the unhappy nature of their announcement in the context of the date.

One would expect that at least some lesson was learned from this. Imagine our surprise when one year later the same board made an announcement about an exceptional ‘physics event’, in which some renowned speakers would give elaborate talks about the latest developments in physics for all physicists and their interested family members. The program announced as first speaker: "Prof. Dr. J.J. McDonalds", who would speak about the latest developments in pion-physics. The second speaker was: "Prof. Dr. W. Hamburger", with as subject the latest developments in particle accelerators. And you already know what is coming: the date was again 1 April. Once more the hall remained – again much to their dissatisfaction – as good as empty.

Ennobled by these experiences I therefore read with the greatest of interest about a ‘brush-up meeting’ for "The older politically engaged", announced by the "Historical Political Union". This would take place on an industrial estate near Zoelen on Wednesday 1 April 2015. Of course I decided to be there and was not surprised at all when this happening really appeared to take place, albeit that this time too there were but a few visitors.

But the union had definitely done its best to make the gathering a very valuable one. At the entrance, for instance, the visitors received toy balloons with all kinds of political slogans on it, which thus could be blown up to every desired proportion (at times with the shattering result that is to be expected when doing so). Furthermore, there was a number of playful attractions such as the alternative merry-go-round, of which not for a moment you had any clue which way it would turn this time, and an alternative slide, where the visitor had to struggle his way up a slippery slope in order to throw himself plump from the high side in a ball pond with all kinds of political colors. This attraction had a warning for the elderly engaged to tread on this attraction with due caution. Thus it became an enjoyable afternoon of recognition and learning, in which this time – just like with Godfried Bomans – the final attraction was the nicest.

The visitor was forced to leave the estate through wild water rapids, of which I asked the director to amplify on the thoughts behind it. "Well then," he said, "this way the more left-wing engaged will be left with an extra free washing, while the visitor that leans more towards the right may for once experience how being laid-off and reduction actually feel like". Entirely contented with this explanation I willingly had myself washed away in order to embark fully refreshed and charged up on the coming spring and summer full of new ideas and activities.

And to you I leave it through this column to value the importance of how facts are presented in a given context.

- Peter Alons, April 2015  ¿

Facts and Explanation

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be the first and the first will be the last.’
- The Bible, Matthew 20: 1-16

Recently, this bible text was the subject of a sermon in the church that I visited. As also often happened in the past, the line of thought that was chosen in the explanation was that in this text the first refers to the people who are ‘put first’ and the last to those that are ‘rated lower’, say the poor of this world. And look what happens in ‘the kingdom of heaven’: the last will be the first, and the first the last. How well meant this may be, I cannot see this as the only correct explanation of this parable.

First of all we must ask ourselves what ‘the kingdom of heaven’ refers to here. There is in the texts of the Gospels an ‘apparent’ contradiction, if we think that ‘the kingdom of heaven’ refers to the afterlife. About the last it is repeatedly said that this is a matter God’s grace, not of human virtue. But ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is something for which we really do have to do our best. Then logically seen these two things cannot be the same. The ‘apparent’ contradiction is easily solved by means of the insight that the kingdom of heaven directly relates to our life here on earth and not to the hereafter. This insight is nowadays, as far as I know, shared by many theologians.

With this insight, the kingdom of heaven is a state that can be reached through the way we treat each other and for which the starting points are clear: treat others just as careful as you would like to be treated yourself and do not do onto others what you don’t like to see done onto yourself. In short it has everything to do with how we handle our fellow men and our environment. And the reward for the right disposition is a general feeling of well-being and mutual bliss, which well outweighs the efforts that we have to put in for it. And then the idea behind the wages paid in the parable also suddenly becomes clear: the wages are the same for everyone irrespective of the moment you start doing it. And indeed, "so the last will be the first and the first will be the last", that is to say: they are completely equal to each other without any putting first of anyone.

"What does this have to do with my professional work?" you may say. Well this: with putting the right quality in the work we are doing it is no different. The reward is the same for everyone who tries to go for the best that can be achieved, that is the best possible result for all your ‘most respectable’ customers and for yourself, both financially and emotionally. All investments you put into it in terms of time and money pay excellent dividends in the long run in the form of added value. But as an Information Quality consultant I would like to add here - in view of the beginning of this column perhaps a bit ’lacking in faith’ - this point of view. Given the finiteness of our earthly existence, it may be recommendable to start with it rather somewhat earlier than later.

- Peter Alons, December 2014  ¿

Facts and Quality

Recently I came across the following informatively-intended stylistic howler on the website www.nu.nl:


The informative aspect seems clear to me. It had to do with the blunder of the Amsterdam Revenue Service last January, which in the end cost the city 1.5 million euros. From the 188 million euros that were paid erroneously as contributions to housing costs early December the city could not retrieve 1.2 million, while 300,000 euro is needed to correct the error at the tax department.

But do you see, why I described the whole as a "stylistic howler"? The word "too" is staggering... What human errors TOO? The word "too" suggests that there were other than human errors involved as well. What errors would that be? According to an investigation carried out by KPMG civil servants had not noticed a technical error in the system. In the transition to the European payment system SEPA the system for contributions to housing costs calculated in cents instead of euros. And in the adjustment of the system to the European regulations and the testing of the results no one noticed that the amounts were converted from cents into euros.

The word "technical" in the previous paragraph suggests that it was partly due to the computer or the system. And as you know, that is nonsense. A computer is a device that does precisely what it is ordered to do by the people who operate it. Whether a "computer error" is a software bug, wrong data-type conversion or erroneous input, it is ultimately always a human error. And the result of the testing in particular is remarkable to say the least. A civil servant that takes the testing seriously should conclude with just with one look at the amounts that monthly housing cost payments in de order of 151,000 euro are a wee bit on the high side. In short, to point at the computer as the culprit is just as nonsensical as blaming a hoisting-crane when while using it a concrete bar has been dropped on a passing car.

Fortunately, the Amsterdam city council searched its own conscience. From the point of view of quality the correct approach. Particularly, if they confine their search to finding the root causes of the error with the purpose to remove them permanently, rather than pointing the finger. But what journalists wished to see is that the responsible alderman of Finance, Hilhorst, would draw his own conclusions and resign. I do not consider that a satisfying line of thought, although I do understand it. And here is why:

Authorities that consider it self-evident to put a fine on citizens or organisations that went wrong or are in default must also be willing to fine themselves if they went wrong or are in default.

Well then, a reasonable tax reduction strikes me as a much more appropriate penance than the enforced resignation of politicians. Would also be truly supportive for the economy...

- Peter Alons, May 2014  ¿

Facts and Business Intelligence

Most companies rank Business Intelligence (BI) as strategically very important. The rationale behind it is that it helps them identify areas for performance improvement, cost savings, and process efficiency, enabling them to plan better for the future.

This makes it all the more remarkable that in 2012 Gartner made the following statement and prediction:
• As many as 70% of all BI projects fail to meet the enterprises' objectives.
• Less than 30% of all BI projects will meet business expectations by 2014.

A recent investigation of Nucleus Research shows, that successful BI projects are estimated to yield an average ROI of € 10.66 for every euro spent. Yet apparently, failure is the norm. How can that be?

From articles of Gartner on ComputerWeekly.com two causes emerge. Patrick Meehan, Vice President and Research Director in Gartner's CIO Research group, says: "Poor communication between IT and the business is to blame for business intelligence failure." Andreas Bitterer, Research Vice President at Gartner, adds to this: "IT leaders should concentrate not just on the technological aspects of BI, but specifically on the severe lack of analytical skills."

These facts linked to a persistent inability of companies to structurally do something about those two named causes, makes the following question a reasonable one: Is it conceivable that some companies lose their interest in Business Intelligence?

The answer might be: Yes, if Business Intelligence is continually approached from pure technical perspectives, such as Oracle Warehouse Builder or SAP BW, Business Objects or Cognos or Qlikview, and will we do only statistical analysis or Data Mining as well, then the interest of top-management may well be dwindling sooner or later. But is that answer also a sensible one? To answer this question let us look at Business Intelligence from a different angle. What is a good definition of human intelligence? I give you two definitions from the literature.

Robert Sternberg: "Human intelligence is the individual's assessment of success in life by the individual's own standards and within the individual's sociocultural context. Success is achieved by using analytical, creative, and practical intelligence as processing skills. These skills are applied through the three elements of practical intelligence: adapting to, shaping of, and selecting of one's environments. The mechanisms that employ the processing skills include utilizing one's strengths, and compensating and correcting for one's weaknesses."

This definition is summarized in a nutshell by Howard Gardner: "Human intelligence is the application of cognitive skills and knowledge to solve problems, to learn and to achieve goals that are appreciated by the individual and the culture."

Both definitions can easily be transcribed towards a company. If we take the second one for this, we get: "Business intelligence is the application of cognitive skills and knowledge to solve problems, to learn and to achieve goals that are appreciated by the business and its (business or cultural) environments."

And the conclusion appears to be clear. From this point of view Business Intelligence should always remain desirable.

There may, however, be another reason for the opposite, albeit it then a disquieting one. Business intelligence requires full transparency of managerial systems. And that is not appreciated by management that does not want its environment to know what the company is doing. The consequences of that attitude are by now all too well-known...

- Peter Alons, November 2013  ¿

Facts and Statistics

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

This statement was made popular by Mark Twain, who attributed it to the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli; even though there is no indication whatever for this in Disraeli's legacy, so Wikipedia says.

Be that as it may, the statement suggests that statistics lie. Of course, this is not true. Statistics describe exactly how certain things are related to each other. It is the interpretation that people sometimes give to statistics that is wrong, and that then leads to the 'lies'. Interestingly enough, this insight is applicable to many other things. From 1895, for instance, this paraphrase by a well-known lawyer and later judge circulated in the literature on jurisdiction:

"There are three classes of witnesses: simple liars, damned liars, and experts."

This suggests, that experts are liars or unreliable as well. And that too is not necessarily true. Generally, they speak the truth, for example about probabilities based on averages, exceptions, medians, and sigma’s. But one cannot draw any conclusions from this for individual cases.

A typical example where this was done nonetheless is the case against Lucia de Berk (2003). Based on a forced confession and 'probabilities' discussed by experts - which in turn were based on a biased sample of data - she was initially sentenced to a long time in jail, while any physical evidence for murder was completely missing. This makes this case a clear example of a modern 'witch condemnation'. Meanwhile, Lucia de Berk has been declared innocent.

The danger of misinterpretation popped up again immediately in the case of the stolen exam finals in the Netherlands. Students who achieve a much higher grade for a stolen exam than their average so far are suspect. Dangerous! Undoubtedly, statistics indicating that there are many students with a significantly higher score than their average score is indicative of the use of stolen exams. But for individuals you may not advance this as evidence. After all, there will also be students who have studied a given subject unusually hard or suddenly developed a keen insight into a subject at the decisive moment. Those are the 'annual' outliers. But which they are and which have been fraudulent cannot be judged based on the results alone.

For us this shows, en passant, the particular importance of individual facts as opposed to statistics. What does this have to do with my domains of expertise? Well, if statistical data is used for proper conclusions, we can speak of information quality, and otherwise of non-quality.

- Peter Alons, July 2013  ¿

Facts and Reports

"Journal of the American Medical Association reports as many as 98,000 people in the U.S. die from medical errors, despite increased focus on attempts to reduce errors."
- "Information Quality Applied," Larry English, Wiley 2009

One morning I woke up with this number in my head and suddenly realized that something like that had to hold for the Netherlands as well. Properly scaled, I thought, it should be about roughly (17 M / 315 M) * 98000 = 5300 victims annually. And that, while earlier reports of the Dutch Health Care Inspectorate suggested that there were no more than 600 per year.

That very same day it was announced on Teletext, that according to new figures from the Health Care Inspectorate it had to be between 2000 and 7000 victims each year. In itself, this formulation is statistically too vague and diffuse. It would be similar to a report of the Meteorological Institute stating that daytime temperatures tomorrow are probably between 6 and 21 ºC. In a normal distribution, the security interval of 99.7% is given by three times the value of the standard deviation, and for a number of 5300 that is 220.

Be that as it may, the new figures show that in the Netherlands the care for good quality medical information is definitely no better than in the USA. In a TNS NIPO survey of February 2004, the following causes of medical errors were listed by patients:

  • Wrong medication
  • Wrong surgery or treatment
  • No treatment due to lack of information
  • Incorrect planning of treatment
  • Medical data not sent
  • Medical data switched
  • Records switched
  • Incorrect information in records
  • Poor or no transfer of information

Here, I have made bold, all that is directly related to information. In an American study, the following causes of medical errors are listed:

  • Poor collaboration among physicians
  • Poor communication between physicians
  • Rivalry between physicians
  • Not listening to patients or their companions
  • Bacterial contamination during surgery
  • Wrong medication
  • Incorrect assessment of medical photos
  • Careless assessment of medical photos

Meanwhile, it has become clear from all kinds of recently reported problems in hospitals (see the slides on the right), that the second enumeration is a much better representation than the first one for the situation in the Netherlands as well. Ah, yes, there is nothing new under the sun. And it also shows clearly that (information) quality is in the first place a matter of people and their behavior.

- Peter Alons, April 2013  ¿

Facts and Interpretations

"The Christian's Bible is a drug store. It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies… Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes. The world has corrected the Bible. The church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession - and take the credit of the correction. During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumb-screws, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain."
- "Bible Teaching and Religious Practice," Europe and Elsewhere

This is one of the many columns of Mark Twain. While reading it, I was struck by a thought about an important distinction: the difference between facts and their interpretation.

I do not claim that it is true, but it seems that Mark Twain would have liked to see the texts of the Bible changed. That would, of course, be an equally absurd idea as wanting to adjust a book by any writer whosoever because of alleged factual errors. Written texts in themselves are not wrong, but their interpretation and use in human actions may well be. Every writer with a message expresses himself in the language, concepts and insights of his time. The language, concepts and insights can change in the course of centuries, but that does not immediately make the message unusable, if correctly understood.

It is a fact that the Bible in its original language contains certain texts. It is also a fact that these are in many ways severely abused over the centuries by our current standards. But as I said, the texts are essentially unchangeable and therefore immutable. The content of those texts is completely determined by the interpretations of facts by the original author. After translation, the interpretations of the translators are added to these, and finally also those of the reader. Does that render the texts completely useless in our time? There definitely are still ‘evil wizards’, if only those doctors who enrich themselves through a series of misdiagnoses or unnecessary Diagnosis Treatment Combinations. Or for instance the number-wizards at banks worldwide, who calculate themselves rich and reduce their customers to poverty. Should we hang or burn those ‘wizards’? Of course not! But you can clear the world from the consequences of their ‘dirty’ work by adopting good laws and reclaiming their false earnings.

- Peter Alons, February 2013  ¿




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