Business Intelligence 101: Infographics

Another appropriate title for this blog would be, "Buying Myself More Time." I'm eager to share the results of my NFL 1-2 Punch analysis with you, but the latest discovery does need in-depth validation. A large number of NFL fans take the 1-2 scoring strategy as gospel, and I'd like to be quite certain of my results before I contradict them.

That certainty reminds me of a conversation with my friend Roland, a few years back. I was rattling off a list of Swedish rock bands, and included Golden Earring. Keep in mind, I love music trivia. I'm very confident in my music trivia knowledge. And for the better part of 30 years*, I was certain that Golden Earring was from Sweden. Roland, who's Dutch, informed me that no, Golden Earring is from The Netherlands. It took me a while to believe him, despite his rather obvious authority on the matter, simply because I had been so certain they were Swedish.**

Back to the subject at hand: infographics. I used the term "infographic" last week with a non-IT, non-corporate friend and was asked, "What exactly is that?"

Simply put, an infographic is a visual representation of data or information. Seems straightforward. Aren't you just trying to impress me by using a fancier word than "chart?"

Fig. 1: So, who was part of the band in 1997? 

Not exactly. Consider this differentiation: when you look at the visual, no matter what you call it, do you get a sense of overwhelming detail, or do you immediately get a feel for the overall picture?*** A good infographic should produce the latter. More detail on infographic functions in a moment.

I stumbled across a great example while checking some items for yesterday's blog on band compositions. Wikipedia has some excellent infographics showing membership in popular bands over time. Check out the two screen captures: the first gives a simple textual list of people who have been part of Styx. The second is a graphical timeline.

Fig. 2: Much easier to read, and actually provides some insight beyond simple membership.

Want to know who was in the band in 1978, 1997, or 2003? You'll probably answer those question far more quickly using the infographic. It also provides some immediate insights that you don't get easily from the text version. Apparently the band was inactive from 1984 through late 1990, and again from 1992 to 1995. And it prompts an interesting question: what was that brief stint in 1995? 

Those are the things a good infographic should or can do: first, give you a good feel for the overall picture. Second, provide a visual that helps commit the general picture to memory. Third, make it easy to answer basic. Fourth, call out significant insights, and finally, prompt questions that might be worth following up. And a good infographic should do these things more effectively than text or grid delivery.

If you're still with me, how about a little homework? Send me a link with an interesting infographic. If I receive a few of these, I'll follow up with another post to share people's favorites.


* 30 years is nothing compared to the astounding 48 year+ consistency of the band. George Kooymans and Rinus Gerritsen founded the band in 1961 and have stayed together the entire intervening time. The two other current members, Barry Hay and Caesar Zuidewijk, have been with them since the late 60s or early 70s. Freaking amazing. I see you guys aren't planning on any Texas visits, probably because of my transgression with the whole "they're Swedish" thing, so maybe I need to visit Oss in July. 

** I was right about ABBA, Europe, and Ace of Bass, at least.

*** In my opinion, this is one of the top flaws with business intelligence delivery. Report consumers love big scorecards with dozens of KPIs, but the report author should always consider time to action. When a consumer sits down to look at this report, how long does he or she need to determine the action to be taken?

**** This was a brief reunion, re-recording songs for a greatest hits album. They planned to tour as well, but unfortunately, John Panozzo was in bad health and passed away. 

It's A Valid Question, Mr. Hunter!

Today's blog topic was planned to be analysis of the NFL's 1-2 Punch theory, but I'm invoking my Second Rule of BI: check your work. Stakeholder resistance to a result is directly proportionate to how strongly that result contradicts the stakeholder's expected result.* So, when the outcome is dramatically different from "common knowledge," it pays to spend some time double-checking. Not to mention prepping a presentation, because you're going to have to go in-depth to reassure your audience.

So, I'm going to postpone the results of the 1-2 Punch analysis and post an article I started last fall, before life was derailed for a few months. This'll give me some time** to explore the NFL analysis more in-depth, so I don't present something that truly is flawed.

Alan Hunter is one of my favorite people to listen to, whether it's on SiriusXM or Twitter. In case you're not familiar, Hunter was one of the original MTV VJs, and is now a host on two of my favorite Sirius channels, 80's on 8 and Classic Rewind. He's a prolific Twitterer or Tweeter or whatever the hell we call it, and seems to be a genuinely nice guy, and the world could use a few more of those.

He's also very responsive to his fans on Twitter.*** Last fall, when I was giving some serious consideration to buying a ticket for the 2018 80's on 8 Cruise, I tweeted a question: would Fee Waybill be on the cruise? I think Mr. Hunter's response was giving me a small dose of good-natured sarcasm. (Like I said, genuinely nice guy.)

Still, it elicited some good-natured indignation from me. I know Fee Waybill is the lead singer for The Tubes.**** It's still a valid question. This is 2018, after all. If you buy tickets for an "80's band" concert, you'd better check the lineup closely.

Tubes Tweet.png

Case in point: a few years ago I saw Yes at WinStar Casino...and walked out thoroughly disappointed. The performance was excellent -- but they played almost none of my favorite songs. No "Leave It." No "It Can Happen." No "Love Will Find a Way." Why? Because there are two different Yes configurations today. If you're seeing Geoff Downes, Steve Howe, and Jon Davison, you're going to get a totally different set list than if you see Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, and Rick Wakeman. 

Or how about Fleetwood Mac? I remember being really excited a few years ago to see Fleetwood Mac tickets on pre-sale (a year ahead of time) until I read that Stevie Nicks wasn't in the lineup. I'm sure it was still an awesome concert, but to me, just not the same.

The Cars, Styx, A Flock of Seagulls, Journey...fair to say, whenever you see any 80's band today, you should ask, "Who exactly IS Styx today?" Or in the case of Van Halen, "So, who's singing this month?"

That in mind, I can't wait to see Jeff Lynn's ELO in August. Yes, this is a very different lineup from ELO Part II. (But at least in this case each version of the group performs the original ELO catalog, as far as I know. If I don't hear Jeff Lynn singing "Can't Get It Out Of My Head," I want my money back.)

Mr. Hunter, maybe I'll run into you at the United Center for the Bon Jovi concert in April? But I won't ask you if Jon Bon Jovi is going to be there.  :)


* Irony: when the analysis supports the pre-supposition, everyone's happy to say, "Looks good. It's just like we thought!" Contradict the assumptions, though, and the first argument is that either the data or the analysis is wrong. Or both.

** I don't actually have time for this. I've got job applications to fill out, a screenplay to finish writing, and an iOS development tutorial that I really want to complete. But this NFL data is so intriguing...

*** I find this particularly cool. Too many celebrities forget that without the fans...you're not really a celebrity.

**** If you didn't know this, don't be embarrassed. It just means you haven't spent enough time on music trivia with me. To impress and enlighten your other friends, just reference Waybill's excellent solo contribution to the St. Elmo's Fire soundtrack, "Saved My Life."

Business Models versus Data Models

This morning I got back to one of my high-priority questions regarding my NFL data analysis -- if statistically there's a significant advantage to scoring first, why do teams almost universally defer to the second half after winning the coin toss?

The most prevalent theory seems to be that there's a bigger advantage in a 1-2 punch: scoring at the end of the first half, then scoring again immediately after receiving the opening kick of the second half. Good news -- with my handy data set from ArmchairAnalysis.com, we can put that theory to the test.

Jacoby Ford.jpg

Time to augment the dataset!* I added a number of fields, tracking which team was on offense for the opening drive, which team was the offense for the final drive of the first half, and which team was on offense for the first drive of the second half. Next, how many points were scored in the H1 final drive, and how many points were scored in the H2 opening drive. This gives me all the data I need to test the hypothesis. 

But wait! I compiled these new fields for ten games, just a small set for a quick check of the data logic. Good thing, because game #3 in my dataset showed the bane of the business intelligence professional: an anomaly that seems to contradict the business model.

Specifically, in the Week 1 of the 2000 season, the Eagles somehow were on offense for the first drive of EACH half. According to the business model, this can't happen. The team that kicks off first in the first half will receive the first kickoff of the second half.**

So, what's going on here? Is my business model incorrect? Or is it a data issue?*** Fortunately, this dataset has the mother of all sports data: play by play information for all 4,523 games represented. It's a virtual ton of data. Analyst heaven.

And it provides the answer. Those crafty Eagles actually kicked and recovered an onside kick to start the game. Thus, in the dataset's [Drive] table, Philly is on offense for the first drive of the game. They still get to receive the ball first in the second half, and since Dallas did not try the same maneuver, Philly ended up on offense for both opening kicks in the game. Go figure.

Is this an error in the business model or the data model? Neither, in my opinion. The business rule is that each team must make one of the opening kicks. The data definition of a "drive" is a series of events demarked by one team's possession of the ball. The kickoff is a specific business process event, and that event does not constitute a "drive."

To prevent confusion, our documentation (our data dictionary, information model definition, white papers, etc.) should include a thorough explanation of this important point. Analysts need to understand it so they handle the scenario correctly in calculated fields. Report consumers need to understand it so they don't make misguided decisions. Remember that documentation blog that I posted last week? (It's the one you skipped.)

But wait...this isn't the only scenario where the team receiving the opening kick doesn't also own the first drive, according to the [Drive] table. In the 2010 season, Miami kicked off to Oakland, and Jacoby Ford returned it 101 yards for a touchdown. In the data model, no actual drive occurred -- only the kickoff event. The first drive of the game occurred after Oakland kicked, and Miami started an actual drive from their own 1 yard line. They did go on to win, despite taking the more common route to scoring.

All right, I've discovered something crucial about my dataset. I've explained it to my stakeholders. But...the job isn't done. Before I can move on to my question about the 1-2 Punch, I must decide how to handle these scenarios during analysis. First step -- determine how often they occur.

Turns out there are 159 instances of the same team seemingly owning both "opening" drives. That's 3.5% of my total games, not an insignificant number. If this was a professional project, I'd have a governance process defined for an official decision on how to account for the scenario in reporting. Since it's my personal project, though, I only have to agree with myself. Best stakeholder ever.

The solution: add a flag to conveniently filter these games out of the analysis when I (finally) get to that question of the 1-2 Punch. But since today's blog was hijacked by my seeming anomaly, that work will have to wait until tomorrow. Such is BI.


* Data analysts get so excited about adding calculated fields to the dataset. I think that's our version of creating the CGI fire from the dragons in Game of Thrones.

** Unless the kickoff rules in 2000 were as unclear as the current day catch rules are, that is...

*** Dear BI Analysts: you may as well assume it's a data issue, until you prove otherwise. Your stakeholders certainly will. Low customer satisfaction? Bad resource utilization? Blew through the budget in one quarter? Prove it isn't a data error, then we'll talk.****

**** Keep in mind, as irritating as that attitude can be, that should be the attitude of the BI professional. You need to be 100% confident in the data before you tell your stakeholder that the data's fine.

Game of Thrones Teaches Business Intelligence!

While waiting impatiently for the next season of The Man in the High Castle, I've been re-watching Game of Thrones. Given that HBO has put off the final season by a year, and George R. R. Martin is now tentatively scheduled to deliver the final books sometime in the year 2030, I'm picking up a few of the tidbits that I missed the first time around.

A great example came up sometime in Season Six. Strife in the Greyjoy household! Uncle Euron comes home, murders his brother, and assumes kingship of the Iron Islands. Theon and Yarra, his niece and nephew, steal the best ships from the Iron Fleet and sail away, presumably with a significant number of the island warriors.

IronFleet.jpg

Uncle Euron is undeterred, however. He holds forth with a rousing, inspirational speech, which ends with, "Build me a 1,000 ships, and I'll <something something something about conquering the world.>"

Um, say again? Build 1,000 ships? 

Yep. Euron commands all hands on deck. Every man felling trees, cutting lumber, and banging ships together. Every woman stitching sails and weaving rope. Apparently it's just that easy. Time is a bit murky in the GoT world, but it's certainly only weeks or months before Euron is sailing with a massive armada that decimates Yarra's fleet.*

It occurred to me that I've actually seen this episode many times, and not just on HBO. Operations, and BI in particular, are often the subject of the "Let's just dive in and do it in no time!" mentality. We've got a business problem that we didn't anticipate. Someone thought of a major new initiative while showering. Or worse, someone attended a workshop, saw some cool data visualizations that a vendor spent months building in the app they're trying to sell, and wants something similar in the ecosystem -- tomorrow.

"Build me 1,000 KPIs, and I'll give you the Seven Kingdoms!"

Here's the problem: building a ship isn't that easy. There are plenty of skilled trades involved in shipbuilding, and even with motivation provided by leadership's "can do" attitude**, the application of massive manpower rarely makes up for the correct skill and experience. One hundred foot soldiers can't significantly speed up the proper shaping of a keel, and if the keel is faulty, the ship is ineffective.

Likewise, a dozen vendors who know nothing of your business and data can't slap a quality BI infrastructure together overnight. So, how about pouring on the labor from the opposite direction? Open up the BI platform to those who have the business knowledge, if not the technical skill. After all, your account managers, team managers, and sales folk can just pick up some data skills with an hour on Lynda.com, right?***

There's a big difference between using a tool daily and having the skills necessary to build the tool. Most sailors spend a great deal of time onboard a ship, one might expect, and they're probably aware that it's supposed to float. Put them in charge of building one, and it'll probably have as auspicious a career as the CSS Neuse.****

Of course, you may be thinking that this is a terrible analogy because Euron Greyjoy's team DID finish 1,000 ships in virtually no time, smashed the Iron Fleet, and captured a bunch of key enemy leaders. Don't forget -- Game of Thrones is fiction. And fantasy. Reality would have made that subplot would have made that subplot a bit anti-climactic, when Euron's armada set forth and promptly sank.

Strong leadership hires strong specialists, then paves the way for those specialists to do a quality job. Cut corners and throw wrongly skilled labor at your projects, and you may as well wait for the dragons to fly in and save the day.


* I'm not apologizing for "spoiling" an episode that's been out for over a year.

** Or the motivation provided by Uncle Greyjoy's "do it or die" attitude.

*** I also don't believe that 1,000 monkeys on 1,000 typewriters will recreate the works of Shakespeare. However, they probably could come up with the NFL's rules on what constitutes a catch.

**** It's an interesting story. Look it up; you can thank me later.

Don't Forget the Documentation

Apparently it's going to be business intelligence week on my blog, since this entry on my fifth rule of business intelligence makes three in a row* on the subject. This time, I'm going to give you the rule right up front: documentation must be a requirement of BI development, not an option.

This might seem like a no-brainer -- if you've never worked in an actual IT or operations department.

In a decidedly non-scientific method of evaluation,** I'm going to hazard a guess that documentation is considered a "nice to have" in about 99% of BI (and general IT) operations. More specifically, documentation is an activity that leadership and management teams typically refuse to budget time for, yet lament the lack of when things aren't so clear later. The strongest adherence to a culture of good documentation tends to be found in project management, but there's far more to documentation than just the project charter, Gantt charts, and status reports.

On the developer-facing side you've got data source, acquisition, and transformation information. Development standards, style guides, platform strategy and history, data governance, retention policies, and relationship models. Facing the end user, you've got business rules references, metric and KPI guides, subject overviews, and access policies. And that's just a short list -- there are far more subjects that need quality documentation in order for your data to become a usable information asset.

Predictability is one of the major focal points as a BI matures. Every stakeholder wants to know when his or her request*** will be ready. The BI team and vendor resources grow more rigorous about organizing development into sprints, performing VROMs, and predicting the number of hours for each task. And that prediction rarely includes thorough, high-quality documentation.

After all, time is money, and it's bad enough the world has to wait 20 person-hours for that next customer satisfaction report. Two more hours for governance and documentation?**** If we just forego those activities on the next ten projects, we could accomplish an additional project in the "time saved!" We'll come back and document everything when we have some "breathing room."

Breathing room, of course, tends to occur on the 20th of Never.

Even in the one-man show of my NFL analysis I keep a rudimentary set of documentation. A field name that seems quite descriptive today can be ambiguous in a very short time of non-use. The couple of minutes I spend tracking notes in OneNote or Excel are time better spent than an hour of reverse-engineering my code later, or worse, sharing incorrect analysis because I forgot a definition.

 Rudimentary, sure, but sufficient for preventing mistakes and saving time in future development.

Rudimentary, sure, but sufficient for preventing mistakes and saving time in future development.

Ever wonder why the FDA requires ingredients to be listed on food packaging? It's so you can understand what's in your food, and avoid making bad decisions. Sure, people still make plenty of bad dietary decisions, but with better information, they have a better chance of making a good decision. No one ever looks at a Cheeto and says, "Wow, a bag of these will help me lose weight!"

In BI, lack of documentation or low-quality documentation precipitates significant mistakes. A developer can create a new measure with an incorrect calculation. Stakeholders can waste time debating results because their definitions of KPIs differs. Incorrect information can be issued publicly, or to external customers.

The solution is simple. Change the culture of your organization such that proper documentation is part of the development process. Budget the time and resources to include documentation activities. Don't allow the process to be put off until that non-extant breathing room appears. And once that high-quality meta-information is available, try reading the side of the package every once in a while.


* That's right, a perfect 5 for 7!

** I.e., my gut feel after 20 years in this discipline.

*** Keep in mind that each stakeholder's current request is always the most crucial, make-or-break-our-business request in the history of the company. And Earth itself.

**** Next you're going to be demanding bathroom breaks!

Scope Creep vs. the Full Story

Ready for more introduction to business intelligence, through the lens of NFL football? My blog on BI and football last week prompted some fun conversations, including a theory (which can be turned into an interesting business question) from Rob, one of my old Microsoft colleagues. 

To recap, my original question was "Given a deficit of X points, how much time does an NFL team need for a reasonable chance of a comeback?" I was able to purchase a fantastic set of data from ArmchairAnalysis.com, and discovered something unexpected: from the 2000 season through Super Bowl LI, the team that scored first in any given game went on to win 65% of the time.

That surprisingly high statistic leads to other interesting questions, including a bit of a puzzle: if scoring first affords a strong edge, why does the team that wins the coin toss almost always elect to kickoff first in the first half?*

I'm not digging into that question quite yet, because Rob brought up that other interesting theory: the team that gets to 20 points first almost always wins. His question opens up a great conversation about scope creep in BI projects.

Look at every project manager's resume and you'll see "avoiding scope creep" listed as a primary skill.** BI managers live in fear of scope creep, mainly because of an associated phenomenon: people who add requirements during the execution of a project often forget that their additions contributed to the project failing to complete on time. The best defense against this, of course, is another of those great management skills, "setting proper expectations." A thorough project charter should clearly outline what's in scope and what isn't, and a major change should require stakeholder review and approval.

But an additional question can't always be dismissed as scope creep. My fifth rule of business intelligence is that each stakeholder has his or her own questions that must be strategically organized.*** Part of that organization is evaluation of the question. Does it belong in the project? If so, what's the priority, and how are resources impacted?

Since my NFL analysis hobby is blissfully free of stakeholders, I decided to take a diversion from my own questions and answer Rob's.**** 

First, I should mention that some time ago I migrated the original data (imported from .csv files to Access) to SQL Azure. When I started adding measures and dimensions to the data, I realized I'd much rather do it in SQL than VBA. Also, it gave me a chance to try out SQL Azure as a consumer. (And some day I'll post my critique of the migration process from Access to Azure.)

The question required some additional fields in the dataset. (DrUsual's Fourth Rule of Business Intelligence: the platform must evolve. This can apply to the data itself, the hosting environment, visualization capabilities, and much more.) For each game, I added fields to flag whether either team reached 20 points, whether the team that reached 20 first went on to win the game, how many minutes remained when 20 points were reached, and what the deficit was for the trailing team, when the other team hit the 20-point mark.

Time to pivot.

First conclusion: in a game where either team scores at least 20 points, the first team to reach 20 points wins the game 86% of the time. Bravo, Rob. However, we had an inkling this was true already, since the earlier analysis indicated that any lead is relatively hard to overcome. So, let's dive a bit deeper. What other conditions cause variance in the chance to win, despite having reached 20 points first?

The most impactful key driver (that I've found) is the trailing team's deficit.

  • If the trailing team is behind by 3 or less, the leading team has a 67% chance of winning.
  • If the trailing team is down by 7 to 10 points, that chance of winning leaps to 81%.
  • The trailing team needs two scores or more to catch up, 11-14 points, victory is 90% likely.
  • Reach 20 points with at least a 15 point lead, and it's pretty much game over -- you win 95% of the time.

I was also interested in the impact of game time remaining. This should be significant, right? The more time left, the better chance of a comeback. The outcome here is interesting, though. Check out the results:

  • Leading team hits 20 points with 46 to 55 minutes remaining: 90% victory.
  • Leading team hits 20 points with 31 to 45 minutes remaining: 87% victory.
  • Leading team hits 20 points with 16 to 30 minutes remaining: 84% victory.
  • Leading team hits 20 points with 15 minutes or less remaining: 88% victory.

In addition to the tight range, there's an interesting anomaly: your best chance of winning comes when you reach 20 points with the MOST time available for the other team to come back. Two conclusions here. First, time remaining isn't as impactful as the actual deficit. Second, a team that makes it to 20 points in the first quarter of the game is probably truly outclassing the opponent. The leading team has won 52 of 58 games where this has happened. 

RaceToTwenty.png

The chart above shows a pivot of both time remaining and the deficit when one team reaches 20 points. I put this one together simply for an "eyeball check" -- scanning to see if anything interesting jumps out. One clear lesson: if you're going to let the other team jump to an early lead, make it a big lead. There are six instances of a team losing after reaching 20 points in the first 15 minutes. In five of those cases, they had at least a 15 point lead when reaching 20 points. We can probably label that the "Wake Up Call Phenomenon." 

(Incidentally, it was Buffalo that choked in two of these five games, giving up 21 point leads each time. In 2011 they ended up losing 49 to 21, via another phenomenon we'll simply call, "Tom Brady Was Here.")

And in case you're wondering about the single instance of a team overcoming a deficit of more than 15 points when the opposition reached 20 point mark with less than 15 minutes to go -- that was the St. Louis Rams, week 17 of 2002 versus San Francisco. The 49ers made it 20-3 with 14 minutes remaining, and the Rams managed four touchdowns in that last quarter, including a defensive TD on a fumble recovery. 

Ah, sports. You make numbers so much fun.


* The most common theory is amazingly common -- that there's an even greater advantage to scoring last in the first half, then scoring on the opening drive of the second half. I'll explore that in another blog.

** I'm surprised it's not a standard skill on LinkedIn. Then again, a lot of really good skills are missing from LinkedIn's list, including "Not wasting time," "Taking accountability," and "Acting like a grownup."  

*** I know, in the previous blog I gave you my first rule, and in this one I'm giving you my fifth and fourth. It's a narrative, not a recipe.

**** After all, knowledge for knowledge's sake is worthwhile, but conversations are more fun.

The First Rule of Business Intelligence

A bit of an advance apology; you're going to have to read on a bit to get to the actual rule. This is a blog, not a text book, so you don't get to read the title, skim the subheadings, and call it a day. Also, I'll get back to societal problems and the way we treat people with special needs in a few days. For now I want to post some topics that I've had in the works for a while* but haven't gotten to yet.

Super Bowls 51 and 52 were both great games, for totally different reasons.** For those who don't remember (or don't follow football***) during Super Bowl 51 the Patriots were down by 28 to 3 with only eight and a half minutes left in the third quarter. They came back to tie the game, then win in overtime.

That made me wonder: for any given deficit in a football game, how much time is needed for a team to have a reasonable shot at a comeback victory? To the Business Intelligence cave!****

Football Chart.png

First stop: ArmchairAnalysis.com. I obtained an awesome data set, play-by-play data for every NFL game (including playoff games) from the 2000 season through Super Bowl LI. And I do mean play-by-play. What happened in the play on both offense and defense, plus environmental data, and more. 

Using Access and Excel, I added some measures and slicers to the main data, then set out to plot the relationship between deficits, comeback wins, and time. The primary question: given a deficit of X score, how much time is needed for the team that's behind to have at least a 50% chance of winning?

I pictured a result showing something like, "A team behind by 3 only needs 5 minutes in the game, a team behind by 10 generally needs 12 minutes, etc." However, the results quickly exemplified one of the first rules of business intelligence: your first business question is probably not the right business question.

Why the focus change? According to the pivot, 65% of teams that scored first went on to win the game. And even more significantly, if that first score is a touchdown, the win percentage jumped to a whopping 70%.

That's seriously heavy information. Of course, the first thing I did was re-check the data, make sure I hadn't made any mistakes with calculated fields. Nope. Sure looks like a team that starts with the lead has a serious advantage.

That fact changes the priority of my business question. I'm no longer concerned with the time needed to overcome a particular deficit -- I'm more concerned about the importance of the first score, and of making that score a touchdown. 

The unexpected information also raises a new business question: if scoring first is so significant, why does the team who wins the coin toss almost always elect to kick first? Is it because the entire NFL grossly misunderstands their own statistics? (Don't be so quick to scoff that possibility -- go read Moneyball.)

Or is it because the situation is too complex to be explained by a single statistic? That's more likely the answer, and the subject of my next BI-related blog.

 


* Sure, you might consider a year a bit more than "a while," but...

** Despite the Minnesota Vikings not being in Super bowl 52, as they should have been. Sorry, Tim VandeSteeg, it was a good try!

*** Yes, I said, "football." You know, a game characterized by an oblong goal, very large men, and not being rugby. The round-ball game played with no hands is called "soccer," Europe.

**** Okay, BI isn't really that exciting. We work hard, but we rarely literally spring into action, and we don't have theme music. 

Every Word Matters

Amid all the postings, blogs, and comments about Bobby Budenbender's mocking of special needs people (not to mention the even more virulent reaction to his not-really-an-apology-but-please-keep-buying-clothing-from-me video) I saw a good question: why does it matter that one piece of trash (and his wife) broadcast such behavior? 

Here's why.

Every time you display a behavior, whether the audience is one person or a thousand, you send the message that that behavior is acceptable. The most powerful phenomenon in the universe isn't the strong nuclear force, and despite what Albert Einstein said, it's not compound interest. It's repetition. And compounding* repetition is proliferation. Five people doing something once each is usually more convincing that one person doing it five times.

Here's an example: long, long ago in my corporate career, a phone support person discovered that when he had a less than stellar call with a customer, he could simply change the last digit of the customer's phone number in the CMS, and our survey company wouldn't be able to contact that customer for feedback. One person tried this, got comfortable when he wasn't caught, and started doing it regularly. 

Lo and behold, he mentioned it to a colleague. And then to another. Soon, almost the entire team was doing it -- and then the next team. The behavior spread teams located in two other states. By the time the leadership team discovered the phenomenon, over 100 professional, intelligent people had adopted a clearly bad behavior and turned it into institutional practice. How did they come to feel this was acceptable? "Because everyone else is doing it."**

Rockfall.jpg

Think of the way a landslide occurs on a mountain. For thousands of years the mountain appears to be solid granite, then poof -- half of it crumbles, causing a lot of commotion, and in the worst case scenario, death and destruction. The mountain didn't fall spontaneously, though. Natural erosion and (in some cases) manmade forces chipped away at the structure for a long time. Each time a small piece falls away, the void that's left weakens the surrounding area, until cracks finally appear, the tipping point is reached, and the whole thing shatters.

Whether it's individual or societal, morality works the same way. Nobody wakes up one morning and says consciously, "I've decided to start a new life as a homophobe!" Or a racist, or a misogynist, or someone who denigrates retarded people.*** People adopt what they're exposed to frequently, and you don't have to weak-willed or highly impressionable to do it. Even the smartest people succumb to believing something is acceptable simply because so many other people feel the same way.

Need more examples? Go to any news story on Yahoo and read the comments. One story should be sufficient to find dozens of examples of public comments that would have appalled a newspaper reader in the 1980s or 1990s. Once the trolling momentum starts, it accelerates at a geometric pace, because each example validates the acceptability of the sentiment. This particular problem has become so rampant that many online news sources have simply disabled user comments altogether.

And that's why LuLaRoe's profit-protecting stance on the Budenbender's actions is inexcusable. By soft-shoeing the issue and excusing a gross display of insensitivity, LuLaRoe condones it. There's no neutral stance here; there is no context under which Budenbender's little act is acceptable -- except, apparently, if you're a LuLaRoe top seller.

Yes, everything you do or say matters. Whether reinforcing your own beliefs or contributing to others, intentional or not, every action contributes to the next, for better or for worse. And in an age when half the world witnesses your every action live and in person, your ability to have either a positive or negative impact on others is pretty damned strong.


* Yay, Einstein!

** I'm sure this philosophy brought a lot of comfort to each person who lost his job, along with all his friends.

*** I call them "misanthropes," but some people probably feel that's too broad of a term. I like "troglodytes," too, but that's a bit too Dungeons and Dragony for some. I could really use an etymologist here.

LuLaRoe: Long on Tights, Short on Values

Last month, LuLaRoe "consultants" Taya and Robert Budenbender hosted a live broadcast LuLaRoe sales party. After some technical difficulties, Mr. Budenbender decided to lighten the moment by pretending to be retarded. He adopts the quintessential slow, shouting voice, and proclaims, "My name is Robert and I'm special! My name is Robert and I'm really special!" Meanwhile, a woman in the background (presumably Taya Budenbender) cackles as if this is the funniest thing since Gallagher smashed a watermelon. 

You can find the video on YouTube if you like. I won't post a link to it. 

In the half-assed "apology" video later that day, the Budenbender's trot out a relative with Down Syndrome to use as a prop, and Mr. Budenbender quickly zeroes in on the problem: apparently this whole mess was caused by people who chose to share the video in places where "not nice people" and "people who get offended" hang out. Worse, all these mean people sent poor Bobby Budenbender mean messages, after they took his actions out of context!

Whatever. His "apology" just gets worse from there, including a repetition of the "this should have just stayed in the family" theme.

 My daughter, Kelsey, in the last LuLaRoe tights we'll ever buy.

My daughter, Kelsey, in the last LuLaRoe tights we'll ever buy.

It gets worse. LuLaRoe's response is full of non-committal, unapologetic themes as well. It stresses that the retailers are independent, that Budenbender has "agreed to use the incident as a learning experience," and that LuLaRoe is going to "redouble" their sensitivity and tolerance training and policies. (Anyone know what you get when you double zero?) The sum total of LuLaRoe's response is one weak statement to distance themselves from the problem, without losing the income generated by the BudenBenders.

Every company touts its core values, whether packaging them as a mission to the public, treatment of their employees, contribution to the environment, whatever. And just like individual people, companies are often quite happy to use those "values" as lip-service PR tools, rather than living guidance.

Ironically, you can see LuLaRoe's application of values in part of their statement: "...joined with our commitment not to fight intolerance with eradication..." Apparently LuLaRoe is worried about "eradicating" the Budenbender's business -- i.e., LuLaRoe's profit. 

I'd prefer to eradicate people's apparent belief that making fun of the retarded is acceptable.

One more thing, DeAnne and Mark Stidham! Your statement references "tolerance," or touting your great commitment to "fighting intolerance." Let me explain something to you: decent people don't "tolerate" those with special needs. We love them and care for them, because (wait for it, shocking revelation to come) they're people. No toleration is required.

For a more appropriate example of toleration, we'll just note that people are still buying your tights and dresses, and some are probably still buying from the Budenbenders. I guess there'll always be customers willing to tolerate hateful, disgusting "consultants" and the greedy companies who employ them. 

 

Goodbye, Tim VandeSteeg

Irony, I guess. A half-written blog sits in my Draft folder right now; I was going to return to blogging this week with a message about how happy I am to be working with Sergio Valenzuela of Silver Phoenix Productions on a film, The Hero At The End Of The Day. Instead, I'm posting some of my memories of the man who brought Sergio and I together, Tim VandeSteeg. 

Tim passed away this week. "Unexpectedly" would be ridiculous understatement. Both Sergio and I spoke with him within the past week, and beyond a sprained ankle, nothing seemed to be amiss. As usual, Tim was spending his time between two of his biggest passions: upcoming film projects, and hanging out with his godson. At 46, Tim was healthy, full of energy, and excited about life. 

A few people have guessed that something went wrong with his heart, but it's almost unthinkable -- Tim was nothing BUT heart. Tim chose a career in a tough industry, with no guarantees, and he refused to even consider giving up. No matter the challenges, frustrations, or setbacks, Tim followed his passion with determination matched only by his on-screen idol, Rocky Balboa.*

Summer, 2001: I was on a guys' trip out in Lubbock, Texas, and got a call. "Hi, my name's Tim, and I'm a filmmaker. I loved the short script you posted on American Zoetrope; would you be interested in writing a feature about..." Tim's enthusiasm and confidence weren't just contagious; the man could start an epidemic of optimism. 

Tim  did all he could to help his friends and collaborators find success. He celebrated everything with you, and was genuinely happy for you. I remember telling him that I'd just landed a writing gig with another producer and hearing, "OhMyGodDudeThatsSoAwesome." Just like that. One word, no breath, but 100 decibels of heartfelt happiness on my behalf. 

Tim2.jpg

Writing with Tim was fun. Sometimes frustrating**, but always fun. Tim didn't like to write with words -- he described feelings, made references to other films, and described the visual aspects of scenes he envisioned. I'd throw out some existing movie scenes to get us on the same page. "You mean like the pursuit in Butch Cassidy? Or maybe the creature in It Follows?" You could tell when that same page was found because Tim's voice would almost literally BOOM. "Yes! That's what I want!"

March, 2009: I was on a work trip in Seattle the night My Run was released to theaters. A bunch of my co-workers went with me to the Bella Bottega theater, and I still remember how great it felt to see my name in the credits on the big screen for the first time. There should be a note attached to that memory: "This moment brought to you by Tim VandeSteeg."

Tim worked hard, and the breadth of his knowledge was amazing. I visited while he was shooting Fall Into Me, and it was the first time I'd seen any part of film production beyond my own screenwriting. Tim showed me his shooting plan, walked me through the different teams and departments, gave me an overview of planning for an outdoor scene, talked about municipal code and permits, putting together a budget -- everything. He had great vision for his projects, but his talent certainly didn't stop at the envisioning stage. He took his ideas from vision to completion, and had fun doing it.

MyRun.jpg

Once Tim was standing in line at Starbuck's while we were on the phone, trying to fine-tune a logline. He asked me to wait a second, and I heard him repeat the logline I'd just provided to someone else. He came back on the phone and said, "She loved it, let's go with that." I asked who he was with; was there some other movie producer, writer, someone with him? Nope. It was a random woman in line behind him. He just asked her if she thought she'd like to see a movie with that particular summary. Confidence, friendliness, personality -- Tim had all of the above.

December, 2017: Tim left me messages*** saying "Call me, fantastic news!" He and I had been working hard on converting Epitaph to a TV series proposal. Typical of Tim, he'd augmented my writing with an awesome slideshow, covering both the story and the highlights of the potential business side. He'd also made some great contacts for potential production partners. (You could say that Tim was a master of networking. I'd say Tim was friends with everyone.) 

I called him back, getting excited myself, thinking that perhaps he's landed the quintessential big break. Sure enough, Tim had just heard back from the producer: "he's getting ready to read it!"

Wait. That's the big news? The producer is getting ready to read our proposal?

"OhMyGodDudeIsntThisAwesome?"

And it was -- because Tim's enthusiasm, delight, and optimism were amazingly motivational. I poked fun at him a little for being so over the top about a pretty minor development, but in the following week, I wrote more than I had in the past six months.

That was Tim. He had his dream, and he didn't allow anything or anyone to stop him pursuing it, but he was more than happy to bring you along. He was a good guy, and I miss him already. 


* Tim and I never resolved our argument about which is the best sports movie ever made, Rocky or The Natural. We agreed to disagree by him putting The Natural as #2 and me doing the same for Rocky. 

** We worked together for a long, long time on a western/horror screenplay, Epitaph. After seven complete drafts, Tim had a suggestion: what if we took out one of the four major characters? My tirade ensued, but typical of Tim, he kept a good humor about it, closing off the conversation with something like, "Okay, maybe that wasn't such a great idea."

*** Tim's enthusiasm pushed technology to its limits. When he was really psyched up about a positive development, he'd call, leave a voice mail, send a text message, send an email, leave a message on FaceBook, and send a message via FaceBook Messenger. I fully expected that some day I'd call him back and realize he was already standing on my front porch.

Music, Mushroom, and Re-Purposing the Caves

Re-purposing is important. The more use we get from something, the less waste we produce, right? That's why there's an old whirlpool bathtub in my backyard. When we remodeled the bathroom, we discovered that there's not a lot you can do with a fifteen year old bathtub. Having enjoyed The Martian so much, I decided to use the bathtub as a potato-growing container.* Works perfectly, too. The bottom is certainly impervious to weeds and invasive plants, it's shaped to funnel water out, and of course, has a drain.**

Caves1.JPG

During our summer trip to London I learned that Europe is all about re-purposing. One of my favorite examples is Chislehurst Caves, just a short train ride southeast of London. 

The caves are actually a 21 or 22 mile set of tunnels, and are completely man-made. The first of the tunnels was begun sometime back around the signing of the Magna Carta.*** Local residents dug into the ground to extract chalk and flint, and beforeyou knew it...there was a whole lotta excavated space.

Fast forward to the 1900s. In between, the locals were pretty straightforward thinkers: dig the chalk, dig the flint, have a pint, repeat. However, during World War I, the British Army decided the caves were an excellent place to store ammunition and explosives. Lots and lots of ammunition and explosives. I don't recall the exact numbers, but let's just say that Chislehurst was temporarily the Wal-Mart of stuff that blows up.

Between WWI and WWII the caves were turned to a more peaceful pursuit -- mushroom farming! Makes sense, right? Mushrooms love caves. 

But World War II is the time period for which the Chislehurst Caves might be most famous. Britons seeking shelter from air raids took to the caves. Eventually, as many as 15,000 people had taken up residence. Electricity was run, and engineering work was undertaken to keep air flowing and temperatures down. Keep in mind, these are caves. They're typically much cooler than ground temperatures, but with so many people living in them, the temperature of the caves rose dramatically. I believe our guide mentioned the temp rising to nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit, until improved air circulation was hastily engineered, and after the war it took around 20 years for temperatures to fall back to normal.

Caves4.JPG

The amount of organization that took place in the caves is incredible. The temporary residents had a post office, chapels, stores. Of course, bunk assignment alone was a major undertaking, considering the numbers involved. 

After WWII the caves became an entertainment venue. Jimi Hendrix performed there, as well as Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and if I remember correctly, the Stones. Our guide even played the drums in one cave while we listened from farther down the passage. He mentioned that the music had to be shut down, ironically, not because the music itself was too loud -- as residential areas closed in on the cave entrance, the local population found that people exiting the caves in the wee hours of the night were annoying.

Some things never change.

The caves have also been used for TV and film production. At least one Dr. Who episode filmed there, and the caves have shown up on documentary programs. The site is also used for live-action fantasy pastimes as well; when we were visiting, a large group of SCA or LARP folks were there for an event.

Without a doubt, Chislehurst Caves was one of my favorite stops on our London trip. It was a nice train ride from central London, a very enjoyable walk around the village, and something great to see. Since the caves don't show up at the top of every tourist search for London attractions, we're fortunate to have stumbled upon them, but I highly recommend making time to stop in if you're in the vicinity. And don't forget your lantern.


* It would have been more appropriate, perhaps, to plant my Martian potatoes in a toilet, but a) we didn't have a toilet to discard and b) you can grow more potatoes in a bathtub.

** When you repurpose a bathtub for growing plants, it's important to keep plants actually growing in there. Otherwise, you just appear to be the slob who threw an old bathtub out into his yard. 

*** Look it up. You're on the Internet, for crying out loud.