Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Strategies for Enlightenment

Try Big New Things.

Always be Learning.

Don't Get Comfy.

Hate Pressure toward Progress.

Enjoy Yourself. Except when you Don't.

Savor Everything.

Beat the Crap out of something.

Find Something to Emote about.

Break a Habit.

Interesting > useful

Laughing at something serious makes it better

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Journalists agonize over the single sentence that makes their article worth reading, and goes at the beginning. Putting children through the Brown Eyes Blue Eyes experiment taught them tolerance for the rest of their lives.

Strangers will steal your kidneys!

In their book Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath note the Six Parts of a Sticky idea. Using the Clever acronym SUCCESs, the Brothers Heath have laid out what makes an idea persist and survive, even in our world of billions of ideas.

Three of their main concepts are embodied in the Teaser; The blurb at the beginning of a story, a paper or a presentation which draws the reader in and gives them something to hold on to.

These three key concepts are Simplicity, Concreteness, and the Unexpected. The job of a teaser is to give the reader something simple and concrete to hold on to during the entire presentation, and something unexpected to pique the interest.

By making sure your teaser has a simple lesson that strikes to the heart of your topic, is concrete enough for any audience to understand, and unexpected enough to draw in even the most jaded American, you guarantee that they'll not only get the idea, but give you the benefit of the doubt and read on.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Gen Ed-itorial

Why I don’t like our Gen Ed system. – Guest Column in the Daily Nebraskan

First, I’d like to note that I support Liberal Arts wholeheartedly by taking as many weird classes as I can. In fact, this semester I took classes in Marketing, International Studies, and Ed Psych. Which makes me uniquely qualified to… whine, I guess.

I don’t like forced gen eds. Value vanishes as sizes skyrocket and students conscripted into classes stop caring. The facebook group ‘Keep Your (bleeping) Hand Down in Lecture and Shut Up. No One Cares’ has 131,451 members as of this writing.

Unfortunately, in a big university it’s not easy to make sure that students are getting experience outside their major. You make a list of subjects that are important, and higher level courses have more requirements, sticking students in basic classes en masses.

Why Gen Eds Exist
Gen eds are seen as ways for the University to make more money. In the current gen ed system classes often don’t count after a student switches majors, but this image is more tied to the fact that the classes are seen as useless hurdles. And they often trip students, forcing graduation in 5, 6, or more years.

The problem is partly the current system of ES, IS, and BS (like history of rock), but that’s being worked on by the Gen Ed Planning team. Send ideas to John Janovy at, or search for ‘Review and Revision of General Education at UNL’ on the UNL website to learn more. And note that Educational Psych is useful!

Why Gen Eds Suck
There’s always fighting between professors who want to, you know, teach; administrators who want to, you know, keep student fees low with more people in each class; and students who want to, you know, get a degree on the cheap.

So we make classes huge and use TAs. I don’t like it. It forces students to ‘learn’ from TAs, professors to ignore their students, and administrators to deal with cranky professors, TAs, and students. But it’s kind of a necessary evil. Fees must be low and students must be educated, or at least lectured at and busyworked. Hence… the cranky teaching the bored on the cheap. Welcome to UNL.

The real problem I have with Gen Eds is that nobody cares about them. They’re just a hurdle to jump for everyone. But anyone could fix it. Which makes understanding why it’s not fixed even more…Byzantine. International Studies to the rescue.

Good Classes
I’ll start with Students, because you’re the bored ones reading this in your gen ed classes. Professors are good people. If you sign up for a high level class you’ll probably get in if you show you’re interested. You’ll likely have less work; Gen eds need busywork to make sure every loafer seems to learn.

The work will be harder, but there’ll be less of it. It might actually have a point. Try making a list of cool looking classes and signing up. You’ll be surprised what you get into, and if you can always drop later.

Small Hurdles
Administrators, try to make caring as easy as possible. Ignore complaints about diluting learning. Prereqs aren’t learning; they’re what’s required before you can learn. If you’re forced to pretend a hurdle isn’t something to jump, you resent hurdles and whoever the hell made hurdles so high. If a student is interested, they’ll learn. If not, they won’t. If they’re learning so they can move on, they want to learn fast and focused. Make it easy, and they’ll thank you for it.

If there are requirements for high-level classes that really only consist of a textbook, make it Keller Plan. Make every course you can Keller plan. If you get a reputation for efficiency, it pays off. Cultural Branding. (I was paying attention in Marketing, Prof. Epp. Please don’t fail me.) If you could get up to 490 level (read; cool) classes without years of prereqs more students would be willing to do it.

Keep In Touch
Professors, look at the gen ed requirements. I wonder why students are forced to take gen eds if professors don’t even care enough to know them. Audit a gen ed, see what students are being forced to sit through. Apathy is a conditioned response. Students are expected to complain; If professors whine, changes happen. If you aren’t a whiner, try fitting gen ed concepts into your lectures. If the students see you care, they might start.

Executive Summary
It’s not that students don’t want to work, we just don’t want to work more than we have to. Forcing students to waste time on busywork in huge, cheap classes isn’t what anyone wants, it’s a necessary evil. As long as we let hurdles stand, they will. I, for one, will keep taking crazy classes and ignoring requirements. Even if 131,478 (27 added) of you think I should keep my bleeping hand down.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

GCensus, Show Yourself.

I found a very cool project that overlays US Census data onto Google Earth maps. As US census data is notoriously difficult to use, I found it amazing. Only supported by three states, but I've contacted my State Gov about it and hope others do the same.(Form to send a Question to the Nebraska State Governor. Copy and paste this post as you please :))

Here's the link to the website, the link to the app (requires Google Earth), and the link to the Digg article.

I also made a couple of changes to the sidebar to the left. I added a neat widget from Show Yourself that displays all of your web 2.0 ids for people to click and stalk you with.

It's a good sign you're not famous if you're okay with people stalking you. Not happy about it... but it's sort of flattering.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On Wordcounts

Minimum wordcount requirements don't make good papers.

Any discerning, unpretentious, and charisma-majoring student can write the same thing using sixty-three words as he could write in a seven word sentence through the use of conjunctions, hyphens, unnecessarily long lists, lengthy descriptions such as 'discerning, unpretentious, and charisma-majoring' and 'unnecessarily long lists,' and fluffy latin phrases which look pretty but have no real effect on meaning. Ecce signum.

Minimum wordcounts and page lengths seem to be poor substitutes for 'good idea' requirements. Imagine if a teacher required a paper with four good ideas. Any class except an honors class would be in an uproar, and even the honors class would be moderately sursurrant! I think that's what they call it when they're mad. How could you be sure that your ideas were 'good' and how could the teacher tell?

Actually, you can't and they couldn't. But who said learning was supposed to be easy? The same people who said that a class of a hundred can be taught by a single professor and five TAs, I suppose. If not easy, at least mass-produced. Good ideas are never mass-produced.

The only way to make sure your ideas were good would be to talk to the teacher about them (gasp!), and the only way the teacher could tell which ideas are the good ones would be to read the paper carefully and know the material. Grades would be challenged and discussed, perhaps even changed! Hmm… doubtful. More likely everyone would get an A. Seems like a win-win to me. Grade inflation at its finest, or at least purest.

A good paper would be famed for its shortness, its concise and clipped writing style. Fitting ten new ideas into a two-page paper would be a feat worthy of the ages!

So I guess I'd better wrap this up. Wordcounts and page lengths are bad replacements for thinking. Instead of forcing students to write a certain number of words or pages, more maximum page lengths without lower bounds should be used. They'd take less time to read, force students to choose their words more carefully, and stop forcing ridiculously pretentious BS into ten-page papers.

A bad paper is a bad paper and a good one always good, whether two pages or twenty. In the words of George Orwell, 'Never use a long word where a short one will do.'

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Orwellian rules for Writing

George Orwell's Politics and the English Language should be required reading for every blogger, writer, and especially every marketer.

He blasts sloppy, ambiguous language as a political tool but it applies just as well to marketing and writing in general. English, he argues, is increasingly sloppy just because we don't make it clean. He presents a few rules to solve the problem;

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Spam Filters

Management guru Peter Drucker once said that “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said.” I suppose that being a guru entitles you to be, um, ‘deep,’ but if Mr. Drucker were to see the University of Nebraska-Lincoln today, he would have no trouble making his comment fit.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I find the University Spam Filters problematic. I send emails to a lot of professors asking questions about their classes, papers they’ve written, offering bribes, and generally being as… annoying? As vocal as possible.

And yet, every single letter has to be followed up with a phone call or even a visit in person, because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these professors have not received my messages. No matter how short the message, how easily responded to, I must waste my time and theirs hoofing it around campus, risking my life dodging bicycles and that old guy on a skateboard for a simple “No, you can’t have my autograph.” The culprit is none other than the well-meaning spam filters which help our fine teachers and administrators by routing all unknown email, including that of students, right into the trash bin.

Lest you think that I am crazy, I am pro-spam filtering. I just wonder if it would be possible for those fine administrators of ours to allow email addresses other than internal memos and Bigred accounts through the machinery. A system for registering another email address to your student name would do the trick. I like having the Google staring over my shoulder at my letters too much to use Bigred for anything.

The most annoying part of the system is that I don’t even know if professors I’ve spoken to before have suddenly begun to hate me, or haven’t gotten my emails. It’s usually a pretty good question. I shudder to think of emails from outside the university which are left in spam bins to rot because nobody knows about our system. Would an email response letting you know when a letter has been consigned to purgatory be so hard?

I recognize the time saved by spam filters and appreciate that the University is keeping tuition down by saving professors time on their email, but I’d like my professors to hear what is being said. Then they can worry about the rest.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Google's Cell Strategy

Hmm... it looks like CIOs want to see more of Google Apps. Most of them, at least.

The major concern appears to be security; the CIOs know that Google Apps are cheaper than Msoft products and have portability, but are worried that they can't keep their excruciating standards in place for security. Assuming that sooner or later they'll realize that it's cheaper to outsource security (following the lead of cybercrime, and any government in the history of civilization), the real question is; what's the best way for Google to improve security?

The question isn't whether or not Google can provide excellent security, but whether or not the inevitable Google Crack will affect every company using Google Apps. The worst case scenario would be a team of hackers with easy access to every secure document and database from every company in the world, a PR nightmare even for Google. That's really what worries everyone using Google's services; that someday Google's main servers will be hacked and all the information they've got will be up for grabs.

It's a good thing that Google hasn't really got anything useful on their services yet. Now would be a great time for Google to announce (if they have one, or implement if they don't) a cell system of security; layers and parallel systems with different types of security, not just different passwords. Ideally, they'd be able to create a different cell for each business using their system and allow each business to pick and choose from a plethora of security options; a buffet of firewalls and fences suited to each business's wants and needs.

Whether or not these security services would come at a premium is a question of whether Google wants to do evil; it'd be all too easy to charge more and more for increasing security.

But if Google wants to keep its corporate motto safe (well, do as little evil as they can), they'll not only offer a suite of different security systems, but make all of them equal in quality. The point isn't to charge a premium for better security; it's to make sure that CIOs have a hand in managing their risk considering how likely an eventual break-in is.

The facts that Google could add new security options and make them bonuses instead of otherwise unnoticed upgrades and their new appeal for small businesses are icing on the cake compared to the potential business they could gain from Msoft if they upgraded security in a way allowing customization and the comfort of a cell of storage a customer could watch carefully. CIOs want to follow the words of Mark Twain and 'put all of their eggs in one basket, and guard the hell out of that basket!'

Monday, February 05, 2007

Fighting Retention

The key principles of Counterinsurgency are, as noted in Twenty-Eight Articles; Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency,
If you have not studied counterinsurgency theory, here it is in a nutshell: this is a competition with the insurgent for the right and the ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population.

You are being sent in because the insurgents, at their strongest, can defeat anything weaker than you.

But you have more combat power than you can or should use in most situations. Injudicious use of firepower creates blood feuds, homeless people and societal disruption that fuels and perpetuates the insurgency. [...]

For your side to win, the people do not have to like you but they must respect you, accept that your actions benefit them, and trust your integrity and ability to deliver on promises, particularly regarding their security.

In this battlefield popular perceptions and rumor are more influential than the facts and more powerful than a hundred tanks.
(Emphases mine.)

Parallels between counterinsurgency and leadership are easy; "the insurgent" is any other motivating factor acting on your people, particularly those managed by competing influences such as marketers, propagandists, and educators.

Leadership is a competition with the world for the rights to use people. Does sound a bit harsh, doesn't it. Credibility puts it well;
"Leadership is a process and a set of practices. As such, leadership is amoral. [...] To our way of thinking, [Charles] Manson, and anyone who would do evil, has no legitimacy as a leader. Such legitimacy is determined not by the leader, but by the society."

The reasons why the Charles Mansons, David Koreshs, and charismatic leaders succeed despite their (in hindsight) often evil intentions is because they know people. By manipulating the expectations and values of their target audiences while isolating them from the general populace, anyone can move a normal person into a position where they act in ways formerly strange to them.

Cialdini's Influence devotes an entire chapter to this process of isolation and escalating commitment.

Cialdini notes that once a person has been shoved across the border of their normal behavior into a foreign land, usually by small pushes, "the man himself uses [his deeds] to decide what he is like. His behavior tells him about himself: it is a primary source of information about his beliefs and values and attributes." (p. 75) Once a person sees themself as the sort of person who acts in this strange, new way, it is no longer strange and new. It's normal.

Think of being thrown into college or a new job. For a while you're offset by the new patterns, but soon enough you catch on and know that this is what college students do, and you are a college student. So it's normal. In fact, not doing it is weird.

Cialdini compares it to Jiu-Jitsu or Judo. The Judo master uses their opponent's own force against them. With nothing but slight pushes, pulls, and expertise a judo master leaves their opponent helplessly laid out on the mat with minimal effort.

Influences such as Manson, Koresh, and Insurgents in general are part of the competition every leadership faces, and they often succeed at wrenching people away simply because of psychological biases and knowing how to keep someone off balance and heading in the 'right' direction once they've taken the first step.

The way our brains work predisposes us toward those dangerous first steps. In Why Hawks Win, authors Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon talk about the psychology which makes it easy for us to change.

Their results are shocking;
when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses [...] incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

If war is seen as "active hostility or contention; [i.e.] a war of words," then all of these biases point toward change, and anyone who can present a rosy picture that involves small changes can hook people into being led.

So the question is,
How can a leader keep their followers against such powerful competition?

The answer is in the definition of Counterinsurgency noted above; "you have more combat power than you can or should use in most situations."

By not abusing the authority given to you by your followers, you let them find out why they want to follow you.

"Injudicious use of firepower [a.k.a Overemphasis on carrots or sticks] creates blood feuds, homeless people, and societal disruption that fuels and perpetuates the insurgency."

Blood feuds, "bitter, continuous hostility, esp. between two families, clans, etc., often lasting for many years or generations," can be seen as any lingering resentment or hostility. Homeless people are unhappy people (they don't like where they live, and want to move into something better), and societal disruption is the annoying factors which make it difficult for normal work to continue.

By giving followers obvious reasons to follow like money or the threat of a lost job you make it easy for your followers to see the benefits of alternate leaders.

Put simply; by pushing or pulling you move the focus of your followers away from the job and onto the forces moving them.

The easiest way for a leader to keep their followers is to leave them alone. All followership is a grant by a follower to allow a leader to give them direction.

By trying to do your job first and foremost and leaving motivation to the follower a leader can guarantee that the people who stay are those who want to help.

People do need a little help and support now and then. The job of a leader isn't to pay people to work, it's to find how people are doing well and encourage it as respectfully as possible. People know this, whether or not they could tell you that they do.

Paying someone to do their job is saying that they wouldn't be doing it without the money, and threatening someone with the loss of their job is telling them that they're only as valuable as what they're doing right now.

The carrot and the stick are better applied to animals than people. People know this. People get their paycheck and ask themselves why they work for so little money, or think that being fired actually... wouldn't be so bad.

Giving people respect when they perform to task and only giving out praise when someone shows initiative shows followers that what matters isn't the job on the table, but the end goal and the people behind the jobs.

Respect for success and praise for initiative shows that you value the qualities a follower uses to help with the goal and the things that make them human. That's all most followers want from a leader. Everything else is icing on the cake.

It shows that a leader values success and values people who work hard toward success. Respect only works on people. People know this. Respect is the only way of showing someone that you value them as a person, not an animal.

A basic strategy of public respect for success and public praise of initiative leads to all the successful parts of counterinsurgency;

The people know that you respect them and are working toward the task which allows them to respect you. Respect requires respect.

They know that you're working as hard as you can to achieve the task for the benefit of all. Leaders helps followers do their best.

Your integrity and honor are proven by your total commitment to the goals of the organization. Bribery is always faster and easier than respect. Only an honorable leader can ignore bribery in favor of respect. Only a leader of integrity can stick to the strategy of public respect for success and public praise of initiative all the time.

And once you achieve your goals as their leader, it's much easier to find goodies for your people.