Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Internet doesn't make people stupid. Incompetent education makes people stupid.

Here's something that must be true.  I just read it on the internet.  Ivan Schneider's article does not really say that the internet is making people stupid, although one could read it that way.  What he really means to say (and does so) is that the internet facilitates a number of social disruptions and people need to be made aware of that potential so they can guard against it.  However, that conclusion is only half-complete.

You'll probably want to know how this topic is related to the overall topic of the blog. Well, if Mr. Schneider is correct, the quality of governance decisions is going to suffer pretty badly if the rising generation of leaders has been made stupid by the internet.  First, let me say that my recent few months of extended exposure to the start-up community allowed me to meet a great many young coders, sales people and business founders. There are a great many pretty smart cookies out there.  You'll be working for some of them soon enough.

But for the moment let's swallow the conventional wisdom (gained, no doubt, from the internet) that there are a scary number of brain-dead employees and voters out there.  You cannot simply blame that on the internet.

The real symptom is that people (some stupid, some just cynical; you can be the judge on that) say stupid things in a public forum and other stupid people read and believe them. That, of course, has been going on for millennia; the Roman emperors felt that they would remain in power as long as the kept providing the people with bread and circuses. Today, the internet provides these already-stupid (or cynical) people with a wider range for their pronouncements and provides other already-stupid people with greater access to those other stupid people masquerading as educators, journalists, (ahem - bloggers) and of course politicians.

The real way to solve this is not to try and educate the already-stupid people (who have already demonstrated resistance to conventional education) on the internet's dangers, which are already widely known to those who are not stupid.  The way to solve it is in the problem statement: if we can prevent people from being already-stupid in the first place, then they will see these politicians, analysts, journalists and other con artists for what they are.

How do we do that?  We can't do much about the varying levels of gray matter that nature furnishes us with, but we can help people make the most of what they have.  Let's start by stopping trying to convince children and young adults that they don't need to use their noodles at all because someone will make sure they come to no harm.

We need education that includes critical thinking that enables a student to start connecting the dots and, most importantly, to identify when something is poorly supported or biased.  Education that requires some degree of real learning of useful information and requires retention of that information.   Education that does not depend on children to somehow come up with knowledge as a result of group learning exercises.  Education that does not permit the dysfunctional few to impede the progress of the vast majority of future employees, entrepreneurs and taxpayers.  Education where an A is not given just for effort or for having a compelling background story of social deprivation, real or imagined.

This isn't a rant about teachers, for the most part.  Most the problems can be laid on the institutions within which the educators labor despite the obstacles placed in front of them.  We need education systems that do not cocoon the actual educators in layers of union protections that enforce mediocrity - and does not treat and compensate the educators as unskilled labor.  The fact is that most school districts and colleges take in more than enough money to compensate teachers and professors fairly (meaning commensurate with the tremendous responsibility we wish them to shoulder), but it is wasted on layers of bureaucracy and on capital expenses that are more for the sake of competing with other wasteful institutions than for adding any actual learning.

It seems doubtful that the political system, which more than any other depends on feeding rubbish to the masses, has any intention of improving the situation. Anyone think otherwise?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Strategy - just enough to understand is the way to go

My first assignment as a contractor was to write the Strategic Plan for the submarine fleet computing capabilities.  As a former Army officer, about all that I knew about any of that was what Tom Clancy (RIP) had just published in the Hunt  for Red October (yes, it was many years ago), which the Navy acknowledged represented an accurate picture of their capabilities ... 10 years earlier.  Meanwhile, the rest of us had just taken ownership of the IBM AT, the first PC that you could actually use for business in much the way we do today.  It was very hard to imagine where they should be in 10 more years when we could not really absorb where they were now.

Your first opportunity to "do strategy" may have seemed just as high of a cliff to climb.  My boss showed me a process for coming up with a strategy, which I have used several times since, but I recall thinking "is that all there is?".  Of course it is not that simple.  The template is not the strategy.  The hard part is having the expertise, vision and intuition to come up with the right answers to put into the framework.  That skill is what those massive corner-office salaries, bonuses and stock options are supposed to be paying for.  The consultant's role is to help focus the executives' attention long enough, in a structured enough manner, to get those highly-compensated neurons firing.

There is no shortage of books on how to "do strategy" and no shortage of consultants willing to do it for you. You cannot outsource ownership of the actual strategy.  It's fine to get a facilitator, and a graphic artist to sex it up, but a successful strategy is not something people read.  They need to experience the executive team living it, 24 x 7.

A "good enough" strategy makes it easy for everyone in the organization to understand and internalize:

  • What things will look like when we have achieved our definition of "success"
  • How we will accommodate the significant changes we should expect to run into between now and then
  • The few (4-10) major initiatives will we undertake to get there? 
    • Are they realistic (do they match the culture and knowledge that we have, or could realistically get)?
    • Are they allocated reasonable levels of resources?
If the strategy makes those things clear, then it is good enough.  Everyone will understand, at all times, whether the thing they are doing right now facilitates or impedes the strategy.  If it cannot make clear what the few important things are, then more detail is not really going to help.

Having developed a strategy that is good enough, the organization has to have the will to follow through on it.  If that is the issue, your problem is not strategy but leadership.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Update on Windows 8 internet access stability

Isn't it embarrassing to convince the family to invest in the latest must-have technology and then not be able to get it to work?  As we learned last month (thank goodness I tested before exposing it to the crowd), your nice new Windows 8 machine has the potential to embarrass you mightily.  Before you jump too quickly to revisit some steps you might have to take to get your nice new holiday computer working properly (i.e. accessing the internet, a pretty much indispensable requirement), here's an update on that story.

Many of the steps I took last month came from a host of different websites in search of a solution that would work.  By now I'm not sure whether some particular actions actually made no difference, but the combination lasted for a month, even getting me through a real-time programming class requiring internet access in a large university lecture hall.

Over the holidays the glitch was back, or more specifically I couldn't get on the internet.  At first I thought it might have been because the whole neighborhood was at home and logged in, but since my tablet was working just fine I reckoned it was the computer.  Theorizing that perhaps the wireless adapter wasn't properly installed (which I am told is fairly common) I took it in to the Geek Squad to see if they could either put a meter of some kind on it, or perhaps just re-seat it.  As it turns out, modern computer design does not envision component swap-out so they just replaced the whole box.  (Hmm . maybe another post is forming on how the entire computer industry is rejecting the business models that made it a multi-trillion dollar industry).

Now for the good news: Microsoft and/or Best Buy have updated their configurations in several ways and very little needed to be done to keep the new box on line and productive.  The security systems do not seem to be in conflict and the power setting that turns off your wireless adapter to save energy has been removed from the default settings (although you definitely want to check that one).  And of course to do so you need to be able to find the Control Panel.

This you can do via <Windows key>-<D>, which gives you the alternate command "charms" (what were they thinking about with different command menus for different views in a system that actually has no documentation?).  Flip the charms out of the right-hand side of the screen (no idea how you do this if you don't have a touch-screen), choose settings, and at long last the Control Panel appears.  Choose the Power setting and make sure this option is turned off in your active power profile.

The other way of doing this is to download the classic shell, i.e. the Windows XP or Windows 7 "start button" which returns control of the process to you, the user.  It also allows you to have more than one window available at a time, and really if that doesn't seem important to you then you'd be much better off with a tablet.

Those minor fixes aside, the new computer has now been running for a couple of weeks with no difficulty and seems to be quite happy.  The good news about Windows 8 is that it boots up really fast: the computer beats my cell phone by a mile in a boot-up race.