After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Memory’s a Dance, Says Dr. Day

Posted on July 30, 2010
Filed Under Business, Technology, The Writing Life | Leave a Comment

Permit us to introduce you to Ruth S. Day, a cognitive scientist at Duke University. Why? Because Dr. Day is doing intensive study of memory, and memory is large where everything begins, in technical writing as well as other fields, not to mention life itself.

Dr. Day has been studying how professional dancers remember their routines. Have you ever thought about that? A modern dance company doesn’t have classical terms for movements, like ballet companies do. So  some, like Pilobolus, make up names for the shapes they get their dancer’s bodies into – like “shooting seagulls” or “fat gnomes.”  Others, like The Merce Cunningham company, feel that labeling dance moves with words is limiting.

Memory itself is sort of a dance of associations. Pick your own associations.

“There’s no right or wrong strategy,” Day says, “but certain strategies work better in certain situations and the more memory tools a dancer has, the better. The end goal is not memory in and of itself, but to get past the learning and worrying about it – to do the movement well and enjoy it.”

It all seems to come down to identification and intentionality – identifying what you want to accomplish via a technique or gimmick – anything that works for you – and being intentional about that process.

We’re trying, for instance, to improve our quick recognition of jazz piano passages. And we’re finding that looking at the notes as parts of chords is helpful – that’s  a structural approach, rather than a strictly visual one. But what the heck, since it seems to have potential, we’ll try to develop it.

“Whatever works for you,” seems to be a decent memory slogan. The need is to get serious about remembering, and pick your own cues.

Dr. Day has more insights into this subject – What subject was that ? Oh yes, memory – at and some further encouragement. We’re glad we’ve met her via the web, and suspect you will be as well. – Doug Bedell

On Garages as Inspiring Places…

Posted on July 24, 2010
Filed Under Business, Technology | Leave a Comment

We had occasion to note the entrepreneurial importance of garages as start-up locales in our last Insights post on Andy Grove’s concerns about the status of U.S. manufacturing. One such garage – where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard got started 70 years ago was designated a national historic landmark in 2007.

As we happened upon that bit of Internet information, we wondered about the garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak developed the first Apple computer almost 35 years ago. We haven’t been readily able to determine its present status, but that garage was part of Jobs’ parents’ home on Crist Drive in Los Altos, CA. (The two Steves actually began creating their revolutionary computer in a spare bedroom, then moved production to the garage.)

Both these garages, of course, are part of the high-tech Silicon Valley story and we normally don’t cover computer technology, because lots of other blogs do. But garages initially aren’t mystical places. They’re handy, available, low-budget spaces with a roof and probably electricity.  They only become famous when the ingenuity employed in them proves to be truly visionary.

Even so, we thought you’d enjoy seeing two of the nation’s most famous garages. If your kids want a place to indulge some of their ideas, make yours available. It may become a laboratory setting, a convenient outlet for creativity and, with luck, a source of great wealth. – DB

Andy Grove ‘Gets Real’ About Manufacturing

Posted on July 18, 2010
Filed Under Business | 1 Comment

What about the continuing drain in American manufacturing jobs? What do we do about it? Why do anything, you say? We still have knowledge creation occurring in the U.S. and that’s what counts.

Well think about it.  Andrew “Andy” Grove, co-founder and now a senior adviser to Intel, prompts such salutary thinking in an article – “How to Make an American Job” – in the July 5-11 Bloomberg Businessweek. (We get Bloomberg Businessweek, but we happened upon the Grove article first in surfing the web for technology stories and hitting on the MetalMiner blog. Which demonstrates the unpredictable currents bringing information to our eyeballs these days.)

If we cheer aspiring entrepreneurs operating from garages and other start-up locales, but  then send the scale-up and production capacity to China or elsewhere  (as we’ve been doing), “What kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work and masses of unemployed?” A really good and timely question.

China’s Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. (also known as Foxconn) now employs more than 800,000 people, more, Grove notes, “than the combined worldwide head count of Apple, Dell, Microsft, Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel and Sony Corp.”

Back in 1980, 10 years after it was capitalized for production, Intel had about 13,000 people making computer chips in the U.S. And a host of other companies were sprouting up, and employing Americans, in the Silicon Valley around Intel. But “as time passed,” Grove recalls, “wages and health-care costs rose in the U.S., and China opened up. American companies discovered they could have their manufacturing and even their engineering done cheaper overseas.” So, increasingly, they did. “Today,” Grove points out, “manufacturing employment in the U.S. computer industry is about 166,000 – lower than it was before the first personal computer, the MITS Altair 2800, was assembled in 1975. Meanwhile, a very effective computer -manufacturing industry has emerged in Asia, employing about 1.5 million workers – factory employees, engineers and managers.”

And that’s not just happening in computers. We’ve been writing on Insights about electric cars. Well, their lithium-ion batteries are being made overseas. Not only that, those batteries were developed overseas. When, 30 years ago, the U.S. quit making consumer electronics devices, Grove advises, we lost our lead in batteries too. The scaling took place overseas and now it’s doubtful that U.S. companies “will ever catch up” in battery technology.

When you let something like batteries or photovoltaic panels get away from you, you can lose whole job-creating manufacturing industries. Those guys in the next garages over may never be bright enough to catch up with that.

Bright people need to start thinking keenly about others, our own kids and aspiring workers. Where are they going to be employed a couple of decades from now? It’s a worrisome outlook indeed.

Grove says we need “a job-centric economic theory – and job-centric political leadership to guide our plans and actions. We need specific actions, as well, like financial incentives “to rebuild our industrial commons.” Grove, who grew up in Soviet-dominated Hungary and fled to the U.S. for its opportunities, suggests an “extra tax on the product of offshored labor. (If the result is a trade war, treat it like other wars – fight to win.)”

Yes, you probably sensed where this was heading – we’ve got to start thinking differently about concepts like fair and free trade and where they’ve been taking the economic prospects of growing numbers of Americans. We don’t like “war” metaphors, we don’t want to get nasty, just considerate of what it may take to have people thrive, as they once did, on production lines in the U.S., as well, now, as around the world. – Doug Bedell

Doing Anything Creative Today?

Posted on July 14, 2010
Filed Under Business, Technology | Leave a Comment

Newsweek has done the U.S. a service by devoting its July 19 cover to “Creativity in America,” a lengthy article sparked by the discovery that creativity in America is declining. By whose measure comes that ominous news?

Well, there are IQ tests and there’s a creativity test – the Torrance test (named after the late Prof. E. Paul Torrance), which has been around for 50 years. While IQ scores have been steadily rising, since 1990 Torrance scores have been steadily declining.

Newsweek reports that Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered the creativity decline just this May in analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says, adding that the decline is “most serious” among younger children, from kindergarten through sixth grade.

As Newsweek notes, such a decline could have dire consequences as the kids age. The situation should cause each of us to think about how creatively we’ve been living, and what we might do to boost our flashes of insight and brilliance.

This can be truly serious. Factors from excessive TV watching to neglecting to encourage creativity in schools are cited. “In China,” by contrast, advises Newsweek, “there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.”

Jonathan Plucker, of Indiana University, was amazed in touring schools in Shanghai and Beijing to find a boy “who, for a class project, rigged a tracking device from his moped with parts from a cell phone.”

When the faculty of a Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American educatiion, “he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. ‘After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,’ Plucker says. ”They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your (fancied) model, as fast as we can.”

“Your model,” to the extent it exists in American schools currently, is a project- and research-oriented one that can be included in existing curriculums if educators and school boards recognize that it needs to be. We all need to get serious about improving our creativity, now and for the long term.

We can start by simply logging how many good ideas we’ve had recently, and encouraging more of them to dawn by reading and looking around at what needs to be accomplished in the interest of ourselves and others. Thanks Newsweek! – Doug Bedell

Scientists, Engineers Need to Relate Well

Posted on July 12, 2010
Filed Under Technology | Leave a Comment

Why do we neglect what’s common among us as a people, like the best ways of being understood? These thoughts arise on reading a news release by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the evident communication gap between science and technology and the rest of the public.

The Academy is apparently trying to nudge scientists and engineers to relate better, if they want to be understood, maybe even supported, by the rest of the us.

Why, otherwise, would scientists need to be reminded that “Scientific issues require an ‘anticipatory approach'”?

The Adademy continues: “A diverse group of stakeholders – research scientists, social scientists, public engagement experts, and skilled communicators – should collaborate early to identify potential scientific controversies and the best method to address resulting public concerns.”

“Gee, you mean we need to relate to the public?” we can hear white-coated researchers asking. Sure do, this is basic public relations – the techniques have been known for decades, maybe eons. How is it that many scientists, enough for the Academy to be holding workshops and issuing pointed recommendations, have missed the message?

Apparently, not all scientists and engineers understand that their work needs to be done in the context of their times, in the midst of other people. And that respecting context requires listening to, understanding and being responsive to concerns that might arise over their work.

Yet that’s more PR 101.

We’re pleased to see the independent, non-partisan American Academy of Arts & Sciences addressing these concerns in its 230th year (it was founded during the American Revolution by John Adams, John Hancock and others).  But we regret the necessity of  tutoring scientists in communication roles that should be well-settled by now.

This all gives new meaning to the stricture, “We always need to keep learning,” doesn’t it? Science and engineering can be highly demanding of those of practice their disciplines, but one of  those disciplines should be listening and relating to others. And that requires planning PR protocols as well as scientific ones. – Doug Bedell

No Excuses, At Least Not These

Posted on July 6, 2010
Filed Under Business | Leave a Comment

Engineering is pressurized work and not everything gets accomplished on time or according to schedule. When delays occur, it’s important to be clear about why they did and to learn from them.

That necessary purpose can be obscured by defensive responses to missed deadlines. “Don’t use excuses, supply reasons,” is our capsulized guidance culled from a list of “10 excuses your boss doesn’t want to hear,” provided by Justin James on the  TechRepublic blog.  We would only add that bosses, too, need to be sensitive to what may have actually happened – to be willing to learn.

Here’s Justin’s list. We’re capsulizing his explanations; he spells each of them out. Most come down to – pay heed first off:

1. I didn’t understand the assignment – Things should be fully understood at the start.  If a boss doesn’t have the greatest communication skills, more attentiveness to clarifying the project is required.

2. The deadline was impossible – Don’t accept a ridiculous deadline. Talk it through with your boss beforehand.

3. A valuable resource wasn’t available – If something is missing, that needs to be known at the start.

4. The requirements shifted – As new requirements come up, be mindful of them and their possible impact on the project. Make changes in deadlines as advisable.

5. I have personal issues – Who doesn’t? Get help with them as necessary.

6. I don’t have enough time – Manage your plate well, and surface time issues promptly.

7. I don’t know what went wrong – Well, gee…

8. We ran into blockages – Sort them out promptly and effectively.

9. The only copy of the work got destroyed – Make backups hither and yon.

10. The dog ate my homework – Inexplicable events happen. Roll with them.

– Doug Bedell

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