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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Do you spend three or more hours most weeks creating and modifying Power Point decks? If so, I found something you really need: a short workshop that will reduce the amount of time you spend creating and modifying Power Point decks by two thirds. Really. For every three hours you spend now, you will probably spend no more than one hour, and your decks will look more professional. Taylor Croonquist of Nuts and Bolts Speed Training has created an on-line “watch and do” workshop that shows you how to do that.

Full disclosure: Taylor reached out to me and asked me to review his workshop so I did not have to pay the $98 for the course. But the course was well worth the list price. Wish I had taken it years ago.

The workshop is designed around the 2013 version of PowerPoint for Windows, although most of his techniques work on 2007 and 2010. Mac users cannot use many of Taylor’s techniques directly, although I think the workshop is worth the price even for them. Many of the ideas Taylor demonstrates work for the Mac version of PowerPoint, you just won’t get the full speed benefit. I ran much of the workshop in parallel with a Windows 2010 and Mac 2011 version up simultaneously. I spent about six hours going through the workshop, following along with Taylor on my Windows machine and often also on my Mac. I’m already using many of the tricks and techniques.

His main concentrations:

  • Use the keyboard instead of the mouse. The majority of the speed changes come from the simple fact that you can type a couple of characters a lot faster than you can pick up the mouse, find what you want, click or drag or whatever, and get your hand back on the keyboard. Aargh, you think, I have to remember a whole series of chords. Remember Word Perfect? Taylor has a very well thought out way to configure your PowerPoint environment to virtually eliminate the need to remember chords; you just need a few common points about how alt and control keys work that you probably already know. Everything else is on the screen. You will get a significant speed improvement immediately, and as your muscle memory becomes established it will all quickly become automatic.
  • Format an object once. Reuse it often.
  • Align everything perfectly. When you look at a slide and it does not look “right” it is probably because elements are not properly aligned. It can be a pain to get things to align right, but Taylor shows you how to do it perfectly and quickly. Your slides will stand out largely because misaligned objects will not distract from your message.
  • Use connectors correctly. Taylor shows you how to quickly set up even complex connector lines that are easy to maintain as your deck changes over time.
  • Take advantage of Ninja lines. Don’t look for them in your Excel help file. Ninja lines are just what they sound like: they appear out of the dark, do something magical, then disappear. Got a tough alignment problem? Call in the Ninjas.

Remember that every deck you create will probably go through a series of updates. Taylor emphasizes how to create each slide so that it can easily be updated over time, and how to take someone else’s messed up deck and quickly get it properly aligned and easy to maintain.

The user-interface of the course is quite intuitive and effective. Taylor is fun to listen to, even for a multiple hour stretch. He has a lot of enthusiasm for doing PowerPoint quickly while achieving professional results.

I strongly recommend this workshop. It will reduce your frustration with PowerPoint, and your managers and co-workers who constantly suggest “minor” changes, while giving you more time to do the important things.

Even after taking the workshop, you can still create a bad slide deck. It will look professional, and you will have done it in in one third of the time, but it will still be awful. Check out my earlier post on My Favorite PowerPoint Tips.

The last word:

I hope you had a Happy Independence Day celebration, waved a few flags, thanked a few vets, ate a few burgers and hot dogs, and “ah”d at some great fireworks. We don’t live in a perfect country, but we live in a great country. There is no other country I would rather live in. It was worth fighting and dying to create it, and periodically we have to fight and die to keep it great and free.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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A year ago I posted “Where Are the Workers?” about the difficulty that companies had in finding workers. It is very difficult to find people who can read and follow directions, show up on time, and pass the drug test. In all but the lowest level manual positions, the candidate must also be able to communicate with other workers, management, and customers.

But it is also difficult to find a job. While we are officially in a recovery, it is a very slow recovery without the usual fairly sharp rise in job availability after a major recession.

I recently saw a Washington Post article stating that for the first time in decades more companies are dissolving than are being created. The Brookings Institution study implies “a continuation of slow growth for the indefinite future,” and probably is part of the explanation why job growth rates have failed to rise above two percent in this recovery. The Brookings Institution is known as a liberal-oriented think tank.

CompaniesDisolving

Why is the American economy growing less entrepreneurial? That answer will probably become more clear in ten years or so, but I suspect a few influences.

  1. Our current education crisis. Our public schools seem unable to provide our students with the set of skills they need to be successful in business. Common Core will not help. Our colleges and universities, though still rated some of the best in the world, are mostly successful at saddling students, whether they graduate or not, with a mountain of debt and little chance of finding a job.
  2. The biggest single area of uncertainty is health care. Congress passed The Affordable Care Act, but President Obama has made at least forty changes to the law by fiat. Many of these changes impact when certain parts of the Act go into effect and what insurers must cover. These changes impact the cost companies will have to bear. All a CFO can really count on is that health care costs to cover employees will rise, with no idea of how much or how fast.
  3. Uncertainty driven largely by government actions and inactions in other areas. Congress continually fails to pass a complete budget or even budgets by sector, impacting government contracts in all areas. Congress also continues to fail to address a number of tax issues, allowing, for example, tax relief programs to expire for individuals and companies. This prevents companies from planning expenses and opportunities even for the current year, let along the future.

Whether you are a seasoned worker with decades of experience or just of out school, what does it mean as you look for that first or next job?   Two things: you need more than the technical job skills, and you have to be flexible in how you will work.

Baseline recently reported that 77% of employers believe that soft skills are just as important as hard skills for career success. These soft skills include a strong work ethic, reliability, a positive attitude, self-motivation, team-orientation, ability to manage multiple priorities, working well under pressure, good communication skills, flexibility, and confidence. As you work on your résumé, your interview preparation, and your references, focus just as much time on examples of how you excelled in most of these soft skills as you do on your certifications, training and experience in the desired job.

In the old days, one went to work with an expectation of staying there for a long time as you moved up in responsibility. Those days are gone. The loyalty that used to go both ways between a company and employee does not exist, although the company still expects you to be loyal to it. According the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average worker stays in a job for 4.4 years. That means that you should expect to have a lot of different jobs, around eleven, in your career. Companies are moving to outsource everything. Even CEOs are essentially contract employees. Companies started renting their executives decades ago, then starting working from the bottom to let someone else do their payroll, HR, shipping, manufacturing, software development, data processing, and building maintenance. Companies are now contracting out even for their core design, development, sales, and marketing. Who is left? I know independent contractors who have worked longer at a client company than most of the employees of the company.

But as companies try to keep benefit costs, especially health insurance, down ideally to zero, expect that you are likely to have multiple jobs at the same time. Instead of a one-to-one relationship between you and the company for which you work, you are likely to be simultaneously working for more than one company. This already happens for consultants, but expect it to become the norm. Companies do not need a fixed number of full time experts for a particular task, but when they need one or more they want people who understand their company, its strategy and its products. Someone who is available 20 hours a week or 20 hours a month who is plugged into the company is less expensive than a full-time employee, and more effective s they don’t have the learning curve.

One result is that I expect to see the virtual if not actual decoupling of health insurance from employment within the next five years, with government employees being the last to go. I personally view this as an appropriate place to be.

The other result is that you should always be looking for a job and keeping your résumé up to date. You should view every job as temporary and keep your job search activity going. Most importantly, keep your personal network active.

The last word:

There is a Congressional election coming up in November, giving voters a chance to deal appropriately with each Congressman and one third of the Senators. As you prepare to vote, study your Representative and, if applicable, your Senator. Decide whether they are helping or hindering your ability to find a good job or run a profitable business. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain in 2015.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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. . . do as the Romans do.

(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)

When I was teaching middle school I would tell the students that good manners were the lubricant that kept society civil.  Basically, the title of this musing means the same:  wherever you find yourself, good manners help you.

Throughout my formative years my parents used this adage, with many others, to teach without giving long sermons.   As I wander through my life they all come back to help explain what I see happening around me.

When I was almost thirteen, we moved to Italy where my brother and I were frequently admonished that “When in Rome. . .”  to keep us from embarrassing ourselves, or our folks, with some outlandish behavior.  They cautioned us to hold back and observe carefully so as to learn the preferred way of doing anything so as not to inadvertently offend our hosts.  Good manners and not making a scene were some of their prime directives.  This old saw said that succinctly.

Walt and I were recently on a delightful overseas vacation, which brought the title to mind several times.  Driving on the left side of the road is the custom where we were visiting.  Many of the people on our trip would refer to this as driving on the “wrong side,” and then emit a guilty little chuckle.  Our guides tried to keep from wincing at this tired joke.  It was the correct side for them.  Each excursion would find someone commenting on how they “just adored” the accent of one of our hosts, or found it strange, funny, odd or difficult to understand, never thinking it was they who had the accent, not our host.  At best this shows an insular or provincial attitude, at worst it is absolutely offensive.  One guide attempted to avert these types of comments by saying, “This is my country.  You have the accents, not me.  We drive on the correct side of the road.”  This was done with humor, but it is sad he felt the need to state it.

Familiarity is often comforting, but not necessarily the only correct way of handling things.  This has nothing to do with giving up that which is morally right. Which side of the road you drive on is not an ethical dilemma but a pragmatic one.  How one wields a knife and fork is just custom.  One’s accent is just usage.  Fit in and don’t make a scene.  Or consider staying home.

When we take small children to our parents’ houses we tell them that while there they must do things the way grandparents want them done.  That may mean not to touch the knick-knacks or how long they are expected to sit at the dinner table.  Perhaps it defines how and where they may play in the back yard.  None of these things affect their health or well-being, and so should be respected.

Likewise, when we send children to school, we expect them to comply with the rules, as long as those rules do not endanger them.  We also have the privilege of expecting our house rules to govern the behavior of guests to our home.  If yours is a home with no smoking, guests should refrain from smoking no matter how strong their addiction.  If you expect voices to be modulated in your home, even young children should be taught to respect that and speak softly.

All of that should seem fairly obvious.

Ours is a transient society.  Our founding fathers established a representative republic with the states having a degree of sovereignty in which to make the laws that would permit us to have a diversity of customs while having the power of a larger entity, the federal government, to protect us from international predators.  That statement presumes a number of givens, which are being lost as earlier political discourse yields to current cultural waves.  Some of this is due to the current popular sense of correctness and some to the dilution of historic concepts of who we are and from where we came that has been happening since the advent of the boomer generation.  We so outnumbered the adults of our growing years that our childish hedonism changed the vector of society.  One of the results is that in striving for personal gratification many never feel the urging of “When in Rome…”  We see people who become disgruntled with where they are living for any of a number of reasons:  Their health is affected by pollens in the air and they are advised to find a different climate.  An industry moves and they are jobless.  The current political classes raise taxes beyond what the individual is willing or able to pay.  The people in these scenarios look around and find that if they move to a different state the problem will be solved.  After all, that state has drier, pollen free air.  The other state has lower unemployment rates.  The next state has a lower tax rate.  So they move.

They find the new state is different than home.  Without thinking about why they had left or what had caused the conditions with which they had been dissatisfied, they begin changing things to more closely remember the old home.

Perhaps they move to a desert where they buy a home and then plant grass and flowers that produce the same pollen they are attempting to escape.  They follow the company, which then finds the new political environment requires they recreate the business and the transient employee is left outside again. They vote for politicians with an insouciant and somewhat familiar patter who then pass the same types of laws that raise the cost of living to a level similar to what they had in the place they left.  Some new comers are foreign nationals who want even greater changes to their new home than those who have come from a different state that is still internal to our country.  Their craving for familiar surroundings, or politics, or language causes them to try to recreate the environment they fled.

This isn’t a plea to dismiss change.  Some things need changing.  Some things need preserving.  Both require thought.  We perceive a problem, then conceive a solution. The key here is to think about what our solution will spawn.  The results that occur don’t effect just the transients, but all of the folks who had been contentedly making their lives in the “new” state.  The “new” state is now no longer “Rome.”   The established residents don’t understand what has happened to their home, and the new resident can’t understand where the charm that had enticed them to move there has gone.  In reality, each of these types of changes takes more than one person.  Sometimes the balance is changed by word of mouth drawing many independent people to the “new” state.  Sometimes, more nefariously, the balance is tipped when a group with the sole intent of changing “Rome” away from what the base population had wanted finances the shift in the population.  Regardless of the reason, the Visigoths have arrived.  Rome will survive, but not as Roma.

The last word:

Why is the saying about Rome and not some other place?  Because of a letter from St. Augustine to Januarius around 390AD:

Cum Romanum venio, ieiuno Sabbato; cum hic sum, non ieiuno: sic etiam tu, ad quam forte ecclesiam veneris, eius morem serva, si cuiquam non vis esse scandalum nec quemquam tibi.

Sister W. Parsons translated this in 1951 in St. Augustine: Letters Volume 1 as:

When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here [Milan] I do not. Do you also follow the custom of whatever church you attend, if you do not want to give or receive scandal.

Januarius was Bishop of Naples at the time, and later canonized as a martyred saint.

On July 10, 1948, the average humidity in Phoenix Arizona was 19%.  On July 10, 2013, the average humidity in Phoenix was 38%.  Over the same time frame, the population increased from a little over 100,000 to about 1.5 million.  Many of those people moved from the northeast to find a dry climate and escape pollen.  Then they planted lawns and shrubs and watered them a lot.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

//

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(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)

As I looked out onto the sea of faces, I felt a hand on my right shoulder push me forward.

“Class, today we have a new girl.  She came from California, a state in the west.”

Did these kids really not know where California was?  April of my fifth grade and this was my seventh school.  I knew it would take a few days for the faces to take on features.  I would talk to most of them this first week as they tried to figure out who I was, then hardly any of them for a while as they settled back to their daily routines.  That would give me time to catch up on whatever subject they had gotten further in than I had.  It wouldn’t be geography with this group.

I was given a desk, books, and cool calculating glances.  Typical.

We were staying with my grandparents while waiting for housing to become available at the next duty station.  It meant that this was just a stop over and I didn’t know why I had to go to school until the move was complete.  We were to go to Cuba where there was a limited amount of on base housing.  We needed to stay with our grandparents until our name came to the top of the waiting list.  As it turned out, this move would take more than a year and we would never get to the next duty station because of an auto accident my father would suffer after he had gone ahead.  Today, we still had a week before he would leave so he had taken me to enroll in the same school he had attended for grade school.   He had walked me in the front door, which was apparently only for use when you were with a parent.  As we had walked down the hall he read all the plaques and studied all the photos, then he chuckled and we walked into the office.  We walked up to a tall, dark wooden counter where Daddy announced the reason for our being there.  The woman who was to register me was very stern looking with a small narrow face, dark hair sprinkled with a little white, and glasses.  When Daddy handed her my papers and report card from the school in San Diego she just frowned.  As she opened my report card, she flatly stated, “It is our policy to put children coming from a California school one year below their grade of record.  Our curriculum progresses much more rapidly than theirs and we don’t want to set a child up for failure.”  Suddenly Daddy was wearing the white line that showed over his upper lip when he was angry.  Speaking very softly and slowly, another bad sign, he asked, “When you opened her report card, did you read it?  Did you see the part at the beginning explaining what the grades mean?  She has straight ‘E’s which stands for ‘excellent’ not ‘conditional failure’.” They glared at each other.  Then Daddy asked, in a conversational tone, which was the fifth grade teacher, assuming I would be registered in the grade where he knew I should be.  After some mumbling about my placement being conditional upon my performance the paperwork was completed and I said goodbye to Daddy. The stern, unhappy looking lady walked me to the fifth grade room and introduced me to the woman who would be my teacher.  The teacher walked me to her desk, did her paperwork and then stood to introduce me to the class.  As with all first days there would be a lot of fumbling as I learned a new routine.

At recess, we went to a “Cloak Room” to get our jackets.  In this old East Coast city building, it was a hallway on the side of the room with coat hooks on facing walls where kids could poke and snipe at each other.  The first question I got was “Hey, Schlechter, where do you keep your six-shooter?”  This was 1958, not 1858.  San Diego was a major city.  How crude to call me by my last name.  Were these kids really that stupid and rude or was this one an exception?

We were lined up, boys in a line across the front of the room, girls along the windowless side.  We were then marched down three flights of stairs and allowed onto the playground.  First day, walk around and look to see what these kids do for fun.  I was pretty good at foursquare, but no one was playing that.  No team ball either.  A group of smaller kids over there were playing a game of tag, some hopscotch, and double-dutch jump rope.  Moma had explained jumping double-dutch, but we had only used a single rope in my last school.  Mostly, kids, especially the girls, were just walking in pairs or small groups around the playground.  When the bell rang they all just froze, several in really strange poses.  What sort of game was this that took in all the kids in the yard?  Then another bell and the kids began walking slowly to the area by the back door we had come out of.  It was there I noticed dark yellow lines with numbers at the door end readable from the back of the playground.  That’s where we were to line up, boys on one side of our room number’s line, girls on the other. The teacher came and stood at the front of the lines, and after the lower numbered rooms had gone in, she led us up the three flights of stairs.  Everyone had to be silent the entire way and file quietly into our seats.  Now the hard part of a first day — where was I supposed to be sitting.  I usually left a pencil or piece of paper on top of the desk so I could remember, but we had had to put everything inside our desks before we had been allowed out.  These were old-fashioned desks with a hinged top that lifted to stow books, papers and stuff.  The seat was a fold down bench attached to the desk behind.  These were so old that they still had holes for the inkbottles and lots of initials scratched all over them.  It also meant that you couldn’t get any space between you and the kid in front or behind you.

Lunch dismissal followed the same procedure for exiting as we had done at recess.  Here almost everyone went home for lunch.  As I passed the small room that served as the cafeteria for those who had to stay I was very glad to be going.  There was an odd smell that didn’t seem at all appealing.  It was good to be in the fresh air at the end of the hall.  Grandmom had told me I should run home from school because there wouldn’t be much time to eat and walk both ways as her house was at the edge of this school building’s draw area.  Seemed to me that the kids in the house across the street had less distance to walk to their school, but what did I know.

Everything about this place felt just a bit off.   Then, this was only another first day.

The last word:

She had a lot of first days, once three in one school year.  I’m not sure she ever enjoyed it, but she certainly got proficient at it.  It taught her to blend in, and makes her a very good traveler when we go to new countries and cultures.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

//

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The Cloud is driving a much-needed revolution in education, with the opportunity for vastly superior educational opportunities at significantly reduced cost.  Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) enable thousands of students located anywhere to have the benefit of a top-notch course taught by an expert with good communication skills at a low to zero price.  The experience can actually be more intimate than that in a classroom of twenty students, as it appears that the instructor is talking just to each student.  When coupled with one-on-one question/answer sessions and context- and result-driven on-line training, it can be a better learning experience than what is available in the traditional classroom.

While the course material has been updated, the process of education in the classroom has not changed in hundreds of years.  Recent and continuing studies have shown that there are a variety of different ways people learn; the traditional classroom is, for most students, far from the best.  The public education classroom model was developed in the U.S. largely to help the immigrant population learn English and U.S. history so they could quickly assimilate into the U.S. culture, take advantage of the American dream, and feel they were part of the nation.  Especially up to the early 1900s, students who lived in rural areas had no transportation other than walking or riding a horse.  That meant that schools had to be within a few miles of each student, and thus schools were small, often a single room with a single teacher covering several different grade levels.  Student could advance at their own pace in each subject.  The education each student received depended on three things: the willingness of the student to learn, the support of the parents, and the skill of the teacher.

In towns and cities, size forced education to adopt a different model: separate and larger schools for different groups of grade levels, and with public transportation the ability to draw students from a wider geography.  As schools got bigger, they got more structured.  Today, except for the bottom few and, less frequently, the top few, students are expected to move through a variety of subjects in lock step with all other students at the same age.  Since we would not want to embarrass a student, we pass a student along with his cohort whether he actually learned everything or even anything in the school year.  Children are not cars, and they cannot be effectively educated on an assembly line.  While there are many excellent and dedicated teachers, there are also a lot who are neither dedicated nor even mediocre.  Parents face increased time pressure just to provide for their family, and therefore parental support is often partially or completely lacking.  School administrators and politicians impose requirements that are often ridiculous on teachers driving down the teachers’ morale and dedication.  Perhaps worse, peer pressure and distractions make it difficult or even dangerous for a child to like school.

Many of these student distractions are driven by the Internet and the Cloud.  Facebook, Twitter, texting, You-Tube, on-demand movies and TV shows are all more exciting than a classroom full of bored or disruptive children.

The growing dissatisfaction with the U.S. public school system has caused the growth of homeschool children to increase seven times faster than the public school growth.  While only 4% of public school age children in the U.S. are currently homeschooled, if this level of growth continues, half of our children could be homeschooled in five years.  There are lots of reasons why this probably won’t happen, but the cost of homeschooling will continue to drop (it is free in many states) and its quality and variety continue to increase.  If it does happen, it will leave the public education system in shambles, much worse than many think it already is.   In many places, homeschooled children can participate in separate sports leagues and other events, or participate in those at local schools thus providing the social interactions that were not available to homeschoolers just a few years ago.

The current economic situation is only exacerbating disaster.  Colleges and universities continue to encourage students to take courses of study with almost zero chance of getting a job in the field.  The practice of taking a year off between school and work to “see the world” has pretty much disappeared.  It used to be an important part of the ideal education, but a very few families can afford that luxury today in terms of money and time.  I think it is time to rethink why we send our kinds to college.  Is it really worth the extra time and excessive cost to have the “university” experience of fraternities or sororities, football games and parties?  There are other and more effective networking techniques today than the college fraternity.  If the graduate can get a job, he or she has accumulated on average $26,600 in student loan debt (in 2011).  The average starting salary for 2012 college graduates was $44,259.  That level of debt is a huge financial burden on someone just starting out.  It makes it difficult to buy a car, a house, or even consider starting a family.  It adds to the stress of finding and keeping a job in the new “normal” of needing to frequently change jobs.  The median tenure for workers age 25 to 34 is just 3.2 years.  With a the median length of a job search at 16 weeks, each young graduate should have about a third of their annual salary set aside to help them ride out their next search effort.  Plus, of course, they will probably have to pay for their own health insurance and should be working diligently on their retirement savings.

A good understanding of the field and some practical experience is important in landing that first job, but based on my experience hiring young software engineers, a college degree in programming is definitely not a sufficient requirement.  Often the best candidates had a degree in some apparently unrelated field, or no degree at all.  Some employers are reconsidering the need for that “degree?” check box.

Most hiring managers are only interested in three things:

  1. Can the candidate do the job?
    Does the candidate have the necessary knowledge and skills for the tasks that need to get done?
  2. Will the candidate do the job?
    Is the candidate really interested and hopefully excited about doing this job, or does he or she just consider it a stopgap position?
  3. Do we want the candidate to do the job?
    Can we work with this person?  Will the candidate fit into our culture?

A traditional college is only one path to “yes” on just the first question, and has little bearing on the other two.

The last word:

As parents, it is our responsibility to prepare our children for the “real” world.  One way, of course, is to give your child a big enough trust fund that the “real” world becomes irrelevant.  For the rest of us, that means giving your child the basic skills to get along, have a personal set of acceptable behaviors (what we sometimes call morals, religion, ethics, or culture), and a strong desire to learn.  The world is changing quickly in all the areas that determine success as measured by satisfaction and happiness in life.  The drive to learn is the only thing that will enable your child to adapt to these changes.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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I like facts.  I especially like facts that are backed up by measurable and reproducible numbers.  The way people talk about numbers sometimes annoys me in three areas: accuracy, precision and presentation.

Accuracy is the degree of closeness of measurements of a quantity to that quantity’s actual value.

Precision is defined as the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results.

Presentation is how the numbers are presented for a specific purpose.

A given measurement can be accurate but not precise, precise but not accurate, neither, or both.  Consider your car’s odometer.  It will be very precise, probably able to reproduce the same distance measurement between two points along the same path within a few feet.  But it may not be very accurate, due to tire pressure, which lane you were driving in, or other factors.

These two terms are often used interchangeably in normal conversation or even in scientific papers.  Often the concept is expressed either in terms of significant digits or a range.  For example, the sun has a diameter of about 865,374 miles (more than three times the distance from Earth to the moon).  It is not exactly 865,374 miles across – that is just the best estimate.  But for most people, knowing that that sun is about 900,000 miles across is good enough for daily conversation.  That is a one significant digit answer.  870,000 miles would be a two-significant digit answer.

Most people make an unconscious correlation between the number of significant digits and accuracy.  If I told you there were 217 people at our meeting, you would believe that I actually counted them.  If I told you there were about 200 people at our meeting, you would believe I did not actually count them.  You might even think that I was deliberately overestimating for some reason, such as to show we had a lot of support for some position or action.  In fact what may have happened is that I estimated 200 people in the meeting, and Joe asked if I had counted the 17 people in the balcony.  When I said “no” Joe added them together and published the result.

When combining numbers in any way, the significance of the answer can be no higher than the least significance of any of the individual numbers.  Taking a one significant digit number (200) and adding to it a two significant digit number (17) should be a one significant digit number.  The reported number should have been 200, not 217.

A classic example of “precision enhancement” is women’s gymnastics at the Olympics and other significant events.  The score is formed by a number of judges.  Each judge provides two numbers: the degree of difficulty (D) and execution (E).  D starts at 0.0 and increases based on the skills successfully completed.  E starts at 10.0 and decreases based on errors in performance.  Long gone are the perfect tens of Nadia Comaneci.  World-class performers are typically in the 15.5 to 15.9 range.  Anything above 16.0 is an exceptional score.  Each judge provides a pair of numbers with three significant digits.  None of these values is very accurate or precise.  They are not real measurements; just subjective judgments based on a complex set of tables of difficulty and execution values.  Different judges will give different scores for the same performance, and the same judge will give different scores for virtually identical performances at different times.  When the performances were over, U.S. gymnast Alexandra Raisman and Russian Aliya Mustafina had the same score:  59.566.  The judges went to a tiebreaker based on individual events, which awarded the bronze medal to the Russian.  My problem is not with the tiebreaker, but with basing anything on a number with five significant digits based on a series of inaccurate numbers with only three significant digits at most.

Ever watch those CSI-like shows where they zoom in on a license plate or face from a grainy ATM camera.  That is a similar kind of “precision enhancement.”  If you start with a low resolution picture, you may be able to clean it up a little, but those extra pixels with the details just do not exist.

When it comes to presentation, most people cannot make much sense out of a huge table of numbers.  To make the hidden significance clearer, most people use statistics and resulting graphs and charts.  Ideally, these results actually give important clues to what the numbers are really saying.  However, “statistics” can be something very different.  Mark Twain is usually credited with originating the phrase “liars, damn liars and statisticians.”

The actual Twain quote is “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” from his 1906 “Chapters from My Autobiography published in the North American Review. Twain himself attributed it to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.  However, the phrase was never used in any of Disraeli’s surviving writings and the earliest known use of the phrase was years after Disraeli’s death.  There are a few uses of the phrase or something very close to it in the period 1885-1891 in both England and the United States.  Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain’s real name) was born in 1835 and had starting writing for newspapers by the mid 1860s, and published his first book in 1869, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.  He could certainly have heard the phrase, or even originated it.  After all, he had been in England in 1872.

As a group, politicians are very good at taking facts and turning them into “statistics” that support their particular viewpoint.  I quoted “statistics” because statistics is a science: the study of the collection, organization, analysis, interpretation and presentation of data.  When done correctly, statistics are extremely valuable at summarizing a lot of numbers into something that is easy to grasp and understand.  They can show how two or more sets of facts are related, and can indicate the degree of correlation between two sets of data.  This is often not the “statistics” used.

Statistics were a prime driver in the war against cigarettes after they showed a clear correlation between smoking and lung cancer.  Note that the statistics did not indicate whether or not there was any cause and effect; or, if there was which was the cause and which was the effect.  In the case of cigarettes and cancer, it was fairly obvious that getting cancer did not cause one to smoke.  But there could have been an unstudied third factor that caused both.  There probably is not a third factor in this particular case, but at least think about the possibility when some politician or advertisement uses “statistics” to “prove” cause and effect.

Another favorite trick is to hide exactly what is being measured. A pharmacy company can measure their drug against doing nothing, the placebo, and claim that it is 85% effective.  Their competitor’s drug may also be 85% effective, but that was not what they were measuring.  Or they may deliberately select and compare different classes of people in the study to skew the results in their favor.  In general, if others cannot get hold of the raw data and perform an independent statistical analysis, then beware.  Governments almost always hide the raw data.

Even if you never let facts get in the way of a good story, it is a good idea to know what the numbers really say.   If nothing else, it makes it harder to be blindsided by someone who really knows.

In reality, most people and organizations try to use statistics responsibly and usually succeed.  But when you get two entirely different sets of “statistics” about the same question, then at least one of them is cooking the numbers to suit their own purpose.  My advice: know who is putting out the information and determine what they gain by what they are showing.  Beware of surveys of “public opinion” unless they are by reputable pollsters and have provided their selection and measurement details.  Lots of these “public opinion” polls are based on self-selected respondents.  I.e., they are the people who called into a specific radio show or were customers at a specific chain of stores.  Not necessarily an unbiased group.

All valid survey results should include a “plus or minus x percent” statement indicating the calculated error range for the result.  When the plus or minus value is larger than the difference between the compared values, just ignore the poll.  “52% of the people surveyed prefer my brand, so you should also.  Survey plus or minus 5%.”  Five percent is bigger than the 4% difference between those who prefer my brand and the 48% who do not.

The last word:

Samuel Clemens took his most famous pen name from his work on Mississippi Riverboats.  Since the river constantly changed it was important to know how deep the water was right here right now.  Depth ranging by sonar was a little in the future, so the method was to tie a heavy weight to the end of a rope and throw the weight overboard while holding on to the other end and taking up any slack.  Simply measuring the length of the rope in the water gave you a good approximation of the water depth. Mississippi River sailors would usually tie a knot in the rope every width of their outstretched arms, about six feet.  This unit was a “fathom” and riverboats needed twelve feet of water to safely navigate.  When they threw the sounding line in they would announce the depth of the water by the number of knots, or marks, in the water.  Even sailors read the Bible, and it often uses “twain” for the number two.  So a sailor would shout out “by the mark twain” meaning it was safe, at the moment.

The weight at the end of the rope was often made of lead and was always called a “lead” even if it was just a big rock.  Potentially, the origin of the phrase “get the lead out?”

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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I recently wrote about “Where are the workers?”  One of the serious issues in finding new hires is the general inability of today’s graduates to write.  I need people who can put coherent thoughts on paper that deliver a clear, concise and unambiguous message.

We used to know how to write.  My Great Grandfather and his brothers grew up on a poor farm in Western Pennsylvania and went to a one-room schoolhouse for eight grades.  They certainly were not, even for that era, well educated.  They worked hard on the farm.  Probably the only book in the house was the old family Bible, and the nearest public library would have been at least a two-hour walk away.  Unless there was an important errand to the town, no farm worker could take half a day off just to go the library.  Yet when they went away to war, the US Civil War, they wrote letters home.  Dozens of letters have survived, and while they are hard to read they are well written.  They are hard to read because they were written with a new-fangled device called the pencil on scraps of paper sitting on a rock around a campfire.  The grammar is not necessarily always good, and spelling was not important.  There were three different spellings of their last name in the letters.  Yet each individual letter told a story about how they felt, what they did, asked about family, and responded to letters from home.

What happened?  Why can’t most people write?  There is a lot of conversation claiming that it is all the fault of Twitter or email or some other relatively new technology.  These technologies make it easy to send something to others quickly, and seem to encourage thoughtless “communication.”  While it is true that these tools enable someone to put out a lot of junk, they also enable someone to put out good writings.  We have all seen tweets that were more like poetry, expressing in a very small space an interesting viewpoint that makes you think or laugh or cry.

The general inability of educated people to write well predates the Internet by decades.  Since at least the 1950s, the US education system has worked very hard to not teach students how to write.  This applies at every level.

I went to what was recognized as a very good public school district.  This district actually had a superintendent with a PhD in Education, something very unusual in that day.  We had top-notch teachers in science and math, the kind that inspired students.  We had physics and chemistry labs the equal of many college undergraduate labs.  The year I graduated we sent 47% of the students on to four-year colleges and universities, many with advanced placement credit in math, physics, chemistry, biology, English, and a couple of foreign languages.

bluebookAnd we did a lot of writing.  From the seventh grade on it seemed that every English class and most history or “social science” classes had a weekly in-class essay to write, and at least two term papers a year.   These in-class essays were usually done in a “blue book” – so called because it was, well, blue.  The 8.5 by 7 inch book had a few sheets of wide-ruled paper, usually fewer than five.  In class, the teacher announced the topic and you had the period to write.  You were permitted to use the last page to do a quick outline, but otherwise you started on the upper left of the first page and wrote until done.  You got the paper back on Monday with two grades: Mechanics and Content.  “Mechanics” included penmanship, spelling and grammar, with specific penalty points for each such infraction.  Misspelling something like “Mediterranean” five times meant nothing better than a C for that Mechanics grade.  (So I’ve heard – I would, of course, never misspell the same word the same way five times in a three-page paper.)  It had to be written in cursive, not printed.  Bic pens did not have built in spell-checkers, or a delete key.

“Content” meant including the three to six facts the teacher expected to be in the paper.  Of course it was up to you to guess which specific facts those were.

Notice that there was no grade for the quality of the writing.  You could, and this I did do on more than one occasion, simply use a series of well-structured sentences to state the facts you thought the teacher wanted with little or no organization and get a good grade.

There often was a length requirement: write ten pages or write 1,000 words about <insert subject here>.  These length requirements were minimums, not maximums.  You would get to the end of what you wanted to say, whether in a weekly essay or term paper, and realize that you needed another page or 200 words.  So, you just added another page or 200 words.  You can image how much value that additional effort added to the paper.

There is an old story, attributed to many folk including Mark Twain.  He wrote a lot of letters to friends.  At the end of one especially long letter, he added, “I apologize for the length of this letter.  I did not have time to make it shorter.”  It is hard to say what needs to be said concisely.  Far too often I get emails and papers that clearly did not have that extra effort applied.

I learned more grammar in two years of Latin than in all of my English classes.  Now that most schools do not offer Latin, I wonder how they are actually teaching grammar these days.

Because of my high school English grades and my AP score, I did not have to take the freshman writing class at the University.  Imagine my surprise when I got out in the real world and found out that I could not write well.  To whatever extent I can write today, it is because of my own efforts with lots of support from mentors and other who knew how to write.

There are exceptions.  A good friend of mine went to public school in the same area as I did and just a few years later.  She had a high school English teacher who really worked on writing.  She was the vicious editor who insisted that the result delivered a clear, concise and unambiguous message.  These teachers were, and probably still are, out there.  But do not expect that your child will ever see one of them.

I wrote that it takes about 10,000 hours to really become good with any skill.  But that 10,000 hours is not just beating a drum, but listening to lots of expert drummers and having others tell you how well you are beating that drum and giving you guidance.  Otherwise you have just spent 10,000 hours learning how to do something badly.

To learn to write you need to do three things:

  • Read.  Read lots.  Read critically.  Does this product’s documentation really explain the product?  Does this sales brochure make me interested?  Does this short story make me think?  What is different between the ones that I like and the ones that leave me cold?
  • Write.  Write lots.  Fiction, non-fiction.  View every writing assignment as an opportunity to learn.  When possible, write more than one version from a different perspective or with a different audience in mind.  Take something you wrote last year and write it again.  Make it 40% shorter without reducing the impact, which will probably increase the impact.
  • Seek out criticism.  Ask people to read what you wrote and be brutally honest.  If you can find a professional editor or writer, make friends with them because they can give you the best advice.  Remember that if you ask three people you will get three different responses, but each will have some value.  You don’t have to accept them all or even any of them, but each will tell you something.  Don’t make excuses, don’t try to explain, just sit there and take it.  And thank them.

Learning to write is like any other skill.  You need to observe the experts and study what they do, practice practice practice, but let much of that practice be under supervision of someone who can help you get better.

The last word:

Unfortunately you don’t always have access to a good (i.e., vicious) editor.  You do, however, always have access to a pretty good check mechanism.  Simply read your writing out loud.  It’s OK if you are the only audience; in fact I find that preferable.  If you read something out loud, you can get a better sense of how it will come across to your audience.  Listen to the cadence.  Did you create appropriate spaces to breathe; and for your audience to process?  Does the language sound stilted?  Is it hard to figure out the syntax – not from a technical grammatical perspective but from the “what I meant” view?  Usually the simple things like noun-verb matching, consistent tense, and confusing pronouns just jump out at you.  Did it start well, and did it come to a graceful end, leaving your message clear?

You need a non-distracting environment, both to prevent extraneous noise from distracting you, and to keep those around you from wondering why this crazy dude is talking to himself.  Eventually you will learn to do it silently, but since it really has to be “vocalized” at speaking speed, I find my lips move.  So, I still look like a crazy dude.

Personally, I almost always read out loud everything I write before sending it.  This applies to tweets, emails, marketing materials, technical documents, and just fun stuff like this blog.  When I don’t, I often wish I had.

Comments solicited.

Keep your sense of humor.

Walt.

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