Archive for January, 2011

Cutting the clutter in my blog reading

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Something bad happened to the RSS reader I have been using for several years now. It just will not run. Why? No idea. It happened once before and I recovered the data from an old backup and installed on a different computer because no amount of reinstalling would fix it. But that is not important.

What is important was that this time I decided to start with a new online reading tool and restart what blogs I follow from scratch. I was following hundreds of blogs. Really – hundreds. I got a lot out of them but it was time consuming. I just could not bring myself to prune the list.

So today I added all the blogs of people I work with, all the computer science education blogs on my blog role, and a handful of other top education related blogs. Total is less than thirty. I’m sure I will add more over time but perhaps this time I can keep it to a more manageable level.

Though honestly I worry a bit about missing something. Hope I get over it.

Why Experience Matters

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

A recent Dilbert cartoon had a man saying “I know what I am talking about. I have thirty years in this industry.” Asok the intern asks “How does that help you understand technology that is six months old in a youth-oriented culture?” OK everyone chuckle now – I’ll wait. OK now we know why Asok is still an intern. He doesn’t understand experience.

A lot of people look at a piece of technology that is “six months old” and think that it suddenly sprang from thin air, there there is not previous art that lead up to it, that there is some sort of virgin birth for technology. In truth this almost never happens. In real life technology evolves over time. Not only that technology, at least in the computer field, often moves in cycles. An idea that is a research project one day my 20 years ago suddenly find a missing piece and jump into the mainstream. Having had earlier experience with this sort of technology can help avoid known problems or add ideas that were once “what if” but that are now possible.

Other “new” technologies are reengineering or rethinking of older technologies. Cloud computing for example has huge similarities to old style mainframe computing. Someone with experience can help avoid the pitfalls that lead to first mini-computer and then personal computer paradigm shifts. Just as importantly they can help promote advantages of the “old way” that will work with the “new way” that the youths on the team might not think of at all.

And the bit about youth-oriented culture? Well some of us old people actually used to be youths ourselves. With a good memory we can remember some of it. Good professionals keep up with what is going on in the wider culture too. Do I appreciate Lady Gaga as much as the “kids?” Probably not but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand her. In fact she is a perfect example of what I wrote about here already – anyone else remember Cher? Smile Often times being young means knowing what the latest big thing is without knowing how to make it work. Experience can often help turn the idea of the new cool concept into the reality of the new cool product.

There is a stereotype that says that older more experienced people are slow to change – to adopt new technologies. Sometimes that is true. But my experience (see that “experience”) is that a lot of young people are slow to change as well. Because they often have a narrower background and less experience making changes is often harder for them as well. Experience is very helpful when picking up a new technology.

People with experience have to be careful of falling into the trap that they know everything already. But the young and inexperienced have to be just as careful not to fall into the trap of assuming that the experienced people don’t know anything of current value. Somewhere between knowing all and knowing nothing is the reality. It’s a reality that can greatly benefit those smart enough to tap it.


Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

The other day I went to pick up my father from the senior center where he spends many of his days. As is my habit I put a smile on my face as I walked in the door. Truth be told I was not that happy. It had been a rough day. But I make it a point to great my father with a smile on my face. I do not want him to misinterpret an expression based on a rough day as being applicable to him. I don’t want him to think that I am upset, frustrated or tired of him. Because I am not.

One of the elderly women in the center saw me and remarked to no one in particular “There he is with a simple as always.” This really struck me. The smile is not something I really think about doing but is automatic. But I wonder how many people do come to pick up older relatives with a frown or other negative expression on their faces. Is it because of the current errand (picking someone up who these see as a burden) or is it just a reflection of the day? One can’t know for sure of course but you have to wonder how it looks to someone who does feel like they are a burden. This made me redouble my practice of smiling but it also made me thing of smiles more broadly.

I believe that a smile makes people more attractive. I figure it is somewhere between 30 and 100 per cent better looking depending on the person and the context. A young woman who smiles that “boy do I think you are amazing” as a young man is probably 200% more attractive to him. Someone should do a study though. I’ll bet there is a real number that could be determined on average. So people who want to be seen as attractive should work on their smile first. It’s a lot easier than dieting or working out and less expensive than fancy clothing.

People should also smile because it makes people happy. Smiles are contagious. In fact I think you can “catch” some happiness from your own smiles.

When I was teaching I used to walk though parts of the school before school starts with a big smile on my face and a happy greeting for all I ran across on my lips. I am not a morning person so this took some work for me. But it seems like I was able to cheer people up if only a little and if only for a moment or to. But by the time my walk was finished I was happier than I was as the start. See a smile makes others happy and so they smile at you. It’s sort of recursive. Or perhaps something of a bootstrap process. But no matter how you describe it I think it is a good thing.

So smile. It will make you better looking and happier. Try it for 50 years and see if I am right. Smile

Building Things

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Sunday I built a table. OK maybe a bench would be more accurate. OK maybe I should say that I nailed a bunch of wood together, dropped a section of counter top (it used to be in my kitchen but I replaced it) and am hoping it will hold up under the weight of power tools I am putting on top of it. I have more of these what ever they are to put together because I have other power tools that I need better places to put. Better than sitting on the floor in boxes that is.

I’m not a carpenter. I am not a skilled craftsman by any definition. But I do like to work with wood. Some of my projects come out pretty well. Others, well, not as well. I need practice and could probably benefit from some actual training by someone who really knows what they are doing. Time though is a problem. So I try to figure things out for myself. I read some books. Watch some videos. But mostly I rely on the training I got in high school some 40 years ago. I had a one semester course in patternmaking as a high school freshman. I later had a course in foundry, one in metal work (lathes, drills, etc.), and some sheet metal work. All in all little more than a taste of things. But I learned some concepts and they stuck with me. The high school I attended was an engineering magnet school and these were concepts and practices that were considered important for would be engineers. We also took drafting BTW. With pencils, straight edges and other hand utensils. I learned a lot from that as well.

In of of these classes (in drafting we drew things we later built) we made things. Tangible things. Hard things. Things you could carry. I wonder if we don’t do that enough anymore. Somehow making things makes concepts more real. It is one thing to tell someone that you need angled patterns so that they will come out of the form neatly so  that you can pour molten metal in afterwards and quite enough to have a mold fall apart and be unusable because you didn’t follow the rules.It is one thing to hear about how things are made and quite another to try and do it yourself. The act of creating physical objects is a powerful learning tool.

These days I make things mostly for fun. For my own amusement. I could spend a lot more money and get things professionally built. In some ways, perhaps most ways, those objects would  be prettier, more efficient, quicker to get and generally do the job better. But sometimes, just sometimes, there is more satisfaction in having an ugly, barely functional piece of construction that you really don’t want to show anyone but that solves a need and is something that you built yourself. There is something really satisfying about the process of creation. That is something else I wonder if we allow children enough of. Or do we stop at the building blocks level?

Southland–TV Show Review

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

Southland is a cop show on TNT. Somehow even though we are big fans of cop shows and watch a lot of TNT I’d never seen it before this weekend. Then I got a Tweet from Klout (the Twitter grading site) letting me know I had a “Klout Perk.” In short I was given a free online preview to the new season opener and some goodies of some sort to follow. Hey, sure I’ll watch. There is no obligation but honestly if you give me stuff I’m going to watch the show and probably comment on it. I don’t promise a positive review and the last time they did this for me I panned the show. (Lone Star TV Show Review – show closed after one or two episodes so I was not alone in not liking it.)

So I watched it. It’s hard to jump in on a series like this at the start of a fourth season. The characters now have full backstories and histories and a new viewer doesn’t know them. I found the start of this episode a little slow but perhaps that was because they were trying to (re) introduce the characters. And there are a bunch of characters. Some of the characters I liked – some not as much. I find people who are dealing with so much pain that they are trying to get black-market drugs rather than seeing a doctor too stupid to be sympathetic for example.

Like a lot of these shows there were multiple crimes to investigate. I don’t mind the switching from case to case, group of characters to group of characters too much. At the same time I find that it makes story development light and details are not so important as when one case is the heart of the whole episode. Not that the plots were poorly done – they were done well. I think this show is more about the characters than the crimes. While a show (think CSI, NCIS, The Closer to name a few I love) can do both the crime and the characters Southland is clearly just about the characters with the crimes a story to hang the character interaction around.

Would I watch Southland again? Yes, I probably would.  It’s worth a second watching. Maybe a third. I can see how one could get invested in some of the characters. There are enough of them and they are enough different types that is is not so hard to find one or more to really like. It would just take a little time. On the other hand, I’m not programming it into my DVR just yet though.

Disclosure: I was given a free product or sample because I’m a Klout influencer. I was under no obligation to receive the sample or talk about this company. I get no additional benefits for talking about the product or company.