Overreactions and decisions

The SILS MSIS curriculum requires a master's paper or project and the professors of even the core required classes encourage the students to begin thinking early about likely topics. Fortunately, it's possible to review a database of previous master's papers from SILS graduates so you can gauge the scope and treatment of the topic areas. As a result, I'm always on the prowl for good topics, for others if not for myself (I may have my own gem of a topic, but it's too early to talk about it now). Earlier this year, I ran across the following Schneier on Security blog posting, on the public overreaction to rare risks, in response to the Virginia Tech shootings. It's a sobering testament to how human we are--which is a mixed blessing, in this case.

I was especially struck by the following comment on the post:

As a student of behavioral decision making, I see irrational decisions made on a regular (and unfortunately, in many cases, predictable) basis. And as you alluded to, the reactions to these can often lead to ridiculous policies and unproductive debate over preventing the effects, not the causes. However, there is something so human about these errors that seems to be impossible to overcome. The real next frontier, in my opinion, is to understand these biases better, and to use them (perhaps through policy) to aid in productive, positive decision making.

The world of economics has its own problems with this, since so many of its models assume rational consumers. Define "rational." (Today, I spent a half hour in Circuit City looking at stuff so I could spend a $25 gift certificate, only to find at the counter it was a Best Buy certificate.)

So, in relation to research for a master's paper, think about how much information does a user need to absorb before making a decision? But that topic has surely been done to death. However, even if you take in just enough information, not too much, when would information overrule emotion in the decision-making process? Can it ever? How can you measure the before and after of an emotional (ie, unconscious or reactive) decision? Or could you build an interface or algorithm that either allowed for users' unique mixes of rational/irrational, naive/experienced, emotional/logical, etc. or confronted them with the results of their choices? How to build in bias when the user wants it but leave it out when the user needs it to be left out?

So now listen up. We need to get these boxes the hell out of the warehouse. Meaning, if you are thinking of buying a set of figures, stop thinking, stop thinking immediately, and just do it. Feel, don’t think. Spend, don’t think. Be an American. Spend money you don’t have on something cool you don’t need. It’s only money. You’ll make more. I assure you, you will. But we might not make more of these Chinese-produced plastic hate effigies. Really, now, what would you rather be – safe, sane and sad, or devil-may-carefree and (momentarily) happy? Think about it. No wait, don’t think, stop, just do it!

Advice for a Forty-Odder from a Twenty-Something

At the Kilgour lectures, OCLC President Robert Jordan said some rather challenging things to the assembled SILS throng. As an MBA and business guy, he up front admitted that his ideas might rub people the wrong way (but then, so did Fred Kilgour’s).

One of his ideas that stuck with me was his notion that, since UNC SILS requires a student to take more hours and do more work than comparable programs, it’s reasonable to ask whether the degree will make you more money or give you a chance at a more prestigious institution when you graduate.

That idea rattles around in the back of my brain during my classes, even the fun intellectual ones I take. And then, so do articles like this one by Penelope Trunk, on what to do in college to be more successful in your career. Of course, she’s talking to twenty-somethings rather than forty-odders, but let’s see how much of it I can apply to my situation.

  • Get out of the library. Hm, well, the point of my going to back to school is to get out of the office and spend time in a library (and it is a library school, after all). I have a lot of work and life experience, but I want the education to formalize what I know and give me a framework to learn new things.

  • Get involved on campus. It’s tough to be involved with many school activities because I don’t live on-campus, parking is a joke, and I have to give up the hours I would normally work to be on campus for special events. I read somewhere that being involved in career-oriented organizations–like ACM or ASIS&T–are preferred over school-related ones, given the brief time I have to devote to extracurriculars. Also, although I’m plenty involved with outside groups, I’ve never been asked about such participations in an interview and I don’t put them on my resume. At this stage, I have plenty of career experience that takes precedence.

  • Separate your expectations from those of your parents. I would amend this to include co-workers and friends. I would also amend this to yourself. Some older adults going back to school see the degree as the end-all and that the degree will, on its own, open doors to new opportunity. It won’t. My expectations are that my pursuit of the degree will open the doors–the hours spent studying, reading, thinking, meeting people, and so on. By the time the degree is handed to me on graduation day, I should already have plans in place for what happens the day after.

  • Try new things you aren’t good at. Just going back to school is a big new thing. To me, any other new thing is a little new thing.

  • Make your job search a top priority. Ye-e-es, I agree, to a point. If you hate your job, or don’t have a job, getting a job should be the most important thing. In my case, since I’m already working, I’m more concerned with meeting people affiliated with the school and its mission who are in a position to offer jobs. So I would say that meeting people and expanding my network is a top priority.

  • Take an acting course. I used to act in community theater and in college; it’s a great place for meeting people. I think most people, though, would get more out of an improv comedy course: learning to think on your feet, under pressure, with people watching you, is a great experience to have. I took one at Dirty South Comedy Theater in January 2006 and it was a great experience. I actually felt my brain make new connections and re-shape itself. Bizarre. I’d like to take another course again.

  • Get rid of your perfectionist streak. My goal in school is to get B or better grades so that I can 1) get tuition reimbursement from my employer and 2) not obsess over my schoolwork. As one of my managers drilled into me, “Just give me 80 percent. Your quality level is already high enough that it’ll be better than someone else’s 100 percent.” The key is to balance effort against value: if it’s a paper that only counts 10 points, it’ll get less attention than the presentation worth 30 points. Depend on your teachers/teammates for feedback indicating if the work isn’t good enough.

  • Work your way through college. Heh. Next.

  • Make to-do lists. I’m performing much better in school having spent the last 20 years learning about productivity and efficiency systems. My favorite methodology at the moment is Mark Forster’s book Do It Tomorrow. (Here is Mark’s website, filled to bursting with great and actionable ideas.)

Considering that I’m now juggling a full-time job, family, banjo practice, and school, efficiency and productivity help me keep it all together.

(originally posted 2007-08-19, updated for micro.blog)

A Vegan/Aerobicizer Hits the Wall

From Art de Vany’s web site, ca. 2007:

I ran into a guy at the gym whom I had not seen for a couple of months, maybe more.

He was in the gym hours on end (when I used to see him) doing aerobics. He did so much treadmill work that he constantly limped and had a brace on his foot, sometimes on his knee. He had poor posture from walking slumped over looking at the track or the monitor. Nothing in his work outs addressed his posture and his aerobic work only reinforced it. He worked out every day as far as I could tell because he was always there when I came in.

He was a pure vegetarian. He ate a lot of beans and spinach and always told me how fresh he felt from his food. He had no muscle and was a “fat-skinny” jogger or treadmill addict. Sklnny arms, little legs and a bony back.

I was a bit shocked though to see how his appearance had degraded in the few months since I had last seen him. He had gotten quite thick around the waist, but not anywhere else. Still no muscle and a tired, haggard look and slumped posture. At least he was not limping and had no braces on. Rather than ask him if he had been ill, I just asked how he was doing. He really didn’t answer but he did say he had been gone 2 months working on a cabin.

I don’t want to speculate, but it does seem to me that his diet and training make his fitness vulnerable or brittle. He is poised on a razor’s edge in a sense that any small change in diet or exercise sends him down a steep slope. He quickly loses fitness and his body composition quickly fades if he changes either his diet or his exercise. I doubt that his diet changed. So, it is likely his energy expenditures and particularly his peak expenditures that changed. It was easy to see that his insulin sensitivity had declined because all the new weight was gathered in the abdominal area. Maybe he had an illness or went through a major stress. On the other hand, there is seldom a “cause” for human physiology is so complex it is not possible to trace a major change of this magnitude to a single factor.

What I am driving at is that his approach to diet and fitness left him vulnerable. He has to stay on that treadmill or he falls hard. Even on the treadmill, though he managed his weight, he was on the boundary of good health. Not enough nutrition or rest and doing the wrong sorts of exercise. He looked depleted then and even more so now.

I am sorry to see this happen, but I don’t think I can do anything about it. If there is any lesson here it is to adopt a fitness approach that does not leave you vulnerable to damage, poor nutrition, or unusual stress. If you are on the edge in terms of nutrition (either trying to “bulk up” or lose weight or eating a narrow range of foods) or exercise (over training and doing repetitive work outs), you become vulnerable. You are living on the edge. An easy approach mixing intensity, variety, and great food is more healthful and leaves you poised to adapt to stresses that are bound to occur.


A Vegan/Aerobicizer Hits the Wall

Information Architect

Web Worker Daily posts a mini-profile of Dayna Bateman, an information architect for Fry Inc. Various education qualifications are listed, and hands-on experience (though education can help out there too). I don't find it a surprise that many shopping and interactive sites get it wrong and need help. Those are big projects and it requires a champion (maybe several) inside the company to push for what may be an expensive overhaul of an existing site. Also, if generals are fighting the last war, then retailers are chasing last year's trends.

What interested me:

  • Bateman is working on a master's of science degree in HCI from DePaul ("to formalize what I had learned in the trade"). For someone who's already got deep experience and a reputation in internet retailing, I thought it interesting that she feels the need for a degree. It would be interesting to know whether she wants the degree to provide an academic balance to her resume's real-world experience (she's probably solved problems that haven't occurred to most academics), whether her company encouraged it, or whether she felt she needed a mental change of pace. I'm going at my degree from the opposite direction: I'm hoping to gain some formal knowledge that can help me get experience.
  • Very impressed by her commitment to self-education: keeping up with conferences, surfing and shopping to stay on top of new trends and patterns. She soaks herself in her subject.
  • She predicts that "transactions will become increasingly simplified" as mobile phone use becomes more prevalent. Using a cell phone frees people from being tethered to their PC in order to shop and buy. (And it is all about shop and buy, isn't it?) I'll keep an eye on whether my coursework in the coming years even touches on mobile technology at all.

I'm all for simplification--spare me from having to create an account at every store I want to buy from. However, as someone who uses a Tracfone and practices one-way cell calls (I can call you, but you can't call me because I leave my phone turned off), I feel like a curmudgeonly grandpa snapping at new-fangled progress.

Ontology Links

I recently had to make a presentation at work on ontologies–the basics, really, of what they are, how they’re used, and what the heck is OWL? I found the following links and sites helpful in creating my presentation, and thought I’d share them here.

The Basics

Advanced Material

Wikipedia

Controversy

Images

OWL, Protege

Incidentally, it’s always seemed a bit curious to me that given what the Americans say they owe to the Separatists and the Pilgrim Fathers, and indeed it could be proved that they owe a great deal, the English are so often the villains and while we have people in America happy to be Afro-Americans and Irish Americans and Hispanic Americans, I have yet to meet anyone in the United States who has told me that he was an Anglo-American.
From Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter

Advice for economics grad students

Because, for whatever reason, I'm nervous about entering a world that plays according to different rules than the corporate one I'm used to, I've taken to reading and bookmarking a lot of "how to succeed in academia" articles. So as I come across good advice (or at least good advice for me), I'll post it here.

In 2005, Matthew Pearson wrote a letter for the new graduate economics students at UC Davis. The letter (PDF) has some advice specific to that program, but there's other good general advice buried in there too.

  • In the first year, it's "about learning that survival is not all about intelligence, nor passion, but commitment." Learning the fundamentals can be grueling, you'll feel like an imposter, but keep going. Pearson says: "Some research in behavioral economics suggests that people are happier with decisions they know are irreversible. Simply putting that decision [to quit] out of the realm of possibility will relieve you of a lot of burden."
  • Although he talks about preliminary exams at one point, the advice can be generalized: "...[I]t is very important to believe that you have it in you to pass." Learn from your mistakes, take your grades as indicators of where you may need to adjust and improve. "Freaking out is a waste of your time and energy."
  • "Begin to develop your strategy to pass early on." He's talking about the prelims here, but I'm thinking in terms of my master's paper I'll have to write. Ideally, my projects over the next few years will feed into the paper, so that the effort to compile, research, and write will be minimal. (My adviser suggested looking for a subject at my workplace; maximize what I already know well.)
  • I really like this bit of advice. He's talking about getting the fundamentals of economics in your bones, but again, I'm expanding its purview:

Develop your intuition. I cannot stress this enough. As I mentioned above about studying for understanding and not merely memorizing, you must believe that the intuition is there and that the material will seem much, much easier once you have grasped it...When you aim for this kind of understanding, however, things become so much clearer.

Often the barrier to true understanding is the nagging sense that you have SO MUCH to study, so you really must move on to the next topic. However, grazing over lots of material gathering cursory familiarity can be, at best, far less productive than studying one thing until you really understand it and do not need to depend on memorized content...[Me: Hmmmm.] Repetition [can be] sufficient for understanding less challenging material, but this is no longer the case.

[Me: In my spring information course, I felt bombarded by so many new concepts--RDF, metadata, ontologies, thesauri--that it wasn't until I was studying for the final that I grokked how they all fit together. Until that time, they were only vocabulary words. Given the pace of the course, and the fact that I was working full-time and taking a second course, there really was no time to do more than keep my head above water. Also, where I'm at now, everything is basic and fundamental. Intuition will only develop for me after I've worked with these things some more.]

  • "Develop your student capital." Learn to ask your classmates, professors, and TAs questions, no matter how silly you might feel. "There is no place for pride when you do not understand."
  • Develop an effective method for dealing with note-taking and note-studying. "Choose something that addresses your weaknesses effectively." (Spoken like a true lifehacker.) Pearson takes notes on looseleaf paper, transfers them to a binder, and then makes his own notes on the other side of the page as he goes through them. A nice system. I'm still working out mine. What I did in the spring worked OK, but didn't encourage revisiting the material and refreshing itself in my mind.
  • Rest effectively--this means time with friends and family, exercising, getting enough sleep. And yes, that means there can be "unproductive rest," as he calls it, like zoning out in front of the teevee.

Powered by ScribeFire.

"Callous Complacence"

Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter reproduced this fascinating document from WWI war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon, denouncing the conduct of the war at great personal risk. It was originally printed in The Times in 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

The Bandwidth of Books

This Design Observer post about who is reading all those books went over some familiar ground ("explosion of information" = "ignorance about more things") and elicited some good comments. The crux of the post was to answer this question:

Why keep on with the work of traditional publishing when the Internet would seem to provide a much more efficient means for reaching people? What is it about the book, pamphlet and magazine formats that continue to lure publishers onto the rocks of insolvency?

It's a good question. Control of the design and sheer love of the physical object are two compelling reasons. (I really can't imagine Bryan Talbot's eye-popping Alice in Sunderland as multimedia object--it just works and feels so complete as a book.)

One of the more interesting answers was that the authors use their small print runs to trade books back and forth with other authors.

Such books function primarily as a currency within the network of other artists, other publishers, and other designers who share their particular sensibility.

Does this sound like zine fandom or what? Or maybe link exchanges in the blog world? The intent being to create a community and start a conversation among members of a self-chosen tribe.

Perhaps it's also those members of our modern digital media culture looking in the rear view mirror at what's receding into the past. Hence the burst over the last 10 years of books about books and reading (though such objects have always been a part of literate culture, just as the theater and movies abound in stories about backstage dramas).

It all reminds me of an Isaac Asimov essay about the perfect entertainment cassette that would be physically comfortable to hold and use, in any lighting, allowing one to start or stop it at any point, rewind or fast-forward and then return to one's present location immediately, and so on. Of course, this perfect cassette is a book.

It also puts me in mind of the astonishing success of Lulu.com and the craftspeople I see selling handmade paper and blank books. There's still a need for the physically beautiful and tactile in us, which the vaporous digital ether can't compete against. (When the next hurricane comes and takes out my electricity for 5 days, will I pass the time reading an e-book or a real book?)