Opinion: masquerading behind the so-called “constitutional crisis” is an incompetent UNP leadership

There is a popular belief in Sri Lanka that is well supported by a kind of postmodern pseudo-intelligentsia, that “all politicians are rogues”. This fascinating meme – a viral idea that fits snugly in our consciences – is an intellectually vacuous concept. Yet time and time again it is craftily touted by people with vested interests, who often are on the loosing side of a major political struggle, and wish to detract support for the winners. Aside from the ostentatious and hypocritical nature of this presumption (especially when politicians themselves speak to it), there are good practical reasons for caring citizens to steer clear of this type of shallow, counterproductive analysis.

How on earth can we improve over time if we are unwilling to spot subtle differences in the choices that are made available to us? Sociologists tell us that progress is made through consistent, small wins. Like in nature, where tiny genetic mutations aggregate over many generations to produce entire new life forms, it is the seemingly small differences in the attitudes and skills of our representatives which ultimately amount to vast sociopolitical progress (or regress) over time.

The transition from a chaotic, war-torn country into a peaceful and more prosperous one is an excellent example from our own country’s recent past. This transition was led by an administrative team that was explicitly chosen by some of us; a team that succeeded where others had failed miserably for over three decades. They clearly had something better in them that suited the purpose, that some of us saw. So we absolutely must pay close attention and make definitive choices, or risk drifting into some clandestine political agenda that has little to do with mainstream interests like economic development.

In the present context of the so-called constitutional crisis, the better administrative team would be the one that has a clearer top-level agenda for responsible and purposeful government producing practical results, and not metaphysical rhetoric. Facilitation of economic growth and individual financial autonomy, skilled defense of an economy against global churn or downturn, liberalization of human values and improvements to the system of justice, prevention of terrorism, the enhancement of public services and utilities, and the facilitation of better lifelong education are obvious competency areas to watch out for amongst the two factions. Proof of even a marginal difference between the two factions is worthy of decisive support in favor of one side over the other.

The RW-led Yahapalanaya government performed abysmally in this regard, in comparison with the previous MR one. To put it plainly, they won on a deceitful ticket of dubious merit – the cry of “rogues, rogues”, a well-know political gambit that appeals to the downtrodden, who observe the rich and powerful strutting their stuff with envy, and pity themselves. They did little except to weaken government and bestow undue power on their otherwise apathetic leader, whilst allowing their cronies to embezzle over 10 billion rupees from the state coffers on the side.

The only serious charge that was substantiated through the Yahapalanaya government’s infamous “campaign against corruption”, was that of the reallocation of some state funds outside of financial regulations (FR) by the previous MR government, as a grant for prayer cloths for Buddhist devotees! This is after operating a special police taskforce for over three years to bring to justice those involved in supposed major financial crimes. Mind you, this “special” taskforce operated with brazen political bias under the direction of the Prime Minister, arresting or questioning all and sundry from the previous government on a daily basis, alas to no avail.

Let us come to the crux of the dilemma facing us today. Let’s be generous, and steel man the case for a so-called “constitutional crisis”. President MS, after working closely with, or rather attempting to work closely with the RW team for years, found himself to be increasingly irrelevant, and witnessing a rogue political agenda that was derailing Lanka’s economic progress. Worse, he found himself to be the target of a plausible assassination plot with high government connections, and made a quick decision to use his political clout to kick RW and his team out and restore some semblance of controlled, purposeful government. He consulted his legal advisors, and finding a loophole in the constitution that would serve him well in explanations later on, sent RW his dismissal note, and appointed his more capable former ally MR as the new Prime Minister.

Here is my key point. The same pundits who touted the “all are rogues” theory (like the JVP for instance) are screaming that due process is sacrosanct, and if process breaks down, all hell breaks loose. Who says? Why, if there weren’t revolutions in human society, we’d be stuck in a tribal, Neolithic world. Constitutions are drawn up (and amended) to uphold values and good practices as best understood at a given time in history. They however are ultimately just a means to an end, which is the overall wellbeing of the people at large. Means do not always supersede ends (just as ends do not always supersede means), especially if the means are preventing us from stopping a calamity like bloodshed or economic regression in this case.

We create due process to help us preserve human wellbeing based on existing knowledge, and when we discover a novel situation that needs urgent action outside of previous precedent, we first break the coded rules in the interest of time, and then amend them for future benefit. That’s why there have been hundreds of unconstitutional Executive Orders and Acts of Congress with sweeping consequences in American history, why the Australian Prime Minister was sacked unconstitutionally by the Governor General in 1975, and how Abraham Lincoln emancipated slaves.

President MS’s little constitutional coup is not such a remarkable action. So he exploited a loophole in the 19th Amendment to sack a grossly underperforming Prime Minister. The Supreme Court is the final authority to decide on the constitutionality of this action. Perhaps RW knows in his legal mind that MS was technically correct, since there doesn’t appear to be any move so far to clarify the matter with the Supreme Court. In any case MS did it to right a pretty bad situation. The rupee was in freefall, the Prime Minister was covering up the bond scam against a mountain of evidence, there appeared to be no purposeful moves to defend and strengthen the economy, taxation was rising with no corresponding increase in available public utilities or benefits for the disadvantaged.

In fact, benefits to the disadvantaged were being taxed, agriculture was neglected, infrastructure development was neglected, and there was evidence of a plot to murder The President. So all in all a good political move! Strongman-ish perhaps in nature but bloodless and easily democratized through parliament within the next few days. The President struck when the iron was hot, to the chagrin of his incompetent opponents who were trusting precedent and loyalty – two worthless values in the face of real problems.

A couple of other points for us to ponder on the present political situation. We now see yet another red herring being tossed up in the air, to distract us ordinary folks from the core issue of the failure of RW to perform sensibly. It is once again a version of the pitiful cry of “rogues, rogues”, this time taking the form of financial inducement for taking up ministerial posts. Listening to the first three audio recordings of MP Ranga Bandara’s phone conversations and his subsequent analysis of them, it is plainly apparent that the said Ranga Bandara is the one who is stitching three different conversations with three different people together, with his own unsubstantiated explanation of what is going on.

The first conversation sounds like a credible one, between himself and S.B. Dissanayake, a Government minister. In summary, the minister was urging him to cross over and join the the new government, before the 30 available cabinet positions are taken up by others. A perfectly reasonable and ethical conversation, that a minister from the new government would have with a UNP MP, to canvass support against RW, whose leadership they (the new government) consider as an active obstacle to the nation’s progress. The second and third conversations, which are suggestive of inducement, are between Ranga Bandara and two perfectly unknown persons, one of whom claims to be an agent of SB Dissanayake, and the other whom Ranga Bandara claims to be an agent of Yoshitha Rajapakse. Where is the evidence that SB Dissanayake offered money to Ranga Bandara, or that these two unknown people are in fact agents of the new government? Why, any pickpocket can be hired from the street to discuss a bribe over the phone, claiming to represent someone else.

I wouldn’t fret over this red herring, unless we can find evidence that clearly shows these two people acted on SB Dissanayake’s instructions. Transparency international has submitted this “evidence” to a court, lets see what the legal experts have to say.

The other more general point was that, for the umpteenth time, the RW camp is trying its level best to turn away our attention from administrative performance towards abstract morality. Getting the speaker to voice his personal displeasure over the “immorality” of RW’s sacking and the prorogation of parliament, the talk of bribes, the talk of dictatorships and unconstitutional government, prostration in front of foreign emissaries etc., are all part of a clever yet (unfortunately) regressive political campaign to gain sympathy and rekindle the nonperforming Yahapalanaya government. I urge all well meaning representatives and citizens to not get lost in these dubious details, but to stay focused on the big picture and act accordingly.

Was there not a gross failure in the administration of our country over the past three years, and didn’t The President make the right move to change the administrative leadership? Sift through the evidence and come to your own conclusions, ladies and gents.


Developing Principled Algorithms and the increasing necessary for “Ethics Testing” in Software Quality Assurance

If you were a software developer at Waymo, what would you program a car to do if a child sprang across its path from the pavement at the last second, while chasing a ball that rolled onto the street? Would you have the car turn sharply into the adjacent lane to definitively avoid the child, and risk killing the backseat passenger through a mid-body collision, or would you have it apply brakes and risk running over the child?

In the past, this sort of ethical dilemma used to be the topic of thought experiments designed for the amusement of moral philosophers. The “trolley problem” is the generalized thought experiment that highlights this type of moral conundrum. There was no compulsion for anyone to come up with a final preferred solution to the trolley problem, since the context was entirely theoretical. It used to be that there always was in practice a human being making an instant decision, and the judgment fell upon this human to exercise her so-called “free will” at the last second. In the case of the car and the child, the driver would do whatever that reflexively came to his mind at that moment. Not anymore.

With the advent of AI systems and their underlying decision-making algorithms, we have reached an era where we need to codify ethical judgment upfront into our software. And so we must begin to develop formal solutions to some tricky and sometimes bizarre ethical conundrums that were previously left to instant human judgment.

One nifty solution might be to trigger a random selection of one of the two options available, so as to superficially mimic what happens with human drivers, and yield an unpredictable result. You may sometimes favor the car, and sometimes the child. It is certainly an option that a software developer grounded in ethics might consider. As opposed to implementing the more myopic choice, of always prioritizing the life of the passenger.

The above scenario may be somewhat of a caricature, but it demonstrates why futurists and intellectual leaders have focused our attention towards developing principled algorithms, which incorporate broader ethical considerations when processing information and making important decisions that affect human wellbeing. With the advancement of AI, ethical conundrums raise their head in the most unexpected places, and unless we are trained to keep an explicit lookout for them as software engineers, we may unwittingly codify an ethically deficient or suboptimal solution.

Let us consider another example, of what appears at first glance to be a completely innocuous type of algorithm that we often encounter – personalized product recommendations – that can yet potentially cause seriously bad consequences if codified without care. Many of us have gotten used to considering what online stores like Amazon prompt us to buy next, based on their observations of our past curiosity and purchases. We are shown a variety of interesting choices by these stores, and unless we are searching for a specific item, we are happy to first browse these recommendations, and often to make a quick purchase. While this might be a great way to buy electronic gadgets, it can potentially be a serious handicap when it comes to broadening our knowledge through books.

Let us suppose that we had heard of a famous liberal intellectual like Noam Chomsky for the first time, and decided to search for one of his books in our favorite online store. Let us say we reviewed the book’s synopsis, and purchased it immediately. When we visit the store again, we are tempted with 5 new books, all having great looking titles and interesting outlines. Let us say we were to buy two more of them. More books would be recommended the next time, and we’d again buy some of them, and so on.

When we initially purchased the Chomsky book, the store would peg our reader interest under some kind of classification hierarchy. To keep things simple, let us say we were initially identified as liking books by liberal thinkers. So the first round of recommendations would be all books by authors who are broadly classified as being of a liberal mindset. As we bought more books through store recommendations, let us say our store’s algorithm identified deeper interests, such as liberal economics or suchlike. Here’s the catch. If your algorithm is weighted too much on past interest, you may never be recommended a book that has a brilliant argument in favor of an opposing conservative opinion.

Worse, your store is likely to tune their recommendation algorithm to make you buy more, rather than broaden your mind. So it would probably recognize and categorize you as having a weakness for a certain broad sociopolitical identity, and then pump you with books that are self gratifying and hence tempting to purchase. The algorithm would create a personalized intellectual echo chamber, that you would love to be a part of.

Now I’m not saying that the recommendation algorithms at Amazon actually do this. But it’s a real danger facing the patrons of such a store, unless the store’s algorithms are purposefully designed to be principled. This could be achieved in many ways, such as by purposefully mixing in books written by authors with opposing sociopolitical identities, or by including random new publications in every recommendation set, or both. But the important point is that the software engineers who design the algorithms need to have these broader ethical motives in mind when doing so.

The above examples are just two of a great many other instances where algorithms can veer away from serving the customer’s best interest, towards the dark world of mind hacking for profit. Media bots that mistake popularity for newsworthiness and favor the snowball effect, big data algorithms that ignore multivariate analysis and make false predictions or proclamations, enrollment algorithms that favor set outcomes for identities such as gender or race, over equal opportunity on a case by case basis, are some other examples of where algorithms can become (perhaps unwittingly) immoral.

Some might argue that its not software engineers who decide the broad motivations behind algorithms, but rather that it is company owners and big businesses who do so. This might indeed be true, but if software engineering as a profession was to be firmly grounded in secular ethics, and IT courses were to have compulsory learning modules that demonstrate how algorithms can go awry and produce unethical outcomes for its human consumers, then this would be an excellent start. In fact, it would be important for universities to introduce an entire new category of software testing into the traditional bandwagon of Functionality, Usability, Security, Performance and Data testing. One could call this category “Ethics Testing” or “Fairness Testing”, and it would signify test cases and test scenarios to identify threats to the physical and mental wellbeing of the human consumers of the software.

NB: Original article on LinkedIn Pulse: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/developing-principled-algorithms-increasing-necessary-ruwan-rajapakse/

From neurons to knowledge; the inspiration from our brains that sparked the quest for Artificial Intelligence

The buzz on AI is bigger than ever in digital innovation land these days. We all tend to get excited when we hear of new devices and systems that are being developed, which are said to be “intelligent” and which mimic human behavior. Ranging from IBM’s Watson API to virtual agents to self driving trucks to smart anti-personnel drones, we see an explosion of technology that was originally inspired by the workings of our own Natural Intelligence; which is a creation of our brains and the neural networks that underpin them.

An Artificial Intelligence is a goal-driven machine or system deriving semantics – i.e. meaning or relevance from the environment it navigates – and thereby taking actions that increase its chances of achieving its goals.

So how does a goal-driven system becoming intelligent? Let us consider how intelligence arises in our brains through neural computation, which most AI systems also mimic in one form or another.

There are a few basic facts we must first know about our brains. Our brains consist of vast networks of interconnected neurons (a type of specialized cell). Here is a typical neuron.

A neuron is a vastly complex entity, and is almost a separate living organism in itself, but for the purposes of understanding the basics of how intelligence dawns on us, we can think of it as a sort of fancy Logic Gate (recall to mind your electronics lesson from GCE O-Level days). As you can see, there are several types of connectors protruding from the cell body. The Dendrites serve as Inputs to the cell, and the Axon serves as the one single Output. The Inputs and Output consist of electrical impulses of a variable frequency.

Apart from the Inputs and Output, a typical neuron also has two other important variables that determine its function. One is what is known as the Synaptic Strength, and the other is the Threshold. The Synaptic Strength (aka Weight) is a chemically controllable barrier in the connection between the Axon (Output) of one neuron and the Dendrite (Input) of another. Like a sort of chemically controlled Variable Resister connecting two neurons. The Threshold is an internal barrier potential that must be exceeded for an Output to be triggered. Consider the following simplified functional model of a neuron.

How a neuron works is that if (Input1 X Weight1 + Input2 X Weight2 + Input3 X Weight3) is greater than the Threshold, then the Output is 1. Else the Output is 0.

Given this functional behavior, we can easily show how a neuron can be trained to behave as an AND Gate. Let us say that the Weights are 0.3, 0.3 and 0.4 respectively, and the Threshold is set at 1 Hz. If each input is triggered with a frequency of 1 Hz, then 1 X 0.3 + 1 X 0.3 + 1 X 0.4 = 1, and therefore the Output becomes 1 Hz (i.e. True). If any one or more of the Inputs are 0, then the Output becomes 0 Hz (False). This neuron is now behaving like a multi-input AND Gate.

Let us now consider a neuron that is trained to behave as an OR Gate. We can set all the Weights at 1, and leave the Threshold at 1 Hz. In such a circumstance, the Output will fire (become True) if any one (or more) of the Inputs are triggered at 1 Hz. You have your OR Gate.

So far so good. But how does a network of conditional switches grasp truths about the world? The beauty is that once we know that neurons can function as multi-input AND and OR Logic Gates, we don’t need to care anymore about the above details like Thresholds and Synaptic Weights. We can begin to see how a network of such multi-input Logic Gates could be made to recognize real world objects and concepts with the aid of input sensors.

Let us consider a very simple real-world concept like a line. Let us say its important to recognize and act upon a line-like object, given a set of five linear point-like sensors. Lets us also assume that in order for an object to be a line, it must at least be of three sensors in length. Now take a close look at the below network of Logic Gates.

As you can see from the above diagram, a line-like object (in red) is pressing against three of the five sensors. Using common logic, we can see that the output of the gate network will be True. The beauty is that if we slide the line anywhere along the sensors, it will return True. But any object lesser then three contiguous sensors in length will return False, no matter where you slide it. This key insight is the origin of generating meaning through a network of neuron-mimicking logic gates.

We can extend the above line-detector concept in our minds and see that we can wire a network in three dimensions, for a 5 X 5 square sensor panel, which will be able to detect a line greater than three sensors in length, touching the sensor panel in any orientation.

Extending this concept much further, and with the aid of inhibition, feedback and other complex factors that mimic the actual function of neural networks in our brains, scientists are able to show that such networks can focus on edges, detect movement, and recognize shadows, shapes, words, and other important characteristics in our environment. A single “downwind” neuron (or equivalent logic gate) can be made the holder such a complex characteristic as the face of one’s mother. A Jennifer Aniston neuron was actually discovered in the brain of a human subject, in a ground breaking experiment conducted by a team from the University of Leicester, some years ago.

The science of Artificial Intelligence based on networks that perform neural computation – the most exciting and hopeful frontier of human advancement that one can foresee – has developed over the years to become an extensive and exceedingly complex one. Yet it is a truly exhilarating feeling one gets when one begins to understand the rudimentary concept that inspired this revolution in the first place.

Republished from my LinkedIn article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/from-neurons-knowledge-inspiration-our-brains-sparked-ruwan-rajapakse/?published=t

Is there even an alternative to agility?

I keep bumping into business owners, CIOs, and, astonishingly, sometimes even tech entrepreneurs who like to begin the conversation by saying “we don’t believe in agile development”. What’s more, I’ve seen a good many others who, whilst paying lip service to agility and the good practices of Scrum, Kanban and similar frameworks, still fail to adopt the fundamental frame shift from rigidity to agility. This has been particularly evident in how these folks managed their requirements, costs and relationships on the ground. I’d like a quick word with these agile holdouts, and anyone else who needs motivation to adopt the agile development mindset.

The question to ask here is fairly simple, and best exemplified with an analogy from Physics. Is Scrum a historical step forward from Waterfall, like the step General Relativity took, when it outperformed Newtonian Gravitation, yielding more accurate results under extraordinary circumstances? Or, is Scrum much more like the leap forward that Newtonian Mechanics made, when it entirely replaced Aristotelian Mechanics – which in hindsight turned out to be plain batty? I’m inclined to think the latter.

Why? Building a software solution is not quite like building a bridge. The reason for this lies, surprisingly, not so much in the details of the engineering process, but rather in our big-picture objective of building that software solution in the first place. Unlike in the case of bridge-building, software solution development involves extensive, ongoing learning from the environment. In this case, the “environment” is the collection of intentions and fancies that the human users who would interact with the solution, have. Rather like in Darwin’s view of nature, a rudimentary piece of software evolves through hindsight into a highly useful – and consequently complex – one. We couldn’t possibly fathom its complete purpose and usage at the onset.

So, the process for understanding user expectations and providing a digital solution for a given domain (such as dating or crypto currency) must necessarily be gradual, involving the production of an initial artefact that collides with end-users, and then changing it continually according to a steady stream of end-user feedback. Therefore, a MVP release aught never to be seen as a mere step or two away from the final deal.

Also, development teams should not be evaluated only for their peak performance, when they are smashing the ball around the park in the first month or two. The whole delivery framework must be geared towards gradual learning, and the development team evaluated for domain interest, stamina and openness to change.

As such, nurturing a motivated, collaborative development team, whose contribution can be scaled up or down based on the velocity of end-user demands, is absolutely essential in today’s ultra-competitive business environment. Business owners, CIOs and tech entrepreneurs should gravitate towards appropriate contractual and/or compensation models that foster such collaborative teams. Scrum and Kanban methodology and their associated compensation models for extended offsite teams, such as monthly retainer, have matured sufficiently to deliver software product increments that can chain-react with end-users and evolve very successfully.

Its time to bury “waterfall” and similar low-collaboration delivery frameworks, and their associated adversarial mindsets, into the annals of history.

What’s in a Business Analyst these days?

A few weeks ago, a graduate from a reputed university, who had studied software engineering, stopped by for an interview. He had applied for a role in Business Analysis, and naturally the first thing I asked him was, “what do you think a Business Analyst (BA) does, in todays agile development environment?” He answered that a BA’s role is to help developers understand product requirements. So I asked him if he could imagine himself working on a project, and describe in some detail what he’d do to elicit product requirements from a business owner.

He struggled with a clear answer. At first I thought it was just his nerves acting up at the interview, but the more I got him comfortable, by asking him smaller questions like “what diagrams or artifacts would you use?”, the more he seemed to grope in the dark about the overall job role. He managed to name some of the diagrams and techniques used in business analysis, like sequence diagrams, use cases and flowcharts. And he was even able to describe what purposes they served. But he was unable to string together the different activities and tools, and describe the job role in a cogent manner.

After some discussion, I realized that he actually was not a poor candidate, at least in terms of his intelligence. Rather, the big picture of how one would set about serving the role of a BA seemed not to have been a discussed, as a part of his academic training.

I think he is not alone. I recall to mind the relatively small number of BA interviews I’ve taken part in (I’ve participated in over a thousand developer interviews, and yet only a half-dozen or so BA ones), and it seems to me that all of them ran the same course. So I thought it might be helpful to software engineering students, if I could lay out a plausible big picture approach to Business Analysis, which is aligned with today’s agile app development zeitgeist.

A BA would ideally commence his job brainstorming with the business owner or entrepreneur seeking to develop the technology solution, and defining the solution holistically, by penning down the overall idea in a couple of English Language paragraphs. Let us consider a Company “Leave Management” Solution as a hypothetical example.

I’d like to build a Company Leave Management Solution, where company Employees can see their leave balances and apply for leave through a mobile app, and where their Line Managers can approve leave via this same app, and where Executives can see reports on leave entitlement, usage and trends. The HR Team would be able to update employee leave balances through a Web portal, for speed and convenience. I’d like to have employees and companies enroll for the solution as a readily available service, by downloading the app on smartphones and signing up. We’d like to deploy a minimal solution within 3 months at the onset, learn from our experiences with our client companies, and thereafter extend our solution to suit their deeper needs.

This type of big picture vision, stated in simple language, is so important for the success of any project in app development or digital transformation. It sets people in the right direction, in terms of the broad vision, functions and actors that the solution encompasses, as can be seen at the solution’s inception. I would even suggest producing a marketing brochure or Website describing the concept to its customers, prior to actually building the solution itself. Understanding the big picture is so important. Once this big picture is understood, we can then move on towards defining the actual software solution in an agile, evolving manner.

We can then identify the actors in the solution, as can be seen at this moment. Like for example, a HR Manager, an Executive, an Employee and a Line Manager. We’d then setup a brainstorming session, and list down the User Stories that describe the expectations that each actor would have of the solution. A User Story from the previous example of the Leave Management solution might be, “As an Employee, I want to open a Leave Application Form in my mobile app. I’d like to see my Leave Balances for each Leave Type, in this form. I’d want to pick the Leave Type I’m applying for, and schedule the dates through a Calendar Control. I’d then like to Submit my Leave Application, which would be routed automatically to my designated Line Manager.

Once we’ve understood the solution’s User Stories, we can begin to prototype the User Experience (UX) in earnest. This would typically take several brainstorming sessions to conclude, depending on the size of the solution. We’d first white board rough sketches of the user screens and their input/output controls, so as to deliver the input/output expectations we have in our User Stories. It might be helpful to initially list down the approximate screen names, that correspond to the overall mental picture we have, of how users would intuitively engage with the system. This UX development activity should always be done in discussion with the product owner(s), a UX/UI developer and other helpful strategists, in a requirements elaboration workshop.

Once a few screens are conceptualized and white boarded, the workshop should break, allowing for offline thinking time for the participating team, as well as time for the UX/UI developer to produce a low-fidelity mockup of the discussed user experiences. There would always be refinements that would get voiced at the next workshop session, about the previous session’s screens, whose mockups would be shared at the beginning of each new session.

After several sessions of UX white boarding, we’d end up with a complete first cut of the solution’s User Experience, and the mockups would now be fit for high-fidelity creative enhancement. It would be important at this stage, to begin creating a Software Requirements Specification (SRS) document, in which the User Stories and mockup screens would be embedded. Business rules that apply to the user actions in each screen would be described, along with any input validation rules that apply for the screen.

Let us consider the example of the Leave Management solution. We would perhaps only allow integers values and multiples of 0.5 for the Leave Quantity field, and it should not exceed the Balance Leave for the Leave Type chosen to be applied for. This would be logged as an input validation rule. The error messaging for input validation violationswould be jotted down, such as “You have applied beyond your available Casual Leave balance. Please try again”. Most importantly, the business rule that (say) the submitted leave will be immediately deducted from the Leave Balance for the chosen Leave Type, on pressing the Submit button, would be noted. We’d ideally also record any special data types for storing the information gathered from the user, in this SRS narrative.

The above process is the most rudimentary one for eliciting and defining requirements for a piece of software to be developed. There may be several other important sections in a SRS document, for communicating non functional requirements such as security and performance expectations for the solution. There may even be some software solutions that are so sophisticated in scope, that they require complex mathematical models or other tools to help define them completely. But it is highly likely that the overwhelming majority of software app solutions would follow a BA process like the one we’ve described above.

In conclusion, its important to understand that this BA process is not a waterfall-like, irreversible process. The essential activities may be repeated, from Release Cycle to Release Cycle, where previously defined requirements may be changed, and the SRS updated as a living document.

–Republished from my LinkedIn Article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/whats-business-analyst-days-ruwan-rajapakse/

Measures of enlightenment: Do all prominent factors for a happier existence show signs of steady historical progress?

Steven Pinker, a Harvard College Professor and one of the world’s leading authorities on Language and The Mind, is due to publish a new book titled “Enlightenment Now”, demonstrating historical progress in the human condition. Or at the very least, he expects to show us that humanity’s approach towards progress has been a learning experience, and that we’ve steadily incorporated measures that foster better living conditions for ourselves. This piece of research is a sequel to his equally illuminating earlier thesis titled “The Better Angeles Of Our Nature”, in which he elegantly demonstrated how human violence has declined over the decades, centuries and millennia.

I keenly look forward to his new book. I would also like to raise a question that arises as a natural consequence of the book’s title, and the preview of its core thesis that Prof. Pinker has shared here. I agree that the steady decline of physical violence, the evidence of economic growth not being at cross purposes with environmental conservation, the improvement in living conditions through increasing adoption of technology etc, are all contributory factors to increasing wellbeing. Yet I still wonder if human attitudes towards each other have shown an equally steady improvement, leading to higher levels of inner satisfaction and external social equilibrium.

In simpler words, have we learned to live happier with each other and with ourselves? I think this is a justifiable, empirical question that can be posed objectively. The factors hinted by professor Pinker unquestionably impinge directly or indirectly on our happiness, such as iPhones bringing in easy conveniences and opportunities for relaxation or the reduction in oil spills leading to a safer environment. However, these kinds factors are the more easily measured, “material” outcomes of human progress, and whilst important to human happiness, are nonetheless incomplete measures of our progress towards enlightenment and the lessening of human suffering.

Daniel Kahneman tells us that we communicate our subjective wellbeing to others in two ways: through our experiencing self and our remembering self. In brief, our experiencing self is our moment-to-moment feelings, expressed through our speech, smiles, laughter, tears and such. Our remembering self is our memory of past experiences. Kahneman tells us that these two kinds of reports can sometimes contradict each other, for one and the same experience, such as whether we enjoyed a particular vacation. The important point though, is that our happiness in both cases can be measured at least to some degree of approximation.

Equally important is the concept of “social technology”. By “social technology” I speak of the innovations throughout history in human attitudes, that reshape (or claim to reshape) our character for the better, and lead to enhanced inner happiness as reported by their adopters and as experienced by those whom they come into contact with. There has been a vast range of such social technologies invented throughout history, some arguably obsolete, and some potentially of great value to this day.

Gods one can appeal to and seek solace when in difficulty, The Golden Rule of the ancients, the dissolution of the self and the practice of self-detachment in the face of adversity (as advocated by the ancient Buddhists and some modern secular thinkers), the art of forgiveness of the early Christians, the stance of non-punitive, restorative justice, the precedence of evidence over speculation or hearsay, the abandonment of superstition and the application of pragmatic solutions to life’s problems, the scientific method, psychology and the science of counseling, the art of reasoning through differences of opinion, the limits of income towards increasing happiness, or even such mentifacts as Sam Harris’s base moral stance of not harming the “wellbeing of conscious creatures” are some diverse examples of social technology that emerged in our turbulent history.

These types of social technologies have been claimed to help us live together in greater harmony, and/or yield greater inner fulfillment. It may be possible to research and chart our progressive adoption of such “social technologies”, over history. Have we adopted the ones that yield results, to the same extent that we brush our teeth, and abandoned the ones that don’t, to the same extent that we don’t use charcoal anymore to brush our teeth?

Yet another angle to my question is to inquire into the progress of our spiritual development. I used the word “spiritual” advisedly here, in the same context as someone like Thomas Metzinger would, where spirituality is understood to be a deep sense of intellectual honesty. Are we more intellectually honest today than we were in the past?

There is of course the tricky problem of determining measurable outcomes that demonstrate the mental wellbeing and spiritual development of humanity. What tangible outcomes can we survey to assess the qualitative progress in human wellbeing, beyond the material substratum shared in Prof. Pinker’s preview? We are not talking about oil spills here. Also, we are unlikely to get a very meaningful result by simply asking people “are you happy” over a period of several decades. Instead, I propose a survey of the following factors.

  1. Do young adults communicate a greater sense of optimism now than in the past?
  2. Are we more prolific today in our hobbies and pursuits per capita, adjusted for age and other relevant demographics, than in 1950?
  3. Do we claim to feel less anxious or threatened on a moment-to-moment basis?
  4. Do we report feeling progressively lesser mental duress – at work for example – over history, and exhibit lesser numbers of stress-related maladies and social consequences?
  5. On a mundane basis, are we increasingly free to be ourselves, express our opinions uninhibited (within the limits of non-violent conduct), without experiencing harmful consequences?
  6. Have we become less judgmental and more objective over time, focusing on resolving ethical dilemmas rather than assuming stances and polarizing society?
  7. When transgressions happen, are we more forgiving, understanding the frailty of the human condition?
  8. Have we progressively given less credence to speculation and hearsay, and focused more and more on evidence, in the media for example?
  9. Are we less superstitious, and increasingly rational?
  10. Are we kinder to each other, and do we help each other oftener, volunteering to provide advice and guidance?
  11. Do we have more fulfilling social lives, and have more friends and soul mates than (say) 50 years ago (the kind whom we discuss issues with, not our friends list on Facebook)?
  12. Are we more satisfied with what we’ve done with our lives, and have fewer regrets?
  13. Is jealousy on the decline?
  14. Are parents being more like friends and educators to their children, and less like authoritarian figures?
  15. Is politics becoming increasingly about team performance, and less about clan identity?
  16. Do we smile more, and laugh more?
  17. Are sociopathic personalities increasingly filtered out for positions of authority and for public office?
  18. Is public intellectualism becoming increasingly and uniformly popular in both the East and West?
  19. Do our education systems distill the progressive social technologies in an objective, secular manner, and instill them in our children?
  20. Do we brainstorm more often as families and social units?

Obviously one would have to structure these rather loose and diverse factors into a more cogent scientific proposition. It would certainly make an interesting research project, and perhaps Prof. Pinker’s new book addresses the above. Research into some of the individual factors mentioned may already be available, and it would perhaps be a case of mining the data and looking for an overall trend in the context of happiness and wellbeing.

My own hypothesis is that human beings have become less authentic and more hemmed in by retrograde social technologies like extreme political correctness, or by downright fear of unforeseen negative reactions. A few decades ago, a person would at worst have been politely chided for an inarticulate, yet well-meaning remark, such as “Tamils are good people”, for which one would be ostracized today. I suspect we have become so finicky that we hardly voice our thoughts out aloud in our own peculiar way.

Furthermore, I conjecture that in the past, there have been at least two peaks in human mental wellbeing, with troughs in between. One peak was at the height of the flourishing of the hunter-gatherer (or “noble savage” as Yuval Harari would say), just prior to civilization and the establishment of extensive social hierarchies. Wellbeing took a nosedive after civilization, because one’s actions were now largely controlled by a system beyond ones power to change, and because vast numbers were literally enslaved for the purposes of economic progress.

A more recent peak was reached shortly before the rapid acceleration of the information technology revolution, somewhere in the 1950s. This was the time when Western economies were growing, scientific optimism was high, population pressure was lower in the East, most occupations were not so specialized, and lucrative opportunities were widespread for those of average cognitive ability.

I theorize that at the present moment we are approaching some sought of a local trough in human wellbeing, where the rat race is so cranked up, where population pressure in the East is still very high, where lucrative opportunities are shifting to the right tail of the ability bell curve, and where earlier socialist or welfare state ideals are frowned upon to such an extent that the baby it encapsulated (aspirations of fair play and a more even distribution of comforts) has been thrown out with the bathwater (the hegemony of the former communist dictatorships).

One hopes get more answers from Enlightenment Now, and to research this topic further, about whether we are progressively happier to our own estimation, and whether our attitudes towards our fellow beings have become steadily more enlightened.

In praise of Universal Basic Income

…and why objections based on so-called ethical principles are silly

In a recent address to his graduation class, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called for the implementation of Universal Basic Income (UBI): a well-known and forward-looking concept in the social sciences, where the state provides everyone with an income sufficient to meet their basic survival needs such as food, shelter and clothing, irrespective of whether they are gainfully employed or not.

I am greatly encouraged by this resurgence of interest in UBI, amongst Zuckerberg, Musk and other Silicon Valley big wigs. I noticed however, that Zuckerberg’s speech in support of UBI drew a hostile reaction of non-trivial proportions across social media, and thought it worthwhile saying a few words in support of his cause.

Zuckerberg put the case forward quite clearly; he provided at least three compelling reasons for embracing UBI.

  1. Advancing technology and increasing automation is leading to fewer jobs.
  2. The dire need for a financial cushion for people, so they could educate themselves as adults, or engage in quality parenting, or perform other productive activities at different stages of their lives, which don’t provide a direct cash return.
  3. The undeniable role that basic financial security plays in fostering entrepreneurship.

I would like to reinforce Zuckerberg’s case for UBI by expanding and extending his rationale. I am charitably assuming of course, that Zuckerberg’s interest in the matter goes deeper than a mere desire to absolve people of the need to work, so they could spend all day on Facebook – a rather sardonic yet common enough reaction to his address.

Let us for a moment explore the ethical underpinnings of the objections to UBI. The commonest objection raised against UBI is the objection to giving people “a free lunch”, and thus “spoiling” them. I saw this particular objection echoed time and again in the commentary surrounding Zuckerberg’s address. One commentator stated this objection with poetic elegance, sighting the good book. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”, he chimed in.

I don’t buy this ethic. Iron age religions codified our inherited instincts to forage and hunt, which were perfectly natural, into a dogmatic ethical principle that one doesn’t deserve to eat, unless one has worked for it. There are two problems with this rather unfortunate paraphrasing of our natural instincts. The first is that nature doesn’t set a precedent to frown upon idle eaters who reach out effortlessly for an easy meal procured by someone else. A male lion, mooching about on the savanna whilst the rest of his pride sweats hard to bring down a kill, may simply saunter over and dig into the carcass, without causing any ill feeling.

Of course one has to sometimes “work” to obtain a meal in nature, but everyone doesn’t have to work for it all the time, and, more importantly, providing food to others is not something for which one need demand an explicit return. This is the second problem with the canonical viewpoint. Social animals such as lions, gorillas or meerkats instinctively understand that opportunity is the biggest success factor in nature, and the individual who “wins the bread” shares it without placing demands. An ancient Homo sapiens may have brought down a boar and dragged it over to his tribal dwelling, to be shared with his kinsmen with altruistic pleasure. Group cooperation, and adaptation for altruism amongst kin, are well-known Darwinian processes.

Civilization and the rise of religious ethics changed this protocol of feeding each other FOC, by sub-optimally placing a mandatory barter value for a meal; it had to be obtained by working (and usually working for someone else). To put it plainly, we were told we have to toil for every f…ing meal. We were conditioned to feel squeamish if we had procured our lunch effortlessly, even if it harmed no one.

Another fallacy, which again I suspect has its roots in the folk psychology of religions, is the idea that poverty is the main driver of success. One particularly benevolent commentator on the Zuckerberg story had these words of wisdom to say: “poverty will be merely a step you take towards success”. Really?! Contrary to this rather masochistic view, the majority of those whom I’ve met who had lost jobs due to no fault of their own, will attest to the huge dependence of their subsequent success on how much financial support they got, when they were “down”.

Rather than being a driver of employability, the fear of starvation often rushes and muddles up the process of getting back on one’s feet. Your friends and relatives push you get any kind of job, which often doesn’t match your skillset, causing further disruptions in your career and more psychological distress.

I quote from a conversation that the political scientist Charles Murray had with the philosopher Sam Harris, where Murray says that an income stream actually improves moral agency, contrary to popular belief. It’s much easier for society to demand more from someone whose basic survival needs are already met. “Don’t tell us you are helpless because you aren’t helpless; the question is whether you are going to do anything to further improve your lot” is something we can tell those who are unproductive, yet receiving a basic income from the state. In contrast, far too many homeless people without a predictable income are powerless to land a job interview, simply because they can’t afford to dress up tastefully. This fact reinforces Zuckerberg’s third point.

Let us bring in another perspective to Zuckerberg’s second point. Many young people sacrifice their best years helping others, at the expense of helping themselves to a comfortable salary. If one raised a child (or looked after an aged parent or grandparent), one has discharged an important practical responsibility towards maintaining a civilized and productive society, for which one ideally aught to receive some material benefit. However, when such a dutiful person looks about to make a living after a hiatus in paid employment, they often face a forbidding society that won’t employ them again because they have a “broken track record”, or are “too old”, or judged to be “overqualified” if they seek a “lesser” job than they last held.

To expand on Zuckerberg’s first point, it is more than mere automation that future employment seekers must worry about. The demography of working class society is changing, towards the upper end of the IQ and EQ bell curves. The rise of importance in IT is a classic example. Coming from this industry myself, I can say that not everyone is cut out to be a good software engineer, for example. In fact, very few people are. Successful lateral career moves into software engineering are an absolute rarity, and worse, the ratio of employability of graduates keeps dropping over the years. It is harder to become an expert software engineer in 2017 than it was to become a successful corporate executive in 1980, in real terms.

The eminent historian Yuval Noah Harari predicts that, barring other catastrophic possibilities like extreme climate change or nuclear war wiping us out, humanity is reliably on course towards freeing itself from the shackles of existential labor, and morphing itself into a species that spends most of their lifetime on pursuits of a recreational nature, either of the intellectual or physical kind. Hence the title of his latest book, “Homo Deus” – human gods. Work, including food production and delivery, will soon be seconded to technology, and humanity will be left to worry about doing things to please themselves, or please each other. This doesn’t sound like all too bad a predicament for us, particularly if one didn’t subscribe to those silly Iron Age philosophies about the sanctity of laboring for one’s meal.

I’ve purposefully not discussed the economics of walking towards UBI and ultimately a labor-less, recreation-focused society. I’ll leave that discussion to the economists and experts. Suffice to say that a very promising trial is in progress in Finland.

However, I argue strongly against any moral objections to freeing ourselves from the need to labor for our basic needs. Social norms are evolving, and its time that we freed our minds of the ancient burden of mere survival, in order to move 100% into the more joyous space of innovation and recreation. Just as Homo erectus evolved towards freeing two of its four limbs to use tools and develop its mind, Homo deus aught to evolve towards freeing its mind of the worry of survival, and focus on developing its technology and the quality of its leisure-time, at an accelerated pace.

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