I Did Not Die Last Week, So Now I Promise to Do Much Worse

Being woken by the sound of your own screams is not conducive to strategic thought; I can now confirm this from personal experience. Last week saw the publication of my 2,000th Commsrisk article, which mentioned the discomfort of writing whilst suffering pain in my side, but that adversity need not prevent us pursuing long-term goals. As it happens, adversity did prevent me from doing any writing less week. By the time of my 2,000th article’s publication I was lying on a hospital bed, waiting for surgery. Now I write with very different pains scattered around my person. Numerous marks show all the places where doctors and nurses have poked into my body. I am mending, and will soon be my old self. My priorities, however, must change. A professional manager of risk should be prepared to re-evaluate when circumstances evolve or new data becomes available, just as doctors are willing to switch treatments to reflect their patient’s current symptoms. It pleases me that prior planning meant there was no interruption in the presentation of new content on Commsrisk, despite the interruption in my life. However, I must now reflect on the objectives pursued through Commsrisk and how they relate to your goals when reading. This is natural following any incident that reminds us that even the best things come to an end, and the real challenge is to make the most of life before its end is reached.

We can only reflect on a crisis after it is over, but each crisis can teach us how to improve decision-making. Considering my personal emergency, the most obvious point is that agonizing pain makes you focus on the present. Priorities become few: identify the cause of the pain, determine if it can be reduced, or whether it must be made worse by the urgent pursuit of assistance. The circumstances promote speed of thought, especially if you are alone, and hence in charge of the situation. What you do in one moment is likely to affect what you can do in the following moment, but there is no certainty about the optimal sequence. For example, is it better to pause and to hope the pain will recede, or should you immediately do things that will increase the pain in the hope of sooner reducing it again? These were thoughts that occupied my mind a week ago. Going through this experience reminded me that risk managers that lean towards data science may seek to make all risks the slaves of rational analysis, although there will always be occasions when good decisions need to be made quickly without taking time to reflect. That is why we force people to practice the evacuation of a burning building. More could also be done to train people to reflexively interpret data, and thus to de-program bad instincts and poor habits that we know most people suffer from. It is an indictment of our discipline that so little of telecoms risk management has been reduced to standardized training.

I have since been admitted into hospital, received emergency treatment, returned home, and am now well on the path to the recovery. This has left me considerably lighter, not least because I carry one less organ inside me. Whilst the rest of me remains alive, my doctor recounted with devilishly glee that the tissue of my gallbladder was already horribly dead by the time it was cut from my insides. He promised it would be shown to future students to educate them about how rapidly a gallbladder can fail. I am glad that a part of me will contribute to the education of professionals who may then better treat future patients. Following each crisis, we can use the experience to review a system and find ways to improve it. Perhaps there were signs that would have helped doctors to realize my gallbladder was declining much more rapidly than they anticipated. I can identify faults in my diet that increased the stress on that organ, and will take pains to better understand what I eat. And the relationship between work and life is always subject to review, with the goal of achieving the most by maintaining the healthiest balance between conflicting demands. But many of the articles I write discuss the reasons why the progress of telecoms risk management proves to be disappointing. I do this year after year after year. So how might a better balance be realized when past results have never proved satisfactory? Should I simply stop making this observation, or is there a better way to achieve the goal?

The man pictured standing in the image above is James Randi, a Canadian stage magician who used his skills to teach people to be skeptical and think critically about what they see and have been told. Randi developed an interest in magic illusions at an early age, but was unfailingly honest, always telling his audiences that he possessed no mystical abilities. At the age of 15 he attended a church ceremony where a well-known stage trick was used to fool worshippers into believing they were witnessing supernatural powers granted by God. He stormed the stage to explain how the trick was performed, but instead of being thanked for unveiling the deception he was arrested by the police. Randi spent the rest of his life encouraging people to be less credulous, no matter how much they want to believe certain things are true. He was the nemesis of the Israeli spoon-bender Uri Geller, he revealed the methods of charlatan faith healers, and he offered to show academics how to design tests that would distinguish real psychics from tricksters like Geller. Though Randi was always telling people the truth, he upset very many that did not want to hear it. Academics lost research grants, worshippers lost hope, and liars were shamed because of Randi’s dedication to his cause, which he likened to pushing water uphill but kept pursuing anyway.

Randi lived his life well, but could never prevail because the people he most wanted to educate are those who most desperately seek the comfort of faith healers and mentalists. I hope this professional audience is not like that. People working in our discipline claim to believe in data. Randi never suggested that paranormal powers were impossible – he just highlighted how the standard of proof was repeatedly set too low. I find myself in a similar situation. Towards the beginning of my career I sat down, sometimes literally, beside peers who said they wanted to explore how scientific and mathematical principles could be applied to data to better manage risk. I only later discovered I was sitting amongst conmen who might better be employed as astrologers or witchdoctors. Every year they claim to deliver amazing results, though always in the absence of any rigor. One of their favorite methods involves a sleight of hand where opinion takes the place of fact. They take opinion, as volunteered from unknown sources, having dressed this as a professional survey, then overlay a biased interpretation of the survey results, then present this as fact. Year after year they have discovered that opinion confirms they are doing great work, and should do more of the same. My medical emergency seemingly coincided with the return of survey silly season, in which very large numbers of people (committee members, partner organizations, sponsoring vendors) hail the return of surveys that are completed by significantly fewer people (who actually work in telcos). I am almost glad that intense pain kept my mind off this spectacle.

Albert Einstein probably did not say it is madness to do the same thing repeatedly in the hopes of getting a different result, but it is easy to see why the quote is popular. There has been a string of surveys that have had absolutely no positive impact on the telecoms industry per the results they present, yet people insist if we do more surveys then something good will come of it. I wonder if some of these people have astrology charts and tea leaves that also tell them to keep doing the same thing over and over. But my approach to these surveys was always fundamentally flawed, for the same reasons that led to Randi’s arrest when he tried to debunk bogus spiritualists. People do not want to hear my opinion. Continuing to write my opinion on these virtual pages will not stop hucksterism. It just leads the conmen to live in a parallel reality where my criticisms simply pass unacknowledged. To promote change, I need something more useful: incontrovertible fact. And that can only come from cold, hard data.

We need more data to be available to professionals to aid their education. I intend to put more data on these pages than ever before. It will not change the discipline of telecoms risk management overnight, but it will more effectively curb the excesses of the agents of flimflam. Instead of recounting and dissecting opinion, I will get more data and use that to show this audience the best available information about risks and their mitigation.

The con artists will undoubtedly try to stop me obtaining data, but consider what that means in practice: they want to influence your understanding of the truth about a discipline built upon data, whilst pretending there is no need for you to have visibility of sources of information that would prove or disprove their claims. The RAG Wangiri Blockchain shows that we can overcome them. Modern technology can be used to automatically pool telco risk intelligence, making opinion polling redundant. I am aware of obstructionists who are trying to wreck this project, whilst others undermine its chances of success by shamelessly copying it. They are not succeeding. On the contrary, in the next few weeks I hope to announce an agreement with a major new technology backer for the RAG Wangiri Blockchain.

As we demonstrated during episode 16 of the last season of RAG TV, we can use data accumulated by a community to educate professionals who have yet to join that community. More can be done like this. Technology trends that have made certain kinds of fraud more prevalent also encourage more data gathering. In the early noughties I acquired a form of insurance against an incompetent and dishonest audit firm that tried to persuade the UK regulator that bills produced by T-Mobile UK suffered more inaccuracies than those produced by the auditor’s clients. That insurance was obtained by making test calls across every mobile network in the UK. It was hardly a surprise that the network which engaged in most political shenanigans made far more mistakes than any other, per our extensive samples. The data was never shared outside of T-Mobile UK because it was not ultimately needed, but I would have been prepared to rubbish a rival network and its auditors if required to defend my company’s interests. We performed that exercise at a time when technology was less friendly and data was less accessible than it is now. The time spent on opinion polling could be more productively employed by exploiting the technology developed by vendors working in this field, and the use of this technology need not always require the consent of the telcos being examined.

Some people tell me not to be so scary. They say my criticisms go too far, and that I push people too hard. They say everyone needs to go along to get along. But I do not believe that. Nobody fears me. I am only associated with fear in the minds of people who fear being caught in a lie. I have a big flapping loud mouth and two hands that can rapidly dart across a keyboard. Fear stems from the belief that these organs might be used to state a truth that contradicts falsehoods they spread. The simple solution would be for everybody to stick to the truth, as supported by data. Anything else is a detour, because people cannot learn how to deliver superior results by being taught lies, any more than faith healers can teach doctors how to cure cancer.

Life is short. I have spent far too much time fighting against people who want to delay progress by indulging falsehood. I tried to use reason and debate to engage with those people, just as Randi was willing to engage with people who really believed they were psychics. But swindlers never want to engage; they can only play tricks and misdirect. It may be slower, but my strategy will now involve bulldozing forward with data. Please help me if you can. Everyone else should get out of the way.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.