education

What patents on life has wrought

From Clifton Leaf’s “The Law of Unintended Consequences” (Fortune: 19 September 2005):

The Supreme Court’s decision in 1980 to allow for the patenting of living organisms opened the spigots to individual claims of ownership over everything from genes and protein receptors to biochemical pathways and processes. Soon, research scientists were swooping into patent offices around the world with “invention” disclosures that weren’t so much products or processes as they were simply knowledge–or research tools to further knowledge.

The problem is, once it became clear that individuals could own little parcels of biology or chemistry, the common domain of scientific exchange–that dynamic place where theories are introduced, then challenged, and ultimately improved–begins to shrink. What’s more, as the number of claims grows, so do the overlapping claims and legal challenges. …

In October 1990 a researcher named Mary-Claire King at the University of California at Berkeley told the world that there was a breast-cancer susceptibility gene–and that it was on chromosome 17. Several other groups, sifting through 30 million base pairs of nucleotides to find the precise location of the gene, helped narrow the search with each new discovery. Then, in the spring of 1994, a team led by Mark Skolnick at the University of Utah beat everyone to the punch–identifying a gene with 5,592 base pairs and codes for a protein that was nearly 1,900 amino acids long. Skolnick’s team rushed to file a patent application and was issued title to the discovery three years later.

By all accounts the science was a collective effort. The NIH had funded scores of investigative teams around the country and given nearly 1,200 separate research grants to learn everything there was to learn about the genetics of breast cancer.

The patent, however, is licensed to one company–Skolnick’s. Myriad Genetics, a company the researcher founded in 1991, now insists on doing all U.S. testing for the presence of unknown mutation in the two related genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Those who have a mutation in either gene have as high as an 86% chance of getting cancer, say experts. The cost for the complete two-gene analysis: $2,975.

Critics say that Myriad’s ultrarestrictive licensing of the technology–one funded not only by federal dollars but also aided by the prior discoveries of hundreds of other scientists–is keeping the price of the test artificially high. Skolnick, 59, claims that the price is justified by his company’s careful analysis of thousands of base pairs of DNA, each of which is prone to a mutation or deletion, and by its educational outreach programs.

1980 Bayh-Dole Act created the biotech industry … & turned universities into businesses

From Clifton Leaf’s “The Law of Unintended Consequences” (Fortune: 19 September 2005):

For a century or more, the white-hot core of American innovation has been basic science. And the foundation of basic science has been the fluid exchange of ideas at the nation’s research universities. It has always been a surprisingly simple equation: Let scientists do their thing and share their work–and industry picks up the spoils. Academics win awards, companies make products, Americans benefit from an ever-rising standard of living.

That equation still holds, with the conspicuous exception of medical research. In this one area, something alarming has been happening over the past 25 years: Universities have evolved from public trusts into something closer to venture capital firms. What used to be a scientific community of free and open debate now often seems like a litigious scrum of data-hoarding and suspicion. And what’s more, Americans are paying for it through the nose. …

From 1992 to September 2003, pharmaceutical companies tied up the federal courts with 494 patent suits. That’s more than the number filed in the computer hardware, aerospace, defense, and chemical industries combined. Those legal expenses are part of a giant, hidden “drug tax”–a tax that has to be paid by someone. And that someone, as you’ll see below, is you. You don’t get the tab all at once, of course. It shows up in higher drug costs, higher tuition bills, higher taxes–and tragically, fewer medical miracles.

So how did we get to this sorry place? It was one piece of federal legislation that you’ve probably never heard of–a 1980 tweak to the U.S. patent and trademark law known as the Bayh-Dole Act. That single law, named for its sponsors, Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole, in essence transferred the title of all discoveries made with the help of federal research grants to the universities and small businesses where they were made.

Prior to the law’s enactment, inventors could always petition the government for the patent rights to their own work, though the rules were different at each federal agency; some 20 different statutes governed patent policy. The law simplified the “technology transfer” process and, more important, changed the legal presumption about who ought to own and develop new ideas–private enterprise as opposed to Uncle Sam. The new provisions encouraged academic institutions to seek out the clever ideas hiding in the backs of their research cupboards and to pursue licenses with business. And it told them to share some of the take with the actual inventors.

On the face of it, Bayh-Dole makes sense. Indeed, supporters say the law helped create the $43-billion-a-year biotech industry and has brought valuable drugs to market that otherwise would never have seen the light of day. What’s more, say many scholars, the law has created megaclusters of entrepreneurial companies–each an engine for high-paying, high-skilled jobs–all across the land.

That all sounds wonderful. Except that Bayh-Dole’s impact wasn’t so much in the industry it helped create, but rather in its unintended consequence–a legal frenzy that’s diverting scientists from doing science. …

A 1979 audit of government-held patents showed that fewer than 5% of some 28,000 discoveries–all of them made with the help of taxpayer money–had been developed, because no company was willing to risk the capital to commercialize them without owning title. …

A dozen schools–notably MIT, Stanford, the University of California, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Wisconsin–already had campus offices to work out licensing arrangements with government agencies and industry. But within a few years Technology Licensing Offices (or TLOs) were sprouting up everywhere. In 1979, American universities received 264 patents. By 1991, when a new organization, the Association of University Technology Managers, began compiling data, North American institutions (including colleges, research institutes, and hospitals) had filed 1,584 new U.S. patent applications and negotiated 1,229 licenses with industry–netting $218 million in royalties. By 2003 such institutions had filed five times as many new patent applications; they’d done 4,516 licensing deals and raked in over $1.3 billion in income. And on top of all that, 374 brand-new companies had sprouted from the wells of university research. That meant jobs pouring back into the community …

The anecdotal reports, fun “discovery stories” in alumni magazines, and numbers from the yearly AUTM surveys suggested that the academic productivity marvel had spread far and wide. But that’s hardly the case. Roughly a third of the new discoveries and more than half of all university licensing income in 2003 derived from just ten schools–MIT, Stanford, the usual suspects. They are, for the most part, the institutions that were pursuing “technology transfer” long before Bayh-Dole. …

Court dockets are now clogged with university patent claims. In 2002, North American academic institutions spent over $200 million in litigation (though some of that was returned in judgments)–more than five times the amount spent in 1991. Stanford Law School professor emeritus John Barton notes, in a 2000 study published in Science, that the indicator that correlates most perfectly with the rise in university patents is the number of intellectual-property lawyers. (Universities also spent $142 million on lobbying over the past six years.) …

So what do universities do with all their cash? That depends. Apart from the general guidelines provided by Bayh-Dole, which indicate the proceeds must be used for “scientific research or education,” there are no instructions. “These are unrestricted dollars that they can use, and so they’re worth a lot more than other dollars,” says University of Michigan law professor Rebecca Eisenberg, who has written extensively about the legislation. The one thing no school seems to use the money for is tuition–which apparently has little to do with “scientific research or education.” Meanwhile, the cost of university tuition has soared at a rate more than twice as high as inflation from 1980 to 2005.

The real purposes of the American school

From John Taylor Gatto’s “Against School” (Harper’s Magazine: September 2003):

Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much earlier and pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century. The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

1) To make good people.
2) To make good citizens.
3) To make each person his or her personal best.

These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. Compounding our error is the fact that the national literature holds numerous and surprisingly consistent statements of compulsory schooling’s true purpose. We have, for example, the great H. L. Mencken, who wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not

to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim.. . is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States . . . and that is its aim everywhere else.

[Alexander Inglis, author of the 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education,], for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort of surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever reintegrate into a dangerous whole.

Inglis breaks down the purpose – the actual purpose – of modem schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed earlier:

1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.

2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.

3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.

4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits – and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.

5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit – with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments – clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.

6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor. …

Class may frame the proposition, as when Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, said the following to the New York City School Teachers Association in 1909: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” …

Now, you needn’t have studied marketing to know that there are two groups of people who can always be convinced to consume more than they need to: addicts and children. School has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job of turning our children into children. Again, this is no accident. Theorists from Plato to Rousseau to our own Dr. Inglis knew that if children could be cloistered with other children, stripped of responsibility and independence, encouraged to develop only the trivializing emotions of greed, envy, jealousy, and fear, they would grow older but never truly grow up. …

Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.

First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don’t let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.

What should one study in college as an undergraduate?

From Paul Graham’s “Undergraduation” (March 2005):

The social sciences are also fairly bogus, because they’re so much influenced by intellectual fashions. If a physicist met a colleague from 100 years ago, he could teach him some new things; if a psychologist met a colleague from 100 years ago, they’d just get into an ideological argument. Yes, of course, you’ll learn something by taking a psychology class. The point is, you’ll learn more by taking a class in another department.

The worthwhile departments, in my opinion, are math, the hard sciences, engineering, history (especially economic and social history, and the history of science), architecture, and the classics. A survey course in art history may be worthwhile. Modern literature is important, but the way to learn about it is just to read. I don’t know enough about music to say.

You can skip the social sciences, philosophy, and the various departments created recently in response to political pressures. Many of these fields talk about important problems, certainly. But the way they talk about them is useless. For example, philosophy talks, among other things, about our obligations to one another; but you can learn more about this from a wise grandmother or E. B. White than from an academic philosopher. …

Language courses are an anomaly. I think they’re better considered as extracurricular activities, like pottery classes. They’d be far more useful when combined with some time living in a country where the language is spoken. On a whim I studied Arabic as a freshman. It was a lot of work, and the only lasting benefits were a weird ability to identify semitic roots and some insights into how people recognize words.

Studio art and creative writing courses are wildcards. Usually you don’t get taught much: you just work (or don’t work) on whatever you want, and then sit around offering “crits” of one another’s creations under the vague supervision of the teacher. But writing and art are both very hard problems that (some) people work honestly at, so they’re worth doing, especially if you can find a good teacher.

Learn by working on hard problems

From Paul Graham’s “Undergraduation” (March 2005):

Thomas Huxley said “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” Most universities aim at this ideal.

But what’s everything? To me it means, all that people learn in the course of working honestly on hard problems. …

Working on hard problems is not, by itself, enough. Medieval alchemists were working on a hard problem, but their approach was so bogus that there was little to learn from studying it, except possibly about people’s ability to delude themselves.

Education teaches people how to solve problems, not choose the good ones

From Paul Graham’s “Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas” (April 2005):

Why did so few applicants really think about what customers want? I think the problem with many, as with people in their early twenties generally, is that they’ve been trained their whole lives to jump through predefined hoops. They’ve spent 15-20 years solving problems other people have set for them. And how much time deciding what problems would be good to solve? Two or three course projects? They’re good at solving problems, but bad at choosing them.

But that, I’m convinced, is just the effect of training. Or more precisely, the effect of grading. To make grading efficient, everyone has to solve the same problem, and that means it has to be decided in advance. It would be great if schools taught students how to choose problems as well as how to solve them, but I don’t know how you’d run such a class in practice.

Business, work, and good ideas

From Paul Graham’s “Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas” (April 2005):

This summer, as an experiment, some friends and I are giving seed funding to a bunch of new startups. It’s an experiment because we’re prepared to fund younger founders than most investors would. That’s why we’re doing it during the summer– so even college students can participate. …

The deadline has now passed, and we’re sifting through 227 applications. We expected to divide them into two categories, promising and unpromising. But we soon saw we needed a third: promising people with unpromising ideas. …

One of the most valuable things my father taught me is an old Yorkshire saying: where there’s muck, there’s brass. Meaning that unpleasant work pays. And more to the point here, vice versa. Work people like doesn’t pay well, for reasons of supply and demand. The most extreme case is developing programming languages, which doesn’t pay at all, because people like it so much they do it for free. …

So why were we afraid? We felt we were good at programming, but we lacked confidence in our ability to do a mysterious, undifferentiated thing we called “business.” In fact there is no such thing as “business.” There’s selling, promotion, figuring out what people want, deciding how much to charge, customer support, paying your bills, getting customers to pay you, getting incorporated, raising money, and so on. And the combination is not as hard as it seems, because some tasks (like raising money and getting incorporated) are an O(1) pain in the ass, whether you’re big or small, and others (like selling and promotion) depend more on energy and imagination than any kind of special training.

California’s wide-open educational software reveals personal info

From Nanette Asimov’s “Software glitch reveals private data for thousands of state’s students” (San Francisco Chronicle: 21 October 2005):

The personal information of tens of thousands of California children — including their names, state achievement test scores, identification numbers and status in gifted or special-needs programs — is open to public view through a security loophole in dozens of school districts statewide that use a popular education software system.

Teacher names and employee identification numbers are also visible to anyone logging onto the system, which is used locally by school districts including San Francisco, San Jose and Hayward.

The problem occurs when the districts issue a generic password to teachers using the system. Until the teacher changes to a unique password, anyone can type in a teacher’s user name and generic password and gain access to information about students that is supposed to be guarded as closely as the gold in Fort Knox. …

San Francisco administrators immediately shut down access to the service, called OARS — Online Assessment Reporting System — after a reporter phoned and said she had been able to access student information for all the children in two middle-school classes where the teachers had not yet changed their passwords. …

Most of the 96 districts statewide that use the system are in Southern California and the Central Valley. …

“We have confidence in the professionalism of our teachers” not to share their passwords, Bradshaw said.

But told how simple it was to gain access to the student records of any teacher who had not yet changed to a unique password, the administrators said they planned to make sure teachers did so.

“We will definitely monitor that,” Quinn said. “We don’t want anyone getting into student information.”

A big benefit of open source: better learning & teaching

From Jon Udell’s “Open source education” (InfoWorld: 7 June 2006):

Open source software development, to a degree unmatched by any other modern profession, offers apprentices the opportunity to watch journeymen and masters at work, to interact with them, and to learn how they think, work, succeed, and fail. Transparency and accountability govern not only the production of source code but also the companion processes of design, specification, testing, maintenance, and evaluation. …

It’s typical of many professions to cultivate an aura of infallibility and monopoly control of information. Open source doesn’t work that way. There are prima donnas, to be sure, but the culture requires practitioners to show their cards, and it erodes information monopolies. Shared code is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline, there’s a vast body of shared knowledge and tradition, grounded in what Tim O’Reilly calls an architecture of participation.

We’ve come to see open source as an economic innovation. Cooperative production of commodity infrastructure paves the way for competitive production of high-value products and services. Perhaps we’ll someday see open source as an educational innovation, too. Cooperative production of shared knowledge isn’t just a by-product. When apprentices, journeymen, and masters engage in a continuous cycle of learning and teaching, an old approach to education is made new again.

Kids forcibly sent to re-education programs

From Nadya Labi’s “Want Your Kid to Disappear?” (Legal Affairs: July/August 2004):

RICK STRAWN IS AN EX-COP WHO STARTED HIS COMPANY in 1988 to help police officers find off-duty work guarding construction sites. Ten years later, he was asked by a member of his United Methodist church to transport the churchgoer’s son to Tranquility Bay in Jamaica. The school is run by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs, a company headquartered in Utah that owns eight schools in the United States and abroad, including Louis, Jr.’s destination. …

Three years ago, Strawn escorted Valerie Ann Heron, a 17-year-old from Montgomery, Ala., to Tranquility Bay. The school is the most hardcore in the WWASP system, the one to which students are sent when they repeatedly cause trouble at other schools. …

The world according to Strawn is based on choices and consequences. The world according to WWASP is designed to reinforce the same principle. Students enter Casa by the Sea at the first of six levels. To advance, they have to earn points through good behavior and schoolwork. Until they reach level three, which takes an average of three months, they can communicate with the outside world only through letters to their parents, which the school monitors. After that, they can talk on the phone to their parents but no one else.

Casa costs nearly $30,000 for a year – as much as a year’s tuition at Harvard – but offers no traditional academic instruction. Instead the schoolwork is self-paced; the students sit at tables with a workbook and take a test on a section when they decide they’re ready. They can retake the same test as many times as necessary to achieve an 80 percent passing grade. According to the Casa parent handbook, the school does not ensure that “the student will even receive any credits” or that the teachers who monitor the study sessions will have U.S. credentials. The school does not track how many of its students go on to high school or college. “You’re not going to have a teacher riding your back,” Dalton told Louis. “It’s all independent study. I just read the module, and did the test. I finished class in a week. That’s how easy it is.”

Students spend more time studying themselves than any other subject. They write daily reflections in response to self-help tapes and videos such as Tony Robbins’s Personal Power, You Can Choose, and Price Tag of Sex. They answer questions like “What feelings/emotions did I experience today and how did I choose to respond?”

Students also attend, and eventually staff, self-help seminars. The entry-level seminar, called Discovery, encourages participants to “learn to interrupt unconscious mental and emotional cycles which tend to sabotage results.” Kelly Lauritsen participated in Discovery at Casa in 2000 and said she was encouraged to hit the walls with rolled towels to release her anger. The price of tuition includes versions of these seminars for parents. Like Oprah on speed, sessions run nonstop from morning until midnight. Many parents and kids say they benefit from the self-analysis. “I didn’t realize that I had so much anger inside,” the 14-year-old girl whom Strawn transported in November wrote to her mother. …

Strawn told Louis that the hardest thing about Casa would be abiding by the school’s intricate system of discipline. “It’s not the big rules that get you. It’s all the little rules,” Strawn said. Casa docks students, according to its handbook, for telling “war stories” about inappropriate experiences, for being unkind to each other, and for making “negative statements about the School, the staff, the country, or other students.”

“There’s a whole page of rules,” said Shannon Eierman, who attended Casa last year. “That page is divided into sections of categories, into different codes, and a million subcategories. You could be there forever and the next day and learn a new rule.”

Students at Casa who commit “Category 5 infractions” can be punished with an “intervention,” for example, which is defined as being left alone in a room. Students say that the punishment can last for weeks, though Casa insists that the maximum penalty is three days. “I had to sit with crossed legs in a closet for three days,” said Kaori Gutierrez, who left Casa in 2001. Interventions may be used to punish out-of-control behavior, drug use, and escape attempts. But they’re also the way the school handles “self-inflicted injuries,” which can range from cracked knuckles to self-mutilation with pens or paper clips to an attempted suicide.

At the root of this long list of punishable violations is “manipulation,” which includes lying or exaggerating. Strawn repeatedly uses the word to dismiss a kid’s behavior – it’s the way he said Valerie Heron acted the day before her suicide. In the WWASP universe that he inhabits, manipulation is a term of art that refers to just about anything a teen does or says that the staff doesn’t like.

Flow defined

From Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi’s “Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience“:

Pleasure by itself does not bring happiness. We can experience pleasure (e.g. eating, sleeping, sex) without an investment of psychic energy. Enjoyment on the other hand, happens only as a result of an unusual amount of attention. Pleasure is fleeting and, unlike enjoyment, does not bring complexity (growth) to the self. If one only invests energy in new directions solely for extrinsic rewards, one may end up no longer enjoying life, and pleasures become the only source of positive experience. Without enjoyment life can be endured and can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment.

Eight Components of Enjoyment

1. Confronting tasks that we have a chance of completing.
2. Concentration.
3. Concentration is possible because the task has clear goals.
4. Task provides immediate feedback.
5. A deep, effortless involvement removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
6. Enjoyable experiences allow one to exercise a sense of control over one’s actions.
7. Concern for self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
8. Sense of time is altered – hours pass by in minutes.

When experience is intrinsically rewarding, one’s life is justified in the present, instead of one being held hostage to a hypothetical future, but we must constantly re-evaluate what we do, lest habits and past ‘wisdom’ blind us to new possibilities. The flow experience – like anything else – is not “good” in an absolute sense, but only in that it has the potential to make life richer, more intense and meaningful. One must distinguish between useful and harmful forms of flow, making the most of the former and limiting the latter.

Commencement of learning something is a flow situation – everything is new and flow absorption is present as one struggles to master the skill. As one progresses, either boredom will ensue because there is no more challenge (the skill has been learned at that level) or anxiety occurs because a bigger challenge than we can cope with presents itself. Either way, one wants to get back to flow, either by overcoming the anxiety challenge by becoming more skilled, or taking on a challenge that will overcome the boredom, thus getting back into flow at a more complex level.

The incompetent don’t know it

From “Unskilled and Unaware of It“:

It seems that the reason for this phenomenon is obvious: The more incompetent someone is in a particular area, the less qualified that person is to assess anyone’s skill in that space, including their own. When one fails to recognize that he or she has performed poorly, the individual is left assuming that they have performed well. As a result, the incompetent will tend to grossly overestimate their skills and abilities. A few years ago, two men from the Department of Psychology at Cornell University made an effort to determine just how profoundly one misoverestimates one’s own skills in relation to one’s actual abilities. They made four predictions, and executed four studies.

Justin Kruger and David Dunning made the following predictions before beginning their investigation:

  • Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.
  • Incompetent individuals will suffer from deficient metacognitive skills, in that they will be less able than their more competent peers to recognize competence when they see it–be it their own or anyone else’s.
  • Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of social comparison information. In particular, because of their difficulty recognizing competence in others, incompetent individuals will be unable to use information about the choices and performances of others to form more accurate impressions of their own ability.
  • The incompetent can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes (paradoxically) by making them more competent, thus providing them the metacognitive skills necessary to be able to realize that they have performed poorly.

… In short, the study showed that the researchers’ predictions were spot-on. …

Also interestingly, the top performers tended to underestimate their own performance compared to their peers. The researchers found that those participants fell prey to the false-consensus effect, a phenomenon where one assumes that one’s peers are performing at least as well as oneself when given no evidence to the contrary.

What is a socio-technical system?

From “Why a Socio-Technical System?“:

You have divined by now that a socio-technical system is a mixture of people and technology. It is, in fact, a much more complex mixture. Below, we outline many of the items that may be found in an STS. In the notes, we will make the case that many of the individual items of a socio-technical system are difficult to distinguish from each other because of their close inter-relationships.

Socio-technical systems include:

Hardware Mainframes, workstations, peripheral, connecting networks. This is the classic meaning of technology. It is hard to imagine a socio-technical system without some hardware component (though we welcome suggestions). In our above examples, the hardware is the microcomputers and their connecting wires, hubs, routers, etc.

Software Operating systems, utilities, application programs, specialized code. It is getting increasingly hard to tell the difference between software and hardware, but we expect that software is likely to be an integral part of any socio-technical system. Software (and by implication, hardware too) often incorporates social rules and organizational procedures as part of its design (e.g. optimize these parameters, ask for these data, store the data in these formats, etc.). Thus, software can serve as a stand-in for some of the factors listed below, and the incorporation of social rules into the technology can make these rules harder to see and harder to change. In the examples above, much of the software is likely to change from the emergency room to the elementary school. The software that does not change (e.g. the operating system) may have been designed more with one socio-technical system in mind (e.g. Unix was designed with an academic socio-technical system in mind). The re-use of this software in a different socio-technical system may cause problems of mismatch.

Physical surroundings. Buildings also influence and embody social rules, and their design can effect the ways that a technology is used. The manager’s office that is protected by a secretary’s office is one example; the large office suite with no walls is another. The physical environment of the military supplier and the elementary school are likely to be quite different, and some security issues may be handled by this physical environment rather than by the technology. Moving a technology that assumes one physical environment into a different environment one may cause mismatch problems.

People Individuals, groups, roles (support, training, management, line personnel, engineer, etc.), agencies. Note that we list here not just people (e.g. Mr. Jones) but roles (Mr. Jones, head of quality assurance), groups (Management staff in Quality Assurance) and agencies (The Department of Defense). In addition to his role as head of quality assurance, Mr. Jones may also have other roles (e.g. a teacher, a professional electrical engineer, etc.). The person in charge of the microcomputers in our example above may have very different roles in the different socio-technical systems, and these different roles will bring with them different responsibilities and ethical issues. Software and hardware designed assuming the kind of support one would find in a university environment may not match well with an elementary school or emergency room environment.

Procedures both official and actual, management models, reporting relationships, documentation requirements, data flow, rules & norms. Procedures describe the way things are done in an organization (or at least the official line regarding how they ought to be done). Both the official rules and their actual implementation are important in understanding a socio-technical system. In addition, there are norms about how things are done that allow organizations to work. These norms may not be specified (indeed, it might be counter-productive to specify them). But those who understand them know how to, for instance, make complaints, get a questionable part passed, and find answers to technical questions. Procedures are prime candidates to be encoded in software design.

Laws and regulations. These also are procedures like those above, but they carry special societal sanctions if the violators are caught. They might be laws regarding the protection of privacy, or regulations about the testing of chips in military use. These societal laws and regulations might be in conflict with internal procedures and rules. For instance, some companies have implicit expectations that employees will share (and probably copy) commercial software. Obviously these illegal expectations cannot be made explicit, but they can be made known.

Data and data structures. What data are collected, how they are archived, to whom they are made available, and the formats in which they are stored are all decisions that go into the design of a socio-technical system. Data archiving in an emergency room it will be quite different from that in an insurance company, and will be subject to different ethical issues too.

4 basic functions of knowledge management

From Carl Frappaolo’s “Four basic functions” in Computerworld (23 February 1998)

The four basic functions of knowledge management are externalization, internalization, intermediation and cognition …

Externalization is capturing knowledge in an external repository and organizing it according to a classification framework or taxonomy. At the low end are technologies that simply provide a means to capture knowledge and store it online …

The next level of externalization holds more powerful and promising search tools and document management systems that classify the stored knowledge and identify similarities among separate information sources. …

Ultimately, the role of externalization is to make your captured knowledge available to knowledge seekers through internalization or intermediation. …

Whereas externalization seeks to discover the existence of similar bodies of knowledge, internalization tries to discover bodies of knowledge relevant to a particular user’s need. With internalization, you extract knowledge from the external repository and filter it to identify what is relevant to the knowledge seeker. Internalization helps a researcher communicate a problem or point of interest and map that against the bodies of knowledge already captured through externalization. …

Whereas internalization focuses on the transfer of explicit knowledge, intermediation brokers tacit knowledge. It matches a knowledge seeker with the best source of knowledge. By tracking the experience and interests of individuals, intermediation can link people who need to explore certain subjects with people who appear to harbor knowledge in that area. … Intermediation is automated through technologies such as groupware, intranets, workflow and document management systems….

Cognition is the application of knowledge that’s been exchanged through the preceding three functions and is the ultimate goal of knowledge management.

4 kinds of eductional institutions

From EDUCAUSE Review, February 2000:

There are 3,700 institutions and 15 million students in the United States today facing the challenge of integrating the past with the present, questioning how to mold the traditional model of higher education into a form that will not become obsolete in a world awash in an information explosion driven by electronic technology. There now exist four different types of educational institutions instead of the single, virtually unaltered model followed for the past 250 years of formal education in America. The first type comprises the traditional notion of a college. The second includes “corporate universities,” on-site training programs developed by individual companies to improve the skills and knowledge of employees. The third category contains mega-universities that recognize no national boundaries, combine the high-tech with the historical, and bridge the gap between the educational experience and the job market. The fourth types are virtual educators that operate nearly entirely online and offer the opportunity for practically anybody to become a teacher or a student.

The value of learned experience

From Robert E. Kelley’s Consulting: The Complete Guide to a Profitable Career:

… a loud knocking pipe created turmoil at a large nuclear plant. No one could figure out what was making the noise or how to stop it. Finally one of the engineers suggested contacting Charlie, the retired maintenance man. Charlie listened to the knocking pipe. He then followed the pipe’s course throughout the plan. After fifteen tense minutes, Charlie located a pipe connection. He asked for a large monkey wrench. Instead of using the rench to turn the pipe, he hit the pipe connection four times with the wrench. At that point, the knocking stopped. Quite relieved, the management thanked Charlie profusely. In addition, they told hime to send a bill for his services. When they received the bill, however, they were quite upset. It merely said, “For services rendered–$1,000.” They complained that the fee was exorbinant for fifteen minutes’ work. Charlie offered to send an itemized bill if they wanted one. They did. It read:

    For 15 minutes' work      $  25.00
    For knowing where to hit  $ 975.00
    TOTAL                     $1000.00

Get rid of high schools

From Stephen L. Talbott’s “Is High School Dispensable?”, in 19 August 1999 issue of NetFuture (#93):

Sensible words can show up in strange places — in this case, People Magazine. Bard College President Leon Botstein is interviewed in the July 12, 1999 issue, and he says bluntly that we should get rid of high schools. After tenth grade, students should move on to higher education, job training, or some form of national service.

This makes eminent sense if the only alternative is high school as we now have it — a ghetto walled off from the larger society and from the world of adult work, and, all too often, with no meaningful family life for the student to fall back on. Isolate kids from the grounding potentials of a stable community embedded in a real landscape and pursuing real work, and they will create their own society with its own, very likely warped values.

Learning drops quickly over time

From “Building Better Bosses” in Workforce Magazine, May 2000:

Research shows that 30 minutes after adults hear new information, they will remember only about 8% of it. A day or two later, recall drops to 2%. But if people learn a little bit of information and practice it right away, retention balloons to 90% immediately and deflates to as much as 50% to 60% over time.