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Can Radio Shack Be Saved? August 6, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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Nothing that I can say or do will be the magic potion that rescues Radio Shack from oblivion. I certainly hold no influence over its financial or strategic direction, and of course any solution I might suggest could well be recognized by anyone else as pure hokey.

But I am sad to see the demise of an institution that represented its own brand of counterculture in my youth. That counterculture was embodied in the likes of Popular Science and other periodicals of the day that told us that the sky was the limit on our technological achievements. Radio Shack followed up that exhortation by telling us we could build it ourselves, and in many cases showing us how to do so.

If you walk into a Radio Shack today, you are bombarded with cell phones and subscriber plans that you can get in a dozen different stores within walking distance. The rest is a hodgepodge of electronic components, gadgets, and leftovers from a bygone era. My last purchase at a Radio Shack was a USB turntable, for which I had grandiose notions of using to convert my ancient LP trove into MP3s (the sound quality is terrible).

I wonder if it would be possible for Radio Shack to go back to its roots? What brings that to mind is my recent foray into Raspberry Pi, the small and inexpensive computer board that was developed and sold with the idea of promoting the teaching of computer science in schools. It’s probably marginally profitable (the Raspberry Pi Foundation is a non-profit), but for thought leadership it is pure gold.

But what if a small and focused engineering team at Radio Shack had developed something like this instead? And it was a headline promotion in every store? At one time there were people in Radio Shack who understood the technology sold by the company (Heath Kits, anyone?). Even the clerks were more nerds than sales people.

Granted, what I’m describing isn’t the enormous retail network that Radio Shack had become at its height. It’s not even clear that this could be a for-profit entity, at least in and of itself. But Radio Shack would once again stand for something, at least to get people in the door. It would certainly be no worse than anything else tried by the company over the last twenty years.

And products like this have the potential to excite the imagination of all people. We could build things with our own hands and understand how they work, rather than just take the technological complexity of our daily lives for granted. It may seem like a small thing, but people tend to better control that which they understand. And a little of that could benefit every one of us.

Do The Liberal Arts Matter? May 25, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Well, yes, but not as a crutch.

Let me explore that a bit. For my sins, I have a liberal arts degree. My degree is in psychology and, late in my college career, a bunch of pre-medicine courses that could still be reasonably interpreted as the liberal arts. I went on for a masters in psychology, because I initially saw myself as a researcher, but moved to mathematics and computer science because that was what caught my attention.

The problem is that too many young people see the liberal arts, and business, as an easy route to a bachelors degree. They are in school, perhaps at their parents behest, or more reasonably because that was what was expected of them by their peers and society. Lacking direction, they seek the most efficient route to a degree, and all too often that means not fully exercising their intellect.

My story is slightly different. I was among the first of my extended family to go to college, and coming from a decidedly working class family, it was a bit of a transition. I didn’t have the perspective to understand what I wanted to do in life. I needed a certain level of emotional and intellectual maturity before diving into the hard sciences.

Fareed Zakaria says that he learned to write because of a liberal arts education. That sentiment is misguided. You can write with any degree. Fareed, the fact that you couldn’t write without a liberal arts degree is your problem, not the fault of your education. You most certainly could learn to write with a STEM degree. And people who graduate with a liberal arts degree don’t necessarily know how to write. If that is your best argument, you are doing the liberal arts a disservice.

What the liberal arts do is give you a broad education, and a foundation on which to build for the future. That future should, no must, include other education. If you are looking for the fastest way out of college, you are not getting a liberal arts education; you are cheating yourself.

I realize that this thesis requires some self-awareness of your goals and how to achieve them, something that I didn’t necessarily have at eighteen (and it’s not clear that I do now, but allow me a mulligan). But I did have an overriding desire to learn and understand. If you don’t, you are not getting a liberal arts education, whatever your major.

Mr. Zaharia conflates a curriculum with a learning process, and that is dangerously wrong. A liberal arts degree is valuable. But because you have one doesn’t mean you have a liberal arts education.

I Am 95 Percent Confident June 9, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I spent the first six years of my higher education studying psychology, along with a smattering of biology and chemistry.  While most people don’t think of psychology as a disciplined science, I found an affinity with the scientific method, and with the analysis and interpretation of research data.  I was good enough at it so that I went from there to get a masters degree in applied math.

I didn’t practice statistics much after that, but I’ve always maintained an excellent understanding of just how to interpret statistical techniques and their results.  And we get it wrong all the time.  For example:

  • Correlation does not mean causation, even when variables are intuitively related.  There may be cause and effect, or it could be in reverse (the dependent variable actually causes the corresponding value of the independent variable, rather than visa versa).  Or both variables may be caused by another, unknown and untested variable.  Or the result may simply have occurred through random chance.  Either way, a correlation doesn’t tell me anything about whether or not two (or more) variables are related in a real world sense.
  • Related to that, the coefficient of determination (R-squared) does not “explain” anything in a human sense.  There is no explanation in our thought patterns.  Most statistics books will say that the square of the correlation coefficient explains that amount of variation in the relationship between the variables.  We interpret “explains” in a causative sense.  Wrong.  It’s simply that the movement between two variables is a mathematical relationship with that amount of variation.  When I describe this, I prefer using the term “accounts for”.
  • Last, if I’m 95 percent confident there is a statistically significant difference between two results (a common cutoff for concluding that the difference is a “real” one), our minds tend to interpret that conclusion as “I’m really pretty sure about this.”  Wrong again.  It means that if I conducted the study 100 times, I would draw the same conclusion 95 times.  And that means five times I will draw the opposite conclusion.
  • Okay, one more, related to that last one.  Statistically significant does not mean significant in a practical sense.  I may conduct a drug study that indicates that a particular drug under development significantly improves our ability to recover from a certain type of cancer.  Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?  But the sample size and definition of recovery could be such that that the drug may only really save a couple of lives a year.  Does it make sense to spend billions to continue development of the drug, especially if it might have undesirable side effects?  Maybe not.

I could go on.  Scientific experiments in the natural and social sciences are valuable, and they often incrementally advance the field in which they are conducted, even if they are set up, conducted, or interpreted incorrectly.  That’s a good thing.

But even when scientists get the explanation of the results right, it is often presented to us incorrectly, or our minds draw an incorrect conclusion.  A part of that is that a looser interpretation is often more newsworthy.  Another part is that our minds often want to relate new information to our own circumstances.  And we often don’t understand statistics well enough to draw informed conclusions.

Let us remember that Mark Twain described three types of mendacity – lies, damned lies, and statistics.  Make no mistake, that last one is the most insidious.  And we fall for it all the time.

You Don’t Have to Retire to a University Town April 28, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Not that I’m looking at retirement anytime soon; I love what I do for a living, and can give it a lot of energy.  But there has been a push over the last decade or so for people to retire to university towns where they can experience the educational opportunities inherent in the academic environment.

I call BS on that life strategy.

I’m finishing up a MOOC through Coursera, and I have to say that the experience has rekindled an enthusiasm for higher education that I may have lost since I (voluntarily) left my tenure-track position in computer science and math, now almost seventeen years ago.

I have to give credit to Clay Shirky, whose tweet led me in the direction of the topic and course.  The course is A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, taught by Dan Ariely at Duke University.  The topic fits well into my present interest in understanding and compensating for bias in software testing.

I really lacked the time to do it.  But the course organization is a wonderful combination of freedom to work on your own schedule (I’ve been on business travel three times in the last three weeks), and the structure needed to see it through.  You can fully participate in online hang-outs, wikis, readings, and lectures, do what is necessary to satisfactorily complete the course (this course requires an average score of 85 through all exercises and quizzes), or just pick and choose, depending on your interests and time.

Competitive person that I am, I chose to work toward course completion, while doing little of the extracurricular activities that can add spice to a learning experience.  I still work for a living, after all.

The fact of the matter is that you can live just about anywhere in the world with broadband Internet access, and still experience outstanding educational opportunities, makes the idea of living in a university town less vital to intellectual stimulation.  If you’re looking to a university town in retirement to keep your intellectual edge, you may be shortchanging yourself.

Who Is At Fault for the Skills Gap? December 7, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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The quick answer is probably everyone.  But there are many factors at work, and I haven’t yet seen anyone who is willing and able to offer a balanced view.  Most of the commentators who care to weigh in on this and similar topics have a distinct political agenda to grind (I mean you, Felix Salmon).  On the other hand, I want truth, such as it is, although I also understand that truth with a capital T is very difficult to achieve.

By skills gap, of course, I mean that despite a system of secondary and higher education that fuels an ever-increasing number of graduates by burning large piles of dollar bills, employers still claim they can’t find the skills they need to meet their business needs.  The gap between what people are willing and able to do, and what employers are willing to pay for, is generally thought of as one of skills versus market demand.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Us, or at least most of us.  We don’t keep up on our skills, whether technical, administrative, or interpersonal.  We don’t read, and often we don’t learn, either on the job or independently.  In many cases, we latch onto the systems and processes of our current employer, and don’t know how to let go when they no longer apply.  We don’t keep up our professional network, and in many cases haven’t even given a thought to establishing one.  We search for employment inefficiently and often laughably naively.

Second, the education establishment.  There are really decent corners of our education system.  At a broad brush, my experiences with community and technical college systems have been nothing less than outstanding.  They tend to be intellectually rigorous yet focused on applying learning in careers.

But most public school systems are hopeless at even imparting daily living skills, let alone career skills.  It’s mostly not the fault of individuals or even individual schools, but rather that of curricula and strategic purpose that became frozen in time decades ago.  Most universities are even worse, with little understanding of what is needed to begin a career, and no desire to acquire that understanding.

Last, employers.  I recognize that the days when people like me could graduate college with no discernible work skills and parlay a semblance of intelligence into a decent career and top-ten percent income are long over, but over the last decade or so employers decided that they wanted to fill a slot rather than hire a person.

That’s a bad approach.  I stay at my current employer, despite being able to command higher salaries elsewhere, largely because I like the people, like the work, and feel I fit in.  That’s a conscious decision on my part.  Employers delude themselves into believing that they can meet their strategic goals by hiring someone with five years of C# coding, or other specific technical skill.  Unless you plan on showing them the door at the end of a one year project, you want to look at much more than two or three specific skill sets.

Oh, and you don’t want to pay for anything more than that specific skill set, for the useful life of that skill.  And in the aggregate, you can probably afford a person, rather than a limited skill.

But it’s much more complex than that.  The days where a strong back and willingness to work could result in a middle-class blue collar career started disappearing when I graduated high school, and today are long gone.  The responsibility is on all of us, and none of us accept that challenge.  And all of us suffer because we don’t believe it’s our problem.

Here are some links that might be relevant.  These links have others that may provide still more illumination (or not).

Employers may be aggravating the skills gap:  http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economywatch/employers-may-be-aggravating-skills-gap-1C7450821

The Hiring Paradox, from HRExaminer:  http://hrexaminer.com/the-hiring-paradox-skills-gap-1/

We Have Created Our Own Shortage of People:  http://www.jrothman.com/blog/htp/2012/12/we-have-created-our-own-shortage-of-people.html

What Does a Career Really Mean? September 14, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Matt Heusser became a programmer and software test expert because as a youth, he preferred programming his Intel 8086 PC more than anything else.  He points out that tech careers have low social status and, thanks to rapid technology change, a half-life of around ten years (if we’re lucky).  As a result, he wonders if those who follow him fully understand the implications of their career decisions.

I am more or less at the probable height of my career, and it has had little to do with climbing a corporate ladder.  I suppose I had a true tech career at one point, and certainly I did plenty of tech education.

But in reality I’ve actually had many careers.  I tend to divide them into academic, commercial, and journalistic categories.  Within each of those, I’ve done several distinctly different things.  I’ve enjoyed each at the time, but didn’t hesitate when the job or organization went south.

My former colleague and good friend Lauren Dresnick, a wonderfully thoughtful person just over a generation younger than me (24 years, almost to the day), once told me that she hoped she had a career like mine.  That was an odd thing for her to say, given that any advances in responsibility I’ve had have come about purely through age and attrition.  But her point was that I have had a rich and varied series of jobs that have largely held my interest for 30 years.

So what advice do we give those who are embarking upon their higher education, and ultimately their career?  First, discipline yourself in college.  I say that with some trepidation, because many of my generation (and those before and after) didn’t.  But there is so much more information available now than there was then that going to college simply to find yourself seems ludicrous.  Do fun things that engage your intellect, but have a plan.

Second, do what seems interesting, as long as it makes you some money.  I’ve prioritized things in my professional life so that the things that make money come first (this blog doesn’t, incidentally).  But that doesn’t prevent me from attempting my ultimate dream of becoming a novelist.

Third, be afraid, but just a little.  Being unemployed and having no marketable skills sucks.  A little fear for your next job, or even your next meal, can motivate you in powerful ways.  But don’t be so afraid that you’re unwilling to try things outside of your comfort zone.

I don’t know what areas of study and application will make good careers tomorrow.  There are a few, such as tech, that are relatively tried and true, but they also have high volatility.  So it is likely better to choose what you like doing, with an eye toward making money at it, and keep up your skills.  After all, it’s a long career.

Mom, Please Feed My Apps June 13, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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That was the title of an amusing feature in Wall Street Journal last Saturday, which discussed the strategy of mobile games in getting children interested, then charging to get to higher levels of the game.  The article also noted that 60 percent of children aged 8 to 11 had smartphones from which to play mobile games.

Now, I admit to being of an age when phones were rotary-dial and children may have access to a dime to make a pay phone call, so I read such numbers with a bit of amazement.

But there is a serious issue here.  For decades advertisers have found ways of enticing children to their products.  In one sense, mobile games represent a continuation of that strategy.  And it’s a particularly insidious continuation, because the gratification is instantaneous.  There’s no need to save money over time for these games (young children purported can’t make online purchases; they have to be enabled by adults), and there’s no need to wait to go to a physical store.

In my college years I was a fan of singing mathematician and comedian Tom Lehrer.  In 1948 (no, I am not that old), he penned a ditty called The Old Dope Peddler.  I’m reminded of one of the verses from this song:

He gives the kids free samples, because he knows full well,
That today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele.

We may in fact be getting them hooked on something very addictive at a young age.  Of course, you might argue that if parents weren’t so inclined to use mobile games as a distraction for their children, this form of instant gratification wouldn’t exist.

And certainly games themselves aren’t automatically a bad thing.  But the commercial need to get a youthful user on the hook, and keep them on the hook through the life of the game, causes me to question the value of the game itself.

Can Higher Education Be Open Sourced? May 31, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Open sourced isn’t the right term, but rather, can higher education be both freely available and free?  Such a possibility would be highly disruptive, but would have the potential to virtually eliminate student debt, and make higher education more relevant and timely to society’s needs.

That’s what this article claims.  Rather than spend four expense years on a college campus, it advocates a combination of structured (more or less) online educational resources with practical work experience.  It would be largely free, and possibly even paid for the work experience.

In 2010 I was at a talk given by Clayton Christensen, who talked in large part about disruptive processes.  He noted that disruption usually comes in at the low end, and gradually works its way up the value chain until it subsumes the standard of the past.

He used education as an example where this process was currently happening.  No one would accuse an online school as having the reputation or quality of a Harvard.  So online schools serve a different audience, and a different purpose.  They provide largely career-oriented education to non-traditional students who lack the time or schedule to commit to an in-person education.

Clearly, traditional colleges and universities don’t see that as their core market, and may willingly cede that function to a low-cost provider.  But it’s likely online education with improve substantially in a few short years, and begin to offer low-cost alternatives for the next tier of student.  And so it goes, until traditional higher education still has the costs, but no market willing to pay them.

Traditional higher education promotes expertise, active research, and classroom interaction as some of the advantages of its approach.  As an 18-year old (30+ years ago), I believe that on-campus higher education helped me make the first tentative steps from a very small world to a much larger one.  However, I was a somewhat special case, in that I was the first of my generation not only to go to college, but also to leave the immediate vicinity.  Today, for most youth, is that initial transition worth taking on a six-figure debt?  I don’t think so.

I think the article vastly oversimplifies the process by which “open source” education can come to take over from a more traditional and formal educational environment, but that said, it’s an intriguing model that is likely to work in some capacity in the future.

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