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What is the Liberal Arts? April 26, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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My B.A. degree is in the liberal arts. The diploma says psychology, but I also took substantial coursework in chemistry, biology, and physics.  Conversely, I took no English courses.

(To be fair, I wanted to take an English course, specifically, a writing course. My university required that I take an English placement test prior to doing so.  I did so, and placed out of the course that I wanted to take, and out of the next course, and was awarded six credits for my investment of an hour.  I never looked back.)

Today, liberal arts and humanities are on the proverbial ropes. This article in Wall Street Journal (paywall) describes how liberal arts programs in some schools are being expanded to include courses in mathematics and data analytics, in an effort to bolster the liberal arts with career learning.

Frankly, those courses, and other science topics should always have been there. In the dawn of the liberal arts education, the goal was to deliver a well-rounded individual who could opine and even work in a wide variety of different fields.  It led to a person who could be described as a “natural philosopher” who is educated and cultivated on a wide variety of topics, which relate to both social and science areas.

It’s only in more modern times that liberal arts curricula came to mean that the individual only had to study psychology, sociology, English, and political science. And that is wrong.  The liberal arts education has always been defined by a broad education without the depth of specialization.  Its intent is to drive rigor across traditional academic boundaries to enable its possessor to become a truly educated person.

But we got away from that at some point, with higher education permitted to define liberal arts as a much narrower take on a limited number of softer topics. Today’s so-called liberal arts is actually a bastardization of what it was intended to be.

The WSJ article positions the addition of math and science courses as a nod toward career training over life training. Ah, no.  Chosen well, what the math and science courses really do is round out a liberal arts education.  I understand that people need to get jobs, and such to get jobs, and such courses may help, but science and math are very much a part of life experience, no matter what field you may ultimately pursue.

About Licenses, Certifications, and Tech Jobs April 14, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Software development, Technology and Culture.
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As an academic, 25 years ago, I postulated to my students that software developers would require certifications and licenses at some point in time to pursue their craft. I was widely ridiculed at the time, so I would like to revisit that position today.

First, I want people to understand that I have no particular qualifications to write on this topic (that is ironic, based on the sentiment of this post).

We are facing two forces here. One is that innovation comes from at least partly those who have breakthrough ideas, from any field, without necessarily having formal training in that field.  While certainly true in software, I would imagine it true in other professional fields as well.

The second is that we as a society are increasingly depending upon software, and in particular software working correctly. This means we are vitally interested in having people who are working in that field are in some way qualified to do what they do.

And what does that mean? As in other professional fields, it means that we have studied formally, taken tests, and achieved a level of competence that is quantitatively identifiable and measureable.  In other words, we have a degree in the field, and we have passed one or more tests.

In the late 1980s, I worked for a defense contractor who was required to assure the DOD that its employees all had technical degrees. At that time, my MS in applied math qualified in that regard, so I passed muster.  Other long-time employees did not.  Did that make me better than them?  I don’t think so, but it made me more credentialed.

It has gotten worse since then. As we have self-driving cars, high-speed financial trading systems, fly-by-wire aircraft, and a myriad of other essential and safety-critical systems, we feel the need to have a level of confidence in the professionals behind them.  That confidence may be misplaced, but it is backed by a degree and/or certification.

In The Complacent Class, economist Tyler Cowen notes that in the 1950s, five percent of workers required a government-issued license in order to do their jobs, but by 2008, 29 percent did.  At many of the software conferences that I participate in, smart and serious professionals compare professional qualifications and job requirements.  It seems increasingly difficult to obtain employment without these certifications; in fact, I met many mid-career people who feel they need to become certified to continue their careers at a high level.

I don’t know the answer to this. I would like to think that some mixture of educated, certified professionals and unqualified-on-paper but passionate and self-educated people are essential in software.

But. Employers are increasingly looking for people who have credentials, usually those provided by a professional society (at least in software), that say they have studied and passed a test.  The problem is that such a thing may or may not have anything to do with their competence, knowledge, dedication, or ability to deliver on a project or task.

Increasingly, we as a society are not allowing for the mixture of qualified-on-paper and passionate-by-nature. I do believe that is wrong, but we are not willing to take the time and effort to identify those who can seriously contribute from those who have passed a test.

The Joys of Flying April 10, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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First, let me say that I am a longtime Delta/Northwest frequent flyer. Three years ago, I attended the QUEST conference in Chicago, which was inundated by flooding rains.  The early morning before my flight, my phone went off with a severe flood warning.  Getting to the airport (Midway), I picked up my boarding passes, only to discover that they had rebooked me for late afternoon, rather than early morning.  It got worse, and long story short, I got home around 2AM.

So, this time, same conference, Delta claimed that tornados in Atlanta interrupted their schedule.  For four days.  Ah, no.  Someone in the C-suite really needs to be fired, but of course that won’t happen.  But the individual Delta people on the ground were great, patient, helpful to the extent that they could be, and sympathetic.  I actively managed my alternatives, leveraged my status, and got home only a few hours late (but still about 3AM).

Despite the Delta debacle, United can’t hold a candle to it. I have told my corporate travel office that I only want to travel on United in the future, because I want to be beaten up, knocked unconscious, and dragged bleeding from the plane.  Is this what as a corporate identify we have come to?

And the “apology” from United CEO Oscar Munoz?  I hope the board of directors realizes that they don’t want him leading their global company.  “I am sorry that we had to re-accommodate passengers.”  I would like to call him some very obscene names; he has no business heading an airline.  At the very least, he needs to stand down from saying anything else right now.  As do his PR flacks.

I hope that the FAA pulls their airworthiness certificate for a few days. I’m sure that won’t happen, and I’m sure that Munoz will get a bonus.  But it’s so very wrong.

And I’m sorry, I hate to swear, but I do have to say it. Assholes.  And I’m sorry again.  Motherfuckers.  As Dave Carroll said, “I might fly them if I have to save the world, but probably not.” (which also occurred at O’Hare).

Update:  A longtime friend said to me, “That’s what happens when you don’t do what they tell you on a plane.”  Well, perhaps, but it could have been handled much differently.  I told him, “What if you were on a United flight, and they told you that you had to give up your seat?  And you said, My son was in an auto accident, and is in the hospital (this really happened, although he was home at the time).  I have to get home.  And they said, Not on this flight you don’t.”  I told him I bet he would fight back.

Really, CNN.com? March 31, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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I recognize that the mainstream media, or MSM, has been under fire lately. And has been under financial and relevancy pressure for at least two decades, as falling ad rates for digital media has cut still further into its advertiser-driven business model.  That one is a difficult one to solve, but that doesn’t absolve CNN from actually trying to solve it.

But giving advertising content the same placement and appearance as your news content is simply so far over the top that I am beside myself. Here is a screen capture of CNN Money that shows “sponsored content” (advertising) presented in the same manner as news.

This is wrong on so many levels I can’t even count them. That CNN.com would lower itself to this is unconscionable.  There are plenty of people who still respect and appreciate actual news, and they are (or can be if you care) your biggest defenders.

And really, CNN.com. It is purported news stories like this one on the move of the Oakland Raiders that make even reasonable people doubt your veracity.  I have never read such a one-sided, biased, and inflammatory article on a major news site.  You never even bothered to seek out and question Raiders owner Mark Davis, or to say that the Raiders and A’s are the last teams to be playing in the same stadium, by a long shot, or that Davis is relatively cash-poor and would likely have to give up ownership in order to remain in Oakland.  I live nowhere near Oakland, and have no dog in this hunt, but this does not even begin to pass the smell test.  Sometimes you are just too stupid for your own good.

Journalism is more interesting when it has a point of view. You may not always (or ever) agree with that point of view, but it is important to absorb and consider it.  But this is presented as objective news, yet is neither.

CNN, I know that it’s not easy, but it’s time to grow up and figure out your path without continuing to resort to cheap tricks like these.

Decisions, Decisions – There’s an Algorithm for That March 20, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software development, Strategy, Technology and Culture.
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I remember shoveling sh** against the tide. Yes, I taught statistics and decision analysis to university business majors for about 15 years.  It wasn’t so much that they didn’t care as they didn’t want to know.

I had more than one student tell me that it was the job of a manager to make decisions, and numbers didn’t make any difference. Others said, “I make decisions the way they are supposed to be made, by my experience and intuition.  That’s what I’m paid for.”

Well, maybe not too much longer. After a couple of decades of robots performing “pick-and-place” and other manufacturing processes, now machine learning is in the early stages of transforming management.  It will help select job candidates, determine which employees are performing at a high level, and allocate resources between projects, among many other things.

So what’s a manager to do? Well, first, embrace the technology.  Simply, you are not going to win if you fight it.  It is inevitable.

Second, make a real effort to understand it. While computers and calculators were available, I always made my students “do it by hand” the first time around, so they could follow what the calculations were telling them.  You need to know what you are turning your decisions over to.

Third, integrate it into your work processes. By using machine learning to complement your own abilities.  Don’t ignore it, but don’t treat it as gospel either.

There are many philosophical questions at work here. Which is better, your experience or the numbers?  Kahneman says they are about the same, which does not bode well for human decision-making.  And the analysis of the numbers will only get better; can we say the same thing about human decision-making?

Of course, this has implications to the future of management. I’ll explore my thoughts there in a future post.

About the Coffee Maker March 13, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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So as I continue to read about how companies have discovered the magic path to innovation, putting everyone in the same room, with personal space bumped up against one another, in reach of the coffee machine, in order to innovate, I have several succinct comments:

  1. I don’t drink coffee, and in fact hate the smell of it. You will not find me near the coffee maker.
  2. This worked for Yahoo so well, right?
  3. Everyone thinks that the solution is to throw people together, stir, and wait for innovation.

It’s not nearly that easy, of course, and organizations are stupid if they think that it is. Yet we as institutions continue to persist in believing that it is.

Fifteen years ago, I worked for a company whose CEO abruptly decided that all employees needed to be in an office in order to bask in the company culture, and one day fired all of those who didn’t go into an office on a daily basis.

Of course, management can do what it wants. And usually does.  But all too often organizations and their managements engage in groupthink.  If a power broker says that we need to put people together in the same room and let them percolate, then that’s what companies do.

It’s not that easy, folks. And too many people think that it is (I’m talking about you, Marissa Mayer).  Mayer, of course, was faced with a very difficult job – what did Yahoo want to be when it grew up (it should have been Facebook before Facebook).  And she ended up with about $200 million for failing.  You know, we all want to succeed in our endeavors, but a bunch of money makes it easier to accept our limitations.

The real problem is that executives tend to think that there is a straightforward answer that only they have thought of. I am sorry, they are not paid to be drive-by executives, just making a few pithy comments and leaving it to others to do any hard work.  The answers are not easy, and implementing them is not easy.

Health Care is Institutionally Resistant to Technology March 9, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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That is an overarching and controversial statement, and is probably not true under all circumstances. I will only touch on a few points, based on this article in WSJ (paywall) and my own recent experiences.

The WSJ article notes a pretty complete failure of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to leverage IBM Watson AI technology to help diagnose and treat cancer.

Of course my own recent experiences include a referral to what is purportedly one of the leading cardio institutes in the country, which asked me to fill out forms using a Number 2 pencil. Like I did when I was in elementary school.  When I went to the website, there were obvious misspellings and bad grammar, including in their bragging about being a leading institution.

My doctor objected to my objection. “They don’t do their own website!”  My response:  “And they can’t even be troubled to read it, either.  If you can’t get the easy things right, it leaves a lot of doubt that you can get the hard things right.”

I see a couple of forces at work here. First, health care remains incredibly complex.  Every patient is different, and has to be treated with individuality.  (To be fair, that is not how many human practitioners treat their patients, but that is a tale for another day).  This approach may not be amenable to current machine learning endeavors.

That being said, however, it is clear that health care practitioners and institutions are rooted in routine and learned practice, and passively or actively resist new approaches. In a sense, it is sad that otherwise highly intelligent and educated people are so steeply rooted in their routines that they cannot adapt to changes for the better.

But the institutions and bureaucracies themselves force this attitude on many. It’s simply less friction to do things the way you always have, as opposed to trying something new.  And that, more than anything, is where health care needs to change.

What Should We Know About History? March 9, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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This one is from the heart, and has little to do with technology, so I apologize in advance. This starts with me commenting on what I think is a very good though rambling story on Quartz, which discusses a service to teach Millennials about basic life skills.  It notes that Millennials face different challenges than past generations, but also concludes that they must find their own ways on life skills.

I commented that as a Baby Boomer, when I graduated college, unemployment was 11 percent and inflation 17 percent, figures not seen before or since. The writer, who seems intelligent and thoughtful, was incredulous that such a state of affairs existed in our history.

We seem to have lost an historical perspective. Just a few years before my coming of age, we had gasoline shocks, where OPEC flexed its muscles and the price of gasoline increased by five-fold.  We had Stagflation.  We had WIN (look it up).  We had devastating strikes in basic industries in the 1960s.  We had companies assassinating union leaders who dared speak up.  Farther back, we had things like the Pullman Massacre and the Homestead Massacre.

There are people today with individual circumstances that you feel for. But by and large, most of us have it great.  I am highly cognizant that I have it better than most, but I am also highly cognizant of my working class roots.  It has not always been like this in my life.

I realize that news organizations are selling eyeballs, and they get eyeballs by telling people how bad they have it. It is wrong, in a strong sense.  I wish they would stop.

But this also has to deal with our perspective. Our perspective is not just today, and if it is, we are doing a disservice.  We need to tell people how they relate to events past.

If we can’t, we shouldn’t be writing about this stuff.