Diagnosis for Prediction and Leverage

From Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt:

Whereas a social scientist seeks a diagnosis that best predicts outcomes, good strategy tends to be based on the diagnosis promising leverage over outcomes. For instance, we know from research that K-12 student performance is better explained by social class and culture than by expenditures per student or class size, but that knowledge does not lead to many useful policy prescriptions. A very different strategic diagnosis has been provided by my UCLA colleague Bill Ouchi. His book Making Schools Work diagnoses the challenge of school performance as one of organization […] Decentralized schools, he argues, perform better. Now, whether the organization of a school system explained most of the variations in school performance is not actually critical. What is critical, and what makes his diagnosis useful to policymakers, is that organization explains some part of school performance, and that, unlike culture or social class, organization is something that can be addressed with policy.

Advertisements

On BASIC Computer Literacy

From an interview with Butler Lampson, collected in Programmers at Work (1986):

INTERVIEWER: What do you see as problem areas for the personal computers that exist today?

Personal computers are fairly junky. I don’t define that as a problem. They’re new and people are learning about them, and they’re getting better rapidly. Alan Kay made a great comment about the Mac – it was the first computer good enough to criticize. It makes sense for people who are building the next generation of computers or programs to think about what’s wrong with the current ones, in order to make the next ones better.

That’s why I think the idea of computer literacy is such a rotten one. By computer literacy I mean learning to use the current generation of BASIC and word-processing programs. That has nothing to do with reality. It’s true that a lot of jobs now require BASIC programming, but the notion that BASIC is going to be fundamental to your ability to function in the information-processing society of the twenty-first century is complete balderdash. There probably won’t be any BASIC in the twenty-first century.

INTERVIEWER: So how should we prepare ourselves for the future?

To hell with computer literacy. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Study mathematics. Learn to think. Read. Write. These things are of more enduring value. Learn how to prove theorems: A lot of evidence has accumulated over the centuries that suggests this skill is transferable to many other things. To study only BASIC programming is absurd.

INTERVIEWER: Is the industry being overrun by BASIC programmers?

No, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly harmful about programming in BASIC. What is bad is that people get very worried and feel that their children won’t have a future if they don’t learn to program in BASIC. There’s no reason for them to worry.

INTERVIEWER:But nobody knows for certain what skills will be required.

Well, there’s some truth to that […]

Impression

Kian found it easy, three years after leaving this city, to rebuild it virtually inside his head. He could imagine a walk from the government housing complex in which he lived, taking the well-groomed pathway that ran between blocks of flats like a crack between paving slabs, out onto the road outside, then following the grey pillars of the subway line to the nearest station where he would board, and watch each stop go past him like the page of a photo album until he reached his destination. The effect was like gaming on a console: everything was photo-perfect but crisply defined, a little too clean to be quite real. And here there were no monsters to fight, no obstacles to overcome, only the slow unwinding of the ground beneath his feet. Each time he imagined a journey, he thought of a different destination, and eventually arrived without effort, without incident.’

– ‘September Ghosts’, in Heaven Has Eyes by Philip Holden

Biopowers & Innovation

When we talk about innovation as something we should focus on now, it is easy to let the assumption slip in that this age is more innovative, whether by virtue of being more connected, by the exponential nature of technological growth, etc.

But is this age more innovative than any other? My conjecture would be that is it not; it is definitely more populous, and overall wealthier. Some places have become both more populous and more wealthy – these are the biopowers of our age.

*

(This stub is partly inspired by GKS’s 1972 speech about the challenges of growth, immigration, inter-industry linkages, and innovation, and partly by some work I did at CSF.)

 

Business and Value

More inspiration in the form of this seminar/discussion by Chris Do about valuing design work.

The problem I’m thinking about is, what is the plausible value of technology research and evaluation to a company or a country? In terms of ‘moving the needle’, this can be estimated – but I suspect the core issue is adoption.

Practically, I need to think about referrals and distribution.

The (Anti)fragility of Work

I have been drawing a kind of spiritual strength from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. Taleb’s technical interest is the relationship between volatility and non-linearity. His philosophical interest is in the nature of randomness. His domains of interest are finance, philosophy, medicine, technological growth – basically things subject to convexity effects.

Work (by which I mean the system of industrial employment, and the systems built on that model) is fragile. In trying to be ‘future’-ready (in skills, in graduates, and otherwise), are we not actually fragilizing our system even further?

More pressingly, what is the arbitrage here?

What is the best signal of truly valuable work? The classics are money and mobility, but not everyone (not every single working-age citizen, not every single graduate) will be able to get a large-enough share of these for signalling purposes; money and mobility work as signals because they allow relative discrimination.

I’ve tended to believe in product, but the first system I experienced was thoroughly impaired at validating quality.

(A tangential realization is that, w.r.t. the problem of the value of work, the ability to recognize good work makes an organization or a society antifragile. Anything that undermines this, e.g. a mania for ‘future’-readiness, fragilizes the system.)

I’ve taken stochastic turns, and they’ve led some interesting places; strength and courage.