The choices we make aren’t always as rational as we’d like them to be. One method to improve rationality is to examine potential consequences before the decision is made, before, as the Romans used to say, the die is cast. (A Roman: Julius Caesar.)
Business likes to think of itself as ultra-rational, basing all its decisions on what it likes to call The Bottom Line. That is, will this make a buck or not? These decisions are supported by innumerable numbers, charts, graphs, and presentations.
However, when the nitty meets the gritty, business people discover The Bottom Line is not fixed in stone. Rather, like most human goals, it can be very subjective. In most cases, it is so myopic it hides all but immediate consequences.
For example, a business whose complete and utter focus is impressive numbers (real or fictitious) for its quarterly report, is incapable of dealing with any other consequences of its actions.
Recently, I wrote three posts about how Digital (with a big D) was killing the economy, jobs, and the middle class. Of course, the Digital Revolution does none of this things by itself. These problems are the result of how business wields the big Digital.
For some, capitalism comes in only one flavor, the unfettered Free Market. But many economists (among others) have recognized for decades that the current form of capitalism actually should be called short-term capitalism.
If a single business wants to be robo-centric and not hire humans, it won’t noticeably affect the overall job market. True, but what would happen if they all did this? Where would the jobs come from to buy the products they want to make?
This is an example of reductio ad absurdum, a Latin phrase (from those same Romans mentioned in the opening paragraph). Yet, there is a point at which some number of businesses, if they side with the machine, will effectively destroy the job market.
This point will be reached long before the argument becomes absurd, and then the economy will collapse. Businesses may ignore the loss of jobs for their bottom line—but for how long?
December 2, 2013
November 25, 2013
Over two years ago, I posted a series of Internet Lies. Given the rate of change in the digital world, I decided to review the list. (Read the original posts here by searching for “Internet Lie #”.)
First, all those lies are still lies. All that’s changed are the numbers, e.g., more people are connected to the Internet. But I did find two whoppers, although only one is really new.
The one lie I missed was about speed. The speed they advertise is not the real speed of your Internet connection. What they’re measuring (and providing tools to prove it) is the ping speed.
Pinging sends a signal from a machine at point A to a machine at point B and returns it to point A. That’s the speed they claim they provide—and charge you more than fifteen other countries.
Pinging a signal tells you absolutely nothing about how much time it takes to upload or download a file between A and B. It says nothing about the average speed of this transfer.
Say your car can do 120mph. A five mile trip in town takes you fifteen minutes. That’s 20mph. Similarly, real-time Internet speed is what matters. (I measure mine for free with NetWorx.)
They not only lie about Internet speed, they lie a lot. Get your own tool and measure your real speed. Then try to get a reduced rate based on what they delivered, not what they promised.
The second, sneakier, bigger lie was not much talked about two years ago: The Cloud. The lie is there is no such thing. There are various clouds, but there is no one single “The Cloud.”
You search Google in the Google cloud, and shop at Amazon in the Amazon cloud. It’s convenient for Internet giants to pretend there is one Cloud, the same way they refer to one Internet. Both lies. The Internet you connect to in China, Singapore, or North Korea is very different from what you connect to here in the US.
This is no one unified happy Cloud in the sky offering candy canes and protected services. Among the clouds it is all-out war, and we can only hope the winners gobble up the losers. Otherwise the fallout will make us wish for Chicken Little.
November 18, 2013
November 11, 2013
November 4, 2013
In my house I have things I’ve bought over many years: furniture, clothes, devices, and media—vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs, video tapes, DVDs, and books (many books).
A good number of these items (furniture and media) were purchased used, and I have resold some of these. However, media resale is drying up (or already has in the case of tapes).
This is how the digital revolution impacts me. While the CDs still have some value, the tapes (cassette and video) have none. And it’s only a question of time before the DVDs and books go the way of vinyl—a small coterie of hardcore collectors.
I haven’t calculated how much resale value I’ve lost from those tapes, nor how much I’m likely to lose if I don’t sell the CDs soon. But it’s not just the lost resale value of the tapes.
By keeping tapes too long, I’ve lost the opportunity to sell the tape recorders (4!). I kept these devices, so I could transfer the tapes to other media. I kept planning to do this. Didn’t happen.
Yet this post isn’t about me or the value I’ve lost as digital revolutionizes everything. I still buy physical books with the hope of reselling them. I can’t do the same with e-books.
Physical books can be bought and sold until they fall apart. Every one of my tiny transactions is a miniscule turn of the big economic crank. Multiplied by many millions and it makes a real difference. Not so with e-books.
Every digital product is an economic dead end. We don’t own them; we pay to use them. Their economic value is only a single transaction. Digital products have no economic future.
Every time the sale of a digital product replaces the sale of a physical product, it kills all resale transactions and our economic future shrinks. Even multiplied by many millions this may not seem a significant threat. But it’s not just products, it’s also jobs. Next week.
October 28, 2013
As a beginning programmer, I listened to everything my peers said. The strangest was programmers couldn’t write English. I didn’t believe it until I saw it for myself—again and again.
I didn’t understand how this could be, since I didn’t have any problems writing. And then I did. When immersed in a large complex program, I had trouble switching from code to words.
Over time, I realized programming and writing used the same creative area of the subconscious. When that part of the brain is preoccupied with one, there’s no room for the other.
Writing and programming have much in common. Most notable is the advice given to novices by many great writers: steal from the best. And keep stealing until you find your own voice.
Beginning programmers need to steal for a practical reason: it solves problems quickly. Since the code you steal is never exactly what you need, you learn how it works by modifying it.
But there’s a more important reason for both writers and programmers to steal from the best. It refines the ability to discern quality. It’s how we climb onto the shoulders of giants.
Another tip from writers is to kill your darlings. Don’t be enamoured of a clever phrase (or line of code) if it detracts from the whole. Don’t put your ego above the integrity of the work.
As I said last week, programming and writing are both practical arts. How do you become more skilled in the practical? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.
The worst mistake beginning programmers (and writers) can make is not to admit when they don’t know. Look it up. Ask. Use validation software (and grammar and spell checkers).
The big difference between writing and programming is in the pudding. You know when a program works, when it does what you intended—and when it doesn’t. Writing, not so much.
October 21, 2013
If you’re not familiar with code.org, you should be. It’s a vast nonprofit initiative to make computer science part of the core curriculum in all US schools. Digital jobs are the future of our economy, and code.org wants everyone to be code literate.
Universal code literacy is a laudable goal, but it’s just the first step for our economic recovery. While it is only an initial opportunity, it does open the door to many possible career paths.
Not everyone who acquires code literacy can become a programmer. However, being code literate helps you understand the intentions and methods behind the software you use.
As for programming jobs, code literacy is minimal entry level. Employers, as always, will prefer experience. Hence, beyond literacy the goal is experience, just as the goal beyond experience is competence, and beyond competence, excellence.
Understanding the syntax of a programming language will not make you a programmer any more than understanding the syntax of a written language makes you a writer. In both disciplines, you learn by doing, especially from your mistakes.
One thing coding is not, is an academic discipline. Like writing, it is a practical art. Unlike writing, it requires continual learning to keep up with the ongoing development of new programming languages and state-of-the-art equipment.
Programmers are not so much hired on what they know as their ability to learn. Becoming code literate is the first step in demonstrating that capability. Afterwards, learning on the job is usually informal, requiring both initiative and self-discipline.
Code literacy opens many doors. Career paths beyond are challenging because they are unlimited and always changing. Yet, insights are available to ease the journey. See the next post.
October 14, 2013
Everybody talks about the great future of the Digital Revolution. They marvel at what computers can do today and thrill to the possibilities of tomorrow. (The day after tomorrow is beyond imagination.)
We expect this future to be unlimited. These, of course, are its positive aspects. Not many pay attention to warnings about the negatives. Some of these are obvious and cannot be ignored.
You may, and should, ask what is so obvious. As digital expands, so do opportunities for disasters, from personal (identity theft) all the way up to global (expanding terrorism).
These possibilities arise from a number of causes: from programming errors to individual hackers to criminal break-ins and theft to attacks on national security by other nations.
Let’s take one example from a subject recently discussed in this blog, automated cars. What’s obvious here is that the more complex the system, the more different ways it can be manipulated, deceived, or hacked.
A system of automated cars is so complicated, it defies comprehensive description. For example, what vehicles will be part of the system, and how will the system deal with the others?
What is a bicycle to an automated vehicle system? Must it be controlled, too? Since the system must use existing roadways, how does it handle pedestrians crossing its streets? And what about obstacles like roller blades, skate boards, and stray dogs?
As you see, even if the system could be perfectly protected from error, hackers, break-ins, and massive attacks, there are still many things outside the system threatening its stability.
It’s easy to envision rogue vehicles disrupting the system. While these may be illegal, this country has a rich history of modified vehicles breaking the law. Even one such vehicle could cause havoc. How much protection will an automated system need?
October 7, 2013
I used to joke (good news/bad news) that anyone could program. Not true. If you’ve mastered algebra or trigonometry, you can probably program. Learning (books, courses, degrees, etc.) may be all you need to be hired.
The big question is how well you program. Employers may say they want experience but they settle for cheaper, and plentiful, beginners. However, there is a huge difference between entry level programmers and advanced proficient practitioners.
I keep asking, who writes all this bad software? Now I realize that’s the wrong question. The demand for programmers is so great, they must come from the masses attracted to mass media.
Look at what’s popular in movies, video games, music, and television. It’s mostly fast moving, loud (let’s add more, bigger explosions), and full of superficial CGI.
Since this is what most people like, then this is the kind of software they will write. Their computer screens may be impressive, but code like this is the antithesis of good software.
Online banking software, for example, is not entertainment. It’s not even infotainment. Bad programmers tend to elaborate and embellish mundane software, detracting from its purpose.
In software, like any practical art, form follows function. Extraneous visuals and sounds obscure function. Software cannot be written to please the writer or the writer’s ego.
Pleasing the user comes first, and the first thing the user expects is clarity. What’s this software do? How do I get it to do what I want? How do I make sure it did it?
Software’s job is to do what the user needs—without error, annoyance, or frustration. Good software simply does what you expect it to do. Anything else is bad programming.
September 30, 2013
In its heyday, two things were said about IBM salesmen. (This was over 50 years ago—they were all men.) One, was that they were the best. No surprise there, the whole company was built around sales. Not technology, sales.
The other thing that was said was IBM salesmen sold Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. (FUD, as it was known. No relation to Elmer, two Ds.) Has the world changed in those 50 years?
Now, our computer purchases are small potatoes; no one risks the whole farm. We don’t fear computers as we once were told we should. We’re far more certain in our abilities to use them. Our doubts no longer paralyze.
In this dwindling economy, sales jobs are harder to find and harder to keep. But why, in this increasingly digital world, are sales jobs still with us? Precisely because these newly forming digital conglomerations are ill-defined. They need to be sold.
IBM used fear as a sales tool because computers were still unknown—and hugely expensive. These new digital concoctions use fear because the need for their products is not based on fact but rather insinuation and implication.
The new digital salespeople not only sell fear, they themselves fear for their jobs. This fear grows as their digital bosses shrink the economy. Some project their own fear to make buyers afraid not to buy.
These sales jobs are more tenuous because digital products are more vaporous. Success in these sales is at best ephemeral, at worst imaginary. The yardstick is not did I sell but did I sell everything that could be sold. No wonder they’re afraid.